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 21 of 53)
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strong, and with the upper mandible of the bill reddish-orange.
It is called Pastor, the shepherd or herdsman, from its habit
(which it shares with the common Starling) of attending flocks
and cattle. Continental naturalists have generally looked upon
it as a thrush : thus in France it is Merle coideur de rose ;
in Germany, Rosenfarbige Drossel ; in Sweden, Rosen-fdrgad
Drossel; and in England it has been styled the 'Rose Ouzel/
It is, however, a true Starling in habits and in feeding, and in
Italy is called Storno roseo. In the Ionian Islands, where it
frequents the mulberry orchards in large numbers, and does no
small damage, it is known to the peasantry as o-tcafjLvocfrdyos, the
' mulberry-eater.' * It is, at the same time, a great consumer of
locusts, and for that service to man is highly appreciated. It
breeds in large colonies, arriving in enormous multitudes at its
nesting- places, amidst suitable rocks or ruins, or in deserted
stone-quarries. But for a very interesting and detailed account
of the breeding of this bird, which until then had been little
known, I must refer my readers to an admirable memoir by
Lord Lilford, in Ibis for 1860, p. 137.

Chough. 215

Signer de Betta,* a translation of which I obtained from the pen
of my lamented friend Mr. William Long, of West Hay, which
I sent to the editor of the Zoologist in 1878, and which was
published the same year in that periodical.t


This is a very large and important family, very numerous too,
and widely distributed, and most of its members, being of
considerable size, attract more general attention than the pre-
ceding smaller and more retiring birds, and are therefore familiar
to the least observant. Their general characteristics are stout,
compact body; large head; thick, short neck; beak large, straight,
and pointed ; legs strong and well adapted for walking with ease
as well as for perching. Their flight, too, is strong and even ; and
as regards their appetite, they seem to devour everything they
meet with, being truly omnivorous, and refusing nothing eatable
which comes in their way. From these several properties the
Crows have been styled the most perfect of the winged creation ;
and it has been remarked that they seem to have received some
peculiar property from each order of birds, by which they stand
in the centre of the feathered kingdom, reflecting the charac-
teristics of the whole, being so well fitted for walking, equally
powerful on the wing, inhabitants of all climates, and capable of
subsisting on all kinds of food. Notwithstanding their frequent
association with man, they are a vigilant, cautious race, ever on
the watch for an enemy, and scenting danger from afar.

93. CHOUGH (Fregilus graculus).

This is scarcely a true Crow, but rather a link between the
Starlings and Crows, partaking most, however, of the habits and
appearance of the latter. It is a very graceful, elegant bird, and
slender in form ; its plumage of a glossy bluish-black, strongly
contrasted with which are the beak, legs, and feet, which are of
a bright vermilion-red or deep orange colour. The beak is very

* Atti del R. Istifcuto Veneto, ser. v. ii.
t Zoologist for 1878, p. 16.

216 Corvidoe.

long, slender, and considerably curved. It is said never to perch
on trees, but always on rocks ; and Montagu (who gives a full
account of one of these birds which had been tamed) says its
inquisitive habits are equal to those of any Crow. Its food
principally consists of insects, for reaching which in the crevices
of rocks its long sharp-pointed slender bill is admirably adapted.
Its true habitat is among the lofty precipices on the sea-coast, or
amid the rocks of inland counties ; and the only place where I
have seen it in its native haunts was in the rocky heights above
Cintra, looking down on the broad Atlantic, and the mouth of
the Tagus, and there, day after day, I met with several parties,
consisting of six or seven, of this elegant and very interesting
bird. The Chough which is found in the Swiss Alps and the
Tyrol is of another species (F. Alpinus), and lacks the red bealt
and legs so conspicuous in our bird, and may be seen among the
loftier and more desolate regions of those countries far up among
the glaciers. But it is our British species (F. graculus*) that is
found in the desert of Northern Africa, and is known to the
Arabs by the name of Oyreeb Hamraid, or the ' Red Crow,'
though it is strange that one of our northern coast birds should
be found in a scene so widely different, as Canon Tristram has
observed.* There is an old Cornish legend that King Arthur is
still alive in the form of a Chough, and certain superstitious
persons refuse to shoot these birds, from a fear that they might
inadvertently destroy the mystic warrior :

' And mark yon bird of sable wing,

Talons and beak all red with blood,
The spirit of the long-lost king

Passed in that shape from Camhm's flood.
And still when loudliest howls the storm,

And darkliest lowers his native sky,
The king's fierce soul is in that form,

The warrior spirit threatens nigh.'f

In England it is sparingly found on some of our rocky coasts,
and is often styled the Cornish Chough, from an erroneous im-
pression that it was peculiar to that county, though Shakespeare,
* Jbis for 1859, p. 292. f Hawker's ' Echoes from Cornwall.'

