Wondrous anthropomorphic, allegorical tales written c1887. The author has clearly observed the habits of many different English birds – from Sparrow to Falcon – and made witty interpretation of their behaviour.

239 Printed Pages, not including the many illustrations which are printed as additional single-sided sheets. Out of print.
The flyleaf bears the handwritten dedication: "C. B. Moss, from his mother, Easter 1899."
[words: 4600]






Richard Clay and Sons, Limited,
London and Bungay.

First Edition, 1888.
Second Edition, 1889. Reprinted 1891.



It was a fine day early in February, and the rooks, after roosting on the elm-trees in the village, and surveying the remnants of the nests of last year, were assembled, some on the moist pastures, some on the ploughed land, hard at work searching for grubs and worms. The bachelor rooks were also looking out for partners, and some of them were already settled in life—for that season at least.

There was a certain young bachelor among them who had not as yet won his way to the heart of any black maiden. Jetsom had certain ways about him that were looked on with suspicion by his fellows. His father and mother had had some doubt whether they ought to bring him up. His very egg had been unlike the others in the nest; it was longer and narrower, and not so thickly covered with dark spots. It was clearly an ill-omened egg. A one-eyed old rook, famed for wisdom and foresight, had been consulted about it, and was of opinion that no good would come of it. He sat on the edge of the nest, and turned his battered old bill this way and that, uttering now and then a hoarse inward caw.

"I remember," said he at last, "an egg exactly like this; it was the year the new allotments were made, long before you two were born. It was a lucky year in that way, for those allotments are a great blessing to us all, though you young folks don't value them as you ought. But let me tell you (and here he ruffled his feathers and made a dab with his bill at the unlucky egg), the chick from that egg became a scare-crow on those allotments!"

And overcome with his emotions, he gave several loud caws, and flew away to his own tree, leaving the young parents in great anxiety.

"We'd better turn it out," said the father; "it'll never do to see his body on a stake every time we go to feed in the allotments."

"Let us hatch it first," said the mother, "and see what it looks like. That old Gaffer thinks himself too wise; if it turns out all right we'll proclaim him as a humbug

This was too tempting a proposal to be resisted. The egg continued in the nest, and in due time it was hatched. There was no difference between the chick of the queer egg, and those that came from the others. The mother-bird was right, and on the strength of this she got her own way in other matters. Her husband had loved and admired her, and now he also obeyed her, because of her prudence and wisdom. When old Gaffer came, uninvited, to look at the chick, she actually ordered her husband to drive him away; which he did with such valour that the old gentleman lost three of his tail feathers, and retired in great wrath to a neighbouring branch to recover his breath. When he had got it he croaked out a dismal prophecy for the chick, which struck terror into the hearts of the rooks in that tree; and in fact the whole matter was the cause of much scandal.

Old Gaffer did not return to the nest again; his reputation for wisdom had been shaken, and his damaged tail was secretly made fun of by the younger birds. But he let it be known through a friend that there was no doubt whatever in his mind that young Jetsom would be shot—and serve him right—at the rook-shooting next month. It is only the oldest birds that think of the shooting beforehand; they know it is coming and take it as a matter of course. The colony must not be overstocked with young birds, which are often impudent and annoying, and the old inhabitants are not sorry to get rid of them.

When May came the young birds were one day perching on the edges of their nests, and taking short flights to exercise their wings; Jetsom was among them, as fine a young bird as any, and the peculiar pride of his parents. Some men came under the trees with guns, the parent-birds cawed loudly to their young, and all was noise and disturbance. Bang went the guns; half-a-dozen young rooks fell dead or struggling through the branches. The others took flight a short way, but thinking all was safe again, returned very soon to their tree, Young Jetsom however, who was stronger of wing than most, got carried on by a gust of wind, and found himself very soon over a ploughed field, where a few rooks were peaceably feeding. He dropped down on it, rather flustered and tired, and seeing the other birds poking their bills into the ground, and turning over the clods, began to do the same. Presently one of them came near him, looked at him, cawed, flapped its wings, and said, "Who are you? You don't belong to us."

