One day that I was walking along a by-road I saw two young men at a distance manoeuvring in the hedge next to a turnip field. When I came up to them I noticed that they had placed three small cages on the top of a low stone dyke which was over-topped with a thorn hedge on the field side.
I stopped and asked them how they snared the wild birds. They said they had smeared some twigs close to the cages, and when a bird lit on the hedge, the caged prisoner would begin to twitter or sing, and unconsciously lure the free bird to come closer until by good luck it might hop on to the limed branch and there be held fast.
One of the caged linnets in particular was dashing itself wildly against the bars. Its owner told me this was the first time it had been in the open air since it was caught nearly three years ago. Its colour was remarkably ruddy, almost as bright as that of a redbreast in spring. The wings and crest were a warm chestnut and the breast was flecked with the same colour. The colour gets darker after each moulting, the man told me, but this one was quite unusual in the ruddiness of its coat.
In answer to my enquiries, he said he kept linnets for the sake of their song, and there were contests periodically for prizes at which large number of birds competed.
“Why linnets?” I asked.
“Oh, because the linnet is so imitative and teachable.”
“And how do you teach them fresh songs?” I asked.
“Put a canary in beside them,” he said. And at that moment one of his linnets broke into a soft little lilt that was faintly reminiscent of the canary’s song. Now, it happens that I am not familiar with the linnet’s note, and I asked him if he would whistle it over for me. But he shook his head. He couldn’t do that. I am certain it had no special character for him, although he would be sure to recognise it.
“There was one singing a minute or two ago over there,” he said, indicating the turnip field with a nod of his head. I next asked him how I could tell the linnet by its flight when not near enough to see the colouring.
“There it is!” he cried, as half a dozen flew up before the horse and the grubber, from among the turnip tops, where they had been feeding probably on minute seeds; and he said I could not fail to recognise the sloping flight, and sudden lift, as if impelled upwards by a sharp current.
“I don’t think I could bear to cage a wild bird,” I said.
“Wouldn’t you?” he said.
“Why?” It was quite evident that he did not scent my feeling at all, for when I replied that the poor little things must be unhappy in a cage, he said. “Oh, but we let them out sometimes. We keep them in a large room and open the cages to let them fly about.”
I wondered how the late Mr Hudson, the famous naturalist, who died two weeks ago, would have addressed these two snarers. I bade them “Good afternoon,” without wishing them success.