Chough. 217

with his usual wonderful knowledge of nature, shows that he did
not share in that mistake, for in describing the height of the
cliff at Dover he says :

'The Crows and Choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce as gross as beetles.'

Wiltshire, too, is one of the few inland counties which has had its
stragglers of this species. Yarrell, quoting from the Field
Naturalist's Magazine for August, 1832, recounts how a Red-
legged Crow was killed on the Wiltshire Downs, near the Bath
Road between Marlborough and Calne, by a man employed in
keeping birds from corn : this must have been very near, if not
in, my own parish of Yatesbury. In addition to this, Blyth, the
editor of ' White's Selborne,' records the capture of another of
this species on Salisbury Plain. Mr. King, of Warminster,
recollects that many years ago one of this species was killed by
a shepherd lad at Battlesbury Camp, on the edge of Salisbury
Plain, about a mile and a half from Warminster, but that
specimen was, unfortunately, not preserved. The Rev. E. Duke
has one which was killed at Lake, and is in a small collection
there made by his father as illustrative of the Fauna of Lake, and
I have one more instance of its occurrence in the county, for the
Rev. F. Dyson killed one many years since on the downs at
Tidworth, where two had been seen hovering about for many
days previous. This I fear is likely to be the last specimen of
this truly graceful bird wandering to our county, for it is now
become very rare even in those localities on the sea-coast where
it was once most numerous, and will probably soon be classed in
that sad catalogue of species which, once abundant, are now ex-
terminated by the ruthless rage for slaughter so prevalent with
all classes, in which the noble Bustard already figures, and will
soon be joined by the Kite and the Bittern, and many another
interesting bird with which the last generation was familiar.

Of the meaning of Fregilus I know nothing, but by most
modern ornithologists Pyrrhocorax is the generic name in use :
this is defined by the B.O.U. Committee to be 'a Crow with
red beak,' from ffyg*oV, ' the colour of fire ' (*fy), and *o>ag, ' a

218 Cowidce.

Crow/ In France it is Le Coracias Huppt ou sonneur ; in
Germany, Stein-Krahe ' Stone (or Rock) Crow ;' and in Italy,
Coracia di montagna.

94. RAVEN (Corvus corax).

If the Crows exhibit more intelligence than all other families,
as is often asserted, here we have the most sagacious of the
Crows. Unlike many of its congeners, the Raven lives for the
most part a solitary life, at least in this country, but it is not so-
everywhere. I have had many opportunities of seeing it in
small colonies in Norway, in Portugal, and in Egypt, and Canon
Tristram, writing of the birds of North Africa, says it is gregarious
both in the mountains and deserts there, returning home to-
roost at sunset in a long file after the manner of rooks ; more-
over, though not breeding in communities, the nests are
frequently within a few yards of each other.* Mr. Salvin, speaking
of the Eastern Atlas, says it was no uncommon sight to see
twenty or thirty of these birds at one time.f It is also most
ubiquitous, and impervious (as it would appear) to the effect of
extreme heat or cold. We have seen above how they frequent
the burning desert of Africa ; and Arctic voyagers relate that it
is one of the few birds capable of braving the severity of an Arctic
winter. Sir Edward Parry met with it in the highest northern
latitudes; it was found at Melville Island; and Nordenskiold, in
his famous voyage, says that in a journey over the inland ice in
exploring a northern portion of Greenland, during the whole of
his excursion on the ice he had seen no animal except a couple
of Ravens.J

It is by far the largest of all the pie tribe in Europe, of strong
robust shape, of grave and dignified bearing ; its plumage of the
deepest and glossiest black, with purple, blue, and green reflec-
tion. The term Raven has been derived from an old word
signifying to tear away, or snatch and devour, alluding to

Ills for 1859, p. 292. f Ibid., p. 312.

% * Arctic Voyages, 5 p. 165.

