The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 701/Original sketches of British birds, Davenport
ORIGINAL SKETCHES OF BRITISH BIRDS.
By H.S. Davenport.
The Redbreast (Erithacus rubecula).
A few years ago a lady whom I knew very well, and who resided at Halstead Grange in this county, Mrs. Chester by name, published a small brochure detailing some extraordinary incidents in connection with two Redbreasts that had lost their bills in traps set to catch mice, and subsequently sought her protection and kindly favour. One bird, so far as I remember, lived in the house, chiefly in her bedroom, and would come almost at any time to her call, while the other passed its time out of doors, but was equally tame; and if any of the readers of these notes meet with the pamphlet in question, they will find recorded that the latter of the two birds was in the habit of accompanying the carriage when Mrs. Chester went out to pay calls, and that, on one occasion, when her carriage was announced for her departure, the Robin was announced at the same time. Mr. Knox's reference to apocryphal anecdotes is still ringing in my ears, but I merely relate the gist of what I have read with my own eyes and seen attested by the signature of the lady who published the story.
The nesting-sites chosen by the Redbreast are many and varied. In 'The Vertebrate Animals of Leicestershire and Rutland' instances are recorded of this species having bred in an old tea-kettle tossed aside into a hedge, also in a flower-pot and in a meat-tin; but illustrations of the kind might be multiplied indefinitely.
The average clutch in my experience is six eggs; I have taken seven, and regard eight as quite unusual. Sometimes perfectly white eggs, without spot or speck, are met with, and this beautiful variety was not uncommon in my schoolboy days in Herefordshire. I took a clutch of this character near to Ashlands in May, 1880.
The Nightingale (Daulias luscinia).
I never once met with this bird in Herefordshire, and it is certainly not in the habit of singing at my doors in Leicestershire, though in most years it turns up in comparative abundance in a district with which I am very familiar—I refer to Maidwell, in Northamptonshire, only about fifteen miles distant from my late home. The best Nightingale year, so to designate it, I remember in Leicestershire was in 1893. I knew of four pairs of birds that were nesting in the course of that summer in and about the plantations which tend so materially to enhance the beauty of the landscape in the immediate neighbourhood of Keythorpe.
One of the greatest treats I ever enjoyed in connection with the Nightingale occurred in the year above mentioned, when a Nightingale condescended to pay my grounds a visit and remain the best part of the spring months cheering us with its liquid notes by day and night. It was said at the time that fifteen years had elapsed since one had been heard in the village of Skeffington.
I am glad to add it found shelter and protection in my garden for its nest, and, though the young stayed about in the bushes for a short time after they could fly, the visit was not repeated in 1894, so the assertion that Nightingales always return to the same haunts to nidificate, if unmolested, seems to require considerable qualification, for, though my experience of the species is, I fully confess, limited, I never knew a single instance of a particular haunt in Leicestershire being frequented two years in succession. Curiously enough, in connection with my Nightingale, I had only a short time previously seen hounds pull a Fox down in positively the very bushes where I had heard it on its first appearance, and where subsequently it seemed to spend the greater part of its time. It never sang on cold wet nights, and its aversion to exhibit itself in public was palpable and pronounced.
One has only to watch a Nightingale for a few moments to become impressed with the marked resemblance its movements and actions bear to those of the Redbreast. On the other hand, I have found it—unlike its allied species—none too willing to admit of a close inspection, and have frequently been amused at the mental struggle that has obviously gone on between its desire to avoid being observed and its curiosity to learn all about the observer. Its croaking note I have especially remarked after the young have left the nest; it is undoubtedly a signal of danger.
I have seen few nests, comparatively speaking, in situ; one, however, that now lies before me, and was taken in this county after the young had left it, is constructed externally of flags, a little dry grass, and a profusion of oak leaves; while the interior, which is of some depth, is lined with very fine dry grasses and a few small oak leaves. The nest itself was placed in some old exposed roots amidst some brushwood in the centre of a small plantation, and was close to that of a bird I have only once met with breeding in Leicestershire—I mean the Red-backed Shrike. A second nest of a similar character, though ragged in appearance, was placed in a hedgerow-bottom, and contained four eggs of the usual olive-brown colour.
The Whitethroat (Sylvia cinerea).
