John James Audubon.

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extraordinary family, were daily ransacked by armed planters. Necessity,
it is said, will bring the wolf from the forest. The Runaway seems to
have well understood the maxim, for under night he approached his first
master's plantation, where he had ever been treated with the greatest
kindness. The house servants knew him too well not to aid him to the
best of their power, and at the approach of each morning he returned to
his camp with an ample supply of provisions. One day, while in search
of wild fruits, he found a bear dead before the muzzle of a gun that
had been set for the purpose. Both articles he carried to his home. His
friends at the plantation managed to supply him with some ammunition,
and in damp and cloudy days he first ventured to hunt around his camp.
Possessed of courage and activity, he gradually became more careless,
and rambled farther in search of game. It was on one of his excursions
that I met him, and he assured me that the noise which I made in passing
the bayou had caused him to lose the chance of killing a fine deer,
although, said he, "my old musket misses fire sadly too often."

The runaways, after disclosing their secret to me, both rose from their
seat, with eyes full of tears. "Good master, for God's sake, do something
for us and our children," they sobbed forth with one accord. Their little
ones lay sound asleep in the fearlessness of their innocence. Who could
have heard such a tale without emotion? I promised them my most cordial
assistance. They both sat up that night to watch my repose, and I slept
close to their urchins, as if on a bed of the softest down.

Day broke so fair, so pure, and so gladdening, that I told them such
heavenly appearances were ominous of good, and that I scarcely doubted of
obtaining their full pardon. I desired them to take their children with
them, and promised to accompany them to the plantation of their first
master. They gladly obeyed. My Ibises were hung around their camp, and,
as a memento of my having been there, I notched several trees, after
which I bade adieu, perhaps for the last time, to that cane brake. We
soon reached the plantation, the owner of which, with whom I was well
acquainted, received me with all the generous kindness of a Louisiana
planter. Ere an hour had elapsed, the Runaway and his family were looked
upon as his own. He afterwards repurchased them from their owners, and
treated them with his former kindness; so that they were rendered as
happy as slaves generally are in that country, and continued to cherish
that attachment to each other which had led to their adventures. Since
this event happened, it has, I have been informed, become illegal to
separate slave families without their consent.




The habits of this species are so intimately connected with those of
the Turkey Buzzard (_Cathartes Aura_), that I cannot do better than
devote this article to the description of both. And here, I beg leave to
request of you, reader, that you allow me to present you with a copy of
a paper which I published several years ago on the subject, and which
was read, in my presence, to a numerous assemblage of the members of
the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh, by my friend Mr
NEILL, the Secretary of that Society. It is scarcely necessary for me to
apologise for introducing here the observations which I then narrated,
more especially as they referred principally to an interesting subject
of discussion, which has been since resumed. They are as follows:—

"As soon as, like me, you shall have seen the Turkey Buzzard follow,
with arduous closeness of investigation, the skirts of the forests,
the meanders of creeks and rivers, sweeping over the whole of extensive
plains, glancing his quick eye in all directions, with as much intentness
as ever did the noblest of Falcons, to discover where below him lies
the suitable prey; when, like me, you have repeatedly seen that bird
pass over objects calculated to glut his voracious appetite, unnoticed,
because unseen; and when you have also observed the greedy Vulture,
propelled by hunger, if not famine, moving like the wind suddenly round
his course, as the carrion attracts his eye; then will you abandon the
deeply-rooted notion, that this bird possesses the faculty of discovering,
by his sense of smell, his prey at an immense distance.

This power of smelling so acutely I adopted as a fact from my youth.
I had read of this when a child; and many of the theorists, to whom I
subsequently spoke of it, repeated the same with enthusiasm, the more
particularly as they considered it an extraordinary gift of nature. But
I had already observed, that nature, although wonderfully bountiful,
had not granted more to any one individual than was necessary, and that
no one was possessed of any two of the senses in a very high state of
perfection; that if it had a good scent, it needed not so much acuteness
of sight, and _vice versa_. When I visited the Southern States, and
had lived, as it were, amongst these Vultures for several years, and
discovered thousands of times that they did not smell me when I approached
them, covered by a tree, until within a few feet; and that when so near,
or at a greater distance, I shewed myself to them, they instantly flew
away much frightened; the idea evaporated, and I assiduously engaged in
a series of experiments, to prove to _myself_, at least, how far this
acuteness of smell existed, or if it existed at all.

