Alfred Charles Smith.

The birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county online

. (page 20 of 53)
Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 20 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


not the result of any hastily formed opinion or conjecture. Mr.
Marsh writes thus : 'In the spring of 1851 Rev. F. Dyson first
told me that there was a bird which birdcatchers call the " Chevil "
Goldfinch, quite different from the common Goldfinch, and the
only bird that will breed with the common Canary. On the 1st
of June I went with him to see one of these birds paired with
a canary ; it was certainly different from the common bird,
the red feathers not continuing under the chin ; it was a very
fine bird, and the birdcatcher (one Fisher, of Cricklade) told
me they were always the leading birds of the flock/ This
opinion, which I printed in 1860, has been amply corroborated
by the Rev. A. P. Morres, who said there is no doubt at all
about there being two distinct species of these birds recognised
by the birdcatchers of his district, one of whom said, ' We
call the bigger sort " three-pound-tenners" amongst ourselves,
and they are quite different from the others. You can distin-
guish them readily by the largeness of the white spot on the end
of the quill-feathers of the wing, and also by their white throat,
and the bigger black crescent, which comes much further round
the side of the face, and they are of a more slender shape alto-
gether than the others. They are worth more because they will
breed more readily with the canary than the smaller kind, though
the latter will do so sometimes.' Another bird-fancier said that
he knew the two birds well, and that they called the bigger sort
'the Chevil' or ' Chevril.'* Professor Newton, however, main-
tains that it is not a distinct species, but only a variety,t and
Montagu referred to it in his day as a variety, under the name of
' Cheverel,' but it is hard to say where a variety ends and a species
begins.

* Wiltshire Archceological and Natural History Magazine, vol. xviii.,
pp. 291, 292.

f Fourth edition of Yarrell ; s 'British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 124.



204 Fringillidce.

85. 'SISKIN' (Garduelis spinus).

Better known in this country as a cage-bird, mated with the
canary, than in its wild state. It is, however, by no means a rare,
or scarcely an occasional visitant, some appearing amongst us
almost every year, and sometimes in great numbers, consorting
with Linnets and Redpoles, as Mr. Withers, of Devizes, testified.
It is a native of northern latitudes, and generally visits us in the
winter, when it may be seen clinging to the alder trees, the seeds
of which it especially loves. Willoughby, indeed, said that in
his day it was known as the ' Barley Bird,' because it arrived at
the time of barley-sowing. But this is contrary to modern ex-
perience, for the flocks which occasionally visit us certainly
appear in the autumn or early winter. The Rev. A. P. Morres,
however, gives it as his opinion that at times some will remain
throughout the year, and that it occasionally breeds in his dis-
trict, a birdcatcher in his parish having trapped, in July, 1871, a
party of seven, two of which were old birds and five evidently
young, and he had reason to believe that they also bred in the
neighbouring parish of Nunton. Lord Arundell has known it
brought in to him at Wardour ; Mr. Grant has had specimens
taken at Rowde and the outskirts of Devizes ; and the Rev. A. P.
Morres informs me that in February of this year (1887) Dr.
Blackmore saw a flock of eight birds on the birch-trees in the
Museum gardens at Salisbury.

Though somewhat short and thick, it is by no means a clumsy
bird ; on the contrary, it is exceedingly graceful, and most rest-
less, resembling the Titmice in its almost incessant motions and
the variety of its attitudes. Its plumage is a mixture of green
and yellow, the former predominating ; it is also known as the
'Aberdevine.' In Sweden it is called Gron Siske, and in the
south of the country abounds in winter as well as in summer,
but resorts to the large pine forests for preference, where it
breeds. In France it is Le Tarin ; in Germany, Erlenzeisig,
* alder-finch ;' in Spain, Lubano ; and in Portugal, Vanario da
Franca. Spinus, says the B.O.U. Committee, is derived from



Common Linnet. 205

, ' I chirp shrilly/ and was the name given to a small bird
commonly eaten at Athens, from its shrill piping cry. Siskin says
Professor Skeat, is a Swedish word meaning 'chirper' or ' piper/

