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black feathers, tipped with pearl, appear in irregular patches on
various parts of the body. Starlings do not usually roost near the
scene of their depredations, but from this season and thence until
late in autumn they repair, as if by some preconcerted scheme, to a
rendezvous common to many detachments. A writer in the _Zoologist_
states that there were formerly, near Melbourne In Cambridgeshire,
some large patches of reeds, which were rented at a certain annual
sum, and which the tenant sold to builders to use in making
plaster-floors and ceilings of rooms. Towards autumn, Starlings
resorted to them in such numbers to roost, that unless scared away,
they settled upon the reeds, broke them down and rendered them
completely useless. It required a person to keep watch every evening
for some time, and fire at them repeatedly with a gun as they were
settling down; but as the spot was a favourite one, they showed
considerable reluctance in quitting it.


THE ROSE-COLOURED STARLING
PASTOR ROSEUS

Head crested; crest and neck black, lustrous with violet
reflections; back and lower parts rose-colour; wings and tail
lustrous brown. Length eight inches.

A very beautiful bird, partaking the characters of the Starlings and
Crows. It is an inhabitant of Syria, Asia Minor, and Africa, where it
is gregarious in its habits, and does much mischief to the grain
crops. It comes as a straggler to our country from spring to autumn;
only, unfortunately, to be shot as a 'specimen'.


FAMILY CORVIDÆ

THE CHOUGH
PYRRHÓCORAX GRÁCULUS

Plumage black, with purple and green reflections; beak and
feet coral-red; claws black. Length sixteen inches; width
thirty-two inches. Eggs yellowish white, spotted with ash-grey
and light brown.

Continental authors state that the bird which we call the Chough or
Red-legged Crow frequents the highest mountain regions and the
confines of perpetual snow, and that hence it is sometimes known by
the name of 'Jackdaw of the Alps'. Like the rest of its tribe, it is
omnivorous, and lives in societies, like the common Jackdaw and Rook,
but rarely deserting, and then only when pressed by hunger, the place
of its birth. With us it is never seen inland, confining itself to the
rocky sea-coast, where it builds its nest in inaccessible cliffs, and
leads the same kind of life with its sable relatives the Crows and
Jackdaws, though it never ventures, as they do, far from its sea-side
strongholds. The name Chough was probably in ancient times used as a
common appellation of all the members of the family Corvidæ which have
black plumage, this one being distinguished as the 'Cornish Chough',
from the rocky district which it frequented. The famous lines in _King
Lear_ -

The Crows and Choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles:

point probably to the Jackdaw, which is abundant on the rocky coast of
Kent, where the Chough has not been observed, though there is a
traditional account of a pair which many years ago escaped from
confinement and bred there. By its flight it is scarcely to be
distinguished from the Jackdaw; but if it comes near enough to the
observer to betray the vermilion colour of its legs, it may be known
at once, and, seen on the ground, its long curved bill, and more
slender form, sufficiently distinguish it from all others to which it
assimilates in colour and size.

Not many years since, the Chough was far from uncommon in several
parts of the coast of Devon and Cornwall. It is now much less
frequent, though it still lingers about the Lizard in the latter
county, and is said to breed in the high cliffs near Combe Martin in
Devonshire, in both of which places I have often looked out sharply
for it, but have never been quite satisfied that I have seen one. It
is said also to haunt the precipitous coast of several other parts of
Great Britain, and to be found also in many parts of Ireland; in the
Channel, especially in Guernsey, it is fairly common, but always
preferring the least frequented localities. The peculiar habits of a
bird so uncommon and secluded are little known, so far at least as
they are characteristic of the bird in its wild state. In captivity
its ways differ little from those of the rest of its tribe. It is
inquisitive, intrusive, captious in temper, disposed to become
attached to those who treat it well, fond of attracting notice; in a
word, it surpasses in intelligence most other tribes of birds, ranking
among those members of the brute creation whose instinct amounts to
something more than a formal compliance with certain laws which the
rational creation has arbitrarily set down for their government.
Insects and the _rejectamenta_ of the sea-shore and occasionally grain
form its diet. It builds its nest of sticks, and lines it with wool
and hair, preferring a cleft in a rock, but not refusing any old ruin
conveniently situated for its purpose. It lays four or five eggs.


