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 25 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 25 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the name of ' toodling,' was very often practised at Eton in my
time, and in which, I am ashamed to say, I sometimes took part.
It originated from the legend of a wicked fairy having, when hard
pressed and on the point of destruction, escaped by taking the
form of a Wren, and being condemned to reanimate the same
form once a year, with the definite sentence that she must ulti-
mately perish by human hands * In consequence of this legend
the barbarous practice of hunting the Wren was year by year
vigorously kept up in Ireland, and doubtless introduced at Eton
in times long forgotten by some enthusiastic sons of the Emerald

One naturally is inclined to wonder how such small and ap-
parently delicate birds as this and the preceding brave the
seventy of our winters in this country, and yet, notwithstanding
the insect nature of their food and the slender form of their
beaks, they somehow manage to subsist, and the Wren at least
to warble in apparent gladness of heart during the roughest
winds and the bleakest weather. This is also essentially a rest-
less bird, always on the move and never stationary for a minute ;
it derives its scientific name Troglodytes from the cave-like ap-
pearance of the large domed nest which it inhabits (from r^y\^
'a hole,' and M, 'I go into,' B.O.U.), and of which it is in the
habit of constructing several and leaving them half finished in
the neighbourhood of its real occupied nest. With what inten-
tion it follows this curious habit has never been satisfactorily
explained. Professor Newton says the general belief is that they
are built by the male bird for his own lodging at night, and are
called ' cocks' nests ' in consequence. Some suggest that they
* Dyer's ' English Folk-lore,' p. 68.

262 Certhiadce.

are built as houses of refuge in winter. Some that they are
simply unfinished nests from disturbance before completion, and
some that they are the production of inexperienced young birds.*
Professor Skeat says that 'Wren' means the * Chirper,' or
' Twitterer,' lit. the ' neigher like a horse.' In France it is Le
Troglodyte ; in Germany, Zaun Sanyer, ' Hedge Warbler ;' in
Italian, Stricciolo ; in Sweden, Gard-smyg ; in Spain, Ratilla,
' Little Mouse.'

109. HOOPOE (Upupa Epops).

Once seen, this bird can never be mistaken by the most unob-
servant, its long and beautiful crest being peculiar and dis-
tinctive : this is composed of soft silky feathers of a pale buff
colour, each ending in a black and white spot or eye ; and this
crest it can erect and depress at pleasure. When the bird is in a
quiescent state and undisturbed, the crest flows gracefully back
in a recumbent position, but upon the least alarm, or when ex-
cited in any way, the feathers are immediately erected. More
remarkable, however, is its attitude when really frightened by a
hawk, and singular indeed is the expedient to which it resorts to
protect itself. Squatting down upon the ground, it spreads out
its tail and wings to their fullest extent, bringing the primaries
round so as almost to meet in front, and throws back its head
and bill, which it holds up perpendicularly. So long as danger
threatens, it remains in this odd position, probably to deceive the
enemy.-)- The general colour of the plumage is pale buff, amply
relieved by the black and white bars of the wings and tail ; the
beak is very slender and slightly bent. The Hoopoe prefers
moist and low situations, especially where woods abound : it may
generally be seen on the ground searching for worms and grubs,
though it so far shows its climbing habits as to fly to trees when
disturbed, and to be often observed hanging from the branches
of trees, in search of the insects which dwell on the under side
of the foliage. When it rises on the wing it never flies high,

Fourth edition of YarrelPs * British Birds,' vol. i., p. 463.
t Harting's ' Our Summer Migrants,' p. 253.

Hoopoe. 263

and its flight is weak and faltering ; but it will gently steal from
tree to tree, when at ease, with the wavy flapping of the owl, or,
when alarmed, with the more suddenly jerking flight of a wood-
pecker.* Often, too, it skims over the ground with long un-
dulating flight ; and sometimes two or more will toy and gambol
with one another in the air, occasionally tumbling several feet
downwards before they can recover themselves. When it alights
on the ground, it has a habit of bending down the head till it
appears to rest the point of the beak on the earth, after the
curious manner of the Apteryx or Kiwi-kiwi, as seen in the
Zoological Gardens. As regards its diet, it is essentially a foul
feeder, searching for its food in the dirt and filth of an Oriental
village ; and when in the act of swallowing it always raises its
bill aloft. Mr. Seebohm points out that the young Hoopoes have
short straight bills, which afterwards develop gradually into
the long curved beak of the adult bird.

