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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hardly-earned prize in peace, for the last-named species, the
White- tailed Eagle, not fitted itself for plunging into the sea, but
liking to vary its diet of flesh and fowl with an occasional fish,
sits on some rock or bough, a patient but interested spectator of
the sport, watching the Osprey's manoeuvres, and eager for its
success; then, no sooner has it made a successful pounce, and
risen from the waters rejoicing in its prey, than down comes the
Eagle in pursuit, and gives instant chase. Its superior strength
and speed usually bring success, and though the poor ' fish-hawk '
will not surrender its booty without an effort, but rises in circles
higher and higher, yet, encumbered with its burden, it is no match
for its assailant, and is at last compelled to drop the fish, which
the Erne, with astonishing quickness, manages to seize before it
falls into the water, and bears off with a scream of victory and
triumph. 'Possibly' says Montagu ' the Osprey was formerly
trained for hawking of fish, as we find by an Act passed in the
reign of William and Mary persons were prohibited at a certain



The Osprey. 65

period of the year from taking any salmon, salmon-peal, or
salmon-kind, by hawkes. racks, gins, etc.' Of all birds none has a
wider range than the Osprey, for it is found in nearly all parts of
Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. From China, Japan, and
India in the east ; by Palestine, and the countries bordering on
the Mediterranean, to the West Indies and America, to the west ;
from Scandinavia, Kussia, and Siberia, in the north ; to Egypt,
North Africa, and even the Cape of Good Hope, in the south,
this cosmopolitan seems equally at home, but selects a suitable
season for its visit to each, and never winters in Great Britain, as
Professor Newton points out,* America, however, seems to be
its stronghold, and there it congregates for breeding in vast
numbers, just as rooks do in this country ; and of this the
American ornithologist, Wilson, gives many interesting particu-
lars. Its general colour is brown above and white below, with a
white crown to its head; legs, pale blue. In allusion to the
rapidity with which it darts upon fish, it is called by the Italians
Aquila piombino, or 'Leaden Eagle;' and in Hampshire and
Sussex it is known as the c mullet hawk/ from its partiality for
that fish. In Spain it is the Ayuila pescadora, or ' Fishing Eagle;'
in Portugal Aguia pesqueira; in Italy Aquila pescatrice; and
in Germany, Flusadler, ' River Eagle ;' in Sweden Fisk Ljuse ;
and in France Aigle Balbusard. Our term, 'osprey/ is as
if ' osfray,' from os and frangere, ' bone-breaker,' in allusion to
the bird's strength ; and for this derivation I have the high
authority of Skeat. Notwithstanding the scarcity of large sheets
of water in this county, this bird has been often killed in different
parts of it, and not unfrequently within the last few years. Mr.
Rowland shot a very fine specimen at Ramsbury, near the river
Kennet, about A.D. 1855, at a piece of water in the occupation of
Sir R. Burdett ; and at the adjoining fishery, belonging to Mr.
Popham, that gentleman informs me he has also met with and
killed it. The Rev. G. Marsh had one in his collection which the
keeper obtained in Draycot Park in 1830, and was, when seen,
preying on a rabbit (contrary to its usual habits), and was very
Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds/ vol. i., p. 80.

5



66 Falconidce.

poor; and another, a very fine one, was killed at Brinkworth,
near Malmesbury, in August, 1852. I also learn from Mr.
Stratton that two were killed some years ago in the neighbour-
hood of Warminster ; and in the summer of 1856 a fine male
specimen, now in the collection of Mr. Rawlence, of Wilton, was
caught at Longleat by means of a spring trap set under water
and baited with a large trout. On October 16th, 1872, as I
learnt from the Field, since corroborated by the keeper, a fine
Osprey was shot at Fonthill, which measured four feet nine inches
across the wings. On October 19th, 1881, two Ospreys were
killed at Seend, one of which came into the possession of Mr.
Penruddocke, of that place, and was preserved by Mr. Grant, of
Devizes. It was a large specimen, and measured across the ex-
tended wings four feet eight inches ; length, one foot eight inches ;
weight, three and a half pounds. And on October 14th, 1882, two
others were killed at Wilton Park, as I was informed by Mr.
Swayne, of that town, who also called my attention to the re-
markable coincidence of two Ospreys having been killed in the
same park just one hundred years previously, as recorded in the
Salisbury Journal of October 14th, 1782. And the last whose
capture in this county I have to record, was a fine specimen, shot
by the keeper at ' The Broad/ Ramsbury, on September 26th, 1883,
as Sir F. Burdett kindly informed me, and is preserved at the
Manor House.

