Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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of the vulture's sagacity, than to suppose that he
would have spent so much of his precious time
upon the rudely stuffed mockery of an animal,
unless his nose had given him information that
some nutriment existed in that which his keen and
piercing eye would soon have told him was an
absolute cheat.


Second Experiment. The author says, " I had
a large dead hog hauled some distance from the
house, and put into a ravine, about twenty feet
deeper than the surface of the earth around it,
narrow and winding, much filled with briars and
high cane. In this I made the negroes conceal the
hog, by binding cane over it, until I thought it
would puzzle either the buzzards, carrion crows, or
any other birds to see it, and left it for two days.
This was early in the month of July, when in this
latitude it becomes putrid and extremely fetid in a
short time. I saw, from time to time, many vul-
tures in search of food sail over the field and ravine
in all directions, but none discovered the carcass,
although during this time several dogs had visited
it, and fed plentifully on it. I tried to go near it,
but the smell was so insufferable, when within
thirty yards, that I abandoned it ; and the remains
were entirely destroyed at last, through natural

Here the author positively and distinctly tells
us, that he saw many vultures, in search of food,
sail over the field and ravine, in all directions, but
none discovered the carcass ; although, during this
time, several dogs had visited it, and fed plentifully
on it.

Pray, when the dogs were at dinner on the
carcass, and the vultures at the same time were
flying over the ravine where the hog lay, what
prevented these keen-eyed birds from seeing the
hog ? The author positively says, that none dis-
covered the carcass. Could, then, several dogs
D 2


devour the hams of swine, and riot on pig's liver,
in such amazing secrecy and silence as not to be
observed in the act by the lynx-eyed vultures
above ? Were there no squabbles amongst the dogs
for possession of the pig's cheeks? no snarling for
the flitch ? no pulling the body this way, or that
way ? no displacing the materials with which the
negroes had covered the hog? In a word, was
there no movement on the part of the dogs, by
which the passing vultures might receive a hint
that there was something in the ravine below " cal-
culated to glut their voracious appetite?" Fear,
certainly, could not have kept them away ; because
the author tells us, in another part of his account,
that he has seen vultures feeding at one extremity
of a carcass, and dogs at another.

This second experiment, like the story of the
" bear and fiddle," was broken off in the middle.
The author tried to go near the carcass, but the
smell was so insufferable that he abandoned it.
when he had got within thirty yards of it. He
tells us, the remains were entirely destroyed, at
last, through natural decay. How did he learn
this ? At the time that he abandoned the carcass
to its fate, the insufferable smell clearly proved that
there was plenty of carrion still on the bones ; but,
as the author's own olfactory nerves prevented him
from watching it any longer, I will take upon myself
to make up the hiatus valde deflendus, which his
sudden retreat occasioned, by a conjecture of my
own ; namely, that the dogs and vultures, like the
devil and the king, in " Sir Balaam," divided the


prize. It would have taken a lapse of weeks to
have destroyed the smell putrescent which came
from the remains of so large an animal ; and even
granted that the vultures had been too dull of nose
to have smelled it, still it could not have failed to
have attracted other dogs, or the same dogs when
their stomachs had become empty ; and they them-
selves would have gnawed off all the flesh, and
squandered the bones, without allowing " natural
decay " to consume that which was so palatable to
them. Be this as it may, the author immediately
returned, and commenced a new operation about
the same place. This fortifies me in my conjecture,
that the carcass must have had some greedy cus-
tomers after the author's departure, otherwise the
insuf/erable smell must have been still there; and
then the author, by his own account, would have
been ill able to stand the attacks on his nasal feel-
ings during the new operation.

He says, " I then took a young pig, put a knife
through its neck, and made it bleed on the earth and
grass about the same place, and, having covered it
closely with leaves, also watched the result. The vul-
tures saw the fresh blood, alighted about it, followed
it down into the ravine, discovered by the blood the
pig, and devoured it, when yet quite fresh, within my
sight." I must here own I am astonished that the
vultures could see this, and still have seen nothing
of the large hog while several dogs were feeding
on it. However, I request the reader to ruminate
for a while on these two experiments with the large
D 3


hog and the little pig ; and then he will be able to
draw his own conclusion as to the blindness of the
vultures during the first experiment, and their
keenness of vision during the second.

