1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whitethroat

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

WHITETHROAT, a name commonly given to two species of little birds, one of which, the Motacilla sylvia of Linnaeus and Sylvia rufa or S. cinerea of recent authors, is regarded as the type, not only of the genus Sylvia, but of the sub-family of thrushes known as Sylviinae (cf. Warbler). Very widely spread over Great Britain, in some places tolerably common, and by its gesticulations and song rather conspicuous, it is one of those birds which have gained a familiar nickname, and "peggy whitethroat" is the anthropomorphic appellation of schoolboys and milkmaids, though it shares "nettle-creeper" and other homely names with perhaps more than one congener, while to the writers and readers of books it is by way of distinction the greater whitethroat. The lesser whitethroat, Sylvia curruca, is both in habits and plumage a much less sightly bird: the predominant reddish brown of the upper surface, and especially the rufous edging of the wing-feathers, that are so distinctive of its larger congener, are wanting, and the whole plumage above is of a smoky-grey, while the bird in its movements is never obtrusive, and it rather shuns than courts observation. The nests of each of these species are very pretty works of art, firmly built of bents or other plant-stalks, and usually lined with horsehair; but the sides are often so finely woven as to be like open basket-work, and the eggs, splashed, spotted or streaked with olive-brown, are frequently visible from beneath through the interstices of the fabric. This style of nest-building seems to be common to all the species of the genus Sylvia, as now restricted, and in many districts has obtained for the builders the name of "hay-jack," quite without reference to the kind of bird which puts the nests together, and thus is also applied to the blackcap, S. atricapilla, and the garden-warbler—this last being merely a book-name—S. salicaria (S. hortensis of some writers). The former of these deserves mention as one of the sweetest songsters of Great Britain. The name blackcap is applicable only the cock bird, who further differs from his brown-capped mate by the purity of his ashy-grey upper plumage; but, notwithstanding the marked sexual difference in appearance, he takes on himself a considerable share of the duties of incubation. All these four birds, as a rule, leave Great Britain at the end of summer to winter in the south. Two other species, one certainly belonging to the same genus, S. orphea, and the other, S. nisoria, a somewhat aberrant form, have occurred two or three times in Great Britain. The curious Dartford warbler of English writers, Sylvia undata, is on many accounts a very interesting bird, for it is one of the few of its family that winter in Engalnd—a fact the more remarkable when it is known to be migratory in most parts of the continent of Europe. Its distribution in England is very local, and chiefly confined to the southern counties. It is a pretty little dark-coloured bird, which here and there may be seen on furze-heaths from Kent to Cornwall. For a species with wings so feebly formed it has a wide range, inhabiting nearly all the countries of the Mediterranean seaboard, from Palestine to the Strait of Gibraltar, and thence along the west coast of Europe to the English Channel; but everywhere else it seems to be very local.

This may be the most convenient place for noticing the small group of warblers belonging to the well-marked genus Hypolais, which, though in general appearance and certain habits resembling the Phylloscopi (cf. [willow] Wren), would seem usually to have little to do with those birds, and to be rather allied to the Sylviinae. They have a remarkably loud song, and in consequence are highly valued on the continent of Europe, where two species at least spend the summer. One of them, H. icterina, has occurred more than once in the British Islands, and their absence as regular visitors is to be regretted. Among the minor characteristics of this little group is one afforded by their eggs, which are of a deeper or paler brownish pink, spotted with purplish black. Their nests are beautiful structures, combining warmth with lightness in a way that cannot be fully appreciated by any description. (A. N.)