Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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I never tire with reading the old fables in which
birds are introduced. Notwithstanding the impos-
sibilities and absurdities which are manifest in those
rich effusions of ancierft wit and humour ; still I can
always find much in them to convince me, that the
writers of the olden times were no strangers to the
real habits of birds. Ovid, who flourished some
two thousand years ago, tells of a remarkably old
raven. It might indeed have been a companion for
Methusalem himself. When Medea, that wicked,
wanton, wandering witch, had made up her mind to
restore her aged father to the bloom of youth (which
was contrary to the order of the Fates), she boiled
a pot of herbs, and threw into it the bones and car-
cass of an owl, together with a few slices of wolf's
flesh, and the shell and inside of a fresh water-turtle.
To these she added the beak and head of a raven,
above nine hundred years old.

" Quibus insupcr addit

Ora, caputque, novem cornicis saecula passes. "

Thrice she soused her father over head in water,


and thrice she held him to the fire, and thrice she
rubbed him well with brimstone.

" Terque senem flamma, ter aqua, ter sulphure lustrat."

She then applied her lancet to his jugular, and having
let out all the old man's blood, she replaced it with
broth made from the ingredients which she had
stewed down for the operation. This did the job,
and up jumped her father ^iEson a spruce dashing
young fellow in the prime of life, with a fine black
beard in lieu of a white one. N. B. From this oper-
ation we might surmise, that transfusion of blood in
surgery is no modern invention.

Pity it is that the raven, a bird of such note and
consequence in times gone by, should be exposed to
unrelenting persecution, in our own days of pro-
fessed philanthropy. His noble aspect, his aerial
evolutions, and his wonderful modulations of voice,
all contribute to render him an ornament to any
gentleman's park. He can scarcely be styled a bird
of rapine, in the strict sense of the word; for, in the
few inland parts of this country where he is still pro-
tected, we hear of no very alarming acts of depreda-
tion on his part. A stray chicken or so, during the
time that he is obliged to feed his young a rickety
lamb which would never make mutton a leveret
started from her seat by the village mole-catcher
make up nearly the whole amount of the raven's
plunder. For my own part I would freely give him
these ; ay, and a dozen pheasants annually to boot,
if he would but visit us again, and once more attempt
to take up a permanent abode amongst us.



" Inutilesquc falce ramos amputans
Feliciores inierit" HORACB.

MANY a time have I helped to cut away the
branches of decaying apple trees, and to insert
healthy grafts in their places ; noping to restore the
tree to the sound and fertile state in which it once
had been. Revolving seasons did but tend to show
that I had completely lost my time ; for the Ame-
rican bug, supposed to have been unknown formerly,
in this country, attacked my labours in such formi-
dable array, that nothing could withstand its fury.

Every lover of the orchard must have observed
this white pestilence in the enclosures sacred to Po-
mona. It is seen on the branches and on the bole
of the apple tree in the month of June, when it gives
them the appearance of being dotted over with little
patches of a downy white.

Long ago I turned my thoughts to the extermina-
tion of the spoliator, which had nearly rendered the
choicest parts of the orchard a sickly, sad, unprofit-
able waste.

I began by trying to make the branches, upon
which these diminutive harpies had settled, as dis-
agreeable to them as it were possible, hoping by this
manoeuvre to starve them out of house and home.
With this in view, I applied unctuous preparations to
the injured parts of the trees; but finding, in the long
run, that this availed me nothing, I made a decoction
from walnut leaves, and washed the branches well
T 2


with it, calculating that the bitterness of the decoc-
tion would render the favourite food of the insects
unpalatable to them. But I was deceived : the bugs
continued their depredations as though no pains had
been taken to dislodge them.

The application of spirit of turpentine killed them
at once, and for a few days after it had been applied
I was in hopes that their extermination had been
effected ; but others soon appeared.

Despairing of success, I was on the point of quit-
ting the field, and leaving the bugs in undisturbed
possession of it ; when I began to conjecture that I
kad not gone the right way to work. I reflected,
that none of my applications could have penetrated
sufficiently deep into the curved and knotty sinu-
osities of the diseased parts ; and that, on this ac-
count, there would be a sufficient force of the enemy
left alive to recommence its depredations at the first
favourable opportunity. Wherefore I concluded,
that nothing short of the entire destruction of the
eggs, the young, and the adult, could save the trees
from ultimate ruin. Knowing that the bug could
not exist if totally deprived of air, I resolved to
bury it alive ; and this I effected by an application at
once the most easy and simple that can be imagined.
It costs nothing.

