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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peds ; it is (as I before stated) seldom employed in mastication,
and its chief employment is in taking the food on which the bird
subsists ; but as the nature of that food varies so much, accord-
ing to the habits of the different species, so does this organ vary
extremely in form as well as in size, and so presents one of the
most distinguishing features for ascertaining the proper position
in classification which the bird is entitled to hold ; indeed, if we
examine the beak alone, this is quite sufficient to indicate at a
glance the order and tribe at least, if not the family and even
genus, to which the specimen belongs. But now, however varied

Beaks of Birds. 31

in form, in size, in consistency, and in capabilities they may be ;
however diverse in appearance, however perfect or imperfect,
proportionate or disproportionate, graceful or ugly, they may
seem; if we examine with attention the uses for which they
were respectively formed, and to which they are daily applied,
we shall see that they all unite in partaking of this one common
attribute, that they are all (each in its separate capacity) the
very best instruments that could be devised for accomplishing
their several ends, and that nothing can be conceived more
appropriate for attaining their peculiar objects. Differ, indeed,
they do in appearance from one another ; various, indeed, are
their powers, but varied, too, is the work for which they were
formed. Should we provide ourselves with the same instrument
if we went forth to procure game, or to reap corn ? Should we
arm ourselves in the same manner if we wanted to catch fish and
to gather fruits ? The absurdity of such a thing is apparent.
And just so it is with the beaks of birds ; they are the tools or
instruments provided for them by the All-wise and bountiful
Creator, the very best tools for their respective wants, and which
have often guided the mechanic to the precise form of the imple-
ment best suited to his purpose.

We shall do well first to examine the beak as peculiar to the
several orders and tribes.

Now the Birds of Prey live entirely on animal food ; when
they have pounced on their victim on the ground, or struck
down some hapless bird on the wing (with the foot though, be it
remembered, and not at all with the beak, as is so often erro-
neously supposed), the beak is wanted for tearing apart and
seizing piecemeal the prey. To this end what can be more
adapted than the strong, short, hooked beak, which is one of the
characteristics of this whole order ? It is of nearly equal breadth
and height at the base, moderately compressed, or flattened side-
ways, towards the end ; and is furnished with a remarkable tooth-
like projection in the upper mandible, the tip being curved
downwards, three-cornered and very sharp. With this powerful
instrument the vulture can unrip the carcase of the fallen and

32 Introduction.

putrid animal ; the eagle and falcon can tear in pieces the hare
or fawn ; the osprey, the fish ; the hawk, the small birds ; the
owl, the mouse ; and nothing can be conceived more applicable
for such work.

The Perching Birds come next ; and their habits being more
peaceful and quiet, and their food being of a different nature, wo
shall find here no need of the powerful hook which we have seen
to be so useful to the Raptorial order. And yet as the perchers
include an immense number of families whose habits are exceed-
ingly various, and whose food is very diverse, it is clear that the
beak which would be most suitable for one would be wholly in-
appropriate to the other; on that account we shall find the
beaks of this order varying from one another very much.

I have already observed in a former page that the first tribe
takes its name, Dentirostres, from the tooth or notch near the
extremity of the mandibles ; but the members of this tribe live
almost entirely, or at any rate chiefly, on insects, worms, and
such-like food ; we may see them hawking in the air, searching
in the grass, looking keenly under leaves and seizing them the
instant they appear ; for this purpose no strong beak is necessary,
but as the living prey which they seize struggles violently to
escape, what can be more suited for a firm hold than the soft
beak furnished with a tooth such as I have described above, and
which belongs to this tribe ? Moreover, the accurate Selby has
observed that 'the bill, too, is generally lengthened, so as to
defend the face from the struggles of their prey, which is always
taken by the aid of this member, or, where it is short and broad,
the base is furnished with stiff, projecting bristles, or having
feathers that answer the same purpose of defence.'* With this
notched beak the shrikes find no difficulty in seizing their prey ;
the fly-catchers can hold the insects they have caught; the
thrushes can retain the worm which they have drawn out of tbe
turf ; the warblers, the titmice, the wagtails, and the pipits can
take their insect food without chance of its escape.

