C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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'origin'. Thus the name gave rise to a theory which, having a
plausible show, was hastily assumed, and was then employed to prove a
fact which will not bear the test of examination. The Stock Dove in
its habits closely resembles the Ring Dove, from which it cannot
easily be distinguished at a distance. When tolerably near, a sharp
eye can detect the absence of the white patch on the wings and of the
ring round the neck. Its flight is more rapid, and it rarely perches
on a slender bough, preferring to alight on a main branch or stump.
Its note is softer, and approaches that of the tame Pigeon. But the
great mark of distinction is that on which I have supposed its name to
be founded; that it does not build its nest among the branches of
trees, but in the side of a stump, or other locality, where no one
would even think of looking for a Ring Dove's nest. Yarrell states
that 'in the open counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, this species
frequently makes its nest in holes in the ground, generally selecting
a rabbit's burrow'. It has greatly increased in the south of England
of late, and it nests along the Moray and Dornock Firths. White, who
had never seen its nest, says that it used to be abundant at Selborne
'from November to February'. Yarrell saw two old birds exposed for
sale with Ring Doves, in London, on January 4. It resorts in spring to
the neighbourhood in which it was bred, as a convenient place for
rearing its own young, and at the end of summer repairs to woods and
groves better adapted for supplying it with its favourite food, acorns
and beech-mast. There it flocks together with Ring Doves, vast numbers
of which assemble in winter in some districts, and when the fowler
plies his occupation, shares their fate. It is, however, by no means
so common a bird as the Ring Dove at any season, nor is it so
generally distributed. In the North it is certainly only a summer
visitor; and, on the other hand, it is most abundant in the south of
Europe and in Africa during winter.


Turtle Dove [M] [F]

Stock Dove [F] Rock Dove [M]

Wood Pigeon [M]

[_face p. 208_]]


Red-legged Partridge [F]

Grouse [M]

Partridge [M]

Black Grouse [M] [F]]


Plumage bluish ash, lighter on the wings; rump white; neck and
breast lustrous with green and purple reflections, without a
white spot; two transverse black bands on the wings; primaries
and tail tipped with black; rump white; outer tail-feather
white on the outer web; irides pale orange; bill black; feet
red. Length twelve and a half inches. Eggs white.

The Rock Dove, though a bird of extensive range, is less generally
known in its natural condition than either of the other British
species. As its name imports, its favourite place of resort is the
rocky coast; but this it frequents, not because it has any predilection
for the sea-shore and its productions, but that its instincts
teach it to make lofty rocks its stronghold, just as the natural
impulse of the Ring Dove is to find safety in the forests. If this
species is the original of all the numerous varieties of tame Pigeon,
it must inhabit most countries of the eastern hemisphere; for a
pigeon-fancier's dove-cot, to be complete, must contain several
sorts which were first brought from remote regions; and we know
that in Egypt, Phoenicia, and Persia, Pigeons had a mythological
importance at an early date. It is said that the Pigeons which
have established themselves in various public buildings of continental
cities, as Saint Mark at Venice, and Pont Neuf at Paris,
are exclusively Rock Pigeons; and I have seen it stated that they
frequent the towers of Canterbury Cathedral; but it is possible
that these may be in all cases derived from tame birds escaped
from domestication, and resuming, to a certain extent, their wild
habits and original plumage. That they resort to ruinous edifices
near the sea in retired districts is beyond question, as I have seen
them flying about and alighting on the walls of an old castle in the
island of Kerrera, near Oban, in the Western Highlands, indifferent,
seemingly, whether they nestled in the lofty cliffs on the
mainland, where they are numerous, or on the equally secure ruins
of masonry in the opposite island. That they are truly wild here
there can be no doubt. Indeed, the precipitous shores of Scotland,
the Hebrides, and Orkneys, afford them exactly the kind
of retreat that suits their habits; and here among inaccessible
rocks they build their nests and on their return from their inland
marauding expeditions, pass their nights. Their attitudes, mode
of flight, progression when on the ground, note, and manner of
feeding, are the same as those of the common tame Pigeon; and,
as might be expected, both wild and tame birds agree in declining
to perch on trees.

