Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

. (page 22 of 28)
Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 22 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to be done in our part of the country by the school-
master of the nineteenth century I


NOTHING can be more unfortunate for a man, than
to bear a strong resemblance to another who is
notorious for his evil deeds. The public eye marks
him as he passes on, and tacitly condemns him for
misdemeanours of which he is, probably, as inno-
cent as the lamb which gambols on the lawn. This
may be applied with great truth to the windhover
hawk. He is perpetually confounded with the spar-
rowhawk, and too often doomed to suffer for the
predatory attacks of that bird on the property of
man. But when your gun has brought the poor
windhover to the ground, look, I pray you, into the
contents of his stomach ; you will find nothing there
to show that his life ought to be forfeited. On
the contrary, the remnants of the beetle and the
field mouse which will attract your notice, prove in-
disputably, that his visits to your farm have been
of real service to it.


This hawk has received the name of windhover
on account of his custom of hovering in the air.
By the way, he is not the only bird which performs
this curious evolution. The sparrowhawk, the barn-
owl, the gull, and the kingfisher, are often seen in a
similar position.

A little attention on the part of the beholder
would soon enable him to distinguish' the windhover
from the sparrowhawk. The windhover, when in
quest of food, glides softly through the air, at a
moderate height, now poised in the breeze on flut-
tering pinion, now resting in the void apparently
without motion ; till, at last, down he comes, like a
falling stone, upon the unconscious prey below.
But, should he be disappointed in his purpose, he
rises again in elegant ascent, to seek for food else-
where. The sparrowhawk, on the contrary, though
he will sometimes hover in the air, still he usually
secures his prey by means of a very quick pursuit.
Both at early dawn and at the fall of night, he will
dart past you with inconceivable velocity ; and then
woe betide the luckless victim that attracts his
eagle eye. This bird often makes his appearance
at a tower which I have built for the starlings, and
to which above fifty pairs of these birds resort during
the spring of the year. His unwelcome visit causes
a tremendous uproar. A universal shriek of horror
announces his detested presence ; and scarcely have
I time to fix my eyes upon the tower, ere the in-
truder is off with a starling in his talons.

Did the nurseryman, the farmer, and the country
gentleman, know the value of the windhover's ser-


vices, they would vie with each other in offering
him a safe retreat. He may be said to live almost
entirely on mice ; and mice, you know, are not the
friends of man ; for they bring desolation to the
bee-hive, destruction to the pea-bed, and spoliation
to the corn-stack. Add to this, they are extremely
injurious to the planter of trees. The year 1815
was memorable, in this part of the county of York,
for swarms of field-mice exceeding all belief. Some
eight years before this, I had planted two acres of
ground with oaks and larches in alternate rows.
Scarcely any of the oaks put forth their buds in the
spring of 1816; and, on my examining them, in
order to learn the cause of their failure, I found the
bark entirely gnawed away under the grass, quite
close to the earth, whilst the grass itself, in all
directions, was literally honeycombed with holes,
which the mice had made. In addition to the bark
of young oaks, mice are extremely fond of that of
the holly tree : I have hollies which yet bear the
marks of having been materially injured by the
mice in winter. Apple trees, when placed in hedge-
rows, are often attacked by mice, and, in many
cases, are much injured by them, I prize the ser-
vices of the windhover hawk, which are manifest
by the quantity of mice which he destroys; and I
do all in my power to put this pretty bird on a good
footing with the gamekeepers and sportsmen of our
neighbourhood. Were this bird properly protected,
it would repay our kindness with interest ; and we
should then have the windhover by day, and the
s 2


owls by night, to thin the swarms of mice which
over-run the land.

