Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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vent the thin white membrane (which is still inside)
from corrupting.

Take a wine glass, and fill it with the solution of
corrosive sublimate in alcohol. Then immerse the
sharp end of the egg-shell into it, keeping your
finger and thumb, as you hold it, just clear of the
solution. Apply your mouth to the little hole at the
blunt end, and suck up some of the solution into the


shell. You need not be fearful of getting the liquor
into your mouth ; for, as soon as it rises in the shell,
the cold will strike your finger and thumb, and then
you cease sucking. Shake the shell just as you did
when the water was in it, and then blow the solu-
tion back into the glass. Your egg-shell is now
beyond the reach of corruption; the membrane
retains for ever its pristine whiteness ; and no insect,
for the time to come, will ever venture to prey upon
it. If you wish your egg to appear extremely bril-
liant, give it a coat of mastic varnish, put on very
sparingly with a camel-hair pencil. Green or blue
eggs must be done with gum arabic, because the
mastic varnish is apt to injure the colour.

This is all. How dull I have been, not to have
found out this simple process long ago ! I have
used the solution to preserve skins, furs, and fea-
thers from putrefaction and the moth, for nearly
twenty yeai's; still the idea never struck me, till
three weeks ago, that it could be so serviceable in
preventing all tendency to putrefaction in the mem-
brane of the shell which had given me so much
trouble, and caused so many useless experiments.
I trust that the kind-hearted naturalist will not turn
this little process of preparing eggs into affliction to
poor birds. One egg out of each nest (with a few
exceptions) will not be missed by the owner ; but
to take them all away would be hard indeed. Such
an act would make the parent bird as sad and sor-
rowful as Niobe. You know Niobe's story : Apollo
slew her every child.

My friend George Walker, of Killingbeck Lodge,



thinks that copal varnish is better than mastic
varnish for eggs.

I have made an improvement in blowing larger
kinds of eggs. I find that one hole is sufficient. When
that hole is made, introduce a straight wire, with a
little piece of dry cotton or thread tied round the
end introduced. Then, holding the egg with the
hole downwards, you use the wire, which acts as a
piston, and forces a sufficient quantity of the con-
tents of the egg out, to enable you to get out the
rest by sudden jerks. This is a much longer process
than blowing ; but you have the advantage of hav-
ing only one hole in your egg, instead of two.


WHEN I was at Bridlington last year, in order to
acquire some certain knowledge of the water-fowl
and their incubation, I made a discovery in the
blowing of eggs which I think will please you, and
Avhich can be applied with great facility to eggs not
smaller than those of the thrush. I made one small
hole in the side of the egg, and then sucked out
a little of the contents to create a vacuum, or dis-
charge that little by means of a small stick ; then,
taking the egg in my hand, I plunged my hand in
the water to the wrist, and by shaking the egg while
it was immersed in the water, I very soon emptied
it of its yolk and white. I have shown this process
to many people, and they approve of it highly.



" Rursus in anna feror." VIRG. JEneid.

PROFESSOR RENNIE says, in his "Plan of Study,"
that " in tropical climates, where the heat is great,
such domed nests are very common ; and are pro-
bably intended to protect the mother bird, while
hatching, from the intense heat of a perpendicular
sun." How well this theory suits the study ! how
ill it accords with facts in the field of nature ! Should
the Professor ever go to Guiana, he will see, in the
vast wet savannas of that far-extending region, that
the little green humming-bird, not much larger than
an humble bee, always makes its nest upon the dried
twig of a small, straggling, ill-thriving bush. There
is not one solitary leaf near the dry twig, to screen
the bird from the rising, the noon-day, or the setting
sun. Nevertheless, this little delicate creature sits
on its hemispherical nest, exposed to the downward
rays of the fiery luminary, without the least appa-
rent inconvenience. If, then, the tender little green
humming-bird can sit all day long exposed to such
an intense heat, surely the larger birds, such as the
bunya or cassique, surpassing our magpie in size,
cannot be supposed to make a dome to their nests,
in order to protect their tough and hardy bodies
from the rays of a tropical sun. I think this fact of
the incubation of the green humming-bird tends to
place the Professor's theory of domed nests amongst
his " little errors."

