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 50 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 50 of 53)
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and others, whose tender young equally require an insect diet
during the days of their dependence on their parents, while they
are yet confined to the nest. The profusion or scarcity of food,
then, is, I believe, the chief motive which regulates the migration
of birds, which also leads them to abound at one time in, and to
absent themselves altogether at another from, their favourite
haunts. But I do not say it is the only motive. The Warblers,
which come to us in the spring, would doubtless be led to seek
their breeding quarters in a temperate climate, more suitable to
their nature than the hotter latitudes wherein they passed the
winter. Those species, too, which leave us in the spring for the
far North, are doubtless attracted in some measure by the solitude
of the districts they frequent, where they can breed undisturbed
by the presence of man. But when the short Arctic summer is
ended, and the frosts of early winter paralyse the insect hordes,
then the parent birds lead their now full-fledged young to a more
genial climate in the South ; while our less hardy Warblers in
like manner move off with their broods to warmer latitudes. It
is very wonderful, indeed, if we reflect upon it, how such diminu-
tive creatures, so short- winged, so light, and so feeble, as some
are (the Golden-crested Regulus for instance), can prolong their
flight, as we know they do, over the Northern Sea ; or how others,
equally unfitted, as we should suppose, for so long a journey (the
Willow Warblers for example), pass on every autumn to the
interior of Africa, to return again to Wiltshire the following



On Migration. 549

spring ! Whether they rise to a great height and are carried
along by currents in the upper atmosphere, how they find their
way, and how they steer their course, for the most part so un-
erringly, are some of the many problems connected with migra-
tion upon which we are as yet but little informed. So im-
possible, indeed, did migration to distant lands seem to our older
writers on ornithology, including even the accurate Gilbert
White of Selborne, that they had recourse to the utterly unten-
able hypothesis that the Swallows and their compagnons de voyage
resorted to the reed-beds as autumn drew on, and hibernated at
the bottom of rivers ! not to revive and seek the upper air until
the entire winter had passed away and spring had returned ! A
wider experience and the observations of naturalists in other
countries have taught us whither our summer visitors betake
themselves, so that we can trace them on leaving our coasts to
the warm districts of North Africa, and see many of them pro-
longing their journey to the equator and even beyond it. More
and more marvellous, indeed, does this seem, when we recollect
the feeble flight of some diminutive Warbler, as it flits across one
of our meadows in Wiltshire from one hedge to another ; or the
laboured flapping of wings when some short-winged species
hurries off at its greatest speed, when suddenly alarmed. And
yet, by some means or other, when the season for migration
comes round, the diminutive and the feeble, the short-winged
and the heavy-bodied, generally collect into flocks or parties and
move off in a body, and in due course reach their destination.
Much of their journey ings necessarily takes place at night ;
but neither darkness, nor fogs, nor storms unless of unusual
violence nor wind, nor rain, nor anything else seems to baffle
them. On they go with unerring instinct, straight for the
point they desire to reach ; and generally, and within a very
few days of their usual appearance, they may be found in tlieir
old familiar haunts, as much at home as if they had never been
absent. How they know the direction, by what intuitive percep-
tion they steer their course so accurately, is another problem in
reference to migration which we cannot explain ; and this incom^



550 On Migration.

prehensible act reaches its climax when we consider that some
(the young Cuckoos for example) have to make the long journey
alone and for the first time, with no parents to show them the
way, for they have long ago departed; and yet the young
Cuckoos, too, somehow make out the route to be taken, and these,
too, arrive at their destination in due course.

To return again to the vicissitudes of weather which they must
encounter, on which I have briefly touched. Think of tho
furious gales, the torrents of rain, the pelting hail, the scorching
suns, they must at various periods of their travel meet with : how
can such frail bodies, supported by such tiny wings, endure such
tremendous assaults of the elements, and survive amid such
difficulties and dangers ? I make but small account of the
excessive cold to which in their passage they must often be ex-
posed, because I conceive that most birds are capable of enduring
a very low temperature without inconvenience. And I am not
disposed to make too much of rain-storms, because I have a
notion that most birds on migration ascend to a great altitude,
above the clouds, where they probably meet with currents of air
which waft them in the required direction. But even if we allow
them these advantages, they have difficulties enough to contend
against. That many species keep together in the flock in which
they started, and do not lose one another on the darkest of nights,
by means of the perpetual clamour they keep up, is certain, for
the cry of a migrating host may be often heard as it passes over-
head ; and it is not improbable that the smaller species in like
manner communicate to one another their mutual positions by
twitterings and call-notes peculiar to themselves.

