Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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SOME few years ago Mr. Loudon wrote to me,
in order to draw my attention to his Magazine
of Natural History ; and he added in his letter,
that he would feel obliged to me for any com-
munication that I might send to him from time
to time at my convenience.

I was preparing to set out for the Continent
at the time that I received Mr. London's letter.
On my return home from Franconia, I did not
forget his application relative to the Magazine
of Natural History. I owe a debt of gratitude
to Mr. Loudon, for the very kind manner in
which he has always spoken of the Wanderings,

and recommended that work to the public.

I had learned, by mere chance, that a pro-
fessor in King's College had been applying to



the Wanderings for information concerning the
Humming-Bird ; and that, having got what he
wanted, he had coupled my name with an epi-
thet* any thing but congenial to my feelings.
Upon this, with no other sensation than that
which a man experiences when he receives a
pinch which he knows that he does not deserve,
I took up the new edition of the Ornithological
Dictionary, and having given it a few hearty
shakes, by way of retaliation, I laid it down
again upon the table, and bade it rest in peace.
This will account to the reader for the appear-
ance of an extract from the Ornithological
Dictionary in the first page of the following

Having had every possible opportunity of
paying attention to the habits of the Vulture,
during a long residence in the hottest parts of
South America, where this bird is found in vast
abundance, I was convinced, and am still con-
vinced beyond all doubt whatever, that the
Vulture possesses the faculty of scent in a most
superior degree; and I made mention in the

* The eccentric Waterton.

Wanderings of this well-known faculty in the
Vulture. A foreigner having imported into
this country a theory quite at variance with
what I had stated in my publication, I deemed
it necessary, for the reputation of the Wander-
ings, to enter more minutely into the subject;
wherefore I sent up to Mr. London's Magazine
of Natural History a paper on the habits of the
Vulture. This gave rise to much contention ; I
trying to upset the new theory, and my adver-
saries striving to keep it on its legs. In the
mean time, certain philosophers in the United
States signed their names to a paper, which
contained an account of experiments made upon
the living Vulture, in order to prove its defi-
ciency in the power of scent. One of these ex-
periments was so horribly cruel, that the mere
reading of it alone makes humanity shudder.
These western sages promised that they would
dissect the Vulture's nose ; but I cannot learn
that they have as yet commenced operations.
They are fearful, no doubt, that they would
discover in the beautifully developed parts of
that bird's organ of scent, proof quite sufficient
to show to them the inutility of their former

A 3

Should it be remarked that I have commented
somewhat severely on certain parts of the Bio-
graphy of Birds, I answer, that I should only
have taken as much notice of that work as
would have been necessary to prove that the new
theory could not be depended upon, had not the
partisans of the author given me ample cause
of provocation. Had they continued under
arms, it was my intention to review the whole
of the Biography of Birds, together with the
author's " Introductory Address."

The controversial papers which have appeared
on different subjects in Mr. London's Magazine
are not included in these Essays. Had mine
been introduced, those of my opponents must
equally have been admitted, for the sake of

These Essays chiefly treat on the habits of
birds. I cannot help observing, that too many
of our histories of birds are both defective and
erroneous. We can never expect to have a
complete history of birds, until he, who under-
takes the task of writing it, shall have studied
his subject with unceasing attention in the field


of Nature. When this shall have been done,
then there will be no more mention made of
owls erecting the feathery tufts on their heads
in the moment of surprise ; nor of young birds
(no matter of what species) being able to fly at
six days old. Numberless glaring faults will
then be corrected, and the naturalist will expe-
rience real pleasure when he opens books which
treat of ornithology.

I have carefully omitted the harsh names
which have been given to our British birds : let
those make use of them who attach importance
to them ; I can make nothing of them.

Some of our birds, quadrupeds, and insects,
have hitherto been described as particularly in-
jurious to the interests of agriculture; others, as
insatiate destroyers of fowls destined for our fes-
tive board ; whilst others, again, are considered
by the lower orders as agents, somehow or other
connected with witches, or with wisemen, as they
are called in Yorkshire, who know of things
lost, and of deeds done in the dark, and of
places where pretty milkmaids may find deserv-
ing swains, ready and willing to become their
A 4-

lawful husbands, as soon as the bans shall have
been duly published ia the parish church. Thus
they tell you, that rooks destroy young turnips ;
that carrion crows are always stealing eggs; and
that hedgehogs suck the cows. The landlady
" of a little inn in the village" knew that poor
Lefevre would not get better, for she had
" heard the death-watch all night long." In
fine, every body knows that there is to be an
immediate wedding in the neighbourhood, when
he sees three magpies all together.

