SOME RESULTS OF WILD-BIRD PROTECTION
Among the happiest results of the modern feeling about birds is the conversion of the whole of the Thames above the tideway into a "protected area." This was not done by an order of the Secretary of State, who, by existing law, would have had to make orders for each bit of the river in different counties, and often, where it divides counties, would have been obliged to deal separately with each bank. The Thames Conservancy used their powers, and summarily put a stop to shooting on the river throughout their whole jurisdiction. The effect of this was not seen all at once; but little by little the waterfowl began to return, the kingfishers to increase, and all the birds along the banks grew tamer. Then the County Councils of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Berkshire forbade the killing of owls and kingfishers, and this practically made the river and its banks a sanctuary.
The water-hen are so numerous that at Nuneham Lock they run into the cottages, and at other locks the men complain they eat all their winter cabbages. As many as forty at a time have been counted on the meadows. Mr. Harcourt has also established a wild-duck colony on and about the island at Nuneham. The island has a pond in the centre, with sedges and ancient willows and tall trees round. There the really wild ducks join the home-bred ones in winter. Lower down, the scene on late summer days is almost like a poultry-yard, with waterfowl and wild pigeons substituted for ducks and chickens. Young water-hens of all sizes pipe and flutter in the reeds, and feed on the bank within a few feet of those rowing or fishing, and their only enemies are the cats, which, attracted by their numbers, leave the cottages for the river and stalk them, while the old water-hens in vain try to get their too tame young safe on to the water again.
Though kingfishers have increased fast they are less in evidence, being naturally shy after years of persecution. In summer they keep mainly at the back of the willows, away from the river, so long as the latter is crowded with boats.
It was not till November, 1899, that I saw the kingfishers at play, as I had long hoped to do, in such numbers as to make a real feature on the river. It was a brilliant, warm, sunny morning, such as sometimes comes in early winter, and I went down before breakfast to Clifton Bridge. There the shrill cry of the kingfishers was heard on all sides, and I counted seven, chasing each other over the water, darting in swift flight round and round the pool, and perching on the cam-shedding in a row to rest. Presently two flew up and hovered together, like kestrels, over the stream. One suddenly plunged, came up with a fish, and flying to the other, which was still hovering, put the fish into its beak. After this pretty gift and acceptance both flew to the willows, where, let us hope, they shared their breakfast.
In a row down the river extending over ten miles I saw more than twenty kingfishers, most of them flying out, as is their custom, on the side of the willows and osiers averse from the river, but some being quite content to remain on their perches from which they fish, while the boat slipped down in midstream. As they sit absolutely motionless, and the reddish breast, and not the brilliant back, is turned to the water, it needs quick eyes to see these watchers by the stream.
The total prohibition of shooting on the water or banks is also producing the usual effect on the other birds and beasts. They are rapidly becoming tame, and the oarsman has the singular pleasure of floating down among all kinds of birds which do not regard him as an enemy. Young swallows sit fearlessly on the dead willow boughs to be fed by their parents; the reed-buntings and sedge-warblers scarcely move when the oar dips near the sedge on which they sit; wood-pigeons sit on the margin and drink where the pebble-banks or cattle-ways touch the water; and the water-rats will scarcely stop their business of peeling rushes to eat the pith, even if a boatload of children passes by.