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by Jean-Henri FabreMay 24th, 2023
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The Pelopæus sets us a second problem. She frequents our homes, seeks the warmth of our fireplaces. A nest like hers, built of soft mud, which lets in the water, which would be dismantled by a shower and utterly destroyed by prolonged damp, must have a dry shelter; and this can be nowhere better found than in our dwelling-houses. Her susceptibility to cold makes warmth a necessity. Perhaps she is a foreigner not yet fully acclimatized, an emigrant from the shores of Africa, who, after coming from the land of dates to the land of olives, finds the sunshine in the latter insufficient and substitutes for the climate beloved of her race the artificial climate of the fireside. This would explain her habits, so unlike those of the other Wasps, all of whom shun the too-close proximity of man.
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The Mason-Wasps by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE SWALLOW AND THE SPARROW


The Pelopæus sets us a second problem. She frequents our homes, seeks the warmth of our fireplaces. A nest like hers, built of soft mud, which lets in the water, which would be dismantled by a shower and utterly destroyed by prolonged damp, must have a dry shelter; and this can be nowhere better found than in our dwelling-houses. Her susceptibility to cold makes warmth a necessity. Perhaps she is a foreigner not yet fully acclimatized, an emigrant from the shores of Africa, who, after coming from the land of dates to the land of olives, finds the sunshine in the latter insufficient and substitutes for the climate beloved of her race the artificial climate of the fireside. This would explain her habits, so unlike those of the other Wasps, all of whom shun the too-close proximity of man.

But through what stages did she pass before becoming our guest? Where did she lodge before quarters built by human industry existed, where did she shelter her [134]brood of grubs before chimneys were thought of? When, on the hills near by, abounding in traces of their sojourn, the aborigines of Sérignan were hewing weapons out of flint, scraping Goat-skins into raiment and building huts of mud and branches, did the Pelopæus already frequent their cabins? Did she build in some bulging pot, shaped with the thumb out of half-baked black clay, and by this choice teach her latter-day descendants to seek out the peasant’s gourd on the chimneypiece? Did she think of building in the folds of the garments, the spoils of the Wolf and the Bear, hanging from some set of antlers, the hat-rack of the period, thus trying her hand at a kind of annexation that was to take her at a later date to window-curtains and the labourer’s smock? Did she prefer to fix her nest on the rough wall of branches and clay, near the conical orifice which let out the smoke from the primitive fire laid between four stones in the centre of the hut? Though not equal to our present chimneys, it will have served at a pinch.

What progress she has made, this Pelopæus, what a contrast between that miserable beginning and her modern premises, if she is really, in my district, a contemporary [135]of the aborigines! She too must have profited greatly by civilization: she has managed to turn man’s increasing comfort into her own. When the dwelling with a roof, rafters and ceiling was planned and the chimney with side-walls and a flue invented, the chilly creature said to herself:

“How pleasant this is! Let us pitch our tent here.”

And, notwithstanding the novelty of her surroundings, she hastened to take possession.

Let us go back farther still. Before huts existed, before the niche in the rock, before man himself, the last to make his entrance on the world’s stage, where did the Pelopæus build? The question is not devoid of interest, as we shall shortly see. Besides, it does not stand alone. Where did the Window-swallow and the Chimney-swallow make their nests before there were windows and chimneys to build in? What retreat did the Sparrow select for his family before there were roofs with tiles and walls with holes to them?

“As a sparrow all alone on the house-top,” said the Psalmist in his day.

In King David’s time, the Sparrow squawked mournfully under the eaves in the [136]summer heat, as he does to this day. The buildings of that period differed but little from ours, at least so far as the Sparrow’s convenience was concerned; and the shelter under the tile had been adopted long before. But, when Palestine had nothing more than the camel-hair tent, where did the Sparrow then elect to make his home?

