The Common Birds of India, by Edward Hamilton Aitkin

I recently stumbled across this rather curious volume, which appears to have been assembled into its 3rd edition in 1915, with antecedents in a series of articles published approximately 40 years earlier in “The Times of India”.  This volume includes a wonderful but brief editors’ preface by Salim Ali, in which he states

“Editor I hardly like to call myself. Any attempt to ‘edit’ a masterpiece like The Common Birds Of Bombay (now republished as The Common Birds of India) would be tantamount to vandalism.”

Serious praise there.

The book is really is a study in Indian ornithology, centered primarily around Bombay.  But the scholarly writing of the time is captivating, as seen in this selection from the chapter “The Snipes and Snippets”:

“The monsoon has scarcely ended when the saltpans and still flooded rice fields on the other side of the harbor are alive with long-legged waders and web-footed swimmers of many sizes shapes. Snipe and Curlew, Stint and Sand Piper, Heron and Cormorant, Duck and Teal, seem to have arrived by one train, and having no home to go to, are wandering about in search of refreshments. Strange birds are in that crowd sometimes. Not far from Hog Island I have seen a Flamingo in the same field, I think in which I shot a Merganser another year. Are all these to be reckoned as birds of Bombay? Five or ten miles are nothing to them, and there is not one of which it can safely be said that it will not be found on our island. But to describe half of them would defeat the very purpose of these papers, which is not to perplex, but to help the sedentary Bombayite, who is not a naturalist nor a sportsman, nor a murderer under any name, so that he may recognize the birds that he sees as he takes his morning walk, drives to office, sits in his garden, or enjoys a sail in the harbor.”

painted-snipe-game-birds-of-india-burma-ceylon

Picture inset “Painted Snipe, Game Birds Of India, Burma & Ceylon, Pl.v”

Snipe in Haiku – Survey of Japanese Literature, cont.

The sparse language of haiku evokes so well the feeling of the snipe marsh.  Here is a mid century translation of “kokoro naki…,” a poem in classical Japanese by Saigyō.  This translation was by Keene (1955):

Even to someone
Free of passions this sadness
Would be apparent:
Evening in autumn over
A marsh where a snipe rises.

Snipe - Japanese Art

For those interested, I reference you to the following site on the translation of classical Japanese poetry, focusing specifically on the above poem by Saigyō:

http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv7n3/features/Atkins.html

 

Snipe in Haiku – Survey of Japanese Literature

In my literary wanderings, seeking poems and prose that include reflections on the snipe, I have found there is a veritable cornucopia of haiku on the diminutive game bird.  There must be something universal in the solitary nature of the snipe and its habits and habitation.

Here I reference the Japanese poet Issa, and his modern translator David G. Lanoue, for this haunting poem:

all people must
grow old…
the snipe rises

–Issa, 1804

Snipe - Japanese Print

From David’s translation notes “This is an enigmatic haiku. Since the snipe is an autumn bird, perhaps Issa sees it as a sign of his own growing old.”

Reference http://haikuguy.com/issa/index.html

 

 

On Winter Snipe Shooting – Nick Kenney, 2001

It leaps from bog and watery fen,
to make it’s airy dance.
It darts and weaves above the glen,
to give me but one chance.
I see it move, and hear it speak.
It’s flight is hard to follow.
I know this game of hide and seek.
It rushes on, across the fallow.
Now, the gun is set in place,
and recoils hard against my shoulder.
The mind has figured out the pace.
The day has just gone colder.
So, let the search to find begin,
to grasp the prize at end of race.
The joy and pain are mixed within, for this angel, fallen from grace.
— Nick Kenney, c2001
Snipe

Excerpt from “Fowling, a Poem (In Five Books)” by John Vincent, 1808

“Shrill cries the snipe beneath the friendly moon,

Wand’ring to find the springs, constrain’d to quit

The long frequented marsh, who’s rushy pools,

Lock’d up in ice, repel his searching bill.”

