Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boys and birds

In the parish church of Selborne, England, where Gilbert White was curate, there is a three-paneled stained-glass window depicting "St. Francis Preaching to the Birds." In my color slide of the window, I can count 60 or so species of birds, all the species mentioned by Gilbert White in his The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1789.

It is easy to identify many of the birds attendant upon St. Francis; they are similar or identical to American species. Here, for example, are the heron, woodcock, mallard, barn owl, starling, swift, martin and wren.

Here too are species that are different from our own. Perched upon St. Francis' finger is the European robin, a smaller, more winsome bird than the American robin, sharing only a red breast with its namesake.

But what is this bird in the lower right-hand panel of the window, with outlandish headdress and black-and-white cape, like a Mayan priest in a costume of feathers? It is that most outlandish of all European birds, the hoopoe.

The hoopoe is not common in Britain; it is a rare visitor from the continent. In his Natural History, Gilbert White mentions a pair of hoopoes, "the most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts," which came to Selborne one summer and frequented the garden adjoining his own. "They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet; but were frighted and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them at rest," he wrote.