Alfred Charles Smith.

The birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county online

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Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 10 of 53)
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a fool I presume on account of the dull, heavy appearance of
the bird. Mause Folk (' Mouse Falcon ') is the very appropriate
German name, for the mouse forms the chief staple of food to this
most harmless, useful species. In Spain it is Pella ; and in
Portugal Tartaranhdo.

13. ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD (Buteo lagopus).
Though rarer as a species than the last, this has been occasion-
ally met with in various parts of the county. In 1854 two were seen
in the neighbourhood of Ogbourn, one of which was killed by Mr.
Godwin, of Brimslade. The Rev. G. Marsh possessed one which was
taken in the parish of Brinkworth, at Somerford Common, in 1839,
and reported it as very rare there; indeed, that was the only

Rough-legged Buzzard. 87

specimen which had come under his notice ; but I have notes of
another killed near Wroughton ; one caught at Overton in 1866 ;
one, as I learn from Mr. Grant, killed at Erlestoke in January,
1882; which measured 4 feet 5 inches in breadth of extended
wings, 21 inches in length, and weighed 2| pounds; and several
of these ' feather-legged buzzards,' as the keepers aptly described
them, were shot at Fon thill some years since. The Rev. A. P.
Moires reports that in December, 1876, five of this species were
seen in a large wood at Fonthill, four of which were trapped ;
and he adds that Mr. Rawlence possesses a specimen in his
collection which was killed on the Longleat estate, near
Warminster. Mr. Ernest Baker, of Mere, in November, 1876,
fell in with it while shooting, and had good opportunities
of watching it. though it was too wary to come quite within
gunshot. Its heavy flight proclaimed it at once to his practised
eye as a Buzzard, and when it afterwards pitched on the downs
he was able to examine it at leisure, when its tail, apparently
white, and the very light under-parts, caught his attention. It
was subsequently seen near the same spot by several persons,
one of whom came close upon it while engaged in devouring
a rabbit. On January 1st, 1880, one was killed on the estate of
Sir T. Fraser Grove, at Feme, near Salisbury, as recorded in the
Zoologist for that year, page 143. On January 2nd, 1881, a very-
fine specimen was obtained on Gorton Down, close to Boyton, as
I was informed by the Rev. G. Powell ; and Mr. Rawlence tells
me that in 1882 a pair of these birds hatched out five young
ones near Tisbury, all of which he believes were killed, and some
of them stuffed and preserved in the neighbourhood; one of
which (an adult bird, and a very fine specimen) is in the posses-
sion of Mr. J. R. Read, of Berwick Farm. This evidence of the
breeding of this species in Wilts is the more valuable, because it
is stated by Professor Newton that nearly all the Rough-legged
Buzzards which occur in the British Islands are in immature
plumage, which in this species, as in so many of the true falcons,
differs from that of the adult by the transverse instead of longi-
tudinal markings of the lower parts.*

Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. i., p. 118.

88 Falconidce.

In habits, food, and mode of obtaining it, this species much
resembles the preceding, but may easily be distinguished from
its congeners by the feathering of its legs down to the toes,
whence its specific names, both English and scientific, lagopus
signifying ' footed like a hare.' The French, too, neatly style it
Buse ganUe and Buse pattue, and the Germans Rauhfussiger
Busard, In Sweden it is Fjosbent Vrdk. In the general soft and
downy texture of the feathers of this and the preceding species,
as compared with the plumage of the true Falcons, and also in
the habit common to both of them of seeking their food late in
the evening, may be noticed peculiarities indicating an approach
to the Owls.

14. AFRICAN BUZZARD (Buteo desertorum).

The announcement given in the Ibis of a specimen of this
splendid Buzzard, till then a stranger to Great Britain, having been
killed in this county, enables me to add this bird to our Wiltshire
list; and I do so with singular satisfaction, as I became very
familiar with it in Egypt, and brought home several fine specimens.
It is of much larger size and stronger build than either of our home
Buzzards, and bolder and more fearless of man, so that it was
easy to approach within gunshot, and any number might have
been secured. The unique occurrence of this bird in England
is recorded in Gould's ' Introduction to the Birds of Great
Britain/ and in the Ibis for 1876, page 366, and for 1878,
page 118 ; where it is stated that one of this species in immature
plumage was killed at Everley, in Wiltshire, in September,
1864 ; and this is the first instance recorded of the arrival in the
far west of this inhabitant of eastern and southern lands, Africa
and India being its true home.

