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 3 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 3 of 53)
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relative positions they occupy ; and in order to do this, we must
devote a little attention, which will be amply repaid by the
result. In Ornithology, as in other sciences, we must not
attempt to run before we can walk ; we must not rush headlong
in medias res. Step by step we must be contented to advance ;
but our way will not be weary, if we give attention to surmount
the little obstacles which at first sight seem to oppose us ; our
journey will not be irksome if we pause to smooth away the little
inequalities of the path ; and the more we advance, the easier

Classification. 9

becomes the way, the smoother the road, till at length we find
ourselves unencumbered by hindrances, and surrounded by all
the sweets and pleasures of this most fascinating study.

Now, one of the very first requirements in every branch ot
Natural History is method; one of the most indispensable is order:
without this, it will be impossible to progress ; and Ornithology,
like a skein of silk, which, if handled with due care is easily un-
wound, deprived of method soon becomes a tangled mass of
knots, which defy the skill of the extricator to unravel them.
The very first lesson, then, that we must learn, and one which
we must never forget if we would know anything of Ornithology,
is a little insight into the classification of birds, whereby what
before seemed hopeless confusion becomes, by the touch of this
magic wand, the very perfection of order. There seems, at first
sight, to be a wide difference between the majestic swan and the
diminutive tree-creeper, between the lordly eagle and the insig-
nificant sparrow, between the noble bustard and the tiny wren ;
but by methodical arrangement we see how link succeeding link,
and species connected by the strongest affinity with species, they
are all integral parts of the same great chain ; united by many
intermediate bands, but still component parts of the same great
whole. Nay, not only so, but, by the help of classification, we
can not only assign to each bird, quadruped, insect, fish, or
reptile its own appropriate place, but. beginning with the noblest
of God's creatures, with man, we can pass gradually through all
the animal kingdom, stopping to admire with what excellent
method, and by what almost insensible degrees, the race of
quadrupeds merges into that of birds ; how the race of birds is
intimately connected with fishes, fishes with reptiles, reptiles
with insects, insects with animals of inferior order, and these
again with the vegetable, and as some affirm even the
mineral kingdom. These are surely wondrous facts, and of
exceeding interest : to follow up and pursue this chain requires
time indeed, and skill and opportunities, such as few can com-
mand; but to gain an insight into this beautiful order and
arrangement is within the reach of all ; and the more we inves-

10 Introduction.

tigate it, the more we shall learn how true it is of the Almighty
Creator, that ' God is not the Author of confusion, but of peace.'

Before I proceed to examine in detail the method of classifying
birds, as generally practised by our standard writers on the sub-
ject, it may be of interest briefly to trace the several stages by
which it has arrived at its present excellence.

Among ancient writers on Natural History, there are but two,
viz., Aristotle and Pliny, who have professed to give any general
description of birds ; and interesting, and in some cases instruc-
tive, as their treatises in many respects certainly are, they are
mixed up with such a mass of absurdity and fable as very much
to mar their intrinsic value. In that early stage of ornithological
knowledge, of course anything approximating to systematic
arrangement was not to be expected. But to come down to more
modern times, the first approach to order is traced to Belon and
the French naturalists, who in the middle of the sixteenth
century began to classify after a certain system. As the ground-
work of their scheme was, however, derived from the habitat and
food of birds, it was necessarily in many respects very incorrect.
In the next century Gesner, at Zurich, and Aldrovandus, at
Bologna, struck out a plan in the right direction, by dividing the
whole class into land and water birds ; but then, as if satisfied
with this good beginning, they deduced their subordinate divi-
sions from the nature of the aliment. It was reserved for our
own countryman, Willoughby, at the latter end of the seven-
teenth century, to lay the foundation of a more accurate arrange-
ment ; for, accepting the grand divisions already laid down, of
terrestrial and aquatic, he made his subdivisions from inquiries
into the general form and structure, and especially from the dis-
tinctive characters of the beak and feet ; still he seems to have
been unable to shake off completely the prejudices of his time,
for he allows varieties in size, the different kinds of food, and
such trivial things to bias him in his arrangement. Ray and
Pennant followed up the course so well begun by Willoughby,
and the close of the last century saw this systematic arrangement
from the anatomical structure of birds very generally established.

