C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

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three pounds and a half. Consequently, though not formed for rapid
flight, or endued with great activity of wing, its body presents so
large a surface to the air, that it can support itself aloft with but
a slight exertion. It is thus enabled, without fatigue, to soar almost
into the regions assigned to the Eagle and Vulture; and when pursued
by its natural enemies, the Falcons, to whom it would fall an easy
prey on account of the largeness of the mark which its body would
present to their downward swoop if it could only skim the plains, it
is enabled to vie with them in rising into the air, and thus often
eludes them.

The Heron, though it neither swims nor dives, is, nevertheless, a
fisher, and a successful one, but a fisher in rivers and shallow
waters only, to human anglers a very pattern of patience and
resignation. Up to its knees in water, motionless as a stone, with the
neck slightly stretched out, and the eye steadily fixed, but wide
awake to the motion of anything that has life, the Heron may be seen
in the ford of a river, the margin of a lake, in a sea-side pool, or on
the bank of an estuary, a faultless subject for the photographer.
Suddenly the head is shot forward with unerring aim; a small fish is
captured, crushed to death, and swallowed head foremost; an eel of
some size requires different treatment, and is worth the trouble of
bringing to land, that it may be beaten to death on the shingle; a
large fish is impaled with its dagger-like beak, and, if worth the
labour, is carried off to a safe retreat, to be devoured at leisure.
If observers are to be credited, and there is no reason why they
should not, a full-grown Heron can thus dispose of a fish that exceeds
its own weight. A frog is swallowed whole; a water rat has its skull
split before it discovers its enemy, and speedily is undergoing the
process of digestion. Shrimps, small crabs, newts, water beetles, all
is fish that comes to its comprehensive net; but if, with all its
watchfulness, the look-out be unsuccessful, it rises a few feet into
the air, and slowly flaps itself away to some little distance, where
perhaps, slightly altering its attitude, it stands on one leg, and,
with its head thrown back, awaits better fortune. While thus stationed
it is mute; but as it flies off it frequently utters its note, a
harsh, grating scream, especially when other birds of the same species
are in the neighbourhood. On these occasions it is keenly on the
alert, descrying danger at a great distance, and is always the first
to give notice of an approaching enemy, not only to all birds feeding
near it on the shore, but to any Ducks which may chance to be paddling
in the water.[30]

During a great portion of the year the Heron is a wanderer. I have
frequently seen it at least fifty miles distant from the nearest
heronry; but when it has discovered a spot abounding in food, it
repairs thither day after day for a long period.

In the month of January, if mild, but as a rule in February, Herons
show a disposition to congregate, and soon after repair to their
old-established breeding-places, called Heronries. These are generally
lofty trees, firs or deciduous trees in parks, or even in groves close
by old family mansions. One at Kilmorey, by Loch Gilphead, has long
been frequented, though within a hundred yards of the house. The
nests, huge masses of sticks, a yard across, lined with a little
grass, and other soft materials, are placed near each other, as many,
sometimes, as a hundred in a colony,[31] or, more rarely, they are
placed among ivy-clad rocks, ruins, or even on the ground. Each nest
contains three to four eggs, on which the female sits about three
weeks, constantly fed by her partner during the whole period of
incubation. Two weeks later a second clutch of eggs is sometimes laid
and hatched off whilst the first young are in the nest. The power of
running would be of little use to a young bird hatched at an elevation
of fifty feet from the ground; the young Herons are consequently
helpless till they are sufficiently fledged to perch on the branches
of the trees, where they are fed by their parents, who themselves
perch with the facility of the Rook. Indeed, the favourite position of
these birds, both old and young, is, during a considerable portion of
the day, on the upper branches of a lofty tree, whither, also, they
often repair with a booty too large to be swallowed at once.

By a statute of Henry VIII the taking of Herons in any other way than
by hawking, or the long bow, was prohibited on a penalty of half a
mark; and the theft of a young bird from the nest was visited with a
penalty of ten shillings.

Not to be acquainted with the noble art of Falconry was deemed
degrading: so that the saying, 'He does not know a Hawk from a
Heronshaw', was a common expression of contempt, now corrupted into
the proverb, 'He does not know a Hawk from a handsaw'.

