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 15 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 15 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

occasionally, and I therefore mention it in passing. In colour it
is reddish-brown, but the chief distinguishing features which
mark it at once from its congener, the common 'Hedge Ac-
centor,' are its greater size and the dull-white throat, thickly
spotted with black. It is not uncommon on the Continent, and

Redbreast. 145

is fearless, courageous, and confiding, and frequents rocks and
stones in preference to bushes.

40. REDBREAST (Sylvia rubecula).

Not only in England, but throughout Northern Europe, in
Sweden and Norway, Russia, and Germany, the Redbreast is a
favourite, and has a name of endearment : with us he is Robin ;
in Sweden he is Tommy ; in Norway and Russia, Peter ; and in
Germany, Thomas ; but in Italy and France he shares the fate of
all other birds, little as well as big, and is mercilessly killed and
eaten. Mr. Waterton says he has counted more than fifty lying
dead on one stall at Rome, so that it is no wonder English
travellers complain of the silence of the woods and fields in
France and Italy, and lament the absence of the varied members
of the feathered race which cheer and enliven us at home. Now
I have often heard it asked why the Redbreast is so great a
favourite ? and its confidence in man has been regarded as the
result of its immunity from persecution, but I apprehend this is
mistaking the cause for the effect ; for this above all other birds
is by nature tame and familiar with man, fearlessly venturing
close to him, and by its very confidence begetting the protection
which its innocence and bravery seem to claim : for that indeed
must be a bad and cruel heart which could abuse such an
appeal, and long may our village children, and indeed all of
every age and rank, respect this one at least of our winter
songsters, so harmless, so pretty, and so confiding.

At the same time it cannot be denied that our friendly Robin
is of all birds the most quarrelsome. A very tyrant among his
fellows, he will brook no rival, but attack any intruder on his
haunts with the utmost fury. Throughout the year he sings ;
even in the cold bleak days of winter he will pour forth his feeble
song from some leafless spray ; but not always to the delight of
the listener ; for in some places where superstition still lingers
and where does it not ? the song of the Robin is thought to
bode death to the sick person who hears it, and much uneasiness
is consequently caused when its note, or 'weeping/ is heard


146 Silviadce.

near a house where anyone happens to be ill. And so in the
north of Devon they have a saying that when a Robin perches
on the roof of a cottage, and utters its plaintive ' weet,' the baby
in the cottage will die. Another widely-spread belief is that if a
Robin should chance to die in your hand, from that day forth
your hand will always shake, as if with palsy ; hence the obvious
moral, be careful to have no hand in causing the death of a
Robin. Amongst many other superstitions current regarding this
bird, I will mention only the following pretty legend current in
Wales, that, ' far, far away is a land of woe, darkness, spirits of
evil, and fire. Day by day does this little bird bear in its bill a
drop of water to quench its flames. So near the burning stream
does he fly, that his dear little feathers are scorched, and hence
he is called Bron-rhuddyn, or " Breast-burnt." To serve little
children the Robin dares approach the infernal pit, so no child
of proper feeling will hurt this devoted benefactor of man. But
the Robin returns from the land of fire, and therefore feels the
cold of winter far more than his brother birds, and in consequence
deserves and claims man's especial protection and assistance.'*
Its name is almost universally derived in all countries, as with
us, from its highly-coloured breast ; thus rulccula is ' the little
red bird,' from nibeo, ' I am red/ Erithacus, again, the generic
name bestowed on it by some ornithologists, is from tpivOw, ' I
make red.' In France it is Bee-Jin Rouge gorge ; in Germany,
Rothbrustiger Sanger; in Sweden, Rodkake Sdngare, 'Red-throated
Warbler;' in Spain, Gargantirojo, 'Red-throat/ and Pechi-rulio,
4 Red-breast.'

41. REDSTART (Phcenicura ruticilla),

Or 'Redtail/ for start is but the old English word for 'tail,'
familiar to us in Start Point, the tail-end of England, or the
promontory jutting out into the sea last seen by the outward-
bound voyager. It is also called 'Firetail' and 'Brandtail/ from
its flaming colour; and ' Quickstart,' from the rapidity with which
it flirts that member. In Swedish, Rodstjert-Sdnyare or ' Red-
* Dyer's ' English Folk-lore,' p. GO.