The only occasion on which I have had the good fortune to see
it alive in a wild state in Europe, was from a railway carriage in
Hanover. The bird was marching about with great dignity on
the embankment, strutting with conscious pride of its good
looks; and before it flew away, erected its crest, and showed
itself off to great advantage. But subsequently I became very
familiar with it in Egypt, watching it every day as it marched
about among the village outhouses, or beneath the groves of
palm-trees with which most of the towns and villages are
sheltered on the banks of the Ni]e ; just as it has done for four
thousand years or more ; for its peculiar form is unmistakably
represented, and may be immediately recognised in the famous
rock-cut tombs of Beni Hassan, and elsewhere. There it is most
tame and confiding, marching about with no more alarm at man
than is shown by our barndoor fowls, though elsewhere it is
of a shy timid disposition ; but the Arabs have a superstitious
reverence for it, for they attribute to it marvellous medicinal
qualities, and hence call it ' the Doctor.'f Its head, too, is an

Canon Tristram in Ibis for 1866, p. 80.
f Ibid., for 1859, p. 27, and for 1866, p. 80.

264 Certhiadce.

indispensable ingredient in all charms and in the practice of
witchcraft. Moreover the Hudhud, as they call it, is univer-
sally believed by the Bedouins to be inhabited by the spirits
of the departed.

It derives its scientific name ' Upupa,' as well as the English
' Hoopoe/ German Ein Houp, and French La Huppe, from its
note, resembling 'hoop, hoop,' cooed out very softly after the
manner of the dove. Professor Newton says its simple love-song
is hoo, hoo, hoo ; or hoop, hoop, hoop ; or hoo, poo, poo ; and that
it will puff out its breast and strike its bill against its perch at
each note ; at other times, however, I have heard it emit a kind
of hissing sound. Then it will parade the ground with a stately
walk and a jaunty step, bowing its head as it marches on, and
alternately raising and lowering its crest in a slow and graceful
manner. In reference to its uncleanly habits, and to the fact
that it is nowhere more at home than on the foulest dunghill, it
was known even so long ago as the time of Montagu as the
4 dung- bird;' and in France 'sale comme une Huppe' is a
proverb, proclaiming a recognition of its filthy ways ; while in
China it goes by the name of the ' Coffin-bird ' from its habit of
breeding in the holes of exposed coffins, and is execrated by the
Chinese in consequence.* But though so foul a feeder, and of
such evil habits, it is highly esteemed by the epicure of all lands,
and many was the dish of Hoopoes with which our dragoman
supplied our table in the Nile boat. It may well be called a bird
of the Mediterranean, for it may be found in every country on
its shores, as it retires to~ winter in Northern Africa in September
and returns to Europe in March ; hence it is called by several
nations ' the March fowl,' and being the earliest of the feathered
visitors to arrive at Mentone, is locally termed there Le Coq de
Mars. In Scandinavia, where it is only found in summer as an
occasional straggler, its oft-repeated cry heard in the wilds of
the forest is looked upon with alarm, for it is supposed to
torbode scarcity and war, and hence the name given to it in

Fourth edition of ' Yarrell's British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 424.

Hoopoe. 265

those countries of Hdr-vogel, or 'Army-bird.' In Italy it is
Upupa rubbola ; in Portugal, Poupa ; in Spain, Put-put ; but
in Moorish or Arabic, Abubilla, 'Father of Beaks/ which is highly
descriptive. I should add that as Upupa is a 'Hoopoe' in
classical Latin, so evo^ is ' a Hoopoe ' in classical Greek.

