Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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flying at the hat, and I regularly repeating my
kicks, sometimes slightly, sometimes heavily, accord-
ing to our relative situations. In the mean time the
female cur was assailing me from behind, and it was
with difficulty that I succeeded in keeping her clear
of me, by means of swinging my foot backwards at
her. At last, a lucky blow on her muzzle from the
heel of my shoe caused her to run away howling,
and the dog immediately followed her, just at the
moment when two masons were coming up to assist
me. Thus, by a resolute opposition I escaped
laceration. But this little affair is scarcely worth
relating, except that it affords a proof of the ad-
vantage to be derived from resisting the attack of a
dog to the utmost.

And now for the feline tribe. The story which I
am about to recount, will show that non-resistance
was the only plan to be pursued when escape from


death seemed utterly hopeless. The principals in
this affair were a brave young British officer and a
full-grown lion of India. I was at Frankfort on the
Mayne in August last, and I heard the account
from the officer's own mouth. I shall never forget
the affable and unassuming manner in which he re-
lated it to me. I repeatedly urged him to allow me
to put it on record, and at the same time to make
use of his name ; but I plainly saw that his feelings
were against his complying with my request ; and I
think I should not have succeeded, had I not luckily
brought to my assistance the plea of benefit to
natural history. With this I conquered the objec-
tions of the young soldier ; and I only wish that it
had fallen to an abler pen than mine to relate the
following adventure.

In the month of July, 1831, two fine lions made
their appearance in a jungle some twenty miles
distant from the cantonment of Rajcote, in the East
Indies, where Captain Woodhouse, and his two
friends, Lieutenants Delamain and Lang were sta-
tioned. An elephant was despatched to the place
in the evening on which the information arrived ;
and on the morrow, at the break of day, the three
gentlemen set off on horseback, full of glee, and
elated with the hope of a speedy engagement. On
arriving at the edge of the jungle, people were
ordered to ascend the neighbouring trees, that they
might be able to trace the route of the lions in case
they left the cover. After beating about in the
jungle for some time, the hunters started the two
i 2


lordly strangers. The officers fired immediately,
and one of the lions fell to rise no more. His com-
panion broke cover, and took off across the country.
The officers now pursued him on horseback as fast
as the nature of the ground would allow, until they
learned from the men who were stationed in the
trees, and who held up flags by way of signal, that
the lion had gone back into the thicket. Upon this
the three officers returned to the edge of the jungle,
and having dismounted from their horses, they got
upon the elephant ; Captain Woodhouse placing
himself in the hindermost seat. They now pro-
ceeded towards the heart of the jungle, in the ex-
pectation of rousing the royal fugitive a second
time. They found him standing under a large bush,
with his face directly towards them. The lion
allowed them to approach within range of his spring,
and then he made a sudden dart at the elephant,
clung on his trunk with a tremendous roar, and
wounded him just above the eye. While he was in
the act of doing this, the two lieutenants fired at
him, but without success. The elephant now shook
him off; but the fierce and sudden attack on the
part of the lion seemed to have thrown him into
the greatest consternation. This was the first time
he had ever come in contact with so formidable an
animal; and much exertion was used before his
riders succeeded in urging him on again in quest of
the lion. -At last he became somewhat more tract-
able ; but as he was advancing through the jungle,
all of a sudden the lion, which had lain concealed in
the high grass, made at him with redoubled fury.


The officers now lost all hopes of keeping their
elephant in order. He turned round abruptly, and
was going away quite ungovernable, when the lion
again sprang at him, seized his hinder parts with
his teeth, and hung on them until the affrighted
animal managed to shake him off by incessant

The lion retreated farther into the thicket; Cap-
tain Woodhouse in the mean time firing a random
shot at him, which proved of no avail, as the jolting
of the elephant and the uproar of the moment pre-
vented him from taking a steady aim. No exertions
on the part of the officers could now force the ter-
rified elephant to face his fierce foe, and they found
themselves reduced to the necessity of dismounting.
Determined, however, to come to still closer quar-
ters with the formidable king of quadrupeds, Capt.
Woodhouse took the desperate resolution to proceed
on foot in quest of him; and after searching about for
some time, he observed the lion indistinctly through
the bushes, and discharged his rifle at him ; but he
was pretty well convinced that he had not hit him,
for he saw the lion retire with the utmost composure
into the thicker parts of the brake. The two lieu-
tenants, who had remained at the outside of the
jungle, joined their companion on hearing the report
of his gun.

