Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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old Nicolas Pesce were alive in these days. I would
engage him to put this very important ornithological
question at rest for ever. Old Nicolas was quite
at home under water. His toes and fingers (credat
Judceus) were said to be webbed; and he could
take in at one gulp as much breath as would serve
him for a whole day. They tell us, he would often
spend five days together in the midst of the waves,
and live on the fish which he caught. The roar-
ing gulfs among the Lipari Islands were a kind of
Hyde Park promenade to him. Nick would resort
to them whenever he felt inclined to take an airing,
either for his amusement, or for the benefit of his


THE water ouzel is sometimes known by the name
of the dipper in England, and by that of merle d'eau
in France, and is pronounced to be a water-fowl by
Buffon. Indeed, as the count affected to believe the
strange story of Monsieur Herbert, he might have
called it the water bird par excellence ; it being sup-


posed to possess a subaquatic faculty, not granted
to any other bird in the creation.

The water ouzel is found in hilly countries, where
rapid rivulets wind their way through an abrupt and
rocky bed. Here, it is never seen ; but I have had
opportunities of paying attention to its habits in the
county of Northumberland, where it frequents the
borders of transparent streams, which meander
through the moors. There, you will find its nest, in
favoured localities, overhanging the brook ; while,
over and anon, you see the bird itself go under water,
in quest of its wonted food.

This is the bird which has given rise to so much
controversy. This is the bird whose supposed sub-
aquatic pranks have set the laws of gravity at de-
fiance, by breaking through the general mandate
which has ordained that things lighter than water
shall rise towards its surface, and that things which
are heavier shall sink beneath it. If the water ouzel
can walk on the ground at the bottom of the water,
then, indeed, we may exclaim with the poet,

" Omnia Nature prapostera legibus ibunt,

Parsque suum mundi nulla tenebit her."
All Nature's laws will tumble in decay,
And e'en the world itself will lose its way.

How comes it that writers concede to the dipper
alone the privilege of turning Nature's mandates
topsyturvy ? Why do not they tell us, that the
grebes, the coots, and the water hens (which last
have cloven feet) can walk at the bottom of streams ?
The question is easily answered. The birds just


enumerated frequent waters which are generally
either too deep, or too muddy, to allow the eye of
man to follow them to any great distance in their
descent. Add to this, that these birds are much
more shy and wary than the water ouzel, and they
contrive to keep out of the reach of observation ;
thus depriving naturalists of the opportunity of a
close investigation of their subaquatic habits. But
here, where the grebe, the coot, and the water hen
come close to the terrace which rises from the lake,
I can steal upon them, and see them dive whilst
I am standing above them ; and I can affirm that
they never do walk on the bottom. Now, the rivu-
lets frequented by the water ouzel afford numberless
opportunities to the observer who wishes to watch
the motions of this bird. He has only to conceal
himself behind some rock which rises from the
stream, or to show himself suddenly on the bank of
the brook where the water ouzel is found, and he
will see the little bird go under water, and he will
be able to trace its downward process. He then
fancies that be sees it walk on the ground, when, in
fact, it does no such thing; the observer's own eyes,
in this instance, giving him false information.

Monsieur Herbert was the first man on record,
according to Buffon, who persuaded himself that the
water ouzel actually performed the impossible fea.t
of walking on the ground at the bottom of streams;
and he communicated his supposed discovery to the
count. The water ouzel appeared, says Monsieur
Herbert, " enveloped with air, which gave it a bril-
O 2


liant surface." Now, vre all know that this garment
of air would have added considerably to the natural
levity of the bird. It ought to have had a roquelaure
of lead, not of air. " It seemed to quiver," con-
tinues Monsieur Herbert. There would have ap-
peared no quivering, had the bird been really walking
on terra firma.

If the water ouzel, which is specifically lighter
than water, can manage, by some inherent power, to
walk on the ground at the bottom of a rivulet, then
there is great reason to hope that we, who are
heavier than air, may, any day, rise up into it, un-
assisted by artificial apparatus, such as wings, gas,
steam, or broom-staff.


