Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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and seems to have nothing to recommend it to our
notice on the score of brilliancy of plumage, or of
fineness of shape.

The pheasant crows at all seasons, on retiring to
roost. It repeats the call often during the night,
and again at early dawn ; and frequently in the day
time on the apppearance of an enemy, or at the re-
port of a gun, or during a thunder storm. I am of
opinion that it does not pair. The female lays from
seven to eighteen eggs; but in general the nest
contains about twelve.

Notwithstanding the proximity of the pheasant
to the nature of the barn-door fowl, still it has that
within it which baffles every attempt on our part to
render its domestication complete. What I allude
to is, a most singular innate timidity, which never


fails to show itself on the sudden and abrupt ap-
pearance of an object. I spent some months in trying
to overcome this timorous propensity in the pheasant;
but I failed completely in the attempt. The young
birds, which had been hatched under a domestic
hen, soon became very tame, and would even receive
food from the hand, when it was offered cautiously
to them. They would fly up to the window, and
would feed in company with the common poultry.
But, if any body approached them unawares, off
they went to the nearest cover with surprising ve-
locity. They remained in it till all was quiet, and
then returned with their usual confidence. Two of
them lost their lives in the water by the unexpected
appearance of a pointer, while the barn-door fowls
seemed scarcely to notice the presence of the in-
truder. The rest took finally to the woods at the
commencement of the breeding season. This par-
ticular kind of timidity, which does not appear in
our domestic fowls, seems to me to oppose the only,
though at the same time an insurmountable, bar to
our final triumph over the pheasant. After attentive
observation, I can perceive nothing else in the habits
of the bird, to serve as a clue by which we may be
enabled to trace the cause of failure in the many
attempts which have been made to invite it to breed
in our yards, and retire to rest with the barn-door
fowl and turkey.

Though a preserve of pheasants is an unpopular

thing, still I am satisfied in my own mind that the

bird cannot exist in this country without one ; at

the same time, I am aware that a preserve may be

H 2


overdone. Thus, when pheasants are reserved for a
day of slaughter, under the appellation of a battn,
the regular supply of the market is endangered, the
diversion has the appearance of cruelty, and no
good end seems to be answered. It exposes the
preservers of pheasants in general to the animad-
versions of an angry press, which are greedily read,
and long remembered, by those whose situation in
life precludes them from joining in the supposed
diversion. However ardently I may wish to protect
the pheasant in an ornithological point of view, I
say ornithological, for its flesh I heed not, still, I
am fully aware, that the danger to be incurred and
the odium to be borne are mighty objections. We
read, that the ancients sacrificed a cock to /Escu-
lapius: perhaps the day is at no great distance,
when it will be considered an indispensable act of
prudence for the country gentleman to offer up his
last hecatomb of pheasants at the shrine of public

The more we look into the habits of the pheasant,
the more we must be persuaded that much greater
attention ought to be paid to it than is generally paid
to other kinds of game. The never-failing morning
and evening notice which it gives of its place of re-
treat, together with its superior size, cause it to be
soon detected and easily killed. The tax, too, which
government has put upon it, enhances its value as
an indispensable delicacy at the tables of those who
give good cheer. In fact, few are the autumnal
and winter dinners of the wealthy, where a roasted
pheasant does not grace the second course. The


fowling-piece of the nocturnal poacher is the most
fatal weapon used for its destruction. The report
of a gun or a clap of thunder, during the night, will
often cause the pheasants to begin to crow, as 1 have
already stated ; and this greatly endangers their
safety. When once they are frightened from their
roost, they never perch again during the remainder
of the night, but take refuge among the grass
and underneath the hedges, where they fall an easy
prey to the cat, the fox, and the stoat. A poacher
armed with a gun finds a cloudy night fully as good
for slaughter as one in which the moon shines; and
if larch trees grow in the wood, to these he resorts ;
knowing, by experience, that the pheasant prefers
this kind of tree to any other. The larch suits
pheasants admirably, on account of its branches
growing nearly at right angles from the stem. This
renders the sitting position of the birds very easy.
I consider the smoking of pheasants, while they are
roosting in the tree, as a mere idle story. I myself
ought to be a pretty good hand at poaching; still, I am
obliged to confess that I have never been successful,
in one single instance, in the many attempts I have
made to bring down the pheasant from his roost
by the application of a smoking apparatus. Indeed,
when we reflect that the mouth of the bird is al-
ways shut during sleep, and that both it and the
nostrils are buried in the dorsal feathers, we are at
a loss to conceive how the smoke can enter them,
and cause the bird to fall in stupefaction. If smok-
ing were a successful method, depend upon it the
poachers would never be such noodles as to use
H 3


