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 36 of 53)
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spasmodic jerks, the Lapwing arrests the attention of the most
unobservant. It is indigenous in England, and breeds on our
downs ; but assembling in large flocks as autumn approaches, it
retires to the sea- coast in November, and returns again at the
end of February or beginning of March : and I have long been
accustomed to watch for its arrival as the first harbinger of spring
in my upland home. Mr. Cordeaux informs us that immense
flocks of this species arrive in autumn on the eastern coast from
the North, and in Wiltshire Mr. F. Stratton gave me the gratify-
ing intelligence on June 29th, 1875, that he had noticed a most
extraordinary increase of this bird on his land at Gore Cross, on
Salisbury Plain : for whereas he used to see five or six pairs
breeding there annually, that year there were hundreds. The
previous week he was scarifying a piece of rough land, when the
men destroyed forty nests in that place only. The following day
he found a Peewit on that same piece of ploughed land sitting
on four eggs, whence he concluded that four hen birds must have
laid their eggs in that one nest since the previous day. The
fact, however, probably was that the bird had been disturbed
from its original nest, and had removed its eggs one by one, and
was sitting on them. Its eggs are very highly esteemed in the
London market, and though doubtless the majority of veritable
Plovers' eggs, as the dealers declare, are the produce of the
Black-headed Gull, the Peewit's nest is still the object of diligent
search : fortunately, however, it is so difficult to find in the
extensive corn-fields or wide-spreading expanse of turf, and the
parent birds are so cunning in their artifices to entice away the
intruder, that it is not very often found in this county at least,
where the search for its eggs has happily not become a regular-
trade. The bird and its habit of pretending lameness, and the


388 Charadriadce.

various devices it performs to attract the attention of the intruder
on its nest, and entice him and his dog away from its young, are
so well known that I need not further describe them. As regards
feeding, it is altogether a nocturnal bird. In Ancient Egypt it
is the head of a Lapwing that is so often represented in the
hieroglyphic figures, and on the walls of the tombs and temples,
upon the 'augural staff' of the gods ; but though thus honoured
by the divinities, I am not aware that any mummied specimens
have been found, or that its body was ever embalmed. It derives
its generic name, Vanellus, and the French Vanneau, from
vannus, ' a fan,' in allusion to the peculiar slow flapping motion
of its long wings. The French also call it Dixhuit, as we call it
'Peewit,' in imitation of its note. In Sweden it is known as
Vvp<*>> and is one of the first of the migratory birds that appears
in the spring, and as it often happens that a sharp frost sets in
after their arrival, the peasants call such a frost Vip-winter, or
* Lap wing- winter,' when the birds suffer severely. It has been
observed there that, if they fly away altogether, the frost will be
of long continuance, but if they remain it will soon be over.*
In England, in old times, it bore the name of ' Egret,' which has
occasioned no little confusion to modern ornithologists ; for when
we read of a thousand Egrets being served up at a single enter-
tainment (temp. Henry IV.), we marvel at the abundance of a
bird now so rare in this country ; but when we remember the
long tuft on the head of the Lapwing, we see how that bird also
became thus designated. Its flesh was highly esteemed for the
table, both in this country and in France ; in the latter they have
a proverb :

' Qui n'a mange grive ni vanneau
N'a jamais mange bon morceau.'

In Lancashire they are called the 'Seven Whistlers' and 'the
' Wandering Jews/ and are looked upon with horror, and their
cry listened to with dismay as the omen of ill-luck ; for there is
a tradition that they contain the souls of those Jews who assisted
at the Crucifixion, and in consequence were doomed to float in
* Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 370.

Lapwing. 389

the air for ever.* Montagu tells us that in his time it was
sometimes called ' Peeseweep.' This is one of those birds which
wears a spur or horny tubercle on the carpal joint or elbow of
the wing, but which is more especially noticeable in the fine
species, Hoplopterus spinosus or ' Zic-zac,' of which I shot many
specimens in Egypt. In Germany it is Gehaubte Kiebitz ; in
France, Vanneau huppe, ( Crested Lapwing ;' in Italy, Pavoncella
Comune, sharing the name with the Peacock; in Spain, Ave
fria, ' Bird of Tribute,' and also Judia, ' Jewess,' probably from
the same tradition as that of Lancashire mentioned above ; but
in Portugal it is Bibes, from the Moorish word Beebet, at Casa
Blanca on the coast of Morocco ; but in the North of Portugal it
is known as Gallispo, from gallus, ( a cock,' in allusion to the

