Nature By Night
By Graham Thomson
When you are hiking along in the twilight you will probably notice various birds going to bed; indeed, often you cannot help but notice them, so noisy and fussy as they are! Have you ever heard a rookery settling down for the night in the high tree-tops? What a cawing! A lot of it sounds rather like swearing, I fear!
Most birds go to sleep, or to roost, in trees, or at any rate somewhere above the ground. It is a deep-rooted instinct to seek safety during the night hours from prowling animals to whom a bird is just a tasty supper.
Even the domestic fowl that lays your breakfast eggs, and has lived in captivity and almost completely protected from the wild for countless generations, needs a perch to roost on, and if there is no bar indoors it will hop up into a tree if it can, or on to the roof of the dog-kennel, or somewhere above the ground. The pet canary will not sleep on the floor of its cage; it perches on the swing bar for its night's rest.
Pheasants go to roost in trees, and the cock birds crow as they go to roost, as if to call everyone else to bed. So do big fat turkeys and heavy guinea-fowl; and even the proud peacock is not too proud to take refuge as high above the ground as he can get at night. Sparrows and swallows and most of the woodland birds, too, pass the night in the trees, sleeping on their safe perches and sheltered by the leaves.
Perhaps you may wonder how it is that a bird can perch on a thin twig, or a telegraph wire, and go fast asleep for hours, and yet never fall off. Well, the fact of the matter is that once the bird has settled, it is more difficult for it to rise and fly away than it is for it to fall off. For directly the bird has perched and taken a grip, certain muscles come into use which lock its claws, and so even in the deepest sleep the claws cannot relax.
Tendons that pass from the thigh part of the bird's leg to its knee and its toes, or claws, lock the leg with the knees bent, and so it can stay on its perch without effort, without growing stiff. When dawn comes and the bird wakes up, it has to unbend its knees by a conscious muscular effort before it can take flight, or fall off the twig.
Swim and Sleep
Not all birds are perchers, though. Naturally, the web-footed ones cannot perch on a twig. Ducks and geese usually sleep on their natural element, the water, and ride at anchor, like ships in harbor, as far away from the land as possible, safe from their enemy, Brer Fox.
If the water is a moving stream, they automatically and unconsciously paddle with their feet to keep themselves afloat and in the same spot, and to save themselves from being carried near the shore. This is a sort of self-protective instinct that they possess. Strange and wonderful, isn't it?
There may be a chance for you to do a good turn in the winter time. Sometimes ducks go to sleep in the middle of the pond, and the pond freezes over, and then Brer Fox may come on the scene and try to reach the birds. So break the ice near the edge, if you are there in time, and save the ducks.
Partridges are birds that do not perch in trees at night. They know that the safest place for them is the middle of the biggest open space they can find, and there they sleep on the ground. In some hollow, providing a wind-break, in the center of an open field, meadow or ploughland, twenty or more of the birds will roost together on the ground, lying close, wing to wing, for warmth and safety.
They all sleep with one ear, at least, wide open, and at the first hint of alarm they set up a terrific noise, and are prepared to take flight if needs be. There, they are as far as possible from any trees, hedges or other cover for a stalking enemy, and you will find it quite impossible to approach them unobserved. Try it !
Cuddlers and Crooners
Many of the smaller birds cuddle together at night in the eaves of houses, or in a hole in a thatched roof, or inside a deserted barn. Wrens snuggle down very cozily, even when fully grown. In the twilight you will often see parent birds of such species as swifts and swallows and martins chasing the youngsters to bed.
They fly around after them with loud cries, and pursue them into their nests under the eaves. By the way, if you like " crooning " listen for the young martins at night ; they seem to croon all the night through as they sleep in their nest.
On the other hand, there are the night-birds, such as the owls, who sleep by day and sally forth, when dark comes, to eat. You sometimes come across a sleepy-looking owl in the daytime, drowsy in a hollow tree or the roof of a barn, in a loft or a dovecote, or the church belfry. Mother owl sits by her eggs, and every now and then she counts them with her claw, as if to reassure herself that no one has stolen a precious egg. She makes the most extraordinary hissing and snoring noises, too ; and if you go too near she will lift a big claw and threaten to scratch and fight in defense of her family.
Usually the owl wakes up about an hour before sunset, which is the time when the field mice come out to play. The owl then sets out in quest of prey, and you can watch him hunting for mice along the hedges and over the cornfields. When a mouse is caught, it is held in the claws and carried off to the owl's nest, there to be consumed in comfort.
By the way, the white owl, or barn owl, the kind of owl that inhabits barns and lofts and churches, does not hoot, or very rarely, though it sometimes screams while flying; but it does snore and hiss, as mentioned above.
Owls and Howls
The weird hooting that most scouts can imitate so well is made by the tawny owl, or wood owl, which usually nests in a tree and frequents woods, avoiding buildings. That is the owl that gives the "tu-whit, whit, hoo-ooo-ooo" cry, so softly and weirdly. The long-eared owl, which also haunts woods, especially fir-woods, gives a long wavering cry which is somewhat similar, but not so prolonged ; it also utters a sort of bark. The short-eared owl also barks, and utters a short harsh scream ; the little owl makes a kind of soft mewing noise, and it snores too. Queer [strange] birds, owls!
This book is not intended to be anything like a complete guide to the night-active creatures of England, but mention must certainly be made of the nightingale. This bird whose song is so highly esteemed is a shy summer visitor to England, about six and a half inches long fully-grown, and of quiet plain brown color, paler underneath. It haunts woods and thickets, and builds a nest of dead leaves and grass on or near the ground at the base of a bush.
You may perhaps see it in daytime, though it is difficult to see. It sings in daytime, too, but its song is more noticeable in the quiet of the night, especially because it sings loudly compared with many birds. It is indeed a lovely song, as those of you who have heard it, either directly or over the wireless [radio, television, Internet], know.
Have you ever seen a nightjar? Probably not, though you may have heard them often enough when in camp, especially on the moors and downlands. It is much more often heard than seen, because it lies hidden and probably asleep all day, and its plumage tones very well with the heath or turf or stone land on which it lies concealed in the daytime.
At dusk or after it comes alive, perches on a tree or a post or a fence, and sings, if you can call it a song ; it is rather like a sewing machine working busily, and sometimes this purring note is sustained without a break for two minutes. You may recognize it, if you chance to see it, by its gray plumage, barred with brown, buff and black ; the tips of the outer tail feathers of the male bird are white. Its "song" is terribly monotonous, as is that of another night songster, the corncrake, which utters a harsh croaking noise at night.
Bats are Not Blind
Another creature that you commonly see in the evening, and often quite late at night, is the bat. Although it flies, it is not a bird, but a mammal, a hand-winged animal. It has four legs, and the leathery skin covering them enables it to fly. Although its Wing-span may be twelve inches or more, its body is only about three inches long. There are about a hundred different species of bat in this country, and many of them are useful because they eat beetles and other harmful insects.
The commonest bat in England is called the pipistrelle, and it often flies in daytime. The night flying bats sleep by day, hanging by their claws head-downward in the roofs of barns and belfries ; and that is how they pass three or four months in the winter, sleeping all the time with their wings folded round their heads.
By the way, people talk of "being blind as a bat" but bats are not blind. They have eyes, and very sharp ones too, for spotting insects at dusk.
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Last modified: August 20, 2012.