F 3



Non mlssura cutem, nisi plena eruoris hirudo.'

This leech will suck the vein, until
From your heart's blood he gets his fill

THE vampire of India and that of South America I
consider distinct species. I have never yet seen a bat
from India with a membrane rising perpendicularly
from the end of its nose ; nor have I ever been able to
learn that bats in India suck animals, though I have
questioned many people on this subject. I could
only find two species of bats in Guiana with a mem-
brane rising from the nose. Both these kinds suck
animals and eat fruit ; while those bats without a
membrane on the nose seem to live entirely upon
fruit and insects, but chiefly insects. A gentleman,
by name Walcott, from Barbadoes, lived high up the
river Demerara. While I was passing a day or two
at his house the vampires sucked his son (a boy of
about ten or eleven yearls old), some of his fowls, and
his jackass. The youth showed me his forehead at
daybreak : the wound was still bleeding apace, and
I examined it with minute attention. The poor ass
was doomed to be a prey to these sanguinary imps
of night , he looked like misery steeped in vinegar.
I saw, by the numerous sores on his body, and by
his apparent debility, that he would soon sink under
his afflictions. Mr. Walcott told me that it was with
the greatest difficulty he could keep a few fowls,


on account of the smaller vampire ; and that the
larger kind were killing his poor ass by inches. It
was the only quadruped he had brought up with him
into the forest.

Although I was so long in Dutch Guiana, and
visited the Orinoco and Cayenne, and ranged through
part of the interior of Portuguese Guiana, still I
could never find out, how the vampires actually draw
the blood ; and, at this day, I am as ignorant of the
real process as though I had never been in the vam-
pire's country. I should not feel so mortified at my
total failure in attempting the discovery, had I not
made such diligent search after the vampire, and
examined its haunts. Europeans may consider as
fabulous the stories related of the vampire ; but, for
my own part, I must believe in its powers of sucking
blood from living animals, as I have repeatedly seen
both men and beasts which had been sucked, and,
moreover, I have examined very minutely their
bleeding wounds.

Wishful of having it in my power to say that I had
been sucked by the vampire, and not caring for the
loss of ten or twelve ounces of blood, I frequently
and designedly put myself in the way of trial. But
the vampire seemed to take a personal dislike to
me; and the provoking brute would refuse to give
my claret one solitary trial, though he would tap the
more favoured Indian's toe, in a hammock within a
few yards of mine. For the space of eleven months,
I slept alone in the loft of a woodcutter's abandoned
house in the forest ; and though the vampire came
in and out every night, and I had the finest oppor-
v 4


tunity of seeing him, as the moon shone through
apertures where windows had once been, I never
could be certain that I saw him make a positive
attempt to quench his thirst from my veins, though
he often hovered over the hammock.


I ONLY know of two methods to guard prepared
insects from the depredations of living ones. The
first is, by poisoning the atmosphere ; the second is,
by poisoning the preserved specimens themselves,
so effectually, that they are no longer food for the
depredator. But there are some objections to both
these modes. A poisoned atmosphere will evaporate
in time, if not attended to, or if neglected to be
renewed ; and there is great difficulty in poisoning
some specimens, on account of their delicacy and
minuteness. If you keep spirits of turpentine in the
boxes which contain your preserved specimens, I am
of opinion that those specimens will be safe as long
as the odour of turpentine remains in the box ; for
it is said to be the most pernicious of all scents to
insects. But it requires attention to keep up an
atmosphere of spirit of turpentine. If it be allowed
to evaporate entirely, then there is a clear and un-
disputed path open to the inroads of the enemy : he
will take advantage of your absence or neglect; and
when you return to view your treasure you will find


