Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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negro, and we carried the body into the forest. The
foliage of the trees where we laid it was impervious
to the sun's rays, and had any vultures passed over
that part of the forest, I think I may say with safety
that they could not have seen the remains of the
serpent through the shade. For the first two days
not a vulture made its appearance at the spot, though
I could see here and there, as usual, a Vultur Aura
gliding, on apparently immovable pinion, at a mode-
rate height, over the tops of the forest trees. But
during the afternoon of the third day, when the
carcass of the serpent had got into a state of putre-
faction, more than twenty of the common vultures
came and perched upon the neighbouring trees, and
the next morning, a little after six o'clock, I saw a
magnificent king of the vultures. There was a stu-
c 2


pendous Mora tree * close by, whose topmost branch
had either been dried by time or blasted by the
thunder-storm. Upon this branch I killed the king
of the vultures, before he had descended to partake
of the savoury food which had attracted him to the
place. Soon after this another king of the vultures
came, and after he had stuffed himself almost to suf-
focation, the rest pounced down upon the remains
of the serpent, and stayed there till they had de-
voured the last morsel.

I think I mentioned in the Wanderings, that I do
not consider the Vultur Aura gregarious, properly
so speaking ; and that I could never see it feeding
upon that which was not putrid. Often when I had
thrown aside the useless remains of birds and qua-
drupeds after dissection, though the Vultur Aura
would be soaring up and down all day long, still it
would never descend to feed upon them, or to carry
them off, till they were in a state of putrefaction.

Let us here examine the actions of this vulture a
little more minutely. If the Vultur Aura, which,
as I have said above, I have never seen to prey upon
living animals, be directed by its eye alone to the
object of its food, by what means can it distinguish
a dead animal from an animal asleep ? or how is it

* " The Mora, in Guiana, is a lofty timber tree, the topmost branch of
which, when naked with age, or dried by accident, is the favourite resort of
the toucan. It also frequently happens, that a wild 6g tree, as large as a
common English apple tree, rears itself from one of the thick branches of
the top of the Mora, and that numerous climbing epiphytes grow upon the
fig tree. The fig tree, in time, kills the Mora, and the epiphytes the fig tree.
The birds are the agents that convey the seeds to the rotten hollow stump
or decaying bark of the Mora and fig." (Waterton's Wanderings in South
America, $c.)


to know a newly dead lizard or a snake, from a lizard
or a snake basking quite motionless in the sun ? If
its eye be the director to its food, what blunders
must it not make in the negro-yards in Demerara,
where broods of ducks and fowls are always to be
found the day through, either sleeping or basking in
the open air. Still the negro, whom habit has
taught to know the Vultur Aura from a hawk, does
not consider him an enemy. But let a hawk ap-
proach the negro-yard, all will be in commotion, and
the yells of the old women will be tremendous.
Were you to kill a fowl and place it in the yard with
the live ones, it would remain there unnoticed by
the vulture as long as it was sweet ; but, as soon as
it became offensive, you would see the Vultur Aura
approach it, and begin to feed upon it, or carry it
away, without showing any inclination to molest the
other fowls which might be basking in the neigh-
bourhood. When I carried Lord Collingwood's
despatches up the Orinoco, to the city of Angus-
tura, I there saw the common vultures of Guiana
nearly as tame as turkeys. The Spaniards protected
them, and considered them in the light of useful
scavengers. Though they were flying about the
city in all directions, and at times perching upon
the tops of the houses, still many of the people,
young and old, took their siesta in the open air,
" their custom always of the afternoon," and had
no fear of being ripped up and devoured by the
surrounding vultures. If the vulture has no ex-
traordinary powers of smelling, which faculty, I am
c 3


told, is now supposed to be exploded since the
appearance of the article in Jamesons Journal, I
marvel to learn how these birds in Angustura got
their information, that the seemingly lifeless bodies
of the Spaniards were merely asleep,

" Dulcis et alta quies, placidseque simillima morti,"

and were by no means proper food for them.

