C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

. (page 24 of 39)
Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 24 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and returning. It is the custom of the fowler to conceal himself
behind some lurking-place, natural or artificial; or, if this be
wanting, to stretch himself on the ground. Then, as a skein,
unconscious of danger, approaches, he suddenly shows himself; the
birds, panic-struck, huddle together before they alter their line of
flight, and the sportsman fires into the midst of them.

They are the most abundant of all the Geese which frequent our shores,
and are killed in great numbers and sent to market. They come to us in
November and remain till late in February, when they begin to migrate
in successive flights, the youngest bird staying until April. It is
not believed that they ever remain to breed, but that they repair to
the Arctic regions, and make their nests of withered herbage in marshy


Forehead, sides of the head, and throat, pure white; a dark
streak between the eyes and bill; head/neck, quills, and tail,
black; rest of the upper plumage undulated transversely with
ash-grey, black, and dull white; lower plumage white, tinged on
the flanks with grey; irides dusky-brown; bill and feet black.
Length two feet one inch. Eggs greenish white.

This beautiful bird occurs chiefly on the west side of Great Britain
in winter. 'It then more frequently retires to the sea than to the
lakes during its periods of repose, or when driven from its
feeding-grounds. A large flock then presents a beautiful spectacle, as
the birds sit lightly on the water, and when advancing elevate their
necks. Not less beautiful do they seem when on wing; now arranged in
long lines, ever undulating; at one time extending in the direction of
their flight; at another obliquely, or at right angles to it,
sometimes in an angular figure, and again mingling together. Their
voice is clear, and rather shrill, and comes agreeably on the ear when
the cries of a large flock come from a considerable distance'. In
England it is far less common, but occasionally resorts to marshes
both on the eastern and western coast. The mythical fragment of
ancient natural history, that the Bernicle is the product of a tree,
is too trite to require repetition here.


Whole plumage pure white, the head and nape sometimes slightly
tinged with yellow; lower half of the bill quadrangular,
yellow, upper black; lore and a great portion of the edge of
the upper mandible yellow; irides brown; legs black; tail of
twenty feathers. _Young birds_ have the plumage grey; lore
flesh-colour. Length five feet; breadth seven feet ten inches.
Eggs dull white, tinged with greenish.

The ancient fable that Swans sing most sweetly before their death did
not survive the age which invented it. Pliny disbelieved it, and,
though the assertion may have been resuscitated from time to time as a
poetic fiction, it has found no place in works on natural history.

The Swan is not musical; it rests its claims to our admiration on
other grounds, unchallenged and indisputable; the unsullied white of
its plumage is an apt emblem of purity, and the elegance of its
movements in the water has become proverbial. The present species,
which owes its name to its powerful voice, is said to be not quite so
graceful as the tame Swan, but on land it is far more active. A bird
which has been winged by a sportsman, and has fallen on the land, can
only be overtaken by smart running. In Iceland, the summer resort of
these birds, they are much sought after for the sake of their down. In
the month of August, when the old birds, having cast their
quill-feathers, are unable to fly, the natives assemble in bodies in
the places where the Swans collect, and mounted on small but active
horses chase them through the marshes, and ride many of them down; but
the greater number are caught by the dogs, which always seize the
birds by the neck, and so encumber them that they are then easily
overtaken. But it is not the habit of Swans to remain much on land;
the perfect ease with which they float and swim indicates that the
water is their element, and a glance at their long necks tells at once
that their nature is to feed in shallow water or on the margin of deep
lakes, where with their strong bills they either tear up the stems and
roots of aquatics from the bottom, or crop at their pleasure from the
banks. To this kind of food they add such insects, molluscs and worms
as come within their reach; and (when sailing in salt water)
sea-weeds, and especially the long, ribbon-like leaves of zostéra.
During summer they frequent the most secluded swamps and lakes in the
wooded districts of the north, and build a very large nest in a spot
unapproachable by human feet. A few go no farther north than the
Orkneys and Shetlands, but their headquarters are Siberia, Iceland,
Lapland, and Hudson's Bay.

