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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years has given, that I now lay before my readers. Those printed
in italics have either altogether ceased to breed in Wiltshire,
or have only vary rarely been known to breed within the county.
To each of these species I propose to call attention in due course.
Let me, however, here remark that, for every nest discovered, there
are probably two or three which escape detection ; so that even
those species which have only been recognised once or twice as
nesting within our borders may possibly'do so somewhat more
frequently than is generally supposed.

1. Peregrine Falcon. That this noble bird used to breed in
Wiltshire even so late as the beginning of this century
we have seen above; for they had a nest in Wilton Park
annually, until driven away by the overbearing Ravens.
And that they bred, or attempted to breed, on the spire of
Salisbury Cathedral in quite recent years we are also posi-
tively assured (see above, p. 70).

2. Hobby (see p. 73).

3. Kestrel (see p. 80).

4. Sparrow Hawk.

5. Kite. Fifty or sixty years ago the nest of this species was

well known in Wiltshire (see p. 83, 84), but now, not only is
the nest never found amongst us, but the bird, too, is no
longer to be seen within the county.

* Printed in the Ibis for 1865, pp. 1-26, 119-143, 425-458.



560 On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire.

6. Common Buzzard. This bird, once so common, as its trivial
name shows, has long ceased to breed in Wilts ; and I
have heard of no recent nest within the limits of the county.

7. Rough-legged Buzzard. I am more fortunate in regard to

this species ; for in 1882 a pair succeeded in hatching out
five young ones near Tisbury (see p. 87).

8. Hen Harrier. Not many years since, this species used to
breed regularly on Salisbury Plain ; and it is not improbable
that a nest still may be found in suitable localities; but that
it is surely, if gradually, being exterminated from Wilts is
only too certain (see p. 94).

9. Montagu's Harrier. This species, which I believe to have

bred pretty regularly in Wiltshire in days gone by, still
occasionally is found nesting in the county. (See p. 96 for
a very interesting account of a nest of this species in the
gorse at Fifield Bavant, communicated by Mr. Tyndall
Powell.)

10. Long-eared Owl (see p. 105).

11. Barn Owl (see p. 109).

12. Tawny Owl (see p. 112).

13. Red-backed Shrike (see p. 122).

14. Spotted Flycatcher (see p. 125).

15. Missel Thrush (see p. 128).

16. Song Thrush.

17. Blackbird.

18. Ring Ouzel (see p. 139 for the evidence of a nest of this

species being found near Mere).

19. Hedge Accentor.

20. Redbreast.

21. Redstart (see p. 147).

22. Stonechat.

23. Whinchat.

24. Wheatear (see p. 152).

25. Grasshopper Warbler (see p. 153).

26. Sedge Warbler (see p. 154).

27. Reed Warbler (see p. 155).



On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire. 561

28. Nightingale.

29. Blackcap Warbler.

30. Garden Warbler.

31. Common White throat (see p. 160).

32. Lesser Whitethroat.

33. Wood Warbler (see p. 162).

34. Willow Warbler.

35. Chiff-chaff.

36. Dartford Warbler. From the nature of the localities which

this bird frequents, viz., the thick gorse on the unfrequented
downs ; from its retiring, shelter-loving habit of dropping
down into concealment in its impervious retreat on the
approach of an intruder ; and from the position of its nest
in the very thickest part of the densest gorse, there is per-
haps no bird which breeds annually in the county whose
nest is so seldom found. The patient watcher, however,
who will devote time to the task, may by dint of careful
and prolonged examination be rewarded by the discovery of
the well-concealed nest ; or he may quite as probably, not-
withstanding all his labour and patience, go away baffled
and disappointed.

37. Golden-crested Regulus (see p. 168).

38. Great Titmouse (see p. 170).

39. Blue Titmouse.

40. Coal Titmouse.

41. Marsh Titmouse.

42. Long-tailed Titmouse (p. 172).

43. Pied Wagtail (see p. 176).

44. Gray Wagtail (see p. 178).

45. Ray's Wagtail.

46. Tree Pipit (see p. 180).

47. Meadow Pipit.

48. Skylark.

49. Woodlark.

50. Common Bunting.

51. Black-headed Bunting.

36



562 On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire.

52. Yellow Bunting.

53. Cirl Bunting (see p. 191).

54. Chaffinch (see p. 193).

55. House Sparrow.

56. Tree Sparrow. I am assured that the nest of this species
has been found in Wilts ; but I have no personal knowledge
of it ; and I confess that I admit it amongst Wiltshire nest-
builders with considerable hesitation (see p. 198).

