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 47 of 53)
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wing at one time.'* The Little Auk is only a winter visitor to
our coasts, and then seldom comes to land, except when driven
in by stress of severe storms, so that I esteemed myself fortunate
in obtaining two specimens for my collection, which had been so
carried inland on the coast of Norfolk. It is a quaint-looking,
heavy bird for its size, with short wings, but great powers of
diving. Mergulus indeed signifies 'Little Diver,' but alle is a
Lapp name, presumably taken from the bird's note. In addition
to the familiar names given above, it is also known provincially
as the 'Sea Dove,' and the 'Little Black and White Diver/ but
in Sweden it is promoted to the rank of royalty, being known
there as Sjo Rung, or 'Sea King.' In France it is Guillemot
nain, 'Dwarf Guillemot' ; in Germany, Der Kleine Alk; in Italy
Uria minore. I am again indebted to Mr. Grant for the in-
formation of its occurrence in Wiltshire, two specimens having

Professor Newton in Ibis for 1865, p. 204 ; Captain Beechey's ' Yoyage
of Discovery towards the North Pole,' 1818, p. 46 ; Nordenskiold's Arctic
Voyages,' 1858 1879, pp. 53, 68; Lieutenant Greeley's 'Three Years of
Arctic Service,' vol. ii., p. 373.


514 Alcadcc.

come into his hands, one on October 26, 1869, from Gore Cross
Farm, on the Market Lavington Down, and the second on
October 17, 1870, which was taken on Wilsford Down.

215. PUFFIN (Fratercula arctica).

Most marvellous, indeed, is the appearance of this bird, and
even ludicrous its aspect, on account of the singular form and
colour of the bill, which is higher than long, very much com-
pressed at the sides, both mandibles arched and grooved and
notched towards the point, and very highly coloured with the
brightest orange and yellow and bluish -gray. Singular, however,
as it is to look at, this beak is extremely powerful, and can bite
the intruding hand thrust into a hole in search of its egg in a
way not readily forgotten. And now it has been discovered
that the Puffin sheds portions of its bill in autumn, the horny
frontal sheath scaling off in pieces like plates of armour.* This
species is truly oceanic in its habits, and never resorts to fresh
water. It breeds in a rabbit burrow or other hole in the ground,
and lays but one egg. Unlike the young of the Guillemot,
which its parents convey at a tender age from the giddy heights
on which it is hatched to the sea below, the young Puffin
remains at the end of the rabbit-burrow or hole in the rock in
which it is bred until it is able to fly down to the sea, unaided
by its parents. Once on the sea, it finds itself thoroughly at
home, for it dives with the utmost facility. Its flight, too, for a
short distance is rapid, but cannot be continued far, for its short
narrow wings seem scarcely able to support its heavy bod}^. It
is strange that this bird, which penetrates as far as Greenland
and other high latitudes in the breeding season, should be so
little known in Sweden that it is called by the fisherman
UtldndsTc Alk, or ' Foreign Razor Bill.' Off the northern coast
of Norway, however, it is exceedingly abundant, and in one
island named Fugle-0, or 'Bird Island/ its numbers are in"
calculable. The same may be said of the slopes of Lundy, or
* Puffin ' Island, deriving its name from the Scandinavian word
Fourth edition of c Yarrell's British Birds,' vol. iv., p. 95.

Puffin. 515

Lunde, ' Puffin/ and ey, island, a name given it by the northern
rovers who once made it their residence, and here the Puffins
still burrow in myriads. We can imagine how warmly their
arrival was welcomed by the Arctic voyagers, when, after a long
dreary winter in the ice, they first caught sight of these summer
migrants, not so much on account of the fresh meat which they
afforded, but from their lively manners and the return of summer
which their presence proclaimed. As early as the reign of
Edward I. the Crown rent was paid in Puffins, not for the sake
of their flesh, but for their feathers : as for the same reason the
rent of some of the western islands of Scotland continues to be
paid in birds to this day. So the Scilly Islands once owned by
a Wiltshireman were held under the Crown at the rent of fifty
Puffins, or 6s. 8d., per annum. In 1484 the islands were returned
as worth, in peaceable times, forty shillings ; in war times,
nothing.* This bird is said to have derived its name Fratercula,
1 Little Brother,' from its sociable gregarious habits and its habit
of dwelling in communities, and arctica, as it is to be met with
in the far North; but its provincial names are too many to
enumerate, ' Sea Parrot,' ' Bottle Nose/ and ' Coulter-Neb,' all
alluding to its extraordinary beak, being among the most
common. The word ' Puffin ' is, on the authority of Skeat,
either from its puffed-out, rounded stomach, or, more probably,
from its peculiar swelling beak, like that of a parrot. The Kev.
T. A. Preston sent me for identification a specimen which had
been found near Marlborough in the autumn of 1869. It was
in immature plumage, and was, in fact, a bird of the year, having
neither arrived at the size nor the distinctive characteristics of
the parents ; indeed, except for a faint indication of transverse
grooves along both mandibles, neither the shape, colour, nor
markings of the beak betokened the remarkable formation
peculiar to this bird when in adult dress. There were two
individuals which made their appearance near Marlborough, and
both of which were seen by Mr. Preston in the flesh. They were
not found together, but one was caught on the banks of the

