Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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and have a place amongst the waterfowl ; because,
on tumbling accidentally into a washing tub, he has
" muscular power sufficient to keep up a protracted
struggle" till he reaches the side.


LAST year I partly promised that, on some dismal
winter's evening, I would sit me down, and write the
history of the rook. The period has now arrived.
Nothing can be more gloomy and tempestuous than
the present aspect of the heavens. The wind is
roaring through the naked branches of the syca-
mores, the rain beats fiercely on the eastern win-
dows, and the dashing of the waves against the
walls of the island, warns us that one of November's
dark and stormy nights is close at hand; such a
night, probably, as that in which Tarn O'Shanter


unfortunately peeped into Kirk Alloway. Fo-
reigners tell us that on these nights Englishmen are
prone to use the knife, or a piece of twisted hemp,
to calm their agitated spirits. For my own part, I
must say that I have an insuperable repugnance to
such anodynes ; and, were a host of blue devils,
conjured up by November's fogs, just now to assail
me, I would prefer combating the phantoms with
the weapons of ornithology, rather than run any
risk of disturbing the economy of my jugular vein,
by a process productive of very unpleasant sensa-
tions, before it lulls one to rest.

According to my promise, I will now pen down a
few remarks on the habits of the rook, which bird,
in good old sensible times, was styledfrugilegus. It is
now pronounced to be pradatorius. Who knows but
that our Great Ones in Ornithology may ultimately
determine to call it up to the house of hawks ?

If this useful bird were not so closely allied to the
carrion crow in colour and in shape, we should see
it sent up to the tables of the rich as often as we
see the pigeon. But prejudice forbids the appearance
of broiled rook in the lordly mansion. If we wish
to partake of it, we must repair to the cottage of the
lowly swain, or, here and there, to the hall of the
homely country squire, whose kitchen has never been
blessed by the presence of a first-rate cook, and
whose yearnings for a good and wholesome dish are
not stifled by the fear of what a too-highly polished
world will say.

' There is no wild bird in England so completely

gregarious as the rook, or so regular in its daily



movements. The ringdoves will assemble in count-
less multitudes, the finches will unite in vast as-
semblies, and waterfowl will flock in thousands to
the protected lake, during the dreary months of
winter : but, when the returning sun spreads joy and
consolation over the face of nature, their congregated
numbers are dissolved, and the individuals retire in
pairs to propagate their respective species. The
rook, however, remains in society the year through-
out. In flocks it builds its nest, in flocks it seeks for
food, and in flocks it retires to roost.

About two miles to the eastward of this place are
the woods of Nostell Priory, where, from time im-
memorial, the rooks have retired to pass the night.
I suspect, by the observations which I have been
able to make on the morning and evening transit of
these birds, that there is not another roosting-place
for, at least, thirty miles to the westward of Nostell
Priory. Every morning, from within a few days of
the autumnal, to about a week before the vernal
equinox, the rooks, in congregated thousands upon
thousands, fly over this valley in a westerly direction,
and return, in undiminished numbers, to the east,
an hour or so before the night sets in. In their
morning passage, some stop here ; others, in other
favourite places, farther and farther on ; now re-
pairing to the trees for pastime, now resorting to the
fields for food, till the declining sun warns those
which have gone farthest to the westward that it is
time they should return. They rise in a mass, re-
ceiving additions to their numbers from every inter-
vening place, till they reach this neighbourhood in


an amazing flock. Sometimes they pass on without
stopping, and are joined by those which have spent
the day here. At other times they make my park
their place of rendezvous, and cover the ground in
vast profusion, or perch upon the surrounding trees-
After tarrying here for a certain time, every rook
takes wing. They linger in the air for a while, in
slow revolving circles, and then they all proceed to
Nostell Priory, which is their last resting-place for
the night. In their morning and evening passage,
the loftiness or lowliness of their flight seems to be
regulated by the state of the weather. When it
blows a hard gale of wind, they descend the valley
with astonishing rapidity, and just skim over the tops
of the intervening hills, a few feet above the trees :
but, when the sky is calm and clear, they pass
through the heavens at a great height, in regular
and easy flight.

