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Subject: ‘Animals’

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Victorian milliners almost killed off the Great Crested Grebe

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Great Crested Grebe,  picture, image, illustration
Great Crested Grebe by R B Davis

With so many of our native birds declining in numbers and some even disappearing altogether, it is good to know that at least one species is on the increase. One hundred years ago the Great Crested Grebe was in danger of extinction, chiefly because it was the fashion in Victorian times for ladies to wear hats that had been trimmed with grebe “fur.” Towards the end of the last century the number of breeding pairs of these birds was estimated at less than 50. Today, nearly every large sheet of fresh water supports at least one pair of these attractive birds.

Grebes are expert divers and can stay underwater for a considerable time while they feed on small fish, weed and water insects. The courtship display of these birds is unusual. Sometimes a pair face each other, with “ears” held erect and ruffs spread out, and then solemnly shake their heads from side to side or rise up in the water breast to breast and present each other with bits of water weed. This kind of courtship takes place at most times of the year but, in spring, leads to the building of a nest, a floating mound of dead reeds and water plants among the reeds in shallow water.

The three to five eggs laid from April onwards, are white, but on leaving the nest the parents cover them with weeds and this makes them a dirty colour. The chicks have attractive black and white stripes and are often carried on the backs of their parents, sometimes concealed among the feathers with only their heads poking out.

Robert Smith Surtees wrote the funniest novel about hunting

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Sport on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Robert Surtees first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Illustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds,  picture, image, illustration
A humorous llustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds by Surtees, picture by John Leech

It was a dark winter’s afternoon in 1832, as the 27-year-old Robert Smith Surtees sat writing in his London room. He was working on the next episode of his novel Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities which was being serialised in the New Sporting Magazine, when something reminded him of his childhood. He leaned back in his chair in the flickering candlelight and relived the adventure of his first fox hunt.

He had been a boy of 12, the son of a well-to-do country gentleman. His family home was Hamsterley Hall, in Durham, where he had lived since a few years after he was born in 1805. He had been standing in his father’s stableyard when the local hunt passed by. The harsh note of the huntsman’s horn split the morning calm. The hounds were hot on the scent of a fox, and, close behind the dogs, came the huntsmen. The thundering hooves filled Robert’s ears, and, without hesitating, he leapt on to the nearest horse – which was unsaddled and still wearing only a stable blanket – and galloped off in pursuit of the fox.

His father’s reaction to Robert’s bareback cross-country chase had been very mixed. As Master of the Hunt the older man had been amused and pleased by the boy’s enthusiasm, but as owner of a valuable horse which might have been seriously harmed by such thoughtless treatment, he was furious. Robert was lucky, however, for the sportsman was stronger than the disciplinarian in his father and his anger soon faded.

Robert Surtees came out of his day-dream and started busily writing again. He had to finish the episode he was writing, that evening, but he did not mind the work for the serial was about his favourite subject, hunting. By writing of the adventures of his hero, Jorrocks, Surtees could escape from the equally pressing and more serious work of his profession, the law. He hated all things legal, however, finding them dry and dull. So he escaped from London whenever possible and could often be found galloping through the Surry countryside with one of the many local hunts.

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The Common heron goes fishing in garden ponds

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the heron first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Common heron,  picture, image, illustration
Common Heron

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 herons in England and Wales and you will have been rather unlucky if you have not seen one flying overhead at one time or another. In flight the heron has a heavy, slow-flapping appearance with legs stretched straight out behind and with the long neck drawn in. You might see one on some stretch of river, wading in shallow water on the look-out for eels, frogs and small fish. It will also take small mammals, young birds and even goldfish from garden ponds!

The heron, it seems, is a cunning bird, for one has been seen to carry a piece of bread to the water, drop it in and then wait for small fish to come and nibble the bait so it can gulp them up one by one.

The nest of the heron is a large, untidy affair made of small branches and sticks in which smaller birds like sparrows, sometimes become squatters by moving into the “basement flat” and making their own nests. Two to six eggs are laid in early spring but the rather comical-looking crew-cut chicks are unable to fly until they are two months old.

