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 28 of 53)
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the Hottentots by directing them to the honey which the bees
store in the clefts of the rocks. Merops is simply pepo^, the Bee-
eater of Aristotle, probably akin to /jLapTrra), ( I seize ;' or possibly
from nepifa, ' I divide/ and cty, < the face/ as if ' open-mouthed/
Apiaster, in use in the fifth century, is the Latin translation of
Merop8,from apis, ' a bee.' In France it is Le Guepier, ' Wasp-eater,'
in Germany, #ktt/resse?VBee-devourer ;' in Sweden, Bi-dtare, 'Bee-
eater / in Spain, Abejaruco, and in Portugal Abelharuco and
Melharuco ; but the latter, meaning ' Honey-eater/ is as
inappropriate as our English name ' Honey Buzzard' is to Buteo


Members of this family are generally remarkable for the extreme
brilliancy of their plumage; they are chiefly natives of more
tropical climates, as the brilliant colours of their plumage
demonstrate, one species only, and that of marvellous splendour,
inhabiting this country or, indeed, Europe generally. They prey

296 Haley onidce.

upon small fishes and insects, the former of which they procure
by darting down upon them from some elevated place as they
rise to the surface of the water, and the latter by pouncing upon
them in their flight ; their feet, like others of this tribe, are small
and feeble, their beak is straight and pointed, and their flight
is rapid.

114. KINGFISHER (Alcedo ispida) .

The gorgeous colours of this, the most beautiful of all our
British birds, defy description ; there is on the upper parts such a
mixture of the brightest blue with the most vivid green, and
these colours blend with one another and are reflected with such
marvellous brilliancy and with such metallic lustre, that they must
be seen to be duly appreciated ; all the under-plumage is of a reddish
orange. The Kingfisher is not uncommon wherever there is a
stream ; indeed, for lack of a river, or brook, I have known it
haunt the foul sluggish watercourse of a long line of water
meadows, and even a stagnant pond in a cow yard at Old Park,* at
least a quarter of a mile away from any running water, but where,
year after year, it frequented the same hole for breeding purposes,
though the pond was constantly resorted to by a large herd of
cows, and hard by was the dairy farm, and its many buildings, and
far more dangerous its many boys and men in attendance on
the cattle ; yet, strange to say, this bird of such attractive plumage
somehow escaped general observation, and for several years, to
my certain knowledge, contrived to lead out its young in safety.
There has been much discussion amongst ornithologists as to
whether the Kingfisher makes any nest, and if so, of what
material, previous to depositing her eggs in the hole which she
has prepared for her nursery ; but it is now generally admitted that
the indigestible portion of the food which she casts up in pellets,
composed of the bones of small fishes, is the sole material of the
nest. The name hispida is said by the compilers of the B.O.U.

I once pointed out this strange locality for a Kingfisher's nest to Pro-
fessor Newton, who has thought it worthy of mention in his edition of
Yarrell. See fourth edition, vol. ii., p. 445.

Kingfisher. 297

' List of British Birds' to be derived from hispidus, ' rough,
prickly/ in allusion to these fish bones in the nesting- hole. On
the downs of North Wiltshire we should scarcely expect to meet-
with this bird, yet I have more than once disturbed it in one of the
winterbournes, or watercourses, within three miles of its source,
which is never more than an insignificant stream, and oftentimes is-
perfectly dry in summer ; so that the slightest thread of running
water seems to satisfy its requirements. Except in the breeding
season, it is a shy bird, and generally avoids the habitations of man ;.
it is also essentially solitary in its habits, and, except during the
breeding season, is always found alone ; its mode of seizing the
smaller fish on which it preys is singular ; it will sit for a con-
siderable time on a rail or bush overhanging the water, and watch
in patience the arrival of some victim, when with the most rapid
flight it will dart like lightning beneath the surface, and seizing
its unsuspected prey in its bill, bring it back to the station it
before occupied, there to be devoured at leisure ; at other times it
may be seen shooting like a meteor over the brook, always,
however, following the course of the stream, and if its quick eye
catches sight of food, you may see it suddenly stop, hover with
expanded wings for a moment, and then drop like a stone into the
water, from which it will as quickly emerge with its quivering
victim firmly held between the mandibles of its beak ; and this it
will either at once devour, or else beat to death against a stone and
then swallow whole. And yet with this plunging propensity, and
this fearlessness in precipitating itself into deep water from which
it always emerges unscathed, it is essentially a land bird, and has
no affinity with the water fowl, with which Bewick and some of
the older naturalists classed it. Neither can it seek the water on a
rough stormy day ; for the fishing manoeuvres above recorded to-
be successful, calm quiet weather is necessary, when the water is
neither thickened by rain nor ruffled by wind, but as the elements
are not always so propitious to its piscatory expeditions, the
Kingfisher (like the true birds of prey) will gorge itself
voraciously at one time, and then retire to digest its heavy meal at
leisure. Another habit too it possesses in common with the

