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THE present Age, which, after all, is a very pretty and pleasant one, is feelingly alive and widely awake to the manifold delights and advantages with which the study of Natural Science swarms, and especially that branch of it which unfolds the character and habits, physical, moral, and intellectual, of those most interesting and admirable creatures Birds. It is familiar not only with the shape and colour of beak, bill, claw, talon, and plume, but with the purposes for which they are designed, and with the instincts which guide their use in the beautiful economy of all-gracious Nature., We remember the time when the very word Ornithology would have required interpretation in mixed company; and when a naturalist was looked on as a sort of out-of-theway but amiable monster. Now, one seldom meets with man, woman, or child, who does not know a hawk from a handsaw, or even, to adopt the more learned reading, from a heronshaw; a black swan is no longer erroneously considered a rara avis any more than a black sheep; while the Glasgow Gander himself, no longer apocryphal, has taken his place in the national creed, belief in his existence being merely blended with wonder at his magnitude, and some surprise perhaps among the scientific, that he should be as yet the sole specimen of that enormous An
The chief cause of this advancement of knowledge in one of its most delightful departments, has
VOL. XXX. NO. CLXXXII,
been the gradual extension of its study from stale books, written by men, to that book ever fresh from the hand of God. And the second -another yet the same has been the gradual change wrought by a philosophical spirit in the observation, delineation, and arrangement of the facts and laws with which the science is conversant, and which it exhibits in the most perfect harmony and order. Students now range for themselves, according to their capacities and opportunities, fields, woods, rivers, lakes, and seas; and proficients, no longer confining themselves to mere nomenclature, enrich their works with anecdotes and traits of character, which, without departure from truth, have imbued bird-biography with the double charm of reality and romance.
How we come to love the Birds of Bewick, and White, and the two Wilsons, and Montagu, and Mudie, and Knapp, and Selby, and Swainson, and Syme, and Audubon, and many others, so familiar with their haunts and habits, their affections and their passions, till we feel that they are indeed our fellow creatures, and part of one wise and wonderful system! If there be sermons in stones, what think ye of the hymns and psalms, matin and vesper, of the lark, who at heaven's gate sings,of the wren, who pipes her thanksgivings as the slant sunbeam shoots athwart the mossy portal of the cave, in whose fretted roof she builds her nest above the waterfall?
Ay, these, and many other blame
less idolaters of Nature, have worshipped her in a truly religious spirit, and have taught us their religion. Nor have our poets been blind or deaf to the sweet Minnesingers of the woods. Thomson, and Cowper, and Wordsworth, have loved them as dearly as Spenser, and Shakspeare, and Milton. All those prevailing poets have been themselves " musical and melancholy" as nightingales, and often from the inarticulate language of the groves, have they breathed the enthusiasm that inspired the finest of their own immortal strains. "Lonely wanderer of Nature," must every poet be-and though often self-wrapt his wanderings through a spiritual world of his own, yet as some fair flower silently asks his eye to look on it, some glad bird his ear solicits with a song, how intense is then his perception, his emotion how profound, his spirit being thus appealed to, through all its human sensibilities, by the beauty and the joy perpetual even in the most solitary wilderness!
Our moral being owes deep obligation to all who assist us to study nature aright; for believe us, it is high and rare knowledge, to know and to have the true and full use of our eyes. Millions go to the grave in old age without ever having learned it; they were just beginning perhaps to acquire it when they sighed to think that" they who look out of the windows were darkened;" and that, while they had been instructed how to look, sad shadows had fallen on the whole face of Nature, and that the time for those intuitions was gone for ever. But the science of seeing has now found favour in our eyes; and "blessings are with them and eternal praise" who can discover, discern, and describe the least as the greatest of nature's works, who can see as distinctly the finger of God in the lustre of the little humming-bird murmuring round a rose-bush, as in that of "the star of Jove, so beautiful and large," shining
sole in heaven.
