C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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the same family. It is, however, great-hearted, as far as boldness and
bravery entitle it to this epithet, being ready to give battle to
birds far its superiors in size, foremost to join in mobbing an
intrusive Owl, and prepared to defend its nest against robbers of all
kinds. Its powers of locomotion are considerable, as it is strong in
flight, active on the ground, and as a climber is surpassed by few
rivals. Its stout and much-curved hind claw gives it great facility in
clinging to the twigs and branches of trees, sides of ricks, and even
the walls of houses. Such situations it resorts to in quest of its
favourite food, caterpillars and pupæ of all kinds, and it is most
amusing to watch it while thus engaged. Attitude seems to be a matter
of no consequence; it can cling with perfect security to anything but
a smooth surface. On trees it hangs from the branches, with its back
either downwards, or turned sideways, and explores crevices in walls
with as little regard to the vertical position of the surface to which
it clings, as if it were examining a hole in the level ground. Its
efforts to disengage a chrysalis from its cocoon are very
entertaining. One scarcely knows which most to admire, the tenacity of
its grasp, the activity with which it turns its head and body, or the
earnestness and determination with which it clears away every obstacle
until it has secured the prize. It does not, however, limit its food
to insects; it is accused of feeding occasionally on the buds of
fruit-trees, but it is doubtful whether the bird has any other object
in attacking these, than that of hunting out the insects that infest
them. It is said also to be very fond of nuts, which it sticks into
crevices in the bark of trees, and cracks by repeated blows of its
beak. Whether it has this power, I do not know; but that it will _eat_
nuts of every kind, it is easy to prove by fastening the kernels of
filberts or walnuts to the trunks of trees by means of stout pins.
Tits, great and little, and Nuthatches, if there be any in the
neighbourhood, will soon discover them, and if once attracted may thus
be induced to pay daily visits to so productive a garden. A Great Tit
of unusual intelligence, which frequents my garden at the present
time, has been frequently observed to draw up by its claws a walnut
suspended by a string from the bough of an apple-tree, and to rifle
its contents, being itself all the while leisurely perched on the
twig, and keeping the nut firm by a dexterous use of its claws. A
charge, amounting to a grave accusation against the Great Tit, and one
which cannot be palliated by the plea that he has accomplices, is,
that when driven by hunger and he has the opportunity, he attacks
other small and weakly birds, splits their skulls by means of his
strong, sharp beak, and picks out their brains. One story in
particular I find, of a Great Tit having been placed in a well-filled
aviary. In the course of a single night, he had killed every one of
his companions, with the exception of a Quail, and when he was
discovered, he was in the very act of dealing to this the _coup de
grâce_. His skill and discrimination in pecking holes in the sunniest
side of ripe apples and pears are well known; but to this reward for
his services in destroying caterpillars he is justly entitled.

The Great Tit builds its nest generally in the hole of a tree,
employing as materials moss and leaves, and, for the lining, hair and
feathers; but as its habits lead it to our gardens, it comes into
close contact with human beings and becomes familiar with them. Hence
it occasionally builds its nest in quaint places, which bear ever so
distant a resemblance to its natural haunts. An unused pump affords it
an excellent harbour; and the drawer of an old table, left in an
outhouse, has been found thus occupied.

The notes of the Great Tit are various, but not musical. Its spring
song must be familiar to every one; though not every one who hears it
knows who is the musician. It consists of but two notes, repeated
frequently, and sounding as if made by a bird alternately drawing in
and sending out its breath; both together give a fair imitation of the
sharpening of a saw. Besides this, it indulges in a variety of chirps,
twitters, and cheeps, some angry, some deprecatory, and some pert,
which a practised ear only can refer to their proper author.


Crown of the head blue, encircled with white; cheeks white,
bordered with dark blue; back olive-green; wings and tail
bluish; greater coverts and secondaries tipped with white;
breast and abdomen yellow, traversed by a dark blue line.
Length four inches and a half; breadth seven inches and a
half. Eggs as in the preceding, but smaller.