— Excerpt from John Vincent’s “Fowling, a Poem (In Five Books)”, published 1808

Snipe_Shooting_near_Uxbridge_-_Robert_Havell

This passage describes beautifully how closely snipe shooting is associated with winter in northern climes.  Even with the summer-like spring we are having here in Oregon now, the mind and heart wander periodically back to the marsh in winter.

On a Mourner By Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

Perusing Snipe and Woodcock by L.H. De Visme Shaw, from the Fur, Feather and Fin Series, published 1903 by Longman, Green and Co. I stumbled across this plate with a line from Tennyson’s On a Mourner:

Tennyson's Snipe

“The Birds of Tennyson”, by Watkin Watkins, beautifully describes Tennyson’s treatment of the snipe here:

‘The Snipe. — Tennyson’s reference to

The swamp, where humm’d the dropping snipe,

is remarkable as an instance of his accuracy of observation of natural objects.  Chapman “Bird Life on the Borders” tells us that ‘snipe only drum head to wind and when falling.’  The drumming of humming of the snipe is a curious sound which the bird makes with it’s wings, and is only heard when it takes a downward course.  Its flight is well described by Wordsworth, who in The Excursion speaks of the “darting snipe”‘

Below is Tennyson’s thought provoking poem.  How often do our thoughts drift in such directions while wandering the snipe bog?

On a Mourner
By Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

NATURE, so far as in her lies,
Imitates God, and turns her face
To every land beneath the skies,
Counts nothing that she meets with base,
But lives and loves in every place; 5

Fills out the homely quickset-screens,
And makes the purple lilac ripe,
Steps from her airy hill, and greens
The swamp, where humm’d the dropping snipe,
With moss and braided marish-pipe; 10

And on thy heart a finger lays,
Saying, “Beat quicker, for the time
Is pleasant, and the woods and ways
Are pleasant, and the beech and lime
Put forth and feel a gladder clime.” 15

And murmurs of a deeper voice,
Going before to some far shrine,
Teach that sick heart the stronger choice,
Till all thy life one way incline,
With one wide will that closes thine. 20

And when the zoning eve has died
Where yon dark valleys wind forlorn,
Come Hope and Memory, spouse and bride,
From out the borders of the morn,
With that fair child betwixt them born. 25

And when no mortal motion jars
The blackness round the tombing sod,
Thro’ silence and the trembling stars
Comes Faith from tracts no feet have trod,
And Virtue, like a household god 30

Promising empire; such as those
Once heard at dead of night to greet
Troy’s wandering prince, so that he rose
With sacrifice, while all the fleet
Had rest by stony hills of Crete. 35

Too Early – Anton Chekhov

Sharing in its entirety this lovely short story by Chekhov about snipe hunting, in time for Easter wishes. 

THE bells are ringing for service in the village of Shalmovo. The sun is already kissing the earth on the horizon; it has turned crimson and will soon disappear. In Semyon’s pothouse, which has lately changed its name and become a restaurant — a title quite out of keeping with the wretched little hut with its thatch torn off its roof, and its couple of dingy windows — two peasant sportsmen are sitting. One of them is called Filimon Slyunka; he is an old man of sixty, formerly a house-serf, belonging to the Counts Zavalin, by trade a carpenter. He has at one time been employed in a nail factory, has been turned off for drunkenness and idleness, and now lives upon his old wife, who begs for alms. He is thin and weak, with a mangy-looking little beard, speaks with a hissing sound, and after every word twitches the right side of his face and jerkily shrugs his right shoulder. The other, Ignat Ryabov, a sturdy, broad-shouldered peasant who never does anything and is everlastingly silent, is sitting in the corner under a big string of bread rings. The door, opening inwards, throws a thick shadow upon him, so that Slyunka and Semyon the publican can see nothing but his patched knees, his long fleshy nose, and a big tuft of hair which has escaped from the thick uncombed tangle covering his head. Semyon, a sickly little man, with a pale face and a long sinewy neck, stands behind his counter, looks mournfully at the string of bread rings, and coughs meekly.

“You think it over now, if you have any sense,” Slyunka says to him, twitching his cheek. “You have the thing lying by unused and get no sort of benefit from it. While we need it. A sportsman without a gun is like a sacristan without a voice. You ought to understand that, but I see you don’t understand it, so you can have no real sense. . . . Hand it over!”