When Virgil sings to us of good Evander, who, preceded by his watch, two Sheep-dogs, visits Æneas, his guest, he shows him to us awakened at dawn by the singing of the birds:

Evandrum ex humili tecto lux alma

Et matutini volucrum sub culmine cantus.1

What could those birds be which, at break of day, twittered under the roof of the old King of Latium? I see only two: the Swallow and the Sparrow, both of them chanticleers of my hermitage and as punctual as in the Saturnian days. There was nothing princely about Evander’s palace. The poet does not conceal the fact, it was a lowly roof: humili tecto, he says. Besides, the furniture enlightens us as to the [137]edifice. The illustrious guest is given a Bear-skin and a heap of leaves for a bed:

… stratisque locavit

Effultum foliis et pelle Libystidis ursæ.2

Evander’s Louvre therefore was a cabin a little larger than the others, made perhaps of tree-trunks laid one on top of the other, perhaps of unhewn stone employed as found, perhaps of reeds and clay. This rustic palace would have a thatched roof, of course. However primitive the habitation was, the Swallow and Sparrow were there, at least the poet says so. But where did they stay before they found a lodging in man’s abode?

The industry of the Sparrow, the Swallow, the Pelopæus and many others cannot be subordinate to mankind’s: each of them must possess a primordial art of building, one which makes the best use of the site within reach. If better conditions present themselves, they profit thereby; if these conditions are lacking, they go back to their ancient customs, whose practice, though [138]sometimes exacting more labour, is at least always possible.

The Sparrow shall tell us first how his nest-building art stood in the days when there were no lodgings in walls and roofs. A hollow in a tree, high enough to shelter him from prying eyes, with a narrow mouth to keep out the rain and a fairly generous cavity, gives him an excellent dwelling, of which he readily avails himself even when there are plenty of old walls and roofs in the neighbourhood. The youngest bird’s-nester in my village knows all about it and abuses his knowledge. The hollow tree then is one lodging which the Sparrow employed, long before using Evander’s cabin and David’s stronghold on the rock of Zion.

His architectural resources go even further. His shapeless mattress, an incoherent jumble of feathers, down, flock, straw and other incongruous materials, seems to demand a broad and stable support. The Sparrow laughs at the difficulty and, from time to time, for reasons that remain hidden from me, he conceives a bold plan: he decides to build a nest having no support but that of three or four tiny branches at the top of a tree. The clumsy maker of [139]mattresses tries to obtain aerial suspension, a swinging house, the prerogative of weavers and basket-makers well-versed in the art of plaiting. And he succeeds.

In the fork of a few branches he accumulates everything suitable for his work that he can pick up near a house: rags, scraps of paper, ends of thread, flocks of wool, bits of hay and straw, dry blades of grass, flax dropped from the distaff, strips of bark retted by lying long in the open; and of his various gleanings, clumsily matted together, he contrives to make a large, hollow ball with a narrow opening in the side. It is bulky to a degree, the thickness of the dome having to be as good a defence against the rain as the shelter of a tile would be; it is very roughly constructed, without any attempt at artistry; but, when all is said, it is stout enough to last for a season. This is how the Sparrow must have worked in the beginning, when there was no hollow tree at hand. Nowadays, that primitive art, too costly in time and materials, is seldom practised.

My house is shaded by two great plane-trees; their branches reach the roof, on which generations of Sparrows, too many for the welfare of my cherries and my peas, [140]succeed one another throughout the warm weather. This vast mass of greenery is the first stopping-place after the exodus from the nest begins. Here the young birds assemble and for hours chatter and scream before flying off on their pilfering-expeditions; here the well-filled squads take their stand on returning from the fields. The adults meet here to keep an eye on their recently-emancipated offspring, to caution the imprudent and encourage the timid; family-quarrels are fought out here and the events of the day discussed. From morning till evening there is a continual going to and fro between the roof and the plane-trees. Well, in spite of these constant visits, I have only once, in the past twelve years, seen the Sparrow build his nest in the branches. The couple that decided in favour of a mid-air nest on one of the plane-trees were not particularly satisfied, it seems, with the results obtained, for they did not repeat the experiment next year. Since then, none has placed before my eyes for the second time a big ball of a nest swaying in the wind at the end of a branch. The steadier and less costly shelter of the tile is preferred.

