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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it is Bee-fin des Roseaux; in Germany, Rokrsanger, in ac-
cordance with our ' Reed Wren ;' but in Portugal, where its song
is more appreciated than with us, it is llouxinol pequeno decs
Cani$as, ' Little Nightingale of the Reeds.'

49. NIGHTINGALE (Philomela luscinia).

I need not point out the localities which these birds frequent;
for who does not know whether a nightingale haunts the thicket
near him, and who does not remember the spots where he has
listened to this wondrous songster of the grove, or as good old
Izaak Walton styles it, this ' chiefest of the little nimble musicians
of the air that warble forth their curious ditties, with which
nature has furnished them, to the shame of art' ? But the
nightingale seems very fanciful in her selection of habitation,
and is guided by some choice which we cannot fathom. In the
most western and warmest parts of our island it is rarely heard ;
and in our own county, while one wood resounds night after
night and year after year with their wondrous melody, a neigh-
bouring copse, apparently in all respects equally suited to their

Professor Newton in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British BirJs,' vol. i.,
p. 385. See also paper by 0. Salvin in Ibis for 1859, p. 303.

Nightingale. 157

tastes, is never honoured by their presence. Some say that
dampness of soil, a trickling stream, or a moist meadow, is needed
to tempt it ; and M. Viellet declares it is partial to the vicinity
of an echo! Montagu propounded I know not with what
reason that possibly it is not to be found but where cowslips
grow plentifully ; but I think we have hardly mastered a know-
ledge of its requirements. It arrives here towards the end of
April or beginning of May ; and being of a very shy, timid
nature, seeks the thickest hedges and most impenetrable copses,
where, though so often listened to, it is rarely seen, and few are
acquainted with the form of the humble but elegant little brown
bird which charms them so much with its unrivalled song.

It owes its generic name to the mythological writers, who
state that Philomela, the wife of Tereus, was turned into a
nightingale ; and the name was in use for that bird at all events
as long ago as the time of Catullus; and the specific name
hiscinia is conjectured by the B.O.U. Committee to be derived
from the root of A-aXo?, ' talkative/ and cano, c I sing.' In France
it is Eossignol ; in Portugal, Rouxinol ; in Spain, Ruisenor ; in
Germany, Naclitigall, which latter, as well as our ' Nightingale,'
is derived (as Pennant informs us) from Nacht, ' night,' and the
Saxon word yalan, ' to sing ;' not, however, that it is silent
during the day, but then the chorus of voices, loud and shrill
and numerous, drown it so that it cannot so readily be distin-
guished as in the witching hour of twilight, when other songsters
are hushed in repose. Not everywhere, however, is the Nightin-
gale known as a songster. In Egypt, to which it retires for the
winter, its voice, except its somewhat harsh alarm-note, is un-
known; just as the Redwing the 'Swedish Nightingale' though
notorious for its vocal powers in Norway and Sweden, is never
recognised while in its winter quarters here as capable of song.*
It is sad to think what vast numbers are caught in England by
the professional bird-catcher ; and that the modern inhabitants
of Malta, appreciating it more for the delicacy of its flesh than for
the quality of its song, persecute it unrelentingly ,f with about as
* Selby's ' Illustrations of British Ornithology,' vol. i., p. 207.
f Mr. C. A. Wright in Ibis for 1864, p. 66.

158 Silviadce.

much sense as the unreasoning Roman epicure of old attempted
to gratify his palate with a dish of nightingales' tongues. But
strange to say, persecution does not seem to thin its numbers.
Mr. Morres speaks of them as quite abundant near Salisbury ;
.and though I have never known them in such profusion in north
Wilts, I have seen and heard them in many localities there ; and
in the oak copses of Sussex, and the leafy lanes of Surrey, I have
found them in great force. But in Portugal, and especially at
Cintra, and on the banks of the Lima in Minho, they positively
swarmed ; while in the Ionian Islands, Corfu, and many portions
of the Grecian coast, their numbers are astonishing.

