A colleague and friend of mine, a lady who dotes on her cat, though not a cat lady, cannot refrain, on a walk, from making sour remarks about passing, or pissing, dogs as they go about their business. “Filthy things,” she purrs, not like – it is implied though not stated – the divine S—-. I find myself in a difficulty here, since I am neither cat person nor dog person but both person. Cats for beauty perhaps and dogs to touch the heart, though it is not as simple as that: I once had a cat who would jump onto my shoulder and purr in my ear, and that, I can tell you, touches the heart.
Ornithologist Simon Barnes (Bird Watching With Your Eyes Closed) explains that “[i]f you study mammals you come to understand that an awful lot of the most important matters of their lives are based around urination and defecation”. Humans cannot empathise with this, not having the olfactory equipment, smelling in black and white while “a dog smells in eternal rainbows of subtle and delicate nuances”. Birds, as a whole, are not great smellers either, but they have other means of communicating. “As a dog pisses a bird sings.” Barnes continues:
And a bird’s song does something that a pile of dung can never do: it touches a human heart. I have established the presence of otters in front of my house, not, alas, because I have seen their sinuous selves, nor because I have heard their sweet song. No: instead of singing, otters will leave a spraint in a prominent place. Under a bridge is a favourite. A spraint is an otter turd. I rejoice to find a spraint: coiled and fish-stinky under the bridge’s arch: but I am not moved by the spraint itself, only by what the spraint means. A spraint touches an otter’s heart, but not mine.
The Hampshire clergyman Gilbert White, one of the outstanding English prose stylists, was also an enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He wrote to his friend Daines Barrington on January 15th, 1770:
Perhaps Eastwick, and its environs, where you heard so very few birds, is not a woodland country, and therefore not stocked with such songsters. If you will cast your eye on my last letter, you will find that many species continued to warble after the beginning of July.
The titlark and yellowhammer breed late, the latter very late; and therefore it is no wonder that they protract their song; for I lay it down as a maxim in ornithology, that as long as there is any incubation going on there is music. As to the red-breast and wren, it is well known to the most incurious observer that they whistle the year round, hard frost excepted; especially the latter.
It was not in my power to procure you a black-cap, or a less reed-sparrow, or sedge-bird, alive. As the first is undoubtedly, and the last as far as I can see yet, a summer bird of passage, they would require more nice and curious management in a cage than I should be able to give them; they are both distinguished songsters …
It is new to me that titlarks in cages sing in the night; perhaps only caged birds do so. I once knew a tame redbreast in a cage that always sang as long as candles were in the room; but in their wild stage no one supposes they sing in the night.
I should be almost ready to doubt the fact, that there are to be seen much fewer birds in July than in any former month, notwithstanding so many young are hatched daily. Sure I am that it is far otherwise with respect to the swallow tribe, which increases prodigiously as the summer advances: and I saw, at the time mentioned, many hundreds of young wagtails on the banks of the Cherwell, which almost covered the meadows. If the matter appears as you say in the other species, may it not be owing to the dams being engaged in incubation, while the young are concealed by the leaves?
Many times have I had the curiosity to open the stomachs of woodcocks and snipes; but nothing ever occurred that helped to explain to me what their sustenance might be: all that I could ever find was a soft mucus, among which lay many pellucid small gravels.
Simon Barnes’s Bird Watching With Your Eyes Closed is published by Short Books at £8.99.
Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne is published as a Penguin Classic. Birds of Selborne is published by Penguin in its English Journeys series.