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 14 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 14 of 53)
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which it was also known of old, from the Spanish Malvis; c r
perhaps both derived from some older and forgotten word.

35. REDWING (Turdus iliacus).

Like its congener and companion the fieldfare, this bird
visits us in the autumn, when the snows of its native country
in the north render its home untenable and force it south-
wards. It arrives a few weeks before the fieldfares, but after-
wards associates with those birds in flocks, when its smaller
size and the conspicuous red of the under wing-coverts cause
it to be easily distinguished. Though seldom heard in this
country, it has a most melodious note, which is so highly prized
in the north as to have procured for this bird the title of
the ' Swedish Nightingale,' a title since usurped by the famous
Jenny Lind. This fact of the surpassing powers of song of the
redwing may probably be unknown to many, and seeing it only
Lloyd's 'Scandinavian Adventures/ vol. ii., p. 288.



Redwing. 133

in the silent months of winter, and hearing then nothing but an
occasional and rather discordant chattering, few have any notion
of the loud and clear and exquisitely sweet note with which it
enlivens the thickets and copses of Norway in a summer night,
if, indeed, that can be called night where the sun merely ap-
proaches the horizon and ascends again, or at the most sets and
rises within the hour ; and where, during a three months' tour, I
never saw a candle, but could see to read and write in the darkest
of log-huts at any hour of the night. This, indeed, was the time
and place to appreciate the song of the redwing ; when we drove
through the sombre forests in the night, as we frequently did to
escape the excessive heat of the sun, which, scarcely ever being
out of sight during the summer, does not suffer the air to get
thoroughly cooled during the night, and strikes down almost as
hot as I have felt it in Rome in May, or Naples in June, to the
great advantage of the crops, but to the scorching of the mid- day
traveller. Passing on in single file, each in his carriole, through
the interminable forests, one of which we traversed for no less
than 100 miles, while on the Swedish side it stretched out 50
miles on our left, with but one road for wheels throughout its
length and breadth; scarcely meeting a human being in those
vast solitudes, save only at the few posthouses, at long interven-
ing distances ; imagine all this, and it may be understood how
full of enjoyment we found it to listen to the delicious notes of the
redwing, poured forth in the wildest yet most harmonious strains
from the tops of some of the highest trees around us. Indeed,
the absence of the redwing would be a serious blank in Norway,
and very sensibly felt by the inhabitants, who, being a remark-
ably primitive and simple people, unsophisticated and kind-
hearted, never wantonly illtreat their birds or animals, but
cherish and protect them, and are rewarded by the most un-
bounded confidence in return; birds which are wildest and
shyest with us building close to the houses of the Norwegians,
and not caring to move out of the way as you drive by. But if
this long digression on the home of the redwing appears irrelevant
to my subject on Wiltshire birds, I submit that the cause of its



134 Merulidte.

introduction is the hope of inducing those who have thought-
lessly persecuted those poor birds, when they are driven by
inexorable -winter to seek shelter and food in our more genial
climate, to stay their hand from such ruthless slaughter, and
reflect that while it is thought here almost an act of sacrilege to
destroy the nightingale and robin, the one so endeared to us by
its song, the other by its confidence in man, the Swedish night-
ingale partakes of both these virtues, and, moreover, is quite
harmless and innocent, seeking nothing from man's stores for its
support, but frequenting the meadows during the open weather,
where it feeds on worms, snails, and larvse, and, when frost sets
in, repairing (not to the rickyard and cornstack, but only) to the
hedges, where the berries of the ivy, the hawthorn, and the holly
supply its wants ; and, if unusually severe weather occurs, migrat-
ing (as is reported by naturalists) still further southwards, even
to the shores of the Mediterranean. Montagu reports that
vast numbers of these birds resorted to this and the adjacent
counties in the hard winter of 1799, when, exhausted by long
journeys, they were unable to prolong their travels, and deprived
of food by a sudden fall of snow, they perished by thousands
from starvation: Gilbert White speaks of their delaying their
departure northwards till June, after the dreadful winter of 1739-
40, and the cold north-east winds which continued to blow
through April and May. Colonel Hawker, in his admirable
' Instructions to Young Sportsmen/ printed in 1838, and there-
fore now out of date, when everything relating to shooting has
been changed, but yet for all that still a book of practical in-
formation and sound advice, says,* that when Redwings appear
on the East Coast they as commonly announce the approach of
the Woodcock, as does the arrival of the W T ryneck that of the
Cuckoo in the south. It is the smallest of the Scandinavian
Thrushes, and it does not breed in colonies like the Fieldfare,
nor is it so shy of the presence of man as that most wary bird.
Mr. Cecil Smith saysf it is known in Somersetshire as the ' Wind
Thrush/ and declares it is hardier than the Fieldfare, because,
Page 248. t ' Birds of Somerset/ p. G4.



