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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that on the whole they have not been uninteresting, and to some,
perhaps, they may pave the way to a clearer understanding of
the life history of the several species which occur in our county,
which we are now about to consider ; while I feel sure that all of
us who examine these particulars with care and consideration
must be led thereby to admire the perfection of the works of the
Creator, and the wondrous means by which His ends are reached.
I cannot better close this part of my subject than in the words of

The Feet of Birds. 53

the poet who was so accurate and so admiring an observer of the
various works of God :

' Let no presuming impious railer tax
Creative Wisdom, as if aught was form'd
In vain, or not for admirable ends.
Shall little haughty ignorance pronounce
His works unwise, of which the smallest part
Exceeds the narrow vision of her mind ?
As if upon a full proportioned dome
Of swelling columns heav'd, the pride of art !
A critic-fly, whose feeble ray scarce spreads
An inch around, with blind presumption bold,
Should dare to tax the structure of the whole.
And lives the man, whose universal eye
Has swept at once th' unbounded scheme of things,
Mark'd their dependance so, and firm accord,
As with unfaltering accent to conclude
That this availeth naught ? Has any seen
The mighty chain of beings, lessening down
From Infinite Perfection to the brink
Of dreary nothing, desolate abyss !
From which astonished thought, recoiling, turns V
Till then alone let zealous praise ascend
And hymns of holy wonder, to that Power
Whose wisdom shines as lovely on our minds
As on our smiling eyes His servant sun/


* So when a falcon skims the airy way,
Stoops from the clouds, and pounces on his prey ;
Dash'd on the earth the feather'd victim lies,
Expands its feeble wings, and flutt'ring dies/

P. WHITEHEAD : The Gymnasiad, Book 3.

HAVING in the Introduction treated of the general structure and
the classification of birds, and the particular characteristics of
the various orders and tribes, with especial reference to the beaks
and feet, which generally point out with sufficient clearness their
habits and consequent position, I come now, without further
preface, to describe in order the families into which those orders
and tribes are subdivided, and to give some short account of
each individual species, which, as a resident, a periodical or an
occasional visitant in our county, has come under my observation.
I have already shown that the first Order, ' Birds of Prey,' con-
sists of three families, the Vultures, Falcons, and Owls. Of the
first of these (Vulturidce) no member has ever been recognised in
this county ; and, indeed, it is only from the very rare occurrence
of a straggler or two on our shores, probably driven out of their
course by strong and adverse winds, that the vultures have of late
obtained a place amongst British birds, for they are essentially
inhabitants of tropical countries, and to such neither Great
Britain in general, nor Wiltshire in particular, can by any means
claim to belong. And yet it seems strange that with such
immense powers of flight, and abounding, as they do, within a
few hours of Great Britain, they should not more frequently visit
us, more especially in summer. Even the short- winged warblers

The Falcons. 55

and other diminutive migrants of comparatively feeble wing,
cross the seas and visit us annually ; and yet the two vultures
which have earned a place in the British list by their rare visits,
viz., the great ' Griffon Vulture' (Vultur fulvus), and the
' Egyptian Vulture ' (Neophron percnopterus)* both of which I
have seen abounding in North Africa, and not uncommonly in
the South of Spain, very seldom diverge from their own districts
so far as to touch on these northern regions, though they love to
soar and sail in circles for hours at a great height above the
earth, and to float on motionless wing without effort. Better
perhaps, for them and for us that they keep their distance from
our shores ; for them, because, invaluable as they are from their
habits in tropical countries, where the whole system of drainage
is absolutely unknown, and where they delight to gorge them-
selves on putrid substances, they would soon starve in civilized
England; for in this highly favoured land, where Urban and
Rural Sanitary Authorities, Inspectors of Nuisances, and other
such high-sounding titles meet us at every turn, what business
would the vultures find to do ? and how much out of their
element they would be ! Better, too, for us, and we need not
regret their absence, for they are birds of such filthy habits that
their presence is certainly not agreeable to the olfactory senses,
and their near approach is by no means to be desired. Let none,
however, despise these most useful scavengers, which are de-
servedly held in high esteem in their native countries, and
protected as such by the inhabitants ; for as the storks in Holland
and Germany, and the dogs in Constantinople and the East, so in
Egypt and South America the vultures, arriving in vast numbers
from all parts of the heavens, may be seen clearing away the
offal and the garbage to which they are in some mysterious
manner attracted, and which would otherwise poison the atmo-
sphere. Indeed, but for their invaluable aid, I do not know how
* Neophron is derived by the Committee of the British Ornithologists'
Union (in the list wh'ich they compiled in 1883, and which I shall hereafter
refer to as the B. O. U. list) from vkoq <t>pi}v, ' childish in mind,' so called
from the bird's having ' the front of the head naked.' See Eyton's 'Rarer
British Birds,' p. 3. And percnopterus, 'dusky winged,' from