3. THE GYR-FALCON (Falco gyrfalco).

Such was the specific name by which all the magnificent white
falcons were known, which occasionally visited Great Britain, until
Mr. John Hancock, after comparing more than 150 specimens
some of which may be remembered as a splendid group in the
First Great Exhibition of 1851 came to the conviction, which has
since been adopted by most of the leading ornithologists of Europe,
that there are three distinct species bearing this title, two of which
are known to have occurred in Britain, viz., the ' Greenland falcon '
(Falco candicans), and the ' Iceland falcon ' (Falco islandus).
The former is the whitest of the two, the ground-colour of each



Gyr-Falcon. 67

feather being white with dark markings, while in the latter the
ground-colour is dark, with light markings thereon ; or, in other
words, in the Greenland bird, at all ages, the prevailing colour is
white, while in the Icelander it is dark, as has been admirably
set forth by Professor Newton.* Very nearly approaching to the
eagles in size, and by far the most rare, as well as the strongest
and most valuable of the falcons trained for the chase, are these
White Falcons, whether Greenland, Iceland, or Scandinavian,
which is the third species, in reality the true Gyr-Falcon, but
which is not known to have visited England. The prevailing
colour of all of them is white, more or less spotted with brown ;
but each year diminishes the dark spots, so that in very old
specimens the bird assumes a plumage of almost perfect white-
ness, from which constant variations in colour have arisen the
many conflicting opinions as to the identity of the several species.
They are natives of the most northern latitudes, and, though
nowhere numerous, have, from their excessive value, often
tempted falconers to their capture on the inhospitable shores of
Greenland, Iceland, Lapland, and Norway. Indeed, so highly
were they prized in bygone days, that the King of Denmark
reserved for his own use all that were found in his dominions,
and sent his falconer annually to Iceland to obtain a fresh supply ;
and so rigid was this game law, that the penalty of death was the
result of an infringement of it, by destroying one of the royal
birds. In this country, and in more modern times, no less than
1,000 have been given for a well-trained cast (or couple) of these
falcons, which were used for flying at the larger kinds of game
herons, cranes, wild geese, etc. Much doubt has existed as to
the origin of the specific appellation ' Gyr ;' it is by some said to
be derived from the German word geyer, a vulture, from a sup-
posed resemblance in this splendid falcon to that ignoble bird, or
from its being of a vulture size; but others, apparently with
more reason, attribute it to the wide gyrations which this species,
above all others, makes before its stoop, which on all hands is
allowed to be remarkably grand, rapid, and daring. It is very
Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. i., p. 39.

52



68 Falconidce.

seldom that the Gyr-Falcon makes its appearance in England,
though in Scotland it is not very infrequent ; but I place it
among the birds that have occurred in Wiltshire without the
least hesitation, on the authority of Mr. Benjamin Hay ward, of
Easterton, than whom no one in the county has devoted more
attention to, or has had greater experience of, the whole family
Falconidce, as an out- door observer and accurate naturalist.
From him I learnt that he saw this fine, and, when once known,
unmistakable species in the neighbourhood of Cliffe Hall, at a
place called Ramscliffe, on the 9th December, 1842 ; but at the
time, having never seen or heard of the Gyr-Falcon, he mistook it
for an albino variety of the Peregrine, and marvelled at its beauty
and size. Farther inquiry, however, proved to him beyond a
doubt that it was a genuine Icelander. In France it is Faucon
Gerfaut de Norwfye ; in Germany Islandische Falke; in Italy
Sparviere bianco di Moscovia; but in Norway Jagt-Falk, ' Hunt-
ing Falcon,' and often called Rip-Falk, ' Ripa (or Ptarmigan)
Falcon/ from its special pursuit of that bird.

4. PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus).

Hitherto I have recorded the occurrence of species, all of which
have been only occasional and very rare stragglers in the county ;
now I come to one which is comparatively abundant, and may be
met with quite as much, if not more, in Wiltshire than in any
other part of England ; our wide open downs being, as I before
remarked, so admirably adapted to its habits. From its greater
abundance, as well as from its size and strength, the Peregrine has
been principally trained for falconry, and, among the few who still
pursue that noble sport, this is the species usually kept for the
purpose. It is, moreover, a docile, tractable bird, and repays the
trainer's care and attention by its remarkable courage, strength,
and activity in the chase, and no less peculiar teachableness and
obedience to his call. It received the specific name of ' Pere-
grine ' on account of its immense geographical range ; its won-
derful powers of flight, both as regards speed and endurance,
enabling it to traverse vast distances in an extremely short space



