C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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passes over our head. In summer, especially during the hot afternoons
of July, when most other birds have closed their concert for the
season, it loves to perch on the top of a furze bush or other shrub,
and repeat its simple song. This consists of about a dozen short
notes, rapidly repeated and closed by a longer note, which I believe
to be a musical minor third below. Sometimes this last note is
preceded by another which is a third above. The effect is in
some measure plaintive, and gives the idea that the bird is
preferring a petition. In Devonshire it goes by the names of
'Little-bread-and-no-cheese', and 'Gladdy'. Of the latter name I do
not know the origin; that of the former is clear enough; for if the
words 'A little bit of bread and no cheese' be chanted rapidly in one
note, descending at the word '_cheese, chee-ese_', the performance,
both in matter and style, will bear a close resemblance to the bird's
song. It has been noticed that the song of the Yellow Hammer may
always be heard about three o'clock in the afternoon.

In winter, Yellow Hammers assemble in large flocks, often mixed with
other hard-billed birds, and resort to ploughed fields, or rick-yards.
Macgillivray describes with singular accuracy their movements on these
occasions. "When the ground is covered with snow, they congregate
about houses, and frequent cornyards along with other birds, retiring
to the trees and hedges in the vicinity when alarmed. Their flight is
undulated, light, strong, and graceful, and they alight abruptly,
jerking out their tail-feathers. It is indeed surprising to see with
what velocity they descend at once from a considerable height, to
settle on the twigs of a tree which had attracted their notice as they
were flying over it, and with what dexterity all the individuals of a
flock perch in their selected places."

The nest and eggs of the Yellow Hammer resemble those of the Common
Bunting, but are smaller. The nest is most frequently placed close to
the ground, or actually on the ground, among grass on the skirt of a
meadow. Yarrell suggested that the name 'Yellow Hammer' should be
written 'Yellow Ammer' - the word Ammer being a well-known German term
for Bunting.

Collectors of eggs should carefully avoid cleaning the eggs of the
Buntings, as the dark colouring matter with which they are blotched is
easily rubbed off with a damp cloth.


Cirl Bunting Lapland Bunting

Reed Bunting [M] [F]

The Common Bunting [F] Snow Bunting [M] [F]

[_face p. 108._]]


Yellow Wagtail [M]

Grey Headed Wagtail [M]

White Wagtail [M]

Grey Wagtail

Pied Wagtail]


Crown dark olive, streaked with black; gorget and band above
and below the eye bright yellow; throat, neck, and band across
the eye, black; breast olive-grey, bounded towards the sides by
chestnut; abdomen dull yellow; back brownish red, with dusky
spots. _Female_ - the distinct patches of black and yellow
wanting; the dusky spots on the back larger. Eggs greyish,
marked with ash-coloured and black blotches and lines.

With the exception of its black chin and throat, this bird closely
resembles the Yellow Hammer. Its habits, too, are much the same, so
that little can be said of it which does not equally apply to its
congener. It appears, however, to be much less patient of cold, and is
consequently mostly confined to the southern counties of England, from
Cornwall to Kent, and in the valley of the Thames. In the south of
Europe, in the islands of the Mediterranean, and in Asia Minor, it is
said to replace the Yellow Hammer, which is far less common. It is in
the habit of perching higher than the Yellow Hammer, and is said to be
partial to elm-trees. The present editor knows of its nesting recently
in Hertfordshire.


Head, throat and gorget black (in winter speckled with light
brown); nape, sides of the neck, and a line extending to the
base of the beak on each side, white; upper parts variegated
with reddish brown and dusky; under parts white, streaked with
dusky on the flanks. _Female_ - head reddish brown, with dusky
spots; the white on the neck less distinct; under parts reddish
white, with dusky spots. Length six inches. Eggs purplish grey,
blotched and lined with dark purple brown.