The weather was intolerably sultry. After vainly
spending a considerable time in creeping through
the grass and bushes, 'with the hope of discovering
the place of the lion's retreat, they concluded that
he had passed quite through the jungle, and
I 3


off in an opposite direction. Resolved not to let
their game escape, the lieutenants returned to the
elephant, and immediately proceeded round the
jungle, expecting to discover the route which they
conjectured the lion had taken. Captain Wood-
house, however, remained in the thicket ; and as he
could discern the print of the animal's feet on the
ground, he boldly resolved to follow up the track at
all hazards. The Indian game-finder, who continued
with his commander, at last espied the lion in the
cover, and pointed him out to the captain, who
fired, but unfortunately missed his mark There
was now no alternative left but to retreat and load
his rifle. Having retired to a distance, he was
joined by Lieutenant Delamain, who had dismounted
from his elephant on hearing the report of the gun.
This unexpected meeting increased the captain's
hopes of ultimate success. He lost no time in
pointing out to the lieutenant the place where he
would probably find the lion, and said he would be
up with him in a moment or two.

Lieutenant Delamain, on going eight or ten paces
down a sheep track, got a sight of the lion, and
instantly discharged his rifle at him.

" Impetus est fulvis, et vasta leonibus ira !"

This irritated the mighty lord of the woods, and he
rushed towards him, breaking through the bushes
(to use the captain's own words) " in most magnifi-
cent style." Captain Woodhouse now found him-
self placed in an awkward situation. He was aware
that if he retraced his steps in order to put himself


in a better position for attack, he would just get to
the point from which the lieutenant had fired, and
to which the lion was making ; wherefore he in-
stantly resolved to stand still, in the hopes that the
lion would pass by, at a distance of four yards or so,
without perceiving him, as the intervening cover
was thick and strong. In this, however, he was
most unfortunately deceived ; for the enraged lion
saw him in passing, and flew at him with a dreadful
roar. In an instant, as though it had been done by
a stroke of lightning, the rifle was broken and
thrown out of the captain's hand, his left arm at the
same moment being seized by the claws, and his
right by the teeth, of his desperate antagonist.
While these two brave and sturdy combatants,
" whose courage none could stain," were yet stand-
ing in mortal conflict, Lieutenant Delamain ran up,
and discharged his piece full at the lion. This
caused the lion and the captain to come to the
ground together, while Lieutenant Delamain has-
tened out of the jungle to reload his gun. The
lion now began to craunch the captain's arm ; but as
the brave fellow, notwithstanding the pain which
this horrid process caused, had the cool determined
resolution to lie still, the lordly savage let the arm
drop out of his mouth, and quietly placed himself in
a couching position, with both his paws upon the
thigh of his fallen foe. While things were in this
untoward situation, the captain unthinkingly raised
his hand to support his head, which had got placed
ill at ease in the fall. No sooner, however, had he
moved it, than the lion seized the lacerated arm a
I !-


second time, craunched it as before, and fractured
the bone still higher up. This additional memento
mori from the lion was not lost upon Captain Wood-
house ; it immediately put him in mind that he had
committed an act of imprudence in stirring. The
motionless state in which he persevered after this
broad hint, showed that he had learned to profit by
the painful lesson.

He now lay bleeding and disabled under the foot
of a mighty and an irritated enemy. Death was
close upon him, armed with every terror calculated
to appal the heart of a prostrate and defenceless
man. Just as this world, with all its flitting honours,
was on the point of vanishing for ever, he heard two
faint reports of a gun, which he thought sounded
from a distance; but he was totally at a loss to
account for them. He learned after the affair was
over, that the reports were caused by his friend at
the outside of the jungle, who had flashed off some
powder in order to be quite sure that the nipples of
his rifle were clean.

