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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counties it frequents, somewhat inconsistently says that it is
' generally found on the coast, and does not often appear to go
far inland ;' but here for once our grand-master in Ornithology
is at fault, and, indeed, ' quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus ;'
for in addition to many notices of its occurrence in all parts of
the county, north and south, from various observers on whose
accuracy I can rely, I have repeatedly watched it in several
localities which it regularly haunts, and have not only killed it,
but have found its nest in the neighbourhood of Devizes.

Only last summer, Mrs. Story Maskelyne informed me that it

was nesting in the gardens at Basset Down ; and in South Wilts

the Rev. A. P. Morres described it as widely scattered, though

not numerous, in the neighbourhood of Salisbury. Mr. Baker,

* Dyer's ' English Folk-lore,' p. 71.

1 92 Eniberizidce.

too, says it breeds annually at Mere, and that he has seen it for
the last twenty years in one particular spot, but has never met
with it in any other part of the parish. In habits it closely
follows the Yellow Bunting, which it also greatly resembles in
general appearance ; differing, however, sufficiently to be at once
distinguished from the commoner species, by the dark green top
of the head and throat, olive-green breast, and other marks.


By some authors these are styled Passerine birds or Sparrows :
with the exception of the bill (which is broad and concave, in-
stead of being narrow and furnished with a prominent knob) they
closely resemble the Buntings last described. The members of
this family are all of small size, and their characteristics are largo
head, short neck, and compact body; they are an active lively
race, gregarious in winter, for the most part granivorous, and
very abundant numerically as well as specifically: we have no-
less than eleven distinct species in this county, either as
residents or occasional visitants.

78. CHAFFINCH (FringUla ccekbs).

As common as the Sparrow, and as well known to everybody, is
this active handsome bird, flocking to our yards in winter, and
frequenting our meadows and woods in summer; but not so
generally known, perhaps, is the cause of its specific name
ccelebs, ' the Bachelor.' It arises from the separation of the sexes
into distinct flocks in the winter in northern countries, the
females migrating southward by themselves, and leaving the
males to club together, as bachelors best may, or to follow after
their truant wives at their leisure: on this account Linnaeus
named them codebes, and the name is not undeserved even in
these more southern latitudes; for the males and females
frequently divide into separate flocks in the winter, as good old
Gilbert White of Selborne long since pointed out, and as we may
verify for ourselves any winter.

Mountain Finch. 193

Its nest is a perfect marvel of artistic skill, most dexterously
put together, and then adorned with bits of lichen, applied with
.admirable ingenuity on the exterior. In France it is called
Pinson; in Spain, Pinzon ; in Portugal, Pim-pim; in Germany,
Gemeine Fink ; in Italy, Pinsione ; and in Southern Scandinavia,
where it is very abundant, Bo Fink; and in England it is
provincially known as Pink, Spink, and Twink, all having re-
ference to the sound of its call-note. In olden times the plaintive
note of the Chaffinch was interpreted as a sign of rain ; when,
therefore, the boys heard it, they first imitated it, and then
i-hymingly referred to the expected consequences :
'Weet, weet ! dreep, dreep !'

This is another undoubted benefactor to the agriculturist, for
during the summer it subsists and feeds its young almost entirely
on insects, and at other seasons devours the minute seeds of in-
numerable noxious weeds. Our English word 'Chaffinch,' says
Professor Skeat, is 'the finch that delights in chaff;' given to
it because it frequents our barndoors and stackyards.

79. MOUNTAIN FINCH (Fringilla montif ring ilia).
This pretty bird, called also the 'Brambling,' though not a
regular winter visitant, occurs so frequently as to be by no
means uncommon; I have notices of it from several parts of
Salisbury Plain, and Mr. B. Hayward told me it occurs on the
Lavington Downs occasionally in some numbers ; Mr. Withers
said it had often been killed near Devizes, and many of them
have passed through his hands ; and during 1858 I received a
fine specimen in the flesh from the Rev. F. Goddard, which was
killed March 10th at Sopworth, Malmesbury, and is now in my
collection*; and was very kindly offered another by the Rev. H.
Hare, which was killed at Bradford. Since then I have myself
shot it in my garden at Yatesbury, out of a small flock which
was occupying some larch trees, and the Rev. A. P. Morres
relates that in 1868 it visited the neighbourhood of Salisbury in
Chamber's ' Popular Rhymes.' p. 190.