it in ruins. Spirits of turpentine, poured into a
common glass inkstand in which there is a piece of
sponge, and placed in a corner of your box, will
create a poisoned atmosphere, and kill every insect
there. The poisoning of your specimens by means
of corrosive sublimate in alcohol is a most effectual
method. As soon as the operation is properly per-
formed, the depredating insect perceives that the
prepared specimen is no longer food for it, and will
for ever cease to attack it. But, then, every part
must have received the poison ; otherwise those parts
where the poison has not reached will still be ex-
posed to the enemy ; and he will pass unhurt over
the poisoned parts, till he arrive at that part of your
specimen which is still wholesome food for him.
Now, the difficulty lies in applying the solution to
very minute specimens, without injuring their ap-
pearance ; and all that can be said is, to recommend
unwearied exertion, which is sure to be attended
with great skill ; and great skill will insure surprising
success. I myself have attended to the preservation
of insects with the assiduity which Horace recom-
mends to poets : " Nocturna versate manu, versate
diurna." The result has been astonishing success,
and a perfect conviction that there is no absolute
and lasting safety for prepared specimens in zoology,
from the depredations of insects, except by poisoning
every part of them with a solution of corrosive sub-
limate in alcohol. I put a good large teaspoonful of
well pounded corrosive sublimate into a wine bottle
full of alcohol. I let it stand over night, and the
next morning draw it off into a clean bottle. When


I apply it to black substances, and perceive that it
leaves little white particles on them, I then make it
weaker by adding alcohol. A black feather, dipped
into the solution, and then dried, will be a very good
test of the state of the solution. If it be too strong,
it will leave a whiteness upon the feather.

A preparation of arsenic is frequently used ; but
it is very dangerous, and sometimes attended with
lamentable consequences. I knew a naturalist, by
name Howe, in Cayenne, in French Guiana, who
had lost sixteen of his teeth. He kept them in a
box, and showed them to me. On opening the lid
" These fine teeth," said he, " once belonged to
my jaws : they all dropped out by my making use
of the savon arsenetique for preserving the skins of
animals." I take this opportunity of remarking that
it is my firm conviction, that the arsenetical soap can
never be used with any success, if you wish to re-
store the true form and figure to a skin.

I fear that your correspondent may make use of
tight boxes and aromatic atmospheres, and still, in
the end, not be completely successful in preserving
his specimens from the depredation of insects. The
tight box and aromatic atmosphere will certainly do
a great deal for him ; but they are liable to fail, for
this obvious reason, viz. that they do not render, for
ever, absolutely baneful and abhorrent to the depre-
dator, that which in itself is nutritious and grateful
to him. In an evil hour, through neglect in keeping
up a poisoned atmosphere, the specimens collected
by your correspondent's industry, and prepared by
his art, and which ought to live, as it were, for the


admiration of future ages, may fall a prey to an in-
truding and almost invisible enemy ; so that, unless
he apply the solution of corrosive sublimate in alco-
hol, he is never perfectly safe from a surprise. I
have tried a decoction of aloes, wormwood, and wal-
nut leaves, thinking they would be of service, on
account of their bitterness: the trial completely
failed. Wherefore, in conclusion, I venture to re-
commend the preserver of insects not to put much
trust in simples.

" Contra vim mortis, non est medicamen in hortis."
Against the deadly moth, can I,
From herbs, no remedy supply.

It having been stated that the solution I have
recommended above, "cannot be applied to the
outside of most insects (especially Libellulae), with-
out, in course of time, injuring their colours," I
request attention to the few following observ-
ations: There are two grand distinctions to be
made in the colours of insects. Those colours
which originate from without, as in the moths and
butterflies, remain unimpaired in pristine splendour
after death, until they are destroyed by force or by
accident. On the other hand, those colours which
have their source from within, and proceed from
moist substances, gradually fade after the death of
the insect ; and, in some cases, even totally disap-
pear, when the substances from which they drew
their origin have become dry and hard. By long
experience, I know that the colours of insects which
are produced internally, as in the red dragon fly of


Guiana, cannot be made permanent, by any process
after the death of the insect ; but those colours can
be renewed with great and durable effect. Suppose
your correspondent were to take an English dragon
fly (which I must inform him I have never dis-
sected), and sever the head from the thorax, the
thorax from the abdomen, and then subdivide the
abdomen at every third ring : this would enable him
to clear away all the moist internal parts, from
whence the colours draw their source. A nearly
transparent shell would remain ; and he would only
have to introduce into it colours similar to those
which the insect exhibited in life, after having
washed it well with the solution. The joining again
of the dissected parts would complete the process.
All this appears difficult : still it may be effected.
I have read somewhere of a Frenchman who could
harness a flea: I, myself, have dissected the Cay-
enne grasshopper, and renewed its colours with great
success. In 1808, after dissecting the bill of the
toucan, I completely succeeded in renewing the
blue, which had been removed by the knife ; and I
believe the specimen which I produced was the
first ever exhibited in its renewed colours since the
discovery of America. In the Wanderings, is a full
account of this.

