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 34 of 53)
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it as running with considerable swiftness, and agrees with me
in thinking that its wings would stretch at least 6 feet. It
appeared to be feeding in a strip of the thousand-headed cabbage,
the stalks of which were very long, thus affording, at the same
time, both food and shelter.'

Two days after the capture of the Maddington Bustard
viz., on Wednesday, January 25th, as I learnt from a second
letter from Mr. Stevens, as well as from several other kind
friends another Great Bustard was shot in the parish of Berwick
St. James, very near Maddington. Two birds were seen to-
gether on the estate of Mr. William Pinckney, and were watched
through a glass as they were feeding in a turnip-field. As they
seemed remarkably shy and suspicious,, precautions were taken
to circumvent them ; and by a little manoeuvring, and by placing
men so as to drive them in the required direction, one of them
a fine male was shot in the wing, and so crippled as to be easily
taken. It weighed nearly 10 lb., stood upwards of 3 feet in
height, and measured from the point of the beak to the end of
tail 44 inches, and across the wings 6 feet 8 inches. The female
might also have been captured, but in the excitement of the
moment was allowed to escape, and she went off in the direction
of Chitterne.

It cannot be doubted that the female shot at Maddington on
January 23rd and its three companions, and the solitary bird
seen at Gore Cross on the same day by Mr. Stratton, and the fine
male killed at Berwick on January 25th, and its companion
which escaped, would all belong to the original flock of seven
which had been observed, but no particular notice taken of
them, on the Maddington Downs, and which had become
scattered into several small parties, and dispersed over the
neighbouring downs.

It was not, I am afraid, a very hospitable reception which
these Great Bustards met with, on coming to visit the original
haunts of their relatives ; and if any of them survived and
returned across the Channel to their own quarters they would

364 Struthionidce.

give but a sorry account of the welcome they met with here.
Far different was the hospitality offered by my friend Mr.
Upcher, when a fine male bird made its appearance on his
property at Feltwell, in Norfolk, in 1876 ; for he not only took
the utmost pains to secure it from molestation and intrusion,
but procured from Lord Lilford a female companion, which he
turned down on the spot, in hopes he might induce it to remain
and perhaps breed on his property : but all his efforts were most
unfortunately frustrated by exceptionally severe weather and
most violent storms, which resulted in the death of the hen
bird and the departure of the male.* All honour, however, to
him who did his best to protect and provide for the stranger,
instead of attacking it the moment it appeared and hunting it
to death, as was done in Wiltshire and other counties whenever
it made its appearance. At all events, during the sixteen years
which have elapsed since the last memorable visit to Wiltshire
we have seen no more of this bird, at once the largest, the noblest,
and the most highly prized of all our British birds ; and for
which our county was so notorious, as the principal stronghold
of what once stood at the head of the game list.

133. LITTLE BUSTARD (Otis tetrax).

I have no hesitation in admitting this interesting species into
our Wiltshire list, on the authority of the Right Hon. E. P.
Bouverie, of the Manor House, Market Lavington, who is a keen
observer of birds, and who fell in with two of this species on
August 6th, 1877, and on returning home was so good as to
favour me with the following account of what he had seen : c I
was riding with some friends on Monday, August 6th, on the
Plain above Netheravon, and my attention was attracted by a
large strange bird, which rose off a fallow about 100 yards from
me ; a second rose immediately afterwards and flew in a different
direction, 150 yards on to the down adjoining, and then ran,

See account in Zoologist for 1876, p. 4882, also a more full account, with
illustrations, in the Field during February, 1876.

Little Bastard. 365

very fast, a short distance. I pursued : it rose again and took
another short flight, and alighted again, ran a short way, and
then crouched. I pursued it again : it ran on, and then took flight
and swung round us at about 200 or 250 yards distance, so as to be
quite observable, with head outstretched. I have no doubt they
were a pair of Lesser Bustards. I have looked at the plates in
Bewick and Yarrell, and they correspond most closely especially
the latter with the appearance of the one we followed. Its size
and flight, as described by McGillivray, correspond exactly with
our observation: the size that of a large pheasant, or say a
blackcock ; the flight peculiar, with neck stretched out. The
head when the bird squatted, and the markings as it flew by,
were exactly like the plates. In short, apart from the evidence
afforded by handling them, there is the strongest proof that the
Lesser Bustard was on the Plain.' Mr. Bouverie is well ac-
quainted with the ' Great Plover ' or ' Stone Curlew/ the only
species with which they could be confused, and was satisfied
that the birds he saw were not of that species ; so that I have
no doubt he was correct in deciding that they were veritable
Little Bustards.