The Blue or Tom Tit so closely resembles the Great Tit in its habits,
that, with trifling exceptions, a description of one would be equally
applicable to the other. Though much smaller than his relative, the
Tom Tit is equally brave and pugnacious, and is even more quarrelsome,
for he will fight with birds of his own kind; and the Great Tit, if
obliged to contest with him the possession of a prize, retires from
the field. His food, too, consists principally of insects, but he is
also very partial to meat. This taste leads him much to the
neighbourhood of houses and other places where he can indulge his
carnivorous propensities. A dog-kennel, with its usual accompaniment
of carrion, is a favourite resort, and there are probably few
butchers' shops in country villages which he does not frequently
visit. A bit of bacon suspended from the branch of a tree is a great
attraction. He evinces little fear of man, and will hunt about the
trees in our gardens without seeming to notice the presence of a
stranger. He frequently pays visits, too, to roses trained against
cottages, and will occasionally flutter against the glass to secure a
spider or gnat that he has detected while passing. His power of
grasping is very great. I have seen him cling to the moulding of a
window for several minutes, without relinquishing his hold, though the
projecting surface was merely a smooth beading. All this while he was
engaged in tearing to pieces the cocoon which some caterpillar had
constructed in a crevice; and so intent was he on his occupation, that
he took no notice of the tenants of the room, though they were only a
few feet distant from him. He is more frequently seen on the ground
than either of the other species, and where it is the custom to throw
out crumbs and the scrapings of plates, for the benefit of little
birds, the Blue Tit rarely fails to present itself among Sparrows and

The Tom Tit builds its nest of moss, and lines it with hair, wool, and
feathers. This it places in a hole, either in a wall or tree, and is
at so great pains to combine comfort and security for its brood, that
it has been known to excavate, in a decayed stump, a chamber large
enough for its nest, and to carry away the chips in its beak to some
distant place, lest, we may suppose, they should betray its retreat.
More frequently, however, it selects a natural hollow, as, for
instance, the stump of a small tree in a hedge, of which all the inner
part is decayed; nor does it despise human appliances if they will
answer its purpose; a disused pump, a bottle, or a flower-pot, have
all been known to serve its turn. It lays seven or eight eggs, but a
nest containing eighteen is on record; and in defence of its family,
shows great courage. If a nest be molested, the bird, instead of
endeavouring to escape, retains its place and makes an unpleasant
hissing noise, and if this be not enough to deter the intruder, pecks
his fingers with great vigour. Hence it has received the popular name
of 'Billy Biter'. As a songster, it does not rank high: yet it has
some variety of notes, which it utters in short snatches, expressive
rather than musical, as if the bird were trying to talk rather than to


Crown of the head, throat, and front of the neck black; cheeks
and nape white; upper parts grey; wings bluish grey, with two
white bands; under parts white, tinged with grey. Length four
inches and a half; breadth nearly eight. Eggs like the last.

This and the following species resemble each other so closely in size,
habits, general hue and note, that at a distance it is difficult to
distinguish them. There are, however, strong points of difference; the
head and neck of the present species being glossy black, with a patch
of pure white on the nape of the neck and on the cheeks, while the
head of the Marsh Tit is of a dull sooty black, without any admixture
of white, nor is there a white spot on the cheeks. The Cole Tit is in
many districts a common bird, inhabiting woods and hedgerows, and
feeding on insects, for which it hunts with unceasing activity among
the branches and twigs of trees. Its note is less varied than that of
the Blue Tit, but sweeter in tone. It builds its nest in the holes of
trees and walls, of moss, hair, and feathers, and lays six or seven


Forehead, crown, head, and nape black; upper parts grey; wings
dark grey, lighter at the edges; cheeks, throat, and breast
dull white. Dimensions and eggs as in the last.