Classification. 1 1

Since that time all the numerous systems of classification have
proceeded from the same principle of structure. Various, indeed,
have they been, adopted by ornithologists of this and other
countries ; some fanciful, as the ' Quinary System/ or ' series of
circles/ established by Vigors ; others complicated and puzzling
from their needless minuteness ; others positively erroneous, as
a farther acquaintance with birds has shown ; but the method
which I here set forth, adopted by modern ornithologists, and
more particularly by those of this country, has this great advan-
tage over all that have preceded it, in addition to its superior
accuracy, that it is simple and plain, as well as comprehensive ;
neither from over minuteness burdening the memory unneces-
sarily, nor from an opposite extreme of indefiniteness leaving any
deficiency or doubt. This, moreover, is the system adopted by
Yarrell, Hewitson, and the principal British ornithologists of the
present day.*

To proceed, then, with the classification of birds, I must repeat
what I touched on in a previous page, that birds are commonly
placed in two grand divisions, viz., ' Land Birds/ or those whose
habitat is the land ; and ' Water Birds/ or those which princi-
pally court the water, as their names respectively imply. These
are two great classes, separating our British birds into two nearly
equal parts ; the number of Land Birds amounting to 199, the
Water Birds to 176 species.

The first great division of these two classes is into the five
' Orders,' the members of which are of somewhat similar habits
and formation, and partake of the same general characteristics.

Of these five, the first is the ' Kaptorial ' order, composed of
those birds usually known as ' birds of prey ;' and, as their
natural habit is, the destruction of the feebler tribes and the
smaller animals, they have been most mercilessly persecuted by
man in all countries. This continual persecution will easily
account for their rarity and their habitual shyness, seldom ven-

I should add that though I now confine my observations to birds of this
country, yet the same arrangement applies equally to birds generally
throughout the globe.

12 Introduction.

turing near the habitation of inan, and always taking flight at
the distant approach of their great enemy. Still, sometimes in
our great woods or thick enclosures, and often on our open
downs, the most unobservant must have seen the Hawk hovering
with expanded wings high in the air, or dashing in pursuit after
fi luckless bird, or pouncing with unerring aim on some unfortu-
nate mouse. The most careless must have occasionally heard
the wild hooting or the unearthly shriekings of the Owl, as it has
hurried past in search of prey in the shades of evening. The
principal characteristics of this order are the long and curved
claws, the hooked and powerful bill, the muscular limbs, the
great strength, the predatory habits, the love of animal food ;
these are traits so marked and peculiar, that it will require but
little discrimination to distinguish birds belonging to this order
from all the others.

The second embraces those innumerable small birds which are
so familiar to all of us ; and contains a much larger number of
species than either of the other four orders. These are the
' Insessores,' or 'perching birds,' which fill our woods and gardens,
abound in our fields, and may be met with at every turn in our
daily walks. They possess far more intelligence than birds of
any other class, are remarkable for the vocal powers with which
some of them are endowed ; but especially derive their name
from the perfect form of the foot, which is so admirably adapted
for perching or grasping, and in which the hind toe is always
present. When we come to examine the subdivisions" of this
order, we shall find that the ' Insessores ' comprise birds varying
greatly from one another in habits and general appearance ; yet
all belonging to this division partake of the grand distinguishing
features which I have shown to be characteristic of it.

