C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

. (page 21 of 39)
Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 21 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and Switzerland, it is frequently observed. Its note, called in the
Highlands 'a bark', is sharp and loud, resembling at a distance, as,
on the only occasion I ever heard it, it seemed to me, the croak of a
Raven. It lays two or sometimes three eggs, and feeds its young, which
are very voracious, on birds and the smaller quadrupeds.


Tail not longer than the wings; upper plumage brown, that of
the head and neck lightest, lower, chocolate brown; tail white;
beak, cere, and feet yellowish white; claws black. In _young
birds_ the tail is dark brown, and the beak and cere are of a
darker hue. Length of the _male_, two feet four inches; of the
_female_, two feet ten inches. Eggs dirty white with a few pale
red marks.

The White-tailed Eagle, known also by the name of the Sea Eagle, is
about equal in size to the Golden Eagle, but differs considerably in
character and habits; for while the latter has been known to pounce on
a pack of Grouse and carry off two or three from before the very eyes
of the astonished sportsman and his dogs, or to appropriate for his
own special picking a hunted hare when about to become the prey of the
hounds, the White-tailed Eagle has been observed to fly terror-struck
from a pair of Skua Gulls, making no return for their heavy buffets
but a series of dastardly shrieks. The ordinary food, too, of the
nobler bird is living animals, though, to tell the truth, he is always
ready to save himself the trouble of a chase, if he can meet with the
carcase of a sheep or lamb; but the White-tailed Eagle feeds
principally on fish, water-fowl, the smaller quadrupeds, and offal,
whether of quadrupeds, birds, or fish. On such fare, when pressed by
hunger, he feeds so greedily that he gorges himself till, unable to
rise, he becomes the easy prey of the shepherd's boy armed but with a
stick or stone. The Eagle is sometimes seen on the southern sea-board
of England in autumn and winter when the younger birds that have been
reared in the north of Europe are migrating south; but its eyries are
now only on the west and north coasts, and especially the Shetland
Islands. It inhabits Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, and
the north of England, where it frequents the vicinity of the sea and
large lakes. In winter it appears to leave the high latitudes and come
farther south, not perhaps so much on account of cold as because its
ordinary prey, being driven to seek a genial climate, it is compelled
to accompany its food. Consequently it is more abundant in Scotland
during winter than summer, and when seen late in autumn is generally
observed to be flying south, in early spring northwards. It builds its
nest either in forests, choosing the summit of the loftiest trees, or
among inaccessible cliffs overhanging the sea. The materials are
sticks, heath, tufts of grass, dry sea-weed, and it lays two eggs. The
young are very voracious, and are fed by the parent birds for some
time after they have left the nest, but when able to provide for
themselves are driven from the neighbourhood to seek food and a home


Wings longer than the tail; feathers of the head and neck
white, with dark centres; on each side of the neck a streak of
blackish brown, extending downwards; upper plumage generally
deep brown; under white, tinged here and there with yellow, and
on the breast marked with arrow-shaped spots; tail-feathers
barred with dusky bands; cere and beak dark grey; iris yellow.
Length two feet; breadth five feet. Eggs reddish white,
blotched and spotted with dark reddish brown.

