C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

. (page 26 of 39)
Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 26 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

exceeds seven inches in diameter. In the beginning of June the eggs
are deposited, the male attending upon the female the whole time. The
eggs, which are regularly placed on the moss and weeds of the nest
without any down, are generally from five to seven. When the full
complement of eggs has been laid the female begins to pluck some down
from the lower part of the body; this operation is daily continued for
some time, until the roots of the feathers, as far forward as she can
reach, are quite bare. This down she disposes beneath and around the
eggs. When she leaves the nest to go in search of food, she places it
over her eggs to keep up their warmth.'

Sir W. J. Hooker, in his interesting _Journal of a Tour in Iceland_,
describes the nests as he saw them in the little island of Akaroe,
where, as on other uninhabited islands, the Eider Ducks breed in great
numbers. "On our landing on the rocky island, we found the Eider fowls
sitting upon their nests, which were rudely formed of their own down,
generally among the old and half-decayed sea-weed, that the storms had
cast high up on the beach, but sometimes only among the bare rocks. It
was difficult to make these birds leave their nests, and so little
inclined were many of them to do it, that they even permitted us to
handle them, whilst they were sitting, without their appearing to be
at all alarmed. Under each of them were two or four eggs; the latter
is the number they lay, but from many of them two had been taken for
food by the natives, who prefer those which have young ones in them.
_June 24th._" A few days later (June 27,) he visited the island of
Vidöe, the residence of the ex-governor, where, he says, 'we were
shown the immense number of Eider Ducks which lived on Vidöe, and
which were now sitting on eggs or young ones, exhibiting a most
interesting scene. The ex-governor made us go and coax some of the old
birds, who did not on that account disturb themselves. Almost every
little hollow place between the rocks is occupied with the nests of
these birds, which are so numerous that we were obliged to walk with
the greatest caution, to avoid trampling upon them; but, besides this,
the ex-governor has a number of holes cut in the smooth and sloping
side of a hill in two rows, and in every one of these, also, there is
a nest. No Norfolk housewife is half so solicitous after her poultry
as the ex-governor after his Eider Ducks, which by their down and eggs
afford him a considerable revenue; since the former sells for three
rix-dollars (twelve shillings) a pound. Cats and dogs are, at this
season of the year, all banished from the island, so that nothing may
disturb these birds.' I need scarcely add that the Eider down of
commerce is taken from these nests, not in a pure state but mixed with
fragments of plants. Pennant says that if the nest and eggs be taken
'the Duck lays again, and repeats the plucking of her breast, if she
is robbed after that, she will still lay, but the drakes must supply
the down, as her stock is now exhausted; if her eggs are taken a third
time, she wholly deserts the place. The quantity of down found in one
nest weighs about three-quarters of an ounce, and may be compressed
into a ball two inches in diameter, but on being shaken out will fill
a large hat.

The young brood take to the water immediately on being hatched. To
effect this they are often obliged to travel a considerable distance,
and if difficulties present themselves, insurmountable in any other
way, the parent bird carries the young in her bill. Once clear of the
rocks, they are liable to no further molestation from land robbers.
But the sea is not without its dangers, for the rapacious Black-backed
Gull frequently attacks them, and, but for the self-devotion and
bravery of the mother bird, would commit great havoc among them. At
his appearance the young dive in all directions, while the mother
counterfeits lameness to distract his attention from them to herself,
or springs from the water and attacks the Gull until he is compelled
to retire from the contest.


General plumage deep black; quills dusky brown on the inner
web, glossy grey beneath; disk of the upper mandible
orange-yellow; protuberance at the base black; no speculum on
the wings. _Female_ - general plumage brown of several shades;
bill without the protuberance; nostrils, and a spot towards
the tip, yellowish. Length eighteen inches. Eggs pale buff.