THIS bird yields to none of our wild water-fowl in
loveliness of plumage, while it far surpasses most of
them in the excellent flavour of its flesh. Having
been completely subjugated by man, it can now be
obtained either in its enlarged dimensions, acquired
by superabundance of food picked up at the barn-
door of its owner, or in its original small and compact
form, on which a precarious subsistence in the field
of freedom has hitherto worked no visible change.

There cannot be a doubt that the wild duck and
the domestic duck have had one and the same origin.
They are still intimate ; for they breed together,


and flock together, and are both subject to the double
annual moulting; of which more anon. The domes-
ticated duck only loses its inclination for flying, when
it is bred and reared far from any large sheet of
water ; but where an extent of water is at hand, this
bird will be observed to assume more brisk and ac-
tive habits. It will indulge in long and lofty flights,
and frequently take off with the congregated wild
fowl in their nocturnal excursions.

I have the finest possible opportunity of looking
into the habits of the mallard at any hour of the
day, from the rising to the setting sun : for here this
bird, and large flocks of its congeners, are perpetual
visitors during the winter months. They fear no
danger ; and they seem to know that in this popu-
lous neighbourhood there is one retreat left to which
they can retire, and in which they can find a shelter
from the persecutions which are poured down so
thick upon them in other places, by man, their ever
watchful and insatiate pursuer.

Some six years ago, I put a number of wild ducks'
eggs to be hatched by a domestic duck. The pro-
duce of these eggs having intermixed with the
common barn-door breed of ducks, there has been
produced by this union such an endless variety of
colouring, that it is now impossible to trace the
identical origin of the birds with any degree of cer-
tainty. Half wild, half tame, they will come to the
windows to be fed ; but still they have a wariness
about them quite remarkable ; and they will often
startle and take wing at very trivial causes of alarm.
In this group the naturalist may see the milk-white
o 3


duck, and the duck in the real wild plumage ; and
others of every intermediate colour ; now sporting
and diving before them, now retiring to the stranger
flocks at a distance, and now rising with them in
the air at the close of day, to pursue in congregated
numbers their journey through the heavens, to those
favourite places which afford them a regular supply
of food.

In 1827, two males and three females made their
appearance here, and took up their permanent quar-
ters with the domestic ducks. They resembled the
original wild breed in every thing except in size.
You could barely perceive that they were a trifle
larger, and that was all. Hence I conclude that
there must have been a shade of the reclaimed duck
in their parentage. Though shy at first, in time
they became surprisingly tame. One of the ducks
singled out the cook as an object worthy of its at-
tention, and would steal into the kitchen whenever
an opportunity offered. The number is now reduced
to one, the other four having disappeared at intervals.
Fearing that this last remaining bird might give me
" the slip for ever," I have taken the precaution to
pinion him. The curtailing of his flight will pro-
bably be the means of prolonging his existence ; for
I always conjectured that his companions had been
surprised and killed in their aberrations down the
neighbouring brooks, where protection was not ex-
tended to them.

The wild ducks which frequent this place may be
observed to catch insects on the water in the day-
time : but they do not, in general, rove on land in


quest of food, though once or twice, in moist and
heavy weather, .1 have seen them waddle through
the pasture ; but I marked the fact down as one of
rare occurrence. When undisturbed, they are seen
to pass much of their time asleep on the ground.
At intervals they will take to the water ; and while
some float on it, with the head reclined on the
shoulder, others will sport and dive into the deep, and
then return to land, and there arrange and preen their
feathers, though not with oil from the gland on the
rump, as is generally supposed. At the close of
day they become exceedingly vociferous, the voice
of the female being much louder and more frequent
than that of the male ; a circumstance too notorious
in the human species. After this uproar of tongues
has continued for a certain time, they rise on rapid
wing in detached flocks, and, to a bird, they go away
for the night. At early dawn they return in com-
panies, consisting of fifteen or twenty birds, and
stay here, to pass the day in peace and quiet. When
the water is frozen over, they sometimes huddle to-
gether on the ice, and at other times collect in one
large flock in the adjacent pasture. Every now and
then a peregrine falcon makes his appearance, and
perches on a neighbouring sycamore tree. We know
of his approach by the singular agitation which takes
place amongst the ducks ; they shake their wings
with a tremulous noise, and get into a compact
group, After this they all rise in the air ; and then
you may see the falcon dash at an outside duck with
an almost inconceivable velocity.
o 4


" Ocior cervis, et agente nimbos
Ocior Euro."

