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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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 18 of 53)
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In France it is Bergeronnette printaniere or de printemps,
* Little Shepherdess of Spring.' In Germany, Gelbe Bachstelze ;
and in Sweden, Gul Aria, ' Yellow Wagtail.'


This is the last family of the tooth-billed tribe, and it forms an
excellent connecting link between the soft-billed insect-eaters
and the hard-billed grain-consumers. In many respects allied
to the Wagtails last described, in others nearly resembling the
Larks, the first family of the Conirostral tribe, it is, however, a
true soft-billed race, and subsists entirely on insects.

The Anthidse derive their name from Anthus, known in
mythology as the son of Autonous and Hippodameia, who was
torn to pieces by his father's horses, and was metamorphosed into
a bird, which imitated the neighing, but always fled from the
sight of a horse.f

69. TREE PIPIT (Anthus arboreus).

This is a summer visitor, and though far from common, may
be seen in most woodland districts : it is by far the most beautiful

Mr. Wright's < Birds of Malta,' in Ibis for 1864, p. 62.
t B.O.U. ' List of BritLh Birds,' p. 32.


180 Anthidce.

of the genus, and the sweetest songster ; and has a habit of rising
above the top of some tall tree, and singing with outstretched
wings on its descent. In colour it very much resembles the larks ;
is somewhat larger than its congener next to be described, from
which it differs in the stronger and broader bill, and in the short
and hooked hind claw ; also its gait on the ground is a slow walk,
while the 'Meadow Pipit' runs after the manner of the Wagtails.
It is notorious that the eggs of this species differ very much,
both in general colour and in markings ; but Mr. Seebohm says
that those in each cluster are alike ; and that it is more probable
that each bird lays a peculiar type, which it has inherited from
its parents, and transmitted to its offspring.* It is like its
more numerous and indigenous congener A. pratensis often
called the ' Titlark ;' and Mr. Knox reports that it is styled by
the Brighton birdcatchers the 'Real Titlark/ to distinguish it
from its fellow.f Oil the Continent it derives its name, as with
us, from the trees in which it dwells ; in France it is Pipit dcs
buissons ; in Germany, Baumpieper ; and in Sweden, Trad-

70. MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensia).

Yery common, especially on our furze-clad downs, where it
remains the whole year, though it will occasionally assemble in
flocks, and haunts stubble and turnip-fields in winter. ^Ir.
Cordeaux says that in Yorkshire the resident birds receive large
additions to their number in early spring by the arrival of
migratory flocks ; and that they are the first of the little spring-
visitors whose cheery note is so welcome in the bleak marshes,
where they arrive early in March, usually preceding the less
hardy Pied Wagtail by a full fortnight.^ But in truth it will
brave very severe weather, for it has been met with in abundance
in Northern Lapland and even on the highest fjall moors of
Scandinavia, to which it resorts in summer to breed ; and when
autumn comes with its icy blasts, warning all strangers to retire,

' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 222.

t * Birds of Sussex,' p. 203.

J ' Birds of the Hcmber/ p. 44.

Meadow Pipit. 181

it is the last of the smaller migratory birds that takes its depar-
ture for the south.* In Ireland and Scotland it is known as the

* Titling' and 'Moss-cheeper,' the latter in allusion to the moss
and peat covered ground in which it delights, and also to its
call-note. In the northern counties of England it is called the

* Ling Bird,' again from its partiality for the moors ; but in most
places it is generally known as the Titlark. It sings in the air
as it descends to the earth, as its cousin the Tree Pipit does in
descending to some lofty tree-top ; it is a quiet, unobtrusive
bird, builds its nest on the ground, and is very frequently the
foster-parent of the young cuckoo : its hind toe is furnished with
an elongated and straightened claw ; its- bill is slender; it warbles
rather than sings ; and its flight consists in short jerks. The
Rev. G. Marsh said that its scent is so strong that pointers com-
monly mistake it for the partridge indeed, much more frequently
than they do the skylark.

In France, as in England, it is known under many names, as
Pipit Farlouse and le Cujelier, and I'Alouette des Pr<?s; in
Germany, it is Wiesenpieper ; and in Sweden, Ang-Pipldrka. In
Spain and Portugal, as is so often the case in those countries,
the several species are not recognised; but all the Pipits in
Spain are called Cinceta, and in Portugal Sombria and Cia.

This closes the list of the tooth-billed perchers resident in or
visiting Wiltshire.

* Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 304.


INSESSORES (Perchers).
CONIROSTRES (Cone-lilled).

