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 44 of 53)
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comment on its appearance and habits. It breeds on a pollard-
tree or ruined wall, as well as on the ground, and (as Selby
pointed out) is careful to cover the eggs with down when it quits
the nest for food. This may be partly to keep them warm during
her absence, but still more to hide them from the sharp eyes of
the marauding Carrion Crow or other evil-minded thief who may
be prowling about. It is the Gemeine-ente, ' Common Duck,' of
Germany ; ' Le Canard sauvage ' of France ; the Grds-And, or
' Grass-Duck,' of Norway ; the ' Stock-Duck ' of British North
. America ; and whether in India and China, in the Ionian Islands
and Malta, in Northern Africa and Egypt, or in Greenland and
America, it is always the Common Duck of the country ; so that
the numbers of this universal and familiar friend must be, could
a census be taken of it, something prodigious. But when we
reflect that in the active days of the Lincolnshire decoys over
thirty thousand birds were sent to London in one season from
one district only, and of these productive returns the Wild Duck
formed the main staple, we can only marvel that the species is
Cordeaux's 'Birds of the Humber District/ p. 163.

480 Anatidw.

so abundant now. Harting observes that Ducks, when bent on
a long flight, do not all move through the air at the same
altitude, but some much higher than others; and large flights
generally seem to have a break in the centre, and present a
figure very much resembling the outline of North and South
America as it appears on the map. When flying near the surface
of land or water, they are often in a confused mass.* Wilson, in
his ' North American Ornithology/ has described an amusing
and ingenious method of taking Wild Ducks adopted by the in-
habitants of India and China, where the sportsman, covering his
head with a calabash or wooden vessel, wades into the water,
and keeping only his head thus masked above it, advances
towards and mixes with the flock, who feel no alarm at what
they look upon as a mere floating calabash. He is thus
enabled to select his victims, whom he seizes by the legs, and,
pulling them under water, fastens them to a girdle with which
he is equipped, thus carrying off as many as he can stow aw;iy.
without exciting distrust and alarm amongst the survivors. -f-
The Rev. A. P. Morres says the Wild Duck is very common near
Salisbury, and breeds there in considerable numbers. In the
winter he has seen more than a hundred rise from a part of the
river called the 'Broad,' close to Longford Castle. The Marl-
borough College Natural History Reports speak of a flock of
seventy seen at Ramsbury, November ]0th, 1876. Mr. Herbert
Smith, writing to me this spring (1887), says : ' We have had a
very fair amount of Wild Ducks on the Bo wood Lake this year.
One morning I saw, I should say, about five hundred at one
time; and among them I noticed the Common Mallard, Teal
Pochard, and Tufted Duck.' Mr. Hussey-Freke, writing from
Hanningford Hall, in the extreme north of the county, says :
'We get a few wild fowl at the Thames.' And of single speci
mens I hear in all quarters.

In Italy it is Anatra salvatica reale; in Spain and in Portugal.
Pato real.

' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 228.

f Selby's ' Illustrations of British Ornithology,' vol. ii., p. 307.

Garganey. 481

190. GARGANEY (Anas querquedula).

This is often called the < Summer Teal/ and though larger than
A. crecca, it bears considerable resemblance to that pretty little
species, with which we are so familiar. It is really half-way in
size between a Widgeon and a Teal, and is distinguished from its
congeners by a white streak down the sides of the neck. Pro-
fessor Skeat derives the name querquedula from querq or kark,
significative of any loud noise, in allusion to its note, which is
said to be a harsh knack, and very loud in proportion to the size
of the bird. In Germany this species is known as Knack-ente.
Besides this, its ordinary note, in spring the drake makes a
peculiar jarring noise like that of a child's rattle, whence the
name of ' Crick ' or ' Cricket Teal ' in the eastern counties, where
it is best known.* It arrives in the spring, and the late Rev. G.
Marsh used to describe it as by no means uncommon in his
neighbourhood, twenty years ago. Mr. Grant received one in
May, 1874, from West Lavington. The Rev. A. P. Morres
mentions a little party of four birds marked down in a bend of
the river at Britford, all of which the keeper shot ; and I hear
from Mr. Hussey Freke that his keeper killed one at Hannington
last year. It may be said to occur in this county, but sparingly.
The only country in which I ever met with it was Portugal, from
which I brought back specimens. In France it is Sarcelle d'tte ;
in Portugal, Marreco and Marrequinho ; in Sweden, Arta.

