Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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her nest, and hatch the eggs which have been left
uncovered all this time. This being the case, how
the professor's speculation, that the vicinity


of the nest to moirt plants, or to water, would cer-
tain! j prove fatal to the ebryo chicks, were the
bird to qmit the eggs for a laameat, udess Ae co-
vered them with drr hay ?

In 1826, ' Tj" j, !! ' 1 itHTVui

willows near the water's edge. There was a water-
hen's nest at the root of one of them. It had
seven eggs in h. I broke two of them, and saw that
icy contained embryo chicks. The labourer took
up part of the nest, with the renaming ire eggs
in it, and placed it on the ground, about three yards
from the spot where we had found it. We con-
tinued in the same place for some hours afterwards.
working at the willows. In the evening, whea we
went away, the old waterhen came back to the nest.
Having no more occasion for the labourer in *****
place, I took the boat myself the next BMnmg,
and saw the waterhen sitting on the nest. On
approaching the place, I observed that she had col-
lected a considerable quantity of grass and weeds ;
and that she had put them all round the nest. A
week after this I went to watch her, and saw she
had hatched ; and, as I drew nearer to her, she went
into the water, with the five little ones along with*

Birds which, on voluntarily leaving their nest,
cover all their eggs containing embryo chicks,
equally cover those eggs before they contain an
embryo chick, that is, before they begin to sit.
Now, daring the period of laying, the old bad sel-
dom returns to the nest above once in twenty-four
hours ; and then only to lay an egg, and go away
B 2'


again. Are the eggs, then, covered these four and
twenty hours, to keep them warm ? Put your hand
upon them, and you will find them "cold as any stone."
Nay, more, you shall take one of these eggs, which
you find covered before the bird begins to sit, and
you shall immerse it for four and twenty hours in
water : and if you put it back into the nest before
the bird begins to sit, you will find that she will
hatch it at the same time with the rest of the eggs.

If, then, this egg will produce a bird after being
four and twenty hours in the water, and if the
other eggs (in the case of the waterhen) containing
embryo chicks will produce birds after being left
uncovered some hours by the mother, may we not
venture to hazard a conjecture that the professor,
somehow or other, has not exactly entered into the
real notions of waterfowl for covering their eggs
with dry hay when they leave the nest, both before
and after they begin to sit ?

I will here add an observation. " The dab-
chick," says our professor, " covers its eggs to keep
them warm; for the vicinity of the nest to moist
plants, or to water, would certainly prove fata) to
the embryo chicks, were she to leave the eggs for a
moment without covering them." But the wagtail
will build her nest within a foot of the water, and
yet she never covers the eggs when she leaves her
nest. Now, the shell of the wagtail's egg being
much thinner than that of the dabchick, might one
not be apt to infer that the egg of the wagtail
would suffer sooner from cold than the egg of the
dabchick ?


One is rather at a loss to know how the professor
discovered that the eggs of the dabchick are affected
by their near vicinity to moist plants or to water,
unless they are covered either by the old bird or
with dry hay. The dabchicks raise their nests upon
a superstructure far above watermark. Now, the
height of the nest from the water, and the thickness
of the materials with which it is lined, will effect-
ually secure it from damp. Put your hand into the
nest of the next dabchick which you discover, and
you will find that it is quite dry.

The waterhen is another bird which generally
builds its nest upon the sedges and rushes ; and it
carefully covers its eggs, both before and after it.
begins to sit: but sometimes this bird makes its
nest in a place warm and comfortable.

In 1828, I formed a little structure, about a foot
square, on a dry island. It was intended for a
duck ; and it was built of brick and mortar. The
top was well secured with a flag ; and there was a
hole left in the side, just large enough to let in a
duck. Some dry hay was put into the place, to
serve as a nest for the duck. But it so happened
that the duck had to go somewhere else to lay her
eggs ; for a waterhen took possession of this little
structure ; and I found her eggs covered with hay,
both before and after she began to sit. Did she do
this to keep the eggs warm, lest their vicinity to
the water should prove fatal to the embryo chicks ?

In 1826, a wild duck made its nest within two
yards of the water's edge, and upon ground not more
B 3


than three inches above watermark. She covered
her eggs, both before and after she began to sit.