The second tribe of this order also derives its name, Coni-
* Selby, 'Illustrations of Ornithology,' vol. i., p. 138.

Beaks of Birds. 33

rostres (' conical-beaked '), from the formation of the beak of all
those families which compose it. Instead of the tooth which
characterized the last tribe, here we have no tooth, but a short,
straight, conical beak, about as broad as high at the base, com-
pressed towards the end, and acute. Birds of this division live
chiefly on grain and seeds of different kinds, the nature of which
food is generally hard, and requires a strong bill to take it ; the
soft beak of the former tribe could never endure the work that
has to be done by these powerful little fellows ; sometimes they
break down the hardest seeds, sometimes they even crack the
stones of different kinds of fruits, in order to procure the kernels
inside ; for such work, and for pulling seeds from pods and grain
from husks, can we conceive anything more appropriate than the
conical form of these strong yet short pointed beaks ? With
these the larks and buntings can thrive in the stubble; the
finches can gain a supply of the seeds of a thousand plants ; the
starlings and the whole family of crows can support themselves
with grain, when other food cannot be found for these insatiable
and omnivorous birds.

We come now to the third order of perchers, the Scansores,
'climbers.' These do not derive their title from the form of
their beak ; but we shall find it not the less remarkable, or less
peculiarly adapted to their habits. The nature of these birds is
to climb about trees, buildings, and other places, grasping firmly
with their peculiar feet, supporting themselves with their bristly
tails, thrusting their beaks under and into the bark, into the
fissures and rotten wood of decayed timber, and such places, in
search of their insect food. But to this end what can be more
adapted than the form of their beak long, conical, angular, and
wedge-shaped at the point ? And, in addition to this, some
families are furnished with very long tongues, capable of great
extension, armed with a horny point, and copiously supplied with
a tenacious mucus, wherewith they transfix and convey to their
mouths such insects and larvse as they have discovered. Some-
times in their ascent they tap the trees with their beaks to induce
the insects to come out, and to test the soundness or hollowness


34 Introduction.

of the wood, their instinct always telling them where their food
is likely to be found. At other times we may hear them from a
considerable distance hammering and digging at the tough bark,
or see them scattering the chips on all sides by their repeated
strokes, as they are busy in dislodging their concealed prey ;
others again may be seen peering and prying into every cavity,
probing every fissure with their sharp, curved bill, leaving no
crevice or fissure untried. For all these purposes with how ad-
mirable an instrument are they provided ! how exactly suited to
their wants ! With this the woodpeckers can remove the bark
till they can reach their victims, the nuthatches can split open
the nuts which they have previously fixed in some crevice ; the
little creeper can pick out his insect prey from the bark.

The fourth and last tribe of perchers again derives its name,
Fissirostres ' wide-billed/ from the formation of the beak. The
members of this division, like the last, are almost wholly insecti-
vorous ; but, unlike them, they feed more or less on the wing.
Many of this tribe are remarkable for their wonderful power of
flight, soaring high in the air, skimming over the water, and
darting here and there the livelong day with the most rapid
evolutions imaginable. As they feed so much on the wing, we
find them provided with a very short beak, much depressed, as if
flattened downwards, and of a triangular form ; the tip sharp and
furnished with a slender notch ; but their width of gape is very
great, enabling them more readily to seize their prey, as they
shoot through the air, and the edges of the upper mandible are
armed with a row of bristles of immense assistance to them when
feeding on the wing, by increasing the means of capture with the
mouth. The swallows, the nightjars, and the bee- eaters are
examples of this peculiarity, and of the absence of much beak
where so little is required.

