Copyright
Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

. (page 21 of 28)
Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 21 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


In the plantations of Guiana, there is generally
an old negress, known by the name of Granny, a
kind of " Junonis anus," who loiters about the negro
yard, and is supposed to take charge of the little
negroes who are too young to work. Towards the
close of day, you will sometimes hear the most
dismal cries of woe coming from that quarter. Old
Granny is then at work, grubbing the chegoe nests
out of the feet of the sable urchins, and filling the
holes with lime juice and Cayenne pepper. This
searching compound has two duties to perform :
first, it causes death to any remaining chegoe in the
hole ; and, secondly, it acts as a kind of birch-rod
to the unruly brats, by which they are warned, to
their cost, not to conceal their chegoes in future :
for, afraid of encountering old Granny's tomahawk,
many of them prefer to let the chegoes riot in their
flesh, rather than come under her dissecting hand.

A knowing eye may always perceive when the
feet of negroes are the abode of the chegoe. They
dare not place their feet firmly on the ground,
on account of the pain which such a position would
give them; but they hobble along with their toes
turned up ; and by this you know that they are not



244 THE DOVECOT PIGEON.

with exultation, as he showed me the chegoes' nests
which he had grubbed out ; would have formed a
scene of no ordinary variety.

Dogs are often sorely tormented by the chegoe ;
and they get rid of them by an extremely painful
operation. They gradually gnaw into their own
toes, whining piteously as they do it, until they get
at the chegoe's nest. Were it not for this singular
mode of freeing themselves from the latent enemy,
dogs would absolutely be cripples in Guiana.

But it is time to stop. I have penned down
enough to give the reader a tolerably correct idea
of one of the smallest, and, at the same time, one of
the most annoying, insects, which attack both man
and beast in the interminable region of Guiana.



NOTES ON THE HABITS OF THE DOVECOT
PIGEON.

" Aspicis ut veniant ad Candida tecta columbs,

Accipiat nullas sordida turris aves." OVID. Tris.

See, to the whitewash 'd cot what doves have flown!
While, that unwhitewash'd, not a bird will own.

BY this it appears, that the old Romans paid con-
siderable attention to the raising of pigeons.

Our common dovecot pigeon is only a half-re-
claimed bird ; not being sufficiently domesticated to
be deemed private property in the strictest sense of
the word. Thus, I may rise any quantity of these
pigeons; but, if they should forsake my dovecot,



THE EOVECOT PIGEON. . 245

and retire to that of my neighbour, I cannot claim
them. However, in order that dovecot pigeons
may not fall into the hands of those who contri-
bute nothing to their support, the legislature has
enacted a fine of forty shillings, to be paid by him
who has been convicted of having shot a dovecot
pigeon.

This act, till of late years, was of great use to
the farmer ; for it enabled him to raise this useful
bird in vast abundance : but now the times are
changed. The owners of dovecots have to com-
plain, not only of bargemen, who shoot their pigeons
along the whole line of the canals whenever an
opportunity offers, but also of a plundering set of
land vagabonds, who attack the dovecots in the
dead of the night, and sometimes actually rob them
of their last remaining bird. The origin of this
novel species of depredation can be clearly traced
to the modern amusement, known by the name of
a pigeon-shooting match. A purveyor is usually
engaged by the members. He offers a tempting
price to poachers and other loose characters, and
they agree to supply him with any quantity of
dovecot pigeons, to be ready for the day on which
the cruel exhibition is to take place. Generally,
under the covert of a dark night, these hired thieves
go to the place where they have previously seen a
ladder, and carry it off to the devoted dovecot,
upon the outside of which they mount, and with
great caution fix a net to the glover, or aperture,
on the top of the building. After they have
effected this, they descend from the roof, and im-
a 3



214 THE DOVECOT PIGEON.

with exultation, as he showed me the chegoes' nests
which he had grubbed out ; would have formed a
scene of no ordinary variety.

Dogs are often sorely tormented by the chegoe ;
and they get rid of them by an extremely painful
operation. They gradually gnaw into their own
toes, whining piteously as they do it, until they get
at the chegoe's nest. Were it not for this singular
mode of freeing themselves from the latent enemy,
dogs would absolutely be cripples in Guiana.

But it is time to stop. I have penned down
enough to give the reader a tolerably correct idea
of one of the smallest, and, at the same time, one of
the most annoying, insects, which attack both man
and beast in the interminable region of Guiana.



