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arranged by Don Smith
JANUARY The only bird who really sings in earnest at this season is the song-thrush’s big cousin, the missel-thrush: his spirits rise with the wind. When other birds, so to speak, are hurriedly putting up their umbrellas and winding mufflers round their throats and running under cover, the missel-thrush takes his stand on some high and exposed bough and sings with all the power of his voice, the howling wind his accompaniment; no wonder they call him the storm-cock.
FEBRUARY The pigeons in the yard are beginning to coo sweet somethings and the fancy of the ring-dove lightly turns to thoughts of love. The ring-dove is quite human in his love for the sound of his own voice. The partridge is an affectionate bird and is exemplary in his connubial relations. The pair wander over the fields side by side, and if he finds a superior grub, he lays it at his wife’s feet. She on her part presents dainty morsels to him; thus a mutually good understanding is promoted which lasts throughout a happy married career.
MARCH The cock pheasant is crowing bravely; it is his method of enquiring whether anyone knows just cause or impediment to his union with the young hen who has accepted his advances. If there be another cock within hearing there will be a fight. A pheasant-fight is an affair of honour – even less serious than a hare-fight; half-a-dozen pecks and kicks on either side and it is over; then more crowing and wing-clapping to announce that both combatants won. The young bird unversed in matrimony begins with one wife, to whom he pays some attention. As he grows older his heart grows more spacious; wives are no trouble when each supports herself so he takes as many as six or eight. Jealousy is avoided by treating all with impartial neglect. The blackbird and thrush are singing vigorously, and the starling, with cheerful disregard of the copyright laws, is singing by turns as much of the song of each he can remember.
APRIL The small white butterfly having passed the winter as a chrysalis emerges in all the transient glory of wings to enjoy herself for a while. As the sun grows warmer she becomes grave and thoughtful, mindful of her mortality. Under these circumstances she lays her eggs, the butterfly equivalent of making a will; and having stuck ten or twelve dozen on the underside of a cabbage leaf recovers her spirits and flits gaily away – to die. Many evilly disposed insects appear this month; fruit-tree beetles, the pear midge and diamond-back moths. The latter appears in strength from time to time and in 1891 inflicted incalculable damage on turnips, swedes and other roots. Wet weather is fatal to turnip fly and diamond-back moth. It induces, we may suppose, the insect equivalent of bronchitis, pneumonia and kindred ills and leaves the farmer more than consolable.
MAY The tits have either eggs or babies to look after; the great tit’s sense of humour leads them to nest in places where they are least wanted. A letter box strikes them as an ideal situation but to give him – or rather, her – her due, she has no objection to the normal use of the letter box and tolerates periodical inundations of letters upon herself and nest with philosophical calm. The little blue tit is more orthodox, any hole in wall or tree is good enough for her; there she sits defying man and all his fingers with vigorous pecks; it is as though a dormouse were to hit you with clenched fist. The while she hisses fiercely with touching but misplaced confidence in her ability to make you believe she is a snake.
JUNE The squirrels who have laid aside their thick winter clothes for distinctly second-hand summer garments, are nursing three or four children in the nest they hold on long lease in a fir-tree or in the fork of a beech. The evidence that he bites away the outer bark of Scots firs, spruce and larch, to eat the inner bark and also the sprouting buds, is too strong to save him from a verdict of “guilty”. Squirrels are most popular with people who do not own plantations.
JULY The kestrel, who hangs in mid-air as though suspended from a thread tied to a cloud, is always getting into trouble for the sparrow-hawk’s misdeeds:
A mouse for breakfast, mouse for lunch, for dinner yet a third,
Surely what’s virtue in a cat is virtue for a bird?
When mice are scarce we’re all at pains your fields of rats to rid,
And yet you shoot us down at sight for things we never did!
You don’t imprison Brown or Jones if Thompson steal a hat,
And when your little dog does wrong you do not beat the cat.
