Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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of the tree had formerly received an injury. Mr.
Ord was enraptured at the exposition of the orni-
thological treasure ; and noted down in his pocket-
book every thing worthy of record. The tree still
stands ; and long may it stand, to gratify the curi-
osity of naturalists. Last year, a pair of barn owls
reared their young in it ; and, just now, there are
eggs in the same place. I made another excavation,
in an ash tree about two hundred yards from this ;
and, last summer, it gave me an increase of three
tawny owls. Throughout the winter, I could, at
any time, find them reposing in some neighbouring
( fir trees.

The tawny owl generally lays four snow-white
eggs in the same hole which it had chosen for its
winter quarters. I am satisfied in my own mind,
that no owl in the world ever gathers materials to
form the lining of its nest. Indeed, there is no ne-
cessity whatever for it to take that trouble ; nature
makes a sufficient provision for the lining of the hole
to which the owl resorts, long before the breeding-
time sets in. Every species of this bird ejects from
the stomach all the indigestible parts of their food,
in the shape of a dark-coloured oblong bolus ; which,
when dried, is soon reduced to fragments by the


superincumbent body of the bird. On this the female
lays her eggs ; nor could she well procure a better
or a softer substance for them.

Trifling as an attention to the feathered tribe may
seem, still it has its sweets for those who love to
Jead a rural life. 1 generally observe that visiters
who come here are always anxious to have a sight
of the birds which take up their abode in this se-
questered valley ; and they listen with evident signs
of pleasure to the cries of the nocturnal wanderers
of the air. It is not above a week ago that I heard
the heron screaming, the wigeon whistling, the barn
owl screeching, and the tawny owl hooting, in rapid
succession. The moon was playing on the water at
the time, and the air was nearly as warm as summer.
I thought of times long past and gone, when I was
enjoying nature's richest scenery in the interminable
forests of Guiana.


FROM the month of May to that of October, we
know nothing of the haunts and economy of this
cheerful and familiar stranger ; for he always takes
his leave of us in spring ; at which time he is sup-
posed to proceed to distant regions of the north,
where ornithologists have never yet dared to ven-


I am satisfied in ray own mind, that the wigeon
does not stay here to breed. All my endeavours to
find its nest have hitherto been ineffectual ; nor can
I recollect to have met with one well authenticated
account of the wigeon's eggs having ever been found
in England.

Formerly, I used to consider the wigeon as one
of those migratory birds of which little could ever
be known, as it merely came here to spend the winter
months amongst us, in order to avoid the dismal
tempests which were raging in its own native land.
Under this erroneous impression, I always availed
myself of every opportunity to get a shot at the
wigeons. Of course, this made them exceedingly
shy and wary ; for persecution soon shows to birds
the danger of placing themselves within the reach of
man. Hence their visits here were few and transi-
tory ; and sometimes weeks elapsed without my see-
ing a single wigeon on the water.

Since I have shut the temple of Janus, and pro-
claimed undisturbed repose to those of the feathered
race which come to seek for shelter here, the wigeons
are in great abundance ; and, from the time of their
arrival to the period of their departure, they may be
found here every day, whether in a frosty, a snowy,
or an open season. A stranger, on observing them,
would hardly suppose that they are wild fowl ; for
he will often see nearly one hundred of them con-
gregating with the tame ducks, not sixty yards from
the kitchen windows. Protection has restored to
them their innate familiarity ; and now I am enabled
N 2


to say something on certain parts of their economy,
which our ornithological writers seem never to have