141. OYSTER-CATCHER (Hcematopus ostralegus).

This robust powerful species is a true salt-water bird, and
seems to have no place in our inland county : but an account of
its capture at Bradford on Avon in September, 1859, as recorded
in a newspaper at the time, permitted me to include it in the
Wiltshire catalogue in my former papers on the birds of the
county. More recently Mr. Grant has recorded a second instance
of a Wiltshire-killed specimen which came into his hands for
preservation. It was taken in August, 1877, at Enford, a spot
even farther from the sea than Bradford ; but doubtless in each
case the birds wandered up the rivers on which they were re-
spectively found until they lost themselves, and knew not how
to return : but how they came to follow the rivers so far from
their haunts on the seashore, and what they found to subsist on
during the journey, I am at a loss to conjecture. Its plumage is
striking, from the pleasing contrast of black and white which it
displays : and its bright orange-red bill, of a peculiar wedge-
shaped form, to enable it to wrench open the shell-fish which
constitutes its food, and its vermilion legs, give it a handsome

Dyer's Folk-Lore,' p. 96.

f W. C. Tait on Birds of Portugal in His for 1887, p. 83.

390 Charadriadce.

Appearance. It is a very common bird in those localities on the
coast which abound in the molluscs on which it feeds, and its
loud ringing whistle, as it hurries shrieking away, must be
familiar to all who are acquainted with the seashore. From its
parti-coloured plumage it is sometimes (says Montagu) known as
the ' Skeldrake/ or ' Skelderdrake ' : sometimes, too, it is called
the 'Sea Pie,' and 'more correctly* (says Mr. Cecil Smith), 'for
it does not catch oysters ;'* and Mr. Harting is of opinion that
its long bill, powerful though it is in detaching limpets from the
rock and breaking open mussels and small crabs, is altogether
baffled in attempting to open an oyster.f Selby, however, main-
tains that it will insert the wedge-shaped point of its bill within
the valves, as the oysters lie partially open in shallow water, and
thus wrench them apart and extract the shell-fish : and that
they sometimes attempt this and are caught in so doing is
notorious, for instances have been known of the unfortunate bird
being made prisoner by the oyster closing upon its beak. In
Scandinavia it is known as Strand-Skata, or ' Strand- Magpie/
and in some parts of England as the ' Mussel Picker/ which it
certainly is. The scientific name, Hcematopus, signifies ' with feet
the colour of blood ' which is sufficiently, though not very accu-
rately, descriptive from a^ia+Trou?; and ostralegus is derived
from ostrea, ' an oyster/ and lego, ' I collect ' (B.O.U.), and from
this are derived most of the names by which it is generally
known ; as in France L'Huiterier Pie ; in Germany, Geschackte
Austern-Fischer, 'Pied Oyster-fisher/ and in Portugal Ostraceiro.
When alighting at the edge of the water (says Harting), the
flocks always pitch with their heads to the wind, and no doubt
the reason for this is, that were they to alight with the wind at
their backs they might be carried over the edge into the water.
When wounded they will swim with great buoyancy, and even
dive when occasion requires.

* ' Birds of Somerset,' p. 343. f ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 161.

Crane. 391


The magnificent birds which comprise this family may be said
to occupy the position among the Waders which the Bustards
enjoy among the Ground-birds. Of great size, tall and erect,
they are a stately race, and stalk among their fellows with elegant
and lordly mien : the few species known in Europe are all migra-
tory; and their chief peculiarity consists in the long, flowing,
flexible, and arched feathers (reminding one of the plumes of
the Ostrich) ; which, curled at the end, and springing from the
wing, overhang the tail, and which the bird can erect or depress
at pleasure.

