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 30 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 30 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

has increased very much in numbers of late, for the hawks which
used to persecute it are well-nigh exterminated by the game-
keepers, and large additions are made to its ranks every autumn
by the migration of vast flocks from the Continent. When it
retires to the plantations to breed in early spring, its soft musical
cooing note coo-coo-roo-o-o-o, is a complacent sound to which all
listen with delight. The nest is of the flimsiest character, and looks
a most insecure receptacle for eggs or young, for it is composed of
such scanty material that its contents may often be seen through
it from below. Our fellow-countryman, Montagu, gives the
following curious legend regarding it : ' The Magpie once under-
took to teach the Pigeon how to build a more substantial
and commodious dwelling ; but, instead of being a docile pupil,
the Pigeon kept on repeating her old cry of " Take two, Taffy,
take two !" The Magpie insisted that this was a very unwork-
' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 77.


manlike manner of proceeding, one stick at a time being as much
as could be managed to advantage ; but the Pigeon reiterated her
" Two, take two !" till Mag, in a violent passion, gave up the task,
exclaiming, " I say that one at a time is enough ; and if you think
otherwise, you may set about the work yourself, for I will have no
more to do with it." Since that time the Wood-Pigeon has built
her slight platform of sticks, which certainly suffers much in com-
parison with the strong substantial structure of the magpie. There
is another legend with regard to this bird in the North Riding of
Yorkshire, where it is said that * once upon a time, the Ring-Dove
laid its eggs upon the ground, and that the Peewit made its nest
on high ; but that one day they agreed to make an exchange of
their localities for building. Hence the Peewit may now be heard
expressing its disappointment at the new arrangement with the
mournful cry

'Peewit, peewit.
I coup'd ray nest, and I rue it.'

The Wood-Pigeon, however, rejoices that she is safe out of the
reach of mischievous boys, and repeats

' Coo, coo, come now,
Little lad,
With thy gad
Come not thou.'*

121. STOCK-DOVE (Columba cenas).

Though by no means a rare bird, this species has been much
overlooked by ordinary observers, and confounded with its con-
gener last described. It is, however, to be met with in most of
our large woods in this county, and may be readily distinguished
from the Wood-Pigeon by its smaller size, and by the absence of
the distinctive white ring on the neck which has given its name
to the Ring-Dove. It derives its specific name cenas from the
vinous hue of the plumage of the neck, and Stock-Dove from its
habit of building on the pollard head or stock of a tree, hence
its German name Holztaube, or 'Wood-Dove;' but where such
trees are not to be found, it will content itself with some rabbit-
* Dyer's ' English Folk-lore,' p. 93.

320 Columbidcv.

burrow or the shelter of a thick furze-bush. In Scandinavia it
goes by the name of Skogs Dufva, or ' Wood-Dove,' whereas our
* Wood-Pigeon ' is Ring-Dufva. It returns every year to build
its nest amongst the thick ivy which covers one side of the
Rectory at Yatesbury, and I have satisfied myself that it has very
much increased in numbers with us within the last quarter of a
century. It does not coo like its congener, but has a distinct
note of its own a prolonged drawling note, which has been not
inaptly compared to a grunt. In general habits and in food the
two species are alike. In France it is Colombe colombin, and in
Italy Columlella; in Spain and Portugal it appears to have
no distinguishing name, but shares in that of its congener, C.

122. ROCK-DOVE (Columba lima).

This is the true wild Pigeon, the origin of all the numerous
varieties which inhabit our dovecots, and have been domesticated
amongst us for ages. Its natural dwelling is amongst the caves
and crevices of rocks, more particularly on the sea coast ; but it
occasionally comes inland, and used to breed in the rocks near
Roundway, whence the late Mr. Withers, the skilful taxidermist
of Devizes, frequently received a specimen for preservation. It
is of very rapid flight, and feeds, like its congeners, in the stubble
and corn-fields as well as in the meadows. It derives its specific
name livia from the lighter ' lead ' colour which distinguishes it
from other species, and it may also be easily recognised by the
two distinct black bars which traverse its wings and the pure
white on the lower part of the back. In Spain it is Paloma
brava, ' Wild Pigeon ;' in Portugal, Pombo, ' the Pigeon ;' in
Sweden, Klipp Dufva, 'Rock-Dove;' in Germany, Haustaube,
' House Pigeon ;' and in France, Colombe biset. In the localities
which it most affects in the cliffs which border so many of our
coasts it may be found in large flocks ; but in North Africa and
Egypt, the prodigious numbers which literally swarm in certain
districts are perfectly astonishing in proof of which I may add,
that in a couple of hours' shooting it was easy to bag forty head ;

