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Pliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books online

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the Land, is seized by the Hawk. Whenever they are upon
their Departure hence they solicit other Birds to accompany
them, and by their Inducements there go with them the
Glottis, 1 Otis, 2 and Cychramus. 3 The Glottis putteth forth a
long Tongue ; from which it hath its Name. This Bird is
very forward at the first setting out on the pleasant Journey;
but it findeth Repentance in the Pain of the Flight. To go
back again without Company it is ashamed ; and so to lag
behind ; neither does it ever persevere for more than one
Day; for at the next Resting-place it deserteth the Com-
pany ; but it meeteth with others which the Year before were
left behind : and thus they do from Time to Time. The
Cychramus is of a more persevering Nature, and maketh
Haste to reach those Parts which it so much desireth : and
therefore in the Night it rouses them, and puts them in
mind of the Journey. The Otis is less than the Bubo, and
larger than the Noctua, having two Ears, formed of Fea-
thers standing aloft ; from which it took its Name. But in
Latin some have called it Asio. This Bird, besides, is skilful
in Imitation, like a Parasite; and, in a particular Way, a
Dancer. It is easily taken as the Noctua, while it looks
intently on any one, by another that goes round it. But if a
contrary Wind should begin to hinder the Flight of the
Troop, they render their Progress steady by grasping small
weighty Stones, or stuffing their Throat with Sand. The
Seed of the Veratrum is a grateful Food to Quails; for
which Reason they are banished from Table. At the same
Time they are accustomed to slaver at the Mouth, by Reason
of the comitial Disease; 4 which they only are the Creatures,
except Man, that are subject to.

1 Totanus glottis, Cuv. Greenshank. Wern. Club.

2 Otus brachyotus, Cuv. Small-ear'd Owl. Wern. Club.

3 Cychramis, or Cynchramus. Belon supposes it the Emberiza mili-
aria, Common Bunting; but according to Aldrovandus, E. horlulana,
the Ortolan. Wern. Club.

4 Comitial disease, or Epilepsy. The author forgets what he had said
of the Elk being subject to it Wern. Club.

212 History of Nature. [BooK X.


Of the Hirundo, Merula, Turdus, Sturnus, Turtur, and

THE Hirundo 1 also (the only Birds among those that have
not crooked Claws, which feed upon Flesh) are gone from
us all the Winter. But they go no further than to neigh-
bouring Places, where they follow the sunny Recesses of the
Mountains, and where many Times they are found naked,
and without Feathers. It is said they never build under any
Roof in Thebes, because that City had often been taken ;
nor at Bizia in Thrace, on Account of the Wickedness of
Tereus. Ccecina of Volaterrae, of the Equestrian Order, and
Master of the Chariots, was accustomed to bring with him
into the City a Number of these Swallows, which he sent off
to his Friends as Messengers of Victory; and they would
return to the same Nest from which they were taken,
smeared over with the Colour of Victory. Also Fabius Pictor
reporteth in his Annals, that when a Roman Garrison was
besieged by the Ligustini, a Swallow was taken from her
little ones and brought to him, that by the Number of Knots
in a Thread tied to her Foot he should signify to them on
what Day they ought to make a Sally to meet the coming

Merulae, 2 Turdi, and Sturni, after the same manner, quit
us for the neighbouring Places. But these do not cast their
Feathers, nor lie hid ; but are seen often in Places where
they seek Meat to serve them in Winter. And therefore
Turdi are chiefly seen in Germany in Winter.

The Turtle more truly hides herself, and sheds her

Palumbes also leave us, but where they go is uncertain.

1 The Swallow tribe. See Chap, xxxiii. Wern. Club.

2 Turdus merula, LINN. ; the Blackbird. Turdi : Turdus musicus, the
Thrush; and perhaps, also, T. Iliacus, LINN.; the Redwing. Sturni:
Sturnus vulgaris, LINN.; the Starling. Wern. Club.

BOOK X .] History of Nature. 213

The Race of Starlings have the Property to fly m Troops, 1
and in their Flight to gather round into a kind of Ball,
where every one hath a tendency to be in the midst.