I sit down to communicate to you the results of those experiments, and
leave for _you_ to conclude how far and how long the world has been
imposed on by the mere assertions of men who had never seen more than
the skins of our Vultures, or heard the accounts from men caring little
about observing nature closely.

My _First Experiment_ was as follows:—I procured a skin of our common
deer, entire to the hoofs, and stuffed it carefully with dried grass
until filled rather above the natural size,—suffered the whole to become
perfectly dry, and as hard as leather,—took it to the middle of a large
open field,—laid it down on its back with the legs up and apart, as if the
animal was dead and putrid. I then retired about a hundred yards, and in
the lapse of some minutes, a Vulture, coursing round the field tolerably
high, espied the skin, sailed directly towards it, and alighted within a
few yards of it. I ran immediately, covered by a large tree, until within
about forty yards, and from that place could spy the bird with ease. He
approached the skin, looked at it with apparent suspicion, jumped on it,
raised his tail, and voided freely (as you well know all birds of prey
in a wild state generally do before feeding),—then approaching the eyes,
that were here solid globes of hard, dried, and painted clay, attacked
first one and then the other, with, however, no farther advantage than
that of disarranging them. This part was abandoned; the bird walked to the
other extremity of the pretended animal, and there, with much exertion,
tore the stitches apart, until much fodder and hay was pulled out; but
no flesh could the bird find or smell; he was intent on discovering some
where none existed, and, after reiterated efforts, all useless, he took
flight and coursed about the field, when, suddenly wheeling round and
alighting, I saw him kill a small garter snake, and swallow it in an
instant. The Vulture rose again, sailed about, and passed several times
quite low over the stuffed deer-skin, as if loath to abandon so good
looking a prey.

Judge of my feelings when I plainly saw that the Vulture, which could
not discover, through its _extraordinary_ sense of smell, that no flesh,
either fresh or putrid, existed about that skin, could at a glance see
a snake, scarcely as thick as a man's finger, alive, and destitute of
odour, hundreds of yards distant. I concluded that, at all events, his
ocular powers were much better than his sense of smell.

_Second Experiment._—I had a large dead hog hauled some distance from
the house, and put into a ravine, about twenty feet deeper than the
surface of the earth around it, narrow and winding much, filled with
briars and high cane. In this I made the negroes conceal the hog, by
binding cane over it, until I thought it would puzzle either Buzzards,
Carrion Crows, or any other birds to see it, and left it for two days.
This was early in the month of July, when, in this latitude, a dead body
becomes putrid and extremely fetid in a short time. I saw from time to
time many Vultures, in search of food, sail over the field and ravine
in all directions, but none discovered the carcass, although during this
time several dogs had visited it, and fed plentifully on it. I tried to
go near it, but the smell was so insufferable when within thirty yards,
that I abandoned it, and the remnants were entirely destroyed at last
through natural decay.

I then took a young pig, put a knife through its neck, and made it bleed
on the earth and grass about the same place, and having covered it closely
with leaves, also watched the result. The Vultures saw the fresh blood,
alighted about it, followed it down into the ravine, discovered by the
blood the pig, and devoured it, when yet quite fresh, within my sight.

Not contented with these experiments, which I already thought fully
conclusive, having found two young Vultures, about the size of pullets,
covered yet with down, and looking more like quadrupeds than birds,
I had them brought home and put into a large coop in the yard, in the
view of every body, and attended to their feeding myself. I gave them a
great number of Red-headed Woodpeckers and Parokeets, birds then easy
to procure, as they were feeding daily on the mulberry trees in the
immediate neighbourhood of my orphans.

