Alfred Charles Smith.

The birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county online

. (page 52 of 53)
Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 52 of 53)
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of Rooks, while the sower will be unattended, and his grain remain
untouched.' Bishop Stanley, in his charming ' Familiar History
of Birds,'* writes : ' We feel quite certain, that notwithstanding the
depredations which may fairly be laid to their account, on striking
a fair balance, the advantage will be in favour of preserving the
Rooks, and that, if every nest were pulled to pieces, the farmers
would soon do all in their power to induce the old birds to rebuild
them, finding out, when too late, of what immense service they
are, in destroying those large white grubs of beetles which, living
underground no less than from three to four years, devour incess-
antly the tender roots of grasses and every description of grain ;'
and again the Bishop says, ' It is scarcely necessary to name the
wireworm as one of the greatest scourges to which the farmers
are exposed, and yet it is to the Rook chiefly, if not entirely,
that they can look for a remedy. Cased in its hard shelly coat, it
eats its way into the heart of the roots of corn, and is beyond the
* Stanley on Birds, i. 249.

A Plea for the Rooks. 573

reach of weather or the attacks of other insects, or small birds,
whose shorter and softer bills cannot penetrate the recesses of its
secure retreat, buried some inches below the soil : the Rook alone
can do so ; if watched when seen feeding in a field of sprouting
wheat, the heedless observer will abuse him when he sees him
jerking up root after root of the rising crop ; but the careful
observer will, if- he examines minutely, detect in rnany of these
roots the cell of a wireworm, in its silent and underground
progress, inflicting death on stems of many future grains. Their
sagacity, too, in discovering that a field of wheat or a meadow
is suffering from the superabundance of some devouring insect
is deserving of notice. Whether they find it out by sight, smell,
or some additional unknown sense, is a mystery, but that they
do so is a fact beyond all contradiction.' And now as a climax I
come at last to the evidence of him whom I consider the first of
modern naturalists, Mr. Waterton,* and he says in his first book
of Essays, wherein he has devoted a whole chapter to the Rooks :
' Now, if we bring, as a charge against them, their feeding upon
the industry of man, as, for example, during the time of a hard
frost, or at seed time, or at harvest, at which periods they will
commit depredations, if not narrowly watched, we ought, in
justice, to put down in their favour the rest of the year, when
they feed entirely upon insects,' and then he refers us, ' if we wish
to know the amount of noxious insects destroyed by Rooks,' to an
admirable paper on the services of the Rook, in the Magazine of
Natural History, -f- and concludes by saying, 'I wish every farmer
in England would read it ; they would then be convinced how
much the Rook befriends them.' But in the second series of
Essays J the same excellent writer is again provoked to defend his
sable friends by a threatened extermination of them in Scotland,
and he says, ' We have innumerable quantities of these birds in
this part of Yorkshire, and we consider them our friends ; they
appear in thousands upon our grass lands, and destroy myriads of

Waterton's ' Essays in Natural History,' first series, p. 134.

t Yol. vi., p. 142, paper by T. G. Clitheroe, Lancashire.

J Waterton's 'Essays in Natural History/ second series, p. 169.

574 A Plea for the Rooks.

insects. After they have done their work in these enclosures, you
may pick up baskets full of grass plants all injured at the root by
the gnawing insects. We prize the bird much for this, and we
pronounce them most useful guardians of our meadows and our
pastures. Whenever we see the Rooks in our turnip fields, we
know then, to our sorrow, what is going on there : we are aware
that grubs are destroying the turnips, and we hail with pleasure
the arrival of the Rooks, which alone can arrest their dreaded
progress. The services of the Rooks to our oak trees are
positively beyond estimation : I do believe, if it were not for this
bird, all the young leaves in our oaks would be consumed by the
cockchafers. Whilst the ring-dove is devouring the heart shoot
of the rising clover, you may see the Rook devouring insects in
the same field.'

