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 24 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 24 of 53)
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baking ; her name was Gertrude, and she had a red mutch upon
her head. They had walked a long way and were hungry, and
our Lord begged for a bannock to stay their hunger. "Yes,
they should have it." So she took a tiny little piece of dough

250 Picidw.

and rolled it out ; but as she rolled it, it grew until it covered
the whole griddle. " Nay, that was too big, they could not have
that." So she took a tinier bit still ; but when that was rolled
out, it covered the whole griddle just the same, and " that
bannock was too big," she said, " they couldn't have that either."
The third time she took a still tinier bit, so tiny that you could
scarce see it ; but it was the same story over again. The bannock
was too big. " Well," said Gertrude, " I can't give you anything ;
you must just go without, for all these bannocks are too big."
Then our Lord waxed wrath and said, " Since you loved Me so
little as to grudge Me a morsel of food, you shall have this
punishment: you shall become a bird, and seek your food
between bark and bole, and never get a drop to drink save when
it rains." He had scarcely said the last word before she was
turned into a Great Black Woodpecker, or " Gertrude's bird,"
and flew from her kneading-trough right up the chimney. And
till this very day you may see her flying about, with her red
mutch on her head, and her body all black, because of the soot
in the chimney ; and so she hacks and taps away at the trees for
her food, and whistles when rain is coming for she is ever
athirst and then she looks for a drop to cool her tongue.'*

102. GREEN WOODPECKER (Picus viridis).

This is the most common species among the Woodpeckers,
and a handsome bird withal. Its general plumage is yellowish
green above, and greenish yellow beneath, with a crimson head,
the crimson prolonged to the back of the neck ; it is more often
seen on the ground than its congeners, probably from its extreme
partiality to ant-hills and their contents. Its flight is heavy and
undulating; Gilbert White says ' volatu undoso, opening and
closing its wings at every stroke, and so always rising or falling
in curves ;' but it never need to travel far, for having ascended a
tree from the bottom, in an upright or spiral direction (for it is
incapable of descending unless backwards), and having concluded
* Dasent's ' Popular Tales from the Norse.'

Green Woodpecker. 251

its examination there, and cleared off all the insects in its way,
it merely flies off to the next tree, on the trunk of which it will
fix itself near the ground, and begin its spiral ascent as before.

If suddenly disturbed it utters a screeching laugh, and flies off
with a series of long undulations to some distant tree on which
it fixes itself near the roots, and immediately dodges round to
the other side, clambering up all the while with a short jerking
motion of the body. Its remarkable colour and appearance, its
harsh cries, and its habits, have all combined to give rise to a
variety of names by which it is known in this and other countries.
In China, where it is very common, it is known as (but I will not
attempt the long Chinese name, suffice that it signifies) the ' Tree-
injurer.'* In Turkey it is called Cham-agri, because its note is as
' of a fir-tree in distress '; in Germany Holzauer ; and in Sweden,
Hackspett ; and with us it is variously called in different districts
* Pick a tree ;' * Woodspite ' (or more correctly ' Woodspeight ') ;
' Hewhole,' ' Whetile ' (a corrupt form of ' Whittle/ or cutter and
chipper of wood) ; and the Rev. A. P. Morres says that in his part
of the county, near Salisbury, it is known as the 'English
Parrot;' more commonly it is styled the Yaffle or Yappingall,
from its loud hearty laugh-like note, and when it is more than
commonly vociferous, stormy weather may be confidently ex-
pected ; hence another name frequently given it of Rain-bird, as
Bewick tells us the Romans called it Pluvice avis. Lloyd in his
' Scandinavian Adventures ' says of it : ' In Norway this bird is con-
sidered better than a barometer. It is supposed not only to
predict the coming weather, but that three days beforehand : if
its notes are loud and monotonous, fine weather may be expected,
but if low, on the contrary, rain and storm are at hand ; and
should it approach the house and cry, something like a regular
tempest is to be looked for.' Thus we see that both English and
Norsemen considered this bird as highly weather-wise, though
they totally differ in the deductions they draw from the loudness
or softness of its scream; possibly we, none of us yet quite
understand what sensations are produced on many members of
Swinhoe in His for 1861, p. 338.

