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 23 of 53)
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Are friars of both orders, black and gray.'

It is also provincially named the * Gray-backed ' and the ' Scaul
Crow ;' and on the eastern coast, the ' Danish Crow,' and in the
north of England, the 'Huddie,' which is merely an abbreviation of
Hooded Crow or Hoodie. But most remarkable of all is the name
of ' Russian Nightingale,' bestowed on it at Archangel,t where
it is so abundant as to be considered one of the most characteristic
birds of the district ; but why so unmelodious a species should be
so designated, I am at a loss to conjecture. In France, it is La
Corneille manteUe, ' Crow wearing a mantle ;' in Germany Nebel-
Rabe, literally ' Mist Crow,' or ' Clouded Crow ;' in Sweden, Grd*
Krdka, ' Gray Crow/

97. ROOK (Corvus frugilegus).

In a subsequent page of this volume will be found a paper
entitled 'A Plea for the Rooks,' which I read before the Wiltshire
Archaeological and Natural History Society at Malmesbury, in
August, 1862, wherein I pointed out the habits of this most
familiar bird, and endeavoured to prove its value in destroying

J. Cleveland's Poems.

t Messrs. Alston and Harvie Brown's ' Notes from Archangel,' in Jbis for
1873, p. 65.

238 Corvidce.

grubs, so far exceeding any injury it may commit in occasionally
consuming corn, so that I need add but little more about it : it
is somewhat larger than the Carrion Crow, and may easily be
distinguished from that bird by the bare space of rough white
skin surrounding the base of the beak and on the fore part of the
head. As in the young birds these parts are covered with bristly
feathers, it has been by some supposed that the constant
plunging of the bill into the ground in search of worms and
grubs causes the abrasion of these feathers, while others affirm
it to be an original peculiarity : and the question is hardly yet
satisfactorily settled ; ' adhuc sub judice Us eat,' though I am
very decidedly of the latter opinion. The fact, however, of the
existence of the rough skin which serves to distinguish it from
its more sable congener, the Carrion Crow, is undoubted. This
skin is also very elastic and pliable, and in the spring the Rook
may be seen flying home to its nest, with its throat distended
with a supply of food for its young, as if in a pouch below the
chin, though none such exists.

Professor Newton has well described a curious habit of this bird,
which must be familiar to many. 'Occasionally,' he says, 'mounted
to a very great height, the Rooks will suddenly let themselves
drop headlong, twisting as they fall, to within a few feet of the
trees or of the ground, when they recover themselves, and glide
onwards. One after another, as though they had all gone mad,
they precipitate themselves in this wonderful way, some of them
wheeling round and rising again to perform the feat a second
time.'* When first I went to reside at Yatesbury, now thirty-five
years ago, I was extremely anxious to see a rookery established
at the Rectory, and ardently wished that some of the birds from
a strong colony on a glebe near the old rectory and church, a
quarter of a mile away, might send a detachment to occupy my
home plantations. I had, however, but small expectation that
they would do so, on account of the inferiority both in size and
in age of the trees with which I was surrounded. It so chanced,
however, about this time, that the branches of a Scotch fir,

Fourth edition of Yarrell's 'British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 298.

Rook. 239

planted too near the house, were blown by the March wind
(which is somewhat blustering on our downs) against the slates
of the roof of the rectory, and it was deemed advisable to cut
down the tree. But what was my vexation, when it fell under
the axe, to find a Eook's nest, containing three eggs, securely
fixed in the upper branches, though unseen from below, which
would have been the nucleus of the rookery I so much desired,
had I not, by my own act, unwittingly destroyed it. Now (said
I in despair) there can be no farther hope of a rookery here,
after so inauspicious a beginning : but the following season
either the same or another pair made their nest in a neigh-
bouring tree ; and so fast did they increase under my protection,
for I suffered no shooting of the young rooks for the first twenty-
five years, that I now count annually at least two hundred nests
all around my house. As long as the rooks confined themselves
to the trees on three sides of the house, the villagers merely
considered their advent as a proof of ordinary good fortune (just
as the German hails as the harbinger of prosperity the selection
of his house-roof for its nursery by the stork), but when they
occupied the trees on the fourth side, then the villagers con-
gratulated me warmly, and said ' it was a sign that money was
coming in on all sides,' for such was a very old and true saying
handed down from their fathers! which, however, I regret to
add, has not yet been verified in my case. That a rookery
thrives best when the young birds are annually shot is another
popular delusion: but as the late Mr. Sotheron Estcourt
remarked, nobody has yet shown such confidence in that
opinion as to advocate a similar experiment in a human colony ;
and certainly I am in a position to prove the contrary by my
own experience in regard to my Hooks, which are now unhappily
obliged to be thinned down nearly every year, as their numbers
are become too great for the locality. As with the raven and the
crow mentioned above, so there are superstitions and rhymes of
a like character relating to the Hook. In the north of England
the notion is very prevalent that when Rooks desert a rookery
which they have tenanted for a number of years, the coming