NOTES ON THE HABITS OF THE DOVECOT
PIGEON.

" Aspicis ut veniant ad Candida tecta columbs,
Accipiat nullas sordida turris aves." OVID. Tri$.

See, to the whitewash 'd cot what doves have flown!
While, that unwhitewash'd, not a bird will own.

BY this it appears, that the old Romans paid con-
siderable attention to the raising of pigeons.

Our common dovecot pigeon is only a half-re-
claimed bird ; not being sufficiently domesticated to
be deemed private property in the strictest sense of
the word. Thus, I may rise any quantity of these
pigeons ; but, if they should forsake my dovecot,



THE EOVECOT PIGEON. . 245

and retire to that of my neighbour, I cannot claim
them. However, in order that dovecot pigeons
may not fall into the hands of those who contri-
bute nothing to their support, the legislature has
enacted a fine of forty shillings, to be paid by him
who has been convicted of having shot a dovecot
pigeon.

This act, till of late years, was of great use to
the farmer ; for it enabled him to raise this useful
bird in vast abundance : but now the times are
changed. The owners of dovecots have to com-
plain, not only of bargemen, who shoot their pigeons
along the whole line of the canals whenever an
opportunity offers, but also of a plundering set of
land vagabonds, who attack the dovecots in the
dead of the night, and sometimes actually rob them
of their last remaining bird. The origin of this
novel species of depredation can be clearly traced
to the modern amusement, known by the name of
a pigeon-shooting match. A purveyor is usually
engaged by the members. He offers a tempting
price to poachers and other loose characters, and
they agree to supply him with any quantity of
dovecot pigeons, to be ready for the day on which
the cruel exhibition is to take place. Generally,
under the covert of a dark night, these hired thieves
go to the place where they have previously seen a
ladder, and carry it off to the devoted dovecot,
upon the outside of which they mount, and with
great caution fix a net to the glover, or aperture,
on the top of the building. After they have
effected this, they descend from the roof, and im-
R 3



246 THE DOVECOT PIGEON.

mediately force the door to get at the pigeons.
Should, however, their original survey of the dove-
cot, prior to their mounting on it, have shown them
that the door is strong enough to resist their
attempts to break it open, they take the precaution
to leave a man on the roof, where he seizes the
pigeons as soon as they become entangled in the
net. In the mean time, his associates below tap
sufficiently loud at the door of the dovecot to cause
the pigeons to start from their roost and try to
escape. Thus the hopes of the farmer are utterly
destroyed, and a supply of birds is procured for the
shooting matches in a manner not over and above
creditable to civilised society. It remains with the
members of the club to decide, whether it be
honourable or just in them to encourage these
midnight depredators. They must be aware that
all the pigeons which they buy are old ones ; and
that old. ones are never offered for sale by the
owners of dovecots. The dovecots in this neigh-
bourhood have been robbed repeatedly ; and it is
well known that the pigeons which have been stolen
from them have fallen at shooting matches near
forty miles distant.

No farm-yard can be considered complete with-
out a well-stocked dovecot, the contents of which
make the owner a most ample return, and repay
him abundantly for the depredations which the
pigeons are wont to make upon his ripening corn.
He commands a supply of delicious young birds
for his table; and he has the tillage from the
dovecot, which is of vast advantage to his barley



THE DOVECOT PIGEON. 247

land. Moreover, the pigeons render him an essen-
tial service, by consuming millions of seeds which
fall in the autumn, and which, if allowed to remain
on the ground, would rise up the following year, in
all the rank exuberance of weed, and choke the
wholesome plant.

A dovecot ought to be well lighted ; and it should
be white-washed once every year. The tillage
which it produces may be removed early in No-
vember, and again at the end of February. The
young of the dovecot pigeon, like all others of the
columbine order, are reared in a nest lined by their
own dung ; which, if left in the hole after the birds
are gone, is apt to harbour vermin. Wherefore,
cleanliness dictates its early removal.

No dovecot can possibly thrive if rats have found
an entrance into it These cruel and audacious
plunderers will destroy every young pigeon within
their reach. Oust them you must, and preclude
their return, be the cost ever so great ; otherwise,
disappointment will most assuredly be your lot.

