C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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perfectly inoffensive, singular in form and habits, though rarely seen
alive near enough for its peculiarities of form and colour to be
observed. Its note, however, is familiar enough to persons who are in
the habit of being out late at night in such parts of the country as
it frequents. The silence of the evening or midnight walk in June is
occasionally broken by a deep _churr-churr-err_ which seemingly
proceeds from the lower bough of a tree, a hedge, or paling. And a
whirring of the wings comes often from their being brought in contact
as the birds twist in insect-hunting.[18] The churring is nearly
monotonous but not quite so, as it occasionally rises or falls about a
quarter of a note, and appears to increase and diminish in loudness.
Nor does it seem to proceed continuously from exactly the same spot,
but to vary its position, as if the performer were either a
ventriloquist or were actually shifting his ground. The bird perches
with its feet resting lengthwise on a branch, its claws not being
adapted for grasping, and turns its head from side to side, thus
throwing the sound as it were in various directions, and producing the
same effect as if it proceeded from different places. I have
repeatedly worked my way close up to the bird, but as I labour under
the disadvantage of being short-sighted, and derive little assistance
from glasses at night, I have always failed to observe it actually
perched and singing. In the summer of 1859 a Nightjar frequented the
immediate neighbourhood of my own house, and I had many opportunities
of listening to its note. One evening especially, it perched on a
railing within fifty yards of the house, and I made sure of seeing it,
but when I had approached within a few yards of the spot from whence
the sound proceeded the humming suddenly stopped, but was presently
again audible at the other end of the railing which ran across my
meadow. I cautiously crept on, but with no better success than before.
As I drew near, the bird quitted its perch, flew round me, coming
within a few feet of my person, and, on my remaining still, made
itself heard from another part of the railing only a few yards behind
me. Again and again I dodged it, but always with the same result; I
saw it, indeed, several times, but always on the wing. At last a
longer interval of silence ensued, and when I heard the sound again it
proceeded from a distant hedge which separated the meadow from a
common. Here probably its mate was performing the domestic duty of
incubation cheered by the dismal ditty of her partner; but I never saw
her, though I undertook another nocturnal chase of the musician,
hunting him from tree to tree, but never being able to discover his
exact position, until the cessation of the sound and the sudden
rustling of leaves announced the fact of his having taken his

In the dusk of the evening the Nightjar may commonly be seen hawking
for moths and beetles after the manner of the Swallow-tribe, only that
the flight is less rapid and more tortuous. I once saw one on the
common mentioned above, hawking seemingly in company with Swifts and
Swallows during the bright glare of a summer afternoon; but most
frequently it spends the day either resting on the ground among heath
or ferns or on the branch of a tree, always (according to Yarrell and
others) crouching close down upon it, in the line of the limb, and not
across it. When perched on the ground it lies very close, 'not rising
(a French author says) until the dogs are almost on it, but worth
shooting in September'. The poet Wordsworth, whose opportunities of
watching the Nightjar in its haunts must have been numerous, knew that
the whirring note is an accompaniment of the chase:

The busy Dor-Hawk chases the white moth
With burring note - -

The burring Dor-Hawk round and round is wheeling:
That solitary bird
Is all that can be heard
In silence, deeper far than deepest noon.

One point in the economy of the Nightjar is still disputed (1908) the
use which it makes of its serrated middle claw. White, and another
observer, quoted by Yarrell, have seen the bird while on the wing
capture insects with the claw and transfer them to the mouth. Wilson,
on the other hand, states that the use of this singular structure is
to enable the bird to rid itself of vermin, to which it is much
exposed by its habit of remaining at rest during the heat of the day.
As he has actually observed a bird in captivity thus employing its
claw, it would follow that the same organ is used for a twofold

The Nightjar is a migratory bird and the last to arrive in this
country, appearing not before the middle of May. It is found more or
less sparingly in all parts of England, especially those which abound
most in woods interspersed with heaths and brakes. In the wooded
valleys of Devonshire it is of frequent occurrence, and here it has
been known to remain so late in the season as November, whereas from
most other localities it migrates southwards about the middle or end
of September. It builds no nest, but lays its singularly beautiful
eggs, two in number, on the ground among the dry herbage of the

Other names by which it is locally known are Fern Owl, Wheeler, and

[18] Mr. Bell informs me that it is so like the croak of the
Natter-Jack Toad, that he has more than once doubted from
which of the two the sound proceeded.




