C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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mellow and pleasant, which they utter both while flying and when
perched. In spring, the flocks break up, and the members betake
themselves in pairs to the commons and heaths, which afforded them
night-lodging during winter. Here they build their nests at a moderate
distance from the ground, more frequently in a furze-bush than
anywhere else, but occasionally in other shrubs or an adjoining hedge.
The nest is constructed of small twigs, moss, roots, and wool; and is
lined with hair, feathers, and sometimes vegetable down. The Linnet
lays four or five eggs. The spring and summer song of the Linnet is
remarkable neither for compass nor power; it is, however, very sweet,
and on this account the Linnet is a favourite cage-bird.


Throat and lore black; forehead and crown blood-red; breast and
rump rose-red; under parts white; nape reddish white, with
dusky streaks; shoulders and back with dark streaks, edged with
white; quills and tail feathers greyish brown, edged with
white. Length five and a half inches.

A northern species of Linnet, closely resembling the Lesser Redpoll,
but larger. It visits Great Britain only in the winter and at
irregular intervals, being in some seasons tolerably abundant, and in
others not seen at all. Little appears to be known of its habits.


Forehead, throat, and lore black; crown deep crimson; under
parts light crimson tinged with buff, fading towards the tail
into white; upper parts reddish brown, with dusky streaks;
wings and tail dusky, edged with pale reddish brown.
_Female_ - all the colours less bright. Length five and a
quarter inches. Eggs bluish white, speckled at the larger end
with reddish brown.

The Lesser Redpoll so closely resembles the Siskin in its habits and
temperament, that a description of either of these birds would serve
well for the other. Like that bird it congregates in small flocks; it
frequents damp valleys where alder-trees abound; it feeds on the seeds
of the same trees; like it, hangs at the extremities of the twigs to
explore the catkins, twitters merrily as it flies, and is quite as
easily reconciled to captivity. But for the yellow plumage and larger
size of the Siskin, they might well be mistaken one for the other. The
Redpoll, however, is a much more frequent bird, as its annual visits
to the southern counties of England in winter are as regular as those
of Swallows in summer. Though a northern bird, it does not
unexceptionally repair to high latitudes, but in summer remains to
breed in Scotland and the northern counties of England. As far south
as Yorkshire it is not unfrequent, and its nest has been occasionally
found in the midland counties; some eggs were recently brought to me
in Hertfordshire. Meyer relates, that having one confined in a cage he
placed it in his garden in fine weather, in the hope that other birds
of the same species might be attracted by its note to visit it in its
confinement. His expectation was realized, for several wild Redpolls
not only came into his garden and twittered their notes of recognition
from the neighbouring trees, but actually alighted on the bars of the
cage. This took place in the county of Surrey, and during the month of
June, thus proving that some at least of the species remain with us
all the year round. The nest, which is remarkably small, is described
as being placed in the fork of an alder-tree, loosely constructed of
dry grass and weeds, and lined either with the cotton of the willow or
the pappus of some compound flower, stated by some to be dandelion, by
others, thistle, but perhaps, in reality, coltsfoot. In captivity,
Redpolls are prized for their liveliness and remarkable affection for
each other, and, indeed, for all little birds who do not disdain their
attentions. They can be taught many little tricks also.


Upper plumage dark brown, edged with light brown; no crimson
either on the forehead or breast; rump of the _male_ tinged
with red; throat tawny brown, without streaks; breast and
abdomen dull white, streaked on the flanks with dark brown;
beak yellow; feet and claws dark brown; tail long. Length five
inches and a quarter. Eggs pale bluish white, speckled with