Rock-Dove. 321

and that on one occasion, when I was requested by the dragoman
to procure pigeons for the commissariat, a lucky shot with a
green cartridge into a flock feeding on the ground resulted in
picking up twenty birds, which at once filled the basket, to the
inexpressible disgust of the Arab attendant, whose duty it was to
carry the load through a long day's march and under a tropical
sun to the Nile boat. That it is a very old inhabitant of Egypt
is clear from the hieroglyphics, in which it may be unmistakably
recognised notably at the temple of Medinet Haboo, at Thebes,
whereof the date is given as early as B.C. 1297.*

The late Mr. Waterton pointed out that the Rock-Dove,
though it would freely perch by day, was never known to roost
on trees during the night, nor to pass the night in the open air,
except in cases of the greatest emergency, showing its natural
propensity to retire to holes and caves in the rocks ; hence its
great attachment to the dovecot in which it is bred, which it
seldom deserts without great provocation. There are instances
of the lower stage of church-towers, immediately below the bells,
having been originally built for a ' Columbarium/ of which we have
one example at Collingbourn Ducis, in this county ; and as there
is scarcely another example in England, I am glad to add a few
details, for which I am indebted to the rector, the Rev. Canon
Hodgson. ' The dovecote in our church-tower/ he says, ' is
evidently part of the original structure. In Mr. A. Blomfield's
" Report on the Church prior to its restoration in 1877," he
describes it thus : " The western tower is a substantial structure
of late Perpendicular date, and has some interesting features.
The walls of the clock stage are constructed with internal niches,
so as to form a dovecote or pigeon-house, an entrance (now
closed) being left on the south side." This entrance is an
aperture through the south wall of the tower, two feet wide by
one and a half feet high, with dripstone above and alighting-
ledge below. It is boarded up on the inside to prevent birds
from getting in and damaging the clock-works. The niches go
all round the inside walls, except where the doorway is at the
Adams in Ibis for 1864, p. 26.


322 Columbidce.

top of the well staircase. Each niche is about six inches square.'
I am told that another instance occurs at the tower adjoining
the ruined chapel of Charter House Hinton, near Bath, the
lower part of which was originally intended for the priest's
residence, and the birds dwelt above him. In this case also the
east, north, and west sides are fitted up with pigeon-holes, and a
small square opening in the south wall admitted the birds.

123. TURTLE-DOVE (Columba turtur).

This beautiful little species is the only migrant of the family

with which we in this county are acquainted. It does not come

to us till the beginning of May, and leaves us early in September ;

but during that short period it abounds in those spots which

please its tastes, though it is fastidious in its choice, and is by

no means universally distributed. In my own plantations on

the downs it is extremely abundant, and its annual appearance

in the spring is to me a welcome reminder of approaching

summer. It is very much smaller than its congeners, has a

delicate appearance, and its note is peculiarly plaintive. Like

all others of the Dove tribe, it flocks in autumn, though seldom

in considerable numbers. I have, however, seen above a hundred

feeding together in a stubble-field. There is a beautiful legend

in Scandinavia respecting the Turtle-dove, not unlike that of the

swallow, quoted in a former page from Lloyd's admirable work.

* When our blessed Saviour was crucified, the Turtle-dove for a

while hovered around the fatal tree and at length perched there.

When looking mournfully down on the Sufferer it sighed deeply,

and gave utterance to its plaintive kurrie, kurrie, kurrie that

is, " Lord, Lord, Lord." Since that time it has never more been

joyful, but has constantly winged its flight around the world

repeating its sorrowful cry.'* Hence the sportsman's term a

dule of Turtles, as he would say a covey of partridges, or a wisp

of snipe, the word ' dule ' being derived from the Latin dolco, l to

grieve.' Professor Skeat says that turtur is of imitative origin,

* Lloyd's 'Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 3G1.

