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flock for a share, not without sundry bickerings, alarms, and
semblances of fighting. But should a Nuthatch happen to appear, all
retire until his highness is satisfied. He enters upon the scene in a
way of his own. Other birds alight on a bough or twig at some little
distance from the banquet and make gradual advances. Not so the
Nuthatch; he darts forward in a horizontal line, as if propelled by a
missile, sticks by his claws to whatever part of the branch he happens
to touch, not caring in what attitude he alights, stops for a second
as if to assure himself in what direction his head is pointing, creeps
nimbly round to the morsel, takes his stand on it and hammers away
until he has separated a large lump. This he then seizes in his beak
and retires to a place of seclusion, leaving the inferior animals to
squabble to their hearts' content over the crumbs which he has
dislodged, and presently he discomfits them again by a reappearance.
What his powers as a combatant may be I cannot say; great, it may be
supposed, for no one is inclined to do him battle, and he is not
sociably disposed even towards those of his own kind.

[8] From the French _hacher_, 'to chop'; hence also 'hatchet'.


[Illustration:

Tree Creeper [F] Nuthatch [M]

Bearded Reedling [M] [F] Wren

[_p. 46._]]


[Illustration:

Rose coloured Starling [F] Dipper [M]

Starling [M] Golden Oriole [F] [M]]


FAMILY CERTHIIDÆ

THE TREE CREEPER
CERTHIA FAMILIÁRIS

Upper plumage mottled with yellowish brown, dark brown, and
white; a pale streak over the eyes; throat and breast
buff-white, becoming dusky towards the tail; wings brown
tipped with white and barred with white brown, and dull
yellow; tail-feathers reddish brown, stiff and pointed. Length
five inches, breadth seven inches. Eggs white, with small
yellowish red spots.

The Tree Creeper, though a common bird, is less familiarly known than
many others of much rarer occurrence, yet, if once observed, can be
confounded with no other. In size it ranks with the Tits, Willow Wren,
etc., but is less likely to attract notice than any of these, as it
never alights on the ground, nor perches on the small twig of a tree.
Its note, too, is weak, simple, and unpretending, amounting to no more
than an occasional '_cheep_', which it utters from time to time while
hunting for food, and while performing its short flights. Any one,
however, who wishes to see the bird, and knows what to search for, can
scarcely fail of success if he looks well about him during a stroll
through almost any wood of full-grown trees. Half-way up the trunk of
a rugged elm or oak he will observe a small portion of bark, as it
were, in motion; the motion, and not the colour, betrays the presence
of a small brown bird, which is working its way by a succession of
irregular starts up the trunk. Frequently it stops for a few seconds,
and is evidently pecking at some small insect, quite noiselessly
however. Its beak is not adapted for hammering; it confines its
attention therefore to such insects as live on the surface of the
bark. It utters a low '_cheep_', and proceeds, not in a straight line
up the tree, but turning to the right or left according as it descries
a probable lurking-place of its prey: presently it disappears on the
other side of the trunk, and again comes in view a few feet higher up.
Now it reaches a horizontal branch; along this it proceeds in like
manner, being indifferent whether it clings sideways, or hangs with
its back downwards. Arrived at the smaller subdivisions of the bough
it ceases to hunt; but, without remaining an instant to rest, flies to
the base of another bough, or more probably, to another tree,
alighting a few feet only from the ground, and at once beginning a new
ascent. This mode of life it never varies: from morning to night, in
winter and in summer, it is always climbing up the boles of trees, and
when it has reached the top, flying to the base of others. On one
solitary occasion I observed one retrace its steps for a few inches,
and stand for a second or two with its head downwards; but this is a
most unusual position, as indeed may be inferred from the structure of
its tail, the feathers of which are rigid, and more or less soiled by
constant pressure against the bark. It frequently visits orchards and
gardens in the country, displaying little fear of man, preferring
perhaps to hunt on the far side of a tree when any one is looking on;
but not very particular even about this, and certainly never thinking
it necessary to decamp because it is being watched. To this
indifference to the presence of human beings, it owes its name
'_familiaris_', and not, as it might be imagined, to any fondness for
their society, which, in fact, it neither courts nor shuns. It is a
quiet inoffensive creature, congregating with no other birds, and
being rarely, except in spring, seen in company with even its own
species. It builds its nest of small roots and twigs, scraps of bark
and grass, and lines it with wool and feathers. A hole in a pollard
willow is a favourite place for a nest; in default of this a hollow in
any other tree is selected, or the space between the stump of a tree
and a detached portion of bark; and it chooses the straw eaves of some
shed. It lays from six to nine eggs, which are exceedingly like those
of the smaller Tits.