I mixed clay with water, till it was of a consist-
ency that it could be put on to the injured parts
of the tree, either with a mason's trowel, or with a
painter's brush. I then applied it to the diseased
places of the tree, and it soon smothered every bug.
A second coat upon the first filled up every crack


which showed itself when the clay had become dry ;
and this resisted for a sufficient length of time the
effects both of sun and rain. The sickly parts, now
effectually freed from the enemy which had been
preying on their vitals, were placed in a state to be
cured by the healing process of Nature ; and that
Nature has done her duty, my apple trees amply

Probably this nostrum is too simple, and not suf-
ficiently costly, for me to expect that it will attract
much notice. Still I think there is no harm in
committing it to paper. It may yet prove the best
friend to the cultivator of apples, when all his more
scientific and expensive resources shall have failed
in their effect. I may say of it, what was said of a
certain book of medicine in the olden time :

" Venena

Enecat, morbos fugat, atque sanos
Protegit artus."


The thrushes chatter'd with affright,
The nightingales abhorr'd his sight ;
And every beast before him ran,
To shun the hateful sight of man." OAT.

TIME was when the pretty denizens of air had no

friend to encourage them to settle in this part of

T 3


the country. They were slain without pity, or were
chased away by every intruding gunner who took
pleasure in pursuing them ; and whose heart never
throbbed at the sight of the poor bleeding bird which
lay dead at his feet.

Thus the melody of the vernal thrush, and the
plaintive notes of the ring-dove, scarcely ever an-
nounced to us the arrival of that interesting time of
the year when Nature awakes from her long and
dreary sleep of winter. These sweet choristers of
the grove were said to do mischief in the orchard,
and in the kitchen garden ; and this was a sufficient
pretext to place them in no other light than that of
common outlaws, to be punished with death when-
ever an opportunity should offer.

The little chaffinch, too, was to have no favour
shown to him. He was known to haunt the beds of
early radishes ; and he would have done a deal of
damage there, forsooth, had not our gardener luckily
been allowed the use of a gun, with which he
managed to kill, or to drive away, every chaffinch,
thrush, and blackbird, that arrived within the pre-
cinct of his horticultural domain.

But this promiscuous slaughter has ceased at last.
Every bird, be his qualities bad or good, is now
welcome here ; and still nothing seems to go wrong,
either in the orchard, or in the garden. Neither
does the protection afforded to them appear to act
to my disadvantage in other quarters. The dovecot
is most productive, notwithstanding that a colony of
starlings (those pests to all dovecots in the eyes of
farmers) exists within a stone's throw of it The


pheasants are crowing in every wood around ; nor
do the hoarse croakings of the carrion crows, or the
frequent chatterings of the magpies, cause me any
apprehensions that there will be a deficiency in the
usual supply of game.

The chief way to encourage birds is to forbid the
use of fire-arms in the place of their resort. I have
done so here; and to this precaution I chiefly owe my
unparalleled success. We have a tame magpie in
the stable yard. It is the same bird that is mentioned
in the paper on the stormcock, p. 254. Being one of
the tribe whose plumage in the nest has the colours
of that in after life, you cannot decide whether it is
a male or a female. However, it has paired with a
wild one ; and although the wariness of the magpie
is proverbial, nevertheless this strange bird will ac-
tually come and feed within a few yards of us, without
betraying any symptoms of fear.

For these two years, a Canada goose and gander,
attracted hither by the quiet which this place affords,
have made their nest on a little island of alder trees.
Although the female has laid five eggs each year,
still there has been no brood. The gander seems
to have been aware that something was going on
wrong in his establishment, for this spring the old
gentleman has taken care to introduce an extra
female. Were Ovid, that excellent ornithologist,
now on earth, he would tell us that this he-goose,
dissatisfied with our law of monogamy, has been as
far as Constantinople, to buy a license for a plurality
of wives.

