Copyright
C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

. (page 13 of 39)
Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 13 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


migration. I was walking through a limestone quarry at Saltram on the
bank of the Plym, in Devonshire, many years ago, on the twenty-fourth
of December, when I saw a Swallow, whether a Chimney Swallow or
Martin, I cannot positively affirm, wheeling about, and evidently
hawking for gnats near the face of the cliff. The season was a mild
one, the air still, and the sun shining brightly against the limestone
rocks, from which much heat was reflected. That the bird had been kept
in captivity until the migratory season had passed and then released
is not probable. On any other supposition it must have remained either
of its own free will, which is not likely, or from incapacity to
accompany its congeners. Left alone it probably found a sheltered
retreat in the face of the cliff, and sallied forth whenever the
weather was inviting, making the most of the short days, and, on the
finest, contenting itself with a scanty meal. The temperature of the
west of England in winter it is quite able to bear; in fact, it is
not uncommon there for a whole winter to pass without any weather so
severe as that which has characterized the whole of the present April
(1860), though Swallows have returned, and contrive to find food
enough to keep themselves alive. If, therefore, the bird which I saw
managed to live on till Christmas Eve, there is no reason why it
should not survive the whole of the winter. But as 'one Swallow does
not make a spring', so neither is one sufficient to upset a theory.
There remains, therefore, the rule with the one exception to prove it,
that Swallows do migrate. A full account of all that has since been
learnt of the Swallow's history will be found in Yarrell's _British
Birds_. For the sake of reference only I will add a short summary of
what I may term its statistics. The Swallow is a migratory bird
wherever it is found, that is in most of the countries of Europe,
Asia, and Africa. The first Swallows arrive in this country about the
eleventh of April, and are followed by others at various intervals,
until the middle or end of May. On their arrival, they resort to those
places which, being most sheltered, abound most in winged insects,
these being frequently the courses of rivers and canals. As the season
advances, they spread themselves more generally over the country,
still, however, being most numerous in the vicinity of water. In May
they build their shallow open nests of mud and straw lined with
feathers, a few feet down a chimney, in an outhouse, a bell-tower, the
shaft of a deserted mine, or any other place which is at once dry and
dark, rarely in more exposed places. They lay four or five eggs, and
rear two or three broods in a season. The young being, from the usual
situation of the nest, unable to leave their nursery until they are
fully fledged, require to be fed a long time, but they continue to be,
partially at least, dependent on the parent birds for many days after
they have learnt to hawk for themselves. The process of feeding is
carried on while both old and young are on the wing; or the young,
perched on the top of a house or the branch of a tree, receive in turn
the morsels which their more skilful parents have caught for them. In
autumn, many days before migration is actually about to take place,
Swallows, old and young, assemble in large flocks, especially towards
evening, and roost on trees in the vicinity of water. At this season
they seem to be more socially disposed, even during the day, than at
any other period of their sojourn with us. In October they take their
departure collectively, and so strongly is the migratory instinct then
in force, that it overcomes parental affection, powerful though this
feeling is in the Swallow; some of the late broods being left behind.

[12] Chelidonium: Celandine or Swallow-wort, from
[Greek: chelidôn], 'a Swallow'.


THE HOUSE MARTIN
CHELÍDON ÚRBICA

Head, nape and upper part of the back, black with violet
reflections; lower part of the back, and all the under parts,
pure white; feet and toes covered with downy feathers; tail
forked, moderate. Length five inches and a half. Eggs pure
white.

