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

. (page 12 of 53)
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 12 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

much injured, harmless benefactor of mankind from the per-
secutions to which it is exposed at the hands of the wanton,
the thoughtless, and the ignorant. Mr. Waterton likewise in-
duced this species to take up its abode in a place he had
especially provided for its accommodation in a ruined ivy-covered
retreat at Walton Hall, and here he delighted to watch its move-
ments ; and he declared that he was amply repaid for the pains
he had taken to protect and encourage it by the enormous
quantity of mice which it destroyed. From him we learn that,
when it has young, it will bring a mouse to the nest every twelve
or fifteen minutes, and that above a bushel of pellets or cast-
ings was cleared out of its retreat within sixteen months of its
occupation of it, each pellet containing the skeletons of from
four to seven mice ; he also discovered, by constant and close
attention to its habits, that it will occasionally catch fish by
plunging into the water and seizing its slippery victim in its
claws. As a boy I possessed one of these owls, which I kept in
an aviary for a considerable time, and wishing to see its method
of seizing a live bird, I one evening turned two sparrows into its
apartment ; of these it took no notice whatever, which apparent
apathy on the part of my pet I attributed to the brightness of
the evening ; but great was my astonishment on the following
morning to find one sparrow roosting quietly in a corner, and
the other bold as he was and resolved to the letter to take the
bull by the horns snugly domiciled on the top of the owl's head,
actually nestling in the soft long feathers there, while the owl,
good easy bird, sat on its perch quite unconcerned, though fast-
ing for thirty-six hours. Macgillivray affirms that it is only to
be seen in the enclosed and wooded parts of the country, but I
can speak from experience that it frequents no less the wilder
and bleaker districts, abounding indeed in all places ; and taking
up its abode indiscriminately in towers, barns, hay-lofts, ruined
buildings, ivy-covered and hollow trees.

It has, however, I regret to say, very much diminished in

Tawny Owl. Ill

numbers within the last thirty years, and it is not now the very
common bird it used to be in this county. Gilbert White in-
stanced ' a large hollow pollard ash in Wilts, at the bottom of
which vast quantities of pellets cast up by the birds were found ;'
and in my younger days few barns were without it, and great
were the benefits it conferred on agriculturists in keeping down
the numbers of the destructive field-mouse ; but now the useful
Barn Owls are shot and trapped by short-sighted,' ignorant men,
and the mice multiply in consequence. Gilbert White noticed
that when owls fly they stretch out their legs behind them as a
balance to their large heavy heads.

24. TAWNY OWL (Syrnium stridula).

Most plentiful of all the Wiltshire Owls is this species; for
while the Barn Owl has greatly diminished in numbers, the
Tawny or Brown Owl has certainly increased with us of late
years. It is not, perhaps, so readily noticed as its white rela-
tion, for it possesses more retired habits, and loves the solitude
of thick woods, and seldom leaves its lurking-place till night-
fall. Neither is it quite so innocent as the ' Barn Owl/ for it
does not always content itself with mice, rats, and moles, but
sometimes preys on young rabbits and leverets as well. More-
over, I have known it make great havoc among the young un-
fledged rooks in my rookery, and great indeed is the commotion
when the Tawny Owls make a raid on the nests of their sable
neighbours breeding in the same plantation just over their heads.
In Sweden it is called Katt-Ugla, or 'Cat-Owl'; 'for its head/
says quaint old Pontoppidan, ' is more like a cat's than a bird's/
In France it is Chouette Hulotte and Le Chat-huant; in Germany,
Nachikaute ; in Italy, Strigge Maggiore ; in Portugal, Coruja do
Mato, ' Plantation Owl.' In England it is known as the ' Wood/
the ' Ivy/ and the ' Brown/ as well as the c Tawny ' Owl. It is
very clamorous at night, making the woods and meadows re-echo
with its loud and melancholy hootings. Gilbert White declares
that at such times its throat will swell as big as a hen's egg ; and
Waterton says that neither in Europe nor America has he ever

