John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) online

. (page 20 of 56)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 20 of 56)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


line from the tip half way to the base. Iris light hazel. Feet and claws
dusky brown. Head above deep bluish-grey, streaked with black; the cheeks,
hind-neck, sides of the neck, fore part of the breast, and the sides of
the same colour, becoming paler backwards. Back bluish-grey, each feather
with a narrow dark brown central streak bordered with light brown, the
margins grey; the rump grey, without streaks. Quills and tail wood-brown,
slightly edged with paler, wing-coverts light brown, the central parts
of the feathers darker. There is a narrow white line over the eye, and
the minute feathers margining the eyelids are of the same colour. The
throat and fore-neck are white. A line of short brownish-black streaks
passes on either side from the base of the lower mandible, separating a
narrow portion of the white space, and margining the lower part of it,
although there the streaks are scattered; the middle part of the breast
and abdomen are also greyish-white.

Length 5¾ inches, extent of wings 9; bill along the ridge 7/12; tarsus
10/12.




DEATH OF A PIRATE.


In the calm of a fine moonlight night, as I was admiring the beauty of
the clear heavens, and the broad glare of light that glanced from the
trembling surface of the waters around, the officer on watch came up
and entered into conversation with me. He had been a turtler in other
years, and a great hunter to boot, and although of humble birth and
pretensions, energy and talent, aided by education, had raised him to a
higher station. Such a man could not fail to be an agreeable companion,
and we talked on various subjects, principally, you may be sure, birds
and other natural productions. He told me he once had a disagreeable
adventure, when looking out for game, in a certain cove on the shores
of the Gulf of Mexico; and, on my expressing a desire to hear it, he
willingly related to me the following particulars, which I give you, not
perhaps precisely in his own words, but as nearly so as I can remember.

"Towards evening, one quiet summer day, I chanced to be paddling along
a sandy shore, which I thought well fitted for my repose, being covered
with tall grass, and as the sun was not many degrees above the horizon,
I felt anxious to pitch my musquito bar or net, and spend the night in
this wilderness. The bellowing notes of thousands of bull-frogs in a
neighbouring swamp might lull me to rest, and I looked upon the flocks
of blackbirds that were assembling as sure companions in this secluded
retreat.

I proceeded up a little stream, to insure the safety of my canoe from
any sudden storm, when, as I gladly advanced, a beautiful yawl came
unexpectedly in view. Surprised at such a sight in a part of the country
then scarcely known, I felt a sudden check in the circulation of my blood.
My paddle dropped from my hands, and fearfully indeed, as I picked it
up, did I look towards the unknown boat. On reaching it, I saw its sides
marked with stains of blood, and looking with anxiety over the gunwale,
I perceived to my horror, two-human bodies covered with gore. Pirates
or hostile Indians I was persuaded had perpetrated the foul deed, and my
alarm naturally increased; my heart fluttered, stopped, and heaved with
unusual tremors, and I looked towards the setting sun in consternation and
despair. How long my reveries lasted I cannot tell; I can only recollect
that I was roused from them by the distant groans of one apparently in
mortal agony. I felt as if refreshed by the cold perspiration that oozed
from every pore, and I reflected that though alone, I was well armed,
and might hope for the protection of the Almighty.

Humanity whispered to me that, if not surprised and disabled, I might
render assistance to some sufferer, or even be the means of saving a
useful life. Buoyed up by this thought, I urged my canoe on shore, and
seizing it by the bow, pulled it at one spring high among the grass.

The groans of the unfortunate person fell heavy on my ear, as I cocked
and reprimed my gun, and I felt determined to shoot the first that should
rise from the grass. As I cautiously proceeded, a hand was raised over the
weeds, and waved in the air in the most supplicating manner. I levelled
my gun about a foot below it, when the next moment, the head and breast
of a man covered with blood were convulsively raised, and a faint hoarse
voice asked me for mercy and help! A death-like silence followed his
fall to the ground. I surveyed every object around with eyes intent, and
ears impressible by the slightest sound, for my situation that moment
I thought as critical as any I had ever been in. The croakings of the
frogs, and the last blackbirds alighting on their roosts, were the only
sounds or sights; and I now proceeded towards the object of my mingled
alarm and commiseration.