Wherever there is water, in the shape of a lake, canal, or river,
lined by bushes and rushes, there the Black-headed Bunting is pretty
sure to be seen at most seasons of the year. The male is strongly
marked by his black head and white collar; the head of the female is
of the same colour as the body; but the white collar, of a less bright
hue, she shares with her mate. 'Reed Bunting' and 'Reed Sparrow' are
other names for the same bird. In summer it rarely quits the vicinity
of water. At this season its food consists of various seeds and
insects; but on the approach of winter it either forms small parties,
or joins itself on to flocks of Yellow Hammers, Sparrows, and Finches,
and visits the stack-yards in search of grain. It builds its nest in
low bushes, or among aquatic plants, very near the ground, employing
bents, bits of straw, reeds, etc., and lining it with hair. The eggs
are four or five in number, of a dull, livid purple colour, marked
with irregular curves or blotches of darker purple, which remind one
of the figure of the lines, so often seen on bramble leaves, made by
leaf-eating grubs. Its note resembles that of the other Buntings, and
is pleasant from its association with walks by the river's side rather
than for tone or melody. In Scotland the Reed Bunting is migratory,
repairing southwards in October and returning in March.


Head, neck, portion of the wings, and lower parts white; upper
parts black, tinged here and there with red. Length six inches
and three-quarters. Eggs pale reddish white, speckled and
spotted with brown and pale red.

This, though a northern bird also, does not confine itself so closely
to the Arctic regions as the preceding species; but is of common
occurrence in many parts of Scotland during autumn and winter and
later in the season in various parts of England. Macgillivray, whose
acquaintance with British birds, especially those of Scotland, was
very accurate, was inclined to the opinion that the Snow Bunting or
Snow-flake breeds on the higher Grampians, having observed a specimen
on a mountain of this range so early as the fourth of August, while
the migratory flocks do not appear until two months later. "About the
end of October it makes its appearance along the coasts or on the
higher grounds of the south of Scotland, and about the same period in
the south of England, although it is there of much less frequent
occurrence. Assembled in large straggling flocks, or scattered in
small detachments, these birds may be seen flying rather low along the
shore, somewhat in the manner of Larks, moving in an undulating line
by means of repeated flappings and short intervals of cessation, and
uttering a soft and rather low cry, consisting of a few mellow notes,
not unlike those of the Common Linnet, but intermixed at times with a
sort of stifled scream or _churr_. When they have found a fitting
place, they wheel suddenly round, and alight rather abruptly, on which
occasion the white of the wings and tail becomes very conspicuous.
They run with great celerity along the sand, not by hops, like the
Sparrows and Finches, but in a manner resembling that of the Larks and
Pipits; and when thus occupied, it is not in general difficult to
approach them, so that specimens are easily procured. At intervals
they make excursions into the neighbouring fields, alight in
cornyards, at barn-doors, or even on the roads, where they obtain
seeds of oats, wheat, and weeds, which I have found in them. In the
villages along the coast of Lothian, they are sometimes, in spring,
nearly as common as Sparrows, and almost as familiar. About the middle
of April, or sometimes a week later, these birds disappear and betake
themselves to their summer residence." Its habits, as observed in
England, are similar; but the flocks are generally smaller. In the
Arctic regions, it is abundant from the middle or end of April to the
end of September. Its nest is composed of dry grass, neatly lined with
deer's hair and a few feathers, and is generally fixed in the crevice
of a rock or in a loose pile of timber or stones. In spring it feeds
principally on the buds of _Saxifraga oppositifolia_, one of the
earliest of the Arctic plants; during winter, on grass seeds. Peculiar
interest attaches to the Snow Bunting, from the fact that it is
(according to Linnæus) the only living animal that has been seen two
thousand feet above the line of perpetual snow in the Lapland Alps.
Mention of it frequently occurs in books of Arctic travels. I must not
omit to state that the specimens obtained in Great Britain vary so
considerably in the proportions of white and tawny in their plumage,
that there were at one time considered to be three several species. In
Norfolk, I have seen them in severe weather flocking with Larks, among
which they make themselves so conspicuous by the white portion of
their plumage, as to be popularly known by the name of 'White-winged


Crown of the head black, speckled with red; throat and breast
black, a broad white band extending from the eye down the sides
of the neck; nape bright chestnut; back, wings, and tail
variegated with brown, white, and black; under parts white,
spotted at the sides with dark brown. Length six inches and
three-quarters. Eggs pale ochre-yellow, spotted with brown.