These the young Vultures could tear to pieces by putting both feet on
the body, and applying the bill with great force. So accustomed to my
going towards them were they in a few days, that when I approached the
cage with hands filled with game for them, they immediately began hissing
and gesticulating very much like young pigeons, and putting their bills
to each other, as if expecting to be fed mutually, as their parent had

Two weeks elapsed, black feathers made their appearance, and the down
diminished. I remarked an extraordinary increase of their legs and bill,
and thinking them fit for trial, I closed three sides of the cage with
plank, leaving the front only with bars for them to see through,—had the
cage cleaned, washed, and sanded, to remove any filth attached to it from
the putrid flesh that had been in it, and turned its front immediately
from the course I usually took towards it with food for them.

I approached it often barefooted, and soon perceived that if I did not
accidentally make a noise, the young birds remained in their silent
upright attitudes, until I shewed myself to them by turning to the front
of their prison. I frequently fastened a dead squirrel or rabbit, cut
open, with all the entrails hanging loosely, to a long pole, and in this
situation would put it to the back part of the cage; but no hissing, no
movement, was made; when, on the contrary, I presented the end of the
pole thus covered over the cage, no sooner would it appear beyond the
edge, than my hungry birds would jump against the bars, hiss furiously,
and attempt all in their power to reach the food. This was repeatedly
done with fresh and putrid substances, all very congenial to their taste.

Satisfied within myself, I dropped these trials, but fed the birds until
full grown, and then turned them out into the yard of the kitchen, for
the purpose of picking up whatever substances might be thrown to them.
Their voracity, however, soon caused their death: young pigs were not
safe if within their reach; and young ducks, turkeys, or chickens, were
such a constant temptation, that the cook, unable to watch them, killed
them both, to put an end to their depredations.

Whilst I had these two young vultures in confinement, an extraordinary
occurrence took place respecting an old bird of the same kind, which I
cannot help relating to you. This bird, sailing over the yard, whilst
I was experimenting with the pole and squirrels, saw the food, and
alighted on the roof of one of the outhouses; then alighted on the
ground, walked directly to the cage, and attempted to reach the food
within. I approached it carefully, and it hopped off a short distance;
as I retired, it returned, when always the appearances of the strongest
congratulations would take place from the young towards this new comer.
I directed several young negroes to drive it gently towards the stable,
and to try to make it go in there. This would not do; but, after a short
time, I helped to drive it into that part of the _gin-house_ where the
cotton seeds are deposited, and there caught it. I easily discovered
that the bird was so emaciated, that to this state of poverty only I
owed my success. I put it in with the young, who both at once jumped
about him, making most extraordinary gestures of welcome, whilst the
old bird, quite discomfited at his confinement, lashed both with great
violence with his bill. Fearing the death of the young, I took them
out, and fed plentifully the old bird; his appetite had become so great
through fasting, that he ate too much, and died of suffocation.

I could enumerate many more instances, indicating that the power of
smelling in these birds has been grossly exaggerated, and that, if they
can smell objects at any distance, they can see the same objects much
farther. I would ask any observer of the habits of birds, why if Vultures
could smell at a great distance their prey, they should spend the greater
portion of their lives hunting for it, when they are naturally so lazy,
that, if fed in one place, they never leave it, and merely make such
a change as is absolutely necessary to enable them to reach it. But I
will now enter on their habits, and you will easily discover how this
far famed power has originated.

