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 31 of 53)
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330 Tetraonidce.

covered rocks or snow-patches around.* It is precisely the same
with the Red Grouse of England, for the dark red-brown heather
in which it loves to dwell is very much of the same hue with that
of its plumage. It is little known outside the British Isles, but is-
called in France Tetras rouge, and sometimes Tetras des saules,
1 Willow Grouse j' and sometimes Poule de niarais, ' Marsh or
Moor Fowl/



128. PALLAS' SAND GROUSE (Syrrhapies paradoxus).

Up to the year 1863 this handsome species was almost unknown
not only in these islands but on the continent of Europe ; when
suddenly in the early summer of that year a vast irruption of
them occurred, more especially on our Eastern coasts; and it
subsequently appeared that this strange invasion extended over
the whole of Central Europe. Driven from its home in the
steppes of Tartary, if not in the more Eastern countries of China
and Siberia, where it also abounds, this horde of wanderers
started Westwards, and spreading themselves over some twenty
degrees of latitude, the more advanced portion penetrated as far
as our island. What numbers migrated in this extraordinary
manner; what vast flocks in all probability started on this
lengthened journey ; how many halted on the way it is impos-
sible even to guess ; but in a most masterly paper on the subject
drawn up by Professor Newton, at that time editor of the Ibis,
and published by him in that journal,f he has satisfactorily
proved that several hundreds are known to have reached our
shores, after a flight of, at the least computation, some four
thousand geographical miles. What could have caused this
eccentric movement of the Asiatic species of Grouse we are con-
sidering, this ' Tartar invasion/ or ' Scythian exodus/ as Mr.
Newton styles it, it is beyond my power to explain ; whether the

* For a further account of the two species of Alpine Grouse or Ptarmigan,
and how I met with them in Norway, see Zoologist for 1851, pp. 2977-9 ; see
also in the same useful periodical for 1858, p. 6265.

t IUs for 1864, vol. vi., pp. 185-222.



Pallas' Sand-Grouse. 331

prevalence of unusual easterly winds, or other atmospheric com-
motions, impelled them on their westerly course, as some have-
suggested ; or whether the colonization by Russia of large tracts-
of Eastern Siberia, and the reclaiming of waste lands, once their
haunts, as others have surmised ; or whether the remarkable
drought that prevailed over Central Asia that summer had dried
the fresh-water lakes, and scorched up all vegetation, as others
have concluded ; or whether, as Professor Newton inclines to
think, the natural overflow of an increasing species, prolific as
are all of its genus, and exempt in a great measure from the
enemies and risks which are apt to beset ground-breeding birds,
forced it to drive forth as colonists its superabundant numbers, I
will not now stop to argue. Enough for us that, as in early times,
the tide of human migrations set in steadily from the east, and
starting from the shores of the Caspian and the valleys of the
Caucasus, wave after wave of those prolific adventurers poured
over Europe, until the Celts had penetrated her most western
boundaries, and occupied our island ; so a vast horde of winged
strangers has suddenly swept down upon astonished Europe, and
a new nomadic race has penetrated to our shores from its distant
Eastern home.

I have already said that several hundreds of this Sand-Grouse
reached the limits of Great Britain, and that by far the larger
part of them appeared, as was to be expected with Asiatic
migrants, in the Eastern counties ; some, however, detached from
the main body, under the general persecution which, I regret to
say, followed their appearance amongst us, were dispersed all over
England, and penetrated almost every county; and one at all
events reached Wiltshire, and was killed on Salisbury Plain at
Imber on the 29th of June, for the knowledge of which, as well as
the occurrence of so many other rare birds in Wiltshire, I am
again indebted to the Rev. George Powell, Rector of Sutton Yeney,
who most kindly and considerately sent me from time to time an
account of any rarity which came under his notice. Our Wilt-
shire specimen of the Sand-Grouse was a female, and was alone,
and in rapid flight from north to south, when it was shot by Mr.