This bird is well known along the eastern coast of England under the
name of Black Duck. Although a few scattered specimens have been
observed from time to time during summer, in most parts it must be
considered as a winter visitant only. Being the only entirely black
Duck which frequents our shores, it is distinguished among other
species by its colour alone. Small parties of these birds may
occasionally be seen on different parts of the coast, swimming and
diving at a short distance outside the surf, or flying, three or four
together, at an elevation of a few feet above the surface of the sea.
Large flocks visit the sea between us and Holland at times. They fly
rapidly in a straight line, and when diving remain a long time under
water. Their food consists of mussels and other shellfish, in quest of
which they often ascend the creeks and arms of the sea, but they are
rarely seen in fresh water.

The flesh of the Black Duck is said to be oily and fishy; on this
account it is in some Roman Catholic countries classed with fish, and
allowed to be eaten during Lent. In some parts of the Continent, where
it is consequently in demand, fishermen take advantage of its diving
propensities, and spread their nets over the mussel banks to which
they have observed that these birds resort, and capture them in large
numbers. The nest of the Scoter is described as being like that of the
Eider Duck, and similarly located. The female also covers her eggs
with down from her own breast, but in smaller quantities. A few of
this species remain to breed in the north of Scotland.


General plumage velvet black; below the eyes a white crescent;
speculum white; bill orange, protuberance at the base, nostrils
and edge of mandibles, black; irides and feet red, the
membranes of the latter black. _Female_ smaller; upper plumage
sooty brown; under parts light grey, streaked and spotted with
dusky brown; between the bill and eye a whitish spot, and
another over the ear; bill dusky ash; irides brown; feet dull
red. Length twenty-three inches. Eggs buff.

The Velvet Scoter, an inhabitant of the extreme northern regions of
Asia and Europe, appears in the British Isles as a winter visitor
only, being sometimes seen on the eastern coast of Scotland, in large
flocks, but not generally extending its migration to our southern
shores except in the severest weather. It may be distinguished from
the Common Scoter by its larger size, and yet more strikingly by the
conspicuous white bar across the wing.

The habits and food of the Velvet Duck differ in no material respect
from those of the Common Scoter, or Black Duck.


A bony protuberance on each side of the bill near the base; no
speculum; general plumage black; on the forehead and nape a
patch of white; bill yellow, with a square black spot on each
side near the base; irides white; feet red, the membranes
black. In the _female_ the black is replaced by dark ash-brown,
and the white by light grey; bill dark olive; feet brown, with
black membranes. Length twenty inches. Eggs white.

Only a few specimens of this bird have been obtained in Europe, and
these probably had been driven eastward by storms from North America,
where alone they are found in any numbers. In habits and food the Surf
Scoter resembles the common species, deriving its name from the
pertinacity with which it selects, as its feeding-ground, a sandy
beach over which surf rolls. It rarely or never visits the salt


Head and crest greenish black; back black; speculum (not barred
with black), under parts, wing-coverts, outer scapulars, and
some of the quills, buff; bill red, the ridge and nail black;
feet vermilion. Length twenty-four to twenty-eight inches.
_Female_ and _young_ - head and crest reddish brown; breast and
flanks pale buff; upper plumage dark ash; bill and feet dull
red. Eggs dull white.

The Goosander is a regular winter visitor to the shores of Great
Britain and Ireland, frequenting bays and estuaries, but preferring
fresh-water rivers and lakes, where it makes great havoc among trout
and other fish. It is far more abundant in the north than in the
south, and, according to Macgillivray, is sometimes seen even in
summer in the Scotch lochs. It has been known to breed in the outer
Hebrides, and of late years in several parts of the Highlands, but the
general summer residence of this species is much farther to the north,
both in the eastern and western hemispheres. The habits of the
Goosander and Merganser are so much alike that further detail is

The females and young birds of the Goosander and Merganser are
popularly called Dun-divers.


Head, crest, and neck black, with greenish reflections; a white
collar round the neck; breast reddish brown, spotted with
black; near the insertion of the wing several white spots,
edged with black; speculum white, divided by two transverse
black bars; back black; belly white, barred on the flanks and
rump with wavy grey lines; bill and irides red; feet orange.
Length twenty-two inches. _Female_ smaller; head and crest
reddish brown; breast mottled with ash and white; upper plumage
and flanks deep ash-colour; speculum with one black bar; bill
and feet dull orange; irides brown. Eggs whitish ash.

