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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_33" id="Page_33">[33]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>THE WOODPIGEON</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">The</span> woodpigeon is many things to many men. To the farmer, who has some claim to priority of verdict, it is a curse, even as the rabbit in Australia, the lemming in Norway, or the locust in Algeria. The tiller of the soil, whose business brings him in open competition with the natural appetites of such voracious birds, beasts, or insects, regards his rivals from a standpoint which has no room for sentiment; and the woodpigeons are to our farmers, particularly in the well-wooded districts of the West Country, even as Carthage was to Cato the Censor, something to be destroyed.</p> <p>It is this attitude of the farmer which makes the woodpigeon pre-eminently the bird of February. All through the shooting season just ended, a high pigeon has proved an irresistible temptation to the guns, whether cleaving the sky above the tree-tops, doubling behind a broad elm, or suddenly swinging out of a gaunt fir. Yet it is in February, when other shooting is at an end and the coverts<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_34" id="Page_34">[34]</SPAN></span> no longer echo the fusillade of the past four months, that the farmers, furious at the sight of green root-crops grazed as close as by sheep and of young clover dug up over every acre of their tilling, welcome the co-operation of sportsmen glad to use up the balance of their cartridges in organised pigeon battues. These gatherings have, during the past five years, become an annual function in parts of Devonshire and the neighbouring counties, and if the bag is somewhat small in proportion to the guns engaged, a wholesome spirit of sport informs those who take part, and there is a curiously utilitarian atmosphere about the proceedings. Everyone seems conscious that, in place of the usual idle pleasure of the covert-side or among the turnips, he is out for a purpose, not merely killing birds that have been reared to make his holiday, but actually helping the farmers in their fight against Nature. As, moreover, recent scares of an epidemic not unlike diphtheria have precluded the use of the birds for table purposes, the powder is burnt with no thought of the pot.</p> <p>The usual plan is to divide the guns in<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_35" id="Page_35">[35]</SPAN></span> small parties and to post these in neighbouring plantations or lining hedges overlooking these spinneys. At a given signal the firing commences and is kept up for several hours, a number of the marauders being killed and the rest so harried that many of them must leave the neighbourhood, only to find a similar warm welcome across the border. Some such concerted attack has of late years been rendered necessary by the great increase in the winter invasion from overseas. It is probable that, as most writers on the subject insist, the wanderings of these birds are for the most part restricted to these islands and are mere food forays, like those which cause locusts to desert a district that they have stripped bare for pastures new. At the same time, it seems to be beyond all doubt the fact that huge flocks of woodpigeons reach our shores annually from Scandinavia, and their inroads have had such serious results that it is only by joint action that their numbers can be kept under. For such work February is obviously the month, not only because most of their damage to the growing crops and seeds is accomplished at<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_36" id="Page_36">[36]</SPAN></span> this season, but also because large numbers of gunners, no longer able to shoot game, are thus at the disposal of the farmers and only too glad to prolong their shooting for a few weeks to such good purpose.</p> <p>Many birds are greedy. The cormorant has a higher reputation of the sort to live up to than even the hog, and some of the hornbills, though less familiar, are endowed with Gargantuan appetites. Yet the ringdove could probably vie with any of them. Mr. Harting mentions having found in the crop of one of these birds thirty-three acorns and forty-four beech-nuts, while no fewer than 139 of the latter were taken, together with other food remains, from another. It is no uncommon experience to see the crop of a woodpigeon that is brought down from a great height burst, on reaching the earth, with a report like that of a pistol, and scatter its undigested contents broadcast. Little wonder then, that the farmers welcome the slaughter of so formidable a competitor! It is one of their biggest customers, and pays nothing for their produce. One told me, not long ago, that the woodpigeons had got at a little patch<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_37" id="Page_37">[37]</SPAN></span> of young rape, only a few acres in all, which had been uncovered by the drifting snow, and had laid it as bare as if the earth had never been planted. Seeing what hearty meals the woodpigeon makes, it is not surprising that it should sometimes throw up pellets of undigested material. This is not, however, a regular habit, as in the case of hawks and owls, and is rather, perhaps, the result of some abnormally irritating food.