C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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body, keeping a horizontal, nearly straight line: in turns each bird
ceases to beat its wings and sails on for a few yards with extended
pinions; the impetus exhausted which carried it through this movement,
it plies its wings again, and if it have so long escaped the fowler,
may, by this time, consider itself out of danger, for its flight,
though laboured, is tolerably rapid.

The call of the Partridge is mostly uttered in the evening, as soon as
the beetles begin to buzz. The birds are now proceeding to roost,
which they always do in the open field, the covey forming a circle
with their heads outwards, to be on the watch against their enemies,
of whom they have many. They feed for the most part in the morning
and middle of the day, and vary in size according to the abundance of
their favourite food. In some districts of France, it is said, the
weight of the Partridges found on an estate is considered as a fair
standard test of the productiveness of the soil and of the state of
agricultural skill.

Most people are familiar with the distich:

If the Partridge had the Woodcock's thigh,
It would be the best bird that e'er did flie;

but every one does not know that the saying was in vogue among
epicures in the reign of Charles II.


Throat and cheeks white, surrounded by a black band, which
spreads itself out over the breast and sides of the neck in the
form of numerous spots and lines, with which are intermixed a
few white spots; upper plumage reddish ash; on the flanks a
number of crescent-shaped spots, the convexity towards the tail
rust-red, the centre black, bordered by white; beak, orbits,
and feet, bright red. Length thirteen and a half inches. Eggs
dull yellow, spotted and speckled with reddish brown and ash

The Red-legged Partridge, called also the French and Guernsey
Partridge, is a stronger and more robust bird than the common species,
which it also greatly surpasses in brilliancy of colouring. As some of
its names indicate, it is not an indigenous bird, but a native of the
south of Europe, whence it was first introduced into England in the
reign of Charles II. To Willughby, who lived at that period, it was
unknown except as a native of the continent of Europe and the islands
of Guernsey and Jersey. Towards the close of the last century it was
re-introduced into Suffolk, where it has become numerous; so much so,
indeed, in some places, as to have gained the better of the common
species for a time.

Its flight is rapid, but heavier and more noisy than that of the
Common Partridge. It is less patient of cold, and less able to elude
the attacks of birds of prey. It is quite a terrestrial bird, very
slow in taking flight, and never perching except when hard pressed,
when, on rare occasions, it takes refuge among the thick branches of
an oak or pinaster; here it considers itself safe, and watches the
movements of the dogs with apparent unconcern. Sometimes, too, when
closely hunted, it takes shelter in a rabbit's burrow or the hole of a
tree; but under ordinary circumstances it runs rapidly before the
dogs, and frequently disappoints the sportsman by rising out of shot.
The Grey or Common Partridge frequents rich cultivated lands; the Red
Partridge prefers uncultivated plains, 'which summer converts into
burning causeways, winter into pools of water - monotonous _landes_,
where skeletons of sheep pasture without variation on heath and the
dwarf prickly genista. It delights, too, in bushy ravines, or the
steep sides of rocky hills covered with holly, thorns, and brambles;
and when it resorts to vineyards, it selects those situated on the
sides of steep slopes, where marigolds and coltsfoot are the principal
weeds, rabbits and vipers the most abundant animals.'[43] Red
Partridges are consequently most numerous in the least cultivated
districts of France, especially those between the Cher and the Loire,
and between the Loire and the Seine. Towards the east they do not
extend beyond the hills of Epernay, and do not cross the valley of the
Meuse. The flesh of the Red Partridge is considered inferior to that
of the Grey, and the bird itself is less esteemed by sportsmen as an
object of pursuit. In England it seems to retain its natural taste of
preferring bushy heaths to inclosed land. In the mode of incubation
and rearing the young the two species are much alike.

[43] Toussenel.


