C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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The Kingfisher is a permanent resident in this country, and may be
observed, at any season, wherever there is a river, canal, or lake,
those streams being preferred the banks of which are lined with trees
or bushes. Like most other birds of brilliant plumage, it is no
vocalist; its only note being a wild piping cry, which it utters while
on the wing. Happily the Kingfishers are again on the increase in our

[22] Plin. _Nat. Hist._ lib. x. cap. 32. xxxii. cap 8.



Head, neck, and under parts tinged with various shades of light
blue, varied with green; back and scapulars reddish brown; tail
blue, green, and black. Length twelve inches and a half. Eggs
smooth shining white.

About twenty specimens in all of this bird have been observed in
England, the one of most recent occurrence being, I believe, one which
was shot close to my garden, on the twentieth of September, 1852. The
winter home of the Roller is Africa, and it is said to be particularly
abundant in Algeria. About the middle of April it crosses the
Mediterranean, and seems to prefer the north of Europe to the south as
a summer residence, being more abundant in Germany and the south of
Russia than in France, though many proceed no further than Sicily and
Greece. Its food consists mainly of caterpillars and other insects.
The name Roller, being derived directly from the French _Rollier_,
should be pronounced so as to rhyme with 'dollar'.



Forehead white, passing into bluish green; upper plumage
chestnut; throat golden yellow, bounded by a black line; wings
variegated with blue, brown, and green; tail greenish blue.
Length eleven inches. Eggs glossy white.

This bird, which in brilliancy of plumage vies with the Hummingbirds,
possesses little claim to be ranked among soberly clad British birds.
Stray instances are indeed met with from time to time, but at distant
intervals. In the islands of the Mediterranean, and in the southern
countries of Europe, they are common summer visitors, and in Asia
Minor and the south of Russia they are yet more frequent. They are
gregarious in habits, having been observed, both in Europe, their
summer, and in Africa, their winter residence, to perch together on
the branches of trees in small flocks. They also build their nests
near each other. These are excavations in the banks of rivers,
variously stated to be extended to the depth of from six inches to as
many feet. Their flight is graceful and light, resembling that of the
Swallows. Their food consists of winged insects, especially bees and
wasps, which they not only catch when they are wandering at large
through the air, but watch for near their nests. The inhabitants of
Candia and Cyprus are said to catch them by the help of a light silk
line, to which is attached by a fish-hook a wild bee. The latter in
its endeavour to escape soars into the air, and the Bee-eater seizing
it becomes the prey of the aërial fisherman.



Crest orange-red tipped with black; head, neck, and breast pale
cinnamon; back, wings, and tail barred with black and white;
under parts white. Length twelve inches; width nineteen inches.
Eggs lavender grey, changing to greenish olive.

Little appears to be known of the habits of this very foreign-looking
bird from observation in Great Britain. The season at which it is seen
in this country is usually autumn, though a few instances have
occurred of its having bred with us. In the south of Europe and north
of Africa it is of common occurrence as a summer visitor, but migrates
southwards in autumn. Its English name is evidently derived from the
French _Huppe_, a word which also denotes 'a crest', the most striking
characteristic of the bird. It is called also in France _Puput_, a
word coined, perhaps, to denote the noise of disgust which one
naturally makes at encountering an unpleasant odour, this, it is said,
being the constant accompaniment of its nest, which is always found in
a filthy condition, owing to the neglect of the parent birds in
failing to remove offensive matter, in conformity with the laudable
practise of most other birds. In spite of the martial appearance of
its crest, it is said to be excessively timid, and to fly from an
encounter with the smallest bird that opposes it. It lives principally
on the ground, feeding on beetles and ants. On trees it sometimes
perches but does not climb, and builds its nest in holes in trees and
walls, rarely in clefts of rocks. It walks with a show of dignity when
on the ground, erecting its crest from time to time. In spring the
male utters a note not unlike the coo of a Wood-pigeon, which it
repeats several times, and at other seasons it occasionally emits a
sound something like the shrill note of the Greenfinch. But it is no
musician and is as little anxious to be heard as seen. The nest is a
simple structure composed of a few scraps of dried grass and feathers,
and contains from four to six eggs. It would breed here annually if
not always shot on arrival.



