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 41 of 53)
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Cock ;' and Mr. Cecil Smith says it is known in Somersetshire as
the ' Skitty,' and calls attention to the extreme narrowness of its
breast-bone, whereby it is enabled to creep through very small
holes and very tangled grasses.* This bird (in common with the
Moorhen and Coot) has a small rudimentary claw or spur on
the wing ; but this in a kindred species a specimen of which
was kindly brought me from New Zealand by Miss Awdry is
developed into quite a formidable weapon.f In France it is Rale
d'eau ; in Germany, Wasser Ralle ; in Italy, Gallinella palvistre ;
in Sweden, Vatten-RalL; in Spain, Rascon, 'Scratched; and in
Portugal, Frango d'ayua. It can both swim and dive with great
ease. It remains with us throughout the year.

170. MOORHEN (GaUinula chloropus).

This is the most common species of the whole family, for it
may be seen on almost every retired pond or lake, either
swimming amidst the rushes with its peculiar jerking motion,
or alarmed at the presence of an intruder, seeking the shelter of
the most distant bank and the thickest sedge ; and there it will
sink in the water, submerging the whole body with the exception
of the beak, which alone protrudes above the surface to enable it
to breathe, and holding on to that position by means of some
rush, or reed, or water-plant, which it grasps with its feet. As
evening draws on, it will wander over the newly-mown grass of a
hay-field, searching diligently for food. Though a shy bird, it is
more familiar and shows more confidence in man than the
preceding species, and has been known when undisturbed to
become quite tame. In the classic grounds at Walton Hall, the
seat of the late well-known naturalist, Mr. Waterton, where all

' Birds of Somerset,' p. 443.

t See article by Mr. P. L. Sclater ' Ou the Claws and Spurs of Birds'
Wings,' in Ills for 1U6, pp. 147-U1.

Moorhen. 445

birds were encouraged and protected, I have seen the Moorhens
feeding just beneath the drawing-room windows, and not caring
to move nearer the water, even when a stranger approached. At
Bowood they show great boldness, and at Draycot pond, where
they are not molested, they evince none of that timidity for
which the race of Kails is renowned. Where, however, they are
not so protected, and are surprised in an open space, they will
skim along the surface of the water, dipping with their toes as
they hurry along ; partly flying, partly running, legs as well as
wings being actively employed, till they have retreated into
thick cover. But though their flight for a short distance, with
legs hanging down, seems heavy and awkward, they can, and do
on occasion, indulge in a prolonged flight with apparent ease :
they can also perch in a bush or on a low- tree. They are
conspicuous for the bright scarlet frontal plate or horny shield
which extends above the beak, and as they swim over the pond,
with a nodding motion of the head, examining every weed on
either side, or as they hurry through the meadows, in both
cases perpetually jerking up their tails, they always seem in a
bustle, and as if they had no time to waste.

The specific name, chloropus, ' green- footed/ is most applicable :
so in Sweden it is Gron-fotad Sump-Hona, or ' Green- footed
Fen-Hen'; but with us the 'Common Gallinule,' ' Water-Hen/
and ' Marsh-Hen,' and used in old time to be 'Mot-hen,' meaning
'Moat-hen/ for (says Pennant) in the days of moated houses
they were very frequent about the moats. In France it is Poule
d'eau ordinaire; in Spain, Polla de agua; in Portugal, Gallinha
de agua; in Germany, Grunfussiges Eohrhuhn; and in Italy,
Pullo sultano cimandorlo.

171. CAYENNE RAIL (Aramides Cayannensis).

Though denied a place in the British list by those in authority,
and ignominiously denounced as an escaped convict from some
zoological garden or other place of detention, to which it had been
transported from its native land, I cannot pass over in silence
this interesting stranger, which was killed in October, 1876, on

