Tag: England

Sir Hans Sloane, Abbé Bignon and Mrs. Hickie’s Pigeons

In 1720, Dr. Den. Hickie complained to Sloane about an ongoing dispute with a neighbour:

the Lord of the Manor who is intent upon me as a stranger to do me prejudice & particularly in destroying a few pigeons that my wife has always kept without molestation since first shee bought her estate in this Countrey.

The country in this case referred to France, not just the countryside. Dr and Mrs Hickie had moved to Meulan sur Seine from London. It was “the profes that you have given me of your friendship whilest I resided & practiced in London”, Hickie wrote, that “encourages me to take the liberty of importuning you at present”. Hickie reminded Sloane that the friendship had not been one way, as he had been sending his observations to the Royal Society on Sloane’s directions.

Sloane might not seem the obvious choice to assist with a neighbourly dispute in France, until Hickie specified who is neighbour was: one of the Abbé Bignon’s brothers. By 1720, Sloane and the Abbé had been regular correspondents for over twenty-five years (which Ann-Marie Hansen discusses in another post). Although Hickie had met the Abbé in person and been received upon Sloane’s “acc[oun]t wth a great deal of civility & friendship”, he clearly was not in a position to ask the Abbé directly for assistance. But he hoped that Sloane would intercede with the Abbé on his behalf:

a word speakeing from the Abbé at his Brother is enough to free me from the disturbance that this man designes to give me therefore I hope that you’ld contribute to protect me by your recommendation.

This is a letter that highlights the complicated routes that patronage might take. One could not just approach someone of the Abbé’s standing on a limited acquaintance, especially in France where the rules of patronage were even more stringent than in England. An intermediary was crucial. And who better than the one who had introduced Hickie to the Abbé in the first place?

But… it’s really the dispute over pigeons in this letter that captures my interest.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Pigeons were not just valuable livestock, but one that owners (or “fanciers” as they even called themselves in the 1700s) seemed to hold in great affection. The most common use of pigeons was for food, which provided a steady supply of meat year round. In his Columbarium: or, the pigeon-house (London, 1735),

John Moore argued that pigeon dung was particularly important for fertilizing crops, making medicines, tanning leather and producing salt-petre. The dung was so good that it “challengeth the Priority, not only of the Dung of Fowls, but of all other Creatures whatsoever, on the accont of its usefulness in human Life.” Moore’s chapter on treating pigeon distempers suggests the lengths that fanciers might go to care for their pigeons: special diets, imported ingredients (such as tobacco) and attentive nursing. The attack on Mrs Hickie’s pigeons must have been upsetting for the Hickies on several levels.

Alhough Hickie suggested that Bignon was attacking the pigeons because the Hickies were not local (a natural fear for anyone living in a foreign land), the reasons are likely far more complicated. Whereas there were no regulations on who might own pigeons in eighteenth-century England, French law was very clear–only lords of the manor had the right to keep or kill pigeons. This feudal right was considered to be such a fundamental mark of inequality that it was revoked in the second article of the 4 August Decrees of 1789, which were passed by the National Assembly to settle peasant unrest in the countryside during the French Revolution.

It’s unclear which brother Hickie meant, but all three brothers were firmly entrenched in the aristocracy: Louis was the Major General of the King’s Armies, Jérôme III was the Intendant of Amiens and Armand Roland was the Intendant of Paris. Such men would not have looked kindly upon mere commoners, however well-to-do, keeping pigeons.

Hickie may have been astute enough to spot the need for an intermediary in the dispute, but he had made a classic ex-pat mistake of fundamentally missing an important cultural difference. What would have been a simple matter of bad neighbourliness in England was at the heart of aristocratic privilege in France.

Citizen Science and Flying Ant Day, in 1707 and in 2013

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

“What the heck!?” I spat, as an ant flew into my mouth. The winged ants were everywhere: crawling on the ground or (seemingly) flying dozily around. It was a warm and humid afternoon and I envied the laziness of the ants. But I had a tube train to catch and I hurried off without paying them much attention. It was only when I arrived in the centre of London and spotted more ants that I began to wonder what was happening.

This was the U.K.’s famed ‘Flying Ant Day’ in which Queen Ants and the males take to the skies in their grandly titled nuptial flight. Although this annual event occurs wherever colonies of ants live, I had somehow never noticed it on the prairies of Canada–only discovering this natural spectacle about ten years ago while walking the urban pavements of London.

The 2013 rush has apparently already started, with ants in places as diverse as Cambridge and Nottingham already having had their day in the sun this week. There have also been several seagull traffic deaths in Devon, caused by the gulls gobbling down too much ant acid.

Last year, the Society of Biology enlisted the aid of “citizen scientists” to keep track of times, dates and weather conditions of sightings. What they found was that the nuptial flight occurs after a low pressure system and within a tight time frame, usually over a few days. The ants also make their flights between four and six in the afternoon.

The idea of citizen scientists compiling data for a scholarly society strikes me as, perhaps, rather familiar: early modern Royal Society anyone? William Derham (1657-1735), for example, was a clergyman by day and a “citizen scientist” by night—specifically, an astronomer—who kept Hans Sloane and the Royal Society apprised of his star-gazing. (I discussed Derham’s interests in another post.) Derham also passed on observations from other people, including Mr Barrett’s* account of flying ants in 1707.

I was lately at our friend Mr Barrets, who desired me to acquaint the Society concerning the Flights of Ants (that made such a noise in London last Sumer) that he hath for many years last past constantly observed the Flight of that Insect on the very same, or within a day or two of that very day of the Month, on which they fell in London. About the year 1689 or 1690 (as I remember) he said he saw a cloud of them, and several times since he hath seen the same. He took it for a Cloud full of Rain approaching towards him, & was much surprized to find it a vast Number of Ants only frisking in the Air, & carried aloft as he imagined only wth the gentle Current of the Air. He is of opinion that they allways come fromward the Westerly points. I hope our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately, that we may make a judgment from what parts they came. The next day after they fell in London, I remember we had in divers places many of them, particularly at Mr Barrets, & South-Weal & Burntwood. I call them Flying-Ants, because Mr Barret (who is a good Judge) said they were such that he saw.

In 1707, people were as fascinated by the sight of flying ants as we are today, with the Flight causing quite a stir in London in 1706. Although observers weren’t even sure if the insects really were ants, or why they were flying in a mass, they were clear on three points: that it was a regular annual event, that air currents enabled the Flight, and that it occurred on multiple days across the south of England.

Over three-hundred years on, we’re rediscovering that Flying Ant Day is region specific in the U.K. and is affected by weather. It is intriguing that modern science still hasn’t explained the specific triggers for the Flight of Ants and has once again turned to citizen scientists to provide a larger data set for study. Despite Derham’s hope that “our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately”, the Royal Society doesn’t appear to have taken much interest in the Flight of Ants. Maybe the Society of Biology will have more success.

If I happen to spot the Flying Ants this year, I plan to take part in the Society of Biology’s 2013 Flying Ant Day survey. This time, I’ll follow in the footsteps of Barrett and Derham by closely observing the natural world at my doorstep instead of dashing past it.

UPDATE, 22 July: The nuptial flight occurred in my London neighbourhood today, just before 5 p.m. I could not avoid observing nature on my doorstep, which had become a graveyard for a number of them. Here are two, caught in between a bit of flying around my garden. (And I did fill in my survey!)

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

*Probably Dacres Leonard Barrett, a member of the Fuller family (relations by marriage to Sloane) and occasional correspondent of Sloane’s.