The Swift is nature’s peerless master of the skies

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Swift,  picture, image, illustration
The Swift by R B Davis

Great Britain can always expect a large influx of bird visitors in the summer, and the swift is always one of the last to arrive. It usually reaches us from Central and Southern Africa in May.

The swift has an unrivalled mastery of the air, for its small, streamlined body with long tapering wings enables it to fly at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. For swifts the air is as natural a living space as the ground is to us – they feed, mate and even sleep up there.

As you watch the swifts scream and manoeuvre high in the air on a summer evening, you might notice that just before dusk they soar higher and higher until they are out of sight. Radar observations have shown that they spend the night at altitudes of around 9,000 feet.

The nest of the swift is made of feathers, leaves, and any other light material like paper, which gets carried up into the air where the swift collects it. The swift cements these pieces together with saliva and makes its nest under rafters or in a gap in the brickwork of buildings.

Although similar in general appearance, swallows and martins are not related to swifts. The swift is all black except for a light patch under the chin, while the swallow is dark blue on the upper parts with a blue band on the chest, a red throat and forehead, and white underparts. The house-martin is steel blue above with a white rump and white underparts. Its cousin the sand martin is brown above and white underneath, with a narrow brown band across its chest.

Britain’s adders are rarely responsible for human fatalities

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about snakes first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Hedgehog and adder,  picture, image, illustration
Hedgehogs hunt and eat adders

The sight of an adder sliding its way slowly and silently through the long grass makes most of us shiver with fright.

But although the adder is Britain’s only poisonous snake it is not as dangerous as some people believe.

Sometimes known as the northern viper, this reptile is not naturally aggressive and its first reaction when disturbed is to get out of the way. But it will strike out at an attacker to defend itself, and if really angered is liable to bite; especially if it is accidentally stepped on.

The adder’s bite can kill a mouse in minutes but it is very rarely fatal to human beings. Only seven deaths from snake bites were recorded in Britain for the first half of this century.

Most adders are easy to recognise because they usually have a dark zig-zag stripe running down the length of their backs, and there is a V-shaped marking at the top o

Like all snakes that live in mild climates, the adder likes to sleep during winter. The warmth of the springtime sun makes it rear its sleepy head and wake up. At this time of the year it is not unusual to find an adder happily sunning itself and, like us, the adder does not take kindly to people who disturb its rest. So should you ever meet one be cautious or, better still, walk away.

The Greater Spotted Woodpecker is plagued by starlings

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker,  picture, image, illustration
Greater Spotted Woodpecker

If you take a walk in the woods and keep very quiet, you may be able to eavesdrop on a strange and secret conversation. As you pause among the trees, you may hear a tapping sound made so rapidly that it seems like a roll of drums.

This will be the Pied Woodpecker, or Greater Spotted Woodpecker as it is also known, communicating with another woodpecker, who may be a considerable distance away. This bush telegraph is worked by the bird’s striking the trunk of a tree with its beak with great rapidity.

This shy bird also uses its beak to chisel out a nest hole. But then comes trouble. As often as not, once the hole is completed it will be taken over by starlings. And the poor woodpecker has to go away and make another hole somewhere else. Because of this, it is often late in June before the hen can begin bringing up her family.

Grubs and wood-boring insects make up the food of these birds, who dig out the wood with their beaks or extract the insects with their extremely long tongues.

In winter, they rely on nuts, acorns, berries and pine cone seeds to augment their diet when insects are harder to find. At this time, you may attract them to a bird table with pieces of cheese or a large bone. They will hammer vigorously at the bone with their powerful beaks to get at the marrow inside.

Pied woodpeckers are black and white birds about the size of a blackbird, with a patch of scarlet on their undersides. The males and young birds also have a red patch on the nape of the neck.

Britain also has two other members of this bird family. These are the Green Woodpecker and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Pony Express riders carried the U.S. Mail across a continent

Posted in America, Animals, Communications, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 593 published on 26 May 1973.

Pony Express,  picture, image, illustration
Pony Express

“Wanted – young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages 25 dollars a week. . . .”