Many are the nests I have found of this species—hundreds, I may say—but I do not recollect having noticed any in abnormal situations. Sometimes it is placed very low down, but more often it is built two or three feet above the ground, and it may be noticed amongst nettles and coarse vegetation generally, in brambles, shrubs, whitethorn, gooseberry-bushes—indeed, in a variety of kindred situations; but when I said just now that I did not remember having discovered a nest abnormally placed, I had for the moment forgotten the fact that in the summer of 1894 I came upon one containing five eggs of a beautiful type all but on the ground. It was in a tuft of rushes in the middle of a grass field near to Bala Lake. Perhaps I am not justified in deeming the actual site quite so uncommon as the fact that the nest itself was located right away from the haunts the Whitethroat usually affects for shelter as well as for breeding purposes.
A few summers ago I was indebted for the discovery of not a few of the commoner nests usually to be found low down in hedges and bushes to a couple of Clumber Spaniels. That Clumber Spaniels should have taken to this form of pastime—hunting for little birds' nests—may seem singular, and I can only account for it in this way:—They were in the habit of frequently accompanying me in my roadside rambles, and herein I make a distinction advisedly, as had I taken them into the coverts, not only would they have proved an eyesore to gamekeepers, but, inasmuch as the entire absence of all noise should be the watchword of those who study the habits of birds in their woodland haunts, the mere presence of dogs would have tended to defeat the very object I had in view. However, what I was about to say was this:—I noticed one day they were taking unusual interest in the way I was poking and peering into the roadside bushes, and they certainly saw me find and remove some nests. Shortly afterwards they themselves took to what I can only describe as "setting" bushes in which any nests might be placed, and not only would they intelligently look round to see if I was coming, and as much as to say, "Here you are!" but when I reached the spot they would display manifest signs of delight, and get quite excited if a bird fluttered out in front of them. I am afraid I cannot add I ever saw one "backing" the other! I am aware that some dogs have been trained to hunt for eggs—viz. for those of Lapwings, but here was an instance of a habit acquired solely from seeing me interesting myself in such matters; and in connection with the same I particularly made note of two things—viz. they never once "set" an old nest, and the bird was invariably on those they found. I presume it was the scent of the latter that accounted for no false points, but it was strange that they should have voluntarily taken upon themselves to lend me such serviceable aid.
A characteristic feature of a large series of the nests of the Whitethroat is the profusion of dark horse-hair which is used for the lining, though, on occasions, I have noticed hair only sparingly employed—much less seldom none at all. The exterior of the structure is chiefly composed of the withered stems of goose-grass and the cocoons of caterpillars, its component parts being so dexterously and beautifully interwoven as to render the nest quite firm and compact. It is perhaps worthy of remark that Whitethroats are not in the habit of utilising thin roots and fibrous rootlets, as some writers assert; though, as in the case of other species, it is obvious that varieties of construction may occur. The nest is more substantially built than those of its smaller relative, and less so than those of the Garden Warbler—it hits, in fact, the happy medium.
The eggs are not very variable, five being a favourite number for a clutch; very rarely have I known so many laid as six. Mr. W.J. Horn is lucky in the possession of some nice specimens, while his cabinet also contains eggs of both the Lesser Whitethroat and Tree Pipit, which for beauty of colouring I have never seen equalled. Though I have remarked that Whitethroats' eggs are not very variable, as, for instance, in comparison with those of the Tree Pipit, it is notorious that their ground-colour runs through different shades of bluish white and pale green, and that some specimens are more boldly and elaborately marked with the typical wreath of light brown, violet grey, or olive green spots as the case may be, some of them underlying the shell, than others. One of the most peculiar-looking eggs I ever found was in a nest in a gooseberry-bush at Fronfeuno, near to Bala, in the spring of 1894. It was a single specimen, without shape or comeliness, and approximated more in colouring to the eggs of the Orphean Warbler than to those of the Whitethroat. The bird incubated it for a day or so, and then finally deserted its malformed abortion which proved to be yolkless.
Whitethroats have a great partiality for currants and raspberries, and in July and August they raid the bushes of my kitchen garden in considerable numbers, and, though I am always hearing that "the birds take the fruit so," I do not grudge it them. "Live and let live" is a good old-fashioned principle, and though Finches pilfer the newly-sown seeds, and, later in the year, Tits filch the peas, I deem myself amply repaid by the facilities they afford me for observing—amidst several other characteristic habits—their thievish propensities.