112 Strigidce.

heard an owl utter sounds so much resembling the human voice
as those which our Tawny Owl sends forth. That observant
naturalist adds, ' Were you to pronounce the letter in a loud
and very clear tone of voice, and then after a short pause repeat
the same letter in a drawling, tremulous accent, you would have
a tolerably just idea of the hooting of the Tawny Owl. It will
sometimes produce a sharp cry, which sounds not unlike the
word " quo-ah " ; both male and female utter this cry.' This species
occasionally adopts the deserted nest of another bird, but usually
lays its eggs in a hollow tree, on the soft bed of its pulverized cast-
ings. Hewitson says that, like the Barn Owl, it deposits its eggs
at irregular intervals, the first being sat upon as soon as laid : the
young of the same nest differ in consequence very much in size.
Professor Newton says that ' for a considerable time the young,
covered with a grayish- white down, are fed at home. They after-
wards perch among the branches of trees near the nests, where
the parents long continue to feed them, and until summer is far
advanced the call of the owlets, sounding like the word " keewick,"
may be heard at intervals from the leafy shade.'* This I am in
the best position to corroborate; for having kept one of these
birds for some time in confinement, together with a Barn Owl
and other birds, in an owlery which I constructed in my garden,
I opened the door one summer's day and gave them their liberty,
some ten or twelve years ago. The Barn Owl soon disappeared,
but the Tawny Owl never left the plantation hard by, and, find-
ing a mate, has annually bred in some ivy-covered trees within
thirty yards of my house ; and every day throughout the spring
and summer, and oftentimes in autumn and winter too, I hear
and see my favourite owls, old and young, as evening comes on ;
and so bold and fearless are they when the young birds leave
the nest, that when on one occasion I was creeping quietly under
the trees for a nearer view, I was startled by one of the old birds
coming up noiselessly, and unexpectedly flying at my head and
knocking off my hat, to my intense satisfaction ; but a feat which
they repeated more than once, and even scratching the face of
Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. i., p. 152.

Hawk Owl. 113

the terrified and unsuspecting and certainly most unoffending
postman, whose daily visits to the house were at that time not
unattended with fear.

25. THE HAWK OWL (Sumia funerea).

In Swedish Hok Uggla; in France Chouette Caparacoch or
JEperviere, ' Sparrow - hawk Owl ' ; in Germany Sperbereule,
* Sparrow - hawk Owl/ and Habichtseule, 'Hawk Owl/ This
remarkable species, generally confined to the more northern
parts of Scandinavia and high northern latitudes in America,
has but very rarely come to the British Isles as a straggler.
Indeed, but half a dozen specimens only are known to have
visited us, and of these one was taken in Wiltshire, having
been killed during severe weather, some thirty or more
years since, by Mr. Long, then residing at Amesbury, and it was
given by him to Mr. Kawlence, of Wilton, in whose collection it
may now be seen. The Rev. A. P. Morres records that it was
exhibited at the Zoological Society of London on April 4th,
1876, as being the only authentic specimen of the European
Hawk Owl yet recorded as having been killed in England.; r As,
however, Professor Newton mentions other examples killed re-
spectively in Somersetshire, at Scaa in Unst, near Glasgow, and
near Greenock, and as the Scandinavian and American birds are
now, I believe, acknowledged to be precisely alike, I see no
grounds for supposing that our Wiltshire specimen hailed from
any other country than that which sent forth its fellows. Surely
the birds which occurred in Unst, at Glasgow, and at Greenock
have quite as much or more right to claim a European origin as
that which was killed on Salisbury Plain. But whatever its
native land, we esteem our Wiltshire bird as a visitor of no
slight interest. My old school-friend, the late Mr. John Wolley,
the very prince of modern ornithologists, and whose untimely
death naturalists have never ceased to lament during his resi-
dence in Northern Sweden and Lapland for the express purpose
of becoming acquainted with the birds of those countries, found
this species extremely abundant in Lapland; and he tells us

114 Strigidce.

that in its habit of flying much in the daytime for it does not
seem at all inconvenienced by brilliant sunshine in its rapid
flight, and in general appearance, it might easily be mistaken for
a hawk at first sight, but on closer examination the large square
head, which is its chief characteristic, and its general demeanour,
pronounces it to be unmistakably an owl* It is of a bold, fear-
less nature, little alarmed at the presence of man, ready to protect
its nest against all intruders, and defending itself when wounded
with remarkable courage and fury. The specific name funerea
literally ' belonging to a funeral/ and so * ill-boding ' and
' dismal ' marks the opinion generally entertained in regard to
this bird.

