John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) online

. (page 33 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 33 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

his son, or a servant, mounts the other, with the frying-pan and the
pine-knots. Thus accoutred, they proceed towards the interior of the
forest. When they have arrived at the spot where the hunt is to begin,
they strike fire with a flint and steel, and kindle the resinous wood.
The person who carries the fire moves in the direction judged to be
the best. The blaze illuminates the near objects, but the distant parts
seem involved in deepest obscurity. The hunter who bears the gun keeps
immediately in front, and after a while discovers before him two feeble
lights, which are produced by the reflection of the pine-fire from the
eyes of an animal of the deer or wolf kind. The animal stands quite
still. To one unacquainted with this strange mode of hunting, the glare
from its eyes might bring to his imagination some lost hobgoblin that had
strayed from its usual haunts. The hunter, however, nowise intimidated,
approaches the object, sometimes so near as to discern its form, when
raising the rifle to his shoulder, he fires and kills it on the spot.
He then dismounts, secures the skin and such portions of the flesh as
he may want, in the manner already described, and continues his search
through the greater part of the night, sometimes until the dawn of day,
shooting from five to ten deer, should these animals be plentiful. This
kind of hunting proves fatal, not to the deer alone, but also sometimes
to wolves, and now and then to a horse or a cow, which may have straggled
far into the woods.

Now, kind reader, prepare to mount a generous, full blood Virginian
Hunter. See that your gun is in complete order, for, hark to the sound
of the bugle and horn, and the mingled clamour of a pack of harriers!
Your friends are waiting you, under the shade of the wood, and we must
together go _driving_ the light-footed deer. The distance over which
one has to travel is seldom felt, when pleasure is anticipated as the
result: so, galloping we go pell-mell through the woods, to some well
known place, where many a fine buck has drooped its antlers under the
ball of the hunter's rifle. The servants, who are called the _drivers_,
have already begun their search. Their voices are heard exciting the
hounds, and unless we put spurs to our steeds, we may be too late at
our stand, and thus lose the first opportunity of shooting the fleeting
game, as it passes by. Hark again! The dogs are in chase, the horn sounds
louder and more clearly. Hurry, hurry on, or we shall be sadly behind!

Here we are at last! Dismount, fasten your horse to this tree, place
yourself by the side of that large yellow poplar, and mind you do not
shoot me! The deer is fast approaching; I will to my own stand, and he
who shoots him dead wins the prize.

The deer is heard coming. It has inadvertently cracked a dead stick
with its hoof, and the dogs are now so near it that it will pass in a
moment. There it comes! How beautifully it bounds over the ground! What
a splendid head of horns! How easy its attitudes, depending, as, it seems
to do, on its own swiftness for safety! All is in vain, however: a gun is
fired, the animal plunges and doubles with incomparable speed. There he
goes! He passes another stand, from which a second shot, better directed
than the first, brings him to the ground. The dogs, the servants, the
sportsmen are now rushing forward to the spot. The hunter who has shot
it is congratulated on his skill or good luck, and the chase begins
again in some other part of the woods.

A few lines of explanation may be required to convey a clear idea of this
mode of hunting. Deer are fond of following and retracing the paths which
they have formerly pursued, and continue to do so even after they have
been shot at more than once. These tracks are discovered by persons on
horseback in the woods, or a deer is observed crossing a road, a field,
or a small stream. When this has been noticed twice, the deer may be
shot from the places called _stands_ by the sportsman, who is stationed
there, and waits for it, a line of stands being generally formed so as
to cross the path which the game will follow. The person who ascertains
the usual pass of the game, or discovers the parts where the animal feeds
or lies down during the day, gives intimation to his friends, who then
prepare for the chase. The servants start the deer with the hounds, and
by good management, generally succeed in making it run the course that
will soonest bring it to its death. But, should the deer be cautious,
and take another course, the hunters, mounted on swift horses, gallop
through the woods to intercept it, guided by the sound of the horns and
the cry of the dogs, and frequently succeed in shooting it. This sport
is extremely agreeable, and proves successful on almost every occasion.

Hoping that this account will be sufficient to induce you, kind reader,
to go _driving_ in our Western and Southern Woods, I now conclude my
chapter on Deer Hunting by informing you, that the species referred to
above is the Virginian Deer, _Cervus virginianus_; and that, until I be
able to present you with a full account of its habits and history, you
may consult for information respecting it the excellent _Fauna Americana_
of my esteemed friend Dr HARLAN of Philadelphia.




