Bird Watching/Chapter 1

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image header chapter I by Arthur Rackham


Watching Great Plovers, etc.


If life is, as some hold it to be, a vast melancholy ocean over which ships more or less sorrow-laden continually pass and ply, yet there lie here and there upon it isles of consolation on to which we may step out and for a time forget the winds and waves. One of these we may call Bird-isle—the island of watching and being entertained by the habits and humours of birds—and upon this one, for with the others I have here nothing to do, I will straightway land, inviting such as may care to, to follow me. I will speak of birds only, or almost only, as I have seen them, and I must hope that this plan, which is the only one I have found myself able to follow, will be accepted as an apology for the absence of much which, not having seen but only read of, I therefore say nothing about. Also, if I sometimes here record what has long been known and noted as though I were making a discovery, I trust that this, too, will be forgiven me, for, in fact, whenever I have watched a bird and seen it do anything at all—anything, that is, at all salient—that is just how I have felt. Perhaps, indeed, the best way to make discoveries of this sort is to have the idea that one is doing so. One looks with the soul in the eyes then, and so may sometimes pick up some trifle or other that has not been noted before.

However this may be, one of the most delightful birds (for one must begin somewhere) to find, or to think one is finding things out about, is the great or Norfolk plover, or, as it is locally and more rightly called—for it is a curlew and not a plover[1]—the stone-curlew. These birds haunt open, sandy wastes to which but the scantiest of vegetation clings, and here, during the day, they assemble in some chosen spot, often in considerable number—fifty or more I have sometimes seen together. If it is early in the day, and especially if the weather be warm and sunny, most of them will be sitting, either crouched down on their long yellow shanks, or more upright with these extended in front of them, looking in this latter attitude as if they were standing on their stumps, their legs having been "smitten off" and lying before them on the ground. Towards evening, however—which is the best time to watch these birds—they stand attending to their plumage, or walk with picked steps in a leisurely fashion, which, with their lean gaunt figure, sad and rusty coloured, and a certain sedateness, almost punctiliousness, of manner, fancifully suggests to one the figure of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the Knight of the rueful countenance, with a touch or two, perhaps, thrown in of the old Baron of Bradwardine of Tullyveolan. One can lie on the ground and watch them from far off through the glasses, or, should a belt of bracken fringe the barren area, one has then an excellent opportunity of creeping up to within a short or, at least, a reasonable distance. To do this one must make a wide circuit and enter the bracken a long way off. Then having walked, or rather waded for some way towards them, at a certain point—experience will teach the safety-line—one must sink on one's hands and knees, and the rest is all creeping and wriggling, till at length, lying flat, one's face just pierces the edge of the cover and the harmless glasses are levelled at the quarry one does not wish to kill. The birds are standing in a long, straggling line, ganglion-like in form, swelling out into knots where they are grouped more thickly with thinner spaces between. As they preen themselves—twisting the neck to one or the other side so as to pass the primary quill feathers of the wings through the beak—one may be seen to stoop and lay one side of the head on the ground, the great yellow eye of the other side staring up into the sky in an uncanny sort of way. The meaning of this action I do not know. It is not to scratch the head, for the head is held quite still; and, moreover, as, like most birds, they can do this very neatly and effectively with the foot, other methods would seem to be superfluous. Again, and this is a more characteristic action, one having stood for some time upright and perfectly still, makes a sudden and very swingy bob forward with the head, the tail at the same time swinging up, just in the way that a wooden bird performs these actions upon one's pulling a string. This again seems to have no special reference to anything, unless it be deportment.

All at once a bird makes a swift run forward, not one of those short little dainty runs—one and then another and another, with little start-stops between—that one knows so well, but a long, steady run down upon something, and at the same moment the glasses—if one is lucky and the distance not too great—reveal the object which has occasioned this, a delicate white thing floating in the air which one takes to be a thistle-down. This is secured and eaten, and we may imagine that the bird's peckings at it after it is in his possession are to disengage the seed from the down. But all at once—before you have had time to set down the glasses and make the note that the great plover (Œdicnemus Crepitans)[2] will snap at a wandering thistle-down, and having separated the delicate little seed-sails from the seed, eat the latter, etc., etc.—a small brown moth comes into view flying low over a belt of dry bushy grass that helps, with the bracken, to edge the sandy warren, for these wastes are given over to rabbits and large landowners, and are marked "warrens" on the map. Instantly the same bird (who seems to catch sight of the moth just as you do) starts in pursuit with the same rapid run and head stretched eagerly out. He gets up to the moth and essays to catch it, pecking at it in a very peculiar way, not excitedly or wildly, but with little precise pecks, the head closely and guardedly following the moth's motions, the whole strongly suggestive of professional skill. The moth eludes him, however, and the bird stops rigidly, having apparently lost sight of it. Shortly afterwards, after it has flown some way, he sees it again and makes another swift run in pursuit, catching it up again and making his quick little pecks, but unsuccessfully, as before. Then there is the same pause, followed by the same run, then a close, near chase, and finally the moth is caught and eaten. Other moths, or other insects, now appear upon the scene, or if they do not appear—for even with the best of glasses such pin-points are mostly invisible—it is evident from the actions of the birds that they are there. Chase after chase is witnessed, all made in the same manner, with sometimes a straight-up jump into the air at the end and a snap that one seems almost to hear—a last effort, but which, judging by the bird's demeanour afterwards, fails, as last efforts usually do.

