The Zoologist/4th series, vol 4 (1900)/Issue 703/The Ring-Ouzel in Derbyshire, Storrs Fox

The Ring-Ouzel in Derbyshire  (1900) 
by William Storrs Fox


No. 703.—January, 1900.


By W. Storrs Fox, M.A., F.Z.S.

In recording my observations on the Ring-Ouzel (Turdus torquatus), I have no expectation of writing anything original. But I think it possible that personal notes on this interesting bird may be acceptable to those ornithologists who are less familiar with it than I am. On certain points I am bound to disagree with well-known writers. Where I have not felt sufficient confidence in my own experience, I have consulted my friend Mr. David Peat, who has lived all his life on the Derbyshire moors, and who now lives in the midst of the best ground for Ring-Ouzels which I know. He is a most careful and accurate observer of birds. And I am glad to find that his experience entirely supports my own. I am inclined to suppose that the birds of one locality sometimes differ slightly in habits from those of another. It is for this reason that I have headed my paper "The Ring-Ouzel in Derbyshire."

I believe that most ornithologists agree with me in considering this bird a special favourite. There is something so romantic, so wild, so free about it and its surroundings. Macgillivray's lines on the Song-Thrush[1]

"Far away, far away, far away
The haunts of men"—

seem specially true of the Ring-Ouzel. For we may walk for hours over the moors without so much as a sight or sound of a human being, hearing only the swish of the wind in the heather, the cheep of the Meadow Pipit, the angry cry of the Lapwing as we approach too near to her eggs or brood, the distant complaint of the Curlew, or the sad sweet whistle of the Golden Plover, when suddenly a sharp sound startles us. Is it some geologist chipping off a specimen of millstone grit? But what can he want so far on the open moor? Again we hear the clear "tac tac tac." We look around, and, behold, not far off is a bird, not "black as jet," like the Blackbird, but sooty-black, relieved only by the white crescent on his breast. "Tac tac tac" we hear again, and with each syllable up goes his tail. His cry alarms the Grouse-cock, who flies off, and from a distance calls warningly "Go back, go back." I first made his acquaintance near Loch Skeen, in Dumfriesshire. There I came suddenly upon a party of six, no doubt a family party. But it is here in Derbyshire that I have become familiar with him, either on the open moor, or down a gully cut by a peaty brook, or under those grand "edges" of gritstone clear-cut and precipitous against the blue sky which to the uninitiated suggest cliffs bounding an inland sea. But it is not only in the land of heather that the Ring-Ouzel is to be found. Soon after I came to live in Derbyshire, to my surprise I met him in the wilder parts of our dales, and there found his nest concealed in some corner of the limestone crags. Nor is it really surprising that he loves to haunt these dales. They are not wide fertile valleys, nor are they glens with sloping sides, dividing mountain from mountain. They are rather rifts cut right through the middle of a flat-topped hill. On a bleak April day the traveller may wander over the dreary uplands, disheartened by the everlasting greyness around him—grey sky above, grey stone walls, grey grass—with no colour; not even a hedge or ploughed field to relieve the monotony with their deeper browns. Quite suddenly the scene changes. He is standing at the edge of a dale, looking down upon the deep green of spruce-firs, and below them is a little river clear as crystal, bright with the most vivid emerald-green of the water-weeds over which it runs. Is it fancy? Is it fairy-land? He clambers down to the water. Here he is sheltered from the biting wind. He finds woods carpeted with dog's-mercury (Mercurialis perennis), and here and there an early primrose. As he wanders further up the dale the woods give place to low thorn-bushes. After a while even these cease, and he soon comes to a cave out of which the clear waters of the river flow. It is here that the river has its origin. Here in the cave he finds a Dipper's (Cinclus aquaticus) nest already containing eggs. Further up the dale no murmuring stream accompanies our traveller. Even here it is lonely enough. All is still. Though perhaps, if he is lucky, he may hear the cheery song of the Dipper, or the monotonous warble of a solitary Wheatear. Only one loud sound greets his ear—the chatter of the busy Jackdaws as they fly to and from the cracks in the rocks, or talk business and gossip on the ledges. But what is that?