57. Greenfinch.

58. Hawfinch (see p. 199).

59. Goldfinch.

60. Common Linnet.

61. Lesser Redpole. This is another species which breeds freely

in the northern counties of England, but has only on rare
occasions been known to nest in this county (see p. 207).

62. Bullfinch.

63. Common Starling.

64. Haven (see pp. 222-232).

65. Carrion Crow.

66. Rook (see pp. 238-240).

67. Jackdaw (see p. 241).

68. Magpie (see p. 244).

69. Jay.

70. Green Woodpecker.

71. Great Spotted Woodpecker.

72. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

73. Wryneck (see p. 256). This bird, so common in many parts
of England, but very rarely breeds in Wiltshire ; indeed, in
the West of England generally, it may almost be considered
an accidental straggler.

74. Common Creeper.

75. Wren (see p. 261).

76. Hoopoe. For the very remarkable occurrence of the nest of

this bird in Wiltshire, I refer to the account given above,
- p. 267.

77. Nuthatch (see" p. 269).



On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire. 563

78. Common Cuckoo (see pp. 272-291).

79. Kingfisher (see p. 296).

80. Swallow.

81. Martin (see p. 305).

82. Sand Martin (see p. 306).

83. Common Swift (see p. 308).

84. Nightjar (see p. 312).

85. Ring Dove (see p. 318).

86. Stock Dove (see p. 320).

87. Turtle Dove.

88. Pheasant.

89. Partridge.

90. Red-legged Partridge.

91. Quail.

92. Bustard. Now, alas! extinct; but within less than a hun-
dred years a regular breeder on the Wiltshire Downs (see
p. 353).

93. Great Plover (see p. 378).

94. Lapwing (see p. 387).

95. Common Heron (see pp. 395-402).

96. Curlew. Mr. More expresses a doubt whether this bird
really breeds in Wiltshire and Dorsetshire, and conjectures
that where this has been stated the Stone Curlew (CEdicne-
mus crepitans) was mistaken for Numenius arquata ; but,
though it is unquestionable that there is often much con-
fusion between these two species, I am satisfied, by the
assurance of those on whose authority I can rely, that the
true Curlew (N. arquata) does occasionally breed on the
fallows of the open downs (see p. 413).

97. Woodcock (see p. 428).

98. Common Snipe. Occasionally, but rarely, found breeding
in Wiltshire.

99. Land-rail.

100. Water-rail.

101. Moor-hen.

102. Common Coot.



564 On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire.

103. Mute Swan (see p. 472).

104. Wild Duck.

105. Teal Occasionally, though rarely, a nest has been found in
Wiltshire ; but more frequently in the neighbouring counties
of Hants and Dorset.

106. Little Grebe.

In addition to those enumerated above, there is a strong pro-
bability of the correctness of the information in regard to the breed-
ing of two other species in Wiltshire ; but the evidence seemed
scarcely strong enough to warrant their insertion in the list of those
which have undoubtedly bred within the county. These are :

Great Grey Shrike (see p. 120).

Golden Oriole (see p. 140).

Before I conclude this chapter, I would say a few words on the
subject of bird-nesting, for I maintain that if a man should be
defined as a ' reasoning animal,' in order to distinguish him from
all the rest of the living creatures around him, then with equal
aptitude should a boy be designated as a 'bird -nesting animal,'
so universal, so innate, so all absorbing is the passion in the mind
of a boy for seeking after and finding the nests and eggs of birds.
Now, to attempt to prevent boys from bird-nesting altogether would
be about as hopeless a task as to try to dissuade the birds them-
selves from nesting, migrating, or following out any other instinct
of their nature. It would be like trying to turn back the rushing
stream towards its source. I, at all events, am not about to
attempt any such impossible work ; but still I hope that this
chapter may not be without profit, as well as interest, to the
youthful part of the inhabitants of Wiltshire, if I try to point out
to my younger friends how their hobby may be most advanta-
geously as well as pleasantly ridden, not indiscriminately, nol
cruelly, not recklessly, but how it may be carried on with the
greatest delight to themselves and the least injury to the birds
they love so well. For it is not, be it remarked, the more intelli-
gent collector of eggs who does the mischief, for he requires no
more than four or five of a species for his collection, which are all



On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire. 565

the better specimens if they are selected separately, one from a
nest. But it is the indiscriminate glutton, who with senseless
recklessness destroys wholesale, his only object being to amass
great numbers of eggs on a string, amongst which he knows
no difference, pretends to no order or arrangement, and who
rejoices in quantity, without reference to variety. He it is who L c
such an enemy to the whole feathered race, and his plunderings
of eggs can only be characterized as heartless and selfish, and
denounced for their cruelty. But for him who desires to make a
collection of real value and interest, I offer a few remarks, and I
venture to lay down certain broad rules which should be rigidly
adhered to.