I will now take a peep at the vultures marshalled
in aerial columns.

The author tells us, " a flock of twenty may easily
survey an area of two miles, as they go turning in
large circles, often intersecting each other in their
lines, as if forming a vast chain of rounded links ;
some are high, whilst others are low; not a spot is
passed over unseen ; and, consequently, the moment
a prey is discovered, the favoured bird rounds to,
and, by the impetuosity of its movements, gives
notice to its nearest companion, who immediately
follows him, and is successively attended by all the
rest. Thus the farthest from the discoverer, being
at a considerable distance, sails in a direct line
towards the spot indicated to him by the flight of
the others, who have all gone in a straight course
before him, with the appearance of being impelled
by this extraordinary power of smelling, so errone-
ously granted them." Here I break the quotation,
to ask the question, how are the hindermost vul-
tures, which are successively attending to the notice
given by the favoured bird, in order to profit by it,
to know whether the favoured bird has alighted upon
some large carrion, or a diminutive garter snake ^
The leader vulture, according to our author's former
experiment, would be equally liable to fall down
upon the one as upon the other; and though he
might get a mouthful, the rest would be sorely dis-


appointed. Again, suppose the leader were to round
to, and fall upon a stuffed deerskin, and dilly-dally
his time away in reconnoitring it, would not the
rest, on coming up, have just reason to be much out
of temper ? Our author continues, " If the object
discovered is large, lately dead, and covered with a
skin too tough to be ate and torn asunder " (cart
before the horse), " and afford free scope to their
appetite, they remain about it, and in the neigh-
bourhood. Perched on high dead limbs, in such
conspicuous positions, they are easily seen by other
vultures, who, through habit, know the meaning of
such stoppages, and join the first flock, going also
directly, and affording further evidence, to those
who are satisfied with appearances only. In this
manner I have seen several hundreds of vultures
and carrion crows assembled near a dead ox, at the
dusk of evening, that had only two or three in the
morning ; when some of the latter comers had
probably travelled hundreds of miles, searching
diligently themselves for food, and probably would
have had to go much farther had they not espied this
association." A little after this, having described
the manner in which the " famished cannibals " sa-
tisfied their hunger, the author says, " The repast
finished, each bird gradually rises to the highest
branches of the nearest trees, and remains there,
until the digestion of all the food they" (instead of
it) "have" (has) "swallowed is completed."

Here we have, perched on high trees, flocks of
vultures waiting till their dinner be sufficiently
tender ; and also flocks of vultures waiting on the


highest branches of trees till their dinner be suffi-
ciently digested. The author tells us that the first
*' are easily seen by other vultures, who, through
habit, know the meaning of such stoppages." I wish
the author had told us how he became informed of this
knowledge, which the " other vultures" had acquired
of these stoppages. Let us suppose for an instant
that the latter comers, after travelling " hundreds of
miles," had unluckily mistaken the group of vultures
perched on high trees; and, in lieu of arriving at the
tree under which dinner was waiting for them, they
had got to the tree under which all the dinner had
been eaten up. Pray, what were the hungry scaven-
gers to do ? Were they to proceed, " hundreds oi
miles" farther, upon an empty stomach, in quest oi
more stoppages ? or were they to wait in patience,
with the vultures perched on high dead limbs of
trees, till those stomach-filled birds should have
digested their food, and were ready to start afresh ?
The author assures us, that " vultures perched on
high dead limbs, in such conspicuous positions, are
easily seen by other vultures, who, through habit,
know the meaning of such stoppages : " but then we
have only his bare word for this extraordinary cir-
cumstance ; and, notwithstanding what he has said,
my opinion is, that the coming-up vultures would
just as often have the bad luck to find themselves
arrived at the tree under which the dinner had
been all eaten up, as the good luck to get to the
tree under which dinner was to be found too tough
to be eaten immediately.

