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C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

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but from the throat of a bird, has led me to form another conclusion.
I am not surprised at my having fallen into the error; for the song of
this bird is but an exaggeration of the grasshopper's note, and
resembles the noise produced by pulling out the line from the winch of
a fishing-rod, no less continuous is it, nor more melodious. Many
years afterwards, when the memory of these pleasant wanderings had
faded away, I happened one evening in May to be passing across a
common in Hertfordshire, skirted by a hedge of brushwood, when the old
familiar sound fell on my ear like a forgotten nursery melody. The
trees not being in their full foliage, I was not without hope that I
might be able to get a sight of the performer, whom I now knew to be a
bird, and I crept quietly towards the spot whence the noise proceeded.
Had it been singing in a copse-wood instead of a hedge, I should
certainly have failed, for there is the same peculiarity about its
note that there is about that of the insect - you cannot make up your
mind exactly whereabouts the instrument which makes the noise is at
work. The note, when near, is continuous, monotonous, and of equal
loudness throughout; it might be a minute spinning-wheel revolving
rapidly, or a straw pipe with a pea in it blown with a single breath
and then suddenly stopping. But whether the performance is going on
exactly before you, a little to the right, or a little to the left, it
is hard to decide. I approached to within a few yards of the hedge,
and peered through the hazel rods, now decorated with drooping tufts
of plaited leaves, but all in vain. I went a step or two nearer; the
sound ceased, and the movement of a twig directed my attention towards
a particular bush, on which I saw a little bird, about as big as a
Hedge Sparrow, quietly and cautiously dropping branch by branch to
the ground. In a few minutes I observed it again a few yards off,
creeping with a movement resembling that of the Nuthatch up another
bush. Having reached to nearly the summit it became motionless,
stretched out its neck, and keeping its mandibles continuously open
and slightly elevated, commenced its trill again; then it shuffled
about for some seconds and repeated the strain. It now seemed to
descry me, and dropping to the ground as before, reappeared a few
yards off. I fancied that while actually singing its feathers were
ruffled; but in the imperfect twilight I could not decide positively.
That it kept its mandibles motionless while singing, I had no doubt.
Half an hour afterwards, at a quarter to eight, I returned from my
walk, and observed it several times go through precisely the same
manoeuvres. On no occasion did it make a long flight, but even when
I scared it by throwing a stone into the hedge near it, it merely
dropped to the ground, and in a minute or two was piping from another
bush. I have not found, as some authors say, that it resorts only to
the vicinity of watery places. The one which I saw on this occasion
had located itself for the summer several miles from a stream; and
others which I have heard night after night had settled down on the
skirts of a dry common, watered only by the clouds. Its nest I have
sought for in vain.


[Illustration:

Wood Warbler [M]

Willow Warbler [F]

Grasshopper Warbler

Chiff Chaff [M]

[_p. 30._]]


[Illustration:

Reed Warbler

Marsh Warbler

Sedge Warbler [M]

Dartford Warbler [F] [M]]


THE CHIFF-CHAFF
PHYLLÓSCOPUS RUFUS

Upper parts olive-green tinged with yellow; above the eyes a
narrow, faint, yellowish, white streak; under parts yellowish
white; feathers of the leg dirty white; second primary equal
to the seventh; third, fourth, fifth, and sixth with the outer
web sloped off at the extremity; under wing-coverts
primrose-yellow; feet slender; legs nearly black. Length four
inches and a half; breadth seven and a quarter. Eggs white,
sparingly spotted with dark purple.

Whatever question there may be whether the name of Willow-warbler be
appropriately applied to the last species, there can be no doubt that
the Chiff-chaff is well named. Let any one be asked in the month of
May to walk into a wood and to hold up his hand when he heard a bird
call itself by its own name, 'Chiff-chaff', he could not possibly fall
into an error. The bird is so common that it would be difficult to
walk a mile in a woodland district without passing near one or more,
and having little to say, it seems never weary of repeating its tale,
'Chiff, chaff, cheff, chiff, chaff': the syllables have a harsh sound
pronounced by human lips, but when chanted in the silvery notes of a
little bird, in the season of primroses and wild hyacinths, and
accompanied by the warble of the Hay-bird, the full song of the
Thrush, and the whistle of the Blackbird, they contribute not a little
to the harmony of the woods.

