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during the hours of darkness, it is rarely heard save by the benighted
traveller, or by the weary watcher at the bed of the sick and dying;
and who more susceptible of alarming impressions than these? It is
therefore scarcely surprising that the common incident of a
Screech-Owl being attracted by a solitary midnight taper to flutter
against the window of a sick room, and there to utter its melancholy
wail, should for a time shake the faith of the watcher, and, when
repeated with the customary exaggerations, should obtain for the poor
harmless mouser the unmerited title of 'harbinger of death'.


SUB-FAMILY SYRNIINÆ

LONG-EARED OWL
ASIO ÓTUS

Beak black; iris orange yellow; egrets very long, composed of
eight or ten black feathers, edged with yellow and white; upper
parts reddish yellow, mottled with brown and grey; lower parts
lighter, with oblong streaks of deep brown. Length fifteen
inches; breadth thirty-eight inches. Eggs white.

Though not among the most frequent of the English Owls, this species
occurs in most of the wooded parts of England and Ireland, as indeed
it does in nearly all parts of the world where woods are to be found.
It is more common than is usually supposed in France, where it unites
in its own person all the malpractises which have been popularly
ascribed to the whole tribe of Owls. It is there said to be held in
great detestation by all the rest of the feathered tribe; a fact which
is turned to good account by the bird-catcher, who, having set his
traps and limed twigs, conceals himself in the neighbourhood and
imitates the note of this Owl. The little birds, impelled by rage or
fear, or a silly combination of both, assemble for the purpose of
mobbing the common enemy. In their anxiety to discern the object of
their abhorrence, they fall one after another into the snare, and
become the prey of the fowler. The Long-eared Owl is not altogether
undeserving of the persecution which is thus intended for her, her
principal food being field-mice, but also such little birds as she can
surprise when asleep. In fact, she respects neither the person nor the
property of her neighbours, making her home in the old nests of large
birds and squirrels, and appropriating, as food for herself and her
voracious young, the carcases of any that she finds herself strong
enough to master and kill.

The cry of this bird is only occasionally uttered - a sort of barking
noise. The note of the young bird is a loud mewing and seems to be
intended as a petition to its parents for a supply of food. A writer
in the _Zoologist_[28] who has had many opportunities of observing
this species in its native haunts, says that it does not confine its
flight entirely to the darker hours, as he has met with it in the
woods sailing quickly along, as if hawking, on a bright summer day. It
is curious to observe, he says, how flat they invariably make their
nests, so much so, that it is difficult to conceive how the eggs
retain their position, even in a slight wind, when the parent bird
leaves them. The eggs are four to six in number, and there are grounds
for supposing that the female bird begins to sit as soon as she has
laid her first egg.

[28] Vol. ii. p. 562.


THE SHORT-EARED OWL
ASIO ACCIPITRÍNUS

Face whitish; beak black; iris yellow; egrets inconspicuous, of
a few black feathers; eyes encircled by brownish black; upper
plumage dusky brown, edged with yellow; lower pale orange,
streaked with brown. Length sixteen inches; breadth
thirty-eight. Eggs white.

From the name, Hawk-Owl, sometimes given to this species, we should
expect to find this bird not so decidedly nocturnal in its habits as
the preceding; and such is the case; for, though it does not
habitually hunt by day, it has been known to catch up chickens from
the farmyard, and has been seen in chase of pigeons. If attacked
during daylight, it does not evince the powerless dismay of the last
species, but effects a masterly retreat by soaring in a spiral
direction until it has attained an elevation to which its adversary
does not care to follow it. Unlike its allies, it frequents neither
mountains nor forests, but is found breeding in a few marshy or
moorland districts; later in the year it is met with in turnip fields
and stubbles. As many as twenty-eight were once seen in a single
turnip-field in England; from whence it has been inferred that in
autumn the Short-eared Owls are gregarious, and establish themselves
for a time in any place they fall in with, where field-mice or other
small quadrupeds are abundant. In England this bird is not uncommonly
started by sportsmen when in pursuit of game. It then flies with a
quick zigzag motion for about a hundred yards, and alights on the
ground, never on a tree. By some it is called the Woodcock-Owl, from
its arriving and departing at about the same time with that bird; it
is not, however, invariably a bird of passage, since many instances
are on record of its breeding in this country, making a rude nest in a
thick bush, either on the ground, or close to it, and feeding its
young on mice, small birds, and even the larger game, as Moor-fowl, a
bird more than double its own weight. The Short-eared Owl affords a
beautiful illustration of a fact not generally known, that the
nocturnal birds of prey have the right and left ear differently
formed, one ear being so made as to hear sounds from above, and the
other from below. The opening into the channel for conveying sound is
in the _right_ ear, placed _beneath_ the transverse fold, and directed
_upwards_, while in the _left_ ear the same opening is placed _above_
the channel for conveying sound, and is directed _downwards_.