One of my objects in writing for Mr. Lou-
don's Magazine has been to try to do away the
many accusations which ignorance and prejudice
have brought forward to injure the character
of our feathered tribes ; and I would fain hope
to obtain mercy for my favourites at the hands
of those who have hitherto ordered them to be
destroyed. The task has by no means been
difficult, for I possess the very best opportuni-
ties of observing the birds whose habits I have

I have only now to add, that Mr. Loudon, at
his own expense, has ventured to collect and

publish these Essays in their present form. I
wish I had it in my power to present to his
notice some production that would be more
worthy of his indefatigable zeal in the cause of
science. That he may receive ample patronage
from a liberal public, and a remunerating com-
pensation for the trouble which he has been put
to, is the ardent wish of his sincere friend,


Walton Hall, Dec. 2. 1837.



Some Account of the Writer of the following Essays,
by himself - - xiii

Remarks on Professor Rennie's Edition of Montagu's

Ornithological Dictionary - 1
The Habits of the Barn Owl, and the Benefits it confers

on Man - 7

On the Faculty of Scent in the Vulture - 17

The Means by which the Turkey Buzzard traces its Food 29

The Vulture's Nose - 44
Remarks on the Nudity on the Forehead and at the Base

of the Bill of the Rook - - 48

On the supposed Pouch under the Bill of the Rook - 54
On Birds using Oil from Glands, " for the Purpose of

lubricating the Surface of their Plumage" - 60
On the Preservation of Egg- Shells for Cabinets of Na-
tural History - - 65
Mode of blowing Eggs - 68
The Green Humming-Bird - 69
The Vampire - 70
On preserving Insects selected for Cabinets - -72
The Starling - - - 79
Preserving the Colour of the Legs and Bills of stuffed

Birds - - - 85

The Habits of the Carrion Crow - 86

Habits of the Pheasant - - - - 97

Habits of the Jackdaw - - 108

Defence against Animals of the Feline and Canine Tribes 1 12

Aerial Encounter of the Eagle and the Vulture - 122

The Humming-Bird - - 125

The Virginian Partridge - - - - 128

On the Habits of the Rook - - 130

The Passenger Pigeon - - 141

A Description of the Habits of the Ringdove - 145


Notes of a Visit to the Haunts of the Guillemot, and

Facts on its Habits - 1 53
Notes of a Visit to the Haunts of the Cormorant, and

Facts on its Habits - - 160

Notes on the Habits of the Kingfisher - 166

Notes on the Habits of the Tawny Owl - 172

Notes on the Habits of the Wigeon - - 178

Notes on the Habits of the Heron - - - 183

The Dipper - - 190
On the Habits of the Water Ouzel, with a few Remarks

on the Oil Glands in Birds - - - 193

Notes on the Habits of the Mallards - . - 196
On Snakes, their Fangs, and their Mode of procuring

Food - - 203
Notes on the History and Habits of the Brown, or

Grey, Rat - - 210
Remarks on Trees, with reference to their being per-
forated by the Titmouse and the Woodpecker - 219
Notes on the Habits of the Jay - - 226
Notes on the Habits of the Magpie ... 232
Notes on the Habits of the Chegoe of Guiana, better

known by the Name of Jigger ; and Instances of its

Effects on Man and Dogs - - 239

Notes on the Habits of the Dovecot Pigeon - 244
Notes on the Habits of the Stormcock, or Mistletoe

Thrush - - 251

Notes on the Habits of the Windhover Hawk - 25',

The Rumpless Fowl - - 262

The Raven - -._. 267

Apple Trees - - 275

The Chaffinch - - . ,. . _ 277

The Phaeton, or Tropic Bird - ' ' * - 284

The Weasel - -_. 292

The Ass Wouralia - - . . - 304
A short Remark or two on what is commonly called

Dry Rot - ... S0 6

Hints to Ornithologists . 309

On Museums - .... 319





I THINK I have seen in a book, but I forget which
just now, that, when we read a work, we generally
have a wish to see the author's portrait, or, at least,
to know something of him.

