Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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and twenty years.

Wouralia has been of use to science ; for on her
it has been proved that there is one remedy and
perhaps only one for wounds received from the
poisoned arrows of the Indians.

This poison appears to be so narcotic in its
nature, and so gentle in its operation, that the
victim is supposed not to be in pain, when dying
under its influence.

Several of our scientific gentlemen are strongly
of opinion that the application of Wourali poison
would prove successful in cases of hydrophobia and
of locked jaw.

We have Mr. W T aterton's directions to state that
he has the identical poison from which a portion
was taken, in 1814, to make the experiment on the
ass. Having lately had occasion to send a little of
it to Paris on opening the ball of wax in which it
is contained, he found it in primest order, although
it has been in our climate upwards of five and
twenty years.

Should any animal betray positive symptoms of
hydrophobia, Mr. Waterton would willingly try the
effect of the Wourali poison on it ; and should one
of our own species labour under a confirmed locked


jaw, or go mad from the bite of a rabid animal, Mr.
Waterton would be prepared to perform the oper-
ation in person, provided the attending medical
gentlemen declare that they have it not in their
power to administer relief, and that they consider
the case of the patient to be utterly hopeless.
Under these conditions, Mr. Waterton could do
the needful with a steady hand ; and should his
attempt to save the life of a human being prove
ineffectual, he would not feel daunted were he
called upon to take his trial at York for a cool and
deliberate act of Manslaughter.


DRY ROT is a misnomer. This disease in timber
ought to be designated, a decomposition of wood
by its own internal juices, which have become
vitiated for want of a free circulation of air.

If you rear a piece of timber, newly cut down,
in an upright position in the open air, it will last
for ages. Put another piece of the same tree into
a ship, or into a house, where there is no access to
the fresh air, and ere long it will be decomposed.

But, should you have painted the piece of wood
which you placed in an upright position, it will not
last long ; because, the paint having stopped up its
pores, the incarcerated juices have become vitiated,
and have caused the wood to rot Nine times


in ten, wood is painted too soon. The upright un-
painted posts, in the houses of our ancestors, though
exposed to the heats of summer, and the blasts of
winter, have lasted for centuries ; because the pores
of the wood were not closed by any external appli-
cation of tar or paint; and thus the juices had an
opportunity of drying up gradually.

In 1827, on making some alterations in a passage
I put down and painted a new plinth, made of the
best, and, apparently, well seasoned, foreign deal.
The stone wall was faced with wood and laths ; and
the plaster was so well worked in the plinth, that
it might be said to have been air-tight. In about four
months a yellow fungus was perceived to ooze out
betwixt the bottom of the plinth and the flags ; and
on taking up the plinth, both it, and the laths, and
the ends of the upright pieces of wood to which the
laths had been nailed, were found in as complete
a state of decomposition as though they had been
buried in a hotbed. Part of these materials exhi-
bited the appearance of what is usually called dry
rot ; and part was still moist, with fungus on it,
sending forth a very disagreeable odour. A new
plinth was immediately put down ; and holes 1^ in,
in diameter, at every yard, were bored through it.
This admitted a free circulation of air ; and to this
day the wood is as sound and good as the day on
which it was first put down. The same year, I
reared up, in the end of a neglected and notoriously
damp barn, a lot of newly felled larch poles ; and I
placed another lot of larch poles against the wall
on the outside of the same barn. These are now"


good and well seasoned : those within became
tainted, the first year, with what is called dry rot,
and were used for firewood.