Wiltshire Magazine^ vol. i., p. 156.


516 Alcadce.

Rennet on the 25th of October ; the other was subsequently
picked up dead, and was in so emaciated a condition as to imply
that it had died of starvation. Another instance is given by the
Kev. A. P. Morres, who says that a bird of the year, but of full
size, was brought to him in the winter of 1863, which a carter
had caught on a high-lying fallow in the parish of Britford, and
which had bitten his fingers so severely that in exasperation he
killed it. Mr. Grant records another specimen killed at Salis-
bury, December 28th, 1871, which came into his hands for
preservation; while the Maryborough College Natural History
Keports mention two seen at a pond near the Warren at St.
Catharine's, Savernake Forest, one of which was captured on
November 21, 1879. In France it is Macareux moine ; in
Germany, Arktische oder Graukehliger Alk ; in Norway, Lunne
Fogel ; in Spain, Cagafet ; in Portugal, Papagaio do mar.

216. RAZOR-BILL (Alca torda).

Here we have another species which abounds on our coasts,
though perhaps not in quite such overpowering numbers as
either of those mentioned above. It partakes of the same habits
on sea and land as its congeners, breeding with the Guillemots
on the ledges of cliffs, and showing itself equally expert in diving
and swimming. For this constant immersion in the sea they
need waterproof clothing, and the plumage with which they are
provided is very thick and close-set, and quite impervious to the
action of water. The adult birds are furnished with a bill par-
taking, in some degree, of the character of that of the Puffin
that is to say, it is much compressed and curved and grooved
towards the point. Like other birds with largely developed
beaks as the Hoopoe, Crossbill, Spoonbill, etc. that feature in
the Razor- Bills and Puffins when first hatched is quite narrow,
and for some time shows no sign of the transverse furrow which
it afterwards assumes. When it takes wing, which it does with
evident reluctance, it invariably flies low, just above the surface
of the water: and, like the Guillemots, it carries its young on its
back from the cliffs to the sea. Bishop Pontoppidan's account

Razor-Bill 517

of this species is somewhat quaint and amusing : ' They can fish
and swim beyond many others, but are very weak at flying or
walking, because the legs are placed so very far behind that it is
troublesome to move them on land; the bird therefore totters
like a drunken man.' On this account is the saying, ' Drunk as
an Alk.' I should add that Alca is the Icelandic, and torda the
name by which it is known in Gothland. Provincially it is
called 'Parrot-billed Willock,' or 'Willy/ In France it is
Pingouin macroptere ; in Germany, TordAlk; and in Sweden,
Tordmule. The young bird of the year of A. torda was for a
long time considered a distinct species, and honest old Bewick
describes it (though evidently with some hesitation) under the
title of the ' Black-billed Auk ' Alca pica ; but Colonel Montagu
has no such scruples, and boldly contends that Dr. Latham in
his Synopsis is mistaken in supposing it to be no other than the
immature Razor-bilL More careful observation, however, has
proved that the doctor was in the right. Mr. Grant, of Devizes,
mentions a specimen killed at Melksham early in February,
1862 ; and a second, shot by Mr. E. Gibbs at Chitterne at the
end of January, 1871 ; also a third killed at Netheravon, January
18th, 1866, and a fourth at Salisbury at the close of 1871, all of
which came into his hands for preparation. Besides these the
Rev. A. P. Morres records that one was picked up by a dairy-
man on the downs near Wittsbury, close to Britford, on
February 19th, 1883, which was preserved by Mr. White, of


We pass on to the Pelicans, which is. a high-sounding title ;
but the British members of that aristocratic race are but humble
and degenerate offshoots of a noble family, and can only claim
to rank as remote relations of a lordly house. For the true
Pelicans are magnificent birds ; and seen (as I have many a
time watched them within the tropics of Upper Egypt and
Nubia) proudly sailing on the broad Nile ; or swimming at their
best pace down the stream, while my Arab boatmen gave chase -

518 PelicanidcB.

in our small boat ; or rising in the air and flapping with enormous
wing overhead, with the sun shining on their cream-coloured
plumage tinged with pink, are a sight not readily forgotten.