'This species', says a French naturalist, 'is probably the most
productive of all winged creatures; and it could not well be
otherwise, or it would be unable to withstand the war of extermination
declared against it by human beings and birds of prey. One may get an
idea of the prodigious number of victims which the simple crossing of
the Mediterranean costs the species by two well-known and often quoted
facts. The Bishop of Capri, a wretched islet scarcely a league in
length, which lies at the entrance of the Bay of Naples, used to clear
a net revenue of 25,000 francs a year (£1,000) by his Quails. This sum
represents 160,000 Quails at the lowest computation. In certain
islands of the Archipelago, and parts of the coast of the Peloponnese,
the inhabitants, men and women, have no other occupation during two
months of the year than that of collecting the Quails which are
showered on them from heaven, picking and cleaning them, _salting
them_ ('they spread them all abroad for themselves') and packing them
away in casks for transportation to the principal markets of the
Levant; that is to say, the migration of Quails is to this part of
Greece what the migration of herrings is to Holland and Scotland. The
Quail-catchers arrive at the shore a fortnight in advance, and every
man numbers his ground to avoid disputes. The Quail arrives in France
from Africa early in May, and takes its departure towards the end of

Another French author says, 'Like Rails, Woodcocks, Snipes, and many
of the waders, the Quail, when it travels towards the sea-shore, flies
only in the night. It leaves the lands, where it has passed the day,
about the dusk of the evening, and settles again with the dawn of the
morning.' Not unfrequently, while performing their transit, they
become weary, and alight on vessels, or fall into the sea, and are
drowned. 'Being at a small town on the coast, in the month of May',
says M. Pellicot, 'I saw some boats come in with ten or a dozen
sharks. They were all opened before me, and there was not one which
had not from eight to twelve Quails in its body.' 'Enormous flights
are annually observed at the spring and fall, after crossing an
immense surface of sea, to take a brief repose in the islands of
Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, in the kingdom of Naples, and about
Constantinople, where, on these occasions, there is a general shooting
match, which lasts two or three days. This occurs always in the
autumn. The birds, starting from the Crimea about seven at night, and
with a northerly wind, before dawn accomplish a passage of above sixty
leagues in breadth, and alight on the southern shore to feed and
repose. In the vernal season the direction of the flight is reversed,
and they arrive in similar condition on the Russian coast. The same
phenomena occur in Malta, etc.'[44]

On its arrival, the Quail betakes itself to open plains and rich
grassy meadows, especially where the soil is calcareous, and avoids
woody countries. During the early part of summer it frequents
corn-fields, saintfoin, and lucern. In September it is found in
stubble and clover fields, and among the weeds growing in dry ponds,
or it finds shelter in any crops which may yet remain standing. In
warm countries it resorts to vineyards, attracted, it is said, not so
much by the grapes as by the numerous small snails with which the
vines are then infested; for the crops of the late birds are generally
found filled with these molluscs. In locomotion it makes more use of
its feet than its wings, and when put up is never induced to perch on
a tree. Its flight resembles in character that of the Partridge, but
it rarely flies far, and when it alights makes awkward attempts to
conceal itself, but often fails, and may sometimes be captured with
the hand. In June or July, the female lays from eight to fourteen eggs
in a hole in the ground, and brings up her young without the
assistance of the male. Towards the end of August the old birds
migrate southwards, and are followed by the young. Before the end of
October all have disappeared, though instances have occurred of their
being shot during winter, especially in seasons when the harvest has
been a late one.

The flesh of the Quail is considered a great delicacy, and many
thousands are caught, imported to the London markets, for the table.
They are placed in low flat cages, scarcely exceeding in height the
stature of the bird, for the reason that in confinement, the birds, in
their effort to escape, would beat themselves against the upper bars,
and destroy themselves. These are said to be all old males.

Quails inhabit the eastern continent, from China - where they are said
to be carried about in winter by the natives, to keep their hands
warm - to the British Isles. With us they are nowhere plentiful, but
are occasionally shot by sportsmen in most parts of the country. In
corn-fields, on the shores of Belfast Lough, in the north of Ireland,
they are of frequent occurrence.

In Palestine the Quails still come up in the night, as of old, and
"cover the land."

[44] Colonel C. H. Smith.