26. LITTLE OWL (Nodua passerina).

Rare in England, but very numerous on the Continent, especially
in the warmer parts of it, is this diminutive species, scarcely larger
than the blackbird. It is essentially nocturnal, being quite in-
capable of moving by daylight, hence its scientific name noctua,
the ' night-bird ' ; but as evening approaches it becomes extremely
active, and shows great dexterity in securing its prey, which consists
of mice, beetles, and small birds. Other names by which it has
been known to science are N. nudipes and N. psilodactyla, both
of which have reference to the absence of feathers on the feet,
which are covered with bristles only. It is but rarely seen in
Scandinavia, where it is only known as an occasional visitor under
the name of Sparf Uggla, or ' Sparrow Owl,' a mere translation
of passerina. In France it is Chouette Cheveche ; in Germany,
Kleinerkauz ; in Italy, Civetta gialla ; in Spain, Mochuelo ; and
in Portugal, Mocho. In those latitudes it is reported to hunt by
day, but it is obvious that even the most nocturnal of beings,
and however impatient of sunlight, must, if it wanders so far
to the north, find its prey by daylight or starve ; for where the
sun is above the horizon all night during the short but brilliant

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's 'British Birds/ vol. i., p. 185. See, too,
Zoologist for 1854, p. 4203 ; and Newman's edition of Montagu's ' Ornith.

Little Owl 115

summer (and for nearly three months I saw no candle and barely
saw twilight in those charming countries) night and day are
practically very much alike, and neither birds nor men seem to
know when to work and when to sleep. Such, at all events, was
the case with travellers, though most of them preferred to turn
night into day in their long drives through the country, in order
to avoid the torment (which none but those who have expe-
rienced it can in the least appreciate) inflicted by the hateful
mosquito, more fierce, more venomous, more persevering, and of
a larger size, as I believe, in northern Europe, than I have ever
experienced it in Spain, or Portugal, or Italy, or other southern

Kennie, in his edition of ' White's Selborne,' says, ' I recollect
seeing in Wiltshire the remains of a specimen of the rare Sparrow
Owl, Strix passerina, nailed up to a barn-door ;' but more recently
another was killed in the neighbourhood of Chippenham in 1838,
and is now in Mr. Marsh's collection at Salisbury. Still more
recently (though I have not the exact date) one was killed at
Draycot, and came into the collection of Colonel Ward, then
living at Castle House, Calne, in whose possession it now is. And
quite lately Lord Arundel informs me that he has twice seen a
small owl but whether the 'Little' or 'Tengmalms Owl' he
could not determine in the shrubbery, and once in the thick
wood near the house at Wardour, where Mr. Tyndall Powell,
while pheasant shooting, also saw it in January of this year
(1887), when, disturbed by the beaters, it flew out of some laurel
bushes just before him.

This closes the list of the owls found in this county, and with
the owls is concluded the account of the first division or Order,
the Birds of Prey.



INSESSORES (Perchers).
DENTIROSTRES (Tooth-billed).

THE second great Order of birds, the ' Perchers,' contains so many
species that, in order to avoid confusion (as I have before pointed
out), it was found necessary to subdivide it generally into tribes,
before descending to investigate the families which compose it ;
and perhaps we shall be prepared to examine these several
families and their component species with the greater assiduity
when we consider that it embraces not only those vast flocks of
the finch and sparrow tribe which throng our yards in the
winter, and those great colonies of the rook and crow tribe which
surround our homesteads, but also all the warblers and small
birds which fill our gardens, woods, and fields in the summer,
whose active forms delight our eye, and whose varied notes
charm our ear so continually ; in short, so extensive numerically
as well as specifically is this order, that I suppose I shall be
within bounds when I say that almost all the birds (perhaps not
less than ninety-nine out of every hundred) that usually come
under our notice in this inland county belong to the Perchers.
The first tribe of this Order is that of the ' tooth-billed ' or ' notch-
billed' (Dentirostres), and includes the principal insect-eating
families of the Order, foremost of which stand


I have before remarked what a connecting link the Butcher
birds, or Shrikes, form with the last-mentioned family, the Owls ;
and, indeed, these may well be termed diminutive birds of prey,
or falcons of the insect world, so fierce and savage is their dis-