'Endowed with intense keenness of sight, it hovers high in the air,
and having descried a fish in the sea, it darts down with great
rapidity, dashes aside the water with its body, and seizes its prey in
an instant.' So says the ancient naturalist Pliny, describing a bird
which he calls _Haliaëtus_, or Sea Eagle. Eighteen centuries later,
Montagu thus described a bird, which, when he first observed it, was
hawking for fish on the river Avon, near Aveton Gifford, in
Devonshire: 'At last', he says, 'its attention was arrested, and like
the Kestrel in search of mice, it became stationary, as if examining
what had attracted its attention. After a pause of some time, it
descended to within about fifty yards of the surface of the water, and
there continued hovering for another short interval, and then
precipitated itself into the water with such great celerity as to be
nearly immersed. In three or four minutes the bird rose without any
apparent difficulty, and carried off a trout of moderate size, and
instead of alighting to regale upon its prey, soared to a prodigious
height, and did not descend within our view.' There can be no
reasonable doubt that the bird thus described at such distant
intervals of time is the same, and that the Sea Eagle of the ancients
is the Osprey of the moderns. Wilson thus eloquently describes its
habits under the name of the 'Fish Hawk': "Elevated on the high dead
limb of some gigantic tree, that commands a wide view of the
neighbouring shore and ocean, the great White-headed Eagle seems
calmly to contemplate the motions of the various feathered tribes that
pursue their busy vocations below. High over all these hovers one
whose actions instantly arrest all his attention. By his wide
curvature of wing, and sudden suspension in air, he knows him to be
the Fish Hawk settling over some devoted victim of the deep. His eye
kindles at the sight, and balancing himself with half-open wings on
the branch, he watches the result. Down, rapid as an arrow from
heaven, descends the distant object of his attention, the roar of its
wings reaching the ear as it disappears in the deep, making the surges
foam around. At this moment the eager looks of the Eagle are all
ardour; and, levelling his neck for flight, he sees the Fish Hawk once
more emerge struggling with his prey, and mounting in the air with
screams of exultation. These are the signals for our hero, who,
launching into the air, instantly gives chase, soon gains on the Fish
Hawk: each exerts his utmost to mount above the other, displaying in
the rencontres the most elegant and sublime aërial evolutions. The
unincumbered Eagle rapidly advances, and is just on the point of
reaching his opponent, when, with a sudden scream, probably of despair
and honest execration, the latter drops his fish; the Eagle, poising
himself for a moment, as if to take a more certain aim, descends like
a whirlwind, snatches it in his grasp ere it reaches the water, and
bears his ill-gotten booty silently away to the woods."

The Osprey has been observed on various parts of the coast of Great
Britain and Ireland, especially in autumn, and in the neighbourhood of
the Scottish Lakes, not merely as a stray visitor, but making itself
entirely at home. It is known in Sussex and Hampshire, as the Mullet
Hawk, because of its liking for that fish. It may be considered as a
citizen of the world, for it has been found in various parts of
Europe, the Cape of Good Hope, India, and New Holland. In America, we
have already seen, it is abundant. It builds its nest of sticks on
some rock or ruin, generally near the water, and lays two or three
eggs. It has not been known to breed in Ireland.



Upper plumage dark bluish grey, with a white spot on the nape
of the neck; lower reddish white, transversely barred with deep
brown; tail grey, barred with brownish black; beak blue,
lightest at the base; cere, irides, and feet yellow; claws
black. _Female_ - upper parts brown passing into blackish grey;
lower, greyish white barred with dark grey. Length, _male_
twelve inches, _female_ fifteen inches; breadth, _male_
twenty-four inches, _female_ twenty-eight inches. Eggs bluish
white, blotched and spotted with deep rusty brown.