For two successive years a little yellowish bird, scarcely bigger than
a wren, has established himself in my garden about the middle of
April, and sedulously devoted himself to clearing away the aphides
which infested some China roses trained against the walls of my house.
Occasionally he would flutter against the windows, and give his
attention to the spiders and gnats which nestled in the corners of the
panes. The first year I took him for a Hay-bird, but, only too
grateful for his kind offices, I was careful not to molest him. When,
however, he appeared a second year, exactly at the same season, and
performed a series of manoeuvres so precisely similar that it was
impossible to doubt that the bird was not merely of the same species,
but the same individual, I watched him more closely. The dark colour
of his feet, as observed from within the house, as he was fluttering
against the glass, decided the point that he was not a Hay-bird, and
when he retired to an apple-tree hard by and treated himself to a song
after his repast, no doubt remained that he was a Chiff-chaff. It is
not often that the Chiff-chaff is thus familiar in its habits. More
frequently it makes its abode in woods and groves, resembling the
Hay-bird so closely in size, colour and habits, that to distinguish
the two is very difficult. The difference of note, however, is
decisive; and the colour of the feet (when the bird is near enough to
admit of being thus distinguished) is another certain criterion. The
two birds frequent the same trees without rivalry or jealousy. The
Chiff-chaff is the earliest of our spring visitors, arriving the
middle of March, and it sings all through the summer; I have heard it
as late as the thirtieth of September. The nests, popularly called
'wood-ovens', are alike and placed in similar situations; their eggs
are of the same size and shape, but those of the Chiff-chaff are
spotted with very dark purple instead of rust colour. A few
occasionally remain with us all the year, feeding on winter gnats and
the pupæ of small insects, but remaining wholly silent. Other names by
which it is known are 'Chip-chop' and Lesser Pettichaps.


THE WILLOW-WARBLER
PHYLLÓSCOPUS TRÓCHILUS

Upper parts bright olive-green; a narrow streak of yellow over
the eye; under parts yellowish white, palest in the middle;
feathers of the leg yellow; second primary equal to the sixth;
third, fourth, and fifth with the outer web sloped off at the
extremity; feet stoutish; legs light brown. Length nearly five
inches; breadth eight. Eggs white, more or less speckled with
rust colour.

There seems to be no sufficient reason why this bird should be named
Willow-warbler or Willow-wren, as it shows no special preference for
willows, nor does it frequent watery places. The popular name,
'Hay-bird', is, I think, the better of the two; for, except in the
extreme west of England, wherever there are hayfields and trees these
birds are to be found; they build their nests principally of hay, and
very frequently place it in the border of a hay-field. But, by
whatever name it is known, it is a cheerful and active little bird, to
which our woods and groves are much indebted for their melody. It is
abundant and generally diffused, arriving in England early in April,
and remaining until the middle of September. During the greater part
of this period, it may be seen fluttering about the tops of trees,
hunting the twigs and leaves for insects, and occasionally catching
flies on the wing. It often, too, descends to the ground, and picks up
insects among the herbage. I have never heard it sing on the ground;
but while employing itself aloft, it rarely allows more than a few
minutes to elapse without going through its short and sweet song.
This, though very agreeable, possesses no great variety, and is
composed of about twenty or thirty notes, the latter ones of which are
repeated rapidly, and form a natural cadence. For many years this
pleasant little melody, or the simpler song of the Chiff-chaff, has
been the first sound I have heard to announce the arrival of the
summer birds of passage; perhaps it is on this account that it is with
me, at all seasons, a favourite rural sound.

Ornithologists seem well agreed that the Willow-warbler's food
consists entirely of insects. This may be so, but I am much mistaken
if a brood of this species annually hatched in a bank of furze
adjoining my garden, do not, in conjunction with Blackcaps and
Whitethroats, pay daily visits to a certain row of red raspberries in
my garden. It may be that they come only in quest of aphides, but I
have certainly seen them in dangerous proximity to clusters of the
ripest fruit, which, when they were scared away, bore evident marks of
having been pecked by birds. The nest of the Hay-bird resembles that
of the Wood-warbler, but it is lined with feathers. The eggs are
usually from five to seven, and of the same size and shape, but the
spots are rust-coloured and limited in number.