I trust that such a host of witnesses as I have adduced, and
witnesses of the first order in intelligence and intimate acquaint-
ance with the subject, will not have failed to carry conviction to
my readers ; but as facts are stubborn things, and preconceived
opinions are hard to eradicate, and the world is apt to accuse orni-
thologists of riding their hobby too hard, and concealing every-
thing that tells against their favourites, before I conclude, I will
state the experience of practical men, who, thinking to interfere
with the balance of powers as arranged and sustained by nature,
have thus recorded their failure.* ' The inhabitants of Virginia
contrived to extirpate the little crow from their country at
an enormous expense, and having done so, they would gladly
have given twice as much to buy back the tribe.'f ' A reward
of threepence a dozen was offered in New England for the
purple grackle, which commits great havoc among the crops, but
protects so much more herbage than he destroys, that the insects
when he was gone caused the total loss of the grass in 1749,
and obliged the_colonists to get hay from Pennsylvania, and even
to import it from Great Britain. A few years since an Act was

Quarterly Revieiv, January,' 1858, Article on ' Sense of Pain in Men and
Animals,' p. 203.

f Stanley on Birds, i. 252 ; King'sJNarrative, ii. 217.

A Plea for the Books. 575

passed by the Chamber of Deputies to prohibit the destruction
of birds in a particular district of France ; they had been
recklessly killed off, and the harvest being swept away in its
first green stage by millions of hungry reapers, the earth had
ceased to yield its increase.'* In our own country, on some very
large farms in Devonshire, the proprietors determined a few
summers ago to try the experiment of offering a great reward
for the heads of Rooks ; but the issue proved destructive to
the farms, for nearly the whole of the crops failed for three suc-
cessive years, and they have since been forced to import Rooks
and other birds to restock their farms with.' A similar experi-
ment was made a few years ago in a northern county, particularly
in reference to Rooks, but with no better success ; the farmers
were obliged to reinstate the Rooks to save the crops. I have
been also credibly informed by an intelligent farmer in Norfolk
that ' the trees in a neighbouring rookery having been cut down
for the repair of farm-buildings, and the Rooks thereby banished,
he has lost hundreds and hundreds of pounds by wireworm and
a peculiar beetle which abounds in cornfields, which Rooks alone
destroy :' by which I conjecture he means the grub of the cock-
chafer described above. While another occupier in the same
county told me c that one boy after another, placed by him to
keep off the Rooks from a piece of wheat, having ' played him
false' (as he called it), he determined to leave it alone ; when the
Rooks actually swarmed on it, and he expected no crop, but to
his great surprise, when harvest came, he had the best crop he
ever saw.' But perhaps the best proof of the advantage supposed
to be derived from these birds is, that in some districts enlight-
ened farmers are going to considerable expense and taking some
pains to introduce them on their property.

With such facts before us and such unanswerable evidence of
the value of Rooks, and of the grievous want of them where they
have from any cause been expelled, I feel the greatest confidence
in pleading for their preservation ; and to sum up all that has
been said in the words of an excellent article in an old volume of

Yarrell, ii., p. 96.

576 A Plea for the Rooks.

the Quarterly Review :* ' While the grub of the cockchafer com-
mits great ravages both upon grass and corn by gnawing the
roots of the plants so that entire meadows are sometimes denuded
by it, the Hook eats those destroyers by thousands, and by one
act gets food for himself and protects the wheat which is the
staff of life to man ; they are the grubs which chiefly attract him
to follow the plough, and when he plucks up a blade of grass or
corn it is almost invariably for the sake of some description of
worm which is preying upon its root. The plant which he eradi-
cates will be found upon examination to be dead or dying, and
by devouring the cause of the mischief he saves the rest of the
field from blight. Unobservant persons, who never look below
the surface, often mistake the policeman for the thief: luckily,
their power to injure their benefactor is not equal to their will,
or they would exterminate him altogether, and leave the depre-
dators unmolested to consume the whole of the crops. When
an unhappy success has attended efforts of this kind, we have
seen that the evil consequences have been signal and immediate.'

A flight of Rooks, then, renders services which could not be
performed by all the cultivators of the soil put together ; and if
the poor birds are occasionally mischievous, they are richly
worthy of their hire. Make the largest possible allowance for
their consumption of a portion of that crop, the whole of which
they preserve, and they are still immeasurably the cheapest
labourers employed upon a farm. Volumes would be required
to tell all the mistakes which are committed in the blind
for destruction, and in the readiness of man to believe that
everything which tastes what he tastes is a rival and a loss.

