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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reach our shores from Scandinavia early in October, and hence
the little bird is known in Yorkshire as the ' W T oodcock Pilot.'f
as it seems to lead the way to that species, so eagerly expected
by the sportsman and the epicure. It is almost inconceivable

* Professor Newton in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. i.,
p. 399.

t Cordeaux's ' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 37.



168 ^ Siluiadcv.

how these delicate and fragile-looking creatures can accomplish
so long and weary a flight over so rough and stormy a sea as a
passage over the North Sea in autumn generally is, as I know
by experience ; but that they do manage it cannot be doubted,
as they have been repeatedly watched both on passage and on
arrival. It prefers fir plantations, but may be seen in hedgerows
and gardens ; it is incessant in motion, hopping from branch to
branch, now clinging to the under boughs of the firs with back
downwards, in search of its insect food wherein it closely resem-
bles the titmice, with which it often associates now hovering
over a twig or flower, suspended in the air, and fluttering its
wings, and all the while singing melodiously; wherein it re-
sembles the little warblers last described, and so forming a link
between the two families. Its colours are brownish-green and
greenish-yellow, while its head is ornamented with a stripe of
long silky feathers, yellow tipped with orange, forming a golden
crown. It abounds in this county, as I know by personal
observation, and it sometimes breeds in my garden, suspending
its nest below the bough of a yew-tree. There is another species,
of whose occurrence in Wilts I have no certain tidings, with
which it may easily be confounded, known as the ' Fire-crested
Regulus,' or 'Firecrest' (Regulus ignicapillus). It may, how-
ever, on examination be distinguished ; for, as Mr. Harting con-
cisely points out, ' The Firecrest invariably has a white line both
above and below the eye, and a black line running through tho
eye. Hence Temminck calls it Roitelet a triple bandeau. These
three lines are absent in the Goldcrest.'*

PARIM: (THE TITMICE).

Exceedingly interesting are all the members of this pert, active
family, ever restless, creeping and running and flitting from
bough to bough in quest of insect food, careless whether they
are hanging beneath or climbing along, or running up or down
the branch; hardy too, for they are all permanent residents
* ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 5G.



Great Titmouse.

here, chattering, and bold and familiar and pugnacious withaL
There are no better friends to the gardener than the bold
Titmice which we see around us, so constantly employed in
searching for spiders, earwigs, woodlice, and all manner of
destructive insects, which they hunt for among the leaves and
pick out from the crevices of the bark as they run over the
branches. The original sense of the word Tit (says Professor
Skeat) is merely something small, as titlark, 'little lark;' tit-
mouse, t little mouse,' etc. The genus Parus contains in all
seven species, of which five are to be found abundantly in Wilt-
shire, the remaining two the ' Crested Tit ' (Parus cristatus)
and the 'Bearded Tit' (Parus biarmicus) being of very rare
occurrence in England, and no instance having reached me of
the appearance of either of them in this county.

59. GREAT TITMOUSE (Parus major).

First in point of size, and therefore at the head of the family,
stands this well-known bird, whose peculiar markings and well-
contrasted colours render it unmistakable. The black head,
white cheeks, and yellow breast, parted down the middle by
a broad black stripe, distinguish it at once from all others.
The Great Tit is to be found in every wooded district, and
it clears the buds and leaves of trees from an incredible
number of insects ; but it loves fruit as well, and being some-
what bold, fierce, and bloodthirsty, will occasionally vary its
diet with the flesh of some bird which it has done to death
with its sharp beak, and whose bones it picks with wonderful
skill. In Sweden it is known as Kiod Meise, or the 'Meat
Titmouse,' from its penchant for scraps of meat where it can
iind them, a taste which it shares with other members of the
family. In that country, as in England, during summer it
frequents woods and coppices; but in the autumn it collects
about the houses, ' to live amongst people/ as the peasants
express it : and when it comes to their dwellings, and, as they
say, picltar Jcittet af ylassn, ' picks the putty from the windows/



