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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nised it as an Orange-legged Hobby, when he saw that bird at the
Zoological Gardens. More satisfactory because more undeniable
are the pair now in Mr. Kawlence's collection at Wilton, which
were shot in a plantation on the downs at Kingston Deverell,
near Warminster. These are the only instances which have
come to my knowledge of the occurrence of this very rare Falcon
in Wiltshire. In France it is Faucon a pieds rouges ou Kobez ;
in Germany Rothfussiger Falk; and in Italy Falco barletta

7. THE MERLIN (Falco cesalori).

This beautiful little Falcon, not much bigger than a blackbird, is
so bold, so active, and so strong, that it has been known to strike
down a partridge at a blow, though twice its own size and weight.
It was formerly much esteemed for falconry, and was trained to fly
at woodcocks, snipes, and larks. In speaking of the Peregrine, I
have shown how that bird would accompany the sportsman to the
field and select a victim from the coveys when sprung, neither
terrified by man, dog, or gun, as described by Mr. Knox and others.

76 Falconidce.

That same able writer gives a similar very interesting account of
a Merlin which regularly attended him when he was out snipe
shooting in Ireland, in order to get a share of the game. It
seemed to have no fear of his gun, but would follow him at a
little distance and watch the birds that he fired at ; if they were
killed by the shot the Merlin never meddled with them, but
seemed to consider them the lawful share of the sportsman ; if,
however, any bird was wounded and partially disabled, it
instantly pursued and caught it, and carried it off. At first there
was but one, but subsequently a second a female joined it, and
they regularly made their appearance as long as the sportsman
continued in the neighbourhood. Sometimes, at the very com-
mencement of the day's sport, the merlins might not be there,
but the first report of the gun was generally sufficient to summon
one or both of them to the scene of action, and a wounded snipe,
however slightly touched by the shot, had no chance of escape
from their united efforts. First, one would rise above it in a
succession of circular gyrations (for he was unable to ascend in
such a direct line as the snipe), then he would make a swoop,
and if he missed, his companion, who in the meantime had been
working upwards in a similar manner, would next try her luck,
and in this manner they would pursue the quarry, until the
persecuted bird, unable to ascend higher, or any longer avoid the
fatal stroke, was at last clutched by one of the little falcons,
when the other would hasten to ' bind to it,' and all three
descend together into the bog. After a performance of this sort
an hour would occasionally elapse before the return of either of
the merlins, sometimes more, sometimes less, but they never
seemed willing to give up the sport until at least three snipes
had fallen to their own share. The Merlin is often called the
' Stone Falcon/ from its habit of perching on a large stone in the
open country, which it frequents ; for the same reason it is
called in France Le Rockier and Faucon de Roche, in Germany
Stein Falke, and in Sweden Sten-Falk. Its more correct name in
France is Faucon Emerillon. Bewick supposed it did not breed
here, but Selby, Yarrell, and others prove it does so, at any rate

The Merlin. 77

in the northern and midland counties, where it places its nest on
the ground, not on trees or rocks as Temminck says.* Meyer
remarks that when on the wing it may be distinguished from the
Hobby by the greater length of its tail in proportion to the wings
and by its more robust form.

With us it is a winter visitant, arriving in October, and leaving
us in the spring. I have on several occasions myself seen it at
Yatesbury, where it frequented a splendid old yew tree in the
churchyard, and I have notices of its occurrence in the neigh-
bourhood of Salisbury, 1837 ; Chippenham, 1840 ; Devizes and
Warminster, 1850 ; while Mr. Stratton told me it was a constant
visitor on the Downs at Gore Cross, and that he caught no less
than three specimens from one stump on his farm ; he told me
also that he has been astonished at its amazing boldness and
dexterity in pursuit of starlings, chasing them, singling one out,
and as certainly bearing it off in triumph. Mr. Rawlence, too,
has Wiltshire specimens in his collection. Of more recent date
than the above notices, the Rev. A. P. Morres speaks of it as not
uncommon in the neighbourhood of Salisbury ; and Mr. Tyndall
Powell, of Hurdcott, mentioned no less than four specimens as
coming under his notice in the winter of 1877 ; and in a letter
recently received from him, he says, speaking of last autumn
(1886), that it was an extraordinary year for Merlins in the
Broad Chalk Hills, for that he had himself shot two hen birds
and one male, and had seen many more ; adding, that the hills
and ravines of that particular district appeared to him to be
a favourite retreat for all kinds of hawks. In North Wilts, Mr.
C. A. Sladen recorded one shot at Alton Barnes, December 27,
1871. The Marlborough College 'Reports ' notice one caught in
the college grounds in September, 1872 ; one shot near Ramsbury
in January, 1875 ; and another at Marlborough in April, 1881.
Mr. Gwatkin records two killed at Tilshead, one of which fell to
his own gun in Oct., 1881 ; the other was taken in Feb., 1884.
Mr. G. Watson Taylor says it visits Erlestoke ; and to sum up
all, Mr. Grant's list comprises one received from Mr. H. E.
* Selby, 'Illustrations of British Ornithology/ vol. i., p. 51.