As the windhovers make no nest, they are reduced
to the necessity of occupying, at second hand, that
of another bird. I once made the experiment to
try if a windhover would take possession of a nest
newly built ; and, in order to prepare the way, I
singled out the nest of a carrion crow. As soon as
the crow had laid her third egg, I ascended the
tree, and robbed the nest. In less than a week
after this, a pair of windhovers took to it; and they
reared a brood of young in its soft and woolly

The windhover is a social bird, and, unlike most
other hawks, it seems fond of taking up its abode
near the haunts of men. What heartfelt pleasure I
often experience in watching the evolutions of this
handsome little falcon ! and with what content I see
the crow and the magpie forming their own nests, as
I know that, on the return of another spring, these
very nests will afford shelter to the windhover.
Were I to allow the crow and the magpie to be per-
secuted, there would be no chance for the windhover
to rear its progeny here ; for Nature has not taught
this bird the art of making its nest in a tree. How
astonishing, and how diversified, are the habits of
birds ! The windhover is never known to make use
of a nest until it has been abandoned for good and
all by the rightful owner; whilst, on the contrary,
the cuckoo lays her egg in one of which the original
framer still retains possession.

The windhover usually lays five eggs, and one of


them sometimes proves addle. This bird is seen
to the greatest advantage during the time that it
is occupied in rearing its young : at that period,
nothing throughout the whole range of ornitholo-
gical economy can surpass the elegance of its aerial

Perhaps it is not generally known, that the wind-
hover is a migratory bird ; but whether the greater
part of these hawks leave England in the autumn,
or merely retire from their breeding-place to some
other part of our country, more congenial to their
habits, is a problem which remains yet to be solved.
For my own part I am of opinion, that a very large
proportion of those which are bred in England leave
it in the autumn, to join the vast flights of hawks
which are seen to pass periodically over the Medi-
terranean Sea, on their way to Africa.

Last summer I visited twenty-four nests in my
park, all with the windhover's eggs in them. The
old birds and their young tarried here till the de-
parture of the swallow, and then they disappeared.
During the winter, there is scarcely a windhover to
be found. Sometimes a pair or so makes its appear-
ance, but does not remain long. When February
has set in, more of the windhovers are seen ; and
about the middle of the month their numbers have
much increased. They may be then heard at all
hours of the day ; and he who loves to study nature
in the fields may observe them, now on soaring
wing, high above in the blue expanse of heaven ;
now hovering near the earth, ready to pounce upon
s '3


the luckless mouse ; and now inspecting the de-
serted nests of crows and magpies, in order to se-
cure a commodious retreat wherein to perform their
approaching incubation. Allowing, on an average,
four young ones to the nest, there must have been
bred here ninety-six windhover hawks last summer :
add the parent birds, and we shall have, in all, one
hundred and forty-four. Scarcely five of these
birds were seen here from Michaelmas to the latter
end of January.

The periodical disappearance of the windhover
from its breeding-place might give rise to much or-
nithological inquiry; but I suspect that, when every
circumstance shall have been duly weighed, we shall
still be in the dark with regard to the true cause of
its departure. The want of food cannot be sup-
posed to force it away ; for food the most congenial
to its appetite is found here in great abundance at
the very time when it deserts us. Neither can sup-
posed inclemency of weather be alleged in support
of its migration, as the temperature of England is
remarkably mild long after the sun has descended
into the southern hemisphere.


Pauca jneo gallo. VIRGIL.

SOME time ago. I introduced this bird to the readers
of Mr. Loudon's Magazine, in order to show them
that the feathers of birds are just as brilliant, and


in as good condition, on the body of one which has
no oil-gland, as on the body of one which is fur-
nished with it. This being really the case, I drew
the conclusion, that birds are not in the habit of
anointing their plumage with the contents of their
oil gland.

The history of the rumpless fowl seems to be
involved in much obscurity. Buffon tells us, that
most of the hens and cocks of Virginia have no
rump ; and the inhabitants, he adds, affirm that,
when these birds are imported, they soon lose
the rump. Surely the inhabitants must mean that
the progeny of the imported birds lose the rump
Monsieur Fournier assured the Count, that, when
the rumpless fowl couples with the ordinary kind, a
half-rumped sort is produced, with six feathers in
the tail instead of twelve. Buffon tells us, that
this bird is sometimes called the Persian fowl.
Perhaps it may be more common in that eastern
country than in France ; still, after all, I find, upon
investigation, that it is nothing more or less than a
variety of the common barn-door fowl ; and that it
can be produced by a male and female, both of
which are furnished with a rump, and of course
with a tail.

