A History of Fowling – Ravens and Jays

From A History of Fowling, Being an Account of the Many Curios Devices by Which Wild Birds are, or Have Been, Capured in Different Part of the World  by Rev. H.A. MacPherson, M.A. 

THE RAVEN (Corvus corax) is generally accredited with a large endowment of mother wit. Its warning croak is usually uttered long before an expectant fowler has approached within several hundred yards of its nesting haunt. But even the bird of darkness is sometimes worsted by the craft of its human enemies. The modern Greenlander destroys the Raven with a shot-gun. His ancestors were content to kill the Raven by simpler means. Their most common device was to snare the bird with a running noose. A hole was dug in the snow and filled with carrion. A running snare, made of sealskin or of whalebone, was then spread around the orifice. The hungry bird naturally endeavoured to secure the bait, and became entangled in the snare. Another plan was for the fowler to make a hole in the snow large enough to contain himself. He then crouched down in the cavity, concealed from the Raven’s keen vision by a light covering of snow. The carrion intended to attract the bird was also placed on the crust of the snow. The Raven descended into the pit to feed, when he found himself taken by the hands of the concealed fowler. Bailly tells us that the Raven is sometimes snared in Savoy, but this only happens during severe weather. The Swiss method is to attach some strong snares (” gros lacets “) to a lump of meat, which is then exposed in the haunts of these birds. I once knew a Cumbrian raven to lose his liberty by entering a ” Deadfall.” The trap had been set by a fell-side farmer in the hope of securing a fox.

In civilised Europe, the plan of capturing Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) or Carrion Crows (Corvus corone) by means of paper cones, smeared with birdlime, was held to be an excellent amusement for ladies and gentlemen to engage in when they met together. Bergantini tells us, in a footnote to the ” L’Uccellatura a vischio” of Bargaeus, that this plan of Crow-catching was practised at Friuli, at Bergamo, and in some other places. He men tions in particular that ” II Patrizio Veneto Riguardevolissimo Sebastano Marcello” adopted it as a mode of entertaining his guests. A large number of gallants and ladies (” molti Cavalieri e Dame”) met together at the villa of their host at Campalto in the middle of October. A carcase had been exposed in the open air for a few days, prior to their arrival, in order to attract a large number of carrion-loving birds. The Crows and perhaps Ravens flocked to the welcome sight from the country round. (” In pochi giorni gia vi convennero da lontanissime parti infinita di Corvi e Cornacchie.”) The evening before the fowling was to commence, a number of paper cones were baited with small pieces of meat and coated inside with birdlime. The guests rose at daylight to see the birds return to the carcase. The greedy Crows readily inserted their heads into the sticky traps. Finding their sight blinded by their unwelcome head-gear, they soared up into the sky until the eye could no longer follow them. The poor things dropped, however, on the ground in the very space from which they had started upon their lofty flight. It was not the sort of fowling that we should tolerate, but the Italians evidently thought it capital fun.