Upper feathers dusky brown bordered with reddish ash; over the
eye and down the side of the head, a streak of ash;
wing-coverts rust-red; quills reddish brown; throat, belly, and
abdomen, whitish; breast pale yellowish brown; flanks barred
with white and rust-red; upper mandible brown, lower whitish;
irides brown; feet reddish brown. Length ten inches. Eggs
yellowish brown spotted and speckled with grey and reddish

Few persons can have spent the summer months in the country, and
enjoyed their evenings in the open air, without having grown familiar
with the note of the Corn Crake; yet, strange to say, among those who
have heard it on numberless occasions, not one in a hundred (leaving
sportsmen out of the account) have ever seen one alive. Its whole
life, while with us, seems to be spent among the long grass and stalks
of hay or corn, between which its long legs and slender body give it
peculiar facility of moving, and it is only when hard pressed that it
rises from the ground. Its flight is low, with its legs hanging down;
and it usually drops into the nearest hedge or cover which presents
itself, and from which it is not easily flushed a second time.

The Corn Crake used to be found, during summer, in all the counties of
England, but is less frequent in Cornwall and Devonshire than in the
counties farther east, and increases in abundance as we advance
northwards. In the north of Ireland it is to be heard in every meadow
and cornfield, and here its incessant cry in the evenings is
monotonous, if not wearisome; in many parts of Scotland it is also
very common, and here it is much more frequently seen. In waste lands,
where it can find no continuous corn, it takes refuge in patches of
flags, rushes, or tall weeds, and if watched for, may be seen leaving
its place of concealment, and quietly walking along the grass,
lifting its feet high, and stooping from time to time to pick up its
food, consisting of worms, insects, snails, and seeds.

The Land Rail is considered a delicate article of food, and has long
been prized as such. In France it used to be termed, in old sporting
phraseology, 'King of the Quails', the Quail being a bird which it
much resembles it colouring.

The Corn Crake places its nest, which is composed of a few straws, in
a hollow in the ground, among corn or hay, and lays from eight to
ten, or rarely, twelve eggs. The young birds are able to accompany
their parents in their mazy travels as soon as they have left the
shell. The note of the old bird is heard much later in the season than
the song of most other birds, and is probably employed as a call-note
to the young, which, but for some such guidance, would be very likely
to go astray. In the still evenings of August, I have, while standing
on the shore of the island of Islay, distinctly heard its monotonous
_crek-crek_ proceeding from a cornfield on the opposite shore of Jura,
the Sound of Islay which intervened being here upwards of half a mile
wide. On ordinary occasions it is not easy to decide on the position
and distance of the bird while uttering its note; for the Corn Crake
is a ventriloquist of no mean proficiency.


Forehead, throat, and a streak over the eye, lead-grey; upper
plumage olive-brown, spotted with black and white; breast and
under plumage olive and ash, spotted with white, the flanks
barred with white and brown; bill greenish yellow, orange at
the base; irides brown; feet greenish yellow. Length nine
inches. Eggs yellowish red, spotted and speckled with brown and

The Spotted Crake is smaller in size than the Corn Crake, and far less
common. It is shot from time to time in various parts of Great
Britain, especially in the fen countries, to which its habits are best
suited. It frequents watery places which abound with reeds, flags, and
sedges, and among these it conceals itself, rarely using its wings,
but often wading over mud and weeds, and taking freely to the water,
in which it swims with facility. The nest, which is a large structure,
composed of rushes and reeds, is placed among thick vegetation, near
the water's edge, and contains from seven to ten eggs.

The drainage and improving of waste lands has driven this Crake away,
but its eggs have been found in Roscommon, and a nestling in Kerry.


Head brown; upper plumage olive-ash, the feathers black in the
centre; middle of the back black, sprinkled with white; throat,
face, and breast, bluish grey, without spots; abdomen and
flanks indistinctly barred with white and brown; wings without
spots, reaching to the extremity of the tail; bill green,
reddish at the base; irides red; feet green. Length seven and a
half inches. Eggs yellowish, spotted with olive-brown.

This species appears to be generally diffused throughout the eastern
and southern countries of Europe, but is very rare in England, coming
now and again from spring to autumn. It is a shy bird, like the last
species, confining itself exclusively to reedy marshes, and building
its nest close to the water's edge. It lays seven or eight eggs.


