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tarsus compressed, covered anteriorly with a few long scutella, sharp
behind; toes slender, free, the outer united to the second joint, the
hind-toe proportionally large; claws arched, slender, much compressed,
acute.

Plumage blended, soft, slightly glossed. Wings longish, straight, third
quill longish, second almost equal, fourth next in length, and not much
longer than the first. Tail of moderate length, even, the lateral feathers
bent outwards towards the end. Bristles at the base of the bill distinct.

Bill black. Iris dark brown. Feet light brown. The general colour of the
plumage above is deep greyish-blue. Quills, coverts, and tail-feathers
black, edged with blue; base of the primaries, excepting the first,
white, forming a conspicuous spot on the wing; inner margin of most of
the quills and tips of the secondaries, white, of which there is a large
spot on the inner webs of the four outer quill-feathers on each side.
Margin of the forehead all round, a line over the eye, the sides of the
head, fore-neck and sides of the body deep black; the rest of the under
parts white.

Length 5 inches, extent of wings 7½; bill along the back 4/12, along
the edge 6/12; tarsus 9/12.

The Female resembles the male, but is somewhat paler in the colours.


THE CANADIAN COLUMBINE.

AQUILEGIA CANADENSIS, _Willd._ Sp. Pl. vol. ii. p. 1247.
_Pursh_, Fl. Amer. Sept. vol. ii. p. 372.—POLYANDRIA PENTAGYNIA,
_Linn._ RANUNCULACEÆ, _Juss._

This species, which has the flowers of a bright red mixed with yellow, and
is characterised by having the horns of the nectaries or petals straight,
grows in the crevices of rocks, and in dry places near rivulets.




THE FLORIDA KEYS.


As the "Marion" neared the inlet called "Indian Key," which is situated
on the eastern coast of the peninsula of Florida, my heart swelled with
uncontrollable delight. Our vessel once over the coral reef that every
where stretches along the shore like a great wall, reared by an army
of giants, we found ourselves in safe anchoring ground, within a few
furlongs of the land. The next moment saw the oars of a boat propelling
us towards the shore, and in brief time we stood on the desired beach.
With what delightful feelings did we gaze on the objects around us!—the
gorgeous flowers, the singular and beautiful plants, the luxuriant trees.
The balmy air which we breathed filled us with animation, so pure and
salubrious did it seem to be. The birds which we saw were almost all
new to us; their lovely forms appeared to be arrayed in more brilliant
apparel than I had ever before seen, and as they gambolled in happy
playfulness among the bushes, or glided over the light green waters, we
longed to form a more intimate acquaintance with them.

Students of nature spend little time in introductions, especially
when they present themselves to persons who feel an interest in their
pursuits. This was the case with Mr THRUSTON, the Deputy Collector of
the island, who shook us all heartily by the hand, and in a trice had a
boat manned at our service. Accompanied by him, his pilot and fishermen,
off we went, and after a short pull landed on a large key. Few minutes
had elapsed, when shot after shot might be heard, and down came whirling
through the air the objects of our desire. One thrust himself into the
tangled groves that covered all but the beautiful coral beach that in
a continued line bordered the island, while others gazed on the glowing
and diversified hues of the curious inhabitants of the deep. I saw one
of my party rush into the limpid element, to seize on a crab, that with
claws extended upwards, awaited his approach, as if determined not to
give way. A loud voice called him back to the land, for sharks are as
abundant along these shores as pebbles, and the hungry prowlers could
not have got a more savoury dinner.

The pilot, besides being a first-rate shot, possessed a most intimate
acquaintance with the country. He had been a "conch-diver," and no matter
what number of fathoms measured the distance between the surface of the
water and its craggy bottom, to seek for curious shells in their retreat
seemed to him more pastime than toil. Not a Cormorant or Pelican, a
Flamingo, an Ibis, or Heron, had ever in his days formed its nest without
his having marked the spot; and as to the Keys to which the Doves are
wont to resort, he was better acquainted with them than many fops are
with the contents of their pockets. In a word, he positively knew every
channel that led to these islands, and every cranny along their shores.
For years his employment had been to hunt those singular animals called
Sea Cows or Marratees, and he had conquered hundreds of them, "merely,"
as he said, because the flesh and hide bring "a fair price," at Havannah.
He never went anywhere to land without "Long Tom," which proved indeed
to be a wonderful gun, and which made smart havoc when charged with
"groceries," a term by which he designated the large shot which he used.
In like manner, he never paddled his light canoe without having by his
side the trusty javelin, with which he unerringly transfixed such fishes
as he thought fit either for market or for his own use. In attacking
turtles, netting, or overturning them, I doubt if his equal ever lived
on the Florida coast. No sooner was he made acquainted with my errand,
than he freely offered his best services, and from that moment until I
left Key West he was seldom out of my hearing.

