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 43 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 43 of 53)
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468 Anatidce.

182. CANADA GOOSE (Anser Canadensis).
The last-mentioned species was a straggler from Africa. This
is no less rare as an occasional and very unfrequent visitor to the
British Isles from America, in the north of which continent, and
in Hudson's Bay, Greenland, and the regions still farther north,
it is found in very great numbers, where it has proved a welcome
source of provision to Arctic explorers, as well as to the fur-
traders and voyageurs of the territories of the Hudson's Bay
Company, to whom it is universally known as the 'Common
Gray Goose.'

For its occurrence in Wiltshire I am indebted to the pen of
Mr. Henry Blackmore, of Salisbury, who thus records its app< ar
ance in that very useful periodical, the Zoologist: 'On Monday,
the 21st of January, 1867, a fine specimen of the Canada or
Cravat Goose (Anser Canadensis) was shot in a meadow at
Coombe Bissett, Wiltshire, by Mr. Crosse, of the same place. 1 1
came into my possession the following day, and on dissection
proved to be a male bird, weight twelve pounds. Another u as
shot in the same locality on Saturday, the 26th of January, and
was purchased by Mr. Marsh, of Ramridge House, for his
collection. This specimen appeared to me to be the saw in
every respect as the one I have (a male bird in equally rood
plumage and condition). Mr. Whatman, of this city, told me
that he had seen a flock of these birds on the 19th instant in a
meadow at Homington, which is the adjoining village to Coon i he
Bissett, where the two birds were killed. From inquiries 1 IIMVC
since made, I cannot learn that these birds were kept on ny
ornamental water or lake in the neighbourhood; it may then -fun-
be deduced that they are bond fide specimens of the bird in its
natural state.'* The Rev. A. P. Morres wrote me word that h<-
had himself seen the flock of seven from which the aU>\<>
specimens were shot, and that they remained for some tinx- in
ithe Britford water-meadows. But this again is a spec'u
attractive appearance, which is frequently kept on ornamental

Zoologist Second Series, April, 1867, p. 709.

Whooper. 469

waters, so that it is difficult to say whether the Wiltshire killed
specimens were mere tourists on their travels come to visit , this
inhospitable country of their own free will, or whether they were
escaped convicts, involuntarily transported to these shores. In
either case their reception was a warm one. Mr. Grant records
another specimen killed at Enford Manor Farm in September,
1870. This bird has obtained the trivial name of ' Cravat '
Goose, from the conspicuous patch of white feathers on the chin
and throat, almost encircling the black neck, which bears a
certain resemblance to a neckcloth. These birds are the
' bustards,' les outardes, of the Canadians.

183. WHOOPER (Cygnus musicus).

More commonly known as the Wild Swan, and is an annual
visitor to our coasts in winter. Indeed, I have seen nine brought
in to the Lynn poulterers by a single gunner in a morning in
severe weather. It is a bird of very powerful flight, which
travels at a great height above the earth and in a straight line,
and its speed is said sometimes to exceed a hundred miles in an
hour ; so no wonder it is wont to appear at times on most of our
larger inland lakes and rivers. The late Rev. George Marsh
reported that a dozen of them settled on the Draycot Pond in
1838, which was one of the hardest winters within the memory
of living man. He also recorded that one was brought to Lord
Radnor at Salisbury, who offered a guinea if the man would get
him another. The worthy fowler soon returned with one of his
lordship's tame Swans, and received the guinea, and neither he
nor the noble earl was aware of any difference between the two
birds. The Rev. A. P. Morres records the sudden appearance of
a small party of four Whoopers as Mr. Attwater, a farmer of
Britford, and the keeper Butler were resting under a tree after a
successful day's duck-shooting. These fine birds, after circling
round for a while, pitched in the Britford meadows on the brink
of the river at no great distance, when two of their number were
then and there shot. On February 9th, 1877, Mr. Nelson
Goddard, of the Manor House, Clyffe Pypard, my much-valued

