Thursday, 29 January 2009

WH Hudson's British Birds

A fascinating and readable book arrived yesterday: Birds of Britain by WH Hudson. I've owned Nature in Downland and A Shepherd's Life for years and read them many times - languid accounts of summer days strolling across the South Downs in the company of skylarks and sheep - but I was not aware that he had written a bird guide until recently.

Hudson's entertaining but informative style shines throughout the book, and he clearly knows the subjects well. On the Throstle or Song Thrush (above) he writes 'it is impossible not to feel and to express regret that so good and distinctive and old a name for this familiar bird should have been replaced by a name which is none of those things.'

And on its song: 'They are snatches and portions of melody, and he sings in a scrappy way - a note or two, a phrase or two, then a pause as if the singer paused to try to think of something to follow......[but] Browning has called him a 'wise bird' because he can
The first fine careless rapture

The book was first published in 1895, about 100 years after Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbourne, and it is interesting to note the considerable development of knowledge and belief on avian matters.

It is instructive to see the changes in status of many birds - the Bittern is described as 'formerly a common bird, it is hardly entitled to a place in this book, since it has long been extirpated as a breeding species'. The Corncrake is 'one of the commonest British southern England and Ireland it seems most numerous'. Similarly, 'Scaup are common with us in winter, and found on most parts of the coast.'

The Fulmar is reported as being 'a rare straggler in winter, and its only breeding-station in the United Kingdom is St. Kilda'.

On the Hen Harrier: 'the incessant persecution of all birds of prey by game-keepers is having its effect. it is plain to see that as British species they are being extirpated.'
The Marsh Harrier: 'is now extinct in this country, and cannot be introduced into a work on British Birds which does not include the great auk, the bustard, the spoonbill and many other species which have been exterminated in England'.

Although he comments that 'it has long been the practice of our ornithologists to regard as 'British' any species of which one specimen has been found in a wild state...' he includes brief but accurate descriptions of many of these 'stragglers', such as the three other crossbills, black-headed, little, ortolan, rustic and Lapland buntings, five rare larks and so on, showing an impressive knowledge of rarities that we (with our telescopes, cameras, communications and speed of travel) would be proud of.
WH Hudson was not even British, being from South America of US origin, so his knowledge is doubly impressive. He was a founder member of the RSPB.


Mary said...

Of course I don't know the birds he is speaking about, but I love his way of talking about them :-) That name "Throstle" is great! Is he right about the birds he said were becoming scarce? Interesting post!

Gerald said...

Hi Steve
I read your blog along with Tony's whenever they are updated. The family has a caravan at Walmer and so we visit the area several times
a year and enjoy both Bockhill and Kingsdown beach.
I have not come across Hudson's guide but like you I have A
Shepherd's Life on the bookshelf along with Adventures among Birds
also by Hudson. If you haven't already read this book it is well
worth looking for it.

Kingsdowner said...

Thanks for your comments Gerald.
I love A Shepherd's Life, and will try to find Adventures....on your recommendation.
Hope you keep enjoying your trips to the edge of the world (ie Walmer).

Mary, I'll start a campaign to recover the name 'Throstle' - now only used as a nickname for a football team.
Some of the birds listed have since made remarkable recoveries (like Marsh Harriers) while others like Corncrakes have disappeared.

Hudson's canastero said...

"being from South America and US origin" it so painful to acknowledge that W H Hudson's country of origin was ARGENTINA? He was born and raised in Quilmes, today Florencio Varela in Buenos Aires province, moved to England only after his thirties. His parents came from Boston, his grandparents were Irish.

Kingsdowner said...

I'm sorry that my research was limited to entries in Wikipedia and the notes in the books themselves. I'm happy to acknowledge that he was born in Argentina, a place I'd like to visit one day.
Incidentally, do you know if the "Boston " is the US or UK one?

Looking up your pseudonym, I've learned that
"Hudson's Canastero (Asthenes hudsoni) is a species of bird in the Furnariidae family. It is found in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Its natural habitat is temperate grassland. It is named after Argentine-British ornithologist William Henry Hudson." - Wikipedia

Thanks for you comment and interest.

Hudson's canastero said...

Hello, Hudson's parents came from a strict and religious family (maybe Amish like?), settled in Boston, Massachusetts. They came to Argentina mainly looking for a place where they could raise their children with more freedom, according to WHH biographer Alicia Jurado and others. Sclater also honored Hudson by naming the Hudson's black tyrant Knipolegus hudsoni after its discoverer :-)