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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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Seebohm's "Siberia in Europe" (S330: 1880)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review printed in the 4 December 1880 issue of The Academy. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S330.htm

[[p. 408]] Siberia in Europe: a Visit to the Valley of the Petchora in North-east Russia; with Descriptions of the Natural History, Migrations of Birds, &c. By Henry Seebohm, F.L.S., F.Z.S., F.R.G.S. With Map and Illustrations. (John Murray.)

     Few persons, beside ornithologists, are aware of the fact that a considerable number of our migratory birds breed only in the remotest parts of the Arctic regions. About twenty years ago an enthusiastic naturalist, Mr. John Wolley, spent the greater portion of several successive years in Lapland for the purpose of discovering the breeding grounds and obtaining the eggs of some of these birds. He was very successful, securing, among many others, the nest and eggs of the waxwing, a bird which is found abundantly in the winter season over all temperate Europe and Asia, but whose breeding-place had never before been discovered. Notwithstanding these and other researches in Northern Europe, extending even as far as Archangel on the shores of the White Sea, there remained six British birds whose eggs were quite unknown. These were the gray plover, the little stint, the sanderling, the curlew sandpiper, the knot, and Bewick's swan. It was in the hope of solving this ornithological problem as regards some of these species that Mr. Seebohm with his friend Mr. Harvie-Brown, in the spring and summer of 1875, visited the Petchora valley in the extreme north-east of Russia, a region to which, from its physical peculiarities, as well as from the presence of the Mongoloid Samoyedes, he gives the appropriate name of "Siberia in Europe." In his special search he was so far successful as to obtain eggs of three out of the above-named six birds, which he discovered breeding on the bare "tundra," near the mouth of the Petchora. He also added several birds to the list of those previously known as European, and made careful records of the date of arrival of the numerous species of migratory birds which breed in these Northern latitudes.

     One of the birds whose eggs were then obtained for the first time by any Englishman was the gray plover, a species which has an enormous range, passing our islands and most European countries during its spring and autumn migrations, which extend to such remote countries as South Africa, India, South China, the islands of the Malay Archipelago, and even Australia. In all these countries it is tolerably common, yet over this vast area it never breeds; so that we must conclude that as summer approaches every bird returns, or attempts to return, over the enormous distance of seven or eight thousand miles, to the barren shores of the Arctic Ocean in order to rear its progeny. The gray plover may be taken as a type of a large class of birds which have an extensive range over Europe and Asia, and sometimes over Africa and parts of America, but which all breed in the highest latitudes; and as each species appears to be continued to a portion only of the Arctic coast--the gray plover, for instance, not breeding anywhere west of the Petchora--we can understand that they will be here congregated in vast numbers. This explains Mr. Seebohm's statement, that "birds go to the Arctic regions to breed, not by thousands, but by millions." And he tells us that the cause of this migration is the search after food, which is there provided for them with lavish prodigality.

"Seed or fruit eating birds find an immediate and abundant supply of cranberries, crowberries, and other ground fruit, which have remained frozen during the long winter, and are accessible the moment the snow has melted; while insect-eating birds have only to open their mouths to fill them with mosquitoes."

     After his return from this journey, Mr. Seebohm visited Heligoland, the most celebrated station in the world for studying the migration of birds; and one of the most interesting chapters of the book is devoted to an account of his visit. This little island is hardly a hundred acres in extent--an isolated, triangular rock of red sandstone, with perpendicular cliffs two or three hundred feet in height all round it. It is mostly cultivated, and its resident birds are hardly more than a dozen species; but in spring and autumn migrating birds make it a resting-place, and these are watched for, and shot or trapped, by almost the whole population, and the results have been carefully chronicled for the last twenty-five years by Mr. Gätke, an experienced resident ornithologist. The amazing result is, that as many species of birds have been obtained in this minute islet as in any country in Europe; while the vast number of the migrating flocks is shown by the fact that 15,000 larks have sometimes been caught in one night. Many most interesting facts have been ascertained by the systematic observations at Heligoland. In spring, during the first week, the flocks of migrating birds consist principally of adult males; during the second week, principally of adult females; while during the last week they are mostly crippled or defective birds. The autumn migration, on the other hand, begins with stragglers in various stages of plumage, believed to be those who have not found mates or whose nests have been destroyed when it was too late to build others. Then, when the period of migration sets in in earnest, young birds alone appear who have never migrated before, and these are followed by the old birds. This astounding fact was long doubted; but the evidence for it is now admitted to be conclusive, and more than anything else it has led to the belief in a migratory instinct determining not only the time but the direction of the flight. Mr. Seebohm, however, does not believe this. He maintains that the desire to migrate is an hereditary impulse, but that the direction in which to migrate has to be learnt afresh by each young bird, and that a large proportion of them actually go wrong. Birds migrate chiefly by night, and it is believed that in fine weather they fly very high, far beyond our sight, while in cloudy weather they are obliged to come lower in order to obtain a view of the surface of the earth, and these are the "migration nights" of the Heligolanders. Mr. Seebohm thus describes the scene at the lighthouse on such an occasion:

"Arrived at the lighthouse, an intensely interesting sight presented itself. The whole of the zone of light within range of the mirrors was alive with birds coming and going. Nothing else was visible in the darkness of the night but the lantern of the lighthouse vignetted in a drifting sea of birds. From the darkness in the east, clouds of birds were continually emerging in an uninterrupted stream; a few swerved from their course, fluttered for a moment as if dazzled by the light, and then gradually vanished with the rest in the western gloom. I should be afraid to hazard a guess as to the hundreds of thousands of birds that must have passed in a couple of hours, but the stray birds which the [[p. 409]] lighthouse man succeeded in securing amounted to nearly three hundred. The scene from the balcony of the lighthouse was equally interesting; in every direction birds were flying like a swarm of bees, and every few seconds one flew against the glass. All the birds seemed to be flying up wind, and it was only on the lee-side of the light that any birds were caught. They were nearly all skylarks."

     This book is chiefly written for naturalists, and especially for ornithologists, who will find in it much valuable information on the habits and migration of birds; but it also contains some interesting accounts of life and travel in the very ultima Thule of Europe, some important observations on the snow-fall and the climate of the Arctic lands, and on the habits of the nomad Samoyedes, who are allied to the Finns of Europe and the Esquimaux of Greenland. The following is a curious illustration of the effects of living in perpetual daylight:--

"I had been out some hours when I met my companion, and hailed him with 'Good morning.' He answered with 'Good evening.' We both agreed the hour was seven, but we differed as to its being a.m. or p.m. I was convinced it was the morning of the morrow, whereas Brown was persuaded it was yester-evening. A never-setting sun plays strange pranks with one's reckoning of time."

     The volume is beautifully got up, with a number of excellent wood-cuts of scenery, incidents of travel, rare birds, &c.; while a number of old Russian silver crosses make very pretty tail-pieces to most of the chapters, and may interest the archaeologist. There are also coloured plates of the new birds' eggs. Although there is nothing either very exciting or very new in the book, it is pleasantly written, and it affords a good example of how a genuine enthusiasm for nature and the desire to search out her hidden secrets leads to the exploration of what would be to most men the least inviting and least interesting parts of the habitable globe.

Alfred R. Wallace.

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