The Rook (Corvus frugilcgus) seems to have established an evil reputation in Italy. Crescentius tells how these birds should be captured by means of limed twigs placed on the upper branches of a tree. The birds are attracted to the vicinity by the exhibition of a tame Eagle Owl,  or some other species of Owl. They naturally alight in the tree beneath which the object of their detestation is secured, and thus forfeit their liberty. Di Valli gives a characteristic engraving of this kind of sport. Savi observes that the usual plan of destroying Rooks is to fix a live decoy of their own kind on the top of some tree which happens to be situated in the line of flight adopted by these birds. The gunner waits in a small hut made of the boughs of trees. When the wild Rooks settle within gunshot, he rakes their clustering masses. The Rook is only a winter visitor to the north of Italy, but Savi considered that this bird inflicted great injury upon the agriculturist. It not only devours a great deal of newly sown corn, but strips the olive trees of their valuable fruit. At the present time there seems to be a feeling in England that the damage which the Rook accomplishes is counterbalanced by the quantity of noxious insects which it devours in the summer time. In former days, a less compromising attitude was adopted by our legislators. In Scotland, an Act was passed as early as the year 1457, ordering the extermination of ” Ruk,” of ” Crawys,” and other ” foulys of reif.” It was not until 1533 that the English Parliament resorted to legislation to check the excessive numbers of these birds. The engine prescribed to be kept in use by every parish was the ordinary Day-net or Clap-net, then in use for catching a variety of birds. The Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) and the Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) were outlawed as well as the Rook, the Daw being described by the title of ” Chough.” This is a very ancient English name for the Jackdaw. In our time the name has come to be applied almost exclusively in common parlance to the Cornish Chough (Pyrrhocoraz graculus). But Turner, who had studied the English names of birds, expressly distinguishes the latter species as ” A Cornish Choughe.” Gesner, too, distinctly says that the ” Monedula ” or Jackdaw was known in England as the ” Caddo, Chough, or Ka.” Others dubbed the Jackdaw as “Dawe, Choughe, Cadesse.” I cannot discover any trustworthy evidence that the ” Cornix Cornubiae ” was recognised by Shakespeare or any other Elizabethan writer as the Chough of the vernacular speech. Such evidence as is at present available satisfies me that the Jackdaw was the bird proscribed by the English Parliament. At all events the fate of the birds was sealed at Westminster. The inhabitants of every parish were left to carry out the doom pronounced against the whole race of ” Crows,” under penalty. A fine of ten shillings was to be exacted  from all recusant parishes, until the requirements of the Act were carried out. A later statute of Elizabeth, passed in 1566, entitled “An Act for the Preservation of Grain,” revived the crusade against the Corvidæ, by authorising the churchwardens to pay head-money for the destruction of such birds. I have not discovered any old entries of moneys expended for the cost or repair of Crow-nets, but have given elsewhere many particulars of the pains once taken to kill Ravens in the Lake district. In working through the parish books of the large and mountainous parish of Greystoke, I ascertained that a total score of 966 Ravens were accounted for by the wardens during a period of ninety years ; from Midsummer 1752 to Midsummer 1842. It would seem that most of the birds thus accounted for had been taken from their nests by the adventurous youths of the district (Cf. A Fauna of Lakeland, p. 156 et seq.) But Mr J. E. Harting has succeeded in showing that the Crownet was supplied in some parishes according to statute. He states that the Churchwarden’s Accounts of South Cadbury, Somerset, contain the following items :—

” 1592 imprimis a Rooks nett ….. js.
1625 imprimis a Rooks nett ……
1627 For mending the Rook nett js. vjd.”
(Zool. 1894, P- 49 )

Markham tells us that the great net, commonly called the Crow-net, differed nothing from the Plover-net, unless the owner chose to have a larger net for Crow-catching. That the bird for whose capture the net was chiefly used was the Rook is evidenced by the instructions which Markham supplies as to laying the net : ” before or neere unto Barne doores where Come is a thrashing, or in any such places where Corne hath been winnowed and the chaff remaining, with which you shall ever observe to cover and hide the Net assoone as it is laid, so as it may not be seen, and then assoone as the flocks of birds come, and are scraping amongst the chaffe, you lying aloof off conceald, with the coard in your hand, shall sodenly draw it and overturne the net upon the birds, by which at one pull you may take may (sic) Crowes, pigeons, Kites, Buzzards, and such like ravenous birdes.” As an alternative, the Crow-net might be set ” in any stubble field upon the Corn lands, provided the stubble cover the Net so as it be not perceived” (Hunger’s Prevention, p. 91).