[30] A Heron in captivity has been known to perch on an old
carriage-wheel, in the corner of a courtyard, and to lie
in wait for Sparrows and Martins. One of the latter it was
seen to pierce while flying, and immediately descending with
outspread wings to run to its trough, and, having several
times plunged in its prey, to swallow it at a gulp.

[31] Pennant counted eighty in one tree.


Head, back, and scapulars, black, with blue and green
reflections; on the back of the head three very long narrow
white feathers; lower part of the back, wings, and tail,
pearl-grey; forehead, streak over the eyes, and all the lower
parts, white; beak black, yellow at the base; irides red; feet
yellowish green. _Young birds_ have no crest; the upper plumage
is dull brown streaked with yellow; wing-coverts and primaries
marked with fish-shaped streaks, which are yellowish; under
parts dull white, mottled with brown and ash; bill greenish;
irides and feet brown. Length twenty-one inches. Eggs pale

The Night Heron is a bird of wide geographical range; but, on account
of its nocturnal habits and the rarity of its occurrence in this
country, it has been little observed. It is, however, not uncommon on
migration. A specimen was brought to me at Helston, Cornwall, about
the year 1836, which had been shot in the dusk of the evening, on
Goonhilly Downs. Its long and delicate crest had been stupidly tied
into a knot, and by the bruised condition of these feathers the
specimen, if it still exists in any museum, may yet be identified.

The Night Heron is said to be not uncommon on the shores of the
Baltic, in the wide marshes of Bretagne and Lorraine, and on the banks
of the Rhone. It passes the day concealed among the thick foliage of
trees and shrubs, and feeds only by night. It builds its nest in
trees, and lays four or five eggs.


Moustaches and crown black; upper plumage yellowish rust-red,
spotted with dusky; the feathers of the neck elongated, marked
with brown zigzag lines; primaries barred with rust-red and
dusky grey; plumage beneath paler, marked with oblong dusky
streaks; upper mandible brown, edged with yellow; lower,
orbits, and feet, greenish yellow; irides bright yellow. Length
two feet four inches. Eggs dingy green.

Macgillivray, who was as well acquainted as most ornithologists with
birds haunting moors and swamps, admits that he never heard one, and
thinks that a brother naturalist, who describes what, no doubt, he
heard, mistook for the booming of the Bittern the drumming of a Snipe.
Lord Lilford tells us that a lady of his acquaintance told him that as
a young wife, living near marshes, she often was kept awake by the
booming of Bitterns.

In Sir Thomas Browne's time, It was common In Norfolk, and was
esteemed a better dish than the Heron.

Willughby, who wrote about the same time, 1676, says: 'The Bittern, or
Mire-drum, it is said, makes either three or five boomings at a
time - always an uneven number. It begins to bellow early in February,
and continues during the breeding season. The common people believe
that it thrusts its beak into a reed, and by the help of this makes
its booming. Others maintain that it imitates the lowing of an ox by
thrusting its beak into water, mud, or earth. They conceal themselves
among rushes and reeds, and not unfrequently in hedges, with the head
and neck erect. In autumn, after sunset, they are in the habit of
rising into the air with a spiral ascent, so high that they are lost
sight of. Meanwhile they utter a singular note, but not at all
resembling the characteristic 'booming'.

It is called Botaurus, because it imitates _boatum tauri_, the
bellowing of a bull. Of 'Botaurus', the names 'Bitour' and Bittern are
evident corruptions; and the following names, in different languages,
are all descriptive of the same peculiar note: Butor, Rordump,
Myredromble, Trombone, Rohrtrummel, Rohrdommel, and Rordrum.

Of late years, so unusual has the occurrence become of Bitterns
breeding in this country, owing to collectors, that the discovery of
an egg in Norfolk has been thought worthy of being recorded in the
transactions of the Linnean Society; and even the appearance of a bird
at any season finds its way into the provincial newspapers or the
magazines devoted to natural history: Stuffed specimens are, however,
to be seen in most collections, where its form and plumage may be
studied, though its habits can only be learnt, at least in England,
from the accounts furnished by naturalists of a past generation. It
comes now only to be shot.