252 Picidce.

the animal kingdom by changes in the atmosphere, nor how
they indicate such feelings, though that many species are ex-
tremely susceptible of such impressions, and that too considerably
before man can discern any prospect of change in the weather,
admits of no doubt or dispute. Though not abundant anywhere,
it is very generally distributed throughout the country, the more
wooded parts being of course the most attractive to it, and the
most frequented by it. Here, at Old Park, it is not uncommon,
and sometimes, but not often, it will pay me a flying visit and
examine my plantations and trees at Yatesbury. I once very
nearly involved myself in some trouble in Norway, by shooting
one of these birds, which I did not then know were objects of
superstitious veneration to the simple-minded peasants. But no
such indignation was shown when I shot a specimen of the
' Great Black Woodpecker,' for the larger bird had not contrived
to attract to itself the love or fear, and consequent protection,
which its green-hued cousin, doubtless from belief in some
legend, had excited in the Norwegian mind. But to return to
Wiltshire, the localities given me of its more frequent occurrence
are : Ninety, where the Rev. W. Butt says it is very common, far
more than in any other district he ever lived in ; Erlestoke,
where Mr. G. Watson Taylor tells me it is common; Corsham
Court, where, Lord Methuen writes, it has had a nest on the lawn
as long as he can remember ; Heytesbury, where it comes every
spring, as I learn through Lord Heytesbury ; Market Lavington,
where Mr. Bouverie tells me its laughing cry was heard near the
house all last autumn ; Wardour, as I learn from Lord Arundell ;
Baynton, as I am told by Mr. W. Stancomb, jun. ; and Monkton
Farley, as Sir C. Hobhouse informs me. The continental names
for this bird are generally, as with us, mere translations of Picus
viridis; thus in France it is Pic vert; in Germany, Grunspecht ;
in Italy, Picchio verde ; in Portugal, Pica-pan verde ; in Sweden,
Gron Hackspett. But in Spain it is Pito real, ' Royal (or great)
Woodpecker ;' and provincially, Caiyintero, ' the Carpenter/
from the chips it throws about in making its nest.

Great Spotted Woodpecker. 253


All the Woodpeckers are so extremely alike in habits, that the
same general description applies to every species ; this is not so
common as the last, but is seen occasionally in all wooded
districts ; but it so seldom leaves the upper branches of trees,
and so seldom makes its presence known by any sound it utters
(for it is one of the most silent of birds), that it must very often
escape notice. The Rev. A. P. Morres, whose experience agrees
with mine, that it is the rarest of the Woodpeckers in this county,
says it used to breed regularly in the village of Bodenham, near
Salisbury, though it has not been noticed there of late ; but at
Hurdcott he reports that their nests were often to be found in
the woods. I also hear of it at Wilton, at Wardour, and at
Heytesbury. In North Wilts, I have many notices of its
occurrence in Draycot Park, at Erchfont, at Erlestoke, at
Lacock, at Melksham, at Keevil, in Marlborough Forest on
many occasions ; at Potterne, at Roundway Park, at Spj^e Park,
where the late Major Spicer picked up one of the remarkable
wing feathers and sent it to me for identification. I may per-
haps say generally that though certainly rare, it does occasionally
come to the notice of most observers. I have found it common
enough in Germany. Its general colour is black and white, with
a jet black top of the head and red occiput, but young birds
have the crown of the head red, and the female has no red on
the head. It may at once be distinguished from its congener
next to be described by its superior size, measuring from the
point of the beak to the tip of the tail over nine inches. In
Sussex its provincial name is the ' French Woodpecker ;' else-
where it is known as the ' Woodpie,' the ' Great Pied,' and the
' Great Black and White Woodpecker ;' and in Wiltshire as the
' Gray ' and sometimes as the ' Black Woodpecker,' which latter
is confusing. In France it is known as Pic Epeiche (ou varit) ;
in Germany, Bunt Specht ; in Italy, Picchio vario maggiore ; in
Portugal, Pica-pan malhado ; all with the signification of
' Spotted ' or ' Speckled Woodpecker.' In Sweden, however, it is
Storre Hackspett, ' Great Woodpecker.'

