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 27 of 53)
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species) ; and this he proves by personal experience and observa-
tion ; by the fact that he has found two differently marked
Cuckoos' eggs in one nest ; that he has also found similarly
marked eggs, laid by one and the same Cuckoo, in the nests of
different species ; and that he has found Cuckoos' eggs (though
rarely) in such nests as have not yet received any eggs of the
owner ;t in which case the Cuckoo is without any pattern of a
fixed form of colour for its egg. All these points in the argument
are very carefully worked out at considerable length, and a large
array of proofs and instances brought forward to support his
views ; and then our author deduces the conclusion, that all
experience hitherto known declares in favour of his assertion ' that
every Cuckoo lays eggs of one colouring only, and consequently
(as a general rule) lays only in the nest of one species :' and he
sums up his argument as follows : ' every pair, or rather each
individual Cuckoo, is endowed with the instinct to lay its eggs in

annually from four to six eggs), the difficulty is at once disposed of, if Dr.
Baldamus' theory is correct, inasmuch as the great similarity of the egg of
the Cuckoo to those of the nest in which it is placed, may deceive human
eyes no less than those of the foster parents.

Genesis xxx. 37 et seq.

t This is corroborated in the Naturalist for 1852, p. 33.

284 Cuculidcv.

the nests of some one species of birds, which are fit to act the part
of foster-parents: so, in order that these latter may the less readily
observe the strange egg, it is found to be of similar colouring to
their own ; and for the same reasons it is also so disproportionably
small. Then every pair of Cuckoos seeks its old district, or that
spot where it breeds, just as all other birds do.* Here it generally
finds those species of insectivorous birds which it requires for its
peculiar circumstances : but assuredly they are not always in the
necessary number, or perhaps they may for some cause be breed-
ing earlier or later than its six to eight weeks' time for layingt
lasts : it will therefore be unable to find for each of its eggs a fitting
nest of that species to which it was prepared to entrust it, and to
which it was accustomed ; and so it finds itself obliged to intro-
duce one and another egg into the nests of some other species, if
haply by good chance it can do so.J Thus then it comes to pass
that there are, and from the nature of the circumstances there
must be, proportionably many exceptions to the rule. Thus too
it comes to pass that by far the greater number of Cuckoos' eggs
bear the type of the eggs of the ' White-throat' (Sylvia cinerea), and
of the ' Pied Wagtail' (Motacilla Yarrelli) t thQ most common foster-
parents of the young Cuckoo ; and perhaps, in some localities, of
the 'Meadow Pipit' (Anthus pratensis), the 'Hedge Accentor'
(Accentor modularis), and of the ' Reed Wren ' (Sylvia arundi-

Blyth's edition of White's * Selborne,' p. 78.

f * Legezeit ' is the concise German word, for which we have no English

The Cuckoo, however, alone of British birds, is generally supposed to
have the faculty of retaining her egg in the ovarium, after it is arrived at
maturity, for a limited period of time. (Montagu's ' Ornith. Diet.,' Intro-
duction to vol. i., p. 8. Jesse's ' Gleanings in Nat. Hist.,' p. 125.) If this
be correct, it will account for the egg laid by the Cuckoo as it fell to the
ground after it was shot, recorded by Mr. S. S. Allen (Ibis, vol. iv., p. 358),
and by my friend Mr. Chambers (Ib is, vol. v., p. 475). See also M. Yail-
lant's account of the African Cuckoo shot by himself and his faithful
attendant, the Hottentot Klaas, and the frequent occurrence of the egg laid
by the Cuckoo as she fell wounded from the tree. (Rennie's 4 Architecture
of Birds/ p. 378.)

The Pied Wagtail, the Meadow Pipit, and the Hedge Warbler, are
perhaps most frequently chosen as the foster-parents in this country.

Common Cuckoo. 285

nacea) : and that on that account eggs of such colouring form the
most frequent exceptions; that is to say, are most frequently
found in the nests of other species. Thus too, lastty, it comes to
pass that these two above-named prevailing colours of the
Cuckoo's eggs are spread over most localities, whilst at the same
time they also appear, almost everywhere, as exceptions in other
nests. For the diffusion of 'these two species (the common
White-throat and the Pied Wagtail) is very extensive, and their
haunts usually offer to the Cuckoo also the requirements of its
existence: it is therefore not without signification that one
seldom finds in their nests Cuckoos' eggs of other colours, but one
does very frequently find in the nests of other birds Cuckoos' eggs
of their type.'