In the severe weather of January, 1861, I had the gratification of
seeing three or four of these Owls among the sand-hills of the coast
of Norfolk, near Holkham. I imagined them to be in pursuit of the
Redwings and other small birds which had been driven by the intense
cold to the sea-coast, since they flew about as Hawks do when hunting
for prey, and occasionally alighted among the sand-hills. I even fell
in with several heaps of feathers, showing where some unhappy bird had
been picked and eaten. A few days afterwards, however, I inquired at
another part of the coast whether there were any Owls there, and
received for an answer, 'No, because there are no Rabbits'; from which
I inferred that these birds have the reputation of hunting larger game
than Thrushes, a charge which the size and power of their hooked
talons seem to justify.


THE TAWNY OWL
SYRNIUM ALÚCO

Beak greyish yellow; irides bluish dusky; upper parts reddish
brown, variously marked and spotted with dark brown, black, and
grey; large white spots on the scapulars and wing coverts;
primaries and tail feathers barred alternately with dark and
reddish brown; lower parts reddish white, with transverse brown
bars and longitudinal dusky streaks; legs feathered to the
claws. Length sixteen inches; breadth three feet. Eggs dull
white.

This bird, the Ulula of the ancients, took its name from the Latin
_ululare_; the word used to denote, and partially to imitate, the cry
of the wolf; it enjoys also the doubtful honour of giving name to the
whole tribe of 'Owls', whether they howl, hoot, or screech. This
species is much more common than the Barn Owl in many districts,
although it is decreasing in others. Owing to its nocturnal habits,
and dusky colour, it is not so often seen as heard. It has many a
time been my amusement to repair, towards the close of a summer
evening, to a wood which I knew to be the resort of these birds, and
to challenge them to an exchange of greetings, and I rarely failed to
succeed. Their note may be imitated so exactly as to deceive even the
birds themselves, by forming a hollow with the fingers and palms of
the two hands, leaving an opening only between the second joints of
the two thumbs, and then by blowing with considerable force down upon
the opening thus made, so as to produce the sound hoo-hoo-hoo-o-o-o. I
have thus induced a bird to follow me for some distance, echoing my
defiance or greeting, or whatever he may have deemed it; but I do not
recollect that I ever caught sight of the bird.

Squirrels, rats, mice, moles, shrews, and any small birds that he can
surprise asleep, with insects, form his principal food. These he hunts
by night, and retires for concealment by day to some thick tree or
shrubbery, either in the hill country or the plains. The nest,
composed principally of the dried pellets of undigested bones and fur,
which all the Owls are in the habit of disgorging, is usually placed
in a hollow tree: here the female lays about four eggs, from which
emerge, in due time, as many grotesque bodies enveloped in a soft
plush of grey yarn: destined, in due time, to become Tawny Owls. The
full-grown females are larger than the males, and, being of a redder
tinge, were formerly considered a distinct species. The old birds
utter their loud _hoo-hou!_ or _to-whit, in-who!_ chiefly in the
evening.




ORDER ACCIPITRES


FAMILY FALCONIDÆ


SUB-FAMILY BUTEONINÆ

MARSH HARRIER
CIRCUS ÆRUGINOSUS

Head, neck, and breast yellowish white, with numerous
longitudinal brown streaks; wing-coverts reddish brown; primary
quills white at the base, the rest black; tail and secondaries
ash-grey; lower plumage reddish brown; beak bluish black; cere,
irides, and feet yellow; claws black. Length twenty inches.
Eggs white.

