C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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form of nests, among the highest branches of the trees which it is
desired to colonize. Stray Rooks in quest of a settlement, mistaking
these for ruins of old nests, accept the invitation and establish
themselves if the locality suits them in other respects.

During 1907-1908 the economic rôle played by the Rook has been
thoroughly investigated by ornithologists and farmers all over
Hungary, with the results that this bird stands as a friend rather
than a foe to agriculture.



Head, nape, and back, bright ash grey; a broad black band
beneath the eyes; under plumage pure white; wings short, black;
base of the primaries and tips of the secondaries white; tail
with the two middle feathers black, and the outer on each side
white with a black spot at the base, the rest black and white;
bill and feet black. _Female_ of a more dingy hue above; below
dull white, the proportion of black in the feathers increasing
as they approach the middle; each feather of the breast
terminating in a crescent-shaped ash grey spot. Length ten
inches; breadth fourteen inches. Eggs bluish white, spotted at
the larger end with two shades of brown. Sylvan. Young barred

The family of Shrikes, or Butcher-birds, would seem to occupy an
intermediate station between birds of prey and insectivorous birds.
The subject of the present chapter especially, though little
resembling a Hawk in appearance, has, on account of its habits, some
pretension to be ranked among birds of prey; from which, however, it
differs in the essential particular that, as well as the rest of the
family, it seizes and carries off its prey with its beak and not with
its claws. Although a fairly common visitor from autumn to spring this
Shrike does not breed with us, and is rarer in Ireland. It derives
its name _excubitor_ (sentinel) from its favourite habit of posting
itself on the topmost twig of a poplar or other lofty tree, whence it
keeps up a watchful look-out, not only for its prey, but for any bird
of the Hawk tribe, against which it wages incessant and deadly
hostility. When it descries one of these birds, which it does at a
great distance, it utters a shriek, as if for the purpose of giving an
alarm, a cry which is instantly repeated by all birds of the same
species which happen to be within hearing. This antipathy against
birds of prey is taken advantage of by fowlers in France, who, when
setting their nets for hawks, take with them a 'sentinel' Shrike and
station it near the living bird, which they employ as a lure. So rapid
is the swoop of the Falcon that but for the warning cry of the Shrike
it would descend and carry off its victim before the fowler had time
to close his nets; but the keen eye of the sentinel detects, and his
shrill cry announces, the approach of his enemy, and the fowler has
time to prepare. The principal food of this bird appears to be mice,
frogs, lizards and insects, especially the stag-beetle and
grasshopper, though in its natural state it will capture and destroy
any birds inferior to itself in strength and courage. Its name
_Lanius_ (Latin for butcher) and Butcher-bird were given to it from
its habit of impaling beetles and small birds on thorns in the
vicinity of its nest. Its flight is peculiar, being composed of a
series of dips, like that of the Wagtail; and when it quits its perch
on the summit of one tall tree to fly to another, it drops and rises
again so as to form a curve like that of a loose rope hung from two
tall masts. Another peculiarity of the Shrike is a remarkable power of
imitating the song of other birds, which it is said to exercise in
order to obtain its food more easily, by beguiling the nestlings of
the smaller birds into answering it by a chirrup, and so betraying
their retreat. The notes which it has been observed to imitate are
those of the Nightingale, Robin, Swallow, and Stonechat. Its proper
note is harsh, resembling somewhat that of the Kestrel, _Shake-shake_!
the call note is _truii_! Of the Lesser Grey Shrike, _Lanius minor_,
there have been few occurrences in these Islands.


Grey above: breast and flanks roseate; wing-bar white.

Of this species only four occurrences recorded until recently - in
Scilly Islands, Norfolk and Devon.