This bird, as its name denotes, is an inhabitant of high northern
latitudes; and its occurrence in this country is very rare. A few only
have been shot, in places remote from each other; and in the year
1843, a female was captured by a bird-catcher near Milnthorpe, in
Westmoreland, and kept for some time in an aviary, where it soon
became friendly with its companions and took its daily meal of rape,
canary, or hemp seeds, and now and then a sprinkling of oats, with
apparent satisfaction. In the Arctic regions it inhabits hilly and
mountainous districts, and spends most of its time on the ground,
where it runs in the manner of Larks, and where also it builds its
nest. The male is said to have a pleasing song, combining that of the
Skylark and of the Linnet.



_Summer_ - head, breast, wings and tail variegated with black
and white; chin, throat, and neck black; back and scapulars
pearl-grey; side of the neck as low as the wings white.
_Winter_ - chin, throat and neck white, with an isolated black
gorget. Length nearly seven inches and a half. Eggs bluish
white, speckled with black.

This species has bred in England more frequently than has been
supposed. It is not uncommon in Cornwall in spring, and indeed it
visits many of our English counties. Its nest has been found in such
odd places as a Sand Martin's burrow and the middle of a strawberry
bed. The present editor has seen it nesting among the spraying
branches of a Virginian creeper growing over trellis work. A beautiful
little bird it is.


_Summer_ - all the plumage variegated with white and black; back
and scapulars, chin, throat, and neck black; a small portion of
the side of the neck white. _Winter_ - back and scapulars
ash-grey; chin and throat white, with a black, but not entirely
isolated, gorget. Length seven inches and a half. Eggs bluish
white, speckled with dark grey.

The Pied Wagtail or Dishwasher is a familiar and favourite bird, best
known by its habit of frequenting the banks of ponds and streams,
where it runs, not hops about, picking insects from the herbage, and
frequently rising with a short jerking flight, to capture some winged
insect, which its quick eye has detected hovering in the air. Its
simple song consists of but few notes, but the tone is sweet and
pleasing, and is frequently heard when the bird is cleaving its way
through the air with its peculiar flight, in which it describes a
series of arcs, as if it were every instant on the point of alighting,
but had altered its mind. While hunting for food, it keeps its tail in
perpetual motion. It shows little fear of man, and frequently
approaches his dwelling. It may often be noticed running rapidly along
the tiles or thatch of a country house, and it not unfrequently takes
its station on the point of a gable, or the ridge of the roof, and
rehearses its song again and again. Very frequently, too, it perches
in trees, especially such as are in the vicinity of ponds. Next to
watery places, it delights in newly-ploughed fields, and hunts for
insects on the ground, utterly fearless of the ploughman and his
implements. A newly-mown garden lawn is another favourite resort; so
also is a meadow in which cows are feeding, and to these it is most
serviceable, running in and out between their legs, and catching, in a
short time, an incredible number of flies. The country scarcely
furnishes a prettier sight than that afforded by a family of Wagtails
on the short grass of a park, in July or August. A party of five or
six imperfectly fledged birds may often be seen scattered over a small
space of ground, running about with great activity, and picking up
insects, while the parent birds perform short aërial journeys above
and around them, frequently alighting, and transferring from their own
mouths to those of their offspring, each in its turn, the insects they
have just captured. They are at all times sociably disposed, being
seen sometimes in small parties, and sometimes in large flocks. It has
been noticed that when one of a party has been wounded by a discharge
from a gun, another has flown down as if to aid it, or sympathize with
it. Advantage is taken of this habit by bird-catchers in France. It is
the custom to tie Wagtails by their feet to the clap nets, and make
them struggle violently and utter cries of pain when a flight of the
same kind of birds is seen approaching; these stop their flight, and
alighting are caught in large numbers for the spit, their flesh, it is
said, being very delicate. They share, too, with Swallows the praise
of being among the first to announce to other birds the approach of a
Hawk, and join with them in mobbing and driving it away.