But, however successful their passage, that they are generally
exhausted when they reach the land, and drop down to rest in
the nearest available cover, is well known to all who are favourably
situated for observing them, on our eastern and southern coasts
more especially. The Quail which I mentioned above* as having
dropped down in my garden at Mentone, after a passage over the
Mediterranean from Africa, and suffered itself to be taken up in

* Supra, p. 336.



Oil Migration. 551

the hand, having apparently no further strength left for self-pre-
servation, is the greatest proof I ever saw of such utter prostra-
tion after a prolonged journey : but similar accounts are con-
stantly given by those who have witnessed on our eastern coasts
the arrivals from Northern Europe. Vast numbers, too, un-
doubtedly perish in the sea, unable to prolong their flight when
adverse winds have buffeted them beyond their powers of endur-
ance ; so that though they must depart when the restless spirit
of migration seizes on them in spring and autumn, it is a perilous
path which they are pursuing, beset with many difficulties and
dangers, and oftentimes a fatal path which only leads to a watery
grave. The great bulk, however, of our migratory birds does, I
suppose, succeed in the enterprise, and arriving here from the
South, or departing hence for the North, all are busy during the
six months of spring and summer with their nurseries, and then
the return journeys are entered upon, when in most cases their
numbers are much increased by the vast flocks of young which
accompany their parents.

These few preliminary remarks on the great subject of migra-
tion are only intended to introduce a table of our Wiltshire
migrants, which may be looked for at their respective dates every
year. In preparing this table, and in assigning specified days for
the arrival of each species, I have taken considerable pains to
arrive at as correct a date as possible, first by careful examination
of the notes which I have kept as accurately as I could during
the last thirty-five years, both at Yatesbury and at Old Park ;
and then by comparing them with similar tables, put forth by
other observers in other localities, both within this county and
outside it. When I add that in the case of many of the more
favourite migrants, I have no less than fifty such tables lying
before me, it will be seen that the dates which I assign are not
mere guess work, but are corrected by the experience of many
other observers similarly employed with myself. It is obvious
that these dates of arrival vary with forward and backward
seasons, as was to be expected ; but by adding the earliest and
latest days on which their first appearance has been recorded in



552



On Migration.



the tables before me, I mark the range within which the species
under examination^has been first noticed. This, however, is only
supplementary to the true date on which each migrant is declared
to be due in Wiltshire.

To proceed, then, with the list of migratory birds in the order
of date in which they visit us, omitting occasional and rare
visitants, and confining myself to the common regular birds of
passage :



Name of species.


General date of
first arrival.


Range of first arrival.


1. Lapwing


March 2


Feb. 15 to March 23.


2. Pied Wagtail


18


.. 11 n >, 25.


3. Wheatear ...


26


March 13 April 23.


4. Chiff chaff


30


ii I 1 ii 12-


5. Wryneck


April 11


> 2J ,, ., *5.


6. Sand Martin


H


April 5 May 1.


7. Nightingale


15


5 April 30.


8. Blackcap Warbler ...


15


ii 5 ii ii 28.


9. Willow Warbler ....


,; 16


>i 2 ,, 28.


10. Meadow Pipit


17


8 May 5.


11. Redstart


ti 17


7 12
n ***


12. Tree Pipit


;; is


n 1 ii 3.


13. Swallow


18


March 28 April 30.


14. Kay's Wagtail


, 19


April 3 May 8.


15. Martin


20


1 3.


16. Common Cuckoo ...


22


)) 1 11 ,) o.


17. Common Whitethroat


22


4 5.


18. Whinchat


it 23


16 9-


19. Reed Warbler


23


n 12 6.


20. Lesser Whitethroat


24


n 12 ,i 11.


21. Sedge Warbler


26


.. 1 ., ,, i .


22. Garden Warbler ...


26


12 15.


23. Wood Warbler


, 28


fi 12

99 '* 19 l .


24. Grasshopper Warbler


May 2


ii is ii n n-


25. Turtle Dove


>. 4


May 1 June 1.


26. Night-jar =
27. Common Swift


6
ii 6


April 15 May 25.
n 21 31.