With regard to using the spirit of turpentine in
preserving insects, I can only say, that I have long
and successfully made use of the spirit of turpen-
tine. In 1808, having tried many useless experi-
ments to expel living insects from dead ones, and
from other preparations in natural history, on open-


ing one day an old magazine (I forget now of what
denomination) in a planter's house in Essequibo, I
read the following remark : " Spirit of turpentine
is known to be the most fatal poison to insects."
Taking it for granted that the spirit was fatal
through an atmosphere, as I was sure no insect
would drink it voluntarily, and I did not see how it
could be forced down their throats, I put some spirit
of turpentine into a trunk of preserved skins of
birds, and into which the moth had found its way.
The next morning I saw that the spirit of turpen-
tine had killed all the moths. In the course of
time, the use of the corrosive sublimate in alcohol
succeeded to this, and rendered the spirit of turpen-
tine wholly unnecessary, wherever the sublimate
could be applied to every part of the preserved spe-
cimen. But as on some occasions I only washed
the inside of the skins, and, in this case, the fea-
thers themselves, not having received the poison,
were still liable to injury from insects, especially in
tropical climates, I always took the precaution to
have spirit of turpentine in the box. In order to
make myself clearly understood, I -will describe ex-
actly what I did. I bought common hair trunks
which are sent out with goods from Europe to South
America ; I strewed the bottom of the trunks with
cotton, upon which I placed the preserved bird-
skins, and the different insects which I had collected.
Both birds and insects were placed promiscuously
in the same trunk. I then saturated a piece of
sponge with spirit of turpentine, and hung it up in
a corner of the trunk : I renewed this spirit from


time to time. From that period to this, no living
insect has been detected in the trunks. The plum-
age of the birds is as vivid as it was at the time I
shot them ; and the moths and butterflies as splendid
as when in life ; but most of the other insects, ex-
cept some of the beetles, have faded. Thus I am
enabled to say, by actual experiment, that the at-
mosphere of spirit of turpentine will allow neither
acarus nor any insect to live in it ; and, moreover,
that it does not injure the colour of preserved birds,
and furs, and insects, provided they do not come in
contact with the spirit of turpentine.

I have used corrosive sublimate in paste for years;
I have applied the solution to my hat, and to the long
Indian arrows (which are very subject to be eaten
by the worm), with complete success ; and here, in
Europe, with equal success, I have applied it to la-
dies' ostrich feathers, to camel-hair brushes, and to
the lining of my carriage. The solution has been
the remote cause of my discovering an entirely new
method of preserving specimens in natural history ;
and which method at once shows upon what erro-
neous principles the old method has been, and is
still conducted. To conclude, the solution has
proved my best support ; without it, I could have
done nothing.

" Hoe solamen erat, sylvis hoc victor abibam."



" I CAN'T get out, I can't get out," said the star-
ling. I know not any thing, except Gay's "Hare
and many Friends," that made so much impression
on me, when a boy, as Sterne's description of the
captive starling in its cage. His attempt to relieve
the prisoner bird, its pressing its breast against
the wires, its telling every body who came down
the passage that it could not get out, its remain-
ing in hopeless captivity, all tended to make this
pretty bird particularly interesting to me ; and, in
days long past, I have spent many an hour in listen-
ing to its morning warblings, and in admiring its
aerial evolutions towards the close of day.