254 Picidce.


More common, at all events of late years, but exactly re-
sembling the last, except in point of size, being not quite six
inches in length, this species occasionally visits us. It is of a
very retiring disposition, and prefers the upper branches of trees
to the trunk and more exposed limbs, and creeps out of sight
behind some friendly bough the instant it perceives an intruder.
From the observations of various authors one would say that
Wiltshire was the favourite locality of this bird. Selby says ' it
is well known in the counties of Gloucester and Wilts.' Montagu
mentions how he observed it in Wiltshire, and found its nest and
took its eggs there. Yarrell speaks of Wiltshire as one of its
habitations, in addition to which I have notices of its having
been killed within the last few years at Potterne, Round way,
Devizes, Clarendon Park and Dray cot Woods ; and Mr. Elgar
Sloper says, ' I have obtained three specimens of this beautiful
little bird: one caught near Devizes in June, 1840, lived for
some time in confinement, fed on insects and bread and milk.'
More recently, I have heard of it as shot at Collingbourne. Mr.
Grant mentions several from Devizes, Wedhampton, Wilsford,
Potterne, and Keevil; and Mr. A. B. Fisher writes that he
watched it in his garden at Potterne, in December, 1885 ; and
Mr. Gwatkin, that it breeds regularly at the Manor House in the
same parish. The Rev. E. Goddard saw it in the garden at
Hilmarton Vicarage, in 1873, and reports others seen in that
parish. Mr. G. Watson Taylor says it is common at Erlestoke,
and the Marlborough College Natural History Reports repeatedly
mention the appearance of young as well as old birds in
Savernake Forest, where they regularly breed, and which should
be a very paradise for the whole Woodpecker family. In south
Wilts, Mr. W. Wyndham says it is common at Dinton ; Lord
Arundell, that it is found at Wardour ; and Lord Heytesbury,
that it occurs at Heytesbury ; while the Rev. A. P. Morres pro-
nounces it not at all uncommon in his neighbourhood, and gives
instances to show that sometimes it is quite abundant there.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. 255

Finally, Dr. Blackmore, not long since, picked one up dead in the
Museum garden at Salisbury.

Mr. Cecil Smith says that it is known in Somerset as the
' Barred Woodpecker/ and Mr. Knox that it is called in Sussex
the ' Little French Woodpecker ;' but Professor Newton says
that it is sometimes called the 'Crank Bird,' and the 'Pump-
borer/ and used to be called the ' Wood-cracker/ from a remark-
able note which it utters in the spring, the sound being supposed
to resemble that of an auger when used on the hardest wood.
He also adds, it is especially common in the counties of Berks,
Wilts, and Somerset. In France it is known as Pic Epeichette,
diminutive of P. Epeiche; in Germany, Grasspecht ; in Italy,
Picchio sarto minore ; in Sweden, Mindre Hackspett. It
appears to be scarcely known in Spain and Portugal.

Bewick used to assert that a third Spotted Woodpecker (Picus
medius), which is not uncommon on the Continent, occasionally
appeared in England ; more modern naturalists, however, deny
this, and affirm that the young of the Great Spotted Wood-
pecker was mistaken for that bird. The late Mr. Marsh thought
that Bewick was right, and that we have three distinct species.
He says : * I have three very different from each other ; they are
sometimes found in Draycote Woods, where one of my specimens
was shot: the largest was killed there; the next in size was
killed in Clarendon Park, the smallest in Amesbury Park."

Mr. Morres also felt convinced that the ' Middle Spotted
Woodpecker ' occasionally visited us, but Professor Newton will
not allow that an authentic instance of its appearance in England
has yet occurred, and declares that Pennant and Bewick, and all
who followed them, mistook the red-headed young of the Great
Spotted Woodpecker for this purely continental bird.*

105. GOLD-WINGED WOODPECKER (Picus auratus).

There is but one instance recorded of the appearance of this
beautiful bird in England, and that was in the autumn of 1836
at Amesbury Park in this county : it was brought to M. H. Marsh,
* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 484.

256 Picidce.

Esq., the late Member for Salisbury, in the flesh, immediately
after it was shot ; it was preserved by Mr. Edwards, of Amesbury,
and came into the collection of the late Rev. G. Marsh, of Sutton
Benger. It is a native of America, and in general appearance
and size bears some resemblance to the common Green Wood-
pecker, but differs from it in having bright yellow bars on the
wings, and black spots on the breast ; moreover, the throat and
chest are cinnamon colour, and a broad crescentic patch of black
crosses the chest.

It is known in America as the ' Flicker,' and Professor Newton
describes it as one of the most characteristic birds of the Eastern
United States and Canada, and says that a specimen of this far-
migrating bird is said to have been sent from Greenland. The
Professor, however, in accordance with a principle he had laid
down, refused it admission to the British list, on account of its
transatlantic origin ; while the compilers of the B.O.U. Catalogue
insert it in their list under the name of Colaptes auratus
colaptes signifying ' a chisel/ xoXd^T^s, from xoXacrrw, ' I peck
with the bill/ used almost always of birds ; and auratus t 'gilded/
from the golden-yellow colour showing under the wings and tail.