240 Corvidce.

downfall of the family on whose property it stands is surely
predicted. They are also said to avoid building on trees which
are unsound, however fair their outward appearance ; cunningly,
if not too sagaciously, foreseeing their coming fall ; but this in all
likelihood is to be attributed to the decay which has already
begun in the uppermost twigs, and which they have found by
experiment to be unfit for their requirements. It is also com-
monly said in some places that when a rookery is near a house,
and a death occurs in that house, the Rooks will not leave the
neighbourhood until the funeral has taken place. The following
is an old rhyme common in the northern counties of England :

* On the first of March
The crows begin to search ;
By the first o' April
They are sitting still ;
By the first o' May
They're a' flown away :
Creeping greedy back again
Wi' October's wind and rain.'

Except during the nesting season February to May Rooks
do not roost on the trees where they breed, but wing their way
from the several rookeries in the neighbourhood to some large
wood, where they congregate from all the country round. But
they generally call at their nesting trees as they pass to their
feeding grounds in the early morning, and often halt there again
as they return at the close of day. The specific name frugilegus
signifies 'fruit collecting,' but let it be remembered that the
seeds of weeds, together with grubs, wireworms, and many other
destructive members of the animal and vegetable kingdoms are
all ' fruit ' to the Rook. In France it is known as Le Freux ; in
Germany, Saat-Eobe, 'Seed-Crow;' in Sweden, where, except
in the extreme south of the country, it is rarely seen, Rdka;
in Spain and Portugal, where it is only a winter visitor, Gralha.

c Dyer's 'English Folk-Lore,' p. 77.

Jackdaw. 241

98. JACKDAW (Corvus monedula).

This lively bird is as well-known as the preceding, with which
it lives in the closest alliance, and its active bustling movements,
cunning saucy look, and sharp short voice make it a general
favourite. Wherever the rooks are feeding, there you may
invariably see the Jackdaw strutting about with careless jaunty
air, and hear its merry saucy chatter ; it will also perch, like the
starling, on the sheep's back, and for the same laudable friendly
purpose. Towers and cliffs are its general dwelling-places, but
its favourite haunts seem to be our grandest cathedrals and
largest colleges, amid the towers and pinnacles of which it loves
to nest. Often, however, where suitable buildings are not at
hand, it will breed, as it does here, in holes of trees ; and
occasionally, where neither building nor trees may be found, it
will occupy a rabbit burrow underground, as do also the stock-
dove and sheldrake at times.* For the marvellous pillars of
sticks which it sometimes builds as a support to its nest, I must
refer my readers to the pages of Yarrell, Dresser, Seebohm, and
others.f As a proof that the Daw has long been regarded with
favourable eyes by the inhabitants of this country, we may
remark that it has received the familiar prefix of Jack, just as
other feathered favourites are in like manner honoured, as Robin
Redbreast, Tom Tit, Jenny Wren, etc. The specific name,
inonedula, is derived by Ovid in his account of the nymph
Arne being mythically turned into a Daw for having betrayed
her country for gold (Metam. vii. 466), from moneta, 'money,'
and edo, 'I eat ' (B.O.U.). Professor Skeat says that ' Daw ' is
the same as c Caw/ and is derived from the note of the bird. In
France it is Choucas ; in Germany, Dohle Robe, ' Drain-crow ;' in
Sweden, Kaja ; and in Portugal, Choia, but it is very rare in
Portugal and in Spain ; in Italy, Cornacchia. Its plumage is
grayish black, glossed with blue, green, and purple, with the
exception of the hind part of the neck, which is light gray.

* Gilbert White's ' Selborne,' Letter xxi.
t See, too, Jesse's ' Scenes and Tales of Country Life,' p. 57.