We now know enough about the early art [141]of the Sparrow. What will the Swallows tell us in their turn? Two species frequent our dwellings: the Window-swallow (Hirundo urbica)3 and the Chimney-swallow (H. rustica), both of whom are very badly named, both in the scientific and the everyday language. Those epithets of urbica and rustica, which make a town-dweller of the first and a villager of the second, can be applied indifferently to either, since they both take up their abode at one time in the town, at another in the village. The terms window and chimney possess a precise meaning which is rarely confirmed and very often contradicted by the facts. For the sake of clearness, the supreme condition of all tolerable prose, and to confine myself to the habits peculiar to the two species in my part of the world, I will call the first the Wall-swallow and the second the Domestic Swallow. The shape of the nest constitutes the most striking difference. The Wall-swallow gives his the form of a ball, with a round aperture just large enough to admit the bird. The Domestic Swallow fashions his into a cup with a wide opening.[142]

The Wall-swallow, who is much less common than the other, never chooses a site within our houses for his structure. It must be outside for him and it must stand high, far removed from inquisitive eyes; but at the same time a shelter against the rain is indispensable, for the damp is almost as dangerous for his mud nest as for that of the Pelopæus. He therefore settles by choice under the eaves and cornices of buildings. He visits me every spring. My house pleases him. Just below the roof is a cornice made up of a few courses of ordinary “half-round” coping-tiles, corbelled out from the face of the wall in such a way as to give a long line of round-headed niches which are sheltered from the rain and enjoy plenty of sunshine on the south front. Among all these nooks, so healthy, so well-protected and moreover so excellently adapted to the shape of the nest, the bird has only to choose. There is room for all, however numerous the colony may become one day.

Apart from sites of this kind, I see none approved by the Swallow in the village, except the under part of a few cornices of the church, which is the only edifice of a monumental character. In short, the support of [143]a wall, in the open air, with some shelter against the rain, is all that the Swallow asks of our buildings.

But the natural wall is a perpendicular rock. If the bird here finds overhanging projections, forming a penthouse, it must adopt them as the equivalent of the ledge of our roofs. Ornithologists know, in fact, that in mountainous districts, far removed from human dwellings, the Wall-swallow builds against the vertical sides of the rocks, so long as his ball of clay is under cover of some kind.

Near where I live are the Gigondas Mountains, the most curious geological structure that I have ever seen. Their long chain displays so steep a slope that it is almost impossible to stand upright near the summit; and the ascent of the accessible part has to be made on all-fours. You then find yourself at the foot of a perpendicular cliff, an enormous slab of sheer rock which, like some Titanic rampart, tops the precipitous ridge with a jagged crest. The people of the country call this Cyclopean wall les Dentelles. I was one day botanizing at its base, when my eyes were attracted by the evolutions of a flock of birds in front of the rugged face of the rock. I [144]easily recognized the Wall-swallow: his silent flight, his white belly and his ball-shaped nest fastened to the cliff told me all about him. I in my turn now learnt, apart from the books, that this species fixes its nests to perpendicular rocks when the cornices of our buildings and the ledges of our roofs are missing. Even so must it have nested in the ages that preceded our stone structures.

The problem becomes thornier with the second species. The Domestic Swallow, who has much more confidence in our hospitality and is also perhaps more susceptible to cold, establishes himself as often as possible inside our houses. The embrasure of a window, the under surface of a balcony will satisfy his requirements at need; but he prefers the shed, the loft, the stable or an empty room. His familiarity even reaches the point of cohabitation with man in the same apartment. No more timid than the Pelopæus in taking possession of the premises, he installs himself in the farm-kitchen and builds upon the peasant’s smoke-blacked rafters; more venturesome even than the pot-making insect, he appropriates the drawing-room, the study, the bedroom or any well-kept chamber [145]that leaves him at liberty to come and go.

Each spring I have to defend myself against his bold usurpations. I gladly surrender to him the shed, the cellar-porch, the Dog’s corner, the woodshed and other outhouses. This does not suffice for his ambitious views: he wants my study. At one time he tries to make his home on the curtain-rod, at another on the lintel of the open window. In vain I strive to make him understand, by destroying the foundations of his edifice as he lays them, how dangerous to his nest is the shifting support of a casement, which must be closed from time to time, at the risk of crushing house and brood alike, and how disagreeable for my curtains this dirty business is, with its mud and, later, the excretions of the young birds: I do not succeed in convincing him; and to put an end to his determined enterprise I am compelled to keep the windows shut. If I open them too soon, he returns with his beakful of clay and begins all over again.