Under this impression, I conceive that a short
account of myself will not be wholly uninteresting
to the reader ; who, it is to be hoped, will acquit
me of egotism, as I declare, in all truth, that I write
these Memoirs with no other object in view, than
that of amusing him.

I was born at Walton Hall, near Wakefield, in
the county of York, some five and fifty years ago ;
this tells me that I am no chicken ; but, were I
asked how I feel with regard to the approaches of
old age, I should quote Dryden's translation of the
description which the Roman poet has given us of
Charon :

" He seem'd in years, yet in his years were seen
A vernal vigour and autumnal green."

In fact, I feel as though I were not more than
thirty years old. I am quite free from all rheu-
matic pains ; and am so supple in the joints, that I
can climb a tree with the utmost facility. I stand


six feet high, all but half an inch. On looking at
myself in the glass, I can see at once that ray face
is any think but comely : continual exposure to the
sun, and to the rains of the tropics, has furrowed it
in places, and given it a tint, which neither Row-
land's Kalydor, nor all the cosmetics on Belinda's
toilette, would ever be able to remove. My hair,
which I wear very short, was once of a shade
betwixt brown and black : it h?s now the appear-
ance as though it had passed the night exposed to a
November hoarfrost. I cannot boast of any great
strength of arm ; but my legs, probably by much
walking, and by frequently ascending trees, have
acquired vast muscular power : so that, on taking a
view of me from top to toe, you would say that the
upper part of Tithonus has been placed upon the
lower part of Ajax. Or to speak zoologically, were
I exhibited for show at a horse fair, some learned
jockey would exclaim, he is half Rosinante, half

I have preferred to give this short description of
myself by the pen, rather than to have a drawing
taken by the pencil, as I have a great repugnance
to sit to an artist ; although I once did sit to the
late Mr. Peale of Philadelphia, and he kept my
portrait for his museum. Moreover, by giving
this description of myself, it will prevent all chance
in future, of the nondescript's* portrait in the
Wanderings being taken for my own.

* A late worthy baronet in the North Riding of Yorkshire, having
taken up the Wanderings, and examined the representation of the nonde-
script with minute attention, "Dear me!" said he, as he showed the
engraving to his surrounding company, " what a very extraordinary look-
ing man Mr. Watertou must be ! "


The poet tells us, that the good qualities of man
and of cattle descend to their offspring. " Fortes
creantur fortibus et bonis." If this holds good, I
ought to be pretty well off", as far as breeding goes ;
for, on the father's side, I come in a direct line from
Sir Thomas More, through my grandmother ; whilst
by the mother's side I am akin to the Bedingfelds
of Oxburgh, to the Charltons of Hazleside, and to
the Swinburnes of Capheaton.

My family has been at Walton Hall for some
centuries. It emigrated into Yorkshire, from Wa-
terton in the island of Axeholme in Lincolnshire,
where it had been for a very long time. Indeed, I
dare say I could trace it up to Father Adam, if my
progenitors had only been as careful in preserving
family records, as the Arabs are in recording the
pedigree of their horses ; for I do most firmly
believe that we are all descended from Adam and
his wife Eve, notwithstanding what certain self-
sufficient philosophers may have advanced to the
contrary. Old Matt Prior had probably an oppor-
tunity of laying his hands on family papers of the
same purport as those which I have not been able
to find ; for he positively informs us that Adam and
Eve were his ancestors :

" Gentlemen, here, by your leave,

Lie the bones of Mathew Prior,
A son of Adam and of Eve :

Can Bourbon or Nassau go higher?"
Depend upon it, the man under Afric's burning
zone, and he from the frozen regions of the north,
have both come from the same stem. Their differ-


ence in colour and in feature may be traced to this ;
viz. that the first has had too much, and the
second too little, sun.