THE NUTCRACKER
NUCÍFRAGA CARYOCATACTES

Plumage sooty brown, spotted on the back and under parts with
white; tail black, barred with white at the extremity; beak
and feet horn-colour; iris brown. Length thirteen inches. Eggs
light buff, with a few greyish brown spots.

The Nutcracker Crow, a rare straggler, must not be confounded with the
Nuthatch, which we have already described; the former is a large
bird, as big as a Jay, and is only an occasional visitor in this
country, and whose habits partake of those of the Crows and
Woodpeckers. The propriety of its name is questionable, according to
Yarrell, who says that 'it cannot crack nuts'. Here perhaps there may
be some little mistake. Its name is evidently a translation of the
French _Cassenoix_. In England we mean by 'nuts' filberts or
hazel-nuts; but the French word _noix_ is applied exclusively to
walnuts, our nuts being _noisettes_, or 'little nuts'; and French
authors are agreed that its food consists of insects, fruits, and
walnuts; that is, the ordinary diet of its relative, the Rook, whose
fondness for walnuts is notorious. It lays its eggs in the holes of
trees, and, except in the breeding season, is more or less gregarious
in its habits.


THE JAY
GÁRRULUS GLANDÁRIUS

Feathers of the crest greyish white, streaked with black; a
black moustache from the corners of the beak; general plumage
reddish grey, darker above; primaries dingy black; secondaries
velvet-black and pure white; inner tertials rich chestnut;
winglet and greater coverts barred with black, white, and
bright blue; upper and under tail-coverts pure white; iris
bright blue; beak black; feet livid brown. Length thirteen and
a half inches; breadth twenty-two inches. Eggs dull green,
minutely and thickly-speckled with olive-brown.

There exists among gamekeepers a custom of selecting a certain spot in
preserved woods, and there suspending, as trophies of their skill and
watchfulness, the bodies of such destructive animals as they have
killed in the pursuit of their calling. They are generally those of a
few stoats or weasels, a Hawk, a Magpie, an owl, and two or three
Jays. All these animals are judged to be destructive to game, and are
accordingly hunted to the death, the Jay, perhaps, with less reason
than the rest, for though it can hardly resist the temptation of
plundering, either of eggs or young, any nest, whether of Partridge or
Pheasant, that falls in its way, yet it does not subsist entirely upon
animal food, but also upon acorns and various other wild fruits. Its
blue feathers are much used in the manufacture of artificial flies.
Nevertheless, owing to their cautious and wary habits, there are few
wooded districts in which they are not more or less numerous. Their
jarring unconnected note, which characterizes them at all seasons, is
in spring and summer varied by their song proper, in which I have
never been able to detect anything more melodious than an accurate
imitation of the noise made by sawyers at work, though Montagu states
that 'it will, sometimes, in the spring utter a sort of song in a soft
and pleasing manner, but so low as not to be heard at any distance;
and at intervals introduces the bleating of a lamb, mewing of a cat,
the note of a Kite or Buzzard, hooting of an Owl, or even neighing of
a horse. These imitations are so exact, even in a natural wild state,
that we have frequently been deceived.' The Jay generally builds its
nest in a wood, either in the top of a low tree, or against the trunk
of a lofty one, employing as material small sticks, roots, and dry
grass, and lays five eggs. There seems to be a difference of opinion
as to the sociability of the family party after the young are fledged,
some writers stating that they separate by mutual consent, and that
each shifts for itself; others, that the young brood remains with the
old birds all the winter. For my own part, I scarcely recollect ever
having seen a solitary Jay, or to have heard a note which was not
immediately responded to by another bird of the same species, the
inference from which is that, though not gregarious, they are at least
social.

When domesticated, the Jay displays considerable intelligence; it is
capable of attachment, and learns to distinguish the hand and voice of
its benefactor.


[Illustration:

Great Grey Shrike [M]

Woodchat Shrike [M]

Red Backed Shrike [M]

Nutcracker [M]

[_p. 58._]]


[Illustration:

Raven [M]

Jay [F]

Chough

Magpie [F]]


THE MAGPIE
PICA RÚSTICA

Head, throat, neck, and back velvet-black; scapulars and under
plumage white; tail much graduated and, as well as the wings,
black, with lustrous blue and bronze reflections; beak, iris,
and feet black. Length eighteen inches; breadth twenty-three
inches. Eggs pale dirty green, spotted all over with ash-grey
and olive-brown.

