Sunday, 6 September 2009

"Hirundo Domestica!!!"


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)!

24 comments:

jinksy said...

Wonder where they used to line up before overhead wires were invented?!

HelenMHunt said...

The circle of life - it's wonderful isn't it?

steven said...

hi weaver, you can detect in gilbert's phrase about the purpose of swallows a sense of ecological connectedness can't you. around here we watch for the return of the canada geese. they aren't the first birds to return but when they pass over in their massive "v's" and you can hear them talking to each other, you can hear the rush of wind through their feathers, it's awe inspiring. this was a lovely post. have a peaceful day in the dale. steven

Heather said...

My father loved to read Gilbert White, was a keen nature lover himself and taught me all I know of it. I sometimes regret not living in a more rural setting where the changing seasons can be observed more closely. However, on a daily basis especially as we get older, we are closer to all amenities and life is easier.

Pondside said...

Swallows and dragonflies - I love to lie back on the lounge and watch them swoop and dive.

Linda said...

Close to where Steven (our blogging Steven) resides, lives is a guy named Bill Lishman. He was worried about the migration of waterfowl from Canada every year so he tried to get the animals to imprint on him so he could lead them on a new migration route. The places the birds traditionally migrated to in the southern United States was turned into a subdivision. He was successful at his attempts to do this and Disney made a movie, "Fly Away Home." Lishman used to migrate with the birds. He led them to a new wildlife sanctuary. It was a fascinating story of all the trials he had to endure to bond with the birds and get them to follow him.

For you, it might be fun to go to South Africa one Christmas to find your swallows!

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Great post, I have dedicated a poem of mine to it in my blog.

All my best, Davide

Titus said...

Weaver, this was a beautiful read. My father-in-law is technically a "twitcher", although he wouldn't admit to the term, and has increased my avian knowledge a hundred-fold since I moved up.
Owls, woodpeckers, nuthatches, wrens, swallows, housemartins and lots of varieties of "tits" and "bills" all nest in his (large) garden, and the buzzards and the sparrowhawk are never far away. I can even recognise some of them now.
Me? I'm a sparrow girl.

Cathy said...

I know when Autumn is truly here when the trees around my home fill up with the starlings heading south. The sound is incredibleand when they take off it is the most amazing sight.
I wonder how many of our children even give them notice. They miss so much sitting infront of a tv or computer.

mizmollye said...

Hi..I just linked to your blog in my post. Hope this is ok because I thought this was a little fascinating. Mollye

Cloudia said...

Yes, remarkable!
Your post reminded me of the barnacle geese in bestiaries of old that were drawn hanging from plants as they grew.....
What a rich post to stir the seasons in our blood!

Aloha from Hawaii, where the Golden Plovers (Kolea) will soon arrive for their winter-
Comfort Spiral

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love swallows, and saw some probably setting out on their way south at the weekend.

Swifts are the ones I see most and watch for most carefully...

Crafty Green Poet said...

Horatio Clare's book One Single Swallow is probably worth reading to find out more about the routes the swallows take on their migrations...

Mad Bush Farm said...

Weaver as always you write such a wonderful post! So so sorry it's taken me so long to get over and say hello. Life has been alittle topsy turvey for me and my family for the last four months. I'm only now finally getting back to regualr blogging! And thanks for your lovely comments on my blog

Love and Hugs
Liz

Dave King said...

Gilbert White's cottage and the path he took up the hill each day is less than half an hour's drive from where I live. I have walked the path a few times, but probably not as often as I should have. I may do it rather more in future, thanks to your reminder. A lovely post.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Good point - Jinksy - clothes lines maybe - they featured more heavily then than now didn't they.

Helen - like the idea of the circle of life - what goes around comes around.

Steven - would love to see those massive V formations - they are such exciting birds aren't they.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Heather - I know what you mean - we are out in the sticks - there is for and against this but it is too late to change now.

Pondside - gosh I would guess a dragon fly is quite a mouthful for a swallow. I wonder what they taste like - in the old days dragonflies used to be called the devil's darning needles round here.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Linda - what a wonderful story - I like the idea of South Africa to see the swallows but the farmer is
not keen on that part of the world.

Tommaso - shall visit your blog forthwith.

Titus - our bird table gets an occasional visit from the sparrowhawk and we often see buzzard overhead.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Cathy - I had never thought of starlings as moving far but I suppose they do. When we were in San Antonio we heard thousands of grackles, which I think are a kind of starling, and the noise they made was immense.
Mizzmolye - nice to meet you. Shall pop over to see you shortly.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Cloudia - would love to see those golden plovers.
Juliet - our swifts didn;t seem to stay long enough to breed this year. I shall look out for that book.
Mad Bush - lovely to hear from you - sorry you have had a bit of a rough time - hope all is well now.
Dave - how I envy you living so close to Selborne. Please go there and take a few photographs in the churchyard and put them on your post - White writes about it so often.

elizabethm said...

Ours are still here. at least I saw one on the pigsty roof yesterday. I have a strong feeling of "any minute now" about their departure. we watch for them in spring too - lightens my whole day when they arrive!

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

It is exhausting just to think of their journey. I shall be keeping a watch now, trying to notice when they have gone!

patteran said...

My last sighting around here was a week ago - an explosion of swifts out of a hedgerow, all of them looking very much at home.

I used to live a few miles from Selbourne and for a while I was a regular visitor to my pal Peter Ingram, who had a Gypsy museum there. A beautiful village within countryside still rich in wildlife.

Janice Thomson said...

The migratory flight of birds never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes the smallest birds travel the farthest through the most unimaginable circumstances. There is much we can learn from these little creatures...