« PreviousContinue »
others approximating in every respect to the “rasores ;' or again, in passing from the third to the fourth, from the ground birds to the waders, how slight is the boundary, how gentle the transition from the bustards to the plovers : compare the smaller bustard, the last of one order, and the great plover, the first of the next, and how much do they resemble each other, how little the difference to mark the two divisions, how similar in their appearance, their shape, their habits, the locality they affect. And once more, though the webbed feet of the last order may seem at first sight so plain and distinguishing a characteristic, as to leave little room for gradual transition here, between the waders and swimmers, yet it is not so: observe the well-known coot and the phalaropes, mark their peculiar feet, furnished with membranes, though not wholly webbed, their decidedly aquatic habits, their powers of swimming and diving, and by their intervention see how easily we pass from the true waders to the true swimmers. Thus we are led on from order to order, not suddenly or unconnectedly, but gradually and almost insensibly, proving to us the perfect harmony of all the works of nature, while at the same time we can trace sufficient marks of distinction to prevent any real confusion.
Having detailed somewhat at length the method pursued in this first great subdivision of the land and water birds, I now proceed to show more concisely in what the other subdivisions consist. At present we may be able to define the order to which any given bird may belong, but we are still very far from placing it in that particular position which alone it is entitled to hold.
The next great subdivision of birds is into TRIBES,' which will not occupy us long; for of the five orders, it is usual to pass by four, as not needing this subdivision, and to apply it only to that very large one, 'Insessores' or perchers. These birds being so numerous and withal so similar in some of their habits, have nevertheless certain marked characteristics, distinguishing at one glance the 'tribe' to which they belong, and thus very much simplifying their classification. The perchers then are divided into four tribes; the first of which is the ‘Dentirostres' or 'toothbilled,' so called from the distinct tooth or notch near the extremity of the bill, enabling the bird to hold securely whatever it may seize : it is chiefly composed of insect-eating birds, and of these the redbreast is an example. The second is the Conirostres' or
cone-billed,' so called from the conical form, as well as immense strength of the beak; these birds are principally consumers of grain, as an instance of which we may name the common housesparrow. The third comprises the “Scansores' or climbers,' the members of which are remarkable for their power of climbing, and to this end they are furnished with toes arranged in pairs, with stiff bristling tail to serve as a support, with tongues capable of great elongation and extension, whereby they may transfix the insects they find in the trees they are ascending; of this the woodpeckers are examples. The fourth and last tribe is composed of the “Fissirostres' or 'wide-billed," so called from their enormous width of gape : these have usually very small feet, and take their food principally on the wing: every one will readily perceive how well the swallows answer to this description.
Having now reached the point at which the four tribes of perchers are on an equality with the remaining four entire orders, we come to subdivide these several classes into “FAMILIES.' The word “families” describes itself at once : these, it will clearly be perceived, are groups of birds belonging to the same order and tribe, and having still nearer affinities one to another, not shared by members of another family, though belonging to the same order and tribe. Thus, for example, the tribe “tooth-billed' is composed of a number of families, the thrushes, the warblers, the titmice, &c., all resembling one another in the formation of their beak, and other characteristics of the tribe : but each family containing distinctive marks, separating them from the remaining families, and uniting them in a closer alliance to one another.
When we have mastered the classification of birds up to this point, we have attained no slight knowledge of their arrangement; but again we must pursue our enquiries a little farther, and subdivide these families into GENERA. Of these each family contains a certain number, some more, some less, the members of each genus having still farther points of resemblance between them, than with those of other genera, though of the same family. Thus, to take for example, the warblers, ‘sylviadæ ': in this family there is the genus 'curruca,' containing the whitethroats, the genus 'regulus,' containing the golden-crested wrens, the genus 'saxicola,' containing the chats. Thus again of the family of grous, there is the genus 'tetrao,' containing the real grous, the genus 'lagopus,' containing the ptarmigans, the genus 'perdix,' containing the partridges.
And so again in like manner, to come to the last subdivision, which concludes the arrangement of birds according to scientific classification ; every genus contains certain SPECIES, differing from one another in some respects, the points of difference being sometimes marked and clear, at others times slight, and hardily perceptible. Thus, as the family of grous contains among others the genus partridge, so the genus partridge in its turn comprises these several species, the common partridge, the red-legged partridge, and the Barbary partridge. Again, as the family of warblers contains among others the genus chat, so the genus chat contains the whinchat, the stonechat, and the wheatear.
It will be needless to pursue this explanation any farther, though it may be useful to subjoin the accompanying table, * recapitulating the above method of classification, and enumerating the members of the three large subdivisions, some individuals of almost all of which are very generally known.
Such, then, is a general outline of modern classification as commonly adopted in this country. I am quite aware that the above description of it is far from perfect, and some of the subdivisions may to the experienced seem defective: to enter into farther detail would have occupied too much time, and have produced obscurity and confusion : and, perhaps, for practical purposes, what I have said will be amply sufficient. Volumes and treatises without number have been written on the subject, and our best Ornithologists have employed a vast deal of time and learning to bring it to perfection : the above is but a short epitome of the result of their labours. To those who care not for the pursuit of Ornithology, I fear the repetition of so many hard names may seem irksome ; but to those who would learn something of birds, I am certain it is no loss of time to gain an insight into their classification ; for an acquaintance with this will pave the way to their future studies, simplifying what would otherwise be abstruse, laying bare what would otherwise be hidden, and unravelling what must otherwise be complicated : for (as I observed at the beginning, now I repeat in conclusion) order and method are the very foundation stones of natural history : we can never arrive at any advanced knowledge of birds without them : we may be able, indeed, to detect some species on the ground, on the wing, or by their notes; we may have some acquaintance with their respective habits and peculiarities, but till we can place them in their own positions, classify them with something of order, arrange them in reference to their congeners with something of method, our knowledge and observations will be of small avail in teaching us the secrets of Ornithology; and we shall fall short in understanding the beautiful balance held by nature; the general connection between birds of the same order and tribe ; the more intimate connection between those of the same family; the close union between those of the same genus ; and the almost insensible degrees by which they pass from one to another, all of which are subjects of exceeding interest to the careful observer; and our Ornithological knowledge instead of being comprehensive, will be desultory; instead of being valuable, will be defective; instead of being useful, will be productive of neither instruction nor pleasure.
All who take an interest in the history of our county will readily acknowledge their obligations to Mr. Waylen for the valuable contribution to that subject with which he has presented us in this very handsome volume. We hail it as one indication among many of the spirit of research having been at length awakened into our ancient annals, and of the zeal with which independent writers, unaided by our Association, are already setting to work to fill up those great gaps in our county history that are at once a discredit and a disappointment to us. The work offers, moreover, a striking example of the abundant matter which such researches will be found to disclose in reference to those many towns and extensive districts of Wiltshire, which as yet are unexamined, or, at all events, undescribed by any local historian. Few persons, probably, would suppose, a priori, that the history of the comparatively petty country town of Marlborough, could afford materials for a thick octavo volume of a most readable and agreeable character. Yet, we can truly say, that having once taken up Mr. Waylen’s work, we found it very difficult to lay it down again until we reached the last page.
*A HISTORY, MILITARY AND MUNICIPAL, OF THE TOWN OF MARLBOROUGH, AND MORE GENERALLY OF THE ENTIRE HUNDRED OF SELKLEY. BY JAMES WAYLEN. SMITH, 36, Soho SQUARE.