If, then, you admit a free circulation of air to the
timber which is used in a house (no difficult matter),
and abstain from painting that timber till it be per-
fectly seasoned, you will never suffer from what is
called dry rot. And if the naval architect, by
means of air-holes in the gunwale of a vessel (which
might be closed in bad weather), could admit a free
circulation of air to the timbers ; and if he could,
also, abstain from painting, or doing with turpen-
tine, &c., the outer parts of the vessel, till the wood
had become sufficiently seasoned, he would not
have to complain of dry rot. I am of opinion, that,
if a vessel were to make three or four voyages
before it is painted, or done with turpentine, &c.,
its outer wood would suffer much less from the in-
fluence of the weather than it usually suffers from
its own internal juices, which cannot get vent, on
account of artificial applications to the pores. But
still the timber would be subject to the depredation
of the insect. To prevent this effectually, Mr.
Kyan's process must absolutely be adopted ; and it
must also be adopted to secure wood from what is
called dry rot, in places where a free circulation of
air cannot be introduced. I consider Mr. Kyan's
process perfectly unexceptionable. The long ar-
rows which the Indians use in Guiana are very
subject to be eaten by the worm. In 1812, I ap-
plied the solution of corrosive sublimate to a large
'quantity of these arrows. At this hour they are


perfectly sound, and show no appearance that the
worm has ever tried to feed upon them.

I have penned down these transient remarks by
way of preface to others, which I may possibly
write, at some future time, on decay in living


MOST men have some favourite pursuit some
well-trained hobby, which they have ridden from
the days of their youth. Mine is ornithology ; and
when the vexations of the world have broken in
upon me, I mount it, and go away for an hour or
two, amongst the birds of the valley ; and I seldom
fail to return with better feelings than when I first
set out. He who has made it his study to become
acquainted with the habits of the feathered tribes,
will be able to understand their various movements
almost as well as though they had actually related
their own adventures to him.

Thus, when I see the windhover hawk, hanging
in the air on fluttering wing, although it be at broad
noonday, I am quite certain that there is a mouse
below, just on the point of leaving its hole for a
short excursion : and then 1 thank him kindly, for
his many services to the gardener and the hus-
bandman ; and I tell him, that he shall always have
a friend and a protector in me. Again, when I ob-
serve the carrion crow, in the month of May, sailing
over the meadows with the sagacity of a spaniel ;
x 3


I know at once, that, somewhere or other, she has
a nest of hungry little ones to provide for ; and that
she is on the look-out for eggs, or for young birds,
to supply their wants : and then I tell her I feel
sorry from my heart, that the pressing duty of pro-
viding for a large and ravenous family should ex-
pose her to the eternal enmity of man ; knowing full
well that, at other seasons of the year, she is a real
benefactress to. him, by clearing his fields of a world
of insects, which feed upon their produce.

For reasons unknown to us, the birds are parti^
cularly vociferous, both at early dawn, and at the
fall of night. But when I hear the partridge utter-
ing its well-known call in the middle of the day, I
comprehend at once, that it either sees bad company
close at hand, in the shape of cats or weasels, or
that its brood -has been surprised and dispersed by
some intruder; and that the individuals of the
covey are then calling to each other, from the
place of their retreat, in order that they may all
meet again in some more secure and more sheltered

This knowledge of the habits of birds, which at
once lets you into their little secrets, is only to be
obtained by a constant attention to the notes and
the habits of the feathered tribes in the open air.
It can never be learned in thfi solitude of the closet.
Those naturalists who pass nearly the whole of
their time in their study have it not in their
power to produce a work of real merit. On the
contrary, it too often happens that they do (most
unintentionally, no doubt, } a great deal of harm to


science. Travellers, and now and then a foreigner",
come to them, and desire that they will revise, or
concoct, or prepare, a work for the press. They
comply with the request. But, having little or no
knowledge themselves of the real habits of birds,
they do not perceive the numberless faults in the
pages which they are requested to prepare for the
public eye. Hence it is that errors innumerable
stare us in the face, when we open books which
profess to treat on the nature and the habits of

What a world we live in ! say I, when I read that
turkey-cocks will break all the eggs of the females,
for the purpose of protracting their future frolics ;
and that another species of bird flies away from the
nest, when the egg is hatched, in order to procure
food for the young one.

I tremble for the welfare of ornithology, when I
am informed that the ornithologist, nowadays, is
not expected to climb lofty trees and precipices, in
order to ascertain whether the birds which frequent
them are in the habit of fabricating their own nests,
or of using a natural cavity.