106. WRYNECK (Yunx torquUla).

From the variety of provincial names with which this prettily
marked bird is designated, one would imagine it to be extremely
common; but this is not the case, though it visits us in the
spring every year, and is sparingly distributed over all wooded
districts. The explanation of its many names will be a tolerably
complete account of its habits. That by which it is more
usually known to us, 'Wryneck/ as also its scientific name
torquilla, the French Tor col, the German Wendehals and
Natterhals, and the Italian Torcicollo, are derived from its
singular habit of stretching its neck, twisting its head round so
that it lies on its back, and turning up the whites of its eyes,
when it wriggles like a serpent [in China it is called Shay-
ling, or ' Snake's-neck '], and also from its habit of turning the
head rapidly from side to side while feeding, the body remaining

Wryneck. 257

motionless all the while, and this is especially seen when the
bird is engaged at an ant-heap, extracting those insects and
their larvae which form its favourite food ; hence another of its
names, ' Emmet-hunter.' The manner in which it seizes its prey
is by darting out its very long extensile tongue, which is even
longer in proportion than that of the woodpeckers, and trans-
fixing or securing it by means of a glutinous secretion with
which it is furnished, and this it does with wonderful rapidity
and never-failing accuracy: from this habit it is often called
'Long- tongue.' Again, it is known as the ' Snake-bird,' from the
hissing noise made by the parent and young birds when the
hole in which it has made its nest is disturbed ; on such
occasions they will puff out their feathers, snap with their bills,
hiss like snakes, and assume the most bold and defiant aspect.
It is also known as the ' Cuckoo's mate,' and ' Cuckoo's fool, 1 and
1 Cuckoo's leader,' because it arrives a few days before the
cuckoo ; and in Sweden as Gohyta, and in Norway as Sd Gouk,
that is ' Seed Cuckoo,' because its note is heard during seedtime.
In Malta it enjoys two names, Sultan issummiem, or ' King of
the Quails,' arriving on migration just before its subjects ; and
Abu lebbiet, 'Father of Crouchers,' I know not for what reason.
The late Mr. Knox said that in Sussex it is known as the
' Rinding Bird,' so called from its appearance in the spring
being supposed to indicate the proper time for felling the oak-
trees, and removing the bark or rind from the trunks and
branches. Now the operation of ' rinding ' cannot be attempted
until the sap has begun to flow ; then myriads of minute insects
are roused from their winter sleep in the deepest recesses of the
bark, and seek the surface, where the long elastic tongue of the
Wryneck extracts them rapidly from the crevices. Mr. Marsh
used to say that in Wiltshire this bird is sometimes known as
the 'Valiant Sparrow.' It received the name Yunx (in classical
Greek tuyg) from its cry sounding like the exclamation /u, whence
''uw, ' I shout ;' but, according to mythologists, the nymph Yunx,
the daughter of Echo, was transformed into a Wryneck through
the jealousy of Juno. In Spain and Portugal it derives its


258 Certhiada.

name from the food it loves ; in the former it is known as
Hormiguero, in the latter as Papa-formigas, both signifying
' ant-eater.' In Spain, however, it has a second name, Torcecuello
'Wryneck.' It is of shy retiring habits, in shape very like a
woodpecker, with the same arrangement of feet, two toes before
and two behind, but without the stiff bristly tail. Its plumage
is beautifully pencilled, all the feathers most delicately mottled
and marbled with bars and spots of dark and light brown, gray
and buff.

Mr. Harting describes its loud oft-repeated note as like a
repetition of the syllables, ' Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear,'
and says it more nearly resembles the cry of the kestrel than that
of any other bird, though it is less harsh* It is a solitary un-
sociable bird, seldom seen, except in the breeding season, in
company with another. The only time I ever found it in any
number, was in a marshy coppice near Bordighera, in North
Italy, from which I brought home some specimens; but the
locality it selected was not a pleasant one, a hot, steaming,
pestilential swamp which, whenever I visited it, was always
swarming with adders. My personal acquaintance with it in
Wiltshire has been very slight ; twice only have I seen it in my
orchard at Yatesbury ; but I have records of it as an occasional
visitor in various parts of the county, and Mr. Grant has
received it from Devizes, Everley, Pewsey, Netheravon, Poulshot,
etc. The Rev. A. P. Morres had one brought in alive to the
Vicarage at Britford, by his cat last summer (1886), and Mr.
Gwatkin tells me it was heard several times at Worton in 1880.