78 Falconidce.

Medlicott, of Potterne, and nine other specimens, all of which
were taken in the immediate neighbourhood of Devizes from
Poulshot, Rowde, Bromham, Potterne, Roundway, Seend, and
Erchfont so that we may claim this sprightly little hawk as
fairly common in Wiltshire. The word ' merlin ' is supposed by
Skeat to be derived from the French merle and the Latin
merula, ' a blackbird.'

8. THE KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus).

The most common, the most harmless, and the most persecuted
of all the Falconidae is the elegant Kestrel : it abounds in vast
numbers throughout the county, and one can scarcely cross the
Downs in any direction without seeing it hovering in the air, with
wings rapidly quivering and tail outstretched, and with head in-
variably turned to the wind from this habit it has derived the two
provincial names of ' Windhover' and ' Stonegall,' or ' Standgale.'

Professor Newton* says that in the southern counties of
England its numbers receive an increase in autumn, supplied,
doubtless, from the north ; and there are districts in which it is
wholly unknown, or but seldom seen, in winter so that in
Britain it partially migrates, while in many other countries it
does so unmistakably. But even the Kestrel, the only familiar
hawk remaining to us in any numbers, is very much diminished
within my recollection. Where I used to see half a dozen in a
morning's ride on the Downs forty years ago, I scarcely see one
now. But if I find these birds more scarce at home, I saw them
literally swarming in Egypt, where you meet them at every
turn, and where they were once honoured by the ancient
Egyptians with divine honours, as the emblem of Horns, Re, or
the Sun, and several other gods ; their bodies, with those of the
sacred Ibis, preserved as mummies, and their figures admirably
pourtrayed in the hieroglyphics and cartouches. I also found it
in great abundance in 'Portugal and in Spain, where Lord Lilford
our best authority for birds of that country declares he has

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. i., p. 80.

The Kestrel. 79

seen from 300 to 400 on the wing at the same moment.* In
Palestine, again, I have noticed it as extremely common; and
there Canon Tristram says it breeds in colonies, ten or twenty
pairs occupying the same ruins, and sometimes sharing the re-
cesses of the caves which are tenanted by the Griffon Vultures.t
In Sweden the Kestrel is known as Torn Folk, or ' Tower Falcon/
so called because, alone of the hawk tribe which breeds in
Scandinavia, its habit there is to make its nest in old ruins and
towers.J For the same reason it is Twrmfalke in Germany, and
Falco acertello o di torre in Italy ; but in France Gresserelle ; in
Spain Cernicalo, and in Portugal Francelho, and sometimes
Peneireiro, ' Hoverer.' It may easily be distinguished from the
other members of the family by the prevailing rufous fawn colour,
which is common to the plumage of both sexes. It preys almost
exclusively on mice, of which it destroys an incredible quantity,
dropping upon them suddenly from above, but occasionally varies
this diet with coleopterous insects, reptiles, and small birds. Of
cockchafers it seems especially fond, and it will eat them while
on the wing ; seizing one in each foot, and then transferring it
to the mouth, in like manner as the Hobby above described,
and as the elegant ' Swallow-tailed Kite ' (Nauderus furcatus) is
reported to do in Guatemala, when it chances to fall in with a
swarm of bees ; but I think it has very rarely been known to
molest a young partridge or pheasant, or commit the smallest
trespass on game ; nevertheless, it is a hawk, and as such is the
enemy of the indiscriminating gamekeeper, who can see no
difference in the Kestrel and Sparrow-hawk, but looks upon both
as his mortal foes, and traps and destroys them accordingly.
There can, however, be no question that the Kestrel, far from
being injurious, confers the greatest benefit on man, ridding him
of thousands of field mice, which are destructive alike to the
farm, the garden, the orchard, and the plantation.

The specific name tinnunculus is defined by the B.O.U.
Committee to signify 'with a shrill sharp voice, or bell-like

Ibis for 1865, p. 175. t ^ 8 for 1865 > P- 259 -

Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 263.
Ibis for 1860, pp. 240243.

