Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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with a tremendous crash, into the lake below. I
roofed the remainder of the stump again, leaving
an entrance for the owl. It is now quite covered
with ivy, and has sent forth a partial vegetation
annually from its last misfortune. In June of the
present year, another huge fungus came out at 4-
feet from the ground. I understand the warning ;
and I clearly foresee that the final doom of this
" statio malefida" volucri is close at hand.

Thus have two sycamores, within a few feet of
each other, been a prey to distinct diseases, and
both of them afforded an inward retreat to birds.
The first, having entirely lost its inside, by the
slow-consuming process of wet entering at a broken
branch, still flourishes by the art of man. The
second, for centuries the ornament of the rock
upon which it grew, struck at last by the hand of
Nature with an inward distemper which nothing
could arrest, broke down at intervals in partial
ruins ; and probably will disappear for ever during
the next fierce wintry blast.

There is still another process by which an en-
trance is prepared for birds in the boles of trees.
Frequently a large branch fails without any apparent
cause ; and it remains dead on the tree for rnany
years. At last, down it comes, having given way
close to the stem. On inspection you will find

226 THE JAY.

that decay has entered deeply into the tree itself,
without any aid from rain water. The surrounding
live wood, which kept swelling gradually while the
dead branch remained on the tree, now that the
obstruction is removed, begins to advance over the
newly exposed and distempered part. In the mean
time, the birds find no difficulty in excavating this
part, and there forming a place for incubation, or
for a nocturnal residence. Mice and rats will also
find their way into these diseased parts of trees. I
know of a crab tree in which a mouse lives. Its
hole is about 5 feet from the ground.

I have written this paper, first, to show the true
habits of the titmouse and the woodpecker relative
to their choice of a place for their incubation ; and,
secondly, to catch the eye of the proprietor of the
American Quarterly Review, who, I am informed,
has thought fit to heap anonymous abuse upon me,
with an unsparing hand. Let this sage discerner
of ornithological merit turn to pages 200. and 343.
of the Biography of Birds, and then blush for
American ignorance.


OUR peas and ripe cherries have attractions which
this well-known bird cannot resist. To these it
unfortunately resorts, and loses its life by the gun
ef the watchful gardener, who never fails to magnify

THE JAY. 227

a petty act of plunder into a downright commission
of felony. Forgetful of the caution which is its
peculiar characteristic at other seasons of the year,
the jay becomes remarkably daring and adventurous
in pea and cherry time. To this unlucky yearning
for the good things of the garden, I attribute the
general scarcity of this truly British bird. Even
here the jay is never abundant, though a safe retreat
is always open to it ; so that, whilst the magpie is
very numerous, it is comparatively a scarce bird.
Two or three nests, at most, are all I can annually
produce. These, by the way, I find are much more
compact, and better put together, than those which
naturalists have hitherto described.

The nest of the jay is never seen near the tops
of trees, like those of the magpie and the crow. He
who feels inclined to study the nidification of this
bird must search the lower branches of the oak, or
inspect the woodbine mantling round the hazel. In
such situations he will find the nest, which mostly
contains six eggs ; and, if he advances with " cau-
tious step and slow," he may approach within a yard
of it before the sitting bird will take its flight.

There seems to be an erroneous opinion current
concerning some birds, which are supposed to for-
sake their eggs if they are handled, be it ever in so
slight a manner. This requires some explanation.
If you rush up abruptly to a nest, so as to terrify
the old bird, you will find, with very few exceptions,
that it will forsake the place. If, on the contrary,
you approach the nest of any bird in gentleness and
silence, and allow the owner to slip off without being
Q 2

228 THE JAY.

fluttered, you may take the eggs out of the nest,
and blow upon them, and put them in your mouth
if you choose, or change their original position when
you replace them in the nest, notwithstanding which
the bird will come back to them (even though it be
a ringdove), and continue to sit on them as atten-
tively as before.

The jay being one of those birds which have their
brilliant colours prior to their first moulting, you
will find the male and female so much alike, that it
will be no easy matter to distinguish the one from
the other.

