Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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appearance. If, again, these feathers have been
loosened at their roots by the process of thrusting
the bill into the ground (which I consider next to
impossible), and in consequence of this have fallen
out from their places, new feathers would be observed
in a few weeks ; for when once a feather is eradi-
cated, nature instantly sets to work to repair the loss
by producing another; nor do we know of any process
that can be applied with success, to counteract this
admirable provision of nature. Again ; these new
feathers being full of blood at the roots, any appli-
cation tending to grind them down, or to eradicate
them, would be so painful to the rook, that it
xvould not be able to thrust its bill deep into the


I request the reader to bear in mind, that these
arguments are brought forward only under the ac-
cepted supposition of naturalists, that the feathers
are removed by the process of the bird thrusting its
bill into the ground. But he who examines the
subject with attention will at once see that the
process itself could not destroy the feathers on the
head of the rook ; because, if they were destroyed
by this process, the carrion crow, the jackdaw, the
jay, the magpie, and the starling, would all exhibit a
similar nudity on the forehead, and at the base of
the bill; for they all thrust their bills into the
ground proportionably as deep as the rooks do
theirs, when in quest of worms and grubs. More-
over, if the feathers are eradicated by the act of
thrusting the bill into the ground, they would be
succeeded by new ones, during the time in which
that act could not be put in execution ; for example,
during a very dry summer, or during a very hard
winter; and at these periods, as no action on the
part of the rook would operate to destroy the coming
feathers, an evident change would soon be observed
about the head of the bird. In 1814, the ground
was so very hard frozen, and covered with snow for
some months, that the rooks could not by any means
have an opportunity of thrusting their bills into
it. Still, during this protracted period of frost, I
could not see a solitary instance of renewal of the
feathers on the forehead, or at the base of the bill,
in the many birds which I examined.

J deny that the rook does, in general, thrust his
E 2


bill deep into the ground. Look at this bird in the
pasture, through a good glass (this puts me in
mind of the Professor's suggestion of a thermometer
and a stop-watch), and you will see that he merely
pulls up the tuft of grass with the point of his
bill. When on arable land, he will be observed
to thrust his bill comparatively deeper into the
mould, to get at the corn, which having just put up
its narrow greenish white leaf, the searcher is di-
rected by it to the sprouted grain. But he cannot
be at this work above a fortnight : the progress of
vegetation then interferes to stop the petty plun-

The quao of South America, a bird of the order
of Pie, has a still greater portion of the forehead
bare; and it must have put on this uncouth and
naked appearance in early youth, for, on inspecting
the head, you will see that feathers had once been

I could never, by any chance, find this bird in
the cultivated parts of the country. It inhabits the
thick and gloomy forests, and feeds chiefly upon the
fruits and seeds which grow upon the stately trees
in those never-ending solitudes. In fine, I consider
the accepted notion, that the rook loses the feathers
of its forehead, and those at the base of each man-
dible, together with the bristles, by the act of
thrusting its bill into the ground, as a pretty little
bit of specious theory, fit for the closet; but which,
in the field, " shows much amiss."
For my own part I cannot account for the nudity


in question. He who 'is clever enough to assign
the true cause why the feathers and bristles fall off
will, no doubt, be able to tell us why there is a bare
warty spot on each leg of the horse ; and why some
cows have horns, and some have none. He will
possibly show us how it came to happen that the
woman mentioned by Dr. Charles Leigh had horns
on her head ; which horns she shed, and new ones
came in their place. Perhaps he will account for
the turkey's putting out a long tuft of hair, amid the
surrounding feathers of the breast. Peradventure
he may demonstrate to us why the bird camiehi, of
Guiana, has a long slender horn on its head, and
two spurs in each wing, in lieu of having them on
its legs. By the way, who knows but that some
scientific closet naturalist may account for these
alar spurs of the camichi, through the medium of
that very useful and important discovery, the qui-
nary system. Thus, for example's sake, suppose
these said spurs were once normal or typical on the
legs ; but, by some rather obscure process, having
become aberrant, they made an approach or passage
to the wings ; while the bird itself was progressing
in the circle, or leading round, in order to inosculate
with the posteriors of its antecedent. He who
clearly comprehends the quinary system will readily
understand this.