I have always imagined, that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed
Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of
colouring of the great VANDYKE. The broad extent of its dark glossy
body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings of its wings,
neck, and bill, relieved by the rich carmine of the pendent crest of the
male, and the brilliant yellow of its eye, have never failed to remind
me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable
artist's pencil. So strongly indeed have these thoughts become ingrafted
in my mind, as I gradually obtained a more intimate acquaintance with
the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that whenever I have observed one of these
birds flying from one tree to another, I have mentally exclaimed, "There
goes a Vandyke!" This notion may seem strange, perhaps ludicrous, to
you, good reader, but I relate it as a fact, and whether or not it may
be found in accordance with your own ideas, after you have inspected
the plate in which is represented this great chieftain of the Woodpecker
tribe, is perhaps of little consequence.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker confines its rambles to a comparatively
very small portion of the United States, it never having been observed
in the Middle States within the memory of any person now living there.
In fact, in no portion of these districts does the nature of the woods
appear suitable to its remarkable habits.

Descending the Ohio, we meet with this splendid bird for the first time
near the confluence of that beautiful river and the Mississippi; after
which, following the windings of the latter, either downwards toward the
sea, or upwards in the direction of the Missouri, we frequently observe
it. On the Atlantic coast, North Carolina may be taken as the limit of
its distribution, although now and then an individual of the species may
be accidentally seen in Maryland. To the westward of the Mississippi,
it is found in all the dense forests bordering the streams which empty
their waters into that majestic river, from the very declivities of the
Rocky Mountains. The lower parts of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama,
Louisiana, and Mississippi, are, however, the most favourite resorts
of this bird, and in those States it constantly resides, breeds, and
passes a life of peaceful enjoyment, finding a profusion of food in all
the deep, dark, and gloomy swamps dispersed throughout them.

I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind's eye
the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could
describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of
gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as
if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties
which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into
their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him,
where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and
there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of
creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could
represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy,
and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous
carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no
sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers
the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches
an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is
assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of
serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you
an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the
intruder during the meridian heat of our dogdays, in those gloomy and
horrible swamps! But the attempt to picture these scenes would be vain.
Nothing short of ocular demonstration can impress any adequate idea of

How often, kind reader, have I thought of the difference of the tasks
imposed on different minds, when, travelling in countries far distant
from those where birds of this species and others as difficult to be
procured are now and then offered for sale in the form of dried skins,
I have heard the amateur or closet-naturalist express his astonishment;
that half-a-crown was asked by the person who had perhaps followed the
bird when alive over miles of such swamps, and after procuring it, had
prepared its skin in the best manner, and carried it to a market thousands
of miles distant from the spot where he had obtained it. I must say, that
it has at least grieved me as much as when I have heard some idle fop
complain of the poverty of the Gallery of the Louvre, where he had paid
nothing, or when I have listened to the same infatuated idler lamenting
the loss of his shilling, as he sauntered through the Exhibition Rooms of
the Royal Academy of London, or any equally valuable repository of art.
But, let us return to the biography of the famed Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The flight of this bird is graceful in the extreme, although seldom
prolonged to more than a few hundred yards at a time, unless when it has
to cross a large river, which it does in deep undulations, opening its
wings at first to their full extent, and nearly closing them to renew the
propelling impulse. The transit from one tree to another, even should
the distance be as much as a hundred yards, is performed by a single
sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging itself from the top
of the one tree to that of the other, forming an elegantly curved line.
At this moment all the beauty of the plumage is exhibited, and strikes
the beholder with pleasure. It never utters any sound whilst on wing,
unless during the love season; but at all other times, no sooner has this
bird alighted than its remarkable voice is heard, at almost every leap
which it makes, whilst ascending against the upper parts of the trunk
of a tree, or its highest branches. Its notes are clear, loud, and yet
rather plaintive. They are heard at a considerable distance, perhaps
half a mile, and resemble the false high note of a clarionet. They are
usually repeated three times in succession, and may be represented by
the monosyllable _pait, pait, pait_. These are heard so frequently as
to induce me to say that the bird spends few minutes of the day without
uttering them, and this circumstance leads to its destruction, which is
aimed at, not because (as is supposed by some) this species is a destroyer
of trees, but more because it is a beautiful bird, and its rich scalp
attached to the upper mandible forms an ornament for the war-dress of
most of our Indians, or for the shot-pouch of our squatters and hunters,
by all of whom the bird is shot merely for that purpose.

