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 29 of 53)
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' twitterer' or 'prattler,' and having reference to the continued
babbling or chattering in which these little birds indulge, when
they assemble in the autumn in countless numbers to roost in
the reed-beds, after the manrer of starlings. In France it is
Hirondelle de rivage ; in Germany, Ufer-schu-albe ; in Italy,
Eondine riparia ; and in Sweden, Strand-svala all of which are
mere translations of the specific riparia. It arrives a few days
earlier than any of its congeners, and may be met with in its
favourite haunts about the second week in April, sometimes even
so early as the last week in March ; but as it is one of the first to
arrive, so it is the earliest to depart, for by the end of August or
very early in September the great body of these birds is gone, and
before the end of the latter month not" a straggler remains behind.
It differs from the Martin in its inferior size, and browner upper
plumage; the beak, though small and short, is very hard and

Common Swift. 307

sharp, and admirably adapted for digging, and indeed is the only
instrument employed in excavating the hole for the nest, the
sharp claws being required for clinging to the face of the bank, or
hanging to the roof of the half-made tunnel, while the beak per-
forates and loosens and excavates the sand. The gallery formed is
always more or less winding, sloping slightly upwards, and con-
tains a soft nest at the extremity. It skims over meadows, and
more commonly over lakes and rivers, where it finds an abundant
supply of insect food ; it also drinks and bathes as it flies, after
the manner of its congeners previously described, and is by far
the smallest of the Hirundines.

118. COMMON SWIFT (Cypsdus apus).

The scientific name of this bird (signifying ' the hole- frequenter
without feet, ') is intended to characterize its habits and appear-
ance cypselus rather obscurely denoting its habit of building in
holes of walls (/cvtylXai) ; apus referring to the shortness of its feet.
It has indeed, feet so short that they may almost be said to be want-
ing, and are quite unfit for moving on the ground, on which it never
alights, for in truth the shortness of the tarsi and the length of
wing render it unable to rise from an even surface. The toes, four in
number, are all directed forwards, giving the foot the appearance
of that of a quadruped rather than of a bird ; the claws are much
curved, enabling it to cling to the perpendicular face of a wall,
rock or tower which form its principal resting-places thus the feet,
useless for locomotion, where they are not needed, are perfect for
grasping, for which they are required. The wings are extremely
long and powerful, giving the bird astonishing swiftness and
endurance of flight, so that for sixteen consecutive hours, from the
early dawn to twilight of a long summer's day, these indefatigable
birds will career at an immense height above the earth ; and there
at such vast elevations they not only find innumerable insects
which soar so high above our heads, but what is more astonishing,
an abundance of a species of minute spider with which those
lofty regions appear to be tenanted, and of whose numbers we


308 Hirundinidcc.

occasionally form some conception when in an autumnal morning
we see the ground carpeted with the thinnest webs glistening with
moisture : these are the webs of the gossamer spider, which,
rendered heavier by the dew settling on their slender threads,
fall to the ground and cover whole acres. Sometimes, says
Professor Newton, half a dozen birds will race, within a few feet of
the ground, through the narrow lanes, or up and down the
confined courts of a small country town or village, uttering the
while their singular squeaking note, which writers have tried to
syllable swee ree. Thence it is sometimes called 'Screech Owl/
and ' Deviling.' But notwithstanding the vast powers of flight of
the Swift, prolonged through the entire day, surpassing that of
all our other birds, and with which the speed of the express train
is not to be compared for a moment, it is one of the latest of our
summer visitants to arrive, and one of the earliest to depart ; its
movements being doubtless regulated by the supply of the high-
flying insect food which it finds in the upper regions of the air.
It seems to delight most in heavy, close, thundery weather, when
it darts to and fro, screeching forth its unearthly note, and is
thought an uncanny bird by many a housewife even in this
county and in these days. Here it loves to frequent our downs in
fine weather, where it may be met with in considerable numbers ;
and in the evenings, uttering its loud and harsh scream, it wheels
round and round the tops of old towers and steeples, before
retiring to roost in their crevices and holes. Where suitable
nesting-places in church- towers or elsewhere are wanting, the
Swifts content themselves with holes in the thatch of cottages,
and both at Yatesbury and at Potterne I have seen them in full
possession of such humble nurseries. But where holes in a
tower may be had, they are occupied by choice. Nowhere have
I seen the Common Swift in such abundance as in the city of
Turin, for in the very heart of the town, not far from the Royal
Palace, and immediately opposite the Hotel d'Europe of world-
wide renown, stands a tall isolated tower, the walls of which,
unoccupied by windows, contain literally many hundreds of holes,
apparently left by the masons for scaffold purposes. All of these