About the middle of April, the Pied Wagtail begins to build its nest.
This is usually placed in a hole in a bank or hedge, among stones, or
in the hollow of a tree; it is composed of dry grass and withered
leaves, mixed with moss, and lined with wool, hair, and a few
feathers. It is a compact and solid structure, capable of protecting
the eggs and young from the damp soil, but is not generally concealed
with much art; and hence perhaps it is frequently selected by the
Cuckoo, to lay an egg in.

Towards autumn, Pied Wagtails for the most part migrate southwards. In
the midland counties they may be often observed in large companies, in
October, halting for a few days wherever food is abundant, and then
suddenly disappearing; after which only a few stragglers are seen
until the spring. They return northwards about the beginning of March.
In the extreme south of England they are numerous all the year round;
but as many instances have occurred of their alighting on a ship at
sea, it is probable that the majority migrate to some southern
climate, where the ponds do not freeze and gnats gambol at Christmas.


_Summer_ - head and back bluish grey; a pale streak above the
eyes; throat black; under parts bright yellow; tail very long.
_Winter_ - chin and throat whitish, passing into yellow. Length
seven inches and three-quarters. Eggs bluish white, speckled
with dark grey.

Grey Wagtail is not a very happy name for this bird, as the bright
yellow of its neck and breast are far more conspicuous than the more
sober grey of the head and back; yet, as there are other claimants for
the more appropriate names 'Yellow', and Greyheaded, the young
observer must be cautious while reading the descriptions of the
several members of the family, or he may possibly fall into error. The
Grey Wagtail is among the most elegant and graceful of British birds,
and in delicacy of colouring is surpassed by few. Its habits are much
the same as those of the Pied Wagtail, but it is even lighter and more
active in its movements. It is less frequently observed away from
water than that species, and though, like it, not altogether a
permanent resident in England, it visits us at the opposite season,
coming in autumn, and retiring northwards in spring. It does not seem
often to go so far north as Inverness-shire, but is regularly seen
about Edinburgh in winter; and, on the other hand, it breeds yearly in
the southern counties of England during summer, as on the streams
which flow from Dartmoor. This partial migration seems to be
characteristic of the family, and is difficult to account for. Why out
of a certain number of birds of the same species, some should annually
travel southwards, to supply the place of individuals belonging to an
allied species, who have travelled yet further to the south, and why,
on the reappearance of the latter in spring, the first should return
to their northern haunts, are questions more easily asked than

The Grey Wagtail has been repeatedly observed to indulge in a fancy
which might well obtain for it the name of 'window-bird'. The first
recorded instance occurs in an early number of the _Zoologist_, where
it is stated, that every morning for a period of between three and
four months, from the beginning of October to the end of January, a
Grey Wagtail came to the window of a country house as soon as the
blinds were drawn up, and darted against the panes of glass, pecking
with its beak as if it saw some object. It would then retire, and
after a pause repeat the operation, but from what motive no one could
conjecture. A lady writes to me from Dewlish House, Dorsetshire: 'We
are constantly being disturbed by a yellow-breasted Water-Wagtail,
which comes tapping at the windows or skylights, from the first streak
of light till evening. What may be his object no one can say. It is
too cold at present (March) for flies or spiders, and, had there been
any hybernating there he would have eaten them long ago, he comes so
frequently. When, on going upstairs, or when sitting down in my room,
I hear this loud repeated tapping, it is vain for me to open the
window and try to entice him in with crumbs; he does not even notice
them. This morning he woke me at about four o'clock. You would have
said, 'Some one rapping at my window as a signal that I must get up.
An old servant tells me, "Ah, 'twere just the same last spring, when
the family were in London; they say that it do mean something."'

The Grey Wagtail does not commonly build its nest in the southern
counties of England, although instances have occurred. It prefers
hilly and rocky districts. More frequently it repairs in spring to the
north of England and south of Scotland, and builds its nest on the
ground, or in the hole of a bank, or between large stones, and never
at any great distance from the water. It is composed of stems and
blades of grass, mixed with moss and wool, and lined with wool, hair
and feathers.