The wigeon is a much more familiar bird than
either the pochard or the teal. While these con-
gregate on the water, beyond the reach of man, the
wigeon appears to have divested itself of the timidity
observable in all other species of wild fowl, and ap-
proaches very near to our habitations. A consider-
able time elapsed before I was enabled to account
satisfactorily for the wigeon's remaining here during
the night ; a circumstance directly at variance with
the habits of its congeners, which, to a bird, pass
the night away from the place where they have been
staying during the day. But, upon paying a much
closer attention to it than I had formerly been ac-
customed to do, I observed that it differed from them
all, both in the nature of its food, and in the time of
procuring it. The mallard, the pochard, and the teal
obtain nearly the whole of their nourishment during
the night. On the contrary, the wigeon procures its
food in the daytime, and that food is grass. He
who has an opportunity of watching the wigeon
when it is undisturbed, and allowed to follow the
bent of its own inclinations, will find that, while the
mallard, the pochard, and the teal are sporting on
the water, or reposing on the bank at their ease, it is
devouring with avidity that same kind of short grass,
on which the goose is known to feed. Hence, though
many flocks of wigeons accompany the other water-
fowl in their nocturnal wanderings, still numbers of
them pass the whole of the night here ; and this I



know to be a fact, by their singular whistling noise,
which is heard at all hours.

On January 26. 1832, for the first time, I satis-
fied myself beyond all doubt of what I had long
suspected, namely, that wigeons feed upon grass, /? i
exactly after the manner of geese. A flock of them
was then feeding opposite the windows. I took the ^i
large telescope, and distinctly saw them feeding
voraciously on the green short blades of grass.
Whilst I am writing this (January 12. 1835) the^
ground is covered with snow, except under some ^ *t*V
large elm trees ; and at the root of these there are,

just now, above one hundred wigeons and thirty

coots, all feeding on the grass which is not concealed 0l*A0 /**<"V

by the snow. l&

In other places, where persecution is the wigeon's
lot, no doubt it will be very shy in frequenting pas-
tures during the day ; and, of course, it will be ^J t*-!.*
compelled, contrary to its natural habits, to seek "'.
for food throughout the night, in company with its

As the ordinary food of the wigeons is evidently
grass, perhaps there may not be a sufficient supply
of it in those high northern regions, whither the
water-fowl are supposed to repair when they leave
us in spring. Should this conjecture prove well
founded, we can account for the wigeon remaining
with us till the beginning of May, at which period
all the migratory water-birds (saving a few teal,
which are known to breed in England) must be
busily employed, far away from us, in the essential
work of incubation.

N 3


Though we are quite ignorant of the manner and
place in which the wigeon makes its nest, and of
the number and colour of its eggs, still we are in
possession of a clew to lead us to the fact, that it
hatches its young long after its congeners the mal-
lards have hatched theirs. The mallards return
hither, in full plumage, early in the month of Octo-
ber; but the wigeons are observed to be in their
mottled plumage as late as the end of November.
Again as the old male wigeon returns to these
latitudes in mottled plumage, we may safely infer
that he undergoes the same process of a double
moulting as the mallard ; on which, perhaps, a paper

I offer to ornithologists these few observations
and speculations on the economy of the wigeon, to
be approved of, or reproved, or improved, just as
they may think fit. Every disquisition, be it ever
so short, will help a little to put the science of orni-
thology upon a somewhat, better footing than that
on which it stands at present. From reviews, which
I have lately read with more than ordinary atten-
tion ; and from representations of birds, which I
have lately examined very closely; I pronounce or-
nithology to be at least half a century behind the
other sciences. I say nothing of the stuffing of birds
for cabinets of natural history. Were I to touch
upon the mode now in general use, I should prove
it to be a total failure, devoid of every scientific
principle; a mode that can never, by any chance,
restore the true form and features of birds.

But to return to the wigeon. I will just add, in


conclusion, that I penned down the remarks on its
habits, after many very close and often repeated
inspections of the bird, during its winter residence
amongst us. I fear, however, that we must be
contented to remain in absolute ignorance of many
important parts of its history, until some bold and
hardy naturalist shall penetrate into those distant
regions of the north, where this pretty bird, in
company with myriads of other wild fowl, is sup-
posed to pass the summer months in undisturbed


OF all the large wild birds which formerly were
so common in this part of Yorkshire, the heron
alone can now be seen. The kite, the buzzard, and
the raven have been exterminated long ago by our
merciless gamekeepers. Ignorant of the real habits
of birds, and even bent on slaughter, these men
exercise their baneful calling with a severity almost
past belief. No sooner have they received from
government their shooting license, than out they
go with the gun, and, under one pretext or other,
they kill almost every bird which comes in their
way. Our game laws are at the bottom of all this

" Illis, non sacvior ulla
Pestis, et ira Deum, Stygiis sese extulit undis."
N 4


Than these, a greater pest our statesmen never
Sent from their old burnt house near London river.