"A whistle strikes his startled ear!
A pipe of shrillest, wildest tone."[2]

It is the Ring-Ouzel high up on the rocks, his song echoing from crag to crag.

Having given this brief picture of the haunts of the bird, we must now consider his habits more or less in detail.

Time of Arrival.—In the 'Birds of Northamptonshire' (vol. i. p. 99), Lord Lilford says:—"I have observed the bird in our immediate neighbourhood on its return migration about the end of April." Rev. H.A. Macpherson ('Fauna of Lakeland,' p. 89) writes:—"The last days of March witness the return of the Ring-Ouzels to their upland home." The earliest date on which I have heard or seen these birds in the Peak district was April 4th; but there are no Ring-Ouzels within three miles of my house, so that I may easily miss them on their first arrival. Mr. Peat recorded their advent on March 26th, 1894. So far as he remembers that is the earliest date he has known. The spring of 1894 was apparently an "early" one, for Mr. Peat found a Lapwing's egg on March 29th, a week before the usual date. But in that same year the Ring-Ouzels had not arrived in Lathkil Dale by March 30th. As a rule only a few birds appear at first, but are soon reinforced by a second batch.

General Habits, Food, Range, &c.—Mr. Peat informs me that when first the birds arrive the margins of the feathers are paler than they are a little later in the season, giving the bird a more greyish tint. Birds have been noticed with a few white feathers on the sides of the neck; and a cock in my collection has a dark spot in the centre of its white crescent.

I cannot agree with some authors as to the likeness of the Ring-Ouzel to the Blackbird. St. John ('Sport in Moray,' p. 103) writes:—"The Ring-Ouzel so much resembles the Blackbird in shape and figure that at a little distance they may be easily mistaken for each other." And Macgillivray ('British Birds,' vol. ii. p. 102) says that "its manners are very similar to those of the Blackbird." No doubt a casual observer might mistake one for the other, just as he might mistake a Fieldfare for a Song-Thrush. But the attention of the field naturalist is at once arrested by the larger size, less neat and sleek appearance (partly due to its duller colours), the bolder flight, and the very distinct cry of the Ring-Ouzel. The white crescent on the breast is also very noticeable in the mature cock, but would not help much towards the identification of the hen or young birds. In Prof. Newton's 'Dictionary of Birds' (p. 667) it is stated that this bird prefers "the shelter of rocks to that of trees." Again, Macgillivray states that, "like the Song-Thrush, it conceals itself among bushes, but is much more easily put to flight" ('British Birds,' vol. ii. p. 103). And Seebohm also ('British Birds,' vol. i. p. 246) gives the impression that it skulks, saying that it "either drops down into the heath, or flies away to a more secluded resting-place"; though in the earlier part of his account of this species he gives quite a contrary impression. I have seen Ring-Ouzels in Derbyshire, in Argyllshire, and in Dumfriesshire, but never have I known any tendency to skulk on the part of old birds. On the contrary, in this respect their habits much more nearly approach those of the Missel-Thrush. Indeed, if they have a nest, they remain in sight much more than the Missel-Thrush. This is partly due to the nature of their haunts, where the cover is generally low-growing. But under all circumstances, during their stay with us, they fly boldly up when alarmed, pitching on the top of a rock or wall, or sometimes a tree, from whence they can closely watch all the movements of intruders. Very rarely have I been able to approach near enough to see the sitting bird before it left the nest. I say it, because I have some reason to believe that at times the cock assists in the duties of incubation. On June 2nd, 1894, I found a Ring-Ouzel's nest in a hollow on the moors. The eggs were partly incubated, and the cock was on the nest. I retired some distance, and then returned, again to find the cock on the nest. I then sat down at a short distance from the nest. The cock kept hanging around, and in about ten minutes entered the hollow, and there remained for two or three minutes. I had taken the eggs for a museum, so that there was nothing to induce him to stay longer. They certainly are shy birds. Gätke ('Birds of Heligoland,' p. 252) writes:—"They are here, next to the Missel-Thrush, the shyest and most cunning of all the Thrushes." When disturbed feeding in some lonely moorland field, on their first arrival here, or far from their nests, or, again, when family duties are at an end, up they fly, perch on a wall, and presently, if the unwelcome visitor does not withdraw, they betake themselves to some distant feeding ground. By stealing quietly up to a wall, and slowly raising the eyes above its top, one may watch the Ring-Ouzels as they hop about such a field, feeding after the manner of the other members of their genus, hopping quietly for a few paces, then stopping as if listening for some expected sound, and sooner or later bounding suddenly forward, and with vigorous tugs hauling an unlucky worm from its retreat. Seebohm states ('British Birds,' vol. i. p. 245) that the Ring-Ouzel, like the Song-Thrush and Blackbird, breaks snails' shells against stones. I should like to have some further evidence of this. I can only say that neither Mr. Peat nor I have ever witnessed anything of the sort. On the moors there are very few snails, but in the wilder parts of the dales great quantities may be found.