Amongst all the pretty warblers which flit from
T 4


bush to bush before me, as I wander through the
flowery fields, next to poor cock robin, the chaffinch
is my favourite bird. I see him almost at every
step. He is in the fruit and forest trees, and in the
lowly hawthorn : he is on the housetop, and on the
ground close to your feet You may observe him
on the stack-bar, and on the dunghill ; on the king's
highway, in the fallow field, in the meadow, in the
pasture, and by the margin of the stream.

If his little pilferings on the beds of early radishes
alarm you for the return of the kitchen garden, think,
I pray you, how many thousands of seeds he con-
sumes, which otherwise would be carried by the wind
into your choicest quarters of cultivation, and would
spring up there, most sadly to your cost. Think
again of his continual services at your barn door,
where he lives throughout the winter, chiefly on the
unprofitable seeds, which would cause you endless
trouble were they allowed to lie in the straw, and to
be carried out with it into the land, on the approach
of spring.

His nest is a paragon of perfection. He attaches
lichen to the outside of it, by means of the spider's
slender web. In the year 1805, when I was on a
plantation in Guiana, I saw the humming bird making
use of the spider's web in its nidification ; and then
the thought struck me that our chaffinch might pro-
bably make use of it too. On my return to Europe,
I watched a chaffinch busy at its nest : it left it, and
flew to an old wall, took a cobweb from it, then con-
veyed it to its nest, and interwove it with the lichen
on the outside of it. Four or five eggs are the


usual number which the chaffinch's nest contains :
and sometimes only three. The thorn, and most of
the evergreen shrubs, the sprouts on the boles of
forest trees, the woodbine, the whin, the wild rose,
and occasionally the bramble, are this bird's favour-
ite places for nidification. Like all its congeners, it
never covers its eggs on retiring from the nest, for
its young are hatched blind.

There is something peculiarly pleasing to me in
the song of this bird. Perhaps association of ideas
may add a trifle to the value of its melody ; for
when I hear the first note of the chaffinch, I know
that winter is on the eve of his departure, and that
sunshine and fine weather are not far off. His first
song tells me, that in a day or two more we shall
hear the cooing of the ring-dove, and see it rise and
fall in the air, as it flies from grove to grove, and
that this pretty pigeon, so shy and wary during the
winter, will in a day or two more allow me to ap-
proach within ten paces of it, as it feeds on the new
springing verdure of the lawn.

Say, ye learned in ornithology, say, what is it
that causes this astonishing change in the habits of
the ring-dove ; and forces it, I may say, to come
close to our dwellings, and to coo incessantly from
early February into late October ; and then to shun
our society abruptly, as though we had never be-
friended it at all ?

The chaffinch never sings when on the wing ; but
it warbles incessantly on the trees, and on the hedge
rows, from the early part of February to the second
week in July ; and then (if the bird be in a state of


freedom) its song entirely ceases. You may hear
the thrush, the lark, the robin, and the wren, sing
from time to time in the dreary months of winter ;
but you will never, by any chance, have one single
note of melody from the chaffinch. Its powers of
song have sunk into a deep and long lasting trance,
not to be roused by any casualty whatever. All that
remains of its voice, lately so sweet and so exhilirat-
ing, is the shrill and well-known monotonous call,
which becomes remarkably distinct and frequent
whenever the cat, the owl, the weasel, or the fox,
are seen to be on the move.

We are told that in the winter season the female
chaffinches separate from the males, and migrate
into distant countries. I have not been able to ascer-
tain that so ungallant a divorce takes place in this
part of the country. The chaffinches assemble here
with their congeners during the period of frost and
snow, and you may count amongst them as many
females as males.

Sad and mournful is the fate which awaits this
harmless songster in Belgium and in Holland,
and in other kingdoms of the Continent. In your
visit to the towns in these countries, you see it
outside the window, a lonely prisoner in a wooden
cage, which is scarcely large enough to allow it to
turn round upon its perch. It no longer enjoys the
light of day. Its eyes have been seared with a red-
hot iron, in order to increase its powers of song,
which, unfortunately for the cause of humanity, are
supposed to be heightened and prolonged far beyond
their ordinary duration by this barbarous process.