Upper plumage bluish ash colour, darker on the wings, lighter
on the neck and chest; under parts whitish with transverse
dusky streaks; quills barred on the inner webs with oval white
spots; tail-feathers blackish, tipped and spotted with white;
bill dusky, edged with yellow; orbits and inside of the mouth
orange-yellow; iris and feet yellow. _Young_ - ash-brown, barred
with reddish brown; tips of the feathers white; a white spot on
the back of the head. Length thirteen inches and a half,
breadth twenty-three inches. Eggs varying in colour and

No bird in a state of nature utters a note approaching so closely the
sound of the human voice as the Cuckoo; on this account, perhaps,
partially at least, it has at all times been regarded with especial
interest. Its habits have been much investigated, and they are found
to be unlike those of any other bird. The Cuckoo was a puzzle to the
earlier naturalists, and there are points in its biography which are
controverted still. From the days of Aristotle to those of Pliny, it
was supposed to undergo a metamorphosis twice a year, appearing during
the summer months as a Cuckoo, "a bird of the hawk kind, though
destitute of curved talons and hooked beak, and having the bill of a
Pigeon; should it chance to appear simultaneously with a Hawk it was
devoured, being the sole example of a bird being killed by one of its
own kind. In winter it actually changed into a Merlin, but reappeared
in spring in its own form, but with an altered voice, laid a single
egg, or rarely two, in the nest of some other bird, generally a
Pigeon, declining to rear its own young, because it knew itself to be
a common object of hostility among all birds, and that its brood would
be in consequence unsafe, unless it practised a deception. The young
Cuckoo being naturally greedy, monopolized the food brought to the
nest by its foster parents; it thus grew fat and sleek, and so excited
its dam with admiration of her lovely offspring, that she first
neglected her own chicks, then suffered them to be devoured before
her eyes, and finally fell a victim herself to his voracious
appetite."[23] - A strange fiction, yet not more strange than the
truth, a glimmering of which appears throughout. We know well enough
now that the Cuckoo does not change into a Merlin, but migrates in
autumn to the southern regions of Africa; but this neither Aristotle
nor Pliny could have known, for the common belief in their days was,
that a continued progress southwards would bring the traveller to a
climate too fierce for the maintenance of animal life. Now the Merlin
visits the south of Europe, just at the season when the Cuckoo
disappears, and returns northwards to breed in spring, a fact in its
history as little known as the migration of the Cuckoo. It bears a
certain resemblance to the Cuckoo, particularly in its barred plumage,
certainly a greater one than exists between a caterpillar and a
butterfly, so that there were some grounds for the belief in a
metamorphosis, strengthened not a little by the fact that the habits
of the bird were peculiar in other respects. Even so late as the time
of our own countrymen, Willughby and Ray (1676), it was a matter of
doubt whether the Cuckoo lay torpid in a hollow tree, or migrated
during winter. These authors, though they do not admit their belief
of a story told by Aldrovandus of a certain Swiss peasant having heard
the note of a Cuckoo proceed from a log of wood which he had thrown
into a furnace, thought it highly probable that the Cuckoo did become
torpid during winter, and were acquainted with instances of persons
who had heard its note during unusually mild winter weather. A Cuckoo
which had probably been hatched off too late to go away with the rest
remained about the tennis ground of a relative of the present editor
until the middle of November, getting very tame. Then, unfortunately,
a cat got it. The assertion again of the older naturalists, that the
Cuckoo is the object of hatred among birds generally, seems credible,
though I should be inclined to consider its habit of laying its eggs
in the nests of other birds as the cause rather than the consequence
of its unpopularity. The contrary, however, is the fact, numerous
anecdotes of the Cuckoo showing that it is regarded by many other
birds with a respect which amounts to infatuation, rather than with
apprehension. The statement that it lays but one egg is erroneous, so
also is the assertion of Willughby that it invariably destroys the
eggs found in a nest previously to depositing its own. Pliny's
assertion that the young bird devours its foster brothers and sisters
is nearer the truth, but his account of its crowning act of impiety in
swallowing its nurse, is, I need not say, altogether unfounded in
fact. Having disposed of these errors, some of which are entertained
by the credulous or ill-informed at the present day, I will proceed to
sketch in outline the biography of this singular bird, as the facts
are now pretty generally admitted.