The Pheasants. 323

due to a repetition of tur, imitative of the coo of a pigeon.
From this cornes the French TowrtereUe, the German Tuvtel-
taiibe, the Italian Tortora, the Spanish Tortola, the Swedish
Turtur D-ufva; but whence comes the Portuguese Rola I do not


This family will not occupy us long, inasmuch as it contains
but one species known in England, and that one almost in a,
state of semi-domestication ; and consequently its habits and
economy thoroughly well known : for I pass over the Turkey of
American origin, and the domestic fowl and Peacock of Indian
birth, as having no claim to a place in the fauna of Wiltshire.
I will but call attention, in passing, to the difference in plumage
which the sexes of this family exhibit; to their polygamous
habits ; to the precocious nature of the young birds, which are
no sooner hatched from the shell than they can follow their
parents and feed themselves ; to their custom of dusting their
feathers in any dry heap they can find; and to the horny,
conical, and sharp spur with which the tarsus of male birds of
th$is family is furnished. They derive their name, like other
descendants of ancient and honourable lineage, from their an-
cestral seat on the banks of the Phasis, in Colchis, which flows
from the Caucasus into the Black Sea at its extreme eastern
point, and from Asia Minor, whence Jason is said to have im-
ported them into Europe. It is not improbable that the Komans
introduced the Pheasant into England. It is certain that it
was protected by the laws of the country at a very early period,
from the following extract from Dugdale's ' Monasticon Angli-
canum': 'That in the first year of Henry I. (A.D. 1100) the
Abbot of Amesbury obtained a license to kill pheasants.'*

124. PHEASANT (Phasianus Colchicus).

Alone of this family is entitled to demand admission into tho
ranks of British birds ; for though originally of foreign extrac-
' Science Gossip' for 1884, p. 243.


324 Phasianidce.

tion, as I have shown, this handsome species has not only
become in course of time thoroughly acclimatized, and capable
of enduring our most severe winters, but completely naturalized,
and able, when left to itself, to thrive and multiply in a wild
state in our woods. Though grain and seeds form its food in
winter, it feeds largely on insects and roots during the remainder
of the year ; but it is seldom considered in how great a degree
it compensates for the partial injury it causes by the undoubted
benefit it confers in thus ridding the land of noxious pests. I
do not of course allude to those cases where the species is en-
couraged to multiply to excess; when the balance of nature
being destroyed, confusion ensues as a necessity, as would be the
result in the unnatural multiplication of almost any species in
the whole animal kingdom. As a proof of its wholesale con-
sumption of injurious insects, I may mention that in the crop
of a cock Pheasant were found 852 larva? of tipulw, or ' crane
flies,' and from that of a hen Pheasant were taken no less than
1,225 of these destructive lame.*

During winter the males congregate, but separate to their
several domains as spring draws on. Many sportsmen have
endeavoured to assign to a distinct species the Ring-necked, the
Bohemian, and the Pied varieties of this bird, but as these
variations are by no means permanent or hereditary, ornitho-
logists have wisely declined to admit them to any separate rank.
The Pheasant has an innate shyness or timidity, which nothing
seems able to overcome; though reared under a domestic hen,
and though fed from the hand from its earliest days, it never
attains confidence, but hurries to the shelter of thick cover at
the first symptom of alarm. Though it retires to roost on the
branches of trees, when once disturbed from the position it has
taken up it does not attempt to perch again during the re-
mainder of the night ; but on such occasions will crouch in the
longest grass and under the densest bramble it can find. It
crows, or ' chuckles,' on the least provocation, not only on retir-
ing to roost and at early dawn, but during the night as well as
c ' ' Science Gossip ' for 1884, p. 2G6.

Capercaillie. 325

during the day when any unusual noise disturbs it ; and a sudden
clap of thunder will cause every pheasant in the wood to sound
his call-note of inquiry.

In France it is Faisan, in Germany Fasan, in Italy Fagiano ;
all of which are mere adaptations of Phasianus to the languages
of the respective countries.


Very closely allied to the Pheasants comes the family of
Grouse, a race highly prized in this country, and containing
more than half the species of Ground-birds known to have
occurred in Wiltshire. In habits, in their mode of nesting on
the ground, and in the food they seek, they very much resemble
those last described. In like manner their head is small, beak
strong and convex, wings short, feet stout, and tarsus feathered,
but the distinguishing characteristic consists in the elevation
and diminution of the hind toe, which in this family becomes
exceedingly short, and in the succeeding family disappears
altogether. Their flight, though rapid and direct, is heavy, but
they walk and run with great agility, and they seek their food,
which consists of grain and vegetable substances, entirely on the