Poor chaffinches, poor choristers, poor little suffer-
ers I My heart aches as I pass along the streets,
and listen to your plaintive notes. At all hours of
the day we may hear these hapless captives singing
(as far as we can judge) in apparent ecstasy. I
would fain hope that these pretty prisoners, so woe-
begone, and so steeped in sorrow, to the eye of him
who knows their sad story, may have no recollection
of those days when they poured forth their wild
notes in the woods, free as air, " the happiest of the
happy." Did they remember the hour when the
hand of man so cruelly deprived them both of
liberty and eyesight, we should say tnat they would
pine in anguish, and sink down at last, a certain
prey to grief and melancholy. At Aix la Chapelle
may be seen a dozen or fourteen of these blind
songsters, hung out in cages at a public house, not
far from the cathedral. They sing incessantly, for
months after those in liberty have ceased to warble ;
and they seem to vie with each other, which can
carol in the loudest strain. There is something in
song so closely connected with the overflowings of
a joyous heart, that when we hear it, we imme-
diately fancy we can see both mirth and pleasure
joining in the party. Would, indeed, that both of
these were the constant attendants on this much to
be pitied group of captive choristers I How the
song of birds is involved in mystery I mystery pro-
bably never to be explained. Whilst sauntering up
and down the Continent in the blooming month of
May, we hear the frequent warbling of the chaffinch ;
and then we fancy that he is singing solely to be-


guile the incubation of his female, sitting on her
nest in a bush close at hand. But on returning to
the town, we notice another little chaffinch, often in
some wretched alley, a prisoner with the loss of
both its eyes, and singing nevertheless as though its
little throat would burst. Does this blind captive
pour forth its melody in order to soothe its sorrows ?
Has Omnipotence kindly endowed the chaffinch
with vocal faculties, which at one time may be em-
ployed to support it in distress, and at another time
to add to its social enjoyments ? What answer
shall we make ? We know not what to say. But
be it as it will, I would not put out the eyes of the
poor chaffinch, though by doing so I might render
its melody ten times sweeter than that of the sweet
nightingale itself. O that the potentate, in whose
dominions this little bird is doomed to such a cruel
fate, would pass an edict to forbid the perpetration
of the barbarous deed I Then would I exclaim,
O king of men, thy act is worthy of a royal heart.
" That kind Being, who is a friend to the friendless,
shall recompense thee for this."


Quinque tenent coelum zonse, quarum una corusco
Semper sole rubens, et torrida semper ab igni. _ VIRG.

THE burning zone, in which the ancients have
placed the zodiac, is the favourite resort of this
solitary wanderer over the deep. He is called


Phaeton by Linnaeus, and Faille en queue by
Buffon ; whilst our own mariners address him
under the familiar appellation of Marlingspike, and
sometimes under that of Boatswain.

Our ornithological nomenclature is much more
dignified now-a-days, than it was in the olden time.
Many a bird which heretofore would have received
its name from some particular spot in which it
resided the wood-owl to wit, or from some pecu-
liar food upon which it was known to feed the
carrion-crow for example now bears the name of
some individual of the human race some friendly
patron some modern Croesus, who can assist the
author in his journey through an expensive press.

In the first volume of a recent work on North
American Ornithology, no less than thirteen birds
appear to bear the names of men. I have my
doubts whether this complimentary nomenclature
be of any real benefit to the public at large, or to
science in general. Perhaps our own Sages, here
in the East, will discuss this question at their lei-
sure. I could wish, however, that the western
artist had given us a glossary, by means of which
we might learn something of the philosophers after
whom his birds are named ; as I take it for granted
(though possibly I may be mistaken), that his thir-
teen birds are really named from individuals of the
human race.

In the plates to the first volume of his work, I
find that a hawk is called the " Black Warrior,"
and that the Latin name which he has given it is
Falco Harlani." Pray, who or what is Harlani ?


a man, a mountain, or a mud-flat? Is "Black
Warrior" a negro of pugnacious propensities?

