Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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they flow betwixt the island of Cayenne and the
adjacent continent, calculating to come out on the
sea-coast about the break of day, should things go
on well. It rained piteously during the greater
part of the night ; and I do not remember ever to
have had such wretched accommodations, or to
have been exposed for so long a spell to such an
incessant soaking. Soon after the dawn of day, we
were on the sea-coast to windward ; and about ten
o'clock the ebbing waters left us high and dry, upon
an almost boundless mud-flat Here we lay all day
long, without any chance of returning to the shore,
or of getting out to sea.

We were not surprised that every thing had got
wet, for during our nocturnal progress it had taken
the labour of one negro to bale the water out of
the canoe.

I felt grateful for a sunny day to dry our clothes,
after such a night of rain. The day, indeed, was
scorching. A blazing sun beat full upon us, and
gave to the surrounding mud -flat the appearance of
an immeasurable looking-glass. On every side of
us were egrettes and herons, scarlet curlews and
spoonbills, and other sea fowl, in countless num-


bers, all feeding on the crabs which swarmed
throughout the mud-flat. At a considerable dis-
tance from us, and far beyond the reach of shot,
we counted above five hundred flamingoes, which
were ranged in a straight line, putting us in mind
of a file of soldiers in the scarlet uniform.

There could scarcely have been a more un-
favourable time for an expedition to the Grand
Connetable, as the spring tides had already set in.
The turbulence and angry aspect of the returning
evening tide showed us the folly and danger of
proceeding onwards. Wherefore I reluctantly aban-
doned the idea of visiting the stupendous rock ; and
we took advantage of the tide of flood to regain the
town of Cayenne, which we reached after another
night of hardship, in a worse condition than when
we first set out.

Exposure to the pelting rain on the preceding
night had brought on an inflammation of the oeso-
phagus, a complaint which I had never known
before. The act of deglutition became so exceed-
ingly painful, that I was obliged to live on bread
soaked in tea for three succeeding days ; and even
with this light food I barely escaped from using
the lancet.

I now gave up all thoughts of procuring the
tropic bird, as I could not wait at Cayenne for the
period of neap tides, there being an American
brig just on the point of weighing anchor for Pa-
ramaribo, the capital of Surinam; and I did not
wish to lose the opportunity, knowing that oppor-


tunities from Cayenne to Paramaribo occurred but
very rarely.

Cervantes remarks, that where one door is shut
against us another is opened to us. Some six
months after this, in my passage home across the
Atlantic, on board the Dee, West Indiaman, com-
manded by Captain Gray, we saw Phaeton sit-
ting on the wave, within gunshot of the ship a
rare occurrence. I fired at him with effect ; and as
he lay lifeless on the water, I said (without any
expectation of recovering the bird), " A guinea for
him who will fetch the bird to me." The vessel was
then going smartly through the water. A Danish
sailor, who was standing on the forecastle, instantly
plunged into the sea with all his clothes on, and
swam towards the bird. Our people ran aft, to
lower down the jolly boat, but it was filled with
lumber, and had been well secured with lashings for
the passage home. Our poor Dane was now far
astern^ and in our attempt to tack ship, she missed
stays, and we were obliged to wear her. In the
mean time, we all expected that the Dane had gone
down into Davy's locker. But, at last, we fortu-
nately came up with him ; and we found him buf-
feting the waves, with the dead bird in his mouth.

I dissected it, and prepared it, and have kept it
ever since, nor do I intend that it shall leave my
house, as the sight of it often brings to my remem-
brance an occurrence of uncommon interest, now
long gone by: for it is twenty years and more since
I received the tropic bird from the cold and trem-
bling hand of our adventurous Dane.



1 Una ministrarum, media de plebe Galanthis
Flava comas aderat, faciendis strenua jussis."

GALANTHIS, in days of yore, was lady's maid to
Alcmeria the mother of Hercules. She cheated
Juno and Juno, in revenge, changed her into a

I think it probable, that Galanthis, like many
abigails of our own times, must have been fond of
my lady's lavender-water bottle, and that Juno,
knowing this, took the opportunity of punishing
her to some purpose, by placing in her seat of honour
the gland which now causes her to be so very
offensive to us. But this is mere conjecture on
my part. I can find nothing to corroborate it in
the pages of heathen Mythology

Let us look into the real habits of this interesting
little quadruped, and try to place them before the
reader in so clear a point of view that he may be
able to judge for himself whether its good qualities
or its bad ones have the greater claim to our
consideration and interference.