I seldom kill a bird at all; and faith, I cannot see
Why, when a sparrow-hawk kills chicks, you come and murder me!
AUGUST The wasps have swarmed abroad in their hundreds but their life is numbered in weeks. The wasp is an intelligent fellow, as witness the discretion which bids him to come out of a hole in pear or plum “business end” first. The 23rd of August comes round and the punctual puffins leave the breeding grounds to fly seaward and distribute themselves on distant rocks and islets; the puffin has more reason than most birds to withdraw from society during the autumn moult. There is no great difference between the clothes he takes off and the dress he will put on, it is true; but there is that wonderful bill to be considered. Nature bestows upon him the beautiful red and blue arrangement with chaste yellow stripes that he may be pleasing in the eyes of hen puffins – it doesn’t say much for their taste, but let that pass. The breeding season over, Nature, with callous disregard of the cock’s feelings, and without reflecting on the shock it must give his friends, takes off the puffin’s bill in pieces as though it were a false nose hiding the insignificant snub beneath.
SEPTEMBER It is about this time that the kingfishers harden their hearts and banish their children. The kingfisher thinks that prince-fishers – if we may call them so – cannot learn habits of self-reliance too early in life. He will also brook no rivals near his throne; so the family is scattered up stream and down with paternal blessings, which sound remarkably like imprecations, each member receiving assurances of his or her parent’s undying affection, and promises of condign punishment if they dare to come back. The children seem to have more faith in the latter; at all events, they stay away. The mackerel, who have spent the summer on the coast, put out to sea; they appear to be punctual in their movements as far as observations in Plymouth Sound reveal. The mackerel goes bad very quickly; for which reason an Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 to permit him to be cried in the London streets on Sundays.
OCTOBER It is about this time that the coroner’s work among the shrews becomes so heavy; numbers of this quarrelsome community are found lying dead all over the country in autumn. An open verdict is always returned; the body of the deceased bears no mark of violence; there is nothing to show that he owes his death to the wide antipathies of his kin and human science so far has done nothing to elucidate the mystery which baffles the shrew coroner’s jury. In the good old days people explained it easily enough; dead shrews, they pointed out with truth, were always found on a road (they were, and are, found elsewhere, if you look), demonstrating to finality that they were constitutionally unable to cross a road in the autumn and that the attempt to do so proved fatal.
NOVEMBER It is at this season that the magpie exhibits another ugly side of his character. When the fox is trying to escape from hounds the magpie enjoys nothing so much as to follow him from tree to tree overhead, shrieking the magpie equivalent for “Tally-ho!” Why he should do this, unless with the idea of currying favour with his worst enemy – man – it is hard to say. The mole takes up quarters in his winter fortress, or monastery – a circular chamber in some hillock, with passages running from it in half a dozen directions. The hedgehog puts on his nightcap when beetles disappear, snails close their doors and frost drives the earthworms to the deeper depths where he cannot get them. Flamborough Lighthouse keepers reported a night long rush of Fieldfares on November 24th, 1897 following a heavy snowfall in Scotland. No packing up, no trouble about houses, not even half an hour’s temper with Bradshaw; the same simple, sensible idea, “Let’s go where it’s warmer,” enters their ten thousand minds at the same instant, and with beautiful unanimity they start with a windy roar of wings.
DECEMBER In the poultry-yard contentment borne of high living reigns supreme. The turkeys have forgotten the fate that last Christmas brought upon their relatives; the shrieks of Michaelmas martyrs have mercifully passed out of the anserine mind. Cold it may be, but the lofty superiority of the turkey’s demeanour indicates consciousness that in double rations he is only receiving his deserts. Life is full of compensations. The field-mouse has taken up his winter quarters; sometimes he patronises a mole’s run, having made sure there are in it no moles who would give him a cordial welcome – for dinner. Even then it is not always a safe abode because the weasel is in the habit of seeking refuge there too.
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