242 Corvidce.

99. MAGPIE (Pica caudata).

Exceedingly handsome, with bright burnished plumage, and
of very graceful form, the Magpie must claim our admiration,
however we may find fault with its mischievous, cunning, greedy
character. To see it flit from tree to tree at a distance (and it
is too shy to suffer a near approach), one might imagine its
colours to be simply black and white, and even then we must
admire its elegant figure; but to come upon it suddenly, and
have a clear view of it in the golden sunshine, one can but
marvel at the reflections of green and purple and blue which
shine with metallic brilliancy on its dark plumage, wondrously
contrasted with the purest white; its long graduating tail too,
which it will sometimes spread like a fan, at other times move
up and down, is another ornament, and adds much to its grace-
fulness. It seems always on the alert for an enemy, and by its
loud continuous chattering, gives general warning when danger
is near.

The Pie gained the name of J/a#pie from the French word
inagot, implying ' a caprice,' ' a whim,' a ' quaint little fellow or
figure, or fancy,' an appellation which the Pie appears to have
obtained from its drolleries.* At all events this bestowal of a
pet name on the Pie, as on the daw and others mentioned above,
is a proof of the warm feeling of regard which was once felt in
England towards the Magpie, though now it is generally detested
and ruthlessly destroyed. So it is refreshing to find in a letter
from the Rev. W. Butt that ' Minety is a most wonderful place
for Magpies. I should never have believed any country could
so abound in them. You might see in the winter six or eight
at a time, and the trees are full of their nests.' Though so
common in some few wooded districts, it is rarely to be met with
on our downs, and its poaching egg-stealing propensities make it
no favourite with the gamekeeper. I am happy, however, to say
that the plantations which surround my garden at Yatesbury,
being a quiet and safe asylum where no gun is fired, and where
Hindley's ' Tavern Anecdotes,' p. 235.

Magpie. 243

the taking of all nests is strictly forbidden, have proved for
many years a successful nursery for the Magpies, which annually
return to breed there, and generally bring off their brood in
safety. But to see how confiding this bird can be under the
most favourable circumstances one must visit Norway. There
it is absolutely safe from persecution, being regarded with the
utmost superstitious fear rather than reverence, and so it is the
very tamest and commonest of birds, scarcely moving out of our
way as we passed by, and building its nest in some bush or tree
close to a cottage door. Something of the same superstitious
feeling appears to have been generally entertained for the
Magpie in this country, the remains of which still linger in the
following well-known lines, signifying the good or ill luck fore-
told by the number of these birds seen together :

' One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth.'

Though I would explain, as I have done elsewhere, that this was
a fisherman's saying in the first place, and applied only to the
season of spring, when it was unlucky for the angler to see a
single Magpie, because that betokened cold and stormy weather,
when one Magpie would remain on the nest, sitting on the
young to keep them warm : whereas it was lucky to see two, for
when both parents went out together the weather must be
assuredly warm and settled.

But there is an old tradition which explains the origin of the
ill luck that is supposed to arise from meeting a Magpie in the
following way. It was the only bird that refused to enter the ark
with Noah and his folk, preferring to perch itself on the roof of
the ark, and to jabber over the drowning and perishing world.
Ever since it has been regarded as unlucky to meet this defiant
and rebellious bird.* Others looked upon the bird with super-
stitious terror, because the witches, who had sold themselves to
the Evil One, and worked all manner of hurt to mankind, were
supposed frequently to assume the form of the Magpie. The

* Dyer's < English Folk-Lore/ pp. 83-86.


244 Corvidce.

after part of the rhyme above mentioned was doubtless added
in pleasantry, and probably without meaning ; just as the still
farther continuation, which is known in some places :

1 Five for rich, six for poor,
Seven for a witch, I can tell you no more.'

Or as another version, with equally meaningless intention :

' Five for a fiddle, six for a dance,
Seven for England, eight for France.'

With reference to France, to which the larger number is assigned,

I may remind the traveller that as the railway train hurries him

through that country, the Magpie is the only bird he will see in

abundance, occupying the interminable lines of poplars, which

stretch away for many a league into the distance on all sides, and

seeming to be the sole representative of the feathered race there.