125. CAPERCAILLIE (Tetrao Urogallm).

The occurrence of a single specimen of this magnificent bird
within the limits of this county, as recorded by the late Rev.
George Marsh, entitles me to include it within our Wiltshire list.
That straggler made its appearance at W T interslow in 1841, and
was supposed to have escaped from Mr. Baring's park, where
several had been introduced. Indeed, it had entirely ceased to
exist south of the Tweed, and was almost extinct in Scotland a
few years back, till the Marquis of Breadalbane and other
noblemen reinforced its fast-diminishing ranks by importing
fresh colonists from Sweden, and preserved and protected it in
their extensive forests, till it has now re-peopled its former
haunts ; so that it is not probable that our Wiltshire visitor
had wandered from its home under natural causes ; nor is it

326 Tetraonidce.

likely that a bird of so heavy a body and such short wings
would have voluntarily strayed so far south. The male Caper-
caillie is as large as an ordinary Turkey, and well deserves the
honourable title of * Cock of the Wood.'

Its name in all languages seems to allude to its size. The
scientific term Urogallus (from urus, ' a wild bull,' and gallus,
' a cock ') would imply a larger or coarser species of Black Cock,
just as bullfrog, bullrush, and bullfinch signify a large species of
their respective families. So the German Auerhahn has a like
signification, the word auer having reference to the bovine
Aurochs ; and our ' Capercaillie/* of Gaelic origin, is interpreted
to mean either ' the horse of the woods,' or ' the goat of the
woods/ or ' the old man of the woods.' In France it is Coq de
Bruyere, ' Heath-cock.'

Its general plumage is very dark green, or almost black ; and
it is a native of the extensive pine forests of Scotland, Scandi-
navia, and Russia. It feeds on the leaves and young shoots of
the Scotch fir, which impart a certain resinous taste to the
flesh ; but it also devours greedily the numerous ground-berries,
blue-berries, whortle-berries, cran-berries, etc., with which northern
forests abound ; and these I have found, in incredible quantities, in
the crops of several specimens whose skins I preserved in Norway.

A full account of the peculiar 'play,' or love-song, of this
bird I had from the lips of a Norwegian officer with whom I
spent some time in a shooting expedition on the fjeld in the
summer of 1850, and who had been on more than one occasion
an eye-witness of the scene he so graphically described. In the
early morning, he said, the old male Capercaillie (or tiur) may
be seen perched on the top of a pine-tree, and soon he begins to
utter a harsh, grating sound, which the Norwegians call ' singing/
and which may be heard at a considerable distance. This music
is repeated for some time at intervals, until the hen birds (TO I)
assemble at the lek, or playing place ; and during the utterance

:: The Capercaillie, the Ptarmigan, and the Fulmar are the only three cases
in which our common English name is taken from the Gaelic. See Ibis for
1869, p. 35.

Black Grouse. 327

of his song the Capercaillie is so taken up with his own melli-
fluous voice, and all his faculties are so absorbed with his vocal
performance, that he has no eyes nor ears for anything else ; and
it is then that the Norwegian sportsman, in somewhat unsports-
manlike fashion, as we think, taking advantage of his preoccu-
pation, hurries to the spot and shoots the unconscious singer.*
Young birds do not attain maturity until their third or fourth
year, nor are they then suffered to intrude on the playing-place
of the old birds, but are either driven away or, if they venture
to resist the attack of the old bird, a fierce battle^, not unfre-
quently attended with fatal results, ensues.

126. BLACK GROUSE (Tetrao tetrix).

This, too, is but a straggler to our county, though its visits
have been more frequent ; and from the undoubted fact that it
inhabits, though sparingly, the New Forest and other suitable
haunts in the neighbouring counties of Somerset and Hants, its
appearance here as a veritable wild bird may be more readily
acknowledged. The Rev. G. Marsh assured me that they were
occasionally met with in the Winterslow woods ; and I have a
notice of one killed near Redholn turnpike, on the edge of the
plain overlooking the vale of Pewsey, which came into the pos-
session of Mr. Lewis, of Wedhampton ; and Major Heneage has
a specimen which was killed near the Upper Lodge at Compton
Bassett in 1866. In South Wilts the Rev. A. P. Morres says
that they used to be met with on the downs around Ellesbourne
and Sutton and on Teffont Common ; and Mr. W. Wyndham, of
Dinton, writes that he has a pair of local specimens in his col-
lection, both killed by his grandfather, of which the male bird
was shot on the borders of the parishes of Ellesbourne and
Sutton Mandeville on December 1st, 1818, and the female at
Langford Down just one year later, viz., on December 1st, 1819.
These were supposed to be the last native birds of this species
in the county ; but still occasionally one strays over from the
New Forest, and Mr. Wyndham's keeper shot a hen bird at
See my account of this in the Zoologist for 1850, pp. 2944 5.