The Harriers are bold predatory voracious birds, having somewhat of
the appearance and movements of the Hawks. On a closer inspection,
however, they are seen to approach nearer in character to the Owls. In
the first place, they hunt their prey more in the morning and evening
than at any other time of day. In the next place, these twilight
habits are associated with a large head, and a somewhat defined face
formed by a circle of short feathers; while the plumage generally is
soft and loose, and their mode of hunting resembles that of the
nocturnal predatory birds, rather than that of the Falcons. They are
remarkable for the great difference which exists between the plumage
of the two sexes, which has made the task of discriminating the number
of species very difficult. Less active than the Falcons, they yet
carry on a formidable war against small birds, reptiles, and mice. The
Harriers or Harrows are so called from their _harrying_ propensities.
Of similar import is the etymology of the English word 'havoc', which
may be clearly traced to the Anglo-Saxon _hafoc_, or hawk. The habit
of the Marsh Harrier is not to station itself on a tree or rock,
thereon to explore the country; but while hunting, it is always on the
wing, skimming along the ground, and beating about the bushes with a
noiseless, unsteady flight, and always taking its prey on the ground.
Rabbit-warrens afford this bird a favourite hunting-ground, where it
either pounces on such living animals as it can surprise, or performs
the office of undertaker to the dead bodies of rabbits killed by the
weasels, burying them in the grave of its craw. In this ignoble office
it is said to be sometimes assisted by the Buzzard, and both birds
have been accused of setting to work before their unhappy victim has
breathed its last. On the sea-shore, the Marsh Harrier commits great
depredations among young water-fowl, and is often mobbed and driven
from the neighbourhood by the assembled old birds. The Partridge and
Quail often, too, fall victims to its voracity, so that the Marsh
Harrier receives no quarter from gamekeepers. It places its nest
generally near water, in a tuft of rushes, or at the base of a bush,
constructing it of sticks, rushes, and long grass, and lays three or
four eggs.

The Marsh Harrier is a widely dispersed species, being found, says
Temminck, in all countries where there are marshes. It occurs now but
sparingly in most parts of Great Britain and Ireland. It is better
known as the Moor Buzzard.


HEN HARRIER
CIRCUS CYÁNEUS

Tail longer than the wings; third and fourth primaries of equal
length; upper plumage of the _male_ bluish grey; lower white.
Upper plumage of the _female_ reddish brown; lower, pale
reddish yellow, with deep orange brown longitudinal streaks and
spots. Beak black; cere greenish yellow; irides reddish brown;
feet yellow; claws black. Length, _male_, eighteen inches;
_female_, twenty inches. Eggs white.

The Hen Harrier and Ringtail were formerly considered distinct
species; and no wonder; for not only are they different in size, but
dissimilar in colour, one having the upper parts grey, the lower
white; and the other the upper parts reddish brown, and various parts
of the plumage of a light colour, barred and streaked with deep brown.
The experienced ornithologist, Montagu, suspecting that they were male
and female of the same species, undertook to clear up the matter by
rearing a brood taken from the same nest. The result was that at first
there was no great difference except in size, all having the dark
plumage of the Hen Harrier; but after the first moult, the males
assumed the grey and white plumage, while the larger birds, the
females, retained the gayer colouring, and the latter was the
Ringtail. In habits both birds resemble the Marsh Harrier, but do not
confine themselves to damp places. They frequent open plains,
hillsides, and inclosed fields, hunting a few feet above the surface
of the ground, and beating for game as skilfully as a well-trained
spaniel. The moment that the Harrier sees a probable victim he rises
to a height of twenty feet, hovers for a moment, and then comes down
with unerring aim on his prey, striking dead with a single blow,
Partridge or Pheasant, Grouse or Blackcock, and showing strength not
to be expected from his light figure, and slender, though sharp
talons. Not unfrequently he accompanies the sportsman, keeping
carefully out of shot, and pouncing on the birds, killing them, and
carrying them off to be devoured in retirement. He preys exclusively
on animals killed by himself, destroying a great quantity of game
small mammals, birds and reptiles. It is a generally-diffused bird, by
no means so common as the Kestrel and Sparrow-hawk, but is met with
occasionally in most countries of Europe and Asia, and in various
parts of the British Isles. It is far from improbable that this bird
may frequently be seen, without being recognized as belonging to the
Hawk tribe; indeed, the beautiful form and light blue and white
plumage, might cause it to be mistaken for a Gull. It builds a
flattish nest of sticks, just raised above the round, in a heather, or
furze-bush, and lays four to six eggs.