The nest of the Magpie is of large size and of oval shape,

generally surrounded with a protective fence of thorns which

partially cover over the top like a dome, and which give it an

untidy unfinished appearance. And this half nest is accounted

for by the following ornithological legend : ' Once upon a time,

when the world was very young, the Magpie, by some accident

or another, although she was quite as cunning as she is at

present, was the only bird that was unable to build a nest. In

this perplexity, she applied to the other members of the feathered

race, who kindly undertook to instruct her. So, on a day

appointed, they assembled for that purpose, and the materials

having been collected, the blackbird said, "Place that stick

there," suiting the action to the word, as she commenced the

work. "Ah!" (said the Magpie), "I knew that afore." The

other birds followed with their suggestions, but to every piece of

advice the Magpie kept saying, " Ah ! I knew that afore." At

length, when the bridal habitation was half finished, the patience

of the company was fairly exhausted by the pertinacious conceit

of the Pie, so they all left her with the united exclamation,

" Well, Mistress Mag, as you seem to know all about it, you may

Halliwell's ' Popular Rhymes.'

Jay. 245

even finish the nest yourself." Their resolution was obdurate and
final, and to this day the Magpie exhibits the effects of partial
instruction by her miserably incomplete abode.' Whether there
are two species of Magpie resident among us, the one smaller in
bulk, and with a shorter tail, and breeding in hedges, while the
larger longer-tailed species breeds in trees, is one of those long-
disputed points which have never been satisfactorily decided.
The English name ' Pie ' is said by Professor Skeat to come from
pipere, ' to chirp ;' but the word ' pied ' is derived from the bird,
and means ' variegated like a Magpie/ In France it is La Pie ;
in Germany, Garten-Krahe, ' Garden-Crow ;' in Italy, Gazzera
commune ; in Portugal, Pega ; in Sweden, Skata ; in Spain,

100. JAY (Garrulus glandarius).

This is another shy retiring bird, restless and noisy, of
exceeding handsome plumage, and much persecuted by game-
keepers for its mischievous propensities, though gardeners have
a better right to complain of its evil deeds, for fruit, rather than
young birds and eggs, form its favourite food. It is, however,
by no means particular whether it satisfies the cravings of
appetite with animal or vegetable diet : for its scientific name
glandarius is not distinctive, as all its congeners and several
other genera partake of the ' acorn ' with equal avidity with the
Jay. It is even a more confirmed chatterer than the magpie,
whence its specific name garrulus, and its note is harsh and
grating; but though one of the most noisy and chattering of
birds, as its name declares, the Jay becomes quite silent during
the breeding season, when its caution is extraordinary.* The
English name 'Jay,' the older spelling of which was 'Gay/ is
derived from its brightly-coloured plumage. The French name
Geai, and the Portuguese Gaio, are taken, as with us, from its
gay dress, but in Germany it is Eichel-Krahe, ( Acorn-Crow ;' in
Italy, Ghiandaja Comune, ' Common Acorn-Eater ;' in Sweden,
Not-skrika ; and in Spain, Arrandajo, and provincially Cdbezon,

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. ii., p. 324.

246 Corvidce.

' large-headed.' In general colour it is pale chocolate ; but the
black and white crest which it can elevate and depress at
pleasure; the bright blue, barred with black and white, of its
wing coverts ; and the contrast of the white patch over the black
tail, are its most striking points. It may be found in almost all
woods and plantations throughout the county.

Here we may take leave of the Conirostral Tribe, and we may
remark in conclusion how gradually we have been conducted
through the Larks and Buntings up to the Finches, some of
which display such exceeding power of beak, and live wholly on
grain ; and so on through the Starlings and Crows down to the
Jay, omnivorous feeders as these last are, so that the transition
to the next tribe, distinct though it is, will not be so rapid, and
we can pass on without much hiatus and almost imperceptibly
to the famity standing first of the climbers, viz., the Wood-
peckers, which we shall find in many points have affinities with
those last described.


INSESSORES (Perchers).
SCANSORES (Climbers}.

THIS is a small tribe, compared to the two previously described,
containing but three families, the Woodpeckers, Creepers, and
Cuckoos ; but it yields to none in point of interest, all its
members partaking of habits peculiar to the tribe, and being
sufficiently scarce in point of numbers to attract attention when-
ever they appear. They are essentially inhabitants of the trees,
procuring all their food from the insects which they find in the
branches and trunks, or from the berries and fruits thereon.
Some of the families in this tribe seldom touch the ground,
and they are rarely to be found elsewhere than in wooded
districts ; they are all more or less eminent for their climbing
and grasping powers, which are developed in different degrees
in the various genera.