191. TEAL (Anas crecca).

This beautiful little duck, the smallest of the Anatidse, is well
known throughout the county. It is a night-feeding species:
for all day it reposes on the water, or sits motionless on the very
brink, with the head crouched between the shoulders; but
immediately after sunset it will fly to its feeding-grounds. Sir
R. Payne-Gallwey saysf the habit of this, the prettiest and
smallest of all wild-fowl, is to swim near the surface, with only

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. iv., p. 395.
f ' The Fowler in Ireland/ pp. 59-61.


482 Anatidce.

head and bill showing above water. They prefer inland lakes so
long as they are unfrozen. For beauty of feather, no bird can
excel the adult male Teal: the dappled breast, the exquisite
contrast of velvet black, metallic green, and rich cream yellow,
with the graceful sprightly aspect, are unrivalled. A number of
Teal, collecting at night, or in a happy humour by day, chatter
and whistle loudly ; they sometimes then sound like a stand of
Golden Plover. The whistle of the male is low and shrill, the
call of the female is a subdued imitation of the Wild Duck. Its
flight is very rapid, and Harting says * that, on being disturbed
at a brook which has plenty of cover along the banks, it will,
after flying a short distance, drop down suddenly again, like
Snipe and Woodcock. The specific name, crecca, is undoubtedly
derived from its note, as is Crick-ente of Germany, and Krick-
And of Norway, where it breeds in the upper fjall morasses, as
well as in the lower marshes. In France it is Sarcelle d'hiver ;
in Portugal it shares the same name as the Garganey ; but in
Spain it is Patito and Cerceta.

192. WIDGEON (Anas penelope).

As common as the last. The enormous numbers of this species
obtained by the fenmen and gunners on the east coast of England
by means of a duck boat and swivel gun surpass conception, and
the heap of slain must be seen to be believed. I have many
times turned over half a sackful which my friend the Norfolk
fowler obtained by a successful shot from the big gun ; and a
large proportion of the ducks taken in decoys were of this species.
Colonel Hawker said that for coast night shooting the Widgeon is
like the fox for hunting : it shows the finest sport of anything in
Great Britain. As it only fetches half the price of a Mallard or
Brent Goose, it is known to the fenners as ' a half-bird/ It is
pre-eminently a river duck, resting and sleeping on the water,
but, when the tide permits, resorting in large bodies to the
Zostera beds on the mud flats.f Harting says : ' I have observed

c ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 230.

t ' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 167.

Widgeon. 483

Widgeon call a good deal at night ; their soft whistling note like
whee-ou, whee-ou, maybe heard on still nights at a great distance.'*
From this peculiar whistling call-note they are known as ' Whew
Ducks ' ; in France, Canards siffleurs ; and in Germany, Pfeif-
ente; but in Sweden it is Bids And, or 'White-fronted Duck/
When they are feeding they are remarkably silent, and the
larger the flock, the quieter they are, for numbers give confidence
and a feeling of security. In Spain it is Pato-silbador ; and in
Portugal, Assobiadeira, both with the meaning of 'Whistling
Ducks.' Mr. Waterton has proved that, unlike its congeners,
the Widgeon is not a night-feeding bird, but devours hy day the
short grass which the Goose is known to pluck; hence it is
called in Lapland the 'Grass Duck.'

To see a large flock of Widgeon reposing on the lake at Walton
Hall, perfectly wild birds, and yet quickly gaining confidence by
finding themselves unmolested in that happy spot; to observe
them dressing their feathers, sporting with one another, chasing
each other, splashing up the water, in a state of security, where
they could lay aside the anxious alarm which they must so
frequently feel ; and to watch their playful antics through the
big telescope which Mr. Waterton always kept adjusted at the
drawing-room window, and directed towards the lake, was one of
the many treats of a visit to Walton Hall, and a sight which
alone would repay a journey to Yorkshire.

193. EIDER DUCK (Somateria mollissima).

We now begin the second division, the Diving, or ' Oceanic '
Ducks, as they are called. Above we noticed that the surface-
feeders comprehended those species only which frequent fresh-
water lakes, marshes, and dry land ; have great powers of flight,
and seldom dive. But the Oceanic species, on the contrary, have
no partiality for fresh- water or for dry land, but frequent the
harbours, the estuaries, and the open sea, and obtain their food,
which lies at the bottom of the water, by diving. They may be
recognised by the well- developed and broadly- webbed hind- toe,
* ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 234,


