C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

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With these is intermixed a piece of worsted, and a thread of sewing
cotton; a few horsehairs succeed, and the whole of the interior is
thickly matted with the white silky down of the coltsfoot. Other nests
vary in the materials employed, moss being sometimes used instead of
white lichen, and willow-cotton or feathers instead of the down of the
coltsfoot. Thistle-down is sometimes named as the material of the
lining; but this must be under unusual circumstances, that substance
being generally unattainable in spring. Besides fir-trees, the apple
and elm are often selected by Goldfinches to build their nests in, and
they not unfrequently resort to any low tree in a hedge or shrubbery,
also to young oak-trees. In autumn, Goldfinches assemble in flocks of
from ten to twenty or more, and resort to waste places, or the borders
of fields, where thistles abound, and it is hard to imagine a prettier
sight than a party of these innocent and brilliant hunters, perching,
all heedless of spines and prickles, on the thistle heads, plucking
out the seeds with the pappus attached, and cleverly separating the
former from their appendage. While thus employed, they seem to take it
for granted that no one will molest them, but continue their useful
labour, twittering pleasantly all the while, until the spectator comes
within a few yards of them, when they fly off like butterflies to
another prickly bed.

Owing to more efficient bird-protection the Goldfinch, which was
decreasing largely in numbers, is now on the increase again.

[13] _Nat. Hist._, lib. x., cap. lxxiv.


Crown black; behind the eye a broad yellow streak; all the
plumage variegated with grey, dusky, and various shades of
yellow and yellowish green; wings dusky, with a transverse
greenish yellow bar, and a black one above, and another black
one across the middle of the tertiaries; tail dusky, the base
and edge of the inner web greenish yellow. _Female_ - all the
colours less bright, and no black on the head. Length four and
a half inches. Eggs greyish white, speckled with purplish

The Siskin, or Aberdevine, is best known as a cage-bird, as it is only
a very occasional breeder in Great Britain, and during the period of
its stay is retiring in its habits. Siskins are more frequently met
with in the northern than the southern counties of England, but they
are common in neither, and will only nest where pine woods abound.
They are generally observed to keep together in small flocks of from
twelve to fifteen, and may be heard from a considerable distance, as
they rarely intermit uttering their call-note, which, though little
more than a soft twittering, is as clear as that of the Bullfinch, to
which it has been compared. Their flight is rapid and irregular, like
that of the Linnet. They leave their roosting-places early in the
morning, and usually alight on the branches of alder-trees, where they
remain all day. The seeds of the alder, inclosed within scales
something like those of the coniferous trees, form the principal food
of these pretty little birds, who are obliged to hang at the
extremities of the twigs in order to explore the seed-vessels on all
sides. Occasionally, but less frequently, they are seen visiting heads
of thistles and burdocks, and not unfrequently they descend to the
ground for the sake of picking up scattered seeds. During the whole of
their feeding time, they never cease twittering and fluttering about
joyously from twig to twig. Now and then, as if by preconcerted signal
given by a leader, they all take flight to another tree or, after a
short evolution, return to the same from which they started. Should it
happen that, while one little band is occupied in despoiling a tree,
another is heard in the air, the latter is immediately invited by
general acclamation to take part in the banquet, and rarely fails to
accept the invitation. Owing to this sociability of character they are
easily entrapped, provided that one of their own species be employed
as a decoy bird. They soon become reconciled to captivity, and are
valued for their readiness to pair with the Canary-bird, the note of
which the joint offspring is thought to improve. The nest, which in
some respects resembles those of the Greenfinch and Chaffinch, is
concealed with great care in the fork formed by two branches of a fir,
with which it is so skilfully made to assimilate, that it is almost
impossible to discern it from below. In France, Siskins are most
numerous from the middle of October to the beginning of December. They
are then supposed to travel southwards, and appear again, but in
greatly diminished numbers, in spring, at which period they are
considered to be travelling towards their summer quarters in Russia
and Scandinavia.


