Nature Notes

By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THE Oxfam shop in Otley was recently given a book published in 1700, perhaps the oldest it has ever received as a donation. It was written by Charles Leigh, Doctor of Physick, and titled “The Natural History of Lancashire, Cheshire and the Peak in Derbyshire.”

The chapter that fascinated me most was “Of Birds” with some of the species discussed shown in the accompanying plate from the book. Top left is the “Sea-Crow”, recognisably the Hooded Crow, with Leigh observing that they “peck up pebble-stones, and then soar with them to a considerable height, then to let fall the stones among the beds of shell-fishes, which most commonly break some of them, they afterwards alight, and feed upon their prey.”

Bottom left is the “Asprey or Sea-Eagle”, presumably the Osprey rather than the white-tailed sea eagle, which Leigh dissected, finding “a great number of small fishes, some entire, some half-digested, and others turned to a perfect mucilage” leading him to the view that digestion was a more complicated process than proposed by other scientists of his time.

Bottom right is a Barnacle Goose (The illustration looks more like a gannet for which the old traditional name was Solan Goose) and Leigh goes into detail to debunk the strange theory that Barnacle Geese developed from goose-barnacles (this myth apparently arose because people, seeing the geese but never finding their nests, believed the geese hatched from the shell-fish). His arguments are convincing but the legend persisted for another hundred years.

Second down on the right is the “Copped Wren, in shape resembling, and about the bigness of a water-wagtail” so possibly a skylark. Leigh relates a story, apparently “confirmed by a great number of persons of undoubted credit, so that the truth is not to be questioned”, of one of these birds trying to feed soldiers lying upon the grass and that “the bird would not approach any person but those in a soldier’s habit, which was red.”

The other two birds shown are “birds not common in these parts brought hither by storms” and named as a “Brazilian Magpye” (from the illustration it could be a species of African hornbill) and a “Tropick Bird” (from the illustration and from Leigh’s description of “a bird all white, except only a short red beak about the bigness of a pigeon” this could indeed have been one of the tropic-birds).

Although the book was in poor condition it aroused considerable interest and was sold within a week so a fascinating historical document was preserved with the proceeds going, in a small way, towards alleviating world poverty.