The young of this bird are born blind : of course,
the parent bird never covers the eggs with any part
of the materials which form the nest, when she has
occasion to be absent.

Here let me remark the immense difference that
exists betwixt a newly hatched bird with its eyes
open, and one newly hatched with its eyes closed.
The first can walk and find its food in a very short
time; the second is helpless in the extreme for
many days, and cannot support its own weight. A
scientific friend in the United States of North
America has asked my opinion of our English ac-
count concerning a young cuckoo, which, on the
very day that it was hatched, was actually seen
retrograding up the side of a hedge sparrow's nest
with a young hedge sparrow on its back. After
reaching the top, it rested for a moment, and then,
with a jerk, threw off its load quite clear of the nest.
No bird in the creation could perform such an as-
tounding feat under such embarrassing circum-

THE JAY. 229

stances. The young cuckoo cannot, by any means,
support its own weight during the first day of its
existence. Of course, then, it is utterly incapable
of clambering, rump foremost, up the steep side of
a hedge sparrow's nest with the additional weight
of a young hedge sparrow on its back. Add to this, 7^^_ C/
that an old bird, the young of which are born blind, /
always remains on the nest during the whole of the , : ^
day on which the chick is excluded from the shell, j irti/V^*~'
in order to protect it. Now, the old hedge sparrow,
in the case just mentioned, must have been forced
from her nest by the accidental presence of an in-
truder. Her absence, then, at this important crisis, / *
was quite contrary to her usual economy, for she /
ought to have been upon the nest. It follows, then, . l '
that instinct could not have directed the newly '
hatched and blind cuckoo to oust the hedge sparrow,
even though it had strength to do so, because the -jj .
old bird would have been sitting close on the nest,
but for the circumstance which forced her from it,
namely, the accidental presence of an intruder. -
The account carries its own condemnation, no //'?
matter by whom related or by whom received. I .
had much rather believe the story of baby Hercules ' .
throttling two snakes in his cradle.

Parvus erat, manibusque suis Tirynthius angues
Pressit, et in cunis jam Jove dignus erat."

When naturalists affixed the epithet glandarius

to the name of the jay, they ought also to have ac^

corded it to the jackdaw, the rook, the carrion crow,

and the magpie, not forgetting the pheasant and the

Q 3

230 THE JAY.

ringdove. All these birds feed voraciously on the
acorn ; and, with the exception of the two last men-
tioned, they bury it in the ground, not in hoarded
heaps, but separately, here and there, as fancy may
direct them.

When the snows of winter have fairly set in, and
thus prevented the jay from finding a supply of
acorns amongst the fallen leaves in the woods, it is
then seen flitting fnpm hedge to hedge in the vicinity
of pea and bean stacks, where it may be observed
clinging to the sides of these in quest of uncovered
pods ; and thus it acquires part of its scanty pro-
vender, " till the vernal suns and showers" have dis-
solved the accumulated snow, and cleared its former
haunts. To these it returns once more, and con-
sumes myriads of insects in comparative safety. But
when the fatal season of peas and ripe cherries
arrives, scarcely any thing short of death can deter
this unfortunate bird from participating in the prof-
fered feast. The gardener, in discharging his gun
at it, is sure to make bad worse by his officious in-
terference ; for, in his eagerness to kill the poor
bird, he never once reflects that the contents of his
piece do ten times more harm to the fruit and to
the tender shoots of the cherry tree, than the
dreaded presence of half a dozen jays, all with
empty stomachs.

Towards the end of April, when nature smiles
around, and the woods begin to expand their open-
ing bloom, he who loves to wander through them,
in quest of ornithological adventures, will sometimes
hear a profusion of imitative tones not far from the

THE JAY. 231'

place where he is straying, now hoarse and sonorous, 7

now lowered and subdued, and composed of modu- ^ !

lations almost approaching to those of song : they '

are produced by ten or a dozen sprightly jays, as- '"

sembled in merry mimicry and glee, ere they de|

in pairs to select a place for approaching incubation.