Crown and back of the head dark bluish ash; lore, throat, and
front of the neck black; above the eyes a band of uniform
reddish brown, intermixed with a few small white feathers;
upper feathers dark brown, edged with reddish brown; a single
transverse white bar on the wing; cheeks, sides of the neck,
and under parts greyish white. _Female_ - head, nape, neck, and
breast ash-brown; above the eye a light yellowish brown streak;
rest of the plumage less bright. Length five inches and
three-quarters. Eggs white, spotted and speckled with dark grey
and brown.

What were the haunts of the Sparrow at the period when men dwelt in
tents, and there were neither farmhouses nor villages, much less towns
and cities, it were hard to say. Certain it is now that thoroughly
wild Sparrows are not to be met with in districts remote from human
dwellings and cultivation; they have left the hillside and forest as
if by common consent, and have pitched their tents where man builds,
or ploughs, or digs, and nowhere else. In the city, the seaport town,
the fishing village, the hamlet, the farmhouse, nay, near the cot on
the lone waste and by the roadside smithy, they are always present,
varying in the amount of confidence they place in their patrons, but
all depending on man to a certain extent. And not only do they court
his society, but they have adopted his diet. Whatever is the staple
food of a household, the Sparrows that nestle around will be right
pleased to share it; bread, meat, potatoes, rice, pastry, raisins,
nuts, if they could have these for the asking, they would not trouble
themselves to search farther; but obliged, as they are, to provide for
themselves, they must be content with humble fare; and so skilful are
they as caterers, that whatever other birds may chance to die of
starvation, a Sparrow is always round and plump, while not a few have
paid for their voracity by their lives. Much difference of opinion
exists as to whether Sparrows should be courted by man as allies, or
exterminated as enemies. The best authorities on this point have come
to the conclusion that their numbers must be lessened, and that the
most humane way to do this is to tear down nests before the young are
hatched out. The fact that great efforts are at the present time being
made to introduce them into New Zealand, where the corn crops suffer
great injury from the attacks of insects, which the presence of
Sparrows would, it is believed, materially check, leads to the
conclusion that their mission is one of utility. That Sparrows consume
a very large quantity of corn in summer there can be no doubt; as soon
as the grain has attained its full size, and long before it is ripe,
they make descents on the standing corn, and if undisturbed will clear
so effectually of their contents the ears nearest to the hedges, that
this portion of the crop is sometimes scarcely worth the threshing.
During harvest they transfer their attention to the sheaves, while the
reapers and binders are occupied elsewhere; as gleaners they are
indefatigable; they participate, too, in the joys of harvest home, for
their food is then brought to their very doors. The most skilful
binder leaves at least a few ears exposed at the wrong end of the
sheaf, and these are searched for diligently in the rick; and the
barns must be well closed indeed into which they cannot find
admission. At threshings and winnowings they are constant attendants,
feeding among the poultry, and snatching up the scattered grains under
the formidable beak of Chanticleer himself. At seed-time their
depredations are yet more serious, as they now come in not simply for
a share of the produce, but undermine the very foundations of the
future crop. I once had the curiosity to examine the crop of a Sparrow
which had been shot as it flew up from a newly-sown field, and found
no less than forty-two grains of wheat. A writer in the _Zoologist_,
who professes himself a deadly enemy of the Sparrow, states that he
once took 180 grains of good wheat from the crops of five birds,
giving an _average_ of thirty-six for a meal. Now if Sparrows had the
opportunity of feeding on grain all the year round, they would be
unmitigated pests, and a war of extermination against them could not
be waged too vigorously; but during the far greater portion of the
year they have not the power of doing mischief, and all this time
they have to find food for themselves. Against their will, perhaps,
they now hunt for the seeds of various weeds, especially the wild
mustard; and these being smaller than grains of corn and less
nutritive, they consume an immense number of them, varying their
repast with myriads of caterpillars, wireworms, and other noxious
grubs; also they devour small beetles (called hay-chaffers) when the
hay lies in swathes on the field. They thus compensate, certainly in
part, perhaps wholly, for the mischief they do at other seasons; and
it is even questionable whether, if a balance were struck between them
and the agriculturists, the obligation would not be on the side of the

