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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_103" id="Page_103">[103]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>BIRDS IN THE CORN</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">More</span> than one of our summer visitors, like the nightingale and cuckoo, are less often seen than heard, but certainly the most secretive hider of them all is the landrail. This harsh-voiced bird reaches our shores in May, and it was on the last of that month that I lately heard its rasping note in a quiet park not a mile out of a busy market town on the Welsh border, and forgave its monotone because, more emphatically than even the cuckoo's dissyllable, it announced that, at last, "summer was icumen in." This feeble-looking but indomitable traveller is closely associated during its visit with the resident partridge. They nest in the same situations, hiding in the fields of grass and standing corn, and eventually being flushed in company by September guns walking abreast through the clover-bud. Sport is not the theme of these notes, and it will therefore suffice to remark in passing on the curious manner in which even good shots, accustomed to bring down partridges with some approach to<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_104" id="Page_104">[104]</SPAN></span> certainty, contrive to miss these lazy, flapping fowl when walking them up. Dispassionately considered, the landrail should be a bird that a man could scarcely miss on the first occasion of his handling a gun; in cold fact, it often survives two barrels apparently untouched. This immunity it owes in all probability to its slow and heavy flight, since those whose eyes are accustomed to the rapid movement of partridges are apt to misjudge the allowance necessary for such a laggard and to fire in front of it. It is difficult to realise that, whereas the strong-winged partridge is a stay-at-home, the deliberate landrail has come to us from Africa and will, if spared by the guns, return there.</p> <p>Perhaps the most curious and interesting habit recorded of the landrail is that of feigning death when suddenly discovered, a method of self-defence which it shares with opossums, spiders, and in fact other animals of almost every class. It will, if suddenly surprised by a dog, lie perfectly still and betray no sign of life. There is, however, at least one authentic case of a landrail actually dying of fright when suddenly seized, and it<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_105" id="Page_105">[105]</SPAN></span> is a disputed point whether the so-called pretence of death should not rather be regarded as a state of trance. Strict regard for the truth compels the admission that on the only occasion on which I remember taking hold of a live corncrake the bird, so far from pretending to be dead, pecked my wrist heartily.</p> <p>Just as the countryfolk regard the wryneck as leader of the wandering cuckoos, and the short-eared owl as forerunner of the woodcocks, so the ancients held that the landrail performed the same service of pioneer to the quail on its long journeys over land and sea. Save in exceptional years, England is not visited by quail in sufficient numbers to lend interest to this aspect of a bird attractive on other grounds, but the coincidence of their arrival with us is well established.</p> <p>The voice of the corncrake, easily distinguished from that of any other bird of our fields, may be approximately reproduced by using a blunt saw against the grain on hard wood. So loud is it at times that I have heard it from the open window of an express train, the noise of which drowned all other birdsong,<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_106" id="Page_106">[106]</SPAN></span> and it seems remarkable that such a volume of sound should come from a throat so slender. Yet the rasping note is welcome during the early days of its arrival, since, just as the cuckoo gave earlier message of spring, so the corncrake, in sadder vein, heralds the ripeness of our briefer summer.</p> <p>The East Anglian name "dakker-hen" comes from an old word descriptive of the bird's halting flight; and indeed to see a landrail drop, as already mentioned, after flying a few yards, makes one incredulous when tracing its long voyages on the map. In the first place, however, it should be remembered that the bird does not drop back in the grass because it is tired, but solely because it knows the way to safety by running out of sight. In the second, the apparent weakness of its wings is not real. Quails have little round wings that look ill adapted to long journeys. I have been struck by this times and again when shooting quail in Egypt and Morocco, yet of the quail's fitness for travel there has never, since Bible days, been any question.</p> <p>The landrail is an excellent table bird. Personally I prefer it to the partridge, but<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_107" id="Page_107">[107]</SPAN></span> this is perhaps praising it too highly. Legally of course it is "game," as a game licence must be held by anyone who shoots it; and, though protected in this country only under the Wild Birds Act, Irish law extends this by a month, so that it may not be shot in that country after the last day of January. Like most migratory birds, its numbers vary locally in different seasons, and its scarcity in Hampshire, to which White makes reference, has by no means been maintained of recent years, as large bags have been recorded in every part of that county.</p> <p>The common partridge is&mdash;at any rate for the naturalist&mdash;a less interesting subject than its red-legged cousin, which seems to have been first introduced from France (or possibly from the island of Guernsey, where it no longer exists) in the reign of Charles II. That this early experiment was not, however, attended by far-reaching results seems probable, since early in the reign of George III we find the Marquis of Hertford and other well-known sporting landowners making fresh attempts, the stock of "Frenchmen" being renewed from time to time during the next<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_108" id="Page_108">[108]</SPAN></span> fifty years, chiefly on the east side of England, where they have always been more in evidence than farther west. In Devon and Cornwall, indeed, the bird is very rare, and in Ireland almost unknown.</p> <p>Its red legs stand it in good stead, for it can run like a hare, and in this way it often baffles the guns. It is not, however, so much its reluctance to rise that has brought it into disrepute with keepers as its alleged habit of ousting the native bird, in much the same way as the "Hanover" rat has superseded the black aboriginal, although far from the "Frenchman" driving the English partridge off the soil, there appears to be even no truth in the supposed hostility between the two, since they do not commonly affect the same type of country; and even when they meet they nest in close proximity and in comparative harmony. Nevertheless the males, even of the same species, are apt to be pugnacious in the breeding season.</p> <p>Both the partridge and landrail run serious risk from scythe and plough while sitting on the nest. Landrails have before now been decapitated by the swing of the scythe, and<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_109" id="Page_109">[109]</SPAN></span> a case is on record in which a sitting partridge, seeing that the plough was coming dangerously near her nest, actually removed the whole clutch of eggs, numbering over a score, to the shelter of a neighbouring hedge. This was accomplished, probably with the help of the male, during the short time it took the plough to get to the end of the field and back, and is a remarkable illustration of devotion and ingenuity. Not for nothing indeed is the partridge a game bird, for it has been seen to attack cats, and even foxes, in defence of the covey; and I have seen, in the MS. notes of the second Earl of Malmesbury, preserved in the library at Heron Court, mention of one that drove off a carrion crow that menaced the family. Both partridge and landrail sit very close, particularly when the time of hatching is near, and Charles St. John saw a partridge, which his dog, having taken off the nest, was forced to drop, none the worse for her adventure, go straight back to her duties; though, as he adds, if it had not been that she knew that the eggs were already chipping she would in all probability have deserted her post for good and all.<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_110" id="Page_110">[110]</SPAN></span></p> <p>Whether or not France is to be regarded as the original home of the "red leg," the fact remains that in that country it is becoming scarcer every year, its numbers being maintained only in Brittany, Calvados, Orne, and Sarthe. Its distribution in Italy is equally capricious, for it is virtually restricted to the rocky slopes of the Apennines, the Volterrano Hills in Tuscany, and the coast ranges of Elba. It seems therefore that in Continental countries, as well as with us, the bird extends its range reluctantly. Game-preservers seem, however, to agree that partridges and pheasants are, beyond a certain point, incompatible as, with a limited supply of natural food, the smaller bird goes to the wall. Like most birds, partridges grow bold when pressed by cold and hunger, and I recollect hearing of a large covey being encountered ten or twelve years ago in an open space in the heart of the city of Frankfort.</p> <hr /> <div class="bk3">OCTOBER<br /> THE MOPING OWL</div> <hr /><p><span class='pagenum'>
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