C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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quarrels with no one, he achieves no distinction, throwing no one into
ecstasies with his song, and stealing no one's fruit; unobtrusive and
innocent, he claims no notice, and dreads no resentment; and so,
through all the even tenor of his way, he is, without knowing it, the
favourite of children, and of all the good and gentle.



Head ash-grey; rest of the upper parts grey, tinged with rust
colour; wings dusky, the coverts edged with red; lower parts
white, faintly tinged on the breast with rose colour; tail
dark brown, the outer feather white at the tip and on the
outer web, the next only tipped with white. _Female_ without
the rose tint on the breast, but with the upper plumage more
decidedly tinged with red; feet brown. Length five inches and
a half; breadth eight and a half. Eggs greenish white, thickly
spotted with reddish and greenish brown. Young, leaving nest,
differ very little from adult birds.

The Whitethroat is in England the most common of all the migratory
warblers, and is generally diffused. It is essentially a hedge-bird,
neither taking long flights nor resorting to lofty trees. Early in May
it may be detected in a hawthorn or other thick bush, hopping from
twig to twig with untiring restlessness, frequently descending to the
ground, but never making any stay, and all the while incessantly
babbling with a somewhat harsh but not unpleasant song, composed of
numerous rapid and short notes, which have but little either of
variety or compass. Occasionally it takes a short flight along the
hedge, generally on the side farthest from the spectator, and proceeds
to another bush a few yards on, where it either repeats the same
movements, or perches on a high twig for a few seconds. From time to
time it rises into the air, performing curious antics and singing all
the while. Its short flight completed, it descends to the same or an
adjoining twig; and so it seems to spend its days. From its habit of
creeping through the lower parts of hedges, it has received the
popular name of 'Nettle-creeper'. From the grey tone of its plumage,
it is in some districts of France called '_Grisette_', and in others,
from its continuous song, '_Babillarde_', names, however, which are
popularly applied without distinction to this species and the next.
While singing it keeps the feathers of its head erected, resembling in
this respect the Blackcap and several of the other warblers. Though
not naturally a nocturnal musician, it does not, like most other
birds, when disturbed at night, quietly steal away to another place of
shelter, but bursts into repeated snatches of song, into which there
seems to be infused a spice of anger against the intruder.[4] Its food
consists of insects of various kinds; but when the smaller fruits
begin to ripen, it repairs with its young brood to our gardens, and
makes no small havoc among raspberries, currants, and cherries. It
constructs its nest among brambles and nettles, raised from two to
three feet from the ground, of bents and the dry stems of herbs, mixed
with cobweb, cotton from the willow, bits of wool, and horsehair. It
usually lays five eggs.

[4] This night song is rarely heard except in the months of May
and June.


Head and lore dark ash-grey; rest of the upper parts greyish
ash, tinged with brown; wings brown, edged with ash-grey; tail
dusky, outer feather as in the last, the two next tipped with
white; lower parts pure silvery white; feet deep lead colour.
Length five inches and a quarter. Eggs greenish white, spotted
and speckled, especially at the larger end, with ash and