This family may well stand at the head of the climbers, for
nothing can exceed the admirable structure of their bodies, and
the formation of their legs, feet, tail, beak and tongue, all so
eminently adapted to their requirements ; the legs extremely
short and strong, giving the bird a good purchase on the trunk
or branch of the tree into which it is about to dig with its
powerful beak ; the toes long, two being directed backwards and
two forwards (an arrangement peculiar to the climbers, but
which adds immensely to its powers of grasping and climbing),

248 Picidce.

and furnished with strong curved claws, with which it can cling
to the bark : the tail composed of twelve stiff bristly feathers,
with very strong shafts, serving the bird as a fulcrum or
rest on which to support itself, while bending back the head
preparatory to a sharp hammering with the beak; the beak
straight, long, tapering, wedge-shaped and immensely strong, in
short, an instrument perfectly formed for hammering into the
wood of a decayed tree : while the tongue is very long and
slender, armed with a horny barbed tip and sharp bristles
thereon, and extends to that degree that it is capable of being
thrust out to a great length, and withdrawn again through the
mandibles when the sharp point has perforated and so secured
the insect prey, dislodged from the trunk or laid bare beneath
the bark of the tree by the action of the beak : it is also
furnished with a glutinous substance exjuding from its surface, to
which the smaller insects adhere, and so have no need to be
transfixed. Add to these characteristics that the head is large
and the body compact and small, and we have before us a
structure perfectly fitted for the habits of the Woodpecker race.
Members of this family are generally of solitary disposition,
seldom associating in flocks; and they are perfectly harmless,
never guilty of even the slightest damage to sound or healthy
trees (which is a charge frequently, though quite erroneously,
brought against them), but always selecting those which are
hollow and worthless, and have betrayed to their keen sense
unmistakable signs of decay,

101. GREAT BLACK WOODPECKER (Picus Martius).

I think myself singularly happy in claiming a specimen of
this fine species for Wiltshire, for I have never been able to
assent to the verdict of those who have pronounced all the
recorded specimens in Great Britain as mistakes or impositions.
I cannot, and I do not believe that all our older Ornithologists
were so mistaken or deceived ; and on looking over long lists of
instances given on what seems to be excellent authority, I feel

Great Black Woodpecker. 249

persuaded that P. Martins has occasionally appeared in England,
perhaps more frequently in former years than of late. At all
events, the single specimen I adduce is now in Mr. James
Rawlence's collection at Bulbridge, in the parish of Wilton, and
that gentleman received it from Mr. Samuel Pope, then of
Kingston Deverill Farm, who assured Mr. Rawlence it was killed
when they were shooting rooks in Longleat Park. I regret that
I cannot give the exact date, but it was some years ago, and it
was sent to be stuffed by Mr. King, the well-known bird-stuffer
at Warminster, now unhappily deceased, or he might have
supplied this and other desired particulars. The Great Black
Woodpecker is much larger than all the other European species,
and is entirely black in colour, the top of the head only ex-
cepted, which is of a rich blood-red. It is a strong powerful
bird, and is common in northern Europe, arid found sparingly in
the fir forests of Germany and Switzerland. When I was in
Norway in the year 1850, I was so fortunate as to fall in with it
in the great forest of the Glommen, and shot it as it was ascend-
ing the trunk of a fir tree. There were two in company, and I
followed them as they flew screaming through the forest, but
I never saw birds fly more heavily, or with such apparent
exertion and such clumsy motion as these. It was surprising,
too, with what loud-sounding taps they hammered with their
powerful beaks on the bark of the trees they were ascending ;
and I could well understand how they gained the Norwegian
name of Spill-Kraka, ' Splinter Crow/ or * Chip Crow/ from the
mass of splinters always to be found at the foot of the tree where
they carry on their labours. In France, it is Le Pic Noir ; in
Germany, Schwarzspecht ; in Italy, Picchio Corvo.

I conclude my account of this fine species with the following
Norse legend. 'When our Blessed Lord was wandering upon
earth, He and St. Peter came to an old wife's home, who sat

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 23 of 53)