Crown and upper plumage black; a crimson patch on the back of
the head; a white spot on each side of the neck; scapulars,
lesser wing-coverts, and under plumage white; abdomen and under
tail-coverts crimson; iris red. _Female_ - without the crimson
on the head. Length nine inches and a half; breadth fourteen
inches. Eggs glossy white.

In habits this bird closely resembles the Green Woodpecker. It is of
less common occurrence, but by no means rare, especially in the wooded
districts of the southern and midland counties. A writer in the
_Zoologist_[19] is of opinion that it shows a decided partiality to
fallen timber. 'In 1849', he says, 'a considerable number of trees
were cut down in an open part of the country near Melbourne, which
were eventually drawn together and piled in lots. These lay for some
time, and were visited almost daily by Great Spotted Woodpeckers.
Their habits and manners were very amusing, especially whilst
searching for food. They alighted on the timber, placed the body in a
particular position, generally with the head downward' [differing in
this respect from the Green Woodpecker], 'and commenced pecking away
at the bark. Piece by piece it fell under their bills, as chips from
the axe of a woodman. Upon examining the bark, I found that the pieces
were chipped away in order that the-bird might arrive at a small white
grub which lay snugly embedded in the bark; and the adroitness of the
bird in finding out those portions of it which contained the greatest
number of grubs, was certainly very extraordinary. Where the birds
were most at work on a particular tree, I shelled off the bark and
found nearly thirty grubs in nine squares inches; but on shelling off
another portion from the same tree, which remained untouched, no grub
was visible. Yet how the bird could ascertain precisely where his food
lay was singular, as in both cases the surface of the bark appeared
the same and bore no traces of having been perforated by insects.
During the day one bird chipped off a piece thirty inches long and
twenty wide - a considerable day's work for so small a workman.'
Another observer states that this bird rarely descends to the ground,
and affects the upper branches of trees in preference to the lower.
Its note is like that of the Green Woodpecker. Both species are
charged with resorting to gardens and orchards during the fruit
season, not in quest of insect food; but no instance of this has come
under my own notice. It is said, too, that they eat nuts. This
statement is most probably correct. I myself doubt whether there are
many birds of any sort which can resist a walnut; and I would
recommend any one who is hospitably disposed towards the birds which
frequent his garden, to strew the ground with fragments of these nuts.
To birds who are exclusively vegetarians, if indeed there be any such
indigenous to Britain, they are a natural article of diet, and as from
their oily nature they approximate to animal matter, they are most
acceptable to insectivorous birds. They have an advantage over almost
every other kind of food thus exposed, that they are not liable to be
appropriated as scraps of meat and bread are, by prowling cats and
dogs. A walnut, suspended from the bough of a tree by a string, will
soon attract the notice of some inquisitive Tit, and, when once
detected, will not fail to receive the visits of all birds of the same
family which frequent the neighbourhood. A more amusing pendulum can
scarcely be devised. To ensure the success of the experiment, a small
portion of the shell should be removed.

[19] Vol. viii, p. 3115.


Wryneck [M] Greater Spotted Woodpecker [F]

Green Woodpecker [M] Lesser Spotted Woodpecker [M]

[_face p. 128._]]


Hoopoe [M]

Kingfisher [M]


Bee-eater [M]]


Forehead and lower parts dirty white; crown bright red: nape,
back, and wings black, with white bars; tail black, the outer
feathers tipped with white and barred with black; iris red.
Length five inches and a half; breadth twelve inches. Eggs
glossy white.

This handsome little bird resembles its congeners so closely, both in
structure and habits, that it scarcely needs a lengthened description.
Resident in England but rare in Scotland and Ireland, owing to its
fondness for high trees and its small size it often escapes notice. It
lays its eggs on the rotten wood, which it has either pecked, or which
has fallen, from the holes in trees; they are not to be distinguished
from those of the Wryneck. Lately (1908) a Scottish newspaper recorded
the shooting of "that rare species, the Spotted Woodpecker!" "The man
with the gun" is incurable.