298 Haley onidce.

rapacious birds, viz., that it reproduces in castings, or small pellets,
the fish bones and other indigestible parts of the living creatures
it has swallowed, and these pellets in time cover the floor of the
hole in the bank in which it dwells, and form the nest on which
it deposits its beautiful transparent white eggs. On no bird have
the old heathen poets and naturalists exercised their fancy more
than on the Kingfisher, and among other strange tales they used to
fable that this bird would sit on its floating nest for the seven days
of incubation, and that it had such power over the winds and
waves that, though in the depth of winter, a perfect calm always
reigned during that period, when mariners might cross the sea in
perfect safety ; and hence came a well-known saying, ' Halcyon
days/ which has passed into a proverb for any short season of
tranquillity. As Dryden says :

* Amidst our arms as quiet you shall be
As halcyons brooding on a winter's sea ;'

and in Wild's ' Iter Boreale ' we read :

' The peaceful Kingfishers are met together
About the decks, and prophesy calm weather.'

In Sweden it rejoices in the lengthy name of Bld-ryggig
Is-vogel, or 'Blue-backed Ice-bird/ and Professor Newton says that
the Anglo-Saxon name for it was Isern or Isen, for in hard frosts
it often collects in some numbers around any open water, and being
conspicuous as it sits on the ice, a name signifying ' Ice-bird ' has
been applied to it in all the Teutonic languages.* In 1613
it was one of the victims denounced as a ' ravenous bird/ and
persecuted accordingly by law ; and under one pretext and
another it has been hunted down ever since ; so that were not
its numbers recruited every year by the arrival of emigrants from
Holland, this, the most brilliantly coloured of all our indigenous
birds, would bid fair to become exterminated in England.f As
it is, however, I do not think its numbers are much diminished
in the county generally. If I am told by Rev. E. Goddard that

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 451.
t Cordeaux's ' Birds of the Humber District, 5 p. 71.

Kingfisher. 299

they are becoming very scarce at Clyffe Pypard and Hilmarton, I
learn from the Right Honourable E. P. Bouverie that they are still
fairly common at Market-Lavington; and if I hear from Lord
Arimdell that they are become more scarce at Wardour, I am told
by the Rev. C. F. Cooke that they are frequently seen darting over
the Avon at Enford. It is surprising that it should be so, for,
perhaps, no British bird has suffered more than the Kingfisher
from that most cruel and barbarous fashion which cannot be too
loudly condemned, and which I am sure without thought of the
consequences was adopted some years since by English ladies,
of wearing gay-coloured birds, or wings of birds, in their hats, and
which bids fair to exterminate altogether some of the species of
most brilliant plumage. We in England, doubtless, give a royal
title to this bird on account of the splendour of its plumage, just as
we name the magnificent species of Eider, 'The King Eider,' and the
brilliant Goldcrest is dubbed Regulus. In Germany it is Gemeine
Eisvogel, Common Ice-bird ; in Portugal, Pica-peixe, ' Seizer of
Fish ;' and Guardarios, ' River Watchman ;' but in France it is
Martin Pecheur, and in Spain Martin Pescador, ' Fisherman of S.
Martin.' This is in reality a nick-name, like Robin Redbreast,
Jenny Wren, Jack Daw, etc., but the Oiseau de S. Martin is
really the ringtail, or the hen-harrier. Alcedo is classical Latin
for a ' Kingfisher,' taken from the Greek d


