C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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builds its nest, or appropriates a deserted one, in high trees, and
lays three or four eggs.


Tail longer than the wings; upper plumage greyish blue; lower
reddish yellow, with longitudinal oblong dark brown spots; tail
barred with black; beak bluish, darker at the tip; cere yellow;
irides dark brown; feet yellow, claws black. _Female_ - above
tinged with brown; below, yellowish white. Length eleven to
twelve inches; breadth two feet. Eggs mottled with two shades
of dark reddish brown.

The Merlin, or Stone Falcon (so called from its habit of alighting on
stones to watch the flight of the small birds which it intends to make
its prey), is a beautiful little bird, but notwithstanding its small
body ranks among the 'noble' Falcons. Associated with the
Sparrow-hawk, it was, on the Continent, anciently trained to hunt
Quails - and the old falconers are loud in its praises. In England, it
was accounted especially the Ladies' Hawk. In a state of nature, it
has been observed to attack the Partridge, Magpie, Starling,
Blackbird, etc., but its favourite prey is the Lark; and it was to fly
at this bird principally, that it was formerly trained. In hawking
with Merlins, three of these birds were assigned to the Magpie, two to
the Lark, and in the chase of the Quail and Land-rail, the
Sparrow-hawk was associated with it. The Merlin is more frequent in
the northern than in the southern part of Great Britain, and is seen
more frequently in winter than in summer, but is nowhere common. In
Norfolk, many are caught at the autumnal equinox in the fowlers' nets.
It occasionally, perhaps generally, breeds in Northumberland,
Cumberland, and North Wales, placing its nest upon the ground amongst
the heather, and laying four or five eggs.


Wings shorter than the tail; upper plumage, neck and breast,
dark-lead grey; sides, under tail-coverts and thighs,
light-yellowish red, with longitudinal narrow dark streaks;
beak blue, lighter towards the base; cere and feet yellow;
irides brown; claws black. _Female_ - upper plumage and tail
light red, with transverse spots and bars of dark brown; lower,
paler than in the _male_. Length fifteen inches; breadth thirty
inches. Eggs reddish white, blotched and mottled with dark

The Kestrel being the most abundant and by far the most conspicuous in
its habits of all the British birds of prey, is probably, in most
instances, the bird which has been observed whenever the appearance of
'a Hawk' has been mentioned. Though rapid in flight whenever it
chooses to put forth its full powers, it is more remarkable for the
habit which has acquired for it the name of 'Windhover'; and there can
scarcely be any one, however unobservant, who makes even but an
occasional expedition into the country, but has stopped and gazed with
delight on its skilful evolutions. Suspended aloft, with its head
turned towards the wind, but neither advancing against the breeze, nor
moved by it from its position, it agitates its wings as regularly and
evenly as if they were turned on a pivot by machinery. Presently,
impelled as it were by a spirit of restlessness, it suddenly darts
forwards, perhaps ascending or descending a few feet, and making a
slight turn either to the right or the left. Then it skims on with
extended, motionless pinions, and once more anchors itself to the air.
But on what object is it intent all this while? for that some design
is present here is indubitable. Not surely on the capture of birds,
for at that slight elevation its keen eye would detect the movement of
a bird at a mere glance; nor has it the dashing flight one would
expect to see in a hunter after game furnished with the same organs of
motion as itself. But, if intent on the capture of small animals which
creep out of holes in the earth and hunt for their food among the
grass, surely no method can be conceived of exploring the field so
quickly and so completely. The Kestrel, then, though stigmatized by
game keepers with an evil name, does not merit the reproaches heaped
on it; while to the farmer it is an invaluable ally, destroying
countless beetles, the grubs of which would gnaw away the roots of his
crops;, caterpillars, which would devour the foliage; and, above all,
mice, which would fatten on the grain. For such food its appetite is
enormous, and its stomach capacious, an instance being recorded of a
specimen having been shot, the craw of which contained no less than
seventy-nine caterpillars, twenty-four beetles, a full-grown field
mouse, and a leech. To this varied bill of fare it adds, as occasion
offers, glow-worms, lizards, frogs, grasshoppers, and earthworms. In
the winter, indeed, when these animals have withdrawn to their
retreats, it is compelled by hunger to provide itself with what my
readers would consider more palatable food; for now it preys on any
birds which it is swift enough to overtake, and strong enough to
master. The skill with which it plucks the feathers from birds before
tearing them to pieces, certainly argues in favour of the theory that
a bird-diet is not unnatural to it, or, that the habit, if an acquired
one, came to an apt learner. But in autumn and winter, game-birds are
fully fledged and being quite able to take care of themselves are by
no means liable to fall a prey to the Kestrel. Thus, admitting, as we
fear we must, that if, while hovering for mice, it detects a young
Partridge in the hay-field, it is unable to withstand the temptation
of carrying it off as a delicate repast for its young, yet an
occasional trespass of this kind far from counterbalances the
advantages it confers as a consistent destroyer of vermin.