It is scarcely necessary to say much of the habits of a bird which
stands on such familiar terms with the human race as the Sparrow.
During no period of the year do Sparrows live together in perfect
amity; if half a dozen descend to pick up a handful of scattered
crumbs, each in his turn will peck at any other who comes too near his
share of the feast, and, with a peculiar sidelong shuffle or hop, will
show his intention of appropriating as large a portion of the
feeding-ground as he can. In spring, this bickering assumes a more
formidable character. A duel is commenced among the branches of a
tree, obstinate and noisy; all the Sparrows within hearing flock to
the scene of combat, joining at first with their voices, and finally
with their beaks; a general riot ensues, with as little object
seemingly as an Irish 'row'; for suddenly the outcry ceases, and the
combatants return to their various occupations. A writer in the
_Naturalist_ gives an account of a fray of this kind, during which
three male birds fell at his feet one after another either dead or
dying; but cases of this kind are very rare.

Sparrows build their nests at a considerable elevation from the
ground, but are by no means particular as to the locality. At the
period when most farmhouses and cottages were thatched, the eaves were
their favourite resort, and here they hollowed out for themselves most
comfortable dwellings. The general employment of tiles or slates has
interfered with this arrangement; but they will fix upon any
projection, niche, crack, or hole which will hold a nest, and if these
are all occupied, content themselves with a tree; but, as far as my
own observation goes, the number built in trees far exceeds that to be
found in other localities. Very frequently they appropriate the nest
of the House Martin. The nest itself is a rude structure, composed
mainly of straw and hay, and lined with feathers and any other soft
materials which they can find. Two or three broods are reared every
year, the number of eggs being usually five. The young are fed on
worms, caterpillars, and insects of various kinds.


Crown and back of the head chestnut-brown; lore, ear-coverts,
and throat black; neck almost surrounded by a white collar;
upper plumage resembling the last; wing with two transverse
white bars. The _female_ scarcely differs from the _male_.
Length five inches and a half. Eggs as in the last.

The Mountain Sparrow seems scarcely to deserve its name, as it is by
no means confined to mountainous districts. It is abundant all over
the European continent, and is to be met with here and there in many
parts of England in the east of Scotland and of late years in Ireland
and in the Hebrides; but it is nowhere so abundant as the House
Sparrow, which it resembles in all respects, except that the head is
of a bright chestnut colour, and the neck wears a white collar. I have
never seen it except in society with the common species, and could
never detect any difference either in flight or note; but other
observers state that the flight is slow and constrained, and the note
assumes more the character of a song. The nest is placed in soft
rotten wood of pollard willows and other trees, in hollow trees and
under the thatch of buildings.


Forehead black; crown and nape greyish blue; back and scapulars
chestnut, tinged with green; rump green; breast wine-red,
fading towards the abdomen into white; wings black, with two
white bands; coverts of the secondaries tipped with yellow;
tail black, the two middle feathers ash-grey, the two outer on
each side black, with a broad oblique white band.
_Female_ - head, back and scapulars, ash-brown, tinged with
olive; lower parts greyish white; the transverse bands less
distinct. Length six inches. Eggs greenish purple, streaked and
spotted with purple-brown.

