The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Bird Life in the City of Edinburgh.

by R. [Robert] Godfrey, Esq.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 673-684

A paper read before the Edinburgh Branch of the P.N.E.U.

A city may not at first sight seem a likely haunt for studying bird-life; it is so pre-eminently the haunt of busy men, that its streets and parks may be deemed unsuitable for such creatures as birds, whose very names are generally associated in our minds with rambles through country lanes, by peaceful streams, and along the shore. Yet to even the most unobservant eye, a city presents some features of country life, and contains a few species of birds; and to those who keep eyes and ears open as they walk, a city is seen to have a fauna of its own, not perhaps so varied, but quite as interesting in its own way, as that contained in a corresponding area of field and woodland.

Some cities, indeed, have had biographers of their wild life, and have in consequence appeared to outsiders very paradises for birds, in spite of the constant human activities that might be considered disadvantageous to the presence of such. Our city has as yet had no such biographer, but that she is as fully deserving of one as the cities alluded to may be proved by the frequent allusion to Edinburgh in works relating to ornithology, in the proceedings of societies, and in the columns of our local newspapers. To attempt to act as a biographer of Edinburgh bird-life is beyond the scope of my present paper, but, from the abundance of material available for such a purpose, I intend to select a few items sufficient to show that Edinburgh does not fall behind other cities in respect of its feathered tenants.

By way of introduction, there may be given a glimpse of the natural and physical conditions of the city, and of the power of nature even here over hearts responsive to her gentle touches. Edinburgh may be described as a city of hills, commanding the sea on the north, and a view of the hills of Fife, Stirling, and Perth to north and west, and guarded on the south by the range of the Pentlands, and by minor crests nearer hand. Her natural position and her irregular outline of hills and hollow, afforded the requisite materials for rearing upon them a city that should retain, after all man's efforts, an impress of her wild original, and should never be more than partially an artificial work; and from the singular combination of nature and of art has sprung a city that for beauty is placed in the front rank of the cities of the world, and that, in the memories and associations of those to whom it has given birth, must ever remain, as to Scott, their "own romantic town." In the very heart of the city rises the rude, rocky wall on which the Castle is built, presenting its dark front to the pleasure-making throngs that with slow and easy gait crowd along the pavements of her foremost street, while, between that street--Princess Street--and the Castle, lies the extensive valley of the ancient Nor' Loch--once the resort of wildfowl, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century a bleaching green--now occupied by gardens, whose gay appearance and low-lying situation bring out in bold relief the monuments and the public buildings that line the southern side of the street. A short distance from the Castle rises the Calton, also in the heart of the city, forming the eastern terminus of its main thoroughfare; its crest is studded with public monuments, but the hill is left as an open space. Our other hill-crests are now occupied by buildings, but are not on that account done away with, as strangers especially and as our city horses know too well. The water of Leith, now purified and developing into a fine trout stream, flows through the city, and the Union Canal penetrates to its centre; these two waters form the main enticements for such water birds as visit us. There are, besides, many public parks and private gardens dotted all over the city, all of which prove attractive to many species of birds.

Her position and her ruggedness have also left her open to the sportings of nature. At times, the winds of heaven blow over and through her with unabated fury, and the freedom with which the east wind plays through her streets has made her a proverb in the land. The morning breeze comes upon the earlier toiler here with the same refreshing fulness and buoyancy as it possesses in the country, and in winter, when conditions generally are more dismal, it seems doubly invigorating; it drives away care and anxiety from the toiler by captivating his mind and lifting it for the time above all worrying disturbances, and for this reason the morning breeze is most welcome to those whose lives are one continual drudgery.

Often has the breath of morn in this city sent new life thrilling though me, and often has the sight from one of our city ridges of the far-off freedom of the hills and of the sea put new joy into my soul. The crossings of George Street, with their outlook on the Lomonds and on the Forth, have become almost sacred spots to me; for there, on many a winter morning, as I have come from the direction of the old town, with my head laden with secret cares and worries, I have felt my burden roll off as I gazed on the landscape before me. As I stood on the city highway, my mind was amongst yon Lomonds. I had often crossed the Firth that lay there before me apparently so narrowed, and I knew the recesses of yon hills, and the very sight of them again broke my city fetters, and, even when yon wild landscape was obscured my mist, it was not hidden from the eye of my mind; the standpoint was sufficient, the heather-clad Lomonds, with their woods and their lochs, were around me where I stood. Often have I found a supreme pleasure in looking from the city crest across the Forth to the hill scenery of Fife and Kinross, and a recompense in the scene for my city slavery.