This large and handsome bird is not uncommon in the estuaries and
rivers of Great Britain, but is most frequent in the north. It is
resident in Scotland and Ireland. The adult male is less frequently
seen than females and young males, which closely resemble one another
in size and plumage, both being inferior to the first in brilliancy of
colouring. Their food consists of fish, especially sand-eels, and,
when they find their way into fresh-water lakes and rivers, of eels
and trout, which they capture by diving, and retain with ease by the
help of their strong bills notched throughout like a saw.

In birds of the first year the tuft of feathers on the head is barely
perceptible, and there is but a slight tinge of red on the lower part
of the neck. Most of the Mergansers which resort to our shores during
winter visit us from high latitudes; but a few remain to breed in the
Scotch and Irish lakes, making their nests of dry herbage and moss
mixed with down from their own breasts.

The name Merganser, that is, 'Diving Goose', has reference to the size
of the bird and its habit of diving for its food. Its flight is strong
and rapid, but differs somewhat from that of the Ducks, the neck being
not stretched out to its full length, but slightly folded back. After
the young are hatched the male deserts the female and leaves her to
bring off her brood without assistance.


Crest, neck, scapulars, smaller wing-coverts, and all the under
parts white; cheeks and back of the head greenish black; two
crescent-shaped marks advancing from the shoulders on each side
to the breast black; tail ash coloured; bill and feet bluish
grey, the membranes black; irides brown. Length seventeen
inches. _Female_ smaller; head and cheeks reddish brown; under
parts white, clouded on the breast, flanks, and rump, with
ash-grey; upper plumage and tail greyish black; wings
variegated with black, white, and grey. Eggs whitish.

The birds of this genus, though placed among the Anatidæ, or Duck
tribe, are so strongly marked by the conformation of the bill that a
simple examination of the head alone will enable the student to
distinguish either of the species from the true Ducks already
described. On the coast of Norfolk the popular name 'Smee Duck'
includes several kinds of Ducks, and I presume the present species;
but the bill, in the form of an elongated and almost cylindrical cone,
with the edges of both mandibles furnished with saw-like teeth pointed
backwards, cannot fail to distinguish the genus _Mergus_.

The Smew, or Smee, properly so called, is a winter visitor with us,
more impatient of cold than the Duck-tribe generally, and consequently
frequenting the southern more than the northern parts of the island.
In open weather it resorts to our rivers and fresh-water lakes, where
it feeds on small fish and other aquatic animals, which it obtains by
diving. In severe frosts it either flies farther south or repairs to
tidal rivers and harbours. Though not a rare bird, it is sparingly
distributed. It is found on many of the continental rivers, even those
which are far distant from the sea, but is not often killed, as it is
shy of being approached, readily takes wing, flies swiftly, and as a
diver is most rapid and expert. It is, however, little sought after,
for, in spite of its relationship, its strong fishy flavour prevents
it from passing muster as a Duck. Of its nesting little or nothing is
known. In the north of Devon it is called, according to Montagu, 'Vare
Wigeon', from the supposed resemblance of its head to that of a 'vare'
or weasel. I have also heard it called the 'Weasel Duck' in Norfolk,
and on the south coast the 'Weasel-headed'.




Head, cheeks, neck, and upper part of the tail, bluish grey;
back and wing-coverts darker; a white crescent-shaped spot on
each side of the neck surrounded by scale-like feathers with
green and purple reflections; primaries grey towards the base,
white in the middle, and dusky towards the extremity, with the
outer web white; tail barred with black at the end; abdomen
whitish; bill orange, powdered with white at the base; iris
light yellow; feet blood-red; claws brown. Length sixteen and a
half inches. Eggs pure white.

Two hundred and fifty years ago the taste for keeping different sorts
of Pigeons was as strong as it is in the present day, and the popular
names of Runts, Croppers, Shakers, Carriers, Jacobins, Turbits,
Barbaries, Tumblers, Horsemen, Spots, etc., modern though they may
sound, were then applied to the very same varieties which are
described under these names in recent _Guides to the Poultry-yard_.
Many of these were of foreign origin, and were known at a remote
period in various eastern countries, so that there can be no doubt
that the custom of keeping tame Pigeons is of very ancient date.