The third order contains the 'Rasores,' or 'ground birds,'
comprehending all such as being land birds, and yet not being
birds of prey, and not having feet perfectly adapted to perching,
obtain the principal part of their food upon the ground ; their
wings in general are short, and they are not capable of such
extended flight as belongs to members of the two preceding

Classification. 13

orders ; but in lieu of this they are provided with very strong
limbs and powerful muscles, and with short toes, enabling them
to run with great swiftness. This division does not contain any
great number of species, and yet as many of them are sought for
by the epicure, and others still more by the sportsman, there is,
perhaps, no class of birds the habits and general nature of which
are so generally known as this. When I mention that the
' Kasores ' include not only all the gallinaceous birds, as our
Barn-door Fowls, but also Partridges, Pheasants, and Grouse,
the truth of this statement will be at once seen. As all the
members of this order are extremely good for food, a beneficent
Providence has caused them to be very productive, and the
number of eggs to a nest is usually very considerable.

The fourth order begins the other great division, viz., the
' Water Birds/ and comprises those numerous aquatic birds
which, not having webbed feet, and so not being perfectly framed
for swimming and diving, nevertheless are formed for living
partly in the water, and generally procure their food from wet
and marshy places, if not from rivers, lakes, and the sea-shore.
These are the ' Grallatores,' or ' waders,' and are distinguished
from the land birds by their habits, as well as by the length of
leg and neck so fitted for their aquatic ways ; also by the forma-
tion of their feet, so admirably adapted for wading on soft mud,
for running lightly over water-plants, and enabling them to
move easily in their accustomed haunts. The Herons, Snipes,
and Plovers may serve as examples of this class.

The fifth and last order contains the true water birds, whose
domain is essentially the sea, or the inland lake and large river.
These are bond fide inhabitants of the water, passing nearly all
their time there, retiring far away from land as day approaches,
feeding in the sea, sleeping on the sea, and only occasionally
visiting the shore. These are the ' Natatores/ or ' swimmers,'
whose boat-shaped bodies and webbed feet attest their remark-
able powers of swimming and diving, and render it impossible to
mistake them as belonging to any other order. From the posi-
tion and extent of the British Islands, the birds which comprise

14 Introduction.

this division are very numerous on our coasts, as anyone will at
once acknowledge who has seen the clouds of ducks, gulls, etc.,
darkening the sea-shore in the autumn.

Such, then, being a sketch of the five great orders of birds, and
such the characteristics of each, the lines of demarcation between
them seems so broad and well defined that one might almost be
inclined to doubt the possibility of confusing them. Yet (as I
before remarked) in nature there seem to be no sudden transi-
tions ; no rapid jumps from one kind to another ; no gaps between
them ; all is done gradually and with becoming method ; we are
led almost insensibly from one order to another, so much does
the last species of one assimilate to the first species of the next.
Thus, for instance, when passing from the first to the second,
from the birds of prey to the perchers, see the connecting link
between the two, so ably sustained by the Shrikes or Butcher-
birds. Perchers, indeed, they are, with feet as perfect for grasp-
ing as any in the class ; at the same time, how like to the birds
of prey in their habits, in their cruel method of seizing, impaling
on a thorn, and devouring their victims. Again, in passing from
the perchers to the ground birds, mark the Pigeons. What a
connecting link between the two orders do they form; some
partaking of the character of true ' Insessores,' others approxi-
mating in every respect to the ' Rasores.' Or, again, in passing
from the third to the fourth, from the ground birds to the
waders, how slight is the boundary, how gentle the transition
from the Bustards to the Plovers ; compare the smaller Bustard,
the last of one order, and the great Plover, the first of the next,
and how much do they resemble each other, how little the differ-
ence to mark the two divisions, how similar in their appearance,
their shape, their habits, the locality they affect. And once
more, though the webbed feet of the last order may seem at first
sight so plain and distinguishing a characteristic as to leave little
room for gradual transition here, between the waders and
swimmers, yet it is not so : observe the well-known Coot and the
Phalaropes ; mark their peculiar feet, furnished with membranes,
though not wholly webbed, their decidedly aquatic habits, their

Classification. 15

powers of swimming and diving, and by their intervention see
how easily we pass from the true waders to the true swimmers.
Thus we are led on from order to order, not suddenly or uncon-
nectedly, but gradually and almost insensibly, proving to us the
perfect harmony of all the works of nature, while at the same
time we can trace sufficient marks of distinction to prevent any
real confusion.