Sometimes these birds perform an evolution, which
is, in this part of the country, usually called the
shooting of the rooks. Farmers tell you, that this
shooting portends a coming wind. He who pays at-
tention to the flight of birds has, no doubt, observed
this downward movement. When rooks have risen
to an immense height in the air, so that, in ap-
pearance, they are scarcely larger than the lark, they
suddenly descend to the ground, or to the tops of
trees exactly under them. To effect this, they come
headlong down, on pinion a little raised, but not ex-
panded, in a zig-zag direction (presenting alternately
their back and breast to you), through the resisting
air, which causes a noise similar to that of a rushing



wind. This is a magnificent and beautiful sight to the
eye of an ornithologist. It is idle to suppose for a
moment that it portends wind. It is merely the ordi-
nary descent of the birds to an inviting spot beneath
them, where, in general, some of their associates
are already assembled, or where there is food to be
procured. When we consider the prodigious height
of the rooks at the time they begin to descend, we
conclude that they cannot effect their arrival at a
spot perpendicular under them by any other process
so short and rapid.

Rooks remain with us the year throughout. If
there were a deficiency of food, this would not be
the case; for, when birds can no longer support them-
selves in the place which they have chosen for their
residence, they leave it, and go in quest of nutriment
elsewhere. Thus, for want of food, myriads of wild
fowl leave the frozen north, and repair to milder
climates; and in this immediate district, when there
is but a scanty sprinkling of seeds on the whitethorn
bush, our flocks of fieldfares and of redwings bear
no proportion to those in times of a plentiful supply
of their favourite food. But the number of rooks
never visibly diminishes; and on this account we may
safely conclude that, one way or other, they always
find a sufficiency of food. Now, if we bring, as a charge
against them, their feeding upon the industry of
mar., as, for example, during the time of a hard frost,
or at seedtime, or at harvest, at which periods they
will commit depredations, if not narrowly watched ;
we ought, in justice, to put down in their favour the
rest of the year, when they feed entirely upon in-


sects. Should we wish to know theamount of noxious
insects destroyed by rooks, we have only to refer to
a most valuable and interesting Paper on the Services
of the Rook, signed T. G. Clitheroe, Lancashire,
which is given in the Mag. of Nat. Hist., vol. vi.
p. 142. I wish every farmer in England would read
it: they would then be convinced how much the
rook befriends them.

Some author (I think Goldsmith) informs us, that
the North American colonists got the notion into
their heads that the purple grakle was a grenr
consumer of their maize ; and these wise men of
the west actually offered a reward of three-pence for
the killed dozen of the plunderers. This tempting
boon soon caused the country to be thinned of
grakles, and then myriads of insects appeared, to put
the good people in mind of the former plagues of
Egypt. They damaged the grass to such a fearful
extent, that, in 1749, the rash colonists were obliged
to procure hay from Pennsylvania, and even from
England. BufFon mentions, that grakles were brought
from India to Bourbon, in order to exterminate the
grasshoppers. The colonists, seeing these birds busy
in the new-sown fields, fancied that they were
searching for grain, and instantly gave the alarm.
The poor grakles were proscribed by Government,
and in two hours after the sentence was passed, not
a grakle remained in the island. The grasshoppers
again got the ascendency, and then the deluded
islanders began to mourn for the loss of their grakles.
The governor procured four of these birds from
India, about eight years after their proscription, and
K 4


the state took charge of their preservation. Laws
were immediately framed for their protection ; and,
lest the people should have a hankering for grakle
pie, the physicians were instructed to proclaim the
flesh of the grakle very unwholesome food. When-
ever I see a flock of rooks at work in a turnip-field,
which, in dry weather, is often the case, I know that
they have not assembled there to eat either the
turnips or the tops, but that they are employed in
picking out a grub, which has already made a lodge-
ment in the turnip.

