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    Chapter 11

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    Chapter 11
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    Salisbury and Its Doves

    Never in my experience has there been a worse spring season
    than that of 1903 for the birds, more especially for the
    short-winged migrants. In April I looked for the woodland
    warblers and found them not, or saw but a few of the commonest
    kinds. It was only too easy to account for this rarity. The
    bitter north-east wind had blown every day and all day long
    during those weeks when birds are coming, and when nearing the
    end of their journey, at its most perilous stage, the wind had
    been dead against them; its coldness and force was too much
    for these delicate travellers, and doubtless they were beaten
    down in thousands into the grey waters of a bitter sea. The
    stronger-winged wheatear was more fortunate, since he comes in
    March, and before that spell of deadly weather he was already
    back in his breeding haunts on Salisbury Plain, and, in fact,
    everywhere on that open down country. I was there to hear him
    sing his wild notes to the listening waste--singing them, as
    his pretty fashion is, up in the air, suspended on quickly
    vibrating wings like a great black and white moth. But he was
    in no singing mood, and at last, in desperation, I fled to
    Salisbury to wait for loitering spring in that unattractive
    town.

    The streets were cold as the open plain, and there was no
    comfort indoors; to haunt the cathedral during those vacant
    days was the only occupation left to me. There was some
    shelter to be had under the walls, and the empty, vast
    interior would seem almost cosy on coming in from the wind.
    At service my due feet never failed, while morning, noon, and
    evening I paced the smooth level green by the hour, standing
    at intervals to gaze up at the immense pile with its central
    soaring spire, asking myself why I had never greatly liked it
    in the past and did not like it much better now when grown
    familiar with it. Undoubtedly it is one of the noblest
    structures of its kind in England--even my eyes that look
    coldly on most buildings could see it; and I could admire,
    even reverence, but could not love. It suffers by comparison
    with other temples into which my soul has wandered. It has
    not the majesty and appearance of immemorial age, the dim
    religious richness of the interior, with much else that goes
    to make up, without and within, the expression which is so
    marked in other mediaeval fanes--Winchester, Ely, York,
    Canterbury, Exeter, and Wells. To the dry, mechanical mind of
    the architect these great cathedrals are in the highest degree
    imperfect, according to the rules of his art: to all others
    this imperfectness is their chief excellence and glory; for
    they are in a sense a growth, a flower of many minds and many
    periods, and are imperfect even as Nature is, in her rocks and
    trees; and, being in harmony with Nature and like Nature, they
    are inexpressibly beautiful and satisfying beyond all
    buildings to the aesthetic as well as to the religious sense.

    Occasionally I met and talked with an old man employed at the
    cathedral. One day, closing one eye and shading the other
    with his hand, he gazed up at the building for some time, and
    then remarked: "I'll tell you what's wrong with Salisbury--it
    looks too noo." He was near the mark; the fault is that to
    the professional eye it is faultless; the lack of expression
    is due to the fact that it came complete from its maker's
    brain, like a coin from the mint, and being all on one
    symmetrical plan it has the trim, neat appearance of a toy
    cathedral carved out of wood and set on a green-painted
    square.

    After all, my thoughts and criticisms on the cathedral, as a
    building, were merely incidental; my serious business was with
    the feathered people to be seen there. Few in the woods and
    fewer on the windy downs, here birds were abundant, not only
    on the building, where they were like seafowl congregated on a
    precipitous rock, but they were all about me. The level green
    was the hunting ground of many thrushes--a dozen or twenty
    could often be seen at one time--and it was easy to spot those
    that had young. The worm they dragged out was not devoured;
    another was looked for, then another; then all were cut up in
    proper lengths and beaten and bruised, and finally packed into
    a bundle and carried off. Rooks, too, were there, breeding on
    the cathedral elms, and had no time and spirit to wrangle, but
    could only caw-caw distressfully at the wind, which tossed
    them hither and thither in the air and lashed the tall trees,
    threatening at each fresh gust to blow their nests to pieces.
    Small birds of half a dozen kinds were also there, and one
    tinkle-tinkled his spring song quite merrily in spite of the
    cold that kept the others silent and made me blue. One day I
    spied a big queen bumble-bee on the ground, looking extremely
    conspicuous in its black and chestnut coat on the fresh green
    sward; and thinking it numbed by the cold I picked it up. It
    moved its legs feebly, but alas! its enemy had found and
    struck it down, and with its hard, sharp little beak had
    drilled a hole in one of the upper plates of its abdomen, and
    from that small opening had cunningly extracted all the meat.
    Though still alive it was empty as a blown eggshell. Poor
    queen and mother, you survived the winter in vain, and went
    abroad in vain in the bitter weather in quest of bread to
    nourish your few first-born--the grubs that would help you by
    and by; now there will be no bread for them, and for you no
    populous city in the flowery earth and a great crowd of
    children to rise up each day, when days are long, to call you
    blessed! And he who did this thing, the unspeakable oxeye
    with his black and yellow breast--"catanic black and amber"--
    even while I made my lamentation was tinkling his merry song
    overhead in the windy elms.