142. CRANE (Grus cinerea).

Though once known in England as the Common Crane, this
specific title is a sad misnomer, for this handsome bird is now
become exceedingly scarce ; indeed, an occasional straggler alone
visits us at rare intervals. But a hundred years ago it formed
an important item at all state banquets, and was the noble
quarry at which falconers were wont to fly their largest hawks.
As with the Bustard, so with the Crane, by an Act passed
(25 Henry VIII., cap. xi.) A.D. 1534, to 'avoid the destruction of
wilde fowle,' it was prohibited to ' take the egges upon peine of
imprisonment for one yere, and to lose and forfeit for every egge
of any Crane so taken or distroid xx pence.'* But even as late
as 1780 it must have continued to breed in England, for it was
decreed by the Fen Laws of that year 'that no person shall
bring up or take any Swan's egg, or Crane's egg, or young birds
of that kind, on pain of forfeiting for every offence three shillings
and four pence.'f It was pretty generally distributed over all
unenclosed districts, whenever uncultivated tracts enabled it to
roam undisturbed ; and doubtless our wide-spreading downs
afforded it a welcome retreat : but now the ornithologist must go
to foreign lands to see this noble bird in a wild state. In Egypt

* J. E. Harting in Zoologist for 1886, p. 84.

f Cordeaux's Birds of the Humber District, 'p. 100.

392 Ardeidce.

I have watched it for hours on the mud-flats and sandbanks of
the Nile, as it walked with majestic step a very king amidst the
smaller Waders, striding about with commanding air, strutting
as if in self-conscious superiority, arching its long neck and
demeaning itself as the very queen of the shallows ; but the most
complete monograph on any bird with which I am acquainted is
the story of the Crane in its breeding-place in Lapland, as detailed
by my lamented friend, the late Mr. John Wolley, in the Ibis,* a
most perfect description of this now uncommon bird. When
migrating, as all known species of Cranes do, it collects in large
flocks, and is said to fly at a great height, and to keep up a
perpetual hoarse scream, or trumpet-like shrill cry, which, owing
to the very remarkable structure of the windpipe, is louder than
the note of any other bird, and which may be heard when the
birds are far out of sight. Mr. James Waylen has most obligingly
furnished me with the following interesting anecdote of a Wilt-
shire Crane: 'In 1783 it was recorded in the Salisbury paper
that a gentleman shot a Crane, on whose leg was found a piece
of copper which he himself had attached in the year 1767, after
having caught the same bird by means of a hawk : the copper
plate bore his initials, and the date 1767.' I am afraid that I
have no more modern instance of the occurrence of the Crane in

The English word ' Crane ' is derived from the Latin grus, and
that, as it seems, from the Greek yepavos, which in all probability
arose from the cry of the bird. So in France it is Grue cendree;
and in Germany Aschgrauer Kranich, 'Ash-coloured Crane;' in
Italy, Grue; in Spain, Grulla; in Portugal, Grou; but in Sweden


Though wholly incapable of swimming, the various species
which compose this large family may certainly be ranked as
Water-birds, so entirely are their haunts and habits aquatic. Con-
spicuous for the excessive length of their legs, and for their long
Ibis, vol. i., pp. 191-198.

The Herons. 393

and sharp-pointed beaks, with which they can transfix their prey,
or seize it in shallow water, the various members of this truly
elegant family roam wherever marsh, lake, river or brook offers-
a suitable fishing ground : and there they may be seen standing
motionless in shallow water, the very emblems of patience,
carefully watching till the prey they seek comes within reach of
their powerful beak, which they dart with unerring precision on
the hapless victim. Many of the true Herons are adorned with
elongated flowing plumes, which spring from the back of the
head, the neck, and the back ; the occipital crest is composed
of soft loose pendant silky feathers ; and the dorsal plumes have
long hair-like webs or barbs, all of which give an air of
elegance and finish to these gracefully formed birds. Notwith-
standing the immense length of their wings, their flight is heavy ;
and as they flap slowly overhead to and from their hunting
grounds, their progress seems slow, and the exertion laborious.
And yet on occasion, or when prompted by fear, they can show
great speed ; but the race seems somewhat indolent and disin-
clined for unnecessary exertion. During their progress on the
wing, their neck is bent back, so that the head rests upon the
shoulders ; and the long legs are extended behind as a
counterpoise to preserve the balance of the body ; thus the
Herons present a peculiar appearance in their flight, and may
readily be distinguished at a great distance. There is a popular
delusion still prevalent amongst the ignorant (however ridiculous
it may seem), that the Herons when sitting on their nests project
their legs through holes formed for that purpose at the bottom :
now, not to mention the very awkward and uncomfortable, not to
say impossible position which the poor bird would thus be
condemned to assume, I will merely point out that the thighs
of the Heron being of a length exactly proportioned to that of the
legs, the bending of the knee causes the leg to recede sufficiently
towards the tail to allow the feet to come to the centre of
the body (as has been most ably demonstrated by Mr. Water-
ton in his essay on the Heron) ; and therefore it is not one whit
more irksome to the Heron to perform its task of incubation after

394 Ardeidce.

the accustomed manner of other birds, than it is for the sparrow,
the finch, or the domestic fowl. Their habits are generally soli-
tary, except at the period of breeding, when they usually con-
gregate in large companies.

