John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) online

. (page 39 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 39 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

substance, but the wood can scarcely be sawed on account of the looseness
of its inner fibres. It grows to a great height and size, particularly
along the shores of the Mississippi and Ohio, and in all alluvial
grounds to the west of the Alleghany Mountains. It is principally used
for fire-wood and fence-rails, but is of indifferent quality for either

MUSCICAPA TYRANNUS, _Briss._ vol. ii. p. 391.—_Ch. Bonaparte_,
Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 66.

LANIUS TYRANNUS, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 130.—_Lath._
Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 81.

TYRANT SHRIKE, _Lath._ Synops. vol. i. p. 184.

vol. ii. p. 66. Pl. 13. fig. 1.

Adult Male. Plate LXXIX. Fig. 1.

Bill of moderate length, rather stout, subtrigonal, depressed at the
base, straight; upper mandible with the dorsal outline nearly straight,
and sloping to near the tip, which is deflected and acute, the edges
sharp and overlapping; lower mandible with the back broad, the sides
slanting, the end slightly declinate. Nostrils basal, lateral, roundish,
partly covered by the bristly feathers. Head rather large, neck stout,
body ovate. Feet rather short; tarsus covered anteriorly with a few
scutella, compressed, acute behind, about the same length as the middle
toe; toes free, scutellate above; claws arched, compressed, acute.

Plumage soft, blended, glossy. Basirostral bristles long, directed
outwards. Feathers of the head narrow, elongated, and erectile, forming
a short longitudinal tuft. Wings rather long, the second and third quills
longest. Tail rather long, even, of twelve broadly acuminate feathers.

Bill black. Iris dark brown. Feet greyish-blue. The general colour of
the upper parts is dark bluish-grey, the head darker. Feathers along
the middle of the crown forming a rich flame-coloured patch, margined
with yellow. Quills brownish-black, as are the coverts, which, together
with the secondary quills, are externally margined and tipped with dull
white. Tail brownish-black, deeper towards the end, each feather largely
tipped with white, of which colour also is part of the outer web of the
lateral feathers. Under parts greyish-white, throat and fore-neck pure
white, the breast tinged with ash-grey.

Length 8¼ inches, extent of wings 14½; bill along the ridge 7/12, along
the gap 1.

Adult Female. Plate LXXIX. Fig. 2.

The female is duller in colouring; the upper parts being lighter and
tinged with brown, the under parts more dusky, the orange spot on the
head smaller and not so bright, and the white tip of the tail less pure
and not so extensive.


POPULUS CANDICANS, _Willd._ Sp. Pl. vol. iv. p. 806. _Pursh_,
Fl. Amer. vol. ii. p. 618. _Mich._ Arbr. Forest. de l'Amer.
Sept. vol. iii. Pl. 13.—DIŒCIA OCTANDRIA, _Linn._ AMENTACEÆ,

This species of Poplar is distinguished by its broadly cordate, acuminate,
unequally and obtusely serrated, venous leaves; hairy petioles, resinous
buds, and round twigs. The leaves are dark green above, whitish beneath.
The resinous substance with which the buds are covered has an agreeable
smell. The bark is smooth, of a greenish tint.




I shot two of these birds whilst traversing one of the extensive prairies
of our North-western States. Five of them had been running along the
foot-path before me, for some time. I at first looked upon them as of the
Common Brown Titlark species (_Anthus Spinoletta_), but as they rose on
the wing, the difference of their notes struck me, and, shooting at them,
I had the good fortune to kill two, which I discovered, on examination,
to be of a new and distinct species, although in the general appearance
of their plumage they were very nearly allied to the Brown Titlark. The
rest I pursued in vain, and was forced to abandon the chase on account
of the approach of night, and the necessity of preparing for rest after
a long walk.

The flight of the Prairie Titlark is irregular, and performed by jerks,
although greatly protracted, when the bird is pursued or frightened. At
short intervals these birds plunged through the air, came towards the
ground, and flew close over the prairie, as if about to alight, and again
rising, made a large circuit. In this manner they continued all the time
I saw them on wing. Whilst on the ground they ran briskly, vibrating
their tail, whenever they stopped, and picking up the insects near them.

