C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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[2] Stone-smatch in Yorkshire - from the Saxon, Steinschmätzer
in German.


Upper plumage dusky brown, edged with reddish yellow; over the
eye a broad white streak; throat and sides of the neck white;
neck and breast bright yellowish red; a large white spot on
the wings and base of the tail; extremity of the latter and
the whole of the two central feathers dusky brown; abdomen and
flanks yellowish white. _Female_ - yellowish white wherever the
_male_ is pure white; the white spot on the wings smaller; the
red parts dingy. Length five inches; breadth nine inches. Eggs
bluish green, often minutely speckled with light brownish red.

A great deal that we have said of the Stonechat, will apply equally to
the Whinchat, as the two birds much resemble each other in character,
size, and habits. There is this difference, however, between them,
that a considerable number of Stonechats remain in Britain during the
winter, whereas the Whinchats, almost to a bird, leave our shores in
the autumn. The latter is by no means so common, and is rarely seen
except in wild places where the shrub is abundant from which it
derives its name of Whinchat, or Furzechat. For a small bird to have
black legs is, it seems, considered in France an indication of
peculiar delicacy of flesh. Both of these birds, therefore,
notwithstanding their diminutive size, are much sought after for the
table. Both are of restless habits, delighting to perch on the summit
of a furze-bush, where they keep the tail in constant motion,
occasionally spring into the air after an insect, and then dart off
with a dipping flight to another post of advantage. They repeat the
call of ü-_tick_! and their short and simple song, both while at rest
and on the wing; but they are not musical, and 'their flesh is
generally more esteemed than their song.' The Whinchat may be
distinguished at a considerable distance by the white streak over the
eye. Both nest and eggs of the two species are very similar.


Head, throat, bill and legs, black; sides of the neck near the
wing, tertial wing-coverts and rump, white; breast bright
chestnut-red, shaded into yellowish white towards the tail;
feathers of the back, wings and tail, black, with reddish
brown edges. _Female_ - feathers of the head and upper parts
dusky brown, edged with yellowish red; throat black, with
small whitish and reddish spots; less white in the wings and
tail; the red of the breast dull. Length five and a quarter
inches; breadth eight and a half inches. Eggs pale blue, the
larger end often faintly speckled with reddish brown.

We can scarcely pass through a furze-brake during the spring and
summer months, without having the presence of the Stonechat almost
forced on our notice. I am acquainted with no small bird whose habits
are more marked, or more easily observed. Not even does the Skylark
build its nest more invariably on the ground, and 'soaring sings, and
singing soars', than does the Stonechat build its nest in a
furze-bush, and perch on the topmost twigs of shrubs. In the breeding
season, too, it seems not to wander far from its home: we know
therefore where a pair are to be found at any time; and they allow us
to approach so close to them, that we can readily distinguish them by
the tints of their plumage.

The nest of the pair may be within a few yards of the spot on which we
are standing; but the exact locality no one knows, nor is likely to
know but itself. The male is a beautiful creature, with a black head,
red breast, and several patches of pure white on its wings, the female
much more sober in her attire. Their purpose is evidently to distract
our attention from their nest. One is clinging to the top of a
Juniper, where he fidgets about uttering his _twit-click-click_, which
you can easily imitate by whistling once sharply and knocking two
stones together twice in rapid succession. The other is perched on the
top spine of a furze-bush - they are aspiring birds and must settle on
the _top_ of whatever they alight on, be it only a dock. Now one dips
down and is lost for a few seconds, to appear again, however, directly
on the summit of another bush; now they are on our right hand, now on
our left; now before us, and then behind. Are they describing a circle
round their nest for a centre, or are they trying to trick us into
the belief that they are better worth caring for than their young
ones, and may be caught if we will only be silly enough to chase them?
I do not know; but whatever their thoughts may be, _we_ certainly are
in them, and as certainly they are not delighted at our presence. We
walk on, and suddenly they are gone; but presently we encounter
another pair of the same birds, who if we loiter about will treat us
in exactly the same way, but, if we pass on steadily, will take little
notice of us.