We are gravely told it cannot be expected that
field ornithologists should risk life and limb, in order
to ascertain such points. This is melancholy doctrine,
and he who is determined to follow it must be content
to remain in ignorance.

I cannot admit that the mere art of preserving the
skin of a bird is sufficient to answer every scientific
purpose ; and I disagree with him who will not allow


the study of internal anatomy to be the basis of the
zoological system.

We may measure the feet of preserved bird-skins
\vith rule and compasses, and then draw the conclu-
sion, from external appearances, that this foot, for-
sooth, is gifted by Nature fo r grasping, and that, for
perching : but it will not do. Internal anatomy must
be consulted. It alone can let us into the real secret,
why all birds which frequent the trees can grasp a
branch with the utmost facility, and sit securely
there, without any fear of falling from it.

See the barn-door fowl walking before us ! No
sooner does it lift its foot from the ground, than the
toes immediately bend inwards. From this natural
tendency to contract we draw the conclusion, that a
bird is in absolute security when it perches upon a
branch. By means of this admirable provision of
Nature, the little delicate golden-crested wren can
brave the raging tempest, on the top of the loftiest
tree, in as perfect safety as the largest bird of the

Nothing can be more illusory than an attempt to
judge of a bird's powers of perching by an external
admeasurement of its feet and claws. Our specula-
tion is unprofitable, and our judgment is of no avail
whatever ; for, after we have laid our rule and com-
passes down upon the table, and have left the house
to take a walk into the fields, with a full conviction
that we have learned our lesson from the dried skin
of a bird, we find that the habits of one bird are
utterly at variance with those of another, although
the proportional anatomy of their feet and claws


be exactly the same. Thus, we observe the ring-
dove sitting up aloft on the slender branches of
the towering elm ; but the dovecot pigeon is never
to be seen in so elevated a situation. Still, the
feet of these two birds are alike. Our pheasant
will sleep both upon the ground and upon the
branch of a tree. But the partridge of England
is never known to resort to the trees, although its
toes differ in nothing but in size from the toes of
the pheasant. It requires an effort in birds to keep
their toes straight ;, and an effort in man to keep his
fingers closed.

Thus, from the study of internal anatomy, we
learn that man can never be safe upon the branch
of a tree, except when he is awake; and that a bird
is perfectly secure upon it, even in the profoundest

The barn owl has been singled out as a specimen
of pre-eminence in perching ; and we are informed
that, as it represents the insessorial or perching
order, its powers of grasping ought to be more
than ordinary. We consequently find, continues
our informant, that one of the claws is serrated, to
give the bird a firmer grasp than it would otherwise

Now, this serrated part of the claw happens to
be so high upon the claw itself, that it cannot, by
any chance, come in contact with the branch to
which the bird has resorted ; and, as for this owl's
pre-eminent powers of grasping, I may remark, that
it is seldom or ever seen upon a small branch. Nine
times out of ten it will alight upon the thick parts


of the tree, where it remains in a standing posi-
tion ; and it will fall asleep in that position, if not

We shall never know why some birds prefer to
sleep on the ground, and why others select the
branch of a tree whereon to take their repose for the
night. That the formation of the feet and toes has
nothing to do with their choice appears evident from
the different habits of the ringdove and the com-
mon pigeon, the partridge and the pheasant.

By the way, though the pheasant will unite with
our barn-door fowl, and produce a progeny, still
there is a wonderful difference in the habits of these
two birds. The pheasant crows before it shakes
or claps its wings ; the barn-door fowl, after. The
pheasant never claps or shakes its wings except in
the breeding season, and when it is on the ground ;
but the barn-door fowl will clap its wings, either
on the ground or on the roost, at all times of the

Should our grave doctors of zoology decide that,
by the study of external anatomy alone, we can be
enabled to point out those birds which are supposed
to be pre-eminently gifted with the powers of
perching and of grasping; and should these our
masters recommend that this novel study be ap-
plied to quadrupeds, and to bipeds, as well as to
birds; I respectfully beg leave to inform them
that I have been gifted by Nature with vast powers
of leg and toe : I can spread all my five toes ; and,
when I am barefoot in the forest, I can make use
of them in picking up sundry small articles from


the ground. Having an uncommon liking for high
situations, I often mount to the top of a lofty tree,
there to enjoy the surrounding scenery ; nor can I
be persuaded that I risk " life and limb" in gaining
the elevated situation. These, no doubt, are quali-
ties and propensities aberrant from the true human
type ; and, according to the new theory, will at
once account for my inordinate love of arboreal