The Bittern is a bird of wide geographical range, as it resorts, more
or less, to all countries of Europe and Asia. Specimens are said to
differ much in size, some being as large as the Heron, others
considerably less; but there is no reason to suppose that they are of
different species, a similar variation having been observed in other
birds, as in the Curlew, for example, of which I have had in my
possession at once four or five specimens all of different dimensions.

The Bittern builds its nest on the ground, and lays four brown eggs,
which are tinged with ash or green. The old bird, if wounded, defends
itself in the same way as the Heron.



General plumage white; scapulars and wings black; bill and feet
red; orbits naked, black; irides brown. _Young birds_ have the
wings tinged with brown and the beak reddish black. Length
three feet six inches. Eggs white tinged with ochre.

Sir Thomas Browne says, in his _Account of Birds found in Norfolk_:
'The _Ciconia_, or Stork, I have seen in the fens; and some have been
shot in the marshes between this [Norwich] and Yarmouth.' His
contemporary, Willughby, says: - 'The Stork is rarely seen in England;
never, in fact, but when driven hither by the wind or some accident. I
have received from Dr. Thomas Browne, the eminent naturalist, a figure
drawn to the life, and a short description of one which was captured
in Norfolk.' Yarrell records instances of a few others which have been
killed, at distant intervals, in various parts of England; but the
Stork is so rare a visitor with us, that I have no scruple in
referring my readers, for a full account of the habits of so
interesting a bird, to some more comprehensive work on the subject.
The White Stork was, over 350 years ago, only an irregular visitor to
Great Britain.


Upper plumage black, with green and purple reflections; under
white; bill and orbits red; irides brown; feet deep red. In
_young birds_ the bill, orbits, and feet, are olive green; and
the upper plumage is tinged with rust-brown. Length nearly
three feet. Eggs dull white, tinged with green, and sometimes
sparingly spotted with brown.

A still rarer visitor in Great Britain than the White Stork, from
which it differs quite as much in habit as it does in colour; for
whereas the one is eminently sociable with birds of its own kind, and
devoted in its attachment to human dwellings, the other is a solitary
bird, shy and wary, avoiding at all times the sight of men and their
habitations. It is a rare bird in most countries of Europe, but is
common in several parts of Asia and the whole of the known regions of
Africa. It builds a large nest in a lofty tree, and lays from two to
five eggs.



General plumage white; a large patch of reddish yellow on the
breast; a crest of long narrow white feathers pendent over the
neck; lore, orbits, and naked space on the neck, pale yellow;
bill black, tipped with yellow; irides red; feet black. _Young
birds_ want the yellow patch on the breast and the occipital
crest; portions of the wing black. Length thirty-one inches.
Eggs white, spotted with light red.

Spoonbills do not appear to have been common at any time; for though
Sir Thomas Browne enumerates them among the birds of Norfolk and
Suffolk, where they build in heronries, his contemporary, Willughby,
knew them only as natives of Holland. This bird is not unfrequent in
East Anglia, and it is met with now and again along the south coast,
and has wandered up the Thames valley.

The Spoonbill is a migratory bird, building its nest and rearing its
young in the north of Europe and Asia, and retiring in autumn to the
shores of the Mediterranean or to Africa. It is remarkable not only
for the singular conformation of its bill, but for 'being one of the
very few which have been found to possess no true muscles of the organ
of voice; and no modulation of a single tone appears to be possessed
by the bird.'[32]

It builds its nest in high trees, or, when these are wanting, among
reeds and rushes; and lays four eggs.

[32] Yarrell's _British Birds_.




Folded wings not reaching to the extremity of the tail; bill
strong, orange-yellow, the nail whitish; upper plumage
ash-brown, many of the feathers bordered with greyish white;
under plumage, in front, light ash-grey, barred on the flanks
and belly with brown, behind pure white; irides deep brown;
legs dull flesh-colour. Eggs ivory white. Length two feet ten

The Geese characterized by having a large, ovate body, a long neck, a
short and stout beak, high at the base and bent down at the tip,
adapted for cropping vegetable food; the wings are large and powerful;
the legs, placed under the centre of the body, afford some facility in
walking, and the webbed feet are eminently fitted for paddling, but
rarely employed in diving. They spend the greater portion of the year
in high latitudes, where their arrival is celebrated with great
rejoicings, as an indication of returning summer. They are eminently
gregarious, flying generally in the form of a half-opened pair of
compasses, with the angle in front, or in an irregular wavy line, and
uttering a loud harsh cry, which may often be heard some time before
the birds themselves are in sight.