If I had time just now, I would call in question
the propriety of the assertion, that the rook " is fur-
nished with a small pouch at the root of the tongue;"
and I would finish by showing the reader that the
E 3


author of the second edition of Montagu was dozing
when he deprived the rook (Corvus) of the good
old sensible epithet frugilegus, and put that of prae-
datorius in its place.


Nee aliud quicquam . . . quceritur,

Quim corrigatur error ut rnortalium,

Acuatque sese diligens industrial PHJEDBUS.

WE read in Rennie's Montagu s Ornithological
Dictionary, that "the rook is furnished with a
small pouch at the root of the tongue." If the
carrion crow were as useful to man, as the rook
is known to be ; if the jay and the magpie had less
to answer for, on the score of petty plunder ; and
if the jackdaw did not expose itself to persecution,
by its prying and suspicious habits, they would
all be allowed by man to range at large without
molestation; and then the naturalist would have
that opportunity of examining their economy, which
at present is denied him.

Amongst many peculiarities in these birds,
scarcely known, or even noticed, he would ob-
serve that at a certain time of the year, and only
then, they all have, at intervals, an appearance of


a pouch under the bill, quite as well defined as
that which is seen in the rook. The idea would
then occur to him, that ornithologists have either
said too much, in stating that the rook is furnished
with a small pouch at the root of the tongue ; or
too little, in not telling us that the carrion crow,
the jay, the magpie, and the jackdaw, are supplied
with a similar convenience.

The real matter of fact is this, that naturalists
err when they ascribe a pouch to the rook. Though
at times there is an actual appearance of a pouch
under the bill of the rook, and also under the bills
of the other birds just enumerated, still, upon a
close inspection, it will be seen that there is no
pouch at all in any of them. The young of all
birds, from the size of the thrush to that of the
wren, are satisfied with a single worm at one
feeding, or with two at the most. Thus, in fields
and gardens, we see an old bird catch an insect,
and fly away immediately with it to the nest. But
food of this scanty measure would not be enough
for the larger kind of insectivorous birds. The
progeny would undoubtedly require more at each
feeding ; and, add to this, supposing the bird only
carried one insect at each turn, too much time
would be lost in passing to and from the nest. To
obviate this, as birds of the pie tribe have no
power, in health, to eject food which has descended
into the stomach, (saving the indigestible remnants
of aliment, which are thrown up in the form of
pellets,) they collect a considerable quantity of
E 4


insects in their mouth, and they confine them there,
without letting them go down the throat.

By this process, a rook is enabled to pick up a
sufficient supply of food, some miles from the nest ;
and when its mouth will hold no more insects, the
bird takes flight, and carries them to its expecting
brood. The carrion crow, the jay, the magpie,
and the jackdaw do the same thing precisely.
Now; the gathered insects, being prevented from
descending into the stomach, and at the same time
not being able to escape at the bill, must necessa-
rily form a lump under the lower mandible, where
the skin, in all birds, is admirably formed for dis-
tension. This lump is what has given rise to the
iiotion among naturalists, that the rook is furnished
with a pouch at the root of the tongue. If this
pouch be allowed in the rook, then it must be
admitted that all birds are furnished with a pouch ;
and it must also be admitted that our tars are fur-
nished with a pouch betwixt the mouth and the ear,
because, for convenience sake, they stow away their
quid in that quarter.

