THE BIRDS THAT STAY
In the Vision of the Lots and Lives, when the souls chose their careers on a fresh register before taking another chance in the world above, Ulysses chose that of a stay-at-home proprietor, with a resolve, born of experience, never again to roam. If Plato had made a Myth of the Birds, he might have alleged some such reason to explain how it is that while most of them are incessant wanderers, ever flitting uncertain between momentary points of rest, so few remain fixed and constant, as if they had sworn at some distant date never more to make trial of the wine-dark sea. In the still, November woods, when the vapours curl like smoke among the dripping boughs, leaving a diamond on each sprouting bud where next year's leaf is hid; by the moorland river, on bright December mornings, when the grayling are lying on the shallows below the ripple where the rock breaks the surface; by the frozen shore where the land-springs lie fast, drawn into icicles or smeared in slippery slabs on the cliff faces, and hoar frost powders the black sea-wrack; on the lawns of gardens, where the winter roses linger and open dew-drenched and rain-washed in the watery sunbeams - there we see, hear, and welcome the birds that stay. Then and there we note their fewness, their lameness, and feel that they are really fellow-countrymen, native to the soil. The list of these home-loving birds is short; and those commonly seen are only a few of the total. In a winter stroll by the upper Thames, the absence of the birds which flocked along the banks in summer and spring, when the May was in blossom and the willow covered with cotton fleck, is among the first seasonal changes noticed. The chiff-chaffs, turtledoves, sedge-warblers, whitethroats, coots, sandpipers, and all the little river birds are gone. So are the greater number of the blackbirds, thrushes and missel-thrushes. All the fisherman sees, his daily companions by the deserted river, are the wren creeping in the flood-drift, the tits working over the alder bushes to see if any seeds are left in the cones, and the kingfishers. The grayling fisherman on the Northern streams has the water ousels for his constant and charming companions, true to the mountain river as in the days of Merlin and Vivien, busy as big black-and-white bees as they flit up-stream and down-stream, flying boldly into the waterfalls, dropping silently from mossy stones into the clear brown eddies, singing when the sunbeams shine and warm the crag-tops, and even floating and singing on the water, like aquatic robins. The ousels must have been the sacred birds of Tana, the Water Goddess, the ever attached votaries of her dripping and rustic shrines.
By the winter shore, untrodden by any but the fisher going down at the ebb to seek king-crab for bait, or by his children, gathering driftwood on the stones, one little bird stays ever faithful to the same short range of shore. This is the rock-pipit - the "sea-lark" of Browning's verse. But that is a summer song. It is not only when the cliff -
"Sets his bones,
To bask i' the sun,"
but in the short winter days, that the sea-lark keeps constant to the fringe of ocean. It is the most narrowly local and stay-at-home of all birds, never leaving the very fringe and margin, not of sea, but of land, haunting only the last edge and precipice of the coast, nesting on those upright walls of granite or chalk, and creeping, flying, and twittering among the crumbling stones, the water-worn boulders, and the tufts of sea-pink and samphire. When the winter storms slam the roaring billows against the cliff faces and the spray flies up a hundred feet from the exploding mass, the little sea-larks only mount to higher levels of the cliff, never coming inland or forsaking its salt-spattered resting-place. Compared with these home-loving birds, all the gulls are wanderers, even though they do not desert our shores and come fifty miles up the Thames. Of the rock-fowl, the puffins fly straight away to the Mediterranean, and the guillemots and razorbills go out to sea and leave their nesting crags. Only the cormorants stay at home, flying in to roost on the same lofty crag every autumn and winter night, from the fishing grounds which the sea-crows have frequented for longer years even than the "many-wintered crow" of inland rookeries has his fat and smiling fields.
The discovery that rooks, with their reputation for staunch attachment to locality, are regular and irrepressible migrants, crossing from Denmark and Holland to England, and from England to Ireland, has been followed by other curious revelations about the mobility of what were believed to be stationary birds. Our own beloved garden robin, whom we feed till he becomes a sturdy beggar, though he pays us with a song, stays with us, as we know, because he applies regularly for his rations. But he sends all his children away to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and on our coasts flights of migrant robins, whom either their parents, or the bad weather, have sent from Norway over the foam, arrive all through the autumn. Even the jenny-wrens migrate to some extent.