Some years after this, being alongside of a wood,
I saw a negro on the ground ; and, as I looked at
him from a distance, it struck me that all was not
right with him. On going up to him I found him
apparently dead. Life was barely within him, and
that was all. He was a total stranger to me, and I
conjectured that he had probably been seized with
sickness as he was journeying on, and that he had
fallen down there to rise no more. He must have
lain in that forlorn, and I hope insensible state, for
many hours; because, upon a nearer inspection, I saw
swarms of red ants * near him, and they had eaten
deeply into his flesh. I could see no marks that the
vultures had been upon him. Indeed, their not
being here caused me no surprise, as I had long been
satisfied, from the innumerable observations which I
had made, that the vulture is attracted to its food

* " The Red Ant of Guiana marches in millions through the country, in
compact order, like a regiment of soldiers. They eat up every insect in
their march ; and. if a house obstruct their route, they do not turn out of
the way, but go quite through it. Though they sting cruelly when molested,
the planter is not sorry to see them in his house ; for it is but a passing
visit, and they destroy every kind of insect vermin that had taken shelter
under his roof." (Waterton's Wanderings in South America, &.)


by the putrid exhalations which arise from it, when
it has arrived at that state of decomposition which
renders it fit, and no doubt delicious, food for this
interesting tribe of birds. While I was standing
near the negro, I could see here and there a Vultur
Aura sweeping majestically through the ethereal
expanse, in alternate rises and falls, as these birds
are wont to do when in search of carrion : but they
showed no inclination to come and perch on the
trees near the prostrate body of this poor unknown
sable son of Africa.

The terrible pestilence which visited Malaga at
the beginning of the present century, swept off thou-
sands upon thousands in the short space of four
months. The victims were buried by the convicts.
So great was the daily havoc of death, that no pri-
vate burials could be allowed ; and many a corpse
lay exposed in the open air, till the dead carts made
their rounds at nightfall to take them away to their
last resting-place, which was a large pit, prepared for
them by the convicts in the daytime. During this
long-continued scene of woe and sorrow, which I
saw and felt, I could never learn that the vultures
preyed upon the dead bodies which had not had time
enough to putrefy. But when the wind blew in
from the Mediterranean, and washed ashore the
corrupted bodies of those who had died of the pes-
tilence, and had been thrown overboard from the
shipping, then indeed, " de montibus adsunt Har-
pyiae," then it was that the vultures carne from the
neighbouring hills to satisfy their hunger ; then, one


might have said of these unfortunate victims of the

" Their limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore."

In Andalusia, one day in particular, I stood to watch
the vultures feeding on the putrid remains of a
mule, some ten miles from the pleasant village of
Alhaurin. Both kids and lambs were reposing and
browsing up and down in the neighbourhood, still
the vultures touched them not ; neithei* did the
goatherds seem to consider their flocks as being in
bad or dangerous company, otherwise they might
have despatched the vultures with very little trouble,
for they were so gorged with carrion that they ap-
peared unwilling to move from the place. Now,
seeing some of the kids and lambs lying on the
ground quite motionless, and observing that the
vultures paid no attention to them, I came to the
following conclusion, viz. that the vulture is directed
to its food by means of its olfactory nerves coming
in contact with tainted effluvium floating in the
atmosphere ; and this being the case, we may safely
infer that the vulture cannot possibly mistake a
sleeping animal for one in which life is extinct, and
which has begun to putrefy.

If the vulture were directed to its food solely by
its eye, there would be a necessity for it to soar to
an immense height in the sky; and even then it
would be often at a loss to perceive its food on ac-
count of intervening objects. But I could never see


the vulture rise to any very astonishing height in the
heavens, as is the custom with the eagle, the glebe,
and some other birds of prey ; and I am even fully
of opinion, that when these last-mentioned birds
soar so high, they are not upon the look-out for food.
When looking at the vultures aloft, I could always
distinguish the king of the vultures from the common
vulture, and the common vulture from the Vultur
Aura. Sometimes an inexperienced observer in
Guiana may mistake for vultures a flock of birds
soaring to a prodigious height in the sky ; but, upon
a steady examination, he will find that they are