scheme of revelation of the sublime varieties of the inferior-as we choose to call it-creation of God, you find high attempts in a humble spirit rather to illustrate tendencies, and uses, and harmonies, and order, and design. With some glorious exceptions, indeed, the naturalists of the day gone by, shewed us a science that was but a skeleton-nothing but dry bones; with some inglorious exceptions, indeed, the naturalists of the day that is now, have been desirous to shew us a living, breathing, and moving body, to explain, as far as they might, its mechanism and its spirit. Ere another century elapse, how familiar may men be with all the families of the flowers of the field, and the birds of the air, with all the interdependencies of their characters and their kindreds, perhaps even with the mystery of that instinct which now is seen working wonders, not only beyond the power of reason to comprehend, but of imagination to conceive!
Take up, we say, what book you will, and such is its spirit. There, for example, are these two unpretending, but enlightened volumes, "The British Naturalist," by Mr Mudie, which, we need not add, we recommend to all students, and how much more real knowledge do they contain than many ambitious works we could mention made up of words
Take up now almost any book you may on any branch of Natural History, and instead of the endless, dry details of imaginary systems and classifications, in which the ludicrous littlenesses of man's vain ingenuity used to be set up as a sort of symbolical
words-words-and words, too, as fuzionless as chips-chips-chips? This contribution to natural history, he tells us at once, is sanctioned by no name or authority, and pretends to no systematic arrangement. He does not fear to say that the dictum of authority, and the divisions of system, are the bane of study to the people at large; and is it not, we add, the people at large, whom the people in few should seek to instruct in the wisdom that framed the world? True it is, as Mr Mudie says, that the dictum of authority represses the spirit of enquiry, and that in the divisions of system the parts are so many, and so scattered, that the whole cannot be understood. It were as easy to tell the hour from the disjointed movements of a number of watches jumbled together in a box, as to find "how Nature goes," from the mere dissection of her works.
"I do not want to hear the harangue
of the exhibiter; I want to see the exhibition itself, and that he shall be quiet, and let me study and understand that in my own way. If I meet with any object that arrests my attention, I do not wish to run over the roll of all objects of a similar kind; I want to know something about the next one, and why they should be in juxtaposition. If, for instance, I meet with an eagle on a mountain cliff, I have no desire to be lectured about all the birds that have clutching talons and crooked beaks. That would take me from the book of Nature, which is before me, rob me of spectacle, and give me only the story of the exhibiter, which I
have no wish either to hear or to remem
ber. I want to know why the eagle is on that cliff, where there is not a thing for her to eat, rather than down in the plain, where prey is abundant; I want also to know what good the mountain itself does, that great lump of sterility
and cold; and if I find out, that the cliff is the very place from which the eagle can sally forth with the greatest ease and success, and that the mountain is the parent of all those streams that gladden the valleys and plains,-I am informed. Nay, more, I see a purpose in it, the working of a Power mightier than that of man. My thoughts ascend from mountains to masses, wheeling freely in absolute space. I look for the boundary: I dare not even imagine it: I cannot resist the conclusion- This is the building of God.'
"Wherever I go, or whatever I meet, I cannot be satisfied with the mere knowledge that it is there, or that its form, texture, and composition, are thus or thus; I want to find out how it came there, and what purpose it serves; because, as all the practical knowledge upon which the arts of civilisation are founded has come in this way, I too may haply glean a little. Nor is that all: wonderful as man's inventions are, I connect myself with something more wonderful and more lasting; and thus I have a hope and stay, whether the world goes well or ill; and the very feeling of that, makes me better able to bear its ills. When I find that the barren mountain is a source of ferti lity, that the cold snow is a protecting mantle, and that the all-devouring sea is a fabricator of new lands, and an easy pathway round the globe, I cannot help thinking that that, which first seems only an annoyance to myself, must ultimately involve a greater good.
"This was the application given to Natural History in the good old days of the Derhams and the Rays; and they
were the men that breathed the spirit of natural science over the country. But the science and the spirit have been separated; and though the learned have gone on with perhaps more vigour than ever, the people have fallen back. They see the very entrance of knowledge guarded by a hostile language, which must be vanquished in single combat before they can enter; and they turn away in despair."