There is no doubt that Ring-Ouzels are fond of berries. In July and August their droppings are often stained as a result of the bilberries and cloudberries which they have eaten. And at times they take heavy toll on gardens near their haunts.

But I must recur to their supposed skulking habits. When the young birds first leave the nest they have a peculiar twittering call, not altogether unlike the song of the Wheatear. If, attracted by this sound, an attempt is made to approach them, and to observe them at close quarters, they will generally fly for some fifty yards, and plunge into the heather. I have caught many young Ring-Ouzels by marking the spot where they thus disappeared, and quietly stalking up to it, and then quickly searching the heather, and seizing the bird. For instance, I have a note, "Caught four young Ring-Ouzels" on June 22nd, 1887. Years ago I kept many for weeks in my aviary, but unfortunately I have no notes respecting them. As to the old birds, I must repeat that, according to my experience, they always fly to some point of vantage, just as a Missel-Thrush flies to a tree. Sometimes in rough country they are out of sight for a few minutes behind a hillock, and before or after the nesting season they often fly off to a distance; but I have never known one skulk. I have, moreover, questioned Mr. Peat very particularly on this point, and his experience is exactly similar to mine.

When they have eggs or nestlings they are often very bold. I have known them dash past my face, nearly touching it. I have also witnessed a pair driving a Kestrel from their neighbourhood. I have, however, never known them "reel and tumble on the ground to decoy you away," as Seebohm states ('British Birds,' vol. i. p. 248). This can hardly be a common habit. Many brooding birds fly low and feebly when first leaving the nest, as if stiff with long sitting; but I have never noticed even this in the Ring-Ouzel.

Song.—Perhaps its song is inspiring rather on account of what it suggests than because of its intrinsic beauty. It is not very varied, but its few rich notes ring out on the silent moor, or echo from rock to rock in the deserted dales. It is perfectly easy to distinguish it from the song of any other bird. And this is true also of its call. How the loud "tac tac tac" of the Ring-Ouzel can be mistaken by a naturalist for the metallic cry of the Blackbird, I cannot conceive. I once (April 11th, 1895) heard a Ring-Ouzel make a low sound like the scolding of a Whitethroat; but this is unusual. Also on one occasion only have I known it sing when flying.

Date of Nesting.—On April 29th, 1895, I found a Ring-Ouzel's nest containing two eggs, but that was ten days or a fortnight earlier than I usually see them. June 28th (1888) is the latest date on which I have found them. These were at an advanced stage of incubation, and I have not known of young birds in the nest at a later date. But I must confess that I do not look much for eggs after June, so that it might be possible to meet with them much later. Whitlock ('Birds of Derbyshire,' p. 31) records the finding of a nest on Aug. 2nd, 1885.