28. Red-backed Shrike


, 8


,, 27 30.


29. Laud Rail v


ii 10


25 28.


30. Spotted Flycatcher


11


9) IJ /*

,, 13 31.


31. Common Snipe
32. Jack Snipe ...
33. Woodcock ...


Sept. 15
i, 24
Oct. 10


Aug. 12 Oct. 30.
Sept. 6 30.
14 , 31.


34. Short-eared Owl ...


10


30 21.


35. Fieldfare ...


? J

,, 20


>> ^^ 9> 9J **

27 Dec. 13.


36. Redwing ...


., 22


Oct. 1 Nov. 23.


37. Merlin
38. Golden Plover


30
30


Sept. 11 21.
24 26.


39. Teal


)? w

30


. 0rv A| . p^m

7 12


40. Mountain Finch


. M vV

Dec. 8


n > n "
Nov. 19 Dec. 20.



On Migration. 553

The dates assigned above, upon which the arrival of our
commoner migrants may be expected in Wiltshire, will perhaps
appear to some to be generally full late ; but whether it is that
Wiltshire is colder than most counties, and our migrants in con-
sequence defer their arrival here later than elsewhere, which I
do not apprehend to be the case ; or whether, as I suspect,
exceptionally early dates of first appearance are oftentimes alone
remembered by superficial observers, and the ordinary times of
arrival are passed by without notice, is a fair subject for inquiry ;
but I venture to insist that the only way to insure a correct
estimate on this point is by registering dates of arrival with as
great accuracy as possible, and comparing such registers after a
long series of years. Figures and dates and statistics may be
dull, tedious, and prosaic, but in this case they alone will give a
true verdict, and enable us to arrive at a right conclusion.
The whole question of migration is indeed an exceedingly diffi-
cult one ; but great light has been thrown upon it within the
last few years through the exertions of a select band of ornitho-
logists, deputed by the British Association for the Advancement
of Science, to institute inquiries ; and this has now, for several
years past, been systematically pursued, not only by the personal
observations of men of science specially qualified for the task,
but also by enlisting the assistance of those in charge of the
lighthouses and lightships, who enjoy extraordinary opportunities
of witnessing the migrations of birds. It is, indeed, quite
surprising what vast numbers of birds on migration commit
involuntary suicide, by dashing themselves against the light-
houses, round which vast flocks will occasionally flutter, like
moths round a candle, apparently lost in the darkness and
unable to tear themselves from the fatal light. To those who
are interested in the subject I commend these British Associa-
tion Reports on Migration, eight of which have now been
published since the Committee began its work; and I would
also call attention to a work on ' Bird Migration/ by Mr. William
Brewster, President of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and pub-
lished in the Memoirs of that Club in the United States of America.



CHAPTER XIII.

ON THE NESTING OF BIRDS IN WILTSHIRE.

OF all the interesting questions connected with bird life, there
is not one which, in my opinion, excites our admiration and
astonishment so much as the building of the nest. All the
details connected with the preparation of that receptacle for
the eggs, and which shall afterwards serve as the nursery for the
young brood, show such marvellous skill that we stand amazed
as we consider them. Let us take the familiar case of the nest
of the common Rook ; awkward enough, and inappropriate as
we should suppose, and unwieldy are some of the sticks which
we see carried off in the bird's bill to the top of some_lofty elm;
but the foundation of the nest must be firmly fixed indeed,
buffeted as it will assuredly be, and swayed to and fro, by the
equinoctial gales of spring ; and yet these awkward sticks are
somehow placed so securely as to defy the fury of the tempest,
and enable the nest to ride out in safety the persistent assaults
of the high winds of March. If man were to try his hand at
building a Rook's nest, and if he were provided only with the
materials and the implements which those birds use, I think he
would utterly fail in completing a structure which should answer
the required purpose and withstand the blasts of wind to which
it would be exposed. But the birds, inheriting the instincts of
their ancestors, know how to arrange the sticks so securely that
they build a firm foundation, and upon it, little by little, prepare
the nest which shall conveniently and safely shelter their eggs
and afterwards their young. Or take the case of the common



On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire. 555

Wood-pigeon, whose nest we may find in every plantation. As
we walk beneath the branch on which it is laid, so flimsy does it
seem, so fragile and so slight, that we can positively see the two
white eggs through the interstices of the few sticks on which
they are laid ; and if we climb up and examine the nest more
closely, we marvel to see how flat it is, with no protection at the
sides for retaining upon it the eggs, and afterwards the young ;
only a slight platform or wicker ledge, from which one would
expect the eggs to roll at the slightest stirring of the breeze.
But no ; the narrow stage has been found sufficient by hundreds
of generations of Wood-pigeons, and precisely the same nest as
their ancestors built is prepared by the Wood-pigeons now.