FAMILY TROGLODYTIDÆ

THE WREN
TRÓGLODYTES PÁRVULUS

Upper plumage reddish brown with transverse dusky bars; quills
barred alternately with black and reddish brown; tail dusky,
barred with black; over the eyes a narrow light streak; under
parts light reddish brown; the sides and thighs marked with
dark streaks. Length three inches and three-quarters; breadth
six inches and a half. Eggs white with a few yellowish red
spots towards the larger end, sometimes without spots.

Throughout the whole of England the Wren is invested with a sanctity
peculiar to itself and the Redbreast. In the west of England I was
familiar, as a child, with the doggerel rhymes:

Whoso kills a Robin or a Wran
Shall never prosper boy nor man.

In the north it is protected by a similar shield:

Malisons, malisons, mair than ten,
Who harries the queen of heaven's Wren.

In the Isle of Man a legend exists that there 'once on a time' lived a
wicked enchantress who practised her spells on the warriors of Mona,
and thereby stripped the country of its chivalry. A doughty knight at
length came to the rescue, and was on the point of surprising her and
putting her to death, when she suddenly transformed herself into a
Wren and flew through his fingers. Every year, on Christmas Day, she
is compelled to reappear in the island under the form of a Wren, with
the sentence hanging over her, that she is to perish by human hands.
On that day, consequently, every year, a grand onslaught is made by
troops of idle boys and men on every Wren which can be discovered.
Such as are killed are suspended from a bough of holly and carried
about in triumph on the following day (St. Stephen's Day), the bearers
singing a rude song descriptive of the previous day's hunt. The song
is preserved in Quiggin's _Guide to the Isle of Man_, as it was sung
in 1853; and, strange to say, it agrees almost word for word with a
song which was current twenty years ago, and is so perhaps now, among
the rustic population of Devonshire, though the actual hunt has in the
latter case fallen into disuse.

In several parts of Ireland, especially the south, there still exists
a legend to the effect that a party of Irish soldiers were on the
point of surprising their enemies (either Danes or Royalists, for the
story varies) who lay fatigued and asleep, when a Wren perched on the
drum and awoke the sentinels. An unhappy legend for the poor bird. For
some weeks previous to Christmas, peasants assemble to revenge the
treachery of the offender in the persons of his descendants. Every
Wren that is seen is hunted to death, and the bodies are carefully
saved till St. Stephen's Day, when they are suspended from a decorated
holly-bough and carried from house to house by the captors,
accompanied by a song of which, in Connemara, this is the burden:

The Wran, the Wran, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his family's great;
So come out, kind ladies, and give us a trate.

The version of the song in Hall's _Ireland_, as it is sung in the
neighbourhood of Cork, scarcely differs from the above, and a similar
one may be heard on the same day within twenty miles of Dublin. That a
custom so absurdly singular should exist in places so remote, is in
itself evidence that it is of ancient origin, though whence derived it
would be idle to inquire.