There is a bird in Guiana named Kamichi. We
call it the horned screamer. On its head grows a
long, slender, and blunt kind of horn ; if horn it
can be called. We are informed, in a late publica-
tion, that the bird uses this horn as a means of self-
defence against its enemies.

La Mancha's knight, in his wildest mood for pike
and helmet, never hit upon any thing so extravagant
as this. No bird ever makes use of the crown of its
head, or of any thing that grows thereon, as a means
of self-defence. Even if the horn on the head of
the Kamichi were of a texture sufficiently strong to
form a weapon of defence, still this bird would
not want it; for it has tremendous spurs on its
pinions, well adapted, and rightly placed, to punish
an opponent

Were we to estimate the powers of walking in the
coots by the outward appearance of their feet, we
might inform the public that they are such bad
walkers that they appear to stagger in their gait, and
that they walk with difficulty and unsteadiness."
But when we see them on land, every day through-
Out the winter, feeding on grass with the wigeons,


except in a great fall of snow, we have proof posi-
tive, by their aptitude at walking, and by their velo-
city in running, that our judgment has been rash,
and that our theory is unsound.

We are informed that jays live more amongst
trees than upon the ground ; and the arboreal pro-
pensity of this bird is inferred from the shape of itr
toes. Now, let it be remembered, that, with the
exception of the short periods when garden fruits
and acorns are ripe, this bird must be upon the
ground to procure a maintenance. Here, where he
is protected, he may be seen upon the ground at all
hours of the day.

The common wagtail, too, is pronounced to be a
" truly terrestrial bird," on account of the formation
of his toes. Come hither, and you shall see the
common wagtail in the daily habit of resorting to
the trees.

Those who derive their knowledge of birds from
the inspection of their external anatomy alone, may
write on the use of bristles at the mouths of
birds ; and they may tell us that, in proportion as
birds partake of a vegetable and an insect diet, so
are these bristles more or less developed. But the
fallacy of this theory is manifest in the ordinary
habits of the barn-door fowl, the wigeon, and many
other birds. During the summer months, the barn-
door fowl, whilst cropping the grass and herbs, will
capture, with the utmost facility and avidity, every
insect, great or small, or soft or hard, which is
unfortunate enough to be within its reach. The


diet of the wigeon is grass. Still, neither the wigeon,
nor the barn-door fowl, have bristles at the beak.

The claws of rapacious birds are pronounced to
be " retractile." If they are so, then the knowledge
of internal anatomy would force us to pronounce
the claws of other tribes of birds, such as the
robins, the doves, the barn-door fowls, and a thou-
sand others, to be retractile.

The soldier must spend many a day amid the
roar of hostile cannon, before he becomes qualified
to command an army ; the carpenter ought to
work for years in the dock-yard, ere he attempts to
build a line-of-battle ship ; and the schoolmaster
has to pore over many a scientific volume, in order
to prepare himself to teach the mathematics.

But, somehow or other, it happens, nowadays,
that practical knowledge does not seem to be con-
sidered essentially necessary for those who under-
take to write on certain parts of Natural History.
Thus, some there are who will offer their history
of birds to the public, although it can be ascer-
tained that they have never been in the country
which those birds inhabit. Others again, not
having resided a sufficient length of time amongst
the foreign birds which they undertake to describe,
are perpetually giving statements at variance with
the real habits of the birds. Thus the account
which is given us of. the habits of the Toucan is
wrong at all points ; to say nothing of its tongue, &c.
No man who has paid sufficient attention to the
woodpeckers whilst in quest of food, will allow him-


self to be led away with the idea that these birds
" break through and demolish the hardest wood."