86. COMMON LINNET (Linota cannabina).

Extremely numerous throughout this county, more particularly
on our downs, where they congregate in autumn in large flocks.
In summer the old birds assume a red breast and red forehead,
but this is only a nuptial plumage, which they lose when the
breeding season is over, exchanging it for the more sober brown
in which they are commonly arrayed. This change of dress
caused much confusion among our earlier ornithologists, who
mistook the bird in summer and winter plumage for two distinct
species, and they named the former the Redpole, the latter the
Gray Linnet ; and this was another error which our countryman
Montagu was the first to discover and rectify. It is a joyous
gentle bird, quite harmless, and a sweet songster ; and (Yarrell
informs us) derives its name Linota, 'laLinotte/ 'Linnet,' from
its partiality to the seeds of the various species of flax (linum) ;
from whence also comes Cannabina, which has the same
signification, from Kawdftis, 'flax' or 'hemp;' and in Sweden,
Hdmpling. This is another species which, within my experience,
is sensibly and even rapidly diminishing in numbers, in con-
sequence of the waste places and commons, where thistles
and weeds luxuriated, and which were its favourite haunts,
having been now brought into cultivation. In France it is
La grande Linotte de vignes ; in Germany, Bluthaw fling ; in
Sweden, Hdmpling; in Italy, Montanello maggiore ; and in
Spain, Camacho.

87. TWITE (Linota montana).

1 did not include this species in my former papers on the
Ornithology of Wilts, for the sufficient reason that I was not
then convinced of its occurrence within the county. Now, how-
ever, I gladly admit it, on the evidence of the Rev. A. P. Morres,
of whose practical acquaintance with the birds of his locality L



206 Fringillidce.

have already made so much use, and shall continue to do so
throughout this volume. He says that, though very little known
or noticed amongst us, it is occasionally seen, and visits us, as
he believes, at any rate in the winter, annually. The birdcatcher
in his parish, before mentioned, knows the bird well, and has
sometimes trapped them, taking three or four in a day, and has
caught them at Odstock Pond and at Wittsbury Down, during
the months of August and September. Mr. Baker said that
they are not unfrequently met with on Mere Downs, and thought
it probable that they occasionally bred there ; to which conclu-
sion he was led by receiving a pair from a neighbouring bird-
catcher early in the autumn of 1870. It is of more slender and
elegant appearance than the Common Linnet, and this is in
great measure due to the greater length of its tail ; it is also to-
be distinguished by its yellow beak, whence one of its common
scientific names, flavirostris, and that by which it is recognised
in Sweden, Gul-nabbad Fink, or ' Yellow-beaked Finch.' Gene-
rally it passes the summer months in the northern parts of
Scandinavia, where it frequents the lower regions, and especially
delights in the boulders and stones at the foot of the fjelds. At
no season does it put on the red breast and head for which its
congeners are so conspicuous in the breeding season ; but at all
times the male has the rump of a reddish hue. It derives the
name * Twite' from its note, and that of ' Mountain Linnet' from
the localities it prefers. In general appearance and habits, mode
of feeding, and flight, it resembles the Common Linnet ; indeed,
at a little distance it requires a very practised eye to distinguish
between them. In France it is La Linotte de monlagne, and in
Germany, Arktische Fink, from the high latitudes to which it
resorts for breeding, as well as Gelbschnabliche Fink, from the
yellow beak mentioned above.

88. LESSER REDPOLE (Linota linaria).
This is not a common bird in our southern county, though
abundant farther north. It inhabits the pine forests of Scandi-
navia, and is seldom seen here but in winter. For breeding



Lesser Redpole. 20T

purposes, the main body of this species extends its migration
into the far north, even to the shores of the Icy Sea ; and is
chiefly seen in Sweden on passage to and from its nesting-places.
Some, however, remain in the pine forests of that country to-
breed, as indeed they do occasionally in Scotland and even in
the north of England. Mr. Withers, however, informed me that
he occasionally received one to preserve ; and Mr. Elgar Sloper
had a female in his collection that was killed at Rowde on its
nest in May, 1850. The Rev. A. P. Morres speaks of it as occa-
sionally visiting the neighbourhood of Salisbury ; and Mr. Baker
says it is to be found in small flocks on the downs near Mere,
both in summer and winter ; while Mr. King, bird-preserver at
Wai-minster, asserts that he has known instances of its breeding
in that locality ; but as none of these opinions as to its nesting
in Wilts have been corroborated by the production of the speci-
men, they must not be too readily accepted, more especially when
we consider that the species in question has congeners which
undoubtedly breed here, of such very close resemblance to it
in general appearance and colour and habits, that mistakes
might easily occur. I have also information that the eggs of
this species have been taken at Castle Combe by Mr. Watkins,
agent to Mr. Lowndes, and again near Maiiborough.* In France
it is Le Cabaret and Sizerin ; in Germany, Bergzeisig ; in Italy,
Montanello minore. The specific name, linaria, is simply
another form of linota, and with the same meaning, ' belonging
to flax or hemp.' It is a very small bird with bright plumage,
and closely resembles the Siskin in all its habits and motions ;
hence the name by which it is known in Scandinavia, Grd Siska,
while the true Siskin (C. spinus) is known as Grou Siska. Like
the true Siskin, it will also hang with its back downwards at the
extremity of the smaller branches of the birch and alder, and
assume a variety of constrained attitudes in its earnest endea-
vours to reach its favourite seeds ; in all which it also reminds
us of the family of Titmice.

