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  • The mystery of the hibernating hirundines October 31, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Humans create ideas to explain natural phenomenon. Most of these explanations are worth little more than the cinders that Beachcombing nightly sweeps up from the fire. These explanations are then superseded by other explanations – that typically bear as little relation to truth – and so knowledge marches heroically on… Inevitably, though some branches of humanity can’t keep up – memos from central office cease to get through – and these relicts cling quaintly to the ideas of yesterday.

    On this subject Beachcombing was today looking at that old chestnut of swallows hibernating. For the uninitiated it used to be believed by European country gentlemen (and perhaps more importantly by their servants) that swallows hibernated through the winter in barns and, most interestingly, under water, even in the sea and often in balls of multiple birds.

    Of course, that idea was always going to have problems surviving European exploration beyond the Sahara where migrating swallows wintered and yet somehow, against the odds, it did manage to limp along in the letters pages of natural history magazines and as bumble bees in particularly impenetrable bonnets into the late nineteenth century.

    Beachcombing begins with the delightful F.K.Allen (3, 97-99) in 1867.

    [We must] acknowledge both theories to be partially correct, and to attempt to discover the reasons for the migration of one portion of the hirundines [swallows, martins and swifts], and for the hibernation of the other; by doing this we shall be rendering a far greater service to the cause of truth, than by hastily adopting one or the other theory, and branding the supporters of the opposite ideas as ignorant and credulous…. Numerous cases have been adduced of lumps of torpid swallows having been found under ice, and in the mud-beds of lakes…. The English naturalist Derham also cited in 1713, at a meeting of the Royal Society, the personal testimony of a Dr. Colas, who asserted just the same facts. Allowing for exaggeration, it is quite possible that the swallows which become torpid upon river banks should fall upon the ice of amongst the reeds, and the fact of their being discovered, occasionally, in these positions, should have given rise to wild and visionary tales. But it may be said, All these are old wives fables; have you no modern testimony to adduce? In the third volume of Kingston’s Magazine for Boys, now defunct, on pages 267-8 will be found a very interesting communication from an anonymous correspondent signing himself M. K., stating that a friend of his father once found a bird-ball upon the banks of the Ribble, which sprang into life upon being placed near the fire. …On which side, then, I ask, lie the credulity and the ignorance? On the side of those who adapt science to suit facts, or with those who disregard facts because they are old-fashioned, and do not accord with their preconceived and arbitrary ideas of the laws which govern nature?

    Those poor hibernating hirundines! If the best that F.K.Allen could manage was an anonymous letter in a boy’s comic annual then he might have been better never sealing the envelope.

    Then there is the danger of oral accounts, however, ‘honest’ (19, 164-165): this letter dates to 1883.

    The wife of our village blacksmith was the daughter of a respectable farmer, renting under the Harcourts at Newnham, and incapable of falsehood. She told me this: ‘When I was a young girl, we had lots of swifts nesting under the eaves. Father thought they brought in a deal of dirt and vermin, so when the birds were gone in the autumn he had all the holes plastered up. The spring of next year was very early, fine and warm; and sister and I were disturbed by a strange scrabbling noise. Told father. He said, Rats, and had the skirting board knocked away, and out came what we all thought was a great bat. Father took it up, and it was a swift, and we took out about forty of them, and as the poor birds were mere skin and bone we tried to feed them. No use; so the poor things were tossed out of the window and flew away.

    Beachcombing has some bizarre memories of rabbits doing strange things in his infancy. Was this account, like his own fevered memories, a dream perhaps? He is much struck by the swifts flying away as they are thrown out of the window: it seems the product of a child’s subconscious.

    In any case, it was typically among the working classes that a belief in the hibernation of swifts and swallows lasted longest. Beachcombing’s favourite passage is this attempt on the part of an eight year old to disabuse a hardy East Anglian yokel (8, 115).

    In the early part of the year 1843 I was residing at Great Glenham, in Suffolk. One morning about the beginning of March, I was told that a swallow had been seen coming out of a pond near our house. I expressed my disbelief in the correctness of this information, but was assured that there could be no mistake. Some days afterwards our gardener came to me in triumph, and told me that he had brought the swallow, which had been found dead near the pond where it had before been seen. On taking it in my hand, I saw at once, from its webbed feet, that it was a storm petrel (Thalassidroma pelagica or T. Leachii); but being quite a boy at the time, I was not then aware that there was more than one species. I must confess that, at first sight, it looked very like a swallow, and I should not have been surprised had the mistake been made by far better observers. Doubtless the poor bird had been driven inland by a violent gale, with which we had been visited by a few previously and had rested on the pond until disturbed by our informant. Had not the bird been found, the rising of the swallow from the pond would have seemed incapable of satisfactory explanation.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for hibernating hirundines and other survivors from the ghost world of dead and dying ideas. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com