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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Our Native Birds (S517: 1895)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review of W. H. Hudson's British Birds printed in the 14 September 1895 issue of The Saturday Review. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S517.htm

     [[p. 342]] Notwithstanding the rapid growth of our great cities and the numerous attractions of city life, the love of Nature and an intelligent interest in living things seem to be on the increase among us. This is evidenced, not only by the number of general works on natural history which are continually appearing and which all meet with a ready sale, but more especially by the constant appearance of new popular works dealing with some one limited department of Nature. The groups which are the most attractive and which receive most attention are the flowers, the birds, and the insects of our own country; and for the students of these an ever increasing library of information is provided, among which the latest, and one of the most inviting, is the dainty volume on "British Birds," by Mr. Hudson, whose "Naturalist in La Plata" gained for him the reputation of being one of the most careful observers and most enthusiastic students of living things.

     Familiar as we are with birds from our earliest childhood, the marvel and mystery of their whole structure and organization is to most of us unnoticed and unthought of. The failure of all the attempts hitherto made to produce a flying-machine gives us some faint idea of how difficult was the problem which Nature has solved with such apparent ease in the structure of the bird; and the more closely we study the machinery by which the flight of birds is effected, the more convinced we shall be that, though so perfect in its results, it is wholly beyond our powers to produce similar results by imitating the methods and the machinery of the bird's wing. Let any one take a quill-feather from the wing of a fowl, a duck, or any other bird, and consider its combination of strength, lightness, elasticity, smoothness, and impermeability to air. Then let him endeavour to find out how this combination of qualities is produced, examining with the microscope the details of the web and of the various parts of which it is composed, so fragile and weak individually yet so closely combined by means of delicate teeth and hooks, as to form a compact texture perfectly adapted to its special use, and he will be convinced that we have here one of the most marvellous of all the marvellous products of Nature, and one which it is hopeless to attempt to imitate. No less beautiful and inimitable is the arrangement of the separate feathers in the wing, so delicately adjusted as to form an impermeable concave and highly elastic surface during the down stroke, but yet automatically opening during the upward movement so as to allow the air to pass freely between the feathers; while the wing itself is capable of motion in varying directions, and when not in use at once folds up into the smallest space and serves as a protection to some of the most vital parts of the organism.

     A brief account of these beautiful structures is given in the excellent chapter on "The Anatomy of a Bird," contributed to Mr. Hudson's volume by Mr. F. E. Beddard, together with other matters of hardly less interest; while the main body of the work consists of clear and intelligible descriptions of every species of bird which is either a resident in or an annual visitor to the British Isles. A compact and brightly written account of the habits, nest, eggs, food, song, and distribution of each bird is also given, together with a shorter account of those species which visit our country at irregular intervals, and which cannot therefore be considered as really British birds in the same sense as those in the first category. Mr. Hudson considers that only 210 species should really be considered British, about sixty more being occasional but frequent visitors; while there are at least a hundred more which are often included in the British list, but which are really only accidental stragglers appearing at irregular and often very distant intervals, and are in no sense truly British.

     The following description of the habits of the Stonechat is a fair example of Mr. Hudson's style and of the kind of information he gives his readers.

     "In his colouring and appearance, and to some extent in habits, the small stonechat is unlike any other bird. His strongly contrasted tints--black and white, and brown and chestnut-red--make him as conspicuous as the goldfinch or yellowhammer, and thus produce much the same effect as brilliancy of colour. The effect is increased by the custom the bird has of always perching on the topmost spray of a furze-bush on the open commons which it inhabits. Perched thus conspicuously on the summit, he sits erect and motionless, a small feathered harlequin, or like a painted image of a bird. But his disposition is a restless one; in a few moments he drops to the ground to pick up some small insect he has spied, or else dashes into the air after a passing fly or gnat, and then returns to his stand, or flits to another bush some yards away, where he reappears on its top, sitting erect and motionless as before. He is always anxious in the presence of a human being, flying restlessly from bush to bush, incessantly uttering his low complaining note, which has a sound like that produced by striking two pebbles together, hence his name of stonechat. But it is a somewhat misleading name. He is not, like the wheatear, an inhabitant of barren stony places, but is seen chiefly on commons abounding in furze-bushes and thorns and brambles. He is seen in pairs, but is nowhere a numerous species, although found in most suitable localities throughout the three kingdoms. He is also to be met with throughout the year, but is much rarer in winter than in summer, and probably a great many individuals leave the country in autumn, while others seek more sheltered situations to winter in, or have a partial migration. The stonechat has a slight, but sweet and very pleasing song, uttered both when perched and when hovering in the air. Towards the end of March the nest is made, and is placed on or close to the ground, under a thick furze-bush; it is large, and carelessly made of dry grass, moss, heath, and fibrous roots, lined with fine grass, horse-hair, feathers, and sometimes with wool. Five or six eggs are laid, pale green or greenish blue in colour, and speckled at the large end with dull reddish brown. When the nest is approached the birds display the keenest distress."

     Thus pleasantly does Mr. Hudson discourse in turn of all our native birds, dwelling especially on such peculiarities of habit and actions as will assist the beginner in determining the species of any bird he may observe during his walks without having the opportunity of examining it closely. The book is beautifully illustrated, with more than a hundred life-like figures in the text, and eight plates of groups of birds, from the skilful pencil of Mr. G. E. Lodge. There are also eight coloured plates by Mr. A. Thorburn, which are delightful works of art as well as most exquisite examples of chromolithography, those of the bearded tit and the roseate tern being especially delicate and beautiful. In connection with the figures in the text we are sorry to note an important deficiency. They all purport to be drawn to scale, being marked, 1/3, 1/4, 1/7, or 1/10 natural size, as the case may be. This is highly to be commended as a most excellent though too much neglected practice; yet its utility is here greatly diminished by irregularity in the proportions of the figures of birds of nearly the same real size, and in the further circumstance that in many cases the proportions stated do not agree with the dimensions given in the text. For example, the stonechat and the redstart are figured on opposite pages: they are both stated to be five and a quarter inches long; but the former is reduced to one-fourth and the latter to one-third of the natural size, so that the one appears to be much larger than the other. This occurs in many other cases, so that no ready comparison can be made between the figures of different species as regards their size. [As these drawings are all reproduced by a photographic process it would not have been very difficult to bring them all to some few definite proportions--1/3 for the great bulk of our smaller birds, 1/5 for those somewhat larger, and 1/7, 1/10, or 1/12 for the largest, always keeping to the same scale for closely allied species. Perhaps a more serious defect is the want of correspondence between the dimensions indicated by the drawings and those given in the text. Thus, the red-backed shrike is said to be seven inches in length, the spotted flycatcher only five and a half inches. Both are figured on the same scale, yet the flycatcher, allowing for difference of attitude, looks quite as large as the shrike. So the swallow is said to be seven and a half [[p. 343]] inches long, while the figure, on a 1/4 scale, shows it to be full nine inches.

     These, however, are but small defects in a work of such high excellence in all other respects. The difficulties an author has to overcome in obtaining illustrations exactly to his taste, amid the conflicting ideas and occasional misconceptions of artists, photographers, printers, and publishers, are often insuperable; and Mr. Hudson must be congratulated on having produced so compact and beautifully illustrated a volume on British birds, which will deservedly rank as among the best of the smaller works on this fascinating branch of natural history.

Alfred R. Wallace.

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