Blackbird. 135

unlike that bird, it subsists in great measure on snails. Now
snails must certainly be a nutritious diet; so at least an old
parishioner of mine at Yatesbury, now deceased, used to declare,
and, acting on that opinion, at some special season of the year,
hunted in the banks near his cottage for the common garden
snail, and prepared them for his dinner by frying them in the
shovel ! Notwithstanding its snail diet, however, I am so far
from thinking that the Redwing is hardier than the Fieldfare
that I believe it to be the first of all its congeners to succumb
under prolonged frost : though it seems strange that both these
species, bred in the far north of Europe, should be more sensitive
to cold than those which are indigenous here. The Song
Thrush, however, is almost as delicate, and one of the first to
perish in very severe weather. It has often been reported as
breeding in England, but every alleged instance has so far as I
know on investigation proved to be a mistake, founded on con-
fusion of the species.

In Germany it is Rothdrossel, ( Red Thrush ;' in Portugal Tordo
ruivo, ' Reddish -brown Thrush/ in distinction to Tordo branco,
* White Thrush/ as the Thrush, Tordo, is sometimes called ; in
Scandinavia Hodvinge Trast, ' Red-wing Thrush / in Spain
Nalvis ; and in France le Mauvis.

36. BLACKBIRD (Turdus menda).

' The ouzel cock, so black of hue with orange-tawny bill/ as
that great observer of nature, Shakespeare, has described it, is so
well known that I need say very little about it. In Sweden it is
known as Kol Trast, or ' Charcoal Thrush/ and in Somersetshire
as the ' Colly bird.' The gardeners know, to their cost, its pen-
chant for fruit in the summer, and no devices of theirs will avail to
scare it from the gooseberry and raspberry bushes, and the straw-
berry-beds, as long as any fruit remains ; but it changes its
residence with the season : as soon as wet weather sets in, the
blackbirds may be found in the turnip-fields, where they find
slugs and snails in abundance ; and in hard weather the hedge-
rows and thick bushes are its resort. It is of a shy and restless



136 AlerulidcK.

disposition, and solitary withal, never seen to congregate with
many of its species, and hurries off with a loud scream of alarm,
and buries itself in the nearest bush the instant it is discovered :
it has a fine full rich voice, with which it often favours us ; and
it is a matter of great dispute among connoisseurs whether the
blackbird or thrush has the finest song, though I think most
votes would be in favour of the latter ; but yet the former has
many stout partisans, and not without reason, for its notes are
very melodious ; it is also one of the earliest songsters we have.
Blackbirds appear to be especially liable to exhibit variations in
plumage, specimens continually occurring in pied and mottled
garb, sometimes in pure white, though the name of the bird
causes such a statement to sound contradictory. And here, per-
haps, I may be allowed to make one or two observations on these
albino varieties in birds, having examined the subject with great
attention, and stated the result in a paper published by the
Zoologist in 1853. I will not inflict on my readers the arguments
by which I arrived at my conclusions, as they would be somewhat
out of place here ; suffice it to say, that I conceive that physical
weakness either in the individuals themselves, or in their parents,
one or both of them, is the radical origin of the varieties in colour
so often seen ; and that the natural and habitual functions of the
bird are through debility so disarranged, as to have the effect of
withdrawing the pigment or colouring matter from the growing
feather, as it springs from the follicle sheath or capsule in which
it is enveloped, and where it is nourished by juices in which the
pigment is supposed to reside. There may be many exciting causes,
such as peculiar food, sudden fear, extreme rage, etc., serving
to develop this peculiarity in colour, or it may have existed from
the nest, but in all cases I apprehend that constitutional weak-
ness is the real root of the matter ; and as bright well-marked
plumage undoubtedly betokens good health and strength, so and
on the same principles I conceive that an unwonted variety or
absence of colour marks physical debility : and therefore I am no
admirer of these anomalous specimens, but rather look upon
them as miserable deformities and wretched abortions, the



Ring Ouzel. 137

w offspring of weak parents, unfitted to rank with their fellows. I
may add that I have collected authentic evidence of the exist-
ence of such varieties in no less than fifty-seven species of our
British birds, in their wild state, and have no doubt that if
further investigated it would be seen that such occasional
deformities resulting from weakness do sometimes occur in every
species of bird ; though in those wearing the darkest livery
(such as the Blackbird and the Book) and therefore requiring a
larger supply of pigment, such varieties will be found to be more
frequent.