332 Tetraonidce.

Joseph Dean of Imber, as I described in the Zoologist at the
time.*

Like other species of Sand-Grouse, S. paradoxus is remarkable
for its great length of wing, slender beak, shortness of foot, and
conical tail, the two middle feathers being elongated in a thread-
like manner ; also for the feathering of the legs and feet to the
extremity of the toes with short dense feathers ; the hind toe is
completely wanting. That it is not polygamous ; that both sexes
share in the duties of incubation ; and that three eggs are the full
complement of a nest, I gather from Professor Newton's paper.
And I may add from my acquaintance with an allied species in
Africa (S. exustus), that so much do its colours resemble the sands
of the desert it frequents, that it is extremely difficult to see it on
the ground ; while its sharp-pointed long wings give it a rapidity
of flight almost unequalled. In many respects it reminds one of
the Plover tribe. t Its scientific name is perhaps a little far-
fetched ; at all events its meaning is not self-evident and requires
explanation. Syrrhaptes is derived from <rvppd7rTiv t 'to sew or
stitch together/ because the last phalanges of the toes alone are
free; and paradoxus, 'strange,' 'contrary to expectation/ from
the curious structure of the feet.J

129. PARTRIDGE (Perdix cinerea).

Unlike the preceding members of this family, the well
known bird now under consideration thrives better in culti-
vated than in barren land, and nowhere multiplies more
rapidly than in the most highly farmed districts. Its appearance
and habits are so well known that it is unnecessary to enlarge
upon them. I will then merely append a few notes with which I
have been furnished by the late Kev. George Marsh : ' Since the
introduction of the new Game Laws, the numbers of this common
but beautiful and useful bird have very much declined. Their

Zoologist for 1864, p. 8888.

t See an admirable figure of this bird, as well as a good general descrip-
tion, by Mr. T. J. Moore, in the Ibis for 1860, vol. ii., pp. 105-110.
$ 'B.O.U. List of British Birds,' p. 140.






Partridge. 333

enemies are numerous, the gun, the net, the trap of man, the
stoat and weasel, the magpie, crow and jay, and the mower are
among the most conspicuous. The hedgehog is also no doubt
one of its enemies, as the keepers at Winterslow used to tell me
that an egg was the best bait for the trap intended to catch the
hedgepig. In the summer of 1841, a farmer of the neighbouring
parish of Langley heard two Partridges in a hedge in a grass field
making a great noise ; so he approached the spot, and found two
old birds manfully defending their nest against a hedgehog : he
killed the animal, and the eggs, eighteen in number, were soon
afterwards hatched. I have witnessed myself the destruction of
a nest by a magpie. In this county the poacher fixes a flue net
in the corner of a field where he has roosted birds, and then under
cover of a horse he gradually walks the birds into the net. These
birds do better when some of them are shot every year; if
all are spared, the old birds drive away the young ones.' I may
add that Partridges feed shortly after sunrise, and a little before
sunset, retiring to bask in the sun or dust themselves on dry
banks at midday. They roost on the ground in the open field
shortly after sunset, and the whole covey sits closely crowded
together in a circle, tails towards the centre, heads outwards
(like a watchful round-robin), for the sake of security, and in order
to avoid a surprise. They are said to ' jug' when they so arrange
themselves for the night. There is no question that dry weather
is especially valuable for the Partridge, and very true was the
saying of that excellent observer, the late Mr. Knox,' The drier the
summer, the better for the game/* Indeed, a continuance of wet
stormy weather, such as we often experience in this country at
hatching-time towards the latter end of June, is most destructive
to the young brood. On one occasion I was taken to see a curious
instance of a Partridge sitting on her nest, on a stubble- rick, on
the shelving side near the top, and about six feet from the ground.
This was in June, 1853, on the farm of Mr. Hillier of Winter-
bourne Monkton, in the midst of open downs, and surrounded
by hundreds of acres of wheat, barley, oats, clover and turnips, so
'Birds of Sussex/ p. 174.



334 Tetraonidce.

that there was no lack of choice of such position as Partridges
are wont to select for their nurseries. Neither could it have been
from any motive of protection from inclement weather and rude
winds (which not unfrequently prevail on these downs) that the
Partridge was led to this strange choice, for the nest was placed
on the north-east side of the stack. Colonel Hawker gives an
account of a Partridge's nest on a pollard tree, and Yarrell quotes
another instance from Daniel's ' Rural Sports/ of a nest in an oak
pollard ; but with these exceptions I have'never heard of this bird
varying so much from the usual habits of its species in its choice
of a place for nidification. In France it is Perdrix grise ; in
Germany, Graues Feldhuhn ; in Italy, Starna; in Sweden, Rapp-
Hona. 'Partridge,' says Professor Skeat is from the Latin
perdix, perhaps so named from its cry.

130. RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGE (Perdix rubra).

It is our good fortune in Wiltshire to know but little of this
bird, which has been encouraged in some districts of England,
and has ended in driving away its more valuable congener, with
which in flavour of flesh it is not to be compared. It is a hand-
some species, and is common in France and the south of Europe
generally. I found it very abundant in Spain and Portugal, the
markets, which I used to frequent daily in search of rare birds,
being always well-stocked with them. In habits it resembles
P. cinerea. A few stragglers from time to time have made their
way into Wiltshire. The Rev. G. Marsh recorded their capture
at Winterslow, and the specimen in his collection, now at Salis-
bury, was killed at Draycot Park. Another was killed at Winter-
bourne Monkton by my neighbour, the late Mr. John Brown, in
whose possession I have frequently seen the specimen. More-
over, a curious instance was brought to my notice by Mr. Bull,
of Devizes, of this species and the Common Partridge laying
their eggs in the same nest, from which he extracted one of each
sort that I might identity them. In like manner in South
Wilts a straggler appears from time to time. The Rsv. A. P.



Quail. 335

Morres says it occurs occasionally, but rarely in the neighbour-
hood of Salisbury, and also near War minster. A single bird was
caught at Mere, in the yard of the Ship Inn, by Mr. J. Coward,
on April 11, 1874, having apparently taken refuge there from a
hawk. Two others were caught alive by some keepers, who were
driving the game in Clarendon Woods ; and again a brace were
killed at Holt, near Bradford-on-Avon, in the same field, though
with an interval of six years between their respective appear-
ances before the same sportsman. Mr. Grant also mentions a
specimen killed at Erlestoke in November, 1861, and thirteen
others from various districts in North Wilts. I have also several
instances from the neighbourhood of Marlborough, and other
instances will doubtless occur to many sportsmen, for, thanks to
the mistaken zeal with which their introduction to this country
has been conducted, they are by no means rare now. In France,
and indeed on the Continent generally, it is the Common
Partridge : Perdrix rouge in France, Rothe Feldhuhn in
Germany, Pernice commune in Italy, Perdiz in Spain and
Portugal.

131. QUAIL (Perdix coturnix).

Not many years since this diminutive but plump little
partridge was generally, though somewhat sparingly, scattered
over the down parishes in this neighbourhood in the summer,
but now it has become comparatively rare throughout the
county. One nest, however, was discovered at Yatesbury since
my incumbency in 1852 ; and I have notices of the bird's
occurrence of late years at Christian Malford in 1841 and 1845;
in the neighbourhood of Sutton Benger in 1847; at Langley in
1851; and at Erchfont in 1856; at Hilmarton and at Trafalgar;
at Chirton in 1860; Etchilhampton, 1863; Bishops Cannings,
1867; Potterne, Cheverel, Erlestoke, and Seend, 1868; Kowde,
All Cannings, Marden, 1871. The Rev. A. P. Morres reports
their appearance at Britford, Stratford Tony, and West Harnham,
near Salisbury ; at Holt, near Bradford, and at Mere ; and several
of these took place as late as the middle of December, which



336 Tetraonidw.

would seem to corroborate Yarrell's opinion that when the
autumnal migration in October takes place some remain behind
and winter here. Colonel Waddington says he shoots a few
brace every season at Figheldean. Nests with twelve and
thirteen eggs have been taken near Marlborough in June, 1871,
and in 1883 ; and Mr. Gwatkin records two nests of thirteen
eggs each sent him from Tilshead in 1886. Thus it is still to be
found throughout the county, and in all probability it might be
found in some part of Wiltshire every year, did not its unobtru-
sive and even skulking habits hinder its recognition. That
Quails are in marvellous abundance in their favourite haunts,
and that during their periodical migrations their flights are
prodigious, is not only recorded in old time in the books of
Exodus and Numbers,* but Colonel Montagu informs us that
one hundred thousand have been taken in one day on the west
coast of the kingdom of Naples ; and Mr. Wright speaks of their
numbers found at Malta when alighting to rest on that island
during the periods of migration as something almost incon-
ceivable. But Mr. Adams says their abundance or scarcity there
depends entirely on the prevalence or otherwise of favourable
winds, for if wafted on by suitable breezes they will pass over
the island in vast flocks without stopping to rest. Mr. Cordeaux
adds that the Maltese entertain the strange belief that the Quail
on migration keeps one wing motionless and raised like a sail,
and thus crosses the sea like a ship on her voyage.-f- That the
long flight, however, does sometimes completely exhaust the
little migrant I once had personal proof, for early one morning a
Quail arrived in the garden of the ' Villa des Pins/ at Mentone,
but a short distance from the shores of the Mediterranean (which
I occupied in the spring of 1878), so tired and exhausted as to
allow itself to be taken by hand, though after a time it recovered,
when we let it go, and it flew merrily away. That, moreover,
this handsome little bird is a cosmopolite, and inhabits the
three continents of the Old World, I can vouch, having met with

Exodus xvi. 13 ; Numbers xi. 31, 32 ; Psalm Ixxviii. 27, 28.
t ' Birds of the Humber,' p. 124.