The Kestrel appears to be generally distributed over the country,
showing no marked predilection for upland or lowland, heath or marsh.
It is very frequently seen near the sea-coast, to which in winter it
habitually resorts, finding there, no doubt, greater facilities for
obtaining food. Like others of its tribe, it possesses little
architectural skill, placing its nest in a hole in a cliff, in ruins,
or on lofty trees, often appropriating the deserted dwelling of some
more industrious builder than itself. On the Continent it resorts to
buildings in towns and cities, as, for instance, the Louvre in Paris,
and the towers of cathedrals. During summer it hawks principally in
the gardens and orchards near the town, and when harvest is gathered
in, repairs to the corn-fields to hunt for mice among the stubble.
When taken young from the nest, it is easily tamed, and becomes one of
the most amusing of pets. Even after being fully fledged and allowed
its liberty, it will remain in the neighbourhood of the place where it
was reared, coming regularly to be fed, and recognizing the presence
of its master by repeating its wild note, _klee_, _klee_, _klee_, and
flying to meet him. An anecdote is recorded in the _Zoologist_ of a
male Kestrel having, in the second year of his domestication, induced
a female bird to join him in his half-civilized life, and to assist
him in rearing a joint family. 'Billy' still continued to make himself
quite at home at the house where he was brought up, coming fearlessly
into the nursery and making friends with the children; but his mate
never threw off her wild nature so far as to do this, contenting
herself with waiting outside, and asserting her right to her fair
share of whatever food he brought out. Tame Kestrels have been
observed to have the habit of hiding their food when supplied with
more than they can consume at the time. I have often noticed, too, in
the case of tame Kestrels, that the Chaffinches and other small birds
which frequent gardens show no instinctive dread of them, as if they
were their natural enemies, but perch on the same tree with them,
fearless and unnoticed.

The Kestrel was formerly trained to hunt small birds, and in the court
of Louis XIII was taught to hawk for Bats.



Feet entirely webbed, or all four toes connected by webs.


Tail of fourteen feathers. _Winter_ - head, neck, and all the
under parts, black, with green reflections; close to the base
of the bill a broad white gorget; on the neck a few faint
whitish lines; feathers of the back and wings bronze-colour
bordered with black; primaries and tail black; beak dusky;
orbits greenish yellow; irides green; feet black.
_Summer_ - feathers of the head elongated, forming a crest; on
the head and neck numerous long silky white feathers; on the
thighs a patch of pure white. _Young birds_ brown and grey, the
gorget greyish white. Length three feet. Eggs greenish white,

Phalacrocorax, the modern systematic name of the genus Cormorant, is
given by Willughby as a synonym of the Coot, and with much propriety,
for translated into English it means 'Bald Crow'. Applied to the
Cormorant, it must be considered as descriptive of the semblance of
baldness produced by the white feathers of the head during the
breeding season. The Cormorant Willughby describes under the name of
_Corvus aquaticus_, or Water Raven. The English name,'Corvorant', is
clearly _Corvus vorans_, a voracious Raven; and 'Cormorant' perhaps a
corruption of _Corvus marinus_, Sea Raven.

