Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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disappeared, no doubt with the intention of finding
breeding quarters elsewhere; and the remaining
four and twenty pairs hatched and reared their
young ; causing, I fear, the barn owls, their next-
door neighbours in the tower, many a sleepless day,
by their unwelcome and incessant chatterings.

On the one hand, when we consider how careful
the starling is in selecting a place for its incubation,


sheltered from the storm ; and, on the other, when
we look around us, and see how many old houses
have been pulled down, where these birds found a
refuge ; and when we reflect how modern luxury,
and the still more baneful turf, have forced many a
country squire to fell his aged oaks, his ash trees,
and his sycamores, which afforded the starling a
retreat; it will not require the eyes of Argus to
enable naturalists to discern the true cause why
such numbers of assembled starlings take their leave
of us in early spring.

This year, seven pairs of jackdaws, twenty-four
pairs of starlings, four pairs of ringdoves, the barn
owl, the blackbird, the robin, the redstart, the house
sparrow, and chaffinch, have had their nests in
the old ivy tower. The barn owl has had two
broods ; and, while I am writing this, there are half-
fledged young ones in the nest. As far as I can
learn, there has been no plundering of the eggs of
this community, on the part of the starlings.

Now that autumn has set in, the movements of
this delightful assemblage of birds already warn us
to prepare for winter's chilling blasts. The redstart
is gone to Africa : the chaffinch has retired to the
hawthorn hedges: the ringdoves, having lost half
of their notes by the first week in October, became
mute about ten days ago ; and have left the ivy
tower, to join their congregated associates, which
now chiefly feed in the turnip fields ; and will re-
turn no more to the ivy tower until the middle of
February. The jackdaws are here, morning and
evening, and often at noon ; and at nightfall they


never fail to join the passing flocks of rooks in their
evening flight to their eastern roosting-place at Nos-
tell Priory, and return with them after daybreak.
The starlings retire to a dense plantation of spruce
fir and beech trees, and in the morning come to the
ivy tower to warble their wild notes, even when the
frosts set in. These birds are now in their winter
garb, which they assumed at the autumnal equinox,
much duller, and of a more greyish white appearance,
than that which they had in the summer. I cannot
find that naturalists have noticed this change.

The starling seems to be well aware of the peace-
ful and inoffensive manners of the windhover. This
hawk rears its young in a crow's old nest, within
two hundred yards of the ivy tower. Still, the
starlings betray no fears when the windhover passes
to and fro ; but they become terribly agitated on
the approach of the sparrowhawk. I often see this
bold destroyer glide in lowly flight across the lake,
and strike a starling and carry it off, amid the shrieks
and uproar of the inhabitants of the tower and sy-
camore trees.

The starling shall always have a friend in me. I
admire it for its fine shape and lovely plumage ; I
protect it for its wild and varied song ; and I defend
it for its innocence.



I CONSIDER it impossible to preserve the colours
unimpaired in the legs of stuffed birds. I have
seen the lake-coloured leg of the beautiful yawar-
raciri of Guiana lose every particle of the red ;
and I have found that no external application can
preserve the fine colours in the legs of the scarlet
curlew, the trumpeter, the water-hen of Guiana,
and many other birds too numerous to mention.

Under the outward scale of the leg, in the living
bird, are substances from which the leg derives its
colour. They fade in time after the death of the
bird, and then the whole complexion of the leg is
changed. Perhaps you might partially succeed in
renewing the faded colours of the leg, by means of
paint mixed up with water : at best it is a bad busi-
ness. The legs of birds stuffed on the old system
are so shrunk and hideous to the eye, that, in my
opinion, their colour is a mere secondary consider-
ation. In the bills of birds, the colours are either
produced from internal substances, as in the base
of the lower mandible of the toucan ; or inherent
in the horn or bone itself, as in the cassique. In
either case, dissection is absolutely necessary, if
you wish to have the beauty of the bill retained or

G 3



" Inter aves albas, vetuit consistere corvum." OVID. Met.

The crow was ordered not to hold a place
Mid whiter favourites of the feather'd race.