Of all Birds, the Swallow alone flieth in a bending
Course, which is swift and easy ; and therefore it is not so
liable to be seized by other Birds. To conclude, it is the
only Bird that never feedeth but while flying.


What Birds continue with us all the Year; which are half-year
Birds, and which only for three Months.

THERE is great Difference in the Seasons of Birds. Some
remain the whole Year, as Columbae ; others half the Year,
as Hirundines ; and some but a quarter, as Turdi and Tur-
tures. Some go away as soon as they have brought out their
Young, as the Galgulus 2 and Upupa. 3

Strange Stories of Birds.

THERE are Writers who affirm, that every Year there are
Birds which fly out of Ethiopia to Ilium ; and there, about
the Sepulchre of JHfemnon, fight each other: for which Cause
they call them Meinnonides. 4 And Cremutius delivers it as

1 Mr. Knapp, in his " Journal of a Naturalist," observes, " there is
something singularly curious and mysterious in the conduct of these birds
previous to their nightly retirement, by the variety and intricacy of the
evolutions they execute at that time. They will form themselves, per-
haps, into a triangle, then shoot into a long pear-shaped figure, expand
like a sheet, wheel in a ball, as Pliny observes, eachjndividual striving to
get into the centre, with a promptitude more like parade movements than
the actions of Birds." Wern. Club.

2 Sometimes written Galbulus. Oriolus galbula, LINN.; Golden
Oriole. Wern. Club.

3 Upupa epops, LINN. Hoopoe. Wern. Club.

4 JElian (B. v. ch. i.) describes these birds as being black, and bear-
ing a general resemblance to the Hawk tribe ; but feeding on seeds, and
not on flesh. Their visits to the Tumulus were in the autumn ; and they

214 History of Nature. [BooK X.

upon his own Knowledge, that every fifth Year the same
Birds do the like in Ethiopia about the royal Palace of

In a similar manner, the Meleagrides 1 fight in Bcaotia.
These Meleagrides are a kind of gallinaceous Birds of Africa,
hunch-backed, the Bunch scattered with Feathers of different
Colours. Of all foreign Birds these are the last admitted at
Table, by reason of their strong, harsh Taste. But it is the
Sepulchre of Meleager which hath given them Credit.

Of Birds named Seleucides.*

THE Birds are called Seleucides, which come in conse-
quence of the Prayers offered to Jupiter by the Inhabitants
of Mount Casius, against the Locusts, when they devastate
their Crops. But from whence they come, or whither they
go, no Man knovveth ; for they are never seen but when
there is need of their Help.

Of the Ibis. 3

THE Egyptians also invoke their Ibis against the coming
of Serpents ; and the Eleans the God Myiagrosf to be deli-
flew about it, divided into two troops, with the appearance of a combat,
such as were common to the Greeks around the tombs of their heroes :
and it was probably this habit which chiefly attracted their attention.
Dalechampius supposes them to have been a kind of crows. Ovid gives
the popular legend of these birds, as deriving their origin from the
funeral pile of Memnon. (B. xiii. ch. iii.) Wern. Club.

1 Numida meleagris, Cuv. Guinea Fowl. At Rome they were known
by the name of African Hens. Wern. Club.

2 It seems impossible to trace what these Birds are. Wern. Club.

3 Ibis religiosa^ Cuv. The Ibis. Mummies of this bird are now
found in abundance in Egypt. Wern. Club.

4 Many of the gods of the Heathens obtained names or epithets from
from such exploits as this. Beelzeloul, or Beelzeloub, mentioned in the
New Testament, was so denominated for the same reason. Wern, Club.

BOOK X .] History of Nature. 2 1 5

vered from the Pestilence of a Multitude of Flies, which
Flies died all at once on the very Day on which he was


What Birds do not exist in some Places ; and which change
their Colour and Voice : and of the Nightingale.