Head, nape, shoulders and upper tail-coverts ash-grey, a black
band reaching from the gape to beyond the ears; back,
scapulars, and wing-coverts reddish brown; throat white,
passing into rose-red on the breast and flanks; wings blackish,
edged with reddish brown; tail nearly even at the end, four
middle feathers black tipped with reddish grey, the rest white
from the base through two-thirds of their length, the other
third black with a white tip; second primary longer than the
fifth. _Female_ - upper plumage rusty brown, tinged near the
nape and tail with ash-grey; lower white, the sides barred
transversely by narrow curved lines; outer webs and tips of the
outer tail feathers yellowish white, four middle ones uniform
dusky brown. Length seven inches; breadth eleven inches. Eggs
cream-coloured, greenish, or delicate grey variously mottled
and spotted with light brown and ash-grey.

The Red-backed Shrike, though not generally diffused throughout
England, is to certain localities a far from uncommon wanderer, but
for some reason it has been scarce in 1908. In the wooded districts of
the midland and southern counties many specimens may be annually
observed, and the nest is of frequent occurrence. This is usually
placed a few feet from the ground, in the middle of a thick bush or
hedge; and, very unlike that of the rapacious birds, is a massive,
well-built structure of twigs, dry grass, and moss, lined with hair
and fine roots. This bird is called in France _l'êcorcheur_ (the
flayer), from the custom ascribed to it of skinning the bodies of its
victims before devouring them. Its habits and food are similar to
those of the last species, and it is said also to possess the same
imitative power. That it impales insects and even young birds on
thorns there can be no doubt as it has been watched by a competent
observer in the very act of thus dealing with the carcase of a

A professional bird-catcher told how a Red-backed Shrike once pounced
on one of his call-birds (a linnet), and attempted to carry it off;
but being prevented from doing so by the linnet being fastened to the
ground by a string and wooden peg, the Shrike tore off the head of its
victim, with which it made its escape. The bird-catcher then drew out
from the ground the peg which held down the linnet, and left the dead
bird lying in the net. In about half an hour the Shrike again
appeared, pounced upon the body of the dead linnet, and carried it off
in its beak, with the string and peg hanging to it; the weight of the
latter was probably the cause of the Shrike not carrying its prey
quite away, as it dropped it after flying about fifteen yards, when
the bird-catcher again picked up the dead linnet, and replaced it in
the net. The Shrike in the meantime retreated to some neighbouring
bushes, from which it soon made a third pounce upon the nets, this
time attacking the second call-bird, which was a sparrow. On this
occasion, however, the bird-catcher was on the watch, and, drawing his
nets, captured the Shrike, which proved to be an adult female. This
daring act was observed late in the month of June, when, perhaps, the
courage of the mother bird was unusually excited by the cravings of
her brood at home, and further stimulated by the impression that the
call-birds were in trouble, and consequently offered an easy prey.

An amiable trait in the character of this Shrike is its attachment to
its mate and young. A female has been known to approach so close to
the cage in which her captured lord was confined, that she was herself
easily taken; and when a nest of young birds is molested, both parents
defend their offspring with astonishing intrepidity.

The Red-backed Shrike is known to us only as a summer visitor,
departing early in autumn. Its note is a harsh _chuck!_ but the song
of the mate is somewhat pleasant.


Forehead and cheeks black; nape bright rust colour; back and
wings variegated with black, white, and reddish brown; under
parts white; outer tail feathers white, with a square black
spot at the base on the inner web, the two next with the black
spot larger, and on both webs, the two middle ones wholly
black, the rest black tipped with white; tail slightly rounded;
second primary equal in length to the fifth. _Female_ - all her
colours dingy; breast marked transversely with fine brown
lines. Length, seven and a half inches. Eggs bluish white,
spotted at the larger end with brown and ash-grey.

The habits of this bird, which is a very rare visitant to the British
Isles, differ in no material respect from those of the foregoing
species. On the Continent it is more frequent in the south than the
north, where it frequents trees rather than bushes, and generally
places its nest, which it constructs of twigs, moss, and white lichen,
in the forked branch of an oak. Like the rest of the family it is
migratory, coming and departing at the same time as the other species.