Redstart. 147

tail Warbler.' In France it is Bee-Jin de Murailles, ' Wall Warbler/
in allusion to its hailnts and nesting-place; in Germany, Schwartz-
keliger Sanger,' Black-throated Warbler. The scientific name,
Ph(jenicura, signifies ' red-tail,' from <poli>i^ ' purple red,' and oipd
'tail;' ruticilla is a repetition of the same in another form,
meaning 'Red-tail/ from mtilus, 'red,' and cilia, 'tail,' the
termination we have seen in Albicilla, 'White-tailed Eagle,' and
shall see in Motacilla, the generic name of the Wagtails ;
Bomby cilia, ' Silk- tail,' etc.

Towards the end of April this handsome and interesting bird
arrives in England, and may be seen darting after insects on the
wing, and capturing them with unerring precision ; or running
after its prey on the grass with equal certainty of success. In
plumage it is the brightest and gayest of all the warblers ; the
female, in more sombre hue than her mate, is clad in a dress ot
pale reddish-brown ; but the male, with his jet-black head and
throat, bright chestnut breast and tail, white forehead, and gray
back, presents a handsome appearance from the contrast and
combination of colours : but the distinctive peculiarity of these
birds consists in their spreading out the feathers of the orange-red
tail, and jerking it from side to side, an action belonging to the
Redstarts alone, and by which they may be distinguished from all
other birds. Harting remarks that in this horizontal shaking of
the tail, they move them as dogs do when they fawn, whereas
the tail of a wagtail, when in motion, bobs up and down like
that of the jaded horse.* They delight in 'buildings, especially
old walls, in the crevices of which they make their nests ; they
are good songsters, and continue their %ong from morning till
night. From my own observation I should say it is now much
more scarce than it was a few years back ; certainly its numbers
in the localities where I have annually watched it are very much
decreased. ,

* White's ' Selborne,' Harting's edition, p. 121; 'Our Summer Migrants,'

pp. 7578.


148 Silviadce.

42. BLACK REDSTART (Phcenicura titys).

This little bird has been somewhat ill- treated by ornithologists
in regard to its name. Originally designated tltys by Linnaeus,
with the meaning of a ' small chirping bird' relics of which
we have in our Tilmouse and Tidark it became by mistake
converted into tithys, for which there is neither authority nor
reason. And this false title usurped the place of the rightful
owner, and reigned in the works of many of our chief authorities,
even in that of Yarrell himself, until detected and deposed, in
the fourth edition, by the vigilance of Professor Newton, whose
accurate eye no flaw of title could escape. It has also been most
erroneously termed the ' Blackstart,' a name utterly misleading,
as with a generally black or dusky plumage, its tail alone is of
a reddish-bay. I am glad to add it to our Wiltshire list, on the
authority of Mr. T. Humming, of Red House, Amesbury, who
very obligingly wrote to inform me that one had appeared near
that place, and that he had himself seen it killed, but 'he could
not give me the exact date; and again, I have one more instance
for which I am indebted to Mr. Grant : it is of a specimen shot
by Mr. H. Sargent, of Enford Farm, on April 16, 1881. It is a
bird with which I am very familiar, having met with it frequently
at Mentone, Bordighera, Cannes, and other parts of the Riviera,
as well as at various times and places in Switzerland. I also saw
it daily in Cairo, where one frequented a wall just outside my
window, in Shepheard's Hotel ; and again, in the very heart of
Lisbon, a pair occupied, and probably were nesting, in some
house-roofs below my windows in the Hotel Braganza, and I
found it common throughout Portugal. It is not, however, very
often noticed in England, though much more frequently of late
years ; but abundant as it is in Southern and Western Europe,
I cannot help thinking that its scarcity here is perhaps in some
degree due to its having been overlooked and mistaken for its
more brilliant congener, which in general habits it very much
resembles, though it frequents the mountain-sides and rocky
districts in preference to valleys and plains. In France it is

Stonechat. 149

known as Bee-fin rouge queue; in Germany, Schwarze Roth-
sckwanz ; in Spain, Coliroyo; and in Portugal, Raboruivo all
with the meaning of ' red-tail ;' but in the latter country it has
many provincial names as well, as Negrone, ' the black ;' Noite
negra, 'the night black;' and ' Pisco ferreiro,' 'the blacksmith