The swallows and the Martins are so much alike in their leading
habits, namely, migration, mode of flight, and food, that a
description of either will in many respects be applicable to the
other. The House Martin generally arrives a few days after the
Swallow, and resorts to similar localities. In the early part of the
season the most sheltered places are sought out, and the two species
may frequently be seen hawking for flies in company. Later in the
season its numbers are observed to be greatly increased, and it is
joined by the Swift and Sand Martin. Not that any society is entered
into by the different species, or that they even sport together; but
one may often stand on the bank of a canal, or by the margin of a
pond, and see all four kinds glance by in varied succession, and in
proportions which differ according as one or the other is most
abundant in the neighbourhood. Acute listeners can, it is said, hear a
snapping noise made by the bird as it closes its beak on a captured
insect, but I must confess that though I have often tried to detect
this sound, I have never succeeded. Swift as their passage is, and
similar though the flight of all the species, no difficulty is found
in distinguishing them. The Chimney-Swallow is sufficiently marked by
its long forked tail and red chin; the House Martin by the snow-white
hue of its abdomen and lower part of the back, and by its shorter
tail, which is also forked; the Sand Martin by its smaller size, its
greyish brown back and dirty-white under plumage, as well as by its
shorter, slightly forked tail; and the Swift can be distinguished at
any distance by its shape, which resembles a bent bow, with the body
representing an arrow ready to be shot. On a nearer view, the Swift is
marked by its general black hue relieved only by a spot of white on
the chin, which it requires a sharp eye to detect. All the species
have the power of suddenly, and with the greatest rapidity, altering
their course by a slight movement of the wings and tail.

Immediately on its arrival in this country, the Martin pays a visit to
its old dwelling, clings to its walls, peeps in or even enters many
times a day. It has been proved by several experiments, that the same
birds return year after year to their old nests, and it is hard to
believe, so thoroughly delighted do they seem, that they are guided
simply by an impassive instinct. If so, why should they hang about the
'old house at home' so many days before they begin to set in order
again the future nursery? No elaborate plans of alterations and
improvements are to be devised; last year's family are launched on the
world, and are quite equal to building for their own accommodation. No
collecting of materials is requisite. The muddy edge of the nearest
pond will provide plaster enough and to spare to carry out all
necessary repairs; shreds of straw are to be had for the picking up,
and farmyard feathers are as plentiful as of yore. It would seem then
a reasonable conclusion, that a bird endowed with an instinct powerful
enough to guide it across the ocean, and a memory sufficiently
powerful to lead it to the snug window corner of the same cottage
where it reared its first brood, may live in the past as well as the
present, and that its seeming joyousness is a reality, even mixed
perhaps with hopeful anticipations of the future.

As the reader may, if he will, have ample opportunity of watching the
habits of a bird that probably builds its nest under the eaves of his
own house, whether he dwell in a town, a village, or a lonely cottage,
it is unnecessary to enter into further details of its biography.


[Illustration:

Swift [F]

Sand Martin [F]

Swallow [M] House Martin [M]

[_face p. 84._]]


[Illustration:

Tree Sparrow [M]

Linnet [M]

House Sparrow [M]

Brambling [M]]


THE SAND MARTIN
CÓTILE RIPÁRIA

All the upper parts, cheeks, and a broad bar on the breast,
mouse-colour; throat, fore part of the neck, abdomen, and under
tail-coverts white; legs and feet naked with the exception of a
few small feathers near the insertion of the hind toe; tail
forked, rather short. Length five inches. Eggs pure white.

While all the other British species of Swallow resort from choice to
the haunts of man, the Sand or Bank Martin is indifferent about the
matter. Provided that it can find a convenient place for excavating
its nest, other considerations are omitted. It is said to be partial
to the vicinity of water, but even this selection is rather to be
attributed to the accidental circumstance that perpendicular cliffs
often have rivers running at their base, than to any decided
preference shown by the bird for such situations. Railway cuttings
carried through a sandy district offer, perhaps, equal attraction; and
it is probable that a majority of the colonies planted within the last
twenty years overlook, not the silent highway of the river, but the
unromantic parallel bars of iron which have enabled man to vie almost
with the Swallow in rapidity of flight. The word colonies is
applicable to few British birds besides the Sand Martin. Others of the
tribe not unfrequently construct their nests in close proximity with
each other, and, when thus associated, are most neighbourly - hunting
in society, sporting together, and making common cause against an
intrusive Hawk; but still this is no more than a fortuitous coming
together.