All day long and all the year round the city rover, whose heart has been won by nature, is attended by natural sights and sounds peculiarly fitted to raise his mind above his worries and his toil. He finds continual delight in the cheering companionship of nature, and an ever-fresh interest in watching the regularly-recurring phenomena of the seasons. He is alert to catch the first strain of the thrush's song, and hails with joy the blackbird's flute-like notes at morn and eve; he knows the time when the seafowl cross o'erhead from the Forth to their inland feeding haunts, and he sees the fearless unconcern of the rooks at morn before the city has thoroughly awakened; he awaits with eager watchfulness the flowering of the hawthorn and the budding of the tree; he sees the changing positions of the Plough in the heavens; he delights in the summer beauty and in the autumn fulness; he marks the fall of the leaf, the shortening of the day, the coming of the snow, and the reign of winter; and from every changing aspect he draws comfort for himself, as he discerns in the faithful recurrence of the year's natural events the evidence of a Governor of this world, and, when he is downcast, he is cheered by such evidence and says to himself, "Surely the God of all the earth will do right!"

Our city has always been well adapted for bird-life, but in former days it was much better adapted than now. A hundred and fifty years, or less, the raven rested on the Castle rock, and the kestrel reared her young in safety on the same beetling crags; then, many species of water-birds haunted the Nor' Loch, and frogs croaked where now the railway runs. Then, too, the barn owl dwelt in the steeple of St. Giles', and by night glided ghostlike along the water's edge, over the same happy hunting ground frequented by raven and kestrel during the day. At the present time the raven is the only one of the species mentioned that does not nest close to the city; the others still linger on the city margin, and straggle at times within the city bounds.

Our most prominent group of city birds is that which might fitly be termed the "house group," comprising those species that live in more intimate connection with man. The sparrow, of course, heads this list, surpassing in numbers all the others; he has no difficulty in finding a home, and he has adapted himself perfectly to live in human haunts. So thoroughly domesticated has the sparrow become that he even takes advantage of our artificial light, and, in the Waverley Station, sparrows may be heard chirping in the most lively fashion hours before their country cousins have awakened from slumber. Next to the sparrow come the starling and the jackdaw, both of which species are abundant in our midst, the former disputing with sparrows the rights of such holes as are large enough to allow of his ingress, the latter occupying the larger holes and recesses in church towers and such sites.

There must be, at the smallest computation, several thousands of starlings in Edinburgh. Small groups are in evidence everywhere at all seasons, but in autumn, when the nesting is over, enormous flocks may be seen leaving the city at early morn for the country. I have watched these morning movements at Morningside and at Newington, and, although I have not been fortunate enough to see the corresponding night movements, I have little doubt that these flocks return at nightfall to roost on the houses. As is well known, the starling is an exceedingly clever mimic, imitating to perfection the calls of other birds. In the Botanic Gardens I have heard one imitating the call of the curlew so perfectly that my thoughts were at once taken away to the moorlands.

The jackdaw nests in holes under the Dean Bridge, in many of the city church steeples, and in convenient crannies at the top of many other buildings. It is bolder in the city than its near relative, the rook, and is much more active than the latter. On one occasion a jackdaw was seen from our kitchen window to alight at a gap in the masonry between two blocks of houses opposite and pull out a sparrow's nest, then proceed up the crack, doing the same to all the sparrows' nests it could reach and apparently devouring the contents.

