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 33 of 53)
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began to be broken up, and the waste lands to be reclaimed and
drained and, perhaps more than all, as the system of wheat-
hoeing in the spring became general the Bustards found it
more and more difficult to escape, and we hear only of stragglers
rarely encountered on the Wiltshire Downs. ' In 1801 ' (as
reported by Mr. Britton),* ' a man, about four o'clock of a fine
morning in June, was coming on horseback from Tinhead to
Tilshead, while at or near an inclosure called Asking's Penning,
one mile from, the village of Tilshead, he saw over his head,
about sixty yards high as near as he could estimate, a large bird,
which afterwards proved to be a Bustard. The bird alighted on
the ground immediately before the horse, which it indicated a
disposition to attack, and in fact very soon began the onset.
The man alighted, and getting hold of the bird, endeavoured to
secure it, and, after struggling with it nearly an hour, he suc-
ceeded, and brought it to Mr. J. Bartley, of Tilshead, to whose
house he was going. Not knowing the value of such a bird, he
offered it to Mr. Bartley as a present ; but Mr. Bartley declined
to accept it as such, though he much wished to have it ; and
after repeated solicitations, prevailed on the man to receive for
it a small sum, with which he was perfectly satisfied. During
the first week that Mr. Bartley had this bird in his possession,
it was not known to eat anything ; however, at length it became
very tame, and would at last receive its food from its patron's
hands, but still continued shy in the presence of strangers. Its

* I make no scruple of reproducing in txtenso this most interesting account
of a Wiltshire Bustard, which was communicated by our own Mr. Britton to
Mr. Yarrell, and which that accomplished ornithologist read before the
Linnasan Society, in January, 1853, in a paper ' On the Habits and Structure
of the Great Bustard/

Great Bustard. 353

principal food was birds, chiefly sparrows, which it swallowed
whole in the feathers with a great deal of avidity ; the flowers of
charlock and the leaves of rape formed also other parts of its
food mice it would likewise eat, and in short almost any other
animal substance. The food in passing into the stomach was
observed to go round the back part of the neck. Mr. Bartley is
of opinion that the idea of the Bustard's drinking is erroneous;
in support of which he says that, during the time this bird was
in his possession, which was from June till the August following,
it had not a drop of water given it, after two or three weeks at
first. This fact he considers as a proof that the generally
received opinion of the Bustard's drinking is untrue. This bird
was judged to weigh upwards of twenty pounds, and to measure
between the extremities of its wings when extended about five
feet, and its height was about three and a half feet. Its plumage
was beautiful, and from its gait, which was extremely majestic,
a spectator would be led to infer that it was sensible of its own
superiority over others of the feathered tribe. In August, Mr.
Bartley sold this noble bird to Lord Temple for the sum of thirty
guineas. The Bustard inhabits the extensive downs of Salisbury
Plain, but its race is now almost extirpated. It is thought that
not more than three or four are now remaining. Some time in
the last summer (viz., 1801), while Mr. Bartley had this bird in
his possession, a nest supposed to belong to this bird, or at least
to its mate, for Mr. Bartley 's bird was judged to be a male was
found in a wheat-field on Market Lavington Down. It contained
two eggs ; they sometimes lay three, though very seldom : they
are about the size of those of a goose, of a pale olive-brown, with
small spots of a darker hue. The nest was made upon the
ground by scratching a hole in the earth, and lined with a little
grass. The eggs Avere rotten, and had probably undergone a
period of incubation.

' An instance of a Bustard attacking a human being, or even a
brute animal of any considerable size, was, I believe, never before
heard of, and that two instances of this kind should occur so
nearly together may be considered very remarkable. About a