Having detailed somewhat at length the method pursued in
this first great subdivision of the Land and Water birds, I now
proceed to show more concisely in what the other subdivisions
consist. At present we may be able to define the order to
which any given bird may belong, but we are still very far from
placing it in that particular position which alone it is entitled to

The next great subdivision of birds is into ' Tribes,' which will
not occupy us long ; for, of the five orders, it is usual to pass by
four, as not needing this subdivision, and to apply it only to that
very large one, the ' Insessores,' or ' perchers.' These birds being
so numerous, and withal so similar in some of their habits, have
nevertheless certain marked characteristics, distinguishing at one
glance the ' tribe ' to which they belong, and thus very much
simplifying their classification. The perchers, then, are divided
into four tribes, the first of which is the 'Dentirostres,' or
' tooth-billed' so called from the distinct tooth or notch near the
extremity of the bill, enabling the bird to hold securely whatever
it may seize ; it is chiefly composed of insect-eating birds, and of
these the Kedbreast is an example. The second is the 'Coni-
rostres,' or ' cone-billed' so called from the conical form, as well
as immense strength of the beak; these birds are principally
consumers of grain, as an instance of which we may name the
common House-sparrow. The third comprises the ' Scansores,'
or 'climbers? the members of which are remarkable for their
power of climbing, and to this end they are furnished with toes
arranged in pairs, with stiff bristling tail to serve as a support,
with tongues capable of great elongation and extension, whereby
they may transfix the insects they find in the trees they are

16 Introduction.

ascending ; of this the Wood-peckers are examples. The fourth
and last tribe is composed of the ' Fissirostres,' or ' wide-billed'
so called from their enormous width of gape ; these have usually
very small feet, and take their food principally on the wing ;
everyone will readily perceive how well the Swallows answer to-
this description.

Having now reached the point at which the four tribes of
perchers are on an equality with the remaining four entire
orders, we come to subdivide these several classes into 'Families/
The word 'families' describes itself at once : these, it will clearly
be perceived, are groups of birds belonging to the same order
and tribe, and having still nearer affinities one to another, not
shared by members of another family, though belonging to the
same order and tribe. Thus, for example, the tribe ' tooth-
billed' is composed of a number of families the thrushes, the
warblers, the titmice, etc. all resembling one another in the
formation of their beak, and other characteristics of the tribe ;
but each family containing distinctive marks, separating them
from the remaining families, and uniting them in a closer
alliance to one another.

When we have mastered the classification of birds up to this
point, we have attained no slight knowledge of their arrange-
ment ; but again we must pursue our inquiries a little further,
and subdivide these families into 'Genera.' Of these each family
contains a certain number, some more, some less, the members
of each genus having still further points of resemblance between
them than with those of other genera, though of the same family.
Thus to take, for example, the warblers, sylviadce : in this
family there is the genus curruca, containing the ' whitethroats ;'
the genus regulus, containing the 'golden-crested wrens;' the
genus saxicola,' containing the 'chats.' Thus, again, of the
family of grouse, there is the genus tetrao, containing the real
' grouse ;' the genus lagopus, containing the ' ptarmigans ;' the
genus perdix, containing the ' partridges.'

And so again in like manner, to come to the last subdivision,
which concludes the arrangement of birds according to scientific

Classification. 17

classification ; every genus contains certain ' Species,' differing
from one another in some respects, the points of difference being
sometimes marked and clear, at other times slight, and hardly
perceptible. Thus, as the family of grouse contains among others
the genus ' partridge/ so the genus partridge in its turn comprises
these several species, the ' common partridge,' the ' red-legged
partridge,' and the 'Barbary partridge.' Again, as the family
of warblers contains among others the genus 'chat,' so the
genus chat contains the ' whinchat,' the ' stonechat/ and the
' wheatear.'

It will be needless to pursue this explanation any farther, but
I refer to the table, recapitulating the above method of classi-
fication, and enumerating the several species of birds known in
Wiltshire, each in its own appointed place.

