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the first year of President Roosevelt has been a personal rather than a political triumph. But that personal triumph is so supreme that the victory
The Monthly Review.
There is no bird which, in view of its strange and solitary character, its weird and hollow cries, the grotesque solemnity of its appearance, the timehonored beliefs and superstititions which cluster round it, the large part it plays in poetry ancient and modern, as well as in its sister arts, sculpture and painting, the marvellous adaptations of its structure to its mode of life, or its mode of life to its structure ---above all, perhaps I ought to add, in these days of agricultural depression and of armies of destroying rats, its usefulness to the struggling cultivator of the soil-possesses so peculiar a fascination, and ought to enjoy so jealous and zealous a protection, as the various species of the owl.
I purpose in this paper to touch lightly on some of these points of interest, in the hope that I may be able to impart to those who read it some fragments of the pleasure which a loving and life-long observation of its subject has given to me, and may induce all who are connected directly or indirectly with the land, to befriend a bird which, in spite of many prejudices and some appearances to the contrary, is, in the truest sense, the friend of man.
of his party in the forthcoming elections ought properly to be called a Rooseveltian and not a Republican victory.
I will premise only that my field of observation has been chiefly confined to the county of Dorset, to the neighborhood of the little village in which I was born and bred, West Staffordto the grammar school at Blandford
where I received the first part of my education, and whose headmaster, the Rev. J. Penny, encouraged all his pupils, both by precept and example, to. become, in their measure, observers. of Nature-and to the old-world manor house of Bingham's Melcombe, in which, now that the main work of my life as a master at Harrow is over, I hope to end my days, a veritable sauctuary of wild life and of "my feathered friends." I shall confine what I have to say chiefly to the three more familiar varieties of the bird which are to be found in England-the white, the brown, and the long-eared owl. Nature varies indeed, but within strict limits; and what is true of the owl in the county of Dorset is true, with very slight modifications, of the owl in all parts of England-and, indeed, in all parts of the world.
All owls have much in common. The difference in their appearance-caused by the fact that some of their number (as, for instance, the eagle, the longeared, and the short-eared owl) have little tufts of feathers on the top of their heads which they can raise or depress at pleasure, and which look like ears or horns or egrets-is a merely superficial difference. They are, each and all of them, unlike all other birds. A child who has never seen one except in a picture, and who knows perhaps hardly any birds beyond the sparrow, the robin, and the barndoor fowl, never fails instantly to recognize an
owl. An English child, perhaps I ought rather to say; for "the child is father of the man," and a German child could hardly be expected to recognize an owl at sight, if it be true, as the story goes, that a German professor on a visit to England, who had somehow succeeded in shooting an owl, holding up his trophy in triumph, exclaimed, "Zee, I have shot a schnipe mit einem face Push-cats."
The nocturnal movements of the owl tribe; the upright position in which they habitually hold themselves; the big, rounded head; the full, round, prominent eyes, which, except when they are glazed with sleep, look you full in the face, for the simple reason that, unlike those of all other birds, they are planted in front, rather than at the side of the head; the successive bands of short soft feathers which surround the eye, all pointing inwards, and so making it the centre, as it were, not of one, but of many circles; the fluffy feathers of the body, which make the whole appear twice as large as it really is (for an owl, though he will gorge, or try to gorge, a full-sized rat, is always thin-nothing, in fact, but skin and bones and feathers); the sleepy air of contemplation or of wisdom, which probably made the Athenians regard it as the sacred bird of Pallas; the eyelid behind eyelid which passes swiftly, now one, now another, over the eye, shielding it from the garish light of day, and tempering the apparent gravity of its thought by a suspicious though superficial resemblance to a wink; all mark off the subject of this paper in all its species from all other birds.