Alas! the poor being who lay prostrate at my feet, was so weakened by
loss of blood, that I had nothing to fear from him. My first impulse
was to run back to the water, and having done so, I returned with my
cap filled to the brim. I felt at his heart, washed his face and breast,
and rubbed his temples with the contents of a phial, which I kept about
me as an antidote for the bites of snakes. His features, seamed by the
ravages of time, looked frightful and disgusting; but he had been a
powerful man, as the breadth of his chest plainly shewed. He groaned in
the most appalling manner, as his breath struggled through the mass of
blood that seemed to fill his throat. His dress plainly disclosed his
occupation:—a large pistol he had thrust into his bosom, a naked cutlass
lay near him on the ground, a red silk handkerchief was bound over his
projecting brows, and over a pair of loose trowsers he wore fisherman's
boots. He was, in short, a pirate.

My exertions were not in vain, for as I continued to bathe his temples,
he revived, his pulse resumed some strength, and I began to hope
that he might perhaps survive the deep wounds which he had received.
Darkness, deep darkness, now enveloped us. I spoke of making a fire.
"Oh! for mercy's sake," he exclaimed, "don't." Knowing, however, that
under existing circumstances it was expedient for me to do so, I left
him, went to his boat, and brought the rudder, the benches, and the
oars, which with my hatchet I soon splintered. I then struck a light,
and presently stood in the glare of a blazing fire. The pirate seemed
struggling between terror and gratitude for my assistance; he desired
me several times in half English and Spanish to put out the flames, but
after I had given him a draught of strong spirits, he at length became
more composed. I tried to staunch the blood that flowed from the deep
gashes in his shoulders and side. I expressed my regret that I had no
food about me, but when I spoke of eating he sullenly waved his head.

My situation was one of the most extraordinary that I have ever been
placed in. I naturally turned my talk towards religious subjects, but,
alas, the dying man hardly believed in the existence of a God. "Friend,"
said he, "for friend you seem to be, I never studied the ways of Him of
whom you talk. I am an outlaw, perhaps you will say a wretch,—I have
been for many years a Pirate. The instructions of my parents were of
no avail to me, for I have always believed that I was born to be a most
cruel man. I now lie here, about to die in the weeds, because I long ago
refused to listen to their many admonitions. Do not shudder when I tell
you—these now useless hands murdered the mother whom they had embraced.
I feel that I have deserved the pangs of the wretched death that hovers
over me; and I am thankful that one of my kind will alone witness my
last gaspings."

A fond but feeble hope that I might save his life, and perhaps assist
in procuring his pardon, induced me to speak to him on the subject. "It
is all in vain, friend—I have no objection to die—I am glad that the
villains who wounded me were not my conquerors—I want no pardon from
_any one_—Give me some water, and let me die alone."

With the hope that I might learn from his conversation something that
might lead to the capture of his guilty associates, I returned from the
creek with another capful of water, nearly the whole of which I managed
to introduce into his parched mouth, and begged him, for the sake of
his future peace, to disclose his history to me. "It is impossible,"
said he, "there will not be time; the beatings of my heart tell me so.
Long before day, these sinewy limbs will be motionless. Nay, there will
hardly be a drop of blood in my body; and that blood will only serve
to make the grass grow. My wounds are mortal, and I must and will die
without what you call confession."

The moon rose in the east. The majesty of her placid beauty impressed me
with reverence. I pointed towards her, and asked the Pirate if he could
not recognise God's features there. "Friend, I see what you are driving
at," was his answer,—"you, like the rest of our enemies, feel the desire
of murdering us all.—Well—be it so—to die is after all nothing more than
a jest; and were it not for the pain, no one, in my opinion, need care
a jot about it. But, as you really have befriended me, I will tell you
all that is proper."

Hoping his mind might take a useful turn, I again bathed his temples
and washed his lips with spirits. His sunk eyes seemed to dart fire at
mine—a heavy and deep sigh swelled his chest and struggled through his
blood-choked throat, and he asked me to raise him for a little. I did so,
when he addressed me somewhat as follows, for, as I have told you, his
speech was a mixture of Spanish, French and English, forming a jargon,
the like of which I had never heard before, and which I am utterly unable
to imitate. However I shall give you the substance of his declaration.