94 Frinyillida'.

very large flocks, amounting to thousands; when forty were
killed at one shot, and six or seven dozen were trapped by a
birdcatcher in one day. Its visits here, however, are most
irregular, and several consecutive winters often elapse without
the arrival of a single individual. By the Maryborough College
Natural History Reports, I learn that flocks were seen in that
neighbourhood in January, 1871 ; that early in February, 1873,
vast numbers arrived, and were to be found all round the town,
when thirty-five were secured at a single shot ; that in December,
1875, they were again seen in large flocks on the farms bordering
on Marlborough Forest, and that in 1877 they were common on
the downs above Rockley. Lord Arundell mentions one that
had been brought to him which was killed at Wardour. Mr.
Grant has furnished me with a list of twenty-two which have
passed through his hands for preservation since 1863, which
were taken at Berwick Bassett, Netheravon, Keevil, Patney,
Roundway, Wedhampton, Collingbourne, Lavington, Allington,
All Cannings, and Bratton. Lord Radnor writes me word in
March of this year (1887) that he picked up one dead at Long-
ford ; while the Rev. A. P. Morres says they were common both
this year and last about Britford, and that seven were killed at
one shot in Longford Park. In the name Fringilla monti-
fringilla there is unnecessary repetition ; frlngilla is defined
to mean 'a bird that squeaks or twitters/ but 'the twitterer
mountain twitterer' is clumsy. In France it is Le Pinson
d' Ardennes; in Germany and Sweden, Bergfink ; in Italy,
Fringuello montanino ; in Spain, M octanes; and in Portugal,
Tentilhdo montez.

The Mountain Finch, when it appears here, is always found
associating with the Chaffinches, which it much resembles in
habits, but is conspicuous amongst them by its exceedingly
handsome plumage of black, white, and fawn-colour so mingled
as to form a pleasing contrast. Its true habitat is in the vast pine
forests of Northern Europe, where it breeds, not fearing to
penetrate to the far north, even to the woods which come down
to the borders of the Icy Sea ; and where it finds its favourite

House Sparrow. 195

birch-tree, which it selects in preference to all others for its
nursery. But on its return to more southern latitudes on the
approach of winter, the migratory flocks of this species assume
dimensions which seem to our unaccustomed eyes almost in-
credible ; for we read of columns a quarter of a mile long, and
fifteen yards broad ; and again of some hundred thousand
frequenting the foot of the Thuringerwald ; and again of six
hundred dozen being killed every night in Lorraine, on the ap-
pearance of a tiock in 1765 ; and as a climax, a flight of about
sixty million in Luxemburg in 1865 !* In quoting these numbers
I have no thought of disputing or doubting their accuracy, but I
would point out that living in an island, and in an inland county
in that island, we little know the amazing numbers in which
flocks of birds occasionally move.

80. HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus).

So well known to everybody that I need not say a word about
it, beyond calling attention to the extremely handsome plumage
of the cock-bird, which is often overlooked ; the colours, black,
gray, chestnut, and brown, blend with peculiar harmony; I
mean of course in our country specimens, for in favour of town
sparrows I have nothing to say, pert, ill-conditioned, dirty, and
grimed with soot as they are. Here, however, I would call at-
tention to the Sparrow Club, or the Sparrow Fund, which used to
exist in so many of our agricultural parishes in this county; and
in many of the Churchwardens' account-books may be seen, as
a considerable item of the Church-rate annually and for very
many years past, so many dozen Sparrows destroyed at so much
per dozen, the price varying according to the maturity or im-
maturity of the victims : Thus in an old Churchwarden's book,
belonging to my small parish, dating from above 100 years ago, I
see the items every year of from 20 to 90 dozen old Sparrows at
4 pence the dozen, and from 10 to 70 dozen young birds at 2
pence the dozen ; and these, with an occasional shilling for the

* Professor Newton in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii.,
p. 77.