The notes of the Prairie Titlark are clear and sharp, consisting of a
number of _tweets_, the last greatly prolonged. The two individuals
which I procured proved to be males. They seemed to be in imperfect
plumage, it being then the month of October, and the crescent on their
breast not being so distinctly defined at the surface, as it was deeper
among the feathers. Of their mode of nestling, and other habits, I can
say nothing, as I never happened to meet with another individual of the


Male. Plate LXXX.

Bill straight, slender, compressed, acuminate; upper mandible carinated
at the base, rounded on the sides, the edges inflected towards the tip,
which is slightly decimate and notched; lower mandible ascending in its
dorsal outline. Nostrils basal, lateral, elliptical, half closed above
by a membrane. The general form slender. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus
slender, compressed; toes free; claws of the fore toes arched, compressed,
acute, of the hind toe very long, subulate-compressed, nearly straight.

Plumage soft, blended. Wings of ordinary length, first, second, and third
quills longest, the secondaries notched at the tip. Tail long, emarginate.

Bill dark brown, the under mandible orange at the base. Iris hazel. Feet
brownish-black. The general colour of the upper parts is dull olive-brown;
a brownish-white line over the eye; auricular coverts blackish. Under
parts pale yellowish-grey; an obscure lunule of brownish-black on the
fore neck, the lower part of which, and the sides, are streaked with
dark brown, and tinged with reddish-brown.

Length 6½ inches, bill along the ridge ½, along the gap ¾; tarsus ⅚,
middle toe ¾, hind toe ¾.

PHLOX SUBULATA, _Willd._ Sp. Pl. vol. i. p. 842. _Pursh_, Fl.
Amer. vol. i. p. 151.—PENTANDRIA MONOGYNIA, _Linn._ POLEMONIA,

Cæspitose, pubescent; leaves linear, pungent, ciliate; corymbs
few-flowered; pedicels trifid; divisions of the corolla wedge-shaped,
emarginate; teeth of the calyx subulate, scarcely shorter than the tube
of the corolla. The flowers are pink, with a purple star in the centre.
It grows in rocky places, and on barren, gravelly ground, flowering
through the summer.


As I was lounging one fair and very warm morning on the _Levee_ at
New Orleans, I chanced to observe a gentleman, whose dress and other
accompaniments greatly attracted my attention. I wheeled about, and
followed him for a short space, when, judging by every thing about him
that he was a true original, I accosted him.

But here, kind reader, let me give you some idea of his exterior. His
head was covered by a straw hat, the brim of which might cope with those
worn by the fair sex in 1830; his neck was exposed to the weather; the
broad frill of a shirt, then fashionable, flapped about his breast,
whilst an extraordinary collar, carefully arranged, fell over the top
of his coat. The latter was of a light green colour, harmonizing well
with a pair of flowing yellow nankeen trowsers, and a pink waistcoat,
from the bosom of which, amidst a large bunch of the splendid flowers
of the Magnolia, protruded part of a young alligator, which seemed more
anxious to glide through the muddy waters of some retired swamp, than to
spend its life swinging to and fro among folds of the finest lawn. The
gentleman held in one hand a cage full of richly-plumed Nonpareils, whilst
in the other he sported a silk umbrella, on which I could plainly read
"_Stolen from I_," these words being painted in large white characters.
He walked as if conscious of his own importance, that is, with a good
deal of pomposity, singing "My love is but a lassie yet," and that
with such thorough imitation of the Scotch emphasis, that had not his
physiognomy brought to my mind a denial of his being from "within a mile
of Edinburgh," I should have put him down in my journal for a true Scot.
But no:—his tournure, nay, the very shape of his visage, pronounced him
an American, from the farthest parts of our eastern Atlantic shores.

All this raised my curiosity to such a height, that I accosted him with
"Pray, Sir, will you allow me to examine the birds you have in that cage?"
The gentleman stopped, straightened his body, almost closed his left
eye, then spread his legs apart, and, with a look altogether quizzical,
answered, "Birds, Sir, did you say birds?" I nodded, and he continued,
"What the devil do you know about birds, Sir?"

