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 32 of 53)
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ground when such tracts are to be found near its favourite
haunts. Its food consists chiefly of herbage and grain, such as
rye and barley, stalks as well as ears, and insects, such as beetles ;
but reptiles and the smaller mammalia are also greedily devoured
by this omnivorous bird. The nest is a mere depression on the
bare ground, and there the hen bird lays her two eggs. As
autumn approaches they unite in flocks, and during deep and
continued snows are sometimes driven from their open plains to
more sheltered and enclosed districts. They are exceedingly
bold and pugnacious, having on rare occasions been known to
attack those who come near them with most determined ferocity.
They are at the same time generally very wild and difficult to
approach, so that sportsmen were accustomed to mask their
advance, as they do at this day in Spain, by means of a stalking-
horse. When in repose Bustards usually rest with one leg drawn
up, and with head reclining backwards on the neck. When seen
at a distance Gilbert White said they resembled ' fallow deer ' a
fact corroborated by Mr. Wolley, who saw them in Spain, appar-
ently walking in file, some with their heads down, as he was
ascending the Guadalquivir in a steamboat. When they take
wing they generally rise to a considerable height above the
ground, and will fly, often at an elevation of a hundred yards,
with a regular, but by no means slow flap of the wings, for
several miles before they alight again. Older writers on birds,
one after another, assured us that the Great Bustard was hunted

342 Struthionidce.

down by greyhounds, but that such was ever the case has been
disputed by many modern ornithologists. For my own part, I
do not see how we -can disbelieve the very decided assertions of
many trustworthy naturalists when relating the account of a
matter with which they must have been familiar ; but it is
too much the fashion now to presume that our ancestors were
mistaken, and in our conceit we attribute to them as errors what
in reality were truths at the time they wrote them, though they
may not fall in with our modern experience. Now there are
three distinct opinions on this knotty point, each of which has
its strenuous supporters: (1) That old and young birds in-
discriminately were so hunted by greyhounds ; (2) that the
young only were so coursed ; (3) that neither old nor young
could ever have been so taken. With regard to the first, that
both old and young were hunted down with dogs, Brooks in
his 'Ornithology/ in 1771, says of the Bustard in France,
near Chalons, 'Sometimes fowlers shoot them as they lie
concealed behind some eminence or on a load of straw ; others
take them with greyhounds, which often catch them before they
are able to rise.' Yarrell, in his article on the Bustard in his
' British Birds/ quotes the Rev. Richard Lubbock for the follow-
ing : ' A very fine bird, an old male, is still in preservation as a
stuffed specimen at the house of a friend in my neighbourhood,
which was taken by greyhounds forty years ago, within three
miles of Norwich/ Again, Mark Antony Lower, in his 'Con-
tributions to Literature ' (1854), says, ' The South Downs afford
a fine field for the naturalist as well as the sportsman. One
cannot but regret, however, the extinction of some of the
animals which they formerly nourished, particularly that fine
indigenous bird the Bustard. The grandfather of the present
writer was among the last who joined in the sport, about the
middle of the last century, of hunting down the last remains of
the species with dogs and bludgeons ;' and in a note which I
received from that gentleman in answer to my inquiries, he
added, ' My grandfather, John Lower, of Alfriston, was born in
1735. He was a boy at the time he went a-hunting Bustards,

Great Bustard. 343

and we may assume the year 1750 as about the period. My
friend, the late Mr. John Dudeny, of this town (Lewes), a
shepherd in his youth, and the son of a shepherd, told me that
his father, who must have been contemporary with iny grand-
father, had also taken part in Bustard-hunting in his youthful
days ;' and he adds, ' I have no hesitation in saying that fully-
grown birds were hunted down with dogs, though I have never
heard it mentioned what kind of dogs were employed/ The
next witness I adduce for the hunting of Bustards generally on
the ground is the Honourable Eobert Curzon, in his work on
'Armenia and Erzeroum.' At p. 145 he says, ' Later in the year
I risked my neck by riding as hard as I could tear over the
rocky, or rather stony, plains at the foot of the mountains after
the Great Bustard. I have more than once knocked some of
the feathers out of these glorious huge birds as they ran at
a terrible pace, half flying and scrambling before my straining
horse, but I never succeeded in killing one, though I have
constantly partaken of those which have fallen before more
patient gunners, who stalk them as you would a deer, and knock
them over with a rifle-ball or swan-shot from behind a stone or
bank.' Lastly, Bishop Stanley, in his ' Familiar History of Birds/
tells us, ' The Bustard can fly, but its usual motion is on foot,
running with such speed as often to rival a greyhound.'