The principal characteristics of this family are to be observed
in the foot, which consists of four toes, all directed forwards, and
all connected with a membrane ; in the beak, which is strong,
large, and terminating with a powerful hook ; in the legs, which
are remarkably short, sturdy, and strong; and in the wings,
which are moderately long and equal to very vigorous flight.
There are two genera belonging to this family in the British list,
the Cormorants and the Gannets, and I have instances of the
appearance of both of them in Wiltshire.

217. COMMON CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carlo).

In many respects this bird partakes of the general habits of
the Divers and Auks : thus on land it sits erect, and is awkward
enough, although it can walk with somewhat more ease than the
Colymbidse or AlcacLe : it swims with the body deeply immersed;
and it dives with great readiness and celerity : but unlike that
family it can perch on trees, and grasp the branches with its toes ;
while its flight is strong and rapid. It lives on fish, and (perhaps
to enable it to retain the slippery body of its victim) the claw of
the middle toe is serrated or indented with comb-like teeth.
The quantity of fish it consumes is enormous, and it is not
without reason that it has become the type of gluttony. More-
over, it is an ill-favoured, slouchiDg, unclean bird, and seen sitting
on the rocks gorged with food, and staring with haggard,
scowling eyes, and spreading out its wings to dry, coupled with
its foul odour, it always reminds me of that most unsavoury bird,
in my eyes, the Egyptian Neophron, and accordingly is no
favourite with me. Montagu, however, has a good word to say
for it, for he describes it as docile, and by no means of a savage
spirit, and easily domesticated, while its diving powers are
incredible. He adds that it has a habit of violently beating the
water with its wings, without moving from the spot, each beating
being succeeded by a shake of the whole body, and ruffling of all

Common Cormorant. 519

the feathers, at the same time covering itself with the water. It
may often be seen perched on rails or posts at the water's edge,
more especially on the buoys which mark the channels through
the shallow waters of the Wash on the coast of Norfolk and
other similar mud-banks at the mouths of rivers; and very
unpleasant and uncanny do they look as they so perch them-
selves, in my opinion. It will not be forgotten that Milton, with
great j udgment, as I think, represented the arch-fiend as taking
the form of a Cormorant. They breed in colonies, occasionally
in trees, like the Herons, but more commonly on lofty cliffs and
precipitous rocks. It kills its prey previous to swallowing it,
by squeezing it in its powerful and hooked beak. The colour of
its plumage is bluish-black, with metallic green reflections ; and
it has patches of pure white on its thighs, and a white throat.
The tail is composed of stiff hard feathers, and is frequently used
on land as a prop to support the body. It is tamed by th e
Chinese, and trained to take fish, being cast into the water after
its finny quarry, much as a falconer will, in hawking, cast off his
bird at a heron, or the courser slip his greyhound after a hare ;
only in the case of the voracious Cormorant it is found
necessary to fasten an iron ring round the bird's neck, or the
prey would be instantly swallowed. This sport, which is still
practised in China, was at one time an English pastime, and was
in great repute in the sixteenth century ; and as there are still
the high offices attached to the court of ' Master of the Buck-
hounds,' and ' Hereditary Grand Falconer,' so in former days it
was no slight honour to be c Master of the Cormorants ' to our
sovereign lord King Charles I. Previous to his reign, fishing
with Cormorants had become a fashionable amusement in the
reign of James I., who had a regular establishment for these
birds at Westminster; and the royal Cormorants trained for
fishing wore leather collars, often ornamented with silver.*

It is a very common bird on all our rocky coasts ; and I have
met with colonies of it far up the Nile, at least 450 miles from
the sea ; so that fresh water must be as palatable to it as salt,

Harting in his edition of ' White's Selborne,' p. 164.

520 Pelicanidce.

provided only the supply of fish is sufficient. In this county I
have an instance of one killed in 1856, on Mr. Heneage's water
at Lyneham, whence the Great Northern Diver was obtained ;
and another (as I learned from a paragraph in the newspaper)
was killed at Bradford-on-Avon, in September, 1859. Lord
Arundell reports one killed at Wardour Castle about twenty years
ago : and Mr. W. Wyndham that one was shot at Lower Teffont ;
Lord Nelson possesses one killed at Trafalgar ; and Lord Methuen
says that one has been killed on the water at Corsham Court
and preserved. Lastly, the Rev. E. Goddard has just reported one
seen perched on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral this summer.