1. First, let it be thoroughly understood and determined that
any egg, however handsome in appearance, rich in colour, and
strange to our experience, is perfectly useless as a specimen, and
to be ruthlessly ejected from the cabinet, unless it is certainly
identified and absolutely known to be that which it professes
to be.

2. Let every egg admitted to the cabinet be prepared, first by
drilling a single hole on one side with an egg-drill ; then by
means of a small glass or metal tube, manufactured for the
purpose, blowing out the contents ; afterwards injecting a little
water, and rinsing out the interior, taking care to remove every
particle of the inner skin; and then injecting a very small
quantity of solution of corrosive sublimate. The egg wilt then be
safe from the ravages of mites. Mem. For very small and deli-
cate eggs the latter part of the treatment above described is
neither necessary nor advisable.

3. Every egg prepared for the cabinet as above described
should at once be marked with ink on the shell near the drill-
hole, either with the name of the species, the date, and the locality
where taken, or else with a letter and number, referring to a
catalogue in which these details are given.

4. Eggs so prepared and inscribed should on no account be
affixed to a card, but laid on a bed of cotton-wool in the cabinet,
each species in its own compartment, and all in systematic order ;



566 On the Nesting of Birds in Wiltshire.

and every such compartment should be marked with a label
printed for the purpose.

But for all these principal rules, as well as for full and detailed
instruction in all that appertains to the subject of egg-collecting,
I would refer my readers to the short but exhaustive pamphlet by
the pen of Professor Alfred Newton, entitled ' Suggestions for
forming Collections of Birds' Eggs.' *

I will also add that egg-drills, blow-pipes, labels, and every ap-
paratus required by the field oologist may be procured of any
good naturalist, such as Messrs. Cook, Museum Street, Blooms-
bury, or Messrs. Doncaster, 36, Strand.

It is, perhaps, almost unnecessary to add that, of course, the
eggs must not be varnished (though I have more than once seen
even that enormity committed), for such a process manifestly
destroys at once the natural appearance of the egg, and renders
it worthless as a specimen.

Originally printed in 1860, in America, in a circular of the * Smithsonian
Institution.' Reprinted in England in the Zoologist for the fame year
(pp. 7189-7201). Translated by Dr. Baldamus into German, Journal fur
Ornithologie, 1860 (pp. 447-459) ; and by M. Jules Verreaux into French,
Revue et Magazin de Zoologie, 1862 (pp. 285-292, 319-331).



CHAPTER XIV.

A PLEA FOR THE ROOKS.*

IT is hard to fight against the prejudices of mankind, but inas-
much as in some districts of Wiltshire, not content with the
annual ruthless slaughter of the newly fledged brood, some have
thought fit to begin a war of extermination, by wholesale poison-
ing and otherwise, against the whole family of Rooks, it is time
for the friends of those ill-starred birds to expostulate, and
point out the suicidal policy of those short-sighted men who,
under a mistaken notion of their true character, are destroying
some of the best friends the farmer has.

It would be fair, in the first place, to bespeak in behalf of this
persecuted tribe the goodwill of all who love country life, by calling
to mind the cheery note, so eloquent of lengthening days and
advancing spring, which charms the ear of those who live near
a rookery ; or by pointing out the animation which all Nature
derives from their presence, and the sad blank which would exist
in our meadows and fields, in the event of their destruction : but
as we may fairly conjecture that such pleas border too much on
the romantic to weigh with such matter-of-fact minds as those of
their would-be-destroyers, I will waive all such considerations,
and rest my cause on their substantial merits alone.

I begin by stating at the outset that it is not at all my inten-
tion to endeavour to prove my prote'ge's perfectly harmless and
immaculate, because I am well aware that a certain amount of

* The substance of this chapter was read before the Wiltshire Archaeo-
logical and Natural History Society during the annual meeting at Malmes-
bury in August, 1862.