[I will just quote, before I take leave of Dr. Baldamus, the
three following deductions, which he draws from his observations,
and with which he concludes his treatise.

I. * Nature must have some special motive in the circum-
stances above detailed, so many, so connected together, but so

II. ' That motive is plainly to be seen : viz., that by means of
certain laws originally made she may ensure and facilitate the
preservation of a species otherwise much exposed to danger.

III. ' She attains this end by a very simple method : in that she
invests every hen Cuckoo with the faculty of laying eggs
coloured like the eggs of the bird of whose nest she prefers to
make use, according to the locality; or, in other words, every
hen Cuckoo lays eggs only of a fixed colour, corresponding with
the eggs of that Warbler in whose nest she lays them (as a
general rule) : and she only lays in other nests when, at the time
for her laying, one of the species of her own peculiar type, as we
may say, which is fitted for her in every particular, is not

Such is the very interesting and well sustained argument of Dr.
Baldamus ; and however new and startling his hypothesis, how-
ever unprecedented his conclusions, yet he supports his argument
with such a battery of facts that his position seems almost im-

286 Cuculidce.

pregnable. Facts are proverbially stubborn things, and not to bo
overthrown by opinions held only from the force of habit and not
from conviction of their truth.

The question before us is not to be set on one side as the dream
of an enthusiast, or the fancy of a superficial naturalist. It is
deliberately proposed by a leading ornithologist, of mature judg-
ment and deep scientific attainments ; it is the result, moreover,
of patient research, and a long course of inquiry among men
well calculated to form a right conclusion. At all events let
the theory be well understood: for some have ignorantly or
maliciously declared that Dr. Baldamus had given out that the
Cuckoo had the power of laying her egg of what colour she
pleased, which is exactly the contrary of what the Doctor had
stated. A great deal of controversy and some rather warm con-
tention arose between those who accepted and those who
rejected the theory ; but, as I introduced the subject to the pages
of the Zoologist, I was permitted to sum up the evidence at the
close of the discussion ; and I now proceed to state what con-
clusions I arrived at after a careful examination of the several
opinions expressed.

(1) I felt no hesitation in submitting that the balance of
opinion favours tho theory that the eggs of the Cuckoo do vary
in colour to a considerable extent, but I hastened to add that
there are some, and good ornithologists too, who deny this, and
who even declare that the eggs of the Cuckoo are of peculiarly un-
varying colour; but it will not be disputed that those who so
think, or at all events who have so declared their opinion, are in
a very small minority.

(2) I submitted that it was very generally allowed that the eggs
of the Cuckoo strangely resemble the eggs of other birds,
especially those among which the egg of the Cuckoo is frequently
found. In the view of the German ornithologists, this is thought
to be the rule, though that view is qualified by the addition that
* to this rule there are very many exceptions' In the opinion of
most of our English ornithologists, however, it seems to be con-
sidered that the rule is in favour of the colour generally (perhaps

Common Cuckoo. 287

conventionally) assigned by common consent to the Cuckoo's egg,
and the exceptions (also allowed to be numerous) when the egg
of that bird resembles those of the species in whose nest it is laid.

On these two points most of those who have examined the
question are, I think, agreed; but beyond this opinions differ
widely ; and when we come to discuss the probable reasons for
such variation in colour, and assimilation of colour to the eggs
of the selected foster parents, there are almost as many theories
as disputants, but none of these appear to my judgment so con-
vincing, or indeed so plausible, as the original motive assigned
by Dr. Baldamus and his followers.

And then I ventured to put forth a notion which had occurred
to my mind, and which has since become with me a fixed opinion,
that the young Cuckoo derives from its foster-parent so much of
that nurse's nature (whether by the diet on which it has been
brought up, on which exclusively the young of the foster-parent
would, had it survived, have been fed, or otherwise) as, when its
own turn for breeding arrived, to affect (though unconsciously to
itself) the colouring of the eggs it laid. In support of that
opinion, I would submit the following considerations.