    The birds that lived on the huge cathedral itself had the
    greatest attraction for me; and here the daws, if not the most
    numerous, were the most noticeable, as they ever are on
    account of their conspicuousness in their black plumage, their
    loquacity and everlasting restlessness. Far up on the ledge
    from which the spire rises a kestrel had found a cosy corner
    in which to establish himself, and one day when I was there a
    number of daws took it on themselves to eject him: they
    gathered near and flew this way and that, and cawed and cawed
    in anger, and swooped at him, until he could stand their
    insults no longer, and, suddenly dashing out, he struck and
    buffeted them right and left and sent them screaming with fear
    in all directions. After this they left him in peace: they
    had forgotten that he was a hawk, and that even the gentle
    mousing wind-hover has a nobler spirit than any crow of them
    all.

    On first coming to the cathedral I noticed a few pigeons
    sitting on the roof and ledges very high up, and, not seeing
    them well, I assumed that they were of the common or domestic
    kind. By and by one cooed, then another; and recognizing the
    stock-dove note I began to look carefully, and found that all
    the birds on the building--about thirty pairs--were of this
    species. It was a great surprise, for though we occasionally
    find a pair of stock-doves breeding on the ivied wall of some
    inhabited mansion in the country, it was a new thing to find a
    considerable colony of this shy woodland species established
    on a building in a town. They lived and bred there just as
    the common pigeon--the vari-coloured descendant of the blue
    rock--does on St. Paul's, the Law Courts, and the British
    Museum in London. Only, unlike our metropolitan doves, both
    the domestic kind and the ringdove in the parks, the Salisbury
    doves though in the town are not of it. They come not down to
    mix with the currents of human life in the streets and open
    spaces; they fly away to the country to feed, and dwell on the
    cathedral above the houses and people just as sea-birds
    --kittiwake and guillemot and gannet--dwell on the ledges of
    some vast ocean-fronting cliff.

    The old man mentioned above told me that the birds were called
    "rocks" by the townspeople, also that they had been there for
    as long as he could remember. Six or seven years ago, he
    said, when the repairs to the roof and spire were started, the
    pigeons began to go away until there was not one left. The
    work lasted three years, and immediately on its conclusion the
    doves began to return, and were now as numerous as formerly.
    How, I inquired, did these innocent birds get on with their
    black neighbours, seeing that the daw is a cunning creature
    much given to persecution--a crow, in fact, as black as any of
    his family? They got on badly, he said; the doves were early
    breeders, beginning in March, and were allowed to have the use
    of the holes until the daws wanted them at the end of April,
    when they forcibly ejected the young doves. He said that in
    spring he always picked up a good many young doves, often
    unfledged, thrown down by the dawn. I did not doubt his
    story. I had just found a young bird myself--a little
    blue-skinned, yellow-mouthed fledgling which had fallen sixty
    or seventy feet on to the gravel below. But in June, he said,
    when the daws brought off their young, the doves entered into
    possession once more, and were then permitted to rear their
    young in peace.

    I returned to Salisbury about the middle of May in better
    weather, when there were days that were almost genial, and
    found the cathedral a greater "habitacle of birds" than ever:
    starlings, swifts, and swallows were there, the lively little
    martins in hundreds, and the doves and daws in their usual
    numbers. All appeared to be breeding, and for some time I saw
    no quarreling. At length I spied a pair of doves with a nest
    in a small cavity in the stone at the back of a narrow ledge
    about seventy feet from the ground, and by standing back some
    distance I could see the hen bird sitting on the nest, while
    the cock stood outside on the ledge keeping guard. I watched
    this pair for some hours and saw a jackdaw sweep down on them
    a dozen or more times at long intervals. Sometimes after
    swooping down he would alight on the ledge a yard or two away,
    and the male dove would then turn and face him, and if he then
    began sidling up the dove would dash at and buffet him with
    his wings with the greatest violence and throw him off. When
    he swooped closer the dove would spring up and meet him in the
    air, striking him at the moment of meeting, and again the daw
    would be beaten. When I left three days after witnessing this
    contest, the doves were still in possession of their nest, and
    I concluded that they were not so entirely at the mercy of the
    jackdaw as the old man had led me to believe.

    It was, on this occasion, a great pleasure to listen to the
    doves. The stock-dove has no set song, like the ringdove, but
    like all the other species in the typical genus Columba it has
    the cooing or family note, one of the most human-like sounds
    which birds emit. In the stock-dove this is a better, more
    musical, and a more varied sound than in any other Columba
    known to me. The pleasing quality of the sound as well as the
    variety in it could be well noted here where the birds were
    many, scattered about on ledges and projections high above the
    earth, and when bird after bird uttered its plaint, each
    repeating his note half a dozen to a dozen times, one in slow
    measured time, and deep-voiced like the rock-dove, but more
    musical; another rapidly, with shorter, impetuous notes in a
    higher key, as if carried away by excitement. There were not
    two birds that cooed in precisely the same way, and the same
    bird would often vary its manner of cooing.

    It was best to hear them during the afternoon service in the
    cathedral, when the singing of the choir and throbbing and
    pealing of the organ which filled the vast interior was heard
    outside, subdued by the walls through which it passed, and was
    like a beautiful mist or atmosphere of sound pervading and
    enveloping the great building; and when the plaining of the
    doves, owing to the rhythmic flow of the notes and their human
    characters, seemed to harmonize with and be a part of that
    sacred music.
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