Leaving, then, the advantages, or disadvantages,
of this peculiar nomenclature to be discussed by
doctors learned in ornithology, I will advert to times
gone by, and I will remark, that Linnaeus, the
Swede, at all events, has been happy in the name
which he has given to one of his birds ; and this is
the tropic bird. He has called it Phaeton, no doubt,
whatever, because it is chiefly to be found in that
region, where old Apollo's son cut so conspicuous
a figure on his father's coach-box. All the world
has heard of Phaeton, and of the manner in which
he unfortunately broke down in his first and last
attempt at four-in-hand.

Linnaeus, then, did well in giving the name of
Phaeton to the tropic bird ; and I should not wish
to see the name exchanged for that of the first doc-
tor, duke, or draper, of these our latter days.

Whilst inspecting the bird Phaeton, which may
be found in some of our museums, full many a
careful parent may say to his aspiring heir, Take
warning, my lad, in time, and shun all jockies and
jarvies as thou wouldst shun a pestilence. " Con-
siliis, non curribus utere nostris." The turf-boys
will get the last penny out of thy pocket, and laugh
thee to scorn ; and thou wilt be obliged to leave
thy family-place, and go to foreign parts, there to
vegetate on short allowance. As Phaeton and his
rueful adventures have been immortalised by the
Roman poet, whose works will be read by all nations
to the end of time, the name of Phaeton, which


Linnaeus has given to the tropic bird, runs no risk
now of being lost, like those of some of its congeners,
in the impenetrable obscurity which hangs over the
modern nomenclature of birds.

Far, far away from land, where the Atlantic
waves roll beneath the northern tropic, our mariners
are often favoured with a view of the bird which
I am about to describe. The total absence of all
other winged inhabitants of air, save now and then
a Mother Carey's chicken, renders the appearance
of Phaeton very interesting in this sequestered
region of the deep ; and every soul on board hastens
to get a glance at him, as he wings his lonely way
through the liquid void.

The plumage of this bird is black and white ; but
the white on the upper parts of the body is not
pure, having a tinge of salmon colour in it. The
whole of the skin itself is entirely black. A streak
of black feathers, two eighths of an inch broad,
ranges from the upper mandible to the eyes, and is
continued from thence in a curved line downwards,
for nearly an inch and a half in extent Another
range of black feathers commences at the shoulders,
and ends with the tertials. Some of the feathers in
it are tipped with white, and others are edged with
it, whilst others, again, are quite black. The outer
web, on the first five feathers is black ; and nearly
half of the inner web is of the same colour ; the
ends of these feathers being irregularly tipped with
white, which prevails more in the first feather than
in the remaining four. A tuft of dark-coloured
feathers with white edges adorns the thighs, and


falls gracefully under the coverts of the tail, which
coverts are of a similar colour. The shafts of the
tail feathers are black for two thirds of their length,
the remaining third being white. The tail itself is
cuneiform ; the two covert feathers of which mea-
sure nineteen inches in length. The bird, from the
t-ip of the beak to the extremity of the tail, is two
feet and a half long. Its legs are of an orange
colour. The webs of the feet down to the toes are
dark black, except that part which divides the first
toe from the small one ; it being of the same colour
as the legs.

I have been minute in describing this marine
wanderer, as it is by no mea-ns common in our mu-
seums. Moreover, I take a more than ordinary
interest in the bird, on account of its singular habit
in going to such an astonishing distance from the
land. Its name, too, is very interesting to me, as it
brings into my mind pleasing recollections of that
Roman poet, who has left such sound instructions
for the welfare of young country squires, in Apollo's
warning to his rash and luckless son.

On the coast of Cayenne, in South America,
there is a rock of enormous dimensions. It is
called Le Grand Connetable by the French ; and it
rises out of the ocean, at some distance from the
shore, like an aquatic giant of the first magnitude.
On its shelving protuberances are to be found the
nests of innumerable sea-fowl. Amongst these
winged explorers of the deep, it is said that the
tropic bird prepares for incubation and rears its
young. I say, "it is said," for I have not been


there. I once made the attempt, as will be seen in
the sequel; but fortune failed me: verifying the
remark of Sancho Panza, " Tal vez hay, que se
busca una cosa, y se halla otra," sometimes we go
in search of one thing, and find another.

Having hired a canoe and seven negroes in the
town of Cayenne, I set off at six in the evening, and
proceeded through the waters of the interior, where

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 23 of 28)