Kites were frequent here in the days of rny fa-
ther ; but I, myself, have never seen one near the
place. In 1813, I had my last sight of the buzzard.
It used to repair to the storm-blasted top of an
ancient oak which grows near the water's edge ; and
many and many a time again have I gone that way,
on purpose to get a view of it. In the spring of
that year, it went away to return no more ; and,
about the same period, our last raven was shot on
its nest by a neighbouring gentleman.

In vain I now look for any of these interesting
birds in our surrounding woods. They have been de-
clared great destroyers of game ; they have, in con-
sequence, suffered persecution ; and like the family
of poor Charley Stuart, (God rest his soul !) they
no longer appear on their own native land, in this
district, where once they graced our rural scenery.

The heron, however, notwithstanding this hostile
feeling, has managed to survive its less fortunate
neighbours. Always on the look-out, it sees in time
the threatened danger, and generally contrives to
avoid it ; for persecution has rendered it fully as shy
and wary as the pie itself. Formerly, in this country,
the heron was a protected bird, in order that it might
afford pastime to the great ; but, nowadays, (as little
or nothing remains of falconry, except a title which
introduces the finger and thumb of the bearer into
the public purse,) the heron is abandoned to its fate ;
and the fishpond owners may waylay it with impu-
nity, whenever an opportunity offers.


I attribute the bad character which the heron has
with us, for destroying fish, more to erroneous
ideas, than to any well authenticated proofs that it
commits extensive depredations on our store-ponds.
Under this impression, which certainly has not
hitherto been to my disadvantage, I encourage this
poor persecuted wader to come and take shelter here;
and I am glad to see it build its nests in the trees
which overhang the water, though carp, and tench,
and many other sorts of fish, are there in abundance.
Close attention to its habits has convinced me that
I have not done wrongly. Let us bear in mind that
the heron can neither swim nor dive ; wherefore the
range of its depredations on the finny tribe must
necessarily be very circumscribed. In the shallow
water only can it surprise the fish ; and, even there,
when we see it standing motionless, and suppose it
to be intent on striking some delicious perch or
passing tench, it is just as likely that it has waded
into the pond to have a better opportunity of trans-
fixing a water-rat lurking at the mouth of its hole,
or of gobbling down some unfortunate frog which
had taken refuge on the rush-grown margin of the
pool. The water-rat may appear a large morsel to
be swallowed whole ; but so great are the expansive
powers of the heron's throat, that it can gulp down
one of these animals without much apparent diffi-
culty. As the ordinary food of this bird consists of
reptiles, quadrupeds, and fish, and as the herons can
only catch the fish when they come into shallow
water, I think we may fairly consider this wader as


not very injurious to our property ; especially when
we reflect fora moment on the prodigious fecundity
of fish. Take the roach for example. It swarms
here in multitudes sufficient to satisfy the cravings
of every heron and every cormorant inJEurope.

Should the lords of the adjacent fishponds ever
read the contents of this paper, I would fain hope
that their animosity against the heron will be dimi-
nished, and that they will order their gamekeepers
to spare in future a bird which every body loves to
see. Indeed, what can be more interesting to the
ornithologist than to have it in his power to watch a
dozen of these birds standing motionless on one leg,
for hours together, upon some leafless branch of a
tree ; or to see them flapping their way over his
head, on wings much more arched than those of any
other bird that cleaves the liquid void.

The heron is gregarious during the breeding sea-
son ; though sometimes a solitary nest may be found
miles away from the place of. general rendezvous.
At other times of the year, the society seems to be
dissolved ; and the bird is seldom seen in this part
of the country in parties of more than ten or twelve
together. The nest appears like that of the rook,
only often much larger ; and it may be found on the
willow, the oak, the fir, and the sycamore, and pro-
bably on many other kinds of trees, when they are
in a place which affords security, and invites the
heron to incubation. By the time that the young are
ready to fly, the outside of the nest, and part of the
tree which bears it, appear to the observer below as


though they had been corapletly whitewashed : but
the rains of winter cleanse the nest anew, and restore
the branches to their former colour.