After they have recovered from their summer moult, they migrate
southwards, and arrive in Scotland, sometimes in large flocks, early
in October. Mr. St. John, in his _Wild Sports of the Highlands_, gives
an interesting account of their habits while in this country. He went
in pursuit of a flock which had selected for their winter
feeding-place some fresh-water lochs about half a mile from the sea.
They passed the day mostly on the salt water, and in the evening came
inland to feed. He found them on one of the smaller lochs, some
standing high and dry on the grassy islands trimming their feathers
after their long voyage, and others feeding on the grass and weeds at
the bottom of the loch, which in some parts was shallow enough to
allow of their pulling up the plants which they fed on as they swam
about, while numbers of wild Ducks of different kinds, particularly
Wigeons, swarmed round them, and often snatched the pieces of grass
from the Swans as soon as they had brought them to the surface, to the
great annoyance of the noble birds, who endeavoured in vain to drive
away these most active little depredators, who seemed determined to
profit by their labours. 'I observed', he says, 'that frequently all
their heads were under the water at once, excepting one - but
invariably _one_ had kept his head and neck perfectly erect, and
carefully watched on every side to prevent their being taken by
surprise; when he wanted to feed, he touched any passer-by, who
immediately relieved him in his guard, and he in his turn called on
some other Swan to take his place as sentinel.'

Swans, like wild Geese, are in the habit of returning every year to
the same district of country, and in passing to and from their
feeding-ground keep closely to the same line of flight, a peculiarity
of which fowlers take advantage by lying in ambuscade somewhere
beneath their aërial road.

When disturbed on the water they generally huddle together and utter a
low cry of alarm before they take flight. Owing to their great weight
they have not the power of rising suddenly into the air, but flap
along the water, beating the surface with their great wings, some
twenty or thirty yards. The flapping noise made while this process is
going on, may be heard at a great distance.

In severe winters, flocks of Whoopers, Whistling Swans, or Elks, as
they are variously called, come farther south, and may be observed
from time to time on different parts of the coast.


Whole plumage pure white; bill black, orange-yellow at the
base; irides dark; feet black; tail of eighteen feathers.
_Young birds_ greyish brown; immature specimens tinged on the
head and belly with rust-red. Length three feet nine inches;
breadth forty-six to fifty. Eggs dull white, tinged with brown.

Bewick's Swan is distinguished from the Whooper, not only by the
characters given above, but by strongly marked anatomical features,
which were first pointed out by Mr. Yarrell, who, with the modesty and
generosity for which he was noted, gave it its present name; 'Thus
devoting it to the memory of one whose beautiful and animated
delineations of subjects in natural history entitle him to this

In severe winters it is fairly frequent on the coasts of England, and
even abundant in Scotland. In the case of distant flocks the only
criterion is size; and as this species is one-third less than the
Whooper, there is little probability of an experienced observer being
mistaken in the identity.

In their habits they closely resemble their congeners, but are less
graceful in their movements on the water, and spend a larger portion
of their time on land.


Head, throat, and upper back black, with green reflections;
lower parts of the neck and back, flanks, rump and tail (except
the black tip) white; from the shoulders a broad band of bright
chestnut, which meets on the breast, passing into a broad,
blotched, black band, which passes down the abdomen nearly to
the tail; under tail-coverts pale reddish yellow; scapulars
black; wing-coverts white; secondaries chestnut; primaries
black; speculum bronzed green and purple; bill, and
protuberance at the base, red; irides brown; feet crimson-red.
The _female_ wants the red protuberance on the bill, and the
colours generally are somewhat less bright. Length twenty to
twenty-two inches. Eggs white, tinged with green.

The Sheldrake is the largest and among the handsomest of the British
Ducks, and if easy of domestication would be no doubt a common
ornament of our lakes and rivers. It is, however, in Great Britain at
least, a marine bird; though from one of its French names, _Canard des
Alpes_, it would seem also to frequent the large continental lakes.
Numerous attempts have been made to familiarize it with inland
fresh-water haunts to which some other species readily take, but they
have rarely succeeded, while to induce it to breed at a distance from
its sea-side home has proved yet more difficult.