Raven. 219

its voracious plundering habits, for it not only feeds on carrion,
but attacks weak and sickly animals and birds. Professor
Skeat, however, derives it from its cry, and says that krap,
' to make a noise,' is the origin of ' raven,' ' crow/ ' croak/ etc.
As to the derivation of the scientific names of the several
species which compose this family, they seem to come generally
from the same root ; for the B.O.U. Committee, under the several
heads of Corvus, Cor ax, Cor one, Cor nix, refers the reader to
xptofy, ' I caw/ and xpafy, ' I cry/ as the real origin. From the
same root appear to be derived most, if not all, of the Continental
names for this bird, as in France, Le Corbeau ; in Germany,
Kolkrabe ; in Italy, Corvo imperiale, as if ' the king of Crows ;' in
Sweden, Korp ; in Spain, Cuervo ; and in Portugal, Corvo.

Ravens will sometimes, as they fly, turn over on their backs,
with a loud croak, and seem to be falling to the ground; but
Harding points out that when this odd gesture occurs, they are
merely scratching themselves with one foot, and thus lose the
centre of gravity.*

It is supposed to live to a very great age, but this does not
seem to have ever been satisfactorily proved ; it pairs for life, and
breeds very early in the year, returning, if undisturbed, annually
to the same spot for the purpose : but it always drives away the
young birds when they are fully fledged and able to provide for
themselves. Montagu observes that between this bird and its
egg there is a greater disproportion than in any other species,
for it takes nearly fifty eggs to make up the weight of the bird.

Extremely wary and impatient of molestation, it has been ex-
pelled from many of its old accustomed breeding-places by the
persecution of gamekeepers and others ; and this persecution is
not only of modern date, but was in force in the last century, for
when the Government auditors of parochial highway accounts
examined the books of a certain parish, they found amongst the
more common items of so much for the killing of a fox, and so
much for the killing of sparrows per dozens, old and young, the
following entry, ' Resolved at a vestry, that for a Raven, on the
* Edition of 'White's Selborne,' p. 254.

220 Corvidcv.

production of the same, the person so producing it will receive
2s. 6d. from the guardian of the said parish.' Let me as guardian
of the parish of Yatesbury, in passing, assure all whom it may
concern, that to me at least the Corvicide will apply in vain for
blood-money on account of any such atrocious murder. Ravens,
however, were happily too wide-awake to be easily caught in the
days of inefficient weapons ; but now the breechloader, the trap,
and poison have all done their work so effectually, that these
grand birds are become scarce in England, though some few
chosen spots there are where they are guarded from molestation.
And, indeed, a Raven tree is no mean ornament to a park, and
speaks of a wide domain and large timber, and an ancient family,
for the Raven is an aristocratic bird, and cannot brook a confined
property, or trees of young growth : would that its predilections
were more humoured, and a secure retreat allowed it by the
larger proprietors in the land ! The time has, I trust, gone by in
England when the poor Raven was regarded as a bird of ill-omen,
and its croak dreaded as a sure sign portending some coming
evil; and yet not long ago such was the absurd superstition
regarding this much-maligned species, as we may see from
various passages of Shakespeare as well as other authors of that
and even a later date its remarkable power of smell and almost
inconceivable sensitiveness to the odour of sickness and death *
having procured it the reputation of a prognosticator of mis-
fortune, so that its harsh croak, listened to with fear when illness
of any kind was in the house, was regarded as a most inauspicious
sound, as we read in ' Othello ' :

1 Oh, it comes o'er my memory

As doth the raven o'er the infected house,

Boding to all. 1

And this supposed faculty of ' smelling death ' made its presence,
and even its voice, looked upon as accursed :

' The hateful messenger of heavy things,
Of death and dolour telling.'f

For a remarkable proof of this sensitiveness see an account given by the
Rev. A. P. Morres, of what occurred in modern days at Mere, in the Wilt-
shire Magazine for 1879, vol. xviii., p. 290.

t Dyer's 'English Folk-Lore,' p. 78.