The barn-owl and the starling are harmless un-
offending visitors to the dovecot : they repair to it
merely for shelter, or for a breeding-place ; so that
I always like to see them enter mine. It is a lofty
and a spacious building ; and last season it fur-
nished seventy-three dozens of young pigeons. The
walls were made with flues, by the judicious use of
which we had a very early supply for the table ;
but, through some neglect on the part of the
attendant, a fire took place, which threatened
destruction to the surrounding buildings. In con-
R 4-



248 THE DOVECOT PIGEON.

sequence of this, the flues were no longer heated,
and they have continued in disuse since that time.
Though owls, and hawks, and crows, and magpies,
are allowed an unmolested range in the vicinity
of this dovecot, still it is acknowledged to be one
of the most productive in the county.

There is a peculiarity in the habits of the dovecot
pigeon which ought not to pass unnoticed. Though
this bird will often perch on trees in the daytime,
it has never been known to roost on them during
the night. Neither will it pass the night in the
open air, except in cases of the greatest emergency.
I have an aged elm here, of gigantic size, to which
both the dovecot pigeon and t'he wild ring-pigeon
will frequently resort. It is amusing to watch the
peculiar habits of these two different species of
birds. They seem to come to the tree solely for
their own convenience, and not with any intention
to enjoy each other's company ; and they appear to
be as devoid of mutual signs of courtesy, as are
our own countrymen when seated in a foreign
diligence. I am positive that there will never be
a union betwixt the dovecot pigeon and the ring-
dove. A long series of observations, which I have
been enabled to make, tends to convince me more
and more of the impossibility.

The dovecot pigeons, like the rest of the genus,
are remarkable for retiring to their roost at an
early hour, and for leaving it late in the morning :
thus fulfilling only half of poor Richard's maxim of,

" Early to bed, and early to rise,
Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."



THE DOVECOT PIGEON. 249

These pigeons never lay more than two eggs at
one sitting. Indeed, I should be most surprised
were it satisfactorily proved that any pigeon ever
sits on three eggs.

Nothing can surpass the attachment of these
birds to the cot of their choice. Provided you da
not absolutely molest them by the repeated dis-
charge of fire-arms, they can scarcely be driven
from it. You may unroof their habitation ; and
though you leave it in that dismantled state for
weeks together, still the pigeons will not forsake it.
At their early hour of roosting, they will approach
within three or four yards of the workmen, and
then take shelter in the holes of the roofless walls,
where they remain for the night.

Much might be written by the ornithologist on
the intimacy which would exist betwixt man and
the feathered tribes, if man would condescend to
cultivate it Were I " close pent up in the social
chimney corner," on some dismal winter's evening,
with an attentive " Eugenius " by my side, I would
show him the cause of shyness which exists betwixt
the birds and us; and, amongst other things, I
would prove to him that no bird ever anticipates
the return of man to the vicinity of its nest, by the
supposed act of removing its " young to new quar-
ters." The pretended discovery of this reasoning
quality in birds may be just the thing to raise
the writer in the estimation of the editor of the
American Quarterly ; but it won't go down here
in England.

Our ancestors generally built their dovecots in



250 THE DOVECOT PIGEON.

an open field, apart from the farm-yard ; fearing,
probably, that the noise and bustle occasioned by
the rustic votaries of good Mother Eleusina might
interrupt the process of incubation, were the dove-
cots placed in the midst of the buildings dedicated
to husbandry.

Birds very soon get accustomed to the sounds
of civilised life, be they ever so loud, except those
which proceed from the discharge of a gun ; and
even those, in some few cases of extreme hunger,
will not deter a famished wild bird from approach-
ing the place where nutriment can be found. How
unconcernedly the daw sits on the lofty steeple,
while the merry chimes are going ! and with what
confidence the rooks will attend their nests on
trees in the heart of a town, even on the busy
market day ! The report of fire-arms is terrible
to birds ; and, indeed,' it ought never to be heard
in places in which you wish to encourage the pre-
sence of animated nature. Where the discharge
of fire-arms is strictly prohibited, you will find that
the shyest species of birds will soon forget their
wariness, and assume habits which persecution pre-
vents them from putting in practice. Thus, the
cautious heron will take up its abode in the
immediate vicinity of your mansion ; the barn-owl
will hunt for mice under the blazing sun of noon,
even in the very meadow where the hay-makers
are at work ; and the wigeons will mix, in conscious
security, with the geese, as they pluck the sweet
herbage on your verdant lawn; where the hares
may be seen all day long, now lying on their sides



THE STORMCOCK. 251

to enjoy the warmth of the sun, and now engaged
in sportive chase, unbroken-in-upon by enemies,
whose sole endeavour is to take their lives.