It differs from the majority of the Duck tribe in remaining on the
coast of Britain throughout the year. In South Wales, for example, it
is seen in winter and early spring, but about the breeding season it
disappears for a few weeks. During this interval it is employed in
incubation, but when its brood is hatched it is seen again,
accompanied by a troop of ducklings, feeding in the creeks and marshy
places. When thus discovered, the young broods are commonly hunted
down by sea-side idlers for the sake of being sold to any one who cares
to try the experiment of rearing them.

On the coast of Norfolk it is more usual to search for the nests, in
order to secure the eggs and place them under a tame Duck or domestic
Hen. The male and female keep together, not only during incubation,
but until the young are able to provide for themselves. It derives the
name 'Burrow Duck', by which it is also known, from its custom of
making its nest either in the burrow of a rabbit or in a hole hollowed
out by itself. The nest is constructed of such herbage as abounds in
the neighbourhood; it is lined with down plucked from the breast of
the parent bird, and contains from ten to twelve eggs.

Pennant (vol. ii, p. 257) says of these birds: "They inhabit the
sea-coasts and breed in rabbit-holes. When a person attempts to take
their young, the old birds show great address in diverting his
attention from the brood; they will fly along the ground as if
wounded, till the former can get into a place of security, and then
return and collect them together."

From this instinctive cunning, Turner, with good reason, imagines them
to be the _chenalopex_, or _Tox-Goose_, of the ancients; the
natives of the Orkneys to this day call them the _Sly-Goose_, from an
attribute of that quadruped.

Sheldrake are more numerous during the summer in North Britain than in
the South, but in winter they are driven by the freezing of their
feeding-grounds to more temperate climates. Here numbers of them meet
the fate of wild fowl generally, and specimens are often to be seen
exposed in the English markets, though their flesh is held in little
estimation as food.

Sheld means parti-coloured. 'Shelled' is still current in the eastern
counties of England. Shelled duck is the more proper appellation.
Howard Saunders calls it Sheld-duck always.


Head and neck dark green; at the base of the neck a white
collar; upper parts marked with fine zigzag lines of ash-brown
and grey; breast chestnut; lower parts greyish white, marked
with fine zigzag ash-brown lines; speculum dark blue with
purple and green reflections, bordered above and below with
black and white; four middle feathers of the tail curled
upwards; bill greenish yellow; irides red-brown; feet orange.
Length twenty-four inches. _Female_ smaller; plumage mottled
with various shades of brown and grey; throat whitish; speculum
as in the _male_; all the tail-feathers straight. Eggs greenish

Its size, abundance, and value as an article of food, have given to
the Wild Duck an importance which belongs to few other British birds;
and the modes of capturing it are so varied and interesting that they
are often to be met with described in works not exclusively devoted to
natural history. For this reason I shall in great measure confine my
notice of this bird to such particulars in its history as the reader
may probably have an opportunity of verifying by his own observation
in the course of his rambles among places which it habitually

The term Wild Duck', properly applicable to the female bird only
('Mallard' being the distinctive name of the male), is generally
employed to include both sexes. The difference in the plumage of the
two is very great, as, indeed, is the case with all those varieties
of the same bird which, under the name of 'Tame Ducks,' have altered
the least from their natural wild type. Yet in the summer months, when
both sexes moult,[33] the Mallard puts off the whole of his
characteristic gay plumage, and appears in the sober brown garb of the
Duck. It is only, in fact, from October to May that the Mallard can be
distinguished from his partner by his markings. At this season, too,
young birds, so far as they are fledged, are of the same tone of
colouring. Domesticated birds are subject to the same change; but a
reason for this singular metamorphosis no naturalist, as far as I am
aware, has ventured to assign.