[Illustration:

Montagu's Harrier [F]

Kestrel [F] [M]

Peregrine Falcon [F]

Hen Harrier [F] [M]

[_face p. 148._]]


[Illustration:

Rough-legged Buzzard [F] Kite

Common Buzzard Honey Buzzard]


MONTAGU'S HARRIER
CIRCUS CINERÁCEUS

Wings a little longer than the tail; third primary longer than
the fourth and second; upper plumage bluish grey; primaries
black, secondaries with three transverse dark bars; lateral
tail-feathers white barred with reddish orange; under plumage
white, variously streaked with reddish orange. _Female_ - upper
plumage brown of various tints; under, pale reddish yellow,
with longitudinal bright red streaks. Beak black; cere deep
yellow; irides hazel; feet yellow; claws black. Length
seventeen inches. Eggs bluish white.

This bird, which is of rare occurrence in Britain, resembles the Hen
Harrier very closely, both in appearance and habits, although it is
smaller and more slender, and the wings are longer in proportion. On
the Continent, especially in Holland, it is more frequent. It received
its name in honour of Colonel Montagu, who was the first to ascertain
the identity of the Hen Harrier and Ringtail, and to separate the
present species from both.


COMMON BUZZARD
BUTEO VULGARIS

Upper plumage, neck and head, dark brown; lower, greyish brown,
mottled with darker brown; tail marked with twelve dark
transverse bands; beak lead-coloured; cere, iris, and feet
yellow. Length twenty to twenty-two inches. Eggs white,
variously marked with pale greenish brown.

The Buzzard, though ranked very properly among birds belonging to the
Falcon tribe, is deficient in the graceful activity which
characterizes the true Falcons. In sluggishness of habits it
approaches the Vultures, and in its soft plumage and mode of flight
the Owls; but differs from the former in feeding on live prey as well
as carrion, and from the latter in its diurnal habits. In form indeed
it resembles neither, being a bulky broad-winged Hawk, with stout legs
and a short much-curved beak. It can fly swiftly enough when occasion
requires, but its favourite custom is to take its station on some
withered branch, or on the projecting corner of a rock, whence it can
both obtain a good view of the surrounding country, and, when it has
digested its last meal, sally forth in quest of a new one as soon as a
victim comes within its range of observation. It pounces on this while
on the ground, and pursues its chase with a low skimming flight,
keeping a sharp look-out for moles, young hares and rabbits, mice,
reptiles, small birds and insects. At times it rises high into the
air, and, soaring in circles, examines the surface of the ground for
carrion. It has neither the spirit nor daring of the noble Falcons,
submitting patiently to the attacks of birds much less than itself,
and flying from the Magpie or Jackdaw. As an architect the Buzzard
displays no more constructive skill than other birds of its tribe,
building its nest of a few sticks, either on a rock or in a tree, and
not unfrequently occupying the deserted nest of some other bird. It
has, however, a redeeming point, being a most assiduous nurse. The
female sits close, and will allow the near approach of an intruder
before she leaves her eggs. In captivity, strange to say, though by
nature having a strong inclination for the flesh of chickens, she has
been known to sit on the eggs of the domestic hen, to hatch a brood,
and to rear them with as much solicitude as their natural mother could
have shown, distributing to them morsels of raw meat, not
comprehending, of course, their repugnance to such fare, and bearing
with extreme patience and good humour their unaccountable preference
for barley and crumbs of bread. The male bird is scarcely less
affectionate as a parent: an instance being recorded of one, which, on
the death of his partner, completed the period of incubation and
reared the young brood by himself. The Buzzard rarely molests game,
and more than compensates for the mischief it does work, by the
destruction of undoubted vermin; yet the hostility shown by
gamekeepers against all birds except those which it is their business
to protect, has so thinned its numbers that the Buzzard, though once
common, is now become rare.


THE HONEY BUZZARD
PERNIS APIVORUS

Lores or spaces between eyes and bill are covered with
feathers. The head of _male_ is ash-grey, his upper parts
brown; three blackish bars cross the tail; upper parts
white-barred and spotted with brown on the breast. Length
twenty-two to twenty-five inches; _female_ slighter the larger.

This species visits us during May and June, and a few stay to nest,
placing the nest upon the remains of that of some other large bird.
Wasps, wild bees and larvæ form their food in summer, but other
insects are eaten, and sometimes mice, birds, other small mammals,
worms and slugs. From two to four eggs are laid, both male and female
taking part in the incubation. The sitting bird is regularly fed by
the other.

