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 11 of 53)
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is at once so grave and so ludicrous, so dignified and so grotesque,
that we are in doubt whether to put it down as a very wise or
a very foolish bird. But apart from its appearance, very interest-
ing is the whole family of owls, and well worthy of observation:
plunderers though they are, and living by what they can murder,

The Owls. 99

and that, too, not openly and by day, as the Falconidse, but
skulking along on noiseless wing in the silence and darkness
of night ; they are clever fellows, too : aye, and noble withal, and
much to be respected ; then how sagacious they are, and how
much they know : to be sure, if you look at one in broad day-
light, when the sun dazzles and confounds him, he cuts but a
sorry figure ; but so would a man, were his powers of vision so
keen and so sensitive. But observe him when the shades of
evening have fallen on the earth, how cunning, how thoughtful,
how active he seems now, yet not restless or hurried in his
movements, but deliberate and calm. All day long he will sit
in his snug dark retreat, dozing away the hours of dazzling sun-
shine, to him so insupportable, snoring and dreaming as owls
only can do ; but no sooner has the sun gone down and twilight
begun, than out comes the owl from its lurking-place ; gliding
along in silence ; hunting over the fields ; dropping on a mouse,
which any vision less keen would fail to discover ; bearing it off
to its nest ; and returning again to its hunting-ground ; and thus
ridding mankind of a vast number of this most destructive of
little four-footed vermin. Now, to enable the owls to effect this
in the twilight, and even the dusk of night, they are furnished
with several attributes peculiarly adapted to their requirements :
thus their powers of sight and hearing are remarkably acute,
as I have before observed ; and in addition to this, their plumage
is so soft and downy, and their wing feathers in particular so
pliant, that in striking the air they offer the least possible oppo-
sition, and move along noiselessly, with a slow, gentle and uniform
motion ; in which respect they differ widely from the flight of
other birds, the flapping of whose wings may be heard often at a
considerable distance.

But though of such signal service to mankind, and though
enjoying such a reputation for wisdom, the poor owl is not looked
upon with a friendly eye ; on the contrary, it is now, and always
has been, regarded with superstitious feelings by the inhabitants
of this as well as other countries : without doubt its habits of
seclusion by day, its spectre-like and noiseless movements by


100 Strigidce.

night, and its solemn appearance are the principal cause of this
popular error: then its frequent lurking-place, the church-tower;
its haunts, the churchyard and the neighbouring meadows : its
ghostly and silent Sittings ; its wild, unearthly and dismal shriek,
coming suddenly on the belated peasant, combine to startle and
terrify him into the belief that something ominous has occurred,
and lead him to think that the owl bodes no good, and knows
more than he ought, and portends calamity: and this idea is
greatly strengthened by the strange pleasure which the bird
seems to evince in singling out and hooting at the window of the
sleepless and fever-racked invalid, a greeting ever dreaded as
the unfailing forerunner of death, but which was only a scream
of surprise, with which the bird testified its perception of the
light burning in the sick man's room, and to which it was
attracted from its hunting-fields. Thus the ignorance of man
has from time immemorial attributed evil to the owls, and caused
them to be regarded with suspicion and superstitious horror, and
consequently to be persecuted in every way ; and were it not for
their habit of keeping close to their hiding-places during the day,
and only emerging with the declining light, they would probably
soon be exterminated from our island, without any regard to their
real harmlessness and the immense benefit they confer on man.

It is very rarely indeed that an owl is seen abroad when the
sun is shining, but should one from any cause be driven or
tempted from its retreat during the day, it is attacked on all
sides, mobbed, persecuted, and pursued by a host of small birds,
screaming and chattering and scolding, who, knowing its help-
lessness at such a time, and seizing the opportunity, rejoice to
take the common enemy at a disadvantage, and worry him with
great gusto.