For the second opinion, that the young alone were thus
coursed with dogs, I first adduce Bewick, who lived when these
birds were not yet extinct, and who (one would suppose) could
not well have been mistaken as to the method of obtaining them
generally adopted by sportsmen ; in his lifelike woodcut of the
Great Bustard in his first edition, published in 1800, we see in
the background of the picture one of these birds running, pur-
sued by greyhounds, and followed by a man on horseback ; and
in his subsequent editions, with the descriptions added to the
figures, he says, ' They are slow in taking wing, but run with
great rapidity, and when young are sometimes taken with grey-
hounds, which pursue them with great avidity ; the chase is said
to afford excellent diversion.' Mr. Howard Satmders supports

344 Struthlonidce.

this view, showing that 'in Spain, during the great heat of
August and September, young birds are sometimes run down by
horsemen and dogs, as, after two or three low flights, they
become exhausted, being at that season extremely fat.' That
they have been captured under similar circumstances in England
is probable, and indeed one case is recorded by Mr. Lubbock
where the greyhounds came suddenly through a gate, and
' chopped ' a Bustard ; but that anything like real and successful
Bustard coursing was ever habitually pursued is open to doubt.'
Mr. Saunders, however, notwithstanding this opinion, proceeds to
quote from the Naturalist's Pocket Magazine (1799-1800) as
follows : ' But though they cannot be reached by a fowling-piece,
they are sometimes run down by greyhounds. Being voracious
and greedy, they often sacrifice their safety to their appetites ;
and as they are generally very fat, they are unable to fly without
much preparation ; when therefore the greyhounds come within
a certain distance, the Bustards rim off, clap their wings, and
endeavour to gather under them enough air to rise; in the
meantime, the dogs are continually gaining ground, till at last it
is too late for flight. However, notwithstanding the sluggishness
of their usual pace, they can, when in danger, run very fast, and
once fairly on the wing, are able to fly several miles without
resting.' My last authority for this opinion is Mr. Hooper, of
Littleton, in the parish of Lavington, who has always lived on or
near the Plain, and states that he has often heard from old men
that in the days of Bustards the shepherds were in the habit of
hunting the young birds with their sheep-dogs ; he says, ' There
can be no doubt of the matter, as far as the practice of this neigh-
bourhood is concerned ;' but, he adds, ' the older birds were too
swift, under the combined help of wings and feet, thus to be
taken, and they were understood not to be so followed ; they
hunted the young ones before they were fully fledged.' With
such authority for the hunting of Bustards with dogs as I have
adduced, and I might mention much more to the same effect, I
do not see how we can deny the fact altogether, whether we
believe that the old birds were so coursed, as well as the young,

Great Bastard. 345

or no ; for my own part, I incline to the belief that the old birds
were occasionally so taken, though perhaps this was generally in
drizzling or wet weather, which was certainly the time usually
chosen for the sport, when the birds' feathers were soaked with rain.

As to those who hold to the opinion that neither old nor
young birds were ever hunted with dogs at all, they found their
disbelief on the supposed impossibility of the thing, and ignore
altogether, or treat as idle tales, the repeated accounts given by
the older naturalists. At the head of these sceptics stands
Selby, the talented author of the 'Illustrations of British
Ornithology,' who says the Bustard ' upon being disturbed, so far
from running, in preference to flight (as has been often described),
rises upon wing with great facility, and flies with much strength
and swiftness, usually to another haunt, which will sometimes be
at the distance of even six or seven miles. It has also been said
that in former days, when the species was of common occurrence,
it was a practice to run down the young birds (before they were
able to fly) with greyhounds, as affording excellent diversion ; so
far from this possibility existing, with respect to the present
remnant of the breed, the young birds, upon being alarmed, con-
stantly squat close to the ground, in the same manner as the
young of the lapwing, golden plover, etc., and in that position are
frequently taken by the hand.' The same opinion, though with
somewhat less confidence, is given by Mr. Nicholson (quoted by
Yarrell in his paper on the Bustard, read before the Linnsean
Society), who had enjoyed great opportunities of observing these
birds in the neighbourhood of Seville, where they abound. He
says, * They never try to run, one that I had winged making the
most absurd attempts possible to get away from me, and though
a young bird, showing much more disposition to fight than to
get away by running. I cannot imagine greyhounds being able
to catch Bustards, though there seems to be good authority for
believing they did.'