Next mark the variety of positions for their nests selected by
the several species. The Song Thrush chooses a thick bush ;
the Blackbird, the bank of a ditch ; the Misseltoe Thrush, the
exposed branch of an apple-tree ; the Wheatear seeks a deserted
rabbif-burrow, or some other hole in the ground; the White-
throat chooses a nettle-bed ; the Spotted Fly-catcher, the
support of a beam or rafter ; the Titmouse, a hole in a stump ;
the Skylark, the open cornfield ; the House-sparrow, the thatch
of a cottage or barn ; the Starling, any hole it can find in the
roofs of our houses ; the Rook, the top of an elm-tree ; the Wood-
pecker, a hole in the tree-stem; the Nuthatch, a hole in a
brick wall ; the Kingfisher, a hole in the river-bank ; the Sand-
martin, a hole in a dry sand-quarry ; the Swift, a hole in the
church-tower ; the Nightjar, a mere depression of the ground at
the foot of a tree ; the Partridge, the meadow where growing
crops afford concealment and protection ; the Lapwing, the open
cornfield or down ; the Waterhen, a floating bed of rushes ; the
Little Grebe, a wet mass of sedge at the margin of the stream.
These are but samples of the principal localities which the several
species choose, and the list might be very much prolonged ; but
enough is given to show how various are the situations adopted
by the breeding birds.

Next let me draw attention to the variety of materials which
are sought for by the nest-builders, and these comprise almost



556 On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire.

everything which can be made available which comes within
their reach. First we see some species acting as plasterers,
preparing their mortar, kneading it, and working it, till it attains
the proper consistency, and then daubing it on, not in lumps, but
in thin layers ; and like wise builders as they are, suffering one
layer to dry and harden before the next is added. As examples
of those which in one form or other adopt this material, I
instance the Thrushes, the Nuthatches, the Swallows and the
Martins. Next come the Weavers, and under this head indeed
we may range the great majority of species which have any
pretensions to nest-making ; for most birds, whether as regards
the fabric of the nest itself, or whether only with reference to its
lining, weave the moss and hair and feathers together so cleverly
that the result is a smooth and even surface to the walls of the
cup-shaped cradle they have so skilfully prepared. Sticks, as
we have already seen, and fibrous roots, are often used for founda-
tions, and (besides the substances mentioned above) wool and
lichens and leaves and grass, stems and cobwebs and the down of
various seeds, are brought into requisition, either as lining, or as
an outer covering for protection or concealment.

Then, what opposite views are entertained by the different
species of what their nest should be ! The Guillemot and the
Razor-bill on the ledge of some sea-cliff, and the Lapwing and
the Partridge on the open cornfield, are contented with the bare
ground on which to deposit their eggs. The Sand-martin and
the Bee-eater have little beyond the smooth surface at the end
of the holes they have severally excavated in the sand or the
river-bank. The Kingfisher has a nest, if it may be so called,
peculiar and indeed unique, composed of the fishbones and
indigestible remains of the fishes which it casts up. The Wood-
peckers and the Owls want no more than the hole in the tree or
the hollow stump where they can deposit their eggs. But the
great majority of species are not so easily satisfied. The
Thrushes, the Warblers, the Titmice, the Buntings, the Finches,
the Crows and the Herons are examples of those which require,
each to its own taste, more substantial nurseries, and some of these



