Old books and migrant birds

Posted: Thursday 5 December 2013
by Richard Jones

I've been researching things about swifts, swallows and house martins. It’s no good looking for them in the garden now...

House martin with young, image taken from British Birds in Their Haunts, by Rev. C.A. Johns

I love old books, and although my favourites are insect books, obviously, I have one old bird book I return to every time.

British Birds in their haunts, by the Rev. C.A. Johns was in print for over 80 years, and you can pick up 1948 imprints for a couple of quid. I’m particularly pleased with my first edition, from 1862. It's nothing grand - black-and-white wood-engraved vignette illustrations, cloth binding a bit worn and pulled, joints cracked - nevertheless the text is clear, the pages clean and edges crisp and not at all dog-eared and it was a snip at £7.50 in a Lewes bookshop a few years ago.  

I've been researching things about swifts, swallows and house martins. It’s no good looking for them in the garden now. It can only be a few weeks since all these birds flew south but, from my memory, they’re long gone. I was having a bit of trouble trying to picture these familiar birds and their jaunty aerobatics, in my mind’s eye. I cannot wait until May.

Johns did not let me down. His slightly archaic turns of phrase take me right there. Of the swallow, he says: "the home of the swallow is all the habitable earth; it knows nothing of winter or winter’s cold; its whole life is a continued festivity, and its song an eternal hymn in praise of summer and liberty." 

Of the house martin: "immediately on its arrival in this country, the martin pays a visit to its old dwelling, clings to its wall, peeps in or even enters, many times a day. One might fancy that there throbbed within its snowy breast some pulse akin to that which kindles in the human traveller a longing for home and the familiar haunts of his early days." 

Of the swift: "his whole melody is a scream, unmusical but most joyous; a squeak would be a better name, but that, instead of conveying a notion that it results from pain, it is full of frolicking delight. Some compare it to the noise made by the sharpening of a saw; to me it seems such an expression of pent-up joy as little children would make if unexpectedly released from school, furnished with wings, and flung up into the air for a game of hide-and-seek among the clouds."


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oldchippy 05/12/2013 at 16:18

Back in the mid 1990s I worked on contract for Crawley council maintaining there housing stock,the tenants would ask to have the Martins nests removed from the top hinge of the windows, we then had to tell the wild life coordinater , they do make a mess down the windows but that a small price to pay to have birds that close at hand.

flowering rose 05/12/2013 at 20:02

a small price for having lovely neighbours.my mother had house martins  where she once lived they were a delight!

Richard Jones 06/12/2013 at 21:45

The trouble is that no matter what anyone else might think, if it reaches pest proportions, then it becomes a pest. It's all very subjective. We have swifts in East Dulwich; I've no idea where they nest. No swallows or house martins hereabouts though.

Dave Morgan 06/12/2013 at 21:55

I would say we humans are more of a pest than wildlife. We create more mess and rubbish than all the natural world put together. If anything is a plague its the human race.


nutcutlet 06/12/2013 at 22:06

That's true Dave.

I think pest proportions is lower for some people than others. I think I'd enjoy swallows and swifts, even if they made a mess. The swallows investigate the she every year but never build. 

We have pipistrelles in the roof most summers. They stink when it's damp and the wind is right but I wouldn't be without them

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