56 Falcon'

the inhabitants of the undrained cities and villages of the east
and south could exist.

Neither should we condemn their cowardice, as we watch a
vulture of large size and imposing aspect, with bald head and
naked neck, and forbidding beak, driven away from a savoury
carcase by some impertinent hooded crow a very giant giving
place to a pigmy. It is not the nature of the vulture to attack
any animals, or to fight, or to resist. He is but fulfilling his
destiny in the sphere assigned to him, as, to his own mortification,
he withdraws from the coveted banquet which he had just begun
to enjoy, on the arrival of some bold but puny self-invited guest,
biding his time till other more fierce birds or beasts have satisfied
their appetites, when he in turn gorges himself to repletion, and
then, with drooping wings and widespread tail, basks in the
blazing sunshine. At such times they are not pleasing objects,
but, on the contrary, disagreeable and even disgusting ; but it is
otherwise as we watch them soaring on outstretched wing high in
the air, now advancing in wide circles, and ever scanning the
ground below with piercing eyes, constantly on the look-out for
some savoury morsel. In their own lands, too, their numbers
are astonishing ; and it is wonderful to see them collect from all
parts of the heavens when one of their fellows has detected some
choice carrion, and his descent upon it has been descried by
others from their exalted position, far beyond the reach of human

The second family, ' FalconicUe/ embraces the Eagles, Falcons,
Buzzards, Harriers and Hawks, of all descriptions ; and each of
these genera is represented by one at least, and some by several
species, which from tune to time, with more or less frequency,
may be seen within the borders of Wiltshire. Most of them,
however, are becoming scarcer every year, driven away by inces-
sant persecution, and some of them seem to have altogether
abandoned the localities they frequented but a few years ago.
So much is this the case, that to see a hawk on the wing, though
he be of the commonest species, is not now the every-day sight
that it was only thirty years ago. To meet with this great family

The Falcons. 57

in abundance, I must again conduct my readers to Lower Egypt,
where the vultures are so numerous, and there kites, hawks,
buzzards and harriers, swarm to such a degree that the air seems
alive with them ; and on one occasion, from a commanding
position on one of the minarets of Cairo (the lofty tower and the
clearness of the atmosphere enabling the eye to take in a very
wide area), I counted above a hundred individuals of this Order
in the air at the same time. The Falconidse, in common with all
other birds of prey (and in this again they resemble the carni-
vorous quadrupeds), are monogamous, or live in pairs; they
seldom drink, but during the heat of summer delight to wash
themselves : they usually swallow part of the fur and feathers of
their victims with their food, but this and all other indigestible
parts, as bones, etc., they afterwards disgorge in large pellets, or
castings, by the mouth, and they will often skin animals and
pluck birds with the greatest dexterity. In the whole family of
Falcons there is a very remarkable difference in size between the
male and female, the latter being (contrary to what we see in
other kinds) by far the largest and strongest ; and from the fact
of the male being usually a third less in size than its mate, it
generally received the name of Tiercelet or Tiercel, as a Tiercel
Peregrine, a Tiercelet Sparrow-hawk, meaning the males of those
species.* They are divided into the long- winged or ' noble,' and
the short-winged or ' ignoble/ as they were respectively denomi-
nated in the good old days of hawking : the long-winged, or true
falcons, were those most highly prized and most frequently
reclaimed ; and there are a few plain points of difference by
which they may be easily distinguished from their more ignoble
brethren. Thus, in the beak of the true falcon we shall find a
prominent tooth in the upper mandible, and a corresponding
notch in the lower one; while in the short-winged genera we
shall see instead of the notch a small festoon, or marginal lobe,

* Shakespeare uses the word, corrupted into Tassel, in the famous balcony
scene of Romeo and Juliet :

' O, for a falconer's voice,
To lure this tassel-gentle back again !' Act ii., scene 2.

