Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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was passing up the causeway in this lane, a man, by
name Wilson, saw a snake gliding onwards . in the
same direction. " Molly," said he, " look ! there 's
a snake running after you." She turned her head
to see what was the matter ; and, on observing the
snake approaching, fear '< seized her withered veins."
After getting some twenty yards further up the
causeway, she took refuge in a neighbour's house,
and sat down in silent apprehension, not having
breath enough to tell her troubles. In the mean
time, Wilson had followed up the snake, and, being
without a stick, he had tried repeatedly to kick it,
but had always missed his mark. All of a sudden,
the snake totally disappeared. Now, the true solu-
tion of this chase is nothing more or less than that
the snake had been disturbed by the old woman,
and had taken its departure for some other place,
but, on seeing a man coming up from behind, it had
glided harmlessly along the path which the old wo-
man had taken ; and then, to save its life, it had
slipped into the weeds in the hedge-bottom.

Nothing was talked of in the village, but how that
Molly Mokeson had been chased by the devil ; for
the good people of Walton, wiser in their generation
than the sages of Philadelphia, never dreamed of
taking this animal for a real snake ; knowing full
well that snakes are not in the habit of chasing men

210 THE RAT.

or women. I was consulted on the important affair ;
and I remarked with great gravity, that there was
something very strange and awful in it. " If," said
I, " Molly has unfortunately been interfering with
any other woman's witchcraft ; or if she has been
writing words with her own blood ; or, above all, if
there was a strong smell of brimstone in the lane
at the time of the chase, then, and in that case,
there is too much reason to fear that the thing
which Wilson took for a snake was an imp from the
bottomless pit, sent up here, no doubt, by the king
of sulphur, on some wicked and mischievous errand."
Poor old Molly is still alive, but Nature is almost
done with her ; and she is now rarely seen on the
cold side of the threshold. Many a time have I
bantered old Molly on this serpentine apparition ;
but she would only shake her head and say, she
wished she had been at home that evening, instead
of going up Blind Lane.


SOME few years after the fatal period of 1688, when
our aristocracy, in defence of its ill-gotten goods,
took upon itself to dispose of hereditary monarchy
in a way which, if attempted nowadays, would cause
a considerable rise in the price of hemp, there arrived

THE RAT. 211

on the coast of England a ship from Germany,
freighted with a cargo of no ordinary importance.
In it was a sovereign remedy for all manner of na-
tional grievances. Royal expenditure was to be
mere moonshine, taxation as light as Camilla's foot-
steps, and the soul of man was to fly up to heaven
its own way. But the poet says,

" dicique beatus

Ante obitum nemo, supremaque funera debet ; "

that is, we must not expect supreme happiness on our
side of the grave. As a counterpoise to the promised
felicity to be derived from this superexcellent Ger-
man cargo, there was introduced, either by accident
or by design, an article destined, at no far distant
period, to put the sons of Mr. Bull in mind of the
verses which I have just quoted.

This was no other than a little grey- coloured
short-legged animal, too insignificant, at the time
that the cargo was landed, to attract the slightest
notice. It is known to naturalists, sometimes by the
name of the Norwegian, sometimes by that of the
Hanoverian, rat Though I am not aware that there
are any minutes, in the zoological archives of this
country, which point out to us the precise time at
which this insatiate and mischievous little brute
first appeared among us ; still, there is a tradition
current in this part of the country, that it actually
came over in the same ship which conveyed the
new dynasty to these shores. My father, who was
of the first order of field naturalists, was always
positive on this point ; and he maintained firmly,
p 2

212 THE RAT.

that it did accompany the House of Hanover in its
emigration from Germany to England. Be this as
it may, it is certain that the stranger rat has now
punished us severely for more than a century and a
quarter. Its rapacity knows no bounds, while its
increase is prodigious beyond all belief. But the
most singular part of its history is, that it has nearly
worried every individual of the original rat of Great
Britain. So scarce have these last-mentioned ani-
mals become, that in all my life I have never seen
but one single solitary specimen; it was sent, some
few years ago, to Nostell Priory, in a cage, from
Bristol; and I received an invitation from Mr.
Arthur Strickland, who was on a visit there, to go
and see it. Whilst I was looking at the little native
prisoner in its cage, I could not help exclaiming,
" Poor injured Briton ! hard, indeed, has been
the fate of thy family ! in another generation at
farthest, it will probably sink down to the dust for
ever !