While the young gentlemen who accompanied us were engaged in procuring
plants, shells, and small birds, he tapped me on the shoulder, and with
a smile said to me, "Come along, I'll shew you something better worth
your while." To the boat we betook ourselves, with the Captain and only
a pair of tars, for more he said would not answer. The yawl for a while
was urged at a great rate, but as we approached a point, the oars were
taken in, and the pilot alone skulling, desired us to make ready, for
in a few minutes we should have "rare sport." As we advanced, the more
slowly did we move, and the most profound silence was maintained, until
suddenly coming almost in contact with a thick shrubbery of mangroves,
we beheld, right before us, a multitude of pelicans. A discharge of
artillery seldom produced more effect;—the dead, the dying, and the
wounded, fell from the trees upon the water, while those unscathed flew
screaming through the air in terror and dismay. "There," said he, "did
not I tell you so; is it not rare sport?" The birds, one after another,
were lodged under the gunwales, when the pilot desired the Captain to
order the lads to pull away. Within about half a mile we reached the
extremity of the key. "Pull away," cried the pilot, "never mind them on
the wing, for those black rascals don't mind a little firing—now, boys,
lay her close under the nests." And there we were, with four hundred
cormorants' nests over our heads. The birds were sitting, and when we
fired, the number that dropped as if dead and plunged into the water was
such, that I thought by some unaccountable means or other we had killed
the whole colony. You would have smiled at the loud laugh and curious
gestures of the pilot. "Gentlemen," said he, "almost a blank shot!" And
so it was, for, on following the birds as one after another peeped up
from the water, we found only a few unable to take to wing. "Now," said
the pilot, "had you waited until _I had spoken_ to the black villains,
you might have killed a score or more of them." On inspection, we found
that our shots had lodged in the tough dry twigs of which these birds
form their nests, and that we had lost the more favourable opportunity
of hitting them, by not waiting until they rose. "Never mind," said the
pilot, "if you wish it, you may load the _Lady of the Green Mantle_[3]
with them in less than a week. Stand still, my lads; and now, gentlemen,
in ten minutes you and I will bring down a score of them." And so we
did. As we rounded the island, a beautiful bird of the species called
Peale's Egret, came up and was shot. We now landed, took in the rest
of our party, and returned to Indian Key, where we arrived three hours
before sunset.

The sailors and other individuals to whom my name and pursuits had
become known, carried our birds to the pilot's house. His good wife had
a room ready for me to draw in, and my assistant might have been seen
busily engaged in skinning, while GEORGE LEHMAN was making a sketch of
the lovely isle.

Time is ever precious to the student of nature. I placed several birds
in their natural attitudes, and began to outline them. A dance had
been prepared also, and no sooner was the sun lost to our eye, than
males and females, including our captain and others from the vessel,
were seen advancing gaily towards the house in full apparel. The birds
were skinned, the sketch was on paper, and I told my young men to amuse
themselves. As to myself, I could not join in the merriment, for, full
of the remembrance of you, reader, and of the patrons of my work both
in America and in Europe, I went on "grinding"—not on an organ, like
the Lady of Bras d'Or, but on paper, to the finishing, not merely of my
outlines, but of my notes respecting the objects seen this day.

The room adjoining that in which I worked, was soon filled. Two miserable
fiddlers screwed their screeching silken strings—not an inch of catgut
graced their instruments; and the bouncing of brave lads and fair lasses
shook the premises to the foundation. One with a slip came down heavily
on the floor, and the burst of laughter that followed echoed over the
isle. Diluted claret was handed round to cool the ladies, while a beverage
of more potent energies warmed their partners. After supper our captain
returned to the Marion, and I, with my young men, slept in light swinging
hammocks under the eaves of the piazza.