Tins warrior bird is always held up to public exe-
cration. The very word carrion, attached to his
name, carries something disgusting with it; and
no one ever shows him any kindness. Though he
certainly has his vices, still he has his virtues too ;
and it would be a pity if the general odium in which
he is held should be the means, one day or other,
of blotting out his name from the page of our British
ornithology. With great propriety he might be
styled the lesser raven in our catalogue of native
birds ; for, to all appearance, he is a raven ; and I
should wish to see his name changed, were I not
devoutly attached to the nomenclature established
by the wisdom of our ancestors.

The carrion crow is a very early riser ; and, long
before the rook is on the wing, you hear this bird
announcing the approach of morn, with his loud
hollow croaking, from the oak to which he had re-
sorted the night before. He retires to rest later
than the rook : indeed, as far as I have been able to
observe his motions, I consider him the first bird on
wing in the morning, and the last at night, of all
our non-migrating diurnal British birds.

When the genial voice of spring calls upon him
to prepare for the continuation of his species, the
carrion crow, which, up to this period, has been


wary, shy, and cautious, now, all of a sudden, seems
to lose these qualities ; and, regardless of personal
danger, sometimes makes his nest within a hundred
yards of the habitation of man, upon a tree, at once
the most conspicuous and exposed. To us, who
know so little of the economy of birds, this seems a
strange phenomenon ; nor can any penetration of
which we may be possessed enable us to comprehend
the true meaning of this change from timidity to
boldness, from distance to proximity, from wariness
to heedlessness, in so many different species of birds.
One would suppose that they would be more shy
and distant at this interesting period ; and, in imi-
tation of the cat, the rabbit, and the fox, conceal as
much as possible the place of their retirement. The
rook will sometimes build a poor and slovenly nest,
but this is never the case with the carrion crow ;
this bird invariably makes its nest firm and compact.
A writer, who signs himself A. B. C., in the Maga-
zine of Natural History (vol. v. p. 590.), tells us
that "some of the nests have such deep beds of
wool, moss, and cows' hair, that the eggs seemed
quite lost ; and might have given the professor
his erroneous idea of their being covered with
those substances to keep them warm." O, fie I
How is it possible that the eggs should seem quite
lost, when the lining on which they lie is so per-
fectly smooth that they appear as though they were
in a basin. Not a single particle of the lining of the
nest is ever seen betwixt the eggs and the eye of
him who has ascended the tree to take a view of
them. I challenge any naturalist to bring proof
G 4


positive which can invalidate this assertion. Verily
when the professor climbs up to crows' nests this
ensuing spring, he will agree with Ovid, that "Causa
patrocinio, non bona, pejor erit."

The carrion crow never covers its eggs on leaving
the nest : they are generally from three to five, and
sometimes even six, in number ; wonderfully irre-
gular in size and shape and colour. This irregularity
is so very apparent, that on examining the nests of
some carrion crows with eggs in them, you might
fancy to yourself that the rook had been there, to
add one of hers to those already laid by the ori-
ginal owner.

This bird never builds its nest in hedges, but will
construct it in any of our forest trees ; and, with
me, it seems to give the preference, in general, to
the oak, the spruce fir, and the Scotch pine. The
young are hatched naked and blind, and remain
blind for some days.

Our ancestors, no doubt, bestowed the epithet
" carrion" upon this bird, in order to make a clear
and decided distinction between it (whose flesh, they
probably supposed, was rank and bad) and the rook,
the flesh of which was well known to be good and
wholesome food. Perhaps, too, in those days of
plenty, and of less trade, the carrion crow had more
opportunities of tasting flesh than it has in these
our enviable times of divers kinds of improvement.
Were a carrion crow of the present day to depend
upon the finding of a dead cow or horse for its dinner,
it would soon become an adept in the art of fasting
by actual experiment ; for, no sooner is one of these
animals, in our neighbourhood, struck by the hand


of death, than its hide is sent to the tan-pit, and its re-
mains are either made into soup for the hunt, or care-
fully buried in the dunghill, to increase the farmer's
tillage. The poor crow, in the mean time, despised
and persecuted for having an inclination to feed upon
that of which, by the by, the occupier of the soil
takes good care that he shall scarcely have a transient
view, is obliged to look out for other kinds of food.
Hence you see it regularly examining the meadows,
the pastures, and the corn-fields, with an assiduity
not even surpassed by that of the rook itself.