58 Falconidce.

as it is styled. Again, in the true falcons, the iris, or coloured
circle surrounding the pupil of the eye, will be always seen to be
dark ; while in the ignoble birds the irides are universally bright
yellow. And again, in flight, the true falcon soars to a great
height, and descends with a swoop upon its prey, while the
short-winged pursue it in a direct line near the earth ; but both
display considerable strength, boldness, and activity, and of
both I am proud to enumerate a goodly list as belonging to this
county. Doubtless in olden time, when every gentleman and
lady also had a cast or two of hawks, our wide open Wiltshire
downs were much resorted to for the noble sport of falconry,
and called forth such commendations for remarkable suitability
for the sport as were bestowed on it some years since by one of
the few genuine falconers remaining in the kingdom, Mr. Pells,
when he exercised, on the downs above Lavington, the royal
falcons, six magnificent Peregrines, the property of the hereditary
Grand Falconer, the Duke of St. Albans. Hawking has long
since gone by, and the hound has usurped the place of the
falcon ; but it must have been a goodly sight to see a hawking-
party equipped for the field: prancing steeds bearing gallant
knights, and palfreys carrying ladies fair ; the falconer with his
stand of hawks, and each falcon bearing a silver bell on her foot,
and capped with a gay hood, surmounted by a plume. Then
when the open down was reached and the game was flushed ;
what excitement to watch the unhooded hawks start in pursuit,
the rapidity of their flight, their graceful soaring in circles above
their victim, the sudden pounce, the deadly swoop, the terrific
blow; what galloping (and that somewhat blindly and dan-
gerously, with eyes directed upwards) to come up with the
falcon, which has ' bound ' to its victim, and fluttered with it to
the earth ; what enticing with the lure, what caressing it when
recovered and safely hooded once more. But these days have
gone by, and though our downs remain inviting to the sport,
and the falcons and hawks range over them in considerable
numbers, they are looked upon no longer with favour, but are
persecuted, hunted, and destroyed by every gamekeeper and

White-tailed Eagle. 59

sportsman no longer the honoured, the petted, and the prized,
but the special objects of vengeance, the marked victims of the
gun and the snare. And yet, though no longer trained for the
chase, but hunted down by the preserver of game as his most
deadly foes, who can forbear to admire the symmetry and
strength of body, the boldness, the courage, the sagacity, of this
whole family? Who can withhold admiration at their noble
bearing, their velocity of flight, the keenness of their sight, the
gracefulness of their evolutions in the air ? But as I am not
writing a panegyric on falcons, but only a plain history of them,
I will proceed at once to enumerate the species which have
occurred in this county.

1. THE WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (ffaliceet'us albicilla).

First and foremost in the ranks of the Falconidse stands the
lordly eagle, no less the king of birds than the lion is allowed to
rank monarch of quadrupeds. The strength and courage of this
genus so commended it to the heathen poets that they made it
the attendant of Jupiter, and declared that alone of the feathered
tribes it could brave the thunderbolt, or gaze with fixed eye at the
sun's dazzling orb ; for the same reasons the Romans, Assyrians
and Persians adopted it as their standard in ancient times, and
it forms the crest or emblem of monarchy in Russia, Prussia,
Austria, France, and other empires of modern days. Its
longevity, too (for it has been proved to live above a hundred
years), and its love of solitude, combine to give it dignity and
majesty ; so that in appearance and habits, as well as by general
consent, it is allowed to be a 'right royal bird.' In Great
Britain, the cliffs of Scotland and Ireland and the wildest parts
of our sea-coast are the abode of the eagles ; and there, on the
most inaccessible rocks, and on the edges of the most dizzy
precipices, they place their eyries, and from thence they sally
forth in quest of prey, and goodly and ample and of great variety
is the stock of game, in addition to an occasional lamb or fawn,
with which they supply their young, as the rocks adjoining theifc

60 Falconidw.

nest have often testified, converted during the breeding season
by these insatiable marauders into a well-filled larder.