NOTES ON THE HABITS OF THE STORMCOCK,
OR MISTLETOE THRUSH.

" Te, clulcis conjux, te solo in littore secura,
Tc, venientc die, te, decedcnte, canebat."

For thee, sweet mate, for thee he pour'd his lay,
At early dawn, and at the close of day.

IT is a pleasing and ingenious way to account for the
song in birds, by supposing that it is given to them
by Nature, in order that they may enliven the
female during the lonely task of incubation. At that
interesting season of the year, one might really
imagine that the song of the male is absolutely
uxorious ; and, in truth, it may be, for aught I know
to the contrary. No cow ever chewed her cud more
deliberately than I have weighed this matter in my
own mind ; and, after all, I am not one jot the
wiser. My speculations in April have all been
shivered to atoms in November, and I am left in the
midst of uncertainty. To-day, I hear a male bird
singing close to the bush where his female is on her
nest ; and, five months hence, I shall hear a male
bird sing, in apparent ecstasy, when the chilling
season of the year peremptorily forbids the female
to make any preparations for the nursery. Baffled



252 THF STORMCOCK.

at every point, I sometimes peevishly ask myself,
Why should Nature have made a provision in the
male blackbird, in order that he may soothe his
incubating female, and have denied that provision
to my favourite, the carrion crow ? And then I
answer my own question, by whispering to myself,
that the she carrion may possibly experience won-
derful delight in listening to the hoarse croaking of
her partner; just as the old Scotchwoman did, when
she used to gaze at the carbuncle on her husband's
nose. In a word, I know nothing, absolutely nothing,
about the song in birds. The raven will whistle
you a tune so true and pleasing that you feel quite
enchanted with his performance; whilst his congener,
the carrion crow, notwithstanding all your pains to
instruct him, will remain as unmusical as Paddy's
fiddle, which was dumb for want of catgut. We
listen with delight to the many species of male birds
which make the groves resound with their melody ;
and we cannot imagine why the females so seldom
venture an attempt at song ; for we know that with
us both ladies and gentlemen are full of fine sounds.
Wherever a Braham is heard, there is sure to be a
Billington not far off.

However, should it be the case, in ornithology,
that Nature has ordered the male to sing his female
to repose, there are some exceptions to the supposed
general rule. J may adduce the stormcock by way
of example ; for he warbles nearly the year through-
out. I have often heard him pour forth his wild and
plaintive notes in the months of August, October,
November, and December, and in every following



n



THE STORMCOCK. 253

month, until the sun has entered into Cancer, at
which period he seems to unstring his lyre for a
few weeks. Towards the close of December his
song is particularly charming ; and it becomes more
frequent as the new year advances. I remember
well (indeed, I noted down the circumstance,) that,
on December 21. 1827, his carol was remarkably
attractive. He warbled incessantly from the top of
a lofty elm, just as the poor from a neighbouring
village were receiving corn under it, in memory of
St. Thomas the Apostle. In the olden time, it was
a common practice throughout the land to distribute
corn to the needy, on the day in which the festival
of this glorious saint is kept. At present the good
dole seems fast approaching to its latter end. Pro-
bably in a few years more it will fall a victim to the
times, and be trodden under foot in the modern
march of intellect.

This bird, though usually known by the name of
the mistletoe thrush in many parts of England, is
invariably called the stormcock by all the lower
orders in our neighbourhood ; not that it delights
in storms more than in fine weather, but that Na-
ture has taught it to pour forth its melody at a time
of the year when the bleak winds of winter roar
through the leafless trees. Should, however, a few
days of calm and warmth succeed to the chilling
blast, then the stormcock is heard to sing, if any
thing, more sweetly than before.

The stormcock is a decided inhabitant of trees,
except sometimes when in quest of food; for at that
time he may be seen on the ground, and in berry-



254- THE STORMCOCK.

bearing shrubs. But in shrubs I have never been
able to find his nest, which is generally placed either
in the forked branches of the forest trees, or in
those of the larger fruit trees, sometimes very high
up, and sometimes within 5 ft. of the ground. The
outside of the nest is composed of dried grass, to
which is added a little green moss ; whilst the inside
contains a lining of dried grass alone, on which the
female commonly lays five eggs, speckled over with
chocolate-coloured spots, of a lighter and a darker
shade, on a greyish-green ground.