We labour under a mistake in supposing that 'the
flesh of the young carrion crow is rank and unpa-
latable. It is fully as good as that of the rook ; and
I believe that nobody who is accustomed to eat
rook-pie will deny that rook-pie is nearly, if not
quite, as good as pigeon-pie. Having fully satisfied
myself of the delicacy of the flesh of young carrion
crows, I once caused a pie of these birds to be served
up to two convalescent friends whose stomachs would
have yearned spasmodically had they known the
nature of the dish. I had the satisfaction of seeing
them make a hearty meal upon what they considered

The carrion crow will feed voraciously on ripe
cherries ; and, in the autumn, he will be seen in the
walnut trees, carrying off, from time to time, a few
of the nuts. With the exception of these two petty
acts of depredation, he does very little injury to man
during nine or ten months of the year ; and if, in
this period, he is to be called over the coals for
occasionally throttling an unprotected leveret or a
stray partridge, he may fairly meet the accusation


by a set-off against it in his account of millions of
noxious insects destroyed by him. However, in the
spring of the year, when he has a nest full of young
to provide for, and when those young begin to give
him broad hints that their stomachs would like some-
thing of a more solid and substantial nature than
mere worms and caterpillars, his attention to game
and poultry is enough to alarm the stoutest-hearted
squire and henwife. These personages have long
sworn an eternal enmity to him ; and he now, in his
turn, visits, to their sorrow, the rising hopes of the
manor with ominous aspect; and he assaults the
broods of the duck-pond, in revenge, as it were, for
the many attempts which both squire and henwife
have made to rob and strangle him.

In 1815, I fully satisfied myself of his inordinate
partiality for young aquatic poultry. The cook had
in her custody a brood of ten ducklings, which had
been hatched about a fortnight. Unobserved by any
body, I put the old duck and her young ones in a
pond, nearly three hundred yards from a high fir
tree in which a carrion crow had built its nest : it
contained five young ones almost fledged. I took
my station on the bridge, about one hundred yards
from the tree. Nine times the parent crows flew to
the pond, and brought back a duckling each time to
their young. I saved a tenth victim by timely in-
terference. When a young brood is attacked by an
enemy, the old duck does nothing to defend it. In
lieu of putting herself betwixt it and danger, as the
dunghill fowl would do, she opens her mouth, and
shoots obliquely through the water, beating it with


her wings. During these useless movements, the
invader secures his prey with impunity.

I would recommend all henwives, in early spring,
to place their ducks' eggs under a hen. At that
time of the year there are no weeds on ponds suffici-
ciently high to afford shelter to the young, when they
are led on to the water by their real mother. If the
first sitting of eggs be taken from a duck, she will
generally lay a second time ; and that will be at a
period when the water abounds with weeds, amongst
which the young brood can skul]% and screen itself
from Vie watchful eye of an enemy.

From what I have written, the reader may be able
to form a pretty correct idea of the habits of the
carrion crow ; and he will perceive that, for nearly
ten months of the year, this bird, far from being
considered an enemy, ought to be pronounced the
friend of man.

Let us now examine if the attacks of this bird on
domestic poultry cannot be easily counteracted ;
and whether its assiduous attention to the nests of
pheasants and of partridges is of so alarming and so
important a nature as to call for its utter extermina-
tion from the land. For my own part, I acknowledge
that I should lament his final absence from our
meadows and our woods. His loud and varied notes
at early dawn, and again at latest eve, are extremely
grateful to me ; and many an hour of delight do I
experience, when, having mounted up to the top of
a favourite aged oak which grows on the border of
a swamp, I see him chasing the heron and the wind-
hover through the liquid void, till they are lost in


the distance. Then, again, how eager is his pursuit !
how loud his croaking ! how inveterate his hos-
tility ! when he has espied a fox stealing away
from the hounds, under the covert of some friendly
hedge. His compact and well-built figure, too, and
the fine jet black of his plumage, are, in my eye,
beautifully ornamental to the surrounding sylvan

