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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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Dresser's "Birds of Europe" (S249: 1875)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A review of Parts 35 and 36 of Herbert E. Dresser's A History of the Birds of Europe, Including All the Species Inhabiting the Western Palæarctic Region, printed in the Nature issue of 22 April 1875. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S249.htm

    [[p. 485]] The issue of Parts 35 and 36, completing the third volume, affords us the occasion of again noticing the progress of this beautiful and important work.

    The energy with which the author has laboured to ensure punctuality in the issue is beyond all praise; and now that about half the work is completed, and we find that the last twelve parts, with figures of nearly 120 species of birds, have appeared within the year, subscribers have every assurance that they will, in due course, possess a finished work.

    And this punctuality of issue is not effected by any haste or carelessness of workmanship either in the plates or the letterpress. In the last double number we find some pictures which are triumphs of artistic skill. Such in particular is the figure of the Night-jar (Caprimulgus europæus), in which the downy softness of the plumage, the exquisite mottling of the feathers, the roundness and repose of the whole bird, the half-closed sleepy eye, and the well-contrasted background, are exquisitely rendered. The Wryneck (Yunx torquilla) is almost equally good, and the tail of this bird in particular is rendered with a delicacy and skill which cannot be surpassed. Another charming picture is that of the Smew (Merges albellus), surrounded by half a dozen young, whose various attitudes and the grouping of the whole, with the quiet river scene, are in admirable taste. The two Sand-martins (Cotyle riparia) perched on bending reeds form another beautiful bit of nature. An important feature of this work is the care taken to figure the birds in all their different states of plumage, and more especially that of the young or nestling birds. In this part we have four species in which the young are figured--the Black-winged Kite, the Pied Flycatcher, the Dottrell, and the Smew--and in every case the plumage of these infants is remarkably different from that of their parents. The introduction of these young birds adds greatly to the variety and interest of the plates as mere pictures; but they also have a high scientific value, since they are with good reason believed to indicate what was probably the plumage of the ancestral form of the group to which they belong. From this point of view, the young are really very old birds indeed, and may, when thoroughly studied, enable future ornithologists not only to reconstruct the forms, but also to reproduce the colouring of the birds of past ages. They thus, to some extent, make up for the deficiency of fossil remains of birds; and this work, when completed and the plates arranged in systematic order, will be invaluable to the philosophic naturalist.

    It is difficult to choose an extract which will give any adequate idea of the valuable scientific matter to be found in the letterpress. The following passage (somewhat condensed), taken from the account of the Night-jar, touches on a difficult question which the observations of some of the readers of Nature may help to clear up:--

    "The Night-jar feeds on moths, beetles, and insects of various kinds, most frequently capturing its prey on the wing, its capacious gape forming an excellent moth or [[p. 486]] beetle trap. That it eats caterpillars is also certain: but it feeds more especially on the larger insects, such as may-bugs, dung-beetles, large night-flying moths, especially the Sphinx Moth, and various species of nocturnal insects. It is a very greedy feeder, and in the autumn is often very fat. The indigestible portions of the insects it devours (which it swallows entire) it throws up in long pellets, which may frequently be found in the places where it reposes during the day. As it feeds more especially on those insects which are to be met with amongst the dung in places where cattle have been feeding, or where they are stalled, the Night-jar is often to be met with in these pastures or in the immediate vicinity of outlying folds; and hence the popular delusion that it sucks the goats hanging on to their udders; and from this belief has arisen the common appellation of Goat-sucker.

    "This species has the claw of the middle toe furnished on the side with pectinations forming a sort of close-toothed comb; and the use made of this peculiar appendage has puzzled naturalists not a little. Some observers contend that it is used to clean the bristles at the base of the bill from the fragments of wings of insects which may adhere to them; but this cannot well be the case, as these vibrissæ or bristles are large, strong, and placed at some distance apart, whereas the teeth of the claw are thin and very close. Others think that as the bird invariably perches along a branch in a direction parallel with it, and never across the bough like almost all other birds, this pectinated claw may assist it in keeping its perch more firmly than it otherwise would do. Other naturalists, again, contend that it is used to hold large insects with greater security; but it appears that the Night-jar almost invariably takes its prey with the mouth and not with the foot; and consequently this supposition falls to the ground. An anonymous writer suggests that the comb-like structure of the claw may be used for disengaging the hooked feet of beetles from the bill, to enable the bird to swallow them; and this may possibly be the case, as the serrations are well calculated to catch the polished limbs of beetles. Anyone who has attempted to confine Dytisci or Scarabæi in a collecting-box, must be aware of the difficulty in getting their feet free from the edge, to which they hold with the greatest pertinacity, one foot being no sooner pushed in than another is protruded."

    This last explanation seems the most probable one; and it agrees with the observation of Gilbert White (of Selborne), who states that he has distinctly seen the Night-jar raise its foot to its mouth while hawking for insects on the wing.

    The passage above quoted is a portion of seven quarto pages devoted to an account of the habits and distribution of the Night-jar. A work like the present, so beautifully and artistically illustrated, and of which only a limited number of copies is printed, is sure to become scarce and to rise considerably in value. Lovers of nature and of art may therefore be reminded, that in becoming subscribers they are not only obtaining a valuable and most interesting book, but are at the same time making a profitable investment.

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