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

. (page 42 of 53)
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 42 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


behind the others to breed in our fens, as it now does on the
Sutherland lochs, when its congeners had betaken themselves to
their more northern summer quarters.'-)- Most certainly it did
not imply any inferiority to either of its congeners in rapidity of
flight, for, like them, it is very strong and powerful on the wing,
and fifty or sixty miles an hour is the rate at which they are
said to fly. We who live in this inland western county have
little conception of the large flocks of domesticated geese derived
from this species which are still brought up in the fen districts

'Birds of Middlesex,' p. 216.
t Ilia for 1870, p. 301.



Bean Goose. 457

of the eastern counties, and which, until very lately, if not still,
underwent the cruel process of plucking, and were driven out to
pasture in the morning and brought home at night by the goose-
herd or ' gozzard ;' very] much as Sir Francis Head described
in his famous 'Bubbles from the Brunnens of Nassau,' only
there the flock consisted of contributions from many owners, one
or two from each house in some German village ; but here the
whole flock, often some hundreds in number, was the property
of one owner. In France it is Oie cendrtfe ; in Germany, Wilde
gemeine Gans ; in Italy, Oca paglietane ; in Spain and Portugal,
Ganso bravo ; and in Sweden Grd-Gds.

176. BEAN GOOSE (Anser segetuni).

This is so much more common amongst us in these days, that
it has now generally usurped the title of its larger relative last
described, and is known as ' the Wild Goose.' Specimens occur
in various parts of the county almost every winter, and during
the hard weather in January of this year (1887) the Kev. H.
Algar, occupying my house at Yatesbury, wrote me word that he
saw six presumably of this species, pitched in Yatesbury Field,
though at his approach they of course took wing. The general
colour of the beak is black, the middle of it flesh-red, and the
nail at the extremity black ; the form of the beak is also shorter
and stouter than is the case with A. ferus. These birds fly
in flocks varying in form according to their. size, a little band
always flying in a long line in Indian file, and in close order,
looking as if linked together by a string ; hence they are spoken
of as a ' skein ' of geese : but a large flock, called a ' gaggle,'
probably from the cackling noise it perpetually keeps up, assumes
a > like form, the sharp angle being always forward, and one
bird acting as leader and taking the head of the party, while the
rest form themselves into two lines converging towards their
guide ; the same bird, however, does not always keep its place
at the van, but after a time falls into the line, and another takes
its post. This interesting manoeuvre was first pointed out to me
in Norfolk many years ago by the famous Arctic voyager, Captain



458 Anatidce.

Edward Parry, who in his prolonged voyages in the Polar seas
had unlimited opportunities of marking the habits of the race
of Anseres. The Bean Goose is essentially an inland feeder,
frequenting marshes and meadows as well as cornfields by day,
and returning at dusk to mud-banks or sands where it can pass
the night in security. Sir R. Payne- Gall wey says, ' It is provided
with a most suitable bill for grazing, and can cut off wet soft
grass or young shoots as with a sharp pair of scissors/* It was
very generally supposed that the English specific name of this
goose was derived from the black nail at the extremity of the
beak, of about the size and appearance of a bean ; but Selby
pointed out that it was because of its partiality to bean or pea
fields, rather than from the shape of the nail of the upper
mandible that the bird was so named, and this is now generally
admitted. Cordeaux adds that beans being cut late in
autumn, more especially in wet and backward seasons, there is
always a considerable loss by the opening of the pods and shed-
ding of their contents : it is then that the geese arrive in
large flocks to feed on the scattered beans.-)- In corroboration of
this view the Swedish name for our Bean Goose is Sad Gas,
or ' Grain Goose ;' in Germany, Saat Gans ; and provincially in
some parts of France Qie des Moissons, or ' Harvest Goose ;' and
the recognised scientific name is A. segetum. In Continental
Europe generally it is by far the commonest of all the geese, and
is called in France Oie vulgaire, and in Italy Oca salvatica.
I conclude my notice of our commonest wild goose by a very
valuable extract from the writings of Sir R. Payne-Gallwey, who
from his personal experience is more entitled than any other to be
listened to on this subject. ' Geese (he says), like swans, are slow
in taking wing, either from land or water, and give more or less
notice of their intentions previous to flying. They stretch out
the neck, cackle loudly, run along the ground ere they can rise,
and beat the surface with their wings if on the water. They
always appear to have a sentry on duty, an outside bird, who,

'The Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 145, 148.
t 'Birds of the Humber District,' p. 149.