The two lieutenants were now hastening to his
assistance, and he heard the welcome sound of feet
approaching; but, unfortunately, they were in a
wrong direction, as the lion was betwixt them and
him. Aware, that if his friends fired, the balls
would hit him, after they had passed through the
lion's body, Captain Woodhouse quietly pronounced,
in a low and subdued tone, " To the other side I to
the other side ! " Hearing the voice, they looked
in the direction from whence it proceeded, and to
their horror saw their brave comrade in his utmost


need. Having made a circuit, they cautiously came
up on the other side, and Lieutenant Delamain,
whose coolness in encounters with wild beasts had
always been conspicuous, from a distance of about a
dozen yards, fired at the lion over the person of the
prostrate warrior.

The lion merely quivered ; his head dropped upon
the ground, and in an instant he lay dead on his
side, close to his intended victim. The lieutenant's
aim was so good and true, that it puts one in mind
of what .happened at Chevy Chase ;

" Against Sir Hugh Montgomery

So right the shaft was set,
The grey goose wing that was thereon
In his heart's blood was wet ! "

Thus ended this ever-memorable homo-leonine
encounter. I beg to return my thanks to Captain
Woodhouse for allowing me to avail myself of it.
From what has been related, a proof may be drawn
of the utility of lying quite still when we have the
misfortune to be struck to the ground by an animal
of the cat tribe.

J bade a long farewell to Captain Woodhouse and
his two friends, Messrs. Kavanagh and Pontardent,
at Frankfort on the Mayne. They were on their
way to India, through Vienna and Constantinople.
May honours, health, and wealth attend them I



NEXT to the adventure of the rattlesnake and
squirrel, in which Audubon informs us that he saw
a rattlesnake swallow a large American squirrel,
tail foremost, I am of opinion that this presents the
toughest morsel ever offered to the proverbially
wide gullet of John Bull. Audubon says, " Many
vultures were engaged in devouring the body and
entrails of a dead horse, when a white-headed eagle
accidentally passing by, the vultures all took to
wing, one, amongst the rest, with a portion of the
entrails, partly swallowed, and the remaining part,
about a yard in length, dangling in the air. The
eagle instantly marked him, and gave chase. The
poor vulture tried, in vain, to disgorge, when the
eagle, coming up, seized the loose end of the gut,
and dragged the bird along for twenty or thirty
yards, much against its will, till both fell to the
ground ; when the eagle struck the vulture, and in
a few moments killed it, after which he swallowed
the delicious morsel." In his strange paper on the
habits of the turkey buzzard, Mr. Audubon tells us
" that if the object discovered is large, lately dead,
and covered with a skin too tough to be ate and
torn asunder (cart before the horse), and afford
free scope to their appetites, they remain about it
and in the neighbourhood." Now, reader, observe,


that, the dead horse being a large animal, its skin,
according to this quotation, must have been too
tough to be torn asunder by the vultures, until
putrefaction took place. If, then, these vultures
really commenced devouring the dead animal while
it was yet fresh, Mr. Audubon's theory, just quoted,
is worth nothing. If, on the contrary, the horse
in question had become sufficiently putrid to allow
the vultures to commence operations, then I will
show that the aerial account of the eagle and the
vulture is either a mere imaginary effusion of the
author's fancy, or a hoax played off upon his igno-
rance by some designing wag.

The entrails of a dead animal are invariably the
first part to be affected by putrefaction. Now, we
are told that a piece of gut had been torn from the
rest, and swallowed by the vulture ; a portion of
the said gut, about a yard in length, hanging out of
his mouth. The vulture, pressed hard by the eagle,
tried in vain to disgorge the gut. This is at vari-
ance with a former statement, in which Mr. Audu-
bon assures us that an eagle will force a vulture to
disgorge its food in a moment : so that the validity
of this former statement must be thrown overboard,
in order to insure the safety of the present adven-
ture; or vice versa, the present adventure must
inevitably sink, if the former statement is to be
preserved. Be this as it may, the eagle, out of all
manner of patience at the clumsiness of the vulture,
in his attempt to restore to daylight that part of
the gut which was lying at the bottom of his sto-
mach, laid hold of the end which was still hanging