Of the different species of eagles, the ' Golden' one (Aquila,
chrysaetos) is generally considered the first, as it is the boldest
and most active, as well as the largest ; and I had hoped to
have enumerated it among the birds of Wilts, in consequence of
a notice which appeared in the Berkshire Chronicle and the
Zoologist, in January, 1847, to the effect that a fine specimen of
this species had been killed by the gamekeeper at Littlecote,
who discovered it feeding on a dead doe, and so gorged with
venison as to be unable to fly off. On inquiry, however, I learnt
from Mr. Popham that the species was mistaken, and that it was
the ' Cinereous ' or ' White- tailed' (not the Golden) eagle, which
was killed in his park. The confusion seems to have arisen from
the unwonted size of the specimen, its length being 37 inches,
and its breadth from tip to tip of the extended wings 8 feet, a
very unusual magnitude for this species. There is, however,
in addition to the fulvous or golden plumage of the one, and the
white tail of the other (whence their specific names), an un-
failing mark of distinction by which these two species of eagles
may be distinguished at all ages, which I will give in the words
of Mr. Yarrell : ' In the foot of the Golden Eagle each toe is
covered with small reticulations as far as the last phalanx,
then with three broad scales. In the foot of the White- tailed
Eagle the reticulations are confined to the tarsus, the whole
length of each toe being covered with broad scales.' But the
Golden Eagle is a very much rarer bird so far south, and indeed
is almost unknown in these latitudes ; and I am inclined with
the late Mr. Knox, the talented author of ' Ornithological
Rambles in Sussex/ to regard with considerable suspicion the
announcement in local papers, which of late have frequently
caught my eye, of the occurrence of the Golden Eagle in the
neighbouring counties of Somerset and Berks. But though I
have no authentic instance of the Golden Eagle as a voluntary
visitor to Wiltshire, I had oftentimes the pleasure of seeing a
magnificent specimen of this bird in confinement at Spye Park,

White-tailed Eagle. 61

which my friend Major Spicer brought with him from Scotland ;
and very noble and very fierce he used to look in the large space
allotted him for a residence; nor was it safe for any stranger
to approach very near the iron bars of his abode. Sir
Kalph Payne-Gallwey,* than whom there can be no better
authority, says that, active and strong as he is, the Golden Eagle
cannot grasp with his foot so firmly as his white-tailed congener,
but seems rather more fitted to seize small animals on the
ground, and there hold them to eat on the spot ; and he adds
that in warm bright weather eagles are inactive, but when the
day is wild and boisterous they wheel continuously through the
sky, and appear to glory in the tempest. I have in my posses-
sion the foot, which I picked up from the road in Norway, in
1850, of what must have been in life a splendid specimen of the
Golden Eagle. Doubtless this foot had been cut off by the captor
of the bird, and accidentally dropped on its way to the authori-
ties, who, on its production, would pay the premium granted by
Government for the destruction of such birds of prey; in the
same spirit as, we are told by Montagu, that, in order to ex-
tirpate the Golden Eagle, there is a law in the Orkney Isles
which entitles any person who kills an eagle to a hen out of
every house in the parish in which it is killed.

It is interesting and refreshing to learn, as I do from the Rev.
A. P. Morres, who appears to have excellent authority for the
statement, that the Golden Eagle in Scotland is not by any means
the rare bird whose speedy extermination has been prophesied
by some ; for there are from sixty to eighty of this species now
breeding in that country ; whereas of the Sea Eagle, which has
been generally supposed to be greatly more abundant, there are
now but twenty nests. It may seem strange and even incre-
dible to some that such a bird census can be taken with any
accuracy ; but to those who are familiar with gamekeepers and
their habits, and are aware of the importance attached to an
eagle's nest, whether its owner desires to protect or destroy it,

' The Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 291305.

62 Falconidce.

such intimate knowledge of their numbers will be readily under-
stood. The English is a close translation of the scientific name :
haliceetus being derived from a\9 + aero?, ' sea eagle,' and albicilla
1 white-tailed/

The White -tailed Eagle, or Erne, compared with the Golden
Eagle, is as Sir R. Payne-Gallwey points out as a vulture to a
hawk ; indeed, while the latter is so comely, and puts on such a
lordly air of nobility, the Erne is somewhat vulture-like in shape
and in aspect. As with that ' ignoble' bird, its plumage, too, is
often ragged and untidy ; the ends of the wing-feathers, and
above all the tail, are rarely perfect, generally bruised and dis-
coloured, and often much worn. This seems to show that it
frequently rests and feeds on level soft ground, such as borders
the sea. It will also, on occasion, feed on carrion, which the
nobler bird would disdain to touch. In France it is known as
Aigle Pygargue or VOrfraie; in Germany as Fisch-adler ; and in
Sweden as Hafs-'6i*n, 'Sea-Eagle.'