I have the authority of the B.O.U". Committee for stating
that the specific name Merula is derived from ^e/\a?, ' black/
Modified from the Latin, we have in French Merle noir, and
in Spanish, Mir to ; and in Portuguese the word itself, Merula,
but more commonly it is known all over the latter country as
Melro, by the same strange transposition of letters as that in use
\amongst our Wiltshire labourers, where they commonly miscall
pulpit, pilput bishop, buship, etc.

37. RING OUZEL (Turdus torquatus).

Here we have another migratory species of Thrush, but unlike
its congeners, the fieldfare and redwing, which come to us in
the autumn and retire northwards in the spring, the Bing Ouzel
comes to us in April, and retires again in October. It is, how-
ever, in this county but a bird of passage, passing on to more
northern districts in the summer, and returning to more southern
climes in the winter. It is easily distinguished from the black-
bird by the absence of the bright yellow bill, and by the white
collar or broad crescent-shaped ring round the chest, whence its
specific names, Latin and English; in other respects, such as
general appearance, shape, bulk, habits, food, etc., it resembles
that well-known songster : it differs from it, however, in occa-
sionally associating in flocks towards the beginning of autumn,
and so migrating in company, but sufficiently resembles it to be
called provincially the 'Mountain' and the ' Michaelmas' Black-



138 -Mend 'nice.

bird, alluding to the haunts it loves and the season when it
appears on its way south. In Sweden it is known as the Ring
Trast, or 'Ring Thrush;' and in Malta, as Malvitz tas-sidra
balda, the ' White-chested Thrush. 1 In some parts of France it
is distinguished as Merle terrier, or Buissonier, from its lowly
placed nest, either on or very near the ground. In Portugal it is
Metro de papo branco, ' Thrush of white throat.' I have seen it
occasionally in Switzerland and the Tyrol, and very frequently
in Norway, where in one especial locality, at the foot of the
highest peak in that land of mountains, it would come every
morning, and perching on the turf roof of an adjacent chalet, sing
most melodiously, while its mate was sitting on the nest among
some rocks hard by ; but the spot it seems of all others to prefer
is the copse on the sloping foot of a mountain, shelving down to
some quiet tarn. I have never seen it alive in Wiltshire, nor
has Mr. Marsh been more fortunate : I have, however, numerous
records of its occurrence here. Mr. E. Sloper speaks of it as
often seen in flocks of five or six, and of two being killed near
Devizes in 1851 ; another (now in Mr. Marsh's collection) was
killed at Compton Bassett by the Rev. A. Austin : it has often
been taken in Clarendon Park. The Rev. A. P. Morres has met
with it in his own parish of Britford, and on the downs near
Salisbury, and also on those near Ebbesbourne; he also possesses
a specimen killed at Odstock Copse in the spring of 1866 or
1867, and records another as seen in the garden of The Cliff at
East Harnharn the previous year : while a bird-trapper in his
parish assured Mr. Morres that he not unfrequently trapped
them on the downs. Mr. Baker generally saw it on the downs,
near Mere, in its vernal and autumnal migrations. Mr. King
reports that specimens were brought to him for preservation,
nearly every year, from the neighbourhood of Warminster. Mr.
Grant has supplied me with a list of thirteen specimens which
have been taken in various parts of Wiltshire within the last
twenty-five years ; previous to which the late Mr. Withers
assured me that scarcely a spring or autumn occurred but he
saw and generally captured some on the downs near Devizes.