capture of a fox, a groat for a polecat, and an occasional sixpence
given to a sailor, seem to have formed the principal part of the
church expenses of the good parish of Yatesbury for above 100
years so lightly did the Church-rate sit upon our forefathers !
and this continued to within forty years ago, when my pre-
decessor considered Sparrow-killing scarcely a legitimate Church
expense. Now I am not about to deny that Sparrows are mis-
chievous, or to inveigh against their destruction, which I suppose
to a certain extent is rendered necessary ; but I would observe,
first of all, that they are not wholly inimical to man, for (like
most, if not all, of their fellows) they feed their young altogether
on caterpillars and insects, as may readily be granted if we con-
sider how unfitted must be the callow young at that early stage
of their existence to digest seeds or corn. And again, I would
observe that the cause of their immoderate abundance is the
indiscriminate extermination of all our birds of prey, useful and
mischievous alike, at the hands of the gamekeepers and others ;
for I contend that, were Nature allowed to preserve her own
balance, we should not witness the extinction of one species and
the enormous increase of another, to the manifest injury of our
Fauna. And with reference to the foregoing remarks, before
taking leave of the above-named Churchwardens' accounts, I
would make two observations which strike me in perusing its
pages, viz., the great abundance of foxes, polecats, and such like
vermin, and the paucity of Sparrows 100 years ago, as compared
with later entries ; for whereas in the middle of the last century
4 foxes, 6 polecats, and 30 dozen Sparrows seem to have been the
annual tale of the slain, at the beginning of the present century
2 foxes, 1 polecat, and 60 dozen Sparrows form the average sum-
total. But the last entry recording such items, viz. A.D. LS40,
shows that whereas foxes and polecats are exterminated from
the parish, as far as their persecution by Church-rate is con-
cerned,, no less than 178 dozen Sparrows met with an untimely
end in that year ; proving that notwithstanding the persecution
raised against them, Sparrows still increase upon us, and have
enormously increased since the universal destruction of so many

Tree Sparrow. 197

of our birds of prey, for whose behoof they seem in great part to
have been provided.

In France it is known as Le Moineau, doubtless on account of
its apparent cowl; in Germany, as Haus Sperling; and in
Sweden, as Grd-Spink ; in Italy, Passer o ; in Spain, Gorrion or
'little pig;' and in Portugal, Pardal, 'the gray bird/ as in
Sweden. 'Our word Sparrow' says Professor Skeat, 'means
" flutterer," from spar, " to quiver," or " flutter." '

Before I take leave of the House Sparrow, I would relate an
anecdote of that bird communicated to me by Mr. James Waylen,
of Devizes. In 1785, in the days of lofty head-dresses, some
ladies and gentlemen were drinking tea in a garden in the Close
at Salisbury, when a Sparrow perched on the head of one of the
ladies, and then disappeared ; till after some time it was dis-
covered to have made the ladies' head its resting-place, un-
perceived and unfelt by the owner. The philosophical Editor of
the Salisbury Journal conjectured that it must be some love-
stricken spirit !

81. TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus).

In my former papers on the Ornithology of Wilts, I omitted
this species ; for at that time I did not feel sure of its presence
in the county. Subsequent observation has, however, enabled
me to add it to our list ; for I have myself seen it on more than
one occasion ; and others, both in North and South Wilts, have
recorded it from time to time. Still, though doubtless often
overlooked, it appears to me to be very local, and somewhat
capricious in its choice of abode. Nowhere, however, in Wilts is
it by any means common. In short, I believe it to be very
sparingly distributed over the Western Counties of England,
but little known in the neighbouring county of Somerset, and
scarcely if at all recognised in Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall.*
It is to be distinguished from the House Sparrow by its smaller
size, chocolate-coloured head, and triangular patch of black on the

* Cecil Smith's ' Birds of Somerset,' p. 184.

198 Fringillidce.

sides of the neck.* It is called ' Tree Sparrow' from its habit of
resorting for rest as well as for breeding purposes to trees apart
from the habitation of man, and montanus from its supposed
partiality for hilly districts. It does, however, on occasions
build in the thatch of a barn, in company with the House
Sparrow, but in such cases it has been observed, singularly
enough, to differ from its congener in its mode of entering the
nest, not from the inside of the building as does the species
with which we are most familiar, but by holes on the outside
of the thatch. In France it is distinguished as Le Friquet,
which I can only translate as ' the prig ;' in Germany, as Feld
Sperling; in Sweden, as Pit-Fink.

82. GREENFINCH (Coccothraustes chloris}.

Also extremely common throughout the county, and residing
with us the whole year, and easily distinguished from all others
by its olive-green dress tinged with yellow and gray. The
generic name Coccothraustes, from KOKKO^ + Qpavw, signifies
'berry-breaker,' which is no inappropriate designation of the
several species, armed as they all are with so powerful an
instrument for securing the kernels inclosed in hard envelopes.
Chloris aptly describes the yellowish-green, which is the pre-
vailing colour of the bird, from x\o>po9, ' green ;' and this has
been the origin of its name in all the Continental languages : in
France, Le Verdier; in Germany, Grunling; in Italy, Verdone;
in Sweden, Grdn-Flnk; in Spain, Verdon and Verderon ; in
Portugal, Verdilhdo.