Like their diurnal brethren of prey, owls reproduce the in-
digestible parts of the animals they have swallowed, as fur,
feathers, bones, etc., in large pellets or castings, many bushels of
which may be seen at the foot of the hollow tree, or the bottom
of the ruined ivy-covered tower, which they have selected for
their abode. Like the hawks, too, they live in pairs ; but rarely

The Owls. 101

drink ; carry off their prey in their feet, for which their sharp
claws are well fitted, and, like the buzzards and harriers, beat
their hunting-grounds in regular order, near the surface of the
earth. Indeed, if we look back to the family of falcons, we shall
see in many respects a gradual approach to the owls in the
genera last described, these marks of similarity becoming more
and more apparent as we advance. Thus the Buzzards, though
essentially belonging to the Falconidse, possess a heavy form, an
indolent appearance, plumage soft in texture, downy and loose,
flight easy and buoyant, but not swift, and (as the American
Naturalist Wilson says) , ' they are often seen coursing over the
surface of the meadows long after sunset, many times in pairs ;"
in all these points they betoken a decided approach to the owls,
which, however, becomes yet more marked in the intervening
family of Harriers, for in addition to all the above-named points
of resemblance in flight, plumage, and appearance, these birds
possess the form of beak, and the peculiar and distinct disk of
close-set feathers, surrounding the face, for which the owls are so
noted add to this, that the skeletons of the harriers and the
owls show a close affinity, as do their eggs ; and in both the large
aperture of the ear is conspicuous. Thus the two families of
diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey, the falcons and the owls,
approach one another by gradual and almost insensible steps, so
smoothly, evenly, and easily does nature pass from one link to
another in her great chain, so gentle are the transitions from one
genus to another.

The family of owls may be divided into two groups, those
which possess horns, and those which have smooth heads : these
horns or ears are simply two tufts of feathers on the head, vary-
ing in length according to the species, and which can be raised
or depressed at the pleasure of the bird, according as it is
actuated by sudden fear, rage, or excitement of any kind, or is
slumbering in repose. There are seven species which I am able
to enumerate as belonging to this county, the first two and the
last of which are very rare, and only occasional stragglers, the
remaining four being sufficiently common. Of the seven species

102 Strigidce.

which we possess, four are with, the remaining three without,
the above mentioned horns or tufts.

19. EAGLE OWL (Bubo maximus).

Hibou Grand Due of the French; Grosse Ohreule huhu of
the Germans ; Bufo, and Corujdo of the Portuguese ; Buho
Grande of the Spaniards ; in Orkney known as the ' Stock
Owl/ or Katogle a name, doubtless, derived from the Nor-
wegian Kat-ugla; in Sweden Berg Uf, or 'Mountain Owl/
I learn from the list of the British Ornithological Union Com-
mittee that Bubo is derived from ucu, ' to hoot/ and that from
the root oj$, 'a cry;' and that from thence came Byzantium,
' the place of owls/ I also learn from Professor Skeat that owl,
ule y eule, ugle, ulula, and the equivalents to these in most
European languages come from ul, ' to hoot ' or ' screech ;' while
with a prefixed h added for emphasis we get ' to howl/ I admit
this fine species to our Wiltshire list on the authority of the Rev.
A. P. Morres, who instances an authentically recorded and un-
disputed capture of a fine specimen at Handley Common, on the
borders of the county. This bird was taken alive, and kept for
some seven or eight years by Mr. Thomas King, of Alvediston, in
this county, and about the year 1853 or 1854 passed into the
possession of Mr. Hayter, of Woodyates. Whether it had escaped
from confinement, or whether it was a genuinely wild visitor to
our county, there is no evidence to show ; but I am glad to
admit it among the birds of Wilts, because of the admiration
with which I regard this, the largest of the European owls, and
because of its grand and majestic demeanour. It is, indeed, the
king of owls, as all who have seen it alive in a wild state will
testify ; and as it steals along in buoyant and noiseless flight, so
big and yet so silent, it alarms the belated countryman as some-
thing uncanny and foreboding no good. The first specimen I
ever saw was in the hands of a peasant who had just shot it, and
from whom I purchased it some forty-five years ago, in the
wildest and most terrific of passes, at the entrance of the Via
Mala, in the Canton Orisons, in Switzerland. The bird was yet

Scops Owl 103

warm when I received it, and I spent the whole night in pre-
paring the skin with fingers then unpractised, having, with no
little difficulty and at the expense of much time, prevailed on an
apothecary to sell me some poison for the purpose, but that not
without the written authority of some medical official, whose
scruples were not readily overcome. This bird had just swallowed
a large rat whole, the tail of which yet remained in its gullet ;
and, doubtless, so heavy a repast would increase its natural
sluggishness and indisposition to rise ignavus, ' or idle/ being
one of the specific names by which it is known to science and
made it an easier prey to the peasant who shot it. The last time
I was in its company, though personally I did not see it, was in
scenery of a very opposite kind, on the smiling and sunny
Riviera, at Bordighera, in North Italy. We had ascended to the
old ruined castle which is perched above the town, and the
foremost of our party, who were some few steps in advance,
flushed this monarch of owls from the ivy-covered wall, and
were not a little startled at the sudden outburst of such a