50. BLACKCAP WARBLER (Curruca atricapilla).

This active little warbler is second only to the nightingale in
song, and being a regular summer visitant to our gardens and
orchards, as well as hedgerows, is known to most observers. Its
.general colour is ash-gray, but the jet-black head of the male and
the brown head of the female mark it at once from all others.
Insects and fruit are its favourite food, but few will quarrel with
it on the latter account, as it makes ample amends for any petty
thefts it may commit in the garden by the quantities of various
kinds of insects which infest fruit-trees, upon which it feeds its
young, as well as by the sweetness of its song, and its interesting
and engaging manners. Montagu designated it the ' Mock
Nightingale,' and Harting says it has been called the 'contralto
singer among birds,' and this title is certainly not undeserved.*
In Germany it is provincially called the ' Monk/ in allusion to
the hooded appearance of both male and female; and in the
Azores the female is known as c Red Hood ;' otherwise in all
Continental languages it derives its name, as with us, from its
black head. In France it is Bee-fin d tete noir; in Germany,
Schwarzkopfige Grasmucke ; in Italy, Capinera commune; in
Portugal, tutinegra for toutanegra, i.e., 'black poll;' in Sweden,
Svart hufvad Sdngare. It is a timid bird and very restless,
scarcely stationary an instant, except when it pours forth its
' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 49.

Garden Warbler. 159

rich and clear notes from the top of some tree or bush. The
Rev. G. Marsh thought, it not very common in Wiltshire, but
my own observation does not agree here, as I see it frequently in
many parts of the county ; and it arrives at Yatesbury, as well
.as in the neighbourhood of Devizes, regularly every spring in
some numbers.

51. GARDEN WARBLER (Curruca kortensis).

Though closely resembling in general colour and appearance
several others of this family, the Garden Warbler may on com-
parison be distinguished from its congeners by its superior size,
being nearly an inch longer than any other species answering to
the same description. Its plumage is grayish-green above, and
.greenish-yellow below; it is even more restless, more shy, and
more retiring than the last described, and is at least equally
common. It frequents the same localities, has the same pro-
pensity for fruit, and is an excellent songster ; hence it is called
by Bechstein Bastard Nachtigall, the ' Spurious Nightingale/
In Sweden it is, as with us, Trddgdrds Sdngare, ' the Garden
Warbler; in France, Bee-fin Fauvette; in Germany, Graue Gras-
mucke, ' Gray Grassfly ; in Italy, Beccafico cenerino, l Ash-
coloured Fig-pecker.'

This and the two following species are indiscriminately called
* Nettle Creepers ' by our Wiltshire lads. It is the ' Greater
Fauvette or Pettychaps' of Willoughby, Pennant, Latham,
Montagu, Bewick, and our earlier ornithologists ; and it is the
famous ' Beccafico,' so highly prized as an epicure's morsel in
Italy and France. But though so much esteemed, and conse-
quently so much sought after, it is wonderful in what vast
numbers it appears every spring throughout Western Europe.
In Italy it may be seen exposed for sale in every market ; and
in Malta, as many as a hundred dozen are sometimes brought in
at a time.* Montagu says of it : 'In Wiltshire, where I have
found this species not uncommon, it resorts to gardens in the

Mr. C. A. Wright in Ibis for 1861, p. 67.

160 Silviadcu.

latter end of summer, together with the Whitethroat and Black-
cap, for the sake of currants and other fruit.'

52. COMMON WHITETHROAT (Curruca cinerea).

This is the commonest of all our little summer warblers, and
may be seen in every shady lane or thick hedge, almost in every
bramble and bed of nettles. Its head and back are light brown,
under parts dusky white slightly tinged with rose-red ; in habits
it resembles its congeners previously described ; but it has one-
peculiarity, which consists in its often singing on the wing, as it
rises with a very peculiar flight, sailing round in little circles, till
it attains a considerable height in the air, and then descends,
slowly to the same spot whence it started ; at other times it will
erect its crest, puff out its throat, stretch its neck, and exhibit
every mark of excitement and defiance, while it seems to strain
every nerve to raise its voice above its rivals.

The generic name, Curt^uca, if derived from the Latin, and
signifying ' the runner,' may, I suppose, with sufficient accuracy,,
describe its rapid movements at the bottom of the thickest
hedges. In France it is Bee-fin grisette, and in Sweden Grd
Sdngare, which are mere translations of the specific name
cinerea. In Germany, too, it is Fahle Grasmucke, ' Ash-coloured
Grass-fly;' but in Portugal it is known as Pcqm-amoras,
literally ' Blackberry or Mulberry Eater.'* Mr. Tait adds that its.
disappearance in October coincides Avith that of the blackberries,,
of which it is gluttonously fond ; and it is probable that many
blackberry plants are dispersed by seeds dropped by this bird.

In Wiltshire it is popularly known as the ' Nettle Creeper/
from its partiality to ditches and banks where nettles abound ;
and there it delights to make its semi-transparent nest, mooring
it to the stems of nettles, much as the Reed Warbler attaches
her nest to the reeds on the banks of streams. Though undoubt-
edly fond of fruit, it confers untold benefits on man by its.
wholesale destruction of caterpillars, aphides, and other destruc-
tive insects.