Since the introduction of firearms, the Goshawk and Sparrow-hawk have
lost much of their reputation, every effort being now made to
exterminate them, for carrying on, on their own account, the same
practises which in bygone days they were enlisted to pursue on behalf
of others. For hawking, it must be remembered, was not exclusively a
pastime followed by the high and noble for amusement's sake, but was,
in one of its branches, at least, a very convenient method of
supplying the table with game; and that, too, at a period when there
were not the same appliances, in the shape of turnips, oil-cake, etc.,
for fattening cattle and producing beef and mutton in unlimited
quantities, that there are now. The produce of the fish-ponds, woods,
and fields was then a matter of some moment, and much depended on the
training of the Hawks and diligence of the falconer whether the daily
board should be plentifully or scantily furnished. In recent times,
even, some idea of the intrinsic value of a good Hawk may be gathered
from the fact that, in Lombardy, it was thought nothing extraordinary
for a single Sparrow-hawk to take for his master from seventy to
eighty Quails in a single day. In the Danubian Provinces and in
Hungary, the practise of hunting Quails with Sparrow-hawks is still in
vogue; but with us, the agile bird is left to pursue his prey on his
own account. And right well does he exercise his calling. Unlike the
Kestrel, which soars high in air and mostly preys on animals which
when once seen have no power of escape, the Sparrow-hawk is marked by
its dashing, onward flight. Skimming rapidly across the open fields,
by no means refusing to swoop on any bird or quadruped worthy of its
notice, but not preferring this kind of hunting-ground, it wings its
easy way to the nearest hedge, darts along by the side, turns sharply
to the right or left through an opening caused by a gate or gap, and
woe to any little bird which it may encounter, either perched on a
twig or resting on the ground. Unerring in aim, and secure of its
holdfast, it allows its victims no chance of escape, one miserable
scream, and their fate is sealed. And even if the prey detects its
coming enemy, and seeks safety in flight, its only hope is to slip
into the thick bushes and trust to concealment: resort to the open
field is all but certain death. Nor is it fastidious in its choice of
food - leverets, young rabbits, mice, partridges, thrushes, blackbirds,
sparrows, larks, pipits, and many others are equal favourites. It
resorts very frequently to the homestead and farmyard, not so much in
quest of chickens, which, by the way, it does not despise, as for the
sake of the small birds which abound in such places. There it is a
bold robber, little heeding the presence of men, suddenly dashing from
behind some barn or corn-rick, and rapidly disappearing with its
luckless prey struggling in its talons, pursued, perhaps, by the
vociferous twitter of the outraged flock, but not dispirited against
another onslaught. This coursing for its prey, though the usual, is
not the only method of furnishing his larder pursued by the
Sparrow-hawk. He has been known to station himself on the branch of a
tree in the neighbourhood of some favourite resort of Sparrows,
concealed himself, but commanding a fair view of the flock below. With
an intent as deadly as that of the fowler when he points his gun, he
puts on the attitude of flight before he quits his perch, then
selecting his victim, and pouncing on it all but simultaneously, he
retires to devour his meal and to return to his post as soon as the
hubbub he has excited has subsided somewhat. At times he pays dear for
his temerity. Pouncing on a bird which the sportsman has put up and
missed, he receives the contents of the second barrel; making a swoop
on the bird-catcher's call-bird, he becomes entangled in the meshes;
or dashing through a glazed window at a caged Canary bird, he finds
his retreat cut off.

As is the case with most predaceous birds, the female is larger and
bolder than the male, and will attack birds superior to herself in
size. Though a fierce enemy, she is an affectionate mother, and will
defend her young at the risk of her life. She builds her nest, or
appropriates the deserted nest of a Crow, in trees, or if they be
wanting, in a cliff, and lays four or five eggs. The young are very
voracious, and are fed principally on small birds, the number of which
consumed may be inferred from the fact that no less than sixteen
Larks, Sparrows, and other small birds, were on one occasion found in
a nest, the female parent belonging to which had been shot while
conveying to them a young bird just brought to the neighbourhood of
the nest by the male; the latter, it was conjectured, having brought
them all, and deposited them in the nest in the interval of nine hours
which had elapsed between their discovery and the death of his

The Sparrow-hawk is found in most wooded districts of Great Britain
and Ireland, and the greater part of the Eastern Continent.



Upper parts reddish brown; the feathers with pale edges; those
of the head and neck long and tapering to a point, greyish
white, streaked longitudinally with brown; lower parts rust
coloured, with longitudinal brown streaks; tail reddish orange,
barred indistinctly with brown; beak horn coloured; cere,
irides, and feet yellow; claws black. _Female_ - upper plumage
of a deeper brown; the feathers pale at the extremity; head and
neck white. Length, twenty-five inches; breadth, five feet six
inches. Eggs dirty white, spotted at the larger end with

'The Kite', Pliny informs us, 'seems, by the movement of its tail, to
have taught mankind the art of steering - nature pointing out in the
air what is necessary in the sea'. The movement of the bird through
the air indeed resembles sailing more than flying. 'One cannot' says
Buffon, 'but admire the manner in which the flight of the Kite is
performed; his long and narrow wings seem motionless; it is his tail
that seems to direct all his evolutions, and he moves it continuously;
he rises without effort, comes down as if he were sliding along an
inclined plane; he seems rather to swim than to fly; he darts forward,
slackens his speed, stops, and remains suspended or fixed in the same
place for whole hours without exhibiting the smallest motion of his
wings.' The Kite generally moves along at a moderate height, but
sometimes, like the Eagle, rises to the more elevated regions of the
air, where it may always be distinguished by its long wings and forked

In France, it is known by the name 'Milan Royal', the latter title
being given to it not on account of any fancied regal qualities, but
because in ancient times it was subservient to the pleasures of
princes. In those times, hawking at the Kite and Heron was the only
kind of sport dignified with the title of 'Chase Royal', and no
one - not even a nobleman - could attack the Kite and Heron without
infringing the privileges of the king.