This is the only period of the year in which the jay

shows a disposition to be social ; for, at other times, "

it is a wandering solitary bird, and does not allow J*jC*^' "***

its young to associate with it, after they have ar- *t>*^- **"

rived at a state to be able to provide for themselves. J&ftJ^f^^

Here, where the jay is encouraged and protected, /n*c **

this part of its economy may be easily verified.

This bird would probably not be noticed as having
any thing remarkable either in shape or plumage,
were it not for the loveliness of its bastard wing
and greater covert feathers. The blue, the black,
and the white in them are so exquisitely blended,
that the eye is never tired with gazing on the co-
lours. Nothing can possibly be conceived more
charming. No other known bird in the creation
possesses such a rich exhibition of colouring in the
bastard wing and greater coverts. It belongs ex-
clusively to this one species of bird : it is the indu-
bitable and never-failing mark of the jay of Europe ;
a bird which will ever have a friend in me, notwith-
standing its acknowledged depredations in gardens
and in orchards. Its pilferings are of short dura-
tion : they are too trivial to cause uneasiness, and
of far too light a nature to demand the forfeiture
of life.

Q 4-



THIS beautiful frequenter of our woods and plains
was notorious, two thousand years ago, for pertness
of character and volubility of tongue. Ovid, who
knew more of birds than any man of his time,
gives us an account of a family of young ladies in
Macedonia, who were all changed into magpies ;
and he expressly tells us, that they retained their
inordinate fondness for gabble long after they had
lost the lovely form of woman.

" Nunc quoque in alitibus, facundia prisca remansit,
Kauca garrulitas, studiumque immane loquendi."

And still their tongues went on, though changed to birds,
In endless clack, and vast desire of words.

If similar transformations were to take place
nowadays, I suspect that many a father here in
England would have to look for his lost daughter,
chattering amongst the lofty branches of the trees
in his park.

I protect the magpie with greater care than,
perhaps, any other bird, on account of its having
nobody to stand up for it. Both rich and poor
seem to entertain so great an antipathy to this gay
and lively bird in its wild state, that I often wonder
how the breed has managed to escape utter ex-
tirpation in this populous district. The country
gentlemen all agree in signing the death-warrant
of this friendless bird, because it is known to suck


eggs, and to strangle young game ; whilst, in
general, the lower orders have an insurmountable
prejudice against it, on the score of its supposed
knowledge of their future destiny. They tell you
that, when four of these ominous birds are seen
together, it is a sure sign, that, ere long, there will
be a funeral in the village ; and that nine are quite
a horrible sight. I have often heard countrymen
say that they had rather see any bird than a
magpie ; but, upon my asking them the cause of
their antipathy to the bird, all the answer that I
could get was, that they knew it to be unlucky,
and that it always contrived to know what was
going to take place. My keeper both hates and
fears a magpie ; but self-interest forces upon the
fellow the unpleasant task of encouraging the
breed, in order to keep well with me. He was
once in conversation with the keeper of a neigh-
bouring gentleman, at the door of a little alehouse
in the village of Heath, when a magpie flew into
a tree hard by. " I must have thee killed," said
the gentleman's keeper, " otherwise there will be
a blow up betwixt me and my master." " Ah ! "
rejoined my keeper, " were I to kill a magpie, my
master would soon blow me out of his service."
The keeper thought this too good to be lost, and I
had it from his own mouth.

I love in my heart to see a magpie, for it always
puts me in mind of the tropics. There is such a
rich glow of colour, and such a metallic splendour
of plumage in this bird, that one would almost be


apt to imagine it must have found its way here
from the blazing latitudes of the south.

I am fully aware that it has propensities of a
sufficiently predatory nature to bring it into general
disrepute with civilised man ; but let us remember
that, like the carrion crow, it only exercises them
to any serious extent for about two months in the
spring of the year. At that season, it certainly
commences operations with surprising assiduity.
Cacus himself, that ancient thief, when he was
about to steal the cows of Hercules, never ex-
hibited greater cunning than that which this bird
puts in practice after it has discovered a hen's nest
in the yard, or a place of sitting game in the field.
Both the magpie and the carrion crow transfix
the eggs with their beaks, and then convey them
through the air.