White-fronted Goose. 459

whilst his companions are greedily feeding, stands erect, looking
suspiciously round on all sides. I have remarked, when near
enough to hear, that the watching goose continually utters a low,
guttural chuckle, which seems to imply " All's well, all's well !"
On suspecting danger he is instantly silent. This cessation of
sound on his part is at once followed by the startled attention of
all the rest. This sentinel is from time to time relieved of his
duties by a companion.'*

177. WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE (Anser albifrons).

This is really as common in England, if not more common,
than the species last described ; but it so happens that, with the
exception of the very reliable testimony of the Rev. G. Powell, who
tells me he has seen it in South Wilts, I do not chance to have
any other notice of its occurrence in the county, and yet it is
most probable that so regular a winter visitor to our island
frequently favours Wiltshire with its presence. Selby, indeed,
says that it is more abundant in the South and Midland parts of
England than the Bean Goose ; but it is the first to disappear at
the approach of spring, and by the middle of March all have de-
parted for their northern breeding-places ; and yet it has, time
out of mind, resorted to Egypt for winter quarters, like a wise
bird that it is, and was the most abundant of all the geese which
I saw in vast flocks on the Nile. Moreover, that it was domesti-
cated in Egypt of old is certain, for its portrait, as represented
on the walls of the temples and tombs, may be readily identified.
It is an inland feeding bird, and seeks low, marshy districts, and
not cornfields, for, as St. John observes, it is entirely and
absolutely graminivorous. The specific name, both in Latin and
English, describes its mark of distinction in the white patch above
the beak, extending to the forehead. It is also sometimes called
the ' Laughing Goose,' and is L'Oie rieuse of Buffon and Tem-
minck, from the peculiar note, supposed to resemble a man's
laugh ; and provincially known as the ' Bar Goose,' from the dark
bars upon the breast. This, and not the Bernicle, is the true
' The Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 145, 148.



460 Anatidcv.

Fyall Gas, or ' Mountain Goose ' of the Swedes, as Professor New-
ton has shown in an article on Anas erythropus* the latter
being the specific name given by Fleming and others of the older
ornithologists, and which calls attention to its orange-coloured
legs. It is Blassen Gans, ' the Pale Goose,' in German ; and in
Italy, Oca Lombardella. Mr. Harting, to whom we have already
been much indebted for accurately pointing out the distinguish-
ing marks by which closely allied species may be identified, has
drawn up" the following useful table in regard to the commoner
species of gray geeset :

Gray Lag Goose : till, flesh-colour ; nail, white ; legs, flesh colour.
Bean Goose : orange ; black ; orange.

White-fronted Goose : pink ; white ; orange.

Pink-footed Goose : pink ; black ; pink tinged with

vermilion.

[Of the species just mentioned, the ' Pink- footed Goose' (Anser
brachyrhyncus), I regret that I have no example to record, and
so no proof of its occurrence in Wiltshire ; but that it must very
often visit us is almost certain, for not only does it so much
resemble the Bean Goose (the most abundant now of all our wild
geese) as to be frequently mistaken for it, though somewhat
smaller in size, but in some districts of England it is declared to
be even more common than that species. It is to be hoped,
therefore, that Wiltshire sportsmen will keep a sharp look-out on
the specimens which fall to their gun, and announce the dis-
covery of a Wiltshire killed A. brachyrhyncus, or the 'Short-
beaked Goose/ whose bill, scarcely more than an inch and
a half in length, offers a good mark of distinction.]

178. BRENT GOOSE (Anser torquatus).

This little black species is the most numerous of all the Geese
on our coasts, but is so essentially marine in its habits the most
oceanic (says Mr. Cordeaux) of all the Geese that it is by no
means common in the interior of the country. Occasionally,

Ibis for 18GO, pp. 404-406. f < Birds of Middlesex,' p. 216.



Brent Goose. 461

however, a straggler wanders out of its course, and I have several
instances of its occurrence near Salisbury, near Corsham, and
near Calne ; and of later date Mr. W. F. Parsons, of Hunt's Mill,
Wootton Bassett, wrote me word that a specimen was killed
about the middle of February, 1870, during the very severe frost,
by Mr. Isaac Tuck, of Greenhill. He found it in the brook on
his farm known as the Upper Avon, when the weather was un-
usually cold. The Rev. A. P. Morres also records one now in his
collection, which was killed in his own parish of Britford, in
April, 1884 ; and I am informed by the Rev. J. Hodgson that
two handsome specimens have been shot in the meadows of
Collingbourne : one in the winter of 1881-82. by Mr. Pike, of
Hougoumont Farm ; the other in the spring of this year (1887),
by Mr. Russ' bailiff. Mr. Grant also records a specimen killed
at West Lavington in October, 1881.