It so happens that a certain district offers good hunting-ground, and
the eaves or windows of a certain house are peculiarly well adapted
for sheltering nests; so a number of Window Martins, not having taken
counsel together, but guided each by independent choice, find
themselves established sometimes so close together that their nests
have party walls, like the houses in a street. They accordingly make
acquaintances, and are sociable to a limited extent. But Sand Martins
go beyond this, they are comrades banded together by municipal laws,
which no doubt they understand and obey, inhabiting dwellings which
constitute a joint settlement, returning without fail to the familiar
haunt after every annual migration, or if they desert a station,
leaving no stragglers behind, and pitching their camp anew in some
locality which common consent has pronounced to be an eligible one.
They are not, however, exclusive in their fraternization; as they hunt
in society with their relatives the Swifts and Swallows, and even
accompany them in distant flights. I have repeatedly observed Sand
Martins flying about with others of the same tribe many miles away
from their homes. They may readily be distinguished, as I have stated
before, by their dingy mouse-coloured hue, smaller size, and less
forked tails. I have never had an opportunity of watching a colony
engaged in their mining operations at the busy period of their year,
that of nidification; but from the description by Professor Rennie
(_Bird Architecture_) and that by Mr. R. D. Duncan, quoted by
Macgillivray, the sight must be most interesting. The task of the
older birds must be a light one; not so, however, that of the younger
members of the flock. The former have neither walls nor roofs to
repair; the holes which served them as nests the previous year afford
the same accommodation as before. All that is needed is, that the
remains of the old nest should either be removed or receive the
addition of a few straws and feathers to protect the eggs and young
from direct contact with the cold sand; their labours then are over.
But the new colonists have a toilsome work to perform before they can
enjoy the gratification of bringing up a family. The settlement is
fixed probably in the perpendicular face of a bank of sand, gravel, or
clay, at an elevation from the ground which varies from a few to a
great many feet. Their claws are sharp and well adapted for clinging,
the beak short, rigid, and pointed, no less well suited for
excavating. Grasping the perpendicular surface of the bank with their
claws, and steadying themselves by means of their tails they commence
operations by pricking a small hole with their bills. This hole they
gradually enlarge by moving round and round, and edging off the sand
with the side of their bills, which they keep shut. Their progress is
slow at first, but after they have made room to stand on the
excavation, they proceed rapidly, still working with their bills, and
carefully pushing out the loosened sand with their feet. At one time
the male, at another the female, is the excavator. When their
burrowing is impeded by the resistance of a stone, they either dig
round it and loosen it, or, if it prove so large as to defy removal,
they desist and begin another cell. The form of the hole varies both
in size and shape, but it rarely exceeds three or four inches in
diameter, and more or less approaches the circular form. The depth
varies from a few inches to three feet, and the direction seems to
depend on the nature of the soil encountered. In all, however, the
extremity of the hole is enlarged to a diameter of five or six inches,
and is situated above the level of the entrance, so that no rain-water
can lodge. The work is performed only in the mornings, and is
consequently carried over several days. The nest itself consists of
straws of grass and feathers, and is placed in the terminal chamber.
The eggs are five or six in number, pure white, and of a rather long
shape.


FAMILY FRINGILLIDÆ

THE GREENFINCH
LIGURINUS CHLORIS

All the plumage yellowish green, variegated with yellow and
ash-grey. Length six inches. Eggs bluish white, speckled and
spotted with purplish grey and dark brown.