The Cuckoo arrives in this country about the middle of April; the
time of its coming to different countries is adapted to the time of
the foster-parents' breeding. During the whole of its stay it leads a
wandering life, building no nest, and attaching itself to no
particular locality. It shows no hostility towards birds of another
kind, and little affection for those of its own. If two males meet in
the course of their wandering they frequently fight with intense
animosity. I was once witness of an encounter between two birds who
chanced to meet in mid-air. Without alighting they attacked each other
with fury, pecking at each other and changing places just as one sees
two barn-door cocks fight for the supremacy of the dunghill. Feathers
flew in profusion, and in their passion the angry birds heeded my
presence so little that they came almost within arm's length of me.
These single combats account for the belief formerly entertained that
the Cuckoo was the only sort of Hawk that preyed on its own kind. The
female does not pair or keep to one mate. It is, however, frequently
accompanied by a small bird of another kind, said to be a Meadow

The Cuckoo hunts for its food both in trees and on the ground. On its
first arrival it lives principally on beetles, but when caterpillars
become abundant it prefers them, especially the hairy sorts. In the
months of May and June, the female Cuckoo lays her eggs (the number of
which is variously estimated from five to twelve), choosing a separate
locality for each, and that invariably the nest of some other bird.
The nests in which the egg of a Cuckoo has been found in this country
are those of the Hedge Sparrow, Robin, Redstart, Whitethroat, Willow
Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Wagtail, Pipit, Skylark, Yellow Bunting,
Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Linnet, Blackbird and Wren; the Pipit being the
most frequent. It has now been ascertained that the nests of birds in
which the Cuckoo lays its eggs in different countries number 145
species.[24] In some of these instances, the position and structure of
the nests were such that a bird of so large a size could not possibly
have laid an egg in the usual way. Hence, and from other evidence, it
is pretty clear that the egg is in all cases laid at a distance from
the nest and carried by the bird in her bill to its destination. The
bird can have no difficulty in accomplishing this seemingly hard task;
for the gape of the Cuckoo is wide, and the egg disproportionately
small, no larger in fact than the egg of the Skylark, a bird only a
fourth of its size. The period during which a nest is fit for the
reception of a Cuckoo's egg is short; if a time were chosen between
the completion of the nest and the laying of the first egg by the
rightful owner, the Cuckoo could have no security that her egg would
receive incubation in good time, and again if the hen were sitting
there would be no possibility of introducing her egg surreptitiously.
She accordingly searches for a nest in which one egg or more is laid,
and in the absence of the owner lays down her burden and departs.
There are certain grave suspicions that the intruder sometimes makes
room for her own egg by destroying those already laid; but this, if it
be true, is exceptional. If it were very much larger than the rest, it
might excite suspicion, and be either turned out, or be the cause of
the nest being deserted; it would require, moreover, a longer
incubation than the rest, and would either fail to be hatched, or
produce a young Cuckoo at a time when his foster-brothers had grown
strong enough to thwart his evil designs. As it is, after fourteen
days' incubation, the eggs are hatched simultaneously, or nearly so,
the Cuckoo being generally the first. No sooner does the young bird
see the day, than he proceeds to secure for himself the whole space of
the nest and the sole attention of his foster-parents, by insinuating
himself under the other young birds and any eggs which may remain
unhatched, and hurling them over the edge of the nest, where they are
left to perish. 'The singularity of its shape', says Dr. Jenner, 'is
well adapted for these purposes; for, different from other
newly-hatched birds, its back from the shoulders downwards is very
broad, with a considerable depression in the middle. To the question
which naturally suggests itself, 'Why does the young Cuckoo thus
monopolize the nest and the attentions of its foster parents?' the
solution is plain. The newly-hatched bird must of necessity be less in
size than the egg from which it proceeded, but a full-grown Cuckoo
exceeds the dimensions of a whole brood of Pipits; its growth
therefore must be rapid and cannot be maintained without a large
supply of food. But the old birds could not possibly with their utmost
exertions feed a brood of their own kind and satisfy the demands made
by the appetite of the voracious stranger as well. The latter
consequently saves them from this impossible task, and, by
appropriating to his single use the nourishment intended for a brood
of four or five, not only makes provision for his own well-being, but
helps them out of a difficulty. So assiduously is he taken care of
that he soon becomes a portly bird and fills his nest; in about three
weeks he is able to fly, but for a period of four or five weeks more
his foster-parents continue to feed him. It is probable that the young
Cuckoo actually exercises some fascination over other birds. There is
a case on record in which a pair of Meadow Pipits were seen to throw
out their own young ones to make room for the intruder. In another
instance, a young Cuckoo which had been taken from the nest and was
being reared by hand escaped from confinement. Having one of its wings
cut, it could not fly, but was found again, at the expiration of a
month, within a few fields of the house where it was reared, and
several little wild birds were in the act of feeding it. The Bishop of
Norwich[25] mentions two instances in which a young Cuckoo in
captivity was fed by a young Thrush which had only just learnt to feed