Instructed by experience, I know what it would cost me to grant the hospitality demanded so persistently. If I were to leave some precious book open on the table, some drawing of a mushroom, my morning’s [146]work and still quite fresh from the brush,4 he would not fail, in passing, to drop his muddy seal or his stercoral initials upon it. These little annoyances have made me suspicious; and I remain obdurate to all my visitor’s importunities.

Once only I allowed myself to be beguiled. The nest was placed in a corner of the ceiling and the wall, on some plaster mouldings. Below it stood a marble console-table, usually covered with books which I had to be constantly consulting. In anticipation of events, I moved my reference-library away. All went well until the eggs were hatched; but, as soon as the young birds were there, things changed. With their insatiable stomachs, into which the food had barely passed before it was digested and dissolved, the six fledgelings became unendurable. Every minute—flick, flack!—it rained guano on the console. If my poor books had been there, oh dear, oh dear!

Dust and sweep as I might, my study continued redolent of ammonia. And then what a slave the birds made of me! The room was shut up at night. The father slept [147]out; so did the mother, after the little ones were beginning to grow up. Then, at early dawn, both were at the windows, in a mighty state of distress outside the glass barrier. With eyes still heavy with sleep, I had to get up hurriedly and let the poor things in. No, I shall not allow myself to be persuaded again; never more shall I permit the Swallow to settle in a room that has to be closed at night and still less in the room where I am describing the misadventures that befel me owing to my too-accommodating kindness.

As you see, the Swallow with the nest shaped like a half-cup well deserves his epithet of domestic, inasmuch as he makes his home inside our houses. In this respect, he is among birds what the Pelopæus is among insects. Here we have once again the question of the Sparrow and the Wall-swallow: where did he live before houses existed? Personally, I have never seen him build his nest elsewhere than in the shelter of our habitations; and the authors whom I consult do not appear to be any wiser on this subject. None of them says a word of the manor occupied by the bird apart from the refuges provided by human industry. Can it be that his long frequentation of our society and the consequent sense [148]of comfort have made him forget the primitive customs of his race?

I find it difficult to believe: animals are not, to that extent, unmindful of their ancient habits, when it is necessary to remember them. Somewhere, in our day, the Swallow still works independently of us and of our buildings, even as he did in the beginning. Though observation can tell us nothing concerning the site selected, analogy makes up for this silence with a wealth of probabilities. After all, what do our houses represent to the Domestic Swallow? Refuges against the weather, especially against the rain, which does so much harm to the mud shell. Natural grottoes, caves, the irregularities of crumbling rocks: these are all refuges, less healthy, perhaps, but still well worth having. It was here, beyond a doubt, that the Swallow constructed his nest when he had no human dwellings to build in. Man contemporary with the Mammoth and the Reindeer came and shared his lodging under the rock. Intimacy sprang up between the two. Then, step by step, the cave was succeeded by the hut, the hut by the cabin, the cabin by the house; and the bird, abandoning the less good for the better, followed man into his improved abode.[149]

We will now end this digression on the habits of birds and apply the evidence which we have gathered to the Pelopæus. Every species practising its industry in our dwellings must first have practised and, we maintain, must still practise it under conditions wholly extraneous to the work of man. The Wall-swallow and the Sparrow have given us proofs which are all that can be desired; the Domestic Swallow, more reticent of his secrets, gave us only probabilities, which however come very near to certainty. The Pelopæus is almost as obstinate as the last-named in refusing to divulge her ancient customs and long remained to me an insoluble problem in so far as her original domicile was concerned. Where can the enthusiastic colonist of our chimneys have lived, when far removed from man? Thirty years and more elapsed after I first made her acquaintance; and her history always ended in a note of interrogation. Outside our houses, never a trace of a Pelopæus-nest. And all the time I was applying the method of analogy, which provides a very probable answer to the question of the Domestic Swallow; I was pursuing my search in the caves, in the shelters under rocks facing the sun. Not a sign. I was [150]still continuing my useless investigations, when at last chance, which favours the persevering, thrice compensated me, under conditions which I did not for a moment suspect of being auspicious.