Another northern bird, inhabiting the Arctic Regions, Scandinavia, and
Russia, and travelling southwards in autumn. In the Orkney and
Shetland Islands it is the most common, if not the only, species, and
builds its nest among the corn or heath. It breeds from Derbyshire and
northwards, but is very local; at one time it was very common on the
Lancashire moors. Yellow-neb Lintie is a Scotch name given to it. In
the countries where it is resident all the year round, it is very
destructive to wheat in winter, and to turnips in summer. As soon as
the latter plants appear above ground, the bird pulls them up, nips
off the seed-leaves, and the field remains strewn with the fragments
of the young plants. In winter, Mountain Linnets assemble in very
large flocks, and in their habits resemble Common Linnets, from which
they are best distinguished (at a distance) by their longer tails.
During severe weather I have observed them in Norfolk, flocking to the
salt marshes, and feeding on the seeds of saline plants, especially
those of the shrubby sea-blite. At this season their note resembles
the twitter of the Common Linnet, but is less mellow. The nest is
placed among heath, grass, or young corn, and invariably on the
ground - in this respect differing from all other birds of the same
family. It is constructed of dry grass, moss, and roots, and lined
with various soft substances. The Mountain Linnet is generally called
the Twite, a syllable which its simple note is thought to resemble. It
is more shy as a rule than the Lesser Redpoll.


Crown, throat, plumage round the bill, wings and tail lustrous
purple-black; upper part of the back bluish ash; cheeks, neck,
breast and flanks red (in the _female_ reddish brown); rump and
abdomen pure white; a broad buff and grey band across the
wings. Length six and a quarter inches. Eggs light greenish
blue, speckled and streaked with light red and dark purple.

'The Bullfinch', said Macgillivray, usually so accurate an observer,
'is not very common anywhere.' From this last remark I infer that the
author in question was never either proprietor or occupant of a
fruit-garden in a wooded district, or he would have reported very
differently of the frequency of the Bullfinch. During winter the food
of these birds consists exclusively of berries of various kinds and
seeds, especially of such weeds as thistle, rag-wort, duckweed,
plantains, etc., either picked up from the ground or gathered from
herbs and shrubs. In spring, unfortunately for the gardener, their
taste alters, and nothing will satisfy them but the blossom-buds of
fruit-trees, especially those which are cultivated. They attack,
indeed, the buds of the sloe and hawthorn as well; but of these, being
valueless, no one takes note. Still keeping together in small family
parties, all uninvited, they pay most unwelcome visits to
gooseberries, plums, and cherries, and, if undisturbed, continue to
haunt the same trees until all hope of a crop is destroyed.
Gooseberry-bushes are left denuded of flower-buds, which have been
deliberately picked off and crushed between their strong mandibles,
while the leaf-buds, situated principally at the extremities of the
branches, are neglected. Plum and cherry trees are treated in like
manner, the ground being strewed with the bud-scales and rudiments of
flowers. Some persons endeavour to deter them by whitewashing the
trees, and are said to find this plan effectual. Others wind a straw
rope round the gooseberry-bushes, so disguising their natural
appearance. This plan I found perfectly successful one year, but the
next it was entirely without effect. A new one which I have adopted
this year is somewhat more complex. In addition to the straw bands, I
have stretched long strings, with feathers attached here and there, so
as to resemble the tail of a paper kite; and, by way of offering them
an inducement to stay away, I have sprinkled peas on the ground in an
adjoining lane, in the hope that they will partially, at least,
satisfy their hunger on these. A bird with so strong a beak as that of
the Bullfinch is evidently designed to crush its food, not to swallow
it whole; accordingly, I find my peas disappearing, but the
parchment-like rind is left on the ground, a substance too
indigestible even for the gizzard of a Bullfinch. This bird has,
however, justly many friends, who assert that the buds he attacks are
infested with concealed insects, and that the tree he strips one
season will be heavily laden the following year. When not occupied in
disbudding fruit-trees, Bullfinches are most frequently observed in
tall and thick hedges, either in small flocks as described above, or
in pairs. They are rarely met with singly, and yet less frequently
associated with birds of another species. Occasionally a pair may be
seen feeding with Sparrows and Chaffinches in the farmyard; but this
society seems one of accident rather than of choice. When disturbed in
a hedge they are singularly methodical in their movements: first one
flies out, bounds, as it were through the air in a direction away from
the spectator, perches on a twig in the thick part of the hedge, and
is followed by the rest of the party in single file. When the
passenger has approached within what the bird considers a safe
distance, the same manoeuvre is repeated, each bird following, with
dipping flight, the line marked out by its predecessor.