446 Rallidce.

the river between Trowbridge and Bradford-on-Avon, and which
the Rev. A. P. Morres, who saw it in the flesh the day after its
capture, described as ' evidently a Gallinule, but somewhat larger
than, and quite different in colour to, our Moorhen ; the legs and
iris of eye of a rich crimson lake ; beak light green, inclining to
yellow at the base; head, neck, and thighs, pure gray; back,
bright olive-green ; tail, tail coverts, and vent, black ; breast, rich
rufous brown, and wings bright brown, with a touch of crimson
on the quills. On the underside of the wing the axillaries were
beautifully barred with rufous and black* Mr. Morres most
obligingly took out one of these feathers, and sent it to me,
together with a description of the bird and details of its capture.
But I, being wholly ignorant of the species, and so unable to
supply the information required, forwarded the feather to
Professor Newton, at Cambridge, and there Mr. 0. Salvin, guided
by that single feather alone, recognised the bird and declared its
species, a declaration which a comparison with some skins in the
museum at Cambridge amply confirmed. This was certainly a
great triumph of ornithological acumen, and Professor Newton,
in proof of the correctness of the determination thus happily
arrived at, enclosed to me another feather which almost exactly
matched the feather I had forwarded to him. Professor Newton
added : ' I purposely chose one that is not exactly the same, that
there may be no confusion, the larger feather being the one I
had from you, the smaller one from a specimen in the Swainson
Collection. As its name implies, it is an inhabitant of Cayenne
and adjoining parts, occurring in Trinidad, but I should think
nowhere nearer to this country : it has been brought over several
times to the Zoological Gardens, and probably you might see it
there now. I cannot imagine that it should find its way to us
unassisted, but if it should make good its escape, I dare say it
might continue to exist for some weeks or months in this country,
except in winter. Aramides is a rather aberrant genus of Rails,
found only in the New World.' On making inquiries at the
Zoological Gardens at Clifton, Mr. Morres could not learn that
any such bird had ever been confined there, nor could he discover

Cayenne Rail. 447

elsewhere any tidings of the escape of any such captive. It
seems, therefore, but for the decisive verdict given above by
authority, as if it were permissible to imagine this specimen a
possible straggler from America. Most remarkable, however, is
the sequel to this tale : for now, after such close examination of
this stranger, Mr. Morres bethought him of a stuffed bird, of just
the same size and appearance, though not of such bright colour-
ing, with which he had been familiar for years, and which stood
in the hall of a friend, Mr. Edward Everett, now deceased. For
this bird Mr. Morres at once made diligent inquiry, and was so
fortunate as to recover it ; and on inspection it proved to be a
second specimen of Aramides Cayannensis, with the same
remarkable rufous and black feathers under the wing. As to
the history of this specimen, it was impossible to gain any
positive information, beyond that it had been shot many years
ago by some friend, and that Mr. Everett had had it set up.
But whether this was an escaped convict, or whether both birds
were mere roving Americans, voluntarily visiting the old country,
as so many Americans birds as well as men do every year, it
is impossible to say, though in a question so uncertain I would
claim, by common English law, that the prisoner should have
the benefit of the doubt.


There is no more perfect example of the gradual transition
from one class of birds to another than is to be seen in the little
family of Lobe-feet. Occupying a position as they do at the end
of the Order of Waders, and immediately before that of the
Swimmers, we find them partaking of the anatomical structure
as well as the habits of both. They kave neither the stilted legs
and lengthened beaks of the one, nor have they the webbed feet
of the other, but yet they approach both these characteristics.
With slender naked legs of moderate length they possess feet of
a very remarkable structure, inasmuch as these are furnished
with a lateral development of membrane, which, though it does

448 Lobipedidce.

not connect them as in the true Swimmers, projects in rounded
lobes on either side of the toes. With these they can swim and
dive with perfect ease indeed, they pass the greater portion of
their lives in the water, though frequently seen on land too.
There are but three species of this family known in England,
and I have instances of the occurrence of all of them in

172. COMMON COOT (Fulica atra).

This is a common bird, generally to be found in the haunts of
the Moorhen, and, like that species, has a horny frontal plate,
which runs from the base of the beak to the forehead, and which,
being of a pure white colour, is very conspicuous on the nearly
black plumage of the bird ; hence it is often called the ' Bald
Coot.' It is the only species of the family which frequents inland
lakes ; and in its general habits, innate shyness, retirement
amongst sedge and reeds on the least alarm, and method when
flushed of scuttling over the surface of the pond, striking the
water with its feet to aid its progress, it bears a very close
resemblance to the Moorhen last described. Like that bird, too,
though so heavy and even clumsy in flight as it hurries over the
water to some place of concealment when disturbed, it does
occasionally indulge in a long flight at a very high elevation,
proving its powers of wing when the time of migration arrives.
For though to a certain extent, and in suitable localities, a
permanent resident in the South of England, its numbers are
very much increased in winter by the arrival of vast flocks from
the North. When on one of these aerial excursions the Coot
may be easily recognised from its legs stretched out behind and
acting like a tail, after the manner of Herons. William of
Malmesbury, A.D. 1200, tells us that in his day the fens of England
were so covered with Coots and Ducks that in moulting time,
when they cannot fly, the natives took from two to three thousand
at a draft with their nets.* But even now Sir R Payne-Gallwey
says that on inland fresh-water lakes he has seen from two to
' Birds of the Humber District/ p. 146.