We have now reached the third order, Easores, ' Ground Birds,*
which live upon grain and various kinds of seeds and berries.
This forms their principal food, though occasionally they will
devour insects and sometimes buds and green leaves ; and there-
fore we shall be prepared to see, though not so strongly exempli-

Beaks of Birds. 35

fied, the short, strong bill adapted to the hard nature of their
customary diet ; the upper mandible is often considerably arched,
the edges overhanging and the tip blunt. Birds of this order,
however, do not always possess a bill capable of very great exer-
tion. In some cases, as in the pigeons, it is rather slender and
weak ; in all the other families it is stronger. But yet, perhaps,
taken alone, it seems scarcely so well adapted as the preceding
ones to the grain-eating habits of the bird. But if we push our
inquiries farther, we shall find these ground-birds furnished with
a peculiar repository for their food, whither it is conveyed whole
by the beak. This repository is called the crop ; it is globular'
and is nothing more than an enlargement of the ' ossophagus/ or
gullet, lying, when distended, equally on both sides of the neck.
As, then, the ground-birds are furnished with this peculiar crop,
to which the food is conveyed, it is clear that the beak belonging
to this division is amply sufficient for the purpose to which it is
applied, and greater strength and solidity would be superfluous.
The next order, ' Grallatores,' the ' waders,' commencing with
the water-birds, procures its food chiefly from the water, and this
food is partly animal, but also in a great measure vegetable ;
the customary haunts of the members of this order are marshes
and swamps, the banks of rivers and lakes, or the seashore.
They are usually provided with long legs, enabling them to
wade into the mud and water in search of food ; they are at tho
same time furnished with long necks, by which they are enabled
to reach such food as they have found. Suited to this habit is
their bill, whose general characteristic is long and slender, but
as the different families of this order obtain their food by various
means, so their beaks differ to a certain degree; some are straight
and sharp-pointed, acting as a spear to transfix their prey, as
in the family of herons ; some are curiously arched, rounded
throughout the whole length, as in the curlews; others are
rounded at the point, and provided with most sensitive nerves,
enabling them to discover and seize their prey, when thrust into
the soft mud, as in the snipes all have the same admirable
facility and adaptation for searching and procuring food in wet


36 Introduction.

and swampy spots, which are the especial habitat of the whole
order of waders.

We come now to the last order, ' Natatores,' the ' swimmers/
whose name bespeaks them as denizens of the ocean and lake.
Kemarkable for their facilities of swimming and diving, and for
their powers of submergence often for a considerable time, many
families of this order procure their food entirely in the water.
For this purpose the beaks of some are armed with sharp hooks
or teeth, as in the mergansers ; some are straight, sharp, and
compressed, as in the divers, auks, and gulls; others again,
which rarely dive and in diet are graminivorous as well as
granivorous, are furnished with very broad and much de-
pressed mandibles : all are peculiarly formed for holding
securely their food, which is frequently of a slimy and slippery

We have now run rapidly through the several orders and
tribes, paying attention to the general formation of the beak in
each, and have seen how strong a resemblance usually pervades
all the families contained in them ; we cannot fail to have
observed at the same time how admirable in every case was the
construction for attaining the desired end. There are still some
particular species which exhibit so remarkable a peculiarity in
this organ that I am unwilling to pass them by.

One of the most curious is the Crossbill, a bird familiar to
most persons, as it occasionally, though not periodically, visits
us in considerable numbers. Its name at once points out what
some persons (and these naturalists of eminence, including the
zealous but often inaccurate Buffon) have been pleased to call
its natural defect, but which is now pretty generally considered
a most admirable provision of nature. These birds inhabit
extensive forests of pines and firs, the seeds of which form their
chief food ; but to arrive at these, a peculiar instrument is
necessary. To this end, the mandibles (which in young birds in
the nest are of the ordinary form) become elongated and cross
one another at the tip to a considerable degree ; in some speci-
mens the upper mandible is curved to the right, the lower to

Beaks of Birds. 37

the left; in others this order is reversed. In either case, by
means of these beaks, and by the lateral motion of the mandibles
(which is peculiar to the crossbills alone of all birds), they are
enabled, by insinuating the points between the scales of the pine-
cones and by the powerful lever they possess in their singular
bill, to wrench open the scales without difficulty and so obtain
the fruit. With this strange instrument they are no less
adept at splitting apples and pears for the sake of the enclosed
pips. It may readily be conceived that to work so strong a bill,
the muscles attached to it must also be of proportionate power
and size, and these are the cause of the large, heavy, and some-
what awkward appearance which the head presents.