"First tell me, how many bodies you found in the boat, and what sort
of dresses they had on." I mentioned their number, and described their
apparel. "That's right," said he, "they are the bodies of the scoundrels
who followed me in that infernal Yankee barge. Bold rascals they were,
for when they found the water too shallow for their craft, they took to
it and waded after me. All my companions had been shot, and to lighten
my own boat I flung them overboard; but as I lost time in this, the two
ruffians caught hold of my gunwale, and struck on my head and body in such
a manner, that after I had disabled and killed them both in the boat,
I was scarce able to move. The other villains carried off our schooner
and one of our boats, and perhaps ere now have hung all my companions
whom they did not kill at the time. I have commanded my beautiful vessel
many years, captured many ships, and sent many rascals to the devil. I
always hated the Yankees, and only regret that I have not killed more
of them.—I sailed from Mantanzas.—I have often been in concert with
others. I have money without counting, but it is buried where it will
never be found, and it would be useless to tell you of it." His throat
filled with blood, his voice failed, the cold hand of death was laid on
his brow, feebly and hurriedly he muttered, "I am a dying man, farewell!"

Alas! It is painful to see death in any shape; in this it was horrible,
for there was no hope. The rattling of his throat announced the moment
of dissolution, and already did the body fall on my arms with a weight
that was insupportable. I laid him on the ground. A mass of dark blood
poured from his mouth; then came a frightful groan, the last breathing
of that foul spirit; and what now lay at my feet in the wild desert?—a
mangled mass of clay!

The remainder of that night was passed in no enviable mood; but my
feelings cannot be described. At dawn I dug a hole with the paddle of my
canoe, rolled the body into it, and covered it. On reaching the boat I
found several buzzards feeding on the bodies, which I in vain attempted
to drag to the shore. I therefore covered them with mud and weeds,
and launching my canoe, paddled from the cove with a secret joy for my
escape, overshaded with the gloom of mingled dread and abhorrence."




THE AMERICAN ROBIN OR MIGRATORY THRUSH.

_TURDUS MIGRATORIUS_, LINN.

PLATE CXXXI. MALE, FEMALE, YOUNG, AND NEST.


The first land-bird seen by me, when I stepped upon the rugged shores of
Labrador, was the Robin; its joyful notes were the first that saluted
my ear. Large patches of unmelted snow still dappled the surface of
that wild country; and although vegetation was partially renewed, the
chillness of the air was so peculiarly penetrating, that it brought
to the mind a fearful anxiety for the future. The absence of trees,
properly so called, the barren aspect of all around, the sombre mantle of
the mountainous distance that hung along the horizon, excited the most
melancholy feelings; and I could scarcely refrain from shedding tears
when I heard the song of the Thrush, sent there as if to reconcile me to
my situation. That song brought with it a thousand pleasing associations
referring to the beloved land of my youth, and soon inspired me with
resolution to persevere in my hazardous enterprise.

The traveller who, for the first time in his life, treads the wastes
of Labrador, is apt to believe that what he has been told or read of
it, must be at least in part true. So it was with me: I had conceived
that I should meet with numberless Indians who would afford me much
information respecting its rivers, lakes, and mountains, and who, like
those of the far west, would assist me in procuring the objects of my
search. But alas! how disappointed was I when, in rambling along three
hundred miles of coast, I scarcely met with a single native Indian, and
was assured that there were none in the interior. The few straggling
parties that were seen by my companions or myself, consisted entirely of
half-bred descendants of "the mountaineers;" and, as to Esquimaux, there
were none on that side of the country. Rivers, such as the Natasguan,
which on the maps are represented as of considerable length, degenerated
into short, narrow, and shallow creeks. Scarcely any of its innumerable
lakes exceeded in size what are called ponds in the Southern States;
and, although many species of birds are plentiful, they are far less
numerous than they were represented to us by the fishermen and others
before we left Eastport. But our business at present is with the Robin,
who greeted our arrival.