Vultures are gregarious, and often associate in flocks of twenty, forty,
or more;—hunting thus together, they fly in sight of each other, and
thus cover an immense extent of country. A flock of twenty may easily
survey an area of two miles, as they go turning in large circles, often
intersecting each other in their lines, as if forming a vast chain
of rounded links;—some are high, whilst others are low;—not a spot is
passed unseen, and, consequently, the moment that a prey is discovered,
the favoured bird rounds to, and, by the impetuosity of its movements,
gives notice to its nearest companion, who immediately follows him,
and is successively attended by all the rest. Thus the farthest from
the discoverer being at a considerable distance, sails in a direct line
towards the spot indicated to him by the flight of the others, who all
have gone in a straight course before him, with the appearance of being
impelled by this extraordinary power of smelling, so erroneously granted
to them. If the object discovered is large, lately dead, and covered with
a skin too tough to be eaten and torn asunder, and affords free scope to
their appetites, they remain about it, and in the neighbourhood. Perched
on high dead limbs, in such conspicuous positions, they are easily seen by
other Vultures, who, through habit, know the meaning of such stoppages,
and join the first flock, going also directly, and affording further
evidence to those persons who are satisfied with appearance only. In
this manner I have seen several hundreds of Vultures and Carrion Crows
assembled near a dead ox at the dusk of evening, that had only two or
three about it in the morning; when some of the later comers had probably
travelled hundreds of miles searching diligently themselves for food,
and probably would have had to go much farther, had they not espied this

Around the spot both species remain; some of them from time to time
examining the dead body, giving it a tug in those parts most accessible,
until putridity ensues. The accumulated number then fall to work,
exhibiting a most disgusting picture of famished cannibals; the strongest
driving the weakest, and the latter harassing the former with all the
animosity that a disappointed hungry stomach can excite. They are seen
jumping off the carcass, reattacking it, entering it, and wrestling for
portions partly swallowed by two or more of them, hissing at a furious
rate, and clearing every moment their nostrils from the filth that enters
there, and stops their breathing. No doubt remains on my mind, that the
great outward dimensions of these nostrils were allotted them for that
especial and necessary purpose.

The animal is soon reduced to a mere skeleton, no portion of it being
now too hard to be torn apart and swallowed, so that nothing is left
but the bare bones. Soon all these bloody feeders are seen standing
gorged, and scarcely able to take wing. At such times the observer may
approach very near the group, whilst engaged in feeding, and see the
Vultures in contact with the Dogs, who really by smelling have found the
prey;—whenever this happens, it is with the greatest reluctance that
the birds suffer themselves to be driven off, although frequently the
sudden scowl or growl of the Dogs will cause nearly all the Vultures
to rise a few yards in the air. I have several times seen the Buzzards
feeding at one extremity of the carcass, whilst the Dogs were tearing
the other; but if a single Wolf approached, or a pair of White-headed
Eagles, driven by extreme hunger, then the place was abandoned to them
until their wants were supplied.

The repast finished, each bird gradually rises to the highest branches
of the nearest trees, and remains there until the full digestion of all
the food they have swallowed is completed; from time to time opening
their wings to the breeze, or to the sun, either to cool or to warm
themselves. The traveller may then pass under them unnoticed; or, if
regarded, a mere sham of flying off is made. The bird slowly recloses
its wings, looks at the person as he passes, and remains there until
hunger again urges him onwards. This takes often times more than a day,
when gradually, and very often singly, each vulture is seen to depart.

They now rise to an immense height; cutting, with great elegance and
ease, many circles through the air; now and then gently closing their
wings, they launch themselves obliquely, with great swiftness, for
several hundred yards, check and resume their portly movements, ascending
until, like specks in the distance, they are seen altogether to leave
that neighbourhood, to seek elsewhere the required means of subsistence.

Having heard it said, no doubt with the desire of proving that Buzzards
smell their prey, that these birds usually fly against the breeze, I
may state that, in my opinion, this action is simply used, because it
is easier for birds to sustain themselves on the wing, encountering
a moderate portion of wind, than when flying before it; but I have so
often witnessed these birds bearing away under the influence of a strong
breeze, as if enjoying it, that I consider either case as a mere incident
connected with their pleasures or their wants.

Here, my dear Sir, let me relate one of those facts, curious in itself,
and attributed to mere _instinct_, but which I cannot admit under that
appellation, and which, in my opinion, so borders on _reason_, that,
were I to call it by that name, I hope you will not look on my judgment
as erroneous, without your further investigating the subject in a more
general point of view.