470 Anatidce.

friend and neighbour and a keen observer, wrote me word that
as he was riding in a field below his house he saw a Wild Swan
pass over his head, making for the westward that is, towards
Bowood; and that he had never seen one on the wing before,
and much marvelled at the speed at which it travelled. It was
soon, he said, out of sight. This occurrence of the Wild Swan
so far inland was the more remarkable, because the winter of
1877, so far from being severe, was one of the mildest and wettest
ever known in this country. Lord Nelson tells me of a Whistling
Swan which was killed at Trafalgar, and Mr. Herbert Smith of
one shot at Bowood in the year 1885 by one of Lord Lansdowno's
keepers. It derives its specific name, muxicus, not from its
fabled song just before its death, but from the peculiar grand
clanging trumpeting or whooping note which it repeats several
times at intervals ' hoop, hoop/ ' hoop, hoop ' whence its name
* Whooper ' and ' Whistling Swan.' Lloyd, who was well accus-
tomed to see it in Sweden during the spring and autumn
migrations on the way to and from the breeding-stations in the
far North, says : ' Its voice, though it consists but of two notes, is
beautifully melodious, more especially as frequently happens
when birds of different ages, whose notes differ, take part in the
concert. Some think that in the distance their song resembles
the finer notes of the bugle. KjaBrbolling likens it to the sound
of distant church bells; and adds that in cairn weather it may
be heard at more than a Danish (4J English) mile's distance.'*
Oordeaux says : ' The cry of the Wild Swan is extremely wild and
musical. I once, during the prevalence of a severe "blast," saw
forty- two of these noble birds pass over our marshes, flying in
the same familiar arrow-head formation as Wild Geese use a
sight not to be forgotten, not alone for their large size and snowy
whiteness, but for their grand trumpet notes ; now single, clear,
distinct, clarion-like, as a solitary bugle sounds the " advance " ;
then, as if in emulation of their leader's note, the entire flock
would burst into a chorus of cries, which resemble a pack of
hounds in full cry.'f Cordeaux also calls attention to the

* Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 429.
t 'Birds of the Humber District,' p. 157.

Whooper. 471

singular formation of the upper mandible of this bird, which
possesses a hinge-like joint, allowing a greater extension and
distension of the mouth. St. John remarks that c when Wild
Swans are feeding one always keeps his head above water as
sentinel;' and Montagu that it 'carries its head straight and
erect, either upon the water or when stationary on land ; but in
walking the head is lowered, and the neck reclines over the back.'
In Ireland there is a deeply-rooted superstition that something
dreadful will happen to him who has the misfortune to kill a
Swan, for the Irish entertain the strange belief that a departed
spirit, perhaps of one of their own kin, is imprisoned in the
outward form of each bird of this genus.* There is yet another
fable connected with this bird, very commonly believed in
England viz., that it is able to break a man's arm or leg by the
stroke of its wing. But for this there is no sort of foundation ;
indeed, as uncompromising Montagu remarked, the tale is quite
ridiculous. If I may judge from the only specimen which I ever
obtained in the flesh, through a gunner on the coast of the Wash,
and which, after I had taken off its skin, we roasted and ate, I
should pronounce the flesh tough, and the flavour coarse and un-
palatable. There were some, however, of the large party which
partook of it who declared it to be good, especially when cold.
In France it is Cygne d bee jaune ou sauvage ; in Germany, Der
Singschwan ; in Italy, Gygno salvatico ; and in Sweden, Vild

184. MUTE SWAN (Gygnus olor).

I am somewhat at a loss to know why this species should be
reckoned as a British bird, seeing that it certainly cannot be
called fera naturce in these islands. However, as it is included
in all the British lists, and as we have our share of this hand-
some bird in all parts of the county, I, of course, follow suit, and
add it to my Wiltshire catalogue. Though, for the most part,

Sir R. Payne- G all wey's 'Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 164-171. -

f For an account of the Whooper in its natural haunts, see Scebohm

and Harvie Brown on the ' Birds of the Lower Petchora,' in Ibis for 1876,

p. 437.

472 Anatidce.

of gentle, peaceful manners, it becomes very pugnacious during
the breeding season ; and I well recollect when a boy at Eton,
while sculling in a light skiff near the rushy banks of an eyot on
the Thames, I unconsciously found myself in close proximity to
a Swan's nest, and the old bird came at me with such furious
aspect of beak and wings that I made my escape as fast as
possible, fairly driven off' by the victorious bird, which even
followed me for some distance, triumphing over my defeat. There
is one simple mark of difference whereby the W hooper may be
distinguished from the Mute Swan, viz., the colours of their
respective beaks. In C. musiciw the beak is black at the point
and reddish yellow at the base ; in C. olor these colours are re-
versed, the point of the beak being of a reddish orange colour,
the base black. In other respects the two birds seem externally
alike, though on dissection they show several anatomical differ-
ences of structure. The Mute Swan has been from early times
reckoned a royal bird in England, said to have been brought
from Cyprus and introduced into this country by Richard I. ;*
and I learn from Yarrell that 'anciently the Crown had an
extensive swannery annexed to the Royal Palace or Manor of
Clarendon, in Wiltshire.' The privilege of having a swan-mark
or ' game ' of swans was considered a high honour in old time,
and was seldom granted except to those of high rank in Church
or State, or to corporate bodies of some pretensions to dignity.
All such owners of Swans were registered in the book of the
royal Swan-herd ; and swan-marks, cut on the upper surface of
the upper mandible of the beak, were most jealously guarded.
So long ago as in the eleventh year of Henry VII. (A.D. 1496) a
law was passed that ' no manner of person, of what condition or
degree he be, take or cause to be taken, be it upon his own
ground or any other man's, the egg of any Swan out of the nest r
upon pain of imprisonment for a year and a day and a fine at
the King's will.'f The conceit that this species was accustomed