The Magpie, like the Crow, labours under the disadvantage of an ill
name, and in consequence incurs no small amount of persecution. Owing
to the disproportionate length of its tail and shortness of its wings
its flight is somewhat heavy, so that if it were not cunning and wary
to a remarkable degree, it would probably well-nigh disappear from the
catalogue of British Birds. Yet though it is spared by none except
avowed preservers of all birds (like Waterton, who protects it 'on
account of its having nobody to stand up for it'), it continues to be
a bird of general occurrence, and there seems indeed to be but little
diminution of its numbers. Its nest is usually constructed among the
upper branches of a lofty tree, either in a hedgerow or deep in a
wood; or if it has fixed its abode in an unwooded district, it
selects the thickest thorn-bush in the neighbourhood and there erects
its castle. This is composed of an outwork of thorns and briers
supporting a mass of twigs and mud, which is succeeded by a layer of
fibrous roots. The whole is not only fenced round but arched over with
thorny sticks, an aperture being left, on one side only, large enough
to admit the bird. In this stronghold are deposited generally six
eggs, which in due time are succeeded by as many young ogres, who are
to be reared to birds by an unstinted supply of the most generous
diet. Even before their appearance the old birds have committed no
small havoc in the neighbourhood; now, however, that four times as
many mouths have to be filled, the hunting ground must either be more
closely searched or greatly extended. Any one who has had an
opportunity of watching the habits of a tame Magpie, must have
observed its extreme inquisitiveness and skill in discovering what was
intended to be concealed, joined, moreover, to an unscrupulous habit
of purloining everything that takes its roving fancy. Even when
surrounded by plenty and pampered with delicacies it prefers a stolen
morsel to what is legally its own. Little wonder then that when it has
to hunt on its own account for the necessaries of life, and is
stimulated besides by the cravings of its hungry brood, it has gained
an unenviable notoriety as a prowling bandit. In the harrying of
birds' nests no schoolboy can compete with it; Partridges and
Pheasants are watched to their retreat and plundered mercilessly of
their eggs and young; the smaller birds are treated in like manner:
hares and rabbits, if they suffer themselves to be surprised, have
their eyes picked out and are torn to pieces; rats, mice, and frogs
are a lawful prey; carrion, offal of all kinds, snails, worms, grubs,
and caterpillars, each in turn pleasantly vary the diet; and, when in
season, grain and fruit are attacked with as much audacity as is
consistent with safety; and might, whenever available, give a right to
stray chickens and ducklings. The young birds, nurtured in an
impregnable stronghold, and familiarized from their earliest days with
plunder, having no song to learn save the note of caution and alarm
when danger is near, soon become adepts in the arts of their parents,
and, before their first moult, are a set of inquisitive, chattering
marauders, wise enough to keep near the haunts of men because food is
there most abundant, cautious never to come within reach of the
fowling-piece, and cunning enough to carry off the call-bird from the
net without falling themselves into the snare. Even in captivity, with
all their drollery, they are unamiable.