Its beak is very short, and, like the general colour of its
plumage, quite black. Indeed, with the exception of a small
patch of white on either side of the neck, and the tail coverts,
which are also white, its plumage is either slate-gray or smoke-
black. It is said to have derived its English name ' Brent ' from
its 'burnt' or generally charred appearance; and its scientific
name torquatus from the ' collar ' of white feathers on the neck.
Montagu calls it the ' Clatter Goose,' from the constant chattering
it keeps up while feeding ; wherein it differs from the Gray Geese,
which feed in silence. Selby calls it the ' Ware Goose/ from the
marine vegetabfes which constitute its food ; and for the same
reason it is known as Rotgans, ' Rot/ and ' Road Goose,' with
the meaning of ' Root Goose.' It is strange that whereas the
Brent Geese, sometimes called ' Sea Bernicles/ frequent the
muddy shores of the south and especially the east coasts of
England, where they occur at times in enormous numbers, the
true Bernicle Geese, known as ' Land Bernicles/ are seldom seen
there, but inhabit the west coast, where Brent Geese are almost
unknown ; so rigidly do these closely allied Black Geese keep to
their several localities. They are both winter migrants, arriving
here in the autumn from the North ; and are both of shy,



462 Anatidce.

suspicious nature, ready to take wing at the slightest alarm of
danger. Both, too, retire to breed in the Polar regions, Green-
land, Spitzbergen, and still farther towards the North Pole.
Captain Markham, in his narrative of the voyage of the Alert
during the Arctic Expedition of 1875-76, says the Brent Goose
was one of the very few birds met with in the high North, and
that in considerable numbers. As regards its edible qualities, I
was astonished to see the late Mr. Knox write, ' This is the best
bird I ever tasted/ and to find that verdict corroborated by Sir
R Payne-Gallwey, who places it first among the Geese, though
he somewhat qualifies that proud distinction by adding, ' But no
goose except a Brent, unless a very young bird, is fit to serve up
whole.' My own experience, and judging from the single
specimen of which I made trial in Norfolk thirty years ago, is
that it has a most villainous, rank, and fishy flavour.

In France it is Ole Cravant ; in Germany, Eingel Gans ; in
Italy, Anatra Columbaccio ; in Sweden, Prut-Gas, from its con-
tinued murmuring cry when on the wing.

I cannot forbear to call attention here to the monstrous popular
error which very generally prevailed regarding the origin of this
goose, sometimes called the ' Brent Bernicle,' as well as that of
the other Bernicle (A. leucopsis) ; and to this end I will quote
the story as related by an old writer of the time of Queen
Elizabeth :* ' There are found in the north parts of Scotland,
and the islands adiacent, called Orchades, certaine trees,
whereon do growe certaine shells of a white colour tending to
russet, wherein are contained little liuing creatures, which shells,
in time of maturity doe open, and out of them grow those little
liuing things, which falling into the water, do become fowlcs,
which we call barnacles ; in the north of England, brant geese ;
and in Lancashire tree geese : but the other that do fall vpon the
land, perish, and come to nothing. Thus much, by the writings
of others, and also from the mouthes of people of those parts,
which may very well accord with truth.

' But what our eies haue seen, and hands haue touched, we
* Gerard's 'Herbal ; or, History of Plants,' p. 1588, edition 1636. ;