Sea-side visitors are pretty sure of seeing more than one specimen of
this bird, if they care to look for them, for the Cormorant frequents
all parts of the coast as well as lakes and rivers, and does not leave
us at any period of the year. Often we may see two or three of these
birds flying along together at a slight distance above the surface of
the sea, distinguished by their black hue, long outstretched neck, and
rapid waving of the wings. They fly swiftly in a straight line, and
seem to be kept from dipping into the water by making ahead at full
speed. There is no buoyancy in their flight, no floating in the air,
or soaring; their sole motive for using their narrow but muscular
wings is clearly that they may repair to or from some favourite spot
with greater speed than they can attain by swimming or diving.
Occasionally, while engaged in a boating expedition, we may encounter
a party of three or four occupied in fishing. They are shy, and will
not allow a near approach, but even at a distance they may be
distinguished by their large size, sooty hue, long necks, and hooked
beaks. They sit low in the water, often dipping their heads below the
surface, and in this posture advancing, in order that their search for
food may not be impeded by the ripple of the water. A sheltered bay in
which shoals of small fish abound is a choice resort, and here they
make no long continuous stay in the swimming attitude, but suddenly
and frequently dive, remaining below a longer or shorter time,
according to the depth which they have to descend in order to secure
their prey, but when successful, occupying but a very brief space of
time in swallowing it. Not unfrequently they may be discerned from the
shore similarly occupied, floating or diving in the midst of the very
breakers. Sometimes, but rarely, one settles on a rail or stump of a
tree close to the water in a tidal river. The capture of fish is still
its object, and it is quite as expert in securing its prey from such a
station as when roving at large on the open sea.

All along our coast there is at various intervals a rock popularly
distinguished in the neighbourhood by the name of 'Shag rock'. Such a
rock is generally low, isolated, and situated at a safe distance from
land; or, if near the shore, is close to the base of a steep cliff.
Hither the Cormorants, when their hunger is appeased, repair for the
threefold purpose of resting, digesting their food, and drying their
wings. The process of digestion is soon completed, but the time
consumed in drying their thoroughly drenched wings depends on the
amount of sunshine and air moving. Of these, whatever they may be,
they know how to avail themselves to perfection. They station
themselves on the highest ridge of the rock, wide apart, and in a row,
so as not to screen one another, raise their bodies to their full
height, and spread their wings to their utmost extent. No laundress is
more cunning in the exercise of her vocation. Indeed, they can hardly
fail to recall the idea of so many pairs of black trousers hung out to
be aired.

Cormorants do not confine their fishing expeditions to the sea, but
frequently ascend tidal rivers, and follow the course of streams which
communicate with fish-ponds and lakes, where they commit great havoc;
for the quantity of fish which they devour at a meal is very great.
Pliny has observed that the Cormorant sometimes perches on trees; and
the truth of this remark has been confirmed by many subsequent
writers. They have been even known to build their nest in a tree, but
this is a rare occurrence.[29] They generally select exposed rocks,
where they collect a large quantity of sticks and rubbish, and lay
three or four eggs in a depression on the summit.

Most people are familiar with a representation of a fishery with the
help of Cormorants conducted by the Chinese; but it is not so
generally known that a similar method once was practised in England.
Willughby quoting Faber's _Annotations on the Animals of Recchus_,
says: 'It is the custom in England to train Cormorants to catch fish.
While conveying the birds to the fishing-ground the fishermen keep the
heads and eyes of the birds covered to prevent them from being
alarmed. When they have reached the rivers, they take off the hoods,
and having first tied a leather strap loosely round the lower part of
the neck, that the birds may be unable to swallow down what fishes
they catch, throw them into the water. They immediately set to work
and pursue the fish beneath them with marvellous rapidity. When they
have caught one they rise to the surface, and, having first pinched it
with their beaks, swallow it as far as the strap permits, and renew
the chase until they have caught from five to six each. On being
called to return to their masters' fist, they obey with alacrity, and
bring up, one by one, the fish they have swallowed, injured no farther
than that they are slightly crushed. The fishing being brought to an
end, the birds are removed from the neighbourhood of the water, the
strap is untied, and a few of the captured fish, thrown to them as
their share of the booty, are dexterously caught before they touch the

[29] A pair hatched two young in the Zoological Gardens in
Regent's Park in 1882.