Upper plumage green; under, greenish ash; crown, back of the
head, and moustaches crimson; face black. _Female_ - less
crimson on the head; moustaches black. Length thirteen inches;
breadth twenty-one inches. Eggs glossy white.

One of the most interesting among the natural sounds of the country,
is that of the

Woodpecker tapping the hollow beech tree:

yet one may walk through the woods many times and hear no tapping at
all, and even if such a sound be detected and traced to its origin, it
will often be found to proceed from the Nuthatch, who has wedged a
hazel-nut into the bark of an oak, than from the hammering of a
Woodpecker. Yet often indeed it may be observed ascending, by a series
of starts, the trunk of a tree, inclining now a little to the right,
and now to the left, disappearing now and then on the side farthest
from the spectator, and again coming into view somewhat higher up. Nor
is its beak idle; this is employed sometimes in dislodging the insects
which lurk in the rugged bark, and sometimes in tapping the trunk in
order to find out whether the wood beneath is sound or otherwise. Just
as a carpenter sounds a wall with his hammer in order to discover
where the brickwork ends and where lath and plaster begin, so the
Woodpecker sounds the wooden pillar to which it is clinging, in order
to discover where the wood is impenetrable alike by insects and
itself, and where the former have been beforehand with it in seeking
food or shelter. Such a canker-spot found, it halts in its course,
tears off piece-meal a portion of bark and excavates the rotten wood
beneath, either as far as the fault extends or as long as it can find
food. It is, then, by no means a mischievous bird, but the reverse; as
it not only destroys a number of noxious insects, but points out to
the woodman, if he would only observe aright, which trees are
beginning to decay and consequently require his immediate attention.
This aspect of the Woodpecker's operations is the right one and not
the old idea that 'it is a great enemy of old trees in consequence of
the holes which it digs in their trunks', as some old writer states.

But with all his digging and tapping, the sound by which the vicinity
of a Woodpecker is most frequently detected, especially in spring and
summer, is the unmistakable laughing note which has gained for him the
name of 'Yaffle.' No more perhaps than the mournful cooing of the dove
does this indicate merriment; it is harsh, too, in tone; yet it rings
through the woods with such jovial earnestness that it is always
welcome. On such occasions the bird is not generally, I think,
feeding, for if the neighbourhood from which the sound proceeded be
closely watched, the Yaffle may frequently be observed to fly away,
with a somewhat heavy dipping flight, to another tree or grove, and
thence, after another laugh, to proceed to a second. It is indeed
oftener to be seen on the wing than hunting for food on the trunks of
trees. Very frequently too it may be observed on the ground,
especially in a meadow or common in which ants abound.

The admirable adaptation of the structure of the Woodpecker to its
mode of life is well pointed out by Yarrell. Its sharp, hooked toes,
pointing two each way, are eminently fitted for climbing and clinging.
The keel of the breast-bone is remarkably shallow; hence, when
ascending (its invariable mode of progress) a tree, it is enabled to
bring its body close to the trunk without straining the muscles of the
legs. Its tail is short, and composed of unusually stiff feathers,
which in the process of climbing are pressed inwards against the tree,
and contribute greatly to its support. The beak is strong and of
considerable length, and thus fitted either for digging into an
ant-hill or sounding the cavities of a tree; and the tongue, which is
unusually long, is furnished with a curious but simple apparatus, by
which it is extended so that it can be thrust into a hole far beyond
the point of the bill, while its tip is barbed with small filaments,
which, like the teeth of a rake, serve to pull up the larva or insect
into its mouth. The Woodpecker builds no nest, but lays five or six
glossy white eggs on the fragments of the decayed wood in which it has
excavated its nest.

Other names by which this bird is known are Popinjay, Wood-sprite,
Rain-bird, Hew-hole and Woodweele.



