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C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

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Pipit alone is a migratory species, arriving in this country towards
the end of April, and leaving us in the autumn. It is common in most
of the wooded counties of England, except the extreme west and north,
but attracts little notice, being unostentatious in size and colour,
while its song, except by the practised ear, is likely to be lost in
the general melody of the woods. Yarrell's succinct account of its
most characteristic habit is so comprehensive and accurate, that the
observer who wishes to make its acquaintance can scarcely fail by its
help to identify the bird on its very first occurrence. 'The male has
a pretty song, perhaps more attractive from the manner in which it is
given, than the quality of the song itself. He generally sings while
perched on the top of a bush, or one of the upper branches of an
elm-tree standing in a hedgerow, from which, if watched for a short
time, he will be seen to ascend with quivering wing about as high
again as the tree; then, stretching out his wings and expanding his
tail, he descends slowly by a half-circle, singing the whole time, to
the same branch from which he started, or to the top of the nearest
other tree; and so constant is this habit with him, that if the
observer does not approach near enough to alarm him, the bird may be
seen to perform the same evolution twenty times in half an hour, and I
have witnessed it most frequently during and after a warm May shower.'
Its descent to the ground is generally performed in the same manner.
Its food consists of insects and small seeds, for which it searches
among the grass or newly-ploughed ground, with the walking and running
gait of the Wagtails, but without their incessant waving movement of
the tail. The nest, which is placed on the ground, under a tuft of
grass or low bush, and very frequently on the skirt of a wood or
copse, is composed of dry grass and small roots, and lined with finer
grass and hair. The eggs are usually five in number, and vary so much,
that extreme specimens would scarcely seem to belong to the same bird.
In the predominating brown hue a tinge of red is, however, always
perceptible, and by this it may be distinguished from the egg of the
Meadow Pipit.[14] The Tree Pipit is not seen in Ireland, or it is as
yet unrecorded there.

[14] 'Amongst our land birds', says Hewitson, 'there is no
species the eggs of which present so many, or such distinct
varieties, as those of the Tree Pipit. No one would at first
believe them to be eggs of the same species; and it was not
till I had captured the bird upon each of the varieties, and
also received them from Mr. H. Doubleday, similarly attested,
that I felt satisfactorily convinced upon the subject.'


[Illustration:

Tree Pipit [M]

Yellow Hammer [M]

Rock Pipit [M]

Meadow Pipit [M]

[_face p. 116._]]


[Illustration:

Woodlark [M]

Shore Lark [M]

Skylark [M]]


THE MEADOW PIPIT
ANTHUS PRATENSIS

Hind claw longer than the toe, slightly curved; upper parts
ash, tinged with olive, especially in winter, the centre of
each feather dark brown; under parts reddish white, streaked
with dark brown. Length five inches and three-quarters. Eggs
dull white, variously spotted and mottled with brown.

It may be thought at the first glimpse that a difference in the
comparative length of the hinder claws of two birds so much alike as
the Tree and Meadow Pipits is scarcely sufficient to justify a
specific distinction; but when it is considered that a short and
curved claw enables a bird to retain a firm grasp of a small twig,
while a long and almost straight one is best adapted for perching on
the ground, it will appear at once that, however similar two birds may
be in all other respects, yet the slight one in which they differ is
the point on which hinges a complex scheme of habits. So the Tree
Pipit frequents wooded districts, and passes a large portion of its
time aloft among the branches, while the Meadow Pipit finds its
happiness on the ground. It is not, indeed, confined to the unwooded
country, for no bird is more generally diffused, and the nests of both
species, constructed of similar materials, may frequently be found in
the border of the same field, yet it often finds a home in wild,
barren districts, frequented by no other small birds but the Wheatear
and Ring Ouzel. I have even more than once seen it alight on a tree,
but this was apparently as a resting-place on which it perched
previously to descending to roost among the heath on a common. Had I
not been near, it would most probably have dropped at once to its
hiding-place as some of its companions did. From its attachment to
commons and waste lands, the Meadow Pipit has received the names of
Ling-bird and Moss-cheeper. In winter it is more abundant in the
plains, where it may often be seen in small parties searching for
seeds and insects in recently-ploughed lands, well marked by its
running gait and the olive tinge of its upper plumage. Its song, which
is not frequently heard, is a short and simple strain, sometimes
uttered on the ground, but more generally, while rising or falling, at
no great height in the air. Its nest is only to be distinguished from
that of the Tree Pipit by the dark brown hue of the eggs which are
somewhat similar to those of the Skylark, only smaller. 'The egg of
the Cuckoo is more frequently deposited and hatched in the nest of the
Meadow Pipit than in that of any other bird,' says Yarrell. It is
interesting to know, now, that this bird - an immoral creature we might
call it - which never keeps to one mate, deposits its eggs in the nests
of about 145 species, taking the world over.