THE WOOD-WREN
PHYLLÓSCOPUS SIBILÁTRIX

Upper plumage bright yellowish green; a broad streak of
sulphur-yellow over the eye; sides of the head, throat,
insertion of the wings and legs bright yellow; rest of the
under plumage pure white; second primary equal to the fourth,
third and fourth with the outer web sloped off at the
extremity; legs pale brown. Length five inches and a half;
breadth eight and three quarters. Eggs white, speckled so
thickly with purplish brown as almost to conceal the ground.

The Wood-warbler, Willow-warbler, and Chiff-chaff resemble each other
so closely in size, colour, and habits, that except by a practised
observer, they are likely to be mistaken for one another. In song,
however, they differ materially, and as this is begun early, and
continued till very late in the season, it affords ready means of
discriminating the species. The Wood-warbler, or Wood-wren as it is
now called, arrives in England towards the end of April, and betakes
itself to woodland districts, where it spends the greater portion of
its time among the upper branches of lofty trees, constantly moving
from place to place with rapid irregular flight, and frequently
repeating its short and peculiar song. It feeds exclusively on
insects, which it occasionally catches on the wing. Its song is
difficult to describe. The name by which it is popularly known in some
parts of France, _Touïte_, is derived from the syllable '_tweet_',
which, rapidly and continuously repeated many times, constitutes its
song. These notes are uttered in a sweet tone, and with a tremulous
accent, and are unlike those of any other bird. Gilbert White, who
appears to have been the first who noticed the bird, describes it as
"joyous, easy, and laughing". The last notes of its strain are
accompanied by a quivering of the wings and tail, which accounts for
their tremulous sound.

The Wood-warbler is much less frequent than either the Willow-warbler
or Chiff-chaff, and on a close inspection may be distinguished by its
superior size, by the pure white of its under tail-coverts, and by the
bright yellow line above the eye. The nest is composed of grass,
ferns, and moss, and lined with fine grass and hair; it is covered
with a dome, an entrance being left sufficiently large to allow its
contents to be seen, and is placed on the ground, in or near a wood,
among thick herbage, or against the stump of a tree. The eggs are from
five to seven in number, almost round, and so thickly spotted with
purple-brown that the ground is almost invisible.


SUB-FAMILY REGULINÆ

THE GOLD-CREST
RÉGULUS CRISTÁTUS

Upper parts olive, tinged with yellow; cheeks ash colour,
without streaks; wing greyish brown, with two transverse white
bands; crest bright yellow, tipped with orange and bounded on
each side by a black line; under parts yellowish grey. In the
_female_ the crest is lemon colour, and the other tints are
less brilliant. Each nostril is covered by one buff feather.
Length three inches and a half. Eggs cream colour, minutely
mottled at one end.