That accomplished and philosophic naturalist, Professor Rennie, in one of his dissertations prefixed to his edition of Montagu's Ornithological Dictionary of British Birds, plan of study, according to the mehas lately laid before the public a thod he has pursued in his own researches, which beautifully embodies the spirit of these remarks. So simple is it, that it appears some ingenious friend, to whom he shewed it in manuscript, objected to it that it was no plan of study at all. What is its method? Why this and no more -but then how much! First, to observe a fact or circumstance in the fields, then to endeavour to discover the design it was intended to serve by the great Creator, and subsequently to examine the statements to be met with in books, in order to compare them with what you have actually observed. On this plan, he rightly says, any person with a little care may become a tolerably good naturalist, the first walk he takes in the fields, without much knowledge of books; on the opposite and too current plan, much study is indispensable to enable any person to master the theory or system, in relation to which the ob-served facts are supposed to have. their whole value and importance. He agrees with the leading rule laid down by the illustrious M. Levaillant, that the principal aim of a naturalist ought to be to multiply observations-that theories are more easy and more brilliant indeed than observations; but it is by observa-' tion alone that science can be enriched, while a single fact is frequently sufficient to demolish a system. Levaillant was himself one who preferred reading the page of nature in the woods and fields to the inferior study of cabinets and books-and hence, Professor Rennie observes, he was stigmatized, as another en
thusiastic and genuine observer, Audubon, is at present, by cabinet naturalists, as a romancer unworthy of credit. 'Tis ever so. People sitting in their own parlour, with their feet on the fender, or in the sanctum of some museum, staring at stuffed specimens, imagine themselves naturalists; and in their presumptuous and insolent ignorance, which is often total, scorn the wisdom of the wanderers of the woods, who have for many studious and solitary years been making themselves familiar with all the beautiful mysteries of instinctive life.
Take two boys and set them respectively to pursue the two plans of study. How puzzled and perplexed will be the one who pores over the "interminable terms" of a system in books, having, meanwhile, no access to, or communion with nature! The poor wretch is to be pitied-nor is he any thing else than a slave. But the young naturalist, who takes his first lessons in the fields, observing the unrivalled scene which creation everywhere displays, is perpetually studying in the power of delight and wonder, and laying up knowledge which can be derived from no other source. The rich boy is to be envied, nor is he any thing else than a king. The one sits bewildered among words, the other walks enlightened among things; the one has not even the shadow, the other more than the substance the very essence and life of knowledge; and at twelve years old he may be a better naturalist than ever the mere bookworm will be, were he to outlive old Tommy Balmer.
In education-late or early-for heaven's sake let us never separate things and words. They are married in nature; and what God hath put together let no man put asunder -'tis a fatal divorce. Without things, words accumulated by misery in the memory, had far better die than drag out an useless existence in the dark; without words, their stay and support, things unaccountably disappear out of the storehouse, and may be for ever lost. But bind a thing with a word, a strange link, stronger than any steel, and softer than any silk, and the captive remains for ever happy in its bright prison-house, nor would it flee away had it even
Compare the intensity and truth of any natural knowledge insensibly acquired by observation in very early youth, with that corresponding to it picked up in later life from books! In fact, the habit of distinguishing between things as different, or of similar forms, colours, and characters, formed in infancy, and childhood, and boyhood, in a free intercourse and communion with Nature, while we are merely seeking and finding the divine joy of novelty and beauty perpetually occurring before our eyes in all her haunts, may be made the foundation of an accuracy of judgment of inappreciable value as an intellectual endowment. We must all have observed with Professor Rennie, how exceedingly difficult it is for persons arrived at manhood to acquire this power of discriminating objects whose general similarity of appearance deceives a common observer into a belief of their identity; though a little care on the part of a parent or teacher will render it comparatively easy.
