The Natural History of Selborne

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Author: Gilbert White

Letter XI to Thomas Pennant, Esquire

Selborne, September 9, 1767.

It will not be without impatience, that I shall wait for your thoughts with regard to the falco; as to its weight, breadth, etc., I wish I had set them down at the time; but, to the best of my remembrance, it weighed two pounds and eight ounces, and measured, from wing to wing, thirty-eight inches. Its cere and feet were yellow, and the circle of its eyelids bright yellow. As it had been killed some days, and the eyes were sunk, I could make no good observation on the colour of the pupils and the irides.

The most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts were a pair of hoopoes (upupa) which came several years ago in the summer, and frequented an ornamented piece of ground, which joins to my garden, for some weeks. They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet; but were frightened and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them be at rest.

Three gross-beaks (loxia coccothraustes) appeared some years ago in my fields, in the winter; one of which I shot: since that, now and then one is occasionally seen in the same dead season.

A cross-bill (loxia curvirostra) was killed last year in this neighbourhood.

Our streams, which are small, and rise only at the end of the village, yield nothing but the bull’s head or miller’s thumb (gobius fluviatilis capitatus), the trout (trutta fluviatilis), the eel (anguilla), the lampern (lampaetra parka et fluviatilis), and the stickle-back (pisciculus aculeatus).

We are twenty miles from the sea, and almost as many from a great river, and therefore see but little of sea-birds. As to wild fowls, we have a few teams of ducks bred in the moors where the snipes breed; and multitudes of widgeons and teals in hard weather frequent our lakes in the forest.

Having some acquaintance with a tame brown owl, I find that it casts up the fur of mice, and the feathers of birds in pellets, after the manner of hawks: when full, like a dog, it hides what it cannot eat.

The young of the barn-owl are not easily raised, as they want a constant supply of fresh mice: whereas the young of the brown owl will eat indiscriminately all that is brought; snails, rats, kittens, puppies, magpies, and any kind of carrion or offal.

The house-martins have eggs still, and squab-young. The last swift I observed was about the twenty-first of August; it was a straggler.

Red-starts, fly-catchers, white-throats, and reguli non cristati, still appear; but I have seen no black-caps lately.

I forgot to mention that I once saw, in Christ Church College quadrangle in Oxford, on a very sunny warm morning, a housemartin flying about, and settling on the parapet, so late as the twentieth of November.

At present I know only two species of bats, the common vespertilio murinus and the vespertilio auritus.

I was much entertained last summer with a tame bat, which would take flies out of a person’s hand. If you gave it anything to eat, it brought its wings round before the mouth, hovering and hiding its head in the manner of birds of prey when they feed. The adroitness it showed in shearing off the wings of the flies, which were always rejected, was worthy of observation, and pleased me much. Insects seem to be most acceptable, though it did not refuse raw flesh when offered: so that the notion that bats go down chimnies and gnaw men’s bacon, seems no improbable story. While I amused myself with this wonderful quadruped, I saw it several times confute the vulgar opinion, that bats when down on a flat surface cannot get on the wing again, by rising with great ease from the floor. It ran, I observed, with more dispatch than I was aware of; but in a most ridiculous and grotesque manner.

Bats drink on the wing, like swallows, by sipping the surface, as they play over pools and streams. They love to frequent waters, not only for the sake of drinking, but on account of insects, which are found over them in the greatest plenty. As I was going, some years ago, pretty late, in a boat from Richmond to Sunbury, on a warm summer’s evening, I think I saw myriads of bats between the two places: the air swarmed with them all along the Thames, so that hundreds were in sight at a time.

I am, etc.

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Chicago: Gilbert White, "Letter XI to Thomas Pennant, Esquire," 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 July 17, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GNEAIB79L38SGF.

MLA: White, Gilbert. "Letter XI to Thomas Pennant, Esquire." 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. 17 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GNEAIB79L38SGF.

Harvard: White, G, 'Letter XI to Thomas Pennant, Esquire' in The Natural History of Selborne, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Natural History of Selborne. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GNEAIB79L38SGF.