Our zoology calls for the labour of a Hercules
to clear away its collected impurities. Authors of
former days have sent down to us some of the
most extravagant opinions concerning quadrupeds
that can possibly be imagined ; whilst divers writers
of the present time are so little versed in the real
habits of these animals, as not to know whether or


not such opinions ought to be condemned and
rejected as totally unfit for a work of merit.

Booksellers may engage a person to write for
them ; but, depend upon it, his zoological lucubra-
tions will be a mere ignis fatuus, unless he shall
have studied previously, in the field of Nature, the
habits of those animals which he has undertaken
to describe. And where are we to find a naturalist,
nowadays, who has not had too much recourse to
books ? books which are replete with errors and
absurdities, merely for want of proper investigation
on the part of those who have written them.

Many of the weasel tribe have the power of
emitting a very disagreeable odour from the pos-
terior part of the body.

We are gravely informed, in the American
Biography of Birds, that the polecat has this faculty
" given him by Nature as a defence."

And pray, at what old Granny's fireside in the
United States has the writer of this, picked up such
an important piece of information ? How comes
the polecat to be aware that the emitted contents of
a gland*, inoffensive to itself, should be offensive
to all its pursuers ? I say, inoffensive to itself,
because I cannot believe that our Creator would
condemn an unoffending animal to produce its own
punishment, by means of a smell which never leaves
it whether it roam up and down as a solitary
animal, or whether it have a partner and a family
of young ones to provide for.

* I use gland in the iingular number for the take of brevity ; but the
animal has two glands.

u 3


Although this odour from individuals of the
weasel tribe is very distressing to our own nasal
sensibilities, it by no means follows that the scent
should have a similar effect upon those of all other
animals. For example, the smell from purulent car-
rion is certainly very disagreeable to us bipeds ;
still it cannot prove so to the dog for, in lieu of
avoiding it, this quadruped never loses an oppor-
tunity of rolling in it. I, myself, have often seen
fowls run to an old sow, and pick up voraciously
what was still smoking on the ground behind her,
although their crops were distended with corn at
the time. This act of the fowls appeared a very
nasty deed to me ; but they, of course, could not
have seen it in the same point of view.

If the polecat has had the fetid gland " given
him by Nature as a defence," then must Nature have
given a sweet one to the civet for its destruction ;
seeing that, whilst we shun the first on account of
its insupportable stench, we pursue and kill the last
in order to obtain its perfume. Now, as both these
animals are of the same family, I cannot help
remarking, with Sterne, in the case of " the poor
negro girl," that Nature has put one of this tribe
sadly over the head of the other, if the North
American theory be sound.

Again, if Nature has given this abominable
stench to many of the polecat tribe, " as a defence,"
she has cruelly neglected our former invader, the
Hanoverian rat. The polecat is not much exposed
to destruction, as its movements are chiefly noctur-
nalj and, in general, it is apt to shun the haunts of


men. But our Hanoverian, having a most inordinate
appetite for the good things of this world, is ever
on the stir in the very midst of its enemies, to
satisfy the cravings of its capacious stomach ; and
it will cater for itself the four and twenty hours
throughout. Hence, your housekeeper complains
that it will try its tooth on primest Stilton in
broad daylight ; and that it will have its whiskers
in the cream-bowl, even whilst the dairy-maid is
gone up stairs with butter for the breakfast-table.
Still, my darling Hanoverian has nothing but an
ordinary set of teeth wherewith to protect itself,
although exposed to ten times more danger than
the foumart, which last has a fetid gland given
it by Nature "as a defence " in addition, I may add,
to vast muscular strength, and to two full rows of
sharp and well-assorted teeth.

This being the case, let us reject the Transatlantic
theory, as a thing of emptiness; and if we are
called upon for an opinion as to the real uses of
the fetid gland in polecats, let us frankly own that
we have it not in our power to give any thing
satisfactory on the subject.