A social feeling seems to pervade these hunting-scenes, a sort of "Have you got one? I have. That bird over there's caught two" idea. This may be imaginary, still the whole scene with its various little incidents suggests it to one. The stone-curlew, therefore, besides his more ordinary food of worms, slugs, and the like—I have seen him in company with peewits, searching for worms, much as do thrushes on the lawn—is likewise a runner down and "snapper up of" such "unconsidered trifles" as moths and other insects on the wing. I had seen him chasing them, indeed, long before I knew what he was doing, for I had connected those sudden, racing runs—seen before from a long distance—with something or other on the ground, imagining a fresh object for each run. Often had I wondered, first at the eyesight of the bird, which seemed to pierce the mystery of a worm or beetle at fifty or sixty yards distance, and then at its apparent want of interest each time it got to the place where it seemed to have located it. Really it had but just lost sight of what it was pursuing, but aerial game had not occurred to me, and the tell-tale spring into the air, which would have explained all, had been absent on these occasions. I have called such leaps "last efforts," but I am not quite sure if they are always the last. More than once I have thought I have seen a stone-curlew rise into the air from running after an insect, and continue the pursuit on the wing. This is a point which I would not press, yet birds often act out of their usual habits and assume those proper to other species. I remember once towards the close of a fine afternoon, when the air was peopled by a number of minute insects, and the stone-curlews had been more than usually active in their chasings, a large flock of starlings came down upon the warrens and began to behave much as they were doing, running excitedly about in the same manner and evidently with the same object. But what interested me especially was that they frequently rose into the air, pursuing and, as I feel sure, often catching the game there, turning and twisting about like flycatchers, though with less graceful movements. Often, too, whilst flying—fairly high—from one part of the warrens to another, they would deflect their course in order to catch an insect or two en passant. I observed this latter action first, and doubted the motive, though it was strongly suggested. After seeing the quite unmistakable flycatcher actions I felt more assured as to the other. Yet one may watch starlings for weeks without seeing them pursue an insect in the air. Their usual manner of feeding is widely different—viz. by repeatedly probing and searching the ground with their sharp spear-like bills, as does a snipe (with which bird they will sometimes feed side by side) with his longer and more delicate one. This is well seen whilst watching them on a lawn. They do not study to find worms lying in the holes and then seize them suddenly as do thrushes and blackbirds. With them it is "blind hookey"; each time the beak is thrust down into the grass it may find something or it may not. The mandibles are all the time working against each other, evidently searching and biting at the roots of the grass, and at intervals, but generally somewhat long ones, they will be withdrawn, holding within their grasp a large, greyish grub.

Returning to the stone-curlews. During the day, as I have said, these birds are idle and lethargic—sitting about, dozing, often, or sleeping—but as the air cools and the shadows fall, they rouse into a glad activity, and coming down and spreading themselves over the wide space of the warrens, they begin to run excitedly about, raising and waving their wings, leaping into the air, and often making little flights, or rather flittings, over the ground as a part of the disport. As a part of it I say advisedly, for they do not stop and then fly, and on alighting recommence, but the flight arises out of the wild waving and running, and this is resumed, without a pause, as the bird again touches the ground. All about now over the warrens their plaintive, wailing notes are heard, notes that seem a part of the deepening gloom and sad sky; for nature's own sadness seems to speak in the voice of these birds. They swell and subside and swell again as they are caught up and repeated in different places from one bird to another, and often swell into a full chorus of several together. Deeper now fall the shadows, "light thickens," till one catches, at last, only "dreary gleams about the moorland," as now here, now there, the wings are flung up—showing the lighter coloured inner surface—till gradually, first one and then another, or by twos or threes or fours, the birds fly off into the night, wailing as they go. But this note on the wing is not the same as that uttered whilst running over the ground. The ground-note is much more drawn out, and a sort of long, wailing twitter—called the "clamour"—often precedes and leads up to the final wail. In the air it comes just as a wail without this preliminary. But it must not be supposed that all the birds perform these antics simultaneously. If they did the effect would be more striking, but it is generally only a few at a time over a wide space, or, at most, some two or three together—as by sympathy—that act so. The eye does not catch more than a few gleams—some three or four or five—of the flung-up wings at one time over the whole space. It is a gleam here and a gleam there in the deepening gloom. "Dreary gleams about the moorland"—for warren, here, purples into moor and moor saddens into warren—is, indeed, a line that exactly describes the effect.