His for 1887, p. 90, Mr. W. C. Tait en the Birds o Portugal.

Lesser Whitetkroat. 161

53. LESSER WHITETHROAT (Curruca sylviella).

Quite as common in Wiltshire, if not more so, than the last,
with which it is often confounded. Indeed, the eggs of this and
the preceding species form a large proportion of the whole on
every schoolboy's string a table, by the way, of no mean autho-
rity in calculating the abundance or rarity of any species in any
particular locality. It is even more retiring than its larger
namesake, and creeps away out of sight among the brambles the
instant it is discovered, threading its way with the rapidity and
adroitness of the mouse. From the peculiar character of its
note, a low soft warble, it is called the ' Babbling Warbler,' and
by Continental naturalists, ' C. garrula' and ' Bee-fin babillard ;'
and from the clicking sounds with which it repeats its call-note,
' Klapp, klapp, klapp,' which much resembles the sound emitted
from the clapper attached to the little windmills one often sees
placed in gardens to scare away sparrows and other birds, it has
obtained in Germany the name of Klapper Grasmiicke, and
provincially of Weismuller, ( White Miller,' and Mullercken or
* Little Miller.' In Sweden it is known as Art Sdngare, or 'Pea
Warbler/ so called from its frequenting the pea-fields, for which
it has a great partiality.* The Wiltshire ploughboy, who is not
appreciative of the minute distinctions which mark the species,
knows this, too, by the name of ' Nettle Creeper/ to which per-
haps it is even more entitled than its larger congener, inasmuch
as it is more ready to escape observation by hiding in the bed of
nettles, which offers so convenient and so- effectual a shelter.
This appears to be the Pettychaps of (Gilbert White. -f- Pro-
fessor Newton observes that the repetition of notes which
have been syllabled as ' Sip, sip, sip/ is almost incessant, espe -
cially if the weather be sultry ; and that it continues its song
much later in the summer than any of its congeners,! while
Harting not only says its song is less powerful than that of the
Common White throat, but is merely a kind of convulsive 'laugh

* Lloyd's 'Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 299.

t Harting's ' Sketches of Bird Life,' p. 70.

Fourth edition of YarrelFs ' British Birds/ vol. i., p. 411.


162 Silviadcv.

or call.* Montagu says that he observed the arrival of this bird
in Wiltshire for several years together, and that it ranged from
April 21st to May 10th.

54. WOOD WARBLER (Sylvia sylvicola').

Extremely difficult is it to identify this pretty little bird from
its two congeners, more particularly from the one next to be
described : both are graceful and elegant, and frequent woods and
plantations ; both have a plumage of gray-green above, and prim-
rose yellow below ; both feed on insects, and sing sweetly from
the top of some tall tree. There are, however, several marks by
which we may distinguish them ; on close examination we shall
find that the Wood Warbler has a purer green on the upper
parts of its body, and more white on its under plumage, while
the Willow Warbler has more yellow : and again, the nest of the
Wood Warbler is always lined with fine grass and hair, while
that of the Willow Warbler contains feathers.

Perhaps nobody has more clearly pointed out in few words the
marks by which the three British Willow Wrens may best be
distinguished from each other than Mr. Harting, who says: (1)
The Wood Wren is the largest of the three ; it has comparatively
the longest wings, and the longest tail : in colour it is much
greener above and of a purer white beneath than either of its
congeners; legs flesh-coloured. (2) The Willov; Wren is the
yellowest of the three species ; legs also flesh-coloured. (3) The
Chiff Chaff is the smallest of the three ; wings remarkably short ;
colour greenish-brown above, white tinged with yellow benea-t/i ;
legs hair-brown.f Compare with this the Swedish names by
which these birds are designated: (1) Wood Warbler, Gr<"m
Sdngare or Green Warbler; (2) Willow Warbler, Lof Sdngare
or Leaf Warbler; and (3) Chiff Chaff, Gi'd brustad Sdngare ,
Yellow-breasted Warbler; and we have their respective points
of distinction pretty accurately expressed.

To Gilbert White is due the credit of separating and calling

* 'Birds of Middlesex/ p. 51.

t Harting's edition of White's ' Selborne,' p. 57.