'Birds of Somerset,' by Mr. Cecil Smith, p. 472.

t 'Journal of Archaeological Institute,' vol. xli., p. 295. See whole
passage on ' Swan Marks,' treated archaeologically.

Mute Swan. 473

to sing before its death is as old as Pliny, who refuted it ; but it
is strange that the bird into which Orpheus the musician was
changed, and which was called the bird of Apollo, the god of
music, with a reputation for sweet singing which has descended
with it from such ancient times, should now come to be dis-
tinguished in England by the specific name of ' Mute ' Swan r
That, however, seems in reality to be its characteristic. Yarrell,
indeed, assures us that it has a soft low voice, rather plaintive,
and with little variety, but not disagreeable ; and that he ha&
heard it often in the spring, and sometimes later in the season,
when moving slowly about with its young. On the other hand,
Waterton altogether denies that it has any such melodious-
warblings. Coleridge, speaking of the superstition alluded to-
above, says :

4 Swans sing before they die, 'twere no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.'

Before taking leave of this graceful species, let me recommend
all who have the opportunity to pay a visit to the Dorsetshire
Swannery at Abbotsbury, near Weymouth, where they will see
the splendid sight of from 700 to 1,500 of this magnificent bird in
their own breeding haunts : the particulars of which I communi-
cated in the Zoologist of 1877, pp. 505-511, to which I would
refer my readers, and will not repeat myself here. Lord Arundell
remarks that, ' though not rare birds, Swans may be mentioned as-
a feature of the country near Wardour ; as from the circum-
stance of there being several large pieces of water within a few
miles, at the Fonthills, Pythouse, etc., the Swans, four or five at a
time, are frequently seen on the wing, flying from one pond to
another; and I know of few things more impressive than the
metallic sound of the Swan's wing when in flight.' The specific
name, olor, is classical Latin for a 'Swan.' In France it is-
Cygne tubercule ou domesiique ; in Germany, Hocker Schwan r
1 Swan with a bump,' in allusion to its beak ; in Italy, Cigno
reale; in Sweden, Tarn Svan, ' Tame Swan ;' and in Spain, Cisne*

474 Anatidce.

185. COMMON SHELLDRAKE (Tadorna vulpanser).

As this fine species may be said to stand at the head of the
Ducks, it will be well to observe that there are two distinct
groups of these birds which entirely differ from each other in
habits. These are the surface feeding, or ' true Ducks,' and
the diving, or ' Oceanic ' Ducks. Of the surface feeders, with
the exception of sundry very rare and accidental visitors, all the
British species, eight in number, have been found in Wiltshire.
They generally frequent fresh- water lakes, rivers, marshes, and quiet
pools ; have great powers of flight ; never dive for their food, and,
in short, are almost as much at home out of the water as in it ; in
all which respects they differ entirely from the Oceanic ducks.
First of them comes the Common Shelldrake, so conspicuous for its
bright coloured plumage, and so attractive for its general appear-
ance. It is by no means uncommon on the coast, and occasionally
a straggler has appeared in our county. The Rev. F. Goddard,
at that time Vicar of Alderton, informed me that a specimen was
killed in that neighbourhood about the year 1856 or 1857 ; and
the Rev. A. P. Morres records the capture of another, on the
river near Britford, by the keeper, some years since. Lord Lans-
downe has seen it on the lake at Bowood, and Mr. Grant had
a specimen brought him for preservation in September, 1868,
which had been taken at Overton. Some say it is called the
* Shelldrake-' from the partiality it evinces for the smaller shell-
fish which constitute the principal part of its food ; others say,
from its tortoiseshell colour; or because it has a lump at the
base of the bill like a shell ; but others, with more probability,
from sheld, signifying ' pied,' flecked,' or ' parti-coloured,' and
certainly a plumage which exhibits such marked contrasts of
colour as green, chestnut, white, and black, deserves to attract
special notice. The generic name, tadorna, is pronounced to be of
Italian origin, but derivation and meaning unknown ; the
specific, vulpanser, ' fox duck,' either from its dark-red, fox colour
or from its habit of breeding in a hole. The specific name now
often bestowed on it of cornuta, 'horned,' from cornu, has