170 Paridcc.

the near approach of winter may be confidently expected.* Its
note is a loud cheep, followed by a harsh chatter ; but in spring
and early summer this changes to a curious see-saw note, not
unlike the sound produced by sharpening a saw with a file
hence in some parts of England it is known as the ' Sawsharper.'
These notes are very loud for so small a bird, and may be heard
at a great distance.-)- This species is noted for the strange
places it will sometimes select for its nest. In my garden at
Yatesbury it has for several consecutive years selected a spot
within a bee-house, just outside one of the bee-boxes, containing
a hive of bees in full activity : and here it piles up an extra-
ordinary mass of moss and cowhair, and on the top it places its
soft nest of feathers, and has hitherto always been fortunate in
bringing off its brood in safety ; but whether or no the bees
always escape, and whether they approve as a neighbour so
determined a persecutor of the insect race, is not quite so
apparent. In France it is La Grosse Mesange, or Charbonuiere ;
in Spain and Portugal, Carbonero, all with the meaning of
' Charcoal-burner.' In Italy it is Cinciallegra maggwre, and in
Germany Kohlmeise. In Portugal, however, where it is very
abundant, it is more correctly known as Cedovem. Mr. Tait
says that in that country it begins to sing its peculiar note in
February, and, according to the country people, seems to say,
Semeia linho, semeia linho * Sow flax, sow flax ' indicating that
the time has come for that seed. They believe that when the
bird sings much it is a sign of an abundant harvest, and that it
also says, Tudo bem, tudo bem ' All's well, all's well.' He remarks
also that it is the only species which he has observed eating the
procession caterpillar, the hairs of which are well known to be
highly irritant to the human skin, and Par us major must there-
fore have a strong throat, gizzard, and stomach. J

* Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 306.

t Harting's ' Sketches of Bird Life/ p. 89.

J Mr. W. C. Tait on the ' Birds of Portugal/ Ibis for 1887, p. 183.



Blue Titmouse. 171

60. BLUE TITMOUSE (Parus cceruleus).

Commonly called the 'Tom Tit,' and as well known by its
blue cap and pert appearance as by its lively active habits.
Like the Great Tit, its efforts are directed not against the buds
and blossoms, with which it is so often charged, but against
the larvse and eggs of the insect tribe, which are therein
deposited in incredible quantities, and which these useful little
birds seek out and consume. It is, for its size, the most
bold and pugnacious of the feathered race, and will attack
and sometimes kill birds much larger and heavier than itself.
It is known to village boys as ' Billy Biter,' from the severe
bite or pinch with which it will punish the fingers of the
incautious lad who seeks to take its nest from the hole of some
tree. In Norfolk it is popularly called ' Pick-cheese.' The Blue
Tit is remarkable even among the Titmice for the singular and
even grotesque attitudes it assumes in seeking its insect prey,
now hanging head downwards, now scrambling underneath a decid
branch, as if it were walking on a ceiling, and with its tiny but
strong bill chipping off a fragment of the loose dead bark.* In
France it is Mesange bleue ; in Germany, Blaumeise ; in Sweden,
Bld-mes, equivalent to our ' Blue Titmouse ;' but in Italy it is
Cinciallegra piccola, and in Portugal Cedovem pequeno, as it
were Parus minor. It is so constantly before our eyes that I
need say no more of its appearance or habits,

61. COAL TITMOUSE (Parus ater).

Not so common as the two last species, but generally dis-
tributed, and of similar habits. It closely resembles in appear-
ance the Marsh Tit, next to be described, both having black
heads, white cheeks, and grayish olive- green backs ; but the
Coal Titmouse may at once be recognised by the irregular white
patch at the back of its neck, which is totally wanting in the
Marsh Tit. In France it is called Mesange petite Charbonniere,
the Great Tit bearing the title of Mesange Charbonniere; in
* ' Gamekeeper at Home,' p. 79.



172 Paridw.

Sweden, where it braves the severe winter and does not seem
affected by the intense cold, it is known as Svart Mes. Professor
Newton has pointed out that in like manner (and as the specific
name ater indicates), ' Coal,' and not ' Cole/ Titmouse is the correct
English name. In Germany it is Tanne Meise, ' Fir-tree Tit-
mouse;' in Spain, Herrerillo, 'Little Blacksmith.'

62. MARSH TITMOUSE (Pams palustris).

The specific name points out the localities which this Tit
frequents. I should say it is not so common in this county as
the last at least, I have not met with it quite so often ; but
wherever there is moist ground, and alders and willows flourish,
there it may frequently be seen. Mr. Cecil Smith says that he
has seen it busily engaged in eating the berries of the honey-
suckle, occasionally picking one off and holding it in its claw like
the parrot, while it was getting out all the edible parts.* It
makes its nest in holes and sometimes in the scrubby heads of old
pollard willows. In Germany it is, as with us, Sumpfmefa, the
' Marsh Titmouse ;' in France, from its sombre dress and black
hood, La Nonnette, ' the Little Nun ;' in Italy, CinoiaUegra
cinerea ; and in Spain it shares, with the species last described,
the name Herrerillo.