No doubt this gland has its express uses in animal
economy : so has the gland on the rump of most
birds. Still, the uses of the latter remain a mystery.
I sometimes think that fear is often an agent in
causing the foumart to emit the stifling contents
of its gland as I am aware that fear has a wonderful
effect on some animals. I have caused a puppy dog
to make a mess of itself, by a mere authoritative
clenching of my fist; and I once saw a young
u 4-


woman so totally undone, by the unexpected dis-
charge of a spring-gun close to the spot where she
was standing, that the circumambient air suddenly
lost its wonted sweetness. Still, I did not conclude
that the occurrence, in either of these mishaps, took
place as a means of self-defence ; although circum-
stances were such, in the latter case, as might pos-
sibly have had the effect of keeping pursuers at a
respectful distance.

I am a friend to the weasel, and to its congener
the polecat although I know that they will commit
depredations on game, whenever an opportunity
shall occur. Still, I consider that the havoc which
they make amongst mice and rats far overbalances
their transgressions against the game laws.

About two years ago, the coachman brought me
a fine polecat alive in a box- trap, which we occa-
sionally set to arrest stranger cats when in pursuit
of forbidden food. Feeling no inclination to take
.its life, I ordered the door of the trap to be opened ;
and as the prisoner went its way into the wide
world again, I saw, by the marks of astonishment
which appeared upon the man's countenance, that I
had evidently done an evil deed.

The country gentleman, the farmer, and the gar-
dener are particularly interested in having a true
account of the weasel ; in order that they may
ascertain how far it is their interest to protect it,
or to adopt measures for its destruction.

The weasel is certainly capable of destroying our
common game, such as hares, pheasants, and par-
tridges; for the herculean formation of his fore


parts enables him to overcome animals vastlj his
superior in size. His attack upon the hare and rabbit
is always uniform and decisive : he fixes his teeth into
the neck of these animals just behind the ear, and
death follows the bite in a very few minutes.

Some two or three months ago, I heard the
squeal of a rabbit, whilst I was working in the
flower-garden ; and on arriving at the place whence
it proceeded, I found the keeper there before me,
with a fine old rabbit in his hand. He had seen the
weasel on the rabbit's back, as he was proceeding
down the hill ; and he had scarcely rescued it from
the grasp of its destroyer ere it died in his hand.
I took out my penknife, and I dissected the death-
wound, which was just under the ear. There was
no laceration to be seen. Two small punctures
merely appeared, as though they had been done
with the point of a pin ; and they were surrounded
by a spot of extravasated blood about the size of a

The rabbit is what may be termed short-winded,
and is easily run down ; whilst, on the contrary,
the hare is known to afford a long chase; hence the
rabbit has not so good a chance as the hare of
escaping from the weasel.

Individuals of the weasel tribe pursue their prey
by the scent ; but cats trust to their eye, and pounce
on their quarry at a single bound.

On a summer's evening, in the year 1815, I went
over, with my air-gun, to my neighbour Sir William
Pilkington, in order to thin his abundant crop of
rabbits ; and I sat me -down on a lonely bank, within


thirty yards of a plantation where they had a strong
settlement. A full-gown rabbit soon made its appear-
ance. It took a circuit of nearly ten paces, and re-
entered the plantation. Scarcely had it disappeared
from view, when a weasel came out upon its track,
and followed scent with the sagacity of a hound.
The rabbit soon came out of the wood again, in
violent agitation ; and quickly returned to cover-
Out came the weasel a second time, and followed
up the track with surprising assiduity. The rabbit
broke cover once more ; but it was for the last time ;
for scarcely had it proceeded a dozen yards ere I
saw that all was over. It stopped short and panted
for breath, as though its heart would have burst
through its ribs ; and then it began to squeal most
piteously. It never took another step to save its life,
but sat down on the grass, still continuing its wail-
ing. The weasel bolted from the bushes, and jumped
upon the rabbit's back, inflicting a death-wound on
its prey by biting it just behind the ear. I was
sitting quite still at the time, and could easily have
despatched either the rabbit or the weasel ; but I
did not interfere until the affair was concluded, and
then I took the rabbit for my share, and I allowed
the weasel to go in search of another supper when
and where it might think fit.