Another method of taking, or attempting to take, the Bustard
in ' ye olden tyme' was by means of falcons, and I am indebted to
Mr. James Waylen for the information that when Colonel

346 Struthionidce.

Thornton, who once rented Spye Park, sported in Wiltshire, he
occasionally flew his hawks at Bustards, the apparent slowness of
that bird when seen at a distance tempting him to the trial ; but
the hawks had no chance.

There is another point which has been no less warmly disputed
by modern ornithologists, in regard to the existence of a so-called
gular pouch. From the days of Daines Barrington and Edwards,
such a pouch or bag between the under side of the tongue and
the lower mandible of the bill was supposed to exist, and to
supply the bird with drink in dry places when distant from
water. This statement was accepted and confidently repeated
by Bewick, Montagu, Selby, and Yarrell. Subsequent research,
however, and careful anatomical observations, afterwards shook
Mr. Yarrell's belief in this gular pouch, and in this he was sup-
ported by the old French naturalists, with Cuvier at their head,
as well as by our own Professor Owen of the Royal College of
Surgeons. The question, however, is still an open one, with,
warm advocates on both sides: 'et adhuc sub judice lis est.'
When I was in Portugal, in the spring of 1868, 1 was so fortunate
as to procure a magnificent male bird in the flesh, which was most
liberally given me by an English friend, and whose body, after 1 had
taken off the skin, for several days formed a large item in the bill
of fare of the Hotel Braganza at Lisbon; the guests of every degree
at the table-d'hote and in private apartments partaking of the
dish, from the British Minister and his family on the first-floor
to the cook-boys in the area. This bird weighed 30 Ib.
English,* and is the finest example of 0. tarda I have ever seen.
After being brought down with shot, the coup de grace had been
given it by cutting its throat with a knife, as is the approved
method of Portuguese sportsmen ; it had also been a good deal
torn by dogs; but though thus ill-used, blood-stained and
damaged in the outset, and though it arrived in England covered
with mildew for I sent it home direct by sea it has been
admirably cleaned and mounted by Mr. Baker, the well-known

* Lord Lilford pajs that a fine specimen brought to him in Spain
weighed 32 Ib. Ib's for 188G, p. 382.

Great Bustard. 347

taxidermist of Cambridge, and, thanks to his diligence and care,
now stands in my collection as noble a specimen as may be seen
of the Portuguese ORNIS. With the assistance of Dr. Suche r
who had been a fellow-labourer with Vigors, and who was an
experienced collector and preserver of some of the larger mam-
mals and reptiles in South America, and whose anatomical skill
was of the greatest service to me, I spent several hours in
examining the soft, wattle-like protuberance which hung below
the chin and throat, and gave the whole neck a thick, puffy
appearance. The result was that I entertain no doubt whatever,
and (what is of far more value) Dr. Suche was equally positive,
that this male Bustard possessed a pouch of considerable capacity,
or rather (as it seemed to me) a number of membrane-divided
sacs, which appeared capable of extending to any dimensions,
and the larger of which would apparently contain several quarts.
I am quite aware that my own attempts at dissection were very
feeble, and I should not venture to speak thus positively on so-
disputed a point but for the able assistance in the work, and the
certain conclusions deduced therefrom, by Dr. Suche. To this I
may add, that on mentioning our work and our unanimous
conclusions to Professor Barbosa du Bocage, the well-known
ornithologist and indefatigable director of the museum at Lisbon,
to whose courtesy I was indebted for much information and assist-
ance, he not only entirely concurred with us, but declared that it
was impossible for anyone to examine the throat and neck of an
adult male Otis tar da without being convinced by his own
senses that such a pouch did exist. Even previously to removing
the skin of my bird, the position and size of the large goitre-like
excrescence standing out from the neck, though in great measure
concealed by feathers, could be plainly discerned ; and, when
handled, at once betrayed the soft, yielding nature of its sub-
stance.* Perhaps it may account for the apparently contradic-
tory opinions expressed above, if I state that the male Bustard

For an exhaustive treatise ' On the supposed Gular Pouch of the Male
Bustard,' by Professor Newton, see Ills, for 1862, pp. 107-127. See also
Ibis for 18G5, pp. 143-116.