Jetsom explained as well as he could.

"My young friend," said the rook, "you had better make haste and go. It's my duty to hustle you to death for coming here, and I shall do it if you stay another minute. Be off, before the others see you. Here they come—"

Jetsom heard no more; he was off, and on the other side of the nearest hedge, before the other rooks could come up; and there he lay for some time, too frightened at first to think. When he recovered himself life presented itself to him in a new aspect; it was evidently not all grubs and wire-worms. It was rather a serious matter. There were other rooks besides those of his colony, and they were not friendly. It was possible to get hustled to death by them. How much there was to be learnt in the world! You had hard work to keep the skin on your bones, to avoid being shot, made a scare-crow of, hustled to death. Why was all this? Why not live in peace with your neighbours? Why should men shoot at you when they laid out allotments for your express benefit? All this was very puzzling to Jetsom, as he lay still under the hedge; things were certainly not as they should be. He could hear the shooting going on in the distance, but at last it stopped, and he summoned up courage to take flight homewards.

When he reached the tree, and perched tired out on the first branch he came to, all was hubbub and confusion: but above the din he could hear the hoarse voice of old Gaffer, who had ventured himself quite close to the nest, and was addressing his parents.

"Do you know what they do with the young birds they shoot?" said that well-informed old bird. "They pull all the feathers out of their bodies, put them all together into a big dish, and bake them over the fire. Then they eat them, and the cat and the dog get the bones. I've seen it all through the window. That ill-omened young Jetsom is in the pie-dish now. Take advice when you can get it. The cook plucked him an hour ago. Capital eating, you may be sure! You fed him so well with worms, you know. So kind of you! Take advice when you can get it. I see the smoke coming out of the chimney now; they're baking down below. You'll find his feathers in the back-yard presently. Take advice—"

"Stop that, and go and look for your tail-feathers," said the angry voice of the mother. And she ordered her husband to drive the old wretch away, but at that moment Jetsom flew into the nest. Great was the delight and excitement of the parents; but seeing his exhausted state, his mother sent her husband off on the instant for a cargo of worms, and when she bethought herself next of old Gaffer, that prudent old rook was not to be seen.

It was a great triumph. Gaffer's fame as a prophet was at the lowest ebb. But he knew the ways of the world, and the foibles of his kind; he stuck to his point none the less for his defeat, and never ceased to assert that young Jetsom was a mistake, and ought never to have been hatched out. Some of the older birds shared this opinion, and as time went on Gaffer began to notice with great satisfaction that Jetsom was of a disposition likely to get him into trouble.

The fact was that his first adventure had caused him to reflect on the nature of things; and, as we all know, that is a dangerous habit to get into. He had told them of his adventure with the foreign rooks, and had received most strict injunctions to have nothing to do with them henceforward. He naturally asked why, but was sharply told to hold his tongue. His mother told him ghastly stories of what happened to young rooks who asked questions; and his father sat on a twig close by and cawed his admiration of his wife's wisdom and eloquence. Old Gaffer watched them at a safe distance, and promised himself revenge for the loss of his tail-feathers.

All these dreadful stories had their due effect on Jetsom's mind, and he asked no more questions, but he could not help reflecting silently on the nature of things. And so it came to pass that he grew up a silent and philosophical rook, and it was frequently remarked that he did not make his proper contribution to that chorus of cawing which at certain times of the day is so necessary to the happiness and comfort of a rookery. He would sometimes, too, decline to accompany the others when they wheeled about in the air of an evening before settling down to roost; and from his solitary habits was often chosen to sit on a tree as sentinel when the rest were at work feeding on a ploughed field. His father and mother were quite content that this should be so, and so was he, for it redeemed him a little from the suspicion that was beginning to fall on him; and he would often sit on his perch by the hour, pretending to keep a look-out, but really deep in meditation on the problems which occupied his mind.