THE ROCK PIPIT
ANTHUS OBSCÚRUS

Hind claw about equal in length to the toe, much curved; upper
plumage greenish brown, the centre of each feather darker
brown; a whitish streak over the eye; under parts dull white,
spotted and streaked with dark brown. Length six inches and
three-quarters. Eggs dull white, mottled with dingy brown.

Except that it is somewhat larger, the Rock Pipit is very similar in
form and colour to the last species. It is, however, far more local,
being confined exclusively to the sea-shore, but there of very common
occurrence. Every one familiar with the sea-coast, must have observed
it moving through the air with a jerking flight, occasionally
alighting on a rock or on the beach near the line of high-water mark,
searching busily for marine insects. In spring, it frequently takes
little flights inland, never to a great distance, repeating its simple
song all the while, and chasing as if in sport some one or other of
its companions. In winter, it seems to act as a guide to the smaller
land birds, who, finding their supply of food diminished or altogether
cut off by the frost, are attracted by its movements, and join it in
searching for insects among the unfrozen

'ridge of all things vile,'

left on the shore by the receding tide. Montagu says, that it has
never been observed to be gregarious; his editor, however, Rennie,
states that he has noticed it to be, if not quite gregarious, at least
very nearly so, on the wild rocky shores of Normandy; and, from my own
acquaintance with its habits in Devon and Cornwall, I am inclined to
agree with the latter. If not gregarious, it is at least sociable, and
that too at seasons when the flocks could hardly have been family
gatherings only. The same remark holds good of the Meadow Pipit. A
migration southwards takes place in October along our east coast.


FAMILY ALAUDIDÆ

THE SKYLARK
ALAUDA ARVENSIS

Upper parts reddish brown, the centre of each feather dark
brown; a faint whitish streak above the eyes; throat white;
neck and breast whitish, tinged with yellow and red, and
streaked with dark brown; tail moderate. Length seven inches
and a quarter. Eggs greyish, thickly speckled with dark grey
and brown.

The Skylark, a bird whose flight and song are better known perhaps
than those of any other bird, needs but a simple biography. The
favourite bird of the poets, its story might be told in extracts
compiled from various authors whose muse has led them to sing of
Nature. Much, however, that has been written is but an amplification
of the golden line, 'Hark, the Lark at Heaven's gate sings!' and not a
little is an exaggerated statement of the height to which it ascends,
and the time which it remains suspended in mid-air. But the Skylark
needs no panegyrists, so, with all due deference to those who have
struck the lyre in its honour, I will endeavour to describe its habits
and haunts in humble prose.

