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Ch. 10: Bird Life on the Downs

Great bustard--Stone curlew--Big hawks--Former abundance of the
raven--Dogs fed on carrion--Ravens fighting--Ravens' breeding-places
in Wilts--Great Ridge Wood ravens--Field-fare breeding in
Wilts--Pewit--Mistle-thrush--Magpie and turtledove--Gamekeepers and
magpies--Rooks and farmers--Starling, the shepherd's favourite
bird--Sparrowhawk and "brown thrush"

Wiltshire, like other places in England, has long been deprived of its
most interesting birds--the species that were best worth preserving. Its
great bustard, once our greatest bird--even greater than the golden and
sea eagles and the "giant crane" with its "trumpet sound" once heard in
the land--is now but a memory. Or a place name: Bustard Inn, no longer
an inn, is well known to the many thousands who now go to the mimic wars
on Salisbury Plain; and there is a Trappist monastery in a village on
the southernmost border of the county, which was once called, and is
still known to old men as, "Bustard Farm." All that Caleb Bawcombe knew
of this grandest bird is what his father had told him; and Isaac knew of
it only from hearsay, although it was still met with in South Wilts when
he was a young man.

The stone curlew, our little bustard with the long wings, big, yellow
eyes, and wild voice, still frequents the uncultivated downs, unhappily
in diminishing numbers. For the private collector's desire to possess
British-taken birds' eggs does not diminish; I doubt if more than one
clutch in ten escapes the searching eyes of the poor shepherds and
labourers who are hired to supply the cabinets. One pair haunted a
flinty spot at Winterbourne Bishop until a year or two ago; at other
points a few miles away I watched other pairs during the summer of 1909,
but in every instance their eggs were taken.

The larger hawks and the raven, which bred in all the woods and forests
of Wiltshire, have, of course, been extirpated by the gamekeepers. The
biggest forest in the county now affords no refuge to any hawk above the
size of a kestrel. Savernake is extensive enough, one would imagine, for
condors to hide in, but it is not so. A few years ago a buzzard made its
appearance there--just a common buzzard, and the entire surrounding
population went mad with excitement about it, and every man who
possessed a gun flew to the forest to join in the hunt until the
wretched bird, after being blazed at for two or three days, was brought
down. I heard of another case at Fonthill Abbey. Nobody could say what
this wandering hawk was--it was very big, blue above with a white breast
barred with black--a "tarrable" fierce-looking bird with fierce, yellow
eyes. All the gamekeepers and several other men with guns were in hot
pursuit of it for several days, until some one fatally wounded it, but
it could not be found where it was supposed to have fallen. A fortnight
later its carcass was discovered by an old shepherd, who told me the
story. It was not in a fit state to be preserved, but he described it to
me, and I have no doubt that it was a goshawk.

The raven survived longer, and the Shepherd Bawcombe talks about its
abundance when he was a boy, seventy or more years ago. His way of
accounting for its numbers at that time and its subsequent, somewhat
rapid disappearance greatly interested me.

We have seen his account of deer-stealing, by the villagers in those
brave, old, starvation days when Lord Rivers owned the deer and hunting
rights over a large part of Wiltshire, extending from Cranborne Chase to
Salisbury, and when even so righteous a man as Isaac Bawcombe was
tempted by hunger to take an occasional deer, discovered out of bounds.
At that time, Caleb said, a good many dogs used for hunting the deer
were kept a few miles from Winterbourne Bishop and were fed by the
keepers in a very primitive manner. Old, worn-out horses were bought and
slaughtered for the dogs. A horse would be killed and stripped of his
hide somewhere away in the woods, and left for the hounds to batten on
its flesh, tearing at and fighting over it like so many jackals. When
only partially consumed the carcass would become putrid; then another
horse would be killed and skinned at another spot perhaps a mile away,
and the pack would start feeding afresh there. The result of so much
carrion lying about was that ravens were attracted in numbers to the
place and were so numerous as to be seen in scores together. Later, when
the deer-hunting sport declined in the neighbourhood, and dogs were no
longer fed on carrion, the birds decreased year by year, and when Caleb
was a boy of nine or ten their former great abundance was but a memory.
But he remembers that they were still fairly common, and he had much to
say about the old belief that the raven "smells death," and when seen
hovering over a flock, uttering its croak, it is a sure sign that a
sheep is in a bad way and will shortly die.