Last spring, I paid a visit, once a day, to a car-
rion crow's nest on the top of a fir tree. In the
course of the morning in which she had laid her fifth
egg, I took all the eggs out of the nest, and in their
place I put two rooks' eggs, which were within six
days of being hatched. The carrion crow attended
on the stranger eggs, just as though they had been
her own, and she raised the young of them with
parental care. When they had become sufficiently
large, I took them out of the nest, and carried them
home. One of them was sent up to the game-
keeper's house, with proper instructions ; the other
remained with me. Just at this time an old woman
had made me a present of a barn-door hen. " Take
it, sir," said she, " and welcome ; for, if it stays here
any longer, we shall be obliged to kill it When
we get up to wash in the morning, it crows like a
cock. All its feathers are getting like those of a
cock ; it is high time that it was put out of the way,
for when hens turn cocks people say that they are
known to be very unlucky ; and, if this thing is


allowed to live, we don't know what may happen.
It has great spurs on its legs, and last summer it
laid four eggs. If I had had my own way, it would
have been killed when it first began to crow." I
received the hen with abundant thanks; and, in
return, I sent the old woman a full-bred Malay fowl.
On examining the hen, I found her comb very large;
the feathers on the neck and rump much elongated ;
the spurs curved, and about 1 \ inch long ; the two
largest feathers in her tail arched, and four or five
smaller arched ones, of a beautiful and glossy colour,
hanging down on each side of the tail. In a word,
this hen had so masculine an appearance, that, when
strangers looked at her, they all took her to be a
cock, and it was with difficulty I persuaded them
that she was a hen. We allowed her the range of
a sheltered grass-plot, flanked on one side by holly
trees, and open to the lake on the other. Here,
also, was placed, in a cage, the young rook which I
had taken from the nest of the carrion crow. The
hen showed such an antipathy to it, that, whenever
I held it to her, she would immediately fly at it.
When visitors came to inspect her, I had only to
take the rook out of the cage, and pit it against her,
when she would stand upright, raise the long feathers
on her neck, and begin to cackle, cluck, and crow.
One morning the rook had managed to push aside
a bar in front of its cage. A servant, in passing by,
looked into it, and missed the bird. The hen had
also disappeared. On search being made, they
were both found floating side by side, dead, in the
lake below. We conjectured that the hen had


pursued the rook after its escape from the cage,
and that the wind which blew very strong that
morning, had forced them both into a watery grave.
I had still one rook left at the gamekeeper's. It
was kept in a cage, which was placed on a little
stand in his garden ; and I had given orders that
upon no account was it to be allowed to go at large.
The feathers remained firm at the base of the bill
till the 15th of August; on which day the keeper
perceived that a few feathers had dropped from the
lower mandible, and were lying at the bottom of the
cage. In a couple of weeks more, the lower man-
dible had begun to put on a white scurfy appearance,
while here and there a few feathers had fallen from
the upper one. This is the purport of the keeper's
information to me, on my return home from Bavaria.
On the 31st of the same month, a terrible storm
set in. By what the keeper told me, the night
must have been as dark and dismal as that in which
poor King Lear stood in lamentation, and exposed
his hoary locks to the four rude winds of heaven.
A standard white-hart cherry tree, perhaps the
finest in Yorkshire, and which, for many generations,
had been the pride and ornament of this place, lost
two large branches during the gale; and in the
morning, when the keeper rose, he found the cage
shattered and upset, and driven to the farthest
corner of his garden. The rook was quite dead.
It had lost its life, either through the inclemency of
that stormy night, or through bruises received in
the fall of the cage. Thus both the rooks were
unlucky. The old woman, no doubt, could clearly


trace their misfortunes to her crowing hen. How-
ever, the experiment with the two young rooks,
though not perfect, has nevertheless been of some
use. It has shown us that the carrion crow makes
no distinction betwixt its own eggs and those of the
rook ; that it can know nothing of the actual time
required to sit upon eggs in order to produce the
young ; that the young of the rook will thrive under
the care of the carrion crow, just as well as under
that of its own parents ; and, finally, that the feathers
fall off from the root of the rook's bill by the order
of nature, as was surmised by the intelligent Bewick,
and not by the process of the bird's thrusting its
bill into the earth, in search of food, as is the opinion
of some naturalists.