Magpies, though generally distributed, are far more numerous in some
districts than others. In Cornwall they are very abundant; hence I
have heard them called Cornish Pheasants. In Ireland they are now very
common. It is stated that they are in France more abundant than in any
other country of Europe, where they principally build their nests in
poplar-trees, having discovered, it is said, 'that the brittle nature
of the boughs of this tree is an additional protection against
climbers!' 'In Norway', says a writer in the _Zoologist_,[10] 'this
bird, usually so shy in this country, and so difficult to approach
within gunshot, seems to have entirely changed its nature: it is there
the most domestic and fearless bird; its nest is invariably placed in
a small tree or bush adjoining some farm or cottage, and not
unfrequently in the very midst of some straggling village. If there
happens to be a suitable tree by the roadside and near a house, it is
a very favourable locality for a Norwegian Magpie's nest. I have often
wondered to see the confidence and fearlessness displayed by this bird
in Norway; he will only just move out of your horse's way as you drive
by him on the road, and should he be perched on a rail by the roadside
he will only stare at you as you rattle by, but never think of moving
off. It is very pleasant to see this absence of fear of man in
Norwegian birds; a Norwegian would never think of terrifying a bird
for the sake of sport; whilst, I fear, to see such a bird as the
Magpie sitting quietly on a rail within a few feet, would be to an
English boy a temptation for assault which he could not resist. I must
add, however, with regard to Magpies, that there is a superstitious
prejudice for them current throughout Norway; they are considered
harbingers of good luck, and are consequently always invited to
preside over the house; and, when they have taken up their abode in
the nearest tree, are defended from all ill; and he who should
maltreat the Magpie has perhaps driven off the _genius loci_, and so
may expect the most furious anger of the neighbouring dwelling, whose
good fortune he has thus violently dispersed.' Faith in the prophetic
powers of the Magpie even yet lingers in many of the rural districts
of England also.

[10] Vol. viii. p. 3085.


THE JACKDAW
CORVUS MONÉDULA

Crown of the head and upper parts black, with violet
reflections; back of the head and nape grey; lower parts duller
black; iris white; beak and feet black. Length thirteen inches;
breadth twenty-seven inches. Eggs very light blue, with
scattered spots of ash-colour and dark brown.

This lively and active bird, inferior in size as well as dignity to
the Rook, yet in many respects resembles it so closely that it might
be fabled to have made the Rook its model, and to have exercised its
imitative powers in the effort to become the object of its admiration.
A vain effort, however; for nature has given to it a slender form, a
shriller voice, a partially grey mantle, and an instinct which compels
it to be secretive even in the placing of its nest. Its note, which
may be represented either by the syllable 'jack' or 'daw', according
to the fancy of the human imitator, sounds like an impertinent attempt
to burlesque the full 'caw' of the Rook; it affects to be admitted
into the society of that bird on equal terms; but whether encouraged
as a friend, or tolerated as a parasite whom it is less troublesome to
treat with indifference than to chase away, is difficult to decide.
Most probably the latter; for although It is common enough to see a
party of Jackdaws dancing attendance on a flock of Rooks, accompanying
them to their feeding-grounds, and nestling in hollow trunks of trees
in close proximity to rookeries, they are neither courted nor
persecuted; they come when they like and go away when they please. On
the other hand, no one, I believe, ever saw a flock of Rooks making
the first advances towards an intimacy with a flock of Jackdaws, or
heard of their condescending to colonize a grove, because their
grey-headed relatives were located in the neighbourhood. On the
sea-coast, where Rooks are only casual visitors, the Jackdaw has no
opportunity of hanging himself on as an appendage to a rookery, but
even here he must be a client. With the choice of a long range of
cliff before him, he avoids that which he might have all to himself,
and selects a portion which, either because it is sheltered from
storms, or inaccessible by climbers, has been already appropriated by
Sea-mews.

The object of the Jackdaw in making church-towers its resort is pretty
evident. Where there is a church there is at least also a village,
and where men and domestic animals congregate, there the Jackdaw fails
not to find food; grubs in the fields, fruit in the orchards, and
garbage of all kinds in the waste ground. Here, too, it has a field
for exercising its singular acquisitiveness. Wonderful is the variety
of objects which it accumulates in its museum of a nest, which,
professedly a complication of sticks, may comprise also a few dozen
labels stolen from a Botanic Garden, an old tooth-brush, a child's
cap, part of a worsted stocking, a frill, etc. Waterton,[11] who
strongly defends it from the charge of molesting either the eggs or
young of pigeons, professes himself unable to account for its
pertinacious habit of collecting sticks for a nest placed where no
such support is seemingly necessary, and, cunning though it is,
comments on its want of adroitness in introducing sticks into its
hole: 'You may see the Jackdaw', he says, 'trying for a quarter of an
hour to get a stick into the hole, while every attempt will be futile,
because, the bird having laid hold of it by the middle, it is
necessarily thrown at right angles with the body, and the Daw cannot
perceive that the stick ought to be nearly parallel with its body
before it can be conveyed into the hole. Fatigued at length with
repeated efforts, and completely foiled in its numberless attempts to
introduce the stick, it lets it fall to the ground, and immediately
goes in quest of another, probably to experience another
disappointment on its return. When time and chance have enabled it to
place a quantity of sticks at the bottom of the hole, it then goes to
seek for materials of a more pliant and a softer nature.' These are
usually straw, wool, and feathers; but, as we have seen, nothing comes
amiss that catches its fancy. In addition to rocks, towers, and hollow
trees, it sometimes places its nest in chimneys or in rabbit-burrows,
but never, or in the rarest instances, among the open boughs of a
tree. It lays from four to six eggs, and feeds its young on worms and
insects, which it brings home in the pouch formed by the loose skin at
the base of its beak. When domesticated, its droll trickeries and
capability of imitating the human voice and other sounds are well
known. By turns affectionate, quarrelsome, impudent, confiding, it is
always inquisitive, destructive, and given to purloining; so that
however popular at first as a pet, it usually terminates its career by
some unregretted accident, or is consigned to captivity in a wicker
cage.

