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A Description of Elizabethan England.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter XIII

Of Wild and Tame Fowls

[1577, Book III., Chapters 9 and 11; 1587, Book III., Chapters 2 and 5.]

ORDER requireth that I speak somewhat of the fowls also of England, which I may easily divide into the wild and tame; but, alas! such is my small skill in fowls that, to say the truth, I can neither recite their numbers nor well distinguish one kind of them from another. Yet this I have by general knowledge, that there is no nation under the sun which hath already in the time of the year more plenty of wild fowl than we, for so many kinds as our island doth bring forth, and much more would have if those of the higher soil might be spared but one year or two from the greedy engines of covetous fowlers which set only for the pot and purse. Certes this enormity bred great troubles in King John’s days, insomuch that, going in progress about the tenth of his reign, he found little or no game wherewith to solace himself or exercise his falcons. Wherefore, being at Bristow in the Christmas ensuing, he restrained all manner of hawking or taking of wild fowl throughout England for a season, whereby the land within few years was thoroughly replenished again. But what stand I upon this impertinent discourse? Of such therefore as are bred in our land, we have the crane, the bitter, the wild and tame swan, the bustard, the heron, curlew, snite, wildgoose, wind or doterell, brant, lark, plover (of both sorts), lapwing, teal, widgeon, mallard, sheldrake, shoveller, peewitt, seamew, barnacle, quail (who, only with man, are subject to the falling sickness), the knot, the oliet or olive, the dunbird, woodcock, partridge, and pheasant, besides divers others, whose names to me are utterly unknown, and much more the taste of their flesh, wherewith I was never acquainted. But as these serve not at all seasons, so in their several turns there is no plenty of them wanting whereby the tables of the nobility and gentry should seem at any time furnished. But of all these the production of none is more marvellous, in my mind, than that of the barnacle, whose place of generation, we have sought often times as far as the Orchades, whereas peradventure we might have found the same nearer home, and not only upon the coasts of Ireland, but even in our own rivers. If I should say how either these or some such other fowl not much unlike unto them have bred of late times (for their place of generation is not perpetual, but as opportunity serveth and the circumstances do minister occasion) in the Thames mouth, I do not think that many will believe me; yet such a thing hath there been seen where a kind of fowl had his beginning upon a short tender shrub standing near unto the shore, from whence, when their time came, they fell down, either into the salt water and lived, or upon the dry land and perished, as Pena the French herbarian hath also noted in the very end of his herbal. What I, for mine own part, have seen here by experience, I have already so touched upon in the chapter of islands, that it should be but time spent in vain to repeat it here again. Look therefore in the description of Man (or Manaw) for more of these barnacles, as also in the eleventh chapter of the description of Scotland, and I do not doubt but you shall in some respect be satisfied in the generation of these fowls. As for egrets, pawpers, and such like, they are daily brought unto us from beyond the sea, as if all the fowl of our country could not suffice to satisfy our delicate appetites.

Our tame fowl are such (for the most part) as are common both to us and to other countries, as cocks, hens, geese, ducks, peacocks of Ind, pigeons, now a hurtful fowl by reason of their multitudes, and number of houses daily erected for their increase (which the boors of the country call in scorn almshouses, and dens of thieves, and such like), whereof there is great plenty in every farmer’s yard. They are kept there also to be sold either for ready money in the open markets, or else to be spent at home in good company amongst their neighbours without reprehension or fines. Neither are we so miserable in England (a thing only granted unto us by the especial grace of God and liberty of our princes) as to dine or sup with a quarter of a hen, or to make as great a repast with a cock’s comb as they do in some other countries; but, if occasion serve, the whole carcases of many capons, hens, pigeons, and such like do oft go to wrack, beside beef, mutton, veal, and lamb, all of which at every feast are taken for necessary dishes amongst the communalty of England.

