Hibernating Hirundines March 19, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Beach gave some publicity, a couple of years ago, to the question of swallows and other hirundines sleeping in the winter rather than migrating. It is all a lot of burnt toffee, of course, but entertaining and it represents a last stand of the ‘old’ country against the ‘new’ science: men in pitchfork marching up on Darwin and Huxley with their Maxim guns. Here is another precious/mad reference, this time from the end of the eighteenth century and from Devon (UK).
It has long been a desideratum among the naturalists to decide, with certainty, whether swallows and martins remain in a torpid state during the winter, or are birds of passage; I shall make no apology for troubling you with this letter, as it determines one part of the question, as I imagine, beyond doubt. In the beginning of November, being fishing on the banks of the river Dart, which runs at the bottom of a very steep hill, from the side of which project several large rocks, overgrown with ivy and thicket; I was at once surprised with the fight of a great number of martins. Now the season of the year being so advanced, I desisted from my amusement, that I might the more carefully observe the birds, which, I concluded, had been brought out of their winter quarters by the fineness of the afternoon, it being remarkably pleasant and warm for the time of the year; the sun at that time darting its rays directly against the rocks, just opposite to which I had fixed my station. They continued to flit to and fro for near half an hour, keeping very near together, and never flying in a direct line above thirty or forty yards, and never, when at the farthest, above a hundred yards distant from the rocks; closer to which they now, as the sun lowered, began to gather very fast. Their numbers now lessened considerably ; and in a very short time they all returned into the fissures of the rocks, from whence they had been induced to venture out by the warmth of the evening. I was particularly careful to observe if there was a swallow amongst them; but there was not one. Of this I am certain; for they were several times within the distance of twenty yards from the places where I stood.
This experience might have interested but then bored your mediocre village squire. But not our narrator, he immediately began pricing out sticks of dynamite.
I am informed by a person who understands blowing rocks, that it is almost impossible to come to the bottom of the fissures of these in question. It could not be done but by gun-powder, and then at a great expence, and not without danger of destroying much of the field above; besides, the force of the powder pervading every hollow, would inevitably annihilate the birds, and so frustrate the end of our labour, I conceived the idea of destroying the rock in its full force, at the time when the martins entered it, as I concluded, for their winter’s dormitory; and believe, that had the weather continued favourable, I should have actually attempted it, but on reflection it did not appear, that the discovery would have been adequate to the difficulty and expense that would have attended it. For there is certainly nothing more extraordinary in finding martins, in a state of torpidity, than dormice or bats, which are animals, equal in bulk to the swallow or martin.
So the dynamite was reluctantly put away and our here makes a tour of the local community with a Bible for oaths.
Mr Trist, the present recorder, and late member of parliament for this town assures me, that he once saw many martins in the winter, about Christmas, flying to and fro under a large rock, not more than a mile from Totnes, and also near the river; Mr. Dever, a reputable farmer, is ready at any time to make oath, that he once found a swift in the church of Ashprington, in the middle of winter; that he took it in his hand, and though it shewed no signs of life, he is certain, it could not have been dead but a few hours. He supposes it dropped from the roof, at a time when some masons were at work repairing a breach, Thomas Didham also affirms, that he once saw, on the a 6th of December, two swallows or martins, flying in a gentleman’s court of Syfferton; that it was a pleasant day; and that he then supposed that they had issued from the old thatch-covering of the out-houses. But here follows a direct evidence, as to the torpidity of one kind of bird. Mr Wiat made oath, last Sunday, in the parish church of Haberton, before me and a creditable witness, that in the winter, and near Christmas, he once found, in a hollow flax-tree then taking down, a bird covered with a kind of down; that on handling it, it shewed signs of life that the two labourers, who assisted in felling the tree, also handled it; that when they first: perceived the bird, it appeared to be dead, yet the heat of their hands made it move briskly; and that this bird he believes to have been a cuckoo. As the story of the cuckoo plucking off his feathers, and remaining torpid during the winter in hollow trees, is generally believed in this country, the establishment of the fact appeared to me of considerable importance; and if I have succeeded in this point, I hope you will have no objection to the manner of ascertaining it. I would wish to avoid a weak credulity on one hand, and obstinate scepticism on the other. Again, Mr Achard, of Privy Garden, may be now living, to testify the truth of the account of the torpid martins, which he saw taken out of the banks of the Rhine, and which, in his letter to P. Collinson, esquire, read before the Royal Society, he so particularly describes. Now to prove the torpidity of birds, we have the presumptive evidence of Mr Trist, Dever, Didham, and myself; and the positive evidence of Mr Achard, Dr Pye, Mr Stevens, and Mr Wiat; all men of character, and incapable of averting an untruth.
Our author then goes on to quote Aristotle: never a good sign in Beachcombing’s experience. Any other torpid Hirundines: drbeachcombing AT yahoo COT com