Another wild duck, in this same year, made her
nest in the thick ivy, upon the top of an old ruin,
full 18 ft. from the water ; and she regularly did the
same thing with regard to her eggs. Did the last
duck do this to preserve the eggs from the fatal
influence of the vicinity to water, full 18 ft. below
her, with a thick wall intervening ?

While this duck on the ruin carefully covered
her eggs every time she voluntarily left the nest, a
chaffinch, a wagtail, and a ringdove, building in the
ivy of the same ruin, never covered their eggs at all
on leaving the nest ; while in deep holes of the same
ruin, a barn owl, a jackdaw, a starling, a house
sparrow, and a redstart, had their eggs safely shel-
tered from wind, and cold, and rain.

I offer these facts and observations to young na-
turalists as a kind of Ariadne clew, to help them
through the labyrinth of waterfowl incubation.
Should they not suffice, all I can do is, to recom-
mend the bewildered ornithologist to go to that far
eastern country where the vizier of Sultan Mahmoud
understands the language of birds. Though, pos-
sibly, the vizier may now be dead, still his surprising
knowledge has, no doubt, descended to his offspring;
just in the same way as a hereditary knack at legis-
lation goes down from father to son in our English
peerage. We are told that

" Fortes creantur fortibus et bonis ;
Est in juvencis, est in equis patrum



THIS pretty aerial wanderer of the night often
comes into my room ; and after flitting to and fro,
on wing so soft and silent that he is scarcely heard,
he takes his departure from the same window at
which he had entered.

I own I have a great liking for this bird ; and I
have offered it hospitality and protection on account
of its persecutions, and for its many services to me,
I say services, as you will see in the sequel. I
wish that any little thing I could write or say might
cause it to stand better with the world at large tha
it has hitherto done : but I have slender hopes on
this score; because old and deep- rooted prejudices
are seldom overcome ; and when I look back into
the annals of remote antiquity, I see too clearly that
defamation has done its worst to ruin the whole
family, in all its branches, of this poor, harmless,
useful friend of mine.

Ovid, nearly two thousand years ago, was ex-
tremely severe against the owl. In his Metamor-
phoses, he says,

" Fcedaque fit volucris, venturi nuncia luctus,
Ignavus bubo, dirum mortalibus omeu."

In his Fasti he openly accuses it of felony :

" Nocte volant, puerosque petunt neutricis egentes."


Lucan, too, has hit it hard :

" Et Ijetas jurantur aves, bubone sinistro :"
and the Englishman who continued the Pharsalia

" Tristia mille locis Stygius dedit omina bubo."

Horace tells us, that the old witch Canidia used
part of the plumage of the owl in her dealings with
the devil :

" Plutnamque noctumse strigis."

Virgil, in fine, joined in the hue and cry against,
this injured family :

" Solaque culminibus feral i carmine bubo
Saspe queri, et longas in fletum ducere voces."

In our own times we find that the village maid
cannot return home from seeing her dying swain
without a doleful salutation from the owl :

" Thus homeward as she hopeless went,

The churchyard path along,
The blast grew cold, thejlark owl scream 'd
Her lover's funeral song."

Amongst the numberless verses which might be
quoted against the family of the owl, I think I only
know of one little ode which expresses any pity for
it. Our nursery maid used to sing it to the tune of
the storm, " Cease rude Boreas, blustering railer."
I remember the first two stanzas of it :

" Once I was a monarch's daughter,

And sat on a lady's knee ;

But am now a nightly rover,

Banish'd to the ivy tree,


Crying, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo,
Hoo, hoo, hoo, my feet are cold !

Pity me, for here you see me,
Persecuted, poor, and old."

I beg the reader's pardon for this exordium. I
have introduced it, in order to show how little
chance there has been, from days long passed and
gone to the present time, of studying the haunts
and economy of the owl, because its unmerited bad
name has created it a host of foes, and doomed
it to destruction from all quarters. Some few,
certainly, from time to time, have been kept in
cages and in aviaries. But nature rarely thrives in
captivity, and very seldom appears in her true
character when she is encumbered with chains, or
is to be looked at by the passing crowd through
bars of iron. However, the scene is now going to
change; and I trust that the reader will contem-
plate the owl with more friendly feelings, and quite
under different circumstances. Here, no rude
schoolboy ever approaches its retreat; and those
who once dreaded its diabolical doings are now
fully satisfied that it no longer meddles with their
destinies, or has any thing to do with the repose of
their departed friends, Indeed, human wretches,
in the shape of body-snatchers, seem here in Eng-
land to have usurped the office of the owl in our
churchyards; "et vendunt tumulis corpora rapta

