John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) online

. (page 17 of 56)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 17 of 56)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

This plant grows on the banks of rivers and swamps, in the Middle
and Southern States. It is herbaceous and perennial, with opposite
lanceolate-oblong, acuminate, serrate leaves, and dense terminal spikes
of pale red flowers, not remarkable for beauty.




Actively and most diligently employed is this little rover ever found
in our pine woodlands of the Southern Districts, where it resides all
the year, and beyond which it seldom extends, few being ever seen to
the eastward of Maryland. Those large tracts of sandy soil that occupy
the greater portion of the Floridas, Georgia, and the Carolinas, appear
to suit its habits best. It is rather rare in Louisiana, and none go
so far as Kentucky. It is the smallest species of Nuthatch as yet found
in the United States. Its notes are several octaves above those of the
White-bellied Nuthatch, more shrill, and at least one and a half above
those of its northern cousin, the Red-bellied.

Although fond of pine-trees and pine-barrens, it does not confine itself
to these, but may not unfrequently be seen pursuing its avocations
on lower trees and on fences, mounting, descending, turning in every
imaginable position, and with a quickness of motion so much greater than
that of most other birds as to render it extremely difficult to shoot
at. It examines every hole and cranny of the bark of trees, as well
as their leaves and twigs, on which it finds abundance of food at all
seasons. During the breeding period they move in pairs, and are constantly
chattering. Their notes resemble the syllables _deut_, _deut_, _dend_,
_dend_, and although not musical are not disagreeable, particularly
when heard in the woods in which they usually reside, and where at that
season a mournful silence intimates the wildness of the place.

When the young have left the nest they continue together, and move from
tree to tree with the activity of their parents, who join them when the
succeeding broods are able to find food for themselves. Towards winter
they associate with the smaller species of Woodpeckers, the Brown Creeper,
and the _Southern_ Black-headed Tit. These birds pursue their avocations
with so much cheerfulness that the woods echo to their notes. I have
seen a congregation of these Nuthatches, amounting to fifty or more,
thus perambulating the Floridas in the months of November and December.
In those districts they pair in the beginning of February, and have eggs
about the middle of that month, while in South Carolina they breed about
a month later.

The nest is usually excavated by the birds themselves, in the dead portion
of a low stump or sapling, sometimes only a few feet from the ground, but
not unfrequently so high as thirty or forty feet. The little creatures
work in concert, with great earnestness, for several days, until the
hole, which is round, and not larger at its entrance than the body of
the bird, is dug ten or twelve inches deep, and widening at the bottom.
The eggs are laid on the bare wood; they are from four to six, white,
with reddish dots, and scarcely larger than those of the Humming Bird.
They frequently raise three broods in the season, but more commonly two.

Extremely careless at the presence of man, who indeed seldom molests
them, they often peep at him when at the distance of only a few feet;
yet when apprehensive of danger, they instantly fly off or ascend the
tree, and are out of sight in an instant.

Their flight is similar to that of the other species, and like them
they frequently utter their notes while on the wing. Now and then they
are seen on the ground, where they hop and turn over the dead leaves in
search of their food, which consists entirely of insects and their larvæ.

The young of this species do not acquire the brown colour of the head
until the approach of spring, when no difference is observable between
the sexes.

SITTA PUSILLA, _Lath._ Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 263.—_Ch.
Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 97.

vol. ii. p. 105. pl. 15. fig. 2.—_Nuttall_, Manual, vol. i.
p. 584.

Adult Male. Plate CXXV. Fig. 1.

Bill of moderate length, strong, subconical, compressed, the tip abrupt
and wedge-shaped; upper mandible slightly convex in the dorsal outline,
the sides sloping, the edges acute; dorsal outline of lower mandible
straight. Nostrils basal, lateral, oblong. General form short and robust.
Feet rather short and strong; tarsus compressed, anteriorly scutellate,
behind sharp; toes free, scutellate above, the hind toe strong; claws
arched, compressed, acute, that of the hind toe large.

Plumage soft and blended; wings of ordinary length, the second, third,
and fourth quills longest. Tail short, even, of twelve rounded feathers.