15. HONEY BUZZARD (Pernis apivorus).

Very different from all other members of the Falconidae, both in
habits and the prey it seeks, is this elegant bird. Though univers-
ally styled the ' Honey ' Buzzard, honey forms no portion of its
food, and it is not for this that it searches out the nests of bees

Honey Buzzard. 89

and wasps, scratches away the bank in which they are placed, and
tears out the comb. The larvae, or immature young, are the objects
of its diligent search, and these it devours with great greediness,
picking them out and demolishing them without any regard to the
-anger or the stings of their owners. The scientific name it bears
declares this habit clearly enough, and it would be well were the
English specific name exchanged for the ' Gentle ' Falcon (as has
been suggested), the word 'gentle' signifying the nymphse of
wasps, bees, etc., as the readers of honest old Isaac Walton well
know. The present name of ' Honey ' Buzzard is apt to mislead.
In Sweden it is more correctly called Bi Vrdk or ' Bee Vrak.'
Montagu observed that it used to frequent a lake daily for the
purpose of preying on the large dragon flies (Libellulai), which it
seized with its talons, and took them from thence with its beak.
But though so partial to young bees and wasps, these do not
form the entire food of this large bird ; indeed, it would be diffi-
cult to satisfy a voracious appetite with such delicacies. Rats,
mice, frogs, and small birds, all go to fill its capacious craw.
However, it makes its appearance in this country only in the
summer, when its favourite food is to be found, arriving from
warmer countries and migrating in large flocks, of which Lord
Lilford was once an eye-witness, when he saw several hundreds
of this species pressing the Straits of Gibraltar en route from
Spain to South Africa, on the return autumnal flight in Sep-
tember, 1856.*

In order to defend its head from the stings of the insects it
robs, all the vulnerable parts between the beak and eyes are
clothed with close-set, scale-like feathers, and these seem to act
as a helmet of mail, proof against the weapons of its innumer-
able assailants, whose vengeance its wholesale attacks are sure
to excite. In addition to this generic character, wherein it
differs from all others of the same family, the tarsi are reticu-
lated and the claws only partially curved. These are plain marks
of distinction, but in plumage it presents a most extraordinary
variety, scarcely two specimens being found to resemble each
Ibis for 1865, p. 177.

90 Falconidce.

other. Mr. Fisher, of Yarmouth, has taken great pains to com-
pare different individuals, and to trace the remarkable change
of plumage to which this species is liable ; and he shows, with
considerable probability of correctness, which the subsequent
observations of others have amply corroborated, that the younger
the bird the darker its plumage, which every year increases in
whiteness from the almost uniform dark clove brown of the
immature bird, to the almost perfect whiteness of the adult.
When it has the ash gray plumage on the head, it has often
been called the ' capped ' Buzzard. It is of a gentle, kind, and
amiable disposition, and may easily be domesticated, and soon
becomes attached to its owner: Mr. Knox (who had a good
opportunity of observing it) says it resembles a gigantic Cuckoo,
and has a humble subdued look about it, quite sufficient to dis-
tinguish it from the more martial members of the family, and
that its gait was different also ; instead of the hop of the
Sparrow Hawk or the leap of the Falcon, and the erect attitude
of those birds, its mode of progression was a rapid run, after the
fashion of a Lapwing, the head being at the time partially de-
pressed.* This confirms the statement of Willoughby, which
has been copied by Buffon and Veillot, that the Honey Buzzard
' runs very swiftly, like a hen,' as was shown by Mr. Gurney in
the Zoologist for 1844, page 492. I have several authentic in-
stances, on which I can rely, of the occurrence of this rare bird
in Wiltshire; one of these was seen at Roundway Park about
A.D. 1847, and was shot by the keeper in the act of destroying a
wasps' nest : Mr. Withers, who preserved it, told me that he took
about a dozen wasps and larvae from its stomach. Another, a
young one, at about the same date, was killed at West Laving-
ton, at Mr. Beckett's, and came into the possession of Mr. Hay-
ward, at Easterton. Mr. Rawlence has a specimen killed on
Lord Bath's property in this county. Another, as Sir T. F.
Grove informs me, was trapped by his keeper at Feme some ten
years since, and is now in the hall there. Lord Nelson has a
specimen which was killed at Trafalgar. Lord Arundell recol-
' Birds of Sussex/ pp. 139-148.

Marsh Harrier. 91

lects one being shot at Wardour many years ago. Sir H. Meux
reports one shot in the West Woods near Marlborough in 1855 ;
and Mr. Grant tells me of one shot at Lavington Sands in
October, 1882, whose weight was 2 lb., length 21 inches, and
breadth of wing 4 feet 1 inch.

