Copyright
C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

. (page 28 of 39)
Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 28 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


which it is similar in many of its habits; but it never perches on
trees. It has, moreover, a decided predilection for the national grain
of Scotland. Hence the cultivation of small tracts of land with oats
in the neighbourhood of moors where it abounds is an unprofitable
labour.

Its name, _Lagópus_ (Hare-footed), is equally appropriate as
descriptive of its thickly-clothed foot and its fleetness as a runner;
by some French ornithologists it is enumerated among _Velocipedes_,
for the latter reason. On ordinary occasions it does not fly much, but
keeps concealed among the heath, seldom choosing to rise unless its
enemy comes very near. Red Grouse pair early in the season, and build
their nests generally on the borders between heath and lea ground,
with a view to providing their young with an open nursery-ground, on
which to learn the use of their legs, as well as a safe retreat on the
approach of danger. The nest is loosely constructed of straws and
twigs which may chance to lie about near the selected spot. The number
of eggs is usually eight to ten; the hen sits very closely, allowing
the shepherd almost to trample on her before she springs. The period
of hatching is a perilous one for the chicks, for, as they break the
shell, they utter a small but shrill chirp - a certain signal to some
watchful Hooded Crow that a prey is at hand; he traces up the sound,
drives the mother from her nest, and destroys the whole brood.

Once fairly hatched, the danger decreases; the young birds, while
still quite small, show great readiness in concealing themselves. When
disturbed they separate in all directions, crouch on the ground,
squeeze between objects that seem to defy all passage, work their way
through the cover, or, if they fancy that an eye is fixed on them, lie
as motionless as stones. When so far grown as to be able to fly, they
still prefer the shelter afforded by the cover; but if hard pressed
the old cock usually rises first, with a cry which some compare to the
quack of a Duck. The hen and young birds show no hurry in following
his example, but take wing singly, and at unequal intervals - not like
Partridges, which always rise in a covey. This is the period when they
afford the easiest shot to the sportsman, who often puts them up
almost beneath his feet, or under the very nose of his dogs. Later in
the season a great change takes place, and this, it is said, whether
the birds have been much harassed or not. Become cautious and wild,
they no longer trust to concealment or swiftness of foot, but,
discovering from a great distance the approach of danger, they rise
most frequently out of shot, so that it requires skill and patience to
get near them. A slight and early snow sometimes makes it more easy to
approach them, at least for a few hours; but ordinarily, not even
extreme cold, or a covering of snow a foot thick, appears to tame them
at all. Under such circumstances, they collect in enormous 'packs',
and betake themselves to some particular part of the moor from which
the snow has been more or less drifted. These packs keep together
during winter, and at the beginning of spring separate and pair, not,
however, without some previous altercations; but these are soon over,
and they lose much of their shyness, venturing close to the roads, and
being little disturbed by the passage of the traveller.


THE PTARMIGAN
LAGÓPUS MÚTUS

_Winter plumage_ - pure white, a black line from the angle of
the beak through the eye; outer tail-feathers black; above the
eyes a scarlet fringed membrane; bill and claws black; tarsi
and toes thickly clothed with woolly feathers.
_Female_ - without the black line through the eyes. _Summer
plumage_ - wings, under tail-coverts, two middle tail-feathers,
and legs white; outer tail-feathers black, some of them tipped
with white; rest of plumage ash-brown, marked with black lines
and dusky spots. Length fifteen inches. Eggs reddish yellow,
spotted and speckled with deep reddish brown.