Gilbert White in his charming history says, "A rare, and I think a new
little bird frequents my garden, which I have very great reason to
think is the Pettichaps; it is common in some parts of the kingdom;
and I have received formerly dead specimens from Gibraltar. This bird
much resembles the Whitethroat, but has a more white, or rather
silvery breast and belly; is restless and active, like the
Willow-wrens, and hops from bough to bough, examining every part for
food; it also runs up the stems of the crown-imperials, and, putting
its head into the bells of those flowers, sips the liquor which stands
in the nectarium of each petal. Sometimes it feeds on the ground like
the Hedge-Sparrow, by hopping about on the grass plots and mown
walks." The little bird of which the amiable naturalist gives so
interesting a description, was, there is little doubt, that which is
now called the Lesser Whitethroat, then a 'new bird', inasmuch as it
had not been made a distinct species, and necessarily a 'rare bird',
not because a few only visited Britain, but because, until his time
set the example, competent observers of birds were rare. It differs
externally from the preceding, in its smaller size, and the darker
colour of its beak, upper plumage, and feet, and resembles it closely
in its habits, though I have never observed that it indulges in the
eccentric perpendicular flights, which have gained for its congener,
the Greater Whitethroat, the quaint sobriquet of 'singing skyrocket.'
It feeds, too, on insects, and is not found wanting when raspberries
and cherries are ripe. But no matter what number of these it consumes,
it ought with its companions to be welcomed by the gardener as one of
his most valuable friends. For it should be borne in mind, that these
birds, by consuming a portion of a crop of ripe fruit, do not at all
injure the trees, but that the countless aphides and caterpillars
which they devoured at an earlier period of the year, would, if they
had been allowed to remain, have feasted on the leaves and young
shoots, and so not only have imperilled the coming crop, but damaged
the tree so materially as to impair its fertility for some time to
come. Those birds, therefore, which in spring feed on insects and
nourish their young on the same diet, may be considered as necessary
to protect from injury the trees which are destined to supply them
with support when insect food becomes scarce. Consider what would be
the result if the proper food of birds were leaves, or if insects were
permitted to devour the foliage unchecked! our woods would be
leafless, our gardens would become deserts.


Upper parts greyish brown, slightly tinged with olive; orbits
white; below the ear a patch of ash-grey; throat dull white;
breast and flanks grey, tinged with rust colour; rest of the
under parts dull white. Length five inches and three-quarters;
breadth eight and a half. Eggs greenish white, speckled with
two shades of greenish brown.

Though tolerably well dispersed throughout England, this bird is by no
means so abundant as the Blackcap, which it resembles in size and
habits, but it arrives later, coming early in May. It is very local.
Its song is little if at all inferior to that of the bird just named,
and it is far from improbable that some of the sweet strains for which
the Blackcap gets credit, particularly late in the summer, may be
produced by the Garden Warbler; I have heard its song so late as the
fifth of October. By some authors it is called the Greater Pettychaps,
by others the _Fauvette_, which latter name is by some French
ornithologists applied to the group containing this bird and several
allied species. Its nest and eggs are so like those of the Blackcap as
to be discriminated with difficulty.


Top and back of the head black, in the _female_ chocolate
colour; upper parts, wings, and tail ash-grey, slightly tinged
with olive; neck light grey passing into greyish white; bill
and feet black. Length five inches and a half; breadth eight
and a half. Eggs pale greenish white, variously mottled with
several shades of brown; sometimes pinkish, mottled with light
purple, and speckled with dark purple.

Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to the character of the
Nightingale's song - whether it partakes more of joyousness or of
melancholy - the gladsomeness of the Blackcap's warble is beyond all
dispute. Conceding to the Nightingale the first place among the
warblers which visit England, we do not hesitate to claim the second
for the Blackcap. Its song is inferior in power and compass to that of
the bird of night, but there is about it a delicious eloquence which
makes it irresistibly charming. White of Selborne describes it as
"full, sweet, deep, loud and wild"; high but not unmerited praise. If
there are no vocal efforts to astonish, there are no piteous wailings
to distress, and though the bird retires to rest at a reasonable hour,
it continues its song until a late period of the season, long after
that of the Nightingale has degenerated to a croak. It has been
compared to that of the Redbreast, but it is more mellow and
flute-like; to that of the Thrush, but it is softer and of more
compass; to that of the Lark, but it is more varied. A practised ear
will confound it with neither of these, though, strange to say, many
persons who have lived all their lives in the country and who take
much interest in its pleasant sights and sounds, habitually confound
it with the song of one or other of these birds, not knowing to whom
they are indebted for one of the principal charms of their gardens.
The Blackcap, like several other of the migratory warblers, returns
again and again to its old haunts. For six successive years it has
been known to build its nest in a bramble which hung down from a rock
in a public garden; and for even a longer period my own garden has
been annually visited by a pair who, from unfailingly resorting to the
same bushes, must, I have little doubt, be the same pair, though I
cannot say that I have found or even searched for their nest. On its
first arrival in April, the Blackcap is in the habit of what
bird-fanciers call 'recording' - that is, practising over its song in a
low tone. During this season of rehearsal it does not care to be seen,
but hides away in a thick bush. It is nevertheless by no means shy of
being heard, as it will allow the listener to approach within a few
yards of its hiding-place without stopping its song, and if disturbed
will remove to a very little distance and recommence. After a few days
it acquires its full powers of voice.