The name Pernis is interpreted to be a corruption of Pternis,
from TT-ripva, ' the heel,' and to signify ' long-heeled.' In Germany
it is known as Wespen Buzard, ' Wasp-Buzzard/ and in France
Buse bondrte.

16. MARSH HARRIER (Circus ceruginosus).

The Harriers differ from the Buzzards in their more slender and
elegant form, their longer and more naked legs, and especially in
the distinct ruff of close -set feathers which surrounds their face ;
their flight, though not swift, is light and buoyant, and they are
able to continue it for a considerable time. From their habit of
sweeping over the surface of the ground, at no great elevation
above it, and in this manner hunting for game like dogs, they have
derived the generic name ' Harrier.' Professor Skeat, however,
says they are so named from ' harrying or destroying small birds ;'
and it is certainly true that though their prey consists chiefly of
small quadrupeds and reptiles, they will occasionally take birds
as well. Yarrell adds that a remarkable trait in the whole genus
is, that the males, when adult, are all more or less ash gray in
colour, while the females retain their original tints of red or
brown. The Marsh Harrier is the largest of our three British
species, being about 22 inches in length. Bewick, who places it
erroneously among the Buzzards, gives it the provincial name of
Harpy, as does Latham ; and Buffon and Temminck designate it
la Harpage and Busard Harpaye ; but the definition of Harpie
in Boyer's French Dictionary is une femme criarde, 'a noisy
clamorous brawler ;' and as the generic name Circus is derived
by the B.O.U. Committee from Kp%a>, ' to laugh,' I conclude this
species must have enjoyed the reputation, whether deserved or
not, of being somewhat vociferous ; and such, I gather from Mr.
Seebohm's account of it, it is.

92 Falconidce.

Formerly it was not by any means uncommon in this county.
Indeed, Montagu mentions Wiltshire as one of its haunts in his
day ; but now I seldom hear of its appearance within our
borders. Nor has the Rev. A. P. Morres ever met with it near
Salisbury, but reports three specimens all from Wiltshire in
Mr. Rawlence's collection at Wilton, one having been obtained
near Salisbury and the other two from Kingston Deverill, near
Warminster. In North Wilts a fine example, measuring 3 feet
2 inches across the wings, was shot at Easton, October 25th,
1876, by Mr. Hunter, and was recorded by Mr. Grant, of Devizes ;
as was another, shot on the plain above Netheravon in August,
1869 ; one shot by Mr. Sargent, of Enford, in February, 1876 ;
and one killed by Mr. Turner, park-keeper at Erlestoke, in
August, 1878.

Its true home lies in the shores and islands of the Mediter-
ranean. In the Ionian Islands and in Greece it is most abun-
dant, as the snipe-shooter knows to his chagrin, for it constantly
spoils his sport by disturbing his game. In Spain it is very
common, as also in Malta, where it is known as Bu-ghadam, or
the ' Father of Bones/ in allusion to its great osseous develop-
ment, a title which it shares with all the other species of this
genus known to the Maltese.* But in Egypt it literally swarms ;
of all the Harriers which frequent that paradise of rapacious
birds, this is certainly the most common, and I shot a fine series,
and could have obtained any number of specimens with the
greatest ease. In Sweden it is called Rodbrun Kdrr-Hok, or
' Red-brown Marsh Hawk ;' in France, ' Busard de Marais ;' and
in truth it loves marshy districts and moors, from which it de-
rives the English specific name ' Marsh ' Harrier, and the pro-
vincial one of ' Moor ' Buzzard, and here in a tuft of grass or
rushes it makes its nest. So in Germany it is Brandweihe and
Wasserweihe ; but in Italy Falco albanella con il collare ; and
in Spain Milano and Arpella. In the fenny districts of England
and Wales it was formerly very abundant, but now, even in its
favourite haunts, it is becoming scarcer every day, and will
Ibis for 1864, p. 46.

Hen Harrier. 93

doubtless soon be exterminated, owing to the draining and
reclaiming of waste lands, which, however profitable to the
agriculturist, is annually destroying many of our most interest-
ing birds.