a gun ; the report of which is sure to bring an
attentive keeper to the scene of their night's

To the illegal possession of the pheasant, alone,
may be traced the cause of all the sanguinary noc-
turnal conflicts between the poachers and those
who are appointed to watch for its safety. The
poacher is well aware that he cannot procure phea-
sants without the aid of a gun; and he knows, at
the same time, that the report of that gun will be-
tray him, and bring up the watchers, against whom
he would have no chance, single-handed. Where-
fore, in order that he may come off victorious, he
musters an overwhelming force of tinkers, cobblers,
masons, smiths, and labourers, armed with blud-
geons, and, perhaps, here and there a rusty gun.
Taking the precaution to get well primed with beer,
off they go, fully bent on having every thing their
own way. The pheasants fall ; the watchers come
up; oaths and curses are poured out, and a des-
perate fray commences. Here are furnished, work
important for the nearest magistrate, profit to his
clerk, expense to the county, and practice for Mr.
Ketch. Let it be also observed, that the unlawful
capture of the hare and the partridge (which are
really ferae, naturd) does not produce similar work
of mischief. These are taken with nets and snares.
The fewer poachers employed, the more certain is
their success. A number of men would only do
harm, and mar the plan of capture. So silently is
this mode of poaching carried on, that the owner
of the soil is not aware of the loss he is about to


sustain in the plunder of his game. When his
hares and partridges are actually on their way to
the dealer's shop, he, " good easy man," may fancy
that they are merely on a visit to his neighbour's
manor, or that the fox and the polecat may have
made free with them. Not so with regard to the
capture of the pheasant. The mansion is some-
times beset ; guns are fired close to the windows ;
females are frightened into hysterics ; and, if the
owner sallies forth to repel the marauders, his re-
ception is often the most untoward and disagreeable
that can well be imagined.

Having now treated of the pheasant, and the
mode which is adopted for its destruction, I will
draw upon the reader's time a little longer, by pro-
posing a plan for its propagation and protection.

Pheasants would certainly be delightful orna-
ments to the lawn of the country gentleman, were
it not for the annoying idea that, any night, from
November to May, he runs the risk of getting a
broken head, if he ventures out to disturb the sport
of those who have assembled to destroy them.
There must be something radically wrong in the
game laws. How or when those laws are to be
amended, is an affair of the legislature. The orni-
thologist can do no more than point out the griev-
ance which they inflict upon society, and hope that
there will soon be a change in them for the better.
But to the point. Food and a quiet retreat are
the two best offers that man can make to the fea-
thered race, to induce them to take up their abode
on his domain ; and they are absolutely necessary
H 4-


to the successful propagation of the pheasant. This
bird has a capacious stomach, and requires much
nutriment; while its timidity soon causes it to
abandon those places which are disturbed. It is
fond of acorns, beech mast, the berries of the haw-
thorn, the seeds of the wild rose, and the tubers of
the Jerusalem artichoke. As long as these, and
the corn dropped in the harvest, can be procured,
the pheasant will do very well. In the spring it
finds abundance of nourishment in the sprouting
leaves of young clover; but, from the commence-
ment of the new year till the vernal period, their
wild food affords a very scanty supply; and the
bird will be exposed to all the evils of the vagrant
act, unless you can contrive to keep it at home by
an artificial supply of food. Boiled potatoes (which
the pheasant prefers much to those in the raw state)
and beans are, perhaps, the two most nourishing
things that can be offered in the depth of winter.
Beans in the end are cheaper than all the smaller
kinds of grain ; because the little birds, which usu-
ally swarm at the place where pheasants are fed,
cannot swallow them ; and, if you conceal the beans
under yew or holly bushes, or under the lower
branches of the spruce fir tree, they will be out of
the way of the rooks and ringdoves. About two
roods of the thousand-headed cabbage are a most
valuable acquisition to the pheasant preserve. You
sow a few ounces of seed in April, and transplant
the young plants, two feet asunder, in the month of
June. By the time that the harvest is all in, these
cabbages will afford a most excellent aliment to the