A very small share of precaution, on the part of
the henwife, would effectually preserve her chickens
and her ducklings from the dreaded grasp of the
carrion crow. Let her but attend to the suggestion
of setting her early ducks' eggs under a hen, and let
her keep that hen from rambling, and she will find
her best hopes realised. As for the game, I verily
believe that, in most cases, the main cause of the
destruction of its eggs may be brought home to
the gamekeeper himself. This unrelenting butcher
of our finest and rarest British birds goes, forsooth,
and makes a boast to his master that he has a
matter of five hen pheasants hatching in such a
wood, and as many partridges in the adjacent
meadows. This man probably never reflects that,
in his rambles to find the nests of these birds, he
has made a track, which will often be followed up
by the cat, the fox, and the weasel, to the direful
cost of the sitting birds ; and, moreover, that by his
own obtrusive and unexpected presence in a place
which ought to be free from every kind of inspection,
whether of man or beast, he has driven the bird
precipitately from her nest, by which means the eggs


are left uncovered. Now, the carrion crow, sweeping
up and down in quest of food, takes advantage of
this forced absence of the bird from her uncovered
eggs, and pounces down upon them. He carries
them off, not in his bill, but on the point of it, having
thrust his upper mandible through the shell. Had
there been no officious prying on the part of the
keeper, it is very probable that the game would have
hatched its brood in safety, even in the immediate
vicinity of the carrion crow's nest ; for instinct never
fails to teach the sitting bird what to do. Thus, in
the wild state, when wearied nature calls for
relaxation, the pheasant first covers her eggs, and
then takes wing directly, without running from the
nest. I once witnessed this, and concluded that it
was a general thing. From my sitting-room, in the
attic story of the house, I saw a pheasant fly from
her nest in the grass ; and, on her return, she kept
on wing till she dropped down upon it. By this in-
stinctive precaution of rising immediately from the
nest on the bird's departure, and its dropping on it
at its return, there is neither scent produced, nor
track made, in the immediate neighbourhood, by
which an enemy might have a clue to find it out,
and rob it of its treasure. These little wiles are the
very safety of the nest ; and I suspect that they are
put in practice by most birds which have their nest
on the ground. To these wiles, in part (before gangs
of forty or fifty nocturnal poachers desolated this
district), I attributed the great increase of my
pheasants, though they were surrounded by hawks,


jays, crows, and magpies, which had all large
families to maintain and bring up in the immediate

Keepers may boast of their prowess in setting
traps (and, in testimony of their success, they may
nail up the mutilated bodies of carrion crows against
the kennel wall) ; but I am of opinion, that, if the
squire could ever get to know the real number of
pheasants and hares, which have been killed or mu-
tilated in those traps, he would soon perceive that
he had been duped by the gamekeeper ; and that
henceforth he would forbid him to enter the covers
in the breeding season, for the purpose of destroying
the carrion crows. The frequent discharge, too, of
the keeper's gun, though it may now and then kill or
wound a carrion crow, still will infallibly drive away
the game in the end, and oblige it to seek some more
favoured and sequestered spot. As to the setting of
poison, a practice so common with these worthless
destroyers of crows, hawks, magpies, jays, andravens,
which they are pleased to style feathered vermin,
it is a well known fact that foxes, ducks, dogs, hogs,
and pheasants are all liable to fall a prey to the nox-
ious bait. Often has the disappointed vulpine sports-
man to mark down a blank day in his calendar, on
account of his quarry having supped upon what was
laid to kill the carrion crow ; and I have reason to
believe that the fox sometimes loses his life, by
feeding on carrion crows which have died by poison.