I wish I could do it a friendly turn, for the plea-
sure it has so often afforded me ; but, in taking up
the pen to clear its character, my heart misgives
me, on account of the strong public prejudice
against it. '

There is not a bird in all Great Britain more
harmless than the starling : still it has to suffer per-
secution, and is too often doomed to see its num-
bers thinned by the hand of wantonness or error.
The farmer complains that it sucks his pigeons'
eggs ; and, when the gunner and his assembled party
wish to try their new percussion locks, the keeper
is ordered to close the holes of entrance into the
dovecot overnight ; and the next morning three or
four dozen of starlings are captured to be shot:


while the keeper, that slave of Nimrod, receives
thanks, and often a boon, from the surrounding
sportsmen, for having freed the dovecot from such
a pest. Alas ! these poor starlings had merely re-
sorted to it for shelter and protection, and were in
no way responsible for the fragments of egg-shells
which were strewed upon the floor. These fragments
were the work of deep -designing knaves, and not of
the harmless starling.

The rat and the weasel were the real destroyers ;
but they had done the deed of mischief in the dark,
unseen and unsuspected; while the stranger starlings
were taken, condemned, and executed, for having
been found in a place built for other tenants of a
more profitable description.

After the closest examination of the form and
economy of the starling, you will be at a loss to pro-
duce any proof of its being an egg-sucker. If it
really sucks the eggs of pigeons, it would equally
suck the eggs of other birds ; and, those eggs not
being concealed in the dark recesses of the pigeon-
cot, but exposed in open nests on the ground, and
often in the leafless bushes of the hedge, this fact
would afford to the inquisitive naturalist innumer-
able opportunities of detecting the bird in its de-
predations. Now who has ever seen the starling
in the absolute act of plundering a nest ? It builds
its nest here, in company with the ringdove, the
robin, the greenfinch, the wagtail, the jackdaw, the
chaffinch, and the owl, but it never touches their
eggs. Indeed, if it were in the habit of annoying
its immediate neighbours, upon so tender a point as


that of sucking their eggs, there would soon be hue
and cry against it ; nor would the uproar cease until
the victor had driven away the vanquished. So
certain am I that the starling never sucks the eggs
of other birds, that, when I see him approach the
dovecot, I often say to him, "Go in, poor bird, and
take thy rest in peace. Not a servant of mine shall
surprise thee, or hurt a feather of thy head. Thou
dost not come for eggs, but for protection ; and this
most freely I will give to thee. I will be thy friend
in spite of all the world has said against thee ; and
here, at least, thou shalt find a place of safety for
thyself and little ones. Thy innocence and useful-
ness demand this at my hands."

The starling is gregarious ; and I am satisfied in
my own mind that the congregated masses of this
bird are only dissolved at the vernal equinox, be-
cause they have not sufficient opportunities afforded
them of places wherein to build their nests. If those
opportunites were offered them, we should see them
breeding here in multitudes as numerous as the rook.
They require a place for their nest, well protected
from the external air. The inside of the roof of
a house, a deep hole iu a tower, or in the decayed
trunk or branch of a tree, are places admirably
adapted for the incubation of the starling ; and he
will always resort to them, provided he be unmo-
lested. The same may be said of the jackdaw.

Attentive observation led me to believe that the
great bulk of starlings left our neighbourhood in tht:
spring, solely for want of proper accommodation for
their nests. For many years, only two pairs of


starlings remained on my island. One of them re-
gularly built its nest in the roof of the house, having
found entrance through a neglected aperture ; the
other reared its young, high up, in the deep hole of
an aged sycamore tree. Two or three pairs fre-
quented the dovecot ; but I observed that they built
their nests in the crannies, and not in the holes made
for the pigeons. These poor birds, together with the
owl, had to suffer persecution from wanton ignorant
servants, until I proclaimed perpetual peace in their
favour, and ordered, I may say, the Temple of Janus
to be shut, never more to be opened during my

Having been successful in establishing the owl
in the old ivy tower over the gateway, I conjec-
tured, from what I had observed of the habits of
the starling, that I could be equally successful in
persuading a greater number of these pretty lively
birds to pass the summer with me. I made twenty-
four holes in the old ruin; and in the spring of
this year I had twenty-four starlings' nests. There
seemed to be a good deal of squabbling about the
possession of the holes ; till, at last, might over-
came right. The congregated numbers suddenly

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 10 of 28)