The Natural History of Selborne

Author: Gilbert White

Letter X to the Honourable Daines Barrington

Selborne, Aug. 1, 1771.

Dear Sir,

From what follows, it will appear that neither owls nor cuckoos keep to one note. A friend remarks that many (most) of his owls hoot in B flat: but that one went almost half a note below A. The pipe he tried their notes by was a common half-crown pitch-pipe, such as masters use for tuning of harpsichords; it was the common London pitch.

A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys, in G flat, or F sharp, in B flat and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat, and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals? The same person finds upon trial that the note of the cuckoo (of which we have but one species) varies in different individuals; for, about Selborne wood, he found they were mostly in D: he heard two sing together, the one in D, the other in D sharp, who made a disagreeable concert: he afterwards heard one in D sharp, and about Wolmer-forest some in C. As to nightingales, he says that their notes are so short, and their transitions so rapid, that he cannot well ascertain their key. Perhaps in a cage, and in a room, their notes may be more distinguishable. This person has tried to settle the notes of a swift, and of several other small birds, but cannot bring them to any criterion.

As I have often remarked that redwings are some of the first birds that suffer with us in severe weather, it is no wonder at all they retreat from Scandinavian winters: and much more the ordo of grallae, who, all to a bird, forsake the northern parts of Europe at the approach of winter. ’Grallae tanquam conjugatae unanimiter in fugam se conjiciunt; ne earum unicam quidem inter nos habitantem invenire possimus; ut enim aestate in australibus degere nequeunt ob defectum lumbricorum, terramque siccam; ita nec in frigidis ob eandem causam,’ says Eckmarck the Swede, in his ingenious little treatise called Migrationes Avium, which by all means you ought to read while your thoughts run on the subject of migration. See Amoenitates Academicae, vol. iv, p. 565.

Birds may be so circumstanced as to be obliged to migrate in one country and not in another: but the grallae (which procure their food from marshes and boggy grounds) must in winter forsake the more northerly parts of Europe, or perish for want of food.

I am glad you are making inquiries from Linnaeus concerning the woodcock: it is expected of him that he should be able to account for the motions and manner of life of the animals of his own Fauna.

Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms: the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man’s study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.

Foreign systematics are, I observe, much too vague in their specific differences; which are almost universally constituted by one or two particular marks, the rest of the description running in general terms. But our countryman, the excellent Mr. Ray, is the only describer that conveys some precise idea in every term or word, maintaining his superiority over his followers and imitators in spite of the advantage of fresh discoveries and modern information.

At this distance of years it is not in my power to recollect at what periods woodcocks used to be sluggish or alert when I was a sportsman; but, upon my mentioning this circumstance to a friend, he thinks he has observed them to be remarkably listless against snowy foul weather: if this should be the case, then the inaptitude for flying arises only from an eagerness for food; as sheep are observed to be very intent on grazing against stormy wet evenings.

I am, etc., etc.


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Chicago: Gilbert White, "Letter X 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 March 25, 2023,

MLA: White, Gilbert. "Letter X 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. 25 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: White, G, 'Letter X to the Honourable Daines Barrington' in The Natural History of Selborne, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Natural History of Selborne. Original Sources, retrieved 25 March 2023, from