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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sometime upon certain birds she doth use to prey, whom she
doth entrappe and deceive by flight, for this is her devise. She
will stand at pearch upon some tree or poste, and there make an
exceeding lamentable 'cry and exclamation, such as birds are
wonte to doe, being wronged or in hazarde of mischiefe, and all to
make other fowles believe and thinke she is very much distressed,
and stands needfulle of ayde; whereupon the credulous sellie
birds do flock together presently at her call and voice, at what
time if any happen to approach neare her, she out of hand
ceazeth on them, and devoureth them (ungrateful subtile fowle !)
in requital of their simplicity and pains. These hawks are of no
account with us, but poor simple fellows and peasants sometimes
doe make them to the fiste, and being reclaimed after their un-
skilful manners, doe have them hooded, as falconers doe their
other kinds of hawkes, whom they make to greater purposes.'
I need hardly add that the writer of the above, in mistaking the
shrike for a hawk, at the same time very much overrated its
powers and mistook its habits, for it is notorious that so for-
midable an enemy does it prove to the songsters of the grove
that no sooner is its voice heard than every other note is hushed,



] 22 Laniadce.

and concealment is the only order of the day. In Spain it is
known as Alcaudon real 'the royal (or great) tailed one ' ; in
Portugal as Picanso ; and in France as Pie-Grieche grise ' Grey
speckled Magpie.' In Sweden it is styled Sto'rre Torn Skata, or
' Greater Thorn Magpie.' In other districts of the same country
Var Fogel, or the ' Wary Bird ;' and in Germany Wdchter, or the
' Watcher,' as, on the approach of danger, it warns other birds by
its sharp cry. Hence, too, it derives its scientific name ' Excu-
bitor ' (sentinel) from the use to which it is put in Holland and
Germany by the Falcon-catchers, who, taking advantage of its
quickness in perceiving a hawk at a distance, and its alarm and
loud screams thereon, make it a valuable assistant in their calling.
I have the authority of Professor Skeat for saying that the name
'shrike' or 'shrieker' is derived from the shrill cry of all the
members of this genus. The provincial name of ' murdering
magpie,' in vogue in some parts, not inaptly describes its habits.

28. RED-BACKED SHRIKE (Laniua collurio).

Yery well known to the inhabitants of Wiltshire is this bold and
handsome bird, which frequents our woods every summer: it seems
to favour only the Southern and Western Counties, and this is
one of its most choice localities. Montagu speaks of it as ' not un-
common in Wilts,' and Selby as 'well-known in Wilts;' but, indeed,
I have often noticed it at Yatesbury, as well as in many other
parts of the county ; and so has the Rev. G. Marsh, who says
that, on the downs near Winterslow, he has very often heard it
closely imitating the note of the Wheatear, which abounds there,
but (he adds) he has never seen it preying on anything but
beetles and other insects : this, indeed, seems to be its general
diet, and bumblebees, grasshoppers, and all kinds of flies are
impaled on the bush it selects for the purpose. I fear it is
become more scarce than it was : certainly I have not seen it
for several years past. So, though I have not kept any accurate
record of a species I used to consider common, I may quote
some few particulars of its recent occurrence in Wilts. Thus,
the Marlborough College Reports mention a nest with eggs



Red-Backed Shrike. 123

taken in that neighbourhood on May 27, 1872. I learn from
Mr. Grant that one was killed at Coate, near Devizes, in 1870,
and one at Erchfont in 1877. The Right Hon. E. P.
Bouverie, of the Manor House, Market Lavington, writes me
word that he used to see it last year (1886) on the road to
Devizes. The Rev. E. Goddard generally sees it in summer on
the road between Clyffe and Hilmarton, though he never sees it
at Clyffe ; and Mr. W. Stancomb, jun., sees it at Bayntun. The
name Collurio is said by the B.O.U. Committee to signify

* hooded.' In Sweden it is known as the Allmtin Torn Skata, or

* Common Thorn Magpie.' In France it is termed VEcorcheur, the
4 Flayer' ; in Germany Der Wurger, the 'Strangler' or ' Garotter,'
and Der Fleischer, the ' Butcher/ whence no doubt comes the
provincial name in some parts of England, the ' flusher.' In Sussex
it is known as the ' cheater ' or ' cheeter.' It arrives in May,
breeds here, and departs in September for Africa, where Le
Vaillant has described it as common in winter. Once, however,
Mr. B. Hayward met with one so late as December 4th, which in
all probability had met with some accident, and been disabled
from migrating with its brethren. The male and female differ
greatly in colour ; the former is easily distinguished from the
Grey Shrike by its smaller size, and the chesnut red of its back
and wing coverts : the female and young birds are reddish brown
above, grayish white beneath, speckled and barred with brown : it
is a strong active bird, and delights in thick woods and hedgerows.