80 Falconidce.

(i.e., monotonous) note.' And Harting says that the name
' kestrel ' signifies the peasant's (or serving-man's) hawk; coistrel,
perhaps from the Latin coterellus. Shakespeare mentions
' coystril ' in Twelfth Night [Act I., Scene 3], and ' coystrel ' in
Pericles [Act IV., Scene 6]. In olden time a hawk's nest was
protected by laws enacted in the reigns of King John, Edward III.,
Henry VIII., and Elizabeth ; and indeed the kestrel and the
barn owl are the greatest destroyers of mice, both the ' long-
tail'd field mouse ' (Mus sylvaticus) and the common ' meadow
mouse ' (Arvicola agrestis)* The Kestrel in this country
generally makes use of a crow's nest for breeding purposes ; but
Mr. F. Stratton reported to me that on one occasion he dis-
covered that it had taken possession of a hen's nest, which was
placed in a trough only six feet from the ground, and had
deposited five ruddy eggs in this singular nursery. This was in
1877, at Gore Cross Farm, in the parish of Market Lavington.

Like many other species of the true falcons, it prefers adopting
the deserted nest of the magpie, or other large bird, to building
a nursery for itself. Though some may always be seen, Mr.
Waterton (who had a great liking for this hawk, and has defended
it most perseveringly in his charming ' Essays on Natural
History ') expresses his conviction that by far the greater part
migrate in autumn to more southern lands; and in this he is
fully supported by Mr. Knox, who has bestowed much attention
on the point, and, dwelling on the coast of Sussex, has had
admirable opportunities for observing the migration of birds.f

This closes the list of the true Falcons, which have always been
considered as more ' noble ' than the others. We now come to
other genera, and we shall see that their habits, as well as their
make, differ in many respects from the above.

9. GOSHAWK (Astur palumbarius).

I introduce the goshawk as a bird of Wilts on the authority of
the Rev. A. P. Morres. who gives good and substantial evidence
from the mouth of Captain Dugmore, a gentleman who seems

* ' Sketches of Bird Life,' p. 9. f Birds of Sussex/ pp. 5264.


specially qualified to pronounce an opinion, that while hawking in
the meadows near Salisbury, the tame goshawk on his wrist showed
by its manner and cry that a wild bird of the same species was at
hand; and having his attention thus aroused, he clearly saw a wild
Goshawk flying in a straight course high over his head, and he
added that he had no doubt as to the bird's identity, since he was
so very familiar with it from constantly hawking with the same
species. Moreover, I see no reason why the Goshawk should not
occasionally visit us, seeing how common it is in Germany, where
I have fallen in with it more than once ; and how capable it is of
prolonged flight. More satisfactory is my second instance, for my
neighbour Major Heneage informs me that a handsome specimen
of this species was shot by his eldest son at Compton Bassett in
September, 1885. It derives its generic name astur so the
B.O.U. Committee informs us from atrfa 'a star/ as if a 'starred
or spotted hawk ;' and doubtless the specific name palumbarius
is derived from its supposed penchant for doves, and so in Sweden
it is called Duf Hok, or ' Dove Hawk ;' and in Italy Sparviere da
Columbi ; but in France L'Autour. Professor Newton tells us
that ' gos hawk ' means ' goose hawk ;' and that, though equal in
size to the largest of them, it is inferior in powers to the falcons,
but is the best of the short-winged hawks. The generic name
Astur in Spanish and Portuguese became Azor or Agor ; and
when the Azores were first visited, this species of hawk was so
abundant there that the islands were named after them, and have
retained the name to this day. The Goshawk is a heavy bird and
flies low, taking its prey, in a great measure, from the ground.
It is of sluggish, indolent habits, unlike its near relative the
Sparrow Hawk, and will sit for hours on the branch of a tree
waiting for its victim. Nevertheless, it is, as Seebohm says,
nothing else than a giant Sparrow Hawk.