Bill brownish-black above, and on the tips of the lower mandible, the
base of which is light greyish-blue. Iris hazel. Feet dusky brown.
The general colour of the plumage above is dull leaden grey; the two
middle tail-feathers of the same tint; the rest black, the margin of the
outermost and the ends of it, and of the three next on each side, white,
the tips grey. Upper part of the head and hind-neck light reddish-brown,
with a white spot on the hind-neck. The under parts in general are dull

Length 4 inches, extent of wings 8; bill along the back 5/12, along the
edge 7/12; tarsus 8/12.

Adult Female. Plate CXXV. Fig. 2.

The female has the tints paler, but in other respects resembles the male.


Go where you will, if a shilling can there be procured, you may expect
to meet with individuals in search of it.

In the course of last summer, I met with several persons as well as
families, whom I could not compare to any thing else than what in America
we understand by the appellation of Squatters. The methods they employed
to accumulate property form the subject of the observations which I now
lay before you.

Our schooner lay at anchor in a beautiful basin on the coast of Labrador,
surrounded by uncouth granitic rocks, partially covered with stunted
vegetation. While searching for birds and other objects I chanced one
morning to direct my eye towards the pinnacle of a small island, separated
from the mainland by a very narrow channel, and presently commenced
inspecting it with my telescope. There I saw a man on his knees, with
clasped hands, and face inclined heavenwards. Before him was a small
monument of unhewn stones, supporting a wooden cross. In a word, reader,
the person whom I thus unexpectedly discovered, was engaged in prayer.
Such an incident in that desolate land was affecting, for there one seldom
finds traces of human beings, and the aid of the Almighty, although
necessary everywhere, seems there peculiarly required to enable them
to procure the means of subsistence. My curiosity having been raised,
I betook myself to my boat, landed on the rock, and scrambled to the
place, where I found the man still on his knees. When his devotions
were concluded, he bowed to me, and addressed me in very indifferent
French. I asked him why he had chosen so dreary a spot for his prayers.
"Because," answered he, "the sea lies before me, and from it I receive
my spring and summer sustenance. When winter approaches, I pray fronting
the mountains on the Main, as at that period the karaboos come towards
the shore, and I kill them, feed on their flesh, and form my bedding of
their skins." I thought the answer reasonable, and as I longed to know
more of him, followed him to his hut. It was low and very small, formed
of stones plastered with mud to a considerable thickness, The roof was
composed of a sort of thatching made of weeds and moss. A large Dutch
stove filled nearly one-half of the place, a small port-hole, then
stuffed with old rags, served at times instead of a window; the bed was
a pile of deer skins; a bowl, a jug, and an iron pot were placed on a
rude shelf; three old and rusty muskets, their locks fastened by thongs,
stood in a corner; and his buck shot, powder, and flints, were tied up
in bags of skin. Eight Esquimaux dogs yelled and leaped about us. The
strong smell that emanated from them, together with the smoke and filth
of the apartment, rendered my stay in it extremely disagreeable.

Being a native of France, the good man shewed much politeness, and invited
me to take some refreshment, when, without waiting for my assent, he took
up his bowl and went off I knew not whither. No sooner had he and his
strange dogs disappeared, than I went out also, to breathe the pure air,
and gaze on the wild and majestic scenery around. I was struck with the
extraordinary luxuriance of the plants and grasses that had sprung up
on the scanty soil on the little valley which the _Squatter_ had chosen
for his home. Their stalks and broad blades reached my waist. June had
come, and the flies, musquitoes, and other insects filled the air, and
were as troublesome to me as if I had been in a Florida swamp.

The Squatter returned, but he was chop-fallen;—nay I thought his visage
had assumed a cadaverous hue. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he told
me that his barrel of _rum_ had been stolen by the "eggers," or some
fishermen! He said that he had been in the habit of hiding it in the
bushes, to prevent its being carried away by those merciless thieves,
who must have watched him in some of his _frequent_ walks to the spot.
"Now," said he, "I can expect none until next spring, and God knows what
will become of me in the winter!"