It is curious to observe that the exceptional methods adopted to protect the interests of the British farmer in the sixteenth century attracted the notice of our Continental neighbours. Gesner, writing about 1555, notices that Rooks were so abundant in Britain that it had been decided to offer rewards for their destruction, on account of the havoc which they wrought upon the corn fields. The Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes) too seldom strays to the shores of Great Britain to be captured by any insular device. Among the solitudes of its native pine woods, in the mountainous parts of Northern and Central Europe, the ” Cassenoix ” occasionally falls a victim to imprudence, and is taken in a snare. Bailly states that large droves of Nutcrackers sometimes arrive in Savoy, and that the birds are so exhausted that they cannot take good care of themselves. They are therefore easily taken in the snare (” Piège “) which is commonly set for Thrushes (Grives). Gloersen states that in Norway the Nutcracker must be included among the various species of birds which are casually snared in the ” Donerne ” intended for Fieldfares and other species of Thrushes. ” Several Nutcrackers,” he writes, ” are generally caught every year, either when feasting on the service berries, or when wanting to take a bird already noosed. In the latter case, the Nutcracker is found hanging together with the Thrush, a comrade in misery, being snared by the second noose ” (Dyreliv I Norge, p. 202). It happens at rare intervals that an odd bird of this species is taken almost by accident, in one or other of the ” Roccolos ” which are kept up for catching Thrushes in the passes of the Italian Alps. In 1868 two examples of the ” Nocciolaja ” or Nutcracker were netted in a ” Roccolo ” at Brianza, in the province of Como (Avifauna Italica, Vol. Iv. p. 442). The Magpie (Pica rustica) is too crafty to be easily taken in the nets of the fowler. Nevertheless, it has often been outwitted by the wiles exercised for its destruction. ” If you take a quick and lively Magpie, and lay her on the ground upon her back in such sort that her wings be fastened to the earth, the stir and noise she will make will call many other Magpies about her, which lighting upon her (as it were to succour or relieve her), she will hold the first that comes fast with her claws till you may come and take her. This you may pin down by the other in like manner, and so you may do until you have taken a great number of these birds. The best time for this is when they pair ” (A Cavalier’s Note Book, p. 21). The device just mentioned has been described by many writers, from the fourteenth century downwards. Some of their  number advise that it should be adopted as a means of securing other birds of the same family—the Jay (Garrulus glandarius), for example. But we must not forget that Leonard Mascall tells us of ” A pretie way to take a Pye.” ” Ye shall lime a small threede, a foote long or more, and then tie one end about a peece of flesh so bigge as shee may flie away withall : and at the other end of the threed, tie a shoe buckle, and lay the flesh on a post, and let the threede hang downe, and when she flies away with it, the threede with the buckle will wrapped round her, and then she will fall, so ye may take them (A Booke of Fishing, reprint, p. 49). We are likewise indebted to Mascall for a description of ” the Jay trappe to set about come fields or orchards.” It bears a close resemblance to the snare employed in Poland to catch Fieldfares.

The Jay Trap (after Mascall)