Shag [M] Brent Goose [F]

Bernacle Goose [F] Cormorant [M]

[_face p. 166._]]


Gannet [F]

Whooper Swan

Bewick's Swan [M]]


Tail graduated, of twelve feathers. In _winter_, general
plumage deep greenish black; feathers of the back glossy with
black borders; orbits and pouch greenish yellow; bill dusky;
irides green; feet black. In _summer_, head crested. _Young
birds_ greenish brown above; light grey below. Length
twenty-eight inches. Eggs greenish blue, chalky.

Except in the smaller size and differences of plumage mentioned above,
there is little to distinguish the Shag from the Cormorant. Both, too,
are of common occurrence, and frequent the same localities; except
that the Shag is more disposed to be gregarious: it does not, however,
commonly resort to tidal rivers, and is still more rarely found on
inland lakes; its food and method of obtaining it are precisely
similar, so that a description of one bird will suit the other almost
equally well. The Shag is called sometimes the Green Cormorant, from
the tint of its plumage; but this name is not in common use. Another
of its names is the Crested Cormorant; but this is vague, inasmuch as
both species are crested in spring. In Scotland a common name for it
is Scart, applied also to the Great Cormorant.


Crown buff-yellow; general plumage milk-white; quills black;
bill bluish grey at the base, white at the tip; orbits pale
blue; membrane prolonged from the gape and that under the
throat dusky blue; irides yellow; feet striped with green, the
membranes dusky; claws white. _Birds of the first year_,
general plumage dusky brown, beneath greyish. In the _second
year_, greyish black above, marked with numerous triangular
white spots, whitish below. Length three feet. Eggs dull
greenish white.

It would not be difficult to compile, from various sources, a
description of the Gannet and its habits which would fill more pages
than my readers, perhaps, would care to peruse. To avoid this
contingency, I will limit myself to a statement of my own personal
acquaintance with the bird and its ways, and a transcript of notes
kindly furnished me by a friend who visited the Bass Rock, one of its
favourite haunts in the breeding season.

_Extract from my own Journal._ - 'August 27th. I lay for a long time
to-day on the thick herbage which crowns the splendid cliffs, "the
Gobbins", near the entrance of Belfast Lough, watching through a
telescope the proceedings of some Gannets, or Solan Geese. This bird,
which is allied to the Pelicans rather than the Geese, is of a large
size, much bigger than a Gull, from which, also, it may be
distinguished at a distance by its greater length of neck, the intense
whiteness of its plumage, and the black tip of its wide-spreading
wings. But apart from all these distinguishing characters, its mode of
fishing is, by itself, sufficient to mark it. In flight it is
eminently wandering; it circles round and round, or describes a figure
of eight, at a varying elevation above the water, in quest of
herrings, pilchards, or other fish whose habit is to swim near the
surface. When it has discovered a prey, it suddenly arrests its
flight, partially closes its wings, and descends head foremost with a
force sufficient to make a _jet d'eau_ visible two or three miles off,
and to carry itself many feet downwards. When successful, it brings
its prize to the surface, and devours it without troubling itself
about mastication. If unsuccessful, it rises immediately, and resumes
its hunting. It is sometimes seen swimming, perhaps to rest itself,
for I did not observe that it ever dived on these occasions. My
companion told me that the fishermen on the coast of Ireland say that,
if chased by a boat when seen swimming, it becomes so terrified as to
be unable to rise. The real reason may be that it is gorged with food.
He was once in a boat on the Lough, when, a Gannet being seen a long
way ahead, it was determined to give chase, and ascertain whether the
statement was correct. As the boat drew near, the Gannet endeavoured
to escape by swimming; but made no attempt either to dive or to use
its wings. After a pretty long chase, the bowman secured it in spite
of a very severe bite which it inflicted on his hand, and carried it
home in triumph. It did not appear to have received any injury, and
when released, in the evening of the same day, swam out to sea with
great composure. A fisherman in Islay told me that in some parts of
Scotland a singular method of catching Gannets is adopted. A herring
is fastened to a board and sunk a few feet deep in the sea. The sharp
eye of the Gannet detects the fish, and the bird, first raising itself
to an elevation which experience or instinct has taught it to be
sufficient to carry it down to the requisite depth, pounces on the
fish, and in the effort penetrates the board to which the fish is
attached. Being thus held fast by the beak, and unable to extricate
itself, it is drowned. Gannets are frequently caught in the
herring-nets, at various depths below the surface. Diving after the
fish, they become entangled in the nets, and are thus captured in a
trap not intended for them. They perform good service to fishermen, by
indicating at a great distance the exact position of the shoals of