10. SPARROW HAWK (Accipiter nisus).

The short- winged Hawks (of which this is our commonest species)
take their prey in a different manner from the long- winged or true
Falcons. Instead of rising above it in circles, and then stooping


82 Falconidcv.

with wonderful velocity and force, they pursue them on the wing,
as a greyhound would a hare, gliding after them at great speed
for a short distance, even dashing after them through woods and
thick plantations. But should they fail to come up with their
quarry, they are unable to prolong the chase, and so abandon it
and await another chance. Of all the short- winged Hawks, none
is more bold, active, and destructive, especially in the breeding
season, than the Sparrow Hawk. There are many interesting
accounts of its wholesale plunder and insatiability in destroying
young birds and game at that time, but the most extraordinary
that has come under my notice is that published by Mr. Knox,
who counted the following victims laid up in store in their nest
for the half-fledged young : ' Fifteen young pheasants, four
young partridges, five chickens, a bullfinch, two meadow pipits >
and two larks, all in a fresh state.' From such well-known
voracity and penchant for game, I can scarcely hope that the
Sparrow Hawk will be spared by the gamekeeper, though at the
same time he deserves our respect and admiration for his bravery
and skill : but at any rate let his sins be visited on his own head,
and not on the inoffensive insectivorous Kestrel, which is so often
made to suffer for the misdemeanours of another. The Sparrow
Hawk prefers birds to quadrupeds, and thus we see it furnished
with long and slender legs, and toes (especially the middle one)
remarkably elongated, and these are admirably adapted for
grasping and penetrating the dense plumage of its victim. The
female, flying low, and skimming over the ground with great
swiftness, often seizes the partridge and the pigeon, with no
gentle stroke, while her diminutive partner is content to pick off
the sparrow or the finch from the hedge, or even the rickyard,
whither his boldness will lead him undismayed. Sometimes the
Sparrow Hawk will condescend to devour insects, and Mitchell, in
his admirable account of the ' Birds of Lancashire,' recounts how
it has been seen to catch crane-flies with the foot, and transfer
them at once to the mouth, after the manner of the Hobby and
Kestrel mentioned above.
In none of the whole family is the difference in size between

Sparrow Hawk Kite. 83

the male and female so conspicuous as in this species, and as the
difference in colour is also great, no wonder that they should
often be mistaken for distinct species. In this country it is
sparingly met with throughout, nowhere very numerous, and
nowhere entirely wanting, though the more wooded and enclosed
parts are its favourite haunts. But it is not by any means so
common with us now as it was thirty years ago. The scientific
name Accipiter is from wximnjg, ( swiftly flying ;' and Nisus was
the mythical king of Megara, said to have been changed into a
Sparrow Hawk. In France it is L'Epervier ; in Germany Die
Sperber ; in Italy Sparviere da Fringuelli; in Sweden Sparf-
Hok; in Spain Oavilan and Cernicalo; and in Portugal Gavido.

11. THE KITE (Falco milvus).

Though once the terror of the poultry yard, and the admiration
of the naturalist, this graceful bird is now, alas ! almost (I fear I
must say quite) extinct in this county, and I much doubt whether
many individuals, unless stragglers, are to be found south of the
Tweed or east of Wales ; and yet but a very few years since they
were not uncommon in our homesteads and woods. The Rev. G.
Marsh has seen them at Winterslow, and once possessed a tame
bird which was taken young in Clarendon Woods. Mr. Hay ward,
when a boy, saw a nest of them at Lavington. The Rev. G. Powell
informed me that on Feb. 3, 1864, a fine male bird was killed at
Longleat, and that he had seen it in the flesh ; and Rev. A.
P. Morres records another shot at Kingston Deverill, and now
in the collection of Mr. Rawlence, of Wilton. In the report for
1867 of the Marlborough College Natural History Society, it is
stated that a pair built for some years at a certain spot on the
farther side of Martinsell. Mr. Stratton tells me that two nests
have been taken, to his knowledge, by people now living in his
neighbourhood, one at Fiddington Down, the other at West
Lavington. At Lydiard Millicent, the seat of Lord Bolingbroke,
there was a tree, which very probably still exists, called the
'Kite-tree,' and here Kites bred from time immemorial, and
here they were always to be seen in the spring a few years ago.


84 Falconidce.

There is also a wood lying between the villages of Erchfont
and Potterne still known as ' Kite- wood,' which doubtless was
originally so called because it contained a tree on which the
Kites annually made their nest, for the bird was common enough
sixty years ago, and most old people can recollect something of
the ' forky tailed ' Kite or Glead. Personally I have never been
so fortunate as to see one wild in England, though I have more
than once met with it in Germany ; and possess a magnificent
specimen which I brought from Hospenthal, on the St. Gothard
Pass, in Switzerland, as long ago as 1839. It was very easy to
be distinguished from all others of the Falconidse, by its long and
much-forked tail, and by its graceful gliding motion, whence its
provincial name ' Glead ' ; and it delighted to soar in circles, and
to sail on almost motionless wing. Though it would occasionally
seize a chicken or a duckling (as the henwife knew to her cost)
rats, mice, leverets and other small quadrupeds composed its
principal prey, and when it did take a bird it was generally one
of the gallinaceous order, for the mode of seizing its victim, by
pouncing upon it on the ground, differed from that of most of
the preceding species. But though so elegant and graceful, the
Kite was not remarkable for courage ; a hen has been often
known to beat off" the intruder from her chickens, and, indeed, it
was selected as the quarry at which to fly large falcons in olden
times, and from the sport it thus often afforded to royalty, are
derived the continental names it still bears, Milvus regalis,
Milan royal, in France ; Milano real in Spain. In Germany it
is Rother Milan; in Italy Falco con la coda bifurcata; in Portugal
Milhafre and Milhano ; and in Sweden Glada. Though small in
bulk and light in weight, the Kite is, in reality, a large bird,
exceeding two feet in length, and five from tip to tip of the ex-
tended wings.