The true story of the Wren is simple enough. It is a minute bird of
unpretending plumage, distinguished easily by its erect tail and its
habit of hiding in bushes and hedges, not clinging like the Creeper to
the perpendicular or horizontal bough of a tree, but hopping from twig
to twig, and occasionally taking a short direct flight to another
place of concealment, but rarely exposing itself by doing more than
this. When hunting for its food, which is considered to be almost
exclusively insects, it searches diligently holes and crannies of all
kinds, and in all substances. I have known one make its way habitually
through a zinc pipe into a greenhouse, and do much service there by
picking aphides from the slender stalks of herbaceous plants, which
bent into the form of an arch under even its trifling weight. While
thus occupied it has suffered me to come within arm's length, but has
taken no notice of me. Generally, it displays little fear of man; but,
though in winter it resorts to the neighbourhood of houses in quest of
food, it shows no disposition, like the Redbreast, to enter on terms
of intimacy, nor is it sociable either with its own kind or other
birds. Its call-note is a simple '_chip_, _chip_', which often betrays
its vicinity when it is itself concealed from sight. Its proper song
is full, loud, clear, and powerful, rapidly executed and terminating
in a trill or shake, followed by two or three unimportant notes. This
it utters occasionally in autumn and winter. About the middle of March
the song of the Wren is among the most frequent sounds of the country.
At this season one may often hear in a garden the roundelay of a Wren
poured forth from the concealment of a low shrub; and, immediately
that it is completed, a precisely similar lay bursts forth from
another bush some twenty yards off. No sooner is this ended than it is
answered, and so the vocal duel proceeds, the birds never interfering
with each other's song, but uttering in turns the same combinations
and arrangement of notes, just as if they were reading off copies of a
score printed from the same type.[9]

But the season is coming on when the Wren has to be occupied with
other things than singing down a rival. Nest-making is with this bird
something more than the laying of a few sticks across one another. It
is not every one who has at once the time, the inclination and the
steadiness of purpose to watch, from beginning to end, the completion
of a Wren's nest. To most people, one or other of these qualifications
is wanting, and to not a few all three. A friend of Mr. Macgillivray,
however, performed the task, and furnished him with a most
satisfactory detailed account of what passed under his observation.
The nest was commenced at seven o'clock in the morning of the
thirtieth of May, by the female bird's placing the decayed leaf of a
lime-tree in the cleft of a Spanish juniper. The male took no part in
the work, but regaled his busy partner by singing to her all day long.
At one period of the day she brought in bundles of leaves four, five,
and even six times in the space of ten minutes. At other times, when
greater care was needed in the selection of materials, she was
sometimes absent for eight or ten minutes, but such was her industry
that at seven o'clock the whole of the external workmanship was
finished, the materials being dry leaves, felted together with moss.
On the following day both birds joined in the work, beginning as early
as half-past three o'clock in the morning, the materials being now
moss and a few feathers. So the work proceeded, day after day, until
the eighth of June, when the structure was completed, being a compact
ball of dried leaves felted with moss and thickly lined with finer
moss and feathers, domed over and having a small circular opening on
one side. Dried leaves form the exterior of most Wrens' nests, unless
they are placed in situations where such an appearance would attract
the attention of a passer-by. On a mossy bank, the outside would
probably consist of moss; under the root of a tree, of twigs; in a
hay-stack, of hay, and so on, the bird being guided by its instinct to
select the least conspicuous material. The number of eggs laid is
usually six, but as many as fifteen or sixteen have been observed. Any
one residing in the country, who has given his attention to birds'
nests, must have remarked what a large proportion of the Wrens' nests
which he has discovered are in an unfinished state and contain no
eggs. These are called 'cock' nests. In winter wrens resort in numbers
to old nests and to holes in walls for mutual warmth and shelter.

[9] I have heard the same musical contest in August.


FAMILY CINCLIDÆ

THE DIPPER
CINCLUS AQUÁTICUS

Upper plumage dark brown, tinged with ash; throat and breast
pure white; abdomen brownish red; bill blackish; feet
horn-colour. _Female_ - colours nearly the same, but of a dingy
hue. Length seven inches. Eggs pure white.

Any one who has wandered by the mountain rivers of Scotland, North
Wales, or Derbyshire, can have scarcely failed to notice a bird,
somewhat less than a Blackbird, black above, with white throat and
breast, dart with rapid and direct flight from a low rock on the
river's bank, and alight on a wet mossy stone rising but a few inches
above the water, where the stream runs swiftest and the spray sparkles
brightest. But for the roar of the torrent you might hear his song, a
low melodious strain, which he often carries far on into the winter.
His movements while he is thus perched are peculiar; a jerking upwards
of the tail and dipping forward of the head remind us of the Wren, a
bird with which he has, however, nothing really in common. Water
Thrush is one of his names; but he is better known by the names,
Dipper and Water Ouzel. Though neither furnished with web-feet like
the Ducks, nor with long legs like the Waders, the Dipper is decidedly
an aquatic bird, for he is never seen at any distance from a stream or
mountain tarn; in his habits he resembles no other of his tribe - a
water bird with a song - a song bird that wades, and swims. That he
should be so far only singular in his habits is not enough. Although
he is a wader he wades differently from other birds; and he uses his
wings like oars. The Dipper uses both legs and wings in search of
prey, examining the pebbles, feeding on molluscs and the larvæ of
insects. Mr. St. John is of opinion that it commits great havoc among
the spawn, 'uncovering the eggs, and leaving what it does not eat open
to the attack of eels and other fish, or liable to be washed away by
the current'. Mr. Macgillivray, on the contrary, states that he has
dissected a great number of individuals at all seasons of the year,
and has found no other substances in their stomachs but insects and
molluscs; he is therefore of opinion that the charge of destroying the
spawn of fish is unfounded. The latter opinion obtains now.