Vain would be an attempt to trace the progress
of the stranger rat through England's wide domain,
as the old people now alive can tell nothing of
its coming amongst them. No part of the country
is free from its baneful presence : the fold and the
field, the street and the stable, the ground and the
garret, all bear undoubted testimony to its ubiquity
and to its forbidding habits. After dining on
carrion in the filthiest sink, it will often manage
to sup on the choicest dainties of the larder, where,
like Celaeno of old, " vestigia foeda relinquit." We
may now consider it saddled upon us for ever

THE RAT. 213

Hercules himself, could he return to earth, would
have his hands full, were he to attempt to drive
this harpy back again to Stymphalus. It were loss
of time to dwell on its fecundity. Let any body
trace its movements in the cellar, the dairy, the
outhouse, and the barn, and he will be able to form
some notion of the number of hungry mouths
which we have to fill. Nine or ten young ones at
a time, twice or thrice during the year, are an
enormous increase, and must naturally recall to our
minds one of the many plagues which formerly
desolated the fertile land of Egypt. In the sum-
mer months it will take off to the fields, and rear
its young amongst the weeds which grow in the
hedgerows ; plundering, for their support, the birds'
nests with a ferocity scarcely conceivable in so small
an animal.

Man has invented various instruments for its
destruction ; and what with these, and with poison,
added to the occasional assistance which he re-
ceives from his auxiliaries, the cat, tue dog, the
owl, the weasel, the ferret, and the fouaiart, he is
enabled, in some degree, to thin its numbers, and to
check its depredations.

There are some localities, however, from which
it may be effectually ousted, provided you go the
right way to work. My own house, than which
none in Great Britain can have suffered more from
the plundering propensities of the Hanoverian rats,
is now completely free from their unwelcome pre-
sence. On my return to it in 1813, they absolutely
seemed to consider it their own property. They
p 3

214- THE HAT.

had gnawed through thirty-two doors; and many
of the oaken window frames were irreparably in-
jured by them. While I was in Guiana, a Dutch
lady, named Vandenheuvil, had given me a young
tiger-cat, which one of her negroes had taken that
day in a coffee field. It was the marjay, which,
by the by, Buffon considers untameable. I raised
it with great care ; and it grew so fond of me, that
it would follow my steps like a dog. Nothing
could surpass the dexterity with which this little
feline favourite destroyed the rats on our reaching
home. Towards the close of day it would ascend
the staircase; and no sooner did a rat make its
appearance from the casements, than it would spring
at it with the velocity of an arrow, and never fail to
seize it. In 1828, having got, by long experience,
a tolerably good insight into the habits of this
tormenting quadruped, and having found that it
spoiled or pilfered every thing within its reach, I
finally resolved that it should look out for another
place of residence. Wherefore I carefully searched
for all its various entrance holes. These I effectually
closed with stone and mortar. I then filled up all
useless sewers, and paid great attention to the
paving and renewing of those which were absolutely
required ; fixing, at the same time, in either end of
them, a cast-iron grate, movable at pleasure. The
bottoms of all the outer doors were done with hoop
iron ; and the pavement which goes round the house
was relaid with particular care. By these pre-
cautions, I barred all access to these greedy in-
truders ; and, as no rubbish or lumber is i\ow

THE RAT. 215

allowed to remain in the different nooks and crannies
commonly found near ancient dwellings, there is
no place of shelter left to conceal any stray indi-
vidual whose bowels may chance to yearn for one
more repast on cheese or bacon. In the mean
time, the cat and the owl meet with no obstructions,
while prowling for those which may still linger in
the environs. The mice, too, seem to have taken
the alarm. In a word, not a single mouse or rat is
to be found in any part of the house, from the
cellars to the attic stories.