pheasants, and are particularly serviceable when the
ground is deeply covered with snow. I often think
that pheasants are unintentionally destroyed by
farmers during the autumnal seedtime. They have
a custom of steeping the wheat in arsenic water.
This must be injurious to birds which pick up the
corn remaining on the surface of the mould. I
sometimes find pheasants, at this period, dead in
the plantations, and now and then take them up,
weak and languid, and quite unable to fly.

I will mention, here, a little robbery by the
pheasants, which has entirely deprived me of a grati-
fication I used formerly to experience in an even-
ing's saunter down the vale. They have completely
exterminated the grasshoppers. For these last
fourteen years I have not once heard the voice of
this merry summer charmer in the park.

In order to render useless all attempts of the
nocturnal poacher to destroy the pheasants, it is
absolutely necessary that a place of security should
be formed. I know of no position more appropriate
than a piece of level ground, at the bottom of a
hill, bordered by a gentle stream. About three
acres of this, sowed with whins, and surrounded by
a holly fence, to keep the cattle out, would be the
very thing. In the centre of it, for the space of
one acre, there ought to be planted spruce fir trees,
about fourteen feet asunder. Next to the larch,
this species of tree is generally preferred by the
pheasants for their roosting place ; and it is quite
impossible that the poachers can shoot them in
these trees. Moreover, magpies and jays will al-


ways resort to them at nightfall ; and they never
fail to give the alarm, on the first appearance of an
enemy. Many a time has the magpie been of es-
sential service to me, in a night excursion after
poachers. If there be no park wall, an eye ought
to be kept from time to time on the neighbouring
hedges. Poachers are apt to set horse-hair snares
in them ; and these villanous nooses give the phea-
sants apoplexy. Six or seven dozen of wooden
pheasants, nailed on the branches of trees, in the
surrounding woods, cause unutterable vexation and
loss of ammunition to these amateurs of nocturnal
plunder. Small clumps of hollies, and yew trees
with holly hedges round them, are of infinite ser-
vice, when planted at intervals of 150 yards. To
these the pheasants fly, on the sudden approach of
danger during the day, and skulk there till the
alarm is over. When incubation is going on, the
diurnal poachers make great havoc among the phea-
sants' eggs. They sell sittings of them for five
shillings (and sometimes for ten, if the risk in pro-
curing them be great), to gentlemen in towns, who
place them under bantam hens. If to these ar-
rangements for protecting pheasants there could be
added a park wall from nine to ten feet high, and
including about 250 acres, consisting of wood, mea-
dow, pasture, and arable land, the naturalist might
put all enemies at defiance, and revel in the en-
chanting scene afforded by the different evolutions
of single pairs, and congregated groups, of animated
nature. Unmolested by packs of hounds, unbroken
in upon by idle boys, and unannoyed by stray cattle,


and by those going in search of them, his wildfowl
would never desert the pool till their day of mi-
gration arrived ; and his pheasants (except for the
purpose of incubation, and then in no great quan-
tities,) would seldom rove beyond the protected

The teal and wigeons stay with me till the last
week in April; long after the pochards and the
main flocks of mallards have winged their flight to
northern polar regions ; and a white male pheasant
has taken up his abode here, for seven years, with-
out having been once seen to wander half a mile
from the house.