484 Anatidce.

which materially assists their progress under water. At their
head in the British list stands the Eider Duck, which well
deserves to occupy that post of honour. This large and hand-
some species abounds in Northern Europe and America, where
its well-known down forms a most valuable article of traffic to
the inhabitants : so compressible and elastic, so soft and light is
this famous down, that a large quantity which I brought from
Norway, and which when unpacked was enough to fill four
quilts, was easily squeezed into a hat-box for the convenience of
transport. On the northern shores of England, and in Scotland,
it is commonly met with, but is rarely seen on our more southern
coasts ; so that I the more marvel what fortunate accident has
enabled me to add it to our Wiltshire list. But an undoubted
specimen of this bird was killed a few years back on the water at
Lyneham, the property of Major Heneage, and is still to be seen
in the Hall at Compton Basset House; and Mr. Grant reports
another killed at Bottlesford, near Woodborough, in March, 1866.
It is, however, notorious for very powerful flight, and the speed
at which it flies is marvellous Montagu says at the rate of ninety
miles an hour but on land it is very inactive and sluggish. The
beak has a thick swollen appearance, is elevated at the base, and
is terminated with a strong rounded hooked nail. The generic
name, somateria, literally means ' body- wool,' from aw^a-ro^, ' of
the body/ and epiov, ' wool/ in allusion to the down which the
bird plucks from its breast for the lining of the nest ; and that it
is mollissima, 'most soft/ will be readily admitted. It is still
known on the coast of Durham and Northumberland as 'St.
Cuthbert's duck.' The true home of the Ejder Gas, or ' Eider
Goose,' as ifc is there called, is on the islands off the north-
western coast of Norway, called Fugle veer, or ' Bird preserves/
where they are strictly protected. Like the Swan, the Eider
does not seem to be in any manner affected by the cold ; and,
unless the sea is frozen over, it remains on the coast during the
whole winter. Indeed, it has been observed in the highest
latitudes. Professor Newton says it ' breeds abundantly in Spitz-
bergen, 1 and Reinhardt that 'it breeds in Greenland.' Captain

King Duck. 485

Markham, in his narrative of the voyage of the Alert, during the
expedition of 1875-76, says it is one of the few birds which, they
met with in some numbers in those high latitudes ; and more
recently Lieutenant Greely, in his disastrous expedition of 1881-84,
found it breeding in hundreds on Littleton Island, in the month
of August, in latitude 78. There is an opinion entertained by
Ekstrom and some other Norwegian naturalists that there are
two kinds of Eider in Scandinavia, the Common and the Smal-
ndbbad, or ' Narrow-billed,' but this opinion has not been gene-
rally endorsed. Professor Skeat says that ' Eider ' is entirely a
Scandinavian name, and this has been adopted in most European
languages ; in France it is Canard Eider; in Germany, Eiterente;
but in Italy, Oca settentrionale.

194. KING DUCK (Somateria spectabilis).

This is another species of Eider Duck, more rare in England
than the last, but frequenting the same or even still more
northern latitudes than its better-known congener. It is also a
very handsome bird, and the well-contrasted colours of its
plumage attract notice. The only information I have of its
occurrence in this county is a short note by my friend the late
Rev. G. Marsh, who wrote, ' The King Duck in my collection was
killed in Wilts/ but I have no farther particulars of date or
place of capture. The down of the King Eider and its mode of
nesting, as well as general habits, are identical with those of
S. moilissima. The specific name, spectabilis, means ' worth
seeing,' as applied to the splendour of its plumage. In Sweden
it is called Prakt Ejder, or ' Beautiful Eider ' : and, indeed, it
does wear right royal robes, and comports itself as every inch a
king. But not on that account do we assign it the rank of
royalty, but because of the remarkable orange-coloured comb or
knob resembling a crown which it wears on its head : and so the
Icelanders dubbed it Aeder Kongr, or 'Eider King'; and we,
taking the hint from those who are more familiar with it, call it
the ' King Duck.' During the breeding season it resorts to very
high northern latitudes; and as it is found there in immense

486 Anatidce.

numbers and is pronounced palatable, it has proved a welcome
addition to the food of Arctic voyagers from the days of Parry,
Sabine, and Ross to those of Markham, Nordenskiold, and Greely.
In France it is Canard a Tete grise ; and in Germany, Brand-