Wild Ducks hold a prominent place among birds of the most extensive
distribution, being 'indigenous to the greater part of the northern
hemisphere'.[34] In consequence of this wide range they must of
necessity frequent many districts highly favourable to their
preservation; they are therefore numerous. Equally well adapted for
travelling by sea and through the air, and capable of enduring great
variations of heat and cold, their presence may be expected wherever a
tract of country occurs calculated to supply them with food and
opportunities for nidification. As long as England abounded in
marshes, and her rivers ran through wastes rarely frequented by man,
Wild Ducks were numerous in many counties where they are now but
rarely seen. Many have retired before draining and civilization, yet
they never totally desert us. In most districts where there are rivers
lined with reeds, even not so very far removed from the sound of the
steam-engine, one may, by cautiously and quietly guiding one's steps,
fall in with a brood of active ducklings sifting the ooze, with the
instinct of their kind, for minute insects; flapping along the water
in chase of a fly, or paddling among the reeds on the look-out for
anything good to eat. The matron of the party, with a proud
consciousness of her dignity as sentinel and protector, preserves a
more stately demeanour, but, with this slight difference, is similarly
occupied. As you approach she is the first to descry you; with a
homely 'quack', differing in no respect from the note of the
domesticated bird, she sounds an alarm, and the whole family, mother
and children, are quickly concealed among the reeds. It is possible,
by long-continued persecution, to induce her to rise, but she does so
reluctantly, and even then, unless you are such a barbarian as to
shoot her, all is yet safe. The young will hide themselves securely
until danger is past, and she, not far off, though unseen, is circling
round her helpless brood. In an islet, probably, of the river; in a
tuft of reeds surrounded by quagmire; among thick bushes near the
bank; under the stump of an alder, or even high up among the branches,
she formerly had her nest, composed of grass, and lined with down from
her own breast; and at no great distance from this her offspring are
yet lingering. The latter could swim immediately that they left the
egg, but their bodies are large and heavy in proportion to the size of
their wings, so that they will be unable to fly until nine or ten
weeks old, when they will be thoroughly fledged, and only
distinguishable from their parent by their smaller size.

From the rapidity with which young Ducks 'scutter' along the surface
of the water, using both feet and wings, they are called by sportsmen,
'flappers'; and from the same habit, no doubt, the children's game of
'Ducks-and-drakes' was named. The word is one with which I have been
familiar, like most other people, from my earliest years, yet I never
thought of its etymology until I was passing, a few weeks since, in a
steamer down Loch Tarbet. The boat disturbed a party of 'flappers'
which were feeding near the shore, and as they half flew, half paddled
away at a rapid rate, the sport and the name suggested themselves to
my mind together. It is mostly absent from the northern districts of
Scotland in winter.

In marshy districts, both in England and Scotland, these birds remain
all the year round; but their numbers are greatly augmented in winter
by the arrival of large flocks from the north. These fly mostly by
night, in long lines, and proceed to the fens and salt marshes, where
they feed until daylight. They then put out to sea, and rest, floating
on the water, until dusk; and it is while they are on their way to and
from these feeding-grounds that the sea-side gunners do the greatest
execution among them. They fly mostly in small parties, and utter no
note; but if after dusk a shot be fired in the vicinity of a marsh or
of a piece of reclaimed land intersected by ditches, it is followed by
a concert of 'quacks' from all sides, which proves that however small
the parties may have been, the number of Ducks collectively must be
very great.

In the neighbourhood of the salt marshes in the eastern counties, one
may meet, in severe winter weather, just before dusk, little knots of
men setting out on ducking expeditions. Each is furnished with a
spade, a bag of straw, and a gun. Experience has taught these men that
the line of flight usually taken by the birds is along a narrow creek
or arm of the sea, which has on either side a high muddy bank. For
such a point the gunners are making. The use of the spade is to dig a
hole for concealment in the mud, and the straw is intended to furnish
a dry seat. It must be a wearisome occupation to sit here hour after
hour, with nothing to do but to hope that birds are coming; and when
they come matters are not much mended; for if the shot be successful
it will never do to leave the hiding-place in order to pick up the
booty, or another chance may be missed. Three or four hours are thus
spent, and on moonlight nights a longer time. The slain birds are then
collected, a few hours are given to rest, and in the morning twilight
the same scene is re-enacted.