In remote times, some of my ancestors were suf-
ficiently notorious to have had their names handed
down to posterity. They fought at Cressy, and
at Agincourt, and at Marston Moor. Sir Robert
Waterton was Governor of Pontefract Castle, and
had charge of King Richard II. Sir Hugh Water-
ton was executor to his Sovereign's will, and guar-
dian to his daughters. Another ancestor was sent
into France by the king, with orders to contract a
royal marriage. He was allowed thirteen shillings
a day for his trouble and travelling expenses. An-
other was Lord Chancellor of England, and preferred
to lose his head rather than sacrifice his conscience.
Another was master of the horse, and was deprived
both of his commission and his estate, on the same
account as the former. His descendants seemed
determined to perpetuate their claim to the soil ;
for they sent a bailiff once in every seven years to
dig up a sod on the territory. I was the first to
discontinue this septennial act, seeing law and length
of time against us.

Up to the reign of Henry VIII., things had gone
on swimmingly for the Watertons ; and it does not
appear that any of them had ever been in disgrace.
" Neque in his quisquam damnatus et exsul."

But, during the sway of that ferocius brute, there
was a sad reverse of fortune :

" Ex illo fluere, ac retro sublapsa referri,


" From thence the tide of fortune left their shore,
And ebb'd much faster than it flow'd before."

The cause of our disasters was briefly this : The
king fell scandalously in love with a buxom lass,
and he wished to make her his lawful wife, notwith-
standing that his most virtuous queen was still alive.
Having applied to the head of the Church for a di-
vorce, his request was not complied with ; although
Martin Luther, the apostate friar and creed-reformer,
had allowed the Margrave of Hesse to have two
wives at one and the same time. Upon this refusal,
our royal goat became exceedingly mischievous :
" Audax omnia perpeti ruit per vetitum nefas."
Having caused himself to be made head of the
church, he suppressed all the monasteries, and
squandered their revenues amongst gamesters, har-
lots, mountebanks, and apostates. The poor, by his
villanies, were reduced to great misery, and they
took to evil ways in order to keep body and soul
together. During this merciless reign, seventy-two
thousand of them were hanged for thieving.

In good* Queen Mary's days there was a short
tide of flood in our favour ; and Thomas Water-
ton of Walton Hall was High Sheriff of York.
This was the last public commission held by our

The succeeding reigns brought every species of
reproach and indignity upon us. We were declared
totally incapable of serving our country ; we were
held up to the scorn of a deluded multitude, as

* Camden, the Protestant historian, says that Queen Mary was a prin-
cess never sufficiently to be commended of all men for pious and religious
demeanour, her commiseration towards the poor, &c.


damnable idolaters ; and we were unceremoniously
ousted out of our tenements : our only crime being
a conscientious adherence to the creed of our an-
cestors, professed by England for nine long centuries
before the Reformation. So determined were the
new religionists that we should grope our way to
heaven along the crooked and gloomy path which
they had laid out for us, that they made us pay
twenty pounds a month, by way of penalty, for
refusing to hear a married parson read prayers in
the church of Sandal Magna ; which venerable
edifice had been stripped of its altar, its crucifix, its
chalice, its tabernacle, and all its holy ornaments,
not for the lore of God, but for the private use and
benefit of those who had laid their sacrilegious hands
upon them. My ancestors acted wisely. I myself
(as I have already told the public, in a printed let-
ter,) would rather run the risk of going to hell with
St. Edward the Confessor, Venerable Bede, and
St. Thomas of Canterbury, than make a dash at
heaven in company with Harry VIII., Queen Bess,
and Dutch William.

Oliver Cromwell broke down our drawbridge;
some of his musket balls remaining in one of the old
oaken gates, which are in good repair to this day.
Not being able to get in, he carried off every thing
in the shape of horses and cattle that his men could
lay their hands on.

Dutch William enacted doubly severe penal laws
against us : during the reign of that sordid foreigner,
some little relaxation was at last made in favour of
dissenters; but it was particularly specified, that


nothing contained in the act should be construed
" to give ease to any papist or popish recusant."

My grandfather had the honour of being sent
prisoner to York, a short time before the battle of
Culloden, on account of his well-known attachment
to the hereditary rights of kings, in the person of
poor Charley Stuart, who was declared a pretender !
On my grandfather's release, he found that his
horses had been sent to Wakefield, there to be kept
at his own expense. But the magistrates very gra-
ciously allowed him to purchase a horse for his own
riding, provided the price of it was under five pounds.