Brent Goose. 4C3

shall declare. There is a small island in Lancashire, called the
Pile of Foulders, wherein are found the broken pieces of old and
bruised ships, some whereof haue beene cast thither by ship-
wracke, and also the trunks and bodies, with the branches of old
and rotten trees, cast vp there likewise ; whereon is found a
certain spume or froth that in time breedeth vnto certaine shells,
in shape like those of the muskle, but sharper-pointed, and of a
whitish colour ; the other end is made fast, wherein is contained
a thing in forme like a lace of silke, finely wouen, as it were,
together, of a whitish colour, one end wherof is fastned vnto the
inside of the shell, even as the fish of oisters and muskles are ;
the other end is made fast unto the belly of a rude masse or
lumpe, which, in time, commeth to the shape and forme of a bird
When it is perfectly formed, the shell gapeth open, and the
first thing that appeareth is the foresaid lace or string : next
come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as it groweth
greater, it openeth the shell by degrees, til at length it is all
come forth, and hangeth onely by the bill. In short space after,
it commeth to full maturitie, and falleth into the sea, where it
gathereth feathers, and groweth to a fowle bigger than a mallard,
and lesser than a goose, hauing blacke legs and bill or beake,
and feathers blacke and white, spotted in such manner as is our
magpie, called in some places a Pie-Annet, which the people of
Lancashire call by no other name than a tree Goose, which place
aforesaid, and all those parts adjoyning, do so much abound
therewith, that one of the best is bought for threepence. For
the truth hereof, if any doubt, may it please them to repair vnto
me, and I shall satisfy them by the testimonie of good witnesses.
Moreover it should seem that there is another sort hereof, the
history of which is true, and of mine own knowledge : for
trauelling upon the shore of our English coast, between Douer
and Rumney, I found the trunke of an old rotten tree, which
(with some help that I procured by fishermen's wiues, that were
there attending their husbands' returne from the sea) we drew
out of the water upon dry land. Vpon this rotten tree, I found
growing many thousands of long crimson bladders, in shape like



464 Anatidcv.

vnto puddings newly filled, before they be sodden, which weere
very cleere and shining, at the nether end whereof did grow a
shell-fish, fashioned somewhat like a small muskle, but much
whiter, resembling a shell-fish that groweth vpon the rockes
about Garnsey and Garsey, called a Lympit. Many of these
shells I brought with me to London, which, after I had opened,
I found in them liuing things without form or shape : in others,
which were neerer come to ripenesse, I found liuing things that
were very naked, in shape like a bird : in others, the birds
covered with soft downe, the shell halfe open, and the bird
ready to fall out, which no doubt were the fowles called barnacles.
I dare not absolutely auouch euery circumstance of the first part
of this history, concerning the tree that beareth those buds afore-
said, but will leave it to a further consideration ; howbeit, that
which I have seen with mine eies, and handled with mine hands,
I dare confidently auouch, and boldly put down for verity. Now
if any will object that this tree which I saw, might be one of
those before mentioned, which either by the waues of the sea, or
some violent wind, had been ouerturned, as many other trees are ;
or that any trees falling into those seas about the Orchades, will
of themselves beare the like fowles, by reason of those seas and
waters, these being so probable conjectures, and likely to be true,
I may not without prejudice gainsay, or indeauour to confute.'

The little shell-fish which these wise people supposed to have
brought forth the geese still go by the name of ' barnacles,' and
the Latin name, Lapas anatifera, ' the goose-bearing bernicle,'
recalls the belief respecting them; yet surely the extravagant
and ridiculous theory detailed above must have severely taxed
the credulity even of the ignorant and unscientific age in which
it was propounded.

179. BERNICLE GOOSE (Anser leucopsis).

As the Brent Goose abounds on the eastern, so the Bernicle
Goose frequents the western coasts of Great Britain, but not in
such numbers as its darker relative. It is called leucopsis, or
' white-faced,' or ' white-fronted/ to distinguish it from its darker-



Bernicle Goose. 465

headed and darker-breasted congener the Brent, with which it is
often confused. Saunders says that, unlike the Gray Geese,
which feed in silence, these ' Black Geese,' as they are called,
both when feeding and when on the wing keep up a constant
cackling. I have already said that this is sometimes known as
the ' Land Bernicle/ and the Brent as the ' Sea Bernicle,' but
indeed both species are essentially dwellers on the sea, and rarely
come to dry land ; and it must have been an unusually severe
gale which could have driven so far inland the only three
specimens whose visit to Wiltshire I am able to chronicle, two
of which, I learn from Mr. Grant, were killed at Enford on
February 25, 1865, and the third, as Mr. Rawlence informs me, was
killed at Britford. In Sweden it is sometimes called the Hafre
Gos, or ' Oat Goose,' from its partiality for oat stubbles. It is
more generally known in that country as the Fjdll Gos, and
some few breed in the fjalls of Northern Scandinavia, but the
great bulk in the breeding season penetrate to the most northern
latitudes ; and Nordenskiold relates that, from the most northerly
point of Spitzbergen hitherto reached, vast flocks of this species
have been seen steering their course in rapid flight yet farther
towards the north a conclusive proof (so the walrus-hunters
affirm) of the existence of some land more northerly than
Spitzbergen.* In France it is Oie Bernache ; and in Germany,
Weisswangige Gans, ' White-cheeked Goose.'

