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Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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tinction betwixt the cooing of the dove and the
cackling of the goose. Both sounds express the
same emotions, and are perfectly understood by the
parties. They have only one plain and obvious
meaning. Audubon's description of his love-sick
turtle-dove, which listened with delight to her mate's
" assurances of devoted affection," and was " still
coy and undetermined, and seemed fearful of the
truth of her lover," and, " virgin-like, resolved to
put his sincerity to the test," is lovesome nonsense,
as far as regards the feathered tribe ; and is a bur-
lesque upon the undeviating tenor of Nature's course.
Those who approve of such absurd aberrations from
the line of instinct allotted to birds would do well
to confine their studies to the romances on their
drawingroom tables. Let us hope that better days
are in store for ornithology; and that when the
ardent novice shall turn over the pages which may
be really intended for his improvement in this fas-
cinating study, he will find their contents in unison
with what he will observe afterwards in Nature's
boundless range.

If size and beauty give a claim to priority, the
ringdove will hold the first place in the scanty
catalogue of the wild pigeons of Europe. It stays
with us in Yorkshire the whole of the year ; and, in
the winter months, it resorts chiefly to the turnip
fields for sustenance, where it feeds voraciously on
the leaves, and not on the body, of the turnip. The



THE RINGDOVE. 147

leaves are said to impart a rank and disagreeable
taste to the flesh of the bird ; but this is easily pre-
vented by cutting open the crop, as soon as the
pigeon is killed, and discharging the contents.
White of Selborne recommends this process. To-
wards the evening the form of the ringdove becomes
considerably changed. Having fed on the turnip
tops during the course of the day, its crop gets so
distended with food, that it gives to the fore part of
the pigeon's body a very full appearance ; and this
is easily discerned as the bird passes over your
head to its evening retreat. The contents of the
stomach having been digested during the night, we
observe that the body has regained its ordinary
proportions at the break of day.

There has been a great increase of ringdoves
during the winter season, in this part of the country,
since the farmers have paid so much attention to
the cultivation of turnips. On seeing the congre-
gated numbers of these birds, one is led to imagine
that there must be an annual influx of them, at the
close of autumn, from some far distant part. As
the ringdove is an unprotected bird, and much
sought after on account of the delicacy of its flesh,
I have strong doubts whether our breeding season
can produce a sufficient supply to make up the
flocks which are seen here in winter. At all events,
in this quarter of Yorkshire, very few young ring-
doves are allowed to escape. Farmers and game-
keepers are ever on the look-out to transfer them
from the nest to the kitchen. These marauders are
so perpetually on the watch, that it has never yet
L 2



148 THE RINGDOVE.

been my lot to find a ringdove's nest in our neigh-
bouring woods with full-fledged young ones in it ;
although I am continually in the habit of straying
into them, and looking for the nests with a careful
and unwearied eye. Wherefore, I conclude that
our winter flocks receive migratory individuals from
distant regions.

The ringdove, by not feeding on insects, renders
no service to man while visiting his fields. On the
contrary, it is known to injure him considerably in
his crop of rising clover. As soon as this plant
begins, under the influence of the vernal sun, to
expand its leaves, the ringdove attacks the heart-
shoot with fatal severity ; and much address is re-
quired on the part of the farmer to scare the birds
from their favourite food. Leaving, however, the
sons of Ceres to fight their own battles, I will merely
add, that this handsome bird is protected here. I
love to listen to its soothing murmurs, and take
intense pleasure in observing its habits during the
breeding season, when it becomes fully as tame as
the domestic pigeon. The housekeeper often hints
to me that a couple of them would look extremely
well on the table ; and the farmer calls them de-
vouring vermin. I receive the opinions of these
respectable personages with perfect indifference ;
and I sometimes soothe them by observing that
Avhere the ringdove has one friend, it has a thousand
enemies, ready to prepare it for the spit, or to pre-
vent for ever its return to the clover field.