* See ' Reports of Marlborough College Natural History Society ' for
18GG, p. Ill ; and for 1878, p. 94.



:208 Fringillidce.

89. BULLFINCH (Fyrrhula vulgar is).

The scientific name, Pyrrhula, is said to signify ' a red or fine-
coloured bird/ which will describe its general hue sufficiently
well ; but it has also been interpreted as meaning ' fine- coloured
tail,' from irvppos, 'the colour of flame,' and ovpa, 'a tail' (B.O.U.);
anything remarkable, however, in the colour of the tail the bird
does not possess.* ' Bullfinch' doubtless means 'large Finch/
just as a 'Bullfrog 'is a large frog, and a 'Bullrnsh'a large
species of rush. In Sweden it is known as Domherre, and in
Norway as Dompap; both Swedish and Norwegian designations
mean ' a Canon of the Church.' ' Perhaps so called/ says quaint
old Pontoppidan, ' for its melodious voice, resembling an organ,
though not loud enough to fill the choir of a cathedral where
the canons sing their Hone. 1 In France it is known as Le
Bouvreuil ; in Germany, Rothburstujer Gimpel ; in Italy, as
Ciufolotto ; and in Portugal, as Pisco chilreiro, ' Chirping-finch/
and Cardeal, ' Cardinal/ from its red dress. Handsome as this
bird is, and sweet as is its song, I fear we must confess it to be
one of the most mischievous of the feathered race, for the buds
of fruit trees are unhappily its favourite food ; and so well can
it ply its strong parrot-shaped beak, that in an incredibly short
time it will strip a tree of all its fruit-bearing buds, and therefore
of all prospect of fruit. It is on this account most hateful to
gardeners in early spring, at which season alone it has the
courage to come so near human habitations, for it is essentially
a shy, timid, retiring bird, and loves the depths of dark woods,
and the thickest of hedges for its retreat. Indeed, excepting in
spring, it feeds on the seeds of weeds, and supports its young
with caterpillars and insects ; and it should not be forgotten
that during by far the larger portion of the year it is conferring
benefits on man. It is sparingly distributed throughout the
county, and its plumage is too well known to require comment.

' List of British Birds/ by Committee of B.O.U., p. 56.



Common Crossbill. 209

90. COMMON CROSSBILL (Loxid curvirostra).

Very eccentric in the periods of its visits here, no less than in
the formation of its beak, is this truly singular bird. It is a
denizen of northern latitudes, and though an interval of many
years frequently elapses between its visits, it will occasionally
arrive here in considerable numbers, when it frequents larch and
fir plantations. And it is in extracting the seeds from the fir-cones
that its remarkable beak (which at first sight appears a de-
formity) is so useful ; this is of great strength, as are also the
muscles of the head and neck, enabling it to work the mandibles
laterally with extraordinary power (this being the only British
bird which exhibits any lateral motion of the mandibles) : these
are both curved, and at the points overlap one another con-
siderably ; and when the bird holds a fir-cone in its foot, after
the manner of the parrots, and 'opening its bill so far as to
bring the points together, slips it in this position under the hard
scales of the cone, the crossing points force out the scale, and the
seed which lies below it is easily secured.'* An old writer of
Queen Elizabeth's time quoted by Yarrell says of it : ' It came
about harvest, a little bigger than a sparrow, which had bills
thwarted crosswise at the end, and with these it would cut an
apple in two at one snap, eating onely the kernel; and they
made a great spoil among the apples.' Hence it gained the
name of 'Shell-apple' in some localities. The scientific word
Loxia is from the Greek >.&go?, 'awry/ or 'crosswise,' which is
applicable enough. When first hatched, and even while the
young bird remains in the nest, there is no crossing of the beak
to be discerned ; both mandibles being perfectly straight, and
only assuming the crossed position when the bird ceases to be
immature. In Sweden it is called Mindre-Kors Ndbb, or 'Lesser
Crossbill,' to distinguish it from its supposed larger relative, the
' Parrot Crossbill,' which is called in Scandinavia Storre-Kors
Ndbb, 'Greater Crossbill'; but modern ornithologists do not
generally allow that these so-called species are distinct. In

* Monthly Packet, ' Our Feathered Neighbours,' vol. xi., p. 274.