There is a third species of Shrike, ' the Woodchat (Lanius
rutilus), which very rarely has been taken in Britain, but I
believe never as yet in this county, though I possess one in my
collection which was killed in the adjoining county of Somerset,
within a short distance of Bristol. Though, like the other
Shrikes, watchful and wary at other times, it appears to lose all
timidity in the breeding- season, and shows remarkable courage
in the protection of its young, flying round the head of the
intruder and shrieking out its indignation with piercing cries.
In Malta, where it is the commonest of its genus, it is known as
Buyhiddiem, or ' the Father of Biters.'* This species is common
o Ibis for 1864, p. 59.



124 Muscicapidce.

every summer in Holland, but, like its congener 'the red-
backed/ retreats to Africa for winter quarters. In habits, too,
it exactly resembles the preceding, but is easily distinguished
from it by the rich chesnut red on the crown of the head and
back of the neck.

^>.

MUSCICAPIDCE (THE FLYCATCHERS).

These have also been termed ' Hawks among flies/ for on such
alone do they feed, and very interesting it is to watch one of these
active, quick-sighted little birds at its almost continual employ-
ment of providing itself food ; indeed, it would seem that it has
need of all its activity to satisfy the wants of itself and its nest-
lings, so diminutive is its prey, and so many victims are daily
needed. Taking its stand on the extreme end of some bough,
post, rail, or stone, the Flycatcher awaits the passing insect, which
its quick eye can discern at a considerable distance, and then to
sally forth after it, snap it up in its beak, and return to its former
station, is the work of an instant. The most prominent charac-
teristics of this family are the narrow compressed bill, with
sharp tip and strong bristles at the base, and the small size of the
feet.

29. SPOTTED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa grisola).

Very common indeed, and most regular in its arrival in the middle
of May, is this little brown, sober-coloured, quiet bird. We may
see it every day during the summer in our orchards, gardens, and
fields ; it does not arrive till late, for it awaits the time when the
insects which compose its food, the whole race of flies and gnats,
are in full vigour, and of these it clears off an incredible number.
It has been accused of destroying fruit, especially cherries, but, I
believe, entirely without foundation, owing to its unfortunate
similarity to another little bird, the Greater Pettichaps, whose
taste certainly does lie that way. The generic name Muscicapa
signifies the ' flycatcher,' and the specific grisola 'gray bird.' In
almost all European languages the name is similarly derived as
with us thus, in France, Gobe-mouche ; in Germany, Fliegen-



Pied Flycatcher. 125

f anger ; in Sweden, Flug-snappare ; in Spain and Portugal,
Papa-moscas, etc.

It is strange that, like the Spotted Eagle (Aquila ncevid), this
bird has derived its English specific name from the young bird
in immature plumage, when each feather is tipped with a buff-
coloured spot, for when it reaches the adult stage every trace of
the spotted plumage has disappeared. It is known in different
parts of the country as the ' Rafter ' or ' Beam Bird,' an appella-
tion it derives from the position so often chosen for its nest, the
end of a beam or rafter in an outhouse ; it is also called the 'Bee
Bird,' from its partiality for that insect, as I have often seen to
my vexation, when morning after morning the little marauder
would take his stand on a wire-fence near my bee-houses and fly
off to seize a luckless bee on its approach laden with honey,
immediately returning to his station and repeating the process
till his appetite was appeased. And that this is not one of the
popular fallacies so common about birds, but that it does occa-
sionally eat bees, which has been disputed by many, has been
verified by Mr. B. Hayward, of Easterton, who not only saw one
devouring several bees at the mouth of a hive, but afterwards
proved it beyond a doubt by dissection. It has no song, and
indeed no note whatever, but a feeble chirp very rarely heard at
the end of the season. White of Selborne calls it 'the most
mute and the most familiar of all our summer birds.'