I might greatly extend my sketch of this interesting bird, but I have
space only to add, that it builds a compact nest of moss, felted so as
to be impervious to water, and lined with dead leaves, under a bank
overhanging a stream, in the hole of a wall near a mill-dam, or
between two rocks under a cascade, but always in such a situation that
both old and young birds can throw themselves into the water
immediately on being alarmed. I have read of one instance in which a
nest was built under a waterfall in such a position, that the bird
could not go to and fro without penetrating every time a vertical
sheet of water. The nest is domed, and can be entered only by a small
hole in front. It contains usually five or six whitish eggs, somewhat
smaller than those of the Thrush.


FAMILY ORIOLIDÆ

THE GOLDEN ORIOLE
ORIÓLUS GÁLBULA

Plumage golden yellow; lore, wings and tail black, the tail
yellow at the tip. _Female_: - olive green above, greyish white
tinged with yellow beneath, and streaked with greyish brown;
wings dark brown, the quills edged with olive grey; tail
olive, tinged with dark brown. Length ten inches. Eggs white
with a few isolated dark brown or black spots.

This brilliant bird, resembling the Thrushes in form and habits, but
apparelled in the plumage of the Tropics, would seem to have no right
to a place among British birds, so little is its gorgeous livery in
keeping with the sober hues of our other feathered denizens. There
can, however, be no doubt of the propriety of placing it among our
visitors, though it comes but seldom and makes no long stay. It is a
visitor to the southern sea-board counties and often seen in Cornwall
and the Scilly Isles. Were it left unmolested, and allowed to breed in
our woods, it is probable that it would return with its progeny, and
become of comparatively common occurrence; but though there are on
record one or two creditable exceptions, when real naturalists have
postponed the glory of shooting and adding to their collection a
British specimen, to the pleasure of watching its ways on British
soil, yet its biography is not to be written from materials collected
in this country. On the European continent it is a regular visitor,
though even there it makes no long stay, arriving in the beginning of
May, and taking its departure early in autumn. It is most common in
Spain, Southern France, and Italy, but is not unfrequent in many other
parts of France, in Belgium, and the south of Germany, and Hungary.

'His note', says Cuthbert Collingwood, 'is a very loud whistle, which
may be heard at a great distance, but in richness equalling the flute
stop of a fine-toned organ. This has caused it to be called _Loriot_
in France. But variety there is none in his song, as he never utters
more than three notes consecutively, and those at intervals of half a
minute or a minute. Were it not for its fine tone, therefore, his song
would be as monotonous as that of the Missel Thrush, which in
modulation it greatly resembles.'

The nest of the Oriole is described as a marvel of architectural
skill, excelling in elegance of form, richness of materials, and
delicacy of workmanship combined with strength. It is overlaid
externally, like that of the Chaffinch, with the silvery white lichen
of fruit trees, which gives it the appearance of being a part of the
branch which supports it. But the mansion of the Oriole is more
skilfully concealed than that even of the Chaffinch. The latter is
placed _on_ a branch, of which it increases the apparent size, and so
attracts attention. The nest of the Oriole, on the contrary, is
suspended between the two forks of a horizontal branch, which
intercept the side view of it. The materials employed are the lichen
above mentioned, wool, cobwebs, and feathers, but all of a white hue.
When not placed in a fruit tree, it is attached by a kind of cordage
to the twigs of a poplar or birch tree, or even to a bunch of
mistletoe, hanging in mid-air like the car of a balloon. A cradle thus
sedulously constructed we should expect to find watched with unusual
solicitude. And such is the case; it is defended most valiantly
against the attacks of marauding birds, and so devoted is the mother
bird that she has been known to suffer herself to be carried away
sitting on her eggs, and to die of starvation. Surely a bird so
beautiful and so melodious, so skilful an architect and so tender a
nurse, deserves rather to be encouraged than exterminated. Nests have
been found in several of our counties, more especially in Kent. The
plumage of the female bird differs considerably from that of the male
in richness of tint, and the young of both sexes resemble the female.