43. STONECHAT (Saxicola rubicola).

This and the two following species comprise the genus ' Chat/
and all of them are tolerably numerous in this county. They
run with great celerity, being enabled to do so by the great pro-
portional length of the tarsus, and are pretty, little, lively,
restless, noisy birds, and their absence would cause a sad blank
on our downs, which they chiefly frequent ; their habit is to flirt
the tail up and down continually, but not after the manner of
the redstart. I met with Chats of many species in Egypt and
Nubia, where in some localities, especially above the first Cata-
ract, they are the most abundant birds seen; and it is quite
marvellous how well their colours are adapted to the ground
they frequent. Some, as S. leucomela, S. leucopygia and S. leuco-
vephala, in their respective dresses of black and white, readily
escaping notice amid the dark granite rocks which run inland
from the banks of the Nile to the desert, which hems it in on
either shore ; others again, as S. isalellina, S. stapazina, and
S. deserti, in their russet clothing, scarcely to be seen on the
sands of the desert. But the Stonechat, with which we are now
concerned, I found most abundant in Portugal, where I met
with it throughout the country in considerable numbers ; for the
wide tracts of heathland, covered with aromatic shrubs and
other bushes, and which often extend over many square leagues,
exactly suit its requirements.

The Stonechat is the only one which partially remains with us
through the winter, and may generally be met with in stony
places or open pastures covered with small shrubs : it is of
bright plumage the head, neck, back, and throat nearly black ;
wing and tail coverts and sides of the neck white, and rich

150 S'dviadce.

chestnut breast ; it utters a kind of clicking note, 'Chook, chook,
hence sometimes called ' Stoneclink ' and ' Stonechatter/ and is
for ever on the move from one stone to another, or from the
summit of one bush to the next. The Rev. G. Marsh used to
say it was called the ' Furze Robin ' in his neighbourhood.
Elsewhere in the county it is known as the ' Horse Matcher,'*
though the origin and meaning of the name are alike unknown
to me; but in Turkey it has the strange title how derived I
know not of ' One in ninety.' The specific name, rubicola,
means an ' inhabitant of bramble-bushes ;' and the generic,
Saxicola, ' one that dwells among rocks,' from saxum + colere ;
in France it is Traquet Pdtre, ' Shepherd's Mill- clapper ;' and in
Germany, Schwarskehliger Steinschmatzer, ' Black - throated
Stone-kisser;' in Portugal, it is Chas Chas, and Chasco. In that
country it is looked upon with disfavour, for the country people
have a superstition that it is an excommunicated bird, for it led
Judas to the place where our Blessed Lord was to be found.
They say that, as it led Judas on "the way, it cried 'Chas, Chas,
por aqui bem las, ' This is the way;' but the Chaffinch tried to
lead in a contrary direction, by crying, Pirn, Pirn, por aqui bem
mm, ' Come this way;' wherefore the Chaffinch is honoured and
the Stonechat detested.f

44. WH INCH AT (Saxicola rubetm).

The haunts, habits, and general character of this warbler are
very like those of the last described. It is to be met with in the
same localities, and, though not quite so common as the stone-
chat, may often be seen on our downs. Montagu, speaking of
it fifty years ago, says ' it is plentiful in Wiltshire ;' but being a
shy and solitary bird, only seen singly or in pairs, it is certainly
not now numerous. In plumage it is not so gay as its congener,
but prettily marked, and in colour mottled brown ; and in
song it is pronounced superior : it is also said, when reared from
the nest in a cage, to be a skilful imitator of other birds. It

' Wild Life in a Southern County,' p. 196.

t Ibis for 1887, p. 88, Mr. W. C. Tait on the Birds of Portugal.

Wheatear. 151

derives its name of ' Whinchat' and ' Furzcchat' from the whin
or furze which it loves to frequent ; and for the same reason is
known in Sweden as the Busk sqvatta. In Sussex it is known
as the ' Barley-ear,' probably from the date of its arrival coin-
ciding with barley earing, or ploughing for barley.* The
scientific name Rubetra would either refer to the ' ruddy' colour
of its plumage, or more probably to the bramble-thickets it
frequents, on the topmost twigs of which it will perch, and then
pass on with undulating flight to the highest spray of another
bush. In France it is Grand Traquet and Traquet Tarier ; in
Germany, BraunJcehliger Steinschmatzer, 'Brown- throated Stone-
kisser ;' in Portugal, its correct name is like that of the species
last described, Chasco ; but its provincial name, by which it is
more popularly known, is Tange-asno, literally ' Gee-up, donkey!'
because its note is supposed to resemble that used by the donkey-
boys to urge on their beasts.f With us it is migratory, arriving
in April, and departing for more southern latitudes in the

45. WHEATEAR (Saxicola cenanthe).

This is essentially one of our down birds, and few inhabitants
of Wiltshire can be ignorant of its handsome active figure. It
loves the bare open down, especially a stony down, where it flits
from stone to stone in search of its insect food : it is the largest
of the genus, and very prettily marked ; the upper part of the
head and back pearl-gray, the wings and cheeks black, the under
parts pale buff, while the upper part of the tail is pure white,
and from the singular manner in which by a lateral expansion of
the feathers it spreads its tail like a fan, it may at once be
recognised : it is migratory, but one of the first to arrive, and the
last to leave us. For several years past I have noticed its first
appearance here on or within two days of the 26th March. And
Mr. CordeauxJ calls it the ' Sea-blue bird of March,' though he

c Gen. xlv. 6 ; Exod. xxxiv. 21 ; Deut. xxi. 4 ; 1 Sam. viii. 12.
t Ibis for 1887, p. 87, Mr. Tait on the Birds of Portugal.
J ' Birds of the Humber,' p. 30.