Common Shelldrake. 475

reference, 1 suppose, to the bright red knob at the base of the
upper mandible, which is developed in the breeding season.. Pro-
vincially it is known as the 'Burrow Duck/ and in Sweden as the
Graf- And, ' Grave ' or ' Hole ' Duck, from its habit of selecting
for its nest a cavity in the rock, or a deserted burrow of a rabbit.
For a similar reason it is called in Scotland the ' Stock Annet/
because it sometimes breeds in the hollows of decayed trees, and
in Orkney the ' Sly Goose/ from the manoeuvres it employs to
entice the intruder from its nest. Its flight is slow and heavy,
like that of a goose ; but Sir R. Payne-Gall wey says, ' I have
noticed them fly into their burrow with a dash, the wings folded
at that instant, rather than alight at the entrance and leave
a trace behind for plunderers/ The same experienced observer
also says, 'I have seen from ten to twelve of the young ducklings
climb up on the mother's back, each little one holding a feather
in its tiny bill, and thus carried by the parent to the safety of the
sea. 5 * Like the Egyptian Goose, with which it has many affini-
ties, though so gay in plumage, it is coarse and bitter to the taste,
and indeed quite uneatable. In France it is Tadorne ; in
Germany, Brandente, ( Burnt or Flame-coloured Goose ;' in Italy,
Volpoca tadorna, ' volpoca ' being the exact equivalent of ' vul-
panser' ; in Spain, Patotorro, ' the Pan Duck/ but why this title
I know not. Like the Geese, but unlike the Ducks, between
which it stands, the female wears very much the same coloured
plumage as the male.

186. SHOVELLER. (Anas clypeata).

The beak of this species at once distinguishes it from all other
Ducks, as here we see in its most perfect form the laminated
structure (as it is called) to which I have already alluded : the
laminae taking the shape of fine long bristles ; those of the upper
mandible projecting beyond the margin, and concealing the front
part of the lower mandible, and these fit beautifully into each
other, forming a kind of sieve, by which the bill is capable of
separating what is fit for food, and rejecting' through their inter -
* The Fowler in Ireland/ pp. 63-66.

476 Anatidce.

stices the mud and other superfluous matter. Moreover, the beak
is peculiarly broad, .flat, and depressed, the tip more particularly
spoon-shaped, and terminated by a hooked nail. But it is to be
observed that the bill of the young bird possesses none of this
peculiar shape, and is no longer than that of an ordinary duck-
ling. From the remarkable appearance of the adult bird, in con-
sequence of this wide bill, which gives it rather a top-heavy look,
come the numerous names by which naturalists of various
countries have designated it : Spathulea, ' with a bill broad like a
spoon ' ; Platyrhyncos, in some parts of England, ' Broadbill ' ; in
Germany, Loffel Ente; and in Sweden, Lejfel-And, or 'Spoon Duck'
but it derives its specific name, clypeata, ' armed with a shield/
from its white shield-like gorget. It is the most cosmopolitan of
birds, having been found not only in abundance in Europe, Asia,
Africa, and America, but even rarely in Australia ; and I believe
that can be said of scarcely any other bird. It is of shy, timorous
disposition, and the localities it loves best are the marshes and
muddy shallows at the mouths of rivers. Cordeaux says, ' Shovel-
lers have a curious habit of swimming round and round each
other in circles for hours together, with the neck and head
depressed to the surface of the water.* The Rev. A. P. Morres
records a pair killed in the meadows at Britlbrd, by the keeper,
some time back, but says they are the only instances he has heard
of their occurrence near Salisbury, and he believes them to be
quite uncommon in that district. It has, however, been met with
from time to time in various parts of Wiltshire, and Mr. Herbert
Smith has observed it on the lake at Bowood. In France it
is Canard Souchet ; in Italy, Anatra Mestolone, ' Ladle Duck';
in Spain, Pato Cuchareta, 'Small-spoon Duck'; in Portugal, Pato
trombeteiro, ' Trumpeter Duck.' Though by no means a common
species in England, I may say it is sparingly distributed every
year over the country.

'Birds of the Humber District/ p. 161.