Reader, this answer brought a blush into my face. I felt as if caught
in a trap, for I was struck by the force of the gentleman's question;
which, by the way, was not much in discordance with a not unusual mode of
granting an answer in the United States. Sure enough, thought I, little
or perhaps nothing do I know of the nature of those beautiful denizens
of the air; but the next moment vanity gave me a pinch, and urged me to
conceive that I knew at least as much about birds as the august personage
in my presence. "Sir," replied I, "I am a student of nature, and admire
her works, from the noblest figure of man to the crawling reptile which
you have in your bosom." "Ah!" replied he, "a-a-a naturalist, I presume."
"Just so, my good Sir," was my answer. The gentleman gave me the cage;
and I observed from the corner of one of my eyes, that his were cunningly
inspecting my face. I examined the pretty finches as long as I wished,
returned the cage, made a low bow, and was about to proceed on my walk,
when this odd sort of being asked me a question quite accordant with my
desire of knowing more of him: "Will you come with me, Sir? If you will,
you shall see some more curious birds, some of which are from different
parts of the world. I keep quite a collection." I assured him I should
feel gratified, and accompanied him to his lodgings.

We entered a long room, where, to my surprise, the first objects that
attracted my attention were a large easel, with a full length unfinished
portrait upon it, a table with pallets and pencils, and a number of
pictures of various sizes placed along the walls. Several cages containing
birds were hung near the windows, and two young gentlemen were busily
engaged in copying some finished portraits. I was delighted with all
I saw. Each picture spoke for itself: the drawing, the colouring, the
handling, the composition, and the keeping—all proved, that, whoever
was the artist, he certainly was possessed of superior talents.

I did not know if my companion was the painter of the picture, but, as
we say in America, I strongly guessed, and without waiting any longer,
paid him the compliments which I thought he fairly deserved. "Aye," said
he, "the world is pleased with my work, I wish I were so too, but time
and industry are required as well as talents, to make a good artist. If
you will examine the birds, I'll to my labour." So saying, the artist
took up his pallet, and was searching for a rest-stick, but not finding
the one with which he usually supported his hand, he drew the rod of a
gun, and was about to sit, when he suddenly threw down his implements on
the table, and, taking the gun, walked to me, and asked if "I had ever
seen a percussion-lock." I had not, for that improvement was not yet in
vogue. He not only explained the superiority of the lock in question,
but undertook to prove that it was capable of acting effectually under
water. The bell was rung, a flat basin of water was produced, the
gun was charged with powder, and the lock fairly immersed. The report
terrified the birds, causing them to beat against the gilded walls of
their prisons. I remarked this to the artist. He replied, "The devil
take the birds!—more of them in the market; why, Sir, I wish to shew you
that I am a marksman as well as a painter." The easel was cleared of the
large picture, rolled to the further end of the room, and placed against
the wall. The gun was loaded in a trice, and the painter, counting ten
steps from the easel, and taking aim at the supporting-pin on the left,
fired. The bullet struck the head of the wooden pin fairly, and sent the
splinters in all directions. "A bad shot, sir," said this extraordinary
person, "the ball ought to have driven the pin farther into the hole,
but it struck on one side; I'll try at the hole itself." After reloading
his piece, the artist took aim again, and fired. The bullet this time
had accomplished its object, for it had passed through the aperture, and
hit the wall behind. "Mr ——, ring the bell and close the windows," said
the painter, and turning to me, continued, "Sir, I will shew you the
_ne plus ultra_ of shooting." I was quite amazed, and yet so delighted,
that I bowed my assent. A servant having appeared, a lighted candle was
ordered. When it arrived, the artist placed it in a proper position, and
retiring some yards, put out the light with a bullet, in the manner which
I have elsewhere, in this volume, described. When light was restored,
I observed the uneasiness of the poor little alligator, as it strove to
effect its escape from the artist's waistcoat. I mentioned this to him.
"True, true," he replied, "I had quite forgot the reptile, he shall have
a dram;" and unbuttoning his vest, unclasped a small chain and placed
the alligator in the basin of water on the table.