Towards the end of the account, our author tells


us, that " the power given to them (the vultures)
by nature of discerning the approaching death of a
wounded animal is truly remarkable." By way of
exemplification, he continues, " a poor emaciated
horse, or ox, the deer, mired in the margin of the
lake, where the timid animal had resorted to escape
flies and musquitoes, so fatiguing in summer, is seen
in distress with exultation by the buzzard. He im-
mediately alights, and, if the animal does not extri-
cate itself, waits, and gorges in peace on as much of
the flesh as the nature of the spot will allow."

Here the author at once invalidates his assertion
of the remarkable power given by nature to the
vulture, by the insertion of the unfortunate little
remark, if it does not extricate itself. The vulture
alights, ready to feed on the flesh of the deer, if it
does not extricate itself. Now the expression, if it
does not extricate itself, gives us to suppose that it
may extricate itself ; and, if it does extricate itself,
then off it goes, and of course escapes from the
vulture. Wherefore, in this instance, nature would
have given false information to the vulture.

In closing his account, our author says, " what I
have said of their killing and devouring young animals
are "(instead of is) " sufficient proofs " (proof) "of
this ; but it frequently happens that these birds are
forced to wait until the hide of their prey will give
way to their bills."

In order to substantiate this, our author produces
an alligator. " I have seen," says he, " a large dead
alligator, surrounded by vultures and carrion crows,
of which nearly the whole of the flesh was so com-


pletely decomposed, before these birds could perforate
the tough skin of the monster, that, when at last it
took place," (what took place?) " their disappoint-
ment was apparent, and the matter, in an almost
fluid state, abandoned by the vultures."

Here we have the singular phenomenon of vul-
tures surrounding their own dinner, without being
able to touch it, for want, I may say, of suitable
carving knives : and at last they are forced to depart
on an empty stomach, bearing marks on their coun-
tenances of apparent disappointment. I ask, what
became of the enormous mass of flesh in the
alligator's tail ? was it, too, in an almost fluid state,
similar to that of the contents of the abdomen ?
Had, then, the first stage of putrefaction done
nothing towards the softening of the skin, which, in
the tail of this animal, is by no means so thick as in
the dorsal and abdominal regions ? Were his vul-
tures so green in the art of perforation as not to
have learned that, as soon as putrefaction takes
place, the skin of the tail may be easily perforated
at the different joints ? If the vultures, only for a
minute, had but bethought themselves of applying
their "very powerful bills" to the skin at these
joints, it would undoubtedly have yielded to their
efforts; and then they could easily have worked
their way forward to the other parts of the alligator.
Had but our little carrion crow been there, he could
soon have taught them how to carve, and shown the
lubberly birds where lay the soft parts. Again, I ask,
were the vultures, whose daily occupation ought to
give them a pretty correct notion of the general


structure of animals, ignorant that there are certain
parts in those animals admirably adapted for con-
traction and expansion ? and, of course, that those
parts are invariably softer than the other parts of
the bodies of scaly quadrupeds. Did his birds not
know, or had they forgot on that occasion, that these
parts are to be found, on each side of the alligator,
betwixt the nearly impenetrable scaly armour on the
back, and the equally impenetrable armour of the
under parts ? In a word, I am positive, if his vul-
tures had but been well versed in the nature of the
parts without, they would soon have introduced
themselves to the delicious banquet within, in lieu
of surrounding the carcass from day to day, in hope
deferred ; till at last solids were almost turned into
fluids, and the disappointed boobies found them-
selves under the heart-rending necessity of aban-
doning the alligator without breaking their fast,
and of going in quest of firmer carrion in some
other quarter.

If our author's statement be correct, viz. that the
skin of a large alligator is too tough to be perforated
by the bills of vultures, until time shall have ren-
dered the carcass of the dead animal too fluid to be
of any use to them in the way of food, then it follows
that no large dead alligator can ever become the
food of vultures. The birds may certainly see it at
a great distance, and wing their way to it, and stop
at it ; and other vultures, miles behind them, may
even fancy " that they know the meaning of such
stoppages : " still, I am prone to opine that their
labours would be ill requited. In lieu of dropping


down upon a good dinner, disappointment would be
their lot ; and they would be regaled with nothing
of a more solid nature than transient puffs of highly
tainted vapour. But here I will stop : I have been
too long on carrion,

" Neque enim tolerare vaporem

Ulterius potui." Ovid. Met. ii. 301.