Feathers of the head elongated, forming a crest; upper plumage
purplish red; lower the same, but of a lighter tint; throat and
lore black; greater wing-coverts black, tipped with white;
primaries black, with a yellow or white angular spot near the
extremity, six or eight of the secondaries and tertiaries
having the shaft prolonged and terminating in a substance
resembling red sealing-wax; tail black, tipped with yellow.
Length eight inches. Eggs pale blue, with a few streaks of
brown and lilac.

The Waxwing is an elegant bird, of about the size of a Thrush. It
visits this country, and in fact every other European country where it
is known at all, at irregular intervals, generally in flocks, which
vary in number from eight or ten to some scores. Thus it is everywhere
a stranger; and little was known till recently of its nesting habits.
It is perhaps on account of this ignorance of its natural history,
that it has borne a variety of names which are as inappropriate as
possible. Temminck describes it under the name Bombycivora, or
devourer of Bombyx, a large moth, a name quite unfit for a bird which
lives exclusively on fruits and berries. This was softened into
Bombycilla, which means, I presume, a little Bombyx, though the bird
in question is far larger than any known moth. Its French name
_Jaseur_, equivalent to the English one, Chatterer, is quite as
inappropriate, as it is singularly silent. In default of all certain
information, then, I venture to surmise that, coming in parties no one
knows whence, and going no one knows whither, they may have received
the name Bohemian, because they resemble in their habits the wandering
tribes of gypsies, who were formerly called indifferently Egyptians
and Bohemians. Taken in this sense, the Bohemian or _Wandering_
Waxwing, as it used to be called, is a name open to no exception. The
plumage of the bird is silky, and that of the head is remarkable for
forming a crest, and being capable of being elevated, as in the
Cardinal. Its black gorget and tiara, the patches of white, yellow,
and black described above, make it very conspicuous for colouring, and
the singularity of its appearance is much increased by the appendages
to its secondaries and tertiaries, which resemble in colour and
substance red sealing-wax. In very old birds these waxen appendages
are also to be found at the extremities of the tail-feathers, being no
more than the shafts of the feathers, condensed with the web. In its
habits the Waxwing resembles the Tits. It feeds on insects, fruit,
berries, and seeds. Its call-note is a twitter, which it rarely
utters, except when taking flight and alighting. The Waxwing is a
northern bird, and Dr. Richardson, the Arctic traveller, informs us
that he one day saw a flock, consisting of three or four hundred
birds, alight on one or two trees in a grove of poplars, making a loud
twittering noise. One of its German names, _Schneevogel_ (snowbird),
was evidently given in this belief. It is sometimes caught and caged,
but has nothing but its beautiful colouring to recommend it. It is a
stupid lazy bird, occupied only in eating and reposing for digestion.
Its song is weak and uncertain.


MUSCICAPIDÆ. - Nostrils more or less covered by bristly hairs


Upper plumage ash-brown; feathers of the head marked with a
central dark line; under parts white, the sides marked with
longitudinal brown streaks; flanks tinged with red. Length six
inches; breadth ten inches. Eggs bluish white, mottled with
reddish spots, which are deepest in colour towards the larger