The gelding of cocks, where by capons are made, is an ancient practice brought in of old time by the Romans when they dwelt here in this land; but the gelding of turkeys or Indish peacocks is a newer device, and certainly not used amiss, sith the rankness of that bird is very much abated thereby and the strong taste of the flesh in sundry wise amended. If I should say that ganders grow also to be gelded, I suppose that some will laugh me to scorn, neither have I tasted at any time of such a fowl so served, yet have I heard it more than once to be used in the country, where their geese are driven to the field like herds of cattle by a gooseherd, a toy also no less to be marvelled at than the other. For, as it is rare to hear of a gelded gander, so is it strange to me to see or hear of geese to be led to the field like sheep; yet so it is, and their gooseherd carrieth a rattle of paper or parchment with him when he goeth about in the morning to gather his goslings together, the noise whereof cometh no sooner to their ears than they fall to gaggling, and hasten to go with him. If it happen that the gates be not yet open, or that none of the house be stirring, it is ridiculous to see how they will peep under the doors, and never leave creaking and gaggling till they be let out unto him to overtake their fellows. With us, where I dwell, they are not kept in this sort, nor in many other places, neither are they kept so much for their bodies as their feathers. Some hold furthermore an opinion that in over rank soils their dung doth so qualify the batableness of the soil that their cattle is thereby kept from the garget, and sundry other diseases, although some of them come to their ends now and then by licking up of their feathers. I might here make mention of other fowls produced by the industry of man, as between the pheasant cock and dunghill hen, or between the pheasant and the ringdove, the peacock and the turkey hen, the partridge and the pigeon; but, sith I have no more knowledge of these than what I have gotten by mine ear, I will not meddle with them. Yet Cardan, speaking of the second sort, doth affirm it to be a fowl of excellent beauty. I would likewise intreat of other fowls which we repute unclean, as ravens, crows, pies, choughs, rooks, kites, jays, ringtails, starlings, woodspikes, woodnaws, etc.; but, sith they abound in all countries, though peradventure most of all in England (by reason of our negligence), I shall not need to spend any time in the rehearsal of them. Neither are our crows and choughs cherished of purpose to catch up the worms that breed in our soils (as Polydor supposeth), sith there are no uplandish towns but have (or should have) nets of their own in store to cath them withal. Sundry acts of Parliament are likewise made for their utter destruction, as also the spoil of other ravenous fowls hurtf I to poultry, conies, lambs, and kids, whose valuation of reward to him that killeth them is after the head: a device brought from the Goths, who had the like ordinance for the destruction of their white crows, and tale made by the beck, which killed both lambs and pigs. The like order is taken with us for our vermin as with them also for the rootage out of their wild beasts, saving that they spared their greatest bears, especially the white, whose skins are by custom and privilege reserved to cover those planchers whereupon their priests do stand at mass, lest he should take some unkind cold in such a long piece of work: and happy is the man that may provide them for him, for he shall have pardon enough for that so religious an act, to last if he will till doomsday do approach, and many thousands after. Nothing therefore can be more unlikely to be true than that these noisome creatures are nourished amongst us to devour our worms, which do not abound much more in England than elsewhere in other countries of the main. It may be that some look for a discourse also of our other fowls in this place at my hand, as nightingales, thrushes, blackbirds, mavises, ruddocks, redstarts or dunocks, larks, tivits, king-fishers, buntings, turtles (white or grey), linnets, bullfinches, goldfinches, washtails, cherrycrackers, yellowhammers, fieldfares, etc.; but I should then spend more time upon them than is convenient. Neither will I speak of our costly and curious aviaries daily made for the better hearing of their melody, and observation of their natures; but I cease also to go any further in these things, having (as I think) said enough already of these that I have named.…