THE American philosophers have signed a solemn
certificate that they feel assured that the two species
of vultures which inhabit the United States " are
guided to their food altogether through their sense
of sight, and not that of smell ; " I, on the contrary,
assert that all vultures can find their food through
the medium of their olfactory nerves, though it be
imperceptible to their eye.

I cannot consent to deprive the vultures of their
noses merely on the strength of experiments, which,
from circumstances, may prove fallacious, notwith-
standing every possible precaution ; and, in the
cases before us, I find myself constrained to dispute
the legitimacy of the deductions at which these
gentlemen calculate they have arrived. The efflu-
vium from the dead hare and the offal which they
had procured might have been prevented from as-
cending by the covering of brushwood ; or it might
have been depressed to the earth by humidity, or


by a current of wind. Either of these suggestions
may be adopted in the present instance, because
the dogs, which had no tainted footsteps to guide
them, still found that which insured their discovery
of the carrion.

The sad experiment of putting out the poor vul-
ture's eyes fills me with distressing emotions. The
supposed fact of the tortured captive not smelling
his favourite food, when placed within an inch of his
nostrils, forces us to conclude, either that nature
had not intended that his beautifully developed
organs of scent should be of the least service to him,
or that the intensity of pain totally incapacitated
the lone prisoner from touching food. I am of the
latter opinion. Unquestionably the pain caused by
the dreadful operation rendered the miserable suf-
ferer indifferent to all kind of sustenance. I myself
have been unable to eat when in the gripes ; and
I once knew an old owl which died of sheer want,
rather than swallow any thing in captivity. What
would the American philosophers think of me, had
I got this owl's demise well authenticated by the
signatures of divers scientific men, and then de-
spatched it across the Atlantic, in order to prove
that owls do not secure their prey by means of their
feet, because, forsooth, the incarcerated owl in
question never once struck her talons into the food
which had been placed within an inch of them.

Nothing can show more forcibly the utter fallacy
of the American experiments, than the attack of the
vultures on the coarse painting which represented
a " sheep skinned and cut up." Till I had read the


account of it, I had always imagined that the vulture
had a remarkably keen and penetrating eye. I must
now alter my opinion. If the American gentlemen
do not mind what they are about, they will ulti-
mately prove too much, ("quod nimium probat, nihil
probat,") and at last compel us Englishmen to con-
elude that the vultures of the United States can
neither see nor smell. They assure us that these
birds are not guided to their food by their scent, but
by their sight alone ; and then, to give us a clear
idea how defective that sight is, they show us that
their vultures cannot distinguish the coarsely painted
carcass of a sheep on canvass from that of a real
sheep. They " commenced tugging at the paint-
ing," and " seemed much disappointed and sur-
prised" that they had mistaken canvass for mutton.
Sad blunder ! Pitiable, indeed, is the lot of the
American vulture ! His nose is declared useless in
procuring food, at the same time that his eyesight
is proved to be lamentably defective, Unless some-
thing be done for him, 't is ten to one but that he '11
come to the parish at last, pellis et ossa, a bag of

The American philosophers having fully estab-
lished the fact, that their vultures are prone to
mistake a piece of coarsely painted canvass for the
carcass of a real sheep " skinned and cut up," I am
now quite prepared to receive accounts from
Charleston of vultures attacking every shoulder-of-
mutton sign in the streets, or attempting to gobble
down the painted sausages over the shop doors, or


tugging with might and main at the dim and faded
eyes in some decaying portrait of the immortal
Doctor Franklin.