Not nearly so conclusive is another notice of its occurrence
with which the Kev. A. P. Morres furnished me ; for as its
authenticity rests on an anonymous contribution to a local
newspaper, it can only be received with extreme caution. The
writer, however, certainly seems to speak with some apparent
acquaintance with the bird, and it is much to be regretted that
he so seriously impaired the value of his information by with-
holding the authority of his name. He says : ' Hiding on the
old driftway which leads from Salisbury to Everleigh, when near
the latter place, at the back of Sidbury Hill, on the open down,
I came suddenly on a pair of Bustards. I know the birds per-
fectly, having seen them on the plains near Casa Yischeu, half-
way between Cadiz and Gibraltar, in the South of Spain. There
are two sorts : the greater and lesser. It was a pair of the
Lesser Bustards I saw this day. Meeting an old man shortly
after, I inquired if he had ever seen such a thing. His answer

366 Struthionidce.

was, " I am seventy- two, and never have ; but I have heard my
father speak of them as having been quite common in his
youth." I hope no sportsman or naturalist will think it neces-
sary to shoot them, as they may breed. Viator, April 4, 1867.'
Mr. Morres is not disposed to put much credence in this account,
because of the late date assigned to their appearance, whereas
the visits of this bird to the British Isles are generally in late
autumn or winter ; but, for my part, I do not think the Little
Bustard is so rare in this country as some imagine, though, as a
shy, timid bird, and a lover of solitary places, it keeps as far as
possible from the haunts of man. Mr. Howard Saunders says
that altogether between sixty and seventy have been recorded
as visitors to the British Islands.* These are all specimens which
have been duly reported and chronicled at headquarters; but
nobody can tell how many others may have escaped notice, or,
at all events, have lacked an historian or biographer to report
their capture. Certainly it does not include three specimens
which were shot on different occasions in the north of Norfolk,
near Lynn, by my father-in-law, the Rev. T. T. Upwood, two of
which are still in the collection which he left at his seat, Lovell's
Hall, in the parish of Terrington, and the third is in my own
collection in Wiltshire. These occurrences, however, took place
between forty and fifty years ago, when the neighbourhood of
the Wash presented a much wilder aspect than it does now, and
when ornithological prizes were continually met with, the very
mention of which makes the collectors' mouth water in these
degenerate days.

I found this species extremely common in Portugal ; indeed,
it is constantly served at table under the title of ' Pheasant/
So plentiful is it that the markets were daily supplied with it in
some numbers, and its abundance is manifest from the price I
paid for the finest adult male I could select, amounting to no
more than 200 reis, which, however large the figure may seem to
the uninitiated in Portuguese coinage, represents only tenpence
halfpenny of our money. In skinning this and other specimens
Fourth edition of YarrelPs 'British Birds,' vol. iii., p. 218.

Little Bustard. 367

I found a considerable cellular fatty deposit very thickly cover-
ing the interior of the skin of the neck, more especially at the
back of it. This I had to remove very carefully and patiently,
bit by bit, with the scalpel. It gave the neck a very thick ap-
pearance, and when felt from the outside was soft, somewhat as
in the pouch of 0. tarda ; but in this case there was no trace of
pouch or sac.*

In habits, localities it frequents, and food, it very much re-
sembles its larger congener. In Algeria it is known as ' Poule
de Carthage.' At the breeding season it pours forth its cry of
prut, prut, jumping up at the conclusion of each strain or call,
and striking the ground in a peculiar manner on its descent.-)-
For an interesting account of the manner in which sportsmen
hunt the Little Bustard on the steppes or prairies of the Do-
brudscha, and how they circumvent these wily birds by approach-
ing them under cover of an araba, I would refer my readers to
an able article by Mr. W. H. Simpson.j In France it is Outarde
canepetiere ; in Germany, Kleine Trappe ; in Sweden, Liten-
Trapp ; in Italy, Gallina pratarola, ' meadow-hen ;' in Spain,
Sison, and in Portugal, Cizdo, both meaning ' pilferer.' Tetrax
may possibly mean ' a cackler/ or perhaps it is a Persian word

' Spring Tour in Portugal,' p. 208.

f Fourth edition of YarrelFs ' British Birds,' vol. iii., p. 218.

t Ibis for 1861, p. 370.