The white owl is so called because, though the whole of his upper plumage is of a delicate buff or yellow speckled with gray (as his Latin name, Strix flammea implies), it is the pure white of the lower plumage which most strikes the eye as he sails noise
lessly over a stubble field or along a hedge. He is known also as the barn and the screech owl-the barn owl from one of his favorite haunts; the screech owl because of his rasping, piercing shriek, so unlike to the deep, mellow, musical hoot of his nearest relations. As he is the best known, so he is the best worth knowing, and the most useful of all his tribe. When left unmolested, as he ought to be, he becomes almost domestic in his habits, cruising around the rickyard or the homestead in search of his prey, and often taking temporary refuge, should the morning light surprise him, in any tumble-down shed which is near at hand. The resort which he most frequents is a dark cobwebbed barn in which corn or newly or badly threshed straw is stored, for thither troop rats by scores and mice by hundreds, and there, ready for the farmer's greatest foe, is the farmer's truest friend, prepared to destroy the destroyers. There he stands, bolt upright, perched on one leg, perfectly motionless, in some dark niche or on some lofty rafter, to all appearance fast asleep. But he sleeps with one eye or one ear open. There is a slight movement, invisible to the human eye-a slight rustle, inaudible to the human ear, in the straw below. In a moment he is all eye, all ear. The tucked-up leg joins the other; the head is bent forward and downward; the dark, bright eyes gaze with an almost painful intensity on the spot from which the rustle comes. The mouse or rat shows itself, and in a moment again, without one movement of his wings and without one tremor of the air, he "drops" upon his prey. There is hardly a struggle or a cry; his long, strong, sharp talons and no bird of his size has such long, such strong, and such sharp talons)-have met in the vitals of his victim, and he flies back with it grasped tightly in them to his coign of vantage, after a fitting
interval of meditation bolts or tries to bolt it whole, and then patiently waits for another rustle. From such a retreat, well stored with grain and well garrisoned with rats and mice, he rarely, except for purposes of getting water, needs to stir. But he is almost equally at home in the hollow of some immemorial oak or ash or elm, where he or his forefathers have dozed for decades or for centuries, or in the "ivy-mantled tower," where he may "mope" to his heart's content,
and to the moon complain Of such as, wandering near his sacred bower,
Molest his ancient, solitary reign.
Or as Tennyson, always true to Nature in his mention of birds, puts it
Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits.
I have found the white owl "at home" in many such belfries, where he has often allowed me to handle him rather than shake off his drowsiness and trust himself to the light of day. I have often wondered what a bird with so exquisitely elaborated and sensitive an organ of hearing as he has, can do when the Sunday-morning bells ring out, with all their reverberations, within a few feet of him. Can he, by closing the operculum or valve with which Nature has supplied him, sufficiently deaden the ding-dong bell? Or has he learned, as the result of long-transmitted experiences, that the agony, though sharp, is short? Or, like the more intelligent dog-who often knows that he must put on his best manners when Sunday comes-does he realize that, on each returning seventh day, the belfry is no resting-place for him and his? I throw out these suggestions merely for what they may be worth.
When found at home, he moves his head slowly from side to side with an
air of ineffable gravity. Burleigh's nod was nothing to it. Should he be of a more combative disposition, he utters a prolonged hiss, or snaps loudly with his beak, and flings himself on his back, with claws drawn up, ready to fasten them in the hand of his "interviewer," or in the thick leather glove with which, if prudent, he will have enveloped it. When he has planted them there, he has done his little best, and submits with an almost Christian resignation to his fate, and straightway falls fast asleep in your hand. Now is the time to examine the marvellous mechanism of the ear, which is entirely hidden from view by the feathers which encompass it. It will take you long to find; but blow the feathers apart, just beyond the outermost circle of those which gird in the eye, and you will find that your fingers have been close to it all the time. You will find an enormous semicircular orifice, many times as large in proportion as the human ear, with a ring of little downy feathers gently curving inwards, closely set, and so serving, doubtless, to carry the most delicate pulsations of sound to the large and highly developed brain. The blowing may have slightly disturbed his equanimity, and he may, perhaps, have half opened one eye; but the mo. ment it stops, you will find that, like the famous fat boy in Pickwick, he is "fast asleep again."
When his home is in a tree with a large hollow in it, you will often find that at the bottom of the hole is a soft conglomerate mass, perhaps a bushel or two in quantity, of what were once neat oblong balls or pellets containing the indigestible portions of his foodthe fur and bones and feathers, that is, of the animals which he has swallowed. These a wonderful provision of Nature-as in the case of a few other birds, like the kestrel and the kingfisher, which bolt their food whole
-enables him to disgorge with violent and repeated efforts from his throat; and, when examined, they give incontestable proof, which even a gamepreserver or gamekeeper cannot fail to understand, of his great services to man and of his complete innocence of the sins, the destruction of young partridges and pheasants, which have been laid to his charge. These pellets are found in their more perfect shape on the branches of the tree in which the female is nesting, or on the ground round it, as well as on the branches of the adjoining tree in which her faithful mate keeps watch and ward. In this small, soft, damp concrete of fur and bones I have sometimes found imbedded large numbers of the hard wing-cases of beetles or of cockchafers, a species of prey which few would have suspected the white owl of much affecting. The Germans are great statisticians, and a German naturalist, Dr. Altum,' has carefully analyzed a large number of owl pellets. In 706 pellets of the barn owl he found the remains of 2,525 rats, mice, shrews, bats, and voles, and of only twentytwo small birds, chiefly sparrows; and the results were similar in the case of the two other owls of which I am writing. A dog, it is said, cannot remain in good health without bones; and the bones and fur of rats and mice, however indigestible themselves, seem a necessary aid to the digestive process in an owl. Feed a tame white owl on flesh from which these have been removed, and he will soon pine away and die.