This family certainly contains the most conspicuous of our
summer birds, and with their first appearance we are accustomed
to associate the departure of winter and the approach of summer,
and therefore we are naturally predisposed in their favour : but
not only do we welcome them as heralds of spring and harbingers
of sunshine; in addition to this, all their movements are so
graceful, they are so essentially birds of the air, seldom touching
the earth, but careering all day long under the bright blue sky
and through the lofty pathways of the air, that they engage our
particular admiration and interest : if we stand still to watch one
of these birds in its course, see with what arrowy speed it darts

300 Hirundinidce.

over our gardens, sweeps round our houses or skims over the
pool : now it will wheel and sport high up in the air, hurrying
here and there on the lightest wing in the gladness of its heart - t
anon it will float without effort in the vast expanse, as much
at home and at ease as other birds when perched on a tree
or motionless on the ground; and for this aerial life how admir-
ably their structure is adapted : observe the shape of the body,
how full the forepart, how gradually tapering towards the tail,
which is exactly the principle on which the fastest sailing ships are
constructed : then see the plumage, how firmly compacted, how
little liable to be ruffled by the breezes in a long and rapid flight;
mark the wings stretching out like oars of vast length, and moved
by muscles of extraordinary power : note the long forked tail>
supplying a never-failing rudder to guide the bird through those
numerous windings in which it delights. Other characteristics
of this family, in addition to those belonging to the whole tribe,
are very short beak, very broad at the base and slightly bent ;
head quite flat, and neck scarcely visible : their note is rather
a continued twitter than a song, though some of the species will
scream in a high and wild key, and others have a not unpleasing
though monotonous and very gentle melodious warble. All the
four species of this family with which we are acquainted are
summer visitants, leaving us in the autumn. It used to be
asserted by older naturalists, before the habits of birds had been
so closely observed as of later years, that the Hirundines did
not leave this country in the winter, but retired to caves or holes,
and there remained dormant, like the bats and dormice. Others
maintained the wilder theory that they plunged into the beds
of rivers and lakes, and there amidst the sedge and mud and
reeds at the bottom, slumbered away the dreary months of ice
and snow, till the genial breezes and warmth of April roused
them from their torpor to renewed life and activity. These idle
tales have long since been exploded, and we all know that the
bulk of these birds collect in enormous numbers in the autumn,
migrate in vast flocks, and steer their course due south, though
doubtless a few stragglers are often left behind, perhaps physi-

Swallow. 301

cally incapable of accompanying their brethren, and these would
naturally seek the warmest recesses they could find, and there
become torpid from cold : while the not unusual habit of these
birds to seek the vicinity of water, where their winged insect
prey chiefly abounds, and to roost amid the reeds on the margins
of lakes and ponds, has probably given rise to the wondrous
account of their voluntary immersion during winter. As an
unanswerable proof that they do not hibernate, I will add that
it has been satisfactorily ascertained that they annually moult in
February, than which nothing more clear or decisive on the
subject can be adduced: moreover, they have been frequently
observed on their passage, and there is now no question that they
leave us as soon as their young are strong enough on the wing for
a prolonged journey, and when the supply of insect food begins
to fail : and it is astonishing what an immense number of flies of
various kinds a single individual of this family will consume
in one day, all of which are caught with great dexterity in the
air in the midst of their rapid and buoyant flight ; and thus they
rid us of what but for their good offices would be an intolerable
plague of flies and gnats. I may well conclude my general
account of this family in the words of good old Gilbert White of
Selborne: 'The Hirundines are a most inoffensive, harmless,
entertaining, social and useful tribe of birds ; they touch no fruit
hi our gardens ; delight (all but one species) in attaching them-
selves to our houses ; amuse us with their migrations, songs, and
marvellous agility ; and clear our outlets from the annoyance of
gnats and other troublesome insects.'

115. SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica).

There are two marks by which this species may be readily dis-
tinguished from its congeners, viz.: the long deeply- forked tail,
and rufous forehead and throat ; the plumage of the bird is a
glossy steel blue or purple black : it is often called the ' Chimney
Swallow,' and by French naturalists ' Hirondelle de cheminfe, 9
because it frequently selects a chimney for its nesting place,
though sometimes the shaft of an old mine or the rafter of

302 Hirundinidce.

an outhouse are deemed good substitutes : for the same reason
the Germans style it ' Die Ranch Schwalbe,' or ' Smoke Swallow/
and the Swedes Ladu-Svala, or ' Barn Swallow.' In Spain it is
Golondrina, and in Portugal Andoinnha. Professor Skeat says
that our word ' Swallow/ as well as the German and Danish
names for this bird, signifies * tosser about/ ' mover to and fro/
and is allied to the Greek <ra\eveu>, ' to toss up and down like a
ship at sea/