I conceive that we are in error when we suppose
that birds of prey rise to such an astonishing height
as we see them do, in order to have a better oppor-
tunity of observing their food on the ground below
them. I have watched gledes and hawks intensely,
when they have been so high that they appeared a
mere speck in the azure vault ; still, when at such a
great height, I have never been able, in one single
instance, to see them descend upon their prey, dur-
ing the many years in which I have observed them.
But, on the other hand, when birds of prey are in
quest of food, I have always seen them fly at a very
moderate height over the woods and meads, and
strike their victim with the rapidity of lightning.
Thus, the kestrel hovers at so comparatively short
a distance from the earth, that he is enabled to drop
down upon a mouse, and secure it as quick as thought.
Thus, the merlin and sparrowhawk, a little before


dark, shoot past you, when you are watching behind
a tree, with inconceivable velocity, and snatch away
the unsuspecting bunting from the hedge. But
when food seems not to be the object, especially
about the breeding season, you may observe the
windhovers rising in majestic evolutions to a vast
altitude ; but, if you watch till your eyes ache, you
will never see them descend upon their prey from
this immense height : indeed, the great distance to
which they rise would operate much against them in
their descent to seize their food. For example, sup-
pose a mouse to be on the ground, exactly under a
hawk, which hawk is so high up that its appearance
to the observer's eye is not larger than that of a lark,
how is the hawk to take the mouse ? If it descend
slowly, the wary mouse would have time to get into
its hole ; if the hawk came down rapidly, the noise
it causes in darting through the expanse would be a
sufficient warning for the mouse to get out of the way.
In order to have a proper idea of the noise which the
descent of the bird would cause, we have only to
listen to a rook in the act of what the peasants call
shooting, 1 and which, by the by, they always consi-
der as a sign of coming wind ; though, in fact, it can
easily be accounted for without any aid from con-
jecture. It might here be asked, for what object,
then, do many birds of prey rise to such an amazing
height in the sky ? I answer, I know not. Why
does the lark mount so high, and sing all the time ?
His female and other listeners on the ground would
hear him more distinctly and clearly, were he to


pour forth his sweet and vernal notes nearer to

But to return to the vulture. After the repeated
observations I have made in the country where it
abounds, I am quite satisfied that it is directed to
its food by means of its olfactory nerves coming in
contact with putrid effluvium, which rises from
corrupted substances through the heavier air.
Those are deceived who imagine that this effluvium
would always be driven to one quarter in the
tropics, where the trade-winds prevail. Often, at
the very time that the clouds are driving from the
north-east up above, there is a lower current of air
coming from the quarter directly opposite. This
takes place most frequently during the night-time,
in or near the woods ; and it often occurs early in
the morning, from sunrise till near ten o'clock, when
the regular trade-wind begins to blow. Sometimes
it is noticed in the evening, after sunset ; and, now
and then, during the best part of the day, in the
rainy season. In Guiana there is a tree called hay-
awa : it produces a deliciously smelling resin, fit for
incense. When the Indians stop on the banks of a
river for the night, they are much in the habit of
burning this resin for its fine and wholesome scent.
It is found in a hardened lumpy state, all down the
side of the tree out of which it has oozed. It is
also seen on the ground, at the foot of the tree, in-
corporated with the sand. When we had taken up
our nightly quarters on the bank of the Essequibo,
many a time we perceived this delightful fragrance
of the hayawa, which came down the bed of the


river to the place where we were, in a direction quite
opposite to the trade-wind. My Indians knew by
this that other Indians were encamped for the night
on the river-side above us.

When the eruption took place in the Island of St.
Vincent, in the Caribbean Sea, in 1812, cinders and
other minor particles of matter were carried nearly,
if not fully, 200 miles to windward, and were said to
have fallen at or near Barbadoes. Had there been
a carcass, in a state of decomposition, at the place
during the time of the eruption, no doubt the efflu-
vium arising from it would have been taken to wind-
ward by a temporary counter-aerial current ; and a
vulture in Barbadoes might probably have had pretty
certain information, through his olfactory nerves,
that there was something good for him in the Island
of St. Vincent.