Another bird remarkable for its peculiar beak is the Avocet.
This is a water-bird, one of the waders and belonging to the
family of snipes. Its haunts are the sea-shore, and its food con-
sists of worms and aquatic insects, which it procures from the
soft mud and sand, for which it often wades to a considerable
depth. For obtaining these it is furnished with a beak
most appropriate, though very singular in form : it is very
long, very slender, thin, considerably curved upwards, and
especially towards the tip, very flexible and pointed, and looks
exactly like a thin piece of whalebone ; and its mode of feeding
is by scooping the soft oozy mud with the flat and upturned
beak. From this singular construction the Avocet, which was
once common on our shores, received the provincial names of
' Scooper !' and ' Cobbler's Awl Duck !' though now, alas ! it is
very seldom met with at all. Bewick says that the places
where it has been feeding may be recognised by the semicircular
marks left in the mud or sand by their bills in scooping out the

The Turnstone is another singular bird, of the same order as
the last, but very different in habits. Instead of the soft muddy
sands frequented by the Scolopacidte, these birds delight in the
rocky and gravelly shores of the ocean. Here they procure
their food, consisting of marine insects, molluscse and crustacese,
by turning over the stones with their beaks, to get at the food

38 Introduction.

lurking beneath them ; from which practice they derive their
name. Perhaps it would be impossible to conceive an instru-
ment more beautifully adapted for this purpose, being strong,
very hard, quite straight, and drawn to a fine point, and forming
altogether a very powerful lever.

Again, the Spoonbill, as its name implies, presents a remark-
able formation of beak. This is also a wader, and a member of
the family of herons ; its haunts are chiefly pools of water on
the sea-shore, and its food consists of small fishes, aquatic insects,
sand-hoppers, etc. To obtain these, and when caught to hold
them fast, the adult spoonbill is armed with a beak, very long,
broad, and thick at the base ; thin, and very much flattened
towards the extremity, where it is rounded and shaped like a
spoon or spatula. As a further means of enabling it to hold its
slippery prey, the inside of this weapon is studded with small,
hard tubercles, and is rough like a file. Bewick adds that the
beak flaps together not unlike two pieces of leather. It is
curious that in the young birds (which do not come to maturity
and assume the adult plumage till the third year) the beak is
soft and flexible, not so large as, and without the roughness so
conspicuous in, that of the adults.

Another and very remarkable peculiarity in the same organ is
presented by the Shoveller, or as it is provincially styled, the
'Broad-bill.' This duck feeds chiefly in shallow water, or
marshes, lakes, rivers, and muddy shores : its food consists of
grasses and decayed vegetable matter, as well as worms and
insects, and to detect and separate these from the mud and the
water in which they are contained, the beak is singularly
adapted. In shape this instrument is long, broad, depressed,
the tip rounded like a spoon, and terminated by a small hooked
nail ; internally the mandibles are furnished with rows of thin,
comb-like bristles ; these seem to be very susceptible of feeling,
and enable the bird to select the nutritious and reject the
useless food, whilst this beautiful instrument, forming with the
tongue a perfect sieve or strainer, retains only what is fit for sus-
tenance. It was commonly supposed by naturalists that the beak

Beaks of Birds. 39

of the young of this species when first hatched was dilated like
that of the adult bird, and was therefore as broad as the body,
and quite out of proportion to the size of the duckling. Further
investigation has, however, proved this to be erroneous ; and as
the young of the crossbill and the spoonbill described above,
so the young of the shoveller when first hatched presents no
peculiarity in the beak.

There are several other birds presenting very singular beaks,
and each exactly suited to the habits of its owner, but to describe
them at length would occupy too much space. That of the
woodcock and snipe, to which I have slightly alluded above,
deserves close attention, as being most delicate and beautiful.
It is extremely long, the point of it dimpled, soft, spongy, and
cellular, and exhibits great sensibility; it is repeatedly thrust
up to the base in the soft mud by the sides of springs or in
water-meadows, and, so susceptible is it of the finest feeling, that
this sensitive organ can detect the prey of which it is in search
the instant it comes in contact with it, though it is necessarily
out of sight.