Common Swift. 309

holes are in the breeding season occupied by the Swifts, and to
watch them on a summer's evening careering round the tower,
several hundreds in the air at once, as they dash by on
unwearied wing, and to listen to the wild screechings from
so many throats, is a treat which the ornithologist will look in vain
for elsewhere, and which on two separate occasions I happen to
have witnessed at Turin. Its colour, with the exception of a
dusky- white chin, is smoke-black ; its head is peculiarly flat as
well as broad, and the neck very short. It is singular that in
rough and windy weather it will not sally forth on its aerial
rambles, but contents itself in the dark in its retreat in some
tower or wall ; thus (as Bewick remarks) ' the life of the Swift
seems to be divided into two extremes the one of the most
violent exertion, the other of perfect inaction ; they must either
shoot through the air, or remain close in their holes.' Their
provincial name in Wiltshire is ' the Screech.' - In France it is
Martinet cle Muraille ; in Germany, Thurm Schwalbe ; in Italy,
Rondine maggiore volgarm, 'Common greater Swallow;' in Spain,
Avion; and in 'Portugal, Andorinhao. In Sweden it is known as the
Ring Svala from its habit of careering in circles round its nesting-
place, and the Torn Svala, or ' Tower Swallow,' from the localities
it frequents ; also the Sval Hok, or ' Swallow Hawk,' because it is
popularly believed to seize and eat up its relatives, the Swallows.
[I much regret that I cannot include in the Wiltshire list the
larger species, the 'Alpine' or 'White-bellied Swift (Cypselus
alpinus), with which I have become very familiar on the shores
of the Mediterranean and in several parts of Switzerland, for
indeed it is a bird to be admired. With longer wings and even
more powerful flight than its congener, it is, in my opinion, the
most perfect specimen of a bird formed for living in the air, and
darting on its way with the utmost velocity.]


There is no family of birds so illused by nomenclature as this ;
not only have they received a false character, and an imputation

310 CaprimulgidcB.

of crimes of which they were never guilty, but now that their
innocence has been long since clearly proved and universally
allowed, still they continue to be designated by the same oppro-
brious title ; and what an absurd idea it was, even for our marvel-
loving old naturalists, to accuse these harmless insect-eating birds
of feeding on goats' milk, to obtain which, however, they are sin-
gularly ill-adapted. Their general characteristics are : very large
head with enormous width of gape ; large, clear and full eyes, as
befit those who hunt entirely in the dark ; short neck, and very
small body ; plumage extremely soft and full ; wings and tail very
long ; the base of the bill fringed with large bristles, which they
can move at pleasure, and which are of great assistance in securing
their prey ; their feet are very small and weak, and as they are
not formed for grasping, when these birds rest on a branch, they
seldom perch transversely, but lengthwise. But their most remark-
able peculiarity is the serrated or pectinated claw of the middle
toe, the comb consisting of about seven or eight teeth, supposed
by some to be useful in removing the legs of beetles and moths
from the bristles which surround the beak, as I have more fully
detailed in my paper on the feet of birds ;* by others conjectured
to be employed in preventing the bird from slipping side ways when
sitting length-wise on a branch. The hind toe is reversible, and
can be brought round to the front, so as to make all four toes turn
the same way. The food of the Caprimulgidre consists entirely of
insects, chiefly those which fly by night, and which they then
seize in their capacious mouth as they hurry along ; indeed, as
this family has the closest affinity with the Hirundinida, they
may well be termed ' Night Swallows/ for like them they visit us
periodically from Africa in the summer, are insects-eaters, have
great powers of flight, feed on the wing, and resemble them in
many particulars of their formation and habits. It is to this
family that the American ' Whip-poor- Will/ so dreaded by the
superstitious Indians as the ghost of one of their ancestors,

' Surra,' p. 50.