Gray Phalarope. 449

three thousand together, and many thousands may be met with
on some of the Norfolk broads. As regards the flesh of this
bird, my own taste obliges me to say that it is most unpalatable
and fishy in the extreme indeed, the fact that it is allowed by
the Komish Church to be eaten on jours maigres, as are some
other birds which partake of the same fish-like flavour, condemns
it at once in my judgment as affording the reverse of delicate
meat. Its generic name, fulica, is from the Greek $a\aicpo<s,
meaning ' bald-headed,' whence also the French Foulque; but in
Germany it is the Schwarzes Wasserhuhn ; and in Sweden the
Sot Hona, or ' Soot Hen/ Harting observes that it may always
be known from a Moorhen on the water by its attitude. The
Coot swims with head and tail very low and the head poked
forward, but the Moorhen with head erect and tail jerked up
almost at right angles to the back. The Moorhen's white tail,
or rather under-tail coverts, also serve to distinguish it, the
same parts in the Coot being black.* In Spain it is Mancon
and Focha ; in Portugal, Galeirdo. The English word ' Coot ' is
probably of Celtic origin, from civta, 'short,' 'docked,' 'bob-

173. GRAY PHALAROPE (Phalaropus hiatus).

This pretty little bird belongs rather to the ocean than the
land, and its home is in Northern Asia, Siberia, and Northern
America, where it breeds in the most desolate regions within the
Arctic Circle, amidst the ice and snow and piercing cold of the
extreme North. On Parry's Arctic voyages it was found in very
high northern latitudes, in summer swimming unconcernedly
amongst the icebergs ; and Major Feilden observed it in July
breeding in latitude 82 30' N., so that when it visits us in
Wiltshire it is as an accidental straggler indeed, and yet I have
many records of its occurrence here. The specimen from which
Colonel Montagu took his description, and which was in his own
museum, was taken at a pond at Alderton.f Yarrell reports

* { Birds of Middlesex, 3 p. 212.

f ' Ornithological Dictionary ' in loco.


450 Lobipedidcc.

that ' Mr. Lambert presented to the Zoological Society a beauti-
fully marked adult bird, which was killed in Wiltshire in the
month of August, and retained at that time a great portion of
the true red colours of the breeding season or summer plumage/ *
The late Kev. G. Marsh recorded that one was brought to him
which was killed by some boys with a stone on Dunspool pond,
on the downs at Winterslow. Another was shot at Dauntsey by
the Kev. A. Biedermann ; and another at Kellaways Mill by the
Kev. K. Ashe. Lord Nelson showed me a fine specimen in his
possession, which was taken on the borders of the county on the
Hampshire side. The late Rev. John Ward announced the
capture of another at Great Bedwyn ; and Mr. Elgar Sloper, of
Devizes, speaks of several as having been killed in that neigh-
bourhood, one which came into his collection having been taken
on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal in November, 1840.
The Rev. T. A. Preston wrote me word that one had been killed
near Marlborough in 1869, and the Rev. G. Powell that another
was killed at Deverill by Mr. George in September, 1870. The
Kev. A. P. Morres mentions two killed at Woodlands, in the
parish of Mere, as well as several others, in the winter of 1870 ;
one at Pertwood, November 17th; and another at Codford,
November 19th, 1875 ; and one knocked down with his oar by
Mr. Edwards while rowing on the river near Salisbury in or
about 1875. The Kev. E. Duke possesses a specimen shot on
the river at Lake fifteen or twenty years ago. Mr. Kawlence has
one in his collection killed at Wishford. The Marlborough
College Natural History Reports mention one now in their museum
shot by Mr. Coleman at East Kennett in 1866, and two others
killed on the edge of a pond at Pewsey in 1876. The Rev. E.
Goddard saw one on the Bowood water on October 2, 1877 ; and
Mr. Grant's list contains twelve specimens, eleven of which were
taken in the month of October, and the other in November : viz.,
one in 1869, from Wedhampton ; but in 1870 (when there seems
to have been an immigration of these birds to North Wilts) from
Upavon, Conock, Lacock, Beckhampton, Devizes, Allington,
' British Birds,' vol. iii., p. 132.