If we were to sum up, on one side, the probable
number of pheasants and partridges destroyed during
one season by the carrion crow; and, on the other,


reckon up how many times the keeper has disturbed
the game by going in search of this bird, and thus
exposed the nests of partridges and pheasants to
certain destruction by vermin of all kinds; and then,
if we take into the account the many heads of game
which the keeper had killed in his steel traps and
rabbit-snares, we should conclude, I think, that, in
the long run, the game actually suffers more from
the keeper, in his attempts to destroy the crow, than
it really does from the crow itself, while catering
for its young. Indeed, I have made out the account
myself ; and, finding the balance to be against the
keeper, I have renewed the order which I gave to his
predecessor, never, upon any score, to persecute
what is commonly called flying vermin. Thus the
partridges and pheasants here, during the time of
incubation, are abandoned to their own discretion :
and I judge, from what I have seen, that old Dame
Nature, without any interference on my part, will
kindly continue to point out to these birds proper
places where to lay their eggs and rear their young ;
and, moreover, I am confident she will teach them,
by her own admirable and secret process, how to
elude the prying scrutiny of the carrion crow.
Should, however, the country squire, whose eye is
seldom quite closed to the advantages derived from
a well-stored autumnal larder ; should he, I say, not
have sufficient faith in the dame's protecting care,
it will be some consolation to him to be informed
that, when birds of the game species lose their first
eggs, they seldom fail to have a second hatch, which
will be sure to find ample security from its enemies,


in the abundant growth of summer grass and

The carrion crow is evidently gregarious at times,
in the autumnal and winter months : I have some-
times counted fifty of them together. Unlike the
rook, these birds never become bare of feathers at
the base of the bill.

The vulgar remark, that a carrion crow can smell
gunpowder, ought to be received with explanation.
The natural wariness of this bird at most seasons of
the year, and the perpetual persecution it has to un-
dergo from man, are the causes of its keeping a very
sharp look-out; and it takes flight at the earliest
approach of the gunner ; hence the surmise that it
smells the powder (which might certainly be smelled
after the discharge of the gun, provided the crow
were to leeward); but then the loud report would
cause it to take instant flight, and it would be far away
long before the scent from the burnt gunpowder
could have any chance of reaching its olfactory
nerves, though they were (and, for aught I know,
they are) as sensible as those of the vulture.

I turn loose on the public, from my park, about
three score carrion crows per annum; which no
doubt are considered as a dangerous lot of rascals
by the good folks of this neighbourhood.

I beg to say that I have written this paper ex-
pressly to calm the fears of sportsmen, who may
imagine that I do an evil deed in befriending a
tribe of birds hitherto considered, by common con-
sent, in no other light than that of plundering rogues
and vagabonds. If they will do me the honour to


read this little history of my warrior bird, I trust
they will be satisfied that he is not such a desperate
thief as he is generally imagined to be ; and, further-
more, upon due consideration, they will agree with
me that, when the keeper is abroad with his gun,
his poison, and his traps, their game may be said,
with great truth, to be exposed to much worse com-
pany than that of the carrion crow.


THIS splendid well-known inhabitant of our woods
and plains is generally supposed to have come from
Asia, though the time of its arrival in this cold and
cloudy climate seems to be quite unknown.

A variety of this bird, sometimes spotted and
sometimes milk white, appears among the other
pheasants, and breeds with them. I have never yet
been able to perceive that it continues its white or
varied plumage to the offspring. The plumage of
the white or pied pheasant, seems purely accidental,
and is produced by a male and female of ordinary
colours. The ring-neck pheasant, so common in
the more northern parts of the kingdom, is never
seen in this immediate neighbourhood.

By the laws of England, the pheasant is considered
game ; and the sportsman is under the necessity of
taking out a licence from government, in order to
qualify himself to shoot it. When we consider the



habits of this bird, we are apt to doubt of the pro-
priety of placing it under the denomination of fercp,
iiaturd ; and I am one of those who think that it
would be a better plan to put it on the same footing
with the barn-door fowl, by making it private pro-
perty ; that is, by considering it the property of the
person in whose field or wood it may be found.
The pheasant is a more than half-reclaimed bird.
While the hare and the partridge wander in wildest
freedom through the land, heedless of the fostering
care of man ; the bird in question will come to us,
at all hours of the day, to be fed. It will even some-
times associate with the poultry on the farm ; and,
where it is not disturbed, it will roost in trees, close
to our habitations.

Its produce with the barn-door fowl is unprolific,

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 11 of 28)