Jetsom picture 13k
....Deep in meditation on the problems which occupied his mind.
From an engraved plate by Brian Hook

And so the winter passed; and with the first approach of spring the young birds of the year began to find themselves mates, and to think what tree they should select to nest in; but on that day in February with which this veracious story began, Jetsom had not yet found a bride. Yet he was too much of a rook to consider his spring complete without the duty and honour of bringing up a nestful of young, as his fathers had done before him.

That morning the billing and cooing (or rather cawing) of the lovers was very distasteful to him; they played such silly games, and talked such amorous rubbish. No one took any notice of him, until at last a flirting pair came in playful pursuit of each other close up to the railing on which he sat disconsolate, and he heard the young lady ask her lover not to take her near that horrid Jetsom.

"He's got an evil eye," she said, "and if I marry you (which I probably sha'n't), depend on it all the eggs will be addled." And off she flew, with her admirer after her.

This was too much for Jetsom; he also took flight to escape further insult; and flying straight ahead while he meditated on his wrongs, he passed over several miles of open country before he found himself hungry, and descended on a juicy-looking meadow to look about for food. He had not been there long when, happening to look round, he saw that there was another rook in the field; only one, walking slowly about in a far corner. Flying quietly a little nearer, he perceived by her ways that she was a young maiden of scarce a year old. Every moment he expected to hear the caws of her companions, and prepared to fly for his life; but none came, and she continued to walk about with a pensive air, turning her head from side to side, and wholly unconscious of his presence. But forced by curiosity, he came nearer and nearer, and now she could not help noticing that she was not alone.

"Oblige me, sir," she said, "by retiring from this corner. I have not the honour of your acquaintance, and am at present engaged in reflecting on the problems of life."

"So," said Jetsom, "am I; allow me to ask what you make of them?"

"I can make nothing of them," she replied; "I run my bill against a pebble everywhere, and cannot get hold of a single worm. Perhaps you have been more fortunate. For my part, I find the ground everywhere hard frozen; I can make no impression on it. Excuse my putting my ideas in this vulgar way."

"Your field of thought may be hard," he said, "but your words are soft and sweet as the juiciest grubs. I am an outcast, because I think; and I find comfort in listening to an alien voice. But destiny surrounds us, as the hedge surrounds this field; we rooks are bound by eternal and immutable laws; and one of them forbids us, as you have reminded me, to have anything to do with an alien. I must apologize for my intrusion, and retire to my life of misery."

"Stay," said she; "we are alone and unseen. Your presence is not disagreeable to me. Destiny, if it keeps aliens apart, has at least brought you to me. Day changes to night, summer to winter; old trees wear out (so my grandmother tells me) and we are obliged to take to new ones. Can it be that the nature of our race never changes too? Is there not a future to be realized when the narrowing bonds of our society may be relaxed, and when in ever-widening circles our race may stir the world with a new life? And may it not be you—you the outcast and philosopher—who are destined to lead the van in this glorious movement?"

"I!" he replied. "Can it be so? but not alone—not alone." And he glanced at her curiously.

"Hush," she hurriedly whispered; "I heard a distant caw. Meet me here again to-morrow when the sun is at its highest." And so they parted, to meditate on the destinies of the ages, and the enfranchisement of rook-society.

When Jetsom returned to his rookery he found that his absence had not been noticed, so occupied was every one with the business of wooing and stick-collecting; and he kept his appointment next day without much misgiving. What fears he had were easily overcome by the thought that there might be a great and happy future in store for him if he could induce his new acquaintance to become his partner, and to help him to carry out in practice the ideas that were floating through their minds. He little knew, poor bird, what was really in store for him. Though he had not been aware of it, one eye had all this time been upon him. Old Gaffer, who was always on the look-out for his chance of revenge, had seen him leave the meadow, and noticed his late return; and when he made quietly off again the next day, Gaffer as quietly followed him. From a tree near the trysting-place he saw Jetsom meet his friend, and knew in a twinkling that his chance had come. He watched them for a while as they walked about the meadow together, deep in philosophic converse; but when they flew up into a tree (luckily it was not Gaffer's) with some little serious attempt to play with each other, he felt he might go home safely and consider what was the best plan to bring this wilful pair to shame and ruin.