The second division of house-birds contains the summer visitors, the passing fairies that charm us for a little and retire as they came. Such are the swift, the martin, and the swallow, that occur with us in diminishing numbers in the order given, the swift being by far the most numerous. Swifts arrive in the first week of May, and from that time onwards till the middle of August they are continually screeching over our house-tops. There they are in constant danger from the telegraph wires, and accidents occasionally happen to the swifts careering in that perilous region. My father once picked up one in his stable-court at Silvermills that had broken its breastbone on a wire, and one of my brothers on another occasion took one from a man who had picked it up in New Broughton, and who in carelessly gripping it had allowed it to fasten its needle-like claws into his fingers, and was only too glad to be released from its grip.

The house-martin, though less in evidence than the swift, is fairly evenly distributed throughout the city, nesting in the corners of windows in many of our streets, and hawking for food at a considerably lower elevation than the swift; their nests, if allowed to remain in position after the young are flown, are sometimes taken possession of by sparrows during the winter absence of the real owners. The swallow finds the city much less congenial to him than the country, having great difficulty in finding nesting haunts to suit him, and is, in consequence, comparatively rare with us. A passing notice may be taken of their close ally, the sand-martin; this species, which is not a member of the house group at all, formerly had society a colony in sandbank at Beaverbank, where the boys of Canonmills School used to search assiduously for their eggs, but their nesting haunt is now covered by houses.

Belonging to the house group also are a few species that occasionally use the taller buildings merely as resting-places. The most outstanding species in this respect is the peregrine falcon, a bird well known during the period of migration as an occasional frequenter of the steeple of St. Mary's Cathedral. It seems strange that a lofty spire should form such an effective decoy for this wary bird and induce it to venture into the very heart of human activities, but St. Mary's Cathedral in this respect comes far short of Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, around whose spire as many as four peregrines have been observed at once, and on whose roof an odd peregrine's egg has been at times picked up.

The kestrel and the merlin have both shown the same power of adaptability to environment by living in church towers and about house-tops. Sometimes the birds of these species noted in the city have escaped from my own care--but both, and especially the kestrel, are fairly common in the immediate outskirts of the city, and may be expected often to wander within its bounds. A more unlikely visitor than these, the common cormorant, a bird that has been seen by competent observers passing over the new town, may sometimes rest unobserved or unrecognised on the ridge of some lofty block of houses, as he has actually been seen to do in other towns, and spread his wings in his wonted style to the breeze.

A second group of birds, containing by far the largest number of species, may fitly be termed the "woodland group." Birds of this group are attracted partially by the gardens and isolated clumps of trees and bushes, and partially by the food to be obtained in human haunts. Of this class, our most conspicuous species is the rook, rather a large fellow to approach human haunts so fearlessly. His is an undecided nature, displaying itself at one moment by groundless fear and at another by reckless boldness. At early morn the rooks haunt our streets fearlessly, but at mid-day they show great circumspection in approaching any tit-bit observed on the ground. They nest in many localities, but, being constantly subjected to the caprice of man who may suddenly begin building on a spot occupied by a rookery, they are changeable in their choice of nesting-haunts, and move outwards from the city as the houses begin to rise too closely around them. Some rookeries within the city continue, however, to be occupied, such as at London Road, East London Street, Comely Bank, Warrendar Park, &c; there are also several solitary trees, such as one in Hart Street, which occasionally have a rook's nest. Randolph Crescent is still known among the older carters as the "Craws' Crescent," though the trees there have long been deserted. An illusion to the birds of this latter rookery will be found in Principal Cairn's Biography, in a letter written on October 30th, 1841.

The magpie occurs commonly in all the city suburbs, and ventures often within our borders; it frequently appears in Saxe-Coburg Place, and as many as seven have been seen at one time in the grounds of the Deaf and Dumb Institution; at odd times also it visits the Royal Circus, Queen Street Gardens every year, and a pair have built their nest this season in Canaan Lane. The jay, an ally of the magpie, and an exceedingly rare bird in our county, has been observed on several occasions in the Botanic Gardens.