Such, then, is a general outline of modern classification as
commonly adopted in this country. I am quite aware that the
above description of it is far from perfect, and some of the sub-
divisions may to the experienced seem defective : to enter into
further detail would have occupied too much time, and have
produced obscurity and confusion; and perhaps, for practical
purposes, what I have said will be amply sufficient. Volumes
and treatises without number have been written on the subject,
and our best Ornithologists have employed a vast deal of time
and learning to bring it to perfection : the above is but a short
epitome of the result of their labours. To those who care
nothing for the science of Ornithology, I fear the repetition of
so many hard names may seem irksome ; but to those who would
learn something of birds, I am certain it is no loss of time to
gain an insight into their classification ; for an acquaintance
with this will pave the way to their future studies, simplifying
what would otherwise be abstruse, laying bare what would
otherwise be hidden, and unravelling what must otherwise be
complicated : for (as I observed at the beginning, now I repeat
once more) order and method are the very foundation stones
of natural history : we can never arrive at any advanced know-
ledge of birds without them ; we may be able, indeed, to detect


18 Introduction.

some species on the ground, on the wing, or by their notes ; we
may have some acquaintance with their respective habits and
peculiarities, but till we can place them in their own positions,
classify them with something of order, arrange them in reference
to their congeners with something of method, our knowledge
and observations will be of small avail in teaching us the secrets
of Ornithology; and we shall fall short in understanding the
beautiful balance held by nature; the general connection be-
tween birds of the same order and tribe; the more intimate
connection between those of the same family; the close union
between those of the same genus; and the almost insensible
degrees by which they pass from one to another, all of which
are subjects of exceeding interest to the careful observer ; and
our Ornithological knowledge, instead of being comprehensive,
will be desultory; instead of being valuable, will be defective;
instead of being useful, will be productive of neither instruction
nor pleasure.


In regard to nomenclature. As with the arrangement and
order, so with the names of the birds, I have generally followed
that of Yarrell, with which I am most familiar ; but, indeed, the
strange names under which some of the most common birds are
now hidden, appear to my old-fashioned notions a positive
calamity. I confess to a very strong opinion on this point, and
I would vehemently protest, if that were of any avail in so
humble and unlearned an individual, against the prevalent
multiplication of genera and the consequent infliction of new
and unaccustomed names. In my judgment, the one essential
requisite in regard to the name of a bird is that it should be that
by which it may most readily be distinguished ; and to that end
the name of a species once generally adopted should never, unless
in some very exceptional case, be laid aside. Wherefore Mr.
Seebohm's plan, as adopted in his admirable work on the
' History of British Birds,' commends itself to my mind very
strongly ; and if I were starting afresh, instead of in some sense

Nomenclature. 19

reprinting, I should be very much disposed to adopt his simple
plan of accepting the specific name auctorum plurimorum, or
that which has been most used by previous writers. It has long
been a very sore subject of complaint against English ornitholo-
gists, on the part of foreigners amateurs as well as dealers that
whereas every bird is generally known all over Europe under one
acknowledged name, which is recognised everywhere, the English
alone substitute another at will, which completely destroys its
recognition. This complaint I have often listened to in France
and Germany in former years ; but what will now be said, when
so many even of the most familiar birds are re-named ? Having
thus relieved my mind by expressing a very decided opinion I
hope not too presumptuously I proceed to point out that I have
taken some pains to ascertain the meaning of the names given to
birds, where not at first sight apparent, not confining my atten-
tion to the generic and specific names only, but extending my
inquiries to those which are provincial, both in our own and
neighbouring foreign countries ; for the name, whether delibe-
rately bestowed on a species by the scientific author, or affixed to
it locally as a nickname, generally describes some peculiarity, or
alludes to some characteristic habit or appearance.


I come now to the general structure of birds, upon which a few
words should be said ; but I would at the outset premise that I
am not going to enter into any learned disquisition on their
internal economy, or start any new theory regarding their shape
or their functions. I propose merely to give a plain statement of

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 3 of 53)