30. PIED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa atricapilla).

Very rare in this county, nowhere common, but not very in-
frequent in the Northern counties, is this handsome bird, often
styled, from its plumage, the 'miniature magpie/ which term,
indeed, sufficiently describes its black and white dress. In habits,
food, nesting, and absence of song it very much resembles its con-
gener. Mr. Hayward speaks of one killed at Lavington about the
year 1850. The Rev. G. Marsh possessed one killed at Ford, near
Chippenham, in 1837, but stated that he had never seen it alive.
Mr. Withers, of Devizes, killed one near that town about A.D. 1843.
Another was shot at Pert wood, near Mere, in May, 1872, and



126 Muscicapidce.

came into the possession of Mr. Ernest Baker, as notified to me
at the time by his brother, Mr. Thomas Baker, of Mere Down
Farm. A fine cock bird was seen by the Rev. A. P. Morres, in his
garden at Britford Vicarage, on May 1, 1879, which he described
as so tame he could have knocked it down with a stone. On the
same authority I learn that one was killed at Wilton possibly the
same bird at or about the same date; that others have been
obtained near Warminster, one or two or more every year, as the
excellent bird preserver of that town, Mr. King, assured him ; a,
pair near Salisbury, in 1860, by Mr. Norwood, of Fisherton ; and
one was seen by Mr. J. A. T. Powell, of Hurdcott House, in the
spring of 1877. This species has also been trapped on several
occasions by a birdcatcher on the downs of Martin, near Salis-
bury ; and Colonel Ward has seen it on his lawn at Bannerdown,
July 3, 1879. Mr. Algernon Neeld tells me he has seen it at
Castle Combe ; and Mr. Grant that one was shot on the downs
above Erlestoke, on April 15, 1872. This is a goodly list of
occurrences in our county for so rare a species. Perhaps it is
becoming more common in these southern regions, passing on
from the Lake districts of Cumberland and Westmoreland, which
appear to be its summer stronghold in Great Britain ; or perhaps
its apparently greater prevalence here may be only the result of
more widespread observation. For myself, I have never seen it
wild in England. The literal meaning of Atricapilla is ' black-
haired ;' here, doubtless, it signifies * black-headed.' On the
Continent it is generally known as Albicollis (' white-necked ') ;
and from this are derived its general Continental names, as in
France, ' Gobe-mouche d Collier ;' and in Germany, ' Fliegen-
f anger mit dem Halsbande ;' but in Sweden it has the high-
sounding title, ' Svart och Hvit Flug-Snappare,' which in reality
is no other than our trivial name ' pied/ or ' black-and-white Fly-
catcher.'

MERULIM (THE THRUSHES).

So well-known are many members of this family to the most
unobservant, that I need say very little of their general charac-



Dipper. 127

teristics. Bold, handsome, and active, they are ever presenting
themselves to our notice, while the voices of some species are
hardly to be surpassed in volume and in sweetness. Their food
consists of insects, snails, and worms, and also of fruits and
berries, and it is not to be denied that they commit great havoc
in the garden as the fruit ripens, though the mischief they then
do is more than counterbalanced by the benefit they confer in the
destruction of myriads of noxious insects and snails. Most of
the species are migratory, if not from the country, yet often from
one district to another, and in winter they assemble together in
large flocks. Notwithstanding their apparent strength and
activity, none of our winter residents seem to suffer more than
the thrushes from severe cold ; a very few days of snow suffice to
render the fieldfares tame, and in a hard winter, first the redwings,,
and then the song-thrushes, die off in great numbers.

31. DIPPER (Cinclua aquaticus).

I rejoice to be able to add this species to my list of Wiltshire
birds, and I do so with confidence, on the authority of Mr. Ernest
Baker, of Mere, who writes on November 10, 1876, that a good
specimen of the Dipper had that day been given to him, which was
shot the previous day in the Mere stream, and that it was the only
individual of its species which he had ever known as killed in this
county. Since then, however, I have had a second notice of its
appearance in Wiltshire, from Mr. Lowndes, of Castle Combe, whose
agent, Mr. Watkins, saw it on the stream in the valley on that
beautiful estate. It derives its name, Cinclus, ' tail-mover,' from
the Greek xeXXw, ' to wag the tail.' Here it is the ' Dipper,' or
'Water Ouzel,' or 'Water Colley;' in Portugal it is Melro Peixeiro,
'Fishmonger Thrush ;' and sometimes Melro do Rio, ' River Thrush ;'
in Spain, Tordo de Agua, 'Water Thrush;' in Sweden, Strom Stare,
'Stream Starling;' and, in France, Merle d'Eau. It is an especial
favourite of mine, frequenting, as it does, the torrent or other rocky
stream as it rushes over the stones in some mountainous district,
generally in the midst of magnificent scenery; and in such districts
I have become very familiar with it, in some of the upper valleys