Quail. 337

it in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Indeed, of the three specimens
now in my collection, the first I procured in the flesh at the
market of the Pantheon, at Rome, and it was admirably stuffed
by an Otaheite girl, the only taxidermist then in the Eternal
City ; and the others I shot on the banks of the Nile, within the
tropics, in Nubia. I also found it very abundant in Portugal,
where Montagu long since remarked that they remain through-
out the year, and even says, on the authority of Captain Latham,
though I am inclined to think erroneously, that they are more
plentiful in that country in winter than in summer. In Egypt,
too, it is often found in great numbers, and though not con-
sidered sacred and never embalmed, it may be distinctly recog-
nised in the bird-catching scenes on the walls of the tombs at
Beni Hassan and at Thebes, so that it can prove its title to a
settlement in Egypt of over three thousand years.

It is of so pugnacious a disposition that it was kept by the
Greeks and Romans, as it is at this day by the Chinese, for the
express purpose of fighting, after the manner of our game-cocks.
Of plump form and of self-asserting manners, the Quail may
well be designated a diminutive Partridge. Its flesh, too, is
equally good for the table ; and it is a benefactor to man by
consuming the seeds of many weeds. Its eggs are perhaps more
richly coloured than those of any other bird which breeds in this
country, the ground colour yellowish-orange, freely blotched and
speckled with rich dark brown. Whether the males are poly-
gamous, as Yarrell asserted, or whether they pair, as Howard
Saunders, Gould, and other eminent ornithologists think, is at
present uncertain ; but that both parent birds are undaunted in
defence of their young brood is generally admitted. Among
Continental ornithologists the Quail is often designated by the
specific name of dactylisonans, and we are told that it is so
called from the shrill triple note of the male, which soon makes
itself heard in the evenings on the bird's arrival. That cry to
the German peasant seems to say Buck' den Ruck, ( Bend your
back ;' to the inhabitant of the south of France, J'ai du He, j'ai
pas de sd (sac), or in Provence by Tres (trois) per un, tres per

22



338 Struthionidce.

un ; to the Spaniard, Clic-clic-lic, which perhaps led to the
invention of the castanets ; while in England it says, ' Wet my
lips, wet my lips.'* Professor Skeat says that the English
1 Quail ' and in like manner the French Caille and the Italian
Quaglia signifies ' a quacker,' from the root quachan, ' to
croak.' On the other hand, the Spanish Codorniz and the
Portuguese Codornis are from the classical Latin Coturnix, the
etymology of which is unknown (B.O.U.). Its period of arrival
in Western Europe is May, and of departure October.

STRUTHIONID.E (THE BUSTARDS).

This is a family which used to thrive in Wiltshire more than
any other county in England, inasmuch as our wide, open downs
in the north, and Salisbury Plain in the south, offered such an
extensive range and such an undisturbed stronghold as could
not be found elsewhere in the British Isles. That was in the
days when the great stretches of hill and dale were covered
with the original turf, and gave the best and sweetest of pasture
to the large flocks of sheep which wandered over them; but
when the plough invaded these solitudes, and the down was
broken up, and barley and wheat, which required hoeing in the
spring, succeeded to the sheepwalks, the Bustards were gradually
driven away or destroyed, and though here and there an in-
digenous straggler seems to have lingered on through the early
part of this century, they must have been getting very scarce a
hundred years ago ; and though now and again of late years a
specimen of either species comes over from the South of France
or Spain, it is but an accidental visitor, which meets with any-
thing but a kindly welcome when it arrives at the haunts of its
relatives of bygone years. The Bustards are essentially Ground-
birds, for they never perch, and unless disturbed or frightened
are seldom inclined to take wing. They can, however, fly with
considerable speed, and do on occasion prolong their flight to
great distances ; hence the arrival, though rarely, of visitors of

* Howard Saunders in fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds ' vol. iii.,
p. 129.