These birds, then, stand or sit about during the day in their chosen places of assemblage, and, if not occupied in catching insects or preening themselves, they are dull and listless. But as the evening falls and the air cools, they cast off their lassitude, think of the joys of the night, there is dance and song for a little, and then forth they fly. Sad and wailing as are their notes to our ears, they are no doubt anything but so to the birds themselves, and as the accompaniment of what seems best described by the word "dance" may, perhaps, fairly be called "song." The chants of some savages whilst dancing, might sound almost as sadly to us, pitched, as they would be, in a minor key, and with little which we would call an air. Again, if one goes by the bird's probable feelings, which may not be so dissimilar to the savage's—or indeed to our own—on similar occasions "song" and "dance" seems to be a legitimate use of words.

But whatever anyone may feel inclined to call this performance—"dance" or "antics" or "display"—it varies very much in quality, being sometimes so poor that it is difficult to use words about it without seeming to exaggerate, and at other times so fine and animated, that were the birds as large as ostriches, or even as the great bustard, much would be said and written on the subject. Moreover, so many variations and novelties and little personal incidents are to be noticed on the different occasions, that any general description must want something. I will therefore give a particular one of what I witnessed one afternoon when the dancing was especially good. It was about 5.30 when I got to the edge of the bracken, which to some extent rings round the birds' place of assembly.

"A drizzling rain soon began, and this increased gradually, but not beyond a smart drizzle. The birds, as though stimulated by the drops, now began to come down from where they had been standing on the edge of the amphitheatre, and to spread all over it till there were numbers of them, and dancing of a more pronounced, or, at least, of a more violent kind than I had yet seen, commenced. Otherwise it was quite the same, but the extra degree of excitement made it much more interesting. It was, in fact, remarkable and extraordinary. Running forward with wings extended and slightly raised, a bird would suddenly fling them high up, and then, as it were, pitch about over the ground, waving and tossing them, stopping short, turning, pitching forward again, leaping into the air, descending and continuing, till, with another leap, it would make a short eccentric flight low over the ground, coming down in a sharp curve and then, at once, meme jeu. I talk of their 'pitching' about, because their movements seemed at times hardly under control, and, each violent run or plunge ending, in fact, with a sudden pitch forward of the body, the wings straggling about (often pointed forward over the head) in an uncouth dislocated sort of way, the effect was as if the birds were being blown about over the ground in a violent wind. They seemed, in fact, to be crazy, and their sudden and abrupt return, after a few mad moments, to propriety and decorum, had a curious, a bizarre effect. Though having just seen them behave so, one seemed almost to doubt that they had. One bird that had

photogravure of Dancing of Great Plovers (Burhinus oedicnemus) in Autumn by Joseph Smit

come to within a moderate distance of me, made three little runs—advancing, retiring, and again advancing—all the time with wings upraised and waving, then took a short flight over the ground, describing the segment of a circle, and, on alighting, continued as before. Half-a-dozen others were gathered together under a solitary crab-apple tree—a rose in the desert—less than 100 yards off, and both with the naked eye and the glasses I observed them all thoroughly well. One of them would often run at or pursue another with these antics. I saw one that was standing quietly, caught and, as it were, covered up in a little storm of wings before it could run away and begin waving its own.

"This and the general behaviour of the group makes it evident that the birds are stimulated in their dance-antics by each other's presence. For these little chases were in sport, clearly, not anger. Very different is the action and demeanour of two birds about to fight. This is by far the finest display of the sort that I have yet seen, and must be due, I think, to the rain, which the birds obviously enjoyed. They had been quite dull and listless before, but as soon as it fell they spread themselves over the plateau, and the dancing began. It was not only when the birds threw up their wings and, as one may say, let themselves go, that they seemed excited. The constant quick running and stopping whilst the wings were folded appeared to me to be a part—the less excited part—of the general emotion out of which the sudden frenzies arose. There was also the usual vocal accompaniment. The wailing note went up, and was caught and repeated from one part to another at greater or lesser intervals, the whole ending in flight as before."