[11] _Essays on Natural History._ First Series, p. 109.


THE RAVEN
CORVUS CÓRAX

Plumage black with purple reflections; tail rounded, black,
extending two inches beyond the closed wings; beak strong,
black as well as the feet; iris with two circles, the inner
grey, the outer ash-brown. Length twenty-five inches; width
four feet. Eggs dirty green, spotted and speckled with brown.

The Raven, the largest of the Corvidæ, and possessing in an eminent
degree all the characteristics of its tribe except sociability, is the
bird which beyond all others has been regarded with feelings of awe by
the superstitious in all ages. In both instances in which specific
mention of it occurs in Holy Writ, it is singled out from among other
birds as gifted with a mysterious intelligence. Sent forth by Noah
when the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat, it perhaps found a
congenial home among the lonely crags strewed with the carcases of
drowned animals, and by failing to return, announced to the patriarch
that a portion of the earth, though not one fit for his immediate
habitation, was uncovered by the waters. At a subsequent period,
honoured with the mission of supplying the persecuted prophet with
food, it was taught to suppress its voracious instinct by the God who
gave it. The Raven figures prominently in most heathen mythologies,
and is almost everywhere regarded with awe by the ignorant even at the
present time. In Scandinavian mythology it was an important actor; and
all readers of Shakespeare must be familiar with passages which prove
it to have been regarded as a bird of dire omen.

The sad presaging Raven tolls
The sick man's passport in her hollow beak.
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wing.

_Marlowe._

In the Judgment of others, its friendly mission to the Tishbite
invested it with a sanctity which preserved it from molestation.

Apart from all traditional belief, the Raven derives its ill-omened
character as a herald of death from the rapidity with which it
discerns, in the vicinity of its haunts, the carcase of any dead
animal. In the coldest winter days, at Hudson's Bay, when every kind
of effluvium is greatly checked if not arrested by frost, buffaloes
and other beasts have been killed when not one of these birds was to
be seen; but in a few hours scores of them have been found collected
about the spot to pick up the blood and offal. 'In Ravens', says a
writer in the _Zoologist_,'the senses of smell and sight are
remarkably acute and powerful. Perched usually on some tall cliff that
commands a wide survey, these faculties are in constant and rapid
exercises, and all the movements of the bird are regulated in
accordance with the information thus procured. The smell of death is
so grateful to them that they utter a loud croak of satisfaction
instantly on perceiving it. In passing any sheep, if a tainted smell
is perceptible, they cry vehemently. From this propensity in the Raven
to announce his satisfaction in the smell of death has probably arisen
the common notion that he is aware of its approach among the human
race, and foretells it by his croakings.' The same observant author,
as quoted by Macgillivray, says again: 'Their sight and smell are
very acute, for when they are searching the wastes for provision, they
hover over them at a great height; and yet a sheep will not be dead
many minutes before they will find it. Nay, if a morbid smell
transpire from any in the flock, they will watch it for days till it
die.'

To such repasts they are guided more by scent than by sight, for
though they not unfrequently ascend to a great height in the air, they
do not then appear to be on the look-out for food. This duty is
performed more conveniently and with greater success by beating over
the ground at a low elevation. In these expeditions they do not



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 10 of 39)