Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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terror of the finny tribe. His skill in diving is most
admirable, and his success beyond belief. You may
know him at a distance, among a thousand water-
fowl, by his upright neck, by his body being appa-
rently half-immersed in the water, and by his being
perpetually in motion when not on land. While
the ducks and teal and wigeons are stationary on the
pool, the cormorant is seen swimming to and fro,
" as if in quest of something." First raising his
body nearly perpendicular, down he plunges into the
deep ; and, after staying there a considerable time,
he is sure to bring up a fish, which he invariably
swallows head foremost. Sometimes half an hour
elapses before he can manage to accommodate a
large eel quietly in his stomach. You see him


straining violently, with repeated efforts to gulp it ;
and when you fancy that the slippery mouthful is
successfully disposed of, all on a sudden the eel
retrogrades upwards from its dismal sepulchre, strug-
gling violently to escape. The cormorant swallows
it again ; and up again it comes, and shows its tail
a foot or more out of its destroyer's mouth. At
length, worn out with ineffectual writhings and
slidings, the eel is gulped down into the cormorant's
stomach for the last time, there to meet its dreaded
and inevitable fate. This gormandising exhibition
was witnessed here by several individuals, both
ladies and gentlemen, on Nov. 26. 1832, through an
excellent eight-and-twenty-guinea telescope ; the
cormorant being, at that time, not more than a
hundred yards distant from the observers. I was of
the party.

When I visited Flamborough Head in the first
week in June, I was disappointed in not seeing the
cormorant there; but I was informed in Bridlington
Quay, that this bird was not to be found nearer than
the rocks at Buckton ; and that it had eggs very late
in the season. In consequence of this information,
I made a second expedition to the sea coast, and ar-
rived at Bridlington Quay on July 14. 1834.

About three quarters of a mile from the sea, be-
twixt Flamborough Head and Filey Bay, stands the
once hospitable mansion of Buckton Hall. I say
hospitable, because its carved ornaments in stone,
its stately appearance, and the excellent manner in
which its out-buildings have been constructed,
plainly indicate that mirth and revelry must once


have cheered its walls. But the tide of prosperity
has ceased to flow. Something or other seems to
have intervened, and turned it down another chan-
nel ; for now the once well-known Buckton Hall is
a neglected mansion ; and the stranger, as he passes
near it, sees at one glance that it is no longer a
place of rendezvous for the great. The present
tenant kindly allowed the horse and gig, which I
had hired at Bridlington Quay, to be put under
cover till I returned from the cliff.

My guide, whose name was Mellor, and who
possesses a very accurate knowledge of all the birds
in this district, having mustered men and ropes in
the village of Buckton, we proceeded across the
table land to the Raincliff, which forms a perpendi-
cular wall to the ocean, HO yards high. Whilst I
was descending this precipice, thousands of guille-
mots and razorbills enlivened the interesting scene.
Some were going down to the water, others were
ascending from it ; while every ledge of the rock,
as far as my eye could reach, was literally covered
with birds of the same species. The cormorants
stayed not to witness my unwelcome descent into
their ancient and almost inaccessible settlement.
They all took wing, as soon as we reached the edge
of the cliff, and went far away to sea. It was a
difficult matter to procure their eggs ; for the nests
were built in places where the rocks overhung
them; and it was only by my giving the rope a
swinging motion, and then taking advantage of it,
as it brought me to the face of the cliff, that I was
enabled to get a footing on the ledges which con-


tained them. These nests were composed of thick
sticks, plants from the rocks, grass, ketlocks which
had gone to seed, and a little wool. There were
four young birds in one, three eggs in another, two
in a third, and one newly laid in a fourth. The
shell of the cormorant's eggs is in crusted with a
white chalky substance, which is easily scraped off
with your penknife, and then you get at the true
colour of the shell ; the outside of which is of a
whitish green, and the inside of a green extremely
delicate and beautiful. The egg is oblong in shape,
and you find it small for the size of the bird. The
four young cormorants were unfledged, and covered
with a black down. Their long necks, and long
wing-bones, gave them a grotesque, and an almost
hideous appearance. They would have been of
service to the renowned Callot, when he was making
his celebrated sketch of the Temptations of St.
Anthony. There came from the nests a fetid smell,
so intolerable, that you might have fancied -you had
got among Virgil's Harpies ; or that you were in-
haling exhalations from the den of Cacus. Nothing
could have been more distressing to your nasal sen-