152 Silviadoc.

says it seldom arrives in the marshes of his neighbourhood m
March, but very regularly during the first week in April ; but it
does not nest there, merely passing on and returning for a short
time in September. With us it breeds in a deserted rabbit-
burrow, or some deep hole under the turf, where I have occa-
sionally found its eggs. Though pretty generally dispersed over
the Wiltshire downs, I do not think it could ever have been so
numerous with us as it is, or was, on the Southdowns of Sussex,
where vast quantities were trapped by the shepherds for the
London markets, and found a ready sale, as the morsel of
meat they yielded was, unhappily for them, considered an
epicure's delicacy. Pennant speaks of 1,840 dozen being taken
in one year near Eastbourne, in Sussex ; and 84 dozen are
said to have been trapped by a single shepherd in one
day! Would not any species be thinned by such wholesale
destruction ?

As we have seen the Stonechat to be dubbed by Wiltshire
rustics the ' Horse Matcher/ so the late Rev. G. Marsh used to
say this species was called in Wiltshire the ' Horse Snatcher / but
he did not know the reason of the term, and the name was quite
new to me. ' Fallowchat' is another provincial name, the meaning
of which is apparent enough ; for, unlike its two congeners above
mentioned, this species avoids bushes and shrubs, and seeks the
open field or down. The scientific name, (Enantke, is attributed
by the Committee of the B.O.U. to the appearance of the bird in
its spring migration at the season when the vine shoots;* but
the meaning of the English ' Wheatear' has been much ques-
tioned. Mr. Harting says that perhaps it is a corruption of
whitear, from the ' white ear,' which is very conspicuous in the
spring-plumage of this bird ; or else it may be derived from the
season of its arrival. The latter is, I think, the true origin ; but
then I submit that it cannot allude to the wheat being in ear
when it reaches us in the middle of March, but must refer to
the old meaning of ear, ' to plough/ and unquestionably the
Wheatear does arrive when the ploughing and sowing of spring-
* Aristotle, ' Hist. An.,' ix. 49, B. 8.

Grasshopper Warbler. 153

wheat is in operation. In France it is Vitrec and Traquet
moteux, which may be translated ' restless mill-clapper ;' in
Germany, Grauruckiger Steinschmatzer, l Gray-backed Stone-
kisser'; in Italy, Gulbianco, ' White throat ;' and in Portugal,
Caiada, ' Whitewashes'

46. GRASSHOPPER WARBLER (Salicaria locustella}.

This, the most shy and retiring of all the warblers, derives its
name from the rapid ticking noise which it will continue for a
long time without intermission ; and its curious note is so like
the chirp of the grasshopper, that it is often mistaken for it. As
soon as it arrives in the spring, it makes known the fact by the
cricket-like ticking which proceeds from the midst of the very
thickest bush or furze, where it hides itself from human sight,
and here it skulks arid creeps, and at the bottom of the furze
amid the thickest grass it conceals its nest ; indeed, so shy is it
that it is rarely seen, and but for its incessant chirp would
escape general notice. Selby calls it a ventriloquist, because it
not only imitates the notes of several other birds, but in uttering
its peculiar note can cause the sound at one moment to proceed
from the immediate neighbourhood of the listener, and at the
next, as if removed to some distance, and this without any actual
change of place in the operator a peculiarity which it shares
with the corn-crake, also a bird very difficult to raise on the
wing. It is of elegant shape, and its plumage consists of mottled
shades of brown.

The generic name Salicaria is simply ' Willow Warbler,' and
locustella, the diminutive of locusta, 'grasshopper/ from its
cricket-like cry; hence, too, our specific name, and with pre-
cisely the same signification we find Bee-fin Locustelle in France,
and Heuschrecken Sanger in Germany.