Other large woodland birds sometimes resort to our city gardens. Thus, I have a note of a tawny owl calling in Heriot Row on August 27th, 1899, and on another occasion my brother John saw a tawny owl on a tree in Thirlestane Road, and hooted on his hands to the bird and gained responses repeatedly. A woodcock was observed in a back green in Dublin Street, on November 16th, 1896; it fed quietly some little time, and, on being frightened, flew off. Again, a pheasant was noted in Princes Street on December 3rd, 1899; a correspondent of the Scotsman, writing next day, said, "It may interest your readers to know that about nine o'clock yesterday morning, during the peaceful calm which prevails in this city on Sunday mornings, I received a visit from a fine hen pheasant, which perched upon the flower-box in a back window of my house in Princes Street. After having made her breakfast on my shrubs and taken a little constitutional on the leads, it flew over the roof of the house into the West Princes Street Gardens, where now she is no doubt equally enjoying herself." A great grey shrike has been observed in the Meadows, and on November 26th. 1901, a waxwing was found dead in a garden in Abbotsford Crescent.

Another large woodland bird, the ringdove, or cushat, deserves a passing notice. This species is remarkable for its extreme shyness, and it has nevertheless taken kindly to large cities; its tameness in the London parks, for instance, is a matter of common knowledge, and in the gardens of the Tuilleries in Paris it feeds out of the hands of the passer-by. In Edinburgh the bird is by no means so tame, but, as it has been thoroughly established in the Botanic Gardens for the last twelve years at least, and probably for a much longer period, it may reasonably to be expected to become a tame and familiar species in our parks ere long.

Under this group fall to be included most of our songsters. Song thrush, blackbird, and misselthrush are all common in the city, cheering the early toilers in the streets with their songs in spring, and coming as conspicuously under notice in other ways at other seasons. The early morning singing of the thrushes is alluded to in a city slang phrase, "a cinder mavis,"--a term applied to a ragwife who makes an early morning round of the ash-buckets. The misselthrush is the rarest of the three, but, as it is an exceedingly noisy bird, it seldom remains undetected. In spring it is very pugnacious also. On March 7th, 1892, I watched three birds fighting for twenty minutes in the Botanic Gardens. In the autumn, the misselthrushes come in increased numbers to our city for the sake of the berries; opposite our windows there are three trees of Pyrus hybrida, which, when clad with berries are generally the haunt of one or more misselthrushes.

Of smaller songsters, the chaffinch, the greenfinch, and the wren may be mentioned in passing, but the two most conspicuous are the robin and the hedge-sparrow. The robin sings throughout the winter, and the hedge-sparrow may occasionally be heard also singing in mid-winter. Both birds are very tame in the city. A robin frequents the palm-house in the Botanic Gardens, and another (or presumably another) sometimes alights on the boots of the gardeners in winter, when they are digging the soil. A hedge-sparrow has allowed me to come within a foot of it, as it searched for food on the southern pavement of Princes Street. Some years ago I found a nest of this latter bird in Silvermills Lane, which was however eventually robbed by some boy; the spot where the nest was is now occupied by a theatre.

Reference must be made under this heading to the tits, of which there are three species, the blue, the great, and the cole, in the city. The blue tit is the most abundant of the three, and in winter is frequently seen in parties in our larger gardens. As is well known, tits have a great liking for suet and fat and cocoanut, and they are easily encouraged to pay visits to our windows. The blue tit seems to discover very quickly when a piece of suet or other tempting morsel is put out for his benefit, and it delights with its acrobatic performances many in the city who hang from their meat-safe, or from a stick at their window, a piece of suet, and who watch with interest the little fellow clinging upside down to, and pecking away at, the swinging suet.

Another division of this group includes the summer and the winter woodland visitors, which, however, we must be content to pass by with a mere mention of names. The most prominent of the summer woodland species are the willow wren, the whitethroat, and the spotted flycatcher, and the most prominent of the winter woodlanders are the redwing and the fieldfare. Of the two latter, the redwing is far bolder as a city visitor than the fieldfare, as the fieldfare only enters our territories under stress of weather.