As has been said, the Marsh Tit and Cole Tit are so much alike that it
requires a sharp eye to distinguish them at a distance. On a closer
inspection, however, the characters mentioned in the preceding
paragraph become apparent, and there can be no question that they are
distinct species. The Marsh Tit is a bird of common occurrence,
resident south of the Forth, being in some places less abundant, in
others more so than the Cole Tit, while in others, again, the two are
equally frequent. In those districts with which I am myself most
familiar, it is hard to say which kind preponderates. Though it freely
resorts to woods and plantations remote from water, it prefers,
according to Montagu, low, wet ground, where old willow-trees abound,
in the holes of which it often makes its nest. Its note, I have
already observed, is very like that of the Cole Tit, being less harsh
than that either of the Blue or Great Tit. The peculiar double note,
which I know no other way of describing than by comparing it to the
syllables '_if-he_', rapidly uttered, and repeated in imitation of a
sob, characterizes, in a more or less marked degree, the spring song
of all four. Another characteristic of the same species is, that all
the members of a brood appear to keep much together for several months
after they are fledged. At the approach of winter, they break up their
societies, and are for the most part solitary till the return of
spring. The Marsh Tit, like the Tom Tit, has been observed to enlarge
the hole which it has selected for its nest, and to carry the chips in
its bill to a distance, and it is equally courageous in defence of its
eggs and young.


Feathers of the crown elongated and capable of being erected,
black, edged with white; cheeks and sides of the neck white;
throat, collar, and a streak across the temples black; all the
other upper parts reddish brown; lower parts white, faintly
tinged with red. Length four inches and three-quarters. Eggs
white spotted with blood-red.

'The Crested Tit', is a solitary retired species, inhabiting only
gloomy forests, particularly those which abound with evergreens. On
the European Continent it is found in Denmark, Sweden, Russia,
Switzerland, and some parts of France. In the large pine tracts in the
north of Scotland, it is said to be not uncommon, and it used to be
found also in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, but has been seldom
observed in England. Its food consists of insects, berries of the
juniper, and seeds of evergreens. It builds its nest in hollow trees,
or in the deserted nests of squirrels and crows, and lays as many as
eight eggs.



Head bluish grey; between the bill and eye a tuft of pendant
black feathers prolonged into a pointed moustache; throat and
neck greyish white; breast and abdomen white, tinged with
yellow and pink; upper parts light orange-brown; wings
variegated with white, black, and red; tail long,
orange-brown, the outer feathers variegated with white and
black. In the _female_ the moustache is of the same colour as
the cheek, and the grey on the head is absent. Length six
inches. Eggs white, with a few wavy lines of dark red.

This pretty bird is of very local occurrence, being found in
considerable numbers in several marshy districts where reeds abound,
but in others being totally unknown. Their habits resemble those of
the true Tits, but instead of spending their lives in trees, they
confine themselves to the marshes, and are constantly employed in
running up and down the stems of the reeds, hunting for their food,
which consists of small molluscs (or water-snails) and the seeds of
the reeds. Like the Tits, too, they are sociable, always being
observed in pairs or families; not congregating like Sparrows for the
sake of mutual protection, but seemingly from the pure love of each
other's company. A writer in the _Magazine of Natural History_ gives
the following account of their habits: - 'I was told that some of these
birds had been seen in a large piece of reeds below Barking Creek; and
being desirous of observing them in their haunts, I went, accompanied
by a person and a dog, to the above-named place, on a cold and windy
morning; the reed-cutters having commenced their operations, I was
fearful of deferring my visit, lest my game might be driven away.
Arrived on our ground, we traversed it some time without success, and
were about to leave it, when our attention was roused by the alarm-cry
of the bird. Looking up, we saw eight or ten of these beautiful
creatures on the wing, just topping the reeds over our heads,
uttering, in full chorus, their forcibly musical note, which resembles
the monosyllable _ping!_ pronounced first slow and single, then two or
three times in a more hurried manner, uttered in a clear and ringing,
though soft tone, which well corresponds with the beauty and delicacy
of the bird. Their flights were short and low, only sufficient to
clear the reeds, on the seedy tops of which they alight to feed,
hanging, like most of their tribe, with the head and back downwards.
After some time, we were fortunate enough to shoot one, a male, in
fine plumage. I held it in my hand when scarcely dead. Nothing could
exceed the beauty of the eye; the bright orange of the iris,
surrounded by the deep glossy black of the moustaches and streak
above, receives additional brilliancy from the contrast, and struck me
as a masterpiece of colour and neatness.' These specimens were
observed in the month of December. Towards the end of April the
Bearded Tit begins building its nest. This is composed externally of
the dead leaves of reeds and sedges, and lined with the feathery tops
of reed. It is generally placed in a tuft of coarse grass or rushes
near the ground on the margin of the dikes, in the fen; sometimes
among the reeds that are broken down, but never suspended between the
stems. Two nests, described by Yarrell, were composed entirely of
dried bents, the finer ones forming the lining; and others, increasing
in substance, made up the exterior. The eggs were from seven to eight
in number, rather smaller than those of the Great Tit, and less
pointed, white, and sparingly marked with pale red lines or scratches.
The same author observes that 'it is very abundant in Holland; and
numbers are brought alive from that country to the London markets for
sale; the birds being attractive in confinement from the beauty of the
plumage, their graceful form and general sprightliness.' I have seen
it stated that the moustaches, from which the bird takes its name, are
movable, and that their play gives a peculiar animation to the
expression of the bird's face, but I have never had an opportunity of
verifying this remark. They have been increasing in the Norfolk Broads
of late years.