Upper plumage reddish grey, irregularly spotted and lined with
brown and black; a broad black and brown band from the back of
the head to the back; throat and breast yellowish red, with
dusky transverse rays; rest of the under plumage whitish, with
arrow shaped black spots; outer web of the quills marked with
rectangular alternate black and yellowish red spots;
tail-feathers barred with black zigzag bands; beak and feet
olive brown. Length six inches and a half; breadth eleven
inches. Eggs glossy white.

The note of the Wryneck is so peculiar that it can be confounded with
none of the natural sounds of the country; a loud, rapid, harsh cry of
_pay-pay-pay_ from a bird about the size of a lark may be referred
without hesitation to the Wryneck. Yet it is a pleasant sound after
all - 'the merry pee-bird' a poet calls it - and the untuneful minstrel
is the same bird which is known by the name of 'Cuckoo's Mate', and so
is associated with May-days, pleasant jaunts into the country,
hayfields, the memory of past happy days and the hope of others to
come. This name it derives not from any fondness it exhibits for the
society of the cuckoo, as it is a bird of remarkably solitary habits,
but because it arrives generally a few days before the cuckoo. Not
less singular than its note is its plumage, which, though unmarked by
gaudiness of colouring, is very beautiful, being richly embroidered as
it were with brown and black on a reddish grey ground. In habits, it
bears no marked resemblance to the Woodpeckers; it is not much given
to climbing and never taps the trunks of trees; yet it does seek its
food on decayed trees, and employs its long horny tongue in securing
insects. It darts its tongue with inconceivable rapidity into an
ant-hill and brings it out as rapidly, with the insects and their eggs
adhering to its viscid point. These constitute its principal food, so
that it is seen more frequently feeding on the ground than hunting on
trees. But by far the strangest peculiarity of the Wryneck, stranger
than its note and even than its worm-like tongue, is the wondrous
pliancy of its neck, which one might almost imagine to be furnished
with a ball and socket joint. A country boy who had caught one of
these birds on its nest brought it to me on a speculation. As he held
it in his hand, I raised my finger towards it as if about to touch its
beak. The bird watched most eagerly the movement of my finger, with no
semblance of fear, but rather with an apparent intention of resenting
the offer of any injury. I moved my finger to the left; its beak
followed the direction - the finger was now over its back, still the
beak pointed to it. In short, as a magnetic needle follows a piece of
steel, so the bird's beak followed my finger until it was again in
front, the structure of the neck being such as to allow the head to
make a complete revolution on its axis, and this without any painful
effort. I purchased the bird and gave it its liberty, satisfied to
have discovered the propriety of the name Torquilla.[20] I may here
remark that the name Iynx,[21] is derived from its harsh cry. Besides
this, the proper call-note of the bird, it utters, when disturbed in
its nest, another which resembles a hiss; whence and partly, perhaps,
on account of the peculiar structure of its neck, it is sometimes
called the Snake-bird. Nest, properly speaking, it has none; it
selects a hole in a decaying tree and lays its eggs on the rotten
wood. Its powers of calculating seem to be of a very low order.
Yarrell records an instance in which four sets of eggs, amounting to
twenty-two, were successively taken before the nest was deserted; a
harsh experiment, and scarcely to be justified except on the plea that
they were taken by some one who gained his livelihood by selling eggs,
or was reduced to a strait from want of food. A similar instance is
recorded in the _Zoologist_, when the number of eggs taken was also
twenty-two. The Wryneck is a common bird in the south-eastern counties
of England and to the west as far as Somersetshire; but I have never
heard its note in Devon or Cornwall; it is rare also in the northern

[20] From the Latin _torqueo_, 'to twist.'

[21] Greek [Greek: iynx] from [Greek: iýzô], to 'shriek.'



Back azure-blue; head and wing-coverts bluish green, spotted
with azure-blue; under and behind the eye a reddish band
passing into white, and beneath this a band of azure-green;
wings and tail greenish blue; throat white; under plumage rusty
orange-red. Length seven inches and a quarter; width ten
inches. Eggs glossy white, nearly round.