Its song is now remarkable among the full choir for sweetness,
loudness, and long continuance. Its food at this time consists of
aphides, caterpillars, and other small insects which infest roses and
fruit-trees; it rarely captures flies on the wing or descends to feed
on the ground. In June it begins to sing shorter strains, but with no
diminished power. It may then be observed flying from branch to branch
of an apple-tree, resting for a few seconds only in the same spot, and
busily occupied in collecting grubs or aphides, then indulging in a
short strain. In July, when the raspberries ripen, the Blackcap
becomes chary of its song, and introduces its young brood to the
choicest and juiciest fruit; in their attentions to which both old and
young birds are exceedingly pertinacious, holding scarecrows in
extreme contempt, and heeding clapping of hands or the discharge of a
gun as little. The young of the first year resemble the adult female
in having a chocolate-coloured crown. The song of the Blackcap may be
heard occasionally late in the summer; in September or October both
old and young take their departure, and the Redbreast is left without
a rival to assert his superiority as a warbler, until the return of
spring. The nest is usually placed in a hedge or low bush, a few feet
from the ground, and is constructed of bents, and lined with fibrous
roots and hair. The male bird assists the female in performing the
office of incubation, and is said to relieve the monotony of his
occupation by singing, thus often betraying a well-concealed nest.


Upper parts blackish brown; under, purplish red; middle of the
abdomen white; tail long, dark brown, the outer feather tipped
with white; wings very short; quills ash-grey on the inner
web, dark brown on the outer; feet yellowish; bill yellowish
white, with a black tip. Length five inches and a half. Eggs
greenish white, speckled all over, and especially at the
larger end, with brown and ash-grey.

This species received its name from having been first shot on Bexley
Heath, near Dartford in 1773. It has since been observed on furzy
commons in several of the southern and western counties, but is local
and nowhere abundant. In its habits it resembles the Stone and Furze
Chats, perching on the upper sprays of the furze and whitehorn, but
never still for a minute, throwing itself into various attitudes,
erecting its crest and tail at intervals, frequently rising into the
air with most fantastic movements, catching insects on the wing, and
either returning to the same twig, or making a short flight to some
other convenient bush. The syllables '_cha cha cha_' are several times
repeated when the bird is irritated. Its note is commonly _Pitchou_,
hence its French name. It keeps quite aloof from human habitations,
and is so timid that on the approach of an observer, it creeps into a
bush, and remains concealed until the danger is past. The nest of
goose grass and soft bits of furze, wool and moss is placed in the
fork of a furze-bush selected for its thickness and difficulty of
access. It is somewhat wandering, but may be called a resident in the
South, gradually extending northwards. Many specimens have been
observed in mid-winter, and Rennie states that he has seen one as
early as the end of February hovering over furze and singing like a


Upper parts of a uniform reddish brown, without spots;
wing-feathers brown, edged with olive; a white streak between
(not over) the eye and bill; throat white; under plumage
yellowish white, the sides tinged with reddish; tail long,
rounded. Length five and a half inches; breadth seven and a
half. Eggs dull greenish white, speckled with olive and light
brown, especially towards the larger end.

Both the Sedge and the Reed warblers are _jaseuses_, or chatterers,
with rounded tails; but the Sedge Warbler has its upper plumage
spotted with dark brown, and a white line above its eye, while the
upper plumage of the Reed Warbler is of a uniform pale brown, and the
light mark is absent from above the eye. The haunts and habits of the
two birds are precisely similar, but the Reed Warbler is by far the
less common of the two; for while the Sedge Warbler is sure to be
found wherever the Reed Warbler has been observed, the converse by no
means follows. The parts of England in which it appears to be most
frequent, are East Riding of Yorkshire, Essex, Surrey, Kent, Suffolk,
and Norfolk. In the reed-beds on the banks of the Thames, between
Erith and Greenwich, it is common.