Butcher Birds. 117

position, so cruel and bloodthirsty are their habits, though, at the
same time, their slender limbs and feet prove them to be true
Perchers. They also merit the foremost place in the tribe
Dentirostres, from the very marked and distinct tooth near the
point of the upper mandible, rendering the beak a very powerful
instrument for the destruction of small creatures. But, in truth,
they partake both of the habits of the preceding raptorial
families, and also of the next family, the Flycatchers : for, on the
one hand, in addition to their savage sanguinary disposition,
they reproduce castings formed of the elytra and other hard
parts of coleoptera. On the other hand, like the Flycatchers, they
often sit watching on the bare branch of a tree, or on a post or
railing, whence their vision can extend over a considerable range,
and whence they can dart after any passing insect or small
quadruped or bird. They will often hover, too, in the air above
the branch on which they are about to alight ; and when sitting
watchfully on a bough they will frequently jerk the tail ; in both
which last-mentioned habits again they much resemble the Fly-
catchers, to which they are in some measure allied. They prey
on mice, small birds, grasshoppers, beetles, and other coleopterous
insects ;* and these they will impale (as soon as caught) on
some thorn or pointed stake, which they thus convert into a
temporary larder. For this strange and cruel custom no very
satisfactory reason has been given ; though some have attributed
it to the greater facility it presents for tearing in pieces their
prey, and this seems not improbable when we contrast their

* Sir John Bowring mentions among the curiosities of Spanish com-
mercial legislation, ' a decree of the Governor of the Philippines issued only
a few years ago, by which it was ordered that no vessel should be allowed to
introduce a cargo from China or the East Indies, unless an engagement was
entered into by the captain to bring to Manilla five hundred living Shrikes, a
species of bird reputed to be most useful in destroying certain insects,
which were at that time seriously damaging the crops. The difficulty of
catching, caging, and keeping these birds does not seem to have embarrassed
the Governor, however it may have puzzled the skippers. It may be un-
necessary to add, that not one bird was ever brought to the Philippines,
which is scarcely to be wondered at, since all were to be delivered gratis.'
Quarterly Review for April, 1862, p. 509, note to article on ' The Eastern

118 Laniadce.

slight limbs and feeble feet with the strong legs and sharp
claws of the Hawk tribe, so conducive to this purpose. Others
again assert that the insects so placed on the point of a thorn
are intended as baits to attract other victims, and this is the
opinion entertained generally, perhaps not without reason, by
the American naturalists (who have better opportunities of
studying their habits) ; for it is notorious that the shrikes will
often kill and impale, apparently from sheer wantonness, destroy-
ing many more victims than they can consume, and leaving
them transfixed on some thorny bush. They are extremely bold
and strong, and will often attack birds as large as themselves.
They are also very fierce, and when wounded will bite almost as
severely as a hawk. They are the terror of all small birds, for
whose nestlings they are ever on the watch, and these will some-
times band together to mob and drive them away, as they do
the owl on occasions. The name they bear, ' Laniadae/ sufficiently
describes the habits of the family, lanius signifying ' a butcher/
from lanio, ' to cut or tear in pieces.' But, notwithstanding
their fierce, cruel disposition towards all within compass of their
strength in the furred, feathered, and insect world, towards their
own young they show a strong affection, remaining with them
the whole summer, until they all take their departure together,
and becoming very clamorous and excited if any real or fancied
danger threatens them. Their voices are also capable of great
variation, and they are said to sing melodiously, qualities we
should scarcely expect in so fierce a race. Moreover, they have
a remarkable power of imitating the notes of smaller birds, by
which means it is sometimes conjectured they allure them within
reach, to their destruction.

I had the best opportunity of becoming familiar with the
Shrike family while creeping day by day in a boat up and down
the Nile in Nubia, when the sun shone his fiercest, and the sands
of the boundless desert came down on either hand to the very
banks of the river. Those banks were often fringed with the
thickest of shrubs, and especially the sont, or ' thorny acacia/
and the ' camel thorns/ which were literally crowded with the

Great Grey Shrike. 119

webs of caterpillars. Here the 'Masked Shrike' (Lanius
personatus) abounded in great profusion"; indeed, it was by far
the commonest bird in that part of Nubia, and as long as I
remained within the tropics, I must have seen twenty or thirty
specimens in every day's walk. But though so numerous, they
were most solitary, always alone, for I never saw two in
company, nor two upon the same bush.*