WE come now to the second great division of the Perching birds ;
and having examined all those whose soft notched bill proclaims
the insect nature of their food, we have arrived at those exhibit-
ing a harder and more conical-shaped beak, bespeaking at once
that grain forms the principal part of their diet. As we proceed
with the families of this tribe, we shall see this typical charac-
teristic develop itself more and more, till we come to some species
armed with such strong sharp-pointed beaks as to be enabled
to break the very stoutest seeds and even the stones of many
fruits, as well as to pierce the hard ground, in search of food ;
but, as I before pointed out, nature makes no rapid strides from
one distinct kind to another, but only gradually and step by
step leads us on ; thus, insensibly as it were, and through many
connecting links, joining together genera and species, the most
opposite to one another in appearance and habits.


We cannot have a better proof of what I have just said than
in the family we now proceed to consider, standing at the head
of the Conirostral tribe, and bearing so great an affinity in many
respects to the last family of the Dentirostres, viz., the Pipits :
for the Larks, though to a certain extent grain-consumers, yet
feed on insects as well ; and though they have a short strong
bill, yet it is styled by Selby and Yarrell Subconic, rather than
conical, proving the exact position they hold.

Skylark. 183

Alauda is said to be a Celtic word, meaning 'great songstress/
from al, ' high' or ' great/ and and, ' a song.' Hence is derived
the French Alouette (B.O.U.). Our English word 'lark* is a
contraction of ' lavrock/ meaning ' a crafty worker/ ' a worker of
ill/ and the name points to some superstition, now forgotten,
which regarded the bird as of ill- omen [Skeat].

71. SKYLARK (Alauda arvensis).

Intimately associated in the minds of all with blue sky, bright
sunshine, open down, and aerial music, is the very name of this
favourite songster. All its motions betoken such excessive
happiness in unconstrained liberty, such intense appreciation of
freedom, as it mounts upwards higher and higher, and soaring
into the clouds, pours forth such strains as ravish mortals below,
that it is positively painful to see it incarcerated in a cage, and
to reflect how its heart must throb, and how intensely it must
pine to burst its prison bars and soar away out of sight of its
persecutors, singing a hymn of gladness and gratitude at its
escape. It remains with us the whole year, and is essentially
one of our down birds, preferring open arable lands to more
inclosed districts ; towards autumn it associates in flocks and
frequents stubble and turnip fields. Its food consists of seeds of
all kinds, as well as insects of various sorts ; and the benefit it
confers on the agriculturist in this wholesale destruction of
noxious weeds and insects is incalculable. But notwithstanding
this, it is killed in astonishing numbers for the table in England
France, Italy, and especially Germany. In the London markets
alone, in 1854, 400,000 are said to have been sold, 20,000 or
30,000 having been often sent together. There can be little
doubt that over the western half of Europe the Skylark must be
the most numerous bird, as from a commercial point of view it is
one of the most valuable.* In France it is Alouette des champs,
and in Germany Feldlerche, which are simply translations of
arvensis ; but in Sweden it is Sang Larka, ' Song-Lark ;' and in

Professor Newton in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. i.,
p. 622.

184 Alaudidce.

Italy A llodola, ' the one who gives praise.' In Spain, on the con-
trary, it is Zurriaga, ' the scourge which inflicts punishment/

It never perches on trees, but walks or runs on the ground
very swiftly, which it is enabled to do by means of the very long
straight hind claw, which gives it a firm footing on the ground.
In the north of England the country people have a curious
notion that, if you are desirous of knowing what the lark says,
you must lie down on your back in the field and listen, and you
will then hear him say :

* Up in the lift go we,
Tehee, tehee, tehee, tehee !
There's not a shoemaker on the earth
Can make a shoe to me, to me !
Why so, why so, why so ?
Because my heel is as long as my toe.'

Elsewhere its song is described by a more ambitious poet :

* Ecce ! swim tirili, tirili, tirilirlirl tractim
Candida per vemum cantat alauda solum.'

It sings in descending as well as in ascending and while hover-
ing in the air; and anon, as some fright or sudden impulse
seizes it, down it will come like a stone to the earth and away
amongst the corn to its nest, but only to soar upwards again
presently, rising on quivering wing almost perpendicularly, and
singing more merrily than before ; and we may hear it carolling
away long after we have lost sight of the rapidly diminishing
speck retreating into the clouds, for ' Excelsior ' is ever the motto
of this aspiring bird. Montagu says ' the Field or Meadow Lark
is nowhere so plentiful as in the north of Wiltshire,' and I am
happy to report that the account he gave some fourscore years
ago still holds good. It is still one of our most abundant, as
well as one of our most charming, birds, scattered over the broad
tracts of corn-land, and as plentiful on Salisbury Plain as in
North Wilts. The same author remarks that they are seen in
Egypt about Cairo in autumn in incredible numbers, and are
supposed to come there from Barbary. In Egypt they are called
As/our Djebali, or ' Mountain Birds.'

c Dyer's ' English Folk-lore,' p. 75.

