Willow warbler (courtesy Bobthebirder)
We are all spoilt these days with our high-powered Leica binoculars and Swarovski spotting scopes. Watching birds in the 18th century was very different. Gilbert White of Selborne in Hampshire, the father of English natural history, shunned even the use of a telescope.
Yet somehow White managed to differentiate three tiny warblers from each other—the willow warbler, wood warbler and chiffchaff. It was an extraordinary feat of observation. Up to then no naturalist, however stealthy or subtle, had managed to get within ten yards of these tiny birds. They are all similar in size and appearance and highly secretive, hiding in dense leaf cover and flitting about so swiftly that to the observer they seem to be always where they’re not. So how did White achieve it? I’ve already said that he never used a telescope so it can’t have been through visual identification.
Shooting such minuscule, rapidly moving birds was not an easy option either. Unless, of course, White had used a blunderbuss. And if he had there wouldn’t been much of their fragile bodies left intact to study.
It is generally thought that White made his identification of the warblers by listening to their differing songs. But he still needed specimens to dissect and examine, and to know which song he was ascribing to which bird, so he probably had them trapped. He was, however, prepared to have a bird shot if he felt it necessary to further his researches – including a very rare black-winged stilt. White was known to go further still in the cause of science, knocking down and destroying the nests of swallows and martins under the eaves of his stables so he could study how they constructed a new one.
The eminent Victorian naturalist James Edmund Harting was much less economical in his approach to killing. He edited the prestigious journal ‘The Zoologist’, was Assistant Secretary and Librarian to the Linnean Society, and wrote articles on shooting for ‘The Field’. He also edited one of the best editions of White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne’, illustrating it with woodcuts by Thomas Bewick.
Unlike White Harting showed no reluctance whatsoever in killing birds, and apparently shot them at will. He felt no shame in admitting in his 1875 book ‘Our Summer Migrants’ to shooting landrails (corncrakes), and killed ‘as many as half a dozen in one day in September’. Why? For dissection and research purposes? It seems more than a shade profligate and wasteful.
He was equally ready to shoot garden warblers for the purpose of determining what they ate, but said, surprisingly, that it was ‘much against my inclination’. He raided a nightjar’s nest, pegging the young down with falconer’s jesses until they were fully fledged, and leaving the adult birds to feed them. When he finally removed the young birds and took them home he failed to keep them alive, ‘owing to the difficulty in procuring suitable food, and my inability to give them constant attention’. No feelings of doubt or guilt there.
Yet in a later chapter on the hoopoe in ‘Our Summer Migrants’ Harting regrets the actions of ‘thoughtless persons, whose first impulse on seeing an uncommon bird is to procure a gun and shoot it’. Janus-faced? Maybe.
On another occasion Harting spotted the nest of a rare golden oriole high up in an oak tree. He climbed it and was ‘obliged to saw off the branch before I could look into the nest, and after a great deal of trouble, when at length I got it down safely, I found, to my disappointment, that it contained three young birds instead of eggs … I fed them on maggots, and covered them with cotton wool to keep them warm’. Unfortunately, they died and were ‘entrusted to a skilled taxidermist for preservation’.
Catching and killing birds was a significant industry in Victorian times, and there was a ready market for stuffed birds, especially rarities, to furnish gentlemen’s glass trophy cabinets. In 1867 three London bird catchers took 225 nightingales in just three weeks. David Attenborough would have had a fit.
It wasn’t until the Kearton brothers Richard and Cherry began taking photographs of Britain’s birds in the first years of the twentieth century that things changed. They were pioneers of wildlife photography, and went places and did things with cameras no one else had dared try. They were skilled technicians, and more than a little mad. They used extra long ladders to reach the topmost branches of trees to photograph nesting birds. Their other innovative devices may have seemed Heath Robinson, but they worked. They balanced on an eight-foot tripod with one brother piggy-backing the other to photograph top-of-the-tree nesters, and created a realistic stuffed ox to hide inside to study skylarks.