20. SCOPS OWL (Scops giu).

Very rarely indeed does this beautiful little bird make its
appearance in England, and then only in the summer is a
straggler occasionally seen, which has left the warmth of
Italy and the shores of the Mediterranean for our colder
climate. Its favourite haunts seem to be the hot countries
near the equator, but every summer it is extremely common
throughout Italy, and I found no difficulty in procuring a
specimen at Genoa. It is a late-flying species, seldom leaving
its retreat till after the sun has gone down below the horizon.
It derives its scientific name giu from the Italian in that form,
sometimes spelt chiu, and pronounced as the English letter Q,
which very accurately expresses its note; and it repeats this
plaintive melancholy cry, ' kew ! kew !' or ' keeyou !' ' keeyou !' as
Lord Lilford heard it in Spain, at intervals of about two seconds
throughout the entire night, which becomes very monotonous

104 Strigidce.

and tiresome to the listener. The colour of its plumage is
difficult to describe, each feather being mottled, speckled, barred,
and spotted, and pencilled with every shade of dark and pale
brown and gray ; and a remarkably pretty bird it is, and very
diminutive, its total length being little more than seven inches.
The head is furnished with two little tufts or ears, each tuft
containing about seven feathers. Its principal food consists of
insects of various kinds, but it will also occasionally prey on
mice and other small animals. In Malta, where it abounds
during the seasons of its migrations in February and September,
it is sold in great numbers in the market, and is considered by
the natives as excellent for the table.* The British Ornitho-
logical Committee doubt whether to derive the name Scops
from <r?coTgw, ' I look carefully,' which refers well enough to its
habit of staring; or from <rxwffrw, 'I mock/ in allusion to its
perpetual cry repeated all night long, to the dismay of the weary
listener. Thirty years ago I had but one instance to record of
its occurrence in Wiltshire, and that alas ! is now destroyed,
having been pulled to pieces by the grandchildren of its owner
it was killed nearly fifty years since in the south of the county, as
I learnt from the Rev. G. Marsh. Now, however, I have two more
instances, as recorded by Mr. Rawlence : one in that gentleman's
own collection, which was killed near Kingston Deverell ; and
the other shot by Mr. E. Rawlence in the spring of 1873, in
Wilton Park, and presented by him to the Earl of Pembroke.
It had attracted attention some time previously by its peculiar
and reiterated cry. It seems to have been almost frequently
met with of late in the New Forest, but it is not at home in
this country, and must feel sadly home-sick when it chances to
encounter the cold and wet and fogs of 'merrie England.' I
may add, that several other instances of its occurrence in various
parts of the county have reached me, but on examination the
species proves in all these cases to have been mistaken. In
France it is known as Hibou Scops, or, Petit Due ; in Germany,
as Kleine Ohreule; in Italy, as Asiolo ; in Spain, as Corneta
Ibis for 1864, p. 49.

Long-Eared Owl. 105

and Cu-cu ; in Portugal, as Mocho pequeno, ' the little horned


21. LONG-EARED OWL (Otus vulgaris).

Conspicuous amongst its congeners from its long tufts or
horns, which measure nearly an inch and a half in length, and
from which it derives its genuine name otus, ' eared,' known in
Sweden as Skogs Uf, or ' Forest Owl,' and elsewhere in Scan-
dinavia where it is very common as Horn Uggla or ' Horned
Owl.' In France, Hibou Moyen Due ; in Germany, Mittler
Ohreule; in Italy, Gufo Minore ; in Spain, Carabo ; and
in Portugal, Mocho. This handsome species stands forth as
a very ,type of the family of owls, so complete is the ruff
of feathers surrounding the face, so large the orifice of the
ear, so buoyant its flight, so thoroughly nocturnal its habits.
As in the species last described, nothing can exceed the
beautiful pencilled markings of its plumage, the darker shades
of brown contrasting with the more delicate tints of the
same colour, and the whole blending together and harmonizing
with indescribable beauty. It frequents thick plantations during
the day, and breeds very early in the spring, in our large woods,
preferring the deserted nest of another bird to the trouble of
building for itself. The young, if disturbed, are said to throw
themselves on their backs, to hiss violently, to snap quickly with
their hooked beaks, strike furiously with their sharp claws, and
puff out their down like a turkey-cock. Mice and moles con-
stitute their favourite food, but in addition to this, Montagu says
that they will take small birds off their roost. The Long-eared
Owl is indigenous to Wilts, and though but sparingly distributed
throughout the county, breeds here annually. The Rev. G. Marsh
possessed one killed at Gritnam Wood, near him, in 1840, and
had seen it in the neighbourhood of Salisbury. Mr. Hayward
and Mr. Stratton have seen it at Lavington, and Mr. Elgar Sloper,
of Devizes, kept one alive, which was taken from the nest at
Aldbourne in 1853, where there had also been a nest of these
birds the previous year. Mr. T. Kemm, of the Manor House