The Greenfinch, or Green Linnet, is one of our most generally diffused
birds. No bird is a more frequent inhabitant of country gardens during
the summer than this, being attracted, it would seem, not so much by
the prospect of abundance of food, as by its fondness for building its
nest in evergreens and the thick hedges of shrubberies. The lively
greenish yellow tint of the plumage on its throat and breast
sufficiently distinguish it from any other British bird; and its note,
when once identified, can be confounded with no other song. Let any
one who wishes to obtain a sight of one, walk anywhere in the country
where there are trees, on a bright sunny day in May or June, and
listen for a monotonous long-drawn croak, trying to pronounce the
syllable '_twe-e-e_' or '_bree-eze_'. No matter what other birds may
be tuning their lays, the harsh monotone of the Greenfinch, if one be
near, will be heard among them, harmonizing with none, and suggestive
of heat and weariness. In a few seconds it will be repeated, without a
shadow of variation either in tone or duration; and if it be traced
out, the author of the noise (music I cannot call it) will be
discovered perched among the branches of a moderately high tree,
repeating his mournful ditty with extreme complacency for an hour
together. Very often he takes advantage of the midday silence of the
groves, and pipes away without any other competitor than the Yellow
Hammer, whose song, like his own, is a constant accompaniment of
sultry weather. The Greenfinch has another note which is heard most
frequently, but not exclusively, in spring. This is a single plaintive
chirp which may be easily imitated by human whistling; it resembles
somewhat one of the call-notes of the Canary-bird or Brown Linnet,
and, being full and sweet, harmonizes with the woodland chorus far
better than the monotonous croak described above. Another of the notes
is a double one, and closely resembles that of the 'Peewit', hence it
is called in some places 'Pee-sweep'. The Greenfinch builds its nest,
when not among evergreens, in some tall thick bush either in a hedge
or coppice. Less neatly finished than that of the Chaffinch, it is
nevertheless a beautiful structure. It is composed externally of a
framework of light twigs and roots, interleaved with moss and wool, to
which succeeds a denser layer of the same materials lined with hair.
It lays five eggs, which are of a light grey colour, almost white,
variously speckled with purple, and of a long shape. In winter,
Greenfinches congregate in large numbers, and feed together on the
seeds of various weeds in stubble fields, or not unfrequently they
descend on newly-sown fields of wheat, where they are very
troublesome. If disturbed, they rise simultaneously, fly rapidly only
a few feet from the ground to another part of the field, but before
they alight wheel about several times with singular precision of
movement, disappearing from the sight and reappearing according as the
dark or light portion of their plumage is turned towards the
spectator; and by this peculiarity they may be distinguished from
flocks of other small birds at a great distance. If repeatedly
disturbed, they alter their tactics, and take refuge in the top
branches of the neighbouring trees until their persecutor has turned
his back, when they return to the charge with the same perseverance
which they display in the repetition of their summer song. These
flocks, probably, are composed of individuals which have banded
together in some more northern climate, and emigrated southwards in
quest of food; for smaller parties, either unmixed, or associated with
Sparrows, Chaffinches, and Buntings, frequent our farmyards and
gardens in undiminished numbers.


THE HAWFINCH
COCCOTHRAUSTES VULGARIS

Lore, throat, and plumage at the base of the bill black; crown
and cheeks reddish brown; nape ash-grey; back dark reddish
brown; wings black, great coverts white; some of the quills
truncated at the extremity; under parts light purplish red;
tail short. Length seven inches. Eggs light olive-green, with a
few brown spots and numerous irregular lines of a lighter tint.

Judging from its conformation, one would, without knowing anything of
the habits of this bird, pronounce it to be a professor of some
laborious occupation. Its short tail and wings unfit it for long
aërial voyages, and its thick neck and ponderous bill denote the
presence of great muscular power, and such, indeed, it both has and
requires. It is not a common bird, and was until within the last few
years considered to be migratory; but so many instances have occurred
in which its nest has been found, that no doubt is now entertained of
its being a constant resident. In Berkshire I have several times seen
two or three together busily occupied in picking up the seeds which
had fallen from the cones of a spruce fir. On one occasion a nest was
brought to me by a man who had found it built on some twigs which grew
from the trunk of a tall oak-tree; it was built of the tangled white
lichens which grow on trees, on a foundation of a few roots, and
contained five eggs. I afterwards discovered another nest of exactly
similar structure, which I believed must have been built by the same
bird, but it was empty. In Hertfordshire a single Hawfinch visited my
garden one winter for several days in succession, and diligently
picked up and cracked the stones of laurel cherries, from which
Blackbirds had, a few months before, as busily stripped the pulp. In
the cherry orchards in the neighbourhood they are not uncommon, where,
even if not seen, their visits are detected by the ground being
strewed with halves of cherrystones, which these birds split with
their powerful beaks as cleverly as a workman with the chisel. Their
note I have never heard, but the proprietor of the orchards assured me
that he had often detected their presence by the low twittering noise
which they made, a description the truth of which a writer quoted by
Yarrell confirms. I have never seen a nest in Hertfordshire, but on
several occasions have observed their eggs among the collections made
by the country boys in the neighbourhood. Besides cherrystones,
Hawfinches feed on hazel-nuts, hornbeam seeds, the kernels of the fruit
of the hawthorn, seeds of various kinds, and, when they can get them,
green peas, for the sake of which they often venture into gardens.
They usually build their nests in trees at an elevation varying from
twenty-five to thirty feet, and the nest is composed of dead twigs,
intermixed with pieces of grey lichen; this last material varying
much in quantity in different nests, but being never absent.