Gray Phalarope. 451

Lavington, and Potterne; in 1876 from Easton, and in 1877 from

If we exchange the scene from the retired inland pond to the
open ocean, we shall find the habits of the Phalarope very like
those of the more familiar Coot ; they are, however, perhaps still
more aquatic, and they differ in having great power and swiftness
of wing. In summer their plumage is of a reddish-chestnut or
rich brown hue, but in winter of a light gray colour ; which great
variation has given rise to much confusion in identifying these
birds as belonging to but one species only. It is most buoyant
on the water, and swims with the lightness of a cork, after the
fashion of a Gull, as Mr. Cecil Smith well describes it, and keeps
on incessantly nodding its head. It is of a bold, fearless, unsus-
picious nature, probably resulting from its inexperience of man
and his persecutions in the uninhabited regions it frequents.

Seebohm says that from their habit of following the whales and
approaching them when they blow, in order to catch the small
marine animals that are then disturbed, they are called by the
sailors ' Whale-birds ' and ' Bow- head birds.' The word ' Phala-
rope ' has exercised the ingenuity of many to discover its origin ;
as when dissected into (frdXaKpos, '" bald-headed,' or ' with a patch
of white on the head,' and TTOU?, ' a foot/ the meaning is not very
transparent. There can, however, be very little doubt that its
true intention is ' Coot-footed,' or ' possessing feet like those of
a Coot.' Platyrynchos, 'broad-billed,' was the specific name
assigned to it by Temminck, Sabine, and others, and its beak will
on examination be found in some degree to answer the descrip-
tion. So in Norway, where it is seen on migration to and from
its breeding-places in the Arctic regions, it is known as Bred-
ndbbad Simm-Sndppa, or 'Broad-billed Swimming Snappa';
and in France, Phalarope platyrhinque ; but in Germany, Roth-
bauchiger Wassertreter.


452 Lobipedidcv.


This elegant but diminutive species is far more rare in England
than its larger congener. The specific name, hyperboreus, fully
declares its habitat, for it ranges over all the Arctic regions of
the Old and New Worlds, and descends as low as the Orkneys
and the northern coast of Scotland, where it is not uncommon.
The plumage may be generally described as lead-coloured above ;
chest and neck reddish bay, otherwise white below. I have a
notice from Mr. Elgar Sloper that a male bird in the breeding
plumage was shot by him in the brickfield at Old Park in May,
184], and that, as the pinion of one wing was the only part in-
jured, it lived for several weeks, feeding in the water on animal
food with which Mr. Sloper supplied it, and swimming with great
facility : and the Rev. T. A. Preston, in the autumn of 1869, re-
corded a specimen killed in a garden at Marlborough, with
plumage in a transition state between the summer and winter
dress. These are the only notices I have of the occurrence in
our county of this stranger from the extreme North. The distin-
guishing mark by which it may be recognised, without fear of
confusion with its congener, is its more slender beak : hence in
Sweden it is known as Smal-ndbbad Simm-Sndppa, 'Small-
billed Swimming Snappa ' ; and in Lapland it is called by the
Finnish squatters Wesitiainen, or ' Water- Sparrow,' which shows
a paucity of idea in regard to the several species of birds on the
part of those gentlemen. Reinhardt reports that it breeds in
Greenland, and in Spitzbergen it is common enough to have
earned two names, being known there as the ' North-East Bird/
doubtless from its indifference to the coldest blasts of air, and
also as ' Mahogany Bird,' from the colour of its neck. In Orkney
it is known as ' Half- Web,' and Selby attributes to it the pro-
vincial name of * Water Snipe.' In frequenting the icy regions
of the extreme North, in its fearlessness of man, and in its general
appearance and habits, it closely resembles its congener last
described. Our countryman Montagu, in the Supplement to his

Red-necked Plialarope. 453

Dictionary, quotes a correspondent who says : ' It swims with
the greatest ease, and when on the water looks like a beautiful
miniature of a Duck, carrying its head close to the back in the
manner of a Teal.'

In France it is Phalarope hyperbore, and in Germany Eothhal-
siger Wassertreter.

We have now reached the end of the fourth great Order of
Birds viz., the Waders and but one more Order remains to be
considered, the true Water-Fowl, or Swimmers.

NATATORES (Sivimmers).