106 Strigidce.

Avebury, reports a nest with three young birds found by his son
on April 10th, in a plantation on Windmill Hill, very close to
the borders of my parish. Mr. Grant reports a nest taken at
Figheldean, May 2nd, 1862, and I understand that it breeds
annually near Marlborough. The Rev. A. P. Morres described it
as common near Salisbury, more especially at Longford Park, no
less than eleven having, on one occasion, been found congregated
in a copse of yew trees, on the property of the Earl of Radnor,
during some hard weather in winter. In like manner Mr. Powell,
of Hurdcott, informed me that on November 29th, 1879, while
shooting at Grovely, the sportsmen disturbed a flight of Long-
eared Owls estimated at no less than twenty birds which
seemed to fly out of every tree. The frost was very severe at the
time, the thermometer marking no less than 16 of cold. Lastly
I have a specimen in my collection, which I picked up dead
beneath a larch tree in my garden, which was in beautiful
plumage, and bore no external marks of injury, but was so
emaciated that it appeared to have been starved to death. I
have other instances of the occurrence of this owl at Erchfont,
Hilmarton, Erlestoke, Everley, S to well, Chitterne, Wilsford, and
other places.

22. SHORT-EARED OWL (Otus brachyotos).

So far as my experience goes, quite as numerous as the
' Long-eared/ and well known to most sportsmen is this species,
which arrives here in October, and leaves us again in spring.
Unlike its congener, this owl never enters woods and planta-
tions, and is generally said never to perch on a tree; while
it is certain that it prefers the open common, the turnip
field, the marsh, and the moor, amongst the long coarse
grass of which it makes its nest. Mr. Harting, however,
doubts whether it always keeps to the ground, and thinks
it not improbable that it roosts in trees at night ; and I may
say, in corroboration of this view, that in Egypt I once
picked up beneath a palm tree, from which it had evidently
fallen, the dead body of a Short-eared Owl in perfect plumage,

Short-eared Owl. 107

though but a bag of bones with no flesh on them, so emaciated
and starved it seemed. This is a remarkable parallel to a like
case of the Long-eared Owl mentioned above. It will hunt
readily by day, and this habit, together with the smallness of its
head, and its general appearance, have procured it the provincial
name of the ' Hawk ' Owl ; it is also called the ' Woodcock' Owl,
from its arrival and departure occurring simultaneously with that
bird. It preys chiefly on mice, and has been known to congregate
in considerable numbers, when an unusual abundance of that
destructive little quadruped has threatened to ravage a district.
In like manner it will collect in flocks and follow on the vast
armies of lemmings (which at times move in incredible numbers
in some districts of Norway, where I once fell in with them on
their migration), and prey upon those destructive little quad-
rupeds; though from their astonishing numbers, with which the
whole mountain side is alive the havoc the owls make in their
ranks must be almost inappreciable. It is a bold, pugnacious
bird, and, when wounded, will spring at its assailant with great
fierceness, leaving unmistakable evidence of the sharpness of
its bill and claws. Its horns consist of but four feathers in each,
so very little longer than the rest of the plumage on the head,
that after death they are difficult to discover. I believe that it
is when in repose, and while undisturbed, that this bird erects
its tufts, and when startled or in fear depresses them ; but there
are conflicting opinions on the point. This species occurs
frequently throughout the county, and is so often roused by
partridge shooters in turnips, and from the long grass by the
side of ditches, that it is needless to particularize localities of
its capture. In France it is Hibou brachyote, Chouette, and
Grand Cheveche ; in Germany, Kurzohrige Ohreule ; in Sweden,
Kort-orad Uf; and in Spain, Carabo.

