C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

. (page 11 of 39)
Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 11 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

confine themselves to carrion, but prey indiscriminately on all
animals which they are quick enough to capture and strong enough to
master. Hares, rabbits, rats, mice, lizards, game of various kinds,
eggs, and the larger insects, all of these enter into their diet, and,
wanting these, they resort to the sea-shore for refuse fish, or
ransack dunghills in villages, before the inhabitants are astir, for
garbage of all sorts. Pliny even relates that in a certain district of
Asia Minor they were trained to hawk for game like the noble Falcons.
Few of these qualifications tend to endear them to mankind; and as
they are dreaded by shepherds on account of their being perhaps more
than suspected of making away with sickly lambs when occasion offers,
and of plundering poultry yards, Ravens are become, in populous
districts, almost unknown birds. I have only seen them myself on the
rocky sea-shore of Devon and Cornwall, in the wilds of Dartmoor, and
the Highlands of Scotland. There was for many successive years a nest
built on a ledge of granite near the Bishop Rock, in Cornwall, a huge
mass of sticks, and what appeared to be grass, inaccessible from
below, but commanded by a venturous climber from above. Where it still
continues to breed inland, it places its nest, constructed of sticks
and lined with the wool and fur of its victims, either on an
inaccessible rock, or near the summit of a lofty tree, the ill-omened
'Raven-tree' of romances. In the north of Scotland, in the Orkneys and
Hebrides, where it is still abundant, it builds its nest in cliffs
which it judges to be inaccessible, both inland and on the sea-shore,
showing no marked preference for either. Two pairs never frequent the
same locality, nor is any other bird of prey permitted to establish
itself in their vicinity. Even the Eagle treats the Raven with
respect, and leaves it to its solitude, not so much from fear of its
prowess, as worn out by its pertinacious resistance of all dangerous
intruders. Hence, in some districts, shepherds encourage Ravens,
because they serve as a repellent to Eagles; while in others, where
Eagles are of unusual occurrence, they allow them to build their nests
undisturbed, but when the young are almost fledged, destroy them by
throwing stones at them from above. Nevertheless the original pair
continues to haunt the same locality for an indefinite term of years,
and it is not a little singular that if one of them be killed, the
survivor will find a mate in an incredibly short space of time.

The geographical range of the Raven is very extensive. Throughout all
the zones of the Northern Hemisphere it is to be found; and having
this wide range, its physical constitution is strong, and it lives to
a great age, amounting, so the ancients tell us, to twenty-seven times
the period of a man's life. The note of the Raven is well described by
the word '_croak_', but it is said by those who have had the
opportunity of observing it under various circumstances, to utter
another sound, resembling the word '_whii-ur_'. With this cry it very
commonly intermixes another, sounding like '_clung_', uttered very
much as by a human voice, only a little wilder in the sound. From the
cry _croak_ the Raven no doubt derives its Latin name _Corvus_ the
French _Corbeau_, and its common Scotch appellation _Corbie_.


Black, with green and violet reflections; tail slightly
rounded, extending an inch and a quarter beyond the closed
wings; iris dark hazel; lower part of the beak covered with
bristly feathers; beak and feet black. Length nineteen inches;
breadth three feet. Eggs bluish green, spotted and speckled
with ash-grey and olive.