One of his recollections of the bird may be given here. It was one of
those things seen in boyhood which had very deeply impressed him. One
fine day he was on the down with an elder brother, when they heard the
familiar croak and spied three birds at a distance engaged in a fight in
the air. Two of the birds were in pursuit of the third, and rose
alternately to rush upon and strike at their victim from above. They
were coming down from a considerable height, and at last were directly
over the boys, not more than forty or fifty feet from the ground; and
the youngsters were amazed at their fury, the loud, rushing sound of
their wings, as of a torrent, and of their deep, hoarse croaks and
savage, barking cries. Then they began to rise again, the hunted bird
trying to keep above his enemies, they in their turn striving to rise
higher still so as to rush down upon him from overhead; and in this way
they towered higher and higher, their barking cries coming fainter and
fainter back to earth, until the boys, not to lose sight of them, cast
themselves down flat on their backs, and, continuing to gaze up, saw
them at last no bigger than three "leetle blackbirds." Then they
vanished; but the boys, still lying on their backs, kept their eyes
fixed on the same spot, and by and by first one black speck reappeared,
then a second, and they soon saw that two birds were swiftly coming down
to earth. They fell swiftly and silently, and finally pitched upon the
down not more than a couple of hundred yards from the boys. The hunted
bird had evidently succeeded in throwing them off and escaping. Probably
it was one of their own young, for the ravens' habit is when their young
are fully grown to hunt them out of the neighbourhood, or, when they
cannot drive them off, to kill them.

There is no doubt that the carrion did attract ravens in numbers to this
part of Wiltshire, but it is a fact that up to that date--about
1830--the bird had many well-known, old breeding-places in the county.
The Rev. A. C. Smith, in his "Birds of Wiltshire," names twenty-three
breeding-places, no fewer than nine of them on Salisbury Plain; but at
the date of the publication of his work, 1887, only three of all these
nesting-places were still in use: South Tidworth, Wilton Park, and
Compton Park, Compton Chamberlain. Doubtless there were other ancient
breeding-places which the author had not heard of: one was at the Great
Ridge Wood, overlooking the Wylye valley, where ravens bred down to
about thirty-five or forty years ago. I have found many old men in that
neighbourhood who remember the birds, and they tell that the raven tree
was a great oak which was cut down about sixty years ago, after which
the birds built their nest in another tree not far away. A London friend
of mine, who was born in the neighbourhood of the Great Ridge Wood,
remembers the ravens as one of the common sights of the place when he
was a boy. He tells of an unlucky farmer in those parts whose sheep fell
sick and died in numbers, year after year, bringing him down to the
brink of ruin, and how his old head-shepherd would say, solemnly shaking
his head, "'Tis not strange--master, he shot a raven."

There was no ravens' breeding-place very near Winterbourne Bishop. Caleb
had "never heared tell of a nestie"; but he had once seen the nest of
another species which is supposed never to breed in this country. He was
a small boy at the time, when one day an old shepherd of the place going
out from the village saw Caleb, and calling to him said, "You're the boy
that likes birds; if you'll come with me, I'll show 'ee what no man ever
seed afore"; and Caleb, fired with curiosity, followed him away to a
distance from home, out from the downs, into the woods and to a place
where he had never been, where there were bracken and heath with birch
and thorn-trees scattered about. On cautiously approaching a clump of
birches they saw a big, thrush-like bird fly out of a large nest about
ten feet from the ground, and settle on a tree close by, where it was
joined by its mate. The old man pointed out that it was a felt or
fieldfare, a thrush nearly as big as the mistle-thrush but different in
colour, and he said that it was a bird that came to England in flocks in
winter from no man knows where, far off in the north, and always went
away before breeding-time. This was the only felt he had ever seen
breeding in this country, and he "didn't believe that no man had ever
seed such a thing before." He would not climb the tree to see the eggs,
or even go very near it, for fear of disturbing the birds.

This man, Caleb said, was a great one for birds: he knew them all, but
seldom said anything about them; he watched and found out a good deal
about them just for his private pleasure.

The characteristic species of this part of the down country, comprising
the parish of Winterbourne Bishop, are the pewit, magpie, turtledove,
mistle-thrush, and starling. The pewit is universal on the hills, but
will inevitably be driven away from all that portion of Salisbury Plain
used for military purposes. The mistle-thrush becomes common in summer
after its early breeding season is ended, when the birds in small flocks
resort to the downs, where they continue until cold weather drives them
away to the shelter of the wooded, low country.

In this neighbourhood there are thickets of thorn, holly, bramble, and
birch growing over hundreds of acres of down, and here the hill-magpie,
as it is called, has its chief breeding-ground, and is so common that
you can always get a sight of at least twenty birds in an afternoon's
walk. Here, too, is the metropolis of the turtledove, and the low sound
of its crooning is heard all day in summer, the other most common sound
being that of magpies--their subdued, conversational chatter and their
solo-singing, the chant or call which a bird will go on repeating for a
hundred times. The wonder is how the doves succeed in such a place in
hatching any couple of chalk-white eggs, placed on a small platform of
sticks, or of rearing any pair of young, conspicuous in their blue skins
and bright yellow down!

The keepers tell me they get even with these kill-birds later in the
year, when they take to roosting in the woods, a mile away in the
valley. The birds are waited for at some point where they are accustomed
to slip in at dark, and one keeper told me that on one evening alone
assisted by a friend he had succeeded in shooting thirty birds.