It was the end of April, when the nights were short and the days
therefore long. Anxious to turn every moment to account, we were on
board Mr THRUSTON'S boat at three next morning. Pursuing our way through
the deep and tortuous channels that every where traverse the immense
muddy soap-like flats that stretch from the outward Keys to the Main, we
proceeded on our voyage of discovery. Here and there we met with great
beds of floating sea-weeds, which shewed us that Turtles were abundant
there, these masses being the refuse of their feeding. On talking to
Mr THRUSTON of the nature of these muddy flats, he mentioned that he
had once been lost amongst their narrow channels for several days and
nights, when in pursuit of some smugglers' boat, the owners of which
were better acquainted with the place than the men who were along with
him. Although in full sight of several of the Keys, as well as of the
main land, he was unable to reach either, until a heavy gale raised the
water, when he sailed directly over the flats, and returned home almost
exhausted with fatigue and hunger. His present pilot often alluded to
the circumstance afterwards, ending with a great laugh, and asserting
that had he "been there, the rascals would not have escaped."

Coming under a Key on which multitudes of Frigate Pelicans had begun
to form their nests, we shot a good number of them, and observed their
habits. The boastings of our pilot were here confirmed by the exploits
which he performed with his long gun, and on several occasions he brought
down a bird from a height of fully a hundred yards. The poor birds,
unaware of the range of our artillery, sailed calmly along, so that it
was not difficult for "Long Tom," or rather for his owner, to furnish
us with as many as we required. The day was spent in this manner, and
towards night we returned, laden with booty, to the hospitable home of
the pilot.

The next morning was delightful. The gentle sea-breeze glided over the
flowery isle, the horizon was clear, and all was silent save the long
breakers that rushed over the distant reefs. As we were proceeding
towards some Keys, seldom visited by men, the sun rose from the bosom
of the waters with a burst of glory that flashed on my soul the idea
of that power which called into existence so magnificent an object. The
moon, thin and pale, as if ashamed to shew her feeble light, concealed
herself in the dim west. The surface of the waters shone in its tremulous
smoothness, and the deep blue of the clear heavens was pure as the world
that lies beyond them. The Heron heavily flew towards the land, like the
glutton retiring at day-break, with well-lined paunch, from the house of
some wealthy patron of good cheer. The Night Heron and the Owl, fearful
of day, with hurried flight sought safety in the recesses of the deepest
swamps; while the Gulls and Terns, ever cheerful, gambolled over the
water, exulting in the prospect of abundance. I also exulted in hope,
my whole frame seemed to expand; and our sturdy crew shewed, by their
merry faces, that nature had charms for them too. How much of beauty and
joy is lost to them who never view the rising sun, and of whose waking
existence the best half is nocturnal!

Twenty miles our men had to row before we reached "Sandy Island," and as
on its level shores we all leaped, we plainly saw the southernmost cape
of the Floridas. The flocks of birds that covered the shelly beaches,
and those hovering over head, so astonished us that we could for a
while scarcely believe our eyes. The first volley procured a supply of
food sufficient for two days' consumption. Such tales, you have already
been told, are well enough at a distance from the place to which they
refer; but you will doubtless be still more surprised when I tell you
that our first fire among a crowd of the Great Godwits laid prostrate
sixty-five of these birds. Rose-coloured Curlews stalked gracefully
beneath the mangroves; Purple Herons rose at almost every step we
took, and each cactus supported the nest of a White Ibis. The air was
darkened by whistling wings, while, on the waters, floated Gallinules
and other interesting birds. We formed a kind of shed with sticks and
grass, the sailor cook commenced his labours, and ere long we supplied
the deficiencies of our fatigued frames. The business of the day over,
we secured ourselves from insects by means of musquito-nets, and were
lulled to rest by the cacklings of the beautiful Purple Gallinules!

In the morning we arose from our sandy beds, and—




THE AMERICAN CROW.

_CORVUS AMERICANUS._

PLATE CLVI. MALE.