But I do trust that that day of short-sighted ignorance is not
to return to Wiltshire, and that we no longer jumble in one
miserable confusion our friends with our foes. I trust that we
have learnt to know our benefactors ; and if the Rooks do take a
little of our newly sown grain, or, when pinched by hard weather,

Quarterly Review, January, 1858, p. 204, on 'Sense of Pain in Men and

A Plea for the Rooks.


if they are driven by starvation to peck holes in our turnips and
potatoes, let us not grudge them the petty theft, but call to mind
the vast benefits they confer on us at other seasons, and protect
them as our best allies, and encourage them by every means in
our power.




THROUGHOUT the whole range of Natural History there is per-
haps no more popular delusion than that which respects blight,
and yet I need hardly observe that there are delusions enough
and errors enough abroad in every department of Natural
History. Let the air be thick and hazy during the prevalence of
an east wind, and nineteen out of twenty people of the educated
classes, I mean will tell you that it is a ' blight/ having said
which they are perfectly satisfied that they have sufficiently ex-
plained the whole matter, and no more need be said ; while by the
uneducated classes in Wiltshire I have more than once heard
that state of atmosphere denounced as a 'blightning,' through the
manifest jumbling of this peculiar dark haziness with the vivid
concomitant of the thunder-storm. But if you are unreasonably
inquisitive, and, being scarcely satisfied with the explanation
given, persistently push your inquiries as to how the blight came,
and whence it arose, the chances are ninety-nine in a hundred that
you will be informed it came with the east wind, borne along on
the breeze ; and your informant will triumphantly point to the
haziness of the atmosphere, and tell you that it is the Might or
blightning, as if the air was really thick through myriads of the
tiny insects literally darkening the sun.

Now, I am the last to say that the air may not be momen-
tarily darkened positively and sensibly by the passage of an
insect cloud, for I have seen this very thing in the case of a vast
flight of locusts in Syria ; but that is a very different matter from

A Plea for Small Birds. 579

the haziness which often attends the east wind in this country,
and which sometimes continues during several days.' And when
I mention that the blight on the rose-tree, on the gooseberry, the
apple, the larch, the beech, the oak, the lime, the hop, the bean,
and other plants or trees, does not consist of the same species of
insect which infests them all, but that the several trees and
plants have each their own particular blight, peculiar to them-
selves, it is manifest to every thinking mind that it is beyond
the bounds of possibility that the east wind should, with discrim-
inating exactness, bear each species of blight to its own individual
tree or plant. The blight, then, I make bold to assert, does not
come on the wings of the east wind. Let us get rid of that error

In one sense, however, ' blight ' may be said to come with the
east wind ; in the same way that grass may be said to come with
the genial south-west wind in the spring. Just then as nobody
of course supposes that grass is actually borne along to us by
the balmy breezes of May, but everybody understands that the
especial state of the atmosphere which fosters the growth of the
young herbage prevails, and has its effect on the plants : so pre-
cisely in the same manner the east wind harsh and disagreeable
though it is to many animals according to the old proverb,

' When the wind is in the east
"Tis neither good for man nor beast '

exactly suits the requirements' of the ' blight ' of various
species : and on the principle that ' 'tis an ill wind that blows
nobody good,' the east wind, so detested by many, presents just
that state of atmosphere best suited to the development of all
kinds of blights, so that those pests of our gardens and fields
flourish when all else is drooping under the pernicious blasts
of the much-dreaded east wind.

It is time now to inquire What is blight 1 and I reply that it is
in every case an insect, especially adapted for the particular tree
or shrub or plant on which it is found, and whose proper name, by
which it is known to entomologists, is Apkis. It belongs to the
large order of Hemiptera, and the suborder Homoptera, which