The rook advances through the heavens with a
very regular and a somewhat tardy beat of wing ;
but it is capable of proceeding with great velocity
when it chooses : witness its pursuit and attack on
the sparrowhawk and kestrel. It is apt to injure,
in the course of time, the elm trees on which it
builds its nest, by nipping off the uppermost twigs.
But this, after all, is mere conjecture. The damage
may be caused by an accumulation of nests, or by
the constant resort of such a number of birds to
one tree. Certain, however, it is, that, when rooks
have taken possession of an elm tree for the purpose
of incubation, the uppermost branches of that tree
are often subject to premature decay.

Though the flocks of rooks appear to have no
objection to keep company, from time to time, with
the carrion crows, in a winter's evening, before they


retire to roost, still I can never see a carrion crow
build its nest in a rookery. There was always a
carrion crow's nest here, in a clump of high Scotch
pines, near the stables, till the rooks got possession
of the trees ; the carrion couple then forsook the
place: the rooks were dislodged from this clump of
trees ; and then a pair of carrion crows (the same,
for aught I know to the contrary) came and built
their nest in it.

The rook lays from three to five eggs, varying
much, like those of the carrion crow, in colour,
shape, and size. After the rooks have built, and
even lined their nests, they leave them, on the ap-
proach of night, to repair to the general rendezvous
at Nostell Priory ; but, as soon as they begin to lay,
they then no longer quit the trees at night, until
they have reared their young. When this has been
effected, we see large flocks of them resorting to
the different woods of the neighbourhood, to pass
the night. This they continue to do till a few days
before the autumnal equinox, when, for reasons
which baffle all conjecture, they begin to pass over
this valley every morning in a westerly direction,
and return in the evening to their eastern roosting-
place in the woods of Nostell Priory.

Rooks are observed to keep up a very close and
friendly intercourse with starlings and jackdaws ;
but, on looking at them in the fields, the observer
will perceive, that, while the jackdaws mix promis-
cuously with the rooks, both in their flight and
in searching for food, the starlings always keep in
their own flock. This circumstance has long engaged


my attention ; but I am no farther advanced in the
investigation than I was on the first day on which
I set out. It is one of the many secrets in the habits
of birds, which will, perhaps, be for ever concealed
from our view.


" Towards the approach of day, the noise in some measure
subsided ; long before objects were distinguishable, the pigeons
began to move off in a direction quite different from that in
which they had arrived the evening before ; and, at sunrise,
all that were able to fly had disappeared. The bowlings of
the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cou-
gars, bears, raccoons, opossums, and polecats were seen sneak-
ing off." (Biography of Birds, by Audubon, p. 325.)

" Variarum monstra ferarum ! " VIRGIL.

MR. AUDUBON may boast of a sight never before
seen by mortal eyes under similar circumstances.
Great indeed must have been the yearning for
pigeon flesh, to have caused such a variety of wild
animals to assemble there ; and irresistible the
flavour which induced them to tarry so long be-
yond their wonted time of prowling. Their very
nature seems to have been changed. Their re-
maining at the pigeon-slaughter till the time of
sunrise is a most wonderful circumstance, which de-
mands investigation on the part of naturalists ; for,
hitherto, all these wild beasts which Mr. Audubon


has introduced into his description, have only
been known as animals of nocturnal movements,
and of very skulking and suspecting habits. In
general, the flash of a gun, the crackling of a flame,
or the shout of a huntsman, will scare any one
of them, even when concealed in the lonely re-
treat; but, on this ever-memorable occasion, the
nerves of the animals, both large and small, were
strung up to an astonishing degree of intensity.
The day had already dawned, unheeded by them ;
and it was only at sunrise that they seemed aware
of being in dangerous company, and found that
it was high time to sneak off from a place where
Mr. Audubon tells us, " there was little under-
wood;" where "the uproar continued the whole of
the night;" where men had assembled " with iron
pots, containing sulphur;" and " with torches of
pine-knots, with poles and with guns ; " where
" fires were lighted, and a magnificent as well as
wonderful and almost terrifying sight presented
itself;" where, in fine, the auditory faculties of
Mr. Audubon himself became so completely use-
less, on account of the stunning noise, that, ab-
solutely, he was " only aware of the firing by
seeing the shooters reloading." " O judgment i
thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost,
their reason," if they can bring themselves to be-
lieve that into this sulphureous, torch-lighted, de-
tonating, yelling, roaring, and terrific attack on
the passenger pigeons, there came up a motley
herd of wolves, foxes, cougars, lynxes, bears, rac-
coons, opossums, and polecats, to share the plun-


der, and actually tarried there till the rising of
the sun ; at which time, Mr. Audubon informs
us, they were seen sneaking off. He himself saw
what he relates.