The Pigeons in some of their habits approach the gallinaceous birds,
with which accordingly they are classed. They are furnished with long
and powerful wings, by help of which they can sustain a rapid and
continuous flight. They seek their food mostly on the ground, but do
not scratch with their feet, and are more given to bathe in water
than to flutter in a bath of dust, though in this habit also they not
unfrequently indulge. They are furnished, moreover, with a large crop,
in which the food supplied to their young is partially macerated and
reduced to a kind of pulp before the latter are fed. This process is
carried on more by the agency of the receiver than of the giver, as
the young birds, instead of opening their mouths and allowing the food
to be dropped in, help themselves by inserting their bills into the
sides of the old bird's mouth. Their mode of drinking differs from
that of the true gallinaceous birds; they do not take short sips,
lifting the head after every draught, but satisfy their thirst by one
continuous immersion of the whole bill. They build their nests of a
few sticks, and lay two white eggs.

Some of the foreign species are distinguished by their brilliant
plumage. Those inhabiting Britain are unmarked by gaudy tints, but
redeemed from plainness by the metallic glossy lustre of their neck

The Wood Dove, called also Wood Pigeon and Ring Dove, is the largest
British species, exceeding in dimensions most varieties of the
domestic Pigeon. The summer wanderer through a wood in almost any part
of the country can scarcely fail to have been disturbed in his
meditations by the sudden flapping of wings of some large bird, which,
without uttering any note, dashes through the foliage of a
neighbouring tree, and makes off with hurried flight for some distant
part of the wood. Seen through the openings of the trees, its
predominant tint is blue-grey, but a large patch of white is
distinctly perceptible on each wing. It might be mistaken for a hawk,
so rapidly does it cleave its way through the air; but birds of prey
are too wary to betray their movements by the sound of their wings;
they, too, rather launch into the air, than start with a violent
clapping of their pinions. A Jay might make a similar noise; but when
alarmed it always utters its harsh scream, and, if it comes in sight,
may at once be distinguished by the striking contrast of its white and
black feathers. The bird just disturbed can scarcely, then, be
anything but a Wood Dove, perhaps frightened from its nest, perhaps
attending on its mate, or it may have been simply digesting its last
meal, or waiting until sent forth by the cravings of hunger in quest
of a new one; for the bird, though exemplary as a spouse and parent,
has a large crop which is never allowed to remain long empty. The food
and habits of Wood Pigeons vary with the season. In spring and summer
they are most frequently seen alone or in pairs. They then feed
principally on the tender leaves of growing plants, and often commit
great ravage in fields of beans and peas. Spring-sown corn is attacked
by them both in the grain and the blade, and as soon as young turnips
have put forth their second pair of leaves, they, too, come in for
their share of devastation. As the season advances, they visit the
corn-fields, especially those in the vicinity of their native woods,
preferring, above all, those parts where the corn has been laid, and
where a neighbouring grove or thicket will afford them a ready retreat
if disturbed. They are very partial also to oily seeds of all kinds,
and it is said that since colza has been extensively grown in the
south of France, Wood Pigeons have become a scourge of agriculture,
and that consequently war is waged on them unsparingly. It has been
remarked also, that they have become much more abundant in Scotland in
consequence of 'the great increase in the cultivation of turnips and
clover, which afford them a constant supply of food during winter, and
the great increase of fir woods, which are their delight both for
roosting and rearing their young'. At the approach of autumn they
assemble in small flocks, and resort to oak and beech woods,
especially the last, where acorns and beech-mast, swallowed whole,
afford them an abundant and generous diet. They are now in great
demand for the table, but, being very cautious and shy, are difficult
of approach. A good many, however, are shot by men and boys, who
discover beforehand in what particular trees they roost, and, lying in
ambush to await their arrival, fire at them as they drop in small
parties. In winter, the small flocks unite and form large ones. So
large, indeed, are these sometimes in severe seasons, that it is fair
to suppose that their numbers are considerably augmented by subsidies
from colder climates, driven southwards perhaps by scarcity of food.
In districts abounding in oak and beech woods, they find abundance of
food during the greater part of the winter; but when this supply is
exhausted, or the ground is covered with snow, they repair once more
to the turnip-fields, and feed on the green leaves. Hunger, however,
does not rob them of their shyness, nor make them confiding; for let a
human figure appear in ever so large a field where a flock is feeding,
the alarm is at once caught and communicated to the whole party, who
lose no time in displaying the white bar on the wing, and are soon
beyond the reach of fowler and gun.

