Children nature walk-June-3

The stories are taken from the book 'Country Walks of a Naturalist' {with his children} by the Rev Houghton. The book is not in copyright and courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. The Rev Houghton was based in Shropshire {England}  and the book was published in the 1800's. Species names which have changed have been updated by myself along with other relevant information, other wise the story produced as it appeared.

Our story begins

This morning before we started our walk we went to look at a hedgehog which had been brought to us the preceding day. We discovered  that the animal in the course of the night,had crept into a bag with a quantity of bran in it;and there were four little ones with her. There they were as snug as possible the mother and her little urchins! Very curious little animals too these young hedgehogs. their spines or prickles are white and soft and were not spread  over the whole body, but arranged in rows down it. the appearance was that of a plucked duckling, when it is what is called 'penny'.

They were perfectly blind, and the passage to the ear quite closed;they uttered,faint,puppy-like cries.

I was desirous  to try and rear them; but I had grave doubts about the old one,for those that have tried to rear young hedgehogs that the mother ate her offspring.We removed her,young and all,to another place, giving them plenty straw and bread and milk for the old one. Buffon,amongst others,relates," that he repeatedly placed the mother with her young in a place of confinement,but that, instead of suckling them, she invariably killed and devoured them,notwithstanding ,that she was given plenty of food"

However, we were determined to give our young urchins a chance, and hoped the mother hedgehog would be favourably disposed towards her offspring; so now we left undisturbed.Willy wished to know whether hedgehogs were injurious creatures, "for you know, papa " he said " That country lads and  gamekeepers always kill them whenever they have the chance" I am sure they do much more good than harm, by the destruction they cause to insects,slugs ,snails,field mice, and other pests of the farm.There is a foolish idea in the minds of the uneducated, that these animals suck cows.You have only to laugh at such absurdity. But I doubt you will scarcely ever succeed in persuading such people that the idea is a ridiculous one;and utterly unsupported by fact.

Hedgehogs will undoubtedly destroy eggs and one can understand why gamekeepers wage war against them, fearing for the safety of the eggs and young birds of their favourtie partridges and pheasants. This is natural I suspect,however, that hedgehogs seldom molest nests, and that the injury they do in this respect is very small  ." But you know,papa," said Jack " That they do eat young birds. Do you remember the dead sparrow which we once gave to a hedgehog,and how furiously went at it, and how soon he ate it all up except the feather" " Yes ", added Willy " And do you also remember our putting a toad in the same box with a hedgehog? Oh! how angry it seemed and how savagely it shook the unfortunate toad!.  He did not, however, seem to like the flavour and soon gave up the fight"

Hedgehogs will certainly destroy young birds, but we must remember to set the good the animal does against the harm;and strike the balance;and, as I said, I suspect the good  will largely preponderate. Hedgehogs are very fond of beetles;they seize them with great earnestness, and will crack them with as much delight as you lads crack nuts. hedgehogs are sometimes kept in houses for the purpose of eating cockroaches,so often abounding in kitchens. { this was a problem in days gone by ,but because of better  buildings and hygiene cockroaches are now very rare indoors}.

Snakes are devoured by hedgehogs. The late Professor Buckland, having occasioned to suspect that hedgehogs some times preyed on snakes, " procured a common snake, and also a hedgehog, and put them in a box together. Whether the latter recognized its enemy was not apparent. it did not dart from the hedgehog but kept creeping gently around the box. The hedgehog was rolled up and did not appear to see the snake. The professor then laid the hedgehog on the snake, with the part of the ball where the head and tail meet downwards, and touching it. The snake proceeded to crawl; the hedgehog started,opened slightly, and seeing what was under it gave the snake a hard bite,and instantly rolled itself up again. It soon opened a second time, and again a third time,repeating the bite; This done the hedgehog stood by the snakes side, and passed the whole body of the snake successively through the jaws,cracking it, and breaking the bones at intervals of half an inch or more, by which operation the snake was rendered motionless."

" The hedgehog then placed itself at the tip of the snake's tail, and, began to eat upwards, as one would eat a radish,without intermission,but slowly, till half the snake was devoured. The following morning the other half was also completely eaten up" { it is true that hedgehogs may eat snakes mainly small ones or slowworms 'which are actually legless lizards' but their teeth are more adapted for eating insects-Dal. Also the above experiment carried out at the time the book was published was quite legal, now this would be very much illegal-Dal}

When rather young these animals make quite interesting pets; they soon become tame;and will allow you to stroke their cheeks. You remember our placing a hedgehog on the study table and seeing how it got off onto the ground. It came to the edge, and threw itself off,coiling up its body partly as it fell; the elastic nature of its prickly covering enabling it to bear the shock of the fall without the slightest inconvenience.



Courtesy of Jurgen Howaldt Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 German license 


Great grey Shrike with its victims--Shrews and a bluetit

Let us go on the moors again and watch the coots and water-hens in the reedy pond by the aqueduct. Did you see the Great grey shrike on the branch of this poplar? he is actually at work doing a bit of butchery on a small warbler.See how he is beating the poor little fellow on the head. " Are there not birds called butcher-birds?",asked Willy " That fix their victims on thorns, and then peck off their flesh,shall we see any of them?" There are three kinds of butcher birds that have been known to come to this country. Two kinds are very uncommon,and we are not likely to meet with any of them on our walks;I may as well,however,tell you something about them, but as I have no personal knowledge of the habits of any of these species,I must get my information from other sources.. The great grey shrike,the red backed shrike and the woodchat shrike are the three species of the family occurring in Great Britain, the red backed shrike is the only tolerably common one, arriving in this country,late in April,and quitting in September.