fortnight subsequent to the taking of this bird, Mr. Grant, a
respectable farmer of Tilshead, was returning from Warminster
Market, and near Tilshead Lodge (which is something more than
half a mile from the village) was attacked in a similar manner,
by, as it is thought, the mate of the same bird. Mr. Grant's
horse being rather high-mettled, took fright, became un-
manageable, and ran off, and consequently Mr. Grant was com-
pelled to abandon his design of endeavouring to capture the
bird.' Such is the account communicated by Mr. Britton, and,
with reference to the bird kept by Mr. Bartley, I have further
learnt, through the kindness of the late Rev. E. Wilton, that it
was kept in a kind of staked cage, made for it in a little close
belonging to the house, and that several Bustards used to come
and congregate round their confined companion at that date, and
that people often used to hear them at night. The confined bird
is described to have been a kind of spotted turkey. At that date
the good people of Tilshead affirm there were many Bustards
haunting the flat between that village and Shrewton ; they were
also in some abundance near what was long known as the
Bustard Inn. Mr. Coleman, of Tilshead, said he perfectly recol-
lected how horses travelling over the plain were known to shy
at the noise of the Bustards. The late Mr. Robert Pinckney, of
Berwick St. James, bore witness that during his occupation of
Mr. Duke's farm at Lake the Bustard used to make its nest
every year in the water-meadows belonging to the estate, and was
disturbed annually by the mowers. Again, Mr. Compton, of East-
cott, described as a great sportsman and bird-studier, was known
to have shot two of these birds: while an old whip of Squire
Tinker's, carried nolens volens down a steep 'linchet' in the
ardour of the chase, almost rode over two Bustards, and could
have struck them with his whip, had he been prepared to en-
counter such tenants of the linchet's base : he said ' they were
spotted all's one as a pheasant.' Mr. William Wyndham, of
Dinton, informs me that his grandfather saw a hen Bustard on
the wing at Uphaven on November 27th, 1801. Mr. B. Hay ward,
of Easterton, near Devizes, more than once recounted to me that

Great Bustard. 355

the keeper at West Lavington often told him that when a boy,
as he was on the downs with his father and the dogs, they came
upon a young Bustard which he caught ; but as it was only partly
grown, his father made him put it down again, saying it would
be better worth taking in a fortnight, at the end of which time
they came up again, found, and took it. This shows the wildness
of the downs at that time, but little of them being cultivated.
Again, the father of the late Rev. R Ashe, of Langley Burrell
was riding in 1806 from Broad Hinton to Chisledon, when he
rode down what he then conjectured, and afterwards ascertained,
to be a young Bustard : having farther to go, he got off his
horse, and tied its feet with a pocket-handkerchief, and left it in
a hole in a ploughed field; but on his return, to his chagrin,
both the bird and handkerchief were missing. Another Bustard
was killed in the early part of the present century at Langley,
and came into the fine collection of Mr. Warriner of Conock.
This Wiltshire specimen, and a very fine one it is, may be seen
with the rest of the collection, deposited in the Museum at
Devizes. In 1802 Colonel Montagu, in his 'Dictionary of British
Birds,' observed that the Bustard is only found upon the large
extensive plains, and that the species is almost extinct, except
upon those of Wiltshire, where they had become very scarce
within these few years/ In 1812, the editor of the last edition
of Pennant says, ' The breed is now nearly extirpated, except on
the Downs of Wiltshire, where it is also very scarce.' In the
same year, 1812, in the month of June or July, a flock of seven
was seen when he was a boy of nine or ten years of age, and on
his way from Salisbury to Great Bedwyn, by the Rev. W.
Quekett, Rector of Warrington, and whose graphic account I
printed in the seventeenth volume of the Wiltshire Magazine,
p. 127. After this I have no record with positive date on which
I can rely of any native Wiltshire Bustard ; but I have had many
statements to which I listened attentively, from thirty to forty
years ago, from old shepherds, farmers, and labourers, several of
whom could well recollect seeing these birds on the downs in
their early days, but from whom I could obtain no reliable in-


356 Struthionidce.

formation as to date ; for the Wiltshire countryman, good honest
soul, is not observant of detail, and as to dates he ignores them
altogether; 'a long whiles ago' conveniently covering half a
century. However, by putting together the information I gained
from many sources, and by comparing the several statistics which
I thought reliable, I arrived at the opinion (perhaps somewhat
indistinct and hesitating) that our Wiltshire Bustard lingered on
till about the year 1820. I should add, however, that this is
somewhat later than the date of its extinction as given by
Montagu, who, in the Supplement to his Dictionary, published in
1813, says, ' We were informed by the shepherds that they had
not been seen for the last two or three years in their favourite
haunts on the Wiltshire Downs, where we had often con-
templated this bird with pleasure.' And Selby, in his ' Illustra-
tions of Ornithology/ published in 1825, 'unable on repeated
inquiry to hear of the reappearance of a single Bustard, since
the days of Montagu, even in its most favourite haunts/ pro-
nounces ' the breed to be extinct upon our extensive downs, of
which it once formed the appropriate ornament.' But Graves
(whose figure of the Great Bustard was drawn from a male bird
taken alive on Salisbury Plain in 1797, and kept for three years
in confinement, when it died) says in the third volume of his
'British Ornithology/ in 1821, 'The enclosing and cultivating
those extensive downs and heaths in various parts of Great
Britain, on which formerly this noble species was seen in large
flocks, threatens within a few years to extirpate the Bustard
from this country ; instead of being met with in flocks of forty or
fifty birds, it is a circumstance of rare occurrence that a single
individual is now seen/