This family is very nearly allied to the last, and the members
of it are quite as great adepts in climbing, though with a
different formation of feet, the toes being disposed in the more
usual manner, viz., three before and one behind ; the structure
of the hind-toe, however, is such as to give the bird peculiar

* Birds of Middlesex,' p. 113. < Our Summer Migrants,' p. 246.

Common Creeper. 259

facilities for climbing perpendicular surfaces, and even the
additional power of moving in either an upward or downward
direction. Members of this family are of small size, with slender
bodies, moderate necks, short wings, slender arched bills, and
plumage peculiarly soft and free from bristles ; like the last,
they live entirely among the trees, feeding on the seeds, fruits,
and insects which they find there.

107. COMMON CREEPER (Certhia familiaris).

This is the most elegant and delicate little bird we have, and
it is very common, living with us all the year round, but coming
to our notice most frequently in the winter, when the trees are
bare of foliage, and most of the smaller birds have left us : then
it may be seen creeping like a mouse up and down the bole of a
tree, hence it is known in the south of the county as the ' Tree-
mouse;' or else effecting a spiral ascent by a series of jerks or
runs, and constantly shifting its position, now round to the back
of the tree-stem, and now again to the front ; or perhaps search-
ing for its insect food among the rough logs in a wood-yard.
Hence its name familiaris, ' friendly,' or ' belonging to the
household;' and, indeed, nothing can exceed the confidence
shown by this fearless but unpretending little favourite.

Next to the Golden-crested Wren it is the smallest British
bird, and the most graceful in form, with a long slender curved
beak, a very diminutive elegant body, plumage brown above and
white below, and a stiff sharp-pointed tail bending downwards,
and supporting it in its climbings, after the manner of that of the
Woodpecker. Its note is a gentle monotonous chirp, which it
continues to repeat during its incessant rambles on the stems and
branches of the trees ; otherwise it is the most silent of birds,
seldom heard at all in winter, and in summer little above the
faintest whisper. Perhaps it has no time for singing, for it is one
of the most restless of birds, never still for an instant ; and a most
expert and indefatigable climber, its long claws, well curved and
strong, enabling it to cling to the rough bark, at whatever angle
the branch may be, whether vertical, horizontal, or oblique.


2 GO . Certhiadce.

The names it bears on the Continent of Europe have general
reference to its climbing capabilities. In France it is Le Grim-
pereau, ' the Climber ;' in Germany, Genuine Baumlaufer, ' Com-
mon Tree-Runner ;' in Sweden, Trad- Kry par e t ' Tree-creeper ;'
in Spain, Trepatroncos, ' a Creeper of Trunks ;' in Portugal, Tre-
padeira, ' Climber ;' but in Italy, Picchio passerino, ' Sparrow

108. WREN (Troglodytes vulcjaris).

This is a general favourite ; its diminutive size, but pert aspect,
its boldness and familiarity in winter (for it never leaves us), its
full rich song and engaging manners, all bespeaking our protec-
tion : in colour it is reddish-brown, well mottled and speckled
with various shades, but its most striking peculiarity is the erect
position of its tail, Vhich gives it a very jaunty appearance.
Some authors have placed it among the warblers, but its long
tapering arched beak, long curved claws, short rounded wings
and soft plumage seem to point it out as a true creeper ; more-
over, though not essentially a climber, it clings with apparent
ease to perpendicular surfaces sideways, and is often seen on the
trunks as well as branches of trees ; it also frequents walls and
rocks, as well as banks and ditches, and its food consists of
insects, seeds, and soft fruits. Many people are not aware of the
volume and richness of its song, more particularly in the early
spring, and this is the more remarkable when the diminutive size
of the bird is taken into account. Shakspeare was evidently
ignorant of this, for he says

' The nightingale, if she should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.'

In addition to its ordinary song it has a curious note of fear,

which it utters at intervals when alarmed, and which (as Mr.

Harting aptly says) somewhat resembles the winding up of a

clock* With us it bears the endearing name of ' Jenny Wren,'

' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 114.

Wren. 261

and in Sweden it is in the same spirit called Tumme liden, or
* Little Thumb ;' indeed, generally its diminutive size, pert aspect,
and familiarity have bespoken its immunity from harm at the
hands of man ; but this has not always been the case. It was a
very old pastime with the Irish to hunt the Wren on New Year's
Day, following it with sticks and stones from hedge to hedge
until it was run down and destroyed ; and this sport (!), under

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 24 of 53)