Among the first woodland sounds of spring and the last of autumn is
the note of the Ring Dove, often continued for a long time together,
always monotonous, but never wearisome. It is generally considered to
be tinged with melancholy, and on this account the bird itself is
supposed to have been named the Queest or Cushat

Deep toned
The Cushat plains; nor is her changeless plaint
Unmusical, when with the general quire
Of woodland harmony it softly blends.

Wordsworth celebrates it under a name generally given to the next

I heard a Stock Dove sing or say
His homely tale, this very day;
His voice was buried among trees,
Yet to be come at by the breeze.
It did not cease; but cooed and cooed,
And somewhat pensively he wooed;
He sang of love with quiet blending.
Slow to begin, and never ending;
Of sorrows, faith, and inward glee;
That was the song, the song for me.

And again, still more happily:

Over his own sweet voice the Stock Dove broods.

The note may be imitated by attempting to whistle, in a very deep
tone, the syllables 'cooe-coo-roo-o-o-o'; or still more closely by
clasping the hands together, so as to form a hollow, open only between
the second joints of the thumbs, and blowing the same words over the
orifice. With a little practise so close an imitation may be produced,
that a genuine cooer may be beguiled into giving an answer. I may add,
too, that with the same natural instrument and with a greater
expenditure of breath the hoot of the Owl may be imitated; with a
gentler effort and a quiver of the tongue the coo of the Turtle Dove
may be nearly approached.

The Wood Dove has never been considered to be the origin of the
domestic Pigeon, nor will it breed in captivity. There is no
difficulty, however, in rearing birds taken young from the nest; and
birds so brought up will alight with perfect confidence on the person
of their foster nurse, and feed from his hand or mouth. The nest of
the Wood Dove is an unsubstantial structure, composed of sticks so
loosely put together that the eggs or young birds are sometimes
visible from below. It is placed in a fork or among the branches of a
tree; a thick fir is preferred; but nests are to be met with in ivy
and thorn bushes either in a wood, coppice, or, more rarely, in a
hedgerow. The number of eggs is always two. The male bird assists in
the office of incubation.


Head, throat, wings, and lower parts, bluish grey; the lower
parts of the neck with metallic reflections, no white spots;
breast wine-red; a black spot on the two last secondaries and
some of the wing-coverts; primaries grey at the base, passing
into dusky; tail grey barred with black at the extremity, the
outer feather with a white spot on the outer web near the base;
irides reddish brown; bill yellow, red at the base; feet red;
claws dusky. Length twelve and a half inches. Eggs white.

The Stock Dove is by some persons supposed to be so called from its
having been believed at one time to be the origin of the domestic
Pigeon; but as it bore the name before the above question was mooted,
it is more reasonable to suppose that it derived its name from its
habit of nestling in the _stocks_ of trees, and not on the branches
like the Ring Dove, nor in caves like the Rock Dove. Ray and
Willughby, who treat the domestic Dove as a distinct species, gave it
the name of Oenas (from the Greek _oinos_, wine), and Vinago (from
the Latin _vinum_), from the purpled or wine-red hue of its breast and
wings. Temminck does not hesitate to identify the domestic Pigeon with
the Rock Dove, without even hinting the possibility of its having
derived its origin from the Stock Dove. Since, therefore, the two
birds have no marked resemblance, it may be reasonably supposed that
the relationship between them rests solely on the narrow foundation
that there exists a wild Pigeon, popularly called a Stock Dove, and
that the word 'stock' has among other meanings that of 'parentage' or

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 26 of 39)