Wood Warbler. 163

attention to the points of difference between these closely allied
species, and his 19th letter to Pennant is entirely occupied with
this subject. It is with him ' the Larger Willow Wren/ and he
describes it as a trifle larger than its congeners : he also calls atten-
tion to its remarkable tremulous note, in consequence of which he
calls it the ' Sibilous Pettychaps.' In France it is generally known
as Sec-fin Siffleur; and Sibilatrix, ' one that hisses or whistles/ is
the specific name by which it is generally known to Continental
naturalists. This is certainly to be preferred to the somewhat
unfortunate name it bears here ; for Sylvia, ' a wood bird/ and
Sylvicola, ' an inhabitant of woods/ is not a very happy or de-
scriptive title. This is the Regulus non cristatus major of
Willoughby ; but Montagu having in 1790 carefully observed this
species at Easton Grey in North Wilts, furnished an account
of it in 1796 to the Linnean Society, under the name of Sylvia

In Malta it is styled Bti-fula, 'father of a bean/ from its
partiality to the olive and carob trees, where it finds both shelter
and the insect -food suited to its taste. It also frequents the fig
and almond trees when in leaf, the colour of whose foliage mostly
assimilates to its own plumage, and renders it not easy of
detection when at rest ;* hence its scientific name. It is not so
numerous as the other species, but it visits us annually, and I
have occasionally met with its nest near Devizes, as well as in my
own parish of Yatesbury. Mr. Morres says that it is not common
in his district near Salisbury ; but that it has been recognised at
Mere and Stourton, and near Warminster.

55. WILLOW WARBLER (Sylvia trochilus).

This is by far the most abundant of the genus, and may be
seen in every plantation and hedgerow, but chiefly in meadows
intersected with streams and watercourses which give birth to
osiers and willows, for amongst these it delights to revel. In
addition to the points of difference mentioned above, it far

* Mr. C. A. Wright's ' Birds of Malta/ in Ilia for 1864, p. 70.


164 Silviadce.

surpasses its congeners in song ; indeed, so sweet and musical arc
its notes, as to give it the sobriquet of the ' Warbling Pettychaps,'
and 'Melodious Willow Wren/ Gilbert White says it has a
'joyous, easy, laughing note; it is constantly in motion, flitting
from branch to branch, in search of the smaller insects that con-
stitute its food: for this and its congeners are perpetually em-
ployed in the destruction of Aphides or insect blight, which are
so injurious to our fruit and other trees, and sometimes threaten
to overwhelm them with their numbers; but little account is
taken by short-sighted man of the incalculable benefits which
these insect-eating birds confer upon him. All the Willow
Warblers live entirely on insect-diet, and never eat fruit or
berries, though they often frequent the fruit trees in search of
their insect prey. The specific name trochilus is given in the
B.O.TJ. Catalogue, as if 'a runner;' but if this is the correct
derivation, the name does not appear to be very happily chosen.
It is derived from rpiy^u, ' I run,' and is the same name as that
given by Herodotus to the Crocodile bird, the 'Spur-winged
Plover' (Charadrius spinosus), which was supposed to pick the
leeches from the open mouth of that formidable reptile. In
France it is from its singing powers known as Le Chant-re as
well as Bee-fin PouiUot ; in Sweden it is Lof-Sdnyare, ' Leaf
Warbler.' Why it is called 'Willow' Warbler is not quite ap-
parent, though for this several sufficient reasons may be found.
Perhaps, says Mr. Harting, from its partiality to willows and
the aphides which abound on them ; perhaps from its prevailing
green colour ; perhaps from its arrival as the willow is budding.*
From its domed or hooded nest, with a large hole at the side,
both this species and its congeners are sometimes known as
' Oven birds.'

56. CHIFF CHAFF (Silvia Itippolais).

This is one of our earliest spring arrivals, and may be readily
recognised on reaching us, for alone of its congeners it makes
its appearance early in April, sometimes even in the last week of

' Our Summer Migrants,' p. 25.

Chiff Chaff. 165

March ; indeed, next to the Wheatear, it is the earliest migrant
to tell us that spring is at hand. And, again, it may be distin-
guished by the peculiar monotonous song of two notes which it
begins to utter immediately on arrival, and which it continues
to repeat throughout the summer, and whence it derives its
name; ' Chiff Chaff/ 'Chip Chop,' 'Choice and Cheap/ 'Twit
Twit/ 'Fit Fit/ being some of the syllables which various
observers have applied to it, and which it continues to pour
forth incessantly, even in the bleakest and most boisterous
weather, from the top of some tall tree or leafless branch. It is
distinguished from its congeners in France by the title of Bee-fin
a poitrinejaune, and in Sweden as Gul-brostad Sdngare, 'Yellow
breasted Warbler/ Hippolais is derived by the B.O.U. Committee
from uro + Xaag, a name originally given by Aristotle to some
bird from its habit of creeping under stones. But Professor
Newton bestows* on it the specific name of Collubita, from
xoiJ.vGiffrfa, ' a money-changer/ a name given it by Vieillot,
because in some parts of Normandy it was called, from its note,
' Compteur d' argent.'