It may be easily accounted for, why ornithologists
make no mention of a pouch under the tongue of
the jay, the jackdaw, the magpie, and the carrion
crow, while they describe, with such plausibility, a
pouch at the root of the tongue of the rook. The
reason is this, the rook, in general, is the friend of
man, and, in the breeding season, he becomes so
tame that he may be approached within a few yards.
This gives you a fine opportunity of observing the


lump under the bill, when the skin in that part is
distended with a supply of food. Indeed, you can
observe it at a considerable distance, either while
the bird is on the ground, or when it is flying across
you, on account of its white appearance, contrasted
with the sable plumage. On the other hand, the
carrion crow, the magpie, the jay, and even the
jackdaw, are all birds of ruined character. Their
misfortunes make them shy ; and thus you are pre-
vented from having much intercourse with them.
The gardener and the henwife can never be brought
to look upon them with the least appearance of kind
feeling ; while the gamekeeper, that cholera morbus
to the feathered race, foolishly imagines that he
proves his attention to his master's interests, by
producing a disgusting exhibition of impaled birds
on the kennel walls. Nay, show me, if you can, a
young squire, idling from college, who does not try
to persuade the keeper that it is his bounden duty
to exterminate all manner of owls, ravens, carrion
crows, hawks, herons, magpies, jays, daws, wood-
peckers, ringdoves, and such like vermin, from his
father's estate. With this destroying force to con-
tend with, in the shape of keeper, squire, and hen-
wife, it is not to be wondered at, that naturalists
have so few opportunities of watching individuals of
the pie tribe through the entire course of their in-
cubation ; which individuals, if persecution did not
exist, would be seen in the breeding season, perpe-
tually passing to and fro, with their mouths full of
food for their young.


In my little peaceful valley, where the report of
the keeper's gun is never heard, and where the
birds are safe from the depredations of man, the
ornithologist has free access to pursue his favourite
study. Towards the middle of May, he can see
here the carrion crow, the jay, the magpie, and the
jackdaw, filling their mouths with grubs and worms,
the weight of which forces the pliant skin under
the bill into the shape of a little round ball, just of
the same appearance as that which is observed in
the rook, with this trifling difference, that the lump
is feathered in the first, and bare of feathers in the

While I am writing this, there may be seen here
a wild duck hatching her eggs in a nest upon a
sloping wooded bank ; while a carrion crow is hatch-
ing hers in a fir tree ten yards from the spot, and a
windhover hawk is performing the same function in
a fir tree about six yards on the other side of the
duck. Forty yards from where the carrion crow is
hatching, may be seen a barn owl sitting on her
eggs in the hollow of an oak tree ; and, at twenty
yards' distance from the windhover, another white
or barn owl has formed her nest in the decayed
recesses of a tremendous oak. Though all these
families keep the peace, I do not wish it to be un-
derstood that they are upon visiting terms. In
another part, a long-eared owl is rearing her young
in the last year's nest of a carrion crow. When the
parent bird is asleep, you can see very distinctly
the erect feathers on the head : but the moment she
gets a sight of you, down go the erect feathers, and


lie close to the head; so that an inexperienced
observer might take the bird to be a tawny owl.
This year, a wild duck has chosen her place of in-
cubation twelve feet from the ground, in an oak
tree, near the water ; while, in the immediate vici-
nity, several magpies are hatching in undisturbed

I am sometimes questioned by country gentlemen
(who have a keen eye for jugged hare and roasted
partridges) on the propriety of befriending, what
they consider, feathered vermin. I tell them that
Professor Rennie has remarked, in the Magazine
of Natural History (vol. v. p. 102.), " that I have
hitherto published nothing respecting the economy
or faculties of animals, of the least use to natural
history." This being the case, I am trying to make
up my deficiency in pen and ink, by establishing a
sylvan enclosure, which any ornithologist is allowed
to enter ; and where he will have an opportunity
of correcting, by actual observation, some of those
errors which appear in the second edition of Mon-
tagu, by James Rennie, A. M. A. L. S. Moreover,
sometimes, in a jocose kind of a way, I tell them I
like to have all kinds of birds around me ; and that
I cannot find in my heart to kill a poor jay for suck-
ing an egg, when I know

" That I myself, carnivorous sinner,
Had pullets yesterday for dinner."



" Nardo perunctus. HOR. Epod.

BIRDS, in general, are much troubled with vermin.
After applying the solution of corrosive sublimate
in alcohol to he fresh skin of a bird, you will see
an amazing quantity of insects coming out from all
parts of the plumage, but especially from the head.
They linger for a few hours on the extremities of
the feathers, and then fall off and die : they are of
all sizes, from the full-grown insect down to the
minutest little creature which has just entered into
life and motion. No part of the body of the bird is
exempt from their annoyance ; and we may judge
how much the birds suffer from it, by their perpe-
tual attempts to free themselves from the tormenting
attacks of the insects.