The Skylark is a generally-diffused bird, adapted by the conformation
of its claws for perching on the ground, and by its length and power
of wing for soaring high in the air. Accordingly, its food consists of
small insects and seeds, which it collects among the herbage of
stubble-fields, meadows and downs, or in newly-ploughed fields. To
this fare, it adds in winter and spring the tender stalk of sprouting
corn. Hence it is regarded with deadly hostility by farmers, and
hence, too, the quiet of the country is much disturbed at these
seasons, by boys employed to frighten it away by screaming and plying
a peculiar kind of rattle.[15] During autumn and winter, Larks
congregate in large flocks, and occupy their time principally in
searching for food on the ground. If disturbed, they rise in a
scattered manner, wheel about in the air until the flock is formed
again, chirping from time to time, and then withdraw, not in a compact
body, but at unequal distances from the earth and from each other, to
a new feeding-ground, over which they hover with circling flight for
some time before alighting. On trees they never perch; though one or
two may occasionally be seen settled on a quickset hedge or a railing.
In North Britain, at the approach of severe weather, they flock
together and migrate southwards. Great numbers also visit England from
the Continent, arriving in November, when they used to be caught in
nets and traps for the table. Early in spring the flocks break up,
when the birds pair, and for three or four months, every day and all
day long, when the weather is fine (for the Lark dislikes rain and
high winds), its song may be heard throughout the breadth of the land.
Rising as it were by a sudden impulse from its nest or lowly retreat,
it bursts forth, while as yet but a few feet from the ground, into
exuberant song, and with its head turned towards the breeze, now
ascending perpendicularly, and now veering to the right or left, but
not describing circles, it pours forth an unbroken chain of melody,
until it has reached an elevation computed to be, at the most, about a
thousand feet. To an observer on earth, it has dwindled to the size of
a mere speck; but, as far as my experience goes, it never rises so
high as to defy the search of a keen eye. Having reached its highest
elevation, its ambition is satisfied without making any permanent
stay, and it begins to descend, not with a uniform downward motion,
but by a series of droppings with intervals of simple hovering, during
which it seems to be resting on its wings. Finally, as it draws near
the earth, it ceases its song and descends more rapidly, but before
it touches the ground it recovers itself, sweeps away with almost
horizontal flight for a short distance and disappears in the herbage.
The time consumed in this evolution is at the most from fifteen to
twenty minutes, more frequently less; nor have I ever observed it
partially descend and soar upwards again. A writer in the _Magazine of
Natural History_ maintains that 'those acquainted with the song of the
Skylark, can tell, without looking at them, whether the birds be
ascending or stationary in the air, or on their descent; so different
is the style of the song in each case'. Mr. Yarrell is of the same
opinion, and I have little doubt that they are correct, though I am
not certain that I have myself attained the skill of discriminating.
In July, the Lark ceases its soarings and song together, but in fine
weather, in October, it receives a new inspiration and is musical
again. From time to time, during winter, if the season be mild, it
resumes its aërial habits, but it neither ascends so high nor sings so
long, two or three minutes becoming now the limits of its performance.
Like most other birds, it sings least about noon and the first two
hours of the afternoon; but it begins before sunrise, having been
heard at midsummer as early as two o'clock in the morning, and it
sometimes continues its song till late on into the night, having been
heard at ten o'clock when it was quite dark. Occasionally, too, it
sings on the ground; and, in a cage, as all the world knows, it pours
out its melody with as much spirit, as if its six inches of turf could
be measured by acres, and the roof of its little cage were the vault
of heaven. The following stanza in French is equally successful in
imitating the song of the Skylark and describing its evolutions:

La gentille Alouette avec son tirelire,
Tirelire, relire et tirelirant, tire
Vers la voûte du ciel; puis son vol en ce lieu
Vire, et semble nous dire: Adieu, adieu, adieu.

The Lark builds its nest in a hollow in the ground, the rut of a
cart-wheel, the depression formed by a horse's hoof, or in a hole
which it scrapes out for itself. The nest is composed of dry grass,
and lined with finer fibres. It lays four or five eggs, and rears two
broods in the year. It displays great attachment to its young, and has
been known, when disturbed by mowers, to build a dome over its nest,
as a substitute for the natural shelter afforded by the grass while
standing, and to remove its young in its claws to another place of
concealment. In a cage, even the male is an excellent nurse. Mr. Weir
mentions one which brought up several broods entrusted to its care,
and a similar instance has fallen under my own notice. Larks
frequently become the prey of the Hobby and Merlin, which pounce on
them as they are on the point of leaving the ground, and bear them off
with as much ease as they would a feather. But if an intended victim
discovers its oppressor in time, it instantly begins to ascend with a
rapidity which the other cannot follow, carried on as it is by the
impetus of its horizontal flight. The Hawk, foiled for this time,
renews the chase and endeavours to soar above its quarry; if it
succeeds, it makes a second swoop, sometimes with deadly effect; but
if it fails a second time, the Lark folds Its wings, drops like lead
to the ground, and, crouching among the herbage, often escapes
detection.