Upper feathers reddish brown, with black centres; under plumage
in front lead-colour, behind and on the flanks barred with
black and white; bill red, tinged with red above and at the
tip; irides red; feet flesh-colour. Length ten inches. Eggs
yellowish, spotted with ash-grey and red-brown.

The Water Rail is a generally diffused bird, but nowhere very common,
haunting bushy and reedy places near the banks of rivers and lakes,
and especially the Norfolk Broads, where it feeds on aquatic insects,
worms, and snails. Like the Crakes, it makes more use of its legs than
of its wings, and places its safety in concealment. Rarely does it
take flight, and then only when closely hunted; still more rarely does
it expose itself outside its aquatic jungle. I recollect on one
occasion, during an intense frost, when every marsh was as
impenetrable to a bird's bill as a sheet of marble, passing in a
carriage near a stream which, having just issued from its source, was
unfrozen; I then saw more than one Water Rail hunting for food among
the short rushes and grass on the water's edge. Its mode of walking I
thought was very like that of the Moor-hen, but it had not the jerking
movement of body characteristic of that bird, which alone would have
sufficed to distinguish it, even if I had not been near enough to
detect the difference of colour. Either the severity of the weather
had sharpened its appetite, and made it less shy than usual, or it had
not learnt to fear a horse and carriage, for it took no notice of the
intrusion on its privacy, but went on with its search without
condescending to look up. The Water Rail, then, unlike the Corn Crake,
remains with us all the winter. When forced to rise, this bird flies
heavily straight forwards, at no great elevation above the rushes,
with its legs hanging loose, and drops into the nearest thicket of
weeds. A nest and eggs of this bird are thus described in the _Annals
of Natural History_: 'The bird had selected for her nest a thick tuft
of long grass, hollow at the bottom, on the side of the reed pond; the
nest, about an inch and a half thick, was composed of withered leaves
and rushes; it was so covered by the top of the grass, that neither
bird, nest, nor eggs could be seen; the entrance to the nest was
through an aperture of the grass, directly into the reeds, opposite to
where any one would stand to see the nest.' The number of eggs is
about ten or eleven. Its note during breeding is a loud, groaning


Spotted Crake

Little Crake

Corn Crake or Land-Rail [M]

Water Rail [M]

[_face p. 230._]]


Spoonbill [M]

Moor Hen.

Coot [F]

Bittern [M]]


Upper plumage deep olive-brown; under tail-coverts and edge of
the wing white, the former with a few black feathers; under
plumage slate colour, the flanks streaked with white; base of
the bill and a space on the forehead bright orange, point of
the bill yellow; irides red; feet olive-brown; a red ring round
the tibia. In _females_ the colours are brighter than in the
_males_. _Young birds_ have the front of the neck whitish, the
belly grey, the base of the beak and legs olive-brown. Length
thirteen inches. Eggs buff, spotted and speckled with

Of the two common names of this bird, 'Moor-hen' and 'Water-hen', the
former is that which is more generally in use, though the latter is
the more appropriate. The bird frequents moors, it must be admitted,
but only such as are watery; while there is scarcely a river, lake,
canal, brook, or even pond, of moderate dimensions, which Moor-hens do
not either inhabit all the year round or occasionally visit. The name
is objectionable on other accounts; the male bird is called a Moor-hen
as well as the female, while the terms Moor-fowl and Moor-cock have
long been applied to the Ptarmigan. For these reasons, I suppose, many
recent ornithologists Anglicize the systematic name, and call it the
Gallinule, which means 'little fowl', and is suggestive of the
half-domestic habits of the bird, under certain circumstances.