PIERRE JEAN BAPTISTE MICHAUX had resided in that part of the world for
upwards of ten years. He had run away from the fishing smack that had
brought him from his fair native land, and expected to become rich some
day by the sale of the furs, seal skins, eider down, and other articles
which he collected yearly, and sold to the traders who regularly visited
his dreary abode. He was of moderate stature, firmly framed, and as
active as a wild cat. He told me that excepting the loss of his rum,
he had never experienced any other cause of sorrow, and that he felt as
"happy as a lord."

Before parting with this fortunate mortal, I inquired how his dogs managed
to find sufficient food. "Why, Sir, during spring and summer they ramble
along the shores, where they meet with abundance of dead fish, and in
winter they eat the flesh of the seals which I kill late in autumn, when
these animals return from the north. As to myself, every thing eatable
is good, and when hard pushed, I assure you I can relish the fare of my
dogs just as much as they do themselves."

Proceeding along the rugged indentations of the bay with my companions,
I reached the settlement of another person, who, like the first, had
come to Labrador with the view of making his fortune. We found him after
many difficulties; but as our boats turned a long point jutting out into
the bay, we were pleased to see several small schooners at anchor, and
one lying near a sort of wharf. Several neat-looking houses enlivened
the view, and on landing, we were kindly greeted with a polite welcome
from a man who proved to be the owner of the establishment. For the
rude simplicity of him of the rum-cask, we found here the manners and
dress of a man of the world. A handsome fur cap covered his dark brow,
his clothes were similar to our own, and his demeanour was that of a
gentleman. On my giving my name to him, he shook me heartily by the
hand, and on introducing each of my companions to him, he extended the
like courtesy to them also. Then, to my astonishment, he addressed me
as follows:—"My dear Sir, I have been expecting you these three weeks,
having read _in the papers_ your intention to visit Labrador, and some
fishermen told me of your arrival at Little Natasguan. Gentlemen, walk

Having followed him to his neat and comfortable mansion, he introduced
us to his wife and children. Of the latter there were six, all robust
and rosy. The lady, although a native of the country, was of French
extraction, handsome, and sufficiently accomplished to make an excellent
companion to a gentleman. A smart girl brought us a luncheon, consisting
of bread, cheese, and good port wine, to which, having rowed fourteen or
fifteen miles that morning, we helped ourselves in a manner that seemed
satisfactory to all parties. Our host gave us newspapers from different
parts of the world, and shewed us his small but choice collection of
books. He inquired after the health of the amiable Captain BAYFIELD of
the Royal Navy, and the officers under him, and hoped they would give
him a call.

Having refreshed ourselves, we walked out with him, when he pointed to
a very small garden, where a few vegetables sprouted out, anxious to
see the sun. Gazing on the desolate country around, I asked him how _he_
had thus secluded himself from _the world_. For it he had no relish, and
although he had received a liberal education, and had mixed with society,
he never intended to return to it. "The country around," said he, "is
all my own, much farther than you can see. No fees, no lawyers, no taxes
are _here_. I do pretty much as I choose. My means are ample, through
my own industry. These vessels come here for seal-skins, seal-oil, and
salmon, and give me in return all the necessaries, and indeed comforts,
of the life I love to follow; and what else could _the world_ afford me!"
I spoke of the education of his children. "My wife and I teach them all
that is _useful_ for them to know, and is not that enough? My girls will
marry their countrymen, my sons the daughters of my _neighbours_, and I
hope all of them will live and die in the country!" I said no more, but
by way of compensation for the trouble I had given him, purchased from
his eldest child a beautiful fox's skin.

Few birds, he said, came around him in summer, but in winter thousands
of ptarmigans were killed, as well as great numbers of gulls. He had
a great dislike to all fishermen and eggers, and I really believe was
always glad to see the departure even of the hardy navigators who annually
visited him for the sake of his salmon, seal-skins, and oil. He had
more than forty Esquimaux dogs; and, as I was caressing one of them, he
said, "Tell my brother-in-law at Bras-d'Or, that we are all well here,
and that, after visiting my wife's father, I will give him a call!"

