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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_125" id="Page_125">[125]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>WATERFOWL</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">Had</span> these notes been written from the standpoint of sport, the three familiar groups of birds, which together make up this world-wide aquatic family, might better have borne their alternative title "wildfowl" with its covert sneer at the hand-reared pheasant and artificially encouraged partridge that, between them, furnish so much comfortable sport to those with no fancy for the arduous business of the mudflats. It is true that, of late years, the mallard has, in experienced hands, made a welcome addition to the bag in covert shooting, as those will remember who have shot the Lockwood Beat on the last day of the shoot at Nuneham; and there is historic evidence of "wild" duck having been reared for purposes of sport with hawks in the reign of Charles I. Yet such armchair shooting of wildfowl was ignored by Colonel Hawker and the second Earl of Malmesbury, both of whom, gunning in the creeks and estuaries of the south coast, made immense bags of ducks and geese,<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_126" id="Page_126">[126]</SPAN></span> working hard for every bird and displaying Spartan indifference to the rigours of wintry weather. To hardy sportsmen of their type, wildfowl offer red-letter days with punt or shoulder guns, not to be dreamt of under the &aelig;gis of the gamekeeper.</p> <p>In this country, at any rate, we associate the V-shaped companies of wigeon and gaggles of geese with an ice-bound landscape, though in exceptional years, even where they no longer stay to breed, these night-flying northerners linger to the coming of spring, and Hawker noticed the curious apparition of grey geese and swallows in company on the first day of April, 1839. This wedge formation of flight over land and sea is not only peculiar to these waterfowl, but is not apparently adopted by any other long distance migrants. No satisfactory explanation of their preference for flying in this order has been found, but it is thought to lessen the air resistance, which must be a consideration for these short-pinioned fowl that weigh heavy in proportion to their displacement and at the same time lack the tremendous spread of wing that enables the<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_127" id="Page_127">[127]</SPAN></span> wandering albatross to soar for days together over the illimitable ocean. With one noticeable exception, these waterfowl exhibit a more extraordinary range of size and weight than any other family of birds, from the whooper swan, five feet long and twenty-five pounds on the scales, down to the little teal, with an overall measurement of only fourteen inches and a weight that does not exceed as many ounces. The only other family of birds running to such extremes is that of the birds of prey, which include at once the stately condor of the Andes with its wing-spread of fifteen feet, and the miniature red-legged falconet of India and adjoining countries, in which the same measurement would scarcely reach as many inches.</p> <p>Since even game birds are derisively referred to as "tame" only by those ignorant of the facts, the birds now under notice differ in this respect from all those previously dealt with; and they are geographically apart, again, from our other domesticated animals, since they are not, like the barndoor fowl and most of the rest, of Asiatic origin, but must often, in the grey of a winter morning,<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_128" id="Page_128">[128]</SPAN></span> be conscious of their near relations flying at liberty across the sky. The geese and ducks have been remarkably transformed by the process of domestication, and a comparison between those of the farmyard and their kindred in the marshes should illustrate not only the relative value of most virtues, but also the all-importance of Aristotle's how, when and where. Strictly speaking, no doubt, the tame birds have degenerated, both mentally and physically, as surely as the tame ass. They have lost the acute perceptions and swift flight of their wild relations. Economically, on the other hand, they are immeasurably improved, since the farmer, indifferent to the more inspiring personality of the grey goose and the mallard, merely wants his poultry to be greedy and stupid, fattening themselves incessantly for Leadenhall and easily captured when required.</p> <p>Between swans, geese and ducks there is little anatomical difference, save in the matter of size. The swans are the giants of the race, and the swans of three continents are white. It was left for Australia, land of topsy-turveydom, to produce a black swan<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_129" id="Page_129">[129]</SPAN></span> (I spare the reader the obvious classical tag), and this remarkable bird, first observed by Europeans in the early days of 1697, was quickly brought to Europe and figures in the earliest list of animals shown in the London Zoological Gardens. All these birds have a curious trick of hissing when angry, and this habit, perhaps because it is usually accompanied by a deliberate stretching of the neck to its full length, is seriously regarded by some as conscious mimicry of snakes, a proposition that must be left to individual taste, but that strikes me as somewhat far-fetched. At any rate, it gives to these birds a formidable air, and, though the current belief in its power of breaking a man's arm with a blow from its wing is probably unwarranted, an angry swan, disturbed on its nest, is an awesome apparition of which I have twice taken hurried leave. On the first occasion, I had nothing but a valuable camera with me, and it was, in fact, after a futile attempt to photograph the bird on the nest that I was moved to seek the boat and push off from the little island in the Upper Thames on which it had its home. The other<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_130" id="Page_130">[130]</SPAN></span> encounter was on a Devonshire trout stream, and my only weapon was a fragile trout rod. The certainty that discretion is, under these circumstances, the better part of valour is emphasised by the knowledge that any violence to the bird would probably lead to a prosecution. Even the smaller geese can inspire fear when they dash hissing at intruders; hence, no doubt, the nursemaid's favourite reproach of children too frightened to "say bo to a goose," an expression made classical by Swift.