BUT, concerning the Departure of Birds, Noctuae 1 also are
reported to lie hid for a few Days ; and of this kind there
are none in the Island of Crete. Even if any one is brought
there it dies. For this also is among the wonderful Differ-
ences of Nature ; she denies some Things to certain Places,
as the Kinds of Seeds and Fruits ; and so also that living
Creatures do not breed is commonly noted : but that those
Things should die as soon as they are brought thither is
wonderful. 2 What is that which is so contrary to the Health
of one Kind, or what is this Envy of Nature? or why should
Birds be restrained within any Limits in the whole Earth?
Rhodes doth not possess an Eagle. In the Tract of Italy
beyond the Po, near the Alps, there is a Lake which the
Inhabitants call Larius; and it is pleasant for Groves and
Fields ; and yet the Stork never travels thither ; nor within
the eighth Milestone from it. In the extensive Country of
the Insubres, 3 near adjoining, there are Swarms of Gracculi 4
and Monedulse; 5 which are the only Birds whose Thievishness
for Silver and Gold is wonderful. It is said, that in the
Territory of Tarentum there are no Woodpeckers. It is but

1 A very small species of Owl: probably Noctua passerina, Cuv.
JElian, who confirms what Pliny says of this bird in Crete (B. v. ch. ii.),
distinguishes it from the Scops Owl, ch. xlix. Wern. Club.

2 The instance of a similar nature in Ireland is a strong corroboration
of this ; and in explanation modern philosophy is as much at a loss as the
ancient. Wern. Club.

3 A Gallic people, mentioned B. iii. ch. xvii. Wern. Club.

4 The word " Graculus " is sometimes employed by the older writers
as a generic name : but when otherwise, it is commonly understood as the
Fregilus Graculus, Cuv.; Cornish Chough. The same with the Pyrrho-
corax, Ch. xlviii. Wern. Club.

5 Corvus Monedula, LINN. Jackdaw. Wern. Club.

2 1 6 History of Nature. [ BOOK X .

of lute (and it is now rare) that from the Apennine toward
the City, a kind of Pica 1 began to be seen ; they are distin-
guished by their long Tails, and are called Varise. It is their
Property to become bald every Year, at the Time when Rape
is sowed. The Partridges 2 in Attica do not fly over the Bor-
ders of Breotia : and not a Bird in the Pontus, in the Island
where Achilles was buried, will pass beyond the Temple con-
secrated to him. In the Territory of Fidenge, near the City,
Storks build no Nests, and have no Young. But into the
Country about Volaterrse every Year a Quantity of Stock-
doves fly from beyond Sea. At Rome no Flies or Dogs enter
the Chapel of Hercules in the Beast-market. I could alledge
many such Examples in other kinds, which I purposely
pass over, because I would not be tedious : for Theophrastus
reporteth, that the Doves, Peacocks, and Ravens in Asia
have been brought thither from other Countries ; and in
Cyrenaica the vocal Frogs.

There is another admirable Thing concerning the Singing-
Birds (Oscines) 3 : for usually at a certain Time of the Year
they change their Colour and Voice, so as of a sudden to
become other Birds : a Thing that doth not happen to the
larger kinds of Fowls, except only to Cranes : for they
become black with Age. The Merula from black turneth
reddish ; in Summer it singeth, in Winter it babbles ; and
about the Solstice it is mute. When a Year old, in the Cock
at least, their Bill turns to be like Ivory. The Turd us, in
Summer, is mottled about the Neck ; but in Winter it is all
of one Colour.

The Nightingale, 4 for fifteen Days and Nights together,
never giveth over its chaunt, rattling away incessantly at
the Time when the Trees begin to put out their Leaves
thickly. And this Bird is not to be set among the last

1 Pzca, varue. Cor vus pica, LINN. Magpie. Ch. xlii. Wern. Club.

2 Perdix cinerea, LINN. Ch. xxxiii. Wern. Club.

3 This word was originally applied to singing-birds, only as their
music was observed in augury ; but it would appear that subsequently it
was understood of singing- birds in general. Wern. Club.