In addition to the example of the White-tailed Eagle, or Erne,
given above, I was informed by the late Rev. G. Marsh, (and
further details have been kindly given me by Lord Suffolk,) that
a splendid specimen of this species was caught in a trap, on
December llth, 1841, by his Lordship's gamekeeper in Stone-
hill Wood, part of the old forest of Braydon : it was a female,
and for ten days had previously been observed by the keeper
soaring very high in the air, and it committed very great devas-
tations amongst the game; consequently a gin was set for it,
and in this it was caught, and when first found by the keeper
was but little injured. Its fierceness, however, prevented its
being taken alive, for the man dare not remove it from the
trap till he had killed it. It is now preserved at Charlton ;
and a grand bird indeed it is, and well deserves to stand, as it
does, at the very head of the feathered tribes of Wiltshire.
There is, also, a brief notice in the 'Report of the Maryborough
College Natural History Society,' for the half-year ending
Christmas, 1867, to the effect that 'a White-tailed Eagle was
shot in Savernake Forest in 1859 ;' but no further details are

White-tailed Eagle. 63

given.* In addition to these I have another record of the occur-
rence of the Eagle in Wiltshire, and that is an extract from the
Salisbury Journal, bearing date as long ago as the middle of
the last century, kindly sent me by Mr. Waylen. It is to the
effect that ' one summer evening an eagle was observed sailing
towards the summit of Salisbury Cathedral; he reposed there
all night, and early in the morning set sail northwards/ Nor
is that the only occasion on which the spire of Salisbury Cathedral
has been so honoured. In the year 1828 or 1829 a similar case
occurred, of which a highly respected Rector of a Wiltshire
parish was an eye-witness, and within the last few weeks has
furnished me with the particulars. My informant was, at that
time, a young boy at the celebrated school kept by Dr. RadclhTe
at Salisbury, and he describes the house and school buildings,
which have long since disappeared, as entered from Castle Street ;
and his bedroom as over the large and lofty school-room, and its
windows as giving a view of the upper part of the spire, uninter-
rupted by the neighbouring houses. It was on a summer evening,
at about five or six o'clock, that an eagle, said to have come from
a northerly direction, took its place on the grand perch it had
selected, on the vane above the spire. The night chanced to be
that of a full moon, and the sky was cloudless. Just before
bedtime my informant came into possession, for the first time in
his life, of ' Lord Byron's Tales/ which were printed in good bold
type, so that he was able to read them easily by the light of the
moon ; and now, after an interval of nearly sixty years, he recol-
lects reading for several hours, seated on the window-seat of his
bedroom, but frequently raising his eyes to look at the great bird
on the weather-cock of the spire. A plot, it appears, was made
by some to shoot the eagle with a rifle-ball, and a party went up
for that purpose to the ' eight-doors/ or in other words to the
place where the base of the spire rests on the tower ; but happily
their endeavours were baffled by the large ball which projects
itself below the cross ; and early in the morning the eagle floated
away southward, unharmed. *

* Page 39.

64 Fakonidce.

2. THE OSPREY (Pandion haliwetus).

This fine species generally lives altogether on fish, and to seize
its slippery prey with its powerful talons it hesitates not to plunge
into rivers and lakes, on the borders of which it may therefore be
looked for. I have described its remarkable conformation of foot, so
exactly fitted to this purpose, on a previous page. So its plumage,
too, and especially on the under parts of the body, is not composed
of long feathers, such as we generally see in the other members
of this family, but is close and firm, like that of the waterfowl
Hovering over the waters, with an undulatory motion of wing, no
sooner has its eagle-glance discovered a fish near the surface,
than down it dashes with the velocity of an arrow, and bearing its
quivering and slippery but firmly-clutched victim away in its feet,
retires to some secluded rock, where, unmolested, it can devour it
at leisure. So deep are its talons embedded in the fish, that it
seldom cares to relax its hold till the fish is almost consumed,
picking out the flesh from between its toes with great dexterity.
Frequently, however, the poor Osprey is not suffered to enjoy its

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 7 of 53)