This bird breeds from North Carolina, on the eastern side of the
Alleghany Mountains, to the 56th degree of north latitude, and perhaps
still farther. On the western side of those mountains, it is found
tolerably abundant, from the lower parts of Kentucky to Canada, at all
times of the year; and, notwithstanding the snow and occasional severe
winters of Massachusetts and Maine, flocks remain in those States the
whole season. Thousands, however, migrate into Louisiana, the Floridas,
Georgia, and the Carolinas, where, in winter, one cannot walk in any
direction without meeting several of them. While at Fayetteville, in
North Carolina, in October 1831, I found that the Robins had already
arrived and joined those which breed there. The weather was still warm
and beautiful, and the woods, in every direction, were alive with them,
and echoed with their song. They reached Charleston by the end of that
month. Their appearance in Louisiana seldom takes place before the
middle of November. In all the Southern States, about that period, and
indeed during the season, until they return in March, their presence is
productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc made
among them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different
sorts, is wonderful. Every gunner brings them home by bagfuls, and the
markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons
may at this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries,
and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins
succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent
eating.

During the winter they feed on the berries and fruits of our woods,
fields, gardens, and even of the ornamental trees of our cities and
villages. The holly, the sweet-gum, the gall-berry, and the poke, are
those which they first attack; but, as these fail, which is usually the
case in January, they come nearer the towns and farm-houses, and feed
voraciously on the caperia berry (_Ilex caperia_), the wild-orange berry
(_Prunus caroliniana_), and the berries of the pride of India (_Melia
azedarach_). With these they are often choked, so that they fall from
the trees, and are easily caught. When they feed on the berries of the
poke-plant, the rich crimson juices colour the stomach and flesh of these
birds to such an extent as to render their appearance, when plucked,
disagreeable; and although their flesh retains its usual savour, many
persons decline eating them. During summer and spring they devour snails
and worms, and at Labrador I saw some feeding on small shells, which
they probed or broke with ease.

Toward the approach of spring they throw themselves upon the newly
ploughed grounds, into the gardens, and the interior of woods, the
undergrowth of which has been cleared of grass by fire, to pick up
ground-worms, grubs, and other insects, on which, when perched, they
descend in a pouncing manner, swallowing the prey in a moment, jerking
their tail, beating their wings, and returning to their stations. They
also now and then pick up the seed of the maize from the fields.

Whenever the sun shines warmly over the earth, the old males tune
their pipe, and enliven the neighbourhood with their song. The young
also begin to sing; and, before they depart for the east, they have
all become musical. By the 10th of April, the Robins have reached the
Middle Districts; the blossoms of the dogwood are then peeping forth in
every part of the budding woods; the fragrant sassafras, the red flowers
of the maple, and hundreds of other plants, have already banished the
dismal appearance of winter. The snows are all melting away, and nature
again, in all the beauty of spring, promises happiness and abundance
to the whole animal creation. Then it is that the Robin, perched on a
fence-stake, or the top of some detached tree of the field, gives vent
to the warmth of his passion. His lays are modest, lively, and ofttimes
of considerable power; and although his song cannot be compared with
that of the Thrasher, its vivacity and simplicity never fail to fill the
breast of the listener with pleasing sensations. Every one knows the
Robin and his song. Excepting in the shooting season, he is cherished
by old and young, and is protected by all with anxious care.

The nest of this bird is frequently placed on the horizontal branch of
an apple-tree, sometimes in the same situation on a forest-tree; now and
then it is found close to the house, and it is stated by NUTTALL that one
was placed in the stern timbers of an unfinished vessel at Portsmouth,
New Hampshire, in which the carpenters were constantly at work. Another,
adds this amiable writer, has been known to rebuild his nest within a
few yards of the blacksmith's anvil. I discovered one near Great Egg
Harbour, in the State of New Jersey, affixed to the cribbing-timbers of
an unfinished well, seven or eight feet below the surface of the ground.
To all such situations this bird resorts, for the purpose of securing
its eggs from the Cuckoo, which greedily sucks them. It is seldom indeed
that children meddle with them.

Wherever it may happen to be placed, the nest is large and well secured.
It is composed of dry leaves, grass, and moss, which are connected
internally with a thick layer of mud and roots, lined with pieces of
straw and fine grass, and occasionally a few feathers. The eggs are from
four to six, of a beautiful bluish-green, without spots. Two broods are
usually raised in a season.