Head and upper parts of the neck reddish orange, streaked on
the back with dusky; wings and tail black, the former with two
white bars, the primaries and tail-feathers edged with orange,
the secondaries with white under parts orange-yellow. Length
seven and a quarter inches. Eggs white.

A large and handsome bird, inhabiting the Arctic regions during the
summer months, and in winter descending a few degrees to the south in
both hemispheres. It is of very rare occurrence in the pine-forests of
Scotland, and a still more unfrequent visitor to England. The Pine
Grosbeak, or Pine Bullfinch, is a bird of sociable habits, and an
agreeable songster.


Bill equalling in length the middle toe, point of the lower
mandible extending beyond the ridge of the upper mandible;
plumage variegated, according to age and sex, with green,
yellow, orange, and brick-red. Length six and a half inches.
Eggs bluish white, speckled with red-brown.

The beak of this bird was pronounced by Buffon 'an error and defect of
Nature, and a useless deformity'. A less dogmatic, but more
trustworthy authority, our countryman, Yarrell, is of a different
opinion. 'During a series of observations', he says, 'on the habits
and structure of British birds, I have never met with a more
interesting or more beautiful example of the adaptation of means to an
end, than is to be found in the beak, the tongue, and their muscles,
in the Crossbill.' No one can read the chapter of _British Birds_
devoted to the Crossbill (in which the accomplished author has
displayed even more than his usual amount of research and accurate
observation) without giving a ready assent to the propriety of the
latter opinion. Unfortunately the bird is not of common occurrence in
this country, or there are few who would not make an effort to watch
it in its haunts, and endeavour to verify, by the evidence of their
own eyes, the interesting details which have been recorded of its
habits. I have never myself succeeded in catching a sight of a living
specimen, and am therefore reduced to the necessity of quoting the
descriptions of others. Family parties of this species visit - 1907 - a
small wood of pine trees in the valley of the Kennet near Theale some
winters, as well as other scattered pine-forest lands in the southern
counties, and across the Solway and northward it nests in suitable