FAMILY STURNIDÆ

THE STARLING
STURNUS VULGARIS

Plumage black, with brilliant purple and green reflections,
the upper feathers tipped with cream-colour; under
tail-coverts edged with white; beak yellow; feet flesh-colour,
tinged with brown. _Female_ - spotted below as well as above.
_Young_ - uniform ash-brown, without spots. Length eight and a
half inches; width fifteen inches. Eggs uniform pale greenish
blue.

The Starling is a citizen of the world. From the North Cape to the
Cape of Good Hope, and from Iceland to Kamtschatka, he is almost
everywhere at home, and too familiar with the dealings of man to come
within a dangerous distance of his arm, though he fully avails himself
of all the advantages which human civilization offers, having
discovered, long ago, that far more grubs and worms are to be procured
on a newly-mown meadow than on the bare hillside, and that the flavour
of May-dukes and Coroons immeasurably excels that of the wild cherries
in the wood. That dove-cots, holes in walls, and obsolete water-spouts
are convenient resting-places for a nest, appears to be a traditional
piece of knowledge, and that where sheep and oxen are kept, there
savoury insects abound, is a fact generally known, and improved on
accordingly. So, in suburban gardens, where even the Redbreast and
Tits are unknown, Starlings are periodical visitors and afford much
amusement by their shambling gait, and industrious boring on the lawn
for larvæ - in cherry orchards they are regarded with terror, on
account of the amount of mischief they will accomplish in a short
space of time; and in the sheep-fold they are doubtless most cordially
welcomed and their services thankfully received, as they rid the poor
tormented animals of many an evil 'tick'.

The Starling is a handsome bird; seen at a distance it appears to be
of a uniform black hue, but on closer inspection its sable coat is
found to be lustrous with reflections of purple and green, and every
feather is tipped with white, or cream-colour - a mantle of shot-silk
garnished with pearls.

Except during the nesting season, a Starling is rarely seen alone;
most commonly perhaps they are observed in parties of from six to
twelve, hunting in orchards or meadows for whichsoever article of
their diet happens to be in season. Wherever a colony of Rooks,
Jackdaws, or Rock Pigeons has established itself, there most probably,
or somewhere in the neighbourhood, a large party will assemble to
roost, and will attend the others on all their foraging expeditions.
In spring the flocks, small and great, break up into pairs, each
withdrawing to a convenient nesting place, which is sometimes a hole
in a tree, sometimes a building, a cliff, or a cave. The nest itself
is a simple structure, being composed of dry grass and roots, and
contains generally five eggs. At this season the male bird adds to the
chirping and twittering notes of both sexes a soft, and not unmusical
note, which resembles more closely than any other sound with which I
am acquainted the piping of a boatswain's whistle, and it is not
uncommon to hear a party of choristers thus engaged, perched meanwhile
on some high tree, even while incubation is going on. Starlings, also,
mimic the notes of other singers. The breeding season over, they
become nomad in their habits. Many families unite into a flock, and
explore the country far and wide for suitable feeding places, their
diet being, up to this time, exclusively worms and insects. But no
sooner does the fruit begin to ripen in the cherry districts, than the
flocks, now assembled in countless multitudes, descend on the trees,
and, if not observed and scared away, appropriate the whole crop.

Newly-fledged Starlings are so different from their parents, that they
might be mistaken for a different species. The plumage is of a uniform
greyish brown, lighter beneath. It is not till the end of July or the
beginning of August that the adult plumage begins to show itself, and
then the young birds present a singular appearance, as the glossy



Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 9 of 39)