There are few birds with whose haunts and habits we are more familiar
than those of the common Flycatcher. In the wooded parts of England
there is scarcely a country house, perhaps, which has not in its
neighbourhood at least a single pair of these birds, who, though their
stay with us is but short, become as necessary appendages of the
garden during the summer months as the Redbreast is in winter. They
have neither song to recommend them nor brilliancy of colouring; yet
the absence of these qualities is more than compensated by the
confidence they repose in the innocent intentions of the human beings
whose protection they claim, by their strong local attachments, and by
their unceasing activity in the pursuit of flying insects. At any time
during the months of June, July, and August, in most country and
suburban gardens, one may observe perched on a railing, standard rose,
or the low branch of an apple-tree, a small brownish bird, with a
speckled breast, about the size of a Sparrow, but more slender in
form, taking no notice of human beings, but nevertheless evidently on
the look-out for something. Suddenly it darts from its position, flies
rapidly forwards for a few yards, performs an evolution in the air,
and returns either to the exact spot which it had previously occupied
or to a similar one hard by. After a rest of a few seconds, it
performs the same manœuvre, and always with the same object and
success. Every time it quitted its perch, some ill-fated fly or beetle
was discovered, winging its way through the air, and captured to be
devoured on the spot, or to form part of a pellet of insect food for a
hungry nestling. The nest, composed of moss, straws, and hair, and
lined with feathers, is usually placed either against a wall, hidden
by the leaves of a trained fruit-tree, or on the horizontal bough of a
standard apple-tree. During the year 1859, a pair of these birds had
taken up their quarters in my own garden in a situation such as that
first described, but becoming dissatisfied with the locality even
after the nest had received its complement of eggs - five - deserted it,
and built another nest in an apple-tree a few yards off, choosing a
position on a short branch, where their workmanship was concealed from
the sight of passengers by a cluster of large apples. The bough
overhung a path by which many persons passed to and fro every day; but
the nest was built, and the old birds hatched their eggs, neither
noticed nor noticing, until one day when I happened to stop
underneath, upon which the bird took flight, and so revealed her place
of retreat. I do not mention this incident as anything remarkable, but
simply to exemplify the habits of the bird when it has taken up its
residence in a frequented garden, and in contrast with its treatment
of intruders when it has chosen a more secluded spot for a home. A few
days after, I happened to be fly-fishing on the bank of a stream close
to which grew some tall elm-trees. Under one of these I was pursuing
my amusement, when a flycatcher darted from a tree on the opposite
side of the stream, and flew so close to my face that to dip my head
out of the way was unavoidable. The same movement was repeated again
and again, making it impossible for me to persist. Suspecting that
there was a nest somewhere very near me, I looked up and discovered,
within a few inches of my head, a nest built against the hole of the
tree, and containing four or five nearly fledged young ones, whose
heads and breasts projected considerably beyond the edge of their
mossy cradle. As I moved away, the parent bird hopped about uneasily
in a neighbouring tree, uttering its monotonous and unmusical chirrup,
but molested me no further. It would seem then that the garden bird,
grown familiar with the human form, was unsuspicious of danger, while
the other, who had not been accustomed to see her sanctuary
approached, immediately took alarm. It is supposed that the same birds
are in the habit of returning annually to their old resort. Both the
above incidents tend to give weight to this opinion: one of the birds
having been reared, probably in the garden, and so having been
accustomed to the sight of men from the first; the other having been
always a recluse. The fact which fell under my own notice, that a nest
was built, and a brood reared for three successive years in exactly
the same spot, is, I think, conclusive evidence that either the same
birds or their immediate descendants were the architects, it being
scarcely credible that three several pairs of birds should have fixed
on the same spot by accident. Mr. Denham Weir has observed that the
Spotted Flycatcher consumes only a day and a half in the construction
of its nest, and that a pair of birds which he watched fed their young
no less than five hundred and thirty-seven times in one day, beginning
at twenty-five minutes before four o'clock in the morning, and ending
at ten minutes before nine in the evening. The young birds assume the
adult plumage in their first year, and soon learn to hawk for their
prey as well as their parents. I have recorded elsewhere an instance
in which the parent birds contrived to feed a disabled young one after
it had left the nest. The Flycatcher arrives in England about the end
of April, and leaves about the end of September.


Upper plumage and tail black, the wings black, with the central
coverts white; scapulars edged with white; under plumage white.
In the _female_ the black is replaced by greyish brown, the
white is dingy, and the three lateral tail feathers are edged
with white. Length five inches. Eggs pale blue, generally
without spots.

The Pied Flycatcher, so called from its feathers being varied with
black and white, is a smaller bird than the preceding, and by no means
so common, being very local as a breeder. It appears, indeed, to be
mainly confined to the northern counties of England, where it arrives
about the middle of April, and builds its nest of dry leaves, small
roots, grass, and a little hair, loosely put together, in the hole of
a tree. There it lays from five to seven pale blue eggs, very like,
both in size and colour, those of the Redstart, which it also much
resembles in habits. It has more claim to be considered a songster
than the Spotted Flycatcher. In places where it is frequent it is
often observed to settle on the decayed stump of a tree, constantly
repeating its short, little varied, but far from unpleasing song,
every now and then interrupted by the pursuit and capture of some
passing insect. It is said also to be very noisy and clamorous when
its nest is approached. It quits our shores in September.



