The Swallow Mystery

An illustration of a swallow from "Nederlandsche Vogelen", 1770.

An illustration of a swallow from “Nederlandsche Vogelen”, 1770.

Snippets 111. William Hone is a name that should be remembered, and part of my remit for this blog is to bring the works of writers such as Hone to a wider audience by selecting some interesting quotes from their work. But the reason I think Hone should be remembered is that he achieved something in 1817 that affects our lives today: he helped to establish the freedom of the press. His writing had attacked the political classes and highlighted corruption, which resulted in a prosecution against him. Despite facing an uphill battle with judges who were biased against him, he battled through illness to speak for hours in front of them and was so persuasive that the charges against him were dropped. He had set an important precedent, that the press had a right to challenge the elite. The quote I have selected is of a much lighter nature, and is from his Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information, published in 1832. It is an extract of a letter written to Hone by the magnficently named Norrisson Scatcherd, entered into this fascinating almanac under the date of 3rd April, exactly 185 years to the day before this blog post.

The time is nearly come when we may expect a visit from that most wonderful bird, the swallow. His advent in Yorkshire, as I have noticed for many years, is between the 16th and 25th of April; but, with you, in the south, it will be sooner. After perusing, for many years, with much interest, all the accounts and controversies which have been printed respecting this interesting traveller, I must say there is one thing with which I have been exceedingly dissatisfied. Not one person, that I know of, has ever accounted satisfactorily for these birds being invisible in their migrations to Europe or Africa. We hear or see a few solitary accounts, such as those of Adamson and sir Charles Wager, about their settling on the masts of ships; but these prove little, and, by their infrequency, are rather calculated to excite suspicion; and have, certainly, produced little conviction upon those who contend that some species (at least) of swallows abide in England all the year. The objection, you see, which perpetually recurs, is this, – “If these birds do really leave us, how comes it that their transits should not have been clearly ascertained by the ocular testimony of observant and distinguished men, ages ago? How happens it that we should only have the fortuitous accounts of obscure and common individuals?”

There are other exceptions to migration, taken by the objectors to whom I allude, such as the testimony of people who assert that swallows have been fished up out of water, or found in caves, hollow trees, etc, and restored, by warmth, to animation: but, really, Mr. Editor, it appears to me that all this nonsense may be ended at a single blow, by reference to the works of Pennant, and the writings of those eminent anatomists, Messrs. John Hunter and Bell.

This confusion over the migration of swallows hails from a time when much of the continent of Africa was yet to be explored, Africa being of course the actual destination for our swallows in winter.


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