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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_113" id="Page_113">[113]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>THE MOPING OWL</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">Music</span>, vocal or otherwise, is always a matter of taste, and individual appreciation of birdsong varies like the rest. One man finds the cuckoo's cry intolerably wearisome. Another sees no romance in the gargling of doves, while comparatively few care for the piercing scream of the starling or the rasping note of the corncrake. Yet few birds perform to a more hostile audience than the owl. I say advisedly "the owl," since the vast majority of people make no distinction whatever between our three resident kinds of owl, not to mention at least half a dozen more visitors. Some excuse for such carelessness might perhaps be found in the similar flight and habits of different owls, but it might have been thought that greater measure of individual recognition on their own merits would have been conceded to birds that range in size from the dimensions of a sparrow to those of a duck. But no; an owl is just an owl. Why the soft and haunting cry of<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_114" id="Page_114">[114]</SPAN></span> these birds should not merely displease, but actually alarm, so many people unaccustomed to such sounds of the gloaming and darkness it would be difficult to say; but the voice of owls may possibly owe some of its disturbing effect to contrast with their silent flight, which, thanks to their fluffy plumage, with its broad quills and long barbs, prevents their making much more noise than ghosts when hunting rats and mice in moonlit fields. Only one other English bird has so quiet a flight, and that is the nightjar, another creature of the darkness, which, though no cousin to these nocturnal birds of prey, is known in some parts of the country as the "fern-owl." Visitors unprepared for the eerie woodland music of these autumn nights shudder when they hear the cry of the owl, as if it suggested midnight crime. For myself I have more agreeable associations, since I never hear one of these birds without recalling a gallant fight I once had with a big Tweed salmon in the weak light of a young moon, while three owls hooted amid the ghostly ruins of Norham Castle. Yet, even apart from this wholly agreeable memory, I find nothing unpleasant<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_115" id="Page_115">[115]</SPAN></span> in their music, and can readily conceive that the moping owl may sing to his mate as passionately as Philomel.</p> <p>Not only is there the popular lack of distinction between one owl and another already referred to, but scientific ornithologists have displayed similar want of finality in classifying these birds. There are (as in seals) eared and earless owls, though the so-called "ears" in the birds are not actually ears at all, but tufts of feathers that give rather the impression of horns. There are bare-legged owls and owls with feather stockings. There are owls that fly by day and owls that fly by night, though this is a less satisfactory distinction than that between the diurnal butterflies and nocturnal moths. Any reliable classification of owls must, in short, rest on certain structural bony differences of interest only to the student of anatomy. Nearly all these birds are able to turn the outer toe completely round, and most of them, also, have very keen hearing, which must be an invaluable aid when hunting small animals in the dark.</p> <p>Did the ancients actually regard the owl<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_116" id="Page_116">[116]</SPAN></span> as a wise bird, or was the fashion of depicting it in the following of Minerva merely dictated by the presence of these birds on the Akropolis? It seems hardly conceivable that they could so have blundered as to call the owls that we know clever birds; and the alternative assumption that owlish intellect can have appreciably changed in the interval is even less acceptable. It is probable that too much significance need not be attached to such association between the Greek goddess of wisdom and her attendant owls, for Hindu symbolism represented Ganesa, god of wisdom, with the head of an elephant, yet that animal, which the natives of India know better than the men of any other race, has never figured in their folklore as a type noted for its cunning. About the owl as we know it to-day, with its spectacled face and blinking eyes, there is nothing strikingly intelligent, and schoolboy slang, in which the word does duty as synonymous with foolishness, discovers a more accurate appreciation of these birds.</p> <p>Seen at its worst, when surprised in the glare of daylight and mobbed by a furious<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_117" id="Page_117">[117]</SPAN></span> rabble of little birds, an owl looks a helpless fool indeed, though this is not the proper moment to judge of the bird's possibilities under happier circumstances. Why these small fowl should bully it at all is one of those woodland problems that no one has yet solved. The first, and obvious, explanation is that they know it for their enemy, and it may be indeed that owls commit depredations on the nests of wild birds of which we, who academically regard their food as consisting of rats, bats and mice&mdash;or, in the case of larger species, of young game and leverets&mdash;have no inkling. If however such is the case, it is strange that the habit should have been overlooked by those who have paid close attention to this curious and interesting group. Bird-catchers, at any rate, without troubling to inquire into the reason, turn the instinct to profitable account, and in some parts of the country a stuffed owl is an important item of their stock-in-trade.