“You left the gun in pledge, you know!” says Semyon in a thin womanish little voice, sighing deeply, and not taking his eyes off the string of bread rings. “Hand over the rouble you borrowed, and then take your gun.”

“I haven’t got a rouble. I swear to you, Semyon Mitritch, as God sees me: you give me the gun and I will go to-day with Ignashka and bring it you back again. I’ll bring it back, strike me dead. May I have happiness neither in this world nor the next, if I don’t.”

“Semyon Mitritch, do give it,” Ignat Ryabov says in his bass, and his voice betrays a passionate desire to get what he asks for.

“But what do you want the gun for?” sighs Semyon, sadly shaking his head. “What sort of shooting is there now? It’s still winter outside, and no game at all but crows and jackdaws.”

“Winter, indeed,” says Slyunka, hooing the ash out of his pipe with his finger, “it is early yet of course, but you never can tell with the snipe. The snipe’s a bird that wants watching. If you are unlucky, you may sit waiting at home, and miss his flying over, and then you must wait till autumn. . . . It is a business! The snipe is not a rook. . . . Last year he was flying the week before Easter, while the year before we had to wait till the week after Easter! Come, do us a favour, Semyon Mitritch, give us the gun. Make us pray for you for ever. As ill-luck would have it, Ignashka has pledged his gun for drink too. Ah, when you drink you feel nothing, but now . . . ah, I wish I had never looked at it, the cursed vodka! Truly it is the blood of Satan! Give it us, Semyon Mitritch!”

“I won’t give it you,” says Semyon, clasping his yellow hands on his breast as though he were going to pray. “You must act fairly, Filimonushka. . . . A thing is not taken out of pawn just anyhow; you must pay the money. . . . Besides, what do you want to kill birds for? What’s the use? It’s Lent now — you are not going to eat them.”

Slyunka exchanges glances with Ryabov in embarrassment, sighs, and says: “We would only go stand-shooting.”

“And what for? It’s all foolishness. You are not the sort of man to spend your time in foolishness. . . . Ignashka, to be sure, is a man of no understanding, God has afflicted him, but you, thank the Lord, are an old man. It’s time to prepare for your end. Here, you ought to go to the midnight service.”

The allusion to his age visibly stings Slyunka. He clears his throat, wrinkles up his forehead, and remains silent for a full minute.

“I say, Semyon Mitritch,” he says hotly, getting up and twitching not only in his right cheek but all over his face. “It’s God’s truth. . . . May the Almighty strike me dead, after Easter I shall get something from Stepan Kuzmitch for an axle, and I will pay you not one rouble but two! May the Lord chastise me! Before the holy image, I tell you, only give me the gun!”

“Gi-ive it,” Ryabov says in his growling bass; they can hear him breathing hard, and it seems that he would like to say a great deal, but cannot find the words. “Gi-ive it.”

“No, brothers, and don’t ask,” sighs Semyon, shaking his head mournfully. “Don’t lead me into sin. I won’t give you the gun. It’s not the fashion for a thing to be taken out of pawn and no money paid. Besides — why this indulgence? Go your way and God bless you!”

Slyunka rubs his perspiring face with his sleeve and begins hotly swearing and entreating. He crosses himself, holds out his hands to the ikon, calls his deceased father and mother to bear witness, but Semyon sighs and meekly looks as before at the string of bread rings. In the end Ignashka Ryabov, hitherto motionless, gets up impulsively and bows down to the ground before the innkeeper, but even that has no effect on him.

“May you choke with my gun, you devil,” says Slyunka, with his face twitching, and his shoulders, shrugging. “May you choke, you plague, you scoundrelly soul.”

Swearing and shaking his fists, he goes out of the tavern with Ryabov and stands still in the middle of the road.

“He won’t give it, the damned brute,” he says, in a weeping voice, looking into Ryabov’s face with an injured air.

“He won’t give it,” booms Ryabov.