143. COMMON HERON (Ardea cinerea).

This is the only species of the whole family which we can
really designate an inhabitant of Wiltshire ; those others which I
have to mention being now mere stragglers of very rare oc-
currence. But the Common Heron is known to everybody, and
we have all seen this majestic bird on the wing to and from
its roosting-places, or surprised it standing motionless in shallow
water watching for its prey. It bears a bad character with those
who preserve fish, but Mr. Waterton has pointed out that this is
quite undeserved, as the benefits it confers by destroying rats,
reptiles and insects more than compensate for the few fish which
it will devour when it can find them in the shallows. At
one time it was in high favour, and indeed protected by law
as the most noble game at which hawks could be flown ; royal
game it was then, and a severe penal statute was enacted for its
preservation'; the taking of its egg subjecting the offender to
no less a penalty than twenty shillings, which was an enormous
fine in those days. Even now it is designated in Spain and
Portugal as Gar$a real. From a list of the game served at
a wedding-dinner in 1530 we learn that the price of a heron
was at that time 12d., of a swan 6s., of a crane 3s. 4d., of a
bittern 14d. ; and these prices will appear much higher when we
read that at the same feast an ox cost 30s., a calf 3s., a sheep
2s. 4d., and a lamb Is. 6d., while chicken were Is. 6d. per dozen.*
In those days its flesh was greatly esteemed as a most dainty
morsel ; but those palmy days when it stood high in the estima-
tion of English gentlemen are gone by, and now it is despised
alike by the epicure and the sportsman, and persecuted by the
gamekeeper and the fisherman. At that happy period it was
much more numerous than at present ; but even now one may
Cordeaux's ' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 102.

Common Heron. 395

sometimes steal unawares on this wary, suspicious bird, though
always on the alert against surprise. In Wiltshire it is known
by the provincial name of ' Jack/ and unfortunately is generally
known to the country people as the ' crane/ which it is difficult to
persuade them is a misnomer, and which creates no little confusion
of species. The middle claw of each foot of this bird is serrated
on the sides, like the foot of the nightjar. In France it is known
as Heron huppe, ' Crested Heron/ and Heron cendrt; and in
Germany as Aschgrauer Reiher, ' Ash-grey Heron ;' in Italy as
Aghirone and Airone; and in Sweden as Hdger. Professor Skeat
says that all these, as well as our English word ' Heron/ are prob-
ably derived from the harsh voice of the bird. That the Common
Heron breeds in colonies is well known to everybody ; but it will,
I think, be a surprise to many, as I own it was to myself, until
I investigated the matter carefully, to find that we have no less
than seven Heronries in Wiltshire, in addition to some outlying
nests or small colonies which have been noticed in various locali-
ties. As I made the existence of Heronries and their details
a special object of inquiry, and as I have received the informa-
tion I sought from a large number of obliging correspondents
in all parts of the county, I believe I am now able to offer
a pretty accurate account of all the existing Heronries in
Wiltshire, and I proceed to enumerate them in order, beginning
with the most northern district.

1. Grouch Wood, Highworth. The largest Heronry which
flourishes at this day in the county is of very recent origin, and
is situated at Crouch Wood, in the parish of Highworth, but on
the Hannington Hall property, and belonging to Mr. Hussey-
Freke. The covert at Crouch was planted with gorse as a fox-
cover some fifty-four years since, and amongst the gorse were
scattered a certain number of trees, chiefly larch. It was only
about eight or nine years ago that the Herons began to occupy
these trees, just before Mr. Hussey-Freke bought the wood and
the farm adjoining. The Herons are very carefully protected
here, and last year the nests were computed to amount to
between sixty and seventy ; but as elsewhere in the county

396 Ardeidce.

when the birds leave home for the banks of streams, more
especially where there are trout fisheries (as in this case, where
the river Colne enters the Thames, or rather Isis, not far from
Crouch), they are special objects of persecution at the hands of
keepers, and many are destroyed. The consequence is there is
this year a great falling off in the number of inhabited nests at
Crouch. For all the above particulars I have the authority of
the owner. I have since been informed that the number of in-
habited nests this year (1887) is probably only between twenty
and thirty.

