The Natural History of Selborne

Author: Gilbert White

Letter XXXIX to Thomas Pennant, Esquire

Selborne, Nov. 9, 1773.

Dear Sir,

As you desire me to send you such observations as may occur, I take the liberty of making the following remarks, that you may, according as you think me right or wrong, admit or reject what I here advance, in your intended new edition of the British Zoology.

The osprey was shot about a year ago at Frinshampond, a great lake, at about six miles from hence, while it was sitting on the handle of a plough and devouring a fish: it used to precipitate itself into the water, and so take its prey by surprise.

A great ash-coloured butcher-bird was shot last winter in Tistedpark, and a red-backed butcher-bird at Selborne: they are rarae aves in this country.

Crows go in pairs the whole year round.

Cornish choughs abound, and breed on Beachy-head and on all the cliffs of the Sussex coast.

The common wild-pigeon, or stock-dove, is a bird of passage in the south of England, seldom appearing till towards the end of November; is usually the latest winter bird of passage. Before our beechen woods were so much destroyed we had myriads of them, reaching in strings for a mile together as they went out in a morning to feed. They leave us early in spring; where do they breed?

The people of Hampshire and Sussex call the missel-bird the storm-cock, because it sings early in the spring in blowing showery weather; its song often commences with the year: with us it builds much in orchards.

A gentleman assures me that he has taken the nests of ring-ousels on Dartmoor: they build in banks on the sides of streams.

Titlarks not only sing sweetly as they sit on trees, but also as they play and toy about on the wing; and particularly while they are descending, and sometimes as they stand on the ground.

Adamson’s testimony seems to me to be a very poor evidence that European swallows migrate during our winter to Senegal: he does not talk at all like an ornithologist; and probably saw only the swallows of that country, which I know build within Governor O’Hara’s hall against the roof. Had he known European swallows, would he not have mentioned the species ?

The house-swallow washes by dropping into the water as it flies: this species appears commonly about a week before the housemartin, and about ten or twelve days before the swift.

In 1772 there were young house-martins in their nest till October the twenty-third.

The swift appears about ten or twelve days later than the houseswallow: viz., about the twenty-fourth or twenty-sixth of April.

Whin-chats and stone-chattel stay with us the whole year.

Some wheat-ears continue with us the winter through.

Wagtails, all sorts, remain with us all the winter.

Bullfinches, when fed on hempseed, often become wholly black.

We have vast flocks of female chaffinches all the winter, with hardly any males among them.

When you say that in breeding-time the cock-snipes make a bleating noise, and I a drumming (perhaps I should have rather said an humming), I suspect we mean the same doing. However, while they are playing about on the wing they certainly make a loud piping with their mouths: but whether that bleating or humming is ventriloquous, or proceeds from the motion of their wings, I cannot say; but this I know, that when this noise happens the bird is always descending, and his wings are violently agitated.

Soon after the lapwings have done breeding they congregate, and, leaving the moors and marshes, betake themselves to downs and sheep-walks.

Two years ago last spring the little auk was found alive and unhurt, but fluttering and unable to rise, in a lane a few miles from Alresford, where there is a great lake: it was kept a while, but died.

I saw young teals taken alive in the ponds of Wolmerforest in the beginning of July last, along with flappers, or young wild-ducks.

Speaking of the swift, chat page says ’its drink the dew’; whereas it should be ’it drinks on the wing’; for all the swallow kind sip their water as they sweep over the face of pools or rivers: like Virgil’s bees, they drink flying, ’flumina summa libant.’ In this method of drinking perhaps this genus may be peculiar.

Of the sedge-bird be pleased to say it sings most part of the night; its notes are hurrying, but not unpleasing, and imitative of several birds; as the sparrow, swallow, skylark. When it happens to be silent in the night, by throwing a stone or clod into the bushes where it sits you immediately set it a-singing; or in other words, though it slumbers sometimes, yet as soon as it is awakened it reassumes its song.


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Chicago: Gilbert White, "Letter XXXIX 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 January 27, 2023,

MLA: White, Gilbert. "Letter XXXIX 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. 27 Jan. 2023.

Harvard: White, G, 'Letter XXXIX to Thomas Pennant, Esquire' in The Natural History of Selborne, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Natural History of Selborne. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from