The windows of the furthest huts, the starling cote on the tavern, the tops of the poplars, and the cross on the church are all gleaming with a bright golden flame. Now they can see only half of the sun, which, as it goes to its night’s rest, is winking, shedding a crimson light, and seems laughing gleefully. Slyunka and Ryabov can see the forest lying, a dark blur, to the right of the sun, a mile and a half from the village, and tiny clouds flitting over the clear sky, and they feel that the evening will be fine and still.

“Now is just the time,” says Slyunka, with his face twitching. “It would be nice to stand for an hour or two. He won’t give it us, the damned brute. May he. . . ”

“For stand-shooting, now is the very time . . .” Ryabov articulated, as though with an effort, stammering.

After standing still for a little they walk out of the village, without saying a word to each other, and look towards the dark streak of the forest. The whole sky above the forest is studded with moving black spots, the rooks flying home to roost. The snow, lying white here and there on the dark brown plough-land, is lightly flecked with gold by the sun.

“This time last year I went stand-shooting in Zhivki,” says Slyunka, after a long silence. “I brought back three snipe.”

Again there follows a silence. Both stand a long time and look towards the forest, and then lazily move and walk along the muddy road from the village.

“It’s most likely the snipe haven’t come yet,” says Slyunka, “but may be they are here.”

“Kostka says they are not here yet.”

“Maybe they are not, who can tell; one year is not like another. But what mud!”

“But we ought to stand.”

“To be sure we ought — why not?”

“We can stand and watch; it wouldn’t be amiss to go to the forest and have a look. If they are there we will tell Kostka, or maybe get a gun ourselves and come to-morrow. What a misfortune, God forgive me. It was the devil put it in my mind to take my gun to the pothouse! I am more sorry than I can tell you, Ignashka.”

Conversing thus, the sportsmen approach the forest. The sun has set and left behind it a red streak like the glow of a fire, scattered here and there with clouds; there is no catching the colours of those clouds: their edges are red, but they themselves are one minute grey, at the next lilac, at the next ashen.

In the forest, among the thick branches of fir-trees and under the birch bushes, it is dark, and only the outermost twigs on the side of the sun, with their fat buds and shining bark, stand out clearly in the air. There is a smell of thawing snow and rotting leaves. It is still; nothing stirs. From the distance comes the subsiding caw of the rooks.

“We ought to be standing in Zhivki now,” whispers Slyunka, looking with awe at Ryabov; “there’s good stand-shooting there.”

Ryabov too looks with awe at Slyunka, with unblinking eyes and open mouth.

“A lovely time,” Slyunka says in a trembling whisper. “The Lord is sending a fine spring . . . and I should think the snipe are here by now. . . . Why not? The days are warm now. . . . The cranes were flying in the morning, lots and lots of them.”

Slyunka and Ryabov, splashing cautiously through the melting snow and sticking in the mud, walk two hundred paces along the edge of the forest and there halt. Their faces wear a look of alarm and expectation of something terrible and extraordinary. They stand like posts, do not speak nor stir, and their hands gradually fall into an attitude as though they were holding a gun at the cock. . . .

A big shadow creeps from the left and envelops the earth. The dusk of evening comes on. If one looks to the right, through the bushes and tree trunks, there can be seen crimson patches of the after-glow. It is still and damp. . . .

“There’s no sound of them,” whispers Slyunka, shrugging with the cold and sniffing with his chilly nose.

But frightened by his own whisper, he holds his finger up at some one, opens his eyes wide, and purses up his lips. There is a sound of a light snapping. The sportsmen look at each other significantly, and tell each other with their eyes that it is nothing. It is the snapping of a dry twig or a bit of bark. The shadows of evening keep growing and growing, the patches of crimson gradually grow dim, and the dampness becomes unpleasant.

The sportsmen remain standing a long time, but they see and hear nothing. Every instant they expect to see a delicate leaf float through the air, to hear a hurried call like the husky cough of a child, and the flutter of wings.

“No, not a sound,” Slyunka says aloud, dropping his hands and beginning to blink. “So they have not come yet.”

“It’s early!”

“You are right there.”

The sportsmen cannot see each other’s faces, it is getting rapidly dark.