The Honey Buzzard has bred from the New Forest up to Aberdeenshire.
Unfortunately, as much as £5 having been offered for a couple of
well-marked eggs of this species in the New Forest by collectors,
their numbers have become very few. Nearly £40 has been offered by
extravagant collectors for a good pair of the birds. By the year 1870
nearly all were driven away from that district.


THE ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD
BUTEO LAGÓPUS

Tarsi feathered to the claws; plumage yellowish white,
variegated with several shades of brown; a broad patch of brown
on the breast; tail white in the basal half, the rest uniform
brown; beak black; cere and irides yellow; feathers on the legs
fawn-coloured, spotted with brown; toes yellow; claws black.
Length twenty-six inches. Eggs whitish, clouded with reddish
brown.

This bird, which is distinguished from the preceding by having its
legs thickly clothed with long feathers, is a native of the colder
countries of both Continents, being only an occasional visitor in
Great Britain during autumn and winter. It is sometimes seen in large
flights on the Yarmouth Denes in October and November, at the same
time with the Short-horned Owl. It mostly frequents the banks of
rivers, where it feeds on vermin, reptiles, and the carcases of
animals brought down by the floods. In softness of plumage and mode of
flight, it resembles the Owls even more than the preceding species,
and often extends its hunting expeditions until far into the evening.
When not alarmed, it flies slowly and deliberately, and seemingly has
neither the inclination nor the power to attack living birds, unless
they have been previously disabled by wounds or other cause. The
Rough-legged Buzzard builds its nest in lofty trees, and lays three or
four eggs; but there are no well-authenticated instances of its
breeding in this country.


THE SPOTTED EAGLE
AQUILA NÆVIA

General colour reddish brown; tail brown above; legs feathered
in front of the toes. Length twenty-six inches.

This species is only a rare straggler to Great Britain.


[Illustration:

Osprey Golden Eagle [M]

Sea Eagle. Spotted Eagle. [M] _imm._

[_p. 152._]]


[Illustration:

Marsh Harrier [M] Hobby

Merlin [M] Sparrow Hawk [F]]


SUB-FAMILY AQUILINÆ

THE GOLDEN EAGLE
AQUILA CHRYSAËTOS

Tail longer than the wings, rounded; plumage of the head, back
of the neck and legs, lustrous reddish brown, of the rest of
the body dark brown; primaries nearly black; secondaries
brownish black; tail dark grey, barred and tipped with brownish
black; beak bluish at the base, black at the extremity; iris
brown; cere and feet yellow; claws bluish black. Length of the
_male_ three feet, that of the _female_ more; breadth eight
feet. Eggs dirty white, mottled with pale reddish brown.

The fable of the Eagle soaring to a great height in order to enjoy a
gaze at the sun in his unclouded brilliancy, is founded probably on a
belief of the ancients, thus stated by the naturalist Pliny: - 'Before
its young are as yet fledged, the Eagle compels them to gaze at the
rays of the sun, and if it observes one to wink or show a watery eye
casts it from the nest as a degenerate offspring; if, on the contrary,
it preserves a steady gaze, it is saved from this hard fate, and
brought up.'

'The Golden Eagle', says Macgillivray, 'seems to prefer live prey to
carrion, and easily secures Grouse, in searching for which it flies
low on the moors, sailing and wheeling at intervals. Hares, roes, and
even red deer, it also attacks, but it does not haunt the shores for
fish so much as the Sea Eagle does. There seems very little
probability that Eagles have the sense of smell very acute, but that
their vision is so is evident. I am not, however, inclined to think
that they perceive objects from the vast height to which they
sometimes soar, because I never saw one descend from such an elevation
in a manner indicating that it had observed a carcase or other eatable
object; whereas, on the other hand, I have very frequently seen them
flying along the sides of the hills, at a small height, obviously in
search of food, in a manner somewhat resembling that of the
Sparrow-hawk, but with much less rapidity.'

The Golden Eagle breeds only in the Highlands, but it is not an
unfrequent visitor to the Lowlands of Scotland in the cold season.
Those birds which have been recorded as visiting England were
generally not this species but the White-tailed or Sea Eagle in
immature plumage. It prefers mountains or extensive forests, building
its eyrie either on rocks or lofty trees. In France, Sweden, Spain,



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 20 of 39)