Vultures, as far as I have been able to observe,
do not keep together in a large flock, when they are
soaring up and down apparently in quest of a tainted
current. Now, suppose a mule has just expired
behind a high wall, under the dense foliage of ever-
green tropical trees ; fifty vultures, we will say, roost
on a tree a mile from this dead mule : when morn-
ing comes, off they go in quest of food. Ten fly by
mere chance to the wood where the mule lies, and
manage to spy it out through the trees ; the rest go
quite in a different direction. How are the last-
mentioned birds to find the mule ? Every minute
carries them farther from it. Now reverse the state-
ment ; and, instead of a mule newly dead, let us
suppose a mule in an offensive state of decompos-


ition. I would stake my life upon it, that not only
the fifty vultures would be at the carcass next morn-
ing, but also that every vulture in the adjacent forest
would manage to get there in time to partake of the

Here I will stop, fearing that I have already
drawn too largely on the reader's patience; but
Teally I could not bear to see the vulture deprived
of the most interesting feature in its physiognomy
with impunity. These are notable times for orni-
thology : one author gravely tells us that the water-
ousel walks on the bottom of streams ; another de-
scribes an eagle as lubricating its plumage from an
oil-gland ; a third renews in print the absurdity that
the rook loses the feathers at the base of the bill
by seeking in the earth for its food ; while a fourth,
lamenting that the old name, Caprimulgus, serves
to propagate an absurd vulgar error, gives to the
bird the new name of night-swallow.
" In nova fert animus."


IN answer to the remark of Mr. Percival Hunter
in the Magazine of Natural History, vol. iv. p. 83.,
that my account of the habits of the Vultur Aura
is at variance with the observations of Wilson,
Humboldt, and Azara, I beg to inform him, that I
pronounced the Vultur Aura of Guiana to be not
gregarious, after the closest attention to its habits


for a long series of years ; and I am still of decided
opinion that this bird ought not to be considered

Wilson was never in Guiana. As for Humboldt,
I cannot think of submitting to his testimony, in
matters of ornithology, for one single moment. The
avocations of this traveller were of too multiplied a
nature to enable him to be a correct practical orni-
thologist. Azara is totally unknown to me.

I have read Mr. Audubon's paper very attentively,
" and upon taking the length, breadth, height, and
depth of it, and trying them at home, upon an exact
scale," 't is out, my lord, in every one of its dimensions.

In the paper in Jamesons Journal, after some
preliminary observations, the author says, " When I
visited the Southern States, and had lived, as it
were, amongst these vultures for several years, and
discovered, thousands of times, that they did not
smell me when I approached them covered by a
tree, until within a few feet ; and that, when, so
near, or at a greater distance, I showed myself to
them, they instantly flew away much frightened,
the idea evaporated, and I assiduously engaged in a
series of experiments to prove, to myself at least, how
far the acuteness of smell existed, if it existed at all."

Here the author wishes to prove to us, through
the medium cf his own immediate person, that the
vulture is but poorly off for nose ; but he has left
the matter short, on two essential points. First, he
has told us nothing of the absolute state of his own
person, at the actual time he approached the vul-
tures ; and, secondly, he is silent as to the precise


position of his own person, with regard to the wind.
This neglect renders his experiment unsatisfactory,
If, on his drawing near to the birds, no particular
effluvium or strong smell proceeded from his person,
it is not to be expected that they could smell him.
De nihilo nihilum, in nihilum nil posse reverti, as the
old saying is. If, again, he had a smell about him,
and he happened to be to leeward as he approached
the vultures, their olfactory nerves could not pos-
sibly have been roused to action by it, although he
had been Gorgonius himself (Gorgonius hircum),
for every particle of smell from his person would
have been carried down the gale, in a contrary
direction to the birds.