Give me the man who, after minute examination,
has written his account of birds in the country
where the birds themselves are found. Give me
the man, I don't care of what nation, who has
published his ornithological investigations without
having first placed them into the scientific hands of
those men, who would fain persuade him that no
work on ornithology can pass safely through the
fiery ordeal of modern criticism, unless it has pre-
viously received the polish of their own incom-
parable varnish.

Thus, in days of yore, old Apollo advised his
son Phaeton to let his face be well smeared with
celestial ointment, in order to make it fireproof, ere
he mounted on the box of the solar chariot,

" Turn pater ora sui, sacro medicamine, nati
Contigit, et rapid fecit patientia flammas."

But, notwithstanding this precaution^ the lad got
himself into a sad broil ; and we know not what
disasters his folly might have brought upon the
world, had not mother Earth bestirred herself, and
persuaded Jupiter to stop his wild career. At her
urgent entreaties, Jupiter felled him with a thun-
derbolt into the river Po, where, I understand, he
got pretty well cooled.

Would that we had a Jupiter here in England,
with a birch rod in his hand, to tickle some of our
zoological Phaetons! I would willingly act the
part of mother earth ; and I would undertake to


show, by sundry documents, which have reached
me through the medium of the press, that, if they
be allowed to drive their new-fashioned vehicles on
our good old zodiac much longer, they will disfigure
it in such a manner that, at last, we shall not be
able to distinguish the Bull from the Ram, or the
beautifully tapering fingers on the hand of the Vir-
gin, from the rough and crooked claws which arm
the shell-bound body of the Crab.


THESE are the times for scientific discoveries.
Till lately, we went fastest on a race-horse ; but
now we go faster still upon a rail. In our days,
an Italian has put many thousand pounds of English
money into his pocket, for imparting to Mr. Bull
the important secret that we can have as good music
with one fiddle-string as we formerly had with four.
Witches can now go through the air without the aid
of broom-staff, by applying to Mrs. Graham, the
aeronautess. A piece of stamped paper from Thread-
needle Street is as eagerly sought after as the
purest gold of Peru. Vessels are now made to
go both against wind and tide; a thing deemed
utterly impossible in brave Commodore Trun-
nion's day. It was once indispensably necessary
for Englishmen to wear tails (either club or
pig) on the nape of the neck : Billy Pitt's discovery
of the powder-tax has proved that we can do with-
out them.


Amidst all these extraordinary movements and
inventions, our museums alone seem to have stood
stock still, with the most invincible pertinacity. I
allude not to the mere buildings themselves : they,
indeed, are ever on the change. Scarcely a year
passes over our heads, but some new structure is
raised by the votaries of natural history, with an
outside of beautiful architecture, but with inner
apartments destined to receive articles of old and
execrable workmanship.

When I visit these magnificent buildings, in the
different countries through which I pass, I can
scarcely refrain from quoting the old verses :

" The walls are thick, the servants thin,
The gods without, the devils within."

In every apartment dedicated to the arts and
sciences, saving that of natural history, we find the
materials in Ihe inner places quite upon a par, and
often vastly superior, to the outer workmanship of
the building itself. Thus, he who dedicates a gallery
to painting always takes care to have a show of
pictures which will adorn the walls ; and he who
builds an ornamental library seldom fails to fill it
with books far more costly and important than any
thing in the composition of the structure which he
has raised for their reception. But, when a com-
mittee of gentlemen is chosen to form a museum,
their attention to the outer parts of the building
seems to know no bounds ; whilst the ornamenting
of the interior (which, by the way, ought to be con-
sidered as the very marrrow and essence of the


establishment) is left to pure chance. Thus, the
members tell the public that they will be thankful
for private donations. They often deposit speci-
mens of their own in the museum ; and authorise
their curator to pick up what he can, at different
public sales. The lavish expenditure on the outside
of the temple, and parsimony with regard to the
internal decorations, is giving, as it were, too much
to the body, and too little to the soul.

Still, the directors do not see the thing in this
light. They go jogging on in the old beaten path ;

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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 25 of 28)