180. EGYPTIAN GOOSE (Anser Egyptiacus).

I am indebted to my friend Colonel Ward, of Bannerdown
House, Bath, for an account of the occurrence of this very
handsome species in our county, two of which were killed at
Corsham Court some few years back, and were preserved by Mr.
Dangerfield, of Chippenham. They were in perfect plumage,
and had every appearance of being genuine wild birds, and
not (as has sometimes been the case with such stragglers) mere
semi-domesticated specimens which had escaped from some
ornamental water. The Rev. A. P. Morres says it is occasionally
' Arctic Voyages,' 1858-1879, p. 53.

30



466 Anatidce.

met with near Salisbury, and specifies one that for two or three
days was seen feeding with the ducks near the river in his own
neighbourhood.

The Egyptian Goose is a splendid bird, and the rich colours of
its plumage make it an exceedingly attractive species ; and when
seen in a large flock, as I have met with it on the sandbanks
and shallows of the Nile, presents as gorgeous an appearance as
the most enthusiastic ornithologist could desire. It is a very
wary bird, and will not readily admit of near approach, and it
was only when sailing with a brisk breeze, and suddenly and
noiselessly rounding some corner of the river, that we were
enabled to come upon it at close quarters ; but at such times,
or occasionally when quiet at anchor in the dusk, we have been
in the midst of a flock, and could thoroughly admire the well-
contrasted and brilliant colours of their plumage before they
took alarm and decamped at their best speed.

Chenalopex is the modern generic name with which this bird
is now often favoured. It is the same as Vulpanser of Herodotus *
in a Greek dress, or, as we should say, the ' Fox-Goose,' so called
from its living, or rather breeding, in holes. It appears fre-
quently on the monuments of Egypt, and is often delineated
with great artistic skill. The richness of the plumage and
remarkable appearance of this species, compared with the other
Nile Geese, would have naturally attracted the early artists.
Wherever the colouring has been preserved, we find usually the
head and neck painted red, the breast and belly blue, the back
yellow, with the tips of the wings red, the tail with narrow
lengthened feathers, like the Pintail Duck, which many of the
Karnak intaglios more closely resemble. The Goose was the
emblem of Sib, the father of Osiris, but was not sacred ; it
signified 'a son,' and consequently occurs very often in the
Pharaonic ovals, signifying ' Son of the sun.' Horapollo says it
was adopted in consequence of its affection for its young.f It
has been found frequenting the lakes south of the equator in
Book ii., c. 72.
t Dr. A. L. Adams in Ibis for 1864, p. 34.



Spur-winged Goose. 467

East Africa and in Somali-land, where it is known to the in-
habitants as Etal Jaz, or 'who lives at the wells.'* It is
generally allowed to be the most unpalatable of all the tribe, and
by most people considered quite uneatable.

181. SPUR-WINGED GOOSE (Anser gambensis).

I have an account of the capture near Netheravon, on the edge
of Salisbury Plain, on September 4, 1869, of this very rare
African Goose, of which but three other specimens are known to
have occurred in the British Isles.f It had been seen for some
days previously associating with some tame geese in the fields,
and was killed by Mr. Rowden, of Upavon, as I was informed
by my friend the late Rev. C. Raikes. I had also notice
of another which was shot near Ramsbury in November, 1881,
but on inquiry this turned out to be an escaped prisoner from a
pond in the neighbourhood, where two, which were sent over
from Africa, had been for some time in captivity. It is not im-
probable that the Netheravon bird may also have escaped from
confinement, but of this there is no evidence to show. This-
species is not only extremely handsome, with well-marked glossy
and bronzed plumage, but it is remarkable for the strong white
horny spur, above half an inch in length, and turning upwards,
situated on the carpal joint of each wing, as in the Spur- winged
Plover (Ckaradrius spinosus), at whose formidable weapons in
every variety of bluntness I had often marvelled in the many
specimens which I shot on the Nile* It is a native of tropical
Africa, and though called a goose, and with the general appear-
ance of a goose, it is thought to be more nearly allied to the
ducks, which it resembles in manner of feeding and some other
respects. It derives its specific name, gambensis, from Sene-
gambia, in West Africa ; and plectropterus, ' Spur- winged/ the
generic name bestowed upon it by some, from the peculiarity
mentioned above.

Capt. J. H. Speke in Ibis for 1860, p. 248.

f Recorded in the Fourth Edition of ' Yarrell/ vol. iv., p. 305 ; and in
Science Gossip for 1870, p. 51.



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 42 of 53)