We have little more to say of the Stonechat. It is not often heard to
sing; the reason probably being that, when listeners are in the way,
it is too anxious about its nest to be musical. Its food is
principally insects, which it often catches on the wing. In winter
(for they do not all leave us at this season) it feeds on worms, etc.
Its nest is remarkable more from its size and position (usually in the
centre of a furze-bush), than for neatness of structure. It lays five
eggs. Its name Rubícola denotes a dweller among brambles, and is by no
means inappropriate, as it rarely perches on any bush exceeding a
bramble in size. Its names Stonechat, Stoneclink or Stonechatter, are
evidently to be traced to the similarity between its note of alarm and
the striking together of two pebbles.


Forehead white; throat black; head and upper part of the back
bluish grey; breast, tail-coverts and tail (except the two
central feathers, which are brown), bright rust-red; second
primary equal to the sixth. _Female_ - upper parts grey, tinged
with red; larger wing-coverts edged with yellowish red; throat
and abdomen whitish; breast, flanks, and under tail-coverts,
pale red. Length, five inches and a quarter. Eggs uniform

Although of no great size this summer visitor is pretty sure to
attract attention by its peculiar colouring; its red tail and white
crown being sufficient to distinguish it from every other British
bird. It is familiar, too, in its habits, commonly resorting to
gardens, and searching for its favourite food, worms and insects, on
the lawn, and in orchards. It is local rather than rare, for while
there are some places to which it regularly resorts every year, there
are others in which it is never seen. Redstarts arrive in this country
about the end of April, and soon set about the work of building their
nest. This they generally place in a hole in a wall or hollow of a
tree, but sometimes by the mossy stump or amongst the exposed roots of
a tree. Occasionally they select a quaint domicile, a garden pot, for
example, left bottom upwards, or a sea-kale bed. A still stranger
instance is that of a pair of Redstarts, who, themselves or their
descendants, were for twenty years located in the box of a wooden
pump. On one occasion, the pump being out of order, the owner
employed workmen to repair it. This proceeding offended the birds, who
deserted it for three years, and then, forgetting or forgiving the
intrusion, returned to their unquiet home. Another pair constructed
their nest for ten successive years in the interior of an earthenware
fountain placed in the middle of a garden. But though not averse to
the haunts of men, the Redstart shows much anxiety when its nest is
approached, flitting about restlessly and uttering a plaintive cry. I
happened once to be walking in a friend's garden, and heard what I
supposed to be the chirping of two birds proceed from a large
apple-tree close by. As the notes were not familiar to me, I went
round the tree several times in order to discover whence they
proceeded. One of the notes was like the noise which may be made by
striking two pebbles together, the other a querulous chirp, and they
seemed to come from different parts of the tree. The author of the
music, however, allowed me several times to come very near him, and I
satisfied myself that both sounds proceeded from the same bird, a male
Redstart, whose nest, I afterwards heard, was built in an adjoining
shed. This singular power of ventriloquizing, or making its note
apparently proceed from a distant place, is possessed also by the
Nightingale, as any one may assure himself who will quietly creep up
to within a few yards of one of these birds when singing. The song of
the Redstart is short but pleasing, and it is emitted both while the
bird is at rest and on the wing, principally in the morning, and only
during two months of the year. Its food consists of small worms and
insects, which last it is very expert at catching on the wing; and in
summer, it regales itself on the soft fruits. Its nest is composed of
fibrous roots and moss, and is lined with hair, wool and feathers. It
lays about six eggs, which closely resemble those of the
Hedge-sparrow, only that they are smaller. In autumn, the Redstarts
retire southwards. On the African shores of the Mediterranean they are
very abundant, and are caught by the Arabs in traps of the simplest
construction. On the continent of Europe, notably in Italy, in spite
of their diminutive size, they are highly prized for food. The number
of Redstarts (both kinds), Redbreasts Fly-catchers and Nightingales
taken in traps is inconceivable. These birds being of about the same
size, and equally excellent in delicacy of flesh, are sold together in
all the market towns and are sent to the great cities. Thousands of
dozens are thus annually despatched; but this number is as nothing
compared with that consumed on the spot. In France Bird Protection has
done much to stop this cruel traffic. In the schools there the boys
and girls are now being taught to know and to care for the wild life
about them more than in our English Council Schools.