It is a very pretty bird, and is sometimes styled the ' Green
Grosbeak,' from the large thick form of its bill ; this gives it
rather a clumsy appearance, and indeed in shape it is somewhat
heavy and compact, and has none of the elegance which dis-
tinguishes other members of its family. It can boast of no song,
and associates in winter with chaffinches and yellow buntings,
which congregate at that season in the stubble-field and rickyard.

* Harting's ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 82.

Hawfinch. 199

Greenfinches are in the habit of returning regularly to the same
evergreen shrubs in which they roost ; and Selby has pointed
out that, before they retire for the night, they quit the company
of their associates, and make many ringing flights round their
resting station. This, however, is not peculiar to this species
only, but is a habit common to several other kinds of birds.*

83. HAWFINCH (Coccothraustes vulgaris).

When once seen will not be confounded with any other species,
its large horny beak giving it a remarkable appearance ; and this
thickness of bill renders necessary a large size of head and a
stout neck, which give the bird a top-heavy clumsy look, making
the body and limbs seem disproportionately small. It occasion-
ally visits us in the winter, when it may be seen consuming
greedily the berries of the whitethorn ; the stones of which it
breaks with apparent ease by means of its strong and massive
bill ; and it is remarkable that while it feeds on the kernels of
plums, cherries, haws, etc., it rejects the pulpy fruit which sur-
rounds them. It is of most shy retiring habits, and hence
escapes general observation even where it is not uncommon : for
this is one of the very few species of our British birds which has
been of late years, by the testimony of those most qualified to
judge, decidedly on the increase. It has also of late been dis-
covered to remain and breed here in several localities, among
which favoured spots we have been enabled (through the diligence
of a member of Marlborough College) to include this county ;t
for Mr. Reginald Bosworth Smith informed us that 'it frequents
Savernake Forest, and nearly every spring three or four or even
five nests are met with ; they select the thickest hawthorn bushes,
-and build their nests close to the top, where they are quite con-
cealed.' In addition to this statement of its permanent residence
here, I have notices of its occurrence in 1845 near Devizes from
Mr. Elgar Sloper ; of its being frequently killed in North Wilts,
and brought to Mr. Withers for preservation ; of its appearance

* gee Zoologist, for 1857, p. 5681.

t Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 107.

200 Fringillidce.

near Salisbury in 1832 from Mr. Marsh ; and I have myself shot
it at Old Park, on the topmost spray of a copper beech in the
garden (as I before mentioned in this volume, p. 39). Of later
years Major Spicer wrote me word that a specimen in good
plumage was picked up dead in Spye Park in October, 1876 ;
Mr. Alexander informed me that one was killed by his gardener
at Westrop House in February, 1877. The Kev. G. Ottley re-
ported, and courteously sent for my inspection, one killed at
Luckington Rectory in December, 1878 ; and in the same month
the coachman at Old Park reported another specimen seen there
busily engaged with the berries in some hawthorn-bushes. Mr.
W. Stancomb, jun., has seen it at Bayntun ; Mr. G. Watson
Taylor reports that it frequently nests at Erlestoke ; Mr. Algernon
Neeld says that there are always a pair or two in the grounds at
Grittleton ; and Mr. Grant has furnished me with a list comprising
thirty specimens which have been killed in the neighbourhood
of Devizes, and have come into his hands for preservation. While
in the south of the county Lord Heytesbury reports one killed
in the water meadows on his estate, within the last four or five
years. Lord Arundell says a flight of male birds with reddish
heads and handsome plumage visited Wardour some time since.
Lord Nelson possesses a specimen killed at Trafalgar. Mr. W.
Wyndham says it is common at Dinton ; and in short, the Rev,
A. P. Morres says that though formerly looked upon as a rare
straggler in the neighbourhood of Salisbury, it has now become a
frequent visitor there, and gives evidence for belief that it occa-
sionally breeds in the district round Warminster. My friend the
Rev. G. S. Master, until lately Rector of West Dean, bore testi-
mony to their annual occurrence in his garden ; on one occasion,
in 1877, accompanied by a family of five young ones, where-
to the indignation of his gardener they attacked the peas with
much chattering and screeching, and committed no small havoc
in a very short time. So that when Mr. Seebohm says there is.
no authentic account of its breeding in the West of England,* I
think he is mistaken, for both North and South Wilts claim it as.
* British Birds/ vol. ii., p. 57.