When I first saw these dances I thought that they arose out of the excitement of the chase—that chase of moths or other insects flying low over the ground which I have noticed—that they were hunting-dances, in fact. I thought the motions of the wings were to beat down the escaping quarry, and I confounded the little springs and leaps into the air, arising out of the dance and being a part of it, with those other ones made with a snap and an object not to be mistaken; but I soon discovered my error. Insect-hunting is only indulged in occasionally, when a wandering moth or so happens to fly by. The general hunt which I have described was incident, I think, to an unusually large number of insects in the air over the warrens, by which not only a band of starlings—as before mentioned—was attracted, but, afterwards, swallows and martins. On such occasions, dancing might conceivably grow out of the excitement of the chase, so as to appear a part of it, but though the two forms of excitement may sometimes intermingle, the tendency would probably be for the one to diminish and interfere with the other. At any rate, almost every dance which I have witnessed has been a dance pure and simple.

What, then, is the meaning of this dancing, of these strange little sudden gusts of excitement arising each day at about the same time and lasting till the birds fly away? We have here a social display as distinct from a nuptial or sexual one, for it is in the autumn that these assemblages of the great plovers take place, after the breeding is all over; the deportment of the courting or paired birds towards each other—their nuptial antics—is of a different character. With birds, as with men, all outward action must be the outcome of some mental state. What kind of mental excitement is it which causes the stone-curlews to behave every evening in this mad, frantic way? I believe that it is one of expectancy and making ready, that these odd antics—the mad running and leaping and waving of the wings—give expression to the anticipation of going and desire to be gone which begins to possess the birds as evening falls. They are the prelude to, and they end in, flight. The two, in fact, merge into each other, for short flights grow out of the tumblings over the ground, and it is impossible to say when one of these may not be continued into the full flight of departure. They are a part of the dance, and, as such, the birds may almost be said to dance off. Surely in actions which lead directly up to any event there must be an idea, an anticipation of it, nor can the idea of departure exist in a bird's mind (hardly, perhaps, in a man's) except in connection with what it is departing for—food, namely, in this case, a banquet. So when I say that these birds "think of the joys of the night" need this be merely a figure? May it not be true that they do so and dance forth each night, to their joy?

I have said that the social or autumn antics of the stone-curlews—their dances, as I have called them, using the usual phraseology—are distinct from the nuptial or courting ones which they indulge in in the spring. These latter are of a different character altogether, but much more interesting to see than they are easy to describe. The birds are now paired, or in process of becoming so, and it is fashionable for two of them to walk side by side, and very close together, with little gingerly steps, as though "keeping company." They seem very much en rapport with each other—sehr einig as the Germans would say—also to have a mutual sense of their own and each other's importance, of the seemly and becoming nature of what they are doing, and (this above all) of the great value of deportment. Something there is about them—now even more than at other times—very odd, quaint, old-world, old-fashioned. The last best describes it; they are old-fashioned birds. Were the world occupied in watching them, and were they occasionally to overhear themselves being talked about, they would catch that word as often as did little Paul Dombey.