This beautiful bird is the Schneehuhn, 'Snow-chick', of the Germans,
the White Partridge of the Alps and Pyrenees, and the Gaelic
_Tarmachan_. Whilst most birds shrink from cold, the Ptarmigan, on the
contrary, seems to revel in it, and to fear nothing so much as the
beams of the sun. Not even when the valleys rejoice in the livery of
spring does it desert the snowy regions altogether, and, when the
mist-wreaths clear away, it avoids the rays of the sun by seeking the
shady sides of the mountains. Only when the northern regions or lofty
mountains are so thickly covered with snow as to threaten it with
starvation does it repair to districts where the cold is somewhat
mitigated, but never lower into the valleys than where it may quench
its thirst with snow. 'The male bird', says a field naturalist, 'has
been seen, during a snow-storm in Norway, to perch himself on a rock
which overtopped the rest, and to sit there for some time as if
enjoying the cold wind and sleet, which was drifting in his face; just
as one might have done on a sultry summer's day on the top of the
Wiltshire downs, when a cool air was stirring there.'[42] The same
writer observes: 'I have generally found the Ptarmigan concealed among
the grey, lichen-coloured rocks on the summits of the fjelds, and so
closely do they resemble these rocks in colour that I could scarcely
ever see them on the ground; and sometimes when the practised eye of
my guide found them, and he would point out the exact spot, it was not
until after a long scrutiny that I could distinguish the bird within a
dozen yards of me. Frequently we would find them on the snow itself,
and many a time has a large circular depression in the snow been
pointed out to me, where the Ptarmigan has been lying and pluming
himself in his chilly bed. He is a noble bird, free as air, and for
the most part uninterrupted in his wide domain; he can range over the
enormous tracts of fjeld, seldom roused by a human step, and still
more seldom hunted by man. When the winter clothes his dwelling in a
garb of snow, he arrays himself in the purest and most beautiful
white; when the summer sun melts away the snow, and the grey rocks
appear, he, too, puts on his coloured dress, and assimilates himself
once more to his beloved rocks. But the young Ptarmigans are my
especial favourites: I have caught them of all ages; some apparently
just emerged from the egg, others some weeks older; they are
remarkably pretty little birds, with their short black beaks and their
feathered toes; and so quickly do they run, and so nimble and active
are they in escaping from you, that they are soon beneath some
projecting stone, far beyond the reach of your arm, where you hear
them chirping and calling out in defiance and derision. The call of
the old Ptarmigan is singularly loud and hoarse; it is a prolonged
grating, harsh note, and may be heard at a great distance.' This has
been compared to the scream of the Missel Thrush; but Macgillivray
says it seems to him more like the croak of a frog.

Ptarmigans pair early in spring, and build their nest of grass, bents
and twigs in a slight hollow behind a stone or bush, and lay from
seven to twelve eggs. The young are able to run about as soon as they
are hatched, and, as we have seen, are most expert and nimble in
concealing themselves. The hen bird when surprised with her young
brood counterfeits lameness, and runs about in great anxiety, as if
wishing to draw attention from her chicks to herself. Their food
consists of the fresh green twigs of heath and other mountain plants,
seeds, and berries. While feeding they run about, and are shy in
taking flight even when they have acquired the use of their wings, but
crouch on the approach of danger, and remain motionless and silent.
When at length they do rise, they fly off in a loose party, and mostly
in a direct line, for a distant part of the mountain, the movement of
their wings resembling that of the Grouse, but being lighter in
character. Early in the season, a long time before Grouse, the coveys
of Ptarmigans unite and form large packs, and it is while thus
congregated that they perform their partial migrations from the high
grounds to what they consider a milder climate, the Norwegian valleys.
There, while the ground is covered thickly with snow, they, to a
certain extent, modify their habits, and perch on trees, sometimes in
such numbers that the branches seem to be altogether clothed in white.
It does not appear that any of these flocks make long journeys or
cross the sea. In Scotland they are no more numerous in winter than in
summer, nor have they been observed to take refuge in the woods. In
the comparatively mild temperature of Scotland there occurs no
lengthened period during which they cannot find their simple food
somewhere in the open country; they consequently do not leave the
moors, but only descend lower.

The Ptarmigan is neither so abundant nor so generally diffused in
Scotland as the Grouse. It is resident on high mountains. It is said
to have existed at one time in the north of England and in Wales; if
so, it has totally disappeared, nor is it known in Ireland.

[42] Rev. A. C. Smith, in the _Zoologist_, vol. viii. p. 2977.


[Illustration:

Great Bustard [M]

Pheasant [M]

Nightjar [M]

Capercaille [M]

[_face p. 220._]]


[Illustration:

Pratincole.

Quail.

Ptarmigan.