Breeding early in the year, like the Raven, the Carrion Crow builds
its nest in some tree which, from its loftiness or other reason, is
difficult of ascent, where its young ones are hatched about the time
that most other birds are laying their eggs, and when the lambing
season is at its height. Then, too, its habits are most fully
developed. Its young are clamorous for food, and will not be satisfied
with a little. So the old bird sallies forth to scour the districts
least frequented by man, and makes every living thing its prey,
provided that by force or cunning it can overpower it. If Grouse are
plentiful, it is said that one pair, what with stealing the eggs and
carrying off the young, will in a season destroy more of them than the
keenest sportsman. It will pounce on the leveret and bear it screaming
from the side of its mother. It watches sheep which have strayed from
the fold, and mangles the newly-born or weakly lambs, carrying them
piece-meal to the young ones at home. If mowers are at work, the wary
birds alight on some lofty tree, taking care to keep at a safe
distance, and when a nest has been laid bare by the scythe, their
incredibly sharp eye discerns the prize which, whether it consist of
eggs or callow young, is borne off in triumph. Lest their depredations
should be discovered by the accumulation of egg-shells, feathers and
bones, which are the natural consequence of these raids, they
carefully carry to some distance everything that would tend to betray
them, so that one might pass directly beneath the scene of these
enormities unsuspicious of the evil existing overhead. Keen as this
bird is in pursuit of such delicate fare, he can be, when occasion
serves, as unclean a feeder as the Vulture, and he can, on the other
hand, make a meal off corn. Mr. Knox states that in the Weald of
Sussex, where the Raven is common, it resorts to the brooks and ponds,
which abound in fresh-water mussels (_Anodon_), and feeds on them most
voraciously, especially after floods, when they lie scattered on the
mud. The same author states that in winter it resorts to the
sea-shore, and feeds on the oysters, mussels, small crabs, marine
insects, worms, and dead fish which are cast up by the waves during
the prevalent south-westerly storms. It has been frequently observed,
he adds, to ascend to a great height in the air with an oyster in its
claws, and after letting it fall on the beach, to descend rapidly with
closed pinions and devour the contents. A similar instance of apparent
reasoning is recorded of the same bird by Pliny, but with the
substitution of walnuts for oysters.

With such wandering habits, it seems at first sight strange that the
phrase 'as the Crow flies' should be adopted to mark distances in a
straight line across the open country; yet when it is borne in mind
how many persons confound the Crow with the Rook, and even talk of the
'Crows in a rookery', the suggestion will at once occur to the mind
that the term owed its origin to its far gentler and more respectable
relation, the Rook, whose evening flights from the feeding-ground are
among the most familiar sights of the country, and are invariably
performed in a line so straight, that if a whole flock could be
tracked through the air on any one evening it would be found scarcely
to deviate from that of the preceding or the following. It is to be
feared that this inaccurate application of names has done the Rook ill
service; yet the two birds are totally distinct; Crows are solitary
birds, rarely being seen in more than pairs together; Rooks are
eminently sociable. Crows shun the haunts of men; Rooks court the
vicinity of his dwellings. Crows are carnivorous; Rooks feed
principally on the grubs of beetles, worms, and noxious insects,
rewarding themselves occasionally for their services by regaling on
corn and fruits, but rarely touching carrion or molesting living
animals. In appearance the two birds are much alike; the Crow,
however, is somewhat smaller, the beak is stouter at the point and
encircled at the base with numerous short feathers, while the bill of
the Rook is encroached on by a white membrane which is almost bare of
feathers. Both are noted for their intelligence; the Crow has been
known to remove its eggs from its nest when apprehensive of danger; it
was held in high consideration in the days of augury, and certain of
its movements were considered to be indicative of changes in the
weather. It builds its nest of sticks, and lines it with moss, straw,
hair, and wool, and lays from four to six eggs. Like the Raven, it is
a widely-diffused bird, and attains a great age, outliving (the
ancients said) nine generations of men, showing great attachment to
any spot in which it has once fixed its home, and suffering neither
its own progeny nor any other large birds to nestle in its vicinity.

This Crow is becoming more numerous of late in the close vicinity of
London. It comes constantly to some of our suburban gardens.


Head, throat, wings and tail black, the rest of the plumage
ash-grey; tail rounded; beak and feet black; iris brown. Length
nineteen and a half inches; breadth three feet two inches. Eggs
bluish green, mottled with ash-grey and olive.

