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CHAPTER I

THE FULL SNIPE AND HIS COUSINS

WOODCOCK and snipe, or snipe and woodcock? The question is, which bird should be given precedence, which bird is the more important from the points of view of the ornithologist and the sportsman, and, one should add, from the point of view of the epicurean? For the ornithologist, both birds abound in interest. Both, though such closely related members of the same family, are widely distinct in habits the one from the other, and each has habits neither possessed by the other nor by any other British bird.

Of an immense group of familiar birds, a group, made

up

of various distinct families, we can say that they have a fixed residence throughout the year; or, in the case of migratory birds, throughout that portion of the year which they spend within our islands, that they feed in a small radius, that they pair when the springtime comes round and build their nests and carry

food

to their young till the young are able to fly and feed themselves, that they dissolve the matrimonial bond when the .breeding season is over, and then go on leading the same humdrum, stay-at-home life till another mating time greets them. We know all about these birds, we know all about their movements and their lives, and how they pass their time and why they come and go. Their habits in general are very nearly the same. Striking individual peculiarities we find, of course. The nightingale sings when other singing birds are asleep; the cuckoo lays her egg on the ground, and then, taking it in her bill, places it in the nest of some small bird, a nest which the young cuckoo when hatched quickly makes his own by unceremoniously ejecting the rightful inhabitants, casting them out to certain and speedy death and consuming the food that should have been theirs; the kestrel, motionless save for the beating of his wings, hangs hovering in the air, scanning the ground for his prey; the heron and the kingfisher rest still as logs for an hour at a spell as they watch for their food to come near them. Such birds have peculiar and strikingly marked habits which differentiate them from all others, and make them at once objects of more than ordinary interest. So it is with the woodcock and the snipe. But in addition to a peculiarly distinct habit

of each of these birds—carrying the young ones in the case of the woodcock, and drumming in the case of the snipe, habits which no other birds possesswe have a further peculiarity common to both of them, viz. their uncertainty, or erratic ways, uncertainty such as we never see displayed by the rest of the birds with which we are acquainted. The carrying of the young by the woodcock and the drumming of the snipe, the points upon which the question of ornithological importance seems naturally to turn, may be said to make the two birds of equal interest to the student of animate nature ; other things being equal, or just about equal, we can, from the naturalist's point of view, credit neither bird with that which would give it precedence before the other.

From the point of view of the epicurean, a ballot would place the woodcock easily first. But is there strict justification for giving the snipe only second place in this? If the herring had been the rarest instead of the very commonest of all the fish we eat, and could only be bought at, let us say, the price we give for a lobster of respectable dimensions, it is quite probable that a Yarmouth bloater would now be held by our gourmet as the very king of fish, just as he holds the woodcock to be the very king of birds : if the woodcock had been as common as the lark, the

kinghood bestowed upon it by the gourmet would never have been called into existence—and the selfsame epicurean would to-day think vastly less of a woodcock than of a Yarmouth bloater. Such is the nature of man: what is rare and hard to attain, that we strive for and value ; upon what may be had almost for the asking we set but little store, if indeed we do not altogether despise it. Is the woodcock more worthy of kinghood than the snipe, or has he merely gained his position because, while really he is a no greater delicacy, he is the very much rarer bird ? is the snipe really less delicious than the 'cock ?

I doubt it : I think that if a dozen people who had never tasted either bird before were asked to decide the matter, two would vote for the 'cock as the better bird, two for the snipe as the better bird, and that the remainder would say there was nothing to choose between them. Though our epicurean would vote the woodcock into the foremost place, it is an open question whether the snipe would not have held that place had the relative abundance of the two birds been reversed. There is little doubt that appreciation of the woodcock is to some extent, we will say only a very, very small extent if you like, due to the fact that, though always by far the rarer bird, he was much more easily and more often secured for

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