When it is desired to construct a decoy,[35] a quiet, shallow pond is
selected, edged with reeds, and having an extent of from two to fifty
acres or more. From the edge of this are dug, at various points,
curved creeks, called 'pipes', broad at the mouth, and contracting
till the banks meet. Over each of these pipes is thrown a net,
supported on arches made of hoops; the first about ten feet high, the
others diminishing in size, and the whole ending in a bag-net, or
'purse'. On each bank of the pipes are erected screens made of reeds,
high enough to conceal a man. Previously to commencing operations the
decoy-man has let loose on the pond a few tame Ducks, closely
resembling wild birds in plumage, who are familiar with his person and
have been trained to come at his call. Accompanied by a little dog,
'a piper', he stations himself behind a screen, near the mouth of a
pipe which faces the wind, choosing this position because Ducks prefer
to swim against the wind and to feed on a lee shore. When the pond is
well stocked with birds he throws some corn on the water near the
mouth of a pipe, and makes a low whistle. At the familiar sound the
'coy-ducks' hasten to the spot, and, if all be well, are followed by a
portion of the wild birds. The piper is then let loose, and
immediately runs to the water's edge. The Wild Ducks, either from
curiosity, or some unknown motive, paddle towards him. The ruse
succeeding so far, the piper is made to appear for a moment beyond the
next screen, and so on until a party of Ducks have been lured so far
up the pipe as to be out of sight of those remaining in the pond. The
decoy-man, who has all the while been lying hid near the first screen,
then shows himself to his intended victims, who, in their flight,
hurry on to the 'purse', and are caught and dispatched at leisure. All
this time the coy-ducks, if well trained, have remained at the mouth
of the pipe, feeding, and unconsciously enticing new-comers into the

That this method of capturing wild-fowl is effective, may be inferred
from the fact that decoys of a precisely similar kind have been worked
ever since the time of Willughby (1676), who describes them at length.
A Son of the Marshes gives a fuller account of Duck decoys in
_Wild-Fowl and Sea-Fowl_.

[33] Formerly spelt 'mute', from the Latin _muto_, to change.

[34] Yarrell, vol. iii. p. 273.

[35] Decoy, a corruption of Duck-coy, from the Dutch _kooi_, a
cage or pen. See _Ray and Willughby's Ornithology_, p. 286,
where, mention being made of a method of capturing wild-fowl
which had been introduced into England from Holland, the
following passage occurs: 'Piscinas hasce cum allectatricibus
et reliquo suo apparatu _Decoys_ seu _Duck-coys_ vocant,
allectatrices _Coy-ducks_.'


Head and neck light grey, speckled with brown; back and breast
dark grey, the feathers ending in crescent-shaped whitish
lines; belly white, speckled with brown; small wing-coverts and
tip of the wing chestnut; greater coverts, rump, and
tail-coverts black; speculum white; bill black; irides brown;
feet orange. _Female_ less distinctly marked. Length twenty
inches. Eggs buffy white, tinged with green.

This species of Duck now breeds in Norfolk and Suffolk. Its food and
habits closely resemble those of the other Ducks; it is active, and
both swims and flies rapidly, preferring fresh-water lakes to the sea,
and resorting principally to such pieces of water as afford it ready
concealment. Meyer states that when flocks of Gadwalls 'fly about,
they keep close together in a ball, but not in a line, and may
therefore be very soon distinguished from the common wild Duck'. By
day they mostly swim about in the open water, and come near the shore
to feed in the evening. They breed in the great northern marshes of
both hemispheres. The Gadwall is a surface feeder and not a diving


Head and neck glossy green; breast pure white; belly and flanks
chestnut; back brown; lesser wing-coverts pale blue; scapulars
white, speckled and spotted with black; speculum brilliant
green; bill lead colour; irides yellow; feet reddish orange.
_Female_ - head pale reddish brown, streaked with dusky; upper
plumage dusky brown, edged with reddish white; under plumage
reddish with large brown spots; the blue and green of the wings
less bright. Length twenty inches. Eggs greenish buff.

The Shoveler is well distinguished among all the British Ducks by the
form and structure of its bill, which in old birds is dilated near the
extremity into a form approaching that of a spoon, and is furnished
with a fringe of slender lamellæ, resembling a comb. Towards the end
of the bill these are not conspicuous as long as the mouth of the bird

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 24 of 39)