Forehead and throat chestnut-brown; upper parts, sides of the
neck, and a bar across the breast black, with violet
reflections; lower parts dull reddish white; tail very long and
forked. _Female_ - with less red on the forehead and less black
on the breast; under parts whiter; outer tail-feathers shorter.
Length six inches and a half, width thirteen inches and a
quarter. Eggs white, spotted with brown and dark red.

There are many features in the life of the Swallow so prominent, that
no undomesticated bird is more thoroughly known. Like the Sparrow, it
accompanies man wherever he fixes his dwelling; but, unlike the
Sparrow, it is liable to be mistaken for no other bird; its flight is
peculiar and all but ceaseless; at least, it is rarely seen except in
motion; and it is absent during the greater portion of the year, so
giving to itself a twofold notoriety, being regretted at the season of
its departure and welcomed at its return. These three circumstances,
its migratory habits, its mode of flight, and attachment to the
dwellings of man, have been the cause why, in all ages, it has been
invested with especial interest. Its return is universally greeted as
prophetic of summer weather; the very proverb that 'one Swallow does
not make a summer', only indicates a popular belief; and its departure
is among the first intimations of approaching winter. The Swallow
consequently is the type of migratory birds; if the Swallow is come,
all take it for granted that the other summer birds have arrived, and
when its twitter is no longer heard, we know that all the other birds
of passage are gone or going. Of the Swallow, therefore, it is said
pre-eminently, "God sends us the Swallow in the first days of summer,
to relieve us of the insects which the summer suns are calling into
life. The home of the Swallow is all the habitable earth; it knows
nothing of winter or winter's cold." In remote ages the Swallow was
considered to be endowed with supernatural intelligence; it refused to
build its nest in a certain town because it was polluted with crime;
in another, because it had been frequently burnt down; it foretold
tempests; and, above all, it was noted for having taught men the
healing properties of a certain herb,[12] by employing it to give
sight to its young. Not only was it thus skilled in the healing art,
but was in itself a medicine of no ordinary virtue. Even in the time
of our countryman Ray, not two hundred years ago, its efficacy in
various complaints was seriously believed: the whole body burnt was
considered a specific for weak eyes, quinsy and inflamed uvula; the
heart was prescribed in epilepsy and in quartan ague, it was good also
for strengthening the memory; the blood was good for the eyes,
especially if drawn from under the right wing: a little stone
sometimes found in the stomach of young birds, called _chelidonius_,
tied to the arm, or hung around the neck, was a remedy against
children's fits. This was to be searched for before or at the August
full moon, in the eldest of a brood. Even the nest had its virtues,
being, if applied externally, good for quinsy, redness of the eyes,
and the bite of a viper.

A century later 'good old White' published his account of the Swallow,
to which the reader is referred as an admirable model of
bird-biography, not only for the age, but as an authentic history full
of fresh interest to the reader in all ages. The only point on which
White had doubts was whether Swallows all migrate, or whether some of
the young do not occasionally stay behind, and hibernate in hollow
trees, holes of rocks, and the banks of pools and rivers. Individuals
are said to occasionally remain, perhaps in consequence of having been
disabled by accident at the season when the migratory instinct was in
its active force, or from some other cause unknown to us. Several
instances of such have been recorded by authors who, whether accurate
observers or not, certainly believed that they were reporting truly.
That they were seen only on warm days is of course no evidence that
they had been roused from a state of torpor by the unusual warmth.
Sunny days in winter tempt people to walk abroad and to resort to the
same places which winter-gnats would choose for their gambols. Here,
too, the stray Swallow would be found; but in dark stormy weather the
gnats and the Swallow would stay at home, and the ornithologist would
have little temptation to do otherwise. I happen to be myself among
the number of those who on personal evidence believe that individual
Swallows do remain in England long after the period of general

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 12 of 39)