Niyhtjar. 311

119. NIGHTJAR (Gaprimulg-us Europceus).
This is by far the most appropriate of the many names which
this much-belied bird has yet received, and it expresses one
of its most remarkable habits, for when perched on a tree with
its face towards the trunk, and its tail towards the outer branches,
and closely concealed by the thick foliage, which is the position
it most loves by day, or else squatted on the ground amid the
tall fern and heather, it will utter a most singular jarring or
whirring noiso, somewhat resembling the hum of a spinning-
wheel, while its head is bent down lower than the tail, and every
feather quivers as it utters its purring note. ' Night-churr/
' Wheel-bird,' and ' Spinner ' are other provincial names given in
allusion to this peculiar habit and the strange sounds it emits. It
is also known as the ' Fern-owl,' a most incorrect term and one
likely to mislead, for beyond the fact that it is crepuscular, and
therefore has soft downy plumage, and is seldom seen abroad
before ' the witching hour of twilight,' it has no affinity with the
owl family. In Norway it is called Natt Skarra, and more
popularly Jord-geed or * Ground Goat,' because (says quaint old
Bishop Pontoppidan), 'its note resembles the bleating of a goat';
which, however far-fetched, is at all events a more harmless
sobriquet than that of 'Goatsucker,' a misleading word which
implies an accusation for which there is no sort of foundation.
In France it is L'Engoulevent, and in Germany Tagscklafer. Its
body is small for its size, that is to say, much smaller than its
general appearance would lead one to imagine, for it is clothed
with such a quantity of soft light downy plumage, that it passes
for a larger bird than it really is. The marking of its feathers is
peculiarly fine and delicate ; the prevailing colours are shades of
brown, buff and gray, barred and spotted with every variety of
hue ; its immense width of gape at once distinguishes it from all
other birds, and its full dark eye and pectinated claw are very
striking features. The latter, however, belongs to the adult only ?
and is wholly wanting in the immature bird; nor is it peculiar
to this family, for the herons and the gannets share it; and
probably there are other families which are provided with a

312 Caprimulgidce.

similar instrument. It is essentially a solitary bird, seldom to bo
seen even in the company of its mate, which, however, may occasion-
ally be found perched on another tree at a short distance. Deep
woods and shaded valleys, as well as fern-clad heaths and com-
mons are its favourite haunts, wherein it can retire from the
glare of daylight, and emerge at twilight on noiseless and rapid
wing when the moths and beetles and other night-flying insects
on which it preys are abroad ; its flight is generally low, for its
victims are to be found near the ground, and it sweeps with
great ease and power round the bushes and in and out among the
trees. With a whirling phantom-like flight, wheeling round and
round, and with a power of wing (says Gilbert White), exceeding
if possible the various evolutions and quick turns of the Swallow
genus. The same accurate observer adds : ' As it was playing
round a large oak which swarmed with fern-chafers, I saw it
distinctly, more than once, put out its short leg while on the
wing, and by a bend of the head, deliver somewhat into its
mouth ; hence I do not wonder at the use of the middle toe,
which is curiously furnished with a serrated claw.'*

Amongst all our summer visitants (and their name is legion)
the Nightjar stands alone as the only nocturnal bird of the whole
assembly, and as it checks the increase of night-flying insects, as
the swallows diminish the number of those which appear by day,
it is not only harmless, but actively useful to man. It lays two
eggs on the bare ground, and to it may be attributed all the
plausible but erroneous tales of the Cuckoo (for which bird it has
often been mistaken) rearing her own young. It is to be met
with sparingly throughout the county, wherever deep woods
furnish it with shade and retirement, and even on our downs ;
it has more than once paid a visit to my plantations at Yatesbury.

This concludes the tribe of ' wide-billed ' (fissirostres), and with
it the order of 'Perchers' (Insessores) containing twenty families
and no less than ninety-three species ; all occurring more or less
frequently in Wiltshire, and each of which we have now ex-
amined. In taking leave of this large Order, we may remark how
'White's Felbjrce,' Letter xxxvii.