128 Meruiidce.

of Switzerland and Tyrol, and, above all, in Norway. It is a
compact, stout little bird, and as it stands on a boulder, in the
midst of a torrent, will flirt its tail up and down, at other times
carrying it erect, like that of the wren, which in some other
respects it resembles, notably in the large dome-shaped nest it
forms, and which is not infrequently placed in some crevice of a
rock behind a cascade, in such a position that the water shoots
over it, effectually protecting it from molestation. Its flight is
quick and straightforward, much resembling that of the King-
fisher. As to the vexed question whether or no it has the power,
denied to other birds, of deliberately walking off the stone on
which it is perched into the water, and there running about and
feeding as if on dry ground, searching for and picking out any
small insects it can dislodge, as St. John and several other excel-
lent naturalists assert, and others, with Montagu and Yarrell, as
strenuously deny, I will not enter upon it here. I can only say
that I never saw it practise any such feat, though I have watched
it for hours on many occasions. It has also been the subject of
much controversy as to whether it devours the eggs of the salmon
and other fish spawn ; and as it is not the habit of keepers and
others to give the feathered race the benefit of a doubt till the
accusation is proved, or to hold them innocent till they are
proved guilty, the poor Dipper has been unrelentingly persecuted
in consequence; but I believe the charge is wholly without
foundation.

32. MISSEL THRUSH (Turdus viscivorus).

This is the largest of the whole family, and very handsome
withal. It derives its name from its excessive partiality to the
berries of the mistletoe. In winter these birds will congregate in
large flocks of forty or more, when they are often mistaken for
fieldfares. It is one of the earliest breeders, placing its nest in the
fork of some tree, often in the most conspicuous position, and at
this season it is as distinguished for its courage as at other times
it is for its shy, retired habits. If any other bird approaches its
nest, it vociferates in the loudest and harshest screams. Its song,



Fieldfare. 120

too, is very powerful, and it is the earliest as well as the largest of
our British songsters, its notes being often heard above the gale in
the month of February, amid the blasts of winter. It is common
everywhere. In the south of the county, as in many other parts of
England, it is called the ' Storm Cock,' from its habit of singing
during the prevalence of a gale of wind and rain. The Rev. G.
Marsh used to tell me that in his locality it was called the
' Screech Thrush,' while in Devonshire and Cornwall it is known
as the 'Holm Screech,' or 'Holly Screech/ holm being the provin-
cial name in those counties for the holly tree, whose berries form
its favourite food; and each bird takes possession of his tree,
keeping constant to it as long as there is fruit on it, and driving
away all other birds with the utmost fury.* In Sweden it is
known as Dubbel Trast, or 'Double Thrush;' and in Malta as
Malvitzan, or ' Large Thrush ;' but the Welsh call it Pen y Ihvyn,
the ' Head ' (or ' Master ') ' of the Coppice.'t In France it is
Merle Draine ; in Germany, Mistel Drossel; in Italy it is simply
Tordo Maggiore ; in Spain, Charla, ' the Chatterer ;' in Portu-
guese, Tordeia and Tordoveia. The specific name, Viscivoru*,
from viscum, ' mistletoe,' and voro, * I devour,' is simply a trans-
lation of Aristotle's name bestowed on this species, /goCofo;. For
the greater part of the year it is a lonely bird, and may often be
seen amidst the clumps of trees in the open spaces of a park.

33. FIELDFARE (Turdus pilaris).

Very well known and very generally dispersed throughout the
country is this regular periodical migrant to our shores, arriving
from the north late in the autumn, and leaving us in the spring.
We may see them in flocks in our meadows or on the tops of the
leafless elms, and many a day's sport and much disappointment
too do these wary birds afford to the schoolboy gunner. They
retire to breed in Norway and Sweden, where I have found their
nests in small colonies of eight or nine. Mr. Hewitson mentions
a colony of two hundred nests, but I never saw any such number.

Montagu's ' Supplement ;' Rodd's ' Birds of Cornwall,' p. xxxvi.
f Harting's edition of White's ' Selborne,' p. 210.

9



130 Merulidce.

Like the Missel Thrush, they are very bold and pugnacious in
breeding-time, screaming, chattering, and darting within a few
inches of my hat as I climbed to their nests ; at other times they
are remarkably shy. They are the last to arrive of all our winter
visitants, seldom making their appearance till near the end of
November, and they are the last to leave us in the spring.
They come next to the Missel Thrushes in size, and are very
distinguishable by the dove-coloured patch on the head and tail,
and the bright spotted yellow on the throat and breast.