'Gai comme Pinson', as gay as a Chaffinch, is a familiar French
proverb, which describes not only the character of the bird, but the
peculiar temperament which in France is an essential part of gaiety.
The Chaffinch is a smart, lively, active bird, always in a bustle,
flitting here and there incessantly and staying long nowhere, always
wearing a holiday look, so trim and spruce is he, and rattling through
his song with wondrous volubility. It received the name _cælebs_,
bachelor, from Linnæus, who observed that the flocks in winter are
composed for the most part either exclusively of males or of females.
Large flocks arrive on our east coast each year from the Continent,
and others coming from the north spread themselves over the country to
the southward. During the open weather of autumn and early winter,
Chaffinches frequent stubble and ploughed fields, where they busily
collect grain and the seeds of various weeds, and are not, I fear,
very scrupulous whether they are engaged as gleaners of what is lost,
or robbers of what is sown. In severe weather they resort to farmyards
and homesteads, where, along with Sparrows, Buntings, and
Greenfinches, they equally consider all they can find as provided for
their own especial use. On the return of spring, they feed upon the
young shoots, and for a few weeks show themselves great enemies to
horticulture. Their visits to our flower-gardens, paid very early in
the morning, are attested by scattered buds of polyanthuses, which
they attack and pull to pieces as soon as they begin to push from
between the leaves. In the kitchen-garden they are yet more
mischievous, showing a strong inclination for all pungent seeds. Woe
to the unthrifty gardener, who, while drilling in his mustard, or
cress, or radishes, scatters a few seeds on the surface! The quick eye
of some passing Chaffinch will surely detect them; so surely will the
stray grains serve as a clue to the treasure concealed beneath, and so
surely will a hungry band of companions rush to 'the diggings', and
leave the luckless proprietor a poor tithe of his expected crop. Yet
so large is the number of the seeds of weeds that the Chaffinch
consumes, in the course of a year, more particularly of groundsel,
chickweed, and buttercup, that he, without doubt, more than
compensates for all his misdeeds; and as his summer food partially,
and that of his young family exclusively, consists of caterpillars and
other noxious insects, he is in reality among the gardener's best
friends, who should be scared away at the seasons when his visits are
not welcome, and encouraged at all other times. The Chaffinch, though
a wary bird, does not stand greatly in fear of man; for if disturbed
at a meal, he is generally satisfied with the protection afforded by
the branches of the nearest tree, on which he hops about until the
danger is past, uttering his simple but not unpleasing note, '_twink_'
or '_pink_' or '_spink_, _spink_, _spink_' as it is variously
translated. To this cry it adds the syllable '_tweet_', frequently
repeated in an anxious tone and with a peculiar restlessness of
manner, which always indicate that its nest is somewhere very near at
hand, and by which indeed it is very often betrayed.

Its proper song commences very early in spring, and is continued until
June or later. This must be the song which the poet had in view when
he sang: -

Then as a little helpless innocent bird,
That has but one plain passage of few notes,
Will sing the simple passage o'er and o'er,
For all one April morning, till the ear
Wearies to hear it. - TENNYSON.

It consists of from ten to twelve notes of the same tone, and about
the same length, with the last but one elevated and accented, uttered
rapidly at short intervals, and without the least variation.

In Germany, this bird is so great a favourite that not a single tone
of its voice has escaped the experienced ears of bird-fanciers. In
some parts of Holland and the north of France, the passion for song
Chaffinches amounts to a frenzy. Philharmonic societies are formed,
whose exclusive object is to educate Chaffinches, and to organize
vocal combats. The combatants, each in his cage, are placed a few
yards from each other. One of them utters his strain, which is replied
to by the other; strict silence is imposed on the spectators, lest the
attention of the birds should be distracted by their remarks or
applause. The contest proceeds as long as the birds continue to utter
their notes of defiance, and the victory is adjudged to the one who
has the last word. The price paid for a bird of mark, and the pains
bestowed on the capture of any bird which in its wild state holds out
promise of being an apt pupil, are past belief, and the cruelty
practised in producing a perfect songster I cannot bring myself to
describe. After all, Bechstein's translator says that the notes of the
wild Chaffinches in England are finer than any cage ones he has heard
in Germany. English bird-fanciers, without going so far as their
German brethren, profess to distinguish three variations of song in
the Chaffinch.

The nest of the Chaffinch is an exquisite piece of workmanship,
composed of moss, dry grass, fine roots felted together with wool,
decorated externally with scraps of white lichens, and lined with hair
and feathers. It is placed sometimes in the fork of a tree, sometimes
against the bole, but more frequently than anywhere else it is built
in among the twigs of an apple-tree; but in every case it is attached
to its support by wool interwoven with the other materials. The
Chaffinch usually lays five eggs.