Peregrine Falcon. 69

of time, and scarcely a country in the world exists in which the
Peregrine has not been noticed by naturalists. Colonel Montagu,
speaking of this bird, with which he must have become very
familiar when residing in Wiltshire, computes its flight to be not
less than one hundred, or perhaps one hundred and fifty, miles an
hour. He says that the female, when a yearling, was termed a
'Red Falcon,' and the male a 'Red Tiercel;' and, when thoroughly
trained and docile, they were called ' Gentil,' or ' Gentle hawks.'*
When I penned my account of its occurrence in Wiltshire, just
thirty years ago, I was enabled to say that in this county we
might almost call it abundant. Indeed, so frequently was it
seen, that I then deemed it scarcely necessary to particularize
localities of its capture or occurrence. At that time I used to
see it quite frequently on the Roundway Downs, on the All
Cannings Downs, and on the downs between Marlborough and
Devizes. Notices, too, were sent me of its occurrence in almost
all parts of the county, and Mr. Withers, the able bird-stuffer, of
Devizes, had usually one in his hands. Mr. Stratton, of Gore
Cross Farm, above Lavington (who is a great lover of falcons, and
watches them keenly), assured me that his farm was seldom
without one, and that no sooner was one shot or trapped, than
another made her appearance in its place ; and as a proof of
their abundance, I extract the following interesting notes of his
success with these birds from a register kept by Mr. B. Hayward :

Jan. 1, 1836. ! Peregrine (a Falcon) caught at Ramscliffe.

March 28, 1842. Another (a Falcon) caught at ditto.

Dec. 30, 1842. Another (a Falcon) at Ramscliffe.

Dec. 8, 1849. Another (a male), weight lib. 6ozs.

Nov. 9, 1850. Another (a male), weight Iflb.

Jan. 22, 1853. Another (a Falcon), weight 2lb.

The above extract proves two interesting facts the plentifulness
of the species in that locality, and the difference in size between
the female (called par excellence the Falcon), and the male (called
the Tiercel, as above described). But now they have become very

Supplement to Ornithological Dictionary.



70 Falconidce.

much more scarce, at least in North Wilts, as I know by my own
experience, and it is now quite a rare thing with me to see a
Peregrine on our downs. The Rev. A. P. Moires is more fortu-
nate in the south of the county, for he says that for the last
fifteen years or so, not a year has passed without his having
noticed it once or twice in that immediate district, and he adds,
and doubtless with good reason, that the lofty spire of the
cathedral, round which he has seen four Peregrines soaring at one
time, offered an irresistible attraction as a secure resting-place,
whither it would carry its prey to devour it without fear of intru-
sion ; and where it is stoutly affirmed by some, though denied by
others, that it has been known to nest Lord Pembroke was so
good as to inform me that a year or two ago, when the Peregrine
Falcons were building on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, one of
his keepers more than once saw them attack the herons; the
heron, at least on one of these occasions, dropped on to the
ground, and there stood at its full height, with its beak pointing
straight upwards, like a large spike, and the falcons, not daring to
touch him in that position, swooped down to the ground on one
side of him. Probably the heron was pretty close to the ground
when so attacked, and was able to get down to the earth before
the falcons could stoop; but on no occasion did the keeper
see the falcons succeed in killing a heron. His lordship adds
that he has been assured by an old servant on the estate, that
before his time Peregrine Falcons used to build in the park at
Wilton, until they were at length driven away by the ravens.

Though certainly become far more scarce than it was thirty
years ago, I should mislead if I were to imply that it is by any
means a rare bird in Wiltshire even now. Indeed, with such an
array of occurrences as I have now lying before me, and from
almost all parts of the county, I cannot call it rare, though it is
to be remembered that every appearance of this noble bird makes
an impression on the observer which he does not readily forget,
and is generally chronicled by somebody. Thus, to take a selec-
tion from various districts : The Rev. G. Powell informed me
that he had obtained a magnificent specimen on January 21st,