First I would mention as worthy of observation that the young
Cuckoo has been oftentimes declared to have acquired the exact
'note of its foster-parents. Of this Mr. Thompson gives decisive
evidence in the case of a young Cuckoo which was taken out of
a Titlark's nest, and of which he says/ for several weeks after the
Cuckoo was placed in confinement it uttered, when in want of
food, a note so closely resembling that of the Titlark that it would
have been almost impossible to distinguish between them.'* It is
true this may be mere mimicry, or the result of imitation ;
but it must be remembered that, in calling for food, the young
Cuckoo can only imitate the note of its foster-parents, its foster-
brethren having perished on its account in their infancy.
Here then we have the young Cuckoo in one important respect
partaking of the nature of its foster-parents. I do not, however,
wish to push this point too far, or to lay greater stress upon it
* ' Natural History of Ireland,' vol. i., p. 360.

288 Cuculidce.

than it deserves. Let it be taken for what it is worth, though I
think it deserves consideration in connection with the subject
before us.

And now, in support of my opinion, I unhesitatingly assert that
the Cuckoo about to lay her egg has no more notion of its
colour than any other bird has. The will of the parent has
nothing whatever to do with it. I am too ignorant of the process
by which the pigment or colouring matter is diffused over the
egg, or of the exact moment when it receives that pigment before
leaving the oviduct, to be able to show by conclusive reasoning that
birds, of whatever species, are wholly passive and unconscious while
the colouring of their eggs is going on ; but I venture to assert,
without much fear of opposition, that such is the case with
all birds, and with the Cuckoo not less than with other species.

What it is that influences the colouring matter, and produces
a blue egg for one species, a brown egg for another, and a reddish
egg for a third, I can no more describe than I can account for
the varying colours in plumage in the respective species of birds.
Whether the colouring process in regard to the egg is influenced
in any degree by the kinds of food the bird eats, I do not know ;
though that food has an effect on the colour of the plumage of
birds I do know; of this the familiar case of the Bullfinch
becoming black if fed on hemp-seed is a well-known and sufficient

Next, I submit that in all probability the young of the several
species of even our insect-eating Warblers are not fed on precisely
the same diet. This in many cases is obvious ; because whereas
one species procures its insect-food near the banks of streams or
ponds, another in our meadows and gardens, and another in the
hedgerows and ditches, these must undoubtedly feed their young
on the insects which abound in the districts they severally
frequent. Then I think it is not improbable that the same rule
holds good in regard to all species of birds. I mean that the
Hedge Accentor will feed its young with one kind of food;* the
Robin with another, and the Wagtail with a third, and so on
throughout the list of foster-parents to which the Cuckoo entrusts

Cuckoo. 289

her progeny. If this be conceded, and if it be considered
possible that diet may affect the colouring matter of the eggs, we
are advanced some way on the road towards allowing the plausi-
bility of my opinion.

But I would now observe that if any hen bird of any species
arrived at maturity be dissected and examined, it will be found
that her ovary will contain the germs of all the eggs she will
ever lay during her life-time. It is not impossible, then, that
if influenced at all by the nutriment on which she was brought
up, she may be permanently influenced, in regard to the colour-
ing of all the eggs she will lay ; not to mention that it is far from
unlikely that a Cuckoo, hatched by a hedge sparrow or wagtail,
might ever after affect the diet to which it was first
accustomed, just as an Eton Colleger returns in after-life with
extreme relish to the roast mutton which formed his daily dinner
at school.

It is true that in this theory I have no precedent or even
analogy in the feathered race to guide me, for how can one
expect a precedent in aught that pertains to so exceptional a
species as the Cuckoo ? but still I have some sort of corrobora-
tive evidence to adduce from the insect world. I allude to the
case of bees ; and it is now an acknowledged fact that in the event
of any accidental destruction or unexpected loss of the queen bee
(when provision had not been made for her successor, after the
usual custom, by rearing princesses in the cell specially prepared
for the royal brood) the nurses will adopt the grub of an ordinary
worker, and by feeding it with a special diet, reserved on other
occasions for the royal cells alone, will from that worker grub
develop a queen, differing in size and colour as well as vocation
from the individual it would under ordinary circumstances have
become.* Such a permanent effect in this case has a particular
diet on the unconscious and passive infant.

I repeat that the theory I have been discussing is but a fancy,
but possibly it may be worth examination. When first it
occurred to me I made an effort to get it corroborated, or over-

* See Bevan on the Honey Bee, p. 21.