Travellers of all nations are also fond of possessing the upper part
of the head and the bill of the male, and I have frequently remarked,
that on a steam-boat's reaching what we call a _wooding-place_, the
_strangers_ were very apt to pay a quarter of a dollar for two or three
heads of this Woodpecker. I have seen entire belts of Indian chiefs
closely ornamented with the tufts and bills of this species, and have
observed that a great value is frequently put upon them.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker nestles earlier in spring than any other
species of its tribe. I have observed it boring a hole for that purpose
in the beginning of March. The hole is, I believe, always made in the
trunk of a live tree, generally an ash or a hagberry, and is at a great
height. The birds pay great regard to the particular situation of the
tree, and the inclination of its trunk; first, because they prefer
retirement, and again, because they are anxious to secure the aperture
against the access of water during beating rains. To prevent such a
calamity, the hole is generally dug immediately under the junction of a
large branch with the trunk. It is first bored horizontally for a few
inches, then directly downwards, and not in a spiral manner, as some
people have imagined. According to circumstances, this cavity is more
or less deep, being sometimes not more than ten inches, whilst at other
times it reaches nearly three feet downwards into the core of the tree.
I have been led to think that these differences result from the more
or less immediate necessity under which the female may be of depositing
her eggs, and again have thought that the older the Woodpecker is, the
deeper does it make its hole. The average diameter of the different
nests which I have examined was about seven inches within, although the
entrance, which is perfectly round, is only just large enough to admit
the bird.

Both birds work most assiduously at this excavation, one waiting outside
to encourage the other, whilst it is engaged in digging, and when the
latter is fatigued, taking its place. I have approached trees whilst
these Woodpeckers were thus busily employed in forming their nest, and
by resting my head against the bark, could easily distinguish every blow
given by the bird. I observed that in two instances, when the Woodpeckers
saw me thus at the foot of the tree in which they were digging their
nest, they abandoned it for ever. For the first brood there are generally
six eggs. They are deposited on a few chips at the bottom of the hole,
and are of a pure white colour. The young are seen creeping out of the
hole about a fortnight before they venture to fly to any other tree.
The second brood makes its appearance about the 15th of August.

In Kentucky and Indiana, the Ivory-bills seldom raise more than one brood
in the season. The young are at first of the colour of the female, only
that they want the crest, which, however, grows rapidly, and towards
autumn, particularly in birds of the first breed, is nearly equal to
that of the mother. The males have then a slight line of red on the head,
and do not attain their richness of plumage until spring, or their full
size until the second year. Indeed, even then, a difference is easily
observed between them and individuals which are much older.

The food of this species consists principally of beetles, larvæ, and
large grubs. No sooner, however, are the grapes of our forests ripe than
they are eaten by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker with great avidity. I have
seen this bird hang by its claws to the vines, in the position so often
assumed by a Titmouse, and, reaching downwards, help itself to a bunch
of grapes with much apparent pleasure. Persimons are also sought for by
them, as soon as the fruit becomes quite mellow, as are hagberries.

The Ivory-bill is never seen attacking the corn, or the fruit of the
orchards, although it is sometimes observed working upon and chipping
off the bark from the belted trees of the newly-cleared plantations. It
seldom comes near the ground, but prefers at all times the tops of the
tallest trees. Should it, however, discover the half-standing broken
shaft of a large dead and rotten tree, it attacks it in such a manner
as nearly to demolish it in the course of a few days. I have seen the
remains of some of these ancient monarchs of our forests so excavated,
and that so singularly, that the tottering fragments of the trunk
appeared to be merely supported by the great pile of chips by which its
base was surrounded. The strength of this Woodpecker is such, that I
have seen it detach pieces of bark seven or eight inches in length at
a single blow of its powerful bill, and by beginning at the top branch
of a dead tree, tear off the bark, to an extent of twenty or thirty
feet, in the course of a few hours, leaping downwards with its body in
an upward position, tossing its head to the right and left, or leaning
it against the bark to ascertain the precise spot where the grubs were
concealed, and immediately after renewing its blows with fresh vigour,
all the while sounding its loud notes, as if highly delighted.

This species generally moves in pairs, after the young have left their
parents. The female is always the most clamorous and the least shy. Their
mutual attachment is, I believe, continued through life. Excepting when
digging a hole for the reception of their eggs, these birds seldom, if
ever, attack living trees, for any other purpose than that of procuring
food, in doing which they destroy the insects that would otherwise prove
injurious to the trees.

I have frequently observed the male and female retire to rest for the
night, into the same hole in which they had long before reared their
young. This generally happens a short time after sunset.

When wounded and brought to the ground, the Ivory-bill immediately makes
for the nearest tree, and ascends it with great rapidity and perseverance,
until it reaches the top branches, when it squats and hides, generally
with great effect. Whilst ascending, it moves spirally round the tree,
utters its loud _pait, pait, pait_, at almost every hop, but becomes
silent the moment it reaches a place where it conceives itself secure.
They sometimes cling to the bark with their claws so firmly, as to
remain cramped to the spot for several hours after death. When taken
by the hand, which is rather a hazardous undertaking, they strike with
great violence, and inflict very severe wounds with their bill as well
as claws, which are extremely sharp and strong. On such occasions, this
bird utters a mournful and very piteous cry.