It is not so rare in England as some imagine, for though never
permanently resident here, scarcely a year passes when some
do not make their appearance. I have many records of its
occurrence in Wiltshire ; Bishop Stanley recounts how one was
caught on Salisbury Plain in a weak and exhausted state, which
must evidently have come from a distance, for its beak was filled
with red clay of a quality not found in that neighbourhood.
Yarrell says it has been obtained in Wiltshire. Mr. Withers
informed me that it was killed by Mr. Warriner's keeper many
years since near Kedholn turnpike gate. The Rev. G. Marsh
recorded its capture at Winterslow in 1829 ; and more recently
the Rev. George Powell (with the ready kindness with which he
continually gratifies my ornithological taste) communicated to
me the capture, on September 3, 1862, of a very fine male
specimen, by some labourers in the farm-yard of Mr. Marsh of
Heytesbury. The bird was weather-beaten and exhausted, and
appeared to have come in for its share of a great storm which
on the day preceding its capture had devastated the fields at
Lavington. When secured, it was carefully placed in a large
cage, and though at first very shy, it gradually became more
reconciled to confinement ; but at the end of seven days, without
any ostensible reason, it died suddenly. These are undoubtedly
authentic instances of the occurrence of the Hoopoe in our
county, but in 1851 the Rev. F. Goddard, Vicar of Hilmarton, who
has often seen this bird in Egypt, and is well acquainted with
its habits, was so fortunate as to meet with it alive in Wiltshire
on several distinct occasions. His description is so graphic and
interesting from the rare occurrence of the bird, that I take leave
to insert it in his own words : ' Some time in the summer, I
believe in the month of August, riding from Alderton to Norton
near Malmesbury, to do duty on a Sunday, about one mile and

266 Certhiadce.

a quarter from Alderton, at the point where Alderton, Sherston,
and Hullavington parishes meet, I passed an old crumbling
dungheap on the Foss way, and to my astonishment on that
dungheap (by-the-bye very like his native ones) sat a splendid
male Hoopoe, as calm and composed as possible, exactly as I
have seen them in Egypt, on every dungheap. I approached
close to him to admire him, and satisfy myself that this stranger
at Alderton (but to me familiar friend) was a real Hoopoe ; he
then gave one or two of his peculiar jerks, and rising with a
short undulating flight like a jay, rested on a hay-rick twenty
yards distant. As I approached the rick, he jerked himself
impatiently once or twice as before, and took flight for his dung-
heap, and again from that to the rick, but no further (like the
Vicar of Wakefield, who confined his migrations from the " Blue
bed to the Brown ") ; precisely as the bird appears everywhere
from November to March in "lower Egypt on the banks of the
Nile, only that, having in that "basest of kingdoms " an infinite
choice of dunghills, he merely removes himself and his wife (who
is always with him) from the brown to the black, and vice versd.
In the case of the bird in question, on my return from church
there he was as before. During the week I forgot his existence ;
and on the following Sunday, as I passed that way for the same
purpose, up jumped my friend from the back of the dunghill,
and settled on his hay -rick, and so I found him very becomingly
at rest on my return from service. The next day I sought him,
and found him at ivork upon his mixen, as busy as possible and
quite at home ; he seemed to imagine that he had gained a
parochial settlement under my ministration, not being aware
that the Foss, which divided the dunghill and the rick, is
invariably the division of parishes ; thus he lost the advantage
of being either in my care or that of the Yicar of Hullavington,
but I considered him entitled to my protection. I could not
hear, however, of his having been seen after that day, though I
inquired much after him.'

Again in 1854, the Rev. F. Goddard reported to me the appear-
ance of another strange bird, supposed to be a Hoopoe, near the

Hoopoe. 267

same place, in the following words : ' I heard from a person resid-
ing here ' (at Alderton) ' that a bird answering the description of
a Hoopoe with a high crest (a stranger, unknown to anyone about
the place that saw it) was shot on the top of a chimney at
Hibden Farm in Luckington Parish, distant half-a-mile from
Alderton, and about three miles from the spot where I saw the
Hoopoe in 1851. It was during the severe frost and snow of
January, 1854, that this bird, supposed to be a Hoopoe, was
killed ; but as he fell into an old chimney, from which he has
never been recovered, I cannot be sure of his identity.' So far
from the pen of Canon Goddard ; but even yet more interesting
is the last account of these birds breeding in Wiltshire, which I
have received through the same gentleman from his brother
Mr. Septimus Goddard, who writes as follows in answer to my
inquiries on the point : ' I perfectly well recollect the circum-
stance of the young Hoopoes being found in a bush near the
brook on the farm now occupied by Mr. Ackers (of Morden), in
Rodbourn Cheney Parish ; they were four in number, nearly full
grown; colour that of woodcocks, with very large topknots.
I am not quite certain what became of them, but I rather think
that they were taken back to the brook again. The old birds
laid again and sat nearly in the same place the following season ;
but the eggs, four in number, were destroyed by boys. I have
frequently seen Hoopoes in Sussex near Eastbourne, where
several have been shot on the estate of the Duke of Devonshire/
The last paragraph shows that Mr. S. Goddard is not un-
acquainted with the bird, and cannot therefore have mistaken
any other for it. This is perhaps as full an account of English
Hoopoes as has fallen to the lot of any ornithologist of this
country to meet with, and it is the more satisfactory that the
narrator, Canon Goddard, is not only an acute and accurate
observer of birds generally, but has become personally acquainted,
and that very intimately, with the bird in question during his
travels in Egypt.