On Winterbourne Bishop Down and round the village the magpies are not
persecuted, probably because the gamekeepers, the professional
bird-killers, have lost heart in this place. It is a curious and rather
pretty story. There is no squire, as we have seen; the farmers have the
rabbits, and for game the shooting is let, or to let, by some one who
claims to be lord of the manor, who lives at a distance or abroad. At
all events he is not known personally to the people, and all they know
about the overlordship is that, whereas in years gone by every villager
had certain rights in the down--to cut furze and keep a cow, or pony, or
donkey, or half a dozen sheep or goats--now they have none; but how and
why and when these rights were lost nobody knows. Naturally there is no
sympathy between the villagers and the keepers sent from a distance to
protect the game, so that the shooting may be let to some other
stranger. On the contrary, they religiously destroy every nest they can
find, with the result that there are too few birds for anyone to take
the shooting, and it remains year after year unlet.

This unsettled state of things is all to the advantage of the black and
white bird with the ornamental tail, and he flourishes accordingly and
builds his big, thorny nests in the roadside trees about the village.

The one big bird on these downs, as in so many other places in England,
is the rook, and let us humbly thank the gods who own this green earth
and all the creatures which inhabit it that they have in their goodness
left us this one. For it is something to have a rook, although he is not
a great bird compared with the great ones lost--bustard and kite and
raven and goshawk, and many others. His abundance on the cultivated
downs is rather strange when one remembers the outcry made against him
in some parts on account of his injurious habits; but here it appears
the sentiment in his favour is just as strong in the farmer, or in a
good many farmers, as in the great landlord. The biggest rookery I know
on Salisbury Plain is at a farm-house where the farmer owns the land
himself and cultivates about nine hundred acres. One would imagine that
he would keep his rooks down in these days when a boy cannot be hired to
scare the birds from the crops.

One day, near West Knoyle, I came upon a vast company of rooks busily
engaged on a ploughed field where everything short of placing a
bird-scarer on the ground had been done to keep the birds off. A score
of rooks had been shot and suspended to long sticks planted about the
field, and there were three formidable-looking men of straw and rags
with hats on their heads and wooden guns under their arms. But the rooks
were there all the same; I counted seven at one spot, prodding the earth
close to the feet of one of the scarecrows. I went into the field to see
what they were doing, and found that it was sown with vetches, just
beginning to come up, and the birds were digging the seed up.

Three months later, near the same spot, on Mere Down, I found these
birds feasting on the corn, when it had been long cut but could not be
carried on account of the wet weather. It was a large field of fifty to
sixty acres, and as I walked by it the birds came flying leisurely over
my head to settle with loud cawings on the stocks. It was a magnificent
sight--the great, blue-black bird-forms on the golden wheat, an animated
group of three or four to half a dozen on every stock, while others
walked about the ground to pick up the scattered grain, and others were
flying over them, for just then the sun was shining on the field and
beyond it the sky was blue. Never had I witnessed birds so manifestly
rejoicing at their good fortune, with happy, loud caw-caw. Or rather
haw-haw! what a harvest, what abundance! was there ever a more perfect
August and September! Rain, rain, by night and in the morning; then sun
and wind to dry our feathers and make us glad, but never enough to dry
the corn to enable them to carry it and build it up in stacks where it
would be so much harder to get at. Could anything be better!

But the commonest bird, the one which vastly outnumbers all the others I
have named together, is the starling. It was Caleb Bawcombe's favourite
bird, and I believe it is regarded with peculiar affection by all
shepherds on the downs on account of its constant association with sheep
in the pasture. The dog, the sheep, and the crowd of starlings--these
are the lonely man's companions during his long days on the hills from
April or May to November. And what a wise bird he is, and how well he
knows his friends and his enemies! There was nothing more beautiful to
see, Caleb would say, than the behaviour of a flock of starlings when a
hawk was about. If it was a kestrel they took little or no notice of it,
but if a sparrowhawk made its appearance, instantly the crowd of birds
could be seen flying at furious speed towards the nearest flock of
sheep, and down into the flock they would fall like a shower of stones
and instantly disappear from sight. There they would remain on the
ground, among the legs of the grazing sheep, until the hawk had gone on
his way and passed out of sight.

The sparrowhawk's victims are mostly made among the young birds that
flock together in summer and live apart from the adults during the
summer months after the breeding season is over.

When I find a dead starling on the downs ranged over by sparrowhawks, it
is almost always a young bird--a "brown thrush" as it used to be called
by the old naturalists. You may know that the slayer was a sparrowhawk
by the appearance of the bird, its body untouched, but the flesh picked
neatly from the neck and the head gone. That was swallowed whole, after
the beak had been cut off. You will find the beak lying by the side of
the body. In summertime, when birds are most abundant, after the
breeding season, the sparrowhawk is a fastidious feeder.

W. H. Hudson