The Natural History of Selborne

Author: Gilbert White

Letter VII to the Honourable Daines Barrington

Ringmer, near Lewes, Oct. 8, 1770.

Dear Sir,

I am glad to hear that Kuckalm is to furnish you with the birds of Jamaica; a sight of the hirundines of that hot and distant island would be great entertainment to me.

The Anni of Scopoli are now in my possession; and I have read the Annus Primus with satisfaction: for though some parts of this work are exceptionable, and he may advance some mistaken observations; yet the ornithology of so distant a country as Carniola is very curious. Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.

The reason perhaps why he mentions nothing of Ray’s Ornithology may be the extreme poverty and distance of his country, into which the works of our great naturalist may have never yet found their way. You have doubts, I know, whether this Ornithology is genuine, and really the work of Scopoli: as to myself, I think I discover strong tokens of authenticity; the style corresponds with that of his Entomology: and his characters of his Ordines and Genera are many of them new, expressive, and masterly. He has ventured to alter some of the Linnaean genera with sufficient show of reason.

It might perhaps be mere accident that you saw so many swifts and no swallows at Staines; because, in my long observations of those birds, I never could discover the least degree of rivalry or hostility between the species.

Ray remarks that birds of the gallinae order, as cocks and hens, partridges, and pheasants, etc., are pulveratrices, such as dust themselves, using that method of cleansing their feathers, and ridding themselves of their vermin. As far as I can observe, many birds that dust themselves never wash: and I once thought that those birds that wash themselves would never dust; but here I find myself mistaken; for common house-sparrows are great pulveratrices, being frequency seen grovelling and wallowing in dusty roads; and yet they are great washers. Does not the skylark dust?

Query.—Might not Mahomet and his followers take one method of purification from these pulveratrices? because I find from travellers of credit, that if a strict Mussulman is journeying in a sandy desert where no water is to be found, at stated hours he strips off his clothes, and most scrupulously rubs his body over with sand or dust.

A countryman told me he had found a young fern-owl in the nest of a small bird on the ground; and that it was fed by the little bird. I went to see this extraordinary phenomenon, and found that it was a young cuckoo hatched in the nest of a titlark; it was become vastly too big for its nest, appearing

... in tenui re Majores pennas nido extendisse ...

and was very fierce and pugnacious, pursuing my finger, as I teased it, for many feet from the nest, and sparring and buffeting with its wings like a game-cock. The dupe of a dam appeared at a distance, hovering about with meat in its mouth, and expressing the greatest solicitude.

In July I saw several cuckoos skimming over a large pond; and found, after some observation, that they were feeding on the libellulae, or dragon-flies; some of which they caught as they settled on the weeds, and some as they were on the wing. Notwithstanding what Linnaeus says, I cannot be induced to believe that they are birds of prey.

This district affords some birds that are hardly ever heard of at Selborne. In the first place considerable flocks of cross-beaks (loxiae curvirostrae) have appeared this summer in the pine-groves belonging to this house; the water-ousel is said to haunt the mouth of the Lewes river, near Newhaven; and the Cornish chough builds, I know, all along the chalky cliffs of the Sussex shore.

I was greatly pleased to see little parties of ring-ousels (my newlydiscovered migrators) scattered, at intervals, all along the Sussexdowns from Chichester to Lewes. Let them come from whence they will, it looks very auspicious that they are cantoned along the coast in order to pass the channel when severe weather advances. They visit us again in April, as it should seem, in their return; and are not to be found in the dead of winter. It is remarkable that they are very tame, and seem to have no manner of apprehensions of danger from a person with a gun. There are bustards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone. No doubt you are acquainted with the Sussex-downs: the prospects and rides round Lewes are most lovely!

As I rode along near the coast I kept a very sharp lookout in the lanes and woods, hoping I might, at this time of the year, have discovered some of the summer short-winged birds of passage crowding towards the coast in order for their departure: but it was very extraordinary that I never saw a red-start, white-throat, blackcap, uncrested wren, fly-catcher, etc. And I remember to have made the same remark in former years, as I usually come to this place annually about this time. The birds most common along the coast at present are the stone-chatters, whin-chats, buntings, linnets, some few wheatears, titlarks, etc. Swallows and housemartins abound yet, induced to prolong their stay by this soft, still, dry season.

A land-tortoise, which has been kept for thirty years in a little walled court belonging to the house where I now am visiting, retires under ground about the middle of November, and comes forth again about the middle of April. When it first appears in the spring it discovers very little inclination towards food; but in the height of summer grows voracious: and then as the summer declines its appetite declines; so that for the last six weeks in autumn it hardly eats at all. Milky plants, such as lettuces, dandelions, sow-thistles, are its favourite dish. In a neighbouring village one was kept till by tradition it was supposed to be an hundred years old. An instance of vast longevity in such a poor reptile!


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Chicago: Gilbert White, "Letter VII 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 June 2, 2023,

MLA: White, Gilbert. "Letter VII 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. 2 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: White, G, 'Letter VII to the Honourable Daines Barrington' in The Natural History of Selborne, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Natural History of Selborne. Original Sources, retrieved 2 June 2023, from