Mr.John Shaw tells me that this bird visits the Quarry grounds at Shrewsbury  every spring,and an early riser, if he goes there, can see these birds readily. Mr Yarrel says that the great grey shrike is only an occasional visitor to this country, and is generally obtained  autumn and spring.Its food consists of mice,shrew,small birds,frogs,lizards and large insects. " After having killed its prey it fixes the body in a forked branch,or upon a sharp thorn,and more readily to pull off small pieces from it."

The following remarks are from a gentleman who kept one in confinement -" An old bird of this species" he says, " taken near Norwhich in October 1835,lived in my possession twelve months.It became very tame,and would readily take food from my hand. When a bird is given it invariably broke the skull and generally ate the head first. It sometimes held the bird in its claws,and pulled it to pieces in the manner of a hawks;but seemed to prefer forcing part of it through the wires,then pulling at it. It always hung what it could not eat up on the sides of the cage. It would often eat three small birds in a day. In the spring it was very noisy one of its notes,a little resembling the cry of the kestrel". It is cunning as well as a bold bird.

It is said that by imitating the notes of some of the smaller birds it calls them near it,then pounces on some deluded victim. The shrike is used by falconers abroad for trapping falcons: " it is fastened to the ground, and by screaming loudly gives notice to the falconer,who is concealed,of the approach of the hawk" You will give notice in any picture of a shrike how admirably adapted  is its curved beak for butchering purposes. The red- backed shrike " frequents the sides of woods  and high hedgerows,generally in pairs, and may be seen frequently perched on the uppermost branches of an isolated bush, on the look out for prey. The males occasionally make a chirping noise,not unlike the note of the sparrow"  It also imitates the voice of small birds. Mr.Yarrel ,says " the food of the red-backed shrike is mice and probably shrews,small birds and insects,particularly the common May chaffer. Its inclination to attack and destroy small birds has been doubted; but it has been seen to kill a bird as big as a finch,and not infrequently caught in the clap-nets,of London Bird catchers,having struck at their decoy birds." and Mr.Hewitson says-" Seeing a red -backed shrike busy in a hedge,I found upon approaching it, I found a small bird,upon which it had been operating,firmly fixed upon a sharp thorn,its head was torn off,and the body entirely plucked.

" What an amazing quantity of little ladybird beetles there are on this hedge-bank"  said May " The ground is almost red with them."  Yes it is a very common but pretty species. You see there are seven black spots on its red wing covers, three on each arranged triangularly ;and one at the top of the wing covers,just at the point where they meet." Are these insects injurious papa ?," asked Willy " You say there are so many insects that are,I do hope these little ladybirds do no mischief". I am happy, then, to tell you, that they are as useful as they are pretty. You all know what are called plant lice,those nasty little green or black flies known as aphids, which cover the leaves or branches of so many trees and flowers,and do most terrible mischief. Well the lady- birds both when they are larvae and when they are beetles,eat these pests,and help to keep their devastating swarms in check.

I have frequently seen  an aphid in the mouth of a ladybird;and the larvae; a curious six-footed grub,about  third of an inch long,which you may often see late in the summer and autumn;these are even more fond of eating aphids. Mr,Curtis says that two ladybirds cleared two geranium plants of aphids in twenty four hours. the species we are looking at is the 'seven-spotted' ladybird there is another very common kind,whose scarlet wing cases have only one black spot in the centre of each. this species is subject to considerable variety,it is called the'two-spotted' ladybird. There is another you may often find, it is small and yellow,with eleven spots on each wing cover, this is called the 'twenty two spot' ladybird.It is an elegant little creature.

It is interesting to note how the observation of some particular animal has led naturalists to the choice of their favourite study. Gould tells us that the first inclination to study birds arose from his father once lifting him up to peep into a hedge-warbler's {Dunnock} nest.  His admiration for the beautiful blue eggs led him to devote his time to ornithology, or the study of birds. If I remember rightly,Kirby's mind was directed to the study of insects by noticing the wonderful vitality shown by a little ladybird beetle, which after being immersed for twenty four hours,in spirits of wine,on being taken out actually flew away. " What is the meaning" asked Mary " of the nursery rhyme about the ladybird?"

" Ladybird ladybird fly away home,

Your house is on fire and your children will burn"

Indeed I cannot tell you, There are different versions of the old song.One runs thus;

" Ladybird,Ladybird,fly away home;

Your house is on fire,your children at home;

All but one that lives under the stone,-

Fly thee home,Ladybird,ere it be gone" 


In Yorkshire and Lancashire it is ;--

" Ladybird, Ladybird  fly thy way home,

Thy house is on fire thy children all roam;

Except little Nan who sits in her pan,

Weaving gold laces as fast as she can"


The names of Ladybird,Lady-cow,no doubt originated,from the general reference of the insect and its dedication to the Virgin Mary. In Scandinavia this little beetle is called 'Our Lady's -Key Maid' and in Sweden ' the Virgin Mary's Golden Hen' . Similar reverence  is paid in Germany,France,England and Scotland. In Norfolk it is called  Bishop Barnabee, and young girls have the following rhyme;which they continue to recite to it placed on the palm of the hand,till it takes wing and flies away;--

" Bishop,Bishop Barnabee,

Tell me when my wedding be;

If it be to-morrow day;

Take your wings and fly away!

Fly to the East,fly to the West,

Fly to him that I love best"


The word barnabee,or burnabee; or as Sothey writes,burnie-bee,no doubt has reference to burnished or polished wing cases of the insect. 

Seven spot lady bird.

Courtesy of Dominik Stodulski.  CC BY-SA 3.0 License.


seven spot ladybird larvae.

Courtesy of Alvesgaspar Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 unported license.