[15] Farmers would effect a great saving if they sowed their
wheat deeper than is the usual practise. The only part of
the young plant which the Lark touches is the white stalk
between the grain and the blade. In its effort to obtain
this it frequently destroys the whole plant, if the grain
has been lodged near the surface; but if the young shoot has
sprouted from a depth of an inch or more, the bird contents
itself with as much as it can reach without digging, and
leaves the grain uninjured and capable of sprouting again.


THE WOODLARK
ALAUDA ARBÓREA

Upper parts reddish brown, the centre of each feather dark
brown; a distinct yellowish white streak above the eye passing
to the back part of the head; lower parts yellowish white,
streaked with dark brown; tail short. Length six inches and a
half. Eggs greyish white, speckled and sometimes faintly
streaked with brown.

The Woodlark is much less frequent than the Skylark, and is confined
to certain districts, also it is only resident northwards up to
Stirling. It is distinguished by its smaller size, short tail, a light
mark over the eye, and by its habit of perching on trees, where the
Skylark is never known to alight. It builds its nest very early in the
season, sometimes so soon as the end of March, and probably rears
several broods in the year, as it has been found sitting as late as
September. It is consequently among the earliest songsters of the
year, and among the last to bid adieu to summer. It sings on until
the occurrence of severe frosts, and its note is among the sweetest
and most touching sounds of nature. The song, though of less compass
and less varied than that of the Skylark, is superior in liquidness of
tone, and is thought to resemble the syllables '_lulu_', by which name
the bird is known in France. When soaring it may be distinguished from
the Skylark not only by its song, but by its ascending in circles,
which it describes, poets tell us, and perhaps correctly, with its
nest for a centre. Sometimes, especially during sunshine after a
summer shower, it alights on the summit of a lofty tree, to 'unthread
its chaplet of musical pearls', and its simpler _lulu_ notes may be
heard as it flies from place to place while but a few feet above the
surface of the ground. In autumn, Woodlarks assemble in small sociable
parties (but not in large flocks), and keep together during the
winter. Early in spring these societies are broken up into pairs, and
the business of the season commences. The nest is composed of bents
and a little moss, and is lined with finer grass, and, though built on
the ground, is generally concealed with more art than that of the
Skylark, the birds availing themselves of the shelter afforded by a
bush or tuft of grass.


THE SHORE LARK
OTÓCORYS ALPESTRIS

Throat, forehead, and ear-coverts yellow; over the forehead a
black band; lore, moustache, and gorget black; upper parts
reddish brown; breast and flanks yellowish white; abdomen
white. Length nearly seven inches. Eggs greyish white, spotted
with pale blue and brown.

The Shore Lark, like the last, is a very rare visitor of Britain, and
appears to be equally uncommon In France. A few have been shot in
Norfolk, and in the high latitudes both of the Old and New Worlds it
is a common resident on the rocky coasts. It builds its nest on the
ground, and shares in the great characteristic of the family, that,
namely, of soaring and singing simultaneously. In colouring, it is
strongly marked by its black gorget and crest.




ORDER PICARIÆ


FAMILY CYPSELIDÆ

THE SWIFT
CÝPSELUS ÁPUS

General plumage sooty brown; chin greyish white; tarsi
feathered; bill feet, and claws, shining black. Length eight
inches; width seventeen inches. Eggs pure white.