It is remarkable that on the Raincliff not a kitti-
wake is seen to alight ; and scarcely ever observed
to fly close past it. I saw no signs that this bird
had ever made its nest here. An attentive natu-
ralist, who would take up his quarters in this neigh-
bourhood, and visit the coast every day during the
breeding season, might possibly be able to discover
the cause why the kittiwake, which is seen in such


countless thousands from Flamborough Head to
Bempton should shun the Raincliff, which, appa-
rently? differs in nothing but height from the other
parts of this bold and rocky shore.

I am positive that we have not two species of
cormorant in Great Britain. The crested cormorant,
with a white spot on each thigh, is merely the com-
mon cormorant in his nuptial dress. This is not
the only bird which becomes highly ornamented
during the breeding season. On some future day,
when the storms of winter forbid all access to the
fields, and condemn me to the dull monotony of life
within doors, I may possibly take up the pen, and
write down a few remarks upon the change of
plumage in birds.

The flesh of the cormorant possesses no flavour
that would suit the palate of our modern epicures.
Hence it is despised by aldermen, and, of course,
never served up at a Lord Mayor of London's feast.
On the sea coast, this poor bird is shot at by marks-
men through mere wanton pastime ; and whe"n he
takes a flight inland, he runs great risk of never
getting back again to sea ; for nobody will befriend
him, on account of his well-known inclination to
make too free with the contents of well-stored fish-
ponds. Still, for my own part, I love to see him
come this way. Stay here, poor wandering mariner,
as long as it pleases thee to do so. The sight of
thee puts me in mind of the happy hours I spent in
reading the Metamorphoses at the Jesuits' College,
Well do I remember how beautifully the poet tells
thy affecting story, before thou wert reduced to the
M 3


necessity of diving for a livelihood. I do not care if
thou takest all the eels in the lake. Thou art wel-
come to them. I am well aware that thy stomach
requires a frequent and a large supply. So, pr'ythee,
help thyself.


" Perque dies placidos hiberno tempore septem
Incubat Halcyone pendentibus aequore nidis."

OVID. Met., lib. xi.

WHEN the delicious season of spring sets in, I often
get up into the topmost branches of a \vide-spread-
ing oak ; and there, taking the Metamorphoses out
of my pocket, I read the sorrows of poor Halcyone.
A brook runs close by the tree, and on its bank I
have fixed a stump for a resting-place to the king-
fisher. On it, this pretty bird will tarry for a while
in passing up and down, and then plunge into the
stream, and bring out a fish. My elevated station
on the oak gives me a fine opportunity of admiring
its back, as it darts along beneath me. When
the sunbeam is upon it, no words can do justice to
the beauty of the glowing azure which attracts
the eye.

Modern ornithologists have thought fit to remove
the kingfisher from the land birds, and assign it a
place amongst the water-fowl. To me the change
appears a bad one ; and I could wish to see it


brought back again to the original situation in which
our ancestors had placed it ; for there seems to be
nothing in its external formation which can warrant
this arbitrary transposition. The plumage of the
kingfisher is precisely that of the land bird, and, of
course, some parts of the skin are bare of feathers ;
while the whole body is deprived of that thick coat
of down so remarkable in those birds which are
classed under the denomination of water-fowl. Its
feet are not webbed ; its breast-bone is formed
like that of land birds ; and its legs are ill calculated
to enable it to walk into the water. Thus we see
that it can neither swim with the duck, nor dive
with the merganser, nor wade with the heron. Its
act of immersion in the water is quite momentary,
and bears no similarity to the immersion of those
water-fowl which can pursue their prey under the
surface, and persevere for a certain length of time,
till they lay hold of it. Still the mode of taking its
food is similar to that of the gulls, which first see
the fish, and then plunge into the deep to obtain it ;
but this bird differs from the gull in every other

You observe the kingfisher sitting on a rock, or
upon the branch of a tree, or hovering over the
water ; and the moment a fish is seen in the stream
below, it drops down upon it like a falling stone.
If it miss the mark, which is rarely the case, it
comes up again immediately, without further exer-
tion in the water, and then flies off, or occasionally
regains its former station in order to make another
plunge. As this process of immersion is of very
M 4


short duration, the bird is enabled to escape with
impunity from the deep, in which, or on which,
were it to remain for a very little time, death would
inevitably be its fate.