The Rev. A. P. Morres reports that on one occasion three
Cormorants appeared in the water-meadows of the parish of
Britford, perched on some of the hatches ; and that the keeper
shot one of them, which proved to be a young bird in immature
plumage, but full grown. They were all busily employed in
fishing when he came upon them. Some years after Mr. Morres
saw a single bird in the same locality. Again on August 13th,
1885, an immature specimen was shot on the stream at Mere,
and about a week after two others were killed at Stourton, all
three proving to be young birds. The ponderous name plmli-
crocorax signifies the ' bald-headed raven,' from ^aXa/^/jo?, ' bald-
headed/ and /ropaf, ' a raven,' and carlo, ' a coal,' has reference
to the soot-black plumage of the bird. Amongst many provincial
names, ' Skart ' is that by which it is most generally known,
and ' Great ' or ' Black ' Cormorant to distinguish it from its only
congener. The word ' Cormorant ' is altogether a misnomer, for
it is literally corvus martntt*, a ' sea crow/ but very far indeed
is it removed from the Corvidse. In France it is Cormoran, and
Professor Skeat says that, though of Latin origin, it has probably
been modified in spelling by the Breton word Morfran, derived
from mor, 'the sea,' and bran, 'a crow.' So in Spain it is
Cuervo marino ; in Portugal, Corvo marinho ; in Italy, Corvo
aquatico, and also Mar anyone, ' the Carpenter,' I know not
why. But in Germany it is Der Schivarze Pellkan, and in
Sweden Stor Skarf, ' Great Skarf.'

Shag. 521

218. SHAG (Phalacrocorax graculus).

This is a smaller species than the last, from which it may also
be distinguished by its plumage of a deep glossy, black- green,
with no intermixture of white feathers, and no white patch upon
the thighs. It never nests in trees, but always on the rocks, and
very frequently within caves or deep fissures. Both species have
the claw of the middle toe serrated or pectinated on the inner
edge, the use of which has never been satisfactorily determined ;
for it is now stoutly denied by some that it was ever used, as was
formerly supposed, for the purpose of assisting to hold their
slippery prey. In its habits the Shag resembles the Cormorant,
excepting that it is more maritime in the localities it frequents,
for it seldom leaves the sea coast, as it is not accustomed to
ascend rivers as its larger relative so often does. Therefore
Montagu expressed surprise on learning that one was shot so far
inland as Newbury, but he concluded the bird had been ' enticed
so far by that noble river the Thames, into which the Rennet
flows.' I am able, however, to give an instance of its occurrence
in Wiltshire, on the same river Kennet, but, in this case, very
near the source of that stream ; for my excellent neighbour. Mr.
Thomas Kemm, of Avebury, himself a lover of birds, wrote me
word on October 26th, 1876. that in the previous week Mr.
Gwatkin, of Lincoln's Inn, when shooting there, had killed a fine
specimen, though a young bird, of this species. Lord Methuen
also mentions one killed on the water at Corsham Court ; and the
Marlborough College Natural History Reports record one shot at
Durnford Mill, in the parish of Mildenhall, by Mr. Sidney Willis,
September 8th, 1871.

The fishermen on our coast give to this species also the name
of ' Skart ;' others call it the ' Green Cormorant,' and the ' Crested
Shag.' In Sweden its true name is Topp Skarf, or 'Crested
Skarf,' but these are not distinctive names, inasmuch as both
species assume a crest in their breeding plumage. More commonly
it is known in Sweden and Norway as Hafs Tjdder, or 'Sea
Capercaillie,' and sometimes as Al Kraka, or ' Eel Crow/ because

522 Pelicanidw.

it feeds greatly on eels; but I believe they apply these terms
indiscriminately to both species. The Norwegian naturalist of
olden time, Bishop Pontoppidan, has many marvellous tales in
regard to this bird. In France it is Cormoran nigaud, ' Foolish
Cormorant'; in Germany, Krahen Pelikan, 'Crow Pelican.' In
Spain and Portugal it shares the same name as its larger
congener. The English word Shag, meaning 'rough,' or
' shaggy,' is supposed to refer to its rugged crest.