I cannot make as yet any just report how many sorts of hawks are bred within this realm. Howbeit which of those that are usually had among us are disclosed within this land, I think it more easy and less difficult to set down. First of all, therefore, that we have the eagle common experience doth evidently confirm, and divers of our rocks whereon they breed, if speech did serve, could well declare the same. But the most excellent eyrie of all is not much from Chester, at a castle called Dinas Bren, sometime builded by Brennus, as our writers do remember. Certes this castle is no great thing, but yet a pile sometime very strong and inaccessible for enemies, though now all ruinous as many others are. It standeth upon a hard rock, in the side whereof an eagle breedeth every year. This also is notable in the overthrow of her nest (a thing oft attempted), that he which goeth thither must be sure of two large baskets, and so provide to be let down thereto, that he may sit in the one and be covered with the other: for otherwise the eagle would kill him and tear the flesh from his bones with her sharp talons, though his apparel were never so good. The common people call this fowl an erne; but, as I am ignorant whether the word eagle and erne do shew any difference of sex, I mean between the male and the female, so we have great store of them. And, near to the places where they breed, the commons complain of great harm to be done by them in their fields; for they are able to bear a young lamb or kid unto their nests, therewith to feed their young and come again for more. I was once of the opinion that there was a diversity of kind between the eagle and the erne, till I perceived that our nation used the word erne in most places for the eagle. We have also the lanner and the lanneret, the tersel and the goshawk, the musket and the sparhawk, the jack and the hobby, and finally some (though very few) marleons. And these are all the hawks that I do hear as yet to be bred within this island. Howbeit, as these are not wanting with us, so are they not very plentiful: wherefore such as delight in hawking do make their chief purveyance and provision for the same out of Danske, Germany, and the eastern countries, from whence we have them in great abundance and at excellent prices, whereas at home and where they be bred they are sold for almost right nought, and usually brought to the markets as chickens, pullets, and pigeons are with us, and there bought up to be eaten (as we do the aforesaid fowl) almost of every man. It is said that the sparhawk pryeth not upon the fowl in the morning, that she taketh over even, but as loath to have double benefit by one seelie fowl doth let it go to make some shift for itself. But hereof as I stand in some doubt. So this I find among the writers worthy the noting: that the sparhawk is enemy to young children, as is also the ape, but of the peacock she is marvellously afraid, and so appalled that all courage and stomach for a time is taken from her upon the sight thereof. But to proceed with the rest. Of other ravenous birds we have also very great plenty, as the buzzard, the kite, the ringtail, dunkite, and such as often annoy our country dames by spoiling of their young breeds of chickens, ducks, and goslings, whereunto our very ravens and crows have learned also the way: and so much are ravens given to this kind of spoil that some idle and curious heads of set purpose have manned, reclaimed, and used them instead of hawks, when other could not be had. Some do imagine that the raven should be the vulture, and I was almost persuaded in times past to believe the same; but, finding of late, a description of the vulture, which better agreeth with the form of a second kind of eagle, I freely surcease to be longer of that opinion: for, as it hath, after a sort, the shape, colour, and quantity of an eagle, so are the legs and feet more hairy and rough, their sides under their wings better covered with thick down (wherewith also their gorge or a part of their breast under their throats is armed, and not with feathers) than are the like parts of the eagle, and unto which portraiture there is no member of the raven (who is almost black of colour) that can have any resemblance: we have none of them in England to my knowledge; if we have, they go generally under the name of eagle or erne. Neither have we the pygargus or grip, wherefore I have no occasion to treat further. I have seen the carrion crows so cunning also by their own industry of late that they have used to soar over great rivers (as the Thames for example) and, suddenly coming down, have caught a small fish in their feet and gone away withal without wetting of their wings. And even at this present the aforesaid river is not without some of them, a thing (in my opinion) not a little to be wondered at. We have also ospreys, which breed with us in parks and woods, whereby the keepers of the same do reap in breeding time no small commodity; for, so soon almost as the young are hatched, they tie them to the butt ends or ground ends of sundry trees, where the old ones, finding them, do never cease to bring fish unto them, which the keepers take and eat from them, and commonly is such as is well fed or not of the worst sort. It hath not been my hap hitherto to see any of these fowl, and partly through mine own negligence; but I hear that it hath one foot like a hawk, to catch hold withal, and another resembling a goose, wherewith to swim; but, whether it be so or not so, I refer the further search and trial thereof unto some other. This nevertheless is certain, that both alive and dead, yea even her very oil, is a deadly terror to such fish as come within the wind of it. There is no cause whereof I should describe the cormorant amongst hawks, of which some be black and many pied, chiefly about the Isle of Ely, where they are taken for the night raven, except I should call him a water hawk. But, sith such dealing is not convenient, let us now see what may be said of our venomous worms, and how many kinds we have of them within our realm and country.