These undeniable circumstances have induced me
to wish for the restoration of the kingfisher to its
former situation amongst the land birds ; for I feel
reluctant to admit that the single act of procuring
its food from the water should be thought a sufficient
reason for removing it from its old associates, and
placing it amongst strangers, with whom it can
neither dive nor swim, nor even float with any chance
of safety. If the kingfisher is to be considered a
water bird merely because it draws its sustenance
from the water, then our modern innovators ought
to consider the osprey in the same light : and even
the barn owl might give them a hint that she feels
inclined to seek a new acquaintance ; for I myself
have seen her plunge into the water, bring out a
fish, and convey it to her nest, Indeed, the swallow,
with a still better grace, might ask permission to
form a new division, distant both from land and
water birds, and call it ethereal ; because it pro-
cures the whole of its sustenance from insects in the
circumambient air.

When I remarked above that the feet of the
kingfisher are not webbed, I did not wish it to be
understood, that I consider the webbed foot essen-
tially necessary to the act of swimming. The water
hen is an expert swimmer, without having the feet
webbed ; but then its form and plumage, so different
from the form and plumage of land birds, enable it


to move with swiftness and with safety, either on
the water, or under its surface.

There is not much difference in appearance be-
twixt the adult male and female kingfisher; and
their young have the fine azure feathers on the back
before they leave the nest This early metallic
brilliancy of plumage seems only to be found in
birds of the pie tribe. It obtains in the magpie, the
jay, and, most probably, in all the rollers. Where-
ever it is observed in the young birds, we may be
certain that the adult male and female will be nearly
alike in colour. We are in great ignorance, and I
fear we shall long remain so, concerning colour in
the plumage of birds. The adult male and female
kingfisher have a very splendid display of fine tints ;
so have the adult male and female starling ; but,
though the young of the kingfisher have their bright
colours in the first plumage, we find the first plu-
mage of the young starlings pale and dull. I have
had an eye to this circumstance for above thirty
years, and still I am sorely in want of the school-

The old story, that the kingfisher hovers over the
water, in order to attract the fish by the brightness
of its plumage, is an idle surmise. In the first
place, fishes cannot see an object directly above
them ; and, secondly, if they could see it, there
would be nothing brilliant for them to look at in the
kingfisher, as all the splendid feathers are upon its
upper parts.

A brook runs through this park, and alongside of
it grows a small oak, part of the roots of which are


bare ; the earth and gravel having gradually left
them, and fallen into the stream below. In the bank
where these roots are seen, about six feet from the
surface of the water, is a hole in which a pair of
kingfishers have had their nest time out of mind.
They have afforded me the best possible opportu-
nities of examining their economy ; and, from what
I have seen, I am perfectly satisfied that this pair
of birds, at least, live entirely upon fish ; I have
never been able to detect these kingfishers feeding
either upon snails, or worms, or insects. They
bring up a fish from the water, crosswise in their
bills, and then chuck it down their throats head
foremost. I do not think that they ever eat a fish
piecemeal: and these birds, with me, never utter
their ordinary shrill piping succession of notes,
except when they are on the wing.

I love to take my stand behind a large tree, and
watch the kingfisher as he hovers over the water,
and at last plunges into it, with a velocity like that
of an arrow from a bow. How we are lost in asto-
nishment when we reflect that instinct forces this
little bird to seek its sustenance underneath the
water ; and that it can emerge from it in perfect
safety ; though it possesses none of the faculties
(save that of plunging) which have been so liberally
granted to most other birds which frequent the
deep I I sometimes fancy that it is all over with
it, when I see it plunge into a pond, which I know
to be well stocked with ravenous pike : still it
invariably returns uninjured, and prepares to take
another dip.