580 A Plea for Small Birds.

contains many genera, and a vast number of species differing
from one another in many essential particulars, though united in
general form and habits, and having many affinities in common.
These several Aphides, more vulgarly known as ' plant lice/ have
many very remarkable peculiarities in their mode of life, wherein
they differ from all other insects ; some of them being at one
period of their existence viviparous, and at another oviparous ;
some of those of the same species being winged, and others wing-
less : but they all follow the same occupation of preying on the
juices of the several plants they infest, to the carrying out of
their own economy, but to the manifest injury of the plant. By
way of example, let us take the case of the gooseberry blight or
fly, with which everybody is familiar, and let us very shortly
follow its career. The fly, a handsome, gay, innocent-looking
insect enough, as it darts about in the sunshine on its gauxy
wings, repairs to the gooseberry-tree, where she lays her eggs.
This species is one of the Saw Flies, and by means of her saw
or ovipositor she contrives to lay her eggs on the under side of the
leaf she has selected, all along the midrib, and then along the
side ribs, till all the principal ribs are garnished with eggs in
regular rows, and about seventy eggs are laid on that particular
leaf. Within a single day, these eggs begin to grow rapidly, and
within a week or ten days the grub makes its appearance, and im-
mediately begins to eat. After a short time the grubs descend the
footstalks, and, wandering in different directions, each finds a leaf
for itself, and the work of devastation progresses in real earnest.

This is but a sample of the career of the gooseberry blight, and
the mischief it effects. But there are many other blights even
more pernicious than this the ' hop blight,' for example, upon
whose absence or presence in the hop gardens every year depends
the success or failure of the crop. There are ' turnip blights/
again, which, as every farmer knows to his cost, in dry seasons in
early summer, destroy successive sowings of that valuable root,
and very materially injure the farmer's provision of food for his
sheep. There are ' apple blights ' and ' pear blights ' (more
particularly watched for in cider-making counties), which deposit

A Plea for Small Birds. 581

their eggs singly in the very centre of the bud or calyx of the
opening blossom of the apple-tree ; and from every such egg
a grub is hatched, which eats into the blossom and destroys the
fruit. There are blights, again, familiar to every observer in the
oak, the larch, the rose, the lime, and many another tree or plant.
Indeed, I believe I may say without exaggeration that there is no
plant without its plant-louse, or aphis, or blight, just as there is
no species of animal or bird or insect without its parasite. These
blights vary in colour : sometimes they are black, sometimes
black and white, sometimes gray; but (far more often than
<all other colours put together) green of various shades and
hues. The true blight or aphis has a long trunk or sucker which
is used as a pump or siphon, through which the sap of the plant
is drawn up ; and as all blights infest the young and juicy shoots
and leaves of plants for the purpose of sap-sucking, they cause no
small injury to such plants as they honour by their visits.

There is one advantage which some of the aphides confer in
the honey-dew, as it is called, so well known to bee-keepers, and
so highly esteemed by bees. Honey-dew is, without doubt, a
secretion from the aphides, and is appreciated by ants no less than
by bees : nay, there is nothing in the whole range of entomology
more curious and interesting than the affection which ants show
for the aphides, which some naturalists have described as their
domestic ' cattle,' and which it is certain they diligently wait
upon, which they regularly milk, and in whose produce they
delight. Patient observation has determined that they do this
with the utmost care, licking them with their tongues, and pro-
tecting them from the parasites which infest them; for the
aphides, too, are troubled with parasites, after the famous saying,

' Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
The little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum :
And the great fleas themselves have got some greater fleas to go on,
And greater fleas have greater fleas, and greater fleas, and so on.'

But as I am not writing a history of the aphides, I forbear
to dilate on this very interesting race, but for further par-
ticulars refer to the splendid monograph on them, by the pen of

582 A Pica for Small Birds.

G. B. Buckton, published in four volumes by the Ray Society, and
fully illustrated with coloured figures. My object now in view is
gained if I have pointed out what myriads of these minute insects
infest our plants, shrubs, and trees, and how injurious, nay, haw
destructive, they would be to vegetation generally, were their
numbers unchecked. But simultaneously with the hatching of
the aphides in the spring come the troops of Warblers which
soon overrun our gardens and hedgerows in every direction, and
make their presence known by their joyous songs. At once they
begin to feast on the new-born aphides, but by the time they
have built their nests and hatched out their young, the aphides
are swarming on all sides, and now begins their wholesale destruc-
tion, when the parent birds have to supply their ravenous young
with an insect diet ; and it is almost incredible how large a num-
ber of these injurious insects are destroyed in a single day by
each pair of diminutive Warblers catering for their brood.