Whilst watching a couple walking side by side in this way that I have described, one of them may be seen to bend stiffly forward till the beak just touches the ground, the tail and after part of the body being elevated in the air. The other stands by, and appears both interested in and edified by the performance, and when it is over both walk on as before. Or a bird may be seen to act thus whilst walking alone, upon which another will come running from some distance towards it, as though answering to a summons or to some quite irresistible form of appeal. Upon coming close up to the rigid bird this other one stops, and turning suddenly, but also setly and rigidly, round, makes a curious little run away from it with lowered head and precise formal steps, full of a peculiar gravity and importance. Having thus played his part he again stops, and, standing idly about, seems lapsed into indifference. Meanwhile, the rigid one having remained in its set attitude for some little time longer at length comes out of it, and advancing with the same little picked, careful, gingerly steps that I have noticed, before long assumes it again, and then, relaxing, crouches low on the ground as though incubating. Having remained thus for a minute or two it rises and stands at ease. "A third bird now appears upon the scene (for this, I must say, was a little witnessed drama), advancing towards the two. As he approaches, one of them—the one which has run up in response to the appeal, and which I take to be the male—becomes uneasy as recognising a rival. He first either runs or walks (the pace, though it may be quick, is solemn) to the female, and makes her some kind of bow or obeisance of a very formal nature. Then, straightening and turning, he instantly becomes a different bird, so changed is his appearance. He is now drawn up to his full height, with the head thrown a little back, the tail is fanned out into the shape of a scallop-shell (looking very pretty), the broad, rounded end of which just touches the ground at the centre, and thus 'set,' as it were, for action, he advances upon the intruding bird with quick little stilty steps, prepared, evidently, to do battle. The would-be rival, however, retreats before this display, and the accepted suitor, having followed him thus for some little way—not rushing upon him or forcing a combat, but more as gravely and seriously prepared for one—turns and with his former formal pace goes back to his hen." Or shall we not, rather, say to his Dulcinea del Toboso? for never does this strange, gaunt, solemn, punctilious-looking bird, with the tall figure and the strain of madness in the great glaring eyes, more remind one—fancifully—of Cervante's creation than now. Surely in that formal approach and deep reverence to his mistress, before entering upon this, perhaps, his first "emprise," we have the very figure and high courteous action of the knight, and seem almost to hear those words of his spoken on a similar occasion:

"Acorredme, señora mia, en esta primera afrenta que a este vuestro avasallado pecho se le ofrece; no me desfallezca en este primera trance vuestro favor y amparo." ("Sustain me, lady mine, in this first insult offered to your captive knight. Fail me not with your favour and countenance in this my first emprise.")

In the above case it was, presumably, the female bird who assumed the curious rigid attitude, with the tail raised and head stooped forward to the ground. The attitude, however, assumed by the male, which I have described as a bow or obeisance—and, indeed, it has this appearance—was much of the same nature, if it was not precisely the same, and as far as I have been able to observe, none of the many and very singular attitudes and posturings in which these birds indulge are peculiar to either sex. At any rate, that one which would seem par excellence to appertain to courtship or matrimony, and which is often (as it was in the instance I am about to give) immediately followed by the actual pairing of the birds, is common to both the male and the female. The following will show this:—"A bird which has for some time been sitting now rises and shakes itself a little, presenting, as it does so, a very 'mimsy' and 'borogovy' appearance (for which adjectives, with descriptive plate, see 'Through the Looking-Glass'). It then begins uttering that long, thin, 'shrilling' sound, which goes so far and pierces the ear so pleasantly. This is answered by a similar cry, quite near, and I now see, for the first time, another bird advancing quickly to the calling one, who also advances to meet it.


Great Plovers (Burhinus oedicnemus): A Nuptial Pose by Joseph Smit

Great Plovers : A Nuptial Pose


They approach each other, and standing side by side, with, perhaps, a foot between them, but looking different ways, each in the direction in which it has been advancing, both of them assume, at the same time, a particular and very curious posture, worth waiting days to see. First they draw themselves tall-ly up on their long, yellow, stilt-like legs, then curving the neck with a slow and formal motion, they bend the head downwards—yet still holding it at a height—and stop thus, set and rigid, the beak pointing to the ground. Having stood like this for some seconds, they assume the normal attitude. This wonderful pose, conceived and made in a vein of stiff formality, but to which the great, glaring, yellow eye gives a look of wildness, almost of insanity, has in it, both during its development and when its acme has been reached, something quite per se, and in vain to describe. But again one is reminded of what is past and old-fashioned, of chivalry and knight-errantry, of scutcheons and heraldic devices, of Don Quixote and the Baron of Bradwardine."

It is not only when two birds are by themselves that these or other attitudes are assumed. They will often break out, so to speak, amongst three or four birds running or chasing each other about. All at once one will stop, stiffen into one of them—that especially where the head is lowered till the beak touches, or nearly touches, the ground—and remain so for a formal period. But all such runnings and chasings are, at this time, but a part of the business of pairing, and one divines at once that such attitudes are of a sexual character. The above are a few of the gestures or antics of the great plover or stone-curlew during the spring. I have seen others, but either they were less salient, or, owing to the great distance, I was not able to taste them properly, for which reason, and on account of space, I will not further dwell upon them. What I would again draw attention to, as being, perhaps, of interest, is that here we have a bird with distinct nuptial (sexual) and social (non-sexual) forms of display or antics, and that the former as well as the latter are equally indulged in by both sexes.

  1. I understand Professor Newton to say this.
  2. Burhinus oedicnemus as it is called nowadays (Wikisource ed.).