328 Tetraonidce.

Dinton so lately as November 12th, 1880. Finally, Mr. Howard
Saunders says in 1884 : 'They are found sparingly in Wiltshire.'*
I am afraid, however, that we can only lay claim to the visit of
a very rare and accidental straggler, seen from time to time after
an interval of many years.

Like the species last described, it loves to frequent forests and
wild uncultivated districts, where rank herbage and undrained
morasses proclaim the non-intervention of man; and a truly
grand sight it is to see the old male, or ' Black Cock,' as it is
generally called, in all the pride of his dark glossy plumage, now
appearing of jet black hue, and anon with splendid purple
reflections, take flight with a startling rush of wings, when dis-
turbed in his retreats. It is conspicuous for the outward curve
of the four or five outer feathers of the tail on either side, and
also for the bright red naked skin above the eyes. The female,
which goes by the name of the ' Gray Hen,' is of far less pre-
tentious appearance, being contented with a sombre dress of
brown, spotted and barred with darker shades. In general
habits, food, and nesting it does not vary from its congener last
described. Like that species, too, it also has its ' play ing- places,'
or stations ; and indulges in like loud singing or calling ; and
practises the same antics in the lek ; and wages desperate battle,
and otherwise comports itself as polygamous birds frequently do.
The word ' Grouse/ which was formerly announced by Yarrell
to be derived from a Persian word groos, is now shown by Pro-
fessor Newton, who has very carefully gone into the question,-f
to be in all probability derived from the old French word
griesche, greoche, or griais, meaning ' speckled,' and cognate with
griseus, ' grisly,' or ' gray.' Other names by which these birds
are sometimes designated are ' Black Game ' and l Heath Poults.'
In France it has the prolonged name of Coq de Bruyere cb queue
fourchue, ' Fork-tailed Heath Cock ;' and in Germany, Gabel
schwanziges Waldhuhn, ' Fork-tailed Wood Fowl ; but in Sweden
it is simply Orre.

* Fourth edition of Tan-ell's ' British Birds/ vol. iii., p. 62.
t ' Encyclopaedia Britannica,' ed. 9, xi., p. 221.

Red Grouse. 329

127. RED GROUSE. (Lagopus Scoticus).

This species, so peculiarly British (for it is unknown elsewhere),
and in certain districts so extremely abundant, for where it has
been most carefully protected and encouraged it literally swarms
to an astonishing extent, is only of accidental occurrence in Wilt-
shire. Colonel Montagu speaks of a female taken alive near Wed-
hampton in this county, in the winter of the year 1794, as pointed
out to that distinguished naturalist by Mr. Poore; and I have infor-
mation of another killed by the late Mr. Colston's keeper at
Roundway Park, near Devizes ; while a third is in the possession
of Major Heneage, which was killed at Compton Basse tt ; and the
Rev. A. P. Morres, on the authority of Mr. E. Baker, of Mere,
mentions a fourth which was shot by some sportsman when
partridge-shooting at West Knoyle in 1848 ; while Mr. Grant,
of Devizes, mentions a fifth killed in August, 1866, at Wedhamp-
ton, the same locality which saw the capture of the bird recorded
by Colonel Montagu. These must have been stragglers from
Wales, and were probably driven out of their course by the pre-
valence of high winds. Unlike the species previously described,
the Red Grouse is not polygamous, and never perches on trees ; it
also differs from them in having the toes completely feathered ;
hence its generic name lagopus, ' rough-footed like a hare/
Though standing alone among birds as really confined to these
islands, and so par excellence THE British bird, the Red Grouse
is our representative here of the ' Willow Grouse ' of Norway,
Dal Rype (Lagopus sub-alpinus), which frequents the lower parts
of the fjeld, and the mountain-side clothed with birch and alder,
unlike its more hardy relative Fydll Rype (Lagopus alpinus),
identical with our Ptarmigan, which prefers the high mountain
ranges, and the rocky snow-clad heights. Both of these species
I have shot in some numbers in Norway, and I never could suffi-
ciently admire the extraordinary resemblance of their plumage to
the localities they severally represented, so that it was quite diffi-
cult to distinguish them on the ground, though within a few
paces, so well did their colour assimilate to the herbage or lichen-

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 30 of 53)