In the days when omens were observed, it was considered a matter of
high import to hear the song of the Nightingale before that of the
Cuckoo. Thus Chaucer says:

it was a commone tale
That it were gode to here the Nightingale,
Moche rathir[26] than the lewde[27] Cuckowe singe.

So, when on a certain occasion he heard the Cuckoo first, and was
troubled in consequence, he represents the Nightingale as thus
addressing him:

be thou not dismaied
For thou have herd the Cuckow erst than me,
For if I live it shall amendid be
The nexte Maie, if I be not afraied.

More recently Milton thus addresses the Nightingale:

Thy liquid notes that close the eye of day,
First heard before the shallow Cuccoo's bill,
Portend success in love.

Whether any traces of this popular belief yet linger in our rural
districts, I do not know; but I can recall my childish days in the
west of England (where there are no Nightingales), when I looked
forward with implicit faith to the coming of the Cuckoo, to 'eat up
the dirt', and make the Devonshire lanes passable for children's
spring wanderings.

The song of the Cuckoo, I need scarcely remark, consists of but two
notes, of which the upper is, I believe, invariably, E flat, the lower
most frequently C natural, forming, however, not a perfect musical
interval, but something between a minor and a major third.
Occasionally two birds may be heard singing at once, one seemingly
aiming at a minor, the other a major third; the effect is, of course,
discordant. Sometimes the first note is pronounced two or three times,
thus 'cuck-cuck-cuckoo', and I have heard it repeated rapidly many
times in succession, so as to resemble the trilling note of the
Nightingale, but in a lower key. The note of the nestling is a shrill
plaintive chirp, which may best be imitated by twisting a glass
stopper in a bottle. Even the human ear has no difficulty in
understanding it as a cry for food, of which it is insatiable. Towards
the end of June the Cuckoo, according to the old adage, 'alters its
tune', which at first loses its musical character and soon ceases
altogether. In July the old birds leave us, the males by themselves
first, and the females not many days after; but the young birds remain
until October.

Referring to the young cuckoo's manner of ejecting the eggs of its
foster-parents, and the reason for this apparently cruel action, the
editor refers our readers to Mr. W. H. Hudson's interesting chapter in
_Idle Days in Hampshire_.

[23] Plin. _Nat. Hist._ lib. x. cap. ix.

[24] Mr. Wells Bladen, of Stone, wrote an interesting brochure
on this point. - J. A. O.

[25] _Familiar History of Birds._

[26] Earlier.

[27] Unskilful.


White Winged Crossbill [M] [F]

Crossbill, _imm._ [F] [M]

Cuckoo [M]

[_face p. 138._]]


Brown Owl.

Short-eared Owl [M]. Long-eared Owl [M] young.

Barn Owl and Egg.]





Beak yellowish white; upper parts light tawny yellow minutely
variegated with brown, grey, and white; face and lower plumage
white, the feathers of the margin tipped with brown. Length
fourteen inches; breadth nearly three feet. Eggs white.