The Gold-crest, Golden-crested Regulus, or Golden-crested Wren, though
not exceeding in dimensions some of the larger humming-birds, and
though decorated with a crest equalling in brilliancy of colour the
gay plumage of tropical birds, is a hardy little fellow, able to bear
without shrinking the cold of an English winter, and to keep his
position among the branches of high trees in the stormiest weather.
Even during a heavy gale I have watched Gold-crests fluttering from
branch to branch, and busily hunting for food, though the trees were
waving like reeds. They are most numerous in winter, as a considerable
number migrate southwards in October, but a great many remain with us
all the year, preferring those districts where there are
fir-plantations. Their whole life is spent in the air; I at least have
never observed one on the ground. Their food consists of the insects
which infest the leaves and twigs of trees; and I have seen them
capture small moths on the wing. While hunting for food, which appears
to be all day long, they are never still, fluttering from branch to
branch, hanging in all attitudes, and peering in all directions. From
time to time they utter their thin and wiry call-note, which is by
some compared to the cry of the Shrew. It might be mistaken for the
jarring noise made by two branches which cross one another, or that of
a damp finger rubbed lightly along a pane of glass. Early in spring
the song commences; it is composed of about fifteen short notes,
rapidly uttered at an exceedingly high pitch, and ending with a yet
more rapid cadence. By the call-note or song the vicinity of the bird
is far more frequently detected than by its actual appearance; for the
branches of firs in woods are mostly at a considerable height from the
ground, and our 'little king' (saving his majesty) is hard to be
distinguished from a fir-cone, except when he is in motion.
Gold-crests are eminently social birds; they generally hunt in parties
of half a dozen or more, and do not often change their hunting-ground;
at least I infer as much from the fact that on various occasions I
have observed the same bird on the same clump of trees, at intervals
extending over several weeks. I could scarcely have been mistaken in
the identity of the bird, as it had lost a leg, by what accident I
know not; but the loss did not at all interfere with its activity or
spirits. Their sociability extends sometimes to birds of other kinds,
as the Creeper and the Tits of several species have been seen hunting
in company with them. The habits of these birds being similar, they
perhaps associate from a feeling of mutual protection, just as
Sparrows, Buntings, and Finches make common cause, when they invade
our rick-yards. The Gold-crests are, however, naturally less wary than
any of the Tits. These last will at once decamp if disturbed, but
Gold-crests will continue their hunting without taking any notice of a
spectator. In autumn large flocks sometimes arrive on our east coast
extending across England and on into Ireland. In April a return
migration takes place. The nest of the Gold-crest is a beautiful
structure. Its external form is nearly that of a globe, with a
contracted opening at the top. It is composed of moss and lichens,
interwoven with wool and lined thickly with feathers. It is usually
placed among the boughs of a silver-fir or spruce-fir, in such a
manner as to be partially suspended from one branch and supported by
another. The bird seems neither to court nor to shun the vicinity of
human beings; as I have found nests in the most lonely woods, and I
have seen one in the branches of a spruce-fir, so close to my house
that I could look into the nest from my bedroom windows, and watch the
old birds feeding their young. The eggs vary in number from five to
eight, they are almost globular, and smaller than those of any other
British bird. This is scarcely surprising, seeing that the weight of a
recently killed adult male which I have before me is eighty-seven
grains; so that five and a half full-grown birds weigh but an ounce.


[Illustration:

Great Tit [M]

Fire Crested Wren [M]

Long Tailed Tit [M]

Gold Crest [M]

[_p. 34._]]


[Illustration:

Blue Tit [M]

Crested Tit [M] Marsh Tit [F]

Cole Tit [M]]


THE FIRE-CRESTED WREN
RÉGULUS IGNICAPILLUS

Upper parts olive-green; a dark streak passing through the
eye, and another white one above and below; crest brilliant
orange, bounded in front and on each side by a black streak;
in other respects resembling the last. _Female_ with all the
colours less brilliant. Length four inches. Eggs cream colour,
tinged with red and dotted.

This species both in size and habits resembles the last, from which it
is best distinguished by three dark lines on each side of its head.
Hence it is called in France '_Roitelet à triple bandeau_'. It is far
less common than the Gold-crest, and has not been observed in the
winter, when birds of the other species are most abundant - in fact, it
is only a rare straggler. Its call-note is shorter than that of the
Gold-crest, not so shrill, and pitched in a different key. The nests
of the two birds are much alike.


FAMILY PARIDÆ

THE LONG-TAILED TIT
ACRÉDULA CAUDÁTA

Head, neck, throat, breast, and a portion of the outer
tail-feathers white; back, wings, and six middle feathers of
the tail black; a black streak above the eye; sides of the
back and scapulars tinged with rose-red; under parts reddish
white; tail very long; beak very short. Length five inches and
three-quarters; breadth six inches and three-quarters. Eggs
white, minutely and sparingly speckled with light red or plain
white.