Two years ago, in the village of Walton, a com-
mon barn-door hen, with a rump, laid eighteen eggs
under a hedge which separates a little meadow from
the highway. There was not a rumpless male fowl
in all the village, or in the adjacent country. The
mowers were cutting the grass just as the old hen
was hatching her young. She was killed by a stroke
s 4


of the scythe ; and two chickens were all that could
be saved from the wreck. One of the mowers con-
veyed the two young birds in his hat to the villager
who had owned the hen, and whose house was hard
by. She brought them up at the fire-side. They
were male and female. The male was rumpless,
and without a tail, whilst the female had a rump,
and a tail of ordinary size.

When the former had become a full-grown fowl,
I introduced to it a rumpless hen, by way of com-
panion. She laid fourteen eggs, and sat upon them
with great perseverance ; but every egg proved
addle. After this, she produced a dozen more in
the course of the summer ; and she sat upon them,
but with no better success. I then substituted a
male fowl M'ith a tail, in lieu of her rumpless para-
mour ; and they soon became a loving couple. She
laid well the summer following, and sat twice ; but
her repeated efforts to produce a family were of no
avail. During her last sitting, a Malay hen, of pry-
ing habits, took the opportunity of her momentary
absence from the nest, and laid an egg in it. This
produced a chicken, which the rumpless stepmother
reared with maternal care.

It would appear, from these experiments, that
the rumpless fowl is not prolific. But Cervantes
tells us, that one swallow does not make summer.
" Una golondrina, no hace verano." Wherefore
further investigation is absolutely necessary, before
the affair in question can be set at rest. However,
the testimony which follows tends to prove that the
rumpless fowl is fully capable of producing its race.


There lives, in the village of Walton, an old
woman notorious for rearing poultry. Her name
is Nanny Ackroyd. Some few years ago, I had
seen a pair of rumpless fowls feeding at her door.
I called on Nanny the other day, and I asked her
where she had procured the fowls ; and if they
had ever had a brood. She told me, that she
had got them from the Isle of Wight ; and that
they had produced seven rumpless chickens, which
she sold at the Market Cross, in Wakefield ; but
that she could not get the full price for them, as
her customers did not fancy them, on account of
their want of tail. On asking her what had be-
come of the parent fowls, she said, that they both
suddenly disappeared, a few weeks after she had
sold the young ones, at the Market Cross, in Wake-
field. Two or three unknown mendicants had
been lurking 'in the outskirts of the village; and
she was sure the vagabonds had nipped up her poor

My own rumpless fowl, mentioned above, came
to an untimely end. He was at the keeper's house ;
and as the keeper had got a tame fox, I foresaw
that some day or other my bird would fall into its
clutches. To prevent the impending catastrophe,
I sent up one morning to the keeper, and desired
that the fowl might be brought down to the hall in
the evening. A giant Malay fowl espied it as soon
as it had left its roost the next day ; and, indignant
at the appearance of such a rival-stranger on the
island, he drove it headlong into the water, where
it perished before assistance could be procured.


But though its vital spark has fled for ever, still its
outer form will remain here, probably for ages yet
to come. I dissected it ; and then I restored its
form and features in a manner that may cause it to
be taken for a living bird. This fowl now stands
along-side of a common barn-door hen, which had
assumed the plumage of a male, and whose fate
has already been recounted in Mr. Loudon's Maga-
zine of Natural History. She has been furnished
by nature with an oil-gland, and a handsome toil ;
he has been deprived by nature of both these ap-
pendages. Still, his feathers are as glossy, and in as
high condition, as those of his companion. I con-
sider this fact as conclusive evidence against the
received opinion, that birds make use of the contents
of the oil-gland, in order to lubricate their feathers.
If they really did make use of it, the state of the
plumage on one of these birds ought to bear marks
of its application.

Before I can be convinced that birds lubricate
their feathers, I must require him, who inspects
these two fowls (with a magnifying glass, if he
chooses), to point out to me a difference in the
plumage of the bird with an oil-gland from that of
the bird without one. When he shall have done
this, I will yield, and willingly confess, that a close
attention to this subject, for a very long time, has
availed me nothing, and has only been the means
of leading me into an evident error.