The Gallinule being a common bird of some size, conspicuous colours,
and active habits, is an interesting appendage of our rivers and
pieces of artificial water. Its note, something between a bark and a
croak, is as well known in watered districts as the note of the
Cuckoo, and is often uttered when the bird has no intention of being
seen. Any one who may happen to be walking on the bank of a reedy pond
may perhaps hear its strange cry and see the bird itself at some
little distance, swimming about with a restless jerky motion, often
dipping its head, and with every dip turning slightly to the right or
the left. If he wishes for a nearer view, let him advance quietly,
concealing himself as much as he can; for if he proceeds carelessly,
and takes off his eyes for any considerable time from the spot where
he observed it, when he looks again it will have disappeared, taken
wing, he may imagine, for some distant part of the water. Not so; the
cunning bird, as soon as a stranger was perceived within a dangerous
proximity, steered quietly for the nearest tuft of reeds, among which
it lies ensconced till he has passed on his way. Or it rose out of the
water, and, with its feet trailing on the surface, made for a similar
place of concealment; or dived to the bottom, where it still remains
clinging to the weeds. Perhaps it lies close to his feet, having sunk
beneath the water, and, aided by feet and wings, rowed a subaqueous
course to an often-tried thicket of rushes, where, holding on with its
feet to the stems of submerged weeds, it remains perfectly still,
leaving nothing above the surface of the water but the point of its
beak. If the observer suspects the whereabouts of its concealment, he
may beat the rushes with his stick and produce no effect; the bird
knows itself to be safe where it is and will make no foolish attempt
to better itself. A water spaniel or Newfoundland dog will be more
effective. Very often an animal of this kind is an overmatch for its
sagacity, and seizes it in his mouth before the poor bird was aware
that the water itself was to be invaded; but more frequently it
discovers an onset of this nature in time to clear itself from its
moorings, and dashing out with a splashing movement of feet and wings
skims across the pond to another lurking-place, and defies further

The Gallinule, though an excellent swimmer and diver, belongs to the
Waders; it has, consequently, free use of its legs on land, and here
it is no less nimble than in the water. When induced to change the
scene it steps ashore, and, with a peculiar jerking motion of its
tail, showing the white feathers beneath, and very conspicuous by its
bright red bill, which harmonizes pleasantly with the green grass, it
struts about and picks up worms, insects, snails, or seeds, with
unflagging perseverance, making no stay anywhere, and often running
rapidly. If surprised on these occasions, it either makes for the
water, or flies off in a line for some thick hedge or patch of
brushwood, from which it is very difficult to dislodge it.

Its mode of life is pretty much the same all the year round; it is not
a traveller from choice. Only in severe weather, when its haunts are
bound up with ice, it is perforce compelled to shift its quarters. It
then travels by night and searches for unfrozen streams. At such times
it appears occasionally in pretty large numbers in places where
usually a few only resort. When the south of Europe is visited by
severe frosts it is supposed even to cross the Mediterranean, it
having been observed in Algeria, feeding in marshes in half-social
parties, where a day or two before none had been seen. To the
faculties of swimming and running it adds that of perching on trees;
this it does habitually, as it roosts in low bushy trees; and it has
besides the power of walking cleverly along the branches.

In the neighbourhood of houses where it has long been undisturbed, it
loses much of its shy nature, and will not only allow itself to be
approached within a short distance, but, becoming half-domesticated,
will consort with the poultry in the farmyard, and come with them to
be fed. It is fond also of visiting the kitchen-garden, where it is
apt to make itself unwelcome, by helping itself to the tenderest and
best of the vegetables. Bishop Stanley, in his entertaining _Book on
Birds_, gives some highly amusing anecdotes of the Gallinule.

It builds its nest on the stump of a tree, or in a bush among wet
places, or in the roots of alders, but often it is placed on the
low-lying branch of a tree overhanging the water. The nest is a large
structure, made of rushes and dry flags, and is easy of detection. It
is very liable, too, to be swept away by any sudden rise in a river.
Added to which, the young frequently fall a prey to pike. But as the
bird has two, and sometimes three, broods in a year, each consisting
of from six to eight, it remains undiminished in numbers. The nest is
sometimes placed in a tree at a distance from the water. When this is
the case, as the habits of the young birds are aquatic, immediately on
their breaking the egg, the old birds convey them in their claws to
the water. An instance is recorded in the _Zoologist_ of a female
Gallinule being seen thus employed carrying a young one in each foot;
it has been observed, too, that in such cases the male bird builds a
second nest, near the water's edge, to which the young retire for

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 29 of 39)