63. LONG-TAILED TITMOUSE (Parus caudatus).
This very ball of feathers with a long tail is common in all
woods, and may be found in hedgerows, but rarely visits our
gardens. Its body is scarcely bigger than that of the ' Golden-
Crested Eegulus,' but its very long tail and its habit of puffing
out its feathers give it an appearance of greater size than it
really possesses. Its beautiful oval nest, so cleverly formed of
moss and wool, coated with lichen and lined with feathers, is
the greatest marvel of the kind we possess in this country, and
in this snug cradle it will rear twelve or more young ; and in the
winter months you may see the whole family, including the
parents, flitting with undulating movements from tree to tree
'Birds of Somersetshire,' p. 128.



Long -tailed Titmouse. 173

lience deriving the specific name vagans attributed to it by some
authors following in a long line, and keeping up a shrill and
incessant cry of Twit twit, and anon hanging in an inverted
position from the ends of the small twigs while in search of
insect food. Montagu relates that he once observed a brood of
twelve on a July evening as it became dusk, apparently very
restless, when, on the utterance of a single note by one, and as
instantaneously repeated by the whole, they assembled in a
moment and huddled on a branch so close together as to appear
like a ball of down.* The specific name seems in all languages
to refer to its long tail, as caudatus, and our own ' Long-tailed
Tit.' In France it is Mesange a longue queue; in Germany,
.Schwanzmeise ; in Italy, Codibugnolo ; in Holland, Staartmees ;
and in Sweden, Stjert Mes. It is sometimes called provincially
1 Bottle Tit ' and ' Bottle Tom ' from the shape of its nest, and in
this county is generally styled ' Huckmuck,' a truly Wiltshire
word, the derivation of which I cannot fathom.

AMPELID/E (WAXWINGS).

Of the family of Fruit-eaters we have but one single example
occurring in England ; their characteristics are short bill but
wide gape, enabling them to swallow whole the large berries
and fruits on which they feed ; and short legs and feet formed
for perching, as they are never seen on the ground. The mean-
ing of the family name Ampelidce is really 'fruit-eaters,' or,
literally, birds which frequent a//^/^, ' the vine.' The single
species visiting us is styled the

64. BOHEMIAN WAXWING (Bombycilla garrula).

Called also the ' Silktail,' and ' Chatterer ;' it is a winter
visitant, and though it occasionally conies in some numbers, it is
by no means regular or periodical in its arrival ; an interval of
several years often elapsing between its visits. It is recorded by
Ray to have appeared in this country in large flocks in the
winter of 1685 ; Gilbert White records its visit in 1767 ; Bewick
' Ornithological Dictionary,' Supplement.



174 Ampelidce.

in 1790, 1791 ; Selby in 1810, 1822, and 1823 ; Yarreli in 1830,
1831, 1834, and 1835 ; and Professor Newton that while scarcely
a year passes without the arrival of some individuals, the winters,
of 1830-31, 1834-35, 1849-50, and 1866-67 were remarkable for
the numerous occurrences of this species. Subsequently to this,
they have appeared in force in the winters of 1N72-73, and in
1882-83. Its true habitat is Northern Asia and the North-
eastern parts of Europe, where thirty years since Mr. Wolley
discovered its nest and eggs, which up to that time were un-
known to science. I happened to be in Paris when I heard that
this discovery of 1856 had been followed up in 1858 by the
taking by Mr. Wolley and his collectors of no less than 150-
nests, containing 666 eggs ; and soon after, chancing to call on
the well-known naturalist, M. Parzudaki, I communicated ta
him this interesting piece of bird news, and never shall I forget
the passion into which he worked himself, the mixture of envy,
vexation, and indignation, not unmixed with admiration, with
which this hot-tempered but enthusiastic ornithologist received
the intelligence, as he marched up and down the room, shrugging
his shoulders and throwing up his arms as he exclaimed over
and over again : ' Six cent soixant six, six cent soixant six,' the
real cause of his fury being that Mr. Wolley at this time declined
to sell any of these eggs, but sent them all to England, and none
were to be had by M. Parzudaki and his friends in Paris.*

It is a handsome, gay bird, of a cinnamon- brown colour, tinged
with red ; the feathers on the head are long and silky in texture,
forming a crest : but the peculiarity from which it takes its name
consists in its having on the tips of the wing quill-feathers, littlo
flat scarlet horny appendages, exactly resembling drops of red
sealing-wax ; the tail-feathers are tipped with pale yellow. The-
specific name, garrula, and one of its common sobriquets,
* Chatterer/ would seem to proclaim it at once as of noisy habits -
but this, Professor Newton points out, is by no means the case>.