Its great power of wing enables it to visit very distant countries.
Passing the colder months of winter in the interior of Africa, as
spring advances it migrates northwards and penetrates almost to
the frozen seas and shores lying near the North Pole. In this
country we may generally observe one or two pioneers arriving in
advance of the main body ; and so regularly does this occur that
there is scarcely a European language which does not contain
the old Spanish proverb, ' One Swallow does not make summer/
Flies and gnats of many species form its constant food, and often-
times it has been seen to take a hive bee on the wing, to the
natural indignation of the bee-master : but Mr. Harting tells us
of a Swallow shot in the act of that delinquency, that was found
on dissection to have its stomach literally crammed with drones,
but not a vestige of a working bee was to be found there.*
Perhaps the sagacious bird had discovered that the former were
unprotected with stings.

In fine weather it flies so high as to be barely detected from
below, and this is a well-known signal that no storms arc at
hand ; for at such times it is in pursuit of high- soaring insects
which are wonderfully susceptible of atmospheric changes, and
descend to the earth when clouds begin to gather: when therefore
the Swallow flies low, we know that it has followed its victims
downwards, and that rain is not far off. But it is only in the
bright sunshine, and under cloudless skies, that this joyous bird
seems to exult ; then you may see it wheel through the air,
or skim over the water, and drink and bathe while on the wing,
and scatter the bright drops over its shining plumage ; and it is
* ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 124 ; ' Our Summer Migrants,' p. 172.

Swallow. 303

really sad to think how many of these happy, innocent birds fall
victims to the thoughtless persecution of youthful gunners, who
fire at them for no other object than for practice, or from wanton
thoughtlessness, regardless alike of their sufferings, their harm-
lessness, and the benefits they confer ; and one would rejoice to
see them invested here with some of the love and reverence shown
towards them by the inhabitants of Scandinavia, among whom
the following pretty legend is a familiar household tale : ' When
our Blessed Lord was crucified a little bird came and perched
upon the Cross, peered sorrowfully down upon the Sufferer, and
twittered ' Hugsvala, svala svala Honom' ' Console, console,
console Him:' and hence it obtained the name of Svala (Swal-
low). In consequence of the commiseration thus evinced by the
Swallow towards the Kedeemer, Heaven ordained that blessings
and prosperity should ever afterwards attend on those who
protected it and its nest;'* and from this tradition the honest
Norsemen considered it sinful in any way to injure or molest this
favoured bird of Heaven. In Italy, too, there is a strong feeling of
reverence for these ' Chickens of the Madonna/ as they are styled,
and nobody dreams of harming them. As the autumn draws on
and the Swallows begin to prepare for their departure, they may
be seen congregated on the roofs of houses in thousands, giving
utterance to their soft twittering note, and apparently loth to
leave the house where they have reared their young; but at
length, when the fitting moment arrives, away goes the vast flock,
steering due south, after which scarcely a straggler is to be seen.
To the question, Where do they pass the winter ? it may now be
confidently replied that the great body retreat far into the
interior of Africa ; a considerable portion prolonging their journey
to the south of the Equator, and penetrating as far as Natal,
where they arrive in November, and whence they depart in March
or April, congregating in vast numbers just before they leave the
country, alighting in crowds on trees and bushes, as if collecting
their forces before they set out on their return journey north-

Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 355.

304 Hirundinidce.

wards, just as they do here when they leave us for the South.*
Some few stragglers, however, remain in Northern Africa,
possibly weakly birds which are incapable of a prolonged flight.

11G. MARTIN (Hirundo urbiccC).