People are apt to suppose that a bird is preening,
or rectifying, its feathers, when they see it applying
its bill to the plumage, and running it down a fea-
ther, from the root to the extremity : but a man
well versed in the habits of birds knows, when he
sees the bird do this (except after it has got wet),
that it is trying to dislodge the vermin, which cling
with an astonishing pertinacity to the feathers.
Now, while the bird is thus employed on that part
of its body just above the tail, where there is a
gland, some people imagine that the bird is pro-


curing a liquor from the gland, by means of its beak,
in order to apply it to the feathers. But, at best,
this can be only mere conjecture on the part of the
observer, because the feathers on the rump com-
pletely preclude the possibility of his having a dis-
tinct view of what the bird is doing.

Will any naturalist declare that he has actually
seen a bird procure liquor, or oil, or whatever else
you choose to call it, from the gland with its bill,
and then apply that liquor or oil to the plumage ?
The gland has somewhat the appearance of a nipple
upon its upper extremity; an oily liquor may be ob-
tained from this nipple by applying our fingers to it ;
but I marvel how it can be procured by the sharp-
edged bill of a bird. When the nature of the gland
and the form of the bill are duly considered, it is
rational to conclude that the application of the hard
bill to the soft gland would be very painful to the
bird. Let us here suppose that the bird has suc-
ceeded in getting some of the liquor into, its bill :
how is the liquor to be applied to the feathers ? It
cannot be rubbed upon them, because it is within
the bill ; and if the bird should apply its bill to the
feathers, they would merely come in contact with
the edges of the bill, while the liquor would have
sunk into the cavity of the lower mandible. Grant-
ing that the liquor were removed to the feathers by
means of the tongue, then the under part of the
feathers would receive more than the upper part.
Here let us keep in mind what a large body of fea-
thers there is to be lubricated, and how small the
supply of liquor for the purpose of lubrication.


Moreover, the nipple, in general, is crowned with a
circle of feathers ; and in all waterfowl which I have
examined in the duck tribe, from the swan down-
wards, the whole of the gland itself is covered with
a very thick downy plumage, which would totally
prevent the bird from procuring any liquid from
that quarter.

I will now show that this oily liquor would injure
the feathers. The feathers of birds, when in a per-
fectly dry state, have a beautiful and downy appear-
ance ; in a wet state, the downy appearance is lost,
but returns when all the moisture is gone : if, how-
ever, any greasy substance or oily liquor has come
in contact with them, I do not know what could be
employed to restore the downy appearance to its
pristine beauty Let any body apply the oil from
the gland in question to a feather, and he will pro-
duce a fixed stain.

Suppose, for sake of argument, that the bird does
actually employ oil from the gland to lubricate the
plumage, (which, by the by, I flatly deny,) how is
the head and part of the neck to be supplied with
oil ? Why, the truth is, they never can be supplied:
and if you examine, with the nicest scrutiny, the
feathers of the body which come ivithin the range
of the bill, and the feathers of the head, which are
out of the range of the bill, and then compare them,
you will not observe the smallest difference in their
downy appearance : proof positive that the plumage
of the body has not been lubricated with oil from
the gland.

In the Magazine of Natural History, vol. i. p. 1 19-


there is the following account of the lubricating of
feathers :

" The glands containing the oil used for the purpose of
lubricating the surface of the plumage were, in the specimen
here represented (speaking of the eagle), [" sea-eagle of
America, or bird of Washington," ] extremely large. The
contents had the appearance of hog's fat which had been
melted and become rancid. This bird makes more copious
use of that substance than the white-headed eagle, or any of
the Falco genus, except the fish-hawk ; the whole plumage
looking, upon close examination, as if it had received a gene-
ral coating of a thin clear solution of gum arabic, and present-
ing less of the downy gloss exhibited on the upper part of the
bald-headed eagle's plumage."

