John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) online

. (page 39 of 56)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 39 of 56)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


they fed on, when they committed their ravages. I must tell you also,
that in most of the places over which the fire passed, a new growth of
wood has already sprung up, of what we lumberers call hard wood, which
consists of all other sorts but pine or fir; and I have always remarked
that wherever the first natural growth of a forest is destroyed, either
by the axe, the hurricane, or the fire, there springs up spontaneously
another of quite a different kind." I again stopped my host to inquire
if he knew the method or nature of the first kindling of the fires.

"Why, Sir," said he, "there are different opinions about this. Many
believe that the Indians did it, either to be the better able to kill the
game, or to punish their enemies the Pale-faces. My opinion, however, is
different; and I derive it from my experience in the woods as a lumberer.
I have always thought that the fires began by the accidental fall of a
dry trunk against another, when their rubbing together, especially as
many of them are covered with resin, would produce fire. The dry leaves
on the ground are at once kindled, next the twigs and branches, when
nothing but the intervention of the Almighty could stop the progress of
the fire.

"In some instances, owing to the wind, the destructive element approached
the dwellings of the inhabitants of the woods so rapidly that it was
difficult for them to escape. In some parts, indeed, hundreds of families
were obliged to flee from their homes, leaving all they had behind them,
and here and there some of the affrighted fugitives were burnt alive."

At this moment a rush of wind came down the chimney, blowing the blaze
of the fire towards the room. The wife and daughter, imagining for a
moment that the woods were again on fire, made for the door, but the
husband, explaining the cause of their terror, they resumed their work.

"Poor things," said the lumberer, "I dare say that what I have told you
brings sad recollections to the minds of my wife and eldest daughter, who,
with myself, had to fly from our home, at the time of the great fires."
I felt so interested in his relation of the causes of the burnings,
that I asked him to describe to me the particulars of his misfortunes
at the time. "If Prudence and Polly," said he, looking towards his wife
and daughter, "will promise to sit still, should another puff of smoke
come down the chimney, I will do so." The good natured smile with which
he accompanied this remark, elicited a return from the women, and he
proceeded:—

"It is a difficult thing, Sir, to describe, but I will do my best to make
your time pass pleasantly. We were sound asleep one night, in a cabin
about a hundred miles from this, when about two hours before day, the
snorting of the horses and lowing of the cattle which I had ranging in
the woods suddenly wakened us. I took yon rifle, and went to the door
to see what beast had caused the hubbub, when I was struck by the glare
of light reflected on all the trees before me, as far as I could see
through the woods. My horses were leaping about, snorting loudly, and
the cattle ran among them with their tails raised straight over their
backs. On going to the back of the house, I plainly heard the crackling
made by the burning brushwood, and saw the flames coming towards us in
a far extended line. I ran to the house, told my wife to dress herself
and the child as quickly as possible, and take the little money we had,
while I managed to catch and saddle the two best horses. All this was
done in a very short time, for I guessed that every moment was precious
to us.

"We then mounted, and made off from the fire. My wife, who is an excellent
rider, stuck close to me; my daughter, who was then a small child, I
took in one arm. When making off as I said, I looked back and saw that
the frightful blaze was close upon us, and had already laid hold of the
house. By good luck, there was a horn attached to my hunting clothes,
and I blew it, to bring after us, if possible, the remainder of my live
stock, as well as the dogs. The cattle followed for a while; but, before
an hour had elapsed, they all ran as if mad through the woods, and that,
Sir, was the last of them. My dogs, too, although at all other times
extremely tractable, ran after the deer that in bodies sprung before
us, as if fully aware of the death that was so rapidly approaching.

"We heard blasts from the horns of our neighbours, as we proceeded, and
knew that they were in the same predicament. Intent on striving to the
utmost to preserve our lives, I thought of a large lake, some miles off,
which might possibly check the flames; and, urging my wife to whip up
her horse, we set off at full speed, making the best way we could over
the fallen trees and the brush heaps, which lay like so many articles
placed on purpose to keep up the terrific fires that advanced with a
broad front upon us.