So entirely is this true, that we know many observant persons, that is, observant in all things intimately related with their own pursuits, and with the experience of their own early education, who, with all the pains they could take in after life, have never been able to distinguish by name, when they saw them, above half-a-dozen, if so many, of our British singing birds; while as to knowing them by their song, that is wholly beyond the reach of their uninstructed ear, and a shilfa chants to them like a yellow-yoldrin. On seeing a small bird peeping out of a hole
in the eaves, and especially on hearing him chatter, they shrewdly suspect him to be a sparrow, though it does not by any means follow that their suspicions are always verified, as our friend not unfrequently turns out altogether another animal-further the deponent sayeth not; and though, when sitting with her white breast so lovely, out of the "auld clay-bigging," in the window-corner, he cannot mistake Mistress Swallow, yet when flitting in fly-search over the lake, and ever and anon dipping her wing-tips in the lucid coolness, 'tis an equal chance that he misnames her Miss Martin.
We could give a hundred-a thousand-ten thousand instances of the most astonishing ignorance shewn even by naturalists of considerable reputation-book and cabinet naturalists-with regard to facts falling under the most obvious, and, as one might think, the most universal observation of men, whether naturalists or not, who have seen the prudence and propriety of walking with their eyes open. But Professor Rennie quotes, and remarks on one in itself quite sufficient for our purpose, from the "highly lauded article" Ornithology, in Rees's Cyclopædia." Birds of the same species," says the author, "collect all the same materials, arrange them in the same manner, and make choice of similar situations for fixing the places of their temporary abodes. Wherever they dispose them, they always take care to be accommodated with a shelter; and if a natural one does not offer itself, they very ingeniously make a covering of a double row of leaves, down the slope of which the rain trickles, without entering into the little opening of the nest that lies concealed below." What precious nonsense! What a pack of confusion! Does the Cyclopædist, or rather the Cyclops, for he could have "had but one eye, and that was no piercer," here speak of all birds, or but of some particular species?
In either case alike is he a dolt. If of all birds, then he forgets, when speaking of the care they always take to be accommodated with shelter, the numerous families which lay their eggs on the bare ground, leaving them exposed the greater part
of the day on the sands of the desert, the sea-beach, or isolated rocks. Accommodate them with shelter, and in a couple of days the shore will be stinking-nor will a single sea-fowl
all addled in the yellow-ever chip the shell. Of what" little opening of the nest" does the perverse and purblind old Monops prate? The wren's? or the eagle's? But the wren (Miss Kitty) most frequently builds her domicile out of the flutter of leaves; on old mossy stumps, on house-walls, or the living rock; and when in hedges, she would laugh at the idea of this dotard providing the little opening of her nest that lies concealed below, with a double row of leaves; for hang the globe in the sunshine or the storm, and St Catherine will sit within, unscared and unscathed, counting her beads-perhaps a score-counting them with her fine-feeling breast that broods in bliss over the priceless pearls.
As for the Eagle, the little opening of his nest doth verily not lie concealed below a covering of a double row of leaves; but, eighteen feet in circumference, (we have measured one,) it lies unconcealed, except by its height from your ogles, mayhap a mile or a league, on a cliff-platform, occasionally no doubt hidden in clouds; and men, who speak what is now called the English tongue, call it an Eyrie.
If the old gentleman be not yet quite dead-and if he be, then we appeal to the most scientific of his surviving descendants-he is hereby humbly requested to have the goodness to inform us of the name of this ingenious bird; and to tell us, in a postscript, if ever, in all his born days, he saw a bird's nest of any kind whatever, on cliff or castle, ground or grove, in bush, tree, hedge, or old man's beard.
But what constant caution is perpetually necessary during the naturalist's perusal even of the very best books! From the very best we can only obtain knowledge at second hand, and this, like a story circulated among village gossips, is more apt to gain in falsehood than in truth, as it passes from one to another; but in field study, we go at once to the fountain-head, and obtain our facts pure and unalloyed by the theories and opinions of previous observers.