All the Tits, of whatever species, are more or less sociable in their
habits, hunting about during autumn in parties of half a dozen or
more; but some of them are given to be quarrelsome, not only towards
other birds - like the Great Tit, who actually murders them for the
sake of picking out their brains - but among themselves, as the Blue
Tit, who has been noticed so intently engaged in combat with another
bird of his own kind, that the observer caught them both in his hat.
The Long-tailed Tits, however, are sociable after another sort. From
the time that a young brood leaves the nest until the next pairing
season, father, mother, and children keep together in irreproachable
harmony. Exploring the same clump of trees in society, perfectly
agreed as to whither their next flitting shall be, no one showing any
disposition to remain when the rest are departing, molesting no one,
and suffering as far as it can be ascertained no persecution, they
furnish a charming example of a happy family. Nomad in their habits,
save that they indulge in no questionable cravings for their
neighbours' property, they satisfy their wants with the natural
produce of any convenient halting-place, when they have exhausted
which they take their flight, in skirmishing order, but generally in a
straight line, and strictly following the lead of their chief, to some
other station; and when overtaken by night, they halt and encamp where
chance has left them. Their only requisite is, in summer, the branch
of a tree; in winter, some sheltered place where they can huddle
together, and sleep until the next day's sun calls them to resume
their erratic course.[6] Their food, during those journeys, consists
of caterpillars, small beetles, and the pupæ of insects generally, and
this diet they seem never or very rarely to vary.[7] The ripest fruits
do not tempt them to prolong their stay in a garden, and insects that
crawl on earth are in two senses beneath their notice. Their rapid
progress from tree to tree has been compared to a flight of arrows.
Singular as is their flight, they are no less amusing while employed
in hunting for food, as they perform all the fantastic vagaries of the
Tits, and their long straight tails add much to the grotesqueness of
their attitudes. Seen near at hand, their appearance may be called
comical. Their abundant loose feathers, the prevailing hue of which is
grey, suggest the idea of old age, and, together with the short hooked
beak, might give a caricaturist a hint of an antiquated human face,
enveloped in grey hair. Many of the provincial names of the bird are
associated with the ridiculous; thus, Long-tailed Mufflin, Long-tail
Mag, Long-tail Pie, Poke-pudding, Hack-muck, Bottle Tom, Mum-ruffin,
and Long-pod, pet names though they are, are also whimsical, and
prepare one beforehand for the information that their owner is 'just a
little eccentric'. But whatever be their name, I never hear the
well-known '_zit, zit_', the pass-word which keeps them together, and
which always accompanies their journeyings, without stopping to watch
the little family on their flight.

The nest of this species is of most exquisite workmanship and
beautiful texture. Its form is that of a large cocoon broadest at the
base, or that of a fir cone. It is sometimes fastened to the stem of a
tree, sometimes placed in a fork, but more frequently built into the
middle of a thick bush, so that it can only be removed by cutting away
the branches to which it is attached. The outer surface is composed
principally of the white lichen which is most abundant in the
neighbourhood, and so is least likely to attract attention. All the
scraps are woven together with threads of fine wool; the dome is
felted together, and made rain-proof by a thick coating of moss and
lichen, wool and the web of spiders' eggs. The walls are of moss. The
interior is a spherical cell, lined with a profusion of feathers. A
softer or warmer bed it would be hard to imagine. At the distance of
about an inch from the top is a circular opening scarcely large enough
to admit one's thumb. In this luxurious couch, which it has cost the
female bird some three weeks of patient industry to complete, she lays
ten or twelve eggs, which all in good time are developed into as many
Bottle Tits; but by what skilful management the ten or twelve long
tails are kept unruffled, and are finally brought to light as straight
as arrows, I can offer no opinion. Nests are occasionally found
containing as many as eighteen eggs. In these cases it has been
affirmed that two or more females share a common nursery, and incubate
together. Certainly it is difficult to imagine how a single pair can
manage to supply with food so many hungry young birds, but there is no
direct evidence of their being two distinct broods.

[6] The name proposed for the Long-tailed Tit, by Dr. Leuch,
_Mecistura vagans_, is most appropriate. "Long-tailed
Wanderer," for such is its import, describes the most
striking outward characteristic of the bird, and its
unvarying habit.

[7] A young friend informed me that he had once shot one, with a
beechnut in its mouth. This it must have picked up from the
ground, as the season was winter.


THE GREAT TIT, OX-EYE OR TOMTIT
PARUS MAJOR

Head, throat, and a line passing down the centre of the
breast, black; back olive-green; cheeks and a spot on the nape
white; breast and abdomen yellow. Length six inches; breadth
nine. Eggs white, speckled with light rusty.

As this bird is no larger than a Sparrow, its surname 'Great' must be
understood to denote only its superiority in size to other birds of



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 7 of 39)