Upper plumage bluish grey; bill, cheeks, throat, and breast,
black, passing into bluish beneath; tail as in the last;
greater wing-coverts edged with pure white; second primary
equal to the seventh. _Female_ - upper plumage duller; lower
bright ash, passing into white; wings dusky, edged with grey;
red of the tail less bright. Length, five inches and three
quarters. Eggs pure shining white.

A much less frequent visitor to this country than the preceding, but
by no means ranking among our rarest birds, specimens occurring in the
winter of every year in some part of England or another, especially in
Devon and Cornwall. Its habits are much the same as those of its
congener; but it generally chooses a loftier situation for its nest,
which is placed in the walls of buildings, at an elevation varying
from a few feet to eighty or ninety. Its plumage differs in being much
darker in the fore part of the body, while the tail is of a brighter
red. The eggs are white. It generally arrives in England about the
first week in November, and remains with us all the winter. Its nest
has never been found in this country.


Upper parts brownish grey tinged with olive; forehead, lore,
and breast red, the red edged with ash-grey; abdomen white.
_Female_ like the _male_, except that the upper parts are
ash-brown, the red less bright, and the grey surrounding it
less conspicuous. Length, five inches and three quarters. Eggs
yellowish white, spotted with light reddish brown.

The Redbreast is everywhere invested with a kind of sanctity beyond
all other birds. Its wonted habit of making its appearance, no one
knows whence, to greet the resting traveller in places the most
lonely - its evident predilection for the society of the out-of-door
labourer, whatever his occupation - the constancy with which it affects
human habitations - and the readiness with which, without coaxing, or
taming, or training, it throws itself on human hospitality - engender
an idea that there must be some mysterious connexion between the
two - that if there were no men, there would be no Redbreasts. Trust on
one side engenders confidence on the other, and mutual attachment is
the natural result. There is something, too, beyond the power of
explanation in the fact that the Robin is the only bird which
frequents from choice the homes of men.

The habits of the Redbreast are so well known, that to describe them
would be simply to write down what every one has seen or may see.

It generally builds its nest in a hole, near the bottom of a hedge or
under the stump of a tree, in an ivy-clad wall, or amidst the creepers
trained round the veranda of a cottage. I have seen it also placed in
a niche in a wall intended for the reception of a vase, in a bee-hive
stored away on the rafters of an outhouse, and under a wisp of straw
accidentally left on the ground in a garden. It is usually composed of
dry leaves, roots, bents, and moss, lined with hair and wool, and
contains five or six eggs. The young birds are of a brown tint, and
have the feathers tipped with yellow, which gives them a spotted
appearance. Until they acquire the red breast, they are very unlike
the parents, and might be mistaken for young Thrushes, except that
they are much smaller. They may be often observed in gardens for many
days after they have left the nest, keeping together, perching in the
bushes, and clamorous for food, which the old birds bring to them from
time to time. It is said, that only one brood is reared in a year, but
this I am inclined to doubt, having observed in the same locality
families of young birds early in the spring, and late in the summer of
the same year. Towards the end of August, the young birds acquire the
distinctive plumage of their species, and are solitary in their habits
until the succeeding spring. The call-notes of the Redbreast are
numerous, and vary beyond the power of description in written words;
the song is loud, and it is needless to say, pleasing, and possesses
the charm of being continued when all our other feathered songsters
are mute. The red of the breast often has a brighter tint, it is
occasionally almost a carmine red. The late Lord Lilford told the
editor such were often birds that had been bred on the Continent.
Numbers of young birds come across the sea to us each autumn.