The absurdity of all this must be evident to every

I, in my turn, hope to prove satisfactorily, by
inference, that which the American philosophers
have failed to demonstrate by EXPERIMENTS. I state
that effluvium from putrid matter, being lighter
than common air, necessarily ascends in the atmo-
sphere, unless artificially impeded (as probably was
the case in the first experiment of the American
philosophers), or prevented from mounting by super-
incumbent humidity. Now, the organ of scent,
which is strongly developed in the vulture, coming
in contact with this effluvium, when it is allowed to
float in the atmosphere, enables the bird to trace
the carrion down to its source. Hence I infer, that
vultures can find their food through the medium of
their olfactory nerves ; and, this being the case, I
am of opinion that there ought to be no great mys-
tery attached to the act of the vulture's finding
putrid bodies, when those bodies are out of sight,
either on account of distance, or of interfering

When the American philosophers shall have
proved to me, that effluvium from putrid substances
does not ascend in the air, and that the organisation
of the vulture's nose is imperfect, then I will con-
sider myself vanquished : " efficaci do manus scien-
tiae." After those gentlemen shall have accom-


plished this, should their vultures pine in famine,
by continuing to mistake canvass for carcass, why,
rot 'em, they may die, for aught I care to the


" Qua causa indigna serenos
Fcedavit vultus, aut cur haec nuda patescunt ?"

I HAVE more than once nearly made up my mind to
sit me down, some dismal winter's evening, and put
together a few remarks on the habits of the rook.
His regular flight, in congregated numbers, over my
house, in the morning to the west, and his return at
eve to the east, without the intermission of one single
day, from the autumnal to the vernal equinox, would
be a novel anecdote in the page of his biography.
To this might be added an explanation of the cause
of his sudden descent from a vast altitude in the
heavens, which takes place with such amasing rapi-
dity that it creates a noise similar to that of a rush-
ing wind. His mischief and his usefulness to man-
kind might be narrowly looked into, and placed in
so clear a light, that nobody could afterwards have
a doubt whether this bird ought to be protected as
a friend to a cultivated country, or banished from it
as a depredating enemy.

I remember, some fifteen years ago, when I was
very anxious to divert a footpath which had become


an intolerable nuisance, the farmers in the district
said that I should freely have their good-will to do
so, provided I would only destroy a large rookery
in a neighbouring wood. On the other hand, the
villagers deplored this proposed destruction, as it
would deprive them of their annual supply of about
two thousand young rooks. Now the gardener
abominated them. He called them a devouring set ;
said that they spoiled all the tops of the trees ; and
that, for his part, he hoped they would all of them
get their necks broken. I myself, for divers reasons,
was extremely averse to sign their death-warrant.
Were I not fearful of being rebuked by grave and
solemn critics, I would here hazard a small quota-
tion :

" Mulciber in Trojam, pro Troja stabat Apollo ;
jiEqua Venus Teucris, Pallas iniqua fiat."

However, at present, it is not my intention to
write the life of the rook, or even to inquire inci-
dentally into its vices or its virtues. I merely take
up the pen to-day, to show that the nudity on the
forehead of the rook, and at the base of both man-
dibles, cannot be caused by the bird's thrusting its
bill into the ground.

Bewick is the only one in Professor Rennie's long
and fanciful list of " rudimental naturalists," " lite-
rary naturalists," and " philosophic naturalists, and
original observers," who gives us any thing satis-
factory concerning this nudity. He, sensible na-
turalist, cuts the knot through at one stroke, by
telling us that it is an " original peculiarity." Mon-


tagu says, that it is acquired by the bird's " habit
of thrusting its bill into the ground after worms and
various insects." From the study of Professor
Rennie, this error is renewed to the public, in the
second edition of the Ornithological Dictionary.
Let us look into this error.

Every observer of birds must know that when the
young rook leaves its nest for good and all, there is
no part of its head deficient in feathers. Before
winter, this young bird loses the feathers on the
forehead, under the bill, and at the base of both
mandibles. The skin where these feathers grew
puts on a white scurfy appearance. Now, if these
feathers had been worn down to the stumps by
means of the bird thrusting its bill into the ground,
these stumps would fall out at the regular moult-
ing time, and new feathers would soon make their

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 8 of 28)