Though larger than the noble Falcons, it is far inferior to them in
daring and muscular strength; cowardly in attacking the strong,
pitiless to the weak. It rarely assails a bird on the wing, but takes
its prey on the ground, where nothing inferior to itself in courage
seems to come amiss to it. Moles, rats, mice, reptiles, and
partridges, are its common food; it carries off also goslings,
ducklings, and chickens, though it retires ignominiously before an
angry hen. When pressed by hunger, it does not refuse the offal of
animals, or dead fish; but being an expert fisherman, it does not
confine itself to dead food of this kind, but pounces on such fish as
it discerns floating near the surface of the water - carries them off
in its talons, and devours them on shore.

The Kite is more abundant in the northern than the southern countries
of Europe, to which latter, however, numerous individuals migrate in
autumn. It is of very rare occurrence in the southern counties of
England, where no doubt it has gained discredit for many of the evil
deeds of the Sparrow-hawk. It builds its nest of sticks, lined with
straw and moss, in lofty trees, and lays three or four eggs. A few
still breed in some districts in Scotland, also in the wilder parts
of Wales, but their eggs are, unfortunately, soon taken.



Tail not longer than the wings; upper plumage dark bluish grey
with darker bands; head bluish black, as are also the
moustaches descending from the gape; lower plumage white;
breast transversely barred with brown; beak blue, darker at the
point; cere yellow; iris dark brown; feet yellow; claws black.
_Female_ - upper plumage tinged with brown, lower with reddish
yellow. Length fifteen inches; _female_ seventeen inches. Eggs
dull light red, spotted and blotched with deep red.

The Peregrine Falcon occupies among the 'noble' birds of prey a place
second only in dignity to the Gyr Falcon. Indeed, from its being more
generally diffused and therefore more easily obtained, it is a
question whether it was not considered, in England, at least, the
special bird of falconry. In France it appears to have been used
almost exclusively as the Falcon of the country; and as the number of
Gyr Falcons imported to England must have fallen far short of the
demand when the gentle science was in full vogue, here also the
Peregrine must be considered the bird of falconry. The 'noble' Falcons
were those which flew fearlessly on any birds, no matter how much
larger they were than themselves, and at once deprived their prey of
life by pouncing on a vital part, devouring the head before they
lacerated the carcase. The name Peregrine (foreigner) was given to
this bird on account of its wide dispersion through most regions of
the globe, and for the same reason it has long borne in France the
name of _Pélerin_ (pilgrim), and not on account of its wide range in
search of quarry. It is a bird of haughty aspect and rich colouring,
sagacious, powerful, and daring; a type of the chivalry of the Middle
Ages, a veritable knight-errant, always armed, and ready to do battle
in any cause against all comers.