Materials of the Nest.—According to my experience, the typical Ring-Ouzel's nest has its foundation and outer walls constructed of bracken-stalks, with a stem or two of heather sometimes interwoven. In all the nests which I have examined there has been a layer of mud, and without exception they have been lined with fine bents. At times, however, the outer structure varies. A nest which I found in 1894 on the moors had this part composed of grass, moss, bracken, a leaf, a heather-stalk, and a rootlet. Another, which was placed in a crevice of rock in one of our dales, had a sort of loose foundation (probably intended to tilt it up on the outer side) of grass and moss. Upon this was an irregular cup of mud and moss, encircled round the top with a wreath of dry grass and dead stalks of some herbaceous plant (probably one of the Umbelliferæ). The lining, which was a quite separate structure, was of fine bents, with here and there a piece of leaf or of stonecrop (Sedum acre). The first spring which I spent within reach of the Peak district was that of 1887. It was not till then that I searched for Ring-Ouzels' nests; but during that season I found eighteen. Of these the seventh, containing eggs, quite deceived me at first. The outside was entirely made of moss, and I mistook it for a Blackbird's nest. There were five eggs in it, and I took two of them, as they were very beautifully marked. A day or two later I showed these to a friend, who at once said that he was convinced that they were Ring-Ouzel's eggs. Accordingly I revisited the nest on three occasions, and eventually had the satisfaction not only of seeing the old birds near it, but also of identifying the three young birds as Ring-Ouzels; for there is no difficulty in distinguishing a Ring-Ouzel from a Blackbird during their nestling plumage.

This shows conclusively that the nests of these two species are occasionally very similar; but I cannot agree with Seebohm when he says that "it would be almost impossible to discriminate between them were we not aware that the Blackbird does not haunt the wide open moor" ('British Birds,' vol. i. p. 247; the same words are used in his 'Eggs of British Birds,' p. 182). The range of the Blackbird overlaps that of the Ring-Ouzel. Only last year (1898) I saw a Ring-Ouzel fly from a likely place, and, on examining it, I discovered the beginnings of a nest. When, however, I next visited the place, the nest was completed, but a hen Blackbird was sitting on it. I am convinced that there are only two ways of identifying Ring-Ouzels' eggs, and one is by seeing the parent bird leave the nest, or anxiously hanging around in its proximity. If this fails, and an egg is taken from a nest, the only other plan is to visit it again when the young birds are feathered. In 1890 I found a Blackbird's nest containing three eggs in the middle of Glossop Moor. Its situation and the materials of which it was built would have naturally led me to take for granted that it belonged to a Ring-Ouzel, but I saw a hen Blackbird leave it, and I heard her well-known cry.

Before leaving this part of my subject I must quote a curious incident from my notes for May 11th, 1895:—"On the moorland path between Ramsley Lodge and Curbar I met Mr. Peat. Just where we met was a Grouse's nest close to the path. It was peculiar-looking, being partly made of mud; and he told me its history as follows: A Ring-Ouzel built the nest, and began to lay in it. To his surprise he one day found a Grouse's egg in the nest, and thought that someone had put it in for amusement; but the Grouse continued to lay in it, so he removed the Ring-Ouzel's eggs. To-day there were six Grouse's eggs in the somewhat flattened-out Ouzel's nest."

Situation of Nest.—On the moors the usual place for the nest is on a sloping heathery bank, the nest being well concealed among the heather. It is often found near a brook, not because the birds prefer to be near water, but the brook has cut deep down into the peat, and thus has furnished a convenient slope. Banks by a moorland roadside, the sides of hollows, the steep and rugged declivities which always occur below the "edges,"—all these are taken advantage of. Once, when looking for Sand-Martins' nests, I found that of a Ring-Ouzel in a sand-pit. Mr. Peat has never come across the nest in a tree or bush, but in 1887 I chanced on one which was placed in a fir tree a few feet from the ground; and in 1895, in the same locality, my friend Mr. Allan R. Wilson saw one in a similar situation. He has kindly sent me a copy of the entry in his notes, which runs as follows:—"In one of the stunted trees, just the Sheffield side of Stanedge Pole, I found a Ring-Ouzel's nest with four eggs about ten feet from the ground. The bird stayed about, so that I had no difficulty in identification." I have never known of a nest of this species in a bush, but St. John mentions a "low bush" as its ordinary site ('Sport in Moray,' p. 103); and I gather that the Rev. H.A. Macpherson regards a "stunted whin bush" as a not uncommon position ('Birds of Cumberland,' p. 3); and Mr. Howard Saunders says that "stunted bushes" are occasionally chosen. In our dales the Ring-Ouzel generally chooses as a nesting-site a corner in a precipitous rock, sometimes in an old quarry. It is usually impossible to see any vestige of the nest from below, and above it is generally screened from view by overhanging herbage.