Raven. 221

Bat this was not the only reason why the Raven was abhorred
in England. There was also a national cause for its abomination,
in that it was the symbol on their sacred standard of the hated

In old time and in heathen countries, we all know how
anxiously its every note was listened to and its every action
studied by the soothsayer, and it was consecrated to Apollo as a
foreteller of things to come; but it may not be so generally
known that at this day not only do the North American Indians
honour it as unearthly, and invest it with extraordinary know-
ledge and power, and place its skin on the heads of their
officiating priests as a distinguishing mark of their office, but
even in Christian Scandinavia and especially in Iceland, all
which countries are at least a century behind the rest of Europe
in civilization, it is regarded with like fear, so much so as to
have gained for itself the sobriquet of the ' bird of Odin,' whose
satellite it is supposed to be, on whose shoulder it was wont
to perch, and in whose ear it was wont to whisper all the tidings
it had gained in its wanderings up and down through the world.
In former times it was supposed to have been white, and to have
been changed to black as a punishment for babbling. Amongst
other absurd notions regarding it, is the popular belief that in
its body is a so-called Korb-sten or 'raven- stone,' which is
possessed of the remarkable property, that the individual who
swallows it will be invisible to mortal eyes.*

I must not omit to mention one thing which the Ravens do not
do. They do not breed in the holes made by weather in the large
standing stones at Stonehenge, as has been asserted by an old
author of a history of this country, f a most erroneous and un-
fortunate assertion which has been copied by many writers ever
s.nce, even our excellent author of the latest treatise on Stone-
henge,]: Mr. William Long, having repeated it in his admirable

Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 331.
t Speed's ' History of Great Britain,' A.D. 1G72, p. 2G7.
J Wiltshire Magazine, vol. xvi., p. 23.

222 Corvidce.

And now I come to speak of the Ravens of Wiltshire, of
which I have made careful inquiry in every part of the county,
and about which I have derived a great deal of valuable informa-
tion, negative as well as positive, from no less than one hundred
and ten correspondents whom I have invaded with questions, and
whom I heartily thank for the courtesy and ready kindness with
which they have replied to me. It will be seen that the history
of the Ravens of Wiltshire is, alas ! rather a history of that which
is past and gone than of that which is flourishing to-day. So
persecuted, shot down, trapped, and despoiled of their young
have these noble birds been at the hands of ruthless gamekeepers
and others, who have gone upon the false issue that they are very
destructive to game, whereas, with the exception of an occasional
raid on a leveret or a rabbit, they do little harm in the preserves,
for the Raven cannot bear an enclosed district he must have
plenty of room to wander over, a wide extent of open ground on
which to disport himself ; and as to being ' cabin'd, cribb'd, con-
fin'd ' within narrow woods, he eschews them altogether, and only
during the breeding season will he consent to occupy some big
tree in the park, generally the highest and most inaccessible lie
can find, and there he and his mate return, year after } T ear, to
occupy their accustomed nursery. I proceed now to enumerate
the localities which, earlier or later, Ravens have been known to
occupy, and some few of which they occupy still.

Wilton Park. I am informed by Lord Pembroke that the
Ravens are building this year (1887), as they have done during
the last four years, in a tall fir-tree in the low ground in WilU n
Park : they moved to this tree from another group of firs about
three hundred yards away. It was about six years ago that
they came to the park ; but the old people say that they used
to build there regularly, and an old groom was accustomed to
relate how the peregrine falcons for some time nested in the
park as well, and how the Ravens drove them away. At the
present time it is interesting to watch the Ravens during
the nesting season as they harry the herons flying home in the
evening. In Wilton Park the Ravens are carefully preserved ;

Raven. 223

but two years ago the cock bird was shot by mistake for a crow
while the eggs were being hatched, when the remaining bird
brought up the young ones successfully.

Compton Park. Mr. Penruddocke tells me that Ravens have
bred in his park from time immemorial, and when they have
.safely brought the young birds to that period in their lives when
they can shift for themselves, the old birds lead them away and
leave them, and permit no return to the family nest. He also
adds, ' The history of my Ravenry is rather a curious one. A
pair of Ravens have built in the fir-clump in the park beyond
the memory of the oldest inhabitant. At least, I can find
out nothing to the contrary. These birds, however, as properly
attested, left the place on my uncle's death in December, 1841,
and returned when I came to live at Compton in 1849, and
built in the same place and in the same Scotch fir-tree. This
tree fell down some twelve or fifteen years ago perhaps less
when the birds built in a Scotch fir-tree on the top of Compton
Down, in a clump of firs called " The Long Folly." Here they
were frequently disturbed by a certain gipsy, who with his sons
used to rob the nest annually.' This ungenerous treatment
seems to have daunted the spirit of the bold Ravens, for, to
Mr. Penruddocke's regret, they are not nesting at Compton this
year, though they have visited their old haunts. It is hoped,
however, that they will return to the park, where they will meet
a hearty welcome and efficient protection from the kind-hearted
owner. The Ravens' nest in the park was on a tree, which though
scarcely inaccessible, was not to be climbed without the help of
n ladder: that on Compton Downs was on a smaller and less
difficult tree. I must add that the experience of Mr. Penrud-
docke's keeper, George Barrett (who was born on the estate), and
that of his father before him (now deceased), is to the effect that
Ravens do not destroy the eggs of game : this is evidence of no
slight value from men who have seen Ravens breeding in their
midst every year.