After the season of incubation is over, the mag-
pie becomes a harmless bird (unless the pilfering
of a little unprotected fruit be considered a crime),
and spends the remainder of the year in works of
great utility to man, by destroying millions of
insects, and by preventing the air from being in-
fected with the noxious effluvium arising from the
scourings of slaughter-houses. The cattle, too,
are in some degree benefited by the prying re-
searches of this sprightly bird. At a certain time
of the year, it is often seen on the backs of sheep
and oxen, freeing them from vermin, which must
be exceedingly troublesome to them. In Demerara,
where the magpie does not exist, this friendly
office is performed by a hawk. Widely different


is the object of the jackdaw's visit to the backs of
sheep and oxen : it goes there for fleece ; the
magpie for filth.

I cannot suppose, with some naturalists, that the
dome of the magpie's nest is intended for a defence;
because the hole at which the bird enters is always
open to an enemy, while the contents of the nest
are quite visible through the dome itself.

The young of the magpie being hatched blind,
the eggs are never covered when the parent bird
leaves the nest. I am satisfied in my own mind,
that neither the magpie, iior any other bird, can
have the least idea that their nests will be robbed,
up to the very moment when their eggs, or their
young, are taken away. Did they apprehend such
a disaster, we may be assured that their first object
would be to build their nests in a place out of
harm's way. Now, the magpie generally chooses
the site for its intended incubation in a spot the
most exposed that can possibly be imagined. It
will continue to work at the structure of its nest,
although we visit the nest two or three times a day;
and it will return to the nest, and sit upon its eggs,
after those eggs have been handled times out of
number. Nay, more ; you may take away its own
eggs, and substitute those of some other bird, and it
will hatch them, and rear the produce.

The magpie (and we may include all other birds)
shows not that intensity of feeling for its eggs
which it is known to have for its young. Thus,
if you take the eggs from the nest and place them
on the ground, the magpie will abandon them for


ever ; but if you remove the young to a place to
which the parent bird can have access, she will
regularly bring them a supply of food.

When there is an addle egg, it is allowed to
remain in the nest during the entire process of
rearing the young. Birds which make their nests
in walls or in the holes of trees (the starling to
wit), bring out the addle egg, which has remained
from the last year's incubation, and drop it on the
ground, when they begin to renew the nest.

The magpie builds its nest in any tree, no matter
of what kind ; and it is very partial even to the
lowly thorn bush in the hedgerow. The apple tree
in the garden ; the lonely ash in the meadow ; the
alder in the swamp ; and the oak in the heart of
the forest, far from the abode of man ; all have
their attractions for the magpie; and in these it
will form its nest, which is invariably composed
of sticks, and clay or earth, and lined with fibrous
roots. When I am informed that magpies line
their nest with wool, I suspect that there is either
an error in the statement, or that the modern
magpie has conformed to the times, and has brought
to her nest a kind of furniture wholly unknown to
her ancestors.

The magpie lays from three to nine eggs; but
seven seems to be the average number, varying
in size, and shape, and colour, as much as those
of the carrion crow.

The female magpie has so near a resemblance
to the male, that you can scarcely distinguish the
one from the other. This is the case with all


birds, where the brilliant plumage obtains before
the first moulting.

The sight of a magpie always gives me pleasure;
its long tail, and its distinct markings of white
and black, having a beautiful effect as it darts
through the air. You may know this bird at a
very great distance, either on the ground, or in a
tree, by the frequent and brisk movement of its
tail ; always up and down, never sideways.

The magpie seems to have found out that it has
at least one friend left in our part of the country.
Last year I had thirty-four nests, all of which
ushered their young into the world at large ;
making, on an average of five to the nest, including
the parent birds, 238 individuals ; an increase quite
sufficient, one would think, to supply all the wise
men of the county with any quantity of omens.
The name of wise man, in Yorkshire, is always
given to one who professes to deal in the black art.
Even well-educated people of the nineteenth cen-
tury go to him, in order to recover things lost ; or
to be put on the right scent, if a cow, or horse, or
pig, or relative, be missing.