The ringdove lays two snow-white eggs on a nest
"which may be termed a platform of sticks, so spar-



THE RINGDOVE. 149

ingly put together, that the eggs are easily seen
through it by an eye habituated to look for them.
On inspecting this apparent commencement or
remnant of a nest, one is led to surmise, at the first
glance, that the young are necessarily exposed to
many a cold and bitter blast during the spring of
this ever-changing climate. " But God tempers the
wind," said Maria, "to the shorn lamb;" and in
the case before us, instinct teaches the parent bird
to sit upon its offspring for a longer period after
they are hatched than, perhaps, any other of the
feathered tribe. In the mean time, the droppings
of the young, which the old birds of some species
carefully convey away, are allowed to remain in the
nest of the ringdove. They soon form a kind of
plaster strong and scentless. This adds consistency
to the nest, producing, at the same time, a defence
against the cold. The ornithologist, while going
his autumnal beats, in quest of knowledge, on seeing
this, will know immediately that the nest has con-
tained young : should this be wanting, he may con-
clude that the nest has been abandoned at an early
period. As he will find but very few nests with
this species of plaster in them, he may conclude, to
a certainty, that the ringdove has a host of enemies
in this country, and that it is seldom fortunate
enough to rear its young to that state in which the
faculty of flying saves them from destruction.

No bird in the British dominions seems to resort
to so many trees and shrubs for the purpose of incu-
bation as the ringdove. Not a tree, from the tower-
ing pine to the lowly thorn, ever comes amiss to
L 3



150 THE RINGDOVE.

it. There is something, too, peculiarity singular in
the locality of some of the nests. While one is seen
placed nearly on the topmost branches of the lofty
sycamore, another may be found within four feet of
the ground, in the humble shelter of the hedge-row
bush. Last year, I found a ringdove sitting on one
egg, in a magpie's nest of the year gone by ; and I
observed another ringdove, rearing two young ones
in a spruce fir tree, below that of a magpie, out of
which I had taken seven eggs, and substituted five
of a jackdaw in their place. It was interesting to
see these two species of birds, one so calm and
gentle, the other so pert and roguish, thus close to
each other, at so critical a juncture. While I was
observing them, I felt convinced that there are cer-
tain times in which birds are not so bent on plunder
as we would fain suppose they are ; and, moreover,
that they can frequent each other's company in
perfect peace and quiet. In this instance it appears
that instinct showed the ringdove how to preserve
her eggs from being plundered by her crafty neigh-
bour, who, according to our own short-sighted view
of ornithological economy, would have been apt to
make free with them at the earliest call of hunger.
The ringdove had settled there with her eyes open
to her supposed danger ; for the magpie was the
first to get possession of the tree.

I had but a faint idea of the habits of the ring-
dove until I had offered it an undisturbed asylum in
this " valley free." Its movements are remarkably
periodical. In mild winters, or, more properly
speaking, in winters of short continuance, it makes



THE RINGDOVE. 151

its first appearance, on the island where my house
stands, early in February. This year it came, for
the first time, on the second of the month, and cooed
in full note. From this period, it may be seen here*
every day till October, either in the sycamore trees,
or in the ivy on the old ruined tower, or on the
lawn, picking up the tender sprouts of grass. Pro-
vided you approach with " cautious step and slow,"
you may get within seven yards of different pairs
of these birds ; and when the window-sash is down,
they will come within a few paces of the place
vhere you are standing, and allow you to gaze at
them for any length of time. After the first week
in October, they take their final leave of my island
for the winter ; and never, by any chance, pay us
even one single solitary visit till February sets in ;
though they may be seen every day in congregated
numbers in other parts of the park, where they
roost in the elm and fir trees. During the winter
months, they are exceedingly shy and timorous,
seeking for safety in lofty flight, the moment they
see you approach. They become quite silent to-
wards the last week in October, and their notes are
reduced to half their number for some days before
they cease to coo entirely. At this period they
discontinue those graceful risings and sinkings in
the air, in which they appear to so much advantage
during the whole of the breeding season.

Thus we have a bird which, during the course of
the year, at one time approaches the haunts of man
with wonderful assurance, and at another shuns
them with a timidity equally astonishing. I speak



152 THE RINGDOVE.

only of its diurnal movements ; for, at the close of
day, both in winter and in summer, when not mo-
lested, this bird will come near to our out-buildings,
and seek a roosting-place in the trees which sur-
round them. This peculiarity of the ringdove in
approaching so near to our mansions during the day
in the breeding season, and then losing all confi-
dence in us, as soon as incubation ceases, is not a
mere accidental trait of one or two particular birds,
whose usual habits may have been changed, either
by want of food, or by protection offered ; but it is
inherent in the whole species, when the bird is
allowed by man to follow Nature's unerring man-
dates.