Macgillivray, who had opportunities of watching them in their native
haunts at all seasons, informs us that they leave their caves in the
crags at early dawn, and, proceeding along the shore, unite with other
parties on their way till they reach the cultivated grounds, where
they settle in large flocks, diligently seeking for grains of barley
and oats, seeds of wild mustard and other weeds, picking up also the
small snails[38] which abound in sandy pastures near the sea. In
summer they make frequent short visits of this kind, returning at
intervals to feed their young. In winter they form much larger flocks,
and, making the best use of their short day, feed more intently, thus
holding out a temptation to the fowler, who, if sufficiently wary, can
sometimes approach near enough to kill a large number at a shot. They
are supposed to pair for life; and this, I believe, is generally the
case with tame Pigeons. They lay two eggs, and sit for three weeks.
The male and the female sit, alternately relieving each other. They
breed twice a year, but the number of eggs never exceeds two. Hence
the old Scottish saying, 'a doo's cleckin', for a family of only two
children - a boy and a girl. They may be distinguished from the other
common species while flying, by showing a large patch of white between
the back and the tail.

[38] _Helix ericetorum_, a flattish, striped shell; and
_Bulimus acutus_, an oblong, conical shell, mottled with
grey and black.


Head and nape ash, tinged with wine-red; a space on the sides
of the neck composed of black feathers tipped with white; neck
and breast pale wine-red; back ash-brown; primaries dusky;
secondaries bluish ash; scapulars and wing-coverts rust-red
with a black spot in the centre of each feather; abdomen and
lower tail-coverts white; tail dusky, all but the two middle
feathers tipped with white, the outer feather edged with white
externally; irides yellowish red; feet red; bill brown. Eggs

Nearly three thousand years ago the Turtle Dove had the distinction of
being enumerated among the pleasant things of spring: 'Lo, the winter
Is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the Turtle
is heard in our land.'[39] Less sweetly, but to the same effect, sings
a poet of the last century:

The cuckoo calls aloud his wand'ring love.
The Turtle's moan is heard in ev'ry grove;
The pastures change, the warbling linnets sing.
Prepare to welcome in the gaudy spring!

There is no melody in the song of the Turtle, as it consists of a
single note, a soft, sweet, agitated murmur, continued without pause
for a long time, called a 'moan'[40] both by Latin and English poets,
not from its being suggestive of pain, but because there is no other
word which describes it so nearly. I have already had occasion to
remark how unsatisfactory are most of the attempts which have been
made to represent the songs of birds by combinations of letters, but
the Latin name of the Turtle-dove, _Turtur_, is a notable exception.
Pronounced 'tur-r-r tur-r-r', it will instantly recall the note to any
one who has once heard it. The French name also, _Tourterelle_, can
belong to this bird alone.

The Turtle Dove is found in all the southern countries of Europe, in
Palestine, and many other parts of Asia, including the islands south
of China. In England it is a visitor in the southern and midland
counties only, arriving in spring and remaining with us until the end
of September. Its favourite places of resort are groves, belts of
trees, and tall hedgerows in cultivated districts. Here it builds its
unsubstantial nest of a few sticks, and lays two eggs. Its food
consists of seeds of various kinds, and it has the discredit of
resorting to fields of green wheat for the sake of feeding on the
milky grain. I am doubtful whether this charge can be sustained. Often
enough when walking through a cornfield one may see two or three
Turtle Doves rise suddenly from the thick corn with a rustle and low
cry of alarm, rapidly dart away in the direction of the nearest grove,
disappearing in the shade, all but a white segment of a circle, formed
by the tips of their tail-feathers; but on examining the spot from
which they rose, I have been unable to detect any ears of corn rifled
of their contents, though the ground was thickly matted with weeds,
which might have furnished them food. I am informed by a young friend
that he has often shot them while in the act of rising from such
situations and has invariably found their crops distended with the
green seed-vessels of a weed common in corn-fields, the corn-spurrey
(_Spérgula arvensis_). This being the case, the Turtle Dove is more a
friend than an enemy to the farmer, even if it sometimes regales on
ripe grain or interferes with the occupation of the gleaner. It is
also very partial to vetches. I have met with an instance where a
Turtle Dove paid daily visits to one particular spot, under a hedge in
a field, and though fired at by the owner of the field many times,
under the idea that it was a rare bird, it soon returned; and when at
last shot, its crop was found to be full of vetch seeds which had been
accidentally spilled from a bag.