IT might be supposed at first sight that, in a county so deficient
in large sheets of water as ours confessedly is, the fourth great
Order of birds, comprising the Waders, would be but scantily
represented. When, however, it is considered that a large pro-
portion of this numerous class is apt at certain periods of the
year not only to retire inland, but to frequent large open plains,
however distant from lakes and rivers, as well as secluded
valleys, watered by diminutive streams, it is evident that our
wide-spreading downs, and the rich valleys which intersect and
border them, offer attractions sufficiently tempting to many of
this Order, and the consequence is that the list of Wiltshire
Waders is by no means a scanty or a meagre one.

This class of birds may be said to occupy a middle space
between the Ground birds last described, which are truly terres-
trial, and the next Order, which contains the Swimmers, or true
Waterfowl. The Waders known in the British Isles are com-
prised within six families, the Plovers, the Cranes, the Herons, the
Snipes, the Rails, and the little family of Lobe-footed birds ; and
in this list we shall again remark the gradual advancement
towards the true water-birds : those which stand at the head of
the list being in many respects nearly related to the game-birds


370 Charadriadce.

which they succeed, while those at the farther end approach
both in conformation and in habits very closely to the great
Order of Swimmers which follows them. The general name
assigned to them of ' Grallatores ' signifies ' walkers on stilts,'
and describes at once the characteristic for which they are con-
spicuous the great length of leg, which enables them to wado
in the shallows and marshes, whether on the sea-coast or on the
banks of fresh-water lakes and rivers. Combined with this
peculiar length of leg, we shall see a proportionate length of
neck or beak, or both together, by means of which they can
secure the food which they find in the shallow-water or mud-
banks in which they delight ; and in the more typical members
of the Order we shall find the toes of great length, and partially
connected with a membrane, by which they are the better
enabled to traverse the soft oozy ground where their prey is
most abundant, and to seek their food on the slimy mud into
which their bodies would otherwise sink. They are generally
provided with powerful wings, and their flight is rapid as well as
strong. Their food consists almost, if not quite, entirely of
animal substances, of which the lower classes of reptiles, fishes,
molluscs, worms, and other invertebrate creatures form the
principal portion. They are generally of shy and timid nature,
ever on the alert for danger, and avoid the too near approach of


Closely allied to the Bustards last described, and with the
same peculiar formation of foot, from which the hind toe is
absent, the large family of Plovers stands at the head of the
Waders. Their legs are of moderate length, and their beaks of
comparative shortness, as become those which connect the land
and water birds ; thus, too, they can, on the one hand, run with
considerable swiftness, and, on the other hand, they can fly with
great rapidity, and prolong their flight almost indefinitely.
Being generally late, if not nocturnal feeders, they are furnished
with large full eyes, which, with a corresponding expansion of

Pratincole. 371

socket, give the head a bulky appearance, which is quite charac-
teristic of the family. When in repose (and I have often seen
them standing asleep) the neck is shortened, and the head drawn
down between the shoulders, reminding one of a hunchback.
The large majority of them lay four eggs on the ground; and
when an intruder appears in the neighbourhood, the male whirls
about and feigns lameness, and practises sundry manoauvres to
draw away attention, until the female has stolen away from the
nest unperceived. They compose a very large family, and some
of the species may be found in every part of the world. During
the greater portion of the year they congregate in large flocks,
and most of them migrate, or partially migrate, retiring to the
sea-coast when frost sets in, as is the case with many other birds.
The word Charadrius is the Latinised form of %apa$pi6<;, in
classical Greek signifying 'a bird dwelling in clefts or river
valleys/ xapdSpai. (B.O.U.), though how far this description of
locality suits the family of Plovers I must leave the Greek
authors to explain. Our English word ' Plover ' is derived from
the French Pluvier, ' the Bain-bird.' Wedgewood remarks that
the German name, too, is Regenpfeifer, ' the Rain-piper ' (Skeat).