I know of no British bird which has the colour of
its plumage so constant as is that of the ringdove.
I have never yet seen it vary ; and the white spot or
segment of a circle on the back of its neck, from
which it takes its name, is always of the same size.

Ringdoves are exceedingly numerous here during
summer ; and when winter sets in, many thousands
come every evening to take up their quarters for
the night. They retire early to roost, and never
leave the trees till all the other birds are on the stir.

As yet, all attempts to reclaim this pigeon have
been of no avail. I should suppose that it is not in
the power of man to make it breed within the walls
of a dovecot. For my own part, I am not exactly
aware that its reduction to domestication would be
productive of much advantage to us. Let others
offer it the same protection it enjoys with me, and
there would always be an ample supply of ringdoves



THE GUILLEMOT. 153

to fill their groves with softest murmurs, and furnish
their tables with a delicious repast. Connoisseurs
tell us that the flesh of the ringdove, in winter, has
the flavour of moor game : I have fed on pigeons in
many countries, but cannot say that I ever found
them vary in taste from the pigeon which inhabits
our common dovecots. Much, perhaps, depends
upon the cooking. The culinary art, no doubt,
with other important sciences, has derived great
benefit from the march of intellect. In London
they will serve you up a ram cat for a Martlemas
rabbit ; and we are told that in Paris a pair of old
hunting boots can be stewed down to a very excel-
lent and wholesome soup.

" Nil equidem durare diu sub imagine eadem
Crediderim."

These cooks will suffer nothing to remain,
Tn pristine flavour, or its shape retain.



NOTES OF A VISIT TO THE HAUNTS OF THE
GUILLEMOT, AND FACTS ON ITS HABITS.

THE immense range of perpendicular rocks, lashed
by old ocean's briny surge, offers a choice and favour-
able retreat to myriads of wildfowl, from far-famed
Flamborough Head to Bempton, and thence to
Buckton and Speaton, and onwards to the Bay of
Filey.

He who wishes to examine the nidification of
these birds ought to be at this part of the sea coast



154 THE GUILLEMOT.

early in the month of May. About five miles from
Bridlington Quay is the village of Flamborough,
chiefly inhabited by fishermen ; and a little farther
on is a country inn, called the North Star, which
has good accommodation for man and horse ; but a
lady would feel herself ill at ease in it, on account
of the daily visits of the fishermen, those hardy sons
of Neptune, who stop at it on their way to the ocean,
and again on their return. Here they rendezvous,
to fortify their interior with a pint or two of comfort,
and to smoke a pipe, by way of compensation for
the many buffets which they ever and anon receive
in the exercise of their stormy and nocturnal calling.
On the bare ledges of these stupendous cliffs the
guillemot lays its egg, which is exposed to the face
of heaven, without any nest whatever ; but the
razorbills and puffins lay theirs in crannies, deep and
difficult of access. Here, too, the peregrine falcon
breeds, and here the raven rears its young ; while
the rock pigeon and the starling enter the fissures
of the precipice, and proceed with their nidification,
far removed from the prying eye of man. The kit-
tiwake makes her nest of dried grass wherever she
can find a lodgement, and lays two spotted eggs,
very rarely three. The cormorant and shag inhabit
that part of the rocks which is opposite to Buckton
Hall. You are told that the cormorants had their
nests, in former times, near to the Flamborough
lighthouse ; but now these birds totally abandon the
place during the breeding season. The jackdaw is
found throughout the whole of this bold and craggy
shore : he associates with the seafowl, as though he
were quite at home amongst his own inland con-



THE GUILLEMOT. 155

geners. Towards the top of the cliffs, both rabbits
and foxes have descended from the table land above
them, and managed to find a shelter among the
crevices, in places where you would suppose that no
four-footed animal would ever dare to venture. A
low mound, half earth, half stone, thrown up by the
farmers for the protection of their flocks, skirts the
winding summit of the precipice. Cattle have been
known to surmount this artificial boundary, and lose
their lives in the roaring surge below.