17. HEN HARRIER (Circus cyaneus).

Far more common than the last, at any rate in this part of
England, is the Hen Harrier or Ringtail ; for Montagu in this
country, and Temminck on the Continent, have both clearly
proved, what is now universally acknowledged by ornitho-
logists, that these two titles apply to the same bird, though
to the two sexes, which when adult differ very widely both in
size and colour. The male, to which alone the title of Hen
Harrier was originally given, was so named from its supposed
liking for fowls ; it was also called the ' Blue Hawk ' and ' Dove
Hawk/ from its pearl-gray colour; whence also the scientific
name cyaneus, from /cvavtos, 'blue.' The female bore the
title of Ringtail, from the bars of dark and light brown so
conspicuous in her tail. Nilsson, the Swedish naturalist, de-
clared that at a distance the old male might readily be taken for
the Common Gull, " for both its flight, size, and colour are pretty
similar.' It is known in that country by the somewhat clumsy
name of Kdrr Hok med Halskrage, or 'Marsh Hawk with a
Ruff;' in Italy as Falco con il collare, and in France as Faucon
a collier, all of which are descriptive enough of the circular disk
or collar which encircles the face of the female. But it is also,
and more commonly, known in France as L'oiseau Saint Martin,
though for what reason I cannot discover. Sometimes it has
been designated as La Soubuse, or ' lesser Buzzard,' and some-
times as Le Busard grenouillard and Falco ranivorus, from its
partiality^for frogs. Either this, or Falco montanus, as some
old authors called it, and the ' Mountain Harrier,' as Seebohm
suggests, would be appropriate names, for the title it now bears
(' Hen Harrier,') is generally quite misunderstood. In Germany
it is Halbweihe, or ' Half-Kite ; and in Malta Bu-ghadam abiad,
' the White Father of Bones,' for the reason given above in speak-

94 Falconidce.

ing of the Marsh Harrier. In habits and haunts this species
very much resembles the last, but it oftener leaves the marshes
and fens in which it delights for commons and moors, and
breeds in the thick furze covers on the open wastes. It is said
to be a great destroyer of game, and to beat its hunting-grounds
with regularity and at stated intervals, crossing them in various
directions, day after day, and at the same hour of the day. It
is still to be met with in Wilts, though, like its congener, yearly
becoming scarcer. The Rev. G. Marsh had a pair in his
collection which were killed in Clarendon Park in 1823, and
stated that though not uncommon near Salisbury, he never saw
them in the neighbourhood of Chippenham. Mr. Stratton often
saw them on the downs above Lavington, and thought it pro-
bable they bred every year- in the gorse near him, but as the
gorse was being taken up, the bird would probably soon be
driven away. On the same downs Mr. B. Hayward has in years
gone by shot three specimens in one day, at a clump of trees
called Ashington Pennings, and another was killed at Market
Lavington by Mr. Stagg. Mr. Rawlence has specimens in his
collection killed in this county on the property of Lord Bath.
Of later years the Rev. A. P. Morres has met with both male and
female in his own parish of Britford, and has often observed
them on the downs near him, as well as in the neighbourhood of
Stonehenge; and has heard of others as seen near Cranbourn
Chace. Also a fine specimen, which proved to have been shot,
was picked up dead on some fallows near Salisbury. In North
Wilts it has, though rarely, been noticed on Roundway Down ;
and one was shot at Beckhampton by Mr. Went worth about the
year 1871. The Marlborough College Natural History Society's
Reports mention one shot in Savernake Forest in 1862, and six
said to have been seen together at Clench Common in 1864, one
of which was procured. Lord Nelson has a specimen which was
killed at Trafalgar. Mr. W. Wyndham shot one at Langford in
October, 1857, and Mr. Grant's list comprises in 1862 one from
Bratton ; in 1865 specimens from Netheravon, Amesbury, and
Figheldean ; in 1872 one from Bullford ; and in 1882 one from

Montagu's Harrier. 95

Everley which measured 19 inches in length and 3 feet 6 inches
in breadth across the extended wings.

18. MONTAGU'S HARRIER (Circus Montagui).
So called from the worthy ornithologist whose residence in this
county we are proud to boast; who did so much for natural history,
and who devoted so much attention to the genus we are now con-
sidering. In gratitude for his indefatigable researches, and in
compliment to his acute discrimination, which unravelled the con-
fusion prevailing among the Harriers, and ranged them under three
species, which the diligent investigation of half a century has since
proved to be correct, the Ash- coloured Harrier (as he himself
named this species, which he first discovered to be distinct from
the two others) has been named by all the continental authors
4 Circus Montagui ' and ' Le Busard de Montagu,' and by our
own 'Montagu's Harrier.' It may be distinguished from its
congener, the Hen Harrier, with which it had hitherto been
confused, and to which it bears a great resemblance, by its com-
parative lightness, though at the same time greater dimensions,
both in length and stretch of wing ; by its more distinct ruff of
feathers encircling the head, and by its greater elegance and
slimness of form. It is also known to the scientific world as
C. cineraceus, or ' Ash- coloured Falcon,' being in fact the name
which was given it by its discoverer, and in Spain is known as
cenigo, meaning ' of the colour of ashes.' In Sweden it is Mindre
Karr Hok, or 'Lesser Marsh Hawk.' In all other respects, as
regards its habits, haunts, food, etc., it is quite similar to the
last-named species; but of late years it has been proved by
several naturalists that it occasionally varies its diet with the
eggs of small birds, those of the thrush, skylark, and willow
wren having been discovered in its stomach. Several instances
have reached me of its recent capture in this county ; one (now
in the late Mr. Marsh's collection) was killed by Mr. Wightwick's
keeper in 1841, at Somerford Common, described as a very
wooded district ; another was caught in a gin at Wans, about
1855, and (in confirmation of what I have stated above respecting