"The nest of the Reed Warbler is often elegantly built, and generally
fixed to three or four reed-stems. It is composed of slender blades of
grass, interwoven with reed-tops, dry duckweed, and the spongy
substance which covers many of the marsh ditches; and, here and there,
a long piece of sedge is wound securely around it; the lining is of
the finer flowering stems of grass, intermixed with a little
horsehair. It is a deep and solid structure, so that the eggs cannot
easily roll out; it is firmly fastened to the reeds in tidal ditches
and rivers, at the height of three or four feet from the water, but in
still ditches often not more than a foot. In windy weather, when
wading through the reed-beds, I have seen nests, with both old and
young in them, blown nearly to the surface of the water; but the birds
fix their claws firmly to the sides of the nest, with their heads to
windward, and thus ride as securely in their cradle as a sailor does
in his cot or hammock."[5] The Cuckoo occasionally chooses the Reed
Warbler's nest to lay its eggs in, for the same writer remarks - "At
the latter end of July, 1829, while reading in my garden, which
adjoins a market garden, I was agreeably surprised to see a young
Cuckoo, nearly full-grown, alight on the railings between the two, not
more than a dozen yards from where I was sitting. Anxious to see what
bird had reared this Cuckoo, I silently watched his movements, and had
not waited more than a minute, when a Reed Warbler flew to the Cuckoo,
who, crouching down with his breast close to the rail, and fluttering
his wings, opened wide his orange-coloured mouth to receive the insect
his foster-mother had brought him. This done, the Reed Warbler flew
away for a fresh supply of food. The difference in the size of the two
birds was great; it was like a pigmy feeding a giant. While the Reed
Warbler was absent, the Cuckoo shuffled along the rail, and hopped
upon a slender post to which it was nailed, and which projected about
eight inches above the rail. The Reed Warbler soon returned with more
food, and alighted close to the Cuckoo, but on the rail beneath him;
she then began to stretch herself to the utmost to give him the food,
but was unable to reach the Cuckoo's mouth, who, like a simpleton,
threw his head back, with his mouth wide open, as before. The Reed
Warbler, by no means at a loss, perched upon the Cuckoo's broad back,
who, still holding back his head, received in this singular way the
morsel brought for him." The song of the Reed Warbler is loudest and
at its best during the evening twilight.

[5] Mr. W. H. Thomas, in the _Zoologist_, p. 97.


Upper parts olive-green without any reddish tinge; legs and
feet pale brown.

The Marsh Warbler is local in its occurrence, in the south of England.
It nests in drier places than the Reed Warbler and its song is
different, being much more melodious, and uttered more boldly. Close
to low bushes, or among meadow-sweet, nettles and cow-parsnip, you may
find its nest, which is made of fine rounded stalks of grass and lined
with horsehair. There are five to seven eggs, whiter in ground colour
than those of the Reed Warbler. The Marsh Warbler comes each spring to
the neighbourhood of Taunton, but it is still a somewhat rare species.


Upper plumage olive-grey, the centre of each feather tinged
with brown; above the eyes a broad yellowish white stripe;
under, yellowish white, more or less tinged with red; throat
white; tail rounded, of moderate length, of a uniform
ash-brown. Length four and a half inches; breadth seven and a
half. Eggs dirty white, mottled all over with dull yellowish