568 A Plea for the Rooks.

mischief is occasioned by them, and I have no wish to slur over
their bad qualities, and magnify their virtues ; convinced as I am
that such a proceeding would be fatal to my favourites, and that no
good purpose is ever answered by too violent partisanship. More-
over, I am so confident of the strength of my case, that I desire
nothing more than the plain unvarnished truth to be stated on
both sides, and have no fear for the verdict; being perfectly certain
that, on investigation, it will be acknowledged by every fair and
candid mind, that the benefits conferred on man by those members
of the animal kingdom whose cause I am advocating far outweigh,
indeed utterly obliterate, any harm they may at certain seasons
commit.

To plunge at once^ then, in mediae res, and to take the bull by the
horns. The charge so often brought against Rooks by the agricul-
turist is, that they will occasionally pilfer and devour corn and
other crops, and undoubtedly, unless watched and scared away by
the bird-boy (or crow-tender as he is termed in some districts), they
will at certain seasons make considerable havoc, and do no small
mischief. This is the one single misdemeanor alleged against
them, and of this, too, it is never pretended that they are guilty
but for a very trifling portion of the year, and even here, too,
though I allow that it is a true bill in the main, they are sometimes
accused when innocent, and when they are intent upon very dif-
ferent food, the wireworm and the grub ; and are busily engaged in
the farmer's service in exterminating those most destructive pests;
but granted that they will for a very short period, if not prevented,
commit depredation on the corn, let us examine how they are
employed, and where they feed, and on what they subsist, during
the remaining nineteen-twentieths of the year, and we shall see
that it is on the larvae of a variety of noxious insects, wireworms of
various sorts, and grubs of cockchafers, and a thousand other
kindred ravagers of crops, which swarm throughout our fields, and
which, but for the assistance of Rooks (and other members of the
animal kingdom which come to our aid, and, making them their
prey, rid us of the evil), would breed a famine in the land, by their
enormous number and voracity.



A Plea for the Rooks. 569

Now, the Rook is an omnivorous bird, and nothing seems to come
amiss to its appetite. We have seen that it will occasionally eat
corn, but its food principally consists of worms and insects, an
astonishing number of which a single Rook will devour in a single
day ; and when we consider the vast flocks of these birds which
abound in every parish, I may almost say on every farm, we'shall
be lost in -wonder and admiration, for the mind falters at the
amount, and fails, to take in the enormous quantity of injurious
insects which these useful birds destroy every year.

And now that I have shortly stated my case, I proceed to prove
it by the testimony of all our best and soundest ornithologists, and
most accurate out-door observers ; and here I can bring such an
array of witnesses, and names of so great and so deserved notoriety
on the point, that he must be a bold and hardened sceptic, who
still holds out and refuses credence to their united assertions.

There can be no question that in former dajs public opinion in
this country was entirely against Rooks, as we may infer from the
following entry among certain presentments concerning the parish
of Alderley in Cheshire, in 1598, being the fortieth year of Queen
Elizabeth's reign: 'We find that there in no Crow-nett in the parish,
a payne that one be bought by the charge of the parish.'* A
pretty clear proof that the destruction of these birds was at that
day regular and systematic ; and I need not stop to point out that
from that day to this, though I hope not regularly and systematic-
ally, Rooks have met with persecution, under the impression of
their mischievous habits. To prove, then, that this was a gross libel
on their character at that day, and that it is not through education
or strict discipline that they have mended their manners in these
days, I will adduce as my first witness in their favour our own
countryman, Aubrey, who flourished about the year 1670. In his
13th chapter, he says, ' In the peacefull raigne of King James I.
the Parliament made an Act for provision of Rooke-netts and
catching Crows to be given in charge of court barons, which is by
the stewards observed, but I never knew the execution of it. I have
heard knowinge countrymen affirme that Rook wormes, which the

* ' Stanley on Birds,' i. 248.



570 , A Plea for the Rooks.