290 Cuculidce.

thrown, by laying it before one whose authority in such matters is
of European reputation, and who would have carried conviction
in its favour, or the contrary, by any decided opinion upon it he
expressed. But when, in answer to my inquiries, the late Mr.
Charles Darwin most kindly replied ' that he had no sufficient
information on the point, such as would warrant him to pronounce
any dogmatic judgment on it,' I thought it not altogether worth-
less. I should, however, in candour own that Mr. Darwin added,
* My impression is that differences of food would not produce the
effects which you suppose possible ; and that impression is derived
chiefly from there being hardly any evidence of variations being
due to slight differences in the nature of the food.' Mr. Darwin
then proceeded to give me several interesting examples of change
of colour in plumage, and especially called my attention to the
paper (in Proc. Zool. Soc.) on the Australian Cuckoos by Mr.
Kamsay, where that gentleman 'states that two of the species,
when they lay their eggs in an open nest, manifest a decided
preference for nests containing eggs similar to their own in

Many years have elapsed since the controversy was carried on
with reference to the colouring of the Cuckoo's egg. Several
leading ornithologists, Professor Newton amongst them, declared
that a well-authenticated blue Cuckoo's egg, somewhat similar to
that of the hedge sparrow, was wanting to complete the case as
enunciated by Dr. Baldamus ; and now in addition to those put
forth by Dr. Baldamus, and Dr. Hey, and some instances which I
and others adduced, Mr. Seebohm has published in his excellent
work on British Birds a whole plate of Cuckoos' eggs, amongst
which are two coloured blue, like those of the hedge accentor or
redstart. But I doubt if the ornithological world of England is
yet convinced. Perhaps we have not yet arrived at a full under-
standing of this, and of some other interesting details on the life
and economy of the Cuckoo, which still maintains in some
respects its character as a mysterious creature. I should not,
however, close this account without observing that the only other
species of Cuckoo with which I am familiar is the ' Great Spotted



Cuckoo' (Guculus glandarius), which. I met with in some numbers
in Egypt, and which lays its eggs singly in the nests of other
birds, generally of the hooded crow or the blue magpie, to whose
eggs they bear a close resemblance, both in ground colour and in
markings. Thus there is precedent and analogy to support our
Common Cuckoo in pursuing a like habit.



INSESSORES (Perchers). Continued.
FISSIROSTRES (Wide-billed).

THIS last tribe of the great order of Perchers is by far the smallest
of the four, for though it contains more families than the Climbers,
viz., the Bee-eaters, Kingfishers, Swallows and Goatsuckers, yet
two of these are represented in this country by one single species
only, and the whole tribe numbers but eight individuals known in
Wiltshire. The word ' Fissirostres ' (wide-billed or cloven-beaked)
describes at once their chief characteristic, and indeed if we
closely examine those species in which this peculiarity is most
developed, viz., the common swift and the night-jar, we shall be
surprised to see to what an immense width the gape extends, and
how apparently disproportionate to the size of the head is the
enormous extent of the capacious mouth and throat, though
these are admirably adapted to their habits of feeding on the
wing and capturing flies and moths, as in a net, in their rapid
career through the air. Their feet, being little required for use,
are generally small and weak, and their flight is peculiarly smooth
and easy, gliding as they do with outstretched pinions, with
apparently little or no effort, and with surprising speed, and pro-
tracting their aerial rambles, as if they were incapable of


In my former papers on the Ornithology of Wilts, written above
twenty years ago, I was obliged to omit this family, as no reliable

The Roller. 293

instance of the occurrence of any member of it in Wiltshire
had then reached me. There are indeed but two species belong-
ing to it which have ever been known to appear in Great Britain,
and these are only occasional and uncertain, if not rare visitors.
But both partake of a great brilliancy of plumage, and of interest-
ing habits; and both are hailed by me as welcome additions
to our Wiltshire list ; for they are old friends with whom I have
become well acquainted in other countries.