In one respect they differ from all their congeners, in that on
winter evenings they assemble from great distances, arriving in
flocks just before dusk at some favourite spot, and there roost on
the ground, after the manner of larks, generally among heath
and coarse grass and tall rushes, or even on stubbles. This is
the more remarkable as they sit on trees during the day, and
procure the greater part of their food from the hedges and
bushes, and invariably build on trees, though generally not far
from the ground.* The meaning of the specific word pilarla I
cannot fathom, nor does the Committee of the B.O.U. help me.
There is, indeed, a Latin word pilaris, ' of or belonging to a ball,'
but I see no connection between that and this handsome thrush.
Of the meaning of ' fieldfare,' ' a traverser of the fields or fallows/
there is no question. The word ' to fare,' meaning ' to travel/ is
obsolete now, but we see traces of it, not only in ' field/are,' but
in 'farewell' i.e., 'speed you well'; and the coach or railway
fare, i.e., ' the price of a ticket for travelling.' In Germany it is
known as Wachholder Drossel, 'Watchman Thrush,' from the
constant look-out it keeps against surprise; in France Merle
litorne, and in Sweden Bjork Trast, ' Birch Thrush,' but is more
popularly known as Sno Skata, ' Snow Magpie/ the former part
of the designation derived from the belief that when it appears
in large numbers, hard, snowy weather is pending ; the latter
from its unusual length of tail, and the magpie-like chattering it
constantly keeps up, particularly in the vicinity of its nest. For

'Birds of the Humber,' by Cordeaux, p. 21 ; Zoologist for 1885, p. 335 ;
Harticg's edition of White's ' Selborne,' p. {?!>.



Song Thrush. 131

the same reason, doubtless, it is called in Italy Tordella Gazzina,
a magpie in Italy being known as Gazza. In Portugal it is
Tor do zornal.

34. SONG THRUSH (Turdus musicus).

Generally distributed and permanently resident in all parts of
the country, this favourite songster is well known to all. Few
birds have sweeter notes, or indulge us with them oftener, and
no nest is better known to the schoolboy than the clay-lined
dwelling and spotted blue eggs of the Song Thrush. We may see
these birds throughout the year on our lawns and in our gardens ;
but, if we take notice, we shall observe that periodically their
numbers are sensibly increased by the arrival of many which have
migrated either to other countries or to other districts ; and at
other times the thrushes seem to have almost deserted us. Indeed,
Professor Newton goes so far as to say that in some parts of the
island not a single bird can be seen from the end of November to
the end of January.* Perhaps none of our songsters continues
to pour forth its melodious notes so perse veringiy as this species.
From early spring to late autumn, with but little intervals of rest,
from very early morning, long before daylight, even in the short
summer night, and before any other warbler is awake, the melli-
fluous voice of the thrush may be heard in the coppice. So
much is its superiority of song recognised in every country which
it frequents and this cosmopolitan bird ranges throughout
northern as well as southern Europe that the name by which
it is generally known alludes to its vocal powers. Thus in
France it is La Grive ; in Portugal, Tordo, ' the Thrush ;' and in
Malta, Malvitzrf as if pre-eminently ' the Thrush.' In Germany
it is, as with us, Siny Drossel ; and in Scandinavia Sdng-Trast,
' Song Thrush,' Tal-Trast, or ' Speaking Thrush,' Nordisk Ndkter-
<jal, or 'Northern Nightingale,' and also Natt Vaka, or 'Night
Watcher/ from its habit of singing all night in the lone and

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. i., p. 266. See also an
article by the same able author on ' The Migratory Habits of the Song
Thrush/ in the Ibis for 1860, pp. 8385.

t Ibis for 1864, p. 63.

92



132 Merulidce.

desolate forests during the calm and light nights of the for
north.* Notwithstanding this, our Song Thrushes are unmerci-
fully persecuted by the gardener, being insatiable devourers of
fruit, and they so provoke his malice that in his rage and thirst
for revenge he overlooks the benefit they have conferred upon
him all the rest of the year by the destruction of thousands of
worms and insects. Moreover, the songs with which they enliven
our shrubberies and gardens from early spring to the end of the
summer, and such songs too, ought to plead something in their
favour. They are great adepts at cracking snail-shells against a
stone, to enable them to get at the contents, which they appear
to relish above all things, and they return to the same stone
which they have found to answer their purpose, so that broken
shells scattered all around mark where they have been dining ;
and here, methinks, they unmistakably prove themselves the
gardener's friend in a way which cannot be disputed. But all
these benefits are forgotten when the fruit is ripe, and they crave
a share as their just portion. The old English name ' Throstle '
is doubtless from the German Drossel, and perhaps Mavis, by



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 13 of 53)