The English trap was, however, more substantial than the Polish trap ; being made ” with a poale of seven or eight inches about, and seven or eight foote long or hie, set fast in the ground, about your wheate or other fruite. There is made in the saide poale two hoales, one beneath and the other above : in the nether most hole there is a spring wand let fast there and bowed into the hole above, which hole ye shall put throwe a string, fast to the end of the spring wand, with a knot thereon, to stay it that it shall not slippe backe againe. Also on the fore side of the hole ye must put a blunt pinne of woode with a round ende of seven or eight inches long, set loosely in by the knot to stay the string, which pinne ye shall see cloven in the middest, and in that cleft they use to put a cherie or wheateare for a baite. Then shall yee spread finely, and lay the string aboute on the saide shorte pinne, and your string to have a running noose. Also the trappe of your stake must be sharpe that no foule may light thereon. And when any lights on the short pinne to catch the baite, it falls down, and the string thereon takes them by the leggs. Thus ye may set many such about your grounds. Ye may make those trappes on boughs in trees to take them at all times of the year if ye list.” Professor Newton reports of the Siberian Jay (Perisoreus infaustus), as observed in Lapland, that there is no difficulty in snaring as many live specimens as can be desired. Schrenck reports that the natives of Eastern Siberia very commonly keep tame Jays in their huts. He adds that these birds are often captured in the snares set for Sables, which are baited with fish. A German device of catching Jays and many other birds is to employ a tame Owl to attract the birds to a fowling-tree, which has been lopped of many of its branches, and carefully trimmed (as shown in the headpiece of this chapter). Numerous limed twigs are set upon the pruned branches which remain, so arranged as to offer convenient perches for any Jays that may be lured to the spot. The tree generally selected for this purpose is a pine tree, a tree that stands in an open space a few yards from its fellows. The fowler often lops off the smaller branches from the surrounding trees, so as to make a circle of bare boughs, to which he secures his limed twigs (” Leimruthen “). Under the central tree he builds a hut of the branches which have been cut off the trees, to form the ” Heherhütte.” This cabin is built of the necessary size to contain the fowler and his companions. A live Owl, or, in default of such a decoy, the skin of a Hare (Hasenbalg) is placed on the top of the ” Heherhütte,” or Jay-hut. The fowler commences operations at dawn, and the sport lasts until nine or ten in the forenoon. The number of limed twigs employed varies from 80 to 100. The birdcatcher calls the wild birds together by means of a bird-whistle (” Wichtelpfeise “). This is made with a piece of cherry bark. The fowler imitates the cry of an Owl. When the Jays recognise the challenge of what they suppose to be their hereditary enemy the Owl, they begin to scold, and thus excite the neighbourhood. Many other woodland birds assemble to unite in blaming the Owl. The Jays are prominent in their protests, and soon fly into the tree, beneath which their object of their opprobrium is tethered. As soon as the Jays come into contact with the limed twigs, they become incapacitated for flight, and tumble helpless to the ground.

The Italians are adepts at capturing the Jay, as well as a variety of other birds, by the system just described. It is called the ” Chioccolo,’ ” Fistierella,” or ” Fraschetta ” in Italy. This system owes its name of ” Chioccolo ” to the whistle which is employed to attract the birds to the fowler. This, says Savi, is the same whistle which the fowler uses to imitate the chuckle of the Blackbird. It is a metal bird-call of small size. The Tuscan birdcatcher selects the scene of his fowling operations in the centre of some copse, at a moderate distance from a few large trees. Having decided upon the spot, he sets to work to build his hut (” Capannello “). This is supported by two or three tall saplings eight or nine feet in height. The fowler cuts other branches in the vicinity and uses them to make a tiny wattled hut of green leaves, just large enough to conceal his person from the sharp eyes of the Jays, and other birds which he hopes to capture. He then removes the underwood and small branches for some little distance around the hut. The larger branches indeed are left, but only to be bent into the shape that best answers the requirements of the fowler. These branches are garnished with limed twigs. The fowler makes it his business to see that no bough or perch (” Postajo “) is left without its limed twig. The Italian fowler begins to whistle with the ” Chioccolo,” either when the birds are leaving the woods to go and feed in the fields and orchards in the early morning, or when they are returning in the evening. All the birds in the vicinity mistake the prolonged and monotonous whistle for the call of an Owl. Twittering and chattering, they all draw near to the spot from which the unwonted sound proceeds. Even those that are too distant to hear the call of the birdcatcher recognise the shrieking of their fellows. They hasten to join in mobbing the imaginary intruder. The Jays, Blackbirds, Long-tailed Tits, and Chaffinches are usually the first to arrive and to spread the alarm through the wood, all agitated and curious, keeping their tails and wings in perpetual motion. As the Jays see nothing of their enemy, they draw closer and closer to the fowler’s hut, until at last they alight on the limed twigs. These, being lightly poised, readily drop to the ground, carrying the fluttering birds along with them. The cries of the victims only serve to whet the curiosity of the birds that are still free. Far from taking warning by the fate of their brethren, they hurry to the same miserable fate. Selivanovski describes the method of taking Jays and other forest birds in Russia as being similar to the methods adopted in other parts of Continental Europe.