There are people who imagine that the brilliancy
of the plumage of birds has some connexion with a
tropical sun. Here, however, in our own native
bird, we have an instance that the glowing sun of
the tropics is not required to produce a splendid
plumage. The hottest parts of Asia and of Africa
do not present us with an azure more rich and lovely
than that which adorns the back of this charming
little bird ; while throughout the whole of America,
from Hudson's Bay to Tierra del Fuego, there has
not been discovered a kingfisher with colours half so
rich or beautiful. Asia, Africa, and America offer
to the naturalist a vast abundance of different species
of the kingfisher. Europe presents only one ; but
that one is like a gem of the finest lustre.

I feel sorry to add that our kingfisher is becoming
scarcer every year in this part of Yorkshire. The
proprietors of museums are always anxious to add
it to their collections, and offer a tempting price for
it. On the canals, too, it undergoes a continual
persecution : not a waterman steers his boat along
them, but who has his gun ready to procure the king-
fisher. If I mayjudge from the disappearance of the
kite, the raven, and the buzzard from this part of the
country, I should say that the day is at no great
distance when the kingfisher will be seen no more in
this neighbourhood, where once it was so plentiful,
and its appearance so grateful to every lover of ani-
mated nature. Where, in fine, its singular mode of
procuring food, contrasted with its anatomy, causes
astonishment in the beholder, and cannot fail to
convince him that modern ornithologists were ig-


norant of the true nature of the kingfisher when
they rashly removed it from its old associates, and
assigned it a place amongst strangers, whose forma-
tion differs so widely from its own.


OF all our British owls, this is by far the greatest
favourite with me, and I take great interest in its

Whilst temperance societies are rising up in all
directions to warn the thirsty sinner that gin and
godliness are not in unison, I could wish that some
benevolent person would instruct the ignorant on
the true nature and habits of many poor dumb
animals, which undergo a perpetual persecution,
under the erroneous idea that they are inimical to
the interests of man. I would willingly go twenty
miles on foot, over the flintiest road, to hear some
patroness of infant schools tell her little pupils that,
nowadays, there are no old women who ride through
the air on broomsticks, with a black cat in their
laps ; that ravens, owls, and magpies have long since
dropped all dealing with people in the other world ;
and that hedgehogs are clearly proved never to have
sucked a cow ; though our silly farmers, almost to a
man, would fain persuade us that these little harm-


less creatures are guilty of the preposterous act.
Notwithstanding the apprehensions of the dairy-
maid, 1 now and then venture to purchase a captive
hedgehog, and turn it into the park ; there to live
and die in peace.

It was but the other day that a neighbouring young
lady complained to me of an owl which had been
hooting, for three or four successive nights, far too
near her bedroom windows ; and she wished indeed
that it were shot I startled as she uttered this, for
it instantly occurred to me that the bird of which
she complained might possibly be one which was
bred here last summer ; and that its propensity to
night-errantry had brought it into a scrape. So 1
tried to persuade her that nothing but sheer curiosity
could have induced the owl to take the undue liberty
)f peeping in at her window ; and I was sure that it
could have seen nothing there to displease it.

I have never heard an owl, either in Europe or in
America, that utters sounds so nearly resembling
the human voice as those which our tawny owl sends
forth. Here, where all is still, and every thing to
be found that is inviting to the feathered race, this
bird will hoot at intervals throughout the day, both
in cloudy and in sunny weather. Were you to pro-
nounce the letter O in a loud and very clear tone of
voice, and then, after a short pause, repeat the same
letter in a drawling, tremulous accent, you would
have a tolerably just idea of the hooting of the
tawny owl, It will sometimes produce a sharp cry,
which sounds not unlike the word quo-ah : both
male and female utter this cry.