On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire. 557

prepare a very elaborate structure, which exhibits no little
architectural skill on the part of the artificer. I would instance
first the doomed nests of the Common Wren and the Willow
Warblers: what warm, snug habitations for their young ; how well
protected, how cleverly constructed for shelter and concealment,
how softly lined ! Or see the neat, trim nest of the Chaffinch ; how
admirably finished off' with its lichen adornments, which serve to
impart a resemblance to the branch on which it is placed ! What
consummate skill does this compact, pretty nest evince! Mark
again the well-constructed nest of the Golden-crested Regulus, sus-
pended beneath the branch of some yew-tree or spruce-fir: what a
charming receptacle for the smallest eggs we know in the British
Isles ! And as a climax of perfection of architectural ingenuity, let
me point to the oval nest of the long-tailed Titmouse, with which
nothing else can compete for efficient shelter and warmth, as well as
for the less substantial virtues of beauty, symmetry, and finish.
These are but samples of the various nests which we find around us,
and, as we examine them carefully, we cannot fail to be astonished at
the excellence of their workmanship, and at the perfect adaptability
of each to the object for which it was intended. How the several
species succeed so well in producing nests exactly resembling
those of their respective ancestors is an interesting question on
which I will not here enter. Whether it be by reason, or by instinct,
or by hereditary habit, or by imitation, has been discussed at
length by advocates of each theory, and to their arguments I would
refer my readers.*

And now I come to the interesting question of the colouring
of the eggs. As a rule, those which are not exposed to sight,
but are placed in holes in trees, or house roofs, or in banks or in
the ground, are either white or so faintly tinted as to be ap-
proaching to white, as, for example, those of Owls, Wheatears,
Starlings, Woodpeckers, Wrynecks, Kingfishers, Martins, Swifts.
With others, again, the colouring of the eggs assimilates in some

* See especially Wallace's 'Natural Selection,' pp. 211-231; Darwin's
' Descent of Man,' vol. ii., pp. 166-182 ; an admirable chapter by Mr. Charles
Dixon, ' On the Protective Colour of Eggs,' in Introduction to vol. ii. of Mr.
H. Seebohm's ' British Birds ;' and Canon Tristram in Ibis for 1867, p. 74.



558 On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire.

sort to the general hue of their surroundings. This is curiously
the case with the highly coloured eggs of the Ptarmigan, Grouse,
and Quail ; with the sombre tints of those of the Sedge-warblers,
the Wagtails, Buntings, and Larks ; and especially the mottled
marbled eggs of the Nightjar. But with the great majority of
the eggs of birds, I should say that the colouring is so conspicu-
ous as rather to attract notice, and that not only from man, who
is in comparison but dull of sight at the best, but from the
pilfering Magpie, Jay, or Carrion Crow, marauders who are ever
on the look-out for a meal, such as an unguarded nest of eggs
would supply. See the Hedge Accentor, one of the earliest
breeders among our commoner birds, whose nest can readily be
discerned in early spring in the quickset hedge, as yet destitute
of leaves ; can anything be more conspicuous than the bright-
blue eggs of that familiar warbler ? See, again, the ruddy eggs
of the Redbreast, the speckled eggs of the Willow Wrens, the
blue eggs of the Thrush, the brick-red eggs of most of the Falcons,
the green eggs of the Crows, the mottled eggs of the Pipits, the
Garden Warbler and the Blackcap, the spotted eggs of the
Finches, and the blotched eggs of the Crakes ; and it must be
admitted that these variously-coloured eggs, however pleasing to
the eye of the naturalist, are undoubtedly too conspicuous for
safety, unless they are in some way concealed. But in order to
protect their eggs from observation, it is the habit with some
species on leaving the nest to cover their eggs with leaves, moss,
or flags, according to their several surroundings. Familiar in-
stances of this we have in the Pheasant, the Partridge, and the
Little Grebe. With others, again, the female bird which broods
over the nest is of dull and sombre colour, which harmonizes
with the tints of the nesting site ; and as long as the eggs are
covered by the sitting bird, they are, of course, completely shielded
from view. For securing this object, we may notice how many
of the hens are of sober, subdued colour when compared with
the brilliant plumage of their respective mates : for example, the
Blackbird, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Pheasant, and the whole family
of Ducks.



On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire. 559

I proceed now to enumerate the species which have been
known to breed in this county ; and the table which I here offer
is for the most part that with which I supplied Mr. A. G. More
when, in 1864, he was preparing his valuable treatise, 'On the Dis-
tribution of Birds in Great Britain during the Nesting Season,'*
when he applied to me to furnish him with a list from Wiltshire ;
and in compliance with his request, I went carefully into the
subject, with a view of contributing as accurate a list as I could
draw up. It is a copy of that list, with such additions and
modifications as the further experience of the last twenty-three



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 50 of 53)