This advertisement appeared in a San Francisco newspaper in 1860 and it saw the start of one of the most adventurous episodes in postal history anywhere in the world. The Pony Express was born because it provided the only way of achieving a quick postal service to the half a million Americans who lived west of the Rocky Mountains. In its short and spectacular life it provided more than this, however. Its riders, like Bob Haslam or Buffalo Bill Cody were real-life heroes; its 2,000 mile trip through mountains, plains and deserts showed the way in which the West could be opened up. Finally, what started as an adventurous business eventually became a symbol of service which others have since tried to copy.

There was no doubt in the minds of most Americans that something needed to be done about their postal system. Like its British counterpart it had developed piecemeal from private letter carriers and small companies who operated only in a restricted area. Later on the United States Post Office organised the country-wide services but in such a vast continent there were difficulties that were never dreamt of in Britain.

In the days of the 1840 Gold Rush in California, mail from the East Coast could cross the continent by land but it was a slow and uncertain business. It often waited for a wagon-train of emigrants and with hostile Indians, snow-covered mountain passes and scorching deserts all taking their toll much of the mail never got through at all. The alternative, by ocean and across Panama took at least six weeks and was very expensive, and since the steamship line rarely kept to its schedules no one could be sure just when any letter or packets would arrive.

But the United States Post Office was running at a heavy loss and although Americans cast envious eyes on Britain’s newly started Penny Post there was no chance of a similar scheme spreading across the Atlantic. Actually getting the mail through at all had first to be regularly achieved.

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The Zebra Spider bides its time in the sunshine

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 593 published on 26 May 1973.

Zebra spider,  picture, image, illustration
Zebra Spider

It is in Maythat you are likely to see the Zebra Spider resting motionless on a sunny wall and waiting for a small fly to land nearby. It then stealthily advances until it is about three inches away from its victim. Suddenly, it makes a leap, enveloping the fly with silk threads before making a meal of it. The Zebra Spider is able to make this leap from a vertical surface without falling off because each of its claws has a pad of adhesive hairs. But it is not so foolish as to rely entirely on these. Before it makes its leap it attaches a “life-line” of silk to the wall, just in case it should miss its victim and not make a happy landing. About this time of year the males also perform their fascinating courtship dance. The male “displays” before the female with a slow elaborate zig-zag approach its poison jaws outstretched. Trembling with excitement, he closes in on the female and then touches her lightly with his front legs before mating.

Hedgehogs are covered in prickly spines – and fleas

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about hedgehogs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 592 published on 19 May 1973.

Hedgehog and adder,  picture, image, illustration
Hedgehog and adder

Underneath dry leaves or curled up in a hole among tree roots, the prickly hedgehog sleeps away the day until dusk falls. Then it ventures forth for a meal, usually of insects, snails and worms, but it will not turn its nose up at the eggs of ground nesting birds, mice, frogs, lizards and even snakes. It is more than a match for the poisonous adder whose bite does not seem to affect the hedgehog, although the venom is strong enough to kill much bigger animals.

The young hedgehogs are born early in May. At first they are blind and deaf and their spines are soft and rubbery. But after a month they are able to leave the nest and fend for themselves. It has been found that an orphaned hedgehog is best comforted by giving it a stiff bristled brush for company. It will take this to a corner of its sleeping quarters and curl up next to it when it goes to sleep.

These creatures are easily attracted by putting out a saucer of milk but they should not be handled, not only because of the prickles but because they are usually infested with fleas. Hedgehogs hibernate in winter but their sleep is not nearly as deep as that of a dormouse.

The Wood Anemone is also known as the Windflower

Posted in Animals, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about wild flowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

Oak tree and dependents,  picture, image, illustration
Wood Anemone (bottom right) beneath an oak tree by John Rignell

In almost any oak wood at this time of year you may come across two different wild flowers, both with white or very pale leaves. The Wood Anemone is also known as the wind flower from its habit of turning its back to the wind, the blossoms swinging on their slender stems like weather vanes. When there is no wind at all the blossoms point upwards and then it is possible to detect their pleasant but rather faint scent.