During one of those heavy _gusts_ that so often take place in Louisiana,
in the early part of summer, I saw a flock of these birds, which had
undoubtedly discovered that the current of air that was tearing all over
them, was a mere sheet, raise themselves obliquely against it, with great
force, slide through its impetuous current, and reassume _above_ it, their
elegant movements. The power given to them by nature of discerning the
approaching death of a wounded animal, is truly remarkable. They will
watch each individual thus assailed by misfortune, and follow it with
keen perseverance, until the loss of life has rendered it their prey. A
poor old emaciated horse or ox, a deer mired on the margin of the lake,
where the timid animal has resorted to escape flies and musquitoes, so
fatiguing in summer, is seen in distress with exultation by the Buzzard.
He immediately alights; and, if the animal does not extricate itself,
waits and gorges in peace on as much of the flesh as the nature of the
spot will allow. They do more: they often watch the young kid, the lamb
and the pig issuing from the mother's womb, and attack it with direful
success; yet, notwithstanding this, they frequently pass over a healthy
horse, hog, or other animal, lying as if dead, basking in the sunshine,
without even altering their course in the least. Judge then, my dear
Sir, how well they must see.

Opportunities of devouring young living animals are so very frequent
around large plantations in this country, that to deny them would be
ridiculous, although I have heard it attempted by European writers. During
the terrifying inundations of the Mississippi, I have very frequently
seen many of these birds alight on the dead floating bodies of animals,
drowned by the waters in the lowlands, and washed by the current, gorging
themselves at the expense of the squatter, who often loses the greater
portion of his wandering flocks on such occasions. Dastardly withal,
and such cowards are they, that our smaller hawks can drive them off any
place: the little king-bird proves indeed a tyrant, whenever he espies
the large marauder sailing about the spot where his dearest mate is all
intent on incubation; and the eagle, if hungry, will chase him, force
him to disgorge his food in a moment, and leave it at his disposal.

Many of those birds accustomed, by the privileges granted them by law,
of remaining about cities and villages in our southern states, seldom
leave them, and might almost be called a second set, differing widely in
habits from those that reside constantly at a distance from these places.
Accustomed to be fed, they are still more lazy; their appearance exhibits
all the nonchalance belonging to the garrisoned half-paid soldier. To
move is for them a hardship, and nothing but extreme hunger will make
them fly down from the roof of the kitchen into the yard, or follow the
vehicles employed in cleaning the streets of disagreeable substances,
except where (at Natchez for instance), the number of these expecting
parasites is so great that all the refuse of the town, within their
reach, is insufficient: they then are seen following the scavengers'
cart, hopping, flying, and alighting all about it, amidst grunting
hogs and snarling dogs, until the contents, having reached a place of
destination outside the suburbs, are deposited, and swallowed by them.

Whilst taking a view of this city from her lower ancient _fort_, I have
for several days seen exhibitions of this kind.

I do not think that the vultures thus attached to cities are so much
inclined to multiply as those more constantly resident in the forests,
perceiving the diminution of number during the breeding season, and
having remarked that many individuals known to me by particular marks
made on them, and a _special cast of countenance_, were positively
constant residents of town. The _Vultur Aura_ is by no means so numerous
as the _atratus_. I have seldom seen more than from twenty-five to thirty
together; when, on the contrary, the latter are frequently associated
to the number of an hundred.

The _Vultur Aura_ is a more retired bird in habits, and more inclined
to feed on dead game, snakes, lizards, frogs, and the dead fish that
frequently are found about the sand-flats of rivers and borders of the
sea-shore; is more cleanly in its appearance; and, as you will see by the
difference in the drawings of both species, a neater and better formed
bird. Its flight is also vastly superior in swiftness and elegance,
requiring but a few flaps of its large wings to raise itself from the
ground; after which it will sail for miles by merely turning either
on one side or the other, and using its tail so slowly, to alter its
course, that a person looking at it, whilst elevated and sailing, would
be inclined to compare it to a machine fit to perform just a certain
description of evolutions. The noise made by the vultures through the

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 6 of 56)