Wheatear [F] [M]


Hedge-sparrow Robin

[_p. 16._]]


Whitethroat [M] [M] Garden Warbler [F]

Lesser Whitethroat [M]

Blackcap [M]]


Upper plumage russet brown; tail bright rust-red; under
plumage buffish white; flanks pale ash colour. Length six and
a quarter inches; breadth nine and a half inches. Eggs uniform

The southern, eastern, and some of the midland counties of England,
enjoy a privilege which is denied to the northern and western - an
annual visit, namely, from the Nightingale. It is easy enough to
understand why a southern bird should bound its travels northwards by
a certain parallel, but why it should keep aloof from Devon and
Cornwall, the climate of which approaches more closely to that of its
favourite continental haunts than many of the districts to which it
unfailingly resorts, is not so clear. Several reasons have been
assigned - one, that cowslips do not grow in these counties; this may
be dismissed at once as purely fanciful; another is, that the soil is
too rocky; this is not founded on fact, for both Devon and Cornwall
abound in localities which would be to Nightingales a perfect
Paradise, if they would only come; a third is, that the proper food is
not to be found there: but this reason cannot be admitted until it is
proved that the portions of the island to which the Nightingale does
resort abound in some kind of insect food which is not to be found in
the extreme southern counties, and that the Nightingale, instead of
being, as it is supposed, a general insect-eater, confines itself to
that one; and this is a view of the question which no one has ventured
to take. My own theory - and I only throw it out for consideration - is
that the Nightingale is not found in these two counties on account of
their peculiar geographical position. The continental Nightingales are
observed to take their departure in autumn, either eastward through
Hungary, Dalmatia, Greece, and the islands of the Archipelago; or
southwards across the Straits of Gibraltar, but none by the broad part
of the Mediterranean. Hence we may infer that the bird dislikes a long
sea voyage, and that when in spring it migrates northward and
westward, it crosses the English Channel at the narrowest parts
only,[3] spreads itself over the nearest counties in the direction of
its migration, but is instinctively prevented from turning so far back
again to the south as the south-west peninsula of England. From
Scotland it would be naturally excluded by its northern position, and
from Ireland by the Welsh mountains and the broad sea.

For the dwellers in these unfavoured districts alone is my description
of the Nightingale intended; for, where it abounds, its habits are too
well known to need any description. Twenty-four hours of genial May
weather spent in the country with a good use of the eyes and ears,
will reveal more of the life and habits of the bird than is contained
in all the ornithological treatises that have been written on the
subject, and they are not a few.

No great amount of caution is necessary in approaching the Nightingale
while singing at night. One may walk unrestrainedly across the fields,
talking in an ordinary tone of voice, and not even find it necessary
to suppress conversation when close to a singing bird. Either he is
too intent on his occupation to detect the presence of strangers, or
he is aware of the security in which he is wrapped by the shades of
night, or he is actually proud of having listeners. In the
neighbourhood of my present residence in Hertfordshire, Nightingales
are numerous. They arrive about the seventeenth of April, and for the
first few days assemble year after year in the bushes and hedges of a
certain hillside, the position of which it would be unsafe to indicate
particularly, and taking their station two or three hundred yards
apart from each other, set up a rivalry of song which is surpassingly
beautiful. At this season, one may hear five or six chanting at once;
every break in the song of the nearest being filled up by the pipings
or wailings of the more distant ones. The male birds arrive several
days before the female, and employ the interval, it is fancifully
said, in contending for the prize in a musical contest. This period is
anxiously watched for by bird-catchers, who have learnt by experience
that birds entrapped before they have paired will bear confinement in
a cage, but that those captured after the arrival of their mates pine
to death. The Nightingale being a fearless bird and of an inquisitive
nature is easily snared; hence, in the neighbourhood of cities, the
earliest and therefore strongest birds fall ready victims to the
fowler's art.