Gannets breed in great numbers on several parts of our rocky coast;
from the extreme north to Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. The two
most important stations are St. Kilda and the Bass Rock, in the Firth
of Forth. On this rock stand the ruins of the once formidable
stronghold of the Douglas family, the Castle of Tantallan. In
circumference the island is about a mile; on the northern side it
rises to an elevation of eight hundred feet, whilst towards the south
it shelves almost down to the sea. The isolated position of this rock,
and the difficulty of landing on it, have rendered it a fit retreat
for sea-fowl of various kinds; and as the proprietor 'preserves' them,
they flourish without sensible diminution. The discharge of a gun
causes the whole of the colony to take wing; and as they rise into the
air, the eye of the spectator is dazzled by the mazy intercrossings of
white wings, the ear bewildered by the discord of confused screamings.
A visit paid at sunrise, when flocks of various kinds are wheeling
about in all directions, will more than reward the early riser for his
activity, for Scotland scarcely offers a more interesting sight. Of
all the numerous birds which frequent the rock, the Solan Goose is the
most abundant and most profitable, as almost the only revenue of the
island accrues from the sale of these birds to the country people of
the mainland, and at the Edinburgh market, where they have fetched,
for the last century and a half, the unvarying price of two shillings
and fourpence a head. The size of the Gannet is somewhat larger than
that of the domestic Goose.

'The only parts of the island where they can be approached are on the
south and west sides. They sit lazily and stupidly on and about their
nests, which are composed of a mass of weeds and grass, and will
suffer themselves to be stroked, patted, or knocked on the head, as
the case may be, with a most philosophical gravity. They are
frequently shot; but as they then generally fall into the sea, a boat
has to be on the alert, or they are soon washed away. The plan of
lowering a man by means of a rope held by the others, is also adopted;
but this is most dangerous. The Frigate Pelican [The Skua?] often
chases a successful Gannet till the terrified bird disgorges its prey,
which the pursuer seizes before it reaches the water.'

'A Solan Goose to most people would not afford a delicious meal, being
a rank, coarse, fishy dish; but many of the poorer classes eat them
with a relish - nay, as a delicacy - and during the winter would fare
ill had they not these birds for food.'

The Gannet lays but one egg; and the young bird is nourished on
semi-liquid food disgorged by the parent. On its first exclusion from
the egg its skin is naked, and of a bluish black hue, but is soon
covered with a white down. Through this the true feathers appear,
which are black, the adult plumage being pure white.

For an interesting account of the capture of these birds at St. Kilda,
the reader is referred to Professor James Wilson's _Voyage round the
Coast of Scotland_. From a calculation once made of the number of
Gannets consumed by each family in a year, on this island, it appeared
that the total secured, not taking into account a large number which
could not be reached for various reasons, was 22,600: and this number
was considered to be below the average, the season being a bad one.




A crest of elongated bluish black feathers at the back of the
head; similar feathers of a lustrous white hanging from the
lower part of the neck; scapulars similar, silver grey;
forehead, neck, middle of the belly, edge of the wings, and
thighs, pure white; back of the head, sides of the breast, and
flanks, deep black; front of the neck streaked with grey; upper
plumage bluish grey; beak deep yellow; irides yellow; orbits
naked, livid; feet brown, red above; middle toe, claw included,
much shorter than the tarsus. In _young birds_ the long
feathers are absent; head and neck ash-coloured; upper plumage
tinged with brown; lower, spotted with black. Length three feet
two inches. Eggs uniform sea green.

The Heron, though a large bird, measuring three feet in length from
the point of the beak to the extremity of the tail, and four feet and
a half in breadth from the tip of one wing to the other, weighs but

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 22 of 39)