The Crow is an extremely shy bird, having found familiarity with man
no way to his advantage. He is also cunning—at least he is so called,
because he takes care of himself and his brood. The state of anxiety,
I may say of terror, in which he is constantly kept, would be enough to
spoil the temper of any creature. Almost every person has an antipathy
to him, and scarcely one of his race would be left in the land, did he
not employ all his ingenuity, and take advantage of all his experience,
in counteracting the evil machinations of his enemies. I think I see him
perched on the highest branch of a tree, watching every object around.
He observes a man on horseback travelling towards him; he marks his
movements in silence. No gun does the rider carry,—no, that is clear;
but perhaps he has pistols in the holsters of his saddle!—of that the
Crow is not quite sure, as he cannot either see them or "smell powder."
He beats the points of his wings, jerks his tail once or twice, bows his
head, and merrily sounds the joy which he feels at the moment. Another
man he spies walking across the field towards his stand, but he has only
a stick. Yonder comes a boy shouldering a musket loaded with large shot
for the express purpose of killing crows! The bird immediately sounds
an alarm; he repeats his cries, increasing their vehemence the nearer
his enemy advances. All the crows within half a mile round are seen
flying off, each repeating the well known notes of the trusty watchman,
who, just as the young gunner is about to take aim, betakes himself to
flight. But alas, he chances unwittingly to pass over a sportsman, whose
dexterity is greater; the mischievous prowler aims his piece, fires;—down
towards the earth broken-winged, falls the luckless bird in an instant.
"It is nothing but a crow," quoth the sportsman, who proceeds in search
of game, and leaves the poor creature to die in the most excruciating
agonies.

Wherever within the Union the laws encourage the destruction of this
species, it is shot in great numbers for the sake of the premium offered
for each crow's head. You will perhaps be surprised, reader, when I tell
you that in one single State, in the course of a season, 40,000 were
shot, besides the multitudes of young birds killed in their nests. Must
I add to this slaughter other thousands destroyed by the base artifice
of laying poisoned grain along the fields to tempt these poor birds?
Yes, I will tell you of all this too. The natural feelings of every
one who admires the bounty of Nature in providing abundantly for the
subsistence of all her creatures, prompt me to do so. Like yourself, I
admire all her wonderful works, and respect her wise intentions, even
when her laws are far beyond our limited comprehension.

The Crow devours myriads of grubs every day of the year, that might lay
waste the farmer's fields; it destroys quadrupeds innumerable, every one
of which is an enemy to his poultry and his flocks. Why then should the
farmer be so ungrateful, when he sees such services rendered to him by
a providential friend, as to persecute that friend even to the death?
Unless he plead ignorance, surely he ought to be found guilty at the bar
of common sense. Were the soil of the United States, like that of some
other countries, nearly exhausted by long continued cultivation, human
selfishness in such a matter might be excused, and our people might look
on our Crows, as other people look on theirs; but every individual in
the land is aware of the superabundance of food that exists among us,
and of which a portion may well be spared for the feathered beings,
that tend to enhance our pleasures by the sweetness of their song, the
innocence of their lives, or their curious habits. Did not every American
open his door and his heart to the wearied traveller, and afford him
food, comfort and rest, I would at once give up the argument; but when
I know by experience the generosity of the people, I cannot but wish
that they would reflect a little, and become more indulgent toward our
poor, humble, harmless, and even most serviceable bird, the Crow.

The American Crow is common in all parts of the United States. It becomes
gregarious immediately after the breeding season, when it forms flocks
sometimes containing hundreds, or even thousands. Towards autumn, the
individuals bred in the Eastern Districts almost all remove to the
Southern States, where they spend the winter in vast numbers.

The voice of our Crow is very different from that of the European species
which comes nearest to it in appearance, so much so indeed, that this
circumstance, together with others relating to its organization, has
induced me to distinguish it, as you see, by a peculiar name, that of
_Corvus Americanus_. I hope you will think me excusable in this, should
my ideas prove to be erroneous, when I tell you that the Magpie of
Europe is assuredly the very same bird as that met with in the western
wilds of the United States, although some ornithologists have maintained
the contrary, and that I am not disposed to make differences in name
where none exist in nature. I consider our Crow as rather less than the
European one, and the form of its tongue does not resemble that of the
latter bird; besides the Carrion Crow of that country seldom associates
in numbers, but remains in pairs, excepting immediately after it has
brought its young abroad, when the family remains undispersed for some
weeks.