Three-toed Sand-grouse. [M] [F]]


FAMILY PHASIANIDÆ

THE PHEASANT
PHASIÁNUS COLCHICUS

Head and neck glossy, with metallic reflections of green, blue,
and purple; sides of the head bare, scarlet, minutely speckled
with black; general plumage spotted and banded with orange-red,
purple, brown, yellow, green, and black, either positive or
reflected; tail very long, of eighteen feathers, the middle
ones longest. _Female_ - light brown, marked with dusky; sides
of the head feathered; tail much shorter. Length three feet.
Eggs olive-brown.

This climate suits the Pheasant pretty well, and at most seasons of
the year it finds abundance of food; but in hard winters the supply
diminishes, or fails altogether; and were not food specially scattered
about for it in its haunts, it would either die off from being unable
to withstand cold and hunger together, or become so weak that it would
fall a prey to the smaller rapacious animals, who are not a match for
it when it is strong and active. A healthy cock Pheasant has been
known to beat off a cat; a sickly one would be unable to compete with
a Magpie or Jay. It is, in fact, an exotic running wild, and enabled
to do so only by the care of those who help it to surmount the
inconveniences of a life spent in a foreign land.

The Pheasant is said to have been brought originally from Colchis, a
country on the shores of the Black Sea, and to have derived its name
from the river Phasis, the famous scene of the expedition of the
Argonauts, bearing date about 1200 years before Christ. From this
epoch it is said to have been known to the Athenians, who endeavoured
to acclimatize it for the sake of its beauty as well as the delicacy
of its flesh. The Romans received it from the Greeks; but it was
little known, except by name, in Germany, France, and England, until
the Crusades. The custom was then introduced from Constantinople of
sending it to table decorated with its tail feathers and head, as a
dish for kings and emperors - a special honour until that time confined
to the Peacock. Willughby, in the seventeenth century, says of it
that, from its rarity, delicacy of flavour, and great tenderness, it
seems to have been created for the tables of the wealthy. He tells us,
too, that the flesh of Pheasants caught by hawking is of a higher
flavour, and yet more delicate than when they are taken by snares or
any other method.

The kings of France greatly encouraged the naturalization of the
Pheasants in the royal forests, both as an object of sport and as an
acquisition to the festive board, and were imitated by the nobles and
superior clergy. In the fourteenth century, all the royal forests, the
parks of Berry and the Loire, all the woods and vineyards of the rich
abbeys, were peopled with Pheasants. The male bird was protected by
the title of 'Royal game of the first class', and the killing of a hen
was forbidden under the severest penalties. During the period between
the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XVI its estimation increased. During
the revolution royal edicts were little heeded. Pheasants, no less
than their owners, forfeited their dignity, which, however, rose again
somewhat under the empire. Waterloo, and succeeding events, brought
desolation to the Pheasantries as well as to the deer-parks of France;
and now the royal bird, French authors tell us, is likely to disappear
from the country. Already, the space which it occupies is reduced to a
thirtieth part of the national territory. The centre of this
privileged province is Paris; its radius is not more than
five-and-twenty leagues, and is decreasing every year. Pheasants have
disappeared from the districts of the Garonne and Rhone, while in
Touraine and Berry a few only are to be found in walled parks.

If the Pheasant should ever, in this country, lose the protection of
the Game Laws, it will probably dwindle away in like manner. Under
existing circumstances, it offers an inducement to poaching too
tempting to be resisted. Gamekeepers engage in more affrays with
poachers of Pheasants than of all the other game birds taken
collectively; and if the offence of destroying them were made less
penal than it is at present, they would doubtless diminish rapidly.
Next to Wood Pigeons, they are said to be the most destructive of all
British birds; so that farmers would gladly do their utmost to
exterminate them; their large size and steady onward flight combine to
make them an 'easy shot' for the veriest tyro in gunnery, while the
estimation in which they are held for the table would always secure
for them a value in the market.

The places best adapted for Pheasants are thick woods in the
neighbourhood of water, where there is abundance of shelter on the
ground, in the shape of furze-bushes, brambles, tall weeds, rushes, or
tussock grass; for they pass their lives almost exclusively on the
ground, even roosting there, except in winter, when they fly up in the
evening, and perch on the lower boughs of middling-sized trees. In
April or May, the female bird scratches for herself a shallow hole in
the ground under the shelter of some bushes or long grass, and lays
from ten to fourteen eggs; but not unfrequently she allows might to
prevail over right, and appropriates both the nest and eggs belonging
to some evicted Partridge. The situation of the nests is generally
known to the keepers, and all that are considered safe are left to be
attended to by the owner. Such, however, as are exposed to the
depredations of vermin or poachers are more frequently taken, and the
eggs are placed under a domestic hen.