Top of the head, lore, and nape lead-grey; over the eye a white
streak; scapulars, back, and upper tail-coverts greenish olive,
tinged with yellow; chin white, in the young male yellow; under
parts bright yellow. Length six inches and a half. Eggs mottled
with yellow, brown, and grey.

This, one of the common Yellow Wagtails of the Continent, is a rare
visitor in this country. Its habits, nest, and eggs, closely resemble
those of the next species. It is the _Bergeronette printanière_
('Little shepherdess of the Spring') of the French, a pretty name,
suggested by the habit, common to all the genus, of resorting to
sheepfolds for the sake of feeding on the flies with which such places


Top of the head, lore, nape, back, and scapulars pale olive;
over the eye a streak of bright yellow; chin yellow; lower
parts of the same colour. Length six inches and a half. Eggs
whitish, mottled with yellow, brown, and grey.

Ray's Wagtail, the third of the Yellow Wagtails placed on the list of
British birds, is, next to the Pied, the best known species, being a
regular summer visitor, and everywhere tolerably common. It is said by
most authors to frequent the water rather less than the other species,
and to prefer fields of peas and tares, open downs and sheep pastures;
but, as far as my own observation goes, I have seen it far more
frequently near water than elsewhere, and if I wished to observe its
habits, I should repair to the nearest canal or river, in the certain
expectation of seeing a pair hunting among the aquatic weeds for their
food, running along the sandy or muddy shore, perching on the broad
leaves of the water-lily, and chasing each other with dipping flight
through the air. I am inclined to believe that, though it may have
often been noticed in dry pastures and stony places, yet that when so
circumstanced, it is only engaged on an exploring expedition from its
watery haunts; for it is scarcely possible that a bird so thoroughly
at home in a weedy pond, can ever be long absent from such a locality
from choice. Its habits are precisely similar to those of the Pied
Wagtail, except that it visits us in the summer exclusively, retiring
southwards in autumn. It may often also be seen in company with that
species. Besides its call-note, which consists of two shrill notes,
the second of which is a musical tone lower than the first, it has a
short and exceedingly sweet song, something like that of the Redbreast
when at its best. This I have heard it utter whilst it was perched on
a low bush overhanging a pond. Its nest was probably somewhere in the
neighbourhood, for when disturbed it flew to a short distance only,
alighted on another twig and repeated its warble again. This was in
the first week in May, and is the only occasion on which I ever heard
it really sing. The nest resembles that of the Pied Wagtail, and is
placed on the ground, usually in pea-fields. The popular name
Washerwoman belongs to the whole family. The corresponding term,
_Lavandière_, is also found in France, and was given from the fanciful
similarity between the beating of the water with its tail by the bird
while tripping along the leaves of a water-lily, and the beating of
linen in the water by washerwomen, a custom still existing in France,
and some parts of England and Ireland.


Hind claw shorter than the toe, and curved so as to form the
fourth of a circle; upper parts ash, tinged with olive, the
centre of each feather dark brown; a double band across the
wing, formed by the yellowish white tips of the lesser and
middle wing-coverts; throat and region of the eye dull white;
breast reddish yellow, spotted, and at the sides lightly
streaked with dark brown. Length six inches. Eggs dull white,
variously mottled with purple brown.

The name Titlark is popularly applied to three common species of birds
which were formerly placed in the same family with the Skylark. Modern
ornithologists now place them in a distinct genus, the characters of
which differ from those of the true Lark in that the beak is more
slender and slightly notched near the point, the first three quills
are nearly of the same length and the outer toe is united with the
middle one as far as the first joint. In colouring, however, in
general form, and, to a slight extent, in habits, namely, in the mode
of feeding and nesting, there is much similarity between the genera;
but in the power of soaring, the Lark, though imitated by one species,
is unrivalled. The old name Titlark, then, must be understood to be
merged in the more distinctive title, Pipit, given to three common
kinds which severally frequent trees, meadows, and the sea-shore.
Pipits are more allied to the Wagtail family than with Larks. The Tree

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 16 of 39)