Golden Oriole. 139

Besides the occurrences enumerated above, I have a very inter-
esting communication from Mr. Isaiah M. Jupe, of Mere, dated
May 19, 1858, in which that gentleman says: 'On the 12th of
April, 1858, a man of this town (Mere) seeing what he considered
a blackbird on its nest, shot it as it flew off, and on account of
its ring brought it to me as a curiosity, and I immediately
secured its nest and two eggs. The nest was in a thick thorn
hedge, close to our Castle Hill ; the eggs, in appearance, similar
to a blackbird's, but smaller, and not so pointed ; the nest also
resembles the blackbird's.' Both bird and eggs were preserved.
This is the only instance I have of the King Ouzel being known
to breed in this county, though, from its great resemblance to a
blackbird, it may easily be overlooked. Mr. Morres, too, heard
rumours of a nest having been found near Bath, but could not
obtain sufficient evidence to verify the statement. My friend-,
Colonel Ward, however, reported to me a Ring Ouzel, or ' black-
bird with a necklace,' as one of his family styled it, as frequent-
ing his lawn at Bannerdown, near Bath, July 3, 1879, when it
should have been, and perhaps was, engaged in rearing its young
brood. In the Marlborough College 'Nat. Hist. Soc. Reports/
there are several notices of the nest being found in Savernake
Forest : in 1866, May 4 (p. 25) ; April 30 (pp. 62, 65, and 66) ; in
1868, May 4 (p. 94). It is, however, much more common in the
wild mountainous and stormy districts of the north than in this
county.

38. GOLDEN ORIOLE (Oriolus gcdbula).

This splendid bird, with its bright yellow and black plumage,
so conspicuous from the striking contrast of the two colours, is a
rare visitant in Britain, but once seen, it can never be mistaken :
it is a denizen of warm latitudes, Asia and Africa being its proper
habitat, and it is only occasionally that a straggler finds its way
to our coasts, and then so attractive is its bright plumage that it
cannot escape observation, and has no chance of avoiding capture
or death. My first record of its occurrence in this county is of
very many years ago, when two males were taken in the neigh-



140 Mtrulidoe.

bourhood of Tidworth. One was observed and killed in a small
fir plantation, and carried to the Rev. F. Dyson, who, thinking it
probable that the bird was not without its mate, immediately
employed a man with a gun to search for and procure the
female ; the man, however, returned with another male bird, and
it was conjectured that the comparative dinginess of colour in
the female enabled her in the dark fir plantations to escape
detection. The Rev. G. Powell announced to me the capture of
a magnificent male in full golden plumage at Tisbury on May 1,
1862. Mr. Ernest Baker was so fortunate as to fall in with a fine
male in perfect plumage on the western borders of the county,
on May 9, 1870, as he was driving down a lane, and the bird flew
on in front, perching from time to time on the top of the hedge,
as if to display its brilliant plumage to an appreciative ornitholo-
gist : an unwonted piece of good-nature on the part of the bird,
as it is generally of a most shy and retiring nature ; to which I
am in a position to testify, from the many hours I have spent in
patiently watching for a view of the songster which I had heard
and of which I had caught a passing glimpse, as it buried itself
in the deep shelter of a lemon orchard at Mentone. The Rev. A.
P. Morres records that in the spring of 1877 a pair was seen on
some crab trees at Dinton, and that he was informed by Mr.
Wyndham that they had been reported to have bred on Teffont
Common, and had certainly been seen there more than once :
and that another fine male was shot in an orchard near Mere
in 1870, and is now in the possession of Mr. Osborne of Tisbury.
It is an inhabitant of the southern countries of Europe during
summer, migrating from Africa about the middle of April,
and establishing itself through all the northern coasts of the
Mediterranean, and in all these countries it generally derives its
name from the full, flute -like musical whistle for which it is
famous Turiol in Spanish, Lorlot in French, and Oriole in
English, being all supposed to represent the call-note of this
remarkably handsome and melodious bird; but everywhere it
exhibits the same timid, shy disposition, frequenting secluded
groves, and feeding on fruits, berries, and insects.



Golden Oriole. 141

The scientific name Oriolus is from aureolus 'golden/ and
galbula signifies 'yellow.' In Spain it is often known as
Oropendola, a word which appears to refer in the first syllables
to its golden colour, and in the last to the pendulous nest which
it forms beneath the branch of a tree.






CHAPTER V.

DENTIROSTRES (tooth-billed}, continued.
SILVIAM: (THE WARBLERS).

THE very name of this family speaks of warmth and spring and
harmony : and even in the depth of winter, conjures up before-
our imaginations lively pictures of the coppice and the hedgerovv-s
bursting into full leaf, radiant in the sunshine ; the air redolent
with the perfume of a thousand flowers, and filled with the song
of countless birds. It is pleasant to bask for awhile in such a
sunny spot, while we pass in review before us the sweet
songsters of the grove, which compose the family we are con-
sidering.