Breamore. I learn from Mr. E. H. Hulse that Ravens used to
breed for about twenty years at the Shoulder of Mutton Clump,

224 Comidce.

near Gallows Hill, on the Breamore property ; but for the last
ten or twelve years they have not bred on the estate. They have,
however, within the last few years been seen by the keeper,
flying over, presumably on a foraging excursion. And in a
second letter, written a few days after, Mr. Hulse adds, ' Curiously
enoup-h I only heard yesterday from one of the keepers that n
pair of Ravens had been seen on Breamore Downs the day
before yesterday. It is supposed that they came after the dead
lambs, a kind of food of which they are very fond. I believe
they breed now, as they have done of late, at Rockbourne, about
three miles from Breamore.' In this immediate neighbourhood,
the Rev. C. W. Hony, Vicar of Bishops Cannings, met with tho
last Ravens he remembers to have seen in the county, viz., a
pair which he saw some eight or nine years ago, when riding
over a farm at Damerham, at the extreme southern point of the
county of Wilts.

Fonthill. I learn through the courtesy of Mr. Lightfoot, and
on the authority of Mr. A. Morrison, that there used to be a
Raven's nest regularly every year just opposite his house at
Fonthill; but he does not know if it is still tenanted, and
neither have I been able to get reliable information on tins

Longleat. I have the authority of Lord Bath for saying that
a pair of Ravens used to build in a particular tree by the pond
at Longleat, but the tree was blown down two years ago. And
I have the evidence of the head-keeper, to whom Lord Bath
most kindly wrote for information, that the last nest he re-
members was in Swancomb Bottom, about four years ago, and
the nest is still to be seen there. He adds, ' There have been
three Ravens in the upper woods all this winter' (1887). Pos-
sibly by this time there may be a nest.

CornbiM^y (Tilshead). The Rev. H. V. Thompson tells me, on
the authority of Major Fisher, who was then hawking rooks in
that neighbourhood, that about twenty-five years ago a pair of
Ravens frequented some very old trees at Cornbury ; but when
the trees were cut down by Mr. Kelsey's father, they disappeared.

Haven. 225

They did not, however, enjoy a very peaceful life at the best, for
they were oftentimes molested, and on one occasion a sweep was
engaged to climb the tree and secure the eggs.

Erlestoke. Mr. George Watson Taylor says that Ravens for-
merly bred in a tree destroyed many years since at the lower
end of the lake in the park ; and though they never attempt to
breed there now, they return to their old haunts every 'spring.

South Tidworth. There is a Raven-tree at Assheton Coppice
in Sir J. Kelk's park, now occupied, and which has flourished,, as
I am told, for the last century, certainly for many years; past.
The tree is not inaccessible to a bold climber, but as the Rev.
H. E. Delme' Radcliffe informs me, is happily guarded by the
general understanding that whoso harries the Raven or its
brood is sure to meet with misfortune ; a very wholesome piece
of superstition, which is now more firmly fixed than ever in the
minds of the people, inasmuch as a rash keeper, who laughed the
tradition to scorn and destroyed one of the Ravens, soon after
fell sick of a fever in which all his family were involved, and
some of them had a hard struggle for their lives. South
Tidworth is not in Wiltshire, but in Hampshire ; but as it is only
just across the border, and the Raven is a bird of very wide
excursions, I think we may fairly claim a large share in these
Hampshire-bred birds.

Tangley Clump. I am informed by my friend the Rev. W. H.
Awdry, that there used to be a nest of Ravens every year in
Tangley Clump, which is also across the border in Hampshire,
not very far from Ludgershall ; but about ten years since some
mischievous fellow cut off the special branch of the tree which
the Ravens had made their nursery, and the birds have never been
seen there since. In reference to this Ravens' nest at Tangley, I
learn from Mr. W. H. Fowle, of Chute Forest, that on one
occasion, when one of the old birds was shot, at the time there

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 21 of 53)