Wood-Lark. 185

72. WOOD-LARK (Alauda arborea).

In France, Alouette lulu ; in Germany, Baumlerche ; in Sweden,
Trad Ldrka, ' Tree Lark ;' in Malta, CiuJdaita, or ' Rattle ;' in
Portugal, Cotovia pequena, 'the Lesser Lark.' Very like its
congener, but considerably smaller, with, a shorter tail, and a
white line over the eye and round the back of the head, this
species is sparingly scattered through the county, frequenting
woods, as its name implies, and singing sweetly while perched
on some tree as well as while sailing about on the wing : indeed,
it has generally the reputation of excelling the Skylark in song,
though I am scarcely willing to allow this. Montagu was the
first to call attention to the fact that, with the hedge warbler,
redbreast, missel thrush, and throstle, it will frequently sing in
frosty weather after Christmas if the weather is bright in midday,
and, he adds, all these birds are early breeders. It is a permanent
resident with us, and in food and nesting closely resembles the
preceding. I have before me many notes of its occurrence from
various localities both in North and South Wilts, proving that it
is generally distributed throughout the county. Mr. Morres
relates what, I think, is very unusual, that a flock of sixty was
seen in a wheat stubble near Lord Nelson's seat at Trafalgar, and
that nine of them were caught by a bird-catcher.


Members of this family may at once be distinguished from all
others by a hard, bony, oblong knob in the upper mandible,
which is narrow and smaller than the lower one. They are
somewhat clumsy in form, with large heads and short necks, and
heavy in flight ; they eat grain and seeds in the winter, but in
the summer insects and their larvse form no small portion of
their food. Our English word 'Bunting' means, according to
Professor Skeat, ' one that pokes his head forward,' the old word
luntin signifying ' short,' ' thick,' ' plump,' which is sufficiently
descriptive of the short neck of members of this family.

186 Emberizidce.

73. SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophanes nivalis).

This native of northern regions, known in Sweden as Sad-
Sparf t ' Snow Sparrow;' in France, Bi*uant de Neige; in Germany,
Schneeammer ; in Italy, Ortolano Nivola, seldom comes so far
south as Wiltshire, though it appears pretty regularly every
winter on our eastern and northern coasts, and I have met with
it in considerable numbers on the shores of the Wash, in Norfolk.
At that season, however, its plumage is reddish-brown above and
dull white beneath, and so much do individuals vary from one
another in hue as well as in the distribution of their colours,
that they have often been erroneously divided into several
species, receiving the sobriquet of ' Tawny ' and ' Mountain *
Bunting, according to their sex and age and garb ; but it is in
summer plumage and in the extreme north that this bird is to
be seen in perfection, arrayed in its attractive dress of deep black
and pure white, and haunting the highest and most desolate
fjelds of Scandinavia. And there I have been so fortunate as to
meet with it on several occasions, now flitting from one lichen-
covered rock to another, now running quickly the snow,
seeming to delight in those wild inhospitable regions, so con-
genial to its habits, but so little to the taste of most members of
the animal kingdom. Though it strays southwards in winter, it
returns regularly in spring within the Arctic Circle to breed in
very high latitudes ; and touching tales have been told of the
extravagant delight and wild excitement of the crews of ice-bound
vessels who had passed the long dreary months of winter, fast
frozen in during some Arctic expedition caused by the ap-
pearance of the first Snow Bunting, which was seen fluttering
about among the hummocks, uttering its sweet and plaintive
chirp, which to them was the most pleasing music they had
heard for many a long day. No wonder the sudden appearance
among them of this little visitor was so interesting, for it was the
first bird they had seen for nine long months. Even the in-
valids, as they lay on the sledges, requested that they might
have their faces uncovered, so as both to see and hear the little

Snow Bunting 187'

friend that had flown off to them, as if it were a messenger to-
welcome the ship's crew back to life and friends.* Other
Arctic voyagers have also spoken with enthusiasm of the arrival
of this harbinger of spring, and recounted how the despondent,
homesick sailors were cheered by the pleasant twitter of this,
welcome visitor.-f- And Major Fielden found a nest in Grinnel
Land above lat. 82 J ; indeed, it is not known that any bird
breeds farther north than this thoroughly Arctic species.