Wherever our Crow is abundant, the Raven is rarely found, and _vice
versa_. From Kentucky to New Orleans, Ravens are extremely rare, whereas
in that course you find one or more Crows at every half mile. On the
contrary, far up the Missouri, as well as on the coast of Labrador, few
Crows are to be seen, while Ravens are common. I found the former birds
equally scarce in Newfoundland.

Omnivorous like the Raven, our Crow feeds on fruits, seeds, and vegetables
of almost every kind; it is equally fond of snakes, frogs, lizards, and
other small reptiles; it looks upon various species of worms, grubs and
insects as dainties; and if hard pressed by hunger, it will alight upon
and devour even putrid carrion. It is as fond of the eggs of other birds
as is the Cuckoo, and, like the Titmouse, it will, during a paroxysm
of anger, break in the skull of a weak or wounded bird. It delights in
annoying its twilight enemies the Owls, the Opossum, and the Racoon,
and will even follow by day a fox, a wolf, a panther, or in fact any
other carnivorous beast, as if anxious that man should destroy them for
their mutual benefit. It plunders the fields of their superabundance,
and is blamed for so doing, but it is seldom praised when it chases the
thieving Hawk from the poultry-yard.

The American Crow selects with uncommon care its breeding place. You may
find its nest in the interior of our most dismal swamps, or on the sides
of elevated and precipitous rocks, but almost always as much concealed
from the eye of man as possible. They breed in almost every portion of
the Union, from the Southern Cape of the Floridas to the extremities of
Maine, and probably as far westward as the Pacific Ocean. The period of
nestling varies from February to the beginning of June, according to the
latitude of the place. Its scarcity on the coast of Labrador, furnishes
one of the reasons that have induced me to believe it different from the
Carrion Crow of Europe; for there I met with several species of birds
common to both countries, which seldom enter the United States farther
than the vicinity of our most eastern boundaries.

The nest, however, greatly resembles that of the European Crow, as
much, in fact, as that of the American Magpie resembles the nest of the
European. It is formed externally of dry sticks, interwoven with grasses,
and is within thickly plastered with mud or clay, and lined with fibrous
roots and feathers. The eggs are from four to six, of a pale greenish
colour, spotted and clouded with a purplish-grey and brownish-green.
In the Southern States they raise two broods in the season, but to the
eastward seldom more than one. Both sexes incubate, and their parental
care and mutual attachment are not surpassed by those of any other bird.
Although the nests of this species often may be found near each other,
their proximity is never such as occurs in the case of the Fish-Crow,
of which many nests may be seen on the same tree.

When the nest of this species happens to be discovered, the faithful pair
raise such a hue and cry that every Crow in the neighbourhood immediately
comes to their assistance, passing in circles high over the intruder
until he has retired, or following him, if he has robbed it, as far as
their regard for the safety of their own will permit them. As soon as
the young leave the nest, the family associates with others, and in this
manner they remain in flocks till spring. Many crows' nests may be found
within a few acres of the same wood, and in this particular their habits
accord more with those of the Rooks of Europe (_Corvus frugilegus_),
which, as you very well know, breed and spend their time in communities.
The young of our Crow, like that of the latter species, are tolerable
food when taken a few days before the period of their leaving the nest.

The flight of the American Crow is swift, protracted, and at times
performed at a great elevation. They are now and then seen to sail among
the Turkey Buzzards or Carrion Crows, in company with their relatives
the Fish-Crows, none of the other birds, however, shewing the least
antipathy towards them, although the Vultures manifest dislike whenever
a White-headed Eagle comes among them.

In the latter part of autumn and in winter, in the Southern States,
this Crow is particularly fond of frequenting burnt grounds. Even
while the fire is raging in one part of the fields, the woods, or the
prairies, where tall grass abounds, the Crows are seen in great numbers
in the other, picking up and devouring the remains of mice and other
small quadrupeds, as well as lizards, snakes, and insects, which have
been partly destroyed by the flames. At the same season they retire in



Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 31 of 56)