Russian system seems to approximate most closely to the French ” Pipe”e.” The fowler is advised to choose a single tree for the purpose of fowling. It must not be so tall as to be exposed to the wind. In Russia the oak is considered the most suitable tree, because its branches are disposed symmetrically. This fact facilitates the task of the birdcatcher in setting his limed twigs. The ends of the uppermost branches must be lopped off. Were they retained, birds of prey would probably perch upon them and thus frighten the smaller birds away. If the tree selected proves difficult to climb, another tree may be cut down and moored to the first, instead of a ladder. When the fowler trims the superfluous branches from the decoy tree, he is advised to cut slits in the remaining branches to receive the limed twigs. The Russian birdcatcher prepares his hut of green boughs or, if necessary, of fir branches, eked out with brushwood. The Russian fowler climbs up into the decoy tree, bearing as large a bundle of limed twigs as he is able to carry. These are inserted into the clefts which have been left for that purpose in the branches. Other and longer twigs covered with birdlime are fixed as hoops in the ground around the fatal tree. When all the needful details have been attended to, the birdcatcher takes a live Owl and tethers it by a string to the top of the fowling hut. In default of a live decoy, the aid of a stuffed specimen is called in. The fowler then hides in his hut and begins to challenge the wild Jays and other birds by calling with a bird-whistle. The French ” Pipee ” hardly differs from the devices just described, except perhaps in the care which is taken to prepare an elaborate series of paths around the fowler’s hut. This sport derived its name from the ” Pipeau ” or bird-call employed by the French fowler.

The ” Solitaire Inventiv ” suggests two forms of bird-calls for the use of the ” Pipée.” Of these the first, and no doubt the most primitive, is to hold a piece of a species of couch-grass in the right hand, between the forefinger and thumb, and then to insert the edge of the leaf between the lips of the fowler. The operator gently presses the lips together, and blows softly, thus imitating the cry of an Owl. But the birdcatcher needs to arouse the anger of the wild birds by simulating the cries of birds that appear to be denouncing the presence of the Owl. He requires for that purpose the ” Appeau à frouer,” of which the simplest pattern consists of an ivy leaf. The couch-grass, according to Buliard, requires to be prepared by being steeped in vinegar. The ivy leaf is used without any such treatment.

The ” Solitaire Inventiv ” advises the birdcatcher to take an ivy leaf and pierce a hole as large as a pea in the centre of the leaf. The leaf is then rolled into the form of a tiny, spiral cone, the small end of which is placed as a bird-whistle in the mouth of the fowler. When the fowler blows through this little instrument, he mimics the cries of a party of Jays which are mobbing an Owl. Both Buliard and the ” Solitaire Inventiv ” dwell on the desirability of the ” Appeau à frouer,” to supplement the cry of the Owl imitated with the  ” Chiendent ” or couch-grass. Various ingenious bird-calls have been invented by the wit of the French birdcatchers to serve as ” Pipeaux ” and ” Appeaux à frouer ; ” but these have only been grafted upon the original plan of utilising common plants as bird-calls. As for the exercise of the ” Pipée,” the ” Solitaire Inventiv ” regarded it as only to be used when the birds were eating the grapes in the vineyards. Buliard distinguishes three sorts of ” Pipées ” : ” les pipées prématurées, les pipdées de saison, et les pipées tardives.” The first of these was practised when the wild cherries (” Merises “) ripened ; many birds were then rearing their latest broods, and their flesh was of poor quality. The ” pipées de saison ” were those recognised by the ” Solitaire Inventiv ” in the season of grapes. This was the best time to catch Thrushes and Redbreasts, which were then in prime condition. The ” pipées tardives ” took place in the month of November, when many Jays were taken, but very few Redbreasts. The ” Pipée ” ceased to be effective when frosty weather set in.