134. PRATINCOLE (Glareola torquata).

It is highly satisfactory to me that I am able to head my list
of Wiltshire Waders with this extremely rare visitor to Great
Britain, and that satisfaction is much enhanced by the circum-
stance that the individual in question has found its way into my
collection through the kindness of the gentleman who killed it.
As the bird is so very little known in this country, it may be of
interest if I extract from the pages of the Zoologist the whole
story of its capture, as I recorded it in that publication at the
time.* ' In the middle of November, 1852, when Mr. Hussey, of
Tilshead, was walking over his "land, the day being very rough
and cold, the wind blowing from the east, he saw a strange bird
descend near him with the velocity of lightning, and settle inside
a sheep-fold among the sheep. As Mr. Hussey chanced very
* Zoologist for 1853, p. 3843, et seq.


372 Charadriadce.

fortunately to be an observer of birds, he immediately remarked
that this was one he had never seen before, and pointed it out to
his shepherd who was with him, desiring him to watch the bird
well while he returned to his home, at the distance of a mile, for
his gun. Before he went, however, he saw the bird suddenly
rise from the ground, and after a short flight of the most marvel-
lous velocity, return again to the fold, where it seemed to enjoy
the shelter from the bleak east wind, and to care nothing for the
presence of the sheep, the men and the dogs. This short
excursionary flight was renewed several times, which made Mr.
Hussey hesitate whether he should take the trouble to return
home on so remote a chance of still finding on his return so
singularly restless and swift a bird ; however, as the bird always
came back to the same spot after each successive excursion, Mr.
Hussey hesitated no longer, but hurried home for his gun, 'giving
strict charge to the shepherd to keep quiet, and on no account
to lose sight of the bird. Now the shepherds of Salisbury Plain
(in the midst of the bleakest part of which the parish of Tilshead
lies) are not remarkable for their sharpness ; indeed, I fear we
must own them to be the perfection of all that is dull, heavy,
and ignorant ; no wonder, then, that a bird so very rapid in its
movements as the Collared Pratincole should soon elude the slow
gaze of the heavy-eyed Argus, and that on Mr. Hussey's return,
in answer to his inquiries as to the whereabouts of the strange
bird, he should be met with the provoking reply " Doant knaw,
zur ; he flee'd away so terrible sudden that I could'n zee 'en
nowhere, I could'n : I never zee sech a bird to flee." Upon this,
it may be supposed that Mr. Hussey walked on somewhat dis-
appointed, when, in a moment, at the distance of about thirty
yards, up sprang the bird, and was darting off at a prodigious
rate, but a well-aimed shot laid it dead on the ground. On
picking it up, the long wings and forked tail caused Mr. Hussey
and others to suppose it to belong to the Swallow tribe ; and the
dull- eyed shepherd, seeing no brilliant hues in the dead bird, as
if to excuse his slowness, exclaimed with a sneer of contempt,
"Well, zur, 'taint much of a bird, arter all, I'm zure." ' In

Pratincole. 373

addition to the above narrative, Mr. Hussey tells me that ' the
land on which I found the bird was a stiff clay soil. I shot it
close to the sheep-fold, where there were sheep feeding off
turnips ; the bird appeared to be rather tame, but whether from
exhaustion or nature, I cannot tell.'

I have also a notice but an unsatisfactory one which I have
not been able to verify, and without detail of time or place or
circumstances, that a second specimen was killed at Avebury
about 1860. Possibly this notice may enable some traces of it
to be discovered.

The home of the Pratincole seems to be the steppes of Tartary
and the central parts of Asia ; but when we look at its marvellous
length of wing and deeply-forked tail, we are prepared to find
that it is of frequent occurrence in Southern Europe, as well as
Northern Africa, vast distances being soon traversed by a bird of
such enormous powers of flight. It can also run rapidly on the
ground, and it catches coleopterous and other insect prey on foot
as well as on the wing. It roosts on the ground, and flies late at
night, its large eyes being well adapted for seeing in the dark ;
in all these respects it shows its affinity to the Plovers. Its
prevailing colour is dove-brown above, and buff and white below ;
and its distinguishing mark, whence it derives its specific name,
is a collar or crescent of black, which in a narrow line encircles
its throat to the eyes.