Night-jar. 31S

gradually we have been conducted from the strong stout limbs of
the more typical Perchers, through the Creepers, Wrens, and
Cuckoos, whose habits require no great powers of perching and
grasping, down to the Swallows, the almost footless Swift, and the
Nightjar with very diminutive and disproportionate feet and legs;
exemplifying once more what I have several times called atten-
tion to, the easy gentle transition from one Order and Family to
another, after the manner in which Nature loves to harmonize
her works ; so that now we are prepared to pass from the
Perchers to the Ground-birds (Easores) whose life is passed more
on the ground than amongst the branches, and who therefore
need a very different formation of feet from those we have lately
been considering.


RASORES (Ground-link).

THERE is no class of birds so well known, or so highly appre-
ciated generally, as the third Order of systematic naturalists, the
Rasores, or Ground- birds ; ' Scrapers/ or ' Scratchers,' as the
scientific title may be more correctly translated. It is by far the
smallest of the five orders, for the British list contains only four
families the Pigeons, the Pheasants, the Grouse and the Bustards;
and one of these families is represented by one species only in this
county, while the whole Order as known in these isles embraces
only seventeen species; fourteen of which have appeared in
Wiltshire, either as permanent residents, as regular periodical
migrants, or as occasional stragglers. So far, then, our county can
boast an unusually large catalogue of this highly prized order ;
but it will be seen in the sequel that a great proportion of this
number (I may indeed say half the species) can only be con-
sidered in the light of accidental visitors, which from one cause
or another have wandered out of their way to our inhospitable
borders, and have generally paid the penalty of their too vagrant
habits by forfeiting their lives, and yielding their skins as trophies
to some exultant ornithologist.

I have said that of all classes of the feathered race, the Ground-
birds are most generally known and valued ; and when we reflect
that they embrace the whole family of Pigeons, and the principal
part of the game birds so carefully reared and so highly prized by
the sportsman the Pheasants, the Grouse and the Partridges it
will be at once apparent that, as well for the excellent eating which

Rasores. 315

their flesh offers as for the sport which the pursuit of them entails,
they are very highly esteemed amongst us ; and consequently they
come more frequently under our notice, and their habits are more
observed and better known than is the case with any other

On this account, it will manifestly be superfluous for me
to enlarge on their general habits, which are known to all ; I
propose, therefore; to confine my remarks in this chapter to facts
and occurrences not so universally acknowledged, touching
very lightly on the ordinary economy of the Order.

Briefly, then, the characteristics of the Ground-birds are these :
they are all granivorous, though they vary this hard diet with
softer or more succulent food, as the seasons and opportunities
offer. Their beaks, adapted to the food on which they principally
subsist, are hard and horny, the upper mandible arched and the
tip blunt ; their heads are generally small, and their bodies large
and full ; their wings short and weak in proportion to their heavy
bodies ; and their legs large and strong. But the real distinguish-
ing characteristic of the Order, which indeed is, I believe, the
only general mark of distinction peculiar to this group, is an
anatomical one, and is derived from the digestive organs. It may
be described in plain terms as a very large widening of the
oesophagus or gullet, which thus forms a crop, and lies, when dis-
tended, equally on both sides of the neck.

In regard to their habits, they live principally on the ground,
where they seek their food, where most of them nest and rear
their young ; from which they are often unwilling to rise, impeded
by the shortness of wing in proportion to the bulkiness of body,
but over which they can run with considerable swiftness and ease.
They will, however, on occasion take wing, and then their flight is
strong, rapid, and continued, though heavy and somewhat
laborious. In short, unless when startled, they for the most part
prefer to seek safety in running rather than in flying. To this
end we shall find in the more typical members of this Order a
development of limb and a strength of muscle well calculated for
speed and endurance ; while the feet are constructed upon a

31 G Columbidce.

plan widely different from what we see in other birds, ' the toes
being short, and strengthened by a membrane connecting them
at the base, with the hind toe either entirely wanting or but im-
perfectly developed. Where this latter does exist, it is not
articulated upon the same plane as the other toes (as is the case
with the preceding Orders), but upon the tarsus, at a height
greater or less according to the running powers of the species.'*
It is true that this peculiar formation of the foot impedes tho
members of this Order from grasping a perch with the same
firmness and security as the regular perchers, and for this reason
most of them roost upon the ground.