112. THE ROLLER (Coradas garrula).

The evidence which I have of this bird's visit to Wiltshire is not
quite satisfactory, as the specimen observed was not captured, and
so cannot be brought forward as proof positive of its identity. It
was, however, well seen and thoroughly examined by one of the
masters of Marlborough College, as he was walking in
Savernake Forest in 1883, and my friend, Rev. T. A. Preston,
satisfied himself by careful inquiry that there was no mistake
in the species alleged to have been seen. But, indeed, there is
no other bird with which an intelligent observer could confuse
it. I am ready therefore to accept Mr. Preston's assurance
that ' we may be certain a bird of this species was seen at the
place and time named.' The Roller is a common bird all round
the shores of the Mediterranean, more especially in the east and
south of that inland sea ; and for myself, I saw it more frequently
than elsewhere in the Holy Land. It is generally a shy, timid
bird, of unsociable habits, retiring to the recesses of woods,
whence its harsh, loud cries may be heard from time to time, for it
is a most noisy chatterer, as its specific name garrula points out.
In Northern Africa the Arabs call it Tschugrug or Shrugwrug,
derived from one of its cries, which it well expresses. By the
French colonists it is known as the Geai d'Afrique ; in Malta
as the ' Blue Jay ;' in Sweden as the Bid Krdka, or ' Blue Crow ;'
by the Italians as Corvo marino; and by us, as the ' Roller,' because
it rolls along in its flight. But it has also a very remarkable
habit of tumbling in the air, which is well described by Canon
Tristram, as he witnessed it when encamped at Ain Sultan, in the

294 Meropidce.

hot valley of Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea. ' For several
successive evenings ' (he says) ' great flocks of Rollers mustered
shortly before sunset, on some dom trees near the fountain, with
all the noise, but without the decorum, of rooks. After a volley
of discordant screams, a few of the birds would start from their
perch and commence a series of somersaults overhead, somewhat
after the fashion of tumbler pigeons. In a moment or two they
would be followed by the whole flock, and these gambols would be
repeated for a dozen times or more. In about a week they dis-
persed to excavate the bank for their nests, and after this
dispersal not a Roller came back to the ddm trees where they
had roosted at first. The sand-beetles were their favourite food,
and they were scattered over all the wooded districts.'* In France
it is, as with us, Le Rollier, and in Portugal Rollieiro ; but in
Germany it is Blaue Racke, ' Blue Roller,' and in Spain Carranco.
Coracias is simply Kopaxtas, ' a kind of chough/ in Aristotle ;
' like a crow/ from /copal;.

113. BEE-EATER (Merops apiaster).

I have but one instance of a visit of this beautiful bird to Wilt-
shire, and that was reported to me by the Rev. G. Powell. It appears
that on May 4th, 1866, a mason named Turner, engaged in the exer-
cise of his calling on the estate of Mr. Temple, of Bishopstrow, near
Warminster, observed a bird of strange appearance and brilliant
plumage, amusing itself in a neighbouring orchard in catching
insects, and retiring with them again and again to the same
branch, against which it each time knocked its bill before
swallowing its prey. For some time the mason contented himself
with watching the bird from the roof of the cottage, where he was
repairing the tiles, till at length, attracted by the strange beauty
of the bird, he sent for a gun and shot it from the spot where he
was at work. Mr. Powell adds that the specimen thus secured
was a very fine male bird, in most brilliant plumage, and was
quite alone when shot. The Bee-eater is a native of Southern

* Canon Tristram on the ' Ornithology of Palestine/ in Ibis for 1866,
p. 81.

Bee-Eater. 295

Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia, in all of which it
breeds, retiring to winter in Central and Southern Africa, and I
well recollect the day when we were moored to the banks of the
Nile, during the prevalence of a gale of wind, which easily
daunted our sailors ; the first flock of Bee-eaters arrived in the
middle of March, and immediately made their presence known by
their loud, shrill, and somewhat harsh cries, and by their rapid
flight, not unlike that of the swallow, as they darted backwards and
forwards above the river bank. It is essentially a sociable bird,
breeding often in large colonies, in holes which it excavates on
the banks of rivers, and also retiring to roost in flocks, when as
many as possible perch on the same branch, as close to one
another as they can nestle. Montagu reported that in Egypt,
where it is sought for the table, it was called Mdinoorghi, or
* Bees' enemy,' as assuredly it is. At the Cape of Good Hope it is
named ' Gnat Snapper/ and highly esteemed there accordingly, as all
will believe who have really suffered under the attacks of the hate-
ful mosquito ; and then again it is honoured, because it is a guide to

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 27 of 53)