More recently a fine male was shot at Savernake by Mr.
Ponting in May, 1877, and Mr. Grant, of Devizes, records another

268 Certhiadce.

which had previously passed through his hands ; while, in a
letter lately received from Canada, the Marquis of Lansdowne
obligingly informs me that one was shot at Bowood in the
autumn of 1886. In South Wilts Mr. Morres records it as having
been killed at West Knoyle in May, 1865 ; at Breamore in May,
1869; at Dean; at Upton Scudamore; at Mere, April, 1872; and
one picked up on Mr. Rawlence's farm at Wilton, in 1874 ; and
gives evidence to lead to the belief that a brood of young
Hoopoes had been successfully reared in the neighbourhood of
Stratford sub Castle in June, 1877. Mr. Thomas Baker, of Mere,
also informs me that another example of this bird was shot in
his neighbourhood very nearly at the same spot as that recorded
above, about 1868, and the Marquis of Bath writes that one was
killed at Longleat some time since.

110. NUTHATCH (Sitta Europwa).

This active little bird is to be found in our woods all the year
round ; in colour it is dark gray above, and orange-buff beneath ;
the beak is strong, straight, conical, and pointed, and with this
instrument it will hammer with repeated and most sonorous
blows the nut which it has previously fixed in some chink of
bark or crevice in the tree, and which it rarely finds impervious
to its sharp beak, which it brings down upon it with all the
weight of its body ; seldom baffled even by the toughest shell,
which it will turn round till it has tried every point of attack,
and generally succeeds at last in extricating the kernel. Should
the nut accidentally fall from the chink in which it is fixed, or
fly asunder, and the kernel drop out, the Nuthatch will dart
upon it with the rapidity of lightning, catch it in its claws before
it reaches the ground, and return with it to its former position.
It runs both up and down the stems of trees, and will descend
head foremost (in which respect it differs from all other birds),
and varies its nut diet with insects and their larva?, which it
extracts from the bark and leaves. When running up or down
a tree, it rests upon the back part of the whole tarsus, and
makes great use as a support of what may be called the real

Nuthatch. 269

heel, and never uses the tail. When roosting it will sleep with
the head and back downwards, after the manner of some of the
Titmice.* The nest of the Nuthatch differs from that of any
other bird with which I am acquainted ; and it shows very con-
siderable ingenuity and masonic skill in constructing it. Often
it will make choice of a hole in a tree, but I have found it year
after year in a brick wall, where one of the bricks had been left
out by the scaffold-maker ; and this large hole it will plaster up
with clay and small stones, leaving an orifice only just large
enough to admit its entrance and egress ; and this plastering of
mud or clay is no mere sham for the purpose of concealment ;
but a strong and substantial defence, leaving the cavity within
perfectly secure. Then, on removing this wall of plaster, I have
found the nest entirely composed of a large quantity of the inner
bark of the Scotch fir, and it is astonishing what a very soft and
elastic bed this fir-bark makes. I supplied some of this material
to the late Mr. Hewitson, when he was engaged in the last
edition of his famous book on the ' Eggs of British Birds,' as
may therein be seen, and he expressed himself as much pleased
with it, as none such had previously come under his notice.
Though on more than one occasion I cut away the plaster when
the young birds were flown, and took away the nest, the
Nuthatches, nothing daunted by such spoliation, returned
annually to the same hole, where they generally reared their
young brood in safety. In reference to this plastering propensity,
one of the names by "which this bird is known in France is Pic-
magon (its proper name, however, is Sitelle Torchepot). In
Germany its regular name is Kleiber, ' Plasterer,' or ' Mason.' In
Italy it is Picchio grigio, ' Gray Woodpecker.' The generic name
Sitta is derived from */, 'I hiss/ or 'whistle' (B.O.U.). The
name Nuthatch seems to be a corruption of ' Nuthack,' which
the habits of the bird sufficiently explain. It is to be found in
this country generally wherever woods abound, but seems to
prefer large oaks and beeches. Lord Arundel says it is generally

* Yarrell's ' British Birds,' third edition, vol. ii., p. 186.