Magpies are social, though not gregarious in the
strictest sense of the word. In places where they
are beyond the reach of molestation, you may see
them in little parties of fifteen or twenty together,
flitting from tree to tree in noisy conversation.
Sometimes they will rise to a great height in the
air, passing through it with a velocity which seems
hitherto to have escaped the notice of naturalists.
Like all other birds in a wild state, magpies


become vociferous at the approach of night ; and
he who loves to watch the movements of animated
nature, may observe them, in small detached
companies, proceeding to their wonted roosting-
places, in some wood of spruce, pine, or larch,
which they seem to prefer to any other. There
they become valuable watchmen for the night.
Whoever enters the grove is sure to attract their
special notice ; and then their chattering is inces-
sant. Whenever I hear it during the night, or
even during the day (except towards nightfall), I
know that there is mischief on the stir. Three
years ago, at eleven o'clock in broad day, I was at
the capture of one of the most expert and des-
perate marauders that ever scourged this part of
the country. He had annoyed me for a length of
time ; and was so exceedingly cunning, that, when
we went in pursuit of him, he always contrived to
escape, either by squatting down in the thick cover
of the woods, or by taking himself off in time,
when he saw us approach. At last, he owed his
capture to the magpies. We were directed to the
place of his depredations by the incessant chatter-
ings of these birds in the tops of the trees, just
over the spot where he was working in his vocation.
He had hanged fourteen hares; and the ground
was so covered with brambles and brushwood, that,
when we surprised him, he told us that we never
should have found him, had it not been for the
cursed magpies. His name was Kirk. In the
course of the following summer, he set out on his


travels towards New South Wales, at the king's
expense; having been convicted, at the York as-
sizes, of an overweening inclination for his neigh-
bour's mutton, to which he had helped himself most


" Priore relicta

Sede, novis domibus habitant, vivuntque recepta." OVID. Met.

Leaving their former haunts, beneath the skin
They form new settlements, and thrive within.

THIS apparently insignificant insect far outdoes the
bug in the exercise of its noxious qualities. The
bug attacks you in an open manner, makes a hearty
meal, and then retires to enjoy it : but the chegoe
commences its operations upon you so gently, that
they are scarcely felt ; and it terminates them in a
way that calls for your most serious attention. In
a word, it approaches you with such insinuating
address, that you absolutely feel a kind of gratifi-
cation at the very time that it is adopting measures
which will infallibly end in your certain torment.

Soon after the chegoe has entered your skin, you
experience a pleasant itching kind of sensation, by
which you begin to suspect that all is not right ;


and, on taking a nearer view of the part, you per-
ceive that the skin is somewhat discoloured.

J know it is supposed by some people, that the
accounts concerning the chegoe have been much
exaggerated. I am not of this way of thinking, for
I myself have smarted under its attacks ; and I have
minutely inspected the foot of a negro, Avhich was
a mass of ulcers, formed entirely by the neglected
ravages of the chegoe.

Guiana is the native country of this insect. In
that hot and humid region, which is replete with
every thing that can please our imagination, or
administer to our wants, we must not be surprised
to find here and there some little drawback ; some
few obstructions in our way ; some thorny plants to
impede our journey as we wander on.

The chegoe resembles a flea : and, had you just
come out of a dovecot, on seeing it upon your skin,
you might easily mistake it for a small pigeon flea ;
although, upon a closer inspection, you would sur-
mise that it is not capable of taking those amazingly
elastic bounds, so notorious in the flea of Europe.

Not content with merely paying you a visit, and
then taking itself off again, as is the custom of most
insects, this insidious miner contrives to work its
way quite under your skin, and there remains to
rear a numerous progeny. I once had the curiosity
to watch the movements of a chegoe oh the back of
my hand, a part not usually selected by it to form
a settlement. It worked its way pretty rapidly for
so small an insect. In half an hour it had bored
quite through the skin, and \vas completely out of


sight. Not wishful to encourage its intended co-
lony, " Avast, there ! my good little fellow," said I ;
" we must part company without loss of time. I
cannot afford to keep you, and a numerous family,
for nothing ; you would soon eat me out of house
and home." ' On saying this, I applied the point of
my penknife to the place where the chegoe had
entered, and turned it loose upon the world again.

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 20 of 28)