During the period of the breeding season, the
habits of the stormcock undergo a noted change.
At other times of the year, except in cherry-time,
and when the seeds of the different species of the
service tree are ripe, this bird carefully avoids the
haunts of man ; but no sooner does the time arrive
in which it has to make its nest, than it draws near
to our habitations with the utmost confidence, and
forms its nest in places the most exposed to our
view. There both male and female protect their
charge with matchless courage. On the approach
of an enemy you immediately hear their singular
cry, which somewhat resembles the sound produced
by striking the teeth of a comb smartly with your
finger ; and you see the parent birds dashing inces-
santly at the crow, the cat, or the magpie, until
they clear the coast. This year there is a storm-
cock's nest within fifteen yards of the place where
the masons are at work. Our tame magpie, which
is allowed its freedom, and the use of its wings,
seized the female, some days ago, and brought her



THE STORMCOCK. 255

close to the masons. The male bird instantly came
up, and rescued his mate, by fighting the magpie,
until he made it let go its hold. " Causa viae conjux."
It was to save his female that he advanced so un-
dauntedly into the midst of his mortal enemies:
nothing else could have induced him to face the
danger. I fancy that I hear him say

- " Si fata negant veniam pro conjuge, cert urn est,
Nolle redire mihi : letho gaudete duorum."

" If you won't give my poor dear up to me, here I
stay ; you may kill us both." This loving couple
retired triumphant to their nest; but the female lost
half of her tail in the fray.

The stormcock surpasses all other thrushes in
size, and is decidedly the largest songster of the
European birds. He remains with us the whole of
the year ; and he is one of three birds which charm
us with their melody during the dreary months of
winter, when the throstL^ and the lark are silent,
and all the migratory birds have left us, to sojourn
in warmer climates. On this account I prize him
doubly. He appears to be gregarious in the months ' ^^
of August and September. I have occasionally
counted from forty to fifty of these birds in a flock ; '



and I suspect that they are sometimes mistaken for fa,
an early arrival of fieldfares, by those who pay atten-
tion to the migration of birds.

The stormcock is remarkably fond of the berries
of the rnountain-ash. He who loves to see this
pretty songster near his dwelling would do well to
plant a number of mountain-ashes in the midst of



I



256 THE STORMCOCK.

his pleasure-grounds : they are of quick growth,
and they soon produce an abundance of berries.

Whilst the fruit of these trees affords a delicious
autumnal repast to the stormcock, the branches
which bear the berries are well known to be an
effectual preservative against the devilish spells of
witchcraft. In the village of Walton I have two
small tenants : the name of one is James Simpson,
that of the other Sally Holloway ; and Sally's house
stands a little before the house of Simpson. Some
three months ago I overtook Simpson on the turnpike
road, and I asked him if his cow were getting better,
for his son had told me she had fallen sick. " She 's
coming on surprisingly, Sir," quoth he. " The last
time that the cow-doctor came to see her, ' Jem,'
said he to me, looking earnestly at old Sally's house,
' Jem,' said he, ' mind and keep your cow-house
door shut before the sun goes down, otherwise I
won't answer what may happen to the cow.' < Ay,
ay, my lad,' said I, ' I understand your meaning ;
but I am up to the old slut, and I defy her to do me
any harm now.'" " And what has old Sally been
doing to you, James ? " said I. " Why, Sir," replied
he, " we all know, too well, what she can do. She
has long owed me a grudge ; and my cow, which
was in very good health, fell sick immediately after
Sally had been seen to look in at the door of the
cow-house, just as night was coming on. The cow
grew worse and worse ; and so I went and cut a
bundle of wiggin (mountain-ash), and I nailed the
branches all up and down the cow-house ; and,
Sir, you may see them there if you will take the




IML



THE WINDHOVER HAWK. 257

trouble to step in. I am a match for old Sally now,
and she can't do me any more harm, so long as the
wiggin branches hang in the place where I have
nailed them. My poor cow will get well in spite of
her." Alas! thought I to myself, as the deluded
man was finishing his story, how much there is yet


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 21 of 28)