* For a most interesting and detailed report of the breeding of the Wax wing
see Ibis for 1861, pp. 92-106 ; and Ibis for 1862, p. 295. Also Professor
Newton in fourth edition of Terrell's * British Birds,' vol. i., pp. 528-533.



Bohemian Waxwing. 175

for, on the contrary, it is a remarkably silent bird ; but it was so
called from its likeness to that notorious chatterer, the Jay,
(Garrulus glandarius). For the same reason it is known in
France as Grand Jaseur, ' Great Chatterer.' But in Sweden and
Germany, where it is better known, it derives its name from the
red, horny, or parchment-like appendages the existence of
which, so says Lloyd, seems to have been somewhat overlooked
by English naturalists but which, as the bird advances in years,
make their appearance at the extremity of the yellow at the end
of the tail-feathers ; and these increase annually in size and
number. It is only, continues Lloyd, when these red excres-
cences are fully developed that the Waxwing can lay claim to
its present pretensions that of being the most beautiful of all
Scandinavian birds. Hence the generic name Bombycilla,
* silky tail,' and the Swedish Siden svans, and the German
Seidenschivanz. Its natural food appears to be the berries of
the hawthorn, juniper, and mountain-ash; and it usually asso-
ciates in flocks. I was told in Norway that this bird visits that
country also at irregular periods, many years sometimes elapsing
between its visits. It was as abundant throughout Scandinavia
in 1850 as it was here. I have many notices of its occurrence
in this county. The Rev. G. Marsh has seen it in the woods at
Winterslow, and stated that a pair were killed in Clarendon Park
in 1820. Mr. Withers told me that many were killed at Potterne
in 1850. The Rev. H. Hare, of Bradford, sent me notice of one
killed in his field December 7th, 1857, while engaged in picking
hawberries from a hedge. Colonel Ward saw one in his garden
at Castle House, Calne, in the month of February, about 1865.
The late Mr. Butler, of Kennett, a very careful observer of birds,
told me he had seen a party of five or six of this beautiful
species in some trees in his neighbourhood about I860. The.
Rev. A. P. Morres records one shot by Mr. Fussle at Corsley x
about two miles from Warminster, and brought to Mr. King, of
that town, for preservation about forty years ago ; and the Marl-
borough College Reports speak of one observed at Draycot in
1864.



176 MotacillidoB.

MOTACILLIM) (THE WAGTAILS).

Graceful and elegant are the epithets best suited to this
family, as everybody will confess who has watched their engaging
manners, running along the grass-plots, darting by the streams,
xind ever flirting their long tails, which alone seem to preserve
their equilibrium, as they hurry this side and that, and seem in
danger of losing their balance ; and this perpetual fanning
motion of the tail, which is never still, and is so characteristic
of the members of this family, has been wisely applied to desig-
nate them ; the Latin Motacillidce, as well as the English
counterpart, signifying * tail-movers/ as indeed they \ are p-:ir
excellence. They are of slender form and very active, the lightest
and most buoyant of birds ; and as most of them remain with us
during the winter, they are doubly valued and doubly welcome.

65. PIED WAGTAIL (Motacilla Yarrellii).

No one can be ignorant of this very common bird, with its
parti- coloured dress of black and white ; its food consists of
insects which it finds in running over the grass or on the margins
of streams and lakes, in the shallow waters of which it will wade
in search of its tiny prey. Gilbert White also long ago called
attention to its habit, which we may constantly verify, of running
close up to feeding cows, in order to avail itself of the flies that
settle on their legs, and other insects roused by the trampling of
their feet. Though some are resident in Great Britain through-
out the year, there is no doubt that this is one of the birds
which partially migrate from the high, cold, bleak uplands to
the sheltered valley or the coast. Moreover, it is certain that
large numbers arrive in spring from beyond sea, and recruit our
home birds. Indeed, indigenous though it is, this is one of the
first spring arrivals which I anxiously look for on the downs,
nor is it till the severity of winter is past that I am able to
welcome this harbinger of a more genial season to my upland
home, for a pair of these pretty birds return every year to rear
their young in a rose-tree trained against my house. Thoj-c