Slipping warily out of his tree he flew slowly homewards, and before he reached the rookery had made up his mind as to what should be done. He mentioned to a few old friends, the ancient dignitaries of the settlement, that he wished to consult them at once on an important matter; and a meeting was accordingly held in a tree hard by. An aged and highly respected bird, with two white feathers in his wing, was voted into the chair, who, taking his perch on a prominent bough, requested Gaffer to open his mind.

"My friends," said Gaffer, turning his one eye with an evil look round and round upon the assembly, "you will perhaps remember that last spring I was asked advice about a certain egg, and that my advice was not taken. I will ask you whether that egg has been a credit to our rookery?"

A chorus of cawing encouraged him to proceed.

"I will not allude," said he, "to painful circumstances connected with that egg, and to personal insults which I suffered on account of that egg. I may feel that I hardly received at that time the support which I might have looked for from the older and wiser among us. But let bygones be bygones. I have to tell you that the bird which was the ill-omened result of that egg is about to bring home a wife who is not one of our community. (Great disturbance, lasting several minutes.) I have watched, and I have seen the guilty pair but an hour since, and we may expect them at any moment. This is painful news to have to tell you, but I must sacrifice my own feelings. I wish to know what line of action you would propose that we should take?"

Almost before he had finished speaking, such a hubbub of indignation arose, that the president had the utmost difficulty in restoring order.

"Friends," said he at length, "let us take a flight to calm our spirits after the terrible news which has been sprung upon us; then we will deliberate on the case."

Agreed. They all sailed about above the tree for a few minutes, and then descended again, cawing so loud that a passing wayfarer looked up at the tree in astonishment. The president then called on the oldest rook in company to give his opinion.

"Kill her," he said; "it's the shortest way and the least trouble. As for him, he'll soon get over it."

This proposal was received with a round of cawing, in which Gaffer did not join. When it came to an end the President asked whether any one else had a plan to propose. A worthy old rook flapped her wings and said,

"I object to killing. It excites the young birds. When they have done it once they want to do it again. We might be breaking up the very foundations of society by encouraging this kind of punishment. Let them build in a tree by themselves. Live and let live, I say.

This plan found a few supporters, but more assailants: Gaffer prudently held his tongue. Every one began to give his own opinion, and the two opposing parties got so angry that the president felt obliged to order another flight. When they returned, Gaffer spoke as follows:—

"I hope my worthy friends who have made their proposals, will not take it amiss if I state my opinion that they are both open to serious objection. If we kill this upstart's bride, surely we shall be leaving the real criminal unpunished. (Loud caws of approval.) If on the other hand we let them build in a tree by themselves, they will bring up their young, and instead of having two rebellious birds to deal with, we shall have a whole family to keep aloof from. I ask you, is it likely, is it possible, that we should be able to keep our young birds from associating with them? Now what I propose is this: let them come and try to build in our trees, as I know they will; let us tell our younger birds, who will be very glad of the job, to take away every stick they bring, and worry them till they are sick of it. If they get a few bruises, or a broken leg or wing, so much the better; if they give up the attempt, and go elsewhere, we shall have got rid of bad rubbish (applause), and they won't get on better anywhere else, depend upon it. If any rook here thinks that I have a personal grudge against this young Jetsom, I trust that the moderation of this proposal will undeceive him. I request the President to put my motion to the vote without delay." (Much cawing.)

The President did as he was desired; and the motion was carried by a large majority. Each old bird was then directed to tell his younger friends that they might freely take any nesting materials collected by Jetsom and his spouse; and the meeting broke up.

The victim of these hard-minded old birds brought his wife home that night, and they roosted in one of the trees without being molested or even noticed. Next morning early they set about choosing a place for a nest, and while they were looking about, Gaffer sent a polite message, by a lively young bird, that an excellent position was vacant in his tree. The wily old gentleman wished to witness the success of his plot, without taking part in the proceedings himself. Jetsom began to think he was getting into Gaffer's good books again, and gladly accepted the offer. "That old fellow, he said to his wife, "is a great authority here, and if we can enlist him in the great cause, it will be the best thing that could happen to us. Now, my dear, we will begin our labours cheerfully."

