Gilbert White lived from 1720 to 1793, in an age when we still thought ourselves superior to nature. We now know that we are a part of nature and not its master, but that idea was totally foreign to Gilbert White. Nevertheless, in his writing there are hints that he was beginning to come round to that way of thinking. (this is almost a century before Darwin).
White became a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1743, spent the next fifteen years travelling and then retired to his beloved village of Selborne, where he held a number of curacies in the area - but where his passion was the observation of wildlife - and in particular bird life. In a series of letters to like-minded friends he outlined his observations. His sharp eyes missed nothing. He was absolutely fascinated by the hirundines in particular (swallows, martins and swifts).
He was unsure whether they migrated en masse to Africa for the Winter or whether some of them might stay in what he called "hybernaculums" - he suggested the mud at the bottom of the village pond, the crevices in the church tower. He charted their every move - when they came, where and how they built their nests, how they raised their young, what they fed on, when they
left (or half-hoped hibernated).
There is one lovely passage in a letter to his friend, Daines Barrington, where he says:-
"Whoever contemplates the myriads of insects that sport in the sunbeams of a summer evening, will soon be convinced to what degree our atmosphere would be choked with them, was it not for the friendly interposition of the swallow tribe."
Here in North Yorkshire the swifts, in particular, depart very early. White says that in Selborne they usually went at the beginning of August. One year he was delighted to see one as late as 3rd September and thought it well worth noting down.
Here in the countryside of North Yorkshire more than two hundred and fifty years later the hirundines still fascinate. Maybe it is because they use our barns and the eaves of our houses year after year to build their nests - the same birds and their offspring coming back to the same place; the mud around the midden builds their nests; the midges in the fields surrounding supply huge quantities of insects; we don't disturb them (even the farm cats treat them with disdain -cat behaviour which means "can't catch it anyway).
A couple of nights ago a friend and I saw dozens of swallows swooping low to the ground scooping up mouthfuls of midge, almost touching the ground as they trawled.
But for whatever reason on this farm, at any rate, from April 1st each year everyone watches for the return of the first swallow - to the wire in the yard. One day one of us will go out and there will be a single swallow there. Sometimes it will be another week before the next one arrives - but they'll come, they'll build, they'll raise their young and then they'll go. The earliest date we have recorded for their arrival is April 4th and the latest April 22nd. And we rejoice in their coming.
When at this time of the year they begin to amass on the wires and are joined by others migrating South (sometimes there are as many as 250 on the wires) we worry about any young we know that are only just fledging (they build in the same places every year and practise their flying skills in the same barns) - will they be ready to go in time?
Then one morning - in the not too distant future - we shall get up and the wires will be empty and they will be gone. And we shall have to wait until April to see them again.
Their return will always be a cause of celebration as it was for Gilbert White. In 1768 he marked the first swallow's return with a simply entry in his diary:
"April 13th Hirundo Domestica!!!"
##A friend who is both more computer literate and more bird literate than I am has just e mailed me with information about the migration, which she got from the Barford Community website if you want to read more. Here is the pattern of their migration:
To W France, across the Pyrenees, down E Spain, across the Med by Gibraltar, through Morocco, over the Sahara, through Algeria, Niger and chad, cross the Equator into the Congo (this far by November) - they finally arrive in South Africa in time for Christmas. (And just remember that four months later they are back here again -absolutely incredible when you see it in black and white)!