The young are fed with anxious care by their tender parents, who, should
one intrude upon them, boldly remonstrate, pass and repass by rapid
divings, or, if moving along the branches, jerk their wings and tail
violently, and sound a peculiar shrill note, evincing their anxiety
and displeasure. Should you carry off their young, they follow you to
a considerable distance, and are joined by other individuals of the
species. The young, before they are fully fledged, often leave the nest
to meet their parents, when coming home with a supply of food. The family
of Robins which I have grouped in the plate exhibits such an occurrence.

During the pairing season, the male pays his addresses to the female
of his choice frequently on the ground, and with a fervour evincing the
strongest attachment. I have often seen him, at the earliest dawn of a
May morning, strutting around her with all the pomposity of a pigeon.
Sometimes along a space of ten or twelve yards, he is seen with his tail
fully spread, his wings shaking, and his throat inflated; running over
the grass and brushing it, as it were, until he has neared his mate, when
he moves round her several times without once rising from the ground.
She then receives his caresses.

Many of these birds shew a marked partiality to the places they have
chosen to breed in, and I have no doubt that many who escape death in
the winter, return to those loved spots each succeeding spring.

The flight of the Robin is swift, at times greatly elevated and capable
of being long sustained. During the periods of its migrations, which
are irregular, depending upon the want of food or the severity of the
weather, it moves in loose flocks over a space of several hundred miles
at once, and at a considerable height. From time to time a few shrill
notes are heard from different individuals in the flock. Should the
weather be calm, their movements are continued during the night, and at
such periods the whistling noise of their wings is often heard. During
heavy falls of snow and severe gales, they pitch towards the earth, or
throw themselves into the woods, where they remain until the weather
becomes more favourable. They not unfrequently disappear for several
days from a place where they have been in thousands, and again visit it.
In Massachusetts and Maine, many spend the most severe winters in the
neighbourhood of warm springs and spongy low grounds sheltered from the
north winds. In spring they return northward in pairs, the males having
then become exceedingly irritable and pugnacious.

The gentle and lively disposition of the Robin when raised in the cage,
and the simplicity of his song, of which he is very lavish in confinement,
render him a special favourite in the Middle Districts, where he is as
generally kept as the Mocking Bird is in the Southern States. It feeds
on bread soaked in either milk or water, and on all kinds of fruit. Being
equally fond of insects, it seizes on all that enter its prison. It will
follow its owner, and come to his call, peck at his finger, or kiss his
mouth, with seeming pleasure. It is a long-lived bird, and instances
are reported of its having been kept for nearly twenty years. It suffers
much in the moult, even in the wild state, and when in captivity loses
nearly all its feathers at once.

The young obtain their full plumage by the first spring, being spotted on
the breast, and otherwise marked, as in the plate. When in confinement
they become darker and less brilliant in the colours, than when at
liberty.

So much do certain notes of the Robin resemble those of the European
Blackbird, that frequently while in England the cry of the latter, as it
flew hurriedly off from a hedge-row, reminded me of that of the former
when similarly surprised, and while in America the Robin has in the same
manner recalled the Blackbird to my recollection.


TURDUS MIGRATORIUS, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 292.—_Lath._
Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 330.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds
of the United States, p. 75.

MERULA MIGRATORIA, _Swains. and Richards._ Fauna Bor.-Amer.
part ii. p. 176.

ROBIN, TURDUS MIGRATORIUS, _Wils._ Amer. Ornith. vol. i. p. 35.
pl. ii. fig. 2.—_Nuttall_, Manual, part i. p. 338.


Adult Male. Plate CXXXI. Fig. 1.

Bill of moderate length, rather strong, compressed, acute; upper mandible
slightly arched in its dorsal line, with acute edges, which are notched
close to the declinate tip; lower mandible nearly straight along the
back. Nostrils basal, oblong, half closed above by a membrane. The
general form is rather slender. Feet longish, rather strong; tarsus
compressed, anteriorly covered with a few long scutella, sharp behind;



Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 20 of 56)