Up to the year 1813, the barn owl had a sad
time of it at Walton Hall. Its supposed mournful


notes alarmed the aged housekeeper. She knew
full well what sorrow it had brought into other
houses when she was a young woman ; and there
was enough of mischief in the midnight wintry
blast, without having it increased by the dismal
screams of something which people knew very
little about, and which everybody said was far too
busy in the churchyard at night-time. Nay, it
was a well-known fact, that if any person were
sick in the neighbourhood, it would be for ever
looking in at the window, and holding a convers-
ation outside with somebody, they did not know
whom. The gamekeeper agreed with her in every
thing she said on this important subject ; and he
always stood better in her books when he had ma-
naged to shoot a bird of this bad and mischievous
family. However, in 1813, on my return from
the wilds of Guiana, having suffered myself, and
learned mercy, I broke in pieces the code of penal
laws which the knavery of the gamekeeper and the
lamentable ignorance of the other servants had
hitherto put in force, far too successfully, to thin
the numbers of this poor, harmless, unsuspecting
tribe. On the ruin of the old gateway, against
which, tradition says, the waves of the lake have
dashed for the better part of a thousand years,
I made a place with stone and mortar, about 4- ft.
square, and fixed a thick oaken stick firmly into
it. Huge masses of ivy now quite cover it In
about a month or so after it was finished, a pair of
barn owls came and took up their abode in it I
threatened to strangle the keeper if ever, after


this, he molested either the old birds or their young
ones ; and I assured the housekeeper that I would
take upon myself the whole responsibility of all
the sickness, woe, and sorrow that the new tenants
might bring into the Hall. She made a low cour-
tesy : as much as to say, " Sir, I fall into your will
and pleasure : " but I saw in her eye that she had
made up her mind to hare to do with things of
fearful and portentous shape, and to hear many
a midnight wailing in the surrounding woods. I do
not think that, up to the day of this old lady's
death, which took place in her eighty-fourth year,
she ever looked with pleasure or contentment on
the barn owl, as it flew round the large sycamore
trees which grow near the old ruined gateway.

When I found that this first settlement on the
gateway had succeeded so well, I set about forming
other establishments. This year I have had four
tebodij and I trust that next season I can calcu-
late on having nine. This will be a pretty increase,
and it will help to supply the place of those
which in this neighbourhood are still unfortunately
doomed to death, by the hand of cruelty or su-
perstition. We can now always have a peep at
the owls, in their habitation on the old ruined
gateway, whenever we choose. Confident of pro-
tection, these pretty birds betray no fear when
the stranger mounts up to their place of abode.
I would here venture a surmise, that the bans
owl sleeps standing. Whenever we go to look at
it, we invariably see it upon the pereh, bolt up-
right; and often with its eyes closed, apparently


fast asleep. Buffon and Bewick err (no doubt
unintentionally) when they say that the barn owl
snores during its repose. What they took for
snoring was the cry of the young birds for food.
I had fully satisfied myself on this score some
years ago. However, in December, 1823, I was
much astonished to hear this same snoring kind
of noise, which had been so common in the month
of July. On ascending the ruin, I found a brood
of young owls in the apartment

Upon this ruin is placed a perch, about a foot
from the hole at which the owls enter. Some-
times, at mid-day, when the weather is gloomy,
you may see an owl upon it, apparently enjoying
the refreshing diurnal breeze. This year (1831)
a pair of barn owls hatched their young, on the 7th
of September, in a sycamore tree, near the old
ruined gateway.

If this useful bird caught its food by day*, in-
stead of hunting for it by night, mankind would
have ocular demonstration of its utility in thinning
the country of mice ; and it would be protected,
and encouraged, every where. It would be with us
what the ibis was with the Egyptians. When it
has young, it will bring a mouse to the nest about
every twelve or fifteen minutes. But, in order to
have a proper idea of the enormons quantity of
mice which this bird destroys, we must examine
the pellets which it ejects from its stomach in

* Though the barn owl usually hunts during the night, still I have
repeatedly seen it catching mice in the daytime, even when the sun


the place of its retreat. Every pellet contains
from four to seven skeletons of mice. In sixteen
months from the time that the apartment of the
owl on the old gateway was cleaned out, there has
been a deposit of above a bushel of pellets.