In case it were not convenient or practicable to
adopt similar precautions to those already enume-
rated, I would suggest what follows : Take a
quantity of oatmeal that would fill a common-sized
wash-hand basin ; add to this two pounds of coarse
brown sugar, and one dessert spoonful of arsenic.
Mix these ingredients very well together, and then
put the composition into an earthen jar. From
time to time place a table-spoonful of this in the
runs which the rats frequent, taking care that it is
out of the reach of innocuous animals. They will
partake of it freely ; and it will soon put an end to
all their depredations.

Rats are fond of frequenting places where there
are good doings; while their natural sagacity
teaches them to retire in time from a falling house.
This knack at taking care of self seems common
both to man and brute. Hence the poet :

" Donee eris felix, multos numcrabis amicos ;
Tempera si fucrint nubila, solus eris."

p 4


When Fortune smiles, thy friends are many ;
But, if she frowns, thou hast not any.

Whilst the rats had all their own way here, they
annoyed me beyond measure ; and many a time
have I wished the ship at Jericho, which first
brought their ancestors to these shores. They had
formed a run behind the plinth in my favourite
sitting-room, and their clatter was unceasing.
Having caught one of them in a box trap, I dipped
its hinder parts into warm tar, and then turned it
loose behind the hollow plinth. The others, seeing
it in this condition, and smelling the tar all along
the run through which it had gone, thought it
most prudent to take themselves off; and thus, for
some months after this experiment, I could sit and
read in peace, free from the hated noise of rats.
On removing the plinth at a subsequent period, we
found that they had actually gnawed away the
corner of a peculiarly hard-burnt brick, which had
obstructed their thoroughfare.

The grey rats are said to destroy each other,
in places where they become too numerous for
their food ; but, bad as they are, I will not add
this to the catalogue of their misdemeanours.
They can never be in such want of aliment as to
do this; because instinct would teach them that
where there is ingress to a place, there is also
egress from it; and thus, when they began to be
pinched for food, they would take off in a body,
or disperse amongst the fields, and live upon the
tender bark of trees, and upon birds, beetles, and

THE RAT. 217

other things which the adjacent ground would

That they move from place to place in large
bodies cannot well be disputed. A respectable
farmer, by name John Mathewman, now living in
this neighbourhood, has informed me that, as he
was returning home one moonlight night, about
eleven o'clock, he suddenly came upon a large
drove of rats, near Sandal Three-houses. They
were coming up a lane which opened upon the
high road ; and, as soon as they discovered him,
they gave mouth in a general squeal. Those
nearest to him rose on their hind legs ; and then
the whole body separated, and scampered off in all
directions. Probably these adventurers were on the
look out that night for better quarters.

Rats will occasionally attempt to feed on indi-
viduals of the human species when they are asleep.
In 1824, I went with that excellent American
naturalist, Mr. Titian Peale, down the Delaware,
to the neighbourhood of Salem, in order to make
researches in ornithology; and we procured good
lodgings at a farmer's house. During the night
I was disturbed by a movement in the straw mat-
tress on which I lay, of a somewhat suspicious
nature ; but, being exceedingly tired with our
day's exertion, I fell asleep again till about half-
past four, my usual hour of rising. At breakfast,
" Madam," said I to the farmer's wife, " I could
almost have fancied that there were rats in my
mattress last night." " Very likely, sir," said she,
with the greatest composure; and then she told

218 THE RAT.

me that the year before, whilst she was fast asleep
in the bed which I had occupied, a rat began to
eat into her shoulder. On saying this, she bared
the place to let me have a view of it ; and I dis-
tinctly saw the marks which the hungry rat had
left. " Upon my word, Madam," said I, " though
I am not prone to make wry faces at a fair allow-
ance of fleas or bugs, still I must own to you that
I have not yet quite made up my mind to be
devoured alive by rats; wherefore, if you have no
objections, when our breakfast is finished, we will
go and take a peep into the interior of the mat-
tress." On ripping it up, no rats were found ; but
out bounced seven or eight full-grown mice. The
old lady smiled as they ran across the floor ; and
I thought I could read in her face that she con-
sidered I had raised a false alarm.

When I reflect on the numbers and the appetite
of the Hanoverian rat, and put down to its account
the many depredations which it is perpetually
committing, I cannot bring my mind to show it
the same good feeling which is extended in this
park to the rest of animated nature. In truth, I
consider its arrival in our country an event pro-
ductive of much annoyance to the community at
large; and, had I the power, I would send its
whole stock, root and branch, back again to the
country whence it came ; seeing that we have
gained nothing by letting it exterminate the
original English rat.