There is an old and vulgar notion, still current
here, that, when the heron is sitting on her eggs,
her legs appear hanging down on the outside of the
nest. Probably the length of the heron's legs has
given rise to this absurdity. A very slight inspection
of the formation of the bird would suffice to convince
the observer of his error. The thighs of all known
birds are of a length exactly proportioned to that of
the legs ; wherefore, when a bird wishes to place
itself in a sitting position, the bending of the knee
causes the leg to recede sufficiently towards the tail
to allow the feet to come to the centre of the body.
This being the case, the heron places its legs in the
nest with as much facility and ease as all other birds
place theirs. Indeed, it cannot possibly perform its
incubation with its legs outside of the nest ; and the
admirable provision of nature, in always giving to
birds a due proportional length in their legs and
thighs, saves the heron from the necessity of at-
tempting to place itself in such an unsightly posture.
In fact, the formation of the parts would not admit
of it ; and were a bird, by any chance, to put itself
in a position by which the legs would appear on the
outside of the nest, we may rest assured that both
great pain and great inconvenience would ensue,
and soon force it to resume the common process of
incubation. The thighs, by being stretched asunder,
would be thrown out of their ordinary bearings; and


the feathers, by coming in contact with the outer
materials of which the nest is formed, would be
forced into a direction quite opposite to that which
they have received from the hand of nature. Hence
we may safely conclude that neither the herons, nor
any other birds of the creation, ever perform their
incubation with their legs on the outside of the

In the daytime this bird seldom exhibits any
very extraordinary activity. Although it will fly
from place to place at intervals, still it seems to pass
the greater part of the time betwixt sunrise and
sunset quietly on the bank of a stream, or on the
branch of a tree, often with one leg drawn up under
the body in a most picturesque manner. But, as soon
as the shades of night set in, the heron becomes as
anxious and impatient as a London alderman half
an hour before the Lord Mayor's festive dinner.
It walks up and down the bank, or moves from
branch to branch with extraordinary activity, every
now and then stretching out its wings, and giving
us to understand, by various gesticulations, that it
is about to commence its nocturnal peregrinations
in quest of food. One loud and harsh cry, often
repeated, now informs you that the heron is on wing,
wending its way to some distant river, swamp, or
creek. I suspect that this cry is never uttered but
when the bird is flying.

Formerly we had a range of fishponds here, one
above the other, covering a space of about three
acres of ground. Close by them ran a brook, from


which the water-rats made regular passages through
the intervening bank into the ponds. These vermin
were engaged in never-ceasing mischief. No sooner
was one hole repaired, than another was made ; so
that we had the mortification to see the ponds gene-
rally eight or ten inches below water-mark. This
encouraged the growth of weeds to a most incom-
modious extent, which at last put an end to all plea-
sure in fishing. Finding that the " green mantle
from the standing pool " was neither useful nor
pleasant, I ordered the ponds to be drained, and a
plantation to be made in the space of ground which
they had occupied. Had I known as much then as
I know now of the valuable services of the heron,
and had there been a good heronry near the place,
I should not have made the change. The draining
of the ponds did not seem to lessen the number of
rats in the brook : but soon after the herons had
settled here to breed, the rats became extremely
scarce ; and now I rarely see one in the place where
formerly I could observe numbers sitting on the
stones at the mouth of their holes, as soon as the
sun had gone down below the horizon. I often
watch the herons on the banks of some other store-
ponds with feelings of delight ; and nothing would
grieve me more than to see the lives of these valu-
able and ornamental birds sacrificed to the whims
and caprice of man.

I know, and freely avow, that the herons will
catch fish (especially eels), whenever those fish fre-
quent the shallow water ; still these birds make ample
amends for their little depredations, by preventing


the increase of rats and frogs. Little, indeed, must
be those depredations : for fishermen are allowed
to come hither, during the summer, in unrestricted
numbers, and the herons have their nests in the trees
which hang over the water ; still there is always a
most plentiful supply of fish.