out of the unfortunate rascal's mouth, and actually
dragged him along through the air, for a space of
twenty or thirty yards, much against the vulture's
will. Now, though the eagle pulled, and the vul-
ture resisted, f-till the yard of gut, which we must
suppose was in a putrid state, for reasons already
mentioned, remained fixed and firm in the vulture's
bill. With such a force, applied to each extremity,
the gut ought either to have given way in the mid-
dle, or to have been cut in two at those places
where the sharp bills of the birds held it fast. But
stop, reader, I pray you : speculation might be
allowed here, provided this uncommon encounter
had taken place on terra firma ; but, in order that
our astonishment may be wound up to the highest
pitch, we are positively informed that the conten-
tion took place, not on the ground, or in a tree, but
in the circumambient air !

Pray, how was it possible for the eagle to ad-
vance through the air, and to have dragged along a
resisting vulture, by means of a piece of gut acting
as a rope about a yard in length ? Birds cannot
fly backwards ; and the very act of the eagle turn-
ing round to progress after it had seized the end of
the gut, would have shortened the connecting me-
dium so much, that the long wings of both birds
must have immediately come in contact ; their pro-
gress would have been prevented by the collision ;
and, in lieu of the eagle dragging the resisting
vulture through the air, for a space of twenty or
thirty yards, both birds would have come to the
ground, or the gut would have given way.


I have never read any thing in the annals of or-
nithology that bears any similarity to this aquilavul-
turian exhibition progressing through the vault of
heaven. Verily, " there is a freshness in it."

When we reflect that Mr. Audubon is an Ame-
rican; that he has lived the best part of his life in
America; that the two birds themselves were Ame-
rican, and that their wonderfu^ encounter took place
in America, we Englishmen marvel much that Mr.
Audubon did not allow the press of his own country .
to have the honour to impart to the world so asto-
nishing an adventure.


MR. AUDUBON tells us, that in one week the young
of the ruby-throated humming-bird are ready to fly.
One would suppose, by this, that they must be
hatched with a good coating of feathers to begin
with. Old Dame Nature sometimes performs odd
pranks. We are informed that our crooked-back
Dicky the Third was born with teeth ; and Ovid
mentions the astonishingly quick growth of certain
men. He says, in his account of the adventures of
Captain Cadmus, who built Thebes, that the captain
employed some men as masons who had just sprung
up out of the earth.

I have read Mr. Audubon's account of the growth


of the humming-bird, and I have read Mr. Ovid's
account of the growth of Captain Cadmus's masons,
and both very attentively. I think the veracity of
the one is as apparent as the veracity of the other.
What, in the name of skin and feathers, I ask, has
Mr. Audubon found in the economy of the ruby-
throated humming-bird to enable him to inform
Englishmen that its young can fly in so short a space
of time ? The young of no other bird that we are
acquainted with, from the condor to the wren, can
fly when only a week old.

The humming-bird, in every part of its body and
plumage, is quite as perfect as the eagle itself;
neither is it known to differ in the duration of its
life from any of the smaller birds of the forest
which it inhabits. Like them it bursts the shell
in a state of nudity ; like them, it is blind for some
days ; and, like them, it has to undergo the gradual
process of fledging, which is so slow in its operation,
that I affirm, without fear of refutation, it cannot
possibly produce, in the space of one short week, a
series of feathers capable of supporting the bird
through the air.

Again, the precocious flying of the young birds
argues precocity of feathers; and this would authorise
us to look for precocity of lustre in the male. But
Mr. Audubon informs us that the male does not re-
ceive its full brilliancy of colour until the succeeding
spring ; and I myself can affirm, from actual observ-
ation, that the additional plumage which adorns
some humming-birds does not make its appearance
till towards the middle of the second vear.


Were it necessary, I could show to naturalists
their error, in sometimes mistaking a male humming-
bird of the first year for a full-plumaged female. I
am fully satisfied in my own mind that the internal
anatomy of all humming-birds is precisely the same,
except in size; having found it the same in every
humming-bird which I dissected in Guiana and Brazil.
Now, as the young of the humming-birds in these
countries require more than a week to enable them
to fly, and as Mr. Audubon's humming-bird differs
not in internal anatomy from them, I see no reason
why the young of his species should receive earlier
powers of flying than the young of the humming-
birds in the countries just mentioned.