Pied Wagtail. 177

that remain in England through the winter generally join the
Pipits in resorting to turnip-fields, where they find shelter and
minute slugs, as well as insect food. In Scandinavia, where they
never pass the winter, their appearance in spring about the time
the ice is breaking up is anxiously looked for, and the bird is
known as Is-spjdrna, literally, the 'Kicker away of the Ice.'
Elsewhere in Sweden it is known as Kok Aria, or the ' Clod
Wagtail/ because it is so constantly seen among the clods in the
new-ploughed fields. There is, moreover, a saying in some parts
of the country that if the farmer commences ploughing either
before the coming or departure of the Wagtail, success will not
attend his endeavours.* In Egypt, where it is very common, it
is figured in the hieroglyphic legends as ' the type of an impure
or wicked person;' and is still called there Aboo Fussad, or the
' Father of Corruption,' though why it should be a bird of bad
omen does not so readily appear.*f- The name by which it is
generally known in Wiltshire is ' Dishwasher/ and in France La
Lavandiere, and in Spain Lavandera, ' Washerwoman ;' but in
Germany Bachstelze, ' Brook- trotter/

66. GREY WAGTAIL (Motacilla boarula).

By no means common, but yet generally, though sparingly,
dispersed, and to be found in most localities. It is even more
graceful and slender, and has a still longer tail than the last.
Its prevailing colours are slate-gray above and bright yellow
below, with black throat, wings, and tail. It is less sociable and
familiar than its pied relative, and is, in short, of solitary habits,
and seeks secluded spots where it may live undisturbed, haunt-
ing the margins of streams, which it seldom leaves. In allusion
to the localities it frequents, the Maltese call it Zadak ta del,
' Wagtail of shady places/ Why it should be dubbed melanope,
or ' black-faced/ as it is by some of our best ornithologists, I am
at a loss to know, though doubtless they have some good reason

Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 302.

f Dr. A. L. Adams on the 'Birds of Egypt and Nubia,' mills for 186i,
p. 21.

12



178 Motacillidce.

for such title. Is it possible that the black throat which it
exhibits in the breeding season should give rise to the name ?
In Scotland it is known as the ' Seed-bird,' because it arrives at
the season when in those more northern latitudes farmers are
sowing their land. In Wiltshire it remains, though sparingly,
throughout the year ; and this is one of the few South- Western
Counties enumerated where it has been known to breed. In
France it is Bergeronnette jaune, ' Yellow little Shepherdess' ;
Gul Aria, ' Yellow Wagtail/ in Sweden.

67. GRAY-HEADED WAGTAIL (Motacilla negkcta).

This species is rarely met with in England, perhaps I should
say is rarely recognised, for it bears so close a resemblance to
M. flava, next to be described, which is extremely common every-
where, that it is difficult to distinguish between them without
very close and minute examination ; and so, in all probability, it
is very often overlooked. A careful observer will, however, notice
that it has a white line over the eyes, and a white chin, both of
which in Ray's Wagtail are yellow ; and that it has a gray head,
which in M. flava is light olive. In habits and manners it differs
nothing from its congeners.

I place it with the utmost confidence in the Wiltshire list, on
the authority of the Rev. G. Marsh, who possessed a specimen
killed at Marshfield, near Chippenham, in October, 1841. The
Rev. A. P. Morres, though he cannot speak positively, thinks he
has seen it in the water meadows at Britford. Mr. Norwood
reports that he saw a pair near the South- Western station at
Salisbury, and Mr. Baker killed a bird at Mere, which he con-
sidered to belong to this species, but of which some doubts were
afterwards entertained.

68. RAY'S WAGTAIL (Motacilla flava}.

This is our common Yellow Wagtail, which flocks here every
summer, and leaves us in the autumn ; it frequents open planta-
tions and arable land, and fields of sprouting wheat, as well as
meadows, open downs, and sheep pastures, and does not seem so



Ray's Wagtail. 179

dependent on the neighbourhood of water as its congeners. It
has a shorter tail, and is altogether less graceful in form than the
Gray Wagtail ; but in colour it is more brilliant, and of a more
pronounced yellow than that bird, the olive-green of its upper
plumage partaking of the yellow tinge which is so bright and
clear below. It was called Raii, in honour of John Ray, the
friend of Willughby, and one of the pioneers of British ornitho-
logy, who flourished about two hundred years ago. In some
places it is called the ' Barley Bird,' and in others the ' Oatseed
Bird,' from its arrival being coincident with the spring sowing of
those two species of grain. In Malta, on arriving on migration in
flocks, these birds are caught in nets, and kept in shops and
houses for the purpose of killing flies,* with which that island is
infested in summer, and none but those who have experienced it
can conceive what an intolerable nuisance the plague of flies is.



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 17 of 53)