edited by Miss Mary L. Armitt
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 48-53
NATURE NOTES FOR JANUARY.
If the first month of the year is without flowers, it is rich in fruits, and richly-coloured fruits, that are more persistent than the quickly-passing flowers. The wild roses last but a day or two at most, but their resultant hips endure for months. There is one bush, close to my garden gate, from which, in September, may be gathered ripe red fruit, and which is still a brilliant bit of colour in January. Last year, as late as April, there were hips to be gathered, they were somewhat shriveled, and the achenes inside were surprisingly hairy, the hairs having developed as the succulence disappeared. The haws, too, last long; they are dully red when the leaves fall in October, or early November, and there are trees still bearing fruit sometimes as late as May. So long would they all last did not the birds like them; they take the hips before the haws, though they often leave them till the frost has cracked them. The haws get left till the snowy weather, when the fieldfares come in large parties and strip the trees in a wholesale fashion: they waste as much as they take, for after one of their meals, the ground beneath the tree is strewn with dripped or rejected berries. The hips are surely most beautiful when they carry the calyx leaves, as all do not, the two outer ones with their leafy appendages, the two inner ones entirely without them, while the intermediate one has them along one edge only, the other edge, which has been covered in bud, is smooth and undivided.
Hips and haws are both fruits according to modern definitions of that word, being the whole mass of parts, whatever those may be, that develop and grow after the fertilization of the ovules and the withering of the flower. Yet, according to the old botanical definition of the fruit, as the mature and perfect pistil, they neither of them are so; in that restricted sense, the achenes enclosed within the hip are the fruits of the rose, and the hard nuts embedded in the haws are the fruits of the white thorn. The structure of hips is easier to make out than that of the haws. They are hollow succulent bags, with many bony achenes attached to the inner surface. In the rose flower, the hard green swelling under the calyx is the part that becomes the hip, the styles emerge from its centre, and if one splits it through, they are found to be much longer than at first appears; they proceed from carpels deep down in the thick bulb-like base of the flower which contracts to a narrow neck above, through which they pass to form the central group of the flower members. The ripe hip is this hollow base of the flower turned red and fleshy and the carpels have become the bony achenes. The many fruits of the same family are built up very much in the same way; the haw, the apple, the pear, wild service, the rowan, the medlar, and the cotoneaster, have, all of them, the carpels more or less sunk into the enlarged flower base, and coalescing with it to form one body. In the apple, the horny cases containing the seeds are the five carpels. The haw differs in having but one carpel completely wrapped up in its flower base, it differs in the seed being closely adherent to its carpel, whereas in apple and pear, the seeds lie free and unattached.
The haws, too, have a little cup at their summit, the dried remains of the calyx tube from which its persistent lobes tend backwards, and with the single pistil still standing upright in its centre. These details are much clearer and much more alluring in fact than in word, as a walk between winter hedge-rows with a little judicious picking and choosing and opening may show to anyone who cares to see.
The holly berries have been unusually abundant in 1899, and they turned to their winter colour--brilliant scarlet--unusually early. The bright fruit is not much taken by the birds at this season; strange to say, they will take the berries gathered by others when they do not gather for themselves. One has always to protect the holly gathered for Christmas decorations from the depredations of the black-birds; if it is left at all in the open air, they will quickly strip off the berries; no matter how many trees stand about with the ripe berries growing on them, they never touch them at this season. A little later when decorations are discarded and thrown away, the berries are eagerly gobbled up by excited blackbirds, while the trees with the living berries are still unvisited. There may be some chemical change that takes place in the fruit after it has been severed from the living stem which makes it more to the bird's taste. Holly berries seem to be usually uneaten till spring or summer. On January 21st, 1891, after two months of the severest winter, the holly berries were still thick on the trees, after that date the missel-thrushes began to feed on them. Other years they have remained all through the winter. In May, 1892, there were trees scarlet with berries. In 1983, great numbers of berries were still on the trees in August, and they must surely have ripened about that time, for the trees were stripped by the blackbirds about the middle of the month.
BIRDS OF LAKELAND.
THE DUNNOCK--ACCENTOR MODULARIS.
There is a little English bird, a regular dweller in our gardens, that is often overlooked by the house-dweller. Dunnock, Hedge-sparrow, Accentor, Shuffle-wing (so 'tis said) are the various names it goes by; and the second term, as covering the confusion under which it habitually lives and remains unknown by, is probably the most expressive, though, to the north-country dweller, it is not preferable to the native Dunnock. For, when this graceful but unobtrusive little bird-body is pointed out, the reply will very likely come: "Oh, that! I though it was a Sparrow!" Yet the Dunnock has no connection with the Sparrow, not with any other Finch, as a casual observation of its head, shape, and carriage will show. It is not, in fact, very closely connected with any other British bird; and so, though roughly classed with the Sylviidae, it is apt to be shunted about the table of species, according to the opinion of the ornithologist who draws the table up. Its near relative, the Alpine Accentor, which Mr. Warde Fowler describes so pleasantly in its native haunts, is practically absent from England.