The Sérignan quarries are rich in accumulations of broken stones, refuse that has lain piled up there for centuries. These stone-heaps are the refuge of the Field-mouse, who, on a mattress of dried grass, crunches the almonds, olive-stones and acorns which he picks up all around and varies this farinaceous diet with Snails, whose empty shells lie packed under some flat stone. Different Bees and Wasps—Osmiæ, Anthidia, Odyneri—pick out shells to suit them from the heap and build their cells in the spiral. My search for these treasures makes me turn over a few cubic yards of broken stones every year.

Three times, when engaged upon this task, I came upon the Pelopæus’ work. Two nests were placed deep down in the heap, against blocks hardly bigger than a man’s two fists; the third was fixed to the lower surface of a large flat stone, forming a canopy above the ground. These three nests, though subject to all the changes of the weather, contained nothing more than [151]the usual structure found inside our houses. The material was plastic mud, as always; the protection, a covering of the same mud; and that was all. The dangers of the site had suggested no improvement to the architect; the edifice was no different from those built against the wall of a chimney. One point is established, therefore: in my district, the Pelopæus nidifies sometimes, but very rarely, in stone-heaps and under natural flagstones which do not touch the ground. Thus must she have nidified before becoming the inmate of our dwellings and our fireplaces.

A second point is open to discussion. The three nests found under the stones are in a piteous state. Soaked with damp, they possess hardly more consistency than the muddy puddle utilized for their construction. They are softened to such a degree that they can no longer be handled. The cells are ripped open; the cocoons, easily recognizable by their colour and their transparency, which is that of an onion-skin, are in pieces, without any vestige of the larvæ which I ought to find at the time of my discovery, that is in winter. And yet the three hovels are not old nests ruined by the weather after the emergence of the [152]perfect insect, for the exit-doors are still closed with their well-fitting plugs. It is at an abnormal place, in the side, that the yawning breach occurs. The escaping insect would never use such violence in breaking through. They are certainly recent nests, nests of the previous summer.

Their dilapidation is due to their unprotected position. The rain penetrates into the stone-heaps; even under the shelter of a flagstone the air is saturated with damp. If a little snow falls, the mischief is still worse. In this way, the wretched nests crumble and fall to pieces, leaving the cocoons partly exposed. Unprotected by their earthen sheath, the larvæ have become the prey of the brigandage that mows down the weak. Some Field-mouse passing by has perhaps feasted on those tender morsels.

At the sight of these ruins a suspicion occurs to me. Is the primitive art of the Pelopæus really practicable in my region? When nesting in stone-heaps, does the tiny potter find the security needed for her family, especially during the winter? It is very doubtful. The extreme rarity of the nests in such conditions is evidence of the mother’s aversion for these sites; and the [153]dilapidated state of those which I find seems to testify to their dangerous nature. If the inclemency of the climate makes it impossible for the Pelopæus to practise the industry of her forebears successfully, does not this prove that the insect is a stranger, a colonist from a hotter and drier climate, where there is no persistent rain and above all no snow to be dreaded?

I have no difficulty in picturing the Pelopæus as of African origin. Far back in the past she came to us, by gradual stages, through Spain and Italy; and the olive-district is almost the limit of her extension towards the north. She is an African, who has become a Provençal by naturalization. In Africa, in fact, she is said often to nest under the stones, which would not, I think, make her despise human habitations, if she found peace and quiet there. We hear of her kinswomen in the Malay Archipelago frequenting houses. They have the same habits as the guest of our homes; they share her singular liking for that unstable fabric, a muslin curtain. From one end of the world to the other, the same taste for Spiders, for mud cells, for sheltering under man’s roof. If I were in the Malay Archipelago, I should turn over the stone-heaps [154]and should most likely discover one further resemblance: the original nest under some flat stone.

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