Nor are the Warblers alone in their raid on these insect
hordes. The Titmice and the Finches are not far behind-hand,
for they, too, must provide the same soft diet for their callow
young. Even the much-abused House-sparrow lends his aid in
their destruction, and carries home supplies of insects for his
young brood in the thatch.

Then turn to the Swallows, Martins, and Swifts, careering
through the air on rapid wing what hosts of gnats does not
every one of them consume, catching them on the wing, and
clearing the air as they go of the superabundance of these pests
to man ! Or think of the Thrushes and Blackbirds what hosts
of noxious grubs do they not destroy, what vast quantities of
slugs and snails, so destructive of many valuable plants, do they
not devour !

But as one ounce of fact is worth more than ten pounds of argu-
ment, let me call attention to the action of the United States, which,
at considerable expense of time and money, found it advisable,
for economic purposes, to introduce a number of European small
birds into their country ; and amongst these was particularly
specified the Titmouse, which the English gardeners more espe-

A Plea for Small Birds. 583

cially persecute for its supposed delinquencies amongst their
fruit-trees, but which the far-seeing American more correctly
pronounces ' one of the most successful foes of insects injurious
to vegetation/*

See, again, a similar course of action which the authorities of
New Zealand deemed it advisable to pursue, when, in order to
rid themselves of the insect hordes which threatened to over-
whelm them and destroy their crops, they imported large
numbers of small birds from England, though the cost of such im-
portation from so great a distance, and of so perishable an article,
was necessarily attended with great expense. Accordingly we read
that one vessel alone carried out from England 1,130 living birds ;
viz., Blackbirds, Thrushes, Starlings, Goldfinches, Redpolls of
each, 100; Hedge-sparrows, 150; Linnets, 140; Goldfinches, 160;
Yellowhammers, 170 ; and, lastly, Partridges, 110. Arrived in
New Zealand, they were let fly under proper authority ; and a
heavy penalty was enforced against shooting at or in any way
injuring any of these birds. For, however little appreciated
their gratuitous services are here, the New Zealand farmers
declared that they could not get on without them, for they alone
would keep down the insects that ravage the crops. It was also
estimated that one little bird single-handed would, from his size
and build, be able to get at and destroy in a few hours more
insects than ten men would in a week.-f

Supported thus by such undeniable evidence, I do not hesitate
to say that the small birds, which the gardener so often condemns,
are in reality the very best friends he has. He sees them busy
at the fruit-trees and I do not deny that many species will have
u share of the fruit if they can get it and then he condemns
them and persecutes them to the death, as if they were his
bitterest foes. Whereas, during all the rest of their sojourn in
this country, they are employed in his service, ridding him of a
real evil, which he is powerless otherwise to overcome, and
which, without their aid, would overwhelm his fruit-trees alto-
gether, to the utter destruction of blossom and leaf, and all hope
* Zoologist for 1873, p. 3696. f Ibid i 1875 P- 4336 -

584 A Plea for Small Birds.

of a crop. Let him, then, net his fruit-trees, or otherwise pro-
tect his crop, but let him cherish and protect the small birds as
his most invaluable allies ; for they are the policemen who alone
can catch the real thieves, and they are the volunteers who alone
can defend his goods from the destructive raids of a powerful
enemy. I conclude this short chapter with a paragraph from
the Farmer, dated July 21, 1879, under the head of ' Winged
Guardians': 'The Swallow, Swift, and Nighthawk are the guar-
dians of the atmosphere. They check the increase of insects
that otherwise would overload it. Woodpeckers and Creepers
are the guardians of the trunks of trees. Warblers and Fly-
catchers protect the foliage. Blackbirds, Thrushes, Crows, and
Larks protect the surface of the soil. Snipe and Woodcock
protect the soil under the surface. Each tribe has its respective
duties to perform in the economy of nature; and it is an un-
doubted fact that if the birds were all swept away from oft' the
earth, man could not live upon it ; vegetation would wither and
die, and insects would become so numerous that no living thing
could withstand their attacks.'


Aphides, 579-582

Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 52 of 53)