Great Bustard. 339

both species to our shores. As both in flight and running their
speed is remarkable, naturalists have been much puzzled to
account for the name so commonly assigned to them, as our word
'Bustard,' the French ' Outarde,' and the Spanish ' Abutarda,'
as also the universal scientific name for the Great Bustard, tarda;
but in an admirable paper on that bird in Eraser's Magazine for
September, 1854, supposed to be by Mr. Broderip, Albertus is
quoted as accounting for these specific names in the following
manner : ' Bistarda avis est bis vel ter saltum dans, priusquam
de humo elevetur, unde et eis nomen factum ;'* and this alleged
habit of the bird, giving two or three leaps before it rises from
the ground, and thus recalling the action of ascending a stair-
case, is mentioned as being likewise the origin of its German
name, Trapp-gans, or ' Stair Goose ;' whence also the quaint
distich :

' The big-boaned Bustard then, whose body beares that size,
That he against the wind must runne, ere he can rise.'

Pliny, too, says of these birds : ' Quas Hispania aves tardas ap-
pellat, Graecia otidas.'

Birds of this family are accustomed to pack in the autumn,
and are generally supposed to be polygamous, though (as in the
species last described) this is now disputed. The generic name
Otis is said to be derived from the Greek, meaning 'eared/ or
' with long ear feathers ;' but I fail to see how this applies to the
Bustards.

132. GREAT BUSTARD (Otis tarda).

Once the pride of our Wiltshire Downs, and which held this
county as its stronghold in Great Britain, now, alas ! driven out
from among us by the march of cultivation, and only seen at
long intervals as a rare visitor. It was my good fortune more
than thirty years ago to be instrumental in recording the capture

It is only fair to add that, according to Mr. Howard Saunders, some
recent authorities object to this derivation, and in the list published by
the B.O.U. Committee tarda is said to be a Celtic or Basque word, having
no relation to tardus, ' slow,' though what it does mean is not stated.

222



340 Struthionidce.

of what was then the last Bustard seen in Wiltshire, and of
subsequently purchasing the bird for the collection of my friend
the Rev. G. Marsh, which specimen is now in the museum at
Salisbury. My attention was thus very much directed to this
splendid species at a period when there were many living in
Wiltshire who could recollect having seen it from time to time
on Salisbury Plain; and I sought far and wide for tidings of the
last stragglers noticed in Wiltshire, and, indeed, of all the history
and traditions that appertained to this bird, wherein, as I grate-
fully and proudly record, I was very much assisted by an
interesting correspondence upon it, with which I was favoured
by the late Mr. Yarrell, the talented author of our standard work
on ' British Birds,' who also largely aided my inquiries by furnish-
ing me with a quantity of printed papers and extracts upon it.
Thus, armed with all the information I could gain, and en-
couraged by so high an authority, I prepared a paper on the
Great Bustard, which I read before the Wiltshire Archaeological
and Natural History Society during its annual meeting of 1855,
at Warminster; and as everything connected with the Great
Bustard is still, and always must be, of special interest to Wilt-
shiremen, I propose to reproduce here the substance of that
paper, supplemented by an account of such further instances of
its occurrence in Wilts as have taken place since, thus bringing
its Wiltshire history down to present date.

First, however, let me briefly describe its general aspect and
habits. The Great Bustard is the largest of the British land
birds : its bill is nearly straight, but with the point of the upper
mandible curved ; its legs are long and naked above the knee,
very muscular and strong ; its toes, three only in number, and
these very short, united at the base, and all directed forwards ;
its wings of moderate length, but also very muscular. A full-
grown male, if in good condition, will attain to a weight of over
30 lb., and will measure three feet nine inches in length. Its
general plumage is as follows : head and neck bluish-gray ; back
and tail coverts buff-orange, barred and spotted with black;
upper part of the breast reddish-orange, all the under parts



Great Bustard. 341

white. The adult male is also furnished with long wiry feathers,
depending laterally from the chin, and moustaches of the same ;
the female, which is only about one- third in size as compared
with the other sex, has no lateral chin feathers or moustaches,
and her head and neck are of a deeper gray, but in other
respects her plumage is similar to that of the male. Of large
and bulky form, but with powerful wings as well as legs, the
Bustard likes to wander over a wide extent of country. More-
over, it is of a roving disposition, and loves vast open plains,
where amidst the long coarse grass and the fields of corn and
thick gorse it delights to dwell, and it will also frequent marshy



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 31 of 53)