This extensive range of rocks, as far as appertains
to birds, is not considered private property. Any
person who can climb it may carry away what num-
ber of eggs he chooses. Still there is a kind of
honourable understanding betwixt the different sets
of climbers, that they will not trespass over the
boundaries which have been marked by mutual
consent.

The eggs of the guillemot and razorbills form a
considerable article of traffic from old May-day till
about the middle of June. Though the eggs of the
kittiwake and puffin are of fully as good a flavour,
still they are not in such request, on account of
their tender shells, which are easily broken in pack-
ing, and in transporting from place to place.

The usual process of seeking for the eggs is
generally carried on by three men, though two will
suffice in case of necessity. Having provided them-
selves with two ropes of sufficient length and
strength, they drive an iron bar into the ground,
about 6 in. deep, on the table land at the top of the
precipice. To this bar is fastened the thickest of
the two ropes, and then it is thrown down the rocks.



156 THE GUILLEMOT.

He who is to descend now puts his legs through a
pair of hempen braces, which meet round his middle,
and there form a waistband. At each end of this
waistband is a loophole, through which they reeve
the smaller rope. Sometimes an iron hook and eye
are used in lieu of this loop. A man now holds the
rope firmly in his hand, and gradually lowers his
comrade down the precipice. While he is descending
he has hold of the other rope, which was fastened
to the iron bar ; and, with this assistance, he passes
from ledge to ledge, and from rock to rock, picking
up the eggs of the guillemot, and putting them into
two bags, which he had slung across his shoulder
ere he commenced his arduous undertaking. When
he has filled these bags with eggs, he jerks the rope,
and the motion informs his friend at the top that it
is now time to draw him up. On coming up again to
the place from whence he first set out, all the eggs
are taken from the bags, and put into a large basket,
prior to their being packed in hampers and carried
off in a cart by wholesale dealers, who purchase
them from the climbers for sixpence the score. At
Bridlington and the neighbouring places the eggs
are retailed at a halfpenny a piece.

The rocks are searched for eggs every third day,
provided the weather be fair. It requires consi-
derable address on the part of the descending
climber to save himself from being hit by fragments
of the rock, which are broken off by the rope
coming in contact with them. He avoids the danger
by moving sidewise when the stone is falling, and
by taking care, as he goes down, to clear away with
his foot any portion of the rock that seems ready



THE GUILLEMOT. 157

to give way. One of the climbers, while he was
imparting to me instructions how to act, grinned
purposely, and showed his upper jaw. I learned by
his story, that, last year, a falling stone had driven
two of his front teeth down his throat ; while the
poor climber, with all his dexterity, was unable to
fend off the blow.

As I was lowered down, the grandeur and sub-
limity of the scene beggared all description, and
amply repaid any little unpleasant sensations which
arose on the score of danger. The sea was roaring
at the base of this stupendous wall of rocks ; thou-
sands and tens of thousands of wildfowl were in an
instant on the wing : the kittiwakes and jackdaws
rose in circling flight ; while most of the guillemots,
razorbills, and puffins, left the ledges of the rocks,
in a straight and downward line, with a peculiarly
quick motion of the pinions, till they plunged into
the ocean. It was easy to distinguish the puffins
from the razorbills in their descent : these, presented
a back of a uniformly dark colour: those, had a
faint white diagonal line running across the wings.
The nests of the kittiwakes were close to each other,
on every part of the rocks which was capable of
holding them; and they were so numerous, as
totally to defy any attempt to count them. On the
bare and level ledge of the rocks, often not more
than six inches wide, lay the eggs of the guillemots :
some were placed parallel with the range of the
shelf, others nearly so, and others with their blunt
and sharp ends indiscriminately pointing to the sea.
By no glutinous matter, nor any foreign body what-
ever, were they affixed to the rock : bare they lay>



158 THE GUILLEMOT.

and unattached, as on the palm of your outstretched
hand. You might see nine or ten, or sometimes
twelve, old guillemots in a line, so near to each
other that their wings seemed to touch those of their
neighbours ; and when they flew off at your ap-
proach, you would see as many eggs as you had
counted birds silting on the ledge.