Halcyon days, every one knows, are days of peace and tranquillity,
when all goes smoothly, and nothing occurs to ruffle the equanimity of
the most irascible member of a household; but it may not be known to
all my younger readers that a bird is said to be in any way concerned
in bringing about this happy state of things. According to the ancient
naturalists the Halcyon, our Kingfisher, being especially fond of the
water and its products, chooses to have even a floating nest. Now the
surface of the sea is an unfit place whereon to construct a vessel of
any kind, so the Halcyon, as any other skilful artisan would, puts
together on land first the framework, and then the supplementary
portion of its nest, the materials being shelly matter and spines,
whence derived is unknown; but the principal substance employed is
fish-bones. During the progress of the work the careful bird several
times tests its buoyancy by actual experiment, and when satisfied that
all is safe, launches its future nursery on the ocean. However
turbulent might have been the condition of the water previously to
this event, thenceforth a calm ensued, which lasted during the period
of incubation; and these were 'Halcyon days' (_Halcyonides dies_),
which set in seven days before the winter solstice, and lasted as many
days after. What became of the young after the lapse of this period is
not stated, but the deserted nest itself, called halcyoneum,
identical, perhaps, with what we consider the shell of the echinus, or
sea-urchin, was deemed a valuable medicine.[22]

The real nest of the Kingfisher is a collection of small fish-bones,
which have evidently been disgorged by the old birds. A portion of one
which I have in my possession, and which was taken about twenty years
since from a deep hole in an embankment at Deepdale, Norfolk, consists
exclusively of small fish-bones and scraps of the shells of shrimps. A
precisely similar one is preserved in the British Museum, which is
well worthy the inspection of the curious. It was found by Mr. Gould
in a hole three feet deep on the banks of the Thames; it was half an
inch thick and about the size of a tea saucer, and weighed 700 grains.
Mr. Gould was enabled to prove that this mass was deposited, as well
as eight eggs laid, in the short space of twenty-one days. In neither
case was there any attempt made by the bird to employ the bones as
materials for a structure; they were simply spread on the soil in such
a way as to protect the eggs from damp, possessing probably no
properties which made them superior to bents or dry leaves, but
serving the purpose as well as anything else, and being more readily
available, by a bird that does not peck on the ground, than materials
of any other kind.

The wanderer by the river's side on a bright sunny day, at any season,
may have his attention suddenly arrested by the sight of a bird
shooting past him, either up or down the stream, at so slight an
elevation above the water, that he can look down on its back. Its
flight is rapid, and the colour of the plumage so brilliant, that he
can compare it to nothing less dazzlingly bright than the richest
feathers of the peacock, or a newly dug specimen of copper ore. After
an interval of a few seconds it will perhaps be followed by a second,
its mate, arrayed in attire equally gorgeous with emerald, azure, and
gold. Following the course of the bird, let him approach cautiously
any pools where small fish are likely to abound, and he may chance to
descry, perched motionless on the lower branch of an alder overhanging
the stream, on some bending willow, or lichen-covered rail, the bird
which but now glanced by him like a meteor. If exposed to the rays of
the sun, the metallic green of its upper plumage is still most
conspicuous; if in the shade, or surrounded by leaves, its chestnut
red breast betrays its position. Not a step further in advance, or the
fisherman, intent as he is on his sport, will take alarm and be off to
another station. With beak pointed downwards it is watching until one
among a shoal of minnows or bleaks comes within a fair aim; then with
a twinkle of the wing it dashes head foremost from its post, plunges
into the stream, disappears for a second, and emerges still head
foremost with its struggling booty. A few pinches with its powerful
beak, or a blow against its perch, deprives its prey of life, and the
morsel is swallowed entire, head foremost. Occasionally, where
convenient perches are rare, as is the case with the little pools left
by the tide on the sea-shore (for the Kingfisher is common on the
banks of tidal rivers as well as on inland streams and lakes), it
hovers like a Kestrel, and plunges after small fish, shrimps, and
marine insects. It once happened to me that I was angling by a river's
side, quite concealed from view by a willow on either side of me,
when a Kingfisher flew down the stream, and perched on my rod. I
remained perfectly still, but was detected before an opportunity had
been afforded me of taking a lesson from my brother sportsman.

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 18 of 39)