I have never seen it in this county, but I learnt from Mr..
Withers that it has been occasionally killed in various localities,
and brought to him for preservation ; and Mr. Elgar Sloper, of
Devizes, informs me that he has seen several which had been,
killed on Salisbury Plain. The Kev. A. P. Morres records its occur-
rence now and then in very hard winters near Salisbury ; two-
having been seen near Grately in 1868, associating with a large-
flock of Bramblings; one killed at BrixtonDeverill and one at Mere
some years since. I should therefore describe it as an occasional
and not very infrequent straggler, though by no means a regular
winter visitant here.

It is sometimes called the 'Snow-flake,' and Saxby writes,
' Seen against a dark hillside or a lowering sky, a flock of these
birds presents an exceedingly beautiful appearance ; and it may
then be seen how aptly the term ' Snow-flake' has been applied
to the species. I am acquainted with no more pleasing combina-
tion of sight and sound than that afforded when a cloud of these
birds, backed by a dark gray sky, descends as it were in a shower
to the ground, to the music of their own sweet tinkling notes.!
The meaning of the generic name Plectrophanes is given in the-
B.O.U. list as ' Spur-showing,' from 7r\rJKTpov, ' a spur,' and $awto f
' I show.' Temminck, too, classes it in a distinct section of the
Emberizidoe, which he calls Bruants eperroniers, ( Spurred

* ' The Great Frozen Sea,' a personal narrative of the voyage of the-
Alert during the Arctic expedition of 1875-6, by Captain Albert Hastings
Markham, R.N.

f Nordenskiold, ' Arctic Voyages in 1858-1879,' pp. 51, 218-265.

J Professor Newton's fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds, 1 vol. ii.,.
p. 7.

188 Emlerizidce.

Buntings/ though I cannot find that he assigns any reason for
the name.

74. COMMON BUNTING (Embcriza miliaria}.

Though extremely common, especially in the vast tracts of
arable land on our downs, this bird, from its great similarity of
plumage to the Skylark, is seldom recognised by ordinary ob-
. servers ; and yet its more bulky shape and heavier gait and more
awkward flight should at once distinguish it from its more
sprightly companion. It has little or no song, but may be seen
perched on the topmost spray of some low hedge, uttering its
somewhat harsh screaming note. It is the largest of the family,
and remains with us throughout the year; but though some are
undoubtedly resident, their ranks are augmented every year by
the arrival of large flocks of migrants. 'During the pairing
season,' says Professor Nilsson, 'it flies in a totally different
manner to what it does at other times. Its legs hang down, it
elevates its wings, and moves them rapidly, and thus gradually
drags itself, as it were, from one elevation to another. Again,'
he remarks, ' it never leaves the open line of country where it
once appears, and never flies over a forest.' This is in allusion to
its summer habits in Sweden ; for here, when frost and snow ap-
pear, it congregates in flocks with Finches and Sparrows, and
seeks the shelter and the food which the rickyard offers. The
specific name miliaria simply signifies * feeder on millet,' an un-
fortunate title, which might, with equal propriety, have been
given to any other of the genus. Nor is our ' Corn' or ' Common
Bunting,' or ' Bunting Lark,' nor the Scandinavian name Korn
8parf, ' Corn Sparrow/ more happy. In Leicestershire both this
and the Yellow Bunting are called ' Writing Larks/ from the
strange markings of the nature of scribbling, perhaps by the pen
of an Arab, on their peculiar eggs.* In Sussex it is known as
the ' Clod Bird/ from its habit of perching on a projecting clod of
turf or clay in a stubble or fallow field, while it utters its
monotonous note.f In France it is le Proyer or Bruant Prayer ;

Zoologist for 1885, p. 466. t Knox, ' Birds of Sussex/ pp. 132, 205.

Blackheaded Bunting. 189'

in Germany, Grauammer ; in Spain (where it is pronounced by
Howard Saunders to be ' the most abundant bird in Andalusia,""
and the ' number of it brought into the markets to equal that of
all the larks, sparrows, and thrushes put together'), it is known
as Ti'iguero, ' Corn-merchant.'