One morning he was observed to pursue a teal,
which only just escaped destruction by alighting on
a pond, within a few yards of the place where some
labourers were at work.

I should think that the old birds remain in pairs
through the entire year ; and that the young ones,
which had been hatched in the preceding spring,
choose their mates long before they depart for the
arctic regions in the following year. I have a fa-
vourite hollow oak tree on a steep hill, into which I
can retire to watch the movements of the pretty
visitors. From this I can often see a male and female
on the water beneath me, nodding and bowing to
each other with as much ceremony as though they
were swimming a minuet, if I may use the expres-
sion. Hence I conclude that there is mutual love
in the exhibition, and that a union is formed.

When these large flocks of wild fowl take their
departure in spring for the distant regions of the
north, about a dozen pairs of mallards remain here
to breed. Sometimes you may find a solitary nest
of these birds near the water's edge, or a few yards
from it, on a sloping bank thickly clothed with
underwood; but, in general, they seem to prefer
the recesses of a distant wood for the purposes of
their incubation ; though we have had an instance
of one building its nest in a tree, and of another
which hatched its young on an old ruin. Last year
a domesticated wild duck had a brood of ten young
ones in the month of May ; and on the 27th day of


October the same bird brought out a second brood
of eleven. In an evil hour they strayed too far from
the water. A tame raven met them on their travels,
and killed every bird.

At the close of the breeding season, the drake
undergoes a very remarkable change of plumage :
on viewing it, all speculation on the part of the
ornithologist is utterly confounded ; for there is not
the smallest clue afforded him, by which he may be
enabled to trace out the cause of the strange phe-
nomenon. To Him alone, who has ordered the
ostrich to remain on the earth, and allowed the bat
to range through the ethereal vault of heaven, is
known why the drake, for a very short period of the
year, should be so completely clothed in the raiment
of the female, that it requires a keen and penetrating
eye to distinguish the one from the other. About
the 24th of May, the breast and back of the drake
exhibit the first appearance of a change of colour.
In a few days after this, the curled feathers above
the tail drop out, and grey feathers begin to appear
amongst the lovely green plumage which surrounds
the eyes. Every succeeding day now brings marks
of rapid change. By the 23d of June scarcely one
single green feather is to be seen on the head and
neck of the bird. By the 6th of July every feather
of the former brilliant plumage has made its disap-
pearance, and the male has received a garb like that
of the female, though of a somewhat darker tint.
In the early part of August this new plumage begins
to change gradually, and by the 10th of October
the drake will appear again in all his rich magnifi-


cence of dress ; than which scarcely any thing
throughout the whole wild field of nature can be
seen more lovely, or better arranged to charm the
eye of man. This description of the change of
plumage in the mallard has been penned down with
great care. I enclosed two male birds in a coop*
from the middle of May to the middle of October,
and saw them every day during the whole of their
captivity. Perhaps the moulting in other indi-
viduals may vary a trifle with regard to time. Thus
we may say that once every year, for a very short
period, the drake goes, as it were, into an eclipse ;
so that, from the early part of the month of July,
to about the first week in August, neither in the
poultry-yards of civilised man, nor through the vast
expanse of Nature's wildest range, can there be
found a drake in that plumage which, at all other
seasons of the year, is so remarkably splendid and

Though I dislike the cold and dreary months of
winter as much as any man can well dislike them,
still I always feel sorry when the returning sun pre-
pares the way for the wildfowl to commence their
annual migratory journey into the unknown regions
of the north. Their flights through the heavens, and
their sportings on the pool, never fail to impart both
pleasure and instruction to me. When the time of
their departure comes, I bid my charming harmless
company farewell, and from my heart I wish them a
safe return.