</p> <p>The majority of these waterfowl are insectivorous in the nursery stage and vegetarian when full grown. Fish forms an inappreciable portion of their food, with the two notorious exceptions of the goosander and merganser, though anglers are much exercised over the damage, real or alleged, done by these birds to their favourite roach and dace in the Thames. These swans belong for the most part to either the Crown or the Dyers' and Vintners' Companies, and the practice of "uppings," which consists in marking the beaks of adult birds and pinioning the cygnets, is still, though shorn of some<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_131" id="Page_131">[131]</SPAN></span> of its former ceremonial, observed some time during the month of June.</p> <p>Swans, like both of the other groups, are distinguished by a separate name for either sex: pen and cob for the swan, gander and goose, drake and duck, and the figurative use of some of these terms in such popular sayings as "making ducks and drakes of money," "sauce for the goose," etc., is too familiar to call for more than passing mention.</p> <p>Nearly all these waterfowl, though seen on dry land to much the same disadvantage as fish out of water, are exceedingly graceful in either air or water, though not all ducks are as capable of diving as the name would imply. The proverbial futility of a wild goose chase recognises the pace of these birds on the wing, which, though, in common with that of some other birds, popularly exaggerated, is considerably faster than, owing to their short wings and heavy build, might appear to the careless observer.</p> <p>Ducks have a curious habit of adding down to the nest after the eggs are laid and before incubation, and this provision of warm packing is turned to account in Iceland and other<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_132" id="Page_132">[132]</SPAN></span> breeding places of the eider duck, commercially the most valuable of all ducks. The nest is robbed of this down once before the eggs hatch out, with the result that the female plucks another store from her own breast, supplemented if necessary from the body of the drake. The sitting bird is then left in peace till the nest has fulfilled its purpose, when the remaining down is likewise removed. This down, which combines warmth and lightness, gives a high market value to the eider, which, throughout Scandinavian countries is strictly protected by law and even more effectually by public opinion.</p> <p>The majority of ornamental ducks interbreed freely in captivity. Those who, apparently on reliable evidence, distinguish between the polygamous habit in tame ducks and the constancy of the mallard and other wild kinds to a single mate have hastily assumed that such hybrids are unknown in the natural state. This, however, is incorrect, as there have been authentic cases of crosses between mallard and teal, pochard and scaup and other species, such hybrids having at<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_133" id="Page_133">[133]</SPAN></span> different times been erroneously accepted as distinct species and named accordingly.</p> <p>The wild duck's nest is usually placed on the ground in some sheltered spot close to still or running water, and the ducklings swim like corks, soon learning the proper use of their flat little bills in gobbling up floating insects and other waterlogged food. Occasionally ducks nest in trees and they have been known to take possession of a deserted rook's nest. There has been some discussion as to whether, in this case, the mother conveys her ducklings to the water in her bill, but this has not actually been witnessed. In cases where, as is often observed, the nest overhangs the water, it has been suggested that the young birds may simply be pushed over the edge and allowed to parachute down to the surface, as they might easily do without risk.</p> <p>Tame ducks are among the most sociable of birds and can even display bravery when threatened by a common enemy. The naturalist Houssay once learnt this as the result of a somewhat cruel experiment that he made in order to ascertain whether ducks invariably,<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_134" id="Page_134">[134]</SPAN></span> as alleged, fall upon a wounded comrade and destroy it. Wishing to satisfy himself on the point, Houssay, having come upon some ducks in a small pond, deliberately pelted them with stones till he had wounded one of their number. Instead, however, of behaving as he had been led to expect, the rest of the ducks formed close order round the wounded bird and sheltered it from further harm.</p> <p>Few domestic animals&mdash;none, possibly, with the single exception of the camel&mdash;are less suggestive of "pets" than such gross poultry, yet even a gander, the most vicious tempered of them all, has been known to show lasting gratitude for an act of kindness. The bird, which had long been the terror of children in the little Devonshire village near which it lived, managed one day to get wedged in a drain, and there it would eventually have died unseen if a passing labourer had not seen its plight and set it at liberty. Down to the day of its death the bird, though nowise relinquishing its spiteful attitude towards others, followed its rustic benefactor about the place like a dog.</p> <hr /> <div class="bk3">DECEMBER<br /> THE ROBIN REDBREAST</div> <hr /><p><span class='pagenum'>
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