3 SEPTEMBER 1921, Page 10

BIRD-LIFE FROM THE TRAIN., T O attempt the observation of bird-life

from the windows of a fast-moving railway carriage does not at first sound likely to be prolific of interest. That in practice, however, the contrary is the case the experience of one who daily travels to and from London, a total distance of nearly a hundred and twenty miles, can testify. For two-thirds of its course this journey is made over one of the main northern systems, the rest comprises a branch line. Punch once reported an imaginary discussion by representative birds on the subject of their own distinctive peculiarities. The heron proudly declared that everybody said " There's a heron " when they saw him from the train. This is very true, for he seems to be the only bird that is always recognized when on the wing by one's fellow- passengers ; in nine cases out of ten, however, they fail to see him when he stands motionless in a ditch or stream beside the line. Among large birds he is least afraid of the passing trains, and is rarely put to flight by them. Lapwings, again, take no heed of what passes, whether in springtime when they are tumbling in the air over their nests, or in the dusk of winter evenings when they stand forlornly beside some frozen marsh. From the carriage window it is possible to follow the family history of several pairs of moorhens whose nests appear half-submerged at the edge of some small ponds. The gradual reduction in the number of young birds originally hatched can be recorded, and a guess hazarded as to whether the culprits are stoats or rats. A pair of swans have nested on a small island, and it was interesting to watch the proud demeanour of the cock standing on guard some few yards from his sitting mate. For over a month he remained thus, but the day after the eggs were hatched the whole party moved further upstream and were lost to sight. This year a remarkable feature is the great number of kestrels in evidence ; turtle-doves have also been more numerous than usual. Seagulls are popularly supposed only to appear inland in case of prospective hard weather, but as a matter of fact individuals can generally be seen following the plough in the arable country which the line traverses any time from October to March. The most unexpected of small birds sometimes appear in uncon- ventional places, as, for example, the pair of wheatears noticed one day last summer in a siding within eight miles of the London terminus. By their colouring, jays are easily distinguished, as are cuckoos by their short vacillat- ing flights, whilst pied wagtails seem to be the most common frequenters of station yards. Easily the boldest bird is the little owl which almost daily sits on a telegraph pole, barely ten yards from the four sets of metals and less than a quarter of an hour's run from London. It is a curious sight to see this member of an intruded species thus watching for its prey in the brilliant sun of a midsummer morning or afternoon, quite unmoved by the noisy passage of trains and the volumes of smoke emerging from two adjacent tunnels. From a spectacular point of view rooks must be placed to the fore when on autumn evenings they go through their elaborate evolutions in mass for- mation in the sky. Starlings also afford a similar example of well-drilled flight. For studying the various modes of flight and estimating the comparative speed of birds, one is placed at a con- siderable advantage when seated in a train. A natural history book published many years before the limitations of even mechanical flight were known gave what pur- ported to be the flying speeds of different birds. The swift was stated to be by far the fastest of any, and was credited with two hundred miles an hour ; if recollection serves aright, the hirundines were placed next, somewhat arbitrarily followed by other birds in a scale descending as their wing-spread increased. 'Whilst not disputing that swifts are among the fastest flyers, it now seems ridiculous to suggest that any bird could cover three miles in a minute. Observations, indeed, show- that swifts 'and swallows when flying parallel with the train are always left behind on what railwaymen calf the "fast stretches," that is where the speed of the train exceeds fifty-five miles an hour. Coveys of partridges from their habit, at this season of the year, of skimming the stubble fields, certainly give the impression of great speed; but all the same it is doubtful if they could sustain forty miles an hour for more than a few moments. Incidentally, on two occasions coveys have come to grief by misjudging the train's speed. when trying to cross the track diagonally ; once the driver picked a brace off the coal in the tender, the other time a single bird was discovered at the front of the smoke-box. Corroborative evidence of the much slower speeds attained by thrushes and the finch tribe in general can be obtained from a car on the road' • under windless conditions they never exceed thirty miles an hour. A mathematical treatise of a hundred years ago was based on the assumption that the rook flew at. twenty-four miles an hour, and there seem to be no grounds on which to vary this postulate now. Both. wood-pigeons and- carriers. fly fast and straight, but records prove that even the latter when specially trained average at most forty mires—the train always leaves them behind—and the undulating progress of such birds as the. green-woodpecker is made to look- quite ridiculously slow. Among the mammals it is easy to watch the familiarity displayed, by rabbits to passing trains ; they bolt to their holes if a human being appears at the corner of the field, but an express train roaring by does. not even make them look round. Hares, on the other hand, when running, either turn off at a tangent or else crouch in their tracks until danger seems past. The nearest observed escape from disaster by a four-footed animal befell a signal-box cat one day when 'in her eagerness to cross the lines on a mouse-hunting. excursion she failed to see the express train approaching in addition to the slow goods, and must have saved one of her nine lives by the fraction of a. second. Not so lucky was one of a party of three white hens in the same neighbourhood', whose failure to cross in front of the engine with her fleeter-footed sisters was brought to notice by the paper-chase effect of flying feathers. Three hours of train journeying a day can be robbed of most of its monotony by thus using- one's eyes, which luickly become. accustomed to the unusual conditions and enable one to recognize specimen after specimen, and to look for each in certain stretches of line and at certain seasons. The only- drawback is that the animal world thus seen is a silent one ; no songs are heard, and all nature appears to be tongue-tied.