The Swift is, perhaps, the strongest and swiftest, not merely of the
Swallow tribe, but of all birds; hence a voyage from Southern
Africa[16] to England is performed without overtaxing its strength. It
stands in need of no rest after this prodigious flight, but
immediately on its arrival starts with a right good will on its
pursuit of food, as if its journey had been but a pleasant course of
training for its daily vocation. With respect to temperature, however,
its powers of endurance are limited; it never proceeds far northwards,
and occasionally even suffers from unseasonably severe weather in the
temperate climates where it fixes its summer residence. Mr. F. Smith,
of the British Museum, related in the _Zoologist_,[17] that, at Deal,
on the eighth of July, 1856, after a mild but wet day, the temperature
suddenly fell till it became disagreeably cold. The Swifts were
sensibly affected by the atmospheric change; they flew unsteadily,
fluttered against the walls of the houses, and some even flew into
open windows. 'Whilst observing these occurrences', he says, 'a girl
came to the door to ask me if I wanted to buy a bat; she had heard,
she told me, that I bought all kinds of bugs, and her mother thought I
might want a bat. On her producing it, I was astonished to find it was
a poor benumbed Swift. The girl told me they were dropping down in the
streets, and the boys were killing all the bats; the church, she said,
was covered with them. Off I started to witness this strange sight and
slaughter. True enough; the children were charging them everywhere,
and on arriving at the church in Lower Street I was astonished to see
the poor birds hanging in clusters from the eaves and cornices; some
clusters were at least two feet in length, and, at intervals, benumbed
individuals dropped from the outside of the clusters. Many hundreds of
the poor birds fell victims to the ruthless ignorance of the
children.' Being so susceptible of cold, the Swift does not visit us
until summer may be considered to have completely set in. In the
south it is generally seen towards the end of April, but it generally
brings up the rear of the migratory birds by making its first
appearance in the first or second week in May, in the north.

Early in August it makes itself, for a few days, more than ever
conspicuous by its wheeling flights around the buildings which contain
its nest, and then suddenly disappears. At this period, too, its note
is more frequently heard than during any other part of its visit, and
in this respect it is peculiar. As a general rule, birds cease their
song partially, if not entirely, when their eggs are hatched. The new
care of providing for the wants of a brood occupies their time too
much to allow leisure for musical performance, so that with the
exception of their call-notes, and their cries of alarm or defiance,
they are for a season mute. An early riser, and late in retiring to
roost, the Swift is always on the wing. Thus, whether hunting on his
own account or on behalf of his mate and nestlings, his employment is
unvaried, and the same amount of time is always at his disposal for
exercising his vocal powers. These are not great; he has no roundelay;
he neither warbles nor carols; he does not even twitter. His whole
melody is a scream, unmusical but most joyous; a squeak would be a
better name, but that, instead of conveying a notion that it results
from pain, it is full of rollicking delight. Some compare it to the
noise made by the sharpening of a saw; to me it seems such an
expression of pent-up joy as little children would make if
unexpectedly released from school, furnished with wings, and flung up
into the air for a game of hide-and-seek among the clouds. Such
soarings aloft, such chasings round the pinnacles of the church-tower
and the gables of the farmhouses, no wonder that they cannot contain
themselves for joy. Every day brings its picnic or village feast, with
no weariness or depression on the morrow.

The nest of the Swift is constructed of any scraps that the bird may
chance to find floating in the air, or brought to it by the wind, for
it literally never perches on the ground, whence it rises with
difficulty. These are rudely pressed together in any convenient
aperture or moulding in a building, and cemented together by some
glutinous secretion from the bird's mouth. Two eggs are laid, and the
young, as a matter of necessity, remain in the nest until quite
fledged.

Another name for the Swift is Black Martin, and in heraldry it is
familiarly known as the Martlet, the figure of which is a device of
frequent occurrence in heraldic coats of arms, and denotes that the
original wearer of the distinction served as a crusader pilgrim. In
Arabia it is still known by the name of Hadji, or Pilgrim, to denote
its migratory habits.

[16] Livingstone mentions his having seen in the plains north
of Kuruman a flock of Swifts, computed to contain upwards
of 4,000 individuals.

[17] September, 1856, p. 5249.


FAMILY CAPRIMULGIDÆ

THE NIGHTJAR
CAPRIMÚLGUS EUROPÆUS

General plumage ash-grey, spotted and barred with black, brown
and reddish brown; first three primaries with a large white
patch, on the inner web; two outer tail-feathers on each side
tipped with white. Length ten inches and a quarter; breadth
twenty-two inches. Eggs whitish, beautifully marbled with brown
and ash.

This bird used to be described as a nocturnal robber who finds his way
into the goat-pens, sucks the dugs of the goats, poisoning them to
such an extent that the animals themselves are blinded, and their
udders waste away. This fable we notice in order to account for the
strange name Goatsucker, by which it was formerly so well known. The
bird has, indeed, strangely enough, been known all over Europe by an
equivalent for this name from the earliest times. The bird itself is



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 17 of 39)