195. COMMON SCOTER (Oidemia nigra).

The specific name, nigra, sufficiently describes the appearance
of this bird, whose plumage may be shortly defined as deep-black
in the male and brownish- black in the female : hence it is
generally known to the fishermen as the ' Black Duck/ and in
Sweden as the ' Sea Blackcock ' Sjo Orre. It may easily be
distinguished, even at a distance, by its rich, velvety black
plumage and orange knob at the base of the bill, and from its
congeners by its small size and the absence of white on the wing
and neck. Its regular breeding-places are in the far North,
though some remain even on our southern coasts throughout
the year ; but in winter it is a very common bird all round our
shores, and especially off the eastern counties of England, where
the waters are said to be quite black with them. It derives its
name oidemia from oiBrjpa, a ' swelling/ from its tumid bill. Its
flesh is so rank and fishy that in Roman Catholic countries it is
considered in the light of a fish, and allowed to be eaten on fast
days. In France it is Canard macreuse ; and in Germany, Die
Trauer-ente, as if ' the duck in mourning dress.' It is a very
common bird on the coast, and doubtless visits us in this county
occasionally, but the only positive instances I have of its recent
occurrence in Wilts are, first, from my kind correspondent, the
Rev. George Powell, Rector of Sutton Veney, who met with a
specimen on Salisbury Plain in 1849 ; secondly, from Mr. Grant,
of Devizes, who reported that one had been shot on the canal
near that town by Mr. Greenhill, of Rowde, at the end of 1871 ;
thirdly, from the Marlborough College Natural History Reports,
which state that one was caught in the town of Marlborough,
and a second seen at the same time in February, 1873. More-
over, Yarrell mentions that though seldom found on fresh water

Pochard. 487

inland during winter, yet the late Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart.,
sent him word that his keeper had shot a Scoter on the orna-
mental water in the park at Stourhead, Wiltshire, which is more
than twenty miles from the sea in a straight line, and no such
bird had been seen there before. In truth, it is a thoroughly
oceanic bird a true Jack tar which seldom comes ashore, and
there cuts but a sorry figure, but which is quite at home in the
heaviest surf, and swims and dives with equal facility.

196. POCHARD (Fuligula ferina).

This species, known also as the Dun Bird, visits our shores in
winter in immense numbers, and penetrates inland wherever
retired lakes and quiet rivers offer it a suitable asylum : for it is
a very shy bird, and generally avoids the proximity of man. In
contrast to its usual habits of timidity, and in proof of the con-
fidence which even the wilder birds soon learn to entertain when
unmolested, I have seen the Pochards arrive on the lake at
Walton Hall (where I was on a visit to my revered friend, Mr.
Waterton) and fearlessly swim in flocks before the windows, where
we could watch their motions at leisure, while they seemed wholly
unconcerned at our presence. The Pochard bears a close re-
semblance in colour and general appearance to the famous Canvas-
backed Duck of America, and is said to be little inferior to that
bird in delicacy; consequently it is much sought after by the fowler
and taken in vast numbers. The specific name, ferina, ( belong-
ing toferce, wild animals/ is said to have reference to its 'game*
flavour ; for the same reason it is known in Germany as Tafel-
ente, the ' Table Duck.' In France it is Canard Milouin ; in
Sweden, Rod-halsad Dyk-And, 'Red-necked Diving Duck'; in
Spain, Cabezon, ' Large-head ' ; in Portugal, Tarrantana. The
generic name, fuligula, seems to be a diminutive of fulica, though
what the Red-headed Pochard has to do with the Bald Coot I am
at a loss to conjecture. A bird so common as it is on all our coasts
and on the eastern coast it is especially abundant is sure to
have many provincial names, and amongst them the ' Red-headed
Widgeon' and the ' Red-headed Poker ' are, in addition to those given

488 Anatidce.

above, perhaps the most common. It is also sometimes called the
' Ked-eyed Poker/ from the peculiar colour of the eye, a peculiarity
not shared in by any other British bird. Pochards, from the
backward position of their legs, are awkward and clumsy on land.
They swim, however, very rapidly, but deeply immersed in the
water, and are especially gifted with diving powers. They are
also, though somewhat heavy, very quick and powerful on the
wing, but fly in a closely packed body, and not in line or in the
triangular shape that we see in wild ducks. Sir R. Payne-Gallwey
says that Pochards, in common with most of the diving ducks,
when alighting on the water, curve the tail downward, and the
feet forward, like a Swan, against the water, to check the impetus
of flight as they tear along the surface.* It is a well-known
species in Wiltshire. Mr. Herbert Smith pronounces it common
on the Bo wood water. The Rev. A. P. Morres regards it as quite
common in the neighbourhood of Salisbury, where it is found in
flocks every winter: and as an annual visitor to the lake at
Stourton. The Rev. C. Soames reported it as shot at Stoney
Bridge, near Marlborough, on January 20, 1881 ; but I need not
enumerate further instances, when it occurs so frequently in all
parts of the county.