27. GREAT GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor).

Not very frequently is this, the largest of the British shrikes,
seen in England, though I believe it has been noticed in this county
quite as often as in any other. Montagu writes of this bird under
the name of L. cinereus : ' It is rather a rare bird in England.
The only two specimens I killed were in Wilts, on Nov.
15th and 22nd.' Yarrell mentions Wiltshire as one of the
Western counties where it has been obtained. Stanley, too,
speaks of this as one of its favourite districts ; but, in addition to
these, I have notice of one killed near Devizes, about A.D. 1845,
and another at about the same time, shot by the keeper at
Erlestoke ; one in the Rev. G. Marsh's collection, taken on the road
between Cirencester and Malmesbury in 1837 ; another in Mr. E.
Sloper's collection, killed at Seend, Feb. 28th, 1840. Of later
years one was shot in the neighbourhood of Calne, on Dec. 22,
1860, fluttering in a thorn bush, and engaged in battle with two
wagtails, and came into the collection of Colonel Ward, then
living at Castle House, Calne, who communicated its capture.
Another, a female, was killed at Mere in 1847 ; and, within a few
fields of the same locality, a male was shot on November 16th,
1880, both of which were brought to Mr. Ernest Baker, in whose
possession they now are, and who kindly apprised me of their
occurrence. The Marlborough College Natural History Reports
mention one shot at Poulton, in that neighbourhood, on Nov. 20th,
1869. Lord Arundell tells me that it has been shot in the park
at Wardour Castle. Mr. Grant records specimens from Melksham
in 1861, from Marston, near Worton, in 1866, and from Seend
' Attractions of the Nile,' vol. ii., p. 221.

120 Laniadce.

in 1875. Mr. James Rawlence informs me that a fine specimen
was killed some years since by a friend of his in the parish of
Martin, near Salisbury. The Rev. A. P. Morres records another
killed at Mere in 1845, one seen at Upton Scudamore in 1875, and
one which he secured for his own collection, shot at Bishopstone,
near Salisbury, in the Easter week of 1876, on some willow trees
that fringe the bank of a little stream running through that
parish. Mr. Morres also records, and gives strong evidence in
support of the assertion, that on one occasion this species was
found breeding at Fisherton, near Salisbury, at the end of May or
beginning of June, 1839, and describes the nest as built in the
upright forks of a very strong thorn hedge, interwoven with
brambles, and as being large and compact, composed of dry
grass, moss, and small fibre roots on the outside, and lined with
soft downy feathers, intermixed with a little hair ; the eggs, four
in number, of a pale ash colour, thickly marked at the larger
end with spots and stripes, or blotches of a yellowish red colour ;
and the old birds as very fierce and noisy, flying round their
heads and threatening to attack the depredators who were
cutting out the nest, and all the while shrieking and screaming
in their fury.* If Mr. Morres's informant was not mistaken and
there seems no reason to doubt his circumstantial evidence we
have here a record of the highest interest, inasmuch as this is
almost the only instance known of the Great Grey Shrike breeding
in England.-)- It is true that Selby, who, of all our authors on
birds, seems to have most frequently studied this species alive in
its wild state, says that it always chooses the winter months for
its occasional visits to this country, and certainly within the last
few years all those whose captures have been recorded have
(with one exception to prove the rule) been seen between
November and March. Its regular habitat seems to be the
south-eastern portions of Europe, Russia, Turkey, etc. Its
plumage is ash coloured above, white beneath, and a large and
remarkable patch of black on the cheeks makes it unmistakable

Wiltshire Magazine,*}, xviii., pp. 186188.

t See Ibis for 1859. p. 331, for a British specimen of the nest of this bird.

Great Grey Shrike. 121

to those who have seen it. It preys on mice and small birds,
which it treats in the same manner as its well-known congener
does its insect victims, fixing them on sharp thorns, and then
pulling them to pieces. Nay, so strongly is this habit implanted
in it by nature, that one of these birds kept in confinement
would force the heads of small birds, with which it was fed,
through the wires of its cage, and thus hang them up to be
pulled to pieces and devoured at leisure. This we learn from
Pennant, and the habit has been verified by Yarrell, Doubleday,
and several others. It always destroys its victims, whether
mouse, bird, reptile, or insect, by strangulation, previous to
affixing them to a thorn or stake, in the manner described above.
An ancient writer, in a treatise on ' Falconrie or Hawkinge,'
considering this bird to be an inferior species of hawk, accuses it
of alluring its victims to destruction in the following quaint
passage : ' Her feeding is upon rattes, squirrells, and lisards, and

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 12 of 53)