This quadruped, as I have already stated, will
plunder the nests of pheasants and of partridges ; and
it must often surprise and kill many a Hanoverian
rat, whilst the latter is going on the same noxious
errand as itself. But I find it no easy matter to
watch a bird's nest in the grass, so as to get a sight


of the plunderer : indeed, I cannot say that I ever
saw a weasel in the act of stealing eggs.

One morning, in September last, the gardener
heard a rustling amongst some cabbages in an
orchard ; and on arriving cautiously at the place,
he saw a weasel ; and he managed to get his foot
upon it, and to kill it, whilst it was in close con-
tact with a favourite sheldrake. He brought
them both to me. Upon examining the bird, I
found that the weasel had fixed its teeth into its
cheek ; but the wound did not prove mortal, for
the sheldrake is now in perfect health and vigour.

Notwithstanding these predatory acts on the part
of the weasel, I would recommend the lord of the
manor to pause awhile ere he condemn this bold
little quadruped to extermination. I have yet
something to say in its favour ; but, before I under-
take its defence, I must in fairness allow that cer-
tain parts of the farmer's property, at times, are
not exempt from the rapacious attacks of the

Poultry the farmer's pride, and his wife's de-
light is undoubtedly exposed to have its numbers
thinned by this animal. Still, when we reflect that
fowls of all descriptions stray through fields
haunted by the weasel, with scarcely any decrease
of their numbers, we may safely draw the conclu-
sion that the weasel does not, at all times, make
an attempt upon fowls which are within its reach.

Last spring, my rumpless fowl, mentioned in
these Essays, was killed by a weasel in broad day-
light ; and I may add an instance of a farmer's


pigeon-cot being in jeopardy by a three weeks' visit
from the weasel.

About a year ago, my worthy tenant, Mr. Words-
worth, of Walton village, remarked that the in-
terior of his pigeon-cot was every now and then in
commotion. I observed to him, that, as amongst
other English delicacies, the Hanoverian rats are
known to be very fond of young pigeons, it was
possible that they might have put his pigeon-cot
under a contribution. But he thought otherwise ;
and as his head man had seen an animal from time
to time near the place, which, by the length and
colour, he took to be a weasel, I was led to conclude
that, in this case, the Hanoverians were not to
blame ; and so the gamekeeper was ordered to set
the box-trap with a hen's egg in it, by way of a
decoy. A weasel was taken prisoner in due course
of time ; and being in great beauty, I transferred
it to the Museum, where ic remains at present.

These are heavy charges heavy enough to put
the weasel upon an uneasy footing witlTthe country
gentleman and the farmer's wife, were it not that its
many good offices rectify the occasional mistakes
which it is apt to make in the farm-yard and on the
manor, when the ungovernable pressure of its
stomach eggs it onto the loss of character, and,
perhaps, of life to boot.

The weasel, like the wood-owl, is a great de-
vourer of beetles ; and it is known to make inces-
sant war on the mole, the mouse, and the rat the
last two of which draw most extravagantly on the
hard-earned profits of the husbandman. These


vermin seem to constitute its general food ; and
we must allow that it arrests their increase, by an
activity and perseverance truly astonishing. It
hunts for the beetle in the grass; it follows the
mole through her subterraneous mazes; it drives
the rats from the bottom of haystacks, and worries
them in the corn-ricks, and never allows them
either peace or quiet in the sewers and ditches where
they take up their abode. That man only, who has
seen a weasel go into a corn-stack, can form a just
idea of the horror which its approach causes to the
Hanoverians collected there for safety and plunder.
The whole stack is in commotion whilst these
destroyers of corn seem to be put to their last shifts,
if you may judge by the extraordinary kind of
whining which goes on amongst them, and by the
attempts which they make to bolt from the invaded
premises. No Irishman ever shunned the hated pre-
sence of Dutch William in the Emerald Isle with
greater marks of horror than those which rats betray
when a weasel comes unexpectedly amongst them.
One only regrets that this stranger rat did not meet
a hungry weasel on its first landing in our country ;
for, although the indigenous English black rat was
known to be far too fond of self, still it was by no
means so fierce and rapacious as the German new
comer at least, I have always heard my father say
so ; but I cannot state any thing from actual ex-
perience, as the old English rat has entirely dis-
appeared from these parts.