THE tree, that noble and gigantic son of earth, is
the favourite resort of most birds ; and so intimately
is it connected with the charming science of orni-
thology, that he who has neglected to pay attention
to it will often find himself at a loss to give correct
information, in his description of the habits of the
feathered tribes.

The bloom, the fruit, the health and vigour of
a tree, are interwoven with the economy of birds.
Do you wish to have a view of seven or eight dif-
ferent species of Colibri, collected at one tree?
Wait, in patience, till the month of July ; when a
vast profusion of red flowers on the bois immortel (a
tree well known to every planter in Guiana) invites
those lovely creatures to a choice repast. Are you
anxious to procure the pompadour, the purple-
breasted and the purple-throated cotingas? Then,
mark the time when the wild guava tree ripens its
fruit ; and on it you will find these brilliant orna-
ments of the forest. Is the toucan your object ?
You have only to place yourself, before the close of
day, at the shaded root of some towering mora
whose topmast branches have been dried by age, or
blasted by the thunderstorm, and to this tree the
bird will come, and make the surrounding wilds
re-echo to its evening call. Would you inspect the


nest of the carrion crow ? Brittle are the living
branches of the ash and sycamore ; while, on the
contrary, those which are dead on the Scotch pine
are tough, and will support your weight. The arms
of the oak may safely be relied on ; but, I pray you,
trust with extreme caution those of the quick-
growing alder. Neither press heavily on the linden
tree; though you may ascend the beech and the
elm, without any fear of danger. But let us stop
here for the present. On some future day, should
I be in a right frame for it, I may pen down a few
remarks, which will possibly be useful to the natu-
ralist, when roving in quest of ornithological know-
ledge. I will now confine myself to the misfortunes
and diseases of trees ; and I will show, that neither
the titmouse nor the woodpecker ever bore into the
hard and live wood.

Trees, in general, are exposed to decay by two
different processes, independent of old age.

The first is that of a broken branch, which, when
neglected, or not cut off close to the parent stem,
will, in the course of time, bring utter ruin on the
tree. The new wood, which is annually formed,
cannot grow over the jutting and fractured part,
into which the rain enters, and gradually eats deeper
and deeper, till at last it reaches the trunk itself.
There it makes sad havoc ; and the tree, no longer
able to resist the fury of the tempest, is split asunder,
and falls in ponderous ruins. But ere it comes to
this, the titmouse will enter the cavity in a dry
spring, and rear its young ones here. Now, it the
diseased or fractured branches were carefully cut


off close to the bole, you would see the new acces-
sion of wood gradually rolling over the flat surface,
which, in time, would be entirely covered by it:
and then the tree would be freed for ever from all
danger in that quarter.

The second process towards decay is exceedingly
curious, and cannot well be accounted for. If it
takes place to a serious extent, no art of man can
possibly save the tree ; and sooner or later, according
to the magnitude of the disease with which it has
been tainted, it will fall before the force of the
raging winds. Should this disease be slight, the
timely prevention of rain from penetrating the injured
part will secure the tree from further mischief.

I must here observe that, in animated nature, the
vital functions are internal ; so that, if the part
within be mortally wounded, death is the inevitable
consequence. With most trees, and with all those
of Britain, it is otherwise. Their vitality is at the
periphery, connected with the bark, under which
an annual increase of wood takes place, so long as
the tree is alive. Should, however, the bark be cut
away, the tree will die upwards from the place
where all the bark has been destroyed. Not so with
its internal parts. You may entirely excavate the
interior of a tree; and, provided you leave a sufficient
strength of wood, by way of wall, in order that it
may be able to resist the fury of the tempest with-
out, taking care at the same time to exclude the
rain, your tree will remain in vigour from generation
to generation. The internal texture of a tree will
perish, without any notice by which we may be


forewarned of the coming ruin. The disease which
causes the destruction takes place in the oak ; but
more frequently in the sycamore ; and most com-
monly of all in the ash. We will select this last tree
by way of elucidation.