14



210 Fringillidce.

France it is Le Bee croisd; in Germany, Fichten Kreuzschnabel,
'Pine Crossbill;' in Spain, Pico-tuerto, 'twisted beak,' and in
Portugal Cruzabico.

I have many notices of its occurrence in almost all parts of the
county ; suffice it to say that some years since they frequented the
larch plantations at Old Park in considerable numbers. Mr.
Marsh saw some trees in his garden at Sutton Benger covered
with them in 1838, and relates that the keeper at Brinkworth
killed fifteen at a shot. In South Wilts Mr. Baker records that
a large flock visited Mere in the winter of 1868; Mr. King of
Warminster had many brought to him from Stourton about
1873 ; Mr. T. Powell of Hurdcott reports that they frequented a
plantation of Scotch and spruce fir there, some time back ; and
the Kev. A. P. Morres has numerous notices of their appearance
from time to time in the neighbourhood of Salisbury. The
'Marlborough College Natural History Reports' mention a flock
at Martinsell in 1866, and some seen in 1870. Major Henea^c
has a specimen, considered from its large size to be a Parrot
Crossbill, which was shot at Compton Basse tt in 1868. Lord
Methuen informs me that it has been seen at Corsham Court .
Mrs. Story Maskelyne recollects its appearance at Basset Down
some winters back ; and Mr. Grant received half a dozen in the
winter of 1868, when it was generally abundant in England.

In plumage scarcely two specimens in a large flock are alike,
so variously are its colours distributed, for while some old males
are nearly crimson all over, others are of a lighter shade of red,
and others again in a mottled garb of green, red, orange, and
brown. Its legs, though short, are very strong, and it will climb
and swing from branch to branch, taking firm hold with its long
hooked claws ; it is very active too, and lively in its manners, and
remarkably fearless and confiding.

STURNID^E (THE STARLINGS).

This is an interesting family, the members of it so pert and
lively, and with so many amusing habits ; they are very sociable,
and usually move in large flocks; omnivorous, for nothing seems



Common Starling. 211

to come ainiss to their appetite ; and perfectly harmless, so much
so as to have excited but little enmity and little persecution from
man.

91. COMMON STARLING (Sturnus vuLgaritt).

This is one of our most constant companions, frequenting the
roofs of our houses for nesting purposes, marching about our
lawns and gardens all day in search of worms, wheeling about on
rapid wing in small companies around us, and otherwise de-
meaning itself as an innocent harmless bird should do, its mens
conscia rectl giving it confidence, and demanding its protection,
or at least comparative freedom from molestation, at the hands
of man. Moreover, it lends its gratuitous services to the shepherd,
.and may often be seen perched on the sheep's back, giving its
friendly aid to rid them of their troublesome parasites. In.
Sweden it is looked upon I know not why with a sort of
veneration, and, in common with the stork, is protected, and
rash indeed, and dead to all sense of shame, must he be who
would molest a Starling in that country. In the desert of North
Africa, on the other hand, where vast flocks resort in winter to
the date forests, and do incalculable damage to the ripe fruit,
they are destroyed by thousands. Moreover, they are highly
prized by the Arabs as excellent food ; but notwithstanding such
wholesale and continual destruction, there seems to be no appre-
ciable diminution of its numbers till the date crop is gathered
and spring commences, when not a straggler remains in Africa.*
In like manner in the Azores, when vines were more cultivated,
it was relentlessly destroyed, as it was accused of feeding on the
grapes.f Professor New'ton says that in England a very great
increase in numbers of this species has been going on for some
years past. J The English name Starling, which is the diminutive
of Stare, the German Staar, the French Etorneau, the Spanish
Estornino, and the Portuguese Estorninho, are all derived from

* Canon Tristram, in Ibis for 1859, p. 293.
f P. Grodman, in Ibis for 18G6, p. 98.

Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 231.