Goldfinch. 201

a native of the county. In France it is simply Le Gros-bec :
but in Germany, Kirsch Kernbeisser, ' Cherry-stone Biter / in
Sweden, Sten-Kndck, ' Stone-breaker ;' and in Spain, Casca-nueces,.
1 Nut-breaker.'

Its general colour is reddish-brown, with black throat, and black
and white wings and tail; the largest wing-feathers have a
peculiar formation, and present the appearance of having been
clipped square at the ends with a pair of scissors ; they are glossy
black, with a white oblong spot on the inner webs, singularly
truncated at their points, or (as Yarrell says) ' formed like an
antique battle or billhook.' The beak in the living bird is of a
delicate rose-tint, which, however, quickly fades after death to a
dull yellow.

84. GOLDFINCH (Carduelis elegans).

This is one of the few birds which everybody knows, and
everybody appreciates : its bright gay plumage of brilliant colours,
its sprightly form, active habits, and sweetness of song rendering
it a great favourite : its scientific name well describes it, Carduelis,
from carduus, ' a thistle/ signifying the ' Thistle Finch/ and
surely a more elegant handsome bird does not exist. But a bird
so brilliantly clad and so much sought after was sure to receive
many provincial names at the hands of the birdcatchers, some
of which have been bestowed upon it in admiration, as ' Red-
cap' and ' King Harry ;' but others in derision, as ' Proud Tailor'
and ' Fool's Coat ;' young birds are sometimes designated ' Gray-
pates ' and ' Branchers/* The names by which it is known to
Continental naturalists are derived partly from the generic Car-
duelis, as in France Le Chardonneret, and in Germany Distel-
zeisig, both meaning ' Thistle Finch ; ' partly from the specific
name elegans, as in Spain Color in (' Bright-coloured'), and in
Portugal Milheira Galante (' Beauteous Linnet'). In Sweden it
is Steglits, and in Italy Calderello.

In my early days it was quite common throughout the county,
though never so abundant as to beget too great familiarity, which,
Fourth edition of Yarrell's 'British Birds/ vol. ii., pp. 118-124.

.202 Frinyillidcv.

we have seen with other species, is too apt to breed contempt
Towards winter it used to be seen in flocks ; and commons which
-abounded in thistles, or fields where those weeds ripened their
seed, were the haunts which it loved to frequent, and where it
made its choicest banquet.

I regret to say that, unlike the species last described, it is
rapidly diminishing in numbers with us, and within my own
memory is not nearly so abundant as when I was young ; but
this was inevitable, as every year has seen waste lands and
commons taken into cultivation, and thistle-beds done away.
Canon Goddard, who has always been a close observer of birds,
has called my special attention to this. He says : 'It is remark-
able how very rare the Goldfinch has become in North Wilts. It
cannot be that its food is deficient ; for it would naturally flourish
on agricultural distress, being a consumer of the seeds of weeds !
But I have not seen a Goldfinch here (Hilmarton) for several
years, and yet it formerly abounded here above measure, and it
is the most prolific of birds. An invalid parishioner, living in a
solitary cottage in this parish, some years ago, very late in the
year (I think in October), showed me a Goldfinch's nest on an
open branch of a larch fir in his garden ; and he said there were
four young ones in it, and it was the fourth family the parents
had reared that season, each family consisting of four young
birds.' But if getting very scarce, as I am afraid it is, through-
out England generally, and as it certainly is in Wiltshire, on tlio
Continent it is still common enough. Thus on the shores of the
Mediterranean its numbers are very great, and in France and
Italy, and the East, I have met with it in large flocks, but no-
where so abundant as in Portugal.

Professor Steenstrup, in some very interesting observations on
this species, called attention to the preference it showed for the
pith of willow, lime, and thorn boughs, and the mode in which
the bird procures it. This he described as being effected by
picking off the bud, and then stripping the bark, an operation
in which the bird's longicone beak is a very apt tool.*
* See Ibis, for 1866, p. 212.

Goldfinch. 203

I conclude my account of the Goldfinch with the following
observation from the pen of the Rev. G. Marsh, and which I
believe is perfectly sound, while the names of Mr. Marsh and Mr.
Dyson are sufficient proof that their observation is accurate and

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 19 of 53)