270 Cuculidce.

numerous at Ward our; and I should say it occurs sparingly
throughout the county.


This family is but scantily represented in this county, for we
have but one species, though that one so well known, and its
periodical appearance so generally hailed with delight as a
harbinger of summer, that it has attracted as much attention
as many families comprising several genera and many species.
They all feed on insects and soft fruit, and are therefore unable
to reside during winter in cold countries; their flight is singularly
smooth and gliding and very rapid, and they move quickly from
bough to bough, rather leaping from branch to branch than
climbing like those families of this tribe previously described;
on the ground they are awkward and constrained, their feet
being very short and weak. The tails of birds of this family are
peculiarly ample, very broad as well as long.

111. COMMON CUCKOO (Cuculua canorus).

In all languages this bird derives its name from the note it
utters, which the several nations have syllabled to their own
fancy. Thus in classical Latin it is Cuculus ; in Greek, xfaxv* ;
in French, Coucou ; in German, Kukuk ; in Italian, Cucule ; in
Spain, Cucu ; in Portuguese, Cuco ; in English, Cuckoo. There
is no need to assert that this bird occurs throughout the county,
for who does not hear its well-known cry every April in his own
parish and garden; and yet everybody does not know the
appearance of the bird, so much resembling the Kestrel or
Sparrow-hawk at first sight; the dark lead-coloured plumage
above, the light under parts barred with brown, and the full
dark yellow eye, all contributing to the general resemblance;
but when we come to look nearer, we are soon undeceived, for
the beak is small, soft, slender, and nearly straight, like those of
other insectivorous birds, and the feet are small and weak, with
two toes before and two behind, after the manner of other
climbing birds, and not at all like the strong hooked beak and

Common Cuckoo. 271

powerful talons of the birds of prey. Cuckoos twenty years
since were unusually abundant at Yatesbury, and remarkably
tame, and one or more might frequently have been seen every
spring sitting on the iron railings in my garden, while their oft-
repeated cry, as they answered one another in different keys
from opposite plantations, was almost continually to be heard,
more especially towards evening, when (like many other birds)
they became more clamorous than during the day; but their
numbers are now very sensibly diminished, and they are certainly
becoming more and more scarce every year. Moreover, I have
noticed that they have lost the confidence they once evinced,
and are much more shy and retiring than they were. In the
neighbourhood of Salisbury, however, the Rev. A. P. Morres
describes them as very numerous, and frequenting the water
meadows and osier beds in that district, and speaks of six being
in sight at one time. But in truth they are of a capricious and
fanciful disposition, and, vagrants as they are, they abound for a
time in one locality, and then desert it for another. When they
have been here some time, their call becomes changed to a wild
stammering repetition of the first syllable, though an individual
which returned to my garden every spring invariably uttered
this peculiar call from its first arrival, and with a pertinacity
and in so loud a key as to attract the notice of every stranger.

The favourite old country rhyme which is well known to
everybody, marks with sufficient accuracy the arrival, song,
change of note, and departure of the bird :

' In April
Come he will ;
In May

He sings all day ;
In June

He alters his tune ;
In July

He prepares to fly ;
In August
Go he must.'

The singular habit of the Cuckoo of never building its own

272 Cuculidw.

nest, but depositing its eggs singly in those of other birds, insec-
tivorous species being almost always selected for the foster-parents,
is well known. Why the Cuckoos adopt this peculiar and almost
unnatural habit ; how they deposit their eggs in the nests of
little birds, when the situation and size of the nests preclude, as
they often do, the possibility of the egg being laid there, after
the usual manner, by a bird so disproportionate in size to the
nest it selects as the cradle for its young; how the young
Cuckoo becomes the sole tenant of the nest, its foster-brethren
being summarily expelled to make way for its rapidly increasing
size, and to enable its foster-parents to supply its voracious
appetite ; how the young Cuckoo, when come to maturity, follows
instinctively in the track of its parents, not being arrived at the
requisite point of strength when its parents leave their summer
haunts to accompany them on their annual migration south-
wards ; and more especially how Cuckoo's eggs, varying from one
another in colour, frequently resemble very closely the eggs of
the birds in whose nests they are respectively laid these and
other similar questions connected with its strange history, I
have examined in a paper which I read before the Wiltshire
Archaeological and Natural History Society at Salisbury in 1865,
and printed in the Wiltshire Magazine;* and from this I purpose

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 25 of 53)