I will now proceed to examine the author's first
experiment. " I procured," says he, " a skin of
our common deer, entire to the hoofs, and stuffed it
carefully with dried grass until filled, rather above
the natural size, suffered the whole to become
perfectly dry, and hard as leather, took it to the
middle of a large open field, laid it down on its back,
with its legs up and apart, as if the animal was dead
and putrid. I then retired about a few hundred
yards ; and in the lapse of some minutes a vulture,
coursing round the field, tolerably high, espied the
skin, sailed directly towards it, and alighted within
a few yards of it. I ran immediately, covered by a
large tree, until within about forty yards ; and from
that place could spy the bird with ease. He ap-
proached the skin, looked at it without apparent
suspicion, jumped on it, &c. then, approaching
the eyes, that were here solid globes of hard dried


and painted clay, attacked first one and then the
other, with, however, no further advantage than
that of disarranging them. This part was aban-
doned ; the bird walked to the other extremity of
the pretended animal, and there, with much exer-
tion, tore the stitches apart, until much fodder and
dry hay was pulled out, but no flesh could the bird
find or smell; he was intent on discovering some
where none existed ; and after reiterated efforts,
all useless, he took flight, coursed about the field,
when, suddenly rounding and falling, I saw him kill
a small garter snake, and swallow it in an instant.
The vulture rose again, sailed about, and passed
several times quite low over my stuffed deerskin,
as if loth to abandon so good-looking a prey." The
author continues : " Judge of my feelings when I
plainly saw that the vulture, which could not dis-
cover, through its extraordinary sense of smell, that
no flesh, either fresh or putrid, existed about the
skin, could, at a glance, see a snake, scarcely as
large as a man's finger, alive, and destitute of odour,
hundreds of yards distant."

In this first experiment, we are left in such
uncertainty, with regard to the actual distance of
the vulture from the author, at the time the vulture
killed the snake, that I cannot, for the life of me,
come to any satisfactory conclusion. It appears,
that there was a tree about forty yards from the
stuffed deerskin. Under covert of the tree, the
author watched the predatory attack of the vulture
on the skin. The disappointed bird took flight,
and coursed about the field, which the author tells


us is large and open. While coursing round this
field, the vulture, suddenly rounding and falling,
killed a garter snake, scarcely as large as a man's
finger. The author tells us, he plainly saw that
the vulture could see this snake hundreds of yards
distant. I am riot surprised that the vulture saw
the snake hundreds of yards distant, as I am fully
aware of the keen sight of all birds ; but what really
astonishes me is, that the author could see the
snake, and know it to be a garter snake ; for, upon
the face of the statement, I am led to conclude that
he himself, as well as the vulture, was hundreds of
yards distant from the snake. It were much to be
wished that the author had said something positive
with regard to the actual distance of the snake
from the tree under which he had taken his stand.
Again, the author tells us, in the beginning of this
experiment, that he retired about a few hundred
yards from the spot where he had placed the deer-
skin, in the middle of the large open field ; and that
a vulture, in the lapse of some minutes, 'alighted
within a few yards of the skin. The author ran
immediately, covered by a large tree, till within
about forty yards of the skin. Now, quickness of
sight in the vulture being the very essence of our
author's paper in Jamesons Journal, I am at a loss
to conceive how our author contrived to run over
the few hundred yards unseen by the vulture. To
be sure, a large tree intervened; but then the
vulture happened to be about forty yards on the
other side of it; and this distance of the vulture
from the tree would be all in its favour for descry-



ing a man coming up, in an opposite direction,
through the open space of a few hundred yards,
which, to judge by this vague expression, might
be a quarter of a mile, more or less. Had the bird
seen him, there is no doubt but that it would have
flown away ; because the author tells us, in the
beginning of his paper, that " when he showed
himself to the vultures, they instantly flew away

In one part of this experiment, at least, our
author proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that
his vulture was totally deficient in scent ; and he
has the very best of all reasons, no smell existed
in his deerskin. " No flesh could the bird find, or
smell. He was intent on discovering some, where
none existed." Still, methinks, the vulture was
right in ripping up the pretended animal ; and there
was method in his prosecuting his excavation
through the regions of dried hay. No lapse of
time could have completely subdued the smell
which would arise from the ears, the hoofs, the
lips, and the very skin itself of the deer. This
smell must have been the thing that instigated the
bird to look narrowly into the skin, and detained
him so long at the place. I have a better opinion

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 7 of 28)