Peregrine Falcon. 71

1862, which was killed at Kingston Deverell; Mr. Grant, in
January, 1872, reports that a pair had been observed at Avebury
and Beckhampton, attracted by large numbers of pigeons which
frequented the farms there, and that one was shot by Mr. Went-
worth, a fine old female, nineteen inches in length, and measuring
three feet six inches across the wings. In the same year, 1872,
early in March, one was killed at Collingbourne, as I was informed
by the Rev. T. A. Preston. Major Heneage possesses a specimen
shot at Compton Basset t, in 1866. Lord Nelson mentions one in
his possession killed at Trafalgar. Mr. Morrison's keeper reports
several killed at Fonthill. Lord Arundell writes me word that
they are not unfrequently seen and have been killed at Wardour.
'The Marlborough College Natural History' Reports speak of it as
taken in that district in 1870, 1876, and 1878. Mr. G. Watson
Taylor tells me it visits Erlestoke, and the last reference to it in
my note- book is of a pair seen by Mr. A. B. Fisher, of Potterne,
on the downs at Horton, in December, 1885. But to sum up all,
Mr. Grant has furnished me with a list of no less than thirty-five
specimens which have been sent to him within the last twenty-
four years for preservation, a small portion of which were killed
in parishes of North Wilts, at Seend, Poulshot, Avebury, Alton
Barnes, Stowell, etc., but by far the largest portion from Salisbury
Plain and the villages below it ; no less than nine having come
from Amesbury, five from Erlestoke, four from Lavington, and
others from Shrewton, Chitterne, Tilshead, Erchfont, Netheravon,
etc., proving, as I said above, that this species is far more
common in South than in North Wilts.

The boldness of the peregrine is so great, that it will wait upon
the sportsman, and no sooner has he sprung a covey of birds
than down comes the Falcon, despite the shooter and his dogs,
singles out a partridge for herself, fells it to the earth with one
deadly stroke of the foot, and bears it off in triumph ; a ma-
nceuvre which she will repeat day after day, and frequently more
than once in a day. Mr. Stratton tells me that he has himself
witnessed this, and Mr. Selby gives a pleasing account of it in his
' Illustrations of British Ornithology,' as does Mr. Knox very fully



72 Falconidce.

in his interesting work on 'Game Birds and Wild Fowl.' I
learned from the Rev. G. Marsh that in the south of the county the
keepers call the Peregrine by the provincial name of ' Trammel
Hawk/ In France it is Faucon Pdlerin ; in Germany Wander-
Falke; in Italy Sparviert pellegrino ; in Spain Halcon ; in
Portugal Falcdo ; and in Sweden Pelegrinis-Falk.

5. THE HOBBY (Falco subbuteo).

This beautiful little falcon is in every respect like a diminutive
Peregrine ; and in proportion to its size (which seldom exceeds a
foot in length) vies with its congener in strength, speed, activity,
and endurance. It is a periodical summer visitant to this country,
arriving in April, and departing again in October, and I believe is
rarely seen in the northern counties of England ; it loves thick
plantations and woods, and at the time of incubation usually takes
possession of the deserted nest of the Magpie or Crow ; its food
consists of insects as well as small birds, in taking which it dis-
plays great adroitness; it was formerly trained to fly at larks and
snipes, the former of which constitute its favourite game in
its wild state ; hence arose one of its old specific names, alau-
darius ; with less apparent reason, I am told that its provincial
name in Wiltshire is the ' Rook Hawk.' Our word ' hobby '
appears to be derived from the old French word hobereau, from
hober, ' to move from place to place ' (Skeat) : not a very satis-
factory derivation; as neither is the specific name subbuteo, which
the B.O.U. Committee interprets to signify 'something like
a buzzard.' More appropriate is the German Baumfalke, or ' Tree
Falcon,' for it is essentially a bird of the forest. In Italy it is
Falco Barletta e ciamato ; in Spain Alcotan; in Portugal Falcdo
tayarote ; in Sweden Lark-Folk, ' Lark Falcon.'

Mr. Harting* says the Hobby may be distinguished from the
Merlin or Kestrel when flying, by its narrow pointed wings, and
slender form ; and adds that it chooses for its prey swallows and
martins, as well as larks. It is a late flying bird, and may

* Birds of Middlesex,' p. 5, quoting Meyer's ' Illustrations of British
Birds.'