Thus has this noble species, once so common in our county,
dwindled and died away, and now, alas ! is no more to be ac-
counted a resident throughout the kingdom. Like the American
Indian, the poor Bustard has had no chance against the march of
civilization, but has rapidly retired before the advancing plough-
share, till the race (once so free to rove over its vast and retired
solitudes as it listed) dwindled one by one, and the last survivor

Great Bustard. 357

was no more. Probably there are few, if any, now living in the
county who can recollect having seen the native Bustard on
Salisbury Plain, though many must have listened over and over
again to the tidings which their fathers and grandfathers gave of
their experiences with this noble species, even as I have heard
my father-in-law, the late Rev. T. T. Upwood, recount how some-
where about the year 1820, and on his own estate in Norfolk, he
came unexpectedly upon a pack of seven or eight of these huge
birds, and was probably one of the last in the kingdom to fire
upon so large a flock. He must not, however, be branded as an
oticide, perhaps in the eyes of some as odious an appellation as
that of regicide, or even vulpecide ! for however anxious his
desire to secure a specimen for his collection, and though
generally an unerring shot, he was so unnerved by the sudden
uprising of so many great birds, and the noise of so many wings,
that he clean missed with both barrels, and the flock was gone,
and never found again.

It was at about this date that a story, which I believe is
authentic, was told of a well-known sportsman not a hundred
miles from Codford, in the south of this county, who had invited
a party of neighbours to shoot partridges on his well-stocked
estate on the 1st of September. But, as it chanced, he had two
nephews staying with him at the time, who he thought would be
a hindrance to the day's sport if they accompanied him : so, to
employ them in another direction, he bade them take their guns
and go out on the Plain ' Bustard-shooting ;' with which they in
their simplicity at once acquiesced, to the no small amusement
of the uncle and his friends. But when the partridge-shooters
returned at the end of the day's sport to the house of the host*
they found the two lads had already arrived ; and to the ironical
inquiry of the uncle, 'Well, boys, what sport have you had
Bustard-shooting?' they replied, ' Oh, pretty fair ; we followed a
good many, and succeeded in killing two.' At this there was a
general laugh, as the sportsmen speculated what birds the lads
could have found ; and to satisfy their curiosity, though without
a suspicion of the truth, both uncle and friends followed the

358 Struthionidce.

youths to the back of the house, where their game was deposited :
and there, sure enough (to the utter surprise, and admiration,
and envy of all), the bodies of two fine Great Bustards met their
eyes. Then the laugh was indeed on the side of the boys, for to
have killed one of those grand birds, now very nearly extinct in
the county, both uncle and his friends would have sacrificed
almost anything within their power.

For more than a quarter of a century after the extinction of the
native Bustard in Wiltshire, I have no trace of the visit of a
straggler to this county ; but within the last forty years our
downs have been visited by it on three occasions, viz., in 1849,
1856, and in 1871, which I now proceed to describe seriatim.
On August 31st, 1849, Mr. Waterhouse, of the British Museum,
a well-known naturalist, was returning with a party of friends
from Stonehenge, at about seven in the evening, when a Great
Bustard rose and flew with a heavy but tolerably rapid flight,
at about twenty feet above the ground. It was very wild, and
would not sufler itself to be approached ; though when it rose on
the wing it pitched again two or three times before it flew over
the brow of a hill and was seen no more. Mr. Waterhouse never
entertained any doubt of the species, and had a clear view of the
bird for about ten minutes. Judging from its size he conjectured
it to be a female*

The next visit of this species to Wiltshire occurred on January
3rd, 1856, when one of Lord Ailesbury's keepers named King,
seeing a large bird which he could not recognise, but supposed
to be an eagle, flying over a part of Marlborough Forest called
Henswood, fired a cartridge at it, though on account of the
distance had little expectation of reaching it. He was not, there-
fore, disappointed to see the bird continue its flight, apparently
unharmed, and went his way thinking no more of the matter.
Subsequently, and apparently only a day or two after, a little boy
of not more than seven years old saw a large bird, crippled with a
broken leg, and succeeded in capturing it; and the following is his
own description of the occurrence, taken at the time from his own
* See Zcologut for 1849. p. 2590.