By this time we could feel the heat; and we were afraid that our horses
would drop every instant. A singular kind of breeze was passing over our
heads, and the glare of the atmosphere shone over the day light. I was
sensible of a slight faintness, and my wife looked pale. The heat had
produced such a flush in the child's face, that when she turned towards
either of us, our grief and perplexity were greatly increased. Ten miles,
you know, are soon gone over on swift horses; but, notwithstanding this,
when we reached the borders of the lake, covered with sweat and quite
exhausted, our hearts failed us. The heat of the smoke was insufferable,
and sheets of blazing fire flew over us in a manner beyond belief.
We reached the shores, however, coasted the lake for a while, and got
round to the lee side. There we gave up our horses, which we never saw
again. Down among the rushes we plunged by the edge of the water, and
laid ourselves flat, to wait the chance of escaping from being burnt or
devoured. The water refreshed us, and we enjoyed the coolness.

"On went the fire, rushing and crashing through the woods. Such a sight
may we never see! The heavens themselves, I thought, were frightened,
for all above us was a red glare, mixed with clouds of smoke, rolling
and sweeping away. Our bodies were cool enough, but our heads were
scorching, and the child, who now seemed to understand the matter, cried
so as nearly to break our hearts.

"The day passed on, and we became hungry. Many wild beasts came plunging
into the water beside us, and others swam across to our side and stood
still. Although faint and weary, I managed to shoot a porcupine, and we
all tasted its flesh. The night passed I cannot tell you how. Smouldering
fires covered the ground, and the trees stood like pillars of fire, or
fell across each other. The stifling and sickening smoke still rushed
over us, and the burnt cinders and ashes fell thick about us. How we got
through that night I really cannot tell, for about some of it I remember
nothing." Here the hunter paused, and took breath. The recital of his
adventure seemed to have exhausted him. His wife proposed that we should
have a bowl of milk, and the daughter having handed it to us, we each
took a draught.

"Now," said he, "I will proceed. Towards morning, although the heat did
not abate, the smoke became less, and blasts of fresh air sometimes made
their way to us. When morning came, all was calm, but a dismal smoke
still filled the air, and the smell seemed worse than ever. We were now
cooled enough, and shivered as if in an ague fit; so we removed from the
water, and went up to a burning log, where we warmed ourselves. What
was to become of us I did hot know. My wife hugged the child to her
breast, and wept bitterly; but God had preserved us through the worst
of the danger, and the flames had gone past, so I thought it would be
both ungrateful to Him, and unmanly to despair now. Hunger once more
pressed upon us, but this was easily remedied. Several deer were still
standing in the water, up to the head, and I shot one of them. Some of
its flesh was soon roasted; and, after eating it, we felt wonderfully
strengthened.

"By this time the blaze of the fire was beyond our sight, although the
ground was still burning in many places, and it was dangerous to go
among the burnt trees. After resting a while, and trimming ourselves,
we prepared to commence our march. Taking up the child, I led the way
over the hot ground and rocks; and, after two weary days and nights,
during which we shifted in the best manner we could, we at last reached
the "hard woods," which had been free of the fire. Soon after we came
to a house, where we were kindly treated for a while. Since then, Sir,
I have worked hard and constantly as a lumberer; but, thanks be to God,
here we are safe, sound, and happy!"




THE BARN OWL.

_STRIX FLAMMEA_, LINN.

PLATE CLXXI. MALE AND FEMALE.


Not a single individual of the numerous persons who have described the
birds of the United States, seems to have had opportunities of studying
the habits of this beautiful Owl, and all that I find related respecting
it is completely at variance with my observations. In describing the
manners of this bird, I shall therefore use all due caution, although
at the same time I shall not be too anxious to obtain credit in this,
more than in some other matters, for which I have patiently borne the
contradictions of the ignorant. The following extracts from my journals
I hope will prove interesting.