So, if we do but use eyes and ears to lift the coverlet of confusion, we shall discover a species unique in its ways, graceful and interesting in habit, and constantly our neighbour. No other bird, except the Robin, gives us so much the sense of being always with us. It seems a fixture, winged though it is, rooted to the spot, like any ceorl of old, who might not leave his tilled plot, without consent of lord. The garden plot suffices it; and we have the impression that a radius of twenty yards described, would give it all the room for movement it needs. When summer wanes, the winged host that in spring encamp around our domain, to nest within its secret places and fill its space with song, withdraw and leave a blank behind. The "foreign birds" (as our country folk aptly term the over-sea migrants) are gone "for good" this year; and many others depart for a time, as if for an autumn jaunt, or to flap a free wing again after the tie of nesting, and to seek strange adventures and sip of strange sweets. So Sparrow (true) hies to the grain-field along with Greenfinch, Great Tit goes to look for ripening nuts and such like in the woods, and Chaffinch draws off on secret pleasures bent. But the little Dunnock in general stays; not often seen while the moult goes on, but often present through July, August, and September, till the vagrants turn up again, to hang about their breeding haunts till breeding time comes round once more. 'Tis true, the Robin of the garden likewise makes no actual autumn move, nor the Wren. The Wren, however, seems no true garden-dweller, like the Dunnock, but to be there from accident or pressure from other ground, rather than because it is, like this, wedded to garden soil and garden herbs. By chance the Dunnock may be found about the hedge-backing in the lane, and even upon the wild fellside; but in this latter case, the juniper-bushes which it haunts give it exactly the covert it finds in a garden.
First in early spring this quiet little garden-dweller unwittingly draws attention to itself. For then it does what no Sparrow ever did. Elated by a balmy day in February, or even possibly in January, it will start a veritable song, and we have the vision of a little bird--all smoke-grey and brown, flecked with darker streaks--skirling away from the top of a low evergreen upon a few high jigging notes.
This is not an ambitious performance, even in April, when it gains its utmost fulness and extent. But criticism is disarmed. The bird has such a modest air; it looks as if nothing but irrepressible joy in spring and its mate would have set its dusky throat trembling with song, or have carried it cork-like up from the earth and the dark mazes of the bush in which it marries and has its nursery, and out to the top in the free sunny air, there to sing and to shake its wings. And it is not long obtrusive. It is a somewhat infrequent singer; and when the great warblers come (great, that is, in song), we hardly hear it at all, whether from diffidence on its part, or sheer inattention on ours. Nevertheless, I have noted it between thunder-claps of a summer storm; and often in July, when other birds are silent. Occasionally, too, it sings a short strain in autumn.
Its courtship is kept dark, like the interior of the bush in which it is mostly conducted. Many joyous sounds and flecks of wing accompany this union on the bough; but that is a matter not lightly seen, and the first we may know of the whole affair is perhaps the discovery of a nest full of eggs in a shrub we every day brush elbows with. And that discovery is always a joy. The nest at least, if not the bird, is well-known and loved. Wordsworth has celebrated it in verses called "The Sparrow's Nest," that stand for a common expression of its beauty and the feeling it evokes. Placed as it is in bush or ivied wall, two to four feet from the ground, one looks down upon the five pure blue eggs, somewhat large, lying within the perfect hair-lined bowl, that is encrusted outwardly with moss. This finished structure, so firm and capacious, has taken infinite labour to build up. In a case I watched this summer, the little bird--the hen presumably, though the two are too much alike in plumage for distinction--worked incessantly through the forenoon of May 22nd; having no doubt begun in the early morning hours. All sorts of stuff she carried into the columnar Irish yew, popping in at one side always, and out at the other--long root fibres, got from a freshly turned over bed, old leaf stalks, bents--anything, seemingly, that could be made to wrap and twine. To and fro she hurried, and one would have thought that the result would have been merely a heap of rubbish, instead of the beautifully-wrought and finely hair-lined nest that presently showed, as the result of her labour. After completion, it was left empty for a day or two, as is usual with all nests. Only, did one peep in upon it, a plaintive cheep showed that that little house-wife kept a keen watch upon it from the neighbouring ground. The cock meantime sang blithely close by. At ten a.m., on May 26th, the nest was empty still; but at the same hour next day, there were two eggs in it. After that, an egg each day completed the clutch of five, and at once, on May 30th, the hen began to sit. Very steadily she kept to her task, even when intruded upon. In thirteen days--on June 12th--the eggs had chipped, and in place of their lovely form and colour, a mass of skinny young, uncountable, wriggled at the bottom of the bowl. Five days did the young seem to remain blind, and even when the slit appeared across the eye-covering, it was still kept closed as if the light could not yet be borne by the little creature. After this, the development of the brood was rapid; the mass of feathering young, growing bright-eyed and alert, rose to fill and overfill the bowl. Till at last, as I paid my morning visit on June 23rd--the parent attending and unusually anxious on the rail close by--a youngster flew from it; then dropping and fluttering over the bed, it sought shelter in the long pampas grass, where it hid. By evening, all were flown; and for a day or two was heard their shrill call for food from the covert of the garden plants; or a short-tailed youngster was seen, following the parent over the beds.
The song of the Dunnock, when heard in July, probably heralds and accompanies the second nest, which is very usually indulged in by it; though the joy of seed-time too, which begins early in the garden, may be in the song. But when chill mornings of autumn set in, and first frosts forebode winter, our Dunnock, by shrill cheeps, seems to complain. It is the only bird I know, that makes an autumn moan. In the winter it still pursues its close search about the beds, and comes for window bounty, when it keeps a quiet place amongst the crowd of birds, neither drawing attention by excess of timidity nor boldness. It preserves a happy mean: having, apparently, common sense and no self-consciousness!
Proofread June 2011, LNL
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