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"In the yard, while the cattle are fodder'd with straw,
And the neat-looking dairy-maid sees she must thaw
And the rustics laugh loud, if by falling she throws
"When the birds to the barn-door do hover for food,
And the poor tired hare in vain seeks the wood,
Lest her footsteps her course should betray :
In a crowd round the embers are met-
"Heaven grant in this season it may be my lot,
Where in neatness and quiet, and free from surprise,
Nor feel any turbulent passions arise
But such as each other may cure."
"Signs of spring," says Forster, "now begin to appear. The woodlark sings; the thrush, the chaffinch, and the blackbird follow; rooks pair-geese lay; and buds are seen on the early shrubs. The song of the yellow-hammer is also heard; and the redbreast yet continues to warble. Turkey-cocks strut and gobble-partridges begin to pair-the field-crickets open their holes; and, if the weather is very fine, the house-pigeon has young. The wood-owl hoots, gnats play about, insects swarm under sunny hedges, the stone-curlew clamours, and frogs croak. By the latter end of this month the raven has generally laid its eggs; and the green woodpecker is sometimes heard at this season in the woods, making a loud noise. Bullfinches return to our gardens, and, though timid half the year,
are now fearless and persevering. The mischief effected by these birds at this period is less than is supposed: we are not deprived of so large a portion of the fruit-buds as some imagine, for they generally select such as contain the larvæ of insects, and so render us great service by destroying whole colonies in embryo."
Knapp, on the contrary, states that, "It visits our gardens in spring, and is an insidious plunderer. Its delight is in the embryo blossoms wrapped up at this season in the bud of a tree; and it is very dainty and curious in its choice of this food, seldom feeding upon two kinds at the same time. It generally commences with the germs of our larger and most early gooseberry; and the bright red breasts of four or five cock-birds feeding on the leafless bush are a very pretty sight, but the consequences are ruinous to the crop. When the cherry-buds begin to come forward, they quit the gooseberry, and make tremendous havoc with these. I have an early wall-cherry, a mayduke by reputation, that has for years been a great favourite with the bullfinch family, and its celebrity seems to be communicated to each successive generation. It buds profusely, but is annually so stripped of its promise by these feathered. rogues, that its kind might almost be doubted. The Orleans and green-gage plums next form treat, and draw their attention from what remains of the cherry. The idea that has been occasionally entertained, that this bird selects only such buds as contain the embryo of an insect, to feed on it, and thus free us of a latent colony of caterpillars, is certainly not correct. It may confer this benefit accidentally, but not with intention. The mischief effected by bullfinches is greater than commonly imagined, and the ground beneath the bush or tree on which they have been feeding is commonly strewed with the shattered buds, the rejectments of their banquet; and we are thus deprived of a large portion of our best fruits by this assiduous pillager this pick-a-bud,' as the gardeners call it, without any redeeming virtues to compensate our loss."
I am inclined to consider Mr. Knapp in the right, not so much from my own observation, as from the general opinion of gardeners, who never fail to destroy the bullfinches on account of the mischief they do among the buds. I cannot, however, agree with him in considering that "it is gifted with no voice to charm us, nor communicates any harmony to the grove; all we hear is a low and plaintive call to its fellows in the hedge." It is that low and plaintive call, with all its varied modulations, which renders the song of this bird so pleasing; and if any one is fortunate enough to be near the bullfinch, and can listen to it for some time without putting it to flight, he will then discover a variety of low notes, which, though not so loud as those of its compeers, are not the less pleasing. Mr. Keys of Gainsborough had one, which he taught to imitate several tunes by playing them on a flute: the voice of this bird was very loud-too much so for a room.
"It is a matter of curious inquiry," says White, "to trace out how those species of soft-billed birds that continue with us the winter through subsist during the dead months. The imbecility of birds seems not to be the only reason why they shun the rigour of our winters: for the robust wryneck (so much resembling the hardy race of woodpeckers) migrates; while the feeble little golden-crowned wren, that shadow of a bird, braves our severest frosts, without availing himself of houses or villages, to which most of our winter birds crowd in distressful seasons, while he keeps aloof in fields and woods. But perhaps this may be the reason why they may often perish, and why they are almost as rare as any bird we know.
"I have no reason to doubt but that the soft-billed birds hich winter with us subsist chiefly on insects in their aurelia state. All the species of wagtails, in severe weather, haunt shallow streams, near their spring-heads, where they never freeze, and, by wading, pick out the aurelias of the genus phryganeæ, &c.
Hedge-sparrows frequent sinks and gutters in hard weather, where they pick up crumbs and other sweepings; and in mild weather they procure worms, which are stirring every month in the year, as any one may see that will investigate a grassplat on a mild night in winter by the aid of a candle. Redbreasts and wrens haunt outhouses, stables, and barns, where they find spiders and flies that have laid themselves up during the cold season. But the great support of the soft-billed birds in winter is that infinite profusion of the aurelia of the lepidoptera dori, which is fastened to the twigs of trees and their trunks, to the pales and walls of gardens and buildings, and is found in every cranny and cleft of rock or rubbish, and even in the ground itself. Every species of titmouse winters with us: they have what I call a kind of intermediate bill, between the hard and the soft. One species alone spends its whole time in the woods and fields, never retreating for succour in the severest seasons to houses and neighbourhoods- and that is the delicate long-tailed titmouse, which is almost as minute as the golden-crowned wren. But the blue titmouse, or nun, the cole titmouse, the great black-headed and the marsh titmouse, all resort at times to buildings, and in hard weather particularly. The great titmouse, driven by stress of weather, much frequents houses; and in deep snows I have seen this bird, while it hung with its back downwards, (to my no small delight and admiration,) draw straws lengthwise from out the eaves of thatched houses, in order to pull out the flies that were concealed between them, and that in such numbers, that they quite defaced the thatch, and gave it a ragged appearance.
"The blue titmouse, or nun, is a great frequenter of houses, and a general devourer. Besides insects, it is very fond of flesh; for it frequently picks bones on dunghills; it is a vast admirer of suet, and haunts butchers' shops. When a boy, I have known twenty in a morning traps, baited with tallow or suet.
caught with snap mouseIt will also pick holes in
apples left on the ground, and be well entertained with the seeds on the head of a sunflower. The blue, marsh, and great titmice will, in very severe weather, carry away barley and oat-straws from the sides of ricks.
"How the wheatear and whinchat support themselves in winter cannot be so easily ascertained, since they spend their time on wild heaths and warrens-the former especially where there are stone-quarries. Most probable it is that their maintenance arises from the aurelia before mentioned, which furnish them with a plentiful table in the wilderness."
I have in another place made extracts from a valuable work on the winter subsistence of birds; but as Gilbert White's remarks were all drawn from nature, and his observations gathered from close scrutiny, and the comparisons of one year with another, I considered it necessary to quote the opinion of one so highly and justly appreciated.
The primrose shows its pale warm flowers occasionally upon some sunny bank at the latter end of this month when the weather is very favourable, although its annual time of blowing is the end of March or beginning of April. Double daisies are also seen, when it is unusually mild, expanding their beautiful shields in the cottage-gardens; and the great henbit begins to flower. The heart's-ease, or pansy, appears early. There are several varieties of this plant; but they are mostly marked with three colours. Milton calls it "the pansy freaked with jet ;" and Shakspeare says,
"The bolt of Cupid fell
Before milk-white, now purple with Love's wound,
It is also called three-faces-under-a-hood, herb trinity, wild pansy, call-me-to-you, and other names. I do not mention this as being the regular season of its appearing, nor of any other flower here named; although many beautiful varieties of the polyanthus are often to be seen now nodding their