MR. TAYLOR, in his paper which appeared in The
Magazine of Natural History, vol. viii. p. 529 54-1.,
says, " I have repeatedly endeavoured to verify
Mr. Audubon's account of the rattlesnake ascending
trees, which has been confirmed." Now, a great
part of that account by Audubon consists of the
description of a rattlesnake chasing a squirrel up
and down a tree. Does Mr. Taylor wish us to un-
derstand^ that this part of the account has been
confirmed by him ? I ask this necessary question,
because I cannot suppose that Mr. Taylor would
spend his time in repeatedly endeavouring to verify
the simple fact that rattlesnakes ascend trees. The
fact is already as well established as is the existence
of the rattlesnake itself. The merest novice in
zoology must know that the muscular power in the
bodies of snakes enables them to ascend trees. I
anxiously wait for Mr. Taylor's reply. If he has
actually seen a rattlesnake chasing its prey up and
down a tree, then I will own that I have hitherto
been completely in the dark with regard to snakes ;
and that all the time which I have spent in studying
their habits, while I was in the forests of Guiana,
has been unprofitable and of no avail. If, on the
contrary, Mr. Taylor informs us that his experience
goes no farther than to verify the fact that snakes


do get up into trees, then I take the liberty to re-
mark that he has told us nothing new.

I have been in the midst of snakes for many years :
I have observed them on the ground, on trees, in
bushes, on bedsteads, and upon old mouldering
walls ; but never in my life have I seen a snake pur-
sue a retreating prey. I am fully satisfied, in my
own mind, that it is not in a snake's nature to do so.
A snake would follow its retreating prey in a tree
with just about as much success as a greyhound
would follow a hare through the mazes of a thick
wood. Snakes are always in a quiescent state just
before they seize their prey ; and their mode of cap-
turing it is by an instantaneous spring, consisting of
a bound which never exceeds two thirds of the
length of the reptile's body.

As we are now on snakes, and as Mr. Taylor
informs us that the names of his birds and animals
" are corrected from the splendid work of Audubon,"
I beg leave to draw his particular attention to plate
21. of that work. It represents a rattlesnake attack-
ing a mocking-bird's nest. Mr. Swainson, in his
critique upon it in TheMagazine of Natural History,
i. 48, 49., seems lost in admiration at its excellence.
He says (after lauding plate 17.), " The same poetic
sentiment and masterly execution characterises this
picture." " Pictoribus atque poetis," &c. The
mouth of the rattlesnake is wide open, and the fangs
are the first things to attract the inspector's notice,
being by far the most conspicuous feature in it.
There they are on elephant [folio] with their points
curved upwards ! The artist, in his notes on the


rattlesnake, addressed to Thomas Stuart Traill,
M.D., and inserted in Jameson's Journal, says, that
he confined a rattlesnake for three years in a cage.
Did he never once get a sight of the fangs all that
time ? I will allow any body the range of the whole
world ; and if he can produce one single solitary fang
of any snake, great or small, with the point turned
upwards, I will submit to be sent to the treadmill
for three years. All fangs of snakes are curved
somewhat in the shape of a scythe, with their points
downwards ; and we see clearly that their position
in the mouth, and the manner in which they convey
the poison, require that their points should be curved

Mr. Taylor further informs us that " black snakes
are called racers, from their occasionally chasing men
with great ferocity." Chase argues pursuit and
retreat : now, I affirm that snakes never chase men,
nor, indeed, any other animals.

It often happens that a man turns round and runs
away when he has come suddenly upon a snake,
" retroque pedem cum voce repressit ; '' while the
disturbed snake itself is obliged through necessity
(as I shall show by and by) to glide in the same
path which the man has taken. The man, seeing
this, runs away at double speed, fancying that he is
pursued by the snake. If he would only have the
courage to stand still, and would step sideways on
the snake's coming up to him, he might rest secure
that it would not attack him, provided that he, on
his part, abstained from provoking it. I once laid
hold of a serpent's tail as it was crossing the path


before me ; and then, as might be expected, it im-
mediately raised- itself and came at me, and I had
to fight it for my pains ; but, until I had seized its
tail, it showed no inclination whatever either to
chase me or to attack me. Had I been ignorant of
the habits of snakes, I should certainly have taken
myself off as soon as I perceived that it was ap-
proaching the place where I was standing ; and then
I should have told every body that I had been pur-
sued by a serpent, and had had to run for my life.
This snake was ten feet long.