142



212 Sturnidcv.

the same root as Sturnus, which means the ' twittering bird/
Though at a little distance of dull sombre dress, it will on
examination be found to possess a remarkably bright burnished
plumage, composed of long narrow silky black feathers, shining
with metallic tints of green, blue, and purple, and each garnished
with a triangular white spot at the tip. As autumn approaches
these birds congregate in vast multitudes in certain favoured
spots towards evening, arriving in flights of forty or fifty, till
many thousands and even millions are collected, and forming
quite a cloud they whirl through the air as if guided by one
impulse ; now ascending high, then wheeling round, descending
with a roar of rushing wings, till they almost brush the earth in
their rapid course, and finally down they glide into the planta-
tion or reed-bed which they have selected for their roosting-
place. And then such a hubbub of voices ensues, such chattering
and such scolding, each apparently anxious to secure the best
berth for the night ; but if a gun should chance to be fired, or
anything else occur to startle them, away goes the whole flock in
a dense cloud, with a roar which would astonish those who have
not previously seen and heard them. Such a roosting-place exists
on the Lavington Downs, at New Copse ; and here I am informed
by Mr. Stratton, of Gore Cross, that these birds flock in thousands
and tens of thousands, and he adds that it is curious to observe
their tactics when a hawk appears for as the hawk prepares for
the fatal pounce, they collect into balls or compact flocks, and so
baffle their enemy, which immediately ascends higher for another
swoop, meanwhile the Starlings hurry along towards some place
of shelter, but ball again as the hawk prepares to make a second
dash. Another favoured haunt of the Starlings is a wood in the
parish of Nettleton, near Chippenham, where, I am informed,
* one thousand were killed a few years since by thirty discharges
from a single-barrelled gun at one time ' a piece of wanton
cruelty only outdone by the massacre which Colonel Hawker
records, how he slew many hundreds of Starlings at a single shot
from his long gun in the reeds near Lymington, in Hampshire.
In the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire this habit of



Rose-coloured Pastor. 213

roosting in masses is productive of considerable mischief to the
reed-beds, which are of great value, the vast numbers settling
on the same reed bearing it down and breaking it with the un-
wonted weight ; and even plantations and copses sometimes
suffer a certain amount of damage from a similar destruction of
the leading branches of the young trees. Canon Jackson informs
me that one of these enormous colonies of Starlings had been for
many years alloAved without disturbance to roost nightly in one
of the late Mr. Neeld's plantations alongside the public way (the
Foss Road) at Duriley, near ' The Elm and Ash,' about two miles
from Grittleton ; but in April, 1850, the keeper, whose cottage
was only a few yards off, having had occasion one night to take
a few of the birds prisoners for some shooting practice the next
day, the whole colony resented the breach of hospitality, and
suddenly left the place altogether. It was then found that they
had entirely spoiled the young trees and laurel shrubs on about
one acre of the plantation ; but, to make up for the damage,
had bequeathed a valuable deposit of guano, of which no less
than sixty loads were hauled away. The Rev. A. P. Morres
reports that there is another great Starling roost in Odstock
Copse in his neighbourhood, near Salisbury.



92. ROSE-COLOURED PASTOR (Pastor roseus}.

This very beautiful bird is extremely rare in England, a few
stragglers only having occasionally appeared ; it is a native of
the hottest parts of Asia and Africa, but migrates northward in
summer, and is sparingly scattered throughout the southern
countries of Europe every year, the outskirts of the army some-
times penetrating so far north as Britain. The first instance I
adduce of its undoubted occurrence in Wiltshire was in 1853
end of July or beginning of August when a specimen was killed
by a shepherd on Salisbury Plain, near Wilton, and is now in
the possession of the Rev. G. Powell, of Sutton Veny, who
informed me that it was quite alone when shot, feeding on the
ground. Another as I learnt from Canon Eddrup was shot



214 Sturnidce.

in 1868 in the parish of Bremhill, at a small farm at the bottom
of Bencroft Hill. A third was observed in the gardens of
Bannerdown House with a companion, and remained for some
days near Box, and was shot under Kingsdown, and is now in the
collection of Colonel Ward. A fourth was shot on the western
borders of the county, on July 29th, 1869, about two miles from
Koad Hill, as I was informed by the Rev. E. Peacock, who was
then residing there. It is usually seen associating with the
Starlings, to which family indeed it belongs, and which it much
resembles in general habits, mode of feeding, etc. Its plumage
is exceedingly beautiful in the living bird, but the delicate rose
tint, whence it derives its specific name, loses much of its fresh-
ness after death, and in course of years fades to a dingy pink.
The head, wings, and tail are of a glossy velvet black, with violet
reflections, the whole of the under parts and back of a deep
rose-red ; the head is likewise adorned with a long pendent crest
of loose silky feathers of a glossy black. The legs are very



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 20 of 53)