The warblers are the largest family amongst all the birds, I do
not mean numerically, but specifically; and with a few exceptions
they may all be found in Wiltshire, no less than nineteen species
being either indigenous to our county, or periodical or occasional
visitants ; but some of these species bear such a close resemblance
to one another, and are so extremely difficult to distinguish from
one another, that they will defy any but the most accurate and
painstaking observer to discover their personal identity. Their
principal characteristics are elegance and gracefulness of form,
a delicate structure and slenderness of bill, and a sweetness and
richness of note ; and though some may be disposed to cavil
at the statement, I am inclined to the opinion that in a greater or
lesser degree all the species composing this family partake of
these three characteristics.



Hedge Accentor.



39. HEDGE ACCENTOR (Accentor modularis).

Well known to everyone as the Hedge Sparrow, though the
name is most unfortunate, causing it to be confused in the minds
of many with the House Sparrow, with which it has not the
smallest affinity, the latter being bold, hard-billed, and grain-
loving, while the Hedge Accentor or Hedge Warbler is meek, soft-
billed, and insect-eating. In Worcestershire it bears the pro-
vincial name of 'Blue Isaac/* which at first sight seems unintelli-
gible enough ; but * Isaac ' as was pointed out by a clever
reviewer in the Guardian^ is simply the modern pronunciation
of the Anglo-Saxon hege sugge (Chaucer's heisugge), meaning
'Hedge Sucker,' in obvious allusion to the habits of the bird.
' Hedge Betty/ another provincial name in use in the same
county, is evidently later, and admirably expresses its dull and
somewhat lustreless plumage. In Somersetshire it is known as
' Blind Dunnock/J The scientific names bestowed on this species
have sole reference to its singing powers, for the meaning of
Accentor is given by the B.O.U. Committee, 'one who sings with
another;' and Modalaris ' one that sings in a measured manner;'
from modulus, ' a measure/ or < melody.' On the Continent its
sombre hue and retiring habits are more recognised in the names
it bears, as in France, Le MoucJtet, ' the spotted one ;' Train e
b'Uisson, ' hedge-frequenter ;' Faiivette de bois, Fauvette d'hiver,
and Roussette, ( reddish one.' In Germany, Schiefer Brastiger
Sanger, ' warbler with slate- coloured breast. 1 In Portugal,
Negrinha, ' little negress/ and Pretinha, 'blackish.' The English
word ' Sparrow/ Swedish Sparf, German Sperling, and similar
words in other languages, are all (says Professor Skeat) from the
Teutonic Sparwa, ' a Sparrow/ literally a ' flutterer/ from Spar,
'to quiver/ hence to 'flutter/ Unlike most of this family, the
Hedge Warbler remains with us throughout the winter, and

* ' The Nation in the Parish,' by Rev. E, Lawson. See Glossary.

t Jan. 21st, 1885.

J ' Birds of Somerset/ by Mr. Cecil Smith, p. 77.



144 Silviada.

loves to creep about the bottoms of hedges and among shrubs, and
if there is a pile of old wood lying about the yard, there you may
invariably see its dusky figure, as it seeks a scanty subsistence,
not disdaining to search for food at the bottom of drains and
gutters, for pride has no part in its composition, not one of all the
race being so modest and humble as this. Its song, though not
loud nor continuous, is sweet, but chiefly prized for the season
at which it may be heard ; it sings, indeed, all the year through,
but in winter, amid piercing winds and frost and snow, it is refresh-
ing to hear the warbling of this little bird, as it sits perched
on some shrub or bush ; while, as the spring advances and brings
in troops of other and louder warblers, nobody notices the poor
Hedge Accentor amidst the flood of music which then abounds.
There is one exception here, however, for at this season the
cuckoo singles out the Hedge Warbler and shows its appreciation
of its domestic qualities by the doubtful compliment of selecting
its nest oftener perhaps than that of any other bird wherein
to deposit her egg.

['Alpine Accentor' (Accentor alpinus). I have no right, and
I have no intention, of including among the warblers of Wilt-
shire this rare visitant to our island, for I have no instance
before me of its appearance in this county ; still, from the
facts that one of the three instances of its occurrence given
by Yarrell was in the adjoining county of Somerset, from
the garden of the Deanery at Wells ; that the specimen in Mr.
Marsh's collection was said to have been killed near Bath ; and
that the opinion of that keen and accurate observer coincides
with my own, that these birds are probably much more common
than is generally supposed, their shy retiring habits and sombre
plumage never making them conspicuous from these premises I
venture to conclude that the 'Alpine Accentor' probably visits 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 14 of 53)