Perfectly satisfied with the acquaintance which I had formed with this
renowned artist, I wished to withdraw fearing I might inconvenience
him by my presence. But my time was not yet come. He bade me sit down,
and paying no more attention to the young pupils in the room than if
they had been a couple of cabbages, said, "If you have leisure and
will stay awhile, I will shew you how I paint, and will relate to you
an incident of my life, which will prove to you how sadly situated an
artist is at times." In full expectation that more eccentricities were
to be witnessed, or that the story would prove a valuable one, even to
a naturalist, who is seldom a painter, I seated myself at his side, and
observed with interest how adroitly he transferred the colours from his
glistening pallet to the canvas before him. I was about to compliment
him on his facility of touch, when he spoke as follows:

"This is, sir, or, I ought to say rather, this will be the portrait of
one of our best navy officers, a man as brave as CÆSAR, and as good a
sailor as ever walked the deck of a seventy-four. Do you paint, Sir?"
I replied "Not yet." "Not yet! what do you mean?" "I mean what I say:
I intend to paint as soon as I can draw better than I do at present."
"Good," said he, "you are quite right, to draw is the first object;
but, sir, if you should ever paint, and paint portraits, you will often
meet with difficulties. For instance, the brave Commodore, of whom this
is the portrait, although an excellent man at every thing else, is the
worst sitter I ever saw; and the incident I promised to relate to you,
as one curious enough, is connected with his bad mode of sitting. Sir,
I forgot to ask if you would take any refreshment—a glass of wine, or
——." I assured him I needed nothing more than his agreeable company,
and he proceeded. "Well; Sir, the first morning that the Commodore came
to sit, he was in full uniform, and with his sword at his side. After
a few moments of conversation, and when all was ready on my part, I
bade him ascend this _throne_, place himself in the attitude which I
contemplated, and assume an air becoming an officer of the navy. He
mounted, placed himself as I had desired, but merely looked at me as
if I had been a block of stone. I waited a few minutes when, observing
no change on his placid countenance, I ran the chalk over the canvas,
to form a rough outline. This done, I looked up to his face again, and
opened a conversation which I thought would warm his warlike nature; but
in vain. I waited and waited, talked and talked, until my patience—Sir,
you must know I am not overburdened with phlegm—being almost run out,
I rose, threw my pallet and brushes on the floor, stamped, walking
to and fro about the room, and vociferated such calumnies against our
navy, that I startled the good Commodore. He still looked at me with
a placid countenance, and, as he has told me since, thought I had lost
my senses. But I observed him all the while, and, fully as determined
to carry my point, as he would be to carry off an enemy's ship, I gave
my oaths additional emphasis, addressed him as a representative of the
navy, and, steering somewhat clear of personal insult, played off my
batteries against the craft. The Commodore walked up to me, placed his
hand on the hilt of his sword, and told me, in a resolute manner, that
if I intended to insult the navy, he would instantly cut off my ears.
His features exhibited all the spirit and animation of his noble nature,
and as I had now succeeded in rousing the lion, I judged it time to
retreat. So, changing my tone, I begged his pardon, and told him he now
looked precisely as I wished to represent him. He laughed, and returning
to his seat, assumed a bold countenance. And now, Sir, see the picture?"

At some future period, I may present you with other instances of the odd
ways in which this admired artist gave animation to his sitters. For
the present, kind reader, we shall leave him finishing the Commodore,
while we return to our proper studies.



Comparing the great size of this bird, its formidable character, its
powerful and protracted flight, and the dexterity with which, although
a land bird, it procures its prey from the waters of the ocean, with
the very inferior powers of the bird named the Kingsfisher, I should
be tempted to search for a more appropriate appellation than that of
Fish-Hawk, and, were I not a member of a republic, might fancy that of
_Imperial Fisher_ more applicable to it.

The habits of this famed bird differ so materially from those of almost
all others of its genus, that an accurate description of them cannot
fail to be highly interesting to the student of nature.

The Fish Hawk may be looked upon as having more of a social disposition
than most other Hawks. Indeed, with the exception of the Swallow-tailed
Hawk (_Falco furcatus_), I know none so gregarious in its habits. It
migrates in numbers, both during spring, when it shews itself along our
Atlantic shores, lakes, and rivers, and during autumn, when it retires
to warmer climes. At these seasons, it appears in flocks of eight or
ten individuals, following the windings of our shores in loose bodies,
advancing in easy sailings or flappings, crossing each other in their
gyrations. During the period of their stay in the United States, many
pairs are seen nestling, rearing their young, and seeking their food,
within so short a distance of each other, that while following the margins
of our eastern shores, a Fish Hawk or a nest belonging to the species,
may be met with at every short interval.