The eggs vary in size and shape and colour beyond
all belief. Some are large, others small, some ex-
ceedingly sharp at one end, and others nearly ro-
tund. Where one is green, streaked, and blotched
with black, another has a milk-white ground, blotched
and streaked with light brown. Others, again, pre-
sent a very pale green colour, without any markings
at all ; while others are of a somewhat darker green,
with streaks and blotches of a remarkably faded
brown. In a word, nature seems to have introduced
such an endless intermixture of white, brown, green,
yellow, and black into the shells of the eggs of the
guillemots, that it absolutely requires the aid of the
well-set pallet of a painter to give an adequate idea
of their beautifully blended variety of colouring.
The pen has no chance of success in attempting the
description.

The rock-climbers assure you that the guillemot,
when undisturbed, never lays more than one egg ;
but that, if it be taken away, she will lay another ;
and, if she be plundered of that, she will then pro-
duce a third ; and so on. If you dissect a guillemot,
you will find a knot of eggs within her. The rock-
climbers affirm that the bird can retain these eggs,
or produce them, according to circumstances. Thus,



THE GUILLEMOT. 159

if she be allowed to hatch her first egg, she lays no
more for the season ; if that egg be lost or taken
away, another is laid to supply its place.

The men also assure you that, when the young
guillemot gets to a certain size, it manages to climb
upon the back of the old bird, which conveys it down
to the ocean. Having carried a good telescope with
me, through it I saw numbers of young guillemots,
diving and sporting on the sea, quite unable to fly ;
and I observed others on the ledges of the rocks, as
I went down among them, in such situations that,
had they attempted to fall into the waves beneath,
they would have been killed by striking against the
projecting points of the intervening sharp and rug-
ged rocks : wherefore I concluded that the informa-
tion of the rock-climbers was to be depended upon ;
and I more easily gave credit to it, because I myself
have seen an old swan sailing on the water with her
young ones upon her back, about a week after they
had been hatched.

He who rejoices when he sees all nature smiling
around him, and who takes an interest in contem-
plating the birds of heaven as they wing their way
before him, will feel sad at heart on learning the
unmerited persecution to which these harmless sea-
fowl are exposed. Parties of sportsmen, from all
quarters of the kingdom, visit Flamborough and
its vicinity during the summer months, and spread
sad devastation all around them. No profit attends
the carnage; the poor unfortunate birds serve merely
as marks to aim at, and they are generally left
where they fall. Did these heartless gunmen reflect,



160 THE CORMORANT.

but for one moment, how many innocent birds their
shot destroys ; how many fall disabled on the wave,
there to linger for hours, perhaps for days, in torture
and in anguish ; did they but consider how many
helpless young ones will never see again their parents
coming to the rock with food ; they would, methinks,
adopt some other plan to try their skill, or cheat the
lingering hour.



NOTES OF A VISIT TO THE HAUNTS OF THE
CORMORANT, AND FACTS ON ITS HABITS.

THE fabulous story concerning the cormorant made
a great impression upon me in early youth ; and I
well remember with what avidity I first read his true
history in the pages of Buffon.

The old fable tells us that the cormorant was once
a wool-merchant. He entered into partnership with
the bramble and the bat, and they freighted a large
vessel with wool. She struck on some rocks, and
went to the bottom. This loss caused the firm to be-
come bankrupt. Since that disaster, the bat skulks
in his hiding-hole until twilight, in order that he may
avoid his creditors : the bramble seizes hold of every
passing sheep, to make up his loss by retaining part
of its wool ; while the cormorant is for ever diving
into the waters of the deep, in hopes of discovering
whereabouts his foundered vessel lies. So far for
the fable, which will always bring pleasing recol-



THE CORMORANT. 161

lections into the minds of those who are fond of
rural pursuits.

The cormorants often pay me a visit in the winter
season i^and, could they but perceive that there is
safety for them here, and great danger elsewhere,
they would remain with me while the water is un-
frozen. But they wander, unfortunately, through
parts where protection is not afforded them; and,
being outlandish birds in the eyes of the neigh-
bouring gamekeepers, they are immediately shot at.
Those which find their way here are so unconscious
of danger, that, after they have spent a considerable
portion of time in diving for fish, they will come and
preen their feathers on the terrace which rises from
the water, within ten yards of the drawingroom
windows.

The cormorant may be justly styled the feathered


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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 15 of 28)