Pheasant chicks are able to run about and pick up their own food soon
after they have escaped from the egg. This consists of grain, seeds,
an enormous quantity of wireworms, small insects, especially ants and
their eggs, and green herbage. When full grown, they add to this diet
beans, peas, acorns, beech-mast, and the tuberous roots of several
wild plants. A strip of buck-wheat, of which they are very fond, is
sometimes sown for their special benefit along the skirt of a
plantation. In seasons of scarcity they will enter the farmyard, and
either quietly feed with the poultry, or, less frequently, do battle
with the cocks for the sovereignty. A story is told, in the
_Zoologist_, of a male Pheasant, which drove from their perch, and
killed in succession, three fine cocks. The proprietor, with a view to
prevent further loss, furnished a fourth cock with a pair of steel
spurs. Armed with these, the lawful occupant was more than a match for
the aggressor, who, next morning, was found lying dead on the ground
beneath the perch. Another has been known to beat off a cat; and a
third was in the habit of attacking a labouring man. The female is a
timid, unoffending bird, as peaceful in her demeanour as quiet in her
garb. The tints of her plumage, far less gaudy than in the male, are a
protection to her in the nesting season, as being less likely to
attract the notice either of poachers or vermin. Indeed, were she
always to lie close, her nest would not be easily discovered, for the
colour of her feathers so closely resembles that of withered leaves,
that she is, when sitting, less conspicuous than her uncovered eggs
would be.

Common Pheasants are occasionally found having a large portion, or
even the whole, of their plumage white. These, though highly
ornamental when mixed with the common sort, are not prized, owing to
their being a more conspicuous mark for poachers. The 'Ringed
Pheasant' occasionally shot in English preserves is not, as some
maintain, a distinct species; it differs from the typical form of the
bird only in that the neck is partially surrounded by a narrow white
collar passing from the back of the neck to the sides, but not meeting
in front.


THE COMMON PARTRIDGE.
PERDIX CINÉREA

Face, eyebrows, and throat, bright rust-red; behind the eye a
naked red skin; neck, breast, and flanks, ash colour with black
zigzag lines, and on the feathers of the flanks a large
rust-red spot; low on the breast a chestnut patch shaped like a
horseshoe; upper parts ash-brown with black spots and zigzag
lines; scapulars and wing-coverts darker; quills brown, barred
and spotted with yellowish red; tail of eighteen feathers, the
laterals bright rust-red; beak olive-brown; feet grey.
_Female_ - less red on the face; head spotted with white; upper
plumage darker, spotted with black; the horseshoe mark
indistinct or wanting. Length thirteen inches. Eggs uniform
olive-brown.

Very few, even of our common birds, are more generally known than the
Partridge. From the first of September to the first of February, in
large towns, every poulterer's shop is pretty sure to be decorated
with a goodly array of these birds; and there are few rural districts
in which a walk through the fields will fail to be enlivened by the
sudden rising and whirring away of a covey of Partridges, in autumn
and winter; of a pair in spring. At midsummer they are of less
frequent appearance, the female being too busily occupied, either in
incubation or the training of her family, to find time for flight; and
at this season, moreover, the uncut fields of hay, clover, and corn
afford facilities for the avoiding of danger, by concealment rather
than by flight. The habits of the Partridge, as of the Grouse, are
especially terrestrial. It never flies, like the Lark, for enjoyment;
and as it does not perch in trees it has no occasion for upward
flight. Still, there are occasions when Partridges rise to a
considerable distance from the ground, and this seems to be when they
meditate a longer flight than usual.

A friend, to whom I am indebted for many valuable notes on various
birds, tells me that when a covey of Partridges are disturbed by a
pack of hounds, they lie close at first, as if terrified by the noise
and bent on concealing themselves; but when the pack actually comes on
them they rise to a great height, and fly to a distance which may be
measured by miles - at least, so he supposes, as he has watched them
diminish and fade from the sight before they showed any sign of
preparing to alight.