Now, reader, his wife's father resided at the distance of seventy miles
down the coast, and, like himself, was a recluse. He of Bras d'Or was at
double that distance; but, when the snows of winter have thickly covered
the country, the whole family, in sledges drawn by dogs, travel with
ease, and pay their visits, or leave their cards. This good gentleman
had already resided there more than twenty years. Should he ever read
this article, I desire him to believe that I shall always be grateful
to him and his wife for their hospitable welcome.

When our schooner, the Ripley, arrived at Bras d'Or, I paid a visit to
Mr —, the brother-in-law, who lived in a house imported from Quebec,
which fronted the strait of Belle Isle, and overlooked a small island,
over which the eye reached the coast of Newfoundland, whenever it was
the wind's pleasure to drive away the fogs that usually lay over both
coasts. The gentleman and his wife, we were told, were both out on a
walk, but would return in a very short time, which they in fact did, when
we followed them into the house, which was yet unfinished. The usual
immense Dutch stove formed a principal feature of the interior. The
lady had once visited the metropolis of Canada, and seemed desirous of
acting the part of a blue-stocking. Understanding that I knew something
of the fine arts, she pointed to several of the vile prints hung on
the bare walls, which she said were _elegant_ Italian pictures, and
continued her encomiums upon them, assuring me that she had purchased
them from an Italian, who had come there with a trunk full of them. She
had paid a shilling Sterling for each, frame included! I could give no
answer to the good lady on this subject, but I felt glad to find that
she possessed a feeling heart. One of her children had caught a siskin,
and was tormenting the poor bird, when she rose from her seat, took the
little fluttering thing from the boy, kissed it, and gently launched it
into the air. This made me quite forget the tattle about the fine arts.

Some excellent milk was poured out for us in clean glasses. It was a
pleasing sight, for not a cow had we yet seen in the country. The lady
turned the conversation on music, and asked if I played on any instrument.
I answered that I did, but very indifferently. Her forte, she said, was
music, of which she was indeed immoderately fond. Her instrument had
been sent to Europe to be repaired, but would return that season, when
the whole of her children would again perform many beautiful airs, for
in fact any body could use it with ease, as when she or the children
felt fatigued, the servant played on it for them. Rather surprised at
the extraordinary powers of this family of musicians, I asked what sort
of an instrument it was, when she described it as follows:—"Gentlemen,
my instrument is large, longer than broad, and stands on four legs, like
a table. At one end is a crooked handle, by turning which round, either
fast or slow, I do assure you we make most excellent music." The lips
of my young friends and companions instantly curled, but a glance from
me as instantly recomposed their features. Telling the fair one that it
must be a hand-organ she used, she laughingly said, "Ah, that is it;
it is a hand-organ, but I had forgot the name, and for the life of me
could not recollect it."

The husband had gone out to work, and was in the harbour caulking an old
schooner. He dined with me on board the Ripley, and proved to be also an
excellent fellow. Like his brother-in-law, he had seen much of the world,
having sailed nearly round it; and, although no scholar, like him, too,
he was disgusted with it. He held his land on the same footing as his
neighbours, caught seals without number, lived comfortably and happily,
visited his father-in-law and the scholar, by the aid of his dogs, of
which he kept a great pack, bartered or sold his commodities, as his
relations did, and cared about nothing else in the world. Whenever the
weather was fair, he walked with his dame over the moss-covered rocks of
the neighbourhood; and, during winter, killed ptarmigans and karaboos,
while his eldest son attended to the traps, and skinned the animals caught
in them. He had the only horse that was to be found in that part of the
country, as well as several cows; but, above all, he was kind to every
one, and every one spoke well of him. The only disagreeable thing about
his plantation or settlement, was a heap of fifteen hundred carcasses
of skinned seals, which, at the time when we visited the place, in the
month of August, notwithstanding the coolness of the atmosphere, sent
forth a stench that, according to the ideas of some naturalists, might
have sufficed to attract all the Vultures in the United States.

During our stay at Bras d'Or, the kind-hearted and good Mrs — daily
sent us fresh milk and butter, for which we were denied the pleasure of
making any return.