We have very few species distinctive of our third group, the Birds of the Parks. The wheatear may be looked for on migration in spring and in autumn; it is common about Arthur's Seat, and I have observed it in Inverleith Public Park. The lark finds some suitable haunts in the city suburbs, and in hard weather ventures into the very heart of the city. On December 24th, 1897, after a spell of two or three days' frost, I watched a lark for over an hour, running about on the edges of the dross heaps of Port Hopetoun. The bird, forced by hunger to forage in such an unsuitable locality, was very tame, barely moving out of the way of the men who were working on the quay, and returned again and again to the spot regardless of the efforts made to catch it. Another bird of the parks that may occasionally be seen is the short-eared owl. I was informed of the presence of an owl in the Botanic Gardens on the afternoon of November 1st, 1898, which, from the description given me, was undoubtedly of this species; my informant told me it was much lighter in colour than a tame tawny owl which I had in captivity at that time. The peeweep and the curlew both come to be included here; they do not, however, often alight in our parks, but are noted mainly when flying over.

But we have one distinctive bird of our parks, the snow bunting, a winter visitor to our city. Succeeding generations of citizens have observed this sprightly little bird running about on the slopes of the Calton Hill in hard winters, and have found delight in gazing on the tops of our highest Scotch mountains and on Norwegian fjelds, as they ran about in the very heart of a large city. Neill, writing in 1807, notices this beautiful winter visitor as frequenting the Calton Hill from November to March, and again, in 1816, mentions that they attracted a great deal of attention in the latter year. The snow bunting, on account of its cheerful tinkling note, its tameness, and its attractive display--showing a great deal of white--on the wing, readily catches the attention, and may for this reason have been more carefully noticed than some other birds. It frequents other localities in the city, such as the Meadows and Harrison Park, and is found in large numbers on Arthur's Seat nearly every winter.

A fourth group of birds--the "water group,"--is, owing to the lack of suitable inducements, much more restricted in distribution than the preceding groups. They are attracted within our boundaries mainly by the water of Leith, though several also visit the canal and its basins. To this group belong our truly ornamental birds. The sprightly wagtails, both the pied and the grey, are familiar objects by the riverside within the city, and both species--the pied especially--wander at times into our streets, where their dainty movements render them most attractive objects to any passer-by with an eye in his head for beauty at all. The brilliant kingfisher too, enticed by the supply of food, sometimes ventures within the city. One of these gorgeous birds met an ignominious death some years ago by falling a prey to a prowling city cat, and another was seen as far down the water of Leith as Warriston Cemetery, on the 2nd of January in the present year. Lately also the dipper has appeared in our midst, and may often be seen in the river channel at Stockbridge, becking and bowing in his customary fashion from the stones in the stream.

Common and black-headed gulls also frequently follow the course of the river in their quest for food, and resort at times to the canal basins--Ports Hopetoun and Hamilton--for what they can procure there. The latter localities, though scenes of constant activity, are often visited by pied wagtails, and on rare occasions by the little grebe, a bird that is in the habit of turning up at very odd places. A small pond in the Botanic Gardens is sometimes frequented by the waterhen.

The arrangement I have adopted admits of a successful grouping of all our resident species, and all our common and most of our rarer visitors, but it does not allow us to find a place for all our city birds. In considering our birds from the point of view of habitat, we are left with a few species that cannot properly be so classified, species whose presence in our midst is wholly abnormal. At the time of migration, birds are often driven out of their flight-line by storms, and stragglers from the migrating flocks often appear quite unexpectedly in haunts wholly unsuited to them, and during the time of the autumnal gales we sometimes have curious visitors to our city. On October 24th, 1864, after a severe gale, a stormy petrel was picked up in the Cowgate, and died before the following morning; and a specimen of the much rarer fork-tailed petrel was picked up in George Street, on the morning of September 28th, 1891, under similar circumstances. Then, as has been indicated already in the preceding pages, hard winters influence to a considerable extent our birds, by cutting off their food supplies and forcing them to approach human abodes more boldly. Thus, in the severe winter of 1774-75, as related by the late Mr. Robert Gray, snipe, kingfisher, and black-headed gull frequented drains in the centre of the city, whilst larks, pipits, redwings, fieldfares, were seen in the public streets and squares, on trees, shrubs, and on the roadway. And in the intense frost at the beginning of 1895, birds were again subdued by hunger, and the black-headed gulls were reduced to such an extremity that they descended to our streets and narrow lanes in their search for food.

In concluding this article, I should like to say that I have endeavoured rather to indicate the lines along which the subject may be approached than to give an exhaustive treatment of it.

Typed by happi, Dec. 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021