Ssepe sinistra cava pratdixit ab ilice comix. VIBO.

IT is now about three and twenty years since the
last raven which frequented this neighbourhood
either lost its life for supposed offences against the
game-laws, or found it expedient to retire to some
distant part, where it could live unmolested, and
rear its brood in safety. Not far from hence, in
the middle of a wood, there was a large oak tree,
the bole of which, by its thickness and its towering
height, had set every idling boy at defiance, time
out of mind. On a huge limb of this giant son of
earth, a pair of ravens annually renewed their nest,
and reared a brood of young. At last, in evil hour,
a restless village cobbler got a scheme into his head
to plunder the establishment ; and he forthwith en-
gaged the blacksmith to make him some iron spikes,
which were to be affixed to his feet, in order to
facilitate his ascent into the tree. With this provi-
sion, one Sunday morning, of all other days in the
week, the ragged rascal bent his unhallowed steps
towards the tree which contained the raven's nest.
By means of the spikes he was enabled to overcome
the difficulties hitherto deemed insurmountable, by
every passing vagabond, who had cast a longing
eye upon the treasure which was lodged in the
tree. He mounted aloft, and robbed the nest of its
young. From that unlucky day, the ravens were
never seen to alight again upon their once favourite
tree. But they still lingered in the neighbourhood ;


and as they approached the eastern hill, which forms
one side of this valley, I could hear their hoarse
and hollow croaking long before I could see the
birds themselves.

How different are the habits of the rooks, with
regard to their place of incubation ! You may
plunder their nest annually, and annually they will
return to it, and perform their incubation in it. So
will the starling and the jackdaw. But the carrion
crow abandons her nest for ever, after the breeding
season ; no matter whether it has been plundered
or not. It may here be remarked, that the rook, the
starling, and the jackdaw, are always gregarious ;
the raven and the carrion crow solitary birds most
parts of the year.

Some few years after the ravens had been plun-
dered by the cobbler, either the same couple, or a
stranger pair, built their nest in an oak of moderate
size, within a few yards of an ornamented sheet of
water, and about two miles distant from the wood
to which they had resorted in better times. The
gentleman's gamekeeper, like all others of that san-
guinary set, was on the look-out ; and on seeing the
nest, he fancied that he had discovered a den of
thieves, who had settled there to pilfer poultry, and
to worry his master's hares and pheasants by the
dozen. The poor female was shot down dead to the
ground; but, fortunately, the male escaped assas-
sination. He tarried for a day or two in the envi-
rons, and then deserted us for ever. From the day
of his disappearance, I have never seen or heard a
wild raven in this part of the country ; and times


are now so changed for the worse, that I despair of
ever seeing again this fine British bird in any of our

He who wishes to study the habits of the raven
in its own native haunts must not look for him here.
He must bend his steps to those parts of Yorkshire
where the bird is still allowed to exist.

There is a brood of ravens every season on the
rocks near Flamborough Head; and, no doubt, others
are to be found, at certain intervals, along the vast
extent of that bold and rock-bound shore. The
nest is chiefly made of the same materials as that of
the carrion crow, with the addition of a few dried
weeds which grow on the coast. I have never
taken the eggs ; but if I may judge from one in my
possession, the egg is remarkably small for the size
of the bird ; and in colour, it bears a close resem-
blance to the egg of the carrion crow. The young,
like those of all the pie tribe, are hatched blind.
On leaving the nest, their feathers have a brownish
cast ; but after the first moulting, the birds acquire
that glossy richness of plumage which is so conspi-
cuous in the raven.

Though the naturalist will feel but little interest
in the habits of a bird which is brought up as a pet,
under the immediate inspection of man ; still I can-
not help remarking here, that of all known birds
(the grey red-tailed parrot of Africa not excepted)
there is none to be found so docile, so clever, and so
amusing, as the raven. I bought a young one, about
three years ago, at the well-known village of Flam-
borough, and I called it Marco. Marco could do


every thing. He was as playful as a kitten; he
showed vast aptitude in learning to talk ; and he was
so correct an imitator of sounds, that I had every
nope of teaching him the tune which Goldsmith in-
forms us he heard a raven sing with " great distinct-
ness, truth, and humour." Marco was fond of seeing
a carriage approach the house. He would attend
company on their arrival at the bridge, and wait near
the gate until their return ; and then he would go
part of the way back with them. He was an uni-
versal favourite, notwithstanding that at times his
evil genius prompted him to commit almost unpar-
donable excesses ; so much so, that I often said to
him in the words of the poet,

" Difficilis, facilis. jucundus aeerbus es idem."
" In all thy humours, whether grave or mellow,
Thou art such a touchy, testy, pleasant fellow ;
Hast so much wit, and mirth, and glee about thee,
There is no living with thee, nor without thee."