Great Bustard. 359

lips, and obligingly communicated to me by Mr. W. H. Rowland,
of Hungerford, who afterwards purchased the bird : ' I was going
to Starve-all Farm with my brother's dinner about twelve o'clock,
and passing along the edge of a field of turnips I saw a great red
bird laid down and fluttering away ; he was close to the side
of the turnips, and as I went up to him he tried to flutter away.
Then he came at me and bit my fingers, but did not hurt me
much ; and as he put out his great wings, I caught hold of one
and dragged him along, pretty near a quarter of a mile, up to
"Starve-all," where a man broke his neck. The bird was not
dirty when I first saw him, but I made him so pulling him
along the field ; he made a terrible row with his wings on the
barn floor, after his neck was broken. One of the men put the
bird on my back, and I held his head in my hand, and carried
him home to mother ; he was main heavy, and I couldn't scarce
get along with him.' So far we have the account of the brave
little captor of this Great Bustard, but it appears farther that
there was a council of war held over the bird (when the boy first
took it into the barn alive) by all the labourers, who were just at
that time assembled at dinner, and it was very nearly decided to
pick it and dress it then and there, but the boy's brother claimed
it for him, so one of the men killed it, that the boy might carry it
home better. Later in the day, as two young men out shooting
passed her cottage, the mother of the young Bustard-catcher
invited them to come in and see what a bird she had got, when
one of them offered her sixpence for it, then eightpence, and
ultimately bought it for one shilling, with the promise that the
woman should have the carcase after the bird was skinned;
but its purchase by Mr. Rowland prevented the fulfilment of
that part of the bargain. The dragging across the field by the
boy, and the rough handling of the man at the barn seriously
injured its feathers, but owing to the care and skill of Mr. Lead-
beater, its deficiencies were cleverly repaired, and it was pro-
nounced by Mr. Yarrell, who examined it, a good specimen. The
latter gentleman was extremely anxious to procure the neck for
dissection, that he might satisfy himself in regard to the gular

30 Struthionidce.

pouch, and was much disappointed to find that all the soft parts
required had been irrecoverably destroyed. Mr. Leadbeater,
however, ascertained that it was a young male, in the second
year only, and it was without the whiskers so conspicuous in the
adult male. In all probability, therefore, it would have had
no gular pouch. Though in a poor emaciated condition when
captured, it weighed 13J lb., and measured from tip to tip
of the wings 6 feet 3 inches. How so large, powerful,
and pugnacious a bird should suffer itself to be mastered by
a boy of tender age, seems strange at first sight ; but if we take
into account the broken leg (the wound in which seemed to be a
stale one of some days' standing), and its consequent exhaustion
from loss of blood, and if we suppose the boy to have caught
hold of the left wing, on the same side as the broken leg, we can
easily conceive how the bird was rendered powerless, and could
not recover itself to offer resistance. How it came by the broken
leg has been also much disputed, the limb not being shattered as
if by shot, but the bone broken off as if by ball, and the fracture
being too high up to have been caused by a trap. Mr. Yarrell
suggested the probability of the accident occurring by the bird
getting its leg entangled among the bars of a sheep-hurdle, and
making efforts to get loose ; but ever since I gained intelligence
of the keeper's shot with a cartridge, I have come to the conclu-
sion that that shot took effect, and that the bird so fired at, and
that caught subsequently by the little boy, were one and the
same ; and therefore Henswood (the scene of the keeper's shot)
being in Wiltshire, I claim this bird as a bond fide Wiltshire
specimen, though I own it was so misguided as to cross the border
to die just within the county of Berks. I am happy to add that,
by Mr. Marsh's desire, I purchased this specimen for his collection,
though at the high price of 20, and it may now be seen with the
rest of his birds in the museum at Salisbury.* And now we pass
by an interval of fifteen years during which no trace exists of the

* See Mr. Yarrell's account of the capture of this specimen in the Zoolo-
gist for 1856, p. 4995 ; and further particulars communicated by me in th e
sa me A olume, p. 5061.