The Hooded Crow closely resembles the Carrion Crow, scarcely differing
from it in fact except in colour. They are, however, perfectly
distinct species, and for the most part exercise their calling in
separate haunts. In Norway Hooded Crows are very abundant, to the
almost total exclusion of the Carrion Crow and Rook, and, though not
congregating so as to form a society like the last-named bird, they
may be seen simultaneously employed in searching for food in groups
which collectively amount to a hundred or more. Though numerous in the
winter at Newmarket Heath and Royston (where they are sometimes called
Royston Crows), and annually resorting to many parts of the sea-coast,
they rarely breed so far south. In the Isle of Man, the Orkneys,
Hebrides, and in all but the south of Scotland they are of more
frequent occurrence than any other of the tribe, essentially belonging
to the 'Land of the mountain and the flood'. It is on the increase in
Ireland and very unwelcome there. One can scarcely traverse the shores
of the salt-water lochs of Scotland without seeing a pair, or, in the
latter part of the year, a small party of four or five of these birds,
gravely pacing the shingle and sand in quest of food. As far as my own
experience goes, I should consider the Hooded Crow as 'half sea-bird',
but it is said to be met with, in summer, in the very centre of the
Grampians and other inland districts. Its proper diet consists of the
smaller marine animals, such as crabs, echini, and molluscs, alive or
dead, fish and carrion. At high-water it retires inland, and skulks
about the low grounds in quest of the eggs and young of Moor-fowl,
thereby gaining the execrations of gamekeepers; takes a survey of any
adjacent sheep-walks, on the chance of falling in with a new-born
lamb, or sickly ewe, whence it has but an ill name among shepherds;
and returns when the tide has well ebbed, to finish the day's repast
on food of a nature light and easy of digestion. It is less wary of
man than the Carrion Crow, and often comes within shot, but, being far
too numerous to admit of being exterminated, is but little assailed.
In the comparatively mild climate of the Scottish sea-coast, these
birds find an abundant supply of food all the year round and as there
is no sensible diminution of their numbers in winter, it is supposed
that those which frequent the English coast from October to March have
been driven southwards by the inclement winters of high latitudes.
They are then frequently observed on the coast of Norfolk and Sussex
in parties of thirty or more, and it has been remarked that the
hunting grounds of the two species are defined by singularly precise
limits, the neighbourhood of Chichester being frequented by the
Carrion Crow, that of Brighton by its congener. It is abundant on the
sea-coast of Norfolk in the winter, where I have seen it feeding with
Gulls, Plovers, etc. In musical capabilities it is inferior even to
its relative, its solitary croak being neither so loud nor so clear.
The nest of the Hooded Crow is large, composed of twigs, sea-weeds,
heath, feathers, and straws, and is placed on rocks, tall trees, low
bushes, and elsewhere, according to circumstances.



Jackdaw [M]

Crow [M]

Hooded Crow [F]

[_p. 68._]]


Pied Flycatcher [M] _imm._ [M] Spotted Flycatcher [F]

Waxwing [M] [M]

Greenfinch [M] _young_ [F]]


Plumage black, with purple and violet reflections; base of the
beak, nostrils; and region round the beak bare of feathers and
covered with a white scurf, iris greyish white; beak and feet
black. Length eighteen inches; breadth three feet. Eggs pale
green, thickly blotched with olive and dark-brown.

As the Hooded Crow is essentially the type of the Corvidæ in
Scandinavia and the Isles of Scotland, where the Carrion Crow and Rook
are all but unknown, so in England the representative of the tribe is
the Rook, a bird so like the Crow that it is called by its name almost
as frequently as by its own, yet so different in habits that, instead
of being under a perpetual and universal ban, it is everywhere
encouraged and indeed all but domesticated. There are few English
parks that do not boast of their rookery, and few proprietors of
modern demesnes pretending to be parks, who would not purchase at a
high price the air of antiquity and respectability connected with an
established colony of these birds. Owing to their large size and the
familiarity with which they approach the haunts of men, they afford a
facility in observing their habits which belongs to no other birds;
hence all treatises on Natural History, and other publications which
enter into the details of country life in England, abound in anecdotes
of the Rook. Its intelligence, instinctive appreciation of danger,
voracity, its utility or the reverse, its nesting, its morning repasts
and its evening flights, have all been observed and more or less
faithfully recorded again and again; so that its biography is better
known than that of any other British bird. It would be no difficult
task to compile from these materials a good-sized volume, yet I doubt
not that enough remains untold, or at least not sufficiently
authenticated, to furnish a fair field of inquiry to any competent
person who would undertake to devote his whole attention to this one
bird for a considerable period of time. Such a biographer should make
himself master of all that has been recorded by various authorities,
and should then visit a large number of rookeries in all parts of the
kingdom, collecting and sifting evidence, making a series of personal
observations, and spreading his researches over all seasons of the
year. Such an inquiry, trivial though it may seem, would be most
useful, for the Rook, though it has many friends, has also many
enemies, and, being everywhere abundant, its agency for good or evil
must have serious results. The following account being imperfect from
want of space, the reader who wishes to know more about this
interesting bird must refer to our standard works on Ornithology, and,
above all, record and compare his own personal observations.