One day he took a sudden dislike to an old duck,
with which, till then, he had been upon the best of
terms ; and he killed her in an instant. The coach-
man and Marco were inseparable companions ; but
at last they had a serious and a fatal quarrel. Marco
bit him severely in the thumb ; upon which, this
ferocious son of the whip seized the bird by the
throat, and deliberately strangled it. I learned
from poor Marco, that birds will occasionally do
that which I had always supposed to be solely con-
fined to quadrupeds. When Marco could find a
heap of sand, or when there was snow upon the


ground, he would throw himself on his back, and
rub himself on the sand or snow, just as dogs are
wont to do, when they fall in with carrion.

No bird in the creation exhibits finer symmetry
than the raven. His beautiful proportions, and his
glossy plumage, are calculated to strike the eye of
every beholder with admiration. He is by far the
largest, of all the pie tribe in Europe ; and, according
to our notion of things, no bird can be better pro-
vided with the means of making his way through
the world ; for his armour is solid, his spirit uncon-
querable, and his strength surprising.

Necromancers of old were noted for their atten-
tion to the movements of the raven ; and they are
said to have counted no less than sixty-five different
inflexions of his voice. His sable robe and hollow
croaking seem to have rendered him of vast im-
portance in those days; when old women were
known to travel through the air on broom-staffs,
and when the destiny of man was frequently fore-
told by the flight of birds. Nay, in our own times,
the raven has not quite lost all claim to the know-
ledge of things to come ; for good farmer Muck-
drag's wife, whilst jogging on with eggs to market,
knew that there was mischief brewing as soon as
she had heard a raven croak on the unlucky side of
the road.

" That raven on the left-hand oak,
Curse on his ill betiding croak,
Bodes me no good."

She had scarcely uttered this, when down came her


old stumbling mare to the ground. Her every egg
was smashed to atoms; and whilst she lay sprawling
on the ruins of her oological speculation, she was
perfectly convinced, in her own mind, that the raven
had clearly foreseen her irreparable misadventure.

Our royal sovereign, good King Arthur of ancient
days, was known to have passed into the body of
a raven. Cervantes tells us of a tradition, current
through the whole of Great Britain, that this much-
beloved monarch was changed into a raven by the
art of witchcraft ; and that, in the due course of
time, he would be again in possession of his crown
and sceptre. I don't care how soon. Cervantes
adds, that from the day on which the change took
place, no Englishman has ever been known to kill a
raven, and that the whole British nation is momently
expecting its king's return. I should like to see
King Arthur's face, when his loving subjects tell
him of our national debt, and show him the civil
list. Methinks his long-lost Majesty will groan in
spirit, when he learns that the first was a present
from Dutch William, and the second a donation to
the country by the cormorant-traitors who had
driven away our last Catholic king, because he had
proclaimed universal liberty of conscience, and had
begun to question their right to the stolen property.

The ancients were of opinion that the raven lived
to an extreme old age. I do not exactly see how
the longevity can be proved, whilst the bird roves
at liberty from place to place, far beyond the reach
of man ; and, indeed the difficulty of proof is no-
ways diminished when the raven is brought up tame


in civilised society, for its perpetual bickerings with
stranger dogs, and its incautious approach to the
heels of vicious horses, seldom fail, sooner or later,
to bring it to an untimely end. Still, I should be
the last man in the world to question the veracity of
remote antiquity, upon the mere strength of hasty
surmise. Those who are gone before us may
possibly have had better opportunities of ascertain-
ing the longevity of birds, than any which we now

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 22 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 22 of 28)