The Bard and A Dabchick

1970 Aldbourne Village Festival

On Shakespeare’s Birthday, celebrated around the world on the 23 April, I have tended to think about flowers mentioned in plays and sonnets – most recently streak’d gillyvors in The Winter’s Tale.

Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in the Parish Register at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564. So I reckon today is as good a day as any to think about the Bard and birds, specifically a dive-dapper peering through a wave (Venus and Adonis).

I can’t actually remember what I was looking for in the British Newspaper Archive (an occupational hazard) but these items caught my eye:

Some rare birds have been lately caught in the Town Pond, at Aldbourn. Many of the inhabitants were attracted to the spot, and various missiles were used before they were caught. They are supposed to be a species of sea fowl. About fifty years ago some birds of a similar description were seen on the same spot – From a Correspondent

Reading Mercury 2nd May 1840

ALDBOURNE AND THE DABCHICKS – the “Birds of Marlborough,” a book lately issued by Mr E. F. Thurn, of Marlborough College, has the following anecdote in reference to the Little Grebe, or “Dabchick” (Podiceps Minor): – “A Little Grebe appeared in a farm yard pond in Aldbourne. No one knew what this, as they supposed, rara avis, was: a bed-ridden old man, who was said to be possessed of considerable ornithological knowledge, was accordingly wheeled out in his arm chair to give his opinion. A good deal of hesitation ensued, and the ‘man of science’ at length pronounced it a ‘sea woodcock’ (!) and by this name it has since been known.”

Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard 2nd April 1870 & Newbury Weekly News and General Advertiser 7th April 1870

Well, what could I do except try to find a copy of Mr Thurn’s book? A lovely little green bound volume, dedicated to the Rev G. G. Bradley, Master of Marlborough College, with a preface acknowledging the ‘two or three members of the school, who had a taste for Natural History, [who] banded themselves together’ in 1864. The society grew and within a year and a half after its formation published its first report. I’ll have to check but think that the poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley, joined the Natural History Society during his time at Marlborough College, leading to his enjoyment of local stories and the article published posthumously concerning ‘The Bobchick’. This copy of the Birds of Marlborough is a virtual one, and lives in the Internet Archive at being a scanned copy from the Smithsonian.

Sir Everard Ferdinand Thurn (1852 – 1932) Former Governor of Fiji

The first of the two bookplates shows that the volume belonged to a James Edmund Harting (1841 – 1928), author of Ornithology in Shakespeare published in 1871, who wrote:

[A] species of grebe is referred to by Shakespeare in his Venus and Adonis:

“Like a dive-dapper peering through a wave
Who, being look’d on, ducks as quickly in.”

This is the little grebe, or dabchick (Podiceps minor). In some parts of the country we have heard it called “di’ dapper,” but it was not until we had met with the passage above quoted that the meaning of the word became apparent.

On the subject of “loons,” the Rev. H. Jones has some appropriate remarks in a volume of essays entitled “Holiday Papers” (p. 65). “The great-crested grebe, or loon,” he says, “is a giant compared to our little friend the dabchick, and altogether makes a more respectable appearance, both in picture and pond. The habits and figure of the two birds, though, are much the same. There are numbers of loons on the ‘broads’ of Norfolk. Indeed it is in East Anglia that I have most especially watched the dabchick. These loons, like the lesser grebes, incubate and leave their eggs in the wet, and meet with the same ridiculous failure when they attempt to walk. Like them, they are capital divers, and begin from the egg.”

The second bookplate, is for Alexander Wetmore (1886 – 1978), the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian, serving from 1945 to 1952.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that one of these gentleman took a pencil to page 51, and really didn’t care for the name Sea Woodcock for podiceps minor.