My own father paid double taxes for some years
after he came to the estate.

Times are better for us now : but I, individually,
am not much better for the change ; for I will never
take Sir Robert Peel's oath. In framing that abo-
minable oath, I don't believe that Sir Robert
cared one fig's end whether the soul of a Catholic
went up, after death, to the King of Brightness,
or descended to the king of brimstone : his only
aim seems to have been to secure to the church by
law established, the full possession of the loaves
and fishes. But, as I have a vehement inclination
to make a grab at those loaves and fishes, in order
to distribute a large proportion of them to the poor
of Great Britain, who have an undoubted claim to
it, I do not intend to have my hands tied behind
me : hence my positive refusal to swallow Sir Robert
Peel's * oath. Still, take it or refuse it, the new

* " I do hereby disclaim, disavow, and solemnly abjure any intention
to subvert the present Church Establishment within this realm," &c. (Se
Sir Robert Peel's oath.)


dynasty may always make sure of my loyalty, even
if any of our old line of kings were still in exist-
ence ; for

The illustrious house of Hanover,

And Protestant succession,
To these I have allegiance sworn,
While they can ke*p possession."

But to my life and adventures.

When I was not quite eight years old, I had
managed to climb upon the roof of an out-house,
and had got to a starling's nest under one of the
slates. Had my foot slipped, I should have been
in as bad a plight as was poor Ophelia in the willow
tree, when the " envious sliver broke." The ancient
housekeeper, mentioned in the account of the barn-
owl, had cast her rambling eye upon me. Seeing
the danger I was in, she went and fetched a piece
of gingerbread, with which she lured me down, and
then she seized me, as though I had been a male-

At nine years old, I was sent to a school in the
north of England, where literature had scarcely
any effect upon me, although it was duly adminis-
tered in large doses by a very scientific hand. But
I made vast proficiency in the art of finding birds'
nests. It was judged necessary by the master of
the school to repress this inordinate relish for ornitho-
logical architecture, which, in his estimation, could
be productive of no good. Accordingly, the birch
rod was brought to bear upon me when occasion
offered ; but the warm application of it, in lieu of


effacing my ruling passion, did but tend to render
it more distinct and clear. Thus are bright colours
in crockery-ware made permanent by the action of
fire ; thus is dough turned into crust by submitting
it to the oven's heat.

My first adventure on the water made a lasting
impression, on account of the catastrophe which at-
tended it. There was a large horsepond, separated
by a hedge from the field which was allotted to the
scholars for recreation-ground. An oblong tub, used
for holding dough before it is baked, had just been
placed by the side of the pond. I thought that I could
like to have an excurion on the deep ; so taking a
couple of stakes out of the hedge, to serve as oars,
I got into the tub, and pushed off;

" Ripae ulterioris amore."

I had got above half way over, when, behold, the
master, and the late Sir John Lawson of Brough
Hall, suddenly rounded a corner and hove in sight.
Terrified at their appearance, I first lost a stake, and
then my balance : this caused the tub to roll like a
man-of-war in a calm. Down I went to the bottom,
and rose again covered with mud and dirt. " Terri-
bili squalore Charon." My good old master looked
grave, and I read my destiny in his countenance :
but Sir John said that it was a brave adventure, and
he saved me from being brought to a court-martial
for disobedience of orders, and for having lost my

On my return home from this school, I was once
within an ace of closing all accounts here below for


ever. About one o'clock in the morning, Monsieur
Raquedel, the family chaplain, thought that he heard
an unusual noise in the apartment next to his bed-
room. He arose, and on opening the door of the
chamber whence the noise had proceeded, he saw me
in the act of lifting up- the sash ; and he was just in
time to save me from going out at a window three
stories high. I was fast asleep ; and, as soon as he
caught hold of me, I gave a loud shriek. I thought
I was on my way to a neighbouring wood, in which
I knew of a crow's nest.

I was now'shortly to be conducted to a place where
at intervals I could attend to birds, without much
risk of neglecting books.

The armies of the French republic having revo-
lutionised some of the finest parts of Europe, and
scourged the inhabitants ; it was no longer safe for
the Fathers of the Society of Jesus to remain in the

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 1 of 28)