The Partridge, though decorated with no brilliant colours, which would
tend to thwart it in its habit of concealing itself among vegetation
of the same general hue as itself, is a beautiful bird. Its gait is
graceful, its feet small and light, its head well raised; and its
plumage, though devoid of striking contrasts, is exquisitely
pencilled, each feather on the back and breast being veined like the
gauzy wings of a fly. The most conspicuous part of the plumage of the
male bird, the horseshoe on its breast, is invisible as it walks or
crouches, and the general tone approaches that of the soil.

Partridges pair early in the year; but the hen does not begin to lay
until May, nor to sit until towards the beginning of June. The nest is
merely a depression in the ground, into which a few straws or dead
leaves have been drawn. It is sometimes placed among brushwood under a
hedge, but more frequently in the border of a field of hay, clover, or
corn, or in the wide field itself. The mowing season, unfortunately,
is not noted in the calendar of Nature; so the mother-bird, who is a
close sitter, is not unfrequently destroyed by the scythe, or, at all
events, is driven away, and returns to find her eggs carried off to be
entrusted to the care of a domestic hen. In unusually wet seasons,
nests which have been fixed in low situations are flooded, and the
eggs being thus reduced to a low temperature become addle. When this
has taken place, the Partridge makes a second laying, and a late brood
is reared.

Notwithstanding this, however, Partridges are exceedingly prolific,
and are said to be increasing in numbers in proportion as new lands
are reclaimed from the waste, although the Red-legged Partridge has
lessened its numbers in some districts. It must certainly be admitted
that, in bad seasons, they are treated with a consideration that would
scarcely be shown towards them if they were simply destroyers of grain
and had nothing to recommend them as objects of sport or as delicacies
for the table. When abundant, they fall freely before the sportsman's
gun; but when the coveys are either small or few, they are treated
with forbearance, and enough are left to stock the preserves for the
ensuing year.

While the hen is sitting, the male bird remains somewhere in the
neighbourhood, and gives timely warning of the approach of danger;
when the eggs are hatched, he accompanies his mate, and shares in the
work of teaching the young to shift for themselves - a lesson which
they begin to learn at once. The food both of old and young birds is,
to a great extent, insects. The young are especially fond of ants and
their pupæ or larvæ. During the year 1860, in which there were no
broods of Partridges, I was much struck by the fact that
stubble-fields abounded, to an unusual degree, with ant-hills. In
ordinary seasons, these are found torn to pieces and levelled. This
year, scarcely one was touched; and even at the present time, the end
of October, winged ants are far more numerous than they usually are at
this time of the year. Besides insects, Partridges feed on the seeds
of weeds, green leaves, grain spilt in reaping, and on corn which has
been sown. This last charge is a serious one; yet, on the whole, it is
most probable that Partridges do far more good than harm on an estate,
the insects and weeds which they destroy more than making amends for
their consumption of seed-corn.

I might fill many pages with anecdotes of the devotion of Partridges
to their maternal duties - their assiduity in hatching their eggs,
their disregard of personal danger while thus employed, their loving
trickeries to divert the attention of enemies from their broods to
themselves, and even the actual removal of their eggs from a
suspectedly dangerous position to a place of safety; but with many of
these stories the reader must be already familiar if he has read any
of the works devoted to such subjects.

The number of eggs laid before incubation commences varies from ten to
fifteen, or more. Yarrell says, 'Twenty-eight eggs in one instance,
and thirty-three eggs in two other instances, are recorded as having
been found in one nest; but there is little doubt, in these cases,
that more than one bird had laid eggs in the same nest.' This may be;
but I find in a French author an instance in which no less than
forty-two eggs were laid by a Partridge in captivity, all of which,
being placed under a hen, would have produced chicks, but for the
occurrence of a thunder-storm accompanied by a deluge of rain which
flooded the nest, when the eggs, which all contained chicks, were on
the point of being hatched. The average number of birds in a covey is,
I believe, about twelve; quite enough to supply the sportsmen and to
account for the abundance of the bird.

The character of the Partridge's flight is familiar to most people.
Simultaneously with the startled cry of alarm from the cock comes a
loud whirr-r-r as of a spinning-wheel: away fly the whole party in a



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 28 of 39)