PICUS PRINCIPALIS, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 173.—_Lath._
Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 225.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds
of the United States, p. 44.

WHITE-BILLED WOODPECKER, _Lath._ Synops. vol. ii. p. 553.

Ornith. vol. iv. Pl. 29. fig. i.

Adult Male. Plate LXVI. Fig. 1.

Bill long, straight, strong, polyhedral, tapering, compressed and
truncated at the tip; mandibles nearly equal, both nearly straight in
their dorsal outline. Nostrils basal, oval, partly covered by recumbent
bristly feathers. Head large. Neck long and slender. Body robust. Feet
rather short, robust; tarsus strong, scutellate before, scaly on the
sides; two toes before and two behind, the inner hind toe shortest;
claws strong, arched, very acute.

Plumage compact, glossy. Feathers of the head elongated and erectile.
Wings large, the third and fourth quills longest. Tail long, graduated,
of twelve tapering stiff feathers worn to a point by being rubbed against
the bark of trees.

Bill of an ivory-white, whence the common name of the bird. Iris bright
yellow. Feet greyish blue. The general colour of the plumage is black,
with violet reflections, more glossy above. The feathers of the middle
and hind part of the head are of a vivid deep carmine. A broad band of
white runs down the neck and back, on either side, commencing narrow under
the ear, and terminating with the scapulars. The five outer primaries
black, the rest white towards the end, the secondaries wholly white, so
that when the wings are closed, the posterior part of the back seems
white, although it is in reality black. Lateral tail-feathers with a
spot of white near the tip of each web.

Length 21 inches, extent of wings 30; bill along the back 2⅓, along the
gap 3; tarsus 2.

Adult Female. Plate LXVI. Fig. 2, 3.

The female resembles the male in colouring, but wants the vivid patch
on the crest, which is wholly black.




If the name of _Starling_ has been given to this well-known species, with
the view of assimilating it to the European bird of that name, it can
only have been on account of the numbers of individuals that associate
together, for in every other respect it is as distinct from the true
Starlings as a Common Crow. But without speaking particularly of generic
or specific affinities—a task which I reserve for another occasion—I
shall here content myself with giving you, kind reader, an account of
the habits of this bird.

The Marsh Blackbird is so well known as being a bird of the most nefarious
propensities, that in the United States one can hardly mention its name,
without hearing such an account of its pilferings as might induce the
young student of nature to conceive that it had been created for the
purpose of annoying the farmer. That it destroys an astonishing quantity
of corn, rice, and other kinds of grain, cannot be denied; but that
before it commences its ravages, it has proved highly serviceable to
the crops, is equally certain.

As soon as spring makes its appearance, almost all the Redwings leave
the Southern States, in small detached and straggling flocks, the males
leading the way in full song, as if to invite the females to follow.
Prodigious numbers make their appearance in the Eastern Districts, as
winter recedes, and are often seen while piles of drifted snow still
remain along the roads, under shelter of the fences. They frequently
alight on trees of moderate size, spread their tail, swell out their
plumage, and utter their clear and not unmusical notes, particularly in
the early morning, before their departure from the neighbourhood of the
places in which they have roosted; for their migrations, you must know,
are performed entirely during the day.

Their food at this season is almost exclusively composed of grubs,
worms, caterpillars, and different sorts of coleopterous insects, which
they procure by searching with great industry, in the meadows, the
orchards, or the newly ploughed fields, walking with a graceful step,
but much quicker than either of their relatives, the Purple Grakle or
the Boat-tail of the Southern States. The millions of insects which
the Red-wings destroy at this early season, are, in my opinion, a full
equivalent for the corn which they eat at another period; and for this
reason, the farmers do not molest them in spring, when they resort to the
fields in immense numbers. They then follow the ploughman, in company
with the Crow Blackbird, and as if aware of the benefit which they are
conferring, do not seem to regard him with apprehension.

The females being all arrived, the pairing season at once commences.
Several males are seen flying in pursuit of one, until, becoming fatigued,
she alights, receives the addresses of her suitors, and soon makes
a choice that establishes her the consort of one of them. The "happy
couple" immediately retire from the view of the crowds around them, and
seek along the margins of some sequestered pond or damp meadow, for a
place in which to form their nest. An Alder bush or a thick tuft of rank
weeds answer equally well, and in such places a quantity of coarse dried
weeds is deposited by them, to form the exterior of the fabric which is
to receive the eggs. The nest is lined with fine grasses, and, in some
instances, with horse-hair. The eggs are from four to six in number, of
a regular oval form, light blue, sparsely spotted with dusky.

Now is the time, good-natured reader, to see and admire the courage
and fidelity of the male, whilst assiduously watching over his beloved
mate. He dives headlong towards every intruder that approaches his nest,

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 33 of 50)