</p> <p>Pigeons digest their food with the aid of a secretion in the crop, and it is on this soft material, popularly known as "pigeons' milk," that they feed their nestlings. This method suggests analogy to that of the petrels, which rear their young on fish-oil partly digested after the same fashion. Indeed, all the pigeons are devoted parents. Though the majority build only a very pretentious platform of sticks for the two eggs, they sit very close and feed the young ones untiringly. Some of the pigeons of Australia, indeed, go even further. Not only do they build a much more substantial nest of leafy twigs, but the male bird actually sits throughout the day, such paternal sense of<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_38" id="Page_38">[38]</SPAN></span> duty being all the more remarkable from the fact that these pigeons of the Antipodes usually lay but a single egg. Australia, with the neighbouring islands, must be a perfect paradise for pigeons, since about half of the species known to science occur in that region only. The wonga-wonga and bronze-wing and great fruit-pigeons are, like the "bald-pates" of Jamaica, all favourite birds with sportsmen, and some of the birds are far more brightly coloured than ours. It is, however, noticeable that even the gayest Queensland species, with wings shot with every prismatic hue, are dull-looking birds seen from above, and the late Dr. A. R. Wallace regarded this as affording protection against keen-eyed hawks on the forage. His ingenious theory receives support from the well-known fact that in many of the islands, where pigeons are even more plentiful, but where also hawks are few, the former wear bright clothes on their back as well.</p> <p>The woodpigeon has many names in rural England. That by which it is referred to in the foregoing notes is not, perhaps, the most satisfactory, since, with the possible exception<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_39" id="Page_39">[39]</SPAN></span> of the smaller stock-dove, which lays its eggs in rabbit burrows, and the rock-dove, which nests in the cliffs, all the members of the family need trees, if only to roost and nest in. A more descriptive name is that of ringdove, easily explained by the white collar, but the bird is also known as cushat, queest, or even culver. The last-named, however, which will be familiar to readers of Tennyson, probably alludes specifically to the rock-dove, as it undoubtedly gave its name to Culver Cliff, a prominent landmark in the Isle of Wight, where these birds have at all times been sparingly in evidence.</p> <p>The ringdove occasionally rears a nestling in captivity, but it does not seem, at any time of life, to prove a very attractive pet. White found it strangely ferocious, and another writer describes it as listless and uninteresting. The only notable success on record is that scored by St. John, who set some of the eggs under a tame pigeon and secured one survivor that appears to have grown quite tame, but was, unfortunately, eaten by a hawk. At any rate, it did its kind good service by enlisting on their side the<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_40" id="Page_40">[40]</SPAN></span> pen of the most ardent apologist they have ever had. Indeed, St. John did not hesitate to rate the farmers soundly for persecuting the bird in wilful ignorance of its unpaid services in clearing their ground of noxious weeds. Yet, however true his eloquent plea may have been in respect of his native Lothian, there would be some difficulty in persuading South Country agriculturists of the woodpigeon's hidden virtues. To those, however, who do not sow that they may reap, the subject of these remarks has irresistible charm. There is doubtless monotony in its cooing, yet, heard in a still plantation of firs, with no other sound than perhaps the distant call of a shepherd or barking of a farm dog, it is a music singularly in harmony with the peaceful scene. The arrowy flight of these birds when they come in from the fields at sundown and fall like rushing waters on the tree-tops is an even more memorable sound. To the sportsman, above all, the woodpigeon shows itself a splendid bird of freedom, more cunning than any hand-reared game bird, swifter on the wing than any other purely wild bird, a<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_41" id="Page_41">[41]</SPAN></span> welcome addition to the bag because it is hard to shoot in the open, and because in life it was a sore trial to a class already harassed with their share of this life's troubles.</p> <hr /> <div class="bk3">APRIL<br /> BIRDS IN THE HIGH HALL GARDEN</div> <hr /><p><span class='pagenum'>
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