The present species, which is supposed by some to be the origin of the
domestic Goose, was formerly of common occurrence in Great Britain,
but is now much less frequent. It breeds in northern Scotland, coming
south from autumn to spring. On their arrival in autumn, they resort
to marshes and swamps, meadows, corn-fields, and turnip-fields,
especially such as are remote from human dwellings. There they feed by
day on such vegetable substances as fall in their way, but they are
said to prefer the young shoots of corn to any other kind of food. So
wary are they and difficult of approach, that a 'Wild Goose chase' is
a proverbial expression for an unsuccessful enterprise. At night they
retire to the broad flats near the sea, or to the mouths of rivers,
where they roost on the ground. Yarrell is of opinion 'that the term
"lag", as applied to this Goose, is either a modification of the
English word "lake", the Latin _lacus_, or perhaps an abbreviation of
the Italian "lago", from which latter country it is even probable that
we may originally have obtained this our domesticated race.'


Folded wings reaching a little beyond the tail; bill
orange-yellow, the nail white; a large space on the forehead
pure white, surrounded by a dusky band; upper plumage
ash-brown, varied with grey, dull white, and bluish black;
under plumage in front brownish white, with patches and bars of
black; behind white; irides dark brown; feet orange. Length two
feet three inches. Eggs white, tinged with buff.

A regular visitor to the British Isles, coming late in the autumn to
stay till spring, usually seen in small flocks of from eight to twenty
birds; it is entirely graminivorous, and, when undisturbed, usually
rests at night in any grass-field where it may have been feeding in
the afternoon.

Its habits, during its stay in these latitudes, are similar to those
of the other species, but it is said by Mr. Selby to 'vary from the
Bean Goose in preferring low and marshy districts to the upland and
drier haunts of that bird, and in these localities subsists on the
aquatic grasses, being very seldom seen to frequent corn or stubble
fields'. In Norfolk it has frequently been seen associated with the
Bean Goose. It has never been observed to remain with us after April,
when it betakes itself to the regions bordering on the Arctic circle.
In Lapland it is very abundant, and in the fur countries of North
America it was seen in spring by Dr. Richardson in large flocks
travelling northwards. It breeds in the woody districts skirting
Mackenzie's River, and in the islands of the Arctic Sea.

The white forehead of this bird tends to confirm the opinion
maintained by some authors that the common Domestic Goose owes its
origin to this species.


Folded wings exceeding the tail in length; bill long, orange,
the base and nail black; upper plumage ash-brown; the wings
darker, edged with greyish white; under plumage in front dirty
white, behind pure white; irides dark brown; legs orange; beak
yellowish white. Length thirty-four inches. Eggs white.

The several species constituting the group to which the Bean Goose
belongs resemble each other very nearly in all respects. All are
gregarious, fly high in the form of a V, or in an undulating line,
uttering repeated cries, which no one who has heard a domesticated
Goose can fail to recognize; they pass the night for the most part on
broad flats near the sea, and at early dawn repair inland to their
feeding-grounds. The Bean Goose is, on the authority of Yarrell, next
to the Brent Goose, the commonest and most numerous as a species among
our Wild Geese. In Scotland it is far more abundant than in England,
being seen in large flocks from October to April, especially at the
periods of migration to and from its summer quarters. But it does not
altogether desert the British Isles during the intervening months. A
few are said annually to remain, and breed in the lakes of
Westmoreland, and in the Hebrides. In Sutherlandshire, also, many
remain all the year - a fact thoroughly ascertained by Mr. Selby, who
gives an interesting account of several young broods which he saw on
the lochs, some of which he captured. They construct their nests among
the tussocks of sedge or grass hillocks on the islands, and lay from
three to four eggs, smaller than those of the Common Goose, but of a
similar shape and colour.