Returning from our Summer-evening's walk at the pleasant time when
twilight is deepening into night, when the Thrush has piped its last
roundelay, and the Nightingale is gathering strength for a flesh flood
of melody, a sudden exclamation from our companion 'What was that?'
compels us to look in the direction pointed at just in time to catch
a glimpse of a phantom-like body disappearing behind the hedgerow.
But that the air is still, we might have imagined it to be a sheet of
silver paper wafted along by the wind, so lightly and noiselessly did
it pass on. We know, however, that a pair of Barn Owls have
appropriated these hunting-grounds, and that this is their time of
sallying forth; we are aware, too, how stealthily they fly along the
lanes, dipping behind the trees, searching round the hay-stacks,
skimming over the stubble, and all with an absence of sound that
scarcely belongs to moving life. Yet, though by no means slow of
flight, the Barn Owl can scarcely be said to _cleave_ the air; rather,
it _fans_ its way onwards with its down-fringed wings, and the air,
thus softly treated, quietly yields to the gentle force, and retires
without murmur to allow it a passage. Not without meaning is this
silence preserved. The nimble little animals that constitute the
chase, are quick-sighted and sharp of hearing, but the pursuer gives
no notice of his approach, and they know not their doom till they feel
the inevitable talons in their sides. The victim secured, silence is
no longer necessary. The successful hunter lifts up his voice in a
sound of triumph, repairs to the nearest tree to regale himself on his
prize, and, for a few minutes - that is, until the chase is
resumed - utters his loud weird shriek again and again. In the morning,
the Owl will retire to his private cell and will spend the day perched
on end, dozing and digesting as long as the sunlight is too powerful
for his large and sensitive eyes. Peep in on him in his privacy, and
he will stretch out or move from side to side his grotesque head,
ruffling his feathers, and hissing as though your performance were
worthy of all condemnation. Yet he is a very handsome and most amusing
bird, more worthy of being domesticated as a pet than many others held
in high repute. Taken young from the nest, he is soon on familiar
terms with his owner, recognizes him by a flapping of wings and a hiss
whenever he approaches, clearing his premises of mice, and showing no
signs of pining at the restriction placed on his liberty. Give him a
bird, and he will soon show that, though contented with mice, he quite
appreciates more refined fare. Grasping the body with his talons, he
deliberately plucks off all the large feathers with his beak, tears
off the head, and swallows it at one gulp, and then proceeds to devour
the rest piece-meal. In a wild state his food consists mainly of mice,
which he swallows whole, beetles, and sometimes fish, which he catches
by pouncing on them in the water.

The service which the Barn Owl renders to the agriculturist, by its
consumption of rats and mice, must be exceedingly great, yet it is
little appreciated. "When it has young", says Mr. Waterton, "it will
bring a mouse to the nest every twelve or fifteen minutes. But in
order to have a proper idea of the enormous quantity of mice which
this bird destroys, we must examine the pellets which it ejects from
its stomach in the place of its retreat. Every pellet contains from
four to seven skeletons of mice. In sixteen months from the time that
the apartment of the Owl on the old gateway was cleared out, there
has been a deposit of above a bushel of pellets."

The plumage of the Barn Owl is remarkable for its softness, its
delicacy of pencilling on the upper parts and its snowy whiteness
below. Its face is perfectly heart-shaped during life, but when the
animal is dead becomes circular. The female is slightly larger than
her mate, and her colours are somewhat darker. The nest of the Barn
Owl is a rude structure placed in the bird's daily haunt. The eggs
vary in number, and the bird lays them at different periods, each egg
after the first being hatched (partially at least) by the heat of the
young birds already in being. That this is always the case it would
not be safe to assert, but that it is so sometimes there can be no
doubt. The young birds are ravenous eaters and proverbially ugly; when
craving food they make a noise resembling a snore. The Barn or White
Owl is said to be the most generally diffused of all the tribe, being
found in almost all latitudes of both hemispheres, and it appears to
be everywhere an object of terror to the ignorant. A bird of the
night, the time when evil deeds are done, it bespeaks for itself an
evil reputation; making ruins and hollow trees its resort, it becomes
associated with the gloomiest legends; uttering its discordant note

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 19 of 39)