Howard Saunders, who has had good experience of its breed-
ing habits in Southern Spain, says the nest is always fantasti-
cally decorated with dirty rags, bones, bits of old shoes, etc., and
though now out of date, unhappily, in England, Shakespeare's
warning is still of practical value in Spain, ' Where the kite

Common Buzzard. 85

builds, look to lesser linen ' [' Winter's Tale,' Act iv., Scene 2]. I
have the excellent authority of Professor Skeat that ' kite ' signi-
fies ' the shooter,' from the Teutonic root skut, ' to shoot/ or ' go

12. COMMON BUZZARD (Buteo vulgaris).

Known in Sweden as Orm Vrdk, or l Snake Vrak,' I presume from
its partiality for reptiles; not uncommon in the wooded districts of
Germany, where I have seen it more than once, perched on the
lower branch of a tree, this large handsome species, like that last
described, is not now the common bird it once was, and which its
specific name implies. At one time it abounded in our woodland
districts, but now it is rarely to be met with. The Rev. G. Marsh
told of one which was brought to him from Dray cot Park, in 1840.
Mr. Stratton has occasionally seen the bird as it passed over or
rested in his locality, but states that it does not remain there.
Mr. Hayward had often observed it on Fiddington Common some
years since, but of late years seldom saw it. More recently I have
notices of its occurrence in this county from Rev. A. P. Morres, who
possesses one killed at Pomeroy, near Bradford, in 1865 ; another
from Mr. Rawlence, killed on the property of Lord Bath in Wilt-
shire ; another from Mr. Ernest Baker, of Mere, of an immature
specimen, supposed by him to be a bird of the year, shot at
Maiden Bradley, October 14th, 1876, by one of the Duke of
Somerset's keepers, who saw it kill a leveret, and set a trap and
caught it almost immediately. The Marlborough College Reports
speak of several specimens observed in 1865 of one shot at
Overton Dell by Mr. Price's keeper, October 22, 1875, and of
another seen at Everley in 1878. Lord Arundell informs me
that one was shot at Wardour when the tenants were out pigeon-
shooting some time since. Lord Nelson reports that he has a
specimen which was killed at Trafalgar. Major Heneage has
one shot at Compton Bassett in 1844; Mr. G. Watson Taylor
tells me that it visits Erlestoke ; Mr. W. Stancomb, jun., that
it is seen on the downs above Baynton ; and finally, Mr. Grant
reports specimens which have come to him from Roundway

86 Falconidce.

Down in 1860 and 1861, from Seend in 1866, from Easterton in
1867, and from Hill worth, Devizes, in 1875.

Like all the other species of this genus, it has a slow flight, an
indolent, lazy, heavy aspect, and a timid disposition. It preys
upon small birds, quadrupeds, and reptiles, which it will strike
upon the ground, but which it does not care to pursue, and often
it will stand motionless for hours on the bare limb of some
decayed tree, watching the accidental arrival of a victim. Its
legs and feet are comparatively short and strong, as we generally
find to be the case with those genera or species which prey on
quadrupeds in preference to birds. In France it is much sought
for during winter for the sake of the flesh, which is esteemed
delicious in that country ; and I was much amused at Marseilles
on one occasion when, on passing through the market, I was im-
portuned by an old lady, who presided over a poultry stall, to
purchase a bird of this species, whose plumpness she pointed
out, and whose excellence for the table she vehemently asserted.
But I was not tempted, for the taste of an Englishman differs in
some respects from that of the Gaul.

The name buteo is interpreted by the B.O.U. Committee to
signify 'the crier-out'; and from this is derived the English
word ' Buzzard,' and the French buse, which has come to be
applied in anything but a complimentary sense to a dolt and

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 9 of 53)