Buliard and the ” Solitaire Inventiv ” agree in the instructions which they give as to preparing a tree for the ” Pipée ” by trimming off the superfluous branches, and setting limed twigs in the necessary positions. Both authorities recommend that the fowling hut should be built of branches, and placed at the base of the tree which is chosen as the centre of the ” Pipée.” The ” Solitaire Inventiv ” declares that the fowler must make five or six open spaces (” Clairières “) at certain distances around the hut. These are set apart to receive certain supplementary branches, which are covered with birdlime. Buliard extends the same idea. He arranges that the fowling hut should be encircled by three avenues, which again are crossed by five or more transverse paths. The first and broadest of the circular avenues (A) measures six or seven feet in depth, and surrounds the hut; the second (B) is only three feet across ; while the third (C) measures four feet or more across.

Plan of Pipée


The fowler cuts a number of perches (“Plians”); which he arranges in the avenues about the hut. These rods vary in size, but all serve the same purpose, viz., that of carrying limed twigs. The ” Solitaire Inventiv ” assures us that the first bird to arrive at the fowlingtree is the ” Roitelet ” or Wren, followed by the Redbreast, and then by the Titmice. After the Tits come the Chaffinches, and then the Jays, which are bold in their endeavour to mob the supposed Owl. The French adopt the cruel expedient of breaking the wing of the first Jay taken. Its cries serve to whet the curiosity of its free brethren and thus facilitate their capture. The diversion of the ” Pipée ” commences at daybreak, and lasts until eight in the forenoon.

The numerous species of Birds of Paradise (Paradiseida) supplied as skins to the European markets inhabit such remote regions that very few Englishmen have hitherto been conversant with the habits of the birds, or the means by which their capture is usually effected. It is the fact that Birds of Paradise are shot with blunt arrows in the Aru Islands, and also, according to Mr R. Wallace, in some parts of New Guinea ; but it is equally certain that these beautiful birds are often obtained by the Plan of medium of snares. When Mr Wallace visited the island of Waigou in 1860, he made arrangements with the native birdcatchers to amply supply him with fresh-killed Birds of Paradise. A number of specimens were brought to him, and he discovered that the Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisea rubra) is obtained by a snare similar to that with which the Maori fowler is so conversant. ” A large climbing Arum bears a red reticulated fruit, of which the birds are very fond. The hunters fasten this fruit on a stout forked stick, and provide themselves with a fine, but strong, cord. They then seek out some tree in the forest on which these birds are accustomed to perch, and, climbing up it, fasten the stick to a branch, and arrange the cord in a noose so ingeniously that when the bird comes to eat the fruit its legs are caught, and by pulling the end of the cord, which hangs down to the ground, it comes free from the branch and brings down the bird. Sometimes when food is abundant elsewhere the hunter sits from morning till night under his tree with the cord in his hand, and even for two or three whole days in succession, without getting a bite ; while, on the other hand, if very lucky, he may get two or three birds in a day.”

The device just described was only known to eight or ten men in Waigou when Wallace explored that island (The Malay Archipelago, p.534). A widely different plan of capturing Birds of Paradise is followed in the south-east promontory of British New Guinea. Mr J. P. Thompson reports that the Birds of Paradise usually congregate upon a favourite tree, called in sporting parlance ” the dancing tree,” to exhibit their gorgeous plumage by numerous elegant motions towards one another. ” The mountain natives make use of a very clever device for catching these beautiful birds by trapping. The most favourable place in the jungle is selected, and a clearing made, about thirty feet wide at one end, and gradually converging to a point like the letter V, where it terminates in a framework constructed of saplings crossing one another at intervals, and supported by their ends to two suitable trees. This structure is then perfected by attaching numbers of snares thereto, so placed as to trap the unwary birds in their flight through the tempting opening in the jungle ” (Ibis., 1893, p. 274).

[The engraving of the German ” Jay-hut,” which forms the headpiece of this chapter, has been reproduced from Arten von Viögeln.]

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A leader is a dealer in hope.

— Napoleon