A word on the cradle. Mr. Audubon tells us, that
the little pieces of lichen, used in forming the nest
of the humming-bird, " are glued together with the
saliva of the bird." Fiddle ! The saliva of all birds
immediately mixes with water. A single shower of
rain would undo all the saliva-glued work on the nest
of Mr. Audubon's humming-bird. When our great
master in ornithology (whose writings, according
to Swainson, will be read when our favourite theories
shall have sunk into oblivion) saw his humming-
bird fix the lichen to the nest, pray what instrument
did it make use of, in order to detach the lichen
from the point of its own clammy bill and tongue ;
to which it would be apt to adhere just as firmly as
to the place where it was intended that it should
permanently remain ?



" Nantes in gurgite vasto." VIRGIL.

" Like the turkeys, many of the weaker partridges often fall
into the water while thus attempting to cross, and generally
perish ; for, although they swim surprisingly, they have not
muscular power sufficient to keep up a protracted struggle."
(See Biography of Birds, p. 388.)

BIRDS which can " swim surprisingly " will never
" perish " by the act of swimming ; neither would
they be under the necessity of having recourse to " a
protracted struggle " in a movement which requires
no struggle at all. A bird struggling in the act of
swimming, in order to save itself from drowning, is
about the same as if we were to struggle in our usual act
of walking lest we perish therein. The very mention
of " a protracted struggle " argues that the partridge
cannot swim. A partridge on the water is nearly in
as great a scrape as a shark on shore. The latter,
by floundering, may, perchance, get into the water
again ; still we cannot say that a shark moves sur-
prisingly on land : and the former, by help of its
feet, may possibly reach the river's bank, through
an element as fatal to it as the shore is to the shark.
All birds, whether alive or dead, must naturally float
on the surface of the water ; but all birds cannot
swim : otherwise those birds which we. commonly call
land birds would have to be new-modelled in form,
and would require a very different kind of plumage.
We startle at the novel information of a partridge
" swimming surprisingly," and we are anxious to


know M'hat sudden change has taken place amongst
the birds in the western hemisphere, whilst our
eastern birds remain in statu quo. For example's
sake, let us examine a waterhen, which, like the
partridge, is not web-footed; still it swims remarkably
well. Its body is nearly similar in shape to a boat ;
the arrangement of its feathers is most admirably
calculated to resist the entrance of the water;
while its every motion, when in the act of swimming,
is full of gracefulness and confidence. It moves
to and fro by a very gentle action of the feet,
and it may be seen, for hours together, enjoying
itself on the deep, in perfect security. This bird
may be truly said to swim surprisingly ; but it is
never doomed to keep up a protracted struggle by
means of muscular power, in order to save its life,
on an element where it runs no risk of perishing.

Now let us look at a partridge floating on the
river. The form of its body is very unlike that
of the waterhen, and though it cannot possibly sink,
still it is in the utmost fear of death, and tries to
reach the shore by an evident and vehement strug-
gle. Its feathers immediately become saturated
with water, whilst the cold strikes deeply into its
body. Death is fast approaching; the wings are
soaked with flapping on the water, and at last appear
extended quite motionless on the surface of the
stream; the legs are cramped and stiffened; the
mouth is open ; the head falls, and, after a few con-
vulsive efforts to support itself, down it drops for the
last time into the water, and the bird dies. This is
the fate of the partridge, which Mr. Audubon assures


us can " swim surprisingly." The mere motion of
its legs, to propel its floating body towards land, in
order to escape from certain death on an element
where it was never intended by Nature to exist, even
for the space of one short hour, has been magnified
by Mr. Audubon into an important act of " swimming

If the admirers of Mr. Audubon should try to
force us to agree with their great naturalist, that
partridges can " swim surprisingly," then it behoves
us to call upon them to declare that every bird in
the creation can swim. Our little tomtit, till now a
land bird, must be proclaimed to swim surprisingly,

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 13 of 28)