The method in which a tame white owl-and if a tame, then probably also a wild one-disposes of a mouse which he has caught is curious. He holds it for a minute or two by its middle, then, by a quick jerk of the head, throws it into the air, and catches it
1 Quoted by Yarrell, "British Birds," vol. i.
by its head. A second jerk sends it head foremost down his throat, with the exception of the tail, which remains hanging out for another minute or two of appropriate contemplation, when, on a third jerk, it disappears.
Another peculiarity of the barn owl may be mentioned here. Alone, I believe, among birds, she sometimes lays her eggs not continuously, day by day, but at considerable intervals of time. At first, it may be, she lays two eggs, on which she will sit for a week or two; then, two more; and then, when she has hatched the first two, perhaps, another three. So that you may find fresh eggs, hard sat eggs, and young birds fairly grown in the same nest. What is the reason of this peculiarity— a peculiarity almost as strange as that of the cuckoo, which by laying its eggs in another bird's nest, and leaving them to be hatched and reared by the foster-parent, has attracted universal attention, and seems to make a real breach in the continuity of Nature? Is it that by leaving the later eggs to be hatched, in part at least, by the warmth of the young birds, she has more leisure, by an all-night's absence, to satisfy the cravings of her voracious brood? The owlets, thickly covered with the softest white down, and looking like so many puff-balls with brilliant dark eyes inserted in them, remain in the nest for many weeks, and are the unceasing care of the parent birds. A mother often loves best those of her children who give her most trouble and anxiety. Most young birds begin to shift for themselves within a week or two of their birth, and family life ceases altogether a week or two later again, except in the case of a few birds, like the titmouse or the magpie, which enjoy or endure the pleasurable pains of a family till the next spring comes round. Some few birds, like the young partridge, the young peewit, and the young wild
duck, begin to "kick over the traces" as soon as they are born. They run off, as the saying is, with the egg-shell on their backs. They rush about over the grass or the water, pick up grubs or gnats, and squat down into their smallest or scuttle away into the nearest place of refuge at the first note of alarm given by the anxious mother. Young owls, on the contrary, which I have left in the nest newly born at Bingham's Melcombe at Easter, I have found still in the nest and unable or unwilling to fly, when I have returned there nine or ten weeks later. If indeed the love of a mother is generally proportioned to the trouble she has taken in rearing her children, how great must be the affection of the barn owl for her brood, and how vast the quantity of rats or mice which she must have carried during those long weeks to them!
Waterton, a close observer of bird life, says in his charming Essays that a pair of barn owls which he watched would bring a mouse to their nest every ten or fifteen minutes, and that in sixteen months they deposited over a bushel of pellets in the old gateway which they inhabited; while Gilbert White, the prince of all observers, whose letters will be a joy for ever to the naturalist-ever old and ever new-writes thus of the habits of the barn owl, which he carefully watched:
seem to be their only food. In this irregular country we can stand on an eminence and see them beat the fields over like a setting-dog, often dropping down in the grass or corn. I have minuted these birds with my watch for an hour together, and have found that they return to their nest, the one or other of them, about once in five minutes, reflecting at the same time on the adroitness that every animal is possessed of as far as regards the well-being of itself and offspring. But a piece of address which they show when they return loaded should not, I think, be passed over in silence. As they take their prey with their claws, so they carry it with their claws to their nest: but as the feet are necessary in their ascent under the tiles, they constantly perch first on the roof of the chancel, and shift the mouse from their claws to their bill, that the feet may be at liberty to take hold of the plate on the wall as they are rising under the eaves."
We have had, ever since I can remember, a pair of white owls that constantly breed under the eaves of this church. As I have paid good attention to the manner of life of these birds during their season of breeding, which lasts the summer through, the following remarks may not, perhaps, be unacceptable. About an hour before sunset (for then the mice begin to run) they sally forth in quest of prey, and hunt all round the hedges of meadows and small enclosures for them, which
How simple is this record, how fresh, how redolent of the countryside, how instinct with that nameless charm which defies analysis, but which has made the name of Gilbert White to be a name of honor and of love with all the English-speaking peoples, and has made, and will, doubtless, continue to make, his little Hampshire village of Selborne, with its Wakes, its Plestor, its beech-crowned Hanger, its Wolmer Pond and its Wolmer Forest-above all, the simple tombstone with the letters "G. W." inscribed upon it-to be a place of pilgrimage, ay, of almost religious pilgrimage, to all lovers of Nature for ever!
The eggs of the owl tribe, like those of the pigeon, are always white; but while no pigeon ever lays more than two, the owl lays from four to six eggs; and while the eggs of the pigeon are bright and glossy, those of the owl are a dull, chalky white, so rough in
2 White's "Selborne" letter liii.