Though the tawny owl generally takes up its
abode in dark and gloomy woods, still it occasionally
settles very near the habitation of man. In a hollow
sycamore, within a dozen yards of this house, there
had been the nest of a ta\vny owl, time out of mind.
Here the birds would have remained to this day,
had not a colony of jackdaws, which I had encou-
raged, by hanging up wooden boxes for them in the
next tree, actually driven the owls away, in order
that they might get possession of the hole. Before
this misfortune befell them, a servant once robbed
their nest, and placed the young ones in a willow
cage, not far from the hollow tree. The parent
birds brought food for their captive offspring ; but,
not being able to get it through the bars of the
cage, they left it on the ground on the outside.
This food consisted of mice, rats, small birds, and
fish, which I myself saw and examined. At the
present time, I have a tawny owl, sitting on four
eggs, in a large ash tree, close to a much- frequented
summer-house. The male stays in a spruce fir
tree, and hoots occasionally throughout the day. I
have found, by dissecting the ejected bolus of this
species, that it feeds copiously upon different sorts
of beetles.

Were I just now requested to find a hollow tree
in the woods of the neighbourhood, I should say
that it were useless to go in quest of one ; so eager
have the proprietors been to put into their pockets
the value of every tree which was not " making
money," according to the cant phrase of modern
wood-valuers. No bird has felt this felling of ancient


timber more than the tawny owl. To the extreme
scarcity of breeding-holes, and to the destructive
measures of the gamekeepers, I attribute the great
rarity of this bird in our own immediate neighbour-
hood : add to this, that it sometimes rests on the
ground, under covert of a bush, where it is flushed
and killed by sportsmen while in pursuit of wood-
cocks. Were it not for my park, I believe that the
tawny owl would be extinct in this part of Yorkshire.
Some ten years ago, it was so scarce, that I seldom
heard its voice. Once or so, in the winter, I could
catch the hooting of a solitary owl as I was after the
midnight poachers ; but that was all : and, then,
whole weeks would elapse before I could hear the
pleasing notes again. At present, however, this
favourite warbler is on the increase.

He who befriends the tawny owl, and loves to
have it near his mansion, may easily make a habi-
tation for it, provided there be a wood at hand, with
full-grown ash trees in it. But, no wood, no tawny
owl; Point d 'argent, point de Suisse, as the saying
has it. On examining his ash timber, he will occa-
sionally find a tree with a particular fungus on it ;
yellow when growing, and black when ripe. But
more of this, perhaps, another time, should I ever
offer to the public a short paper on the cause and
prevention of dry rot: a misnomer, by the way.
When this fungus falls to the ground, after the rains
of winter have set in, the bark on which it has
grown shows such faint traces of a change, that an
eye not accustomed to look for these things would
scarcely notice the distempered part. By means,


however, of a hammer and a chisel applied to the
spot, you are soon let into the secret ; and you find
the wood, in the quarter where the fungus appeared,
of a texture soft and altered, and somewhat ap-
proaching to that of cork. Here, then, you can
readilv form an excavation large enough to contain
a pair of tawny owls.

In the year 1831, I pointed out to Mr. Ord (the
elegant and scientific biographer of poor Wilson)
just such an ash tree as that which I have described.
It was above 2 ft. in diameter, and there was a fungus
on the western side of it. After I had excavated
nearly half-way through the tree, I found a portion
of the wood more tainted than the rest : so, putting
a longer handle into the socket of the chisel, I
worked in the direction which it took; until, most
unexpectedly, I came to the nest of a titmouse.
The bird, like the Portuguese at Mindanao, had
evidently taken possession of the tenement through
an aperture from the eastward, now closed up with
living bark ; while I, like the Spaniards, had arrived
at the same place, by pursuing a course from the
westward. If I might j udge by the solid appearance
of the bark, I should say that, some fifty or sixty
years ago, a branch must have been blown off from
this eastern side of the bole ; and there the rain
had found an entrance, and had gradually formed a
cavity. The titmouse, judging it a convenient place,
had chosen it for her nidification ; and, probably,
had resorted to k every year, until the growing
wood at the mouth of the orifice had contracted the
entrance, and, at last, closed it up for ever: leaving


the nest hermetically sealed in the bole of the tree.
A thousand people might gaze on this tree, in pass-
ing by, and still not see a blemish. I myself can
just perceive it, by means of a few concentrated
lines still visible on the bark ; but, had not the dis-
covery of the nest drawn my attention to the place,
I should never haye perceived that the eastern part

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 16 of 28)