The Turtle Dove is smaller than any of the other British Doves. When
flying, it seems scarcely larger than a Missel Thrush; but it is more
slender in shape, and its wings are much longer. It beats its wings,
too, more rapidly, and moves through the air with greater velocity.
The tints of its plumage are more varied than in the other British
species, but far inferior in brilliancy to many foreign ones.

The Turtle Dove so frequently kept in a cage is the Collared Turtle
Dove (_Columba risoria_), a native of India and China. This species is
distinguished by a black crescent on the back of the neck, the horns
of which nearly meet in front. Turtle Doves are much kept in Germany,
owing to a strange popular superstition that they are more predisposed
than the human species to nervous disorders and rheumatism, and that
when any of these complaints visit a house, they fall on the birds
rather than on their owners.

[39] Cant. ii. 11, 12.

[40] 'Nec gemere aëria cessabit Turtur ab ulmo.' - VIRGIL.
Nor shall from lofty elm the Turtle cease to moan.




Legs and toes feathered to the claws; no hind toe. Length
sixteen to twenty inches.

This species was not known with us till 1859. Great flights visited
this country in 1863, in 1888, and in 1889 when a few pair bred




Feathers of the throat elongated, black; head and neck dusky;
eyes with a bare red skin above and a white spot below; wings
brown speckled with black; breast lustrous green; abdomen black
with white spots; rump and flanks marked with undulating lines
of black and ash colour; tail black with white spots; beak horn
white; eyebrows naked, red, beneath the eye a white spot.
Length thirty-six inches. _Female_ - a third smaller, barred and
spotted with tawny red, black, and white; throat tawny red,
unspotted; breast deep red; tail dark red with black bars,
white at the tip; bill dusky. Eggs dull yellowish white
speckled with yellowish brown.

The Capercaillie, Wood Grouse, or Cock of the Woods, was a rare bird
in Scotland in Pennant's time (1769), and was found only in the
Highlands north of Inverness. It became extinct in the eighteenth
century, but was re-introduced in 1837 in Scotland, and it is now
common in firwoods there, especially in Perthshire. In the pine
forests of Sweden and Norway it is still indigenous, but, being a
large and beautiful bird, is much sought after, and is annually
receding from the haunts of men. It is also found in some of the
central countries of Europe, as Poland and the Jura mountains, where
it is said to be rather common. It is not only an inhabitant of woods,
but passes its time for the most part in trees, and feeds in great
measure on the young shoots of the Scotch fir. In summer it adds to
its dietary berries, seeds, and insects, for which it searches among
bushes or on the ground, returning to the woods to roost. The male
bird has obtained great celebrity for his marvellous performances when
serenading the hens during the morning and evening twilight in spring.
"During his play, the neck of the Capercaillie is stretched out, his
tail is raised and spread like a fan, his wings droop, his feathers
are ruffled up, and, in short, he much resembles in appearance an
angry Turkey Cock. He begins his play with a call something resembling
the words _peller_, _peller_, _peller_; these sounds he repeats at
first at some little intervals, but, as he proceeds, they increase in
rapidity, until, at last, and after perhaps the lapse of a moment or
so, he makes a sort of gulp in his throat, and finishes by drawing in
his breath. During the continuance of this latter process, which only
lasts a few seconds, the head of the Capercaillie is thrown up, his
eyes are partially closed, and his whole appearance would denote that
he is worked up into an agony of passion." This performance, however
attractive it may De to those for whose benefit it is intended,
exercises a fascination over himself which is often dangerous; for the
sportsman, well acquainted with the sound, is thus guided to his
perch, and, shy though the bird is at other times, is able to get near
him unperceived or unheeded, and summarily closes his performances.
The Capercaillie hen makes her nest upon the ground, and lays from six
to twelve eggs. She is said to sit for four weeks. The young keep with
her until towards the approach of winter. The size of the full-grown
bird varies considerably according to the latitude in which it is
found. In Lapland the male weighs about nine or ten pounds, but in the
southern provinces of Sweden as much as seventeen pounds. The hen
usually weighs from five to six pounds.