_St Augustine, East Florida, 8th November 1832._—Mr SIMMONS, the Keeper
of the Fort, whom I had known at Henderson in Kentucky, having informed
me that some boys had taken five young Barn Owls from a hole in one of
the chimneys, I went with a ladder to see if I could procure some more.
After much search I found only a single egg, which had been recently
laid. It was placed on the bare stone of the wall, surrounded by fragments
of small quadrupeds of various kinds. During our search I found a great
number of the disgorged pellets of the Owl, among which some were almost
fresh. They contained portions of skulls and bones of small quadrupeds
unknown to me. I also found the entire skeleton of one of these Owls in
excellent condition, and observing a curious bony crest-like expansion
on the skull from the base of the cere above to that of the lower
mandible, elevated nearly a quarter of an inch from the solid part of
the skull, and forming a curve like a horse-shoe, I made an outline of
it. On speaking to the officers of the garrison respecting this species
of Owl, Lieutenant CONSTANTINE SMITH, a most amiable and intelligent
officer of our army, informed me, that, in the months of July and August
of that year, these birds bred more abundantly than at the date above
stated. Other persons also assured me that, like the House Pigeon, the
Barn Owl breeds at all seasons of the year in that part of the country.
The statement was farther corroborated by Mr LEE WILLIAMS, a gentleman
formerly attached to the topographical department, and who, I believe,
has written an excellent account of the eastern portion of the peninsula
of the Floridas.

Having arrived at Charleston, South Carolina, in October 1833, as soon as
my family and myself were settled in the house of my friend the Reverend
JOHN BACHMAN, I received information that a pair of Owls (of the present
species) had a nest in the upper story of an abandoned sugar-house in
the city, when I immediately proceeded to the place, accompanied by Dr
SAMUEL WILSON and WILLIAM KUNHARDT, Esq. We ascended cautiously to the
place, I having pulled off my boots to prevent noise. When we reached it
I found a sort of large garret filled with sugar-moulds, and lighted by
several windows, one of which had two panes broken. I at once discovered
the spot where the Owls were, by the hissing sounds of the young ones,
and approached slowly and cautiously towards them, until within a few
feet, when the parent bird seeing me, flew quickly toward the window,
touched the frame of the broken panes, and glided silently through the
aperture. I could not even afterwards observe the course of its flight.
The young were three in number, and covered with down of a rich cream
colour. They raised themselves on their legs, appeared to swell, and
emitted a constant hissing sound, somewhat resembling that of a large
snake when angry. They continued thus without altering their position,
during the whole of our stay, which lasted about twenty minutes. They
were on a scattered parcel of bits of straw, and surrounded by a bank
made of their ejected pellets. Very few marks of their excrements were on
the floor, and they were beautifully clean. A Cotton Rat, newly caught,
and still entire, lay beside them, and must have been brought from a
distance of several miles, that animal abounding in the rice-fields, none
of which, I believe, are nearer than three or four miles. After making
some arrangements with the Negro man who kept the house, we returned
home. The eggs from which these young Owls had been hatched must have
been laid six weeks before this date, or about the 15th of September.

On the 25th of November they had grown much in size, but none of the
feathers had yet made their appearance, excepting the primaries, which
were now about an inch long, thick, full of blood, and so tender that
the least pressure of the fingers might have burst them. As the young
grow more and more, the parents feed and attend to them less frequently
than when very small, coming to them in the night only with food. This
proves the caution of these birds in avoiding danger, and the faculty
which the young possess of supporting abstinence in this middle state
of their growth.

On the 7th of December I visited the Owls in company with my friend JOHN
BACHMAN. We found them much grown; indeed, their primaries were well
out; but their back and breast, and all their lower parts, were still
thickly covered with down.

On the 6th of January I again saw them, but one of the young was dead,
although in good condition. I was surprised that their food still
continued to be composed entirely of small quadrupeds, and principally
of the rat mentioned above.

My last visit to them was on the 18th of January. The two younger ones
were now, to all appearance, fully grown, but were yet unable to fly. A
few tufts of down still remained attached to the feathers on scattered
parts of the body. I took them home. One was killed, and the skin
preserved.

Now, these facts are the more interesting, that none of the numerous
European authors with whom I am acquainted, have said a single word
respecting the time of breeding of this species, but appear to be more
intent on producing long lists of synonyms than on presenting the useful
materials from which the student of nature can draw inferences. I shall
therefore leave to them to say whether our species is, or is not, the
same as the one found in the churches and ruins of Europe. Should it
prove to be the same species, and if the European bird breeds, as I
suspect it does, at so different a period of the year, the habits of the
American Owl will form a kind of mystery in the operations of nature,
as they differ not only from those of the bird in question, but of all
other Owls with which I am acquainted.