“We must wait another five days,” says Slyunka, as he comes out from behind a bush with Ryabov. “It’s too early!”

They go homewards, and are silent all the way.

 

“The Hammer-Bleat” from The Birds of Old English Literature by Charles Huntington Whitman

In my snipe meanderings, I recently stumbled across a Cornell University Library reference book from 1898 titled “The Birds of Old English Literature”, which provides some language background to the bird’s name.

Most will be familiar with the old name “snite“, as described in the first reference:

 

"Gen. Gallinago. True Snipes. 

LI I. I. snite. Snipe. ME. snite, snyte ; perhaps allied 
to snort, probably having reference to the bird's long bill. 

WW. 285. 12, 344. 38, Cp. C. 138: acegia, snite; WW. 132. 20: aceta, 
snite uel wudecocc."

However, I think I was most charmed by an earlier name derived from the male snipe’s courtship call, which renders in modern English as “hammer-bleat”, among others:

"2. hzeferbljlte. Snipe. This word does not appear in 
ME. but is preserved in Mod.E. as hammer-bleat and 
heather-bleat, a snipe. In the dictionaries it is variously 
termed sea gull, bittern, and hawk. Once it appears as 
hcefenblcete (' haven-screamer,' gull) but this is probably for 
hmferblcEte, the usual form ; <C hosfer, a he-goat (L. caper) + 
blcetan, to bleat, lit. a ' goat-bleater.' This seems to describe 
accurately the male snipe, whose love song resembles the 
bleatmg of a goat. Hence in many languages the snipe is 
known by names signifying ' flying goat,' ' heaven's ram,' 
as in Scotland the ' heather-bleater.' Cf. Diet, of Birds." 

 

Interesting background information for the curious snipe hunter.  Facsimile edition and full text of this reference book can be found at the Internet Archive:

https://archive.org/details/cu31924031439544

Great Snipe Engraving

 

 

Under “Different Plans for Shooting Snipes” – Dr. Elisha J. Lewis

“The American Sportsman: Containing Hints to Sportsmen, Notes on Shooting and the Habits of the Gamebirds” and Wildfowl of America, by Elisha J. Lewis, M.D. was  published by J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1863.  The book is illustrated with engravings by George G. White, and special attention for my purposes is drawn to “Chapter XI – Wilson’s or English Snipe.  Scolopax Wilsonii–Scolopax Gallinago”.  This chapter is complete in its description of the snipe as a game bird, but as seems so common with sporting writings of the 18th and 19th century, includes poetic fragments, which I’ve selected for today’s posting.

“Next for the snipe you must prepare:

He darts like lightning through the air,

With devious wing; a moment wait,

You’ll see the rover travel straight.”

And further

“When’er you beat for snipes, implore

Old Æolius o’er marsh and moor

Boldly to breathe ; yet always mind

You turn your back upon the wind.”

Sound advice!

Shooting_from_Hide_tail-piece_in_Bewick_British_Birds_1804

“Snipe Shooting” – Sporting Magazine, 1798.

When gelid frosts encrust the faded ground,
And dreary winter clouds the scene around ;
The timid snipes fly to the sedgy rills,
Or seek the plashes on the upland hills.
The sportsman, now, wakes with the gleaming morn,
His gun makes fit, refills his pouch and horn,
And to the swampy meadow takes his way,
With sport and exercise to crown the day.
See first how curiously he scans the sedge,
Then warily proceeds along the edge :
His piece is cock’d, and in position right,
To meet his shoulder readily and light.
But yet more cautiously he treads beside
The well-known plash, where most he thinks to hide
The dappled bird – and from the rushy stream
Frighten’d she rises, with a piercing scream.
His tube the fowler points with steady sight,
And seeks to trace her thro’ her rapid flight ;
Whilst o’er the field she tries each artful wile,
And crooked turn, his level to beguile.
Her slender wings swift cut the buoyant air,
‘Till distance gives her as a mark more fair :
Now glancing, just the marksman gets his aim,
His ready finger doth the trigger strain.
He fires—the fatal shot unerring flies,
The Snipe is struck, she flutters, bleeds, and dies.