As the fifth and last great Order of Birds contains those only
which are thoroughly aquatic, and as by far the larger portion of
these belong to the ocean as their peculiar habitat, it is manifest
that Wiltshire as an inland county can scarcely lay claim to an
extensive acquaintance with this Order. And yet with such ease
and celerity do they pass over the intervening land which
separates us from the coast, that the Ducks, Geese, and Gulls,
which enjoy a great power of wing, very frequently visit us, often
in considerable numbers; while even the heavy-flying, short-
winged Divers, Grebes, Auks, and Cormorants appear at rare
intervals as occasional visitants, and thus all the families which
compose the Order of Swimmers are more or less represented in
our county, and have been met with from to time in various

The characteristics of this Order are to be seen in the long
boat-shaped body, so admirably adapted for swimming, or rather
sailing, on the water ; in the structure and position of the legs
and feet, placed so far behind as to cause an awkward gait on
land, but so well fitted to act as oars and paddles and rudders in
propelling the body over the surface of the water, and in the
close oily plumage, which is altogether impervious to wet. They
are therefore, for the most part, neither active nor graceful on
land, and their attempts at walking result in a waddle or a
shuffle, and some of them are little less agile on the wing ; but
in their own proper element the most clumsy on shore will be
nimble enough, diving, swimming, sailing, even in rough water,

Gray Lag Goose. 455

with the utmost buoyancy and ease, and thoroughly at home,
and even sleeping on the waves.


This very large family comprises not only the almost innu-
merable species of Ducks proper, but also the Geese, the Swans,
and the Mergansers. They are all of one general uniform
character, and their structure, as well as habits, are too well
known to require comment. The distinguishing mark of this
family, wherein its several members partake in a greater or less
degree, and wherein they differ from the remaining families of
the Order, centres in the beak, which is of a broad, flattened
form, of a softer consistence than is seen in others, and covered
with an epidermis or skin, excepting at the tip, which is fur-
nished with a horny nail. There are other peculiarities regard-
ing the beaks of these birds, suited to the special requirements
of the individual species ; but in all the family the edges of the
mandibles are provided with plates, rugosities, or even hooks,
more or less developed, which are serviceable either in seizing
and holding the slippery prey on which they feed, or in sepa-
rating and removing the mud which unavoidably accompanies its
capture. For the same purpose their tongues are usually very
large, thick, fleshy, and extremely rough.

175. GRAY LAG GOOSE (Anser ferus).

This is the true original Wild Goose, as its specific name ferus
implies, the Wild Goose par excellence, and above all its con-
geners, though in point of numbers some of them may now
exceed it. Moreover, it is generally allowed to be the origin of
our domestic species, and was at one time common enough in
this county, but has now become extremely rare, since the
draining of our fens and marshes : for in the good old times
before so much waste land was reclaimed, it used to be a per-
manent resident in England, breeding regularly in Lincolnshire
and other fen districts, and from thence wandering in winter
over the southern and western counties. Colonel Montagu

456 Anatidce.

described it in his day (at the beginning of the present century)
as ' frequently killed upon the Downs in the south of England,
feeding on green wheat,' and he adds, ' We remember one, being
shot in the wing by a farmer, in the neighbourhood of the Wilt-
shire Downs, was kept alive many years, but would never
associate with the tame ones/ In more recent days the late
Rev. George Marsh informed me that two or three fine specimens
of this bird were killed on the river Avon by Mr. Ferris, of Sutton
Benger, in the very severe winter of 1838, and doubtless it is
still occasionally met with in hard weather. It is to be dis-
tinguished from its congeners by the pink flesh-colour of its
beak, legs, and feet, the nail of the beak being white. Mr.
Harting says it has also invariably some black feathers on the
belly, which the other species lack, and the gray colour in the
wings of the Gray Lag runs through the wing like a double bar,
which is very conspicuous when the pinions are stretched.* The
meaning and derivation of the word lag was for a long time a
puzzle to many. Yarrell conjectured it to come from the
English lake or Italian lago, both derived from the Latin lacus ;
but in 1870 Professor Newton, the then editor of the Ibis, with
the able assistance of Professor Skeat, unravelled the mystery,
and set the question at rest for ever. ' The adjective " lag," ' he
says, ' means originally " late," " last," or " slow," whence we have
" laggard " and " laglast," a " loiterer," etc. Accordingly the
Gray Lag Goose is the Gray Goose which in former days lagged

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 41 of 53)