My opinion is, that the Barn Owl of the United States is far more abundant
in the Southern Districts than in the other parts. I never found it to
the east of Pennsylvania, and only twice in that State, nor did I ever
see, or even hear of one in the Western Country; but as soon as I have
reached the maritime districts of the Carolinas, Georgia, the Floridas,
and all along to Louisiana, the case has always been different. In Cuba
they are quite abundant, according to the reports which I have received
from that island. I am indeed almost tempted to believe, that the few
which have been found in Pennsylvania were bewildered birds, surprised by
the coldness of the winter, and perhaps unable to return to the Southern
Districts. During my visit to Labrador I neither saw any of these birds,
nor found a single person who had ever seen them, although the people
to whom I spoke were well acquainted with the Snowy Owl, the Grey Owl,
and the Hawk Owl.

THOMAS BUTLER KING, Esq., of St Simon's Island, Georgia, sent me two
very beautiful specimens of this Owl, which had been caught alive. One
died shortly after their arrival at Charleston; the other was in fine
order when I received it. The person to whose care they were consigned,
kept them for many weeks at Charleston before I reached that city, and
told me that in the night their cries never failed to attract others of
the same species, which he observed hovering about the place of their
confinement.

This species is altogether nocturnal or crepuscular, and when disturbed
during the day, flies in an irregular bewildered manner, as if at a loss
how to look for a place of refuge. After long observation, I am satisfied
that our bird feeds entirely on the smaller species of quadrupeds, for I
have never found any portions of birds about their nests, nor even the
remains of a single feather in the pellets which they regurgitate, and
which are always formed of the bones and hair of quadrupeds.

Owls which approach to the diurnal species in their habits, or which
hunt for food in the morning and evening twilight, are more apt to seize
on objects which are themselves more diurnal than otherwise, or than
the animals which I have found to form the constant food of our Barn
Owl. Thus the Short-eared, the Hawk, the Fork-tailed, the Burrowing,
and other Owls, which hunt either during broad day, or mostly towards
evening, or at the return of day, will be found to feed more on mixed
food than the present species. I have no doubt that the anatomist will
detect corresponding differences in the eye, as they have already been
found in the ear. The stomach is elongated, almost smooth, and of a deep
gamboge-yellow; the intestines small, rather tough, and measuring one
foot nine inches in length.

Its flight is light, regular, and much protracted. It passes through
the air at an elevation of thirty or forty feet, in perfect silence, and
pounces on its prey like a Hawk, often waiting for a fair opportunity from
the branch of a tree, on which it alights for the purpose. During day,
they are never seen, unless accidentally disturbed, when they immediately
try to hide themselves. I am not aware of their having any propensity to
fish, as the Snowy Owl has, nor have I ever seen one pursuing a bird.
Ever careful of themselves, they retreat to the hollows of trees and
such holes as they find about old buildings. When kept in confinement,
they feed freely on any kind of flesh, and will stand for hours in the
same position, frequently resting on one leg, while the other is drawn
close to the body. In this position I watched one on my drawing table
for six hours.

This species is never found in the depth of the forests, but confines
itself to the borders of the woods around large savannas or old
abandoned fields overgrown with briars and rank grass, where its food,
which consists principally of field-mice, moles, rats, and other small
quadrupeds, is found in abundance, and where large beetles and bats fly
in the morning and evening twilight. It seldom occurs at a great distance
from the sea. I am not aware that it ever emits any cry or note, as other
owls are wont to do; but it produces a hollow hissing sound continued
for minutes at a time, which has always reminded me of that given out
by an opossum when about to die by strangulation.

When on the ground, this Owl moves by sidelong leaps, with the body much
inclined downwards. If wounded in the wing, it yet frequently escapes
through the celerity of its motions. Its hearing is extremely acute, and
as it marks your approach, instead of throwing itself into an attitude of
defence, as Hawks are wont to do, it instantly swells out its plumage,
extends its wings and tail, hisses, and clacks its mandibles with force
and rapidity. If seized in the hand, it bites and scratches, inflicting
deep wounds with its bill and claws.