Its scientific name, glareola, is derived, according to the B.O.U.
Committee, from the localities it loves, from glarea, 'gravel/
because it inhabits ' gravelly places ' ; and ' Pratincole,' from
pratum, 'a meadow'; and incola, 'an inhabitant,' because it
frequents open meadows. Our earlier British ornithologists
called it the 'Austrian Pratincole.' In Italy it is known as
Pernice di mare, ' Sea Partridge ' ; and in Malta as Perniciotta,
'Little Partridge' ; in France it is Glareole d collier; in Germany,
Deis rothfussige Sandhuhn, 'Red-footed Sand-fowl ; in Spain,
Canastera; and in Portugal, as in Italy, Perdiz do mar. It
frequents the margins of lakes and rivers, as well as marshes in
the interior of the country. Those who are acquainted with it

374 Charadriadce.

in its own haunts speak of its fearless manner and familiar
habits. Others find it not so easy to approach by walking
straight up to it, but say that it will squat if one makes a circuit
round it, gradually lessening the distance, and will then allow
itself to be trodden upon before taking wing* Mr. O. Salvin
found it on the tablelands of the interior of the Eastern Atlas,
frequenting the salt-lakes and freshwater marshes, and gives the
following graphic description of its behaviour : ' When in
proximity to their nests, the whole flock come wheeling and
screaming round, while some dart passionately down to within a
few feet of the intruder's head, retiring again to make another
descent. When the first transports of excitement are over, they
all alight, one by one, on the ground. Some stand quite still,
watching with inquiring gaze; while others stretch themselves
out, first expanding one wing, then the other, and sitting down
extend both legs. In this position they remain some seconds, as
if dead, when suddenly springing up, they make another circuit
overhead, and the v/hole flock passes quietly away. The bird
makes no nest, but deposits its three eggs in a slight depression
of the bare sand. The eggs are usually placed with their axes


It is somewhat strange that the second species of this family
should also have occurred in Wiltshire, inasmuch as it is one of
the very rarest of the accidental visitors to this country, the
straggler whose appearance I will now relate being only the fifth
individual whose occurrence in Great Britain had then been
recorded. It was met with by Mr. Walter Langton, of Wands-
worth, Surrey, when out shooting on the estate of Mr. Stephen
Mills, at Elston, near Tilshead, on Salisbury Plain, on October 2nd,
1855 (very near the same spot where the Pratincole, last described.-
was found). It was first seen on an open piece of down land

Lord Lilford in Ibis for 1860, p. 239.
f O. Salvin in Ibis for 1859, p. 355.

C 'ream-Coloured Courser. 375

called Eastdown, which was particularly bare of vegetation, as is
generally the case at that season of the year with all down lands.
The day was somewhat stormy, the wind south-west, and Mr.
Langton and his companion were following a wild covey with a
brace of young pointers, when one of them stood on the open,
down, and suddenly a Cream-coloured Courser took wing, almost
immediately under the dog's nose, and apparently flew at the
dog's face, who snapped at the bird. Indeed, in a second letter
with which Mr. Langton most obligingly favoured me at the
time, he calls particular attention to this strange fearlessness on
the part of the bird ; which, however, is quite in accordance with
its general character. It then flew with a lazy kind of flight
about two hundred yards, and again settled on the open down,
and began to run at a moderate pace, reminding Mr. Langton of
the gait of the Landrail. That gentleman immediately followed
it, and, when within forty yards, shot it as it ran upon the ground.
It was not heard to utter any cry, and the keepers who were
present conjectured it to have been wounded; but as they seem
to have arrived at that conclusion solely from the unwillingness
of the bird to take flight, and its apparent disregard of danger,
for which its natural disposition fully accounts, no regard need
be paid to that surmise. When first found by the dog, it was
lying so close that, until it rose, though from the bare down,
nothing was seen of it. It was sent to Mr. Gardner, the well-
known taxidermist in Oxford Street, who stuffed it, and who
kindly communicated with me on the subject.

The Cream-coloured Courser, Swift-foot, or Plover, is a native
of the sandy deserts of Africa, to which its pale bluff plumage
closely assimilates in colour : hence the name isabeUinus, ' sand-
coloured,' which is most appropriate, for the colour of its plumage
is so well matched with the sand of the desert which it inhabits,
that it is as difficult to distinguish it when squatted on the
ground, as it is to see the Ptarmigan amidst the rocks and snow
patches of Norway. This remarkable assimilation in colour to
the warm-tinted sand it shares with many other species of birds
which frequent the same localities, and struck me as very ob-

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 34 of 53)