Upper plumage bluish grey; a black streak across the eye;
cheeks and throat white; under plumage dull orange red; outer
tail-feathers black, with a white spot near the end, tipped
with grey, the two central ones grey; beak bluish black, the
lower mandible white at the base; feet light brown. Length six
inches. Eggs white, spotted with two shades of purplish red.

Standing, one winter's day, by the side of a pond, near a row of tall
elms, and watching some boys sliding, I heard the few short twittering
notes of a Nuthatch overhead, and it at once occurred to me how I
should describe the note in such a way that it should be infallibly
recognized. It is precisely like the sound made by a pebble thrown so
as to bound along ice. This is the winter note. On fine sunny days in
February it begins to add to its simple call a more musical sound,
approaching a whistle. Further on in the season, the twitter is heard
no more, and is exchanged altogether for a not unmelodious whistle,
several times repeated, rarely protracted into a bubbling sound, such
as it might be supposed to make if it were rattling a pea in its
throat. On these occasions it is usually perched in the branches of a
tree, and may be distinguished by its bluish grey back, dull red
breast, and short tail. The Nuthatch is not an accomplished musician,
and claims, therefore, to be pointed out by other characteristics.
This is no difficult task to undertake; for no British bird is more
decidedly marked in its habits. In the first place, it has strong
clasping claws, which admirably adapt it for climbing; and though it
does not possess the rigid tail of the Woodpeckers to aid it in this
operation, it has a short tail which never comes in the way. In most
counties of England where old timber is (except the extreme western
and northern, where it is rare) any one walking through a woodland
district and keeping a sharp look-out may observe a bluish bird,
somewhat larger than a Sparrow, creeping by starts up the trunk of any
rough barked tree. It is so intent on its occupation - that of
searching for insects in the crevices of the bark - that it takes no
notice of the observer, but pursues its course after a method of its
own, but according to no rule that we can detect. Now it disappears on
one side of the trunk and then shows itself a few inches higher on the
other; now it is lost to sight for a longer interval - one would think
it was hiding, or had taken its departure - but no, there it is again,
creeping, back downwards, along a horizontal branch; arrived at the
extremity it utters a double twitter, perhaps, and flies either to a
new tree or to another branch of the same. This time it creeps from
the extremity of a branch towards the hole of the tree, equally at
ease whatever may chance to be its position, and no more affected by
gravity than a fly. Arrived at the main stem it keeps on its course,
still advancing by starts, and accompanying every movement, as,
indeed, it has been doing all along, by an almost imperceptible
twinkling of its wings, something like that which has gained for the
Hedge Sparrow the sobriquet of 'Shuffle-wing'. That no other bird but
the Nuthatch has the power of creeping down a tree I cannot say, for I
once observed a Tree-creeper descend for a few inches but no other
British bird does habitually hunt after this method; by this habit
consequently it may be discriminated. Equally comfortable in all
positions, if it has any choice, or desires to rest, it clings to the
upright trunk of a tree, head downwards.