If country gentlemen would grant protection to
the heron, it would be to us, in some sort, what the
stork formerly was, and now is, to our continental
neighbours; namely, an ornamental and a useful bird.
Though it certainly would not be so domestic as the
stork, still the protection afforded it would tend
considerably to change its present habits. Nothing
but the roar of guns, the prejudices of pond-owners,
and the barbarity of gamekeepers, has rendered the
heron a shy, degraded, and devoted bird.


" Mr. Waterton will not, I believe, allow that birds ever oil
their feathers ; but I would wish to ask of him, how he accounts
for the fact that, while the feathers of a thrush or robin, if
they have only fallen into the water for a few minutes, become
totally spoiled, as far as the purposes of stuffing are concerned,
those of the dipper may remain half an hour or more in the
water without receiving any damage?" (Rev. P.O. Morris,
in Mag. Nat. Hist., vol. viii. p. 375.)

I CANNOT account for the fact stated by the Rev.
Mr. Morris. If he infers that birds oil their plumage


from the fact that the feathers of the dipper " may
remain half an hour or more in the water without
receiving damage," he nullifies his inference by ad-
ducing a subsequent fact, that the feathers of a robin
or a thrush, " if they have only fallen into the water
for a few minutes, become totally spoiled, as far as
the purposes of stuffing are concerned;" for the
robin and the thrush have the oil-gland as completely
developed, and as perfect in every point of view, as
that of the dipper. If, then, the feathers of the
dipper are preserved from injury in the water by the
contents of the oil-gland, surely, by a parity of rea-
soning, those of the robin and the thrush ought to be
equally preserved. But the Rev. Mr. Morris informs
us that the feathers of the robin and the thrush be-
come totally spoiled, as far as the purposes of stuffing
are concerned, if they have only fallen into the
water for a few minutes. This I consider tantamount
to an avowal, on the part of the reverend ornitholo-
gist, that the robin and the thrush do not lubricate
their feathers. So much for the oil-gland, and its
supposed uses.

I will now take the liberty of assuring the Rev.
Mr. Morris, that the feathers of the robin and the
thrush do not become totally spoiled, as far as the
purposes of stuffing are concerned, by immersion in
the water; on the contrary, their plumage is improved
by it. Merses profundo, pulchrior evcnit. 1 will
engage to steep a robin and a thrush for a whole
day in a basin of water, and make better specimens
of them than if I had stuffed them before they had
undergone the immersion.


A concluding word on the remark, that " the
habit of the dipper walking underneath the water,
is too well known and authenticated to need any ad-
ditional information from me" [that is, from Mr.
Morris]. I am not a convert to the doctrine of a
subaquatic promenade : first, because I know that the
bodies of all birds float on the surface of the water ;
secondly, because I am convinced that birds are
obliged to make great exertions with their wings and
feet in order to be able to reach the bottom ; thirdly,
because I am satisfied that, as soon as they have ar-
rived at the bottom of the water, the force which
enabled them to descend to it ceases to act. Hence
I infer that the body of a bird, impelled to the bot-
tom by the aid of the feet and wings, must rise again
when deprived of that aid. I can easily conceive,
however, that the dipper, by the use of its legs and
wings, may manage to keep sufficiently near the
bottom to be enabled to turn over the pebbles with
its bill in quest of food ; because, in this position,
the legs and wings would have power to act, and
they would tend to counteract the rising motion of
the body. I maintain positively, that a bird cannot,
by any chance, walk on the ground under water. The
moment it attempted to do so, the legs and wings,
by the altered position of. the body, would be de-
prived of ail depressing power ; and the body itself
would be raised up towards the surface of the fluid
in which it is immersed. This would put an effectual
stop to all proposed perambulations at the bottom
of the stream. This is only theory, and theory may
err. I often used to watch the dipper, when in


Northumberland; but I own that I never had courage
to follow it to the realms below, in order to have a
clear and distinct view of its proceedings. I wish that

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 17 of 28)