Birds thus protected have very different habits
from those which are exposed to the caprice and per-
secutions of man. When the ornithologist pays at-
tention to them, in their safe retreat, where they
can follow, without molestation, the impulse of that
instinct which has been so bountifully given to them,
he will have great cause to suspect that there is
many an error, and many a false conclusion, in the
works which we have at present, on the habits and
economy of the feathered race. These errors are,
no doubt, quite unintentional on the part of the
writers on British ornithology ; and can only be
corrected by great care, and a frequent personal
attendance at those places where birds are encou-
raged and befriended.



THIS lively bird is the constant friend and com-
panion of the rook, in our part of Yorkshire, for
nine months out of twelve ; and, I think, there is no
doubt but that it would remain with the rook for
the other three if it only had that particular kind of
convenience for incubation which its nature, for
reasons totally unknown to us, seems to require.

Though the jackdaw makes use of the same kind
of materials for building as those which are found
in the nest of the rook ; though it is, to all appear-
ance, quite as hardy a bird ; and though it passes
the night, exposed to the chilling cold and rains of
winter, on the leafless branches of the lofty elm ;
still, when the period for incubation arrives, it bids
farewell to those exposed heights where the rook
remains to hatch its young, and betakes itself to
the shelter which is afforded in the holes of steeples,
towers, and trees. Perhaps there is no instance in
the annals of ornithology which tells of the jackdaw
ever building its nest in the open air. Wishing to
try whether these two congeners could not be
induced to continue the year throughout in that
bond of society which, I had observed, was only
broken during incubation, I made a commodious
cavity in an aged elm, just at the place where it
had lost a mighty limb, some forty years ago,
in a tremendous gale of wind which laid prostrate


some of the finest trees in this part of Yorkshire.
At the approach of breeding-time, a pair of jack-
daws took possession of it, and reared their young
in shelter ; while the rooks performed a similar
duty on the top of the same tree, exposed to all the
rigours of an English spring. This success induced
me to appropriate other conveniences for the in-
cubation of the jackdaw ; and I have now the sa-
tisfaction to see an uninterrupted fellowship exist,
the year throughout, between the jackdaw and the

Those who are of opinion that birds are gifted
with a certain portion of reasoning, superior to
that which is usually denominated instinct, will
have cause for reflection, should they ever examine
the materials of a jackdaw's nest, or pay any at-
tention to the mode by which the bird tries to
introduce those materials into the hole. The jack-
daw invariably carries into it a certain quantity of
sticks, fully as thick as those which are made use of
by the rook. Now, it always occurs to us that the
rook conveys sticks up to the branches of a tree in
order to make a kind of frame which may support
the inner parts of the nest. But why should the
jackdaw deposit a large heap of strong sticks in the
hole which is already calculated to support every
kind of material proper for a nest ? Then, again :
how the act itself of introducing those apparently
useless sticks causes us to suspend our judgment,
before we finally conclude that the bird is endowed
with any sort of reasoning superior to what is com-
monly denominated the instinct of brutes ! You


may see the jackdaw trying, for a quarter of an
hour, to get a stick into the hole ; while every
attempt will be futile, because, the bird having laid
hold of it by the middle, it is necessarily thrown at
right angles with the body ; and the daw cannot
possibly perceive that the stick ought to be nearly
parallel with its body, before it can be conveyed
into the hole. Fatigued at length with repeated
efforts, and completely foiled in its numberless at-
tempts to introduce the stick, it lets it fall to the
ground ; and immediately goes in quest of another,
probably to experience another disappointment on
its return. When time and chance have enabled it
to place a quantity of sticks at the bottom of the
hole, it then goes to seek for materials of a more
pliant and a softer nature.

The shrill and quickly repeated notes of the
jackdaw, especially during incubation, are far from
being unpleasant to the ear which is accustomed to
rural sounds; but very few people have an oppor-
tunity of paying attention to them, as this bird is
by no means a general favourite with man. It is
commonly accused of sucking eggs : but eggs form
no part of its diet, otherwise it would be a bad
neighbour here ; and ringdoves, house doves, wag-
tails, fowls, and ducks would wish it far away.
It is vastly fond of peas and cherries. When these
are done, the jackdaw repairs to the pastures, where
it devours an incredible number of insects.