Colour of Eggs.—As on one occasion I mistook a typical boldly marked egg of a Ring-Ouzel for that of a Blackbird, being misled by the nest (which was built of moss and placed on the top of a patch of bilberry), I can hardly object to Lord Lilford's statement ('Birds of Northamptonshire,' vol. i. p. 101) that the eggs of the Ring-Ouzel "very closely resemble some varieties of the Blackbird." It is quite true that eggs of the former bird may be found which are hardly distinguishable from those of the latter, and less rarely from those of the Missel-Thrush. I also possess eggs of the Song-Thrush which are very like a variety of Ring-Ouzel's. Altogether there are in my collection some two dozen varieties of these eggs, but in some cases they are not very distinct from one another. The typical egg has a ground colour of slightly greenish blue, rather paler than is usual in the Song-Thrush's egg. It is boldly marked with blotches of chestnut-red, and fainter ones of a dull purplish colour. A distinct variety has the ground colour evenly tinted with very pale reddish brown, marked similarly to the typical egg. In some varieties the ground colour is greener than in the typical egg; in some it is very pale indeed. In some the markings are very large and bold, in others they are reduced to small irregular spots or freckles the underlying marks often being a pale shade of chestnut-red, and not purplish at all. One variety is very curious. Apparently the ground colour is dirty white, but the whole surface of the egg is thickly covered with very fine freckles of rusty brown. In shape they are either sharply pointed at one end, long and bluntly pointed, perfectly oval, or almost spherical.

Number of Eggs.—This is given variously by authors as "four, seldom five" (Howard Saunders's 'Manual,' p. 16); "from four to six" (Macgillivray's 'British Birds,' vol. ii. p. 103); "five or six" (Lilford's 'Birds of Northamptonshire,' vol. i. p. 101). My own experience leads to the conclusion that three, four, or five make up a full clutch. Of nests which I have found three have contained two eggs each; five, three each; fourteen, four each; and two, five each. There is no doubt that in the case of those with two eggs each the hen had not ceased laying. With regard to those with three eggs each, at least one lot was partly incubated. Unfortunately, on several occasions when I found young birds in nests I omitted to note down their numbers; but I have records of three nests each containing three young birds, and of two nests each with four. Ring-Ouzels' nests are usually beyond the beat of the ordinary birdsnesting boy, and they are, moreover, as a rule, on strictly preserved land; so that it seems to me that three eggs may be fairly regarded as a normal clutch.

In conclusion, I should like to raise my protest against the collecting of eggs in clutches. It may satisfy the cravings of mere greed, but I cannot conceive what scientific purpose is gained thereby. I believe that I have as good a series of Ring-Ouzels' eggs as anyone can wish to possess, but it would be no better scientifically if I had carried off every clutch which I have found. It sometimes happens that two varieties are to be found in one nest. Even then it is needless to take more than two eggs. My notes tell me how many eggs each nest contained, and they do this more satisfactorily than can be done by the keeping of clutches, individual eggs of which may get broken. In a public museum it may be desirable to show one clutch of each species, but this can hardly be necessary in a private collection.

  1. See: The Thrush's Song (retrieved 2018-12-21; Wikisource-ed.)
  2. Colquhoun's 'Moor and the Loch,' vol. ii. p. 119.

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