219. GANNET (Sula alba).

Known also as the Solan Goose, and is common enough on our
coasts. In general form and in regard to the peculiar structure
of foot, it closely resembles the Cormorant, but in habits it
widely differs from that bird : for it never dives, though it some-
times floats on the water, and Knox says that in mid-Channel off
the Sussex coast, where it is abundant during the herring season,
it sleeps on the waves so profoundly as sometimes to allow the
boats to pass over it. But it is almost continually on the wing,
and in seeking its prey soars to a great height, and then, partially
closing its wings, suddenly darts down upon it with amazing
impetus ; but, indeed, its power of flight seems inexhaustible,
and being of a light and buoyant nature, and provided with an
internal supply of air-cells, it can float on unwearied wing with-
out exertion. Montagu says that intermediate air is dispersed
between the skin and the body, which is not only a great security
against cold in the upper regions of the atmosphere, where it
passes so much of its life, but also lessens the concussion in its
rapid descent upon the water when it precipitates itself on its
prey. Though so light and buoyant, it is a large bird, with an
immense expanse of wing. It has a strong sharp-pointed beak,
not hooked as in the Cormorant. It has also the claw of the
middle toe serrated on its inner edge. It lays its single egg on
the lofty crags which overhang the sea, and which are often
quite inaccessible. Stack Island, the Skerries, and St. Kilda are
some of the chief breeding-places of the Gannets. Every year a
boat makes an expedition to them to collect the young Gannets

Gannet. 523

for their down, feathers and flesh, when several thousands are
ruthlessly slain.*

The adult is of a yellowish- white colour with black tips to the
wings ; but the immature, known also as the ' Spotted Booby,' and
in France as Le Fou tackete, is of a clove brown, spotted with pure
white, as if a snow shower had fallen upon it ; and as it takes
four years in arriving at maturity, it was for a long time con-
sidered a distinct species. Why this bird is called by us ' Booby'
and by the French Fou, and by the Germans Tolpel, is simply
because, being of a confiding nature, and unsuspicious of harm, it
suffers itself to be approached by its enemies without taking
alarm, and to be attacked without resistance. The authors of
the B.O.U. list of British Birds derive sula from the Norse sule,
1 an awkward fellow/ or ' a dolt ;' but it is to be observed that
sule is an old Norwegian word also signifying 'Swallow'; and
Hafs-Sula or Hav-Sule, by which it is commonly known in
Scandinavia, means ' Sea-Swallow,' a term which may well be
applied to it from its rapid and continuous flight. Sometimes it
is known in those waters as Sill-Bos t ' Herring Persecutor/ since
it persistently follows the shoals of that fish. The specific name,
bassana, is derived from the Bass Hock in the Firth of Forth,
because at one time it was supposed to breed nowhere else, and
it has pretty well monopolized that isolated rock, and converted
it into an extensive nursery. In Germany it is Der Bassanische
Pelikan ; in Portugal it is Patola, ' Fool.' Yery commonly in
the South of England it is called the 'Solan/ 'Solent/f or
'Channel Goose;' but, indeed, the word 'Gannet' is no other
than ' Little Goose/ the first syllable occurring in our word
Gander, and in the German Gans, to which is added the
diminutive suffix et. Young birds are sometimes called ' Black
Gannets.' Four times within my knowledge has this species
occurred in Wiltshire of late years ; once (as I learned from Mr.
Marsh) a specimen was taken on the borders of the county

* Ibis for 1869, pp. 23, 24, 30.

t In a very able monograph on this species by Dr. Cunningham in the Ibis
for 1866, pp. 1-23, it is suggested that the ' Solent' more probably takes its
name from this bird, and not the bird from the channel.

524 Pellcanidce.

towards Bath, which came into his collection; for the second
instance I am indebted to the daughter of Captain Meredith,
who informed me of one killed at Heddington about 1856. The
Rev. G. Powell told me that early in September, 1870, during
the prevalence of violent gales, a Gannet, doubtless blown inland
by the tempest, was knocked down by a labourer on Mr. Wood-
cock's farm at Bemerton, and came into the collection of
Mr. James Rawlence, of Bulbridge. Mr. Powell saw the bird
when it arrived at the bird-stuffer's at Warminster, and described
it as emaciated and starved. Subsequently, in July, 1874, I
received a letter from the Rev. Gray Lawson, informing me that
one was shot by Mr. Nippress at Littleton Drew, at the extreme
north-west of the county, in a pasture adjoining the churchyard,
in the previous month. Canon Jackson also wrote to me to the
same effect, at the same date, alluding without doubt to the
same specimen, but mentioning the adjoining parish of Luckington
as the scene of its capture. The Right Hon. E. P. Bouverie tells
me he has a specimen which was shot on Cheverell Down, in
November, 1881, and Mr. Grant mentions another shot at
Netheravon by Mr. Newman. For the marvellous account of
this bird, as imagined in olden time by an advanced naturalist
in Norway, I must again refer my readers to the pages of Bishop

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 47 of 53)