96 Falconidce.

its occasional food) I learn from Mr. C. Wyndham that it was.
attracted to the trap by an egg set there for a magpie. Another
is reported by the Kev. A. P. Morres as a fine female killed in
1873, close to Salisbury, by the head keeper of Clarendon ; and
the same gentleman calls attention to the greater prevalence of
this species, in comparison with its congeners, in the localities
which suit it best viz. the wide tracts of open, broken ground,
covered with heath and gorse, intermingled with marsh, which
may be met with in the New Forest. The Rev. G. Powell
announced one shot by Mr. G. Lopes' keeper at Greenhill in
1885. Mr. G. Watson Taylor tells me it has visited Erlestoke ;
and Mr. Tyndall Powell writes me word that a pair of old
and two young birds, now preserved at Hurdcott, and other
young birds preserved at Sutton Veny, were taken from his
rabbit warren above Fifield Bavant, and that they had their
nest in the gorse where they were shot and trapped. He
also adds that he occasionally sees hawks there which he
cannot absolutely recognise, but which he believes to be birds
of this species. In proof of its abundance in districts con-
genial to its habits, I will quote Professor Newton, who states,
on the authority of M. Barbier Montault, as given in the Revise
Zoologique for 1838, that in the department of the Vienne, near
Loudun, he has seen it, at the close of the breeding season, not
merely by hundreds, but by thousands, the birds collecting
towards evening to roost in company; and it may be observed
of this species as of the preceding, that it seldom, if ever, perches,
but passes the night on the ground among rough herbage or
heather. In Mr. Rawlence's excellent collection at Bullbridge
House is an interesting case of these birds, comprising a pair of
adults and three young, not a week old, two of which are white
and the third blue all procured within the county on property
belonging to Lord Bath.

I will now bring this long chapter on the Falcons to a close
with one more extract from the register of Mr. Hayward, who
has discovered the following interesting facts from personal
observation : ' Hawks do not moult their wing and tail feathers

Montagu's Harrier. 97

as do other birds and this is a wise provision of Nature
otherwise, during the season of moulting, they must starve ; but
now they moult but one feather on each wing at a time, and
when a feather drops from one wing, the corresponding feather
on the other wing drops out within seven hours. This is,
without doubt, for the sake of equilibrium; then, as the new
feathers come up and are grown, another pair in like manner
falls out, and so with the tail/ Mr. Hayward also observes that
' hawks, in fighting, would score one another's backs with their
talons at a swoop, to avoid which catastrophe the one attacked
invariably turns over and presents her feet to the assailant/


IF the Eagle enjoyed distinction as the favourite of Jove, and
its plume was sought for by the North American Indian, and
by the Highland chief in Scotland, as a mark of nobility ; or if
the Hawk was held sacred by the Turks and Egyptians, and
had respect shown to it alive or dead, and is still found em-
balmed in the mummy pits on the borders of the Nile ; not a
whit behindhand is the Owl in honour, consecrated by the most
learned nation of old to their tutelary Deity, the Goddess of
Wisdom. And, indeed, there is a great deal in the appearance,
character, and habits of this bird to warrant such a distinction :
there is such a remarkably wise expression in its face, it has
such a dignified look, its movements are so deliberate, grave and
solemn, that we are ready to agree with the Athenians, and to
set down the Owl as the very emblem and personification of
learning. And yet again, when we examine the bird, and observe
the large facial disk, or ruff of feathers encircling the face,
giving it the most grotesque appearance; while peeping forth
from this circular fringe and almost buried in it, projects the
short strong hooked beak: when we observe the large staring
eyes, glaring forth so solemnly from their ruff, and the head so
large and apparently so out of proportion, the figure before us

Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 10 of 53)