197. FERRUGINOUS DUCK (Fuligula nyroca).

This is not a very common visitor to England, for North-
eastern Europe and Northern Asia appear to be its home ; it
wanders however, in winter, westward and southward, being
abundant throughout the Mediterranean and in Northern Africa,
and is reported to be the commonest species in Malta, as it
undoubtedly is in Egypt, whence the name given it by Buffon,
la Sarcelle d'Egypte. But the most persevering flights penetrate
in some numbers as far west as the British Isles, and as it
prefers the fresh-water lakes and ponds of the interior to salt
water, it is as likely to occur in Wiltshire as in any other county.
I have, however, but three instances of its appearance within our
* The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 100.

Scaup Duck. 489

borders : two of which were shot by Mr. W. H. Stagg, of Nether-
avon, on December 9, 1875, and for information as to the third r
I am indebted to the Rev. E. Duke, of Lake House, who kindly
wrote me word that a specimen had been captured on the river
there. The specific name, nyroca, is Latinized from the Russian,
which I can neither spell nor pronounce ; but the English specific
name, 'ferruginous,' is obviously derived from its dark-brown
back. It is also called the ' White-eyed Duck/ and the ' White
Eye,' by our older writers ; as in France, Canard a iris blanc ;
and in Germany, Die iveissaugige Ente ; and by our Fleming,
Nyroca leucopthalmos, from the conspicuous white eye which is
its distinguishing characteristic. It may however, as Sir R.
Payne- Gall wey points out, be easily mistaken for the female
Golden-Eye, not only from the colour of the irides, but from the
white wing-patch, and the general colour of the plumage. In
Spain it is Pardote ; and in Portugal Negrinha, ' Negress.'

198. SCAUP DUCK (Fuligula marila).

This, too, is a very common bird on the British coasts, and as it
frequents the southern shores in vast numbers, it is not surprising
that a straggler occurs in Wiltshire occasionally. Mr. Grant
records the capture of one at Erlestoke Park, on February 13,
1862, and another at Bulkington in January, 1864. The Marl-
borough College Natural History Reports state that one was shot
at Mildenhall in 1870, by the Rev. C. Soames, and Mr. S. B.
Dixon mentions that one was shot in the Pewsey water-meadows
in February, 1873, by Mr. C. Goode. But it is a thorough sea-
bird, preferring the muddy estuaries and tide-washed sand-banks-
to any inland lakes or rivers, in which it differs materially from
the Pochard, to which it is otherwise closely allied. It is a
winter visitor here, arriving early in November, and retiring in
spring to high northern latitudes, where it breeds. It is of stout
compact shape, and the black head and neck glossed with green
reflections, and the gray and white spotted plumage of the back,
contrast to great advantage. Sir R. Payne-Gallwey, however,
pronounces it 'an ungainly-looking fowl, especially about the

490 Anatidce.

head.' Willoughby explained that ' Scaup ' means ' broken shells,'
in allusion to the smaller univalve and bivalve shell-fish on
which it feeds ; marila (fiapiKrj) means literally ' the embers of
charcoal/ in reference to the pitch-black colour of the plumage
on the front parts. So on the Somersetshire coast it is known
as the ' Black Duck,' * which is not a very distinctive title, seeing
how many other species, clothed with similar dark-coloured
plumage, partake of the same name. More appropriately it is
known in some localities as the ' Blue-bill.' In British North
America it is ' the Big Black-head,' but in Sweden Hvit Buk, or
' White Belly.' In France it is Canard Alilouinan ; in Germany

199. TUFTED DUCK (Fuligula cristata).

This is a regular winter visitant to our shores, and is not un-
frequently found inland, for it follows up the rivers from their
mouths, and is in no hurry, where it can find an undisturbed
retreat, to return to salt water. It is of plump shape, short and
compact figure, and partakes of the general appearance of the
Scaup, to which it is closely allied. The specimen in my
collection was kindly given me by Mr. Swayne, who killed it
in 1856,' when shooting with the late Lord Herbert at Grovely,
and I have notices of its occurrence in several parts of the
county. Major Heneage possesses one which was shot at
Lyneham in 1881. Mr. Herbert Smith reports it as common on
the Bowood water, and Mr. G. Watson Taylor that it comes to
Erlestoke in hard weather. The Rev. A. P. Morres says it is the
commonest of the rarer ducks in the neighbourhood of Salisbury,
where he sees it in the meadows every hard winter. It is locally
known there as the ' Pie-curr.' Mr. Grant reports a pair shot at
Netheravon by Mr. F. W. Hussey at the end of January, 1871 ;
and I learn from the Field newspaper, under date January 23,
1875, that a fine specimen had been killed by Mr. J. J. Estridge,

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 44 of 53)