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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_21" id="Page_21">[21]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>THE WOODCOCK</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">There</span> are many reasons why the woodcock should be prized by the winter sportsman more than any other bird in the bag. In the first place, there is its scarcity. Half a dozen to every hundred pheasants would in most parts of the country be considered a proportion at which none could grumble, and there are many days on which not one is either seen or shot. Again, there is the bird's twisting flight, which, particularly inside the covert, makes it anything but an easy target. Third and last, it is better to eat than any other of our wild birds, with the possible exception of the golden plover. Taking one consideration with another, then, it is not surprising that the first warning cry of "Woodcock over!" from the beaters should be the signal for a sharp and somewhat erratic fusillade along the line, a salvo which the beaters themselves usually honour by crouching out of harm's way, since they know from experience that even ordinarily cool and collected shots are<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_22" id="Page_22">[22]</SPAN></span> sometimes apt to be fired with a sudden zeal to shoot the little bird, which may cost one of them his eyesight. According to the poet,</p> <div class="center">"Lonely woodcocks haunt the watery glade;"</div> <p class="noin">and so no doubt they do at meal-time after sunset, but we are more used to flushing them amid dry bracken or in the course of some frozen ditch. Quite apart, however, from its exhilarating effect on the sportsman, the bird has quieter interests for the naturalist, since in its food, its breeding habits, its travels, and its appearance it combines more peculiarities than perhaps any other bird, certainly than any other of the sportsman's birds, in these islands. It is not, legally speaking, a game bird and was not included in the Act of 1824, but a game licence is required for shooting it, and it enjoys since 1880 the protection accorded to other wild birds. This is excellent, so far as it goes, but it ought to be protected during the same period as the pheasant, particularly now that it is once more established as a resident species all over Britain and Ireland.</p> <p>This new epoch in the history of its adventures in these islands is the work of the<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_23" id="Page_23">[23]</SPAN></span> Wild Birds' Protection Acts. In olden times, when half of Britain was under forest, and when guns were not yet invented that could "shoot flying," woodcocks must have been much more plentiful than they are to-day. In those times the bird was taken on the ground in springes or, when "roding" in the mating season, in nets, known as "shots," that were hung between the trees. When the forest area receded, the resident birds must have dwindled to the verge of extinction, for on more than one occasion we find even a seasoned sportsman like Colonel Hawker worked up to a rare pitch of excitement after shooting woodcock in a part of Hampshire where in our day these birds breed regularly. Thanks, however, to the protection afforded by the law, there is once again probably no county in England in which woodcocks do not nest.</p> <p>At the same time, it is as an autumn visitor that, with the first of the east wind in October or November, we look for this untiring little traveller from the Continent. Some people are of opinion that since it has extended its residential range fewer come oversea to swell the numbers, but the arrivals<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_24" id="Page_24">[24]</SPAN></span> are in some years considerable, and if a stricter watch were kept on unlicensed gunners along the foreshore of East Anglia, very much larger numbers would find their way westwards instead of to Leadenhall. As it is, the wanderers arrive, not necessarily, as has been freely asserted, in poor condition, but always tired out by their journey, and numbers are secured before they have time to recover their strength. Yet those which do recover fly right across England, some continuing the journey to Ireland, and stragglers even, with help no doubt from easterly gales, having been known to reach America.</p> <p>The woodcock is interesting as a parent because it is one of the very few birds that carry their young from place to place, and the only British bird that transports them clasped between her legs. A few others, like the swans and grebes, bear the young ones on the back, but the woodcock's method is unique. Scopoli first drew attention to his own version of the habit in the words "<i>pullos rostro portat</i>," and it was old Gilbert White who, with his usual eye to the practical, doubted whether so long and slender a bill<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_25" id="Page_25">[25]</SPAN></span> could be turned to such a purpose. More recent observation has confirmed White's objection and has established the fact of the woodcock holding the young one between her thighs, the beak being apparently used to steady her burden. Whether the little ones are habitually carried about in this fashion, or merely on occasion of danger, is not known, and indeed the bird's preference for activity in the dusk has invested accurate observation of its habits with some difficulty. Among well-known sportsmen who were actually so fortunate as to have witnessed this interesting performance, passing mention may be made of the late Duke of Beaufort, the Hon. Grantley Berkeley, and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey.</p> <p>Reference has already been made to the now obsolete use of nets for the capture of these birds when "roding." The cock-shuts, as they were called, were spread so as to do their work after sundown, and this is the meaning of Shakespeare's allusion to "cock-shut time." This "roding" is a curious performance on the part of the males only, and it bears some analogy to the "drumming" of snipe. It is accompanied indeed by the same<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_26" id="Page_26">[26]</SPAN></span> vibrating noise, which may be produced from the throat as well, but is more probably made only by the beating of the wings. There appears to be some divergence of opinion as to its origin in both birds, though in that of the snipe such sound authorities as Messrs. Abel Chapman and Harting are convinced that it proceeds from the quivering of the primaries, as the large quill-feathers of the wings are called. Other naturalists, however, have preferred to associate it with the spreading tail-feathers. Whether these eccentric gymnastics are performed as displays, with a view to impressing admiring females, or whether they are merely the result of excitement at the pairing season cannot be determined. It is safe to assume that they aim at one or other of these objects, and further no one can go with any certainty. The word "roding" is spelt "roading" by Newton, who thus gives the preference to the Anglo-Saxon description of the a&euml;rial tracks followed by the bird, over the alternative derivation from the French "roder," which means to wander. The flight is at any rate wholly different from that to which the sportsman is accustomed when one<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_27" id="Page_27">[27]</SPAN></span> of these birds is flushed in covert. In the latter case, either instinct or experience seems to have taught it extraordinary tricks of zigzag man&#339;uvring that not seldom save its life from a long line of over-anxious guns; though out in the open, where it generally flies in a straight line for the nearest covert, few birds of its size are easier to bring down. Fortunately, we do not in England shoot the bird in springtime, the season of "roding," but the practice is in vogue in the evening twilight in every Continental country, and large bags are made in this fashion.</p> <p>In its hungry moments the woodcock, like the snipe, has at once the advantages and handicap of so long a beak. On hard ground, in a long spell of either drought or frost, it must come within measurable distance of starvation, for its only manner of procuring its food in normal surroundings is to thrust its bill deep into the soft mud in search of earthworms. The bird does not, it is true, as was once commonly believed, live by suction, or, as the Irish peasants say in some parts, on water, but such a mistake might well be excused in anyone who had watched the<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_28" id="Page_28">[28]</SPAN></span> bird's manner of digging for its food in the ooze. The long bill is exceedingly sensitive at the tip, and in all probability, by the aid of a tactile sense more highly developed than any other in our acquaintance, this organ conveys to its owner the whereabouts of worms wriggling silently down out of harm's way. On first reaching Britain, the woodcock remains for a few days on the seashore to recover from its crossing, and at this time of rest it trips over the wet sand, generally in the gloaming, and picks up shrimps and such other soft food as is uncovered between tidal marks. It is not among the easiest of birds to keep for any length of time in captivity, but if due attention be paid to its somewhat difficult requirements in the way of suitable food, success is not unattainable. On the whole, bread and milk has been found the best artificial substitute for its natural diet. With the <i>kiwi</i> of New Zealand, a bird not even distantly related to the woodcock, and a cousin rather of the ostrich, but equipped with much the same kind of bill as the subject of these remarks, an even closer imitation of the natural food has been found possible in<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_29" id="Page_29">[29]</SPAN></span> menageries. The bill of the <i>kiwi</i>, which has the nostrils close to the tip, is even more sensitive than that of the woodcock and is employed in very similar fashion. At Regent's Park the keeper supplies the bird with fresh worms so long as the ground is soft enough for spade-work. They are left in a pan, and the <i>kiwi</i> eats them during the night. In winter, however, when worms are not only hard to come by in sufficient quantity but also frost-bitten and in poor condition, an efficient substitute is found in shredded fillet steak, which, whether it accepts it for worms or not, the New Zealander devours with the same relish.</p> <p>When a woodcock lies motionless among dead leaves, it is one of the most striking illustrations of protective colouring to be found anywhere. Time and again the sportsman all but treads on one, which is betrayed only by its large bright eye. There are men who, in their eagerness to add it to the bag, do not hesitate in such circumstances to shoot a woodcock on the ground, but a man so fond of ground game should certainly be refused a game licence and should be allowed to shoot nothing but rabbits.</p> <hr /> <div class="bk3">MARCH<br /> THE WOODPIGEON</div> <hr /><p><span class='pagenum'>
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