75. BLACK-HEADED BUNTING (Emberiza schcenidus).

Called also the Reed Bunting from the localities it frequents,,
and the Reed Sparrow from its general resemblance to our
common House Sparrow. In Sweden, Sdf Sparf or ' Sedge
Sparrow;' in France, Bruant de rosean ; in Germany, Rohr-
ammer ; and its scientific name schceniclas is also derived from
the Greek a^o/vo:, ' a rush or reed.' This bright handsome bird
may be met with sparingly wherever there is water ; indeed, I
have often seen it frequenting a dry ditch, and have found its-
nest at some distance from the nearest stream : it delights,
however, in moist wet places, abounding in sedge and reeds and
coarse grass, and here you may generally see its black head
standing out in contrast with its white collar.

Harting says that he has seen it, when in pursuit of food,,
walk into the water, like a true wader, until the water reached
above the tarsus.* It is resident with us throughout the year,
but (as with so many of our residents) its numbers are reinforced
in winter by arrivals from abroad. In winter the male loses its-
black head, and comes forth in March bright in nuptial array.
It is notorious for the clever manoeuvres it displays in alluring
the intruder from its nest, just as the Lapwing, and the
Partridge, and some others do, shuffling along on the ground,
trailing its wings, or dragging its leg as if broken, and all to
entice the unwelcome visitor from dangerous proximity to its

76. YELLOW BUNTING (Emberiza citrinetta).

Well known to everybody as the Yellow Hammer, though here
we have an instance of a general error so universally propagated
' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 76.

190 Emberizidce.

that any effort to correct it would seem almost hopeless : yet in
truth Yellow Ammer is the correct word, ammer being the
German term for Bunting, which is undoubtedly meant by the
generic name we ordinarily employ, prefixing an unnecessary
and meaningless H, after the manner of certain of our provincial
countrymen.* The Yellow Bunting may be met with in every
hedge and wood during the summer, when it feeds its young
entirely, and itself subsists -mainly, on caterpillars and insects of
various sorts ; and in autumn consumes the seeds of weeds to a
very large extent, in all of which it proves itself the farmer's best
friend. In winter it may be seen in flocks on the bushes and in
the open fields, occasionally resorting to the stackyard in severe
weather ; and a very beautiful bird it is, with golden-yellow head
.and chestnut and yellow plumage, and highly would it be prized
were it not so common : but alas ! with birds as with human
beings, we are apt to overlook the brightest and best, if they are
ever before our eyes, whereas we highly prize and bestow
abundant attention on the inferior and less deserving, if only
occasionally seen by us.

The specific name Citrinella appears to me a somewhat far-
fetched adjective, and, moreover, one which fails to describe
what it would portray ; for under this diminutive, as if from ' a
little Citron,' or 'coloured like a little Citron/ who would
recognise the brilliant yellow of this handsome species, the
Bruant jaune of France ; the Gul Sparf, or ' Yellow Sparrow/
of Sweden ; and the Goldammer of Germany ?

In the northern parts of England it has by some mischance
incurred the superstitious dislike of the peasantry, and is
commonly known as the 'Devil's Bird.' For it is currently
believed that it drinks a drop, some say three drops, of the
devil's blood, every May morning, or, as others affirm, every
Monday morning. It is therefore much persecuted, and its nest

* Professor Newton in his fourth edition of Tan-ell's ' British Birds ' has
a learned note on this subject, and adduces the high authority of Mr. Skeat
to prove that the prefix H was not added by inadvertence by our old English
ornithologists. I cannot, however, honestly say that I am convinced, but I
refer my readers to the passage, vol. ii., pp. 43, 44.

Cirl Bunting. 191

receives less mercy than that of almost any other bird; while
the boys address it in the following rhyme of reproach :

' Half a puddock, half a toad,

Half a yallow yorling ;
Drink a drap o' the deil's blood
Every May morning.'*

77. CIRL BUNTING (Emberiza cirlus).

The specific name Cirlus is, we are told, derived from the
Italian Zirlare, 'to chirp.' In Germany it is known as Zirl-
ammer ; in France, as Bruant Zizi ; and in Italy, as Zivolo or
Zigolo, all bearing the same signification. But in the north of
Portugal, where Mr. Tait says it is by far the commonest of the
Buntings, it is called Escrevedeira, 'the Scribbler/ from the
markings on the eggs, as I mentioned above.

Montagu first discovered this species in 1800, on the coast of
Devonshire, and after much patient watching and careful
examination of its habits, after the usual manner of that most
accurate and painstaking inquirer, recorded the result of his
observations in the ' Transactions of the Linnsean Society.' Selby
hazarded the assertion that it was only to be found on the coast
of Devon. Yarrell too, though he gives Wiltshire as one of the

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 18 of 53)