Crows and Rooks doe devour at sowing time, doe turne to chafers,
which I think are our English locusts ; and some yeares wee have
such fearfull armies of them that they devour all manner of green
things ; and if the Crowes did not destroy these wormes, it would
oftentimes happen. Parliaments are not infallible, and some think
they were out in this bill.' Such was Aubrey's opinion, and good
old Bewick* follows in the same strain, 'They are useful in pre-
venting a too great increase of that destructive insect the chafer or
dor-beetle, and thereby make large recompense for the depredations
they may occasionally make on the cornfields/ The accurate
Selby says,*f ' The Rook has erroneously been viewed in the light of
an enemy by most husbandmen, and in several districts attempts
have been made either to banish it, or to extirpate the breed. But
wherever this measure has been carried into effect, the most
serious injury to the corn and other crops has invariably followed,
from the unchecked devastations of the grub and caterpillar.
As experience is the sure test of utility, a change of conduct has in
consequence been partially adopted ; and some farmers now find
the encouragement of the breed of Rooks to be greatly to their
interest, in freeing their land from the grubs of the cockchafer
(melolontha vulgaris), an insect very abundant in many of the
southern counties. In Northumberland I have witnessed their
usefulness in feeding on the larvae of the insect commonly known
by the name of " Harry Longlegs" (Tipula oloracea), which is par-
ticularly destructive to the roots of grain and young clovers.' So
far Selby. Yarrell (who is a host in himself), writes thus :| ' Early
in the morning Rooks visit meadow-land while the grass is yet wet
with dew, to break their fast on worms and slugs, which the
moisture of that period induces to crawl forth. Later in the day,
they may be seen either searching newly-ploughed ground for the
various insects there exposed, or again visiting pastures for other
purposes. There they are accused of destroying the grass by
pulling it up by the roots ; but it has been stated, and I believe

* ' Bewick's Birds,' i., p. 72.

t Selby's 'Illustrations of British Ornithology,' vol. i., p. 353.

J Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 94.



A Plea for the Rooks. 571

truly, that this is an error arising out of the following circumstance.
In searching for grubs which are concealed in the earth, and
supported by eating the roots of the grass, the Rook pulls at the
blade of grass with its bill, and when the grass comes up readily,
the bird knows that there are under it insects which have destroyed
its roots, and in this way detects them ; but if the blade of grass
is firm, the Rook goes to another part of the ground. In a field
where grubs are very abundant, the Rooks scatter the grass every-
where, so as to give the appearance of having rooted it up, while
they have only exposed the depredations of the insects by which
the roots have been destroyed/ The author of the c Journal of a
Naturalist,' speaking of the readiness with which Rooks detect the
places where grubs are sure to be found, says : ' I have often
observed them alight on a pasture of uniform verdure, and ex-
hibiting no sensible appearance of feathering or decay, and imme-
diately commence stocking up the ground. Upon investigating
the object of their operations, I have found many heads of plain-
tains, the little autumnal dandelions, and other plants, drawn out
of the ground, and scattered about, their roots having been eaten
off by a grub, leaving only a crown of leaves upon the surface/
It may readily be supposed that extensive injury at the root of a
plant cannot exist long without some alteration in the appearance
of the leaves, or other parts, above ground, and the Rooks seem to
have learned by experience hew to select those plants which are
the most likely to afford them some recompense for the trouble
they take in grubbing them up. Jesse,* in his instructive 'Glean-
ings,' says : ' A gentleman once showed me a field which had all
the appearance of having been scorched, as if by a burning sun in
dry hot weather : the turf peeled from the ground as if it had
been cut with a turfing spade, and we then discovered that the
roots of the grass had been eaten away by the larvae of the cock-
chafer, which were found in countless numbers at various depths
in the soil. This field was visited by a great quantity of Rooks
(though there was no rookery within many miles of the neighbour-
hood), who turned up, and appeared to devour the grubs with
Jesse's * Gleanings in Natural History,' p. 30.



572 A Plea for the Rooks.

great satisfaction.' To prove their utility on other occasions, two
or three quotations from the Magazine of Natural History, among
many others, will suffice : ' A flight of locusts visited Craven, and
they were so numerous as to create considerable alarm among
the farmers of the district. They were, however, soon relieved
from their anxiety, for the Rooks flocked in from all quarters by
thousands and tens of thousands, and devoured them so greedily
that they were all destroyed in a short time.' Again, ' It was stated
a few years ago, that there was such an enormous quantity of
caterpillars upon Skiddaw, that they devoured all the vegetation
on the mountain; and people were apprehensive they would
attack the crops in the enclosed lands ; but the Rooks, which are
fond of high ground in summer, having discovered them, in a very
short time put a stop to their ravages.' I have not yet done with
my authorities. Jesse, in the second volume of his ' Gleanings
in Natural History,' makes the following remark on this subject :
' In order to be convinced that these birds are beneficial to the
farmer, let him observe the same field in which his ploughman and
his sower are at work ; he will see the former followed by a train



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 51 of 53)