Such are the more prominent characteristics of the Ground-
birds; I pass on now to describe the four families and their
respective species of which this Order is composed.


It will at once be seen that the Doves occupy an intermediate
place between the Perchers and the Ground-birds ; and are the
connecting link, partaking of the peculiarities of both : thus,
though they feed on the ground, they perch readily on trees; and
though they walk with ease and even celerity, yet they have a
strong, rapid and protracted flight. Thus we pass gradually and
almost insensibly from the true Perchers to the typical Ground-
birds, for Nature abhors an abrupt wrench as much as a vacuum,
and all is orderly, gentle, and harmonious in her arrangement, and
we slide on from order to order, and from family to family,
and genus and species in successive steps, with no break to
disconnect the regular links in our continuous chain. This is
sufficiently perceptible in the Doves, even in the limited number
of species which belong to this country, and almost all of which
(or four out of five) are known in Wiltshire. But if we were
to extend our observations through the multitudinous species
and even genera which inhabit other countries, we should see this
rule very much more applicable, for the Pigeons form a vast

c Selby's ( Illustrations of British Ornithology,' vol. i., p. 403.

Ring- Dove. 317

staircase of species leading from the trees to the ground, some
being thoroughly arboreal, living and nesting on the trees, and
enjoying a rapidity of flight almost unsurpassed ; whilst others
at the opposite end of the list are as completely terrestrial ; with
wings as short and bodies as heavy and as incapable of pro-
tracted flight as our domestic poultry, and indeed distinguished
from the rest of their tribe by the appellation of Pigeon fowls.

To return, however, to our Wiltshire species, all of which belong
to one genus, and partake of the same nature. We shall find
them gentle, timid, shy, of powerful wing, of slender bill, and
of short leg. They feed on the ground, and both sexes alter-
nately take part in incubating the two eggs which is the normal
complement of the nest. Their notes are singularly sad and
melancholy, and though they vary much in the different species,
all partake of this mournful plaintive character, which, however,
is by no means unpleasing, but, on the contrary, rather attractive,
soothing and pleasant. Their conjugal fidelity is proverbial, and
from the days of Noah they have been honoured as the har-
bingers of peace and love, both by Pagans of Home and Greece
as sacred to Yenus, and by Christians as emblematic of the Holy
Spirit. I am bound to add that at certain seasons they are
a destructive race of birds, making great havoc in the pea-
fields, and consuming an astonishing amount of grain ; but
while I concede thus much in regard to the injury they do to the
farmer, it must not be forgotten on the other hand the essential
service they render him, in the millions of seeds of a noxious
character which they consume. This family is remarkable for the
habit, in which all the members which compose it share, of being
among the first to retire to roost, and the last to leave their night-
quarters in the morning.

120. RING DOVE (Columba palwmbus).

First and foremost of its congeners, as the largest of the
European species, and commonly dispersed amongst us, wherever
trees afford it a shelter, the Wood-Pigeon claims our notice. In
some parts of England it is known as the Quest or Cushat Dove ;

318 Columbidce.

but the Wiltshire labourers invariably call it, in our fine provincial
dialect, the ' Quisty.' It may readily be distinguished from its
congeners by the white feathers which partially encircle its neck,
and are very conspicuous, hence the specific name in English and
other languages ; in Germany, Ringel Taube ; in Spain, Paloma-
torcaz ; in Portugal, Pombo-trocaz ; in Sweden, Ring-Dufva ;
but in France it is Colombe-ramier, and in Italy Columbaccio.
Professor Skeat says that the real meaning of ' Dove ' is ' a diver/
During the autumn beech-mast and acorns form the principal
part of its diet, when its flesh is highly esteemed for the table ;
but no sooner does severe weather compel it to subsist on
the tops of turnips, than it becomes strong and rank and uneat-
able. Mr. Cordeaux says that it is remarkably partial to salt,
and that in his neighbourhood on the East Coast of England,
it frequents the drams in the salt-marsh for the purpose of drink-
ing the brackish water left by the tide.* It is abundant through-
out the county, and, except when breeding, is proverbially wild
and shy. It lives with us throughout the year, and congregates
in winter in large flocks, which frequent the open stubble-fields of
our downs, as well as the pasture-lands of the vales. Moreover, it

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 29 of 53)