On the banks of reedy and bushy rivers, in marshes, withy holts,
wherever, in fact, there is fresh water associated with enough
vegetation to shelter and conceal, this bustling little bird is a
constant summer visitor; restless in its habits, and courting notice
by its twittering song, from the time of its arrival to that of its
departure. It is usually first detected by its rapidly repeated note,
which it utters while performing its short flights from bush to bush,
and while creeping in and out among reeds and rushes. The fisherman
knows it well, and is often tempted to withdraw his eye from his fly
or float, to watch its movements on the opposite bank. From its
unceasing babble, ploughboys call it a 'chat', a name which
exactly answers to the French name of the group to which it
belongs - '_Jaseuses_'. Its note is remarkable neither for volume nor
sweetness, and, like that of unfeathered chatterers, seems to carry
more noise than meaning. To a certain extent the bird is a mimic, as
it imitates such notes of other birds as are within the compass of its
little throat. I was walking one morning in May by the banks of a
canal not far from a village, when I remarked the exact resemblance
between a portion of its song and the chirrup of a House Sparrow.
Intermixed with this, I detected the note of some other bird; but,
familiar though it sounded, I ransacked my memory in vain to discover
from whom it was purloined. Pursuing my walk towards the houses, I
heard the note of some Guinea-fowls; not the 'come-back' cry, but the
'click-click' which every one knows so well. Of this the Sedge
Warbler had caught exactly both the key and the time; the two notes
were in fact identical, except that they were performed on instruments
of different calibre. Like other chatterers, who, when they have
finished their song, are easily provoked to begin again, the Sedge
Warbler, if he does occasionally retire to a bed of reeds and there
holds his peace, may be excited to repeat his whole story over again,
with variations and additions, by flinging a stone into his
breathing-place. And not content with babbling all day, he extends his
loquacity far into the night; hence he has been called the Sedge
Nightingale, but with doubtful propriety, for, with all the will
perhaps to vie with that prince of songsters, the _zinzinare_ of the
Nightingale is far beyond his powers. Yet in spite of his
obtrusiveness, he is an amusing and a pleasant companion to the
wanderer by the river's side: his rivalry is devoid of malice, and his
mimicry gives no one pain. While at rest - if he is ever to be detected
in this state - he may be distinguished from all other birds
frequenting similar haunts by his rounded tail, and a light narrow
mark over each eye. His food consists of worms, insects, and
fresh-water mollusks, for which he hunts among the stems of aquatic
plants. As an architect, he displays great skill, constructing his
nest among low bushes, never at any great distance from the water,
about a foot from the ground. It is composed of stems and leaves of
dead grass, moss and fine roots, and lined with hair, wool, feathers,
and the down of various marsh plants. The structure is large, compact,
and deep, suspended from, rather than built on, its supports. The eggs
are usually five or six in number, though as many as seven have been
sometimes found.


Upper parts light brown, with a tinge of green, and presenting
a spotted appearance, owing to the centres of the feathers
being darkest; tail long, rounded at the extremity and
tapering towards the base; under parts whitish brown, the
breast marked with darker spots; feet and toes light brown.
Length five and a half inches; breadth seven and a half. Eggs
reddish white, closely speckled with darker red.

As long ago as the time when a stroll of five-and-twenty miles
fatigued me less than a journey of ten does now - when I returned from
my botanical rambles with tin boxes, hands and pockets, laden with
stores of flowers, ferns, and mosses, my homeward path often led me
through a certain valley and wood on the skirts of Dartmoor, known by
the names of Bickleigh Vale and Fancy Wood. It often happened that
twilight was fading into gloom when I reached this stage in my
wanderings - the last of the evening songsters had hushed its note; for
this county, beautiful as it is, offers not sufficient attraction to
the Nightingale; yet I never passed this way under such circumstances
without feeling myself compelled to stop once and again to listen to
the monotonous whir of what I had been told, and what I believed to be
the note of the large green grasshopper, or locust. Monotonous is,
perhaps, not the right word to use, for an acute ear can detect in the
long unmusical jar a cadence descending sometimes a semitone, and
occasionally almost a whole note; and it seemed besides to increase in
loudness for a few seconds and then to subside a little below the
ordinary pitch; this fall is chiefly at the breeding season. Whether
the difference was produced by a rising and lulling of the breeze, or
whether the musician actually altered its note and intensity of noise
(or must I call it music?), I could never decide. As long as I fancied
the performer to be an insect, I was inclined to believe that one of
the first suppositions was correct; for it seemed hardly possible that
the purely mechanical action of an insect's thighs against its body
could produce variety of sound - as well expect varied intonations from
a mill-wheel or saw-pit. Attentive observation, and the knowledge that
the noise in question proceeded not from the exterior of an insect,

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 6 of 39)