The Fish Hawk may be said to be of a mild disposition. Not only do these
birds live in perfect harmony together, but they even allow other birds
of very different character to approach so near to them as to build their
nests of the very materials of which the outer parts of their own are
constructed. I have never observed a Fish Hawk chasing any other bird
whatever. So pacific and timorous is it, that, rather than encounter a
foe but little more powerful than itself, it abandons its prey to the
White-headed Eagle, which, next to man, is its greatest enemy. It never
forces its young from the nest, as some other Hawks do, but, on the
contrary, is seen to feed them even when they have begun to procure food
for themselves.

Notwithstanding all these facts, a most erroneous idea prevails among
our fishermen, and the farmers along our coasts, that the Fish Hawk's
nest is the best _scare-crow_ they can have in the vicinity of their
houses or grounds. As these good people affirm, no Hawk will attempt to
commit depredations on their poultry, so long as the Fish Hawk remains
in the country. But the absence of most birds of prey from those parts
at the time when the Fish Hawk is on our coast, arises simply from the
necessity of retiring to the more sequestered parts of the interior for
the purpose of rearing their young in security, and the circumstance of
their visiting the coasts chiefly at the period when myriads of water-fowl
resort to our estuaries at the approach of winter, leaving the shores
and salt-marshes at the return of spring, when the Fish Hawk arrives.
However, as this notion has a tendency to protect the latter bird, it
may be so far useful, the fisherman always interposing when he sees a
person bent upon the destruction of his favourite bird.

The Fish Hawk differs from all birds of prey in another important
particular, which is, that it never attempts to secure its prey in the
air, although its rapidity of flight might induce an observer to suppose
it perfectly able to do so. I have spent weeks on the Gulf of Mexico,
where these birds are numerous, and have observed them sailing and
plunging into the water, at a time when numerous shoals of flying-fish
were emerging from the sea to evade the pursuit of the dolphins. Yet
the Fish Hawk never attempted to pursue any of them while above the
surface, but would plunge after one of them or a bonita-fish, after they
had resumed their usual mode of swimming near the surface.

The motions of the Fish Hawk in the air are graceful, and as majestic as
those of the Eagle. It rises with ease to a great height by extensive
circlings, performed apparently by mere inclinations of the wings and
tail. It dives at times to some distance with the wings partially closed,
and resumes its sailing, as if these plunges were made for amusement
only. Its wings are extended at right angles to the body, and when thus
flying it is easily distinguishable from all other Hawks by the eye of
an observer accustomed to note the flight of birds. Whilst in search of
food, it flies with easy flappings at a moderate height above the water,
and with an apparent listlessness, although in reality it is keenly
observing the objects beneath. No sooner does it spy a fish suited to
its taste, than it checks its course with a sudden shake of its wings
and tail, which gives it the appearance of being poised in the air for
a moment, after which it plunges headlong with great rapidity into the
water, to secure its prey, or continue its flight, if disappointed by
having observed the fish sink deeper.

When it plunges into the water in pursuit of a fish, it sometimes proceeds
deep enough to disappear for an instant. The surge caused by its descent
is so great as to make the spot around it present the appearance of
a mass of foam. On rising with its prey, it is seen holding it in the
manner represented in the Plate. It mounts a few yards into the air,
shakes the water from its plumage, squeezes the fish with its talons,
and immediately proceeds towards its nest, to feed its young, or to a
tree, to devour the fruit of its industry in peace. When it has satisfied
its hunger, it does not, like other Hawks, stay perched until hunger
again urges it forth, but usually sails about at a great height over
the neighbouring waters.

The Fish Hawk has a great attachment to the tree to which it carries its
prey, and will not abandon it, unless frequently disturbed, or shot at
whilst feeding there. It shews the same attachment to the tree on which
it has built its first nest, and returns to it year after year.

This species arrives on the southern coasts of the United States early
in the month of February, and proceeds eastward as the season advances.
In the Middle Districts, the fishermen hail its appearance with joy,
as it is the harbinger of various species of fish which resort to the
Atlantic coasts, or ascend the numerous rivers. It arrives in the Middle
States about the beginning of April, and returns southward at the first
appearance of frost. I have occasionally seen a few of these birds on

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 39 of 50)