Great Bustard. 361

visit of a Great Bastard to Wiltshire ; and in all that time but
two stragglers are reported to have been seen in the British Isles,
viz., one in Yorkshire in 1864, and one in Norfolk in 1867; but
in 1871 there was quite an immigration to England of Great
Bustards, which were said by some to have been driven across the
Channel through alarm at the heavy firing in France during the
Franco-German War ; but whatever the motive which impelled
them, it is certain that quite a numerous body came over to this
country, and specimens were obtained in Middlesex, in Northum-
berland, in Devonshire, in Somersetshire, and in Wiltshire.

As regards those which visited this county, I have to thank
many kind correspondents for early information on the subject,
and I now proceed to put together the story as I have gathered
it from the several accounts with which I have been furnished.
The Rev. Canon F. Bennett, Rector of Maddington and Shrewton,
wrote under date January 27th, 1871, ' You will be interested in
hearing that the Bustards have returned to the Plain. A flock
of seven large birds, thought to be wild geese, had been observed
on the downs, and no particular notice was taken of them. On
Monday last, however (23rd inst.), Stephen Smith, who was bird-
keeping near the Tile Barn, on the Manor Farm, in this parish,
saw four of these large strange birds flying low, and he killed
one of them at the distance of 132 yards with the marble with
which his gun was loaded. The three other birds are, I
believe, still about. The bird which was killed is a hen
Bustard, and it has been presented by Mr. Lywood, the tenant
of the Manor Farm, to the Salisbury and South Wilts Mu-
seum.' The Rev. Canon Goddard, Vicar of Hilmarton, also
kindly wrote to me under date January 28th : ' My son Edward
reports that on the railway en route to Winchester there was on
Wednesday last a man with the body of a Great Bustard killed at
Maddington, one of the three seen there.' That of course would
be the bird whose capture Canon Bennett reported. And a third
notice I had from the late Mr. E. T. Stevens of Salisbury, for
some time my colleague as Hon. Sec. to the Wiltshire Archaeo-
logical and Natural History Society, who wrote on January 25th,

362 Struthionidce.

1 You will be pleased to hear of the appearance of the Bustard
in Wiltshire. Three were seen on Sunday last by Mr. Lywood,
near Shrewton, and on Monday his bird- keeper, Stephen Smith,
shot one of them. The bird is a female, small, but in good
plumage ; weight not quite 71 lb. ; length from point of beak to
end of tail, 31 inches ; and from tip to tip of wings, 62 inches. It
was shot on the Yarnborough side of the Maddington Valley, and
was on the wing with its companions flying about twenty yards
above the ground. After it fell, one of the survivors wheeled
round the spot, not more than fifteen yards from the man's head.
The crop was quite empty. The skin is now being preserved for
the Salisbury Museum/ A second letter from Mr. Stevens,
dated February 2nd, informed me that he and nine others had
met ' to partake of the body of this bird from curiosity, and that
it was pronounced extremely tender and good, the breast like
plover, the thigh not unlike good pheasant.' My next witness is
Mr. Frederick Stratton, of Gore Cross Farm, on the Lavington
Downs, a keen observer of birds, with whom I have from time to
time had ornithological correspondence. He writes under date
January 26th : ' Having been confined to the house for several
weeks in consequence of an attack of bronchitis, I ventured out
on horseback on Monday last, the weather having become a little
milder, and I saw near New Copse a bird of which I cannot refrain
from giving you some account, and which I have no hesitation in
pronouncing to be a Great Bustard. I disturbed it on the edge of
a piece of swedes, and it seemed to use its wings with great
facility, flying somewhat after the manner of the Great Plover,
which hereabouts is generally though erroneously called the
" Curlew." The wings also seemed barred with white, somewhat in
the same way as those of that bird, only it was ten or twelve
times larger. I watched it alight on the ground, after a flight of
seven or eight hundred yards, and while I remained in sight,
it seemed intent on watching my movements. I was compelled to
ride home quickly, as the snow had begun to fall ; but I sent
directly to a neighbour, and asked him to shoot it if possible ;
but though he was fortunate enough to see it twice, he could not

Great Bustard. 363

get within 80 or 100 yards, and failed to secure it. He describes

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 33 of 53)