Gadwall. 477

187. GADWALL (Anas strepera).

Since my former papers on the Ornithology of Wilts were
published, I have a notice of the occurrence of this species in our
county, for a specimen was shot at Amesbury at the latter part
of 1871 by Mr. S. Hayes, as I learn from Mr. Grant, of Devizes.
It is not a common bird in England, though met with sparingly
every year. The specimen in my collection I considered myself
very fortunate in obtaining in 1855 from a 'gunner' on the
shores of the Wash, with whom I had frequent dealings ; for it
was the only specimen of the species he had ever shot, though
he had then pursued the calling of fowler on those mud-banks
for twenty-five years. It is common in Holland, but its home is
in the far north of America, as well as of Europe and Asia. It is
a very shy bird, and seeks the most lonely spots it can find in
which to > shelter itself. It excels in the art of diving, is more
rapid in flight than most of the ducks, and has been pronounced
by Lord Lilford ' by far the best for the table of the European
Anatidaa/ Sir R Payne-Gallwey says it may easily be mistaken
at first sight for a female Wild Duck, but the patch of white
near the centre of the closed wing affords a good mark of distinc-
tion. It is a fine, plump-looking bird, with a very broad chest ;
and the markings on the breast, which are peculiar to it, are very
beautiful, and have a dappled appearance, which is formed by
small white half-moon shaped pencillings on each feather, almost
an eighth of an inch from the top.* It is remarkable for the
length and delicacy of the laminae of the upper mandible, which
project upwards the tenth of an inch beyond the margin ; and
from that peculiarity the Gadwall has obtained from modern
ornithologists the generic name of chaulelasmus, which literally
means 'with outstanding teeth/ but here applies to the projecting
laminae. Its specific name, strepera, ' noisy/ in German Schwatter
Ente, in French Le Chipeau, and in Swedish Snatter And, all
meaning ' Chattering Duck/ take their origin from the loud,
harsh, shrill notes which it repeats over and over again. It is
The Fowler in Ireland/ p. 56.

478 Anatidce.

sometimes known as the ' Gray Duck,' which Yarrell says the
term Gadwall is intended to imply; but he omits to explain

188. PINTAIL DUCK (Anas acuta).

There is no more elegant and graceful duck than this. Of
slender form, with thin neck, elongated tail-feathers, and hand-
some plumage, it rivals our brightest and gayest birds, whether
of land or water. It is common on the southern coast of Eng-
land, and in Dorsetshire is known by the provincial name of
'Sea-Pheasant,' a sobriquet derived from its prolonged tail
It is almost needless to say that the specific name, acuta, also
refers to the sharp-pointed tail, which is its chief characteristic.
In Germany it is Spiesa-ente 'Spear-duck'; in Swedish, Stjert-
And, 'Tail-duck'; and provincially in this country the 'Spear
Widgeon,' all having reference to the elongated tail-feathers of the
drake. It may be identified at a long distance, and discerned
among other fowl, by the snow-white neck and breast.* As
regards its excellence for the table, it is placed by Sir R Payne-
Gallvvey at the head of the wild fowl, and is said by him to excel
all the other ducks and geese in delicacy of flavour. Mr. Cecil
Smith,f who keeps it in confinement on his pond, says it obtains
its food by tipping its head downwards into the water, after the
manner of tame ducks, and that it feeds on the pond-weed and
the insects and small mollusca which it picks up with it ; but
that he never sees it feed on grass, like the Widgeon, as Meyer

I may mention here that in the good old times of yore our
ancestors saw the wisdom of protecting this and other valuable
birds from wanton destruction at improper seasons ; and by the
Code of Fen Laws, or orders for regulating the fens, passed in
the reign of Edward YI. (A.D. 1548), it was decreed that ' no
person should use any sort of net, or other engine, to take or kill

* ' The Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 20-22, 50.
f ' Birds of Somersetshire,' p. 483.

Wild Duck 479

any fowl commonly called moulted ducks in any of the fens
before Midsummer-day yearly.'*

The Rev. A. P. Morres mentions one killed on the water at
Clarendon Park, and now preserved at the house. Mr. Ponting
tells me that Sir H. Meux's keeper shot a good specimen on the
Kennett near Lockeridge, in February, 1886. The Marlborough
College Natural History Reports show that one was killed at
Mildenhall in February, 1870, and another at Axford in January,
1871 ; but wherever sportsmen are accustomed to shoot wild
fowl they meet with it from time to time, associated with the
Common Wild Duck, Teal, and Widgeon.

In France it is Canard a lomgue queue ; and in Italy, Anatra
di coda lunga.

189. WILD DUCK (Anas boschas).

Though rapidly becoming more scarce under the present
system of draining, this is still too common a bird to require

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 43 of 53)