348 Struthionidce.

does not arrive at maturity till the fourth year, previous to which
no sign of the pouch is to be seen ; also that it is the opinion of
some well qualified by experience to judge, that it is only to be
found in the breeding season, after which it gradually diminishes
in size, till it is hardly perceptible in the winter. If this is (as I
believe) correct, and the presence of the gular pouch is confined
only to old male birds, and to them in the breeding season alone,
then its absence on examination of younger birds, and at other
periods of the year, is at once accounted for.

And now I come to the history, so far as I can ascertain it,
of the Great Bustard in Wiltshire ; observing by the way that in
other countries we can trace it back to very remote times, for its
form appears among the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and many well-
known ancient writers have thought it not unworthy of mention.
Athenseus, Plutarch, ^Elian,0ppian, Xenophon, Aristotle and Pliny,
are some of those who have described it, and though much fable
is mixed up with their accounts, the description is sufficiently
clear to enable us to identify the bird. But to pass from these
Bustards of ancient Greece and Asia, to those of ancient Britain,
when the Celtic tribes roamed over the downs, and Abury and
Stonehenge were in their glory, then this bird flourished on the
unbroken Plain, and doubtless revelled in the broadty-spreading
unreclaimed wastes throughout this county. Its name is pre-
served as ' Yr araf ehedydd ;' but to what extent it abounded, or
how far it was looked upon as game, or how much it was the
object of pursuit in those days of flint arrowheads, does not so
clearly appear. To come down, however, to a much later period,
from the earliest records we have of it in comparatively modern
days viz., three hundred years since the price it fetched proved
it to be no very common fowl. Indeed, I do not think it could
ever have been very plentiful in England : its large size and
the excellent meat it furnished must always have caused it to
be greatly sought after on account of its commercial value ; and
though it is puzzling to imagine how the sportsman of old
contrived to bring about its capture, that they did obtain it
somehow is certain, from the lists of game, and the bills of

Great Bustard. 349

fare, and the prices of wild fowl which have come down to us, and
several of which are reproduced by Mr. Howard Saunders in the.
new edition of Yarrell. No species of game, however, in the.
sixteenth century seems to have been so highly esteemed and to,
have fetched a larger price than the Bustard, for the sum of ten
shillings at which it was valued represents a very high figure, if
we take into account the comparative value of money at that
period ; but, indeed, at the present day, the price of a Batarda, in
the market of Lisbon is generally equivalent to about two,
pounds, which will not be thought excessive, even in a country
where the bird is common, when we consider that it weighs.
SO lb., and that the meat, as I know by experience, is
excellent. So early as in 1534 (25 Henry VIII.) it was found
necessary to protect its eggs by law, ' upon paine of imprisonment,
for one yeare, and to lose and forfeit for every egge of any
Bustarde so taken or distroid xx pence, the one moitie thereof
to be to the King our Soveraigne lorde, and the other halfe to.
him that will sue for the same in forme aforesaide.'* Now to find
and take the egg of so large and conspicuous a bird was easy
enough for any idle fellow, but it must have required both skill
and patience to capture, even with the crossbow, so wild and sa
wary a bird, frequenting such open spots, where it was difficult ta
stalk them, and always on the alert for any surprise. Again, in
1712, an advertisement appeared in the Spectator announcing in
the market the seat of a deceased baronet, containing, in addition,
to fish-ponds, canals, etc., ' woods of large timber, wherein is gama
in great plenty, even to the Bustard and Pheasant.' And again, I
have now before me an autograph letter of the Duke of North^
umberland, bearing date May 10th, 1753, addressed to Michael
Ewen, Esq., of Milton Lislebon, on the verge of Salisbury Plain,
thanking him very heartily for a fine Bustard he had sent him,
proving the bird at that date to be sufficiently rare to be sent as a
present to a nobleman.

But Wiltshire was always allowed to be the stronghold of the.
Great Bustard, and our wide downs/and especially Salisbury Plain,

Zoologist for 1886, p. 84.