The barn owl sometimes carries off rats. One
evening I was sitting under a shed, and killed a
very large rat, as it was coming out of a hole,
about ten yards from where I was watching it.
I did not go to take it up, hoping to get another
shot. As it lay there, a barn owl pounced upon it,
and flew away with it.

This bird has been known to catch fish. Some
years ago, on a fine evening, in the month of July,
long before it was dark, as I was standing on the
middle of the bridge, and minuting the owl by my
watch, as she brought mice into her nest, all on a
sudden she dropped perpendicularly into the water.
Thinking that she had fallen down in epilepsy, my
first thoughts were to go and fetch the boat ; but
before I had well got to the end of the bridge, I
saw the owl rise out of the water with a fish in
her claws, and take it to the nest This fact is
mentioned by the late much revered and lamented
Mr. Atkinson of Leeds, in his Compendium, in a
note, under the signature of W., a friend of his,
to whom I had communicated it a few days after I
had witnessed it.

I cannot make up my mind to pay any attention
to the description of the amours of the owl by a
modern writer ; at least the barn owl plays off no
buffooneries here, such as those which he describes.


An owl is an owl all the world over, whether under
the influence of Momus, Venus, or Diana.

When farmers complain, that the barn owl de-
stroys the eggs of their pigeons, they lay the saddle
on the wrong horse. They ought to put it on
the rat. Formerly I could get very few young
pigeons till the rats were excluded effectually from
the dovecot. Since that took place, it has produced
a great abundance every year, though the barn
owls frequent it, and are encouraged all around
it. The barn owl merely resorts to it for repose
and concealment. If it were really an enemy to
the dovecot, we should see the pigeons in com-
motion as soon as it begins its evening flight ! but
the pigeons heed it not : whereas, if the sparrow-
hawk or hobby should make its appearance, the
whole community would be up at once ; proof
sufficient that the barn owl is not looked upon as a
bad, or even a suspicious, character by the inhabit-
ants of the dovecot.

Till lately, a great and well-known distinction
has always been made betwixt the screeching and
the hooting of owls. The tawny owl is the only
owl which hoots; and when I am in the woods
after poachers, about an hour before daybreak, I
hear with extreme delight its loud, clear, and sono-
rous notes, resounding far and near through hill
and dale. Very different from these notes is the
screech of the barn owl. But Sir William Jardine
informs us, that this owl hoots; and that he has
shot it in the act of hooting. This is stiff autho-
rity ; and I believe it because it comes from the


pen of Sir William Jardine. Still, however, me-
thinks that it ought to be taken in a somewhat
diluted state; we know full well that most extra-
ordinary examples of splendid talent do, from time
to time, make their appearance on the world's
wide stage. Thus, Franklin brought down fire from
the skies: "Eripuit fulmen coelo, sceptrumque
tyrannis." Paganini has led all London captive,
by a single piece of twisted catgut: " Tu potes
reges comitesque stultos ducere." Leibnitz tells
us of a dog in Germany that could pronounce
distinctly thirty words. Goldsmith informs us that
he once heard a raven whistle the tune of the
" Shamrock," with great distinctness, truth, and
humour. With these splendid examples before our
eyes, may we not be inclined to suppose that the
barn owl which Sir William shot, in the absolute
act of hooting, .nay nave been a gifted bird, of
superior parts and knowledge (una de multis, as
Horace said of Miss Danaus), endowed, perhaps,
from its early days with the faculty of hooting,
or else skilled in the art by having been taught
it by its neighbour, the tawny owl? I beg to
remark, that though I unhesitatingly grant the
faculty of hooting to this one particular individual
owl, still I flatly refuse to believe that hooting is
common to barn owls in general. Ovid, in his
sixth book Fastorum, pointedly says that it
screeched in his day :

" Est illis strigibus nomen ; scd nominis hujus
Causa, quod horrenda stridere nocte solent"