The Crossbill is about the size of the Common Bunting, and, like it
and the Hawfinch, is a remarkably stout bird, having a strong bill, a
large head, short thick neck, compact ovate body, short feet of
considerable strength, rather long wings, and moderately large tail.
Its plumage, in which green or red predominates, according to the age
of the bird, is much more gaudy than that of our common birds, and
approaches that of the Parrots, a tribe which it also resembles in
some of its habits. Though only occasional visitors with us,
Crossbills are plentiful in Germany, Bavaria, Sweden, and Norway all
the year round, and are occasionally mischievous in orchards and
gardens, on account of their partiality to the seeds of apples, which
they reach by splitting the fruit with one or two blows of their stout
bills. Food of this kind, however, they can only obtain in autumn; at
other seasons, and, indeed, all the year round in districts remote
from orchards, they feed principally on the seeds of various kinds of
fir, which they extract from the cone by the joint action of their
beak and tongue. The alder and other trees are also sometimes visited,
and they have been noticed to resort to thistles and pick the seeds
from them. 'In the autumn of 1821', says Macgillivray, 'when walking
from Aberdeen to Elgin, by the way of Glenlivat, and along the Spey, I
had the pleasure of observing, near the influx of a tributary of that
river, a flock of several hundreds of Crossbills, busily engaged in
shelling the seeds of the berries which hung in clusters on a clump of
rowan (mountain ash) trees. So intent were they on satisfying their
hunger that they seemed not to take the least heed of me; and as I had
not a gun, I was content with gazing on them without offering them any
molestation. They clung to the twigs in all sorts of positions, and
went through the operation of feeding in a quiet and business-like
manner, each attending to his own affairs without interfering with his
neighbours. It was, indeed, a pleasant sight to see how the little
creatures fluttered among the twigs, all in continued action, like so
many bees on a cluster of flowers in sunshine after rain.' A writer in
the _Zoologist_ thus describes the manoeuvres of a flock which he
observed in 1849, in the county of Durham: "On the fifteenth of July
when taking a drive in the western part of the county, where there are
many thousand acres of fir-plantations, I had the good fortune to see
a flock of birds cross my path, which appeared to be Crossbills; so,
leaving the gig, I followed some distance into a fir-plantation,
where, to my great gratification, I found perhaps thirty or more
feeding on some Scotch firs. The day being fine, and as they were the
first I had seen in a state of wild nature, I watched them for about
twenty minutes. Their actions are very graceful while feeding, hanging
in every imaginable attitude, peering into the cones, which, if they
contain seeds, are instantly severed from the branch; clutched with
one foot, they are instantly emptied of their contents, when down they
come. So rapidly did they fall, that I could compare it to nothing
better than being beneath an oak-tree in autumn, when the acorns are
falling in showers about one's head, but that the cones were rather
heavier. No sooner are they on the wing than they, one and all,
commence a fretful, unhappy, chirl, not unlike the Redpoll's, but
louder.' Another writer, in the _Magazine of Natural History_, thus
records his experience: 'From October, 1821, to the middle of May,
1822, Crossbills were very numerous in this county (Suffolk), and, I
believe, extended their flight into many parts of England. Large
flocks frequented some fir-plantations in this vicinity, from the
beginning of November to the following April. I had almost daily
opportunities of watching their movements; and so remarkably tame were
they, that, when feeding on fir-trees not more than fifteen or twenty
feet high, I have often stood in the midst of the flock, unnoticed and
unsuspected. I have seen them hundreds of times, when on the larch,
cut the cone from the branch with their beak, and, holding it firmly
In both claws, as a hawk would a bird, extract the seeds with the most
surprising dexterity and quickness. I do not mean to assert this to be
their general habit; but it was very frequently done when feeding on
the larch. I have never seen them adopt the like method with cones of
the Scotch or other species of pine, which would be too bulky for them
to manage. Their method with these, and, of course, most frequently
with the larch, was to hold firmly on the cone with their claws; and,
while they were busily engaged in this manner, I have captured great
numbers; many with a horsehair noose fixed to the end of a
fishing-rod, which I managed to slip over their head when they were
feeding, and, by drawing it quickly towards the body, I easily secured
them; others I took with a limed twig, fixed in such a manner in the
end of a rod that, on touching the bird, the twig quickly became
disengaged, adhered to the feathers, rendered the wings useless, and
caused the poor bird to fall perfectly helpless on the ground. In this
manner, in windy weather, I have taken several from the same tree,
without causing any suspicion of danger. On warm sunny days, after
feeding a considerable time, they would suddenly take wing, and, after
flying round for a short time, in full chorus, alight on some lofty
tree in the neighbourhood of the plantations, warbling to each other
in low pleasing strains. They would also fly from the trees
occasionally for the purpose of drinking, their food being of so dry a
nature. To captivity they were quickly reconciled, and soon became
very familiar. As, at first, I was not aware what food would suit
them, I fixed branches of the larch against the sides of the room in
which I confined them, and threw them a quantity of the cones on the
floor. I found that they not only closely searched the cones on the
branches but, in a few days, not one was left in the room that had not
been pried into. I gave them canary and hemp-seed; but thinking the
cones were both amusement and employment, I continued to furnish them
with a plentiful supply. I had about four dozen of them; and
frequently, whilst I have been in the room, they would fly down, seize
a cone with their beak, carry it to a perch, quickly transfer it to
their claws, and in a very short time empty it of its seeds, as I have
very many times witnessed to my surprise and amusement.' These
accounts are most interesting, yet they are all equally defective in
failing to describe the mode in which Buffon's 'useless deformity',
the crossed bill, is employed in the work of splitting open a cone
This defect is supplied partially by Mr. Townson's description, quoted
by Yarrell, and partly by the latter author in his own words. 'Their
mode of operation is thus: - They first fix themselves across the cone,
then bring the points of the mandibles from their crossed or lateral
position, to be immediately over each other. In this reduced compass
they insinuate their beaks between the scales, and then, opening
them - not in the usual manner, but by drawing the inferior mandible
sideways - force open the scales.' "'At this stage', Yarrell proceeds
to say, 'the end of the tongue becomes necessary; and this organ is no
less admirably adapted for the service required.... While the points
of the beak press the scale from the body of the cone, the tongue is
enabled to direct and insert its cutting scoop underneath the seed,
and the food thus dislodged is transferred to the mouth; and when the
mandibles are separated laterally in this operation the bird has an
uninterrupted view of the seed in the cavity with the eye on that side
to which the under mandible is curved.'"