350 Struthionidoe.

were known to be its favourite haunts, and they are described as
such by most of our older ornithologists. In 1667, Merrett
notices that it was ' taken on Newmarket Heath and about
Salisbury.' In 1713, Ray thus describes its localities : ' In campis
spatiosis circa Novum Mercatum et Royston, oppida in agro
Cantabrigiensi, inque planitie, ut audio, Salisburiensi, et alibi in
vastis et apertis locis invenitur.' In 1771, "Dr. Brooks says of it,
1 This bird is bred in several parts of Europe, and particularly in
England, especially on Salisbury Plain, etc., for it delights in
large open places ; the flesh is in high esteem, and perhaps the
more so because it is not very easy to come at.' In 1775, Gilbert
White was told by a carter at a farm on the downs near Andover,
that twelve years previously he had seen a flock of eighteen of
these birds, but that since that time he had only seen two ; though
Gilbert White's correspondent, Pennant, would lead one to
suppose them far more common, for he says, 'in autumn these are
{in Wiltshire) generally found in large turnip-fields near the
downs, and in flocks of fifty or more/

Up to this point, then, we may regard the Great Bustard, if not
very numerous (which from its size and its value it was not very
likely to be), as at any rate by no means a rare bird ; and doubtless
highly prized by our sporting forefathers was this pride of Wilt-
shire, this stately denizen of our plains.

Thus in the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, when
Montagu lived in Wiltshire, the Bustard was to be found in some
numbers on our downs, as that accurate naturalist says he has often
contemplated it there with much pleasure. It was, however, begin-
ning to get scarce, and was deemed worthy of protection by law,
.and yet must have been plentiful enough to be thought worth
the effort to preserve it. Accordingly we find that a statute was
enacted in 15 George III., c. 65 (A.D. 1775), whereby a close time
for breeding was set apart, and it was forbidden, under a penalty
of one pound, to takeBustards between March 1st and September
1st. However, the native Bustards of Wiltshire gradually but
.surely decreased in number, the said Act notwithstanding.

How long the native Bustards of Wiltshire lingered on, doubt-

Great Bustard. 351

less sheltering themselves in the most retired spots they could
find, and gradually diminishing in number, is not very easy to
.ascertain; but from all the evidence I could gather, I have
reason to think they were not entirely exterminated quite so
early as has been surmised. Before, however, I proceed to record
the testimony of eye and ear witnesses of the occurrence of rare
specimens in Wiltshire in the early part of this century, I would
quote a very interesting paragraph, headed ' The Bustard of
Salisbury Plain/ which appeared in the Wiltshire Independent
in 1854, and was afterwards copied into the Times: 'There are
people now living in Wiltshire who recollect the time when it
was the custom of the Mayor of Salisbury to have a bustard as a
prominent dish at the annual inauguration feast ; and these
birds, once numerous on the wild and then uncultivated expanse
of Salisbury Plain, could at length only be shot by means of a
vehicle so covered by bushes and placed in their haunts as to
enable men therein concealed to bring them down at a long
range. For more than fifty years the Wiltshire Bustard has
been extinct, and the Mayor of Salisbury has been obliged to
forego his yearly delicacy.' I do not know who was the writer
of this curious and interesting passage, but he is certainly incor-
rect in stating that the Bustard had then been extinct in this
county ' for more than fifty years/ as I shall presently proceed
to show. Maton, in his ' Natural History of Wiltshire/ says :
* A very observant and credible person, of the name of Dew,
whom I knew as a sportsman in my younger days, informed me,
in the year 1796, that he once saw as many as seven or eight of
these birds together on the downs near Winterbourne Stoke; but
I have not met with anyone since who has actually seen the
Bustard in Wiltshire subsequently to that year/ Others, how-
ever, were more fortunate; and we have many published accounts
of it since that date, as we shall see further on. Bewick, writing
in 1797, says: 'Bustards were formerly more frequent in this
island than at present; they are now found only in the open
-countries of the south and east, in the plains of Wiltshire and
Dorsetshire, and in some parts of Yorkshire/ Daniel, in his

352 Struthionidce.

'Kural Sports,' in the year 1800, recounts how Mr. Crouch, of
Burford, shot a hen Bustard on Salisbury Plain, with a common
fowling-piece and partridge-shot, at forty yards' distance ; and
adds that there were two other Bustards in company with the
one shot, neither of which appeared to be hurt. From this time,
however, the breed began to decline apace, and as cultivation
increased, and the Inclosure Acts came into force, and the downs

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 32 of 53)