It is by no means correct to say that this Owl, or indeed any other,
always swallows its prey entire: some which I have kept in confinement,
have been seen tearing a young hare in pieces with their bills in the
manner of hawks; and mice, small rats, or bats, are the largest objects
that I have seen them gobble up entire, and not always without difficulty.
From having often observed their feet and legs covered with fresh earth,
I am inclined to think that they may use them to scratch mice or moles
out of their shallow burrows, a circumstance which connects them with
the Burrowing Owls of our western plains, which like them have very long
legs. In a room their flight is so noiseless that one is surprised to find
them removed from one place to another without having heard the least
sound. They disgorge their pellets with difficulty, although generally
at a single effort, but I did not observe that this action was performed
at any regular period. I have mentioned these circumstances, to induce
you to examine more particularly the habits of the Barn Owls of Europe
and the Southern States of America, that the question of their identity
may be decided.

The pair which I have represented were given to me by my friend RICHARD
HARLAN, M.D., of Philadelphia. They had been brought from the south,
and were fine adult birds in excellent plumage. I have placed a ground
squirrel under the feet of one of them, as being an animal on which the
species is likely to feed.


STRIX FLAMMEA, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 133.—_Lath._ Index
Ornith. vol. i. p. 60.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of
the United States, p. 38.

WHITE or BARN OWL, STRIX FLAMMEA, _Wils._ Amer. Ornith. vol. vi.
p. 57. pl. 50. fig. 2.—_Nuttall_, Manual, part ii. p. 139.


Adult Male. Plate CLXXI. Fig. 1.

Bill short, compressed, deep, and strong, with a short cere at the base;
upper mandible with its dorsal outline straight to the end of the cere,
then curved, the sides nearly flat and perpendicular, the edges acute,
the tip deflected, with a rounded but sharp-edged point; lower mandible,
with the dorsal outline, convex, the sides convex, the edges arched and
sharp, the extremity obliquely truncate. Nostrils large, oval, in the
fore part of the cere. Head disproportionately large, as are the eyes and
external ears. Neck also very short, body rather slender. Legs rather
long; tarsus long, feathered, scaly at the lower part; toes large, the
hind one short, the inner nearly as long as the middle one; the outer
connected by a short web at the base; all covered above with series of
small tuberculiform oblong scales, intermixed with a few bristles, and
three broad scutella at the end; claws arched, long, rounded above,
extremely sharp, that of the middle toe with an edge on the inner sides,
which in old birds is transversely cracked.

Plumage very soft and downy, blended above, loose beneath. Long bristly
feathers at the base of the bill stretching forwards. Eyes surrounded
by circles of loose thin feathers; auricular feathers narrow, recurved
and compact at the end, forming a ruff. Wings ample, long; second quill
longest, third slightly shorter, first next in length; primaries incurvate
towards the end, broad and rounded, the first, as usual in the genus,
pectinated. Tail rather short, even, of twelve broad rounded feathers.

Bill pale greyish-yellow or light horn-colour. Iris bluish-black. Scales
of the feet and claws brownish-yellow. The general colour above is
greyish-brown, with light yellowish-red interspersed, produced by very
minute mottling, each feather having towards the end a central streak of
deep brown terminated by a small oblong greyish-white spot. The wings
are similarly coloured; the secondary coverts and outer edges of the
primary coverts with a large proportion of light brownish-red; the quills
and tail transversely barred with brown. The face is white, tinged with
red, especially near the inner angle of the eye; the ruff of compact
feathers light brownish-red. The under parts are pale brownish-red,
fading anteriorly into white, each feather having a small dark-brown
spot at the tip.

Length 17 inches, extent of wings 3 feet 6 inches; bill along the back
1-8/12; tarsus 3-2/12, middle toe and claw 2-7/12.


Adult Female. Plate CLXXI. Fig. 2.

The female resembles the male, but is considerably larger.

Length 18 inches, extent of wings 3 feet 8 inches.


This bird is so closely allied to the Barn Owl of Europe, that it is



Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 39 of 56)