Here we have had an abundant flow of oil. If
the surface got so much, the under parts of the
plumage must have got still more ; notwithstanding
which, we are told that the glands were extremely
large : they ought to have been empty after such a
discharge. Again ; if the whole plumage looked " as
if it had received a general coating of a thin clear
solution of gum arabic," by what process was that
general coating applied to the head of the eagle, and
to part of the neck, which, we know, cannot possibly
be touched by the bill ? If it had not been applied
to the head and part of the neck, then the bird would
have afforded a singular appearance : just as far as
the beak could reach, there would have been a dis-
tinct coat of what the writer of the article took for
oil from the gland ; beyond the reach of the beak
(that is, on the head, and down part of the neck)
there would have been no coating at all.

If that which appeared like a general coating of a


thin solution of gum arabic had really been oil from
the gland, the feathers would have appeared as if
they were in a sweat, the oil would have penetrated
down their shafts, the fingers of the dissector would
have come in contact with grease or oil at every
touch, and the whole plumage would have been
completely spoiled.

Much safer would it have been for the writer to
have had recourse to conjecture, in this affair of a
general coating on the whole plumage of the eagle.
The bird might have received on its plumage a coat
of slime from a fish, struggling and flouncing at its
capture, or in the pangs of death ; the eagle, after
bringing his prey ashore, might have rolled upon it,
^s we know dogs do upon carrion. In either of these
cases there would have been a coating on the plum-
age, somewhat resembling a solution of gum arabic,
while wet ; and, when dry, it would have fallen into
dust at the touch of the hand ; and the feathers
would have recovered their downy appearance. In
fine, oil or grease on the plumage ought never to
have been mixed up in the strange account of the
eagle ; which would come but poorly off if handled
by a severe critic.



" Si sumas ovum, mollc sit, atque novum." Schola Salernitana.

I HAVE been blundering at this work for some
years ; " seeking for something I could not find," and
always dissatisfied with myself on account of the fail-
ure. The object of my search was, to try to find out
how I could properly dispose of the thin white mem-
brane next the shell of the egg. When left in, it is
apt to corrupt ; in which case, the colour of the
shell will sometimes fade, and an offensive smell is
produced, which a lapse of years will not subdue.
Last spring I thought I had succeeded; but it
turned out to be a very partial success. I, first,
by blowing, discharged the contents of five swan's
eggs, and then immersed the shells in a tub of water
for a month. This enabled me to pull out the thin
membrane, by means of a piece of wire bent at the
end. But I found that the colour of the shell had
faded considerably. Moreover, the process required
too much time ; and I saw that there would be great
difficulty in doing small eggs.

About three weeks ago, a bright thought (a rara
avis with me) struck me, just as I was in the act of
climbing up to a hawk's nest. I felt certain that
every difficulty had vanished, and I began to blame
myself on the score of former dulness.

In selecting eggs for your cabinet, always choose
those which are newly laid. Make a moderately
sized hole at the sharp end, with a pointed instru-
ment proportioned to the egg. Thus for a swan's


egg, use the point of your penknife; for a robin's,
take a small pin. Having made the hole at the sharp
end, make one at the blunt end ; and let this last
hole be as small as possible. This done, apply your
mouth to the blunt end, and blow the contents of the
egg through the sharp end, where the hole is larger.
If the yolk will not come out freely, run a pin or a
wire up into the egg, and stir the yolk well about.
Now get a cup full of water ; and, immersing the
sharp end of the shell into it, apply your mouth to the
blunt end, and suck up some of the water into the
empty shell. Then put your finger and thumb upon
the two holes, shake the water well within, and, after
this, blow it out. The water will clear your egg of any
remains of yolk or of white which might stay in after
the blowing. If one sucking up of water will not
suffice, make a second or a third.

An egg, immediately after it is produced, is very
clean and pure ; but by staying in the nest, and by
coming in contact with the feet of the bird, it soon
assumes a soiled appearance. To remedy this, wash
it well in soap and water ; and use a nail-brush to
get the dirt off. Your egg-shell is now as it ought
to be ; and nothing remains to be done but to pre-

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 9 of 28)