Although I have already given a long account of the adult of this species,
in the first volume of my biographies, I have thought it necessary, not
only to figure the young, but also to offer you some of the observations
relative to the habits of this handsome and powerful bird, which I have
collected in the course of my long rambles. These I select from among
the many recorded in my journals, giving the preference to those which
seem most likely to interest you.

_St John's River, East Florida, 7th February 1832._—I observed four nests
of the White-headed Eagle this day, while the United States' schooner
Spark lay at anchor not far from the shore. They were at no great distance
from each other, and all placed on tall live pine-trees. Our commander,
Lieutenant Piercey of our Navy, having at that time little to do, as he
lay waiting the flood-tide, a boat was manned, and several of us went on
shore. On approaching the nearest nest, we saw two young birds standing
erect on its edge, while their parents were perched on the branches above
them. As we went nearer, the old ones flew off silently, while the young
did not seem to pay the least attention to us, this being a part of the
woods where probably no white man had ever before put his foot, and the
Eaglets having as yet had no experience of the barbarity of the race.
The captain took the first shot: one of the birds was severely wounded,
and tumbled half way from the nest towards the ground, when it recovered,
flapped its wings, and suddenly sailed away until we lost sight of it as
it flew into the woods. I marked its course, however. One of the sailors
was told to shoot the other, which had not moved from its position; he
missed it; and as I saw it make movements indicative of its surprise
and fear, I fired, but wounded it so slightly in one pinion, that it
was enabled to fly off in an irregular manner towards the river. This
I judged was the first attempt it had ever made to fly. I followed its
course with my eye, and after in vain waiting a long time for a shot at
the old birds, I went in search of it, while the rest of the party pursued
the other. After some time I reached our boat, and at the same instant
was surprised to see the wounded bird perched on a low stump within half
gun shot. I fired, and the bird fell, but before I reached the spot, it
flew off again and tumbled into the river, where, in this to it new and
wonderful element, it flapped its wings, and made way so fast, that I
took to the water and brought it ashore, my faithful Newfoundland dog
Plato being on board, quite lamed by having brought me birds some days
before from banks of _racoon oysters_. After all, it was necessary to
knock the bird on the head, which done I returned to the party, none of
whom had yet found their prey, they having disagreed as to the course
it had taken. Being somewhat of a woodsman, I pointed towards the place
where I thought the bird must be, and after a few hundred yards walking
among palmettoes, Spanish bayonets, sword-grass, and other disagreeable
undergrowth, we discovered the poor bird gasping in its last agonies.
On examining their bodies we found both well supplied with shot, and I
became more assured than ever of the hardiness of the species.

_On the same river, 8th February._—We visited another nest, on which, by
the aid of a telescope, we saw three young ones in the posture described
above. The bird first shot fell back in the nest and there remained: it
was struck by a bullet. The next was so severely wounded that it clung
outside the nest, until fired at a second time, when it fell. The third
was killed, as it was preparing to fly off. Our axes being dull, the
tree large, and a fair breeze springing up, we returned to the Spark,
where in a few hours these young birds were skinned, cooked, and eaten,
by those who had been "in at the death." They proved good eating, the
flesh resembling veal in taste and tenderness. One of us only did not
taste of the dish, simply I believe from prejudice. The contents of the
stomachs of these young Eagles were large fragments of cat-fish heads
and bones of quadrupeds and birds. We frequently saw old birds of the
species sail down to the surface of the water, and rise holding in their
talons heads of cat-fishes which abounded on the water and were rejected,
as the inhabitants assured us, by the alligators, who content themselves
with the best part, the tail, leaving the heads to such animals as can
dissect them and escape the dangerous sharp bony guards placed near
the gills, and which the fish has the power of firmly fixing at right
angles as if they were a pair of small bayonets. Should this really be
a general habit of the alligator, it indicates his faculty of gaining
knowledge by experience, or of having it naturally implanted. I could
easily distinguish the sex of all the young Eagles of this species which
we procured. The females were not only larger, but almost black, whilst
the males were much lighter and of less weight.

Some weeks afterwards, when young Eagles would have been thought a
dainty even by our most prejudiced companions—for you must not suppose,

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 17 of 56)