White Fronted Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Grey Lag Goose

Bean Goose [M]

[_p. 178._]]


Sheldrake [M]

Shoveler [M]

Gadwall [M]

Wild Duck [M] [F]]


Folded wings not reaching to the extremity of the tail; bill
shorter than the head, narrow and much contracted towards the
tip, pink, with the nail and base black; head and neck reddish
brown; rest of the upper plumage ash-grey, edged with greyish
white; under plumage in front fawn-colour, behind white; irides
dark brown; feet pink, tinged with vermilion. Length two feet
four inches. Eggs dull yellowish white.

It is said that most, if not all the various species of wild Geese
have strong local attachments; that flocks composed of one particular
kind are in the habit of visiting, year after year, the same spot, to
the exclusion of other species, which may, nevertheless, be found
frequenting places of like character at no great distance. Of the
truth of the statement I met with signal confirmation in the severe
winter of 1860-1. I then spent several days on the coast of Norfolk,
for the purpose of watching the habits of Waders and sea-fowl. Without
indulging in the chase of wild Geese, I heard and saw a great many
flocks, of which some were unmistakably Brent Geese; others, of a
larger size and a different colour, I was obliged to include under the
comprehensive name of Grey Geese. The Brents, I found, regularly
repaired to the salt marshes adjoining Thornham Harbour, which, I was
told, was their usual place of resort. The others were known to alight
only in the meadows near Holkham. Having heard that several had been
shot at the latter place, I procured one, and on examination it proved
to be the present species, up to that time entirely unknown to me. On
consulting Yarrell, I found the following passage: - 'In January of the
present year, 1841, I was favoured with a letter from the Hon. and
Rev. Thomas Keppel, of Warham Rectory, near Holkam, informing me that
a Pink-footed Goose had been killed by his nephew, Lord Coke, at
Holkam. This bird was shot out of a flock of about twenty, but nothing
particular was observed in their flight or habits.' The bird brought
to me had been shot, along with many others, out of similar flocks, in
exactly the same place, at an interval of twenty years; and I have no
doubt that the many other specimens which have been shot there between
the above two dates, belonged to the same species, the characters
which distinguish it from the common Bean Goose being not sufficiently
striking to attract the notice of sea-side gunners. The habits of the
species appear not to differ from those of its congener; it arrives
and departs about the same time, and it frequents the marshes and
uplands of Norfolk, and in winter the east coast of Scotland.


Head, beak, neck, breast, feet, quills, and tail, black; on
each side of the neck a patch of white with a few black
feathers intermixed; upper plumage dingy; all the tail-coverts
white; belly brownish grey, barred on the flanks with greyish
white. Length twenty-two to twenty-three inches. Eggs greyish

The Wild Geese which we have hitherto been considering feed on grass,
clover, and grain, in quest of which they resort to inland marshes,
meadows, and arable land; but the Brent is a decidedly marine bird.
During its annual visits to our shores it stays out at sea by night,
cradled by the billows, and at early dawn repairs to the muddy flats
and sand-banks, where it feeds exclusively on marine plants,
especially laver and zostéra. As soon as these are left bare by the
ebbing tide, the Brents are taught by their instinct that they have no
time to lose, and hasten in 'skeins' or 'gaggles' making in their
flight a trumpet-like noise which, heard at a distance, resembles that
of a pack of harriers or fox-hounds in full cry. They prefer to take
their stand on those parts of the ooze which are least intersected by
creeks, and there, if left undisturbed, they continue to feed without
intermission till the rising tide lifts them off their feet. Then,
away to sea again! or, if the weather be boisterous, they seek for
shelter in the rivers and estuaries. They are local in their
attachments, returning annually to the same feeding-grounds. They do
not associate from choice with other species, for though they may be
frequently seen feeding in the vicinity of various Waders, they form
no society with them, and are, indeed, in quest of different food.
Sea-side fowlers are well acquainted with the peculiarity of their
habits, and not only know where to look for them when they are
settled, but at what points they can most easily be intercepted, going

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 23 of 39)