All that day they went backwards and forwards bringing sticks to lay the foundation of the nest; and Gaffer sat on a high bough and looked down on them benignly with his one eye. He even condescended once or twice to give them a little advice as to how the sticks should be placed. In the evening they went off to rest, bathe, and enjoy a little conversation about the happy future of the race of rooks; and a happier or more loving pair of birds were not to be found in all that large rookery. How their hearts sank within them on their return when they found that every stick they had laid had been taken away!

Gaffer was still sitting there, looking very wise: and Jetsom asked him who had done them this bad turn, and why.

"My dear young friend," said Gaffer, with an ill-concealed leer, "these are little troubles that we have all had to go through. It's only fun, you may be sure. Some of those idle young birds have been amusing themselves at your expense. Don't be disheartened: begin again."

"Thank you, you dear, kind old bird," said Jetsom's wife. " How good of you to take such an interest in us. May I have a little talk with you some day about the problems of life?"

Gaffer was overpoweringly polite. "My dear," he said, "you do me great honour. I shall be delighted to discuss them with you. But perhaps you will solve them for yourselves. And he seemed to leer at her with his vacant eye, while he winked the other at a friend in a tree hard by.

The work began again next day; the same thing happened again, and again Gaffer encouraged them to persevere. Next day Jetsom stayed on guard, while his wife collected sticks. Seeing this, Gaffer took himself off, and only returned to find, to his extreme delight, his victim in a very ruffled state, the other rooks in possession of all his sticks, and his wife in very low spirits. She appealed to him to protect them.

"My dear," said Gaffer, "this is one of the problems of life. You are now beginning to face the facts of the world. Go on, persevere, and sooner or later you will solve the problems."

The luckless pair took his advice once more, and day after day went on collecting their sticks, only to find them stolen directly their backs were turned. If one remained on guard, battles ensued; and Gaffer could hardly repress his delight when he saw Jetsom's feathers begin to fall off in these fights. Several times he had to retire by himself to a distant tree, to enjoy his revenge in solitude.

At last the younger birds began to get tired of this game, and having finished their own nests, were no longer in want of the sticks that Jetsom collected. Gaffer began to get sulky and anxious. He sat on his bough and saw the nest beginning to rise at last: something must be done at once. He waited till both birds were away together; then down he went on the nest and began to pull it all to pieces. But it was a long job for one bill, and before he had done, back came the owners. Gaffer was surprised, and was quite unable to persuade them that he was only helping to arrange the sticks; it was all too plain. Jetsom fell into a fury that frightened his poor wife out of her wits, and before Gaffer could stammer out something about "the problems of life," he was attacked, pecked, driven from one tree to another, worried, pushed, flapped at, till his one eye closed for ever, and he fell to the ground lifeless. But the problems of life had been too much for Jetsom. He felt a moment of glorious triumph as his enemy fell, and was just returning to his wife and nest with pride and honour, with heart swelling with joy and hope: when his senses gave way, his bill opened, his eyes grew dim, and in the moment of victory he expired, falling to the ground by the side of his conquered foe. He had solved his problem.

Half an hour later a gentleman walking down the road, stopped to watch a strange assembly of rooks in an adjoining meadow. They were standing in a large circle, making a great noise; in the centre of the circle stood a single rook, ruffled and miserable-looking. As he watched, the noise gradually ceased, and after a moment's silence, the whole company rose on their wings and rushed upon the victim in the middle. The noise again became deafening, and nothing could be seen but a mêlée of wings, tails, and beaks, on the spot where the solitary bird had been seen a moment before. The gentleman scrambled over the hedge, waving his stick and shouting: the rooks flew away with loud cawings. When he reached the spot, he found nothing but a mangled mass of feathers—the lifeless body of one miserable bird.

It was the body of Jetsom's widow. She too had solved the problem of her life, and the rookery was no longer troubled with revolutionary ideas.