Throat-feathers not elongated; plumage black with violet
reflections; a broad white band on the wings; secondaries
tipped with white; lower tail-coverts white; tail much forked,
the outer feathers curved outwards. Eyebrows naked, vermilion;
beneath the eye a white spot. Length twenty-three inches.
_Female_ - smaller; head and neck rust-red barred with black;
rump and tail-feathers black barred with red; belly dusky brown
with red and whitish bars; tail slightly forked. Eggs dull
yellow spotted and speckled with reddish brown.

The Black Grouse is a native of the northern countries of Europe and
of the mountainous districts of the central part of the Continent. In
the south it is unknown. Of a hardier nature than the Pheasant, and
less fastidious in its dietary, it braves the most inclement seasons,
and is never stinted in its supply of food. Moreover, as it rarely
wanders far from its heath-clad home, it would probably, if it enjoyed
the privilege of insignificance, be abundant in all the extensive
waste lands of Britain. But its large size, the excellent flavour of
its flesh, and the excitement of the sport which it affords all tend
to keep down its numbers, so that a moor well stocked with Black
Grouse is a possession not to be thought lightly of by the highest and
wealthiest. The male bird is, in sporting phraseology, a Black Cock,
the female a Grey Hen; and it is the etiquette of the field to shoot
Cocks only, the Hens being left for breeding. The Black Cock
resembles, in one of its most striking peculiarities, its near
relative, the Capercaillie. 'During the spring', says Mr. St. John,
'and also in the autumn, about the time the first hoar frosts are
felt, I have often watched the Black Cocks in the early morning when
they collect on some rock or height, and strut and crow with their
curious note, not unlike that of a Wood Pigeon. On these occasions
they often have most desperate battles. I have seen five or six Black
Cocks all fighting at once; and so violent and eager were they, that I
approached within a few yards before they rose. Usually there seems to
be a master-bird in these assemblages, who takes up his position on
the most elevated spot, crowing and strutting round and round with
spread-out tail like a Turkey Cock, and his wings trailing on the
ground. The hens remain quietly near him, whilst the smaller or
younger male birds keep at a respectful distance, neither daring to
crow, except in a subdued kind of voice, nor to approach. If they
attempt the latter, the master-bird dashes at the intruder, and often
a short _melée_ ensues, several others joining in it, but they soon
return to their former respectful distance. I have also seen an old
Black Cock crowing on a birch-tree with a dozen hens below it, and the
younger Cocks looking on with fear and admiration. It is at these
times that numbers fall to the share of the poacher, who knows that
the birds resort to the same spot every morning.'

The food of these birds is abundant in quantity, and though simple,
yet partakes of an extensive assortment of flavours. Twigs of the
fine-leaved heath (_Erica cinerea_), and heather (_Calluna_); buds of
the willow and birch; the tender shoots of cotton-grass, sedge, and
grass; and whortleberries, cranberries, and crowberries, are the
principal items of their bill of fare, varied according to the season.
In the months of February, March and April, they do much mischief to
plantations by destroying the tender shoots of Scotch and Silver Fir.
'In searching for food, the Black Grouse frequents the lower grounds
of the less-cultivated districts, not generally removing far from the
shelter of woods or thickets, to which it betakes itself as occasion
requires. It sometimes makes an excursion into the stubble-fields in
search of the seeds of cereal plants, and in summer and autumn
includes those of the grasses and rushes. While thus employed, it
walks and runs among the herbage with considerable agility, and, when
apprehensive of danger, flies off to a sheltered place, or settles
down and remains motionless until the intruder passes by. It perches
adroitly, and walks securely on the branches; but its ordinary station
is on the ground, where also it reposes at night. It may often,
especially in spring, be seen on the turf-top of the low walls
inclosing plantations. Its flight is heavy, direct, and of moderate
velocity, and is capable of being protracted to a great distance.'[41]