The Hawfinch, on the other hand, which lives upon the seeds
of the hornbeam and the kernels of haws and stone-fruits, is
armed with a massive and homy beak, capable of cracking the
strongest shells, and of inflicting a severe bite, as I once expe-
rienced, by offering my boot to a specimen which I had
wounded ; and it was astonishing with what pertinacity the
powerful little fellow held on, and again and again returned to
the charge.

The handsome but rarely seen Hoopoe stalks about in moist
places, with his head erect and his long curved beak searching
for worms and insects just as Ovid described him so many
centuries ago :

' Prominet immodicum pro longa cuspide rostrum.'

The Puffin, with his singular and gaudy-coloured, but power-
ful and sharp-edged bill, burrows out deep holes in which it


40 Introduction.

The Oyster- catcher, with his straight, long, wedge-shaped bill,
is enabled to wrench open the oysters, mussels, and shell-fish
which form his food, to detach them from the rocks to which
they adhere, and to scoop them out of their shells.

The Cormorant, with its long, straight, powerfully-hooked bill,
can kill its finny prey by the squeeze it is enabled to give.

The Petrels, with their compact and hooked bills, can break
the skin of the floating whale, and gorge themselves with blubber
to repletion.

Such are some of the many forms of beak displayed by the
British birds. From this we can judge (as Yarrell remarks) what
' singular modifications of this organ nature sometimes exhibits,
as if to show the many diversities of form which can be rendered
applicable to one purpose.' Man, with all his boasted mechanical
skill, would fail to contrive implements so perfectly adapted to
the end for which they were devised ; some fitted to tear in pieces
the yet warm and quivering bodies of the recently killed prey ;
others to rip up and consume the putrid carcase ; some fitted for
devouring insects and worms, some for breaking up hard seeds
and grain ; these slender, light, and pliant, suited to the gentle
uses to which they are applied ; some adapted for securing and
holding a slippery prey, others supplied with organs for discover-
ing that prey when out of sight. There are many other in-
stances of this varied form and varied appliance, but we need
no more to prove their diversity, their excellence, their perfection.

Before I conclude this part of my subject I will just call atten-
tion to the extraordinary superstition entertained in this country,
and especially in Scotland, not many years since, in regard to
long beaks. One cannot very clearly see the connection between
a long beak and a goblin ; nor is it easy to say whence such an
idea could have arisen; yet such was the common belief, and
without attempting to give any reason, everybody knew well
enough that a long beak portended no good. Sir Walter Scott
alludes to this ; and Yarrell tells us that the Highlander will pray
to be preserved from 'witches, warlocks (or wizards), and aw
lang-nebbed things.' But this superstition is not peculiar to

The Feet of Birds. 41

Great Britain, for to this day most of the birds exposed for sale
in the markets at St. Petersburg and elsewhere are first deprived
of their beaks, and thus some of the rarest specimens are irre-
mediably mutilated.

These and many other equally absurd fictions relating to birds
it is the part of the ornithologist to overthrow ; to do which we
have but to bid men look into the page of nature ; and the more
we read it, the more truly shall we learn to appreciate the
wonderful works of God.


No less remarkable as suited to their several requirements, no
less various, and therefore no less characteristic of the family to
which they belong than the beaks, are the feet of birds. These
are so perfectly framed for the various uses to which their respec-
tive possessors must apply them, and differ so very widely in
construction one from another, that a glance at the foot will
generally point out to the observer what the habits and what the
nature of the bird must be.

All birds resemble one another in this particular up to a
certain point viz., in that all are bipeds, and the legs which
support their feet are invariably composed of three parts ; these
are, the thigh, which is very high up, very short, and quite out of
sight ; the leg, or ' tibia/ which inexperienced observers are apt
erroneously to call the thigh ; and the instep, or ' tarsus/ which
is as often falsely called the leg. It is this last part (the ' tarsus ')
which alone is much seen, the remaining parts being usually
concealed by the body and the feathers of the bird. Beyond this
point of general structure, in which the legs of all birds partici-
pate, and in which they also resemble the human leg (though the
extreme length of the instep and the shortness and concealment

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 5 of 53)