The Hobby. 73

be seen on the wing even after dusk on a summer evening. It
has been taken in many parts of the county, and I believe it to
be somewhat sparingly distributed annually throughout our
enclosed districts. I have also received many instances of its
nesting and rearing its young in various localities ; thus Mr.
Hayward has taken two young ones from a deserted crow's nest,
in August, 1839 ; and from the same tree in which the Hobbies
had reared their young the previous year ; this was in the neigh-
bourhood of Lavington, where he has subsequently seen them
almost annually. Mr. H. C. Forward, of Boreham Road, War-
minster, thought that the Hobby bred somewhere in his neigh-
bourhood in 1860, as a male, female, and three immature young
were shot between his house and Heytesbury. I learn from Lord
Nelson that it has been killed at Trafalgar ; from Sir H. Meux
that a pair were shot at Dauntsey about three years ago ; from
Mr. Herbert Smith that it has been observed lately at Bowood ;
from Mr. Gwatkin that it was killed at Tilshead in Feb., 1884,
and from Mr. G. Watson Tayler that it visits Erlestoke. Mr. Raw-
lence has a specimen taken on Lord Bath's property in Wiltshire,
while Mr. Stratton says they return regularly every summer to
the enclosures in the vale below him ; the Rev. G. Marsh used to
speak of them as not uncommon in the woods of Wilts, and has
repeatedlyhad the young brought to him both in the neighbour-
hood of Chippenham, and at Winterslow, near Salisbury, and they
have bred in the woods at Christian Malford ; moreover, I am
aware of two separate localities to which these birds now return
annually to breed, though, for obvious reasons, I think it better
not to describe them too minutely. Of later years the Rev. A.
P. Morres is able to say that in the immediate neighbourhood of
Salisbury it is not uncommon ; nay, he might well call it a fre-
quent visitor; he generally notices it in his own parish of Brit-
ford more than once during the summer ; while Mr. Tyndall
Powell, of Hurdcott House, a keen observer of birds, has
remarked on the regular appearance of several Hobbies in the
months of September and October, as they waited on some dense
flocks of sand martins, which congregate at that period from all



74 Falconidce.

parts to roost in the withy-beds, prior to their autumnal mi-
gration. In North Wilts Mr. Grant records one shot at Bromham,
in 1871 ; and the Rev. E. H. M. Sladen another killed at
Alton Barnes, about 1870 ; while Mr. Grant's list comprises
seventeen specimens which have come into his hands in the flesh
within the last twenty-four years ; and it is instructive to find
that the localities in which they were taken are very much the
same as those where their larger congeners, the Peregrines, most
abounded. Thus five came from Amesbury, three from Everley,
and single specimens from Woodborough, Netheravon, Enford,
Pewsey, Erlestoke, Potterne, Roundway, Seend, and Poulshot,
whence a nest containing three well-fledged young birds was sent
to the Zoological Society, London, on June 25th, 1866.

6. RED-FOOTED FALCON (Falco wfipcs).

Very similar to the last species both in appearance and habits
is the Red-footed or Red-legged Falcon, or Orange-legged Hobby,
as it is variously called; the principal distinguishing characteristics
being the red colour of the legs and feet (as its specific name im-
plies), and this distinction exists in both sexes and at all ages,
though, in almost all other respects, the male and the female, the
young and the adult differ widely from one another ; like its con-
gener described above, it prefers wooded and enclosed districts, and
feeds on beetles and other insects as well as small birds, and has
the same length of wing, and consequent rapidity and endurance
of flight ; it is, however, extremely rare in this country, its native
haunts being the steppes of Russia, and the eastern portions of the
Austrian dominions. Like its congener the Hobby, it may be
seen on the wing until late in the evening, whence it is generally
known by Continental Ornithologists under the name of vesper-
tinus, and in Malta as spagnolett ekhad or * vespertine.' It will
frequently alight on the ground, and will run with great ease and
celerity ; and in Southern and Eastern Europe, where it abounds,
it may sometimes be seen in large flocks. Those who are familiar
with it in its own home describe it as emerging towards evening
froin the shady forest which it loves, skimming like a swallow



The Merlin. 75

over the plain and over the waters, and catching locusts, dragon-
flies, and other insects, which it sometimes transfers to the mouth
with the foot, while on the wing.

Scarcely twenty instances are recorded of its appearance in
Britain, but of these, one is described in the Zoologist for 1843
as having occurred at Littlecote Park, near Hungerford, in 1825 ;
it was seen by a countryman to be pursued and struck down by a
raven, when he went up to it and caught it on the ground before
it recovered ; and, according to his account, it laid an egg after
its fall, which was broken. The peculiar markings of the hawk
struck the author of the communication, who bought the bird of
the countryman, and not being able to identify it with any of the
English hawks which he knew, he made a drawing of it, suffi-
ciently accurate to recognise it by : it was fortunate he did so, for
the bird, which was very wild and untameable, escaped after a few
days' captivity, and was probably killed, as it had one wing clipped ;
subsequently, his memory being aided by the drawing, he recog-



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 8 of 53)