But, of all people in the land, our gardeners have
most reason to protect the weasel. They have not


one single word of complaint against it not even
for disturbing the soil of the flower-beds. Having
no game to encourage, nor fowls to fatten, they may
safely say to it, " Come hither, little benefactor, and
take up thy abode amongst us. We will give
shelter to thy young ones, and protection to thy-
self; and we shall be always glad to see thee." And
fortunate, indeed, are those horticultural enclosures
which can boast the presence of a weasel ; for
neither mouse, nor rat, nor mole, can carry on
their projects with impunity, whilst the weasel
stands sentinel over the garden.

Ordinary, and of little cost, are the apartments
required for it. A cart-load of rough stones, or
of damaged bricks, heaped up in some sequestered
corner, free from dogs, will be all that it wants for
a safe retreat and a pleasant dwelling.

Although the weasel generally hunts for food
during the night, still it is by no means indolent in
the daytime, if not harassed by dogs or terrified
with the report of guns.

When a warm and sunny morning invites you to
sit down in some secluded spot, you can scarcely
fail to have an interesting sight of the weasel.
Whilst all is still around you, it may be seen coming
out of a hole in the ground, with its head particu-
larly erect at the time ; and it starts and stops at
intervals, as though it were afraid to advance. On
these occasions, it is often seen with a mouse in its
mouth, or with a rat, which it has surprised and
brought out of its hiding place in the hedge bot-
tom. Ifc will catch beetles with surprising agility ;


and as wrens, and robins, and hedge-sparrows hop
from spray to spray on the lowly bush, just a few
inches from the ground, it seizes them there, but
does not begin to eat them until it has conveyed
them to its place of retreat

I once saw a weasel run up an ash tree, and enter
into a hole about ten feet from the ground. A
poor starling had made her nest in it ; and as she
stood wailing on the branch close by, the invader
came out with a half-fledged young one in his
mouth, and carried it off".

The weasel is fond of old dry walls, and of banks
along hedgerows ; and it frequents small holes in
grass-fields remote from cover. I have known it
to make its nest in a corn-stack ; and, on that occa-
sion, I counted five young ones in it Five seem
to be the general number ; and you may see them,
during the summer months, running at the edge of
cornfields, with two old ones in their company.

From what has been said in this paper, the
reader may judge for himself, and determine whe-
ther he will make war on the weasel, or allow it to
remain in peace around him. For my own part
(as I have already observed), I offer it protection
here ; and I am prepared for the loss of a few
hares, with the addition of a pheasant's nest or two,
when I reflect that it is never-ceasing in its pursuit
of the field-mouse, and that in it may be found
the most efficacious barrier that we can oppose to
the encroachments and increase of that insatiate and
destructive animal the stranger rat from Hanover.


(From the St. James's Chronicle.)

POOR Wouralia breathed her last on Saturday
morning, the 15th of February, 1839.

She was formerly the property of a London
sweep, and was purchased of him in the year 1814,
being then three years old ; so that she must
have been in her eight and twentieth year, or
thereabouts, at the time of her decease.

On the day of sale, she was taken to the Veteri-
nary College in London, and having been inoculated
with the Wourali poison which Mr. Waterton had
brought from the wilds of Guiana, she sank in
apparent death, at the expiration of ten minutes
from the time that she had received the poisoned
spike in the fleshy part of her shoulder.

Under the scientific superintendence of Mr.
Sewell, she was restored by means of artificial
respiration, which was effected with a pair of com-
mon bellows applied to an incision in her windpipe,
The operation lasted four hours; after which she
rose up and walked about, free from agitation, and
apparently free from pain.

The present Duke of Northumberland (then Lord
Percy) wished that she should be called Wouralia,
from the Indian poison Wourali, which had just
rendered her destiny so very interesting. His
Lordship sent her down to Walton Hall, with
a request that she might be well taken care of.

* See WaterhnCs Wanderings, 3d edit. p. 84.


There she fed on an excellent pasture in summer,
and was always well sheltered from the cold and
piercing blasts of each succeeding winter. Thus
did poor Wouralia pass her days in peace and
plenty, till Friday evening, the 15th instant, when
she laid her down for the last time, to rise no
more having survived the operation nearly five

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 24 of 28)