This species is even more familiar to us than the last, for
whereas that is comparatively a denizen of the country (rustica) .
this is an inhabitant of the town (urbica), and it selects the eaves
of our houses and the corners of our windows as fitting situations
for its clay-built nest ; hence the names by which it is so often
designated of ' Window Swallow/ ' Hirondelle de fen&re,' ' Haus-
schwalbe.' It may be at once distinguished from the last by
the pure white of all its under parts, and the shorter forked tail,
as well as by its smaller size and more compact shape ; it has also
a conspicuous patch of white on the back, just above the tail,
which stands out in marked contrast with the dark purple hue of
all its upper plumage : its legs and feet, too, are feathered to the
toes, in which respect it differs from its congeners ; it hunts on the
wing, wheels through the air, flocks before migration, and otherwise
comports itself like the preceding, but it does not arrive in this
country till a week or two later, probably owing to its lesser
powers of wing, and consequently inferior speed. The Martin
has generally two broods in the summer, but so strong is its
instinct to join in the general migration when the fitting period
arrives, that it often leaves its young, if hatched late in the year,
to perish in the nest, rather than endanger its own safety by delay-
ing its departure after the great body of its species has gone ; and
this apparently unnatural proceeding is not confined to one or two
isolated cases, but is found to be more or less practised every year,
and in some seasons to a very great extent. Lloyd in his
" Scandinavian Adventures' (vol. ii., p. 353) says that in Lapland
half the Martins' nests of the preceding year which he examined,
contained the remains of half-grown and abandoned young. The
.same author also observes, ' Though in England we set little value

* J. H. Gurney in Ibis for 18G3, p. 321.

Martin. 305

on this bird, such is not the case in the more northern parts of
Scandinavia, where those pests, the mosquitoes, literally swarrn ;
for knowing the destruction the Martin causes amongst them, the
inhabitants not only protect it in every way, but very commonly
fasten great numbers of scroll- shaped pieces of bark of the birch
tree, somewhat resembling the sparrow- pots in use with us, to the
sides of their habitations, for the bird to breed in.' Here, too, in
this county we have an honourable pre-eminence for rearing these
birds ; for Kennie, the editor of Montagu's Dictionary, says the
greatest number of House Martins' nests he ever saw together was
under the north eave of Mr. Heneage's stables, at Compton
Basset House, in Wiltshire. There were about fifty nests in one
continuous line. The construction of the Martin's nest is well
worthy of observation; the outer shell is composed of mud, or clay,
collected from the puddles in the road, apparently kneaded and
worked into a paste, which also derives adhesive qualities from
the saliva of the bird. Of this material, a single layer only is
placed each day on the rising structure, and is left to harden and
dry until, on the following day, it is sufficiently firm to support
another layer. When the hemispherical shell is completed, and
is well lined with hay, straw and soft feathers, an admirable
nursery for the young is provided, and one which often serves
the parent birds for many successive seasons. The saliva
mentioned above is described as a viscous fluid provided from a
glandular apparatus peculiar to this family,* and, however
repugnant to English taste and English prejudice, is the principal
ingredient of the famous edible birds' nests, so highly valued,
when transformed into a soup, by the Chinese epicure. In Italy
it is known as Rondine ; in Spain, as Vencejo ; in Portugal it
shares with the swallow the name common to both species,
Andorinha ; in Sweden it is Hus-Svala. Our word ' Martin,' in
reality a nickname, has been applied to various animals and
birds, by ourselves and Continental naturalists, as we have seen
above in the case of the Kingfisher.

* Selby's ' Illustrations of British Ornithology,' vol. i., p. 119.


306 Hirundinidce.

117. SAND MARTIN (Hirundo riparia).

This little sober-coloured bird, dusky brown above, and dull
white beneath, receives its names of * Sand Martin,' and ' Bank
Swallow,' and ' Quar Martin,' from its tendency to make its nest
in holes in the banks of rivers, on the abrupt sandbank of a deep
road-cutting, or the perpendicular side of a quarry ; in short, the
steep face of any cliff will answer the purpose, provided only the
soil be soft and sandy enough to allow of excavation to the
depth of two or three feet ; and in some favoured spots, several of
which exist in Wiltshire, the sandbanks which these birds
frequent are completely riddled with their holes for a considerable
space. So well known for ages has this habit been, that Pliny
the elder, in his great work on Natural History, applied the term
'riparia' to the Sand-Martin 1800 years ago, and it has enjoyed
the appellation ever since. In Spain, where it is sold in the
market for the table, it is called, by the country people, probably
from its desultory jerking manner of flight, Papilion di
Montayna, 'Mountain butterfly.' Many Ornithologists of modern
date divide this species from the Swallows and Martins, and give
it the generic name of Cot He, derived from the Greek *omXa?, a

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 28 of 53)