23. BARN OWL (Strix flammea).

We now come to the smooth-headed or hornless owls, un-
adorned with the feathery tufts which we have noticed as
belonging to the foregoing species : first of these, and not

108 Strigidw.

long since the most common of British owls, is the species
now under consideration, the ' Barn ' or ' White ' owl, which
rejoices in a great many provincial names, as the 'Church'
Owl, the 'Hissing' Owl, the 'Screech' Owl, etc. In Sweden,
where it is very rare, it is called Torn Uggla, or 'Tower
Owl;' and in Madagascar it is regarded as a bird of evil
omen and malign influence, and is known to the natives as
Vorondolo, or 'Ghost bird.'* At the Cape of Good Hope, where
it is common, it is called by the natives Doodvogel, ' the Bird of
Death,' and it is dreaded and hated by them accordingly. In
France, too, it is known as Chouette Effraye, or the * Alarming or
Terrifying Owl.' In Germany it is Kleinerkauz and Scfdeier-
kauz, 'Veil Owl;' in Spain, Lechuza,', in Portugal, Coruja das
Torres; in Italy, Alloco Comune 4 bianco. The generic name,
Strix is derived by the B.O.U. Committee from the word
?', ' to cry out sharply or shrilly ;' the Latin, strideo, too,
meaning 'to make a harsh sound,' is similarly derived. The
specific name, flammea, alludes to the flame colour of the
upper plumage; for though called white, and having a
white appearance generally, as it is seen emerging from the
church tower or barn, in either of which it loves to dwell, and
hunting over the meadows on noiseless wing, yet when seen
nearer, its plumage will be found to be more beautifully marked
and more delicately pencilled than that of almost any other
bird : the under parts are pure white, here and there slightly
speckled with faint yellow ; but the upper plumage, which is of
a remarkable softness in texture, is of a dark buff or light yellow
colour, the tips of the feathers, speckled and spotted with black,
presenting a very pleasing appearance. The ruff in this species
is very distinct, the mouth and gullet very wide, the ears ex-
tremely large, the wings very long and broad, and the flight very
buoyant. It feeds principally on mice, of which it destroys an
extraordinary quantity, and which it seizes and swallows at once,
without any attempt to tear them in pieces with its claws ; and

* See Ibis for 1862, p. 269, for an admirable paper on ' Birds observed in
Madagascar/ by my friend, Mr. Edward Newton.

Barn Owl. 109

it is quite guiltless of touching poultry or pigeons, notwithstand-
ing the prevailing opinion to the contrary, and the deeply rooted
prejudice to the much maligned bird in consequence. It is,
probably, still to be found in every village in the county, though
its nocturnal habits conduce to screen it from the vulgar gaze :
during the day it reposes with closed eyes in the retreat it has
selected, but as twilight comes on it issues forth in silence,
making no perceptible noise as it strikes the air with its woolly
wings, but ever and anon screeching out its note of joy and wild
and startling notes, as it has done since the days of Ovid :

' Est illis strigibus nomen, sed nominis hujus
Causa quod horrendi stridere nocte solent.'

That they screech and scream horribly there can be no question.
Gilbert White thought that they did not hoot at all ; but further
observations have determined that occasionally, though rarely,
they do indulge in a howl which would not disgrace the Tawny
Owl.* The hard breathing or snoring generally attributed to
them seems to belong to the young birds alone, which give
audible tokens of their somnolency as you approach their
nursery. There is one remarkable habit in the nesting of this
species related by Yarrell, Hewitson, and others, and of which
the Rev. G. Marsh was on one occasion an eye-witness ; viz., that it
does not lay its full complement of eggs (usually four) in regular
daily succession, but that, after hatching two eggs, it will lay
two more, the latter being hatched in.due course by the warmth
of their elder brethren ; while a third laying often ensues, which
becomes hatched as the preceding, the same nest thus contain-
ing at one time young birds in three separate stages of advance
towards maturity ; an admirable provision of nature, as Hewitson
remarks, whereby the old birds are enabled the more readily to
supply the demands of their voracious progeny.

If Ulysses and ^Eneas are to be accounted especially fortunate
in having their wanderings described by such able pens as those
of Homer and Virgil, we may in like manner congratulate the
' Barn ' Owl on having secured for itself the very able champion-
s' Harting's edition of White's * Selborne,' and his ' Birds of Middlesex.'

110 Strigidcv.

ship of Mr. Waterton, who has laboured most assiduously, and
with the power which he could so well wield, to defend this

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 11 of 53)