THE GOLDFINCH
CARDUÉLIS ÉLEGANS

Back of the head, nape, and feathers round the base of the bill
black; forehead and throat blood-red; cheeks, forepart of the
neck and lower parts white; back and scapulars dark brown;
wings variegated with black, white and yellow; tail black,
tipped with white. Length five inches. Eggs bluish white,
speckled with pale purple and brown.

This little bird, as sprightly in its habits as it is brilliant in its
colouring, is perhaps a more general favourite than any other British
bird. Though in its natural state less familiar with man than the
Redbreast, and inferior as a musician to the Lark, the Thrush, and
others of our resident birds, it is more frequent as a caged bird than
either, and thus is known to tens of thousands of city folk who never
heard the wild song of the Thrush, nor saw a Redbreast under any
circumstances. In a cage it is attractive from its lively movements,
its agreeable song, and yet more from its docility, as it not only is
readily tamed, but may be taught to perform various tricks and
manoeuvres utterly repugnant to the nature of birds. Its affection,
too, for its owner is not less remarkable. Of this many instances are,
I doubt not, familiar to the reader; but the following is not so well
known. There was some years since in a small town, about twelve
leagues from Paris, a tame Goldfinch, which belonged to a carrier, and
which for many years regularly accompanied his master twice a week to
and from the metropolis. At first it used to content itself with
perching on the driver's seat, and from time to time flying a short
distance ahead, or gambolling with other birds of the same kind that
it encountered on the way. By and by it seemed to grow dissatisfied
with the slow pace of the wagon, and took long flights in advance,
still returning from time to time to its accustomed perch. At length,
becoming more enterprising, it would leave its master in the lurch,
and fly in advance the whole of the way, and announce his approach at
the house in the city where he put up. If the weather was stormy, it
would quietly await his arrival, taking up its quarters by the
fireside; but if the weather was fine, it would, after making a brief
stay, return to meet him. At every meeting, caresses and
congratulations were exchanged, as fondly as if they had been
separated for years. This romantic attachment was at length terminated
by the disappearance of the bird, but whether through the
instrumentality of a cat, a Hawk, or some mischievous boy, was never
discovered.

Whatever doubt may exist as to the services rendered to man by the
Sparrow and Chaffinch, about the Goldfinch there can be no difference
of opinion. The farmer has no better friend, and yet an abundance of
Goldfinches on an estate is anything but a welcome sight; for it
denotes abundance of its favourite food, the seeds of thistles. Where
these weeds flourish, there, for the most part, Goldfinches are to be
met with in considerable numbers. The French name, _Chardonneret_,
denotes 'a frequenter of thistles', and the ancient Greek and Latin
name for it, _Acanthis_, is of similar import; the _Acanthis_, Pliny
tells us,[13] bears animosity against no living creature but the
donkey, a beast which eats the flowers of thistles, and so deprives it
of its food. To this dietary it adds the seeds of dandelions, centaury
and other weeds, but shows a decided preference for the seeds of the
compound flowers. Its nest is among the most beautiful that birds
construct. One now before me is placed among the terminal branches cut
from the bough of a Scotch fir which grew at an elevation of about
twenty feet from the ground. It is encircled by upwards of a dozen
leafy twigs which unite beneath its base, and form both a firm support
and effectual shelter. The substance is composed of tufted white
lichens (_Usnea_ and _Evernia_), and a few fine roots and wiry stems
of garden-thyme, felted together with wool so securely, that it is
scarcely possible to remove one of them without damaging the whole.



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 13 of 39)