Often, when arrayed in all the bloom of vegetable
beauty, the ash tree is seen to send forth from its
bole, or from some principal branch, a small fungus,
which, during the summer, increases to a consider-
able size. It ripens in the autumn, and falls to the
ground when winter's rain set in. The bark through
which this fungus sprouted is now completely dead,
though it still retains its colour ; and that part
of the wood from which it proceeded is entirely
changed in its nature, the whole of its vitiated
juices having been expended in forming and nourish-
ing the fungus. Nothing remains of its once firm and
vigorous texture. It is become what is commonly
called touchwood, as soft and frangible as a piece
of cork, which, when set on fire, will burn like
tinder. In the mean time, the tree shows no sign of
sickness ; and its annual increase goes on as usual ;
till, at last, the new swelling wood closes over the
part from which the fungus had grown, and all
appears to go on right again. But, ere the slow
process arrives at this state, the titmouse or the
woodpecker will "have found an entrance, and a place
of safety for their incubation. They quickly per-
forate the distempered bark ; and then, the tainted
wood beneath it yields to their pointed bills, with
which they soon effect a spacious cavity.

Here then we have the whole mystery unfolded.


These birds, which never perforate the live wood,
find in this diseased part of the tree, or of the branch,
a place suitable to their wants. They make a
circular hole, large enough to admit their bodies ;
and then they form a cavity within, sufficiently
spacious to contain their young. Thus does Nature
kindly smooth the way, in order that all her crea-
tures may prosper and be happy. Whenever I see
these sylvan carpenters thus employed, I say to
them, " Work on, ye pretty birds ; you do no harm
in excavating there : I am your friend, and I will
tell the owner of the tree that you are not to blame."
But his woodman deserves a severe reprimand.
He ought to have cut down the tree, in the autumn,
after the appearance of the fungus.

On the island where this house stands, two stately
sycamores have afforded ample proof of what I have

One of these, some forty years ago, began to put
on a sickly appearance ; and I heard my father say
that he expected to see it blown down in a heavy
gale of wind. In the summer of 1800, I climbed
up to the place where the brown owl formerly used
to breed. The hole was full of water, in a branch
leading from the bole, at about 20 feet from the
ground. Presuming from appearances that the
damage was extensive, I took a wimble, and bored
into the tree, at the height of 5 feet ; then at 3 feet ;
and lastly, I got a chisel, and cut into it at 3 inches
from the walk. Twenty-four gallons of water, having
the appearance of strong coffee, were procured from
these apertures in the course of the day. After


this, I put a cap of lead over the hole on the high
branch above, leaving an entrance for the owl, should
she ever come again ; and I drove two long pieces
of iron into the bole below the aperture, sufficiently
low to form a floor for the owl's apartment, which I
made with scraps of stone covered with sawdust
In the summer of the present year, 1835, thirty-
five years from the first operation, I enlarged the
lowest hole next the walk 4 inches ; and, by the help
of a little iron shovel, I took from the interior of the
tree four large wheelbarrows full of decomposed
wood, not unlike -coffee grounds in appearance.
With this substance, there came out some of the
small scraps of stone, which I had used in making
the floor for the owl's residence : proof incontest-
able, that the rain water had gradually destroyed
the internal texture of the sycamore, from the
broken branch at the height of 20 feet. The tree,
though hollow as a drum, " or lovers' vows," is now
perfectly healthy.

At a little distance from this, is another syca-
more, once a towering and majestic tree. Some
fifteen years ago, it put out a fungus, about 25 feet
from the ground. I saw, by the enormous size of
the fungus, that the tree must give way ere long.
In 1826, during a heavy gale of wind, it broke in
two at the diseased part ; leaving one huge branch,
which continued to be clothed with rich foliage
every succeeding season. I built a stonework on
the remaining part of the trunk, by way of cover-
ing ; and I made sixteen apartments in it for the
jackdaws, planting an ivy root at the bottom. In


the summer of 1831, another large fungus made
its appearance at 8 feet from the ground. One
Sunday morning, during a raging tempest, the
trunk gave way at the fungus, carrying the remain-
ing branch, the stonework, and the jackdaw's nests,

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 19 of 28)