The beak of the Crossbill then, far from being a defect in the
organization of the bird, is a perfect implement always at its owner's
command, faultless alike in design and execution, and exquisitely
adapted to its work, not an easy one, of performing, by a single
process, the office of splitting, opening, and securing the contents
of a fir-cone, and he must be a bold man who could venture to suggest
an improvement in its mechanism.

It has been observed that young birds in the nest have not their
mandibles crossed, and at this period such an arrangement would be
useless, as they are dependent for food on the parent birds. It has
also been observed that the side on which the upper mandible crosses
the lower varies in different individuals; in some it descends on the
right side of the lower mandible, in others on the left. The bird
appears to have no choice in the matter, but whatever direction it
takes at first, the same it always retains.

The nest of the Crossbill is constructed of slender twigs of fir and
coarse dry grass, and lined with fine grass and a few hairs, and
concealed among the upper branches of a Scotch fir.

The Two-barred (or White-winged) Crossbill (_Loxia bifasciata_) is
only a rare straggler in winter to this country.


Upper parts yellowish brown, with dusky spots; under parts
yellowish white, spotted and streaked with dusky. Length seven
inches and a half. Eggs dull white, tinged with yellow, or
pink, and spotted and streaked with dark purple brown.

Though called the Common Bunting, this bird is by no means so abundant
in England as the Yellow Bunting; its name, however, is not
misapplied, as it appears to be the most generally diffused of the
family, being found all over the European continent, in the islands of
the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, and the north of Africa. In the
latter district it appears as a bird of passage in November; and about
Martinmas it is so abundant as to become a staple article of food. At
this season, all the trees in the public roads and squares of the
villages are literally covered with these birds. Macgillivray informs
us that it is more abundant in the outer Hebrides than in any other
part of the country he has visited; and that it is there generally
known by the name of Sparrow. In England it is a constant resident;
but as it is much more abundant in autumn and winter than in summer,
it probably receives accessions to its numbers from the north. From
its habit of congregating in large flocks in the winter and alighting
on arable land to feed, after the manner of the Skylark, it is
sometimes called 'Lark Bunting', and, from its favourite food, 'Corn
Bunting'. It builds its nest in a tuft of grass, often under the
shelter of briers or a low bush, constructing it of dry grass with a
lining of hair. Its song, which is harsh and unmelodious, consists of
a number of short repetitions of the same note, terminating with a
long one lower in tone, and is generally uttered by the bird perched
the while on some slight elevation, such as a stone or the topmost
twig of a furze-bush. On first rising, it allows its legs to drop as
if broken.


Head, neck, breast, and lower parts bright yellow, more or less
streaked with dusky; flanks streaked with brownish red; upper
parts reddish brown spotted with dusky. _Female_ - the yellow
parts less vivid, and spotted with dull reddish brown. Length
six inches and a quarter. Eggs purplish or yellowish white,
speckled and lined with dark purple brown.

This familiar and pretty bird appears to be generally diffused
throughout all parts of the country, except the mountains. With its
bright yellow head and breast it can scarcely fail to attract the
attention of those even who are least observant of birds, and being by
no means shy it will allow itself to be examined from a short
distance. It may often be detected by its bright yellow plumage among
the leaves of a hedge, neither fluttering nor hunting for food, but
apparently waiting to be admired. As we approach within a few yards it
darts out into the lane with rapid flight, displaying the white
feathers of its tail, with tawny tail-coverts, perches on another twig
some fifty yards in advance, and, after one or two such manoeuvres,
wheels away with rapid flight uttering two or three short notes as it

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 15 of 39)