</p> <p>The majority of owls that either reside in or visit these islands are benefactors of the farmer, and should be spared. The larger eagle-owl, and snowy owl eat more expensive<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_118" id="Page_118">[118]</SPAN></span> food, though, seeing that they come to us&mdash;at any rate in the south country&mdash;only in winter, and even then irregularly, they can do no damage to young game birds, and are probably incapable of capturing old. The worst offender among the residents is the tawny owl, to which I find the following reference in the famous Malmesbury MSS.: "Common here ... a great destroyer of young game and leverets ... they sit in ivy bushes during the day, and I have known one remain, altho' its mate was killed, in the same tree, in such a state of torpor did it appear to be...." The screech owl is a harmless bird and a terror to mice, and any doubt as to its claim on the farmer's hospitality would at once be removed by cursory examination of the undigested pellets which, in common with hawks, these birds cast up after their meals.</p> <p>On the other hand, there is sometimes good reason for modifying any plea for kindness to owls. Handsome is as handsome does, and many of these birds are, during the nesting season, not only savage in defence of their young, but actually so aggressive<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_119" id="Page_119">[119]</SPAN></span> as to make unprovoked attack on all and sundry who unwittingly approach closer to the tree than these devoted householders think desirable. Accounts of this troublesome mood in nesting owls come from several parts of the country, and notably from Wales. In one case on record a pair of barn owls had their home in a tree overlooking Milford Haven, and the vicinity of the nest soon became dangerous. The male owl tore a boy's ear, knocked a man down, and attacked numerous human beings and dogs that made use of a path leading past the tree; and these episodes were in fact of daily occurrence until some one shot the bird. Another pair of barn owls nested in a wood on the shore of Menai Strait, and in this case the young birds managed to fall out of the nest, and lay on the ground in full view of a public right of way. Why the old birds did not put their offspring back in the nest no one knew. Possibly they realised that the talons, which so efficiently gripped rats, might not prove gentle enough for the transport of owlets. At any rate, whatever their reason, they left the young<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_120" id="Page_120">[120]</SPAN></span> birds on the ground, feeding them in that position, and flew at everyone who passed that way, clawing face and ears, and eventually establishing a reign of terror. Another owl behaved in somewhat similar fashion in a spinney close to Axmouth, South Devon, punishing a coastguard so severely that the man took to his heels. Such determined tactics in defence of the young are the more singular when we remember that owls are, in normal circumstances, shy and retiring birds. Yet they occasionally seem to be possessed by more sociable instincts, in proof of which one of the long-eared kind has been seen feeding in the company of tame hawks; a pair of owls once nested in a dovecote close to a keeper's lodge in the Highlands; and wild owls have been known to pay nightly visits to a cage in the Botanic Gardens at Launceston (Tasmania), in order to bring food to their captive friends.</p> <p>Even apart from these rigorous measures of defence, the nesting habits of owls are not without interest. The majority lay their eggs in either hollow trees or ruins, and it is worth remark that these nocturnal<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_121" id="Page_121">[121]</SPAN></span> birds bring up their young in darkness, whereas the hawks&mdash;birds of daylight&mdash;rear theirs in open nests, high up in trees or on rocky ledges, in the full glare of the sun. One owl indeed habitually burrows in the prairies and pampas, in the curious company of marmots and rattlesnakes, and this burrowing habit is also, in some parts of the United States, adopted by the common barn owl. Owls generally brood from the laying of the first egg, with the obvious result that young birds in various stages of plumage are found together in the nest. It has been suggested that the body of the first to leave the egg helps to keep the unhatched eggs warm while the parents are away foraging, else its presence would be a serious handicap. The first little owl to hatch out is usually ready to leave the nest soon after the arrival of the last, though these chicks come into the world more helpless even than the majority of birds.</p> <hr /> <div class="bk3">NOVEMBER<br /> WATERFOWL</div> <hr /><p><span class='pagenum'>
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