In the early spring months Rooks subsist principally on the larvæ and
worms turned up by the plough, and without gainsay, they are then
exceedingly serviceable to the agriculturist, by destroying a vast
quantity of noxious insects which, at this period of their growth,
feed on the leaves or roots of cultivated vegetables. Experience has
taught them that the ploughman either has not the power or the desire
to molest them; they therefore approach the plough with perfect
fearlessness, and show much rivalry in their efforts to be first to
secure the treasures just turned up. During the various processes to
which the ground is subjected in preparation for the crop, they repeat
their visits, spreading more widely over the field, and not only pick
up the grubs which lie on the surface, but bore for such as, by
certain signs best known to themselves, lie concealed. I need not say
that in all these stages the wisdom of the farmer is to offer them
every inducement to remain; all that they ask is to be let alone. Not
so, however, when the seed-crop is sown. Grain, pulse, and potatoes
are favourite articles of diet with them, and they will not fail to
attack these as vigorously as they did the grubs a few days before.
They are therefore undeniably destructive at this season, and all
available means should be adopted to deter them from alighting on
cultivated ground. About the second week in March they desert the
winter roosting places, to which they had nightly congregated in
enormous flocks, leave off their wandering habits, and repair as if
by common consent to their old breeding places. Here, with much cawing
and bustling, they survey the ruins of their old nests, or select
sites for new ones, being guided by their instinct to avoid all those
trees the upper branches of which are too brittle for their purpose
either because the trees are sickly or in an incipient state of decay.
Hence, when it has occasionally happened that a nestless tree in a
rookery has been blown down, the birds have been saluted as prophets,
while in reality the tree yielded to the blast before its fellows
because it was unsound, the Rooks knowing nothing about the matter
except that signs of decay had set in among the upper twigs while as
yet all seemed solid beneath. How the birds squabble about their
nests, how they punish those thievishly disposed, how they drive away
intruders from strange rookeries, how scrupulously they avoid, during
building, to pick up a stick that has chanced to drop, how the male
bird during incubation feeds his mate with the most luscious grubs
brought home in the baggy pouch at the base of his bill, how every
time that a bird caws while perched he strains his whole body forward
and expands his wings with the effort, all these things, and many
more, I must pass over without further notice, leaving them to be
verified by the reader with the help of a good field-glass. I must,
however, mention, in passing, the custom so generally adopted by
sportsmen, of shooting the young birds as soon as they are
sufficiently fledged to climb from their nests to the adjoining twigs,
or to perform their first tentative flight over the summits of the
trees. It is supposed to be necessary to keep down their numbers, but
this is a disputed point. I have, however, little doubt that Rooks
during the whole of their lives associate the memory of these
_battues_ with the appearance of a man armed with a gun. Many people
believe that Rooks know the smell of powder: they have good reason to
know it; but that they are as much alarmed at the sight of a stick as
a gun in the hand of a man, may be proved by any one who, chancing to
pass near a flock feeding on the ground, suddenly raises a stick. They
will instantly fly off, evidently in great alarm.

While the young are being reared, the parent birds frequent
corn-fields and meadows, where they search about for those plants
which indicate the presence of a grub at the root. Such they
unscrupulously uproot, and make a prize of the destroyer concealed
beneath. They are much maligned for this practise, but without reason;
for, admitting that they kill the plant as well as the grub, it must
be borne in mind that several of the grubs on which they feed
(cockchafer and daddy-longlegs) live for several years underground,
and that, during that period, they would if left undisturbed, have
committed great ravages. I have known a large portion of a bed of
lettuces destroyed by a single grub of _Melolontha_, having actually
traced its passage underground from root to root, and found it
devouring the roots of one which appeared as yet unhurt. Clearly, a
Rook would have done me a service by uprooting the first lettuce, and
capturing its destroyer.