After the young have left the nest, they join the
rooks, and roost with them in the surrounding
woods till near the autumnal equinox ; when both


rocks and jackdaws regularly retire at nightfall to
the eastward of this place, in immense flocks, and
return to the westward every morning for the en-
suing half year.

The jackdaw lays from four to six eggs, varying
very much in colour, and often in size and shape.
When protected, it will build its nest in holes not
above six feet from the ground, where people are
passing and repassing every hour of the day. If
you take away the eggs, and substitute those of
magpies, the bird will hatch them, and rear the
young ones with great care and affection.

The plumage of the jackdaw is black, with
shining silvery grey behind the head, changing
when exposed to the different rays of light A
jackdaw once appeared here with a remarkable
portion of white in one of the wings; it tarried
with us for two years, and then disappeared for
ever. Probably the singularity of its wing had
attracted the fatal notice of some experienced
gunner, in its peregrinations beyond this vale of

The jackdaw, like the rook, collects insects in
its mouth, to feed its young; and this gives it
the appearance of a pouch under the lower man-

I know not how far naturalists will agree with me
in the speculation that these birds remain in pairs
the year throughout. When November's winds
have stripped the sycamore of its every leaf, I see
the daws sitting in pairs, side by side, upon the
naked branches. They seem fond of preening


each other's heads ; and, as they mostly leave the
trees in pairs, and in pairs return, I am led to
conjecture that their union is not dissolved at the
period when the young no longer need parental

He who is fond of rural scenes, and loves to

" On a mountain's lonely van,
Beyond the noise of busy man,
Painting fair the form of things,
While the yellow linnet sings,
Or the tuneful nightingale
Charms the forest with her tale," AA3

will never bring his mind to drive away this playful
merry bird, or allow his gardener to take its life,
for the value of a handful of cherries.


A MAN, at some period or other of his life, may have
the misfortune to come in contact with the larger
individuals of these two desperate and sanguinary
races of quadrupeds. Perhaps a few hints of a pre-
cautionary nature, in case of collision, may not be
altogether unacceptable to the reader.

The dog and the lion are both most formidable
foes to an unarmed man ; and it is singular enough
that the very resistance which he would be forced
to make, in order to escape being worried by the


former, would inevitably expose him to certain
destruction from the claws and teeth of the latter.

All animals of the dog tribe must be combated
with might and main, and with unceasing exertion,
in their attacks upon man : for, from the moment
they obtain the mastery, they worry and tear their
victim as long as life remains in it. On the contrary,
animals of the cat tribe having once overcome their
prey, they cease for a certain time to inflict further
injury on it. Thus, during the momentous interval
from the stroke which has laid a man beneath a
lion, to the time when the lion shall begin to
devour him, the man may have it in his power to
rise again, either by his own exertions, or by the
fortuitous intervention of an armed friend. But
then all depends upon quiet, extreme quiet, on the
part of the man, until he plunges his dagger into
the heart of the animal ; for if he tries to resist, he
is sure to feel the force of his adversary's claws and
teeth with redoubled vengeance. Many years ago,
Colonel Duff, in India, was laid low by the stroke of
a Bengal tiger. On coming to himself he found
the animal standing over him. Recollecting that
he had his dirk by his side, he drew it out of the
case in the mort cautious manner possible, and by
one happy thrust quite through the heart, he laid
the tiger dead at his side.

I will here mention a trivial row I once had with

two dogs. It will tend to prove the advantage of

standing up manfully when attacked by animals of

the canine tribe ; and I will conclude with recount-



ing an adventure with a lion, perhaps unparalleled
in the annals of hunting.

Towards the close of the year 1823, in passing
over a common, I accidentally came upon two dogs.
One of them was a stout, ill-looking, uncouth brute,
apparently of that genealogy which dog-fanciers
term half bull and half terrier ; the other was an in-
significant female cur. The dog immediately bristled
up, and I had just time to take off my hat, and hold
it shieldwise in self-defence, when he came on and
made directly at it. I gave him a hearty kick under
the breast, which caused him to desist for a mo-
ment. But he stoutly renewed the attack, which
was continued for above five minutes : he always

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 12 of 28)