Siskin [M] [F] [F] Goldfinch [M]

Chaffinch [M] [F]

Hawfinch [F] [M]

[_p. 96._]]


Mealy Redpoll [F] [M]

Redpole [M] Twite [M] [M]

Bullfinch [M]]


Head, cheeks, nape, and upper part of the back, black, the
feathers (in winter) tipped with light brown or ash-grey; neck
and scapulars pale orange-brown; wings black, variegated with
orange-brown and white; rump and lower parts white, the flanks
reddish, with a few dark spots. _Female_ - crown reddish brown,
the feathers tipped with grey, a black streak over the eyes;
cheeks and neck ash-grey; all the other colours less bright.
Length six inches and a half. Eggs yellowish white, spotted and
streaked with dark red.

In winter this bird occurs over the whole continent of Europe, and not
unfrequently in enormous flocks. Pennant mentions an instance in which
eighteen were killed at one shot - a statement which I can well
believe, having seen in the winter of 1853 by far the largest flock of
small birds I ever beheld, and which was composed entirely of
Bramblings. They were employed in searching for food on the ground in
a beech wood, and, as I approached, flew up into the branches in
thousands. The Brambling, called also the Bramble Finch and Mountain
Finch, is a fairly regular autumn and winter visitor to many parts of
Scotland. Its presence in our country in any numbers depends on the
severity of the weather on the Continent. Sometimes it is fairly
numerous with us, especially where there are many beech woods. Few
visit Ireland. It resembles the Chaffinch in habits, size, and general
tone of colour; and as it often feeds in company with it, is probably
sometimes confounded with it by an inexperienced eye. It arrives in
this country in November, and takes its departure early in spring,
never having been known to breed here. Its song is said to be
something like that of the Chaffinch, and its nest, built in
fir-trees, to be constructed with the same marvellous art.


_Winter_ - head ash-brown, the feathers dusky in the middle, those of
the forehead more or less tinged with crimson; back chestnut-brown,
becoming brighter towards the scapulars and duller towards the tail;
tail-feathers black, edged towards the tip with reddish grey, the
outer ones bordered with white; primaries black, the first five with
very narrow, the next five with broad, white edges, the rest of the
wing-feathers tinged with red, all tipped with ash-grey; under
parts - breast-feathers dull crimson or brown, edged with yellowish red;
abdomen dull white; flanks reddish yellow; beak brownish horn colour;
feet and toes brown; tail moderate. In _summer_ the beak is of a bluish
lead colour; feathers of the forehead and crown greyish brown, tipped
with crimson; upper plumage uniform rich chestnut-brown; breast
crimson, with a few pale brown feathers intermixed. Length five inches.
Eggs pale bluish grey, speckled with deep red.

It is not unusual in the country to hear mention made of the Brown,
the Grey, and the Rose or Red Linnet, and the Common Linnet, as if
these were all different birds. Such, however, is not the case. The
Linnet is a bird which varies its plumage considerably at different
seasons of the year, in consequence of which, at a period when little
attention was paid to Ornithology, the same individual was known by
whichever of these names best described its characteristic colouring.
Even by the earlier ornithologists there were supposed to be two
species, one of which was called Linota, probably from its having been
observed feeding on flax-seed (_Linum_); the other Cannabina, from
having been seen to feed on hemp seed (_Cannabis_). Linnets offer
themselves to our notice in the evenings of autumn and winter more
than at any other time. Large flocks of them may then be observed
making their way, with rapid and irregular flight, towards tall trees
which happen to stand in the vicinity of a common or a furze-brake. On
the summits of these they alight, with their heads, in stormy weather,
always turned towards the wind, and after keeping up a continuous
twittering for a few minutes, suddenly drop into their roosting-places
among the furze and thick shrubs. At the return of dawn, they issue
forth to their feeding-grounds, still congregated in large flocks, and
spend the whole of the day in hunting on the ground for food. This
consists principally of the seeds of various weeds, especially
wild-mustard or charlock, wild-cabbage, and other plants of the same
tribe, thistle and dandelion; chance grains of corn no doubt are not
passed by, but any injury which may be done by these birds, either to
standing crops or newly-sowed lands, must be far outweighed by their
services as destroyers of weeds and insects, which latter also enter
into their dietary. At this season their only note is a simple call,

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 14 of 39)