But let us pass on. " The pigeons," continues
Mr. Audubon, " arriving by thousands, alighted
every where, one above another, until solid masses
as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches
all around." Solid masses I Our European pigeons,
in a similar situation, would have been all smo-
thered in less than three minutes. Mr. Audubon
informs us, towards the end of his narrative, that
the feathers of this pigeon " fall off at the least
touch." From this, we may infer to a certainty
that every pigeon which was unlucky enough to
be undermost in the solid masses would lose every
feather from its uppermost parts, through the
pressure of the feet of those above it. Now, I
would fain believe that instinct taught these pi-
geons to resort to a certain part of the forest,
solely for the purpose of repose, and not to undergo
a process of inevitable suffocation ; and at the same
time, to have their backs deprived of every feather,
while they were voluntarily submitting to this self-
inflicting method of ending their days.

" Many trees," says Mr. Audubon, " two feet in
diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great
distance from the ground ; and the branches of
many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if
the forest had been swept by a tornado. Every
thing proved to me that the number of birds resort-
ing to this jpart of the forest must be immense beyond


conception." I know that the force of a tornado
will break the trunk of a tree two feet in diameter,
because its force acts horizontally against the up-
right stem ; but how is it possible that a multitude
of pigeons, alighting upon a tree, could cause its
upright bole, two feet in diameter, to break off at
no great distance from the ground ? The branches
of the tree, which took their lead diagonally from
the bole, might possibly have given way under a
heavy pressure, because they were inclined more
or less from their perpendicular; but the upright
bole itself would stand uninjured, and defy for ever
any weight that could be brought to bear upon it
from above.

I now leave the assemblage of wild beasts, the
solid masses of pigeons as large as hogsheads, and
the broken trunk of the tree two feet in diameter, to
the consideration of those British naturalists who
have volunteered to support a foreigner in his exer-
tions to teach Mr. Bull ornithology in the nineteenth

The passages upon which I have just commented
form part of " the facts" on which R. B., in the
Magazine of Natural History (vol. vi. p. 273.),
tells us that the value of Mr. Audubon's Biography
of Birds solely rests. No wonder that, ruit alto a
culmine. By the way, I observe, at the end of that
Biography, a most laudatory notice by Mr. Swain-
son. He tells us that Audubon contemplated Na-
ture as she really is, not as she is represented in
books : he sought her in her sanctuaries. Well, be
it so ; I do not dispute his word ; still I suspect,


that, during the search and contemplation, either
the dame herself was in liquor, or her wooer in


THE supposed purity of the dove is a common
topic with many writers ; and their readers are apt
to imagine that this bird has been more favoured
by Nature than the rest of the feathered tribe.
What may be allowed to romantic and sentimental
composers cannot by any means be conceded to
writers on natural history. Genuine ornithology
would be offended at the attempt to introduce un-
warrantable matter into her pages ; while her true
votaries would always grieve on seeing it admitted
into them.

All wild birds which go in pairs are invariably
attached to each other by Nature's strongest ties ;
and they can experience no feelings of what may be
called mistrust or suspicions of unfaithfulness ;
otherwise we should witness scenes of ornitholo-
gical assault and battery in every hedge and wood,
during the entire process of their incubation. The
soot-black crow is just as chaste, affectionate, and
constant as the snow-white dove itself. The move-
ments of both these birds, at a certain time of the
year, tend exactly to the same point. They are



inherent and unalterable in them, and, of course,
are not to be repressed or changed. At the inter-
esting period of incubation, Nature knows no dis-

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 14 of 28)