In 1820, on my way to the interior of Guiana, I
accompanied Mr. President Rough to the hospitable
house of Archibald Edmonstone, Esq., in Hobbabba
Creek, which falls into the river Demerara. We
had just sat down to breakfast. I was in the act of
apologising for appearing barefoot, and in a check
shirt, alleging, by way of excuse, that we were now
in the forest, when a negro came running up from
the swamp, and informed us that a large snake had
just seized a tame Muscovy duck. My lance, which
was an old bayonet on the end of a long stick, being
luckily in a corner of the room, I laid hold of it in
passing, and immediately ran down to the morass.
The president and his son followed ; and I think
that Mr. Edmonstone and his late lamented brother
joined them. As the scene of action was within a
few yards of the ground on which they stood, they
had a full view of all that passed, from the com-
mencement of the fray up to its final close. A
number of trees had been felled in the swamp, and
the snake had retreated among them. I walked on


their boles, and stepped from branch to branch,
overy now and then getting an imperfect sight of the
snake. Sometimes I headed him, and sometimes I
was behind him, as he rose and sank, and lurked in
the muddy water. During all this time, he never
once attempted to spring at me, because I took care
to manoeuvre in a way not to alarm him. At last,
having observed a favourable opportunity, I made a
thrust at him with the lance ; but I did it in a bun-
gling manner, for I only gave him a slight wound. I
had no sooner done this, than he instantly sprang at
my left buttock, seized the Russia sheeting trousers
with his teeth, and coiled his tail round my right
arm. All this was the work of a moment. Thus
accoutred, I made my way out of the swamp, while
the serpent kept his hold of my arm and trousers
with the tenacity of a bulldog.

As many travellers are now going up and down
the world in quest of zoological adventures, I could
wish to persuade them that they run no manner of
risk in being seized ferociously by an American
racer snake, provided they be not the aggressors :
neither need they fear of being called to an account
for intruding upon the amours of the rattlesnake
(see Jameson's Journal for June, 1827), which
amours, by the way, are never consummated in the
manner there described. The racer's exploits must
evidently have been invented long ago, by some
anxious old grandmother, in the back woods of the
United States, to deter her grandchildren from stray-
ing into the wilds. The account of the rattlesnake's
amours is an idle fabrication as old as the hills. When


I was a lad, it was said, how that, in the plains of
Cayenne, quantities of snakes were to be seen
knotted together, and how that, on the approach of
man, they would immediately dissolve company, and
make the rash intruder pay for his curiosity far more
severely than Diana of old made Actaeon pay for
an ill-timed peep. She merely changed the hunter
into a stag : they chased the man, and barbarously
stung him to death.

When a man is ranging the forest, and sees a
serpent gliding towards him (which is a very rare
occurrence), he has only to take off in a side direc-
tion, and he may be perfectly assured that it will
not follow him. Should the man, however, stand
still, and should the snake be one of those overgrown
monsters capable of making a meal of a man, in
these cases, the snake would pursue its course ; and,
when it got sufficiently near to the place where the
man was standing, would raise the fore part of its
body in a retiring attitude, and then dart at him
and seize him. A man may pass within a yard of
rattlesnakes with safety, provided he goes quietly ;
but should he irritate a rattlesnake, or tread in-
cautiously upon it, he would infallibly receive a
wound from its fang ; though, by the by, with the
point of that fang curved downwards, not upwards.
Should I ever be chased by a snake, I should really
be inclined to suspect that it was some slippery
emissary of Beelzebub : for I will forfeit my ears,
if any of old Dame Nature's snakes are ever seen
to chase either man or beast. They know better


than to play pranks, which the dame has peremp-
torily forbidden.

In the village of Walton there is a cross road
known by the name of Blind Lane. One summer's
evening, as an old woman, named Molly Mokeson,

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 18 of 28)