It must not be supposed that this bird sings by night only. Every day
and all day long, from his first arrival until the young are hatched
(when it becomes his duty to provide for his family), perched in a
hedge or on the branch of a tree, rarely at any considerable height
from the ground, he pours forth his roundelay, now, however, obscured
by the song of other birds. But not even by day is he shy, for he will
allow any quietly disposed person to approach near enough to him to
watch the movement of his bill and heaving chest. At the approach of
night he becomes silent, generally discontinuing his song about an
hour before the Thrush, and resuming it between ten and eleven. It is
a disputed point whether the Nightingale's song should be considered
joyous or melancholy. This must always remain a question of taste. My
own opinion is, that the piteous wailing note which is its most
characteristic nature, casts a shade of sadness as it were over the
whole song, even those portions which gush with the most exuberant
gladness. I think, too, though my assertion may seem a barbarous one,
that if the Nightingale's song comprised the wailing notes alone, it
would be universally shunned as the most painfully melancholy sound in
nature. From this, however, it is redeemed by the rapid transition,
just when the anguish of the bird has arrived at such a pitch as to be
no longer supportable, to a passage overflowing with joy and gladness.
In the first or second week of June he ceases his song altogether. His
cataract of sweet sounds is exhausted, and his only remaining note is
a harsh croak exactly resembling that of a frog, or the subdued note
of a raven, _wate-wate_ or _cur-cur_. On one occasion only I have
heard him in full song so late as the fourth week in June: but this
probably was a bird whose first nest had been destroyed, and whose
song consequently had been retarded until the hatching of a second
brood. From this time until the end of August, when he migrates
eastward, he may often be observed picking up grubs, worms, and ants'
eggs on the garden lawn, or under a hedge in fields, hopping from
place to place with an occasional shake of the wings and raising of
the tail, and conspicuous whenever he takes one of his short flights
by his chestnut brown tail-coverts.

The Nightingale's nest is constructed of dead leaves, principally of
the oak, loosely put together and placed on the ground under a bush.
Internally it is lined with grass, roots, and a few hairs. It contains
four or five eggs of a uniform olive-brown.

[3] This is the opinion of Gilbert White.



Crown of the head ash colour, with brown streaks; sides of the
neck, throat, and breast, bluish grey; bill strong and broad
at base; wing-coverts and feathers on the back reddish brown,
with a tawny spot in the centre; middle wing-coverts tipped
with yellowish white; lower tail-coverts brown, with a whitish
border; middle of abdomen white. Length five and a half
inches. Eggs greenish blue, without spots.

Inveterate custom has so attached the name of Hedge Sparrow to this
bird, that in spite of all the efforts of ornithologists to convince
the world that it is no sparrow at all (a hard-beaked, grain-eating
bird), but a true warbler, it is still more frequently called by its
popular name than by any of those that have been suggested. The
gentle, innocent, confiding, little brown bird, which creeps like a
mouse through our garden flower-beds, picks up a meagre fare in our
roads and lanes, builds its nest in our thorn hedges, and though dingy
itself, lays such brilliant blue eggs, has been known to us from our
infancy as a 'Hedge Sparrow', and we decline any innovation: the name
is a time-honoured one, and no one will mistake us. Hedge Accentor,
Hedge Warbler, and Shuffle-wing, are names open to those who prefer
them, but we adhere to the old-fashioned designation of Hedge Sparrow.
This bird is a genuine Warbler, and one of the few belonging to the
tribe who remain with us all the winter; we should suppose, indeed,
that he never wandered far from the place of his birth. At all seasons
his habits and food appear to be the same. All day long he is
shuffling about on the ground picking up minute atoms, whether seeds
or insects, who knows? Every day, nearly all the year round, he
repairs at intervals to the nearest hedge, where he sings a song, soft
and gentle like himself; and every evening, when the Blackbird rings
his curfew bell, he fails not to respond with his drowsy _cheep_,
_cheep_, as he repairs to the bush he has selected for his night's
rest. Very early in spring, before his brother warblers have arrived
from the south, he has chosen his mate, built his snug nest, and too
probably commenced a second; for unsuspicious in nature, he does not
retire to solitary places for this purpose, and the leafless hedges
but ill conceal his labours from the peering eyes of all-destroying
ploughboys. Such are nearly all his "short and simple annals". He

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 5 of 39)