The Natural History of Selborne

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Excerpts from the Book: The Natural History of Selborne by Rev. Gilbert White – published 1861

Spring is in the air and the weather is turning warmer so we start to do more things outdoors and observe the bird and wildlife around us.  The Natural History of Selborne is an endearing book containing a collection of letters and poems by the Rev. Gilbert White, with observations on various parts of nature, in particular the bird and wildlife.  Here is one of his letters to Thomas Pennant, Esq. written on September 9, 1767 regarding the local birdlife at his home in Selborne.

To Thomas Pennant, Esq. Letter XI, Selborne, September 9, 1767

The Osprey (Falco)IT will not be without impatience that I shall wait for your thoughts with regard to the falco; as to its weight, breadth, etc, I wish I had set them down at the time; but, to the best of my remembrance, it weighed two pounds and eight ounces, and measured, from wing to wing, thirty-eight inches. Its cere and feet were yellow, and the circle of its eyelids a bright yellow.  As it had been killed some days, and the eyes were sunk, I could make no good observation on the colour of the pupils and the irides.

The most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts were a pair of Hoopoes, (upupa), which came several years ago in the summer, and frequented an ornamental piece of ground, which joins to my garden, for some weeks.  They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet; but were frightened and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them be at rest.

Three grossbeaks (loxia coccothraustes) appeared some years ago in my fields, in the winter; one of which I shot.  Since that, now and then, one is occasionally seen in the same dead season.

The CrossbillA crossbill (loxia curvirostra) was killed last year in this neighbourhood.  Our streams, which are small, and rise only at the end of the village, yield nothing but the bull’s head, or miller’s thumb (gobiusfluviatilis capitatus), the trout (trutta fluviatilis), the eel (anguilla), the lampern (lampatra parva et fluviatilis), and the stickle-back (pisciculus aculeatus).

We are twenty miles from the sea, and almost as many from a great river, and therefore see but little of sea birds.  As to wild fowls, we have a few teams of ducks bred in the moors where the snipes breed; and multitudes of widgeons and teals, in hard weather, frequent our lakes in the forest.  Having some acquaintance with a tame brown owl, I find that it casts up the fur of mice and the feathers of birds in pellets, after the manner of hawks:  when full, like a dog, it hides what it cannot eat.

The young of the barn-owl are not easily raised, as they want a constant supply of fresh mice; whereas the young of the brown owl will eat indiscriminately all that is brought; snails, rats, kittens, puppies, magpies, and any kind of carrion or offal.

The house-martins have eggs still, and squab young.  The last swift I observed was about the 21st of August:The House Martin it was a straggler.

Redstarts, fly-catchers, white-throats, and reguli non cristati, still appear; but I have seen no black-caps lately.

I forgot to mention, that I once saw in Christ Church College quadrangle, in Oxford, on a very sunny warm morning, a house-martin flying about and settling on the parapet, so late as the 20th of November.

At present, I know only two species of bats, the common vespertilio murinus, and the vespertilio auribus.

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