The barn owl may be heard shrieking here perpe-
petually on the portico, and in the large sycamore
trees near the house. It shrieks equally when the
moon shines and when the night is rough and
cloudy; and he who takes an interest in it may
here see the barn owl the night through when there
is a moon ; and he may hear it shriek when perch-
ing on the trees, or when it is on wing. He may
see it and hear it shriek, within a few yards of him,
long before dark ; and again, often after daybreak,
before it takes its final departure to its wonted

I am amply repaid for the pains I have taken to
protect and encourage the barn owl ; it pays me a
hundred-fold by the enormous quantity of mice
which it destroys throughout the year. The ser-
vants now no longer wish to persecute it. Often,
on a fine summer's evening, with delight I see the
villagers loitering under the sycamore trees longer
than they would otherwise do, to have a peep at the
barn owl, as it leaves the ivy-mantled tower : for-
tunate for it, if, in lieu of exposing itself to danger,
by mixing with the world at large, it only knew the
advantage of passing its nights at home ; for here

" No birds that haunt my valley free

To slaughter I condemn ;
Taught by the Power that pities me,
I learn to pity them."



" Et trunca* inhonesto vulnere nare*." Mneid. lib. vi.

I NEVER thought that I should have lived to see
this bird deprived of its nose. But in the third num-
ber of Jameson's Journal, a modern writer has actu-
ally given " An account of the habits of the Turkey
Buzzard ( Vultur Aura), with a view of exploding the
opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary
power of smelling;" and I see that a gentleman in
the Magazine of Natural History, vol. iii. p. 4-49.,
gives to this writer the honour of being the first man
who, by his " interesting treatise," caused the ex-
plosion to take place.

I grieve from my heart that the vulture's nose has
received such a tremendous blow ; because the world
at large will sustain a great loss by this sudden and
unexpected attack upon it. Moreover, I have a kind
of fellow-feeling, if 1 may say so, for this noble bird.
We have been for years together in the same coun-
try ; we have passed many nights amongst the same
trees; and though we did not frequent the same
mess, (for " de gustibus non est disputandum,"
and I could not eat rotten venison, as our English
epicures do,) still we saw a great deal of each other's

Sancho Panza remarks, that there is a remedy for
every thing but death. Now, as the vulture has not
been killed by the artillery of this modern writer in
Jamesons Journal, but has only had its nose carried


away by an explosion, I will carefully gather up the
shattered olfactory parts, and do ray best to restore
them to their original shape and beautiful propor-
tions. In repairing the vulture's nose, I shall not
imitate old Taliacotius, who, in times long past and
gone, did

" from

The brawny part of porter's bum
Cut supplemental noses, which
Would last as long as parent breech ! "

but I will set to work upon my own resources, and
then the reader shall decide whether the vulture is
to have a nose or to remain without one.

We all know what innumerable instances there
are, in every country, of the astonishing powers of
scent in quadrupeds. Thus, the bloodhound will
follow the line of the deer-stealer hours after he has
left the park ; and a common dog will ferret out his
master in a room, be it ever so crowded. He is
enabled to do this by means of the well-known ef-
fluvium which, proceeding from his master's person,
comes in contact with his olfactory nerves. A man
even, -whose powers of scent are by no means re-
markable, will sometimes smell you a putrid carcass
at a great distance. Now, as the air produced by
putrefaction is lighter than common air, it will as-
cend in the atmosphere, and be carried to and fro
through the expanse of heaven by every gust of
wind. The vulture, soaring above, and coming in
contact with this tainted current, will instinctively
follow it down to its source, and there find that which


is destined by an all-wise Providence to be its sup-
port and nourishment.

I will here bring forward the common vulture of
the West Indies, the Vultur Aura of Guiana, the
king of the vultures of Terra Firma, and the vulture
which is found in European Andalusia. I am inti-
mately acquainted with all these useful scavengers ;
and I have never known any of them to kill the food
upon which they feed ; or when they are in a com-
plete state of nature, free from the restraint or al-
lurements of man, ever feed upon that which was
not putrid. Having slain the large serpent men-
tioned in the Wanderings, though I wished to pre-
serve the skeleton, still I preferred to forego the
opportunity, rather than not get the king of the
vultures. I called Daddy Quasshi, and another

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 6 of 28)