Gilbert White’s Swallows, by Tim Dee.
Hirundines, the swallow and martin tribe, were key birds for the students of migration. John had reported on the hirundines of Gibraltar in an early letter to his brother and this seems to have been a prompt for Gilbert to encourage further study of the birds and of the wider natural history happenings on the Rock. John had noticed that crag martins (as we know them now) appeared in Gibraltar in the winter only. He secured a specimen and had it skinned and sent north. Thanks to reading Scopoli’s work, Gilbert was able to identify it and went on to deduce something of the species’ migratory habits. Gilbert wrote to John:
‘So these birds build & spend their summer on the airy tops of the Alps; & their winter under the warm & sheltry shores of Spain & Barbary. However you will have the honour of first discovering their winter quarters.’
Gilbert encouraged John to finish his Fauna on his return to England. His close and detailed observations of crag martins suggested that bigger truths about migration were in reach. But John was thwarted by illness and seems to have fallen into a depression; Gilbert tried to cheer him up:
‘I verily think your dissertations on the Hirundines are the best tracts I ever saw of the kind, as they throw much light on the dark but curious business of migration, and possess such merit as alone might keep any book from sinking. If consulted, I therefore protest loudly against the intention of throwing your papers aside.’
Gilbert always regretted that John had stopped and had left the birds flying over Gibraltar behind him.
We know also that he fretted and worried himself about swallows and migration and never quite forswore the popular belief that some birds hibernate. The mud at the bottom of ponds was thought a winter home for them. Gilbert had sand banks excavated hoping to find torpid martins. Having the birds back in his midst was a big part of his life, and as he got closer to his end – his inevitable way out – he seems to have allowed the thought into his otherwise questioning and empirical mind that his beloved birds never actually left his parish at all. Just as Selborne was all but inaccessible through the winter months of mud or snow, so, maybe, the swallows were still there, locked in and hunkering down.
In 1792, a decade after his brother had died and just a year before he did, Gilbert sent a correspondent, Thomas Marsham, a gift of a letter about swallows that go in the winter (barn swallows) and swallows that come in the winter (crag martins). Marsham had reported hearing nightingales singing throughout the winter on the southern Spanish coast. White suspected a misidentification, but disillusioned Marsham gently:
‘I had a brother who lived 18 years at Gibraltar, & who has written an accurate Nat. Hist. of that rock & its environs. Now he says, that Nightingales leave Andalusia as regularly towards autumn as other Summer birds of passage. A pair always breeds in the Governors garden at the Convent. This Hist. has never been published, & probably now never will, because the poor author has been dead some years. There is in his journals such ocular demonstration of swallow emigration to & from Barbary at Spring and fall, as, I know, would delight you much. There is an Hirundo hyberna, that comes to Gibraltar in Octr, & departs in March; & abounds in & about the Garrison the winter thro’.’
On Gibraltar, as Gilbert figured its hirundines, you need never be without your swallows.