The Natural History of Selborne

Author: Gilbert White

Letter XLII to the Honourable Daines Barrington

Omnibus animalibus reliquis certus et uniusmodi, et in suo cuique genere incessus est: aves solae vario meatu feruntur, et in terra, et in aere. -PLIN. Hist. Nat. lib. x. cap. 38.

Selborne, Aug. 7, 1778.

Dear Sir,

A good ornithologist should be able to distinguish birds by their air as well as by their colours and shape; on the ground as well as on the wing, and in the bush as well as in the hand. For, though it must not be said that every species of birds has a manner peculiar to itself, yet there is somewhat in most genera at least, that at first sight discriminates them, and enables a judicious observer to pronounce upon them with some certainty. Put a bird in moron

... Et Vera incessu patuit....

Thus kites and buzzards sail round in circles with wings expanded and motionless; and it is from their gliding manner that the former are still called in the north of England gleads, from the Saxon verb glidan to glide. The kestrel, or wind-hover, has a peculiar mode of hanging in the air in one place, his wings all the while being briskly agitated. Hen-harriers fly low over heaths or fields of corn, and beat the ground regularly like a pointer or setting-dog. Owls move in a buoyant manner, as if lighter than the air; they seem to want ballast. There is a peculiarity belonging to ravens that must draw the attention even of the most incurious — they spend all their leisure time in striking and cuffing each other on the wing in a kind of playful skirmish; and, when they move from one place to another, frequently turn on their backs with a loud croak, and seem to be falling to the ground. When this odd gesture betides them, they are scratching themselves with one foot, and thus lose the centre of gravity. Rooks sometimes dive and tumble in a frolicsome manner; crows and daws swagger in their walk; woodpeckers fly volatu undoso, opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising or falling in curves. All of this genus use their tails, which incline downward, as a support while they run up trees. Parrots, like all other hook-clawed birds, walk awkwardly, and make use of their bill as a third foot, climbing and ascending with ridiculous caution. All the gallinae parade and walk gracefully, and run nimbly; but fly with difficulty, with an impetuous whirring, and in a straight line. Magpies and jays flutter with powerless wings, and make no dispatch; herons seem incumbered with too much sail for their light bodies; but these vast hollow wings are necessary in carrying burdens, such as large fishes, and the like; pigeons, and particularly the sort called smiters, have a way of clashing their wings the one against the other over their backs with a loud snap; another variety called tumblers turn themselves over in the air. Some birds have movements peculiar to the season of love: thus ring-doves, though strong and rapid at other times, yet in the spring hang about on the wing in a toying and playful manner; thus the cock-snipe, while breeding, forgetting his former flight, fans the air like the windhover; and the green-finch in particular exhibits such languishing and faltering gestures as to appear like a wounded and dying bird; the king-fisher darts along like an arrow; fern-owls, or goatsuckers, glance in the dusk over the tops of trees like a meteor; starlings as it were swim along, while missal-thrushes use a wild and desultory flight; swallows sweep over the surface of the ground and water, and distinguish themselves by rapid turns and quick evolutions; swifts dash round in circles; and the bank-martin moves with frequent vacillations like a butterfly. Most of the small birds fly by jerks, rising and falling as they advance. Most small birds hop; but wagtails and larks walk, moving their legs alternately. Skylarks rise and fall perpendicularly as they sing: woodlarks hang poised in the air; and titlarks rise and fall in large cubes, singing in their descent. The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes. All the duckkind waddle; divers and auks walk as if fettered, and stand erect on their tails: these are the compedes of Linnaeus. Geese and cranes, and most wild-fowls, move in figured flights, often changing their position. The secondary rerniges of tringae, wild-ducks, and some others, are very long, and give their wings, when in motion, an hooked appearance. Dab-chicks, moor-hens, and coots, fly erect, with their legs hanging down, and hardly make any dispatch; the reason is plain, their wings are placed too forward out of the true centre of gravity; as the legs of auks and divers are situated too backward.


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Chicago: Gilbert White, "Letter XLII to the Honourable Daines Barrington," The Natural History of Selborne, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Natural History of Selborne Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2018,

MLA: White, Gilbert. "Letter XLII to the Honourable Daines Barrington." The Natural History of Selborne, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Natural History of Selborne, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: White, G, 'Letter XLII to the Honourable Daines Barrington' in The Natural History of Selborne, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Natural History of Selborne. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2018, from