I must here advert to a peculiar characteristic of the Rook which
distinguishes it specifically from the Crow. The skin surrounding the
base of the bill, and covering the upper part of the throat, is, in
the adult birds, denuded of feathers. Connected with this subject many
lengthy arguments have been proposed in support of two distinct
opinions: one, that the bareness above mentioned is occasioned by the
repeated borings of the bird for its food; the other, that the
feathers fall off naturally at the first moult, and are never
replaced. I am inclined to the latter view, and that for two reasons:
first, if it be necessary (and that is not at all clear) that the
Rook, in order to supply itself with food, should have no feathers at
the base of its bill, I believe that nature would not have resorted to
so clumsy a contrivance, and one so annoying to the bird, as that of
wearing them away bit by bit: and, secondly, the bare spot is, as far
as I have observed, of the same size and shape in all birds, and at
all periods of the year, a uniformity which can scarcely be the result
of digging in soils of various kinds, and at all seasons. I cannot,
therefore, but think that the appearance in question is the result of
a law in the natural economy of the bird, that the feathers are not
_rubbed_ off, but _fall_ off, and that they are not renewed, because
nature never intended that they should grow there permanently; if not,
why is there no similar abrasion in the Crow? The number of lambs
eaten by Crows is very small after all, and birds' eggs are not always
in season, nor is carrion so very abundant; so that, during a great
portion of the year, even Crows must dig for their livelihood, and the
great distinction between a Crow and a Rook is, that the former has
actually no bare space at the base of his bill. But the question is
still open, and the reader may make his own observations, which in
Natural History, as well as in many other things, are far better than
other people's theories.

In very dry summer weather, Rooks are put to great shifts in obtaining
food. Grubs and worms descend to a great depth to get beyond the
influence of the drought, and the soil is too parched and hard for
digging; they then retire to the sea-shore, to marshes, fresh-water
and salt, to cabbage and potato gardens, and in the last-named
localities they are again disposed to become marauders. To fruit
gardens they are rarely permitted to resort, or they would commit
great ravages. As the season advances, ripe walnuts are a very
powerful attraction, and when they have discovered a tree well
supplied with fruit, a race ensues between them and the proprietor as
to which shall appropriate the greater share, so slyly do they watch
for opportunities, and so quick are they in gathering them and
carrying them off in their beaks. In long winter frosts, or when the
ground is covered with snow, they are again reduced to straits. Some
resort to the sea-shore and feed on garbage of all kinds, some to
turnip-fields where they dig holes in the bulbs. They have also been
observed to chase and kill small birds, which, as near starvation as
themselves, have been unable to fly beyond their reach, and I have
even seen a Rook catch a small fish.

I must not conclude this imperfect sketch without noticing a peculiar
habit of Rooks, which is said to portend rain. A flock will suddenly
rise into the air almost perpendicularly, with great cawing and
curious antics, until they have reached a great elevation, and then,
having attained their object, whatever that may be, drop with their
wings almost folded till within a short distance of the ground, when
they recover their propriety, and alight either on trees or on the
ground with their customary grave demeanour. Occasionally in autumn,
as White of Selborne remarks,

Sooth'd by the genial warmth, the cawing Rook
Anticipates the spring, selects her mate,
Haunts her tall nests, and with sedulous care
Repairs her wicker eyrie, tempest torn.

Similar instances of this unseasonable pairing are recorded by modern

Efforts are sometimes made, and not always unsuccessfully, to induce
Rooks to establish a colony in a new locality. One plan is to place
some eggs taken from a Rook's nest in that of some large bird which
has happened to build in the desired spot, that of a Crow for
instance, a Magpie, Jackdaw, Jay, or perhaps a Mistle Thrush. If the
young are reared, it is probable that they will return to breed in the
same place in the following year. Another plan which has been tried
with success is to place several bundles of sticks, arranged in the

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 11 of 39)