2. Bowood. Next in order as we proceed from north to south
is the well-known old-established Heronry at Bowood, situated on
an island in the lake, within sight of the house. This was for
many years the only recognised Heronry in North Wilts, and
used to contain from forty to sixty nests, but from the same
cause as that just mentioned in regard to Crouch Wood, the
Herons have been so persecuted and destroyed that but fifteen
nests, as I learn from Mr. Herbert Smith, are occupied this year :
a sad and rapid falling off indeed, which is very much to be

3. Savernake. There is in North Wilts a third small Heronry
or little colony, the offshoot or nucleus of a Heronry at Saver-
nake. This at present consists of only six nests, as I am
informed by my friend Mr. C. Tanner, jun., who kindly took the
trouble to count them on my behalf. Until about four years
ago, when the high trees thereof were cut down, the Herons
occupied a wood called ' Bedwyn Brails,' but when the trees were
felled they removed to the pleasure-grounds at Savernake House,
and at one time mustered as many as ten or even more nests.

4. Longleat. We have mentioned a Heronry at the seat of the
Marquis of Lansdowne, and another at that of the Marquis of
Ailesbury ; it is remarkable that my next instance is at the seat
of the Marquis of Bath : so that each of our three noblemen of
highest rank in the county has a Heronry attached to his estate.
That at Longleat is on an island on the lake at the back of the
house, and I have the authority of Lord Bath for saying that it

Common Heron. 397

is unquestionably in Wiltshire, though very near the borders of
Somerset. From ' time immemorial,' up to about 1852, there
had always been from one to two nests, the Herons being kept
down by a reward of five shillings paid for every Heron killed.
But about 1852 the present Marquis discontinued the reward for
killing them, and encouraged the Herons ; in consequence they
very soon began to multiply, and there have been as many as
from twenty to thirty nests. But of late years they have again
decreased in number, in consequence of the birds being waylaid
and killed down the river Wylye, and the number of nests now
varies from ten to fifteen.

5. Fonthill There is a small Heronry situated near the lower
end of the lake at Fonthill, the seat of Mr. Alfred Morrison,
which generally numbered from ten to twelve nests yearly, as I
learn from the head-keeper, or from eight to ten^ as Mr. Ernest
Baker estimates them. As in all the other Heronries previously
described, the numbers here too are diminishing, and last year
eight nests only were occupied.

6. Compton Park. Mr. C. Penruddocke has most obligingly
communicated to me full particulars of this interesting Heronry,
which has been established in some part of Compton Park as far
back as the memory of living men can penetrate, and which its
owner recollects for more than fifty years, during which time
it has, on the whole, neither increased nor diminished. The
number of nests varies from fifteen, which appears to be the
maximum, to eleven, which seems to be the minimum. This
year (1887) there are twelve nests. The name of the covert in
which the Heronry is situated is ' Sellwood,' commonly called
' Sillars,' or ' Sellars,' and it is distant about 250 yards from the
river Nadder. The nests have been built for the most part in
oak trees, but of late years many are found on larch fir-trees, of
the age of thirty to thirty-five years, while occasionally they
have been built on plane trees and elms in the park itself. Mr.
Penruddocke's experience is that five or even six young may
generally be reckoned as the produce of each nest ; and he has
known seventy-five young birds, in favourable seasons, hatched

398 Ardeidce.

out in this Heronry. Mr. Penruddocke also adds his valuable
testimony, founded on experience, that the Heron, though un-
doubtedly an occasional consumer of fish, is also a destroyer of
some of the worst enemies of the fish; and at a meeting at
Salisbury of Conservators of Fisheries in that neighbourhood, he
has heard Mr. Marryat a great fisherman and authority on the
subject defend the Herons from the accusations generally made
against them, and declare the compensating benefits they confer.

7. Longford Castle. This is but a small colony, which Lord
Kadnor does not dignify with the title of Heronry. Still, as a
certain number of nests has now been established there for many
years, and as there is no large Heronry in the immediate neigh-
bourhood of which it can be considered an offshoot, I submit
that it has a right to rank as a Heronry, and I claim it as such.
The spot selected for the nests is a clump of the highest trees in
the park viz., some lofty beeches about equi-distant from the
Avon and the stream which runs through the Chalk valley, the
Ebbe as it is called, perhaps half a mile or so from the water, and

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 36 of 53)