The Grey Hen constructs a rude nest of withered grass and a few twigs
in the shelter of some low bush, and lays from five to ten eggs. The
male bird takes no part in the bringing up of the brood, but leaves
the duties of incubation and attention to the wants of his family to
the hen, who devotes herself wholly to the careful nurture of her
little ones. While the poults are in their nonage, she assiduously
leads them about where food is most abundant; and if surprised by an
intruder, leaves them to hide among the heath and ferns, creeps
rapidly herself to some distance, and then rises in a fluttering
manner, so that a stranger to her habits would suppose her to be
wounded. By August 20, the young are supposed to be fully fledged, and
the sportsman is expected not only to show his skill as a marksman,
but his quickness of eye in discriminating between males and females
as the covey rises. The former are to be distinguished by their richer
colouring, and by the more strongly marked white on the wings. At this
season the old Black Cocks club together.

The Black Cock is found in greater or less quantities in the moorland
districts of many of the English counties, but is most abundant in the
north of England and Wales, and in Scotland.

[41] Macgillivray.


Plumage chestnut brown, marked on the back with black spots and
beneath with black lines; a fringe of small white feathers
round the eyes, and a white spot at the base of the lower
mandible; a crimson fringed band above the eyes; some of the
feathers of the abdomen tipped with white; tail of sixteen
feathers, the four middle ones chestnut with black bars, the
rest dusky; feet and toes covered thickly with grey hair-like
feathers. _Female_ - the red eye-lid less conspicuous; colours
not so dark and tinged with reddish yellow, the black spots and
lines more numerous. Length sixteen inches. Eggs reddish ash
colour, nearly covered with blotches and spots of deep

The diminution of the number of Pheasants in France, owing to a
relaxation of the efforts formerly made to protect them, and the
abundance of the same birds, in those parts of England where unceasing
care is taken of them in severe or protracted winters, tend to prove
the great difficulty of preserving a foreign bird in a country which
is not in every respect adapted to its habits and constitution. On the
other hand, the undiminished abundance of Red Grouse in Great Britain,
in spite of the absence of all artificial protection, and
notwithstanding the vast quantity which annually fall a prey to
vermin, poachers, and sportsmen, proves as satisfactorily that where a
bird has become abundant, in a country in all respects suited to its
constitution and producing an inexhaustible supply of its natural
food, it is impossible to extirpate it. If we ever had occasion to
adopt a bird as a national emblem, the choice might for one reason
fall on the Red Grouse. It is a native of the British Isles, and is
found in no other country. On the moors of Scotland, the hilly parts
of the north of England, the mountains of Wales, and the wastes of
Ireland, it is as wild and free as the Gull on the sea-cliff. It
frequents extensive heaths where man could not protect it if he would,
and finds no stint of food where few living things can exist but
insects and some of the larger rapacious animals which make it their
special prey. Eagles, Falcons, Buzzards, Crows, Foxes, Martins, and
Polecats, all wage against it incessant war; it is wholly without
armour, offensive or defensive; yet its numbers are undiminished. And
we may confidently say that, as long as there are large tracts of land
in Great Britain unreclaimed, there will be Grouse.

Red Grouse must, occasionally, fall in the way of the wanderer over
the Scottish moors, whatever may be the object of his rambles; but a
sportsman alone is privileged to make the bird his study at all
seasons. My sketch, therefore, of the Grouse is to be considered as
taken, not from the limited observation which I have been enabled to
make, when I have chanced to start a bird on the hills of Westmoreland
or the Highlands, but to be compiled from the notes of others who have
had more ample means of observing its habits.

"The Brown Ptarmigan, generally known by the name of Red Grouse, as
compared with the Black Grouse, is met with in Scotland on all kinds
of surface, provided it be covered with heath, whether _Calluna
vulgaris_ (Ling) or _Erica cinerea_ (Common Purple Heath), from the
level of the sea to the height of about two thousand feet. The low
sandy heaths of the eastern counties of the middle division appear to
be less favourable to it than the more moist peaty tracts of the
western and northern districts, where the shrubs on which it feeds
attain a great size."

Its food appears to be much the same as that of the Black Grouse, to

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 27 of 39)