In France the Peregrine Falcon is most abundant in the marshy
districts of the north, which are much frequented by Snipes and Wild
Duck; with us it is most commonly seen in those parts of the sea-coast
where sea-fowl abound. The high cliffs of the Isle of Wight, Beachy
Head, North Wales, and the Scottish coast have been favourite haunts,
and there it once reigned supreme among the feathered tribe, but it
becomes more scarce, alas! of late. It makes its eyrie in the most
inaccessible part of the cliff, constructing no nest, but laying two
to four eggs in a cavity of a rock where a little loose earth has been
deposited; sometimes in the deserted nest of the Raven or Carrion
Crow. If either of the old birds happens to be shot during the period
of breeding, it is incredible in how short a space of time the
survivor finds a new mate. Within a short distance from their nest
they establish a larder well supplied with Puffins, Jackdaws, and
above all, Kestrels; while the immediate neighbourhood is strewed with
bones. Remarkable as are both male and female bird for muscular power
and high courage, the latter, which is also considerably larger, is by
far the superior. The female was, consequently, in the days of
falconry flown at Herons and Ducks, and she was the falcon proper
among falconers; the male, termed a Tiercel or Tiercelet, was flown
at Partridges and Pigeons. In their native haunts they seem to cause
little alarm among the Puffins and Razor-bills by which they are
surrounded, but the sudden appearance of a pair in a part of the cliff
frequented by Jackdaws, causes terrible consternation; while any
number of intruders on their own domain are driven away with
indomitable courage. When pressed by hunger, or desirous of changing
their diet, they condescend to attack and capture birds so small as a
Lark, and it is remarkable that however puny may be the prey, the
Falcon preserves its instinctive habit of dealing a deadly blow at
once, as if afraid that under all circumstances the natural impulse of
its quarry were to stand on the defensive. Even in ordinary flight the
movement of its wings is exceedingly quick, but when it stoops on its
prey its rapidity of descent is marvellous, accompanied too, as it is,
by a sound that may be heard at a distance of two hundred yards.
Perhaps no bird has had more written about it than this Falcon,
numerous treatises have been composed on the art of 'reclaiming' it,
or training it for hawking, and the proper method of conducting the
sport. We have at present space only to add a few words on the latter
subject. The art of the falconer is to intercept the Herons when
flying against the wind. When a Heron passes, _a cast_ or couple of
Falcons are thrown off, which dart into the air, flying in a spiral
direction to get above the Heron. As soon as the first has attained
the necessary elevation, she makes a stoop, and if she misses, a
second stoop is made by the other in her turn. When one has succeeded
in striking its prey, the other joins in the attack, and all three
birds come to the ground together, buoyed in their descent by their
expanded wings. The falconer now comes to the rescue, for though the
Heron makes no resistance in the air, as soon as it reaches the ground
it uses its formidable beak in defence, and unless prevented may work
much mischief to its pursuers.

As when a cast of Faulcons make their flight
At an Heronshaw that lyes aloft on wing,
The whyles they strike at him with heedlesse might
The wary foule his bill doth backward wring.
On which the first, whose force her first doth bring,
Herselfe quite through the bodie doth engore,
And falleth downe to ground like senselesse thing,
But th' other, not so swift as she before,
Fayles of her souse, and passing by doth hurt no more.

_Faerie Queene._

In France the 'cast' consisted of three Falcons, which were trained to
perform particular duties, the first to start the game in the
required direction, the second to keep guard over it, and the third to
deal the fatal swoop.

The 'Lanner' of Pennant is a young female Peregrine.


Wings longer than the tail; upper plumage bluish black;
beneath, reddish yellow, with longitudinal brown streaks;
moustaches broad, black; lower tail-coverts and feathers on the
leg reddish; beak bluish, darker at the tip; cere greenish
yellow; iris dark brown; feet yellow; claws black.
_Female_ - all the colours duller, and the streaks below
broader. Length twelve to fourteen inches; breadth about two
feet. Eggs yellowish white, speckled with reddish brown.

The Hobby is a less common bird in England than in France, where it is
said to be a constant companion of the sportsman, and to be endowed
with enough discrimination to keep out of shot. Not satisfied with
appropriating to its own use wounded birds, it pursues and captures
those which have been fired at unsuccessfully, and not unfrequently
even those which have been put up but have not come within shot. It is
frequently taken, too, in the nets spread for Larks, or inveigled into
the snare of the fowler who pursues his craft with limed twigs and the
imitated cry of the Owl. It is a bird of passage, both on the
Continent and in England, arriving and taking its departure at about
the same time with the Swallow. In form and colouring it somewhat
resembles the Peregrine Falcon, but is much smaller and more slender;
the wings, too, are larger in proportion, and the dark stripes beneath
are longitudinal instead of transverse. Its natural prey consists for
the most part of Larks and other small birds, beetles, and other large
insects. It is said also to prey on Swallows; but swift as its flight
undoubtedly is, it is somewhat doubtful whether these birds are not
sufficiently nimble to elude it, unless, indeed, it attacks
individuals exhausted by cold or other cause. It has been trained for
hawking small birds; but owing, perhaps, to its migratory habits, it
was found to be impatient of captivity, and was not much prized.
Hobbies frequently hunt in pairs, and an instance has been recorded
where one hunted a Lark in company with a Hen Harrier; but the latter,
a bird of heavier flight, was soon compelled to give up the chase. It

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 21 of 39)