It is the smallest of the three species, and differs very little
from the last, but may always be distinguished by the dark
colour of its legs and feet, those of the Willow Warbler being of
a pale brown : it is much more familiar than its congeners, and
as it reaches us before the trees and hedges are in leaf, is more
frequently seen and better known. It is the ' Lesser Pettychaps'
of Gilbert White and Montagu, and in truth it does resemble,
though on a much smaller scale, the ' Greater Pettychaps/ as
they called the ' Garden Warbler.' It is a very sprightly and
active as well as hardy bird, and does not leave us till October,
being one of the last to depart as it was one of the first to arrive
here. It winters in Algeria, and Egypt and North Africa gene-
rally, assembling in countless multitudes, and spreading over the
cornfields and gardens until its short winter is past.

* Professor Newton in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. i.,
p. 442.

166 Silvia dee.

57. DARTFORD WARBLER (Melizophilus Dartfordiensis).

The name Melizophilus is explained by the compilers of the
B.O.U. list of British Birds to mean 'song-loving/ from ,*/./>>,
' I warble,' and p/Xg*;, ' I love ' ; and undatus, one of its accepted
specific names, as ' marked with waves/ undce. As to the
quality of its song, there is a wide difference of opinion, some
calling it harsh and unmusical, and some describing it as sweet
and plaintive ; but there is no question that it is prolonged and
almost incessant, so the 'song-lover' may apply sufficiently well.
But as to the ' wave-markings/ they must have reference, I sup-
pose, to the plumage, and these can belong only to the 'chestnut
brown chin, which in autumn is mottled with white undulations,
which disappear in spring ;'* but this seems but a feeble cause
for so pronounced a name. This pretty little warbler frequents
the downs and commons abounding in furze, in the thickest
parts of which it will conceal itself, and over which it will hover
on outstretched wing while it utters its short hurried note. It
is a hardy bird, and remains here throughout the year : its body
is very small, scarcely exceeding that of the common wren, but
its great length of tail gives it the appearance of superior bulk ;
the general colour of its plumage is dark brown above and
chestnut brown beneath. Mr. Withers informed me that some
years since, several of these birds were shot annually by Mr.
Edwards at Amesbury ; they were decoyed from the midst of the
bush wherein they concealed themselves by a certain noise made
by Mr. Edwards, when they rose to the top spray and were easily
killed. The Rev. G. Marsh was also informed by the man who pro-
cured the specimen in his collection, that by imitating their note
he could bring these birds to the top of the furze, and that he had
so killed three in one morning in the neighbourhood of Chippen-
ham. Mr. Baker sees them on the downs near Mere, where they are
almost certain to be roused from the gorse when the hounds are
drawing the cover ; and I have other instances before me of its

Professor Newton in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds ' vol. i ,
p. 404.

Golden-Crested Regains. 167

occurrence in Wiltshire, which is one of the counties given by
Professor Newton as its abode.* But, in truth, wherever there
are open downs or heaths covered with furze, there I suspect this
shy solitude-loving species will be found by the patient watcher.
Montagu, who devoted much attention to this bird, says, that
'when roosting at night, like the Long-tailed Titmouse, they
assembled with a plaintive cry at a convenient spot chosen for
the night, and then each strove for an inner berth.' By day, he
pronounced them most active, almost in perpetual motion,
throwing themselves into various attitudes and gesticulations,
erecting the crest and tail at intervals, accompanied by a double
or triple cry, which seemed to express the words, ' Cha, cha, cha.'
Buffon called it ' Le Pitchou de Provence ; and it was there and
in other districts of Southern France, more especially on the
shores of the Kiviera near Cannes, that I first became acquainted
with it, though I afterwards became very familiar with it in
other southern lands.

58. GOLDEN CRESTED REGULUS (Regulus cr-wtatus).

Regulus, the diminutive of rex, as if ( a little king,' or 'kinglet ;'
in France, Roitelet ; and Kungs Vogel, or ' King's Bird,' in
Sweden, in whose vast forests it abounds as far north as the pine-
woods grow ; in Italy, regolo; but in Portugal, estrellinha, ' little
star.' Well known to everyone is this charming little favourite,
the smallest and most fairy-like of all our British birds ; three
inches and a half only in length, and 75 grains in weight, yet it
braves the cold of winter, and remains with us throughout the
year. Its numbers, however, are considerably increased in
autumn by the arrival of large flocks on the Eastern coast, which

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 16 of 53)