Montagu, speaking of the localities where he had seen this
bird, says, ' We have found it in Hampshire, South Wales, and
Ireland, but nowhere so plentiful as on Malmesbury Common in
Wiltshire, to which place the males come about the latter end
of April.' The late Canon John Wilkinson sent me the eggs

154 Silviadce.

which he had taken from a nest at Broughton Gifford, in June,
1856, and described the nest as being completely hidden and
cleverly covered with rank grass in the clover-field where it was
found, after the manner of this species. Mr. Baker says that it
is common at Mere, where it is known as the ' mowing-machine
bird/ in allusion to its remarkable note.

The Marlborough College Natural History Society's Reports
speak of many nests taken in the neighbourhood in 186G ;
mention it occasionally in several subsequent years, and in 1881
record that an unusually large number of this species visited
Marlborough during the summer of that year. I have, also,
many notes of its occurrence in all parts of the county, but
sparingly, for it is not so common as either of its congeners, and
is much more retiring and timid.

47. SEDGE WARBLER (Salicaria phragmitis).

We must look for this elegant species by the banks of streams
or the margins of lakes, and there amongst the tall sedge and
reeds we shall be almost sure to find it, for it is by far the
commonest of the genus, and few patches of sedge or willow beds
are without it. It is an incessant songster, or rather chatterer,
for its notes, though very various and rapid, are not particularly
melodious, and yet from its habit of singing throughout the
summer's night, it has been sometimes mistaken for the nightin-
gale: when silent, it may be excited to renew its song by the
simple expedient of throwing a stone into the bush where it is

Professor Newton observes that many of its notes are very
harsh, and the frequent repetition of one of these has gained for
the species in some parts of England, particularly in the valley
of the Thames, the name of 'Chat,' by which it is there mainly
known.* This I can corroborate, for such was the name by
which it was designated at Eton, where I used to find it breeding
in abundance, on the reedy banks of the Thames.

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. i., p. 379.

Heed Warbler. 155-

Its colour is on the upper parts oil-green and yellowish-brown
and below yellowish dusky white, but though it closely resembles
its congeners in other respects, it may on comparison be dis-
tinguished from them by the distinct white streak that passes
above the eyes.

It derives its scientific name phragmitis from tppdypa, ' a fence/
from its habit of haunting fences or hedges. The French name,
Bee-fin phragmite, the Swedish, Sdf-sdngare, and the German,
Schilfsanger, as well as our English name, are taken from the
localities it affects. It is the first of the River Warblers to arrive

48. REED WARBLER (Salicaria arundinacea).

Very difficult, but for the mark over the eye, just described
is this species to be distinguished from the last, which it
resembles in the time of its arrival and departure, in the
localities it frequents, in habits, general appearance, and colour :
it is, however, not nearly so common. Montagu says that 'in
Wiltshire and Somersetshire, where the Sedge Warbler abounds,
not a single Reed Warbler is to be found ;' here, however, our
worthy countryman is mistaken, for I have myself observed it by
the banks of more than one reedy stream ; the Rev. G. Marsh has
frequently seen it on the Avon ; Mr. Withers has taken it near
Devizes. The Rev. A. P. Morres pronounces it nearly if not quite
as abundant as the Sedge Warbler in his district near Salisbury,
and adds that it is one of the most favourite nests selected by the
cuckoos of that neighbourhood for their nursery. Mr. Harting
says it is a species much overlooked, and instances that a notice of
its occurrence at Marlborough was given ' for May 31st, at least
six weeks after its usual time for arriving.'* I used to find in
my bird-nesting days the deep cup-shaped nest of this species,
cleverly suspended between three or four reeds on the banks of
the Thames at Eton, in perhaps greater profusion than the nests
of the Sedge Warbler. t

* ' Our Summer Migrants,' p. 326.

t See Zoologist for 1853, p. 4095, on the nesting of the Reed Wren.

156 Silvia dee.

Mr. Selby pronounces its song to be superior to that of the
Sedge Warbler, both in volume and in sweetness, but in truth it
requires a very accurate ear as well as eye to distinguish these
two graceful little warblers from one another.

One of the specific names by which it is oftentimes designated
is strepera or ' noisy/ in allusion to the perpetual babble in which
it indulges. In the more marshy parts of England, where the
chirping of grasshoppers and crickets is not a very common
sound, this bird has long been known as the ' Reeler,' from the
resemblance of its song to the noise of the reel used, even at the
beginning of the present century, by the handspinners of wool.
The power of so-called 'ventriloquism,' ascribed by some to this
bird, has been in a measure explained by writers to be the effect
of the bird turning its head while singing, so as to change the
direction in which the sound of its voice is thrown.* In France

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 15 of 53)