The Nuthatch is singular, too, in its mode of nidification. The only
nest which I have thoroughly examined was built in the hollow of an
apple-tree, and was composed entirely of scraps of birch-bark. The
_Naturalist_ contains a description of one made of beech-bark, though
probably here, too, _birch_ is meant; others are described as being
made of dry leaves and moss: but, whatever the materials may be, the
nest itself is invariably placed in the hole of a tree. There are good
reasons for believing that in case of necessity the bird enlarges the
cavity to make its dwelling sufficiently commodious, chips of wood
having been sometimes found in the vicinity; but what makes the
Nuthatch singular among British birds is, that it not only enacts the
carpenter when occasion arises, but adds the vocation of plasterer.

In the case above alluded to I do not know that its powers were called
out in either of these capacities. As a plasterer it had no occasion
to work, for the opening to the hole was so small that it required to
be cut away in order to admit a boy's hand, but many instances are
recorded when it selected a hole with a large orifice which is
contracted by lining it with a thick coat of mud and gravel. This
parapet, constructed either to keep out bulky intruders or to keep in
the young birds, if injured or destroyed will be found restored after
a short lapse of time; and so devoted a mother is the hen bird that
she will suffer herself to be taken rather than desert her brood. I
have rarely noticed a Nuthatch on the ground during winter, but in
spring and summer it adds to its diet terrestrial insects and worms
and is said also to be partial to red currants - not a singular taste.
But the fruit which has an especial charm for the Nuthatch is that
from which it derives its name.[8] Its keen eye detects the ripening
filbert in the garden or orchard before the hazels in the wood are
beginning to turn brown, and it then despises less dainty food. One by
one the clusters are pecked open and their contents purloined,
carried, perhaps, to some convenient storehouse for future
banquetings. At any rate the owner of filbert trees where these birds
abound has need to keep a daily watch, or his share in the produce
will prove exceedingly small. I have seen trees bearing a fine crop of
husks but nearly all empty. The proprietor had suffered them to remain
till they were ripe, the Nuthatches had taken a different view of the
case and preferred them unripe rather than not at all. But what, it
may be asked, can a bird little larger than a Sparrow find to do with
a filbert, or even a hazel-nut? Here we have a fresh distinctive
feature in the biography of the Nuthatch. The bird carries off its
prey in its beak, and when in want of a meal wedges the nut in the
crevice of some rough-barked tree, such as an oak, an elm, or a
walnut. This done, he takes his stand, head downwards, above the nut,
throws back his head to gather force for a blow, and then brings it
violently forwards many times in rapid succession, aided, too, by the
weight of his body and a clapping of the wings in exact time with each
stroke. By dint of repeated blows thus dealt by his strong beak, even
the hard shell of a filbert at last gives way; a small hole is the
result, which is soon enlarged, and the kernel becomes the
hardly-earned prize. Any one who will take the trouble to examine the
trunks of old oaks and elms will be sure to find shells still
remaining wedged into the bark, and if during a ramble in the woods in
autumn or winter, or even in early spring, he should happen to hear a
smart tapping, let him follow the direction of the sound, and he will
stand a fair chance of discovering the clever little nutcracker at
work. If in the course of his operations the bird happens to dislodge
a nut, so nimble is he that before it reaches the ground he will have
caught it in his beak. Acorns and the nuts of yew-berries, and
probably other hard seeds, are similarly treated by the Nuthatch;
cherrystones, I suspect, are beyond his powers, yielding only to the
massive beak of the Hawfinch. The Nuthatch may easily be induced to
visit gardens by wedging hazel or Spanish nuts into the bark of trees;
a walnut fastened on by a pin is equally effectual. But no more
enticing bait can be set than a lump of fat meat, which should be tied
tightly by a string to the horizontal branch of an apple-tree or any
other tree, a good view of which can be commanded from the house. If
the weather be severe and the ground covered with snow, it is
surprising what a variety of birds will come to partake of the unknown
food. Robins, Sparrows, Tits of several kinds, Chaffinches, and others

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 8 of 39)