4 Syhia luscinia, Cuv. Wern. Club.

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 217

Things that deserve Admiration : it is, indeed, among the
first, that such a Voice should come from so very little a
Body, as well as such a persevering Breath. Then the Tone is
given out, modulated according to the one perfect Science of
Music; for a while in one entire Breath she draweth out her
Tune at length; now it is varied in Inflections; sometimes it
is distinguished by Stops ; it is united by entwining, it is
extended in being drawn back ; on a sudden it is drowned :
now and then she records to herself full, grave, sharp, short,
drawn out where she sees fit; vibrating, high, middle, low.
In short, there is not any manufacture of a Pipe so exqui-
sitely contrived by the Art of Man that can accomplish such
a Variety of Things as proceed out of that little Throat of
hers. So that no doubt this Sweetness was foreshown by a
powerful Presage, when it sang in the Mouth of the Infant
Stesichorus. 1 And that no Man may doubt that it is the
Effect of Art, there is not one Nightingale but hath many
Tunes, and each one his own peculiar one. They strive who
can do best ; and it is evident that they contend with all
their Heart ; for often she that is conquered ends her Life in
the Contest, and yieldeth up her Breath sooner than her
Song. The young Nightingales study the others, and under-
stand the Lessons which they imitate. The Scholar listens
with close Attention, and rehearseth what she hath heard ;
and both of them repeat it over by turns. The Correction of
what is amended is understood ; and also something of Re-
proof in the Teacher. Therefore one of these Nightingales
obtains the Price of a Slave; yea, indeed, more than might
in old Time have bought an Armour-bearer. I myself have
known one of them, which also was white, a Circumstance
not commonly seen, to have been sold for 6000 Sesterces, to
to be given as a Present to Agrippina, Wife of the Prince
Claudius. And now of late we have seen many of them
begin to sing at command ; and to take their turn in Sym-
phony. Also Men have been found, who, by placing Reeds
across, and adding some Water, blowing into an Hole with

1 An ancient Greek poet, whose works are lost. Wern. Club.

218 History of Nature. [BooK X.

a very little Stop of the Tongue interposed could imitate the
Note so perfectly, that the Difference could not be distin-
guished. But these Mistresses of Song, so great and clever
as they are, after fifteen Days, by Degrees abate their
Music ; yet so, as a Man cannot say they are either weary,
or satisfied with Singing. Soon after, when the Weather
groweth hotter, their Voice is entirely altered ; being neither
musical nor various. Their Colour, also, is changed : and
finally, in Winter she is not seen. Their Tongues are not
like other Birds', with a thin Tip before. They breed in the
prime of the Spring, and commonly lay six Eggs.

The Ficedula 1 observes another Course, for it changeth
both Colour and Form at the same Time. They have not
that Name except in the Autumn ; for afterwards they are
called Melancoryphi.

So also the Bird named Erithacus in Winter, is the same
as the Phoenicurus in Summer.

The Upupa, 2 as JEschylus the Poet saith, also changeth.
This is an unclean Bird otherwise in the manner of feeding ;
with a handsome Crest, that can be folded up : for some-
times she will draw it in, and at others erect it along the
length of the Head.

The (Enanthe 3 also has certain Days in which to lie close,
being hidden when the Dog-star ariseth: but after its set-
ting she cometh abroad : a strange Thing, that in those
Days it should do both. Also the Chlorion, 4 which is all
over yellow, and not seen in the Winter, but appeareth
about the Solstices.

1 Sylvia hortensts, Great Pettychaps. It is not improbable that the
author confounded this Bird with S. atricapilla, or Blackcap. A
similar error has led him to regard the Erithacus : Sylvia rubecula, or
Redbreast, with the Phoenicurus (S. P.), or Redstart." Wern. Club.

2 Upupa epops, LINN. Hoopoe. Wern. Club.

3 Saxicola, O. Wheatear. Wern. Club.

4 Supposed to be Picus viridis, or common Woodpecker. Wern.

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 219

Of the Merula.

ABOUT Cyllen in Arcadia, and nowhere else, white
Merulae 1 are produced. The Ibis, about Pelusium only, is
black ; in all other Places it is white.

The Time of Birds' Breeding.

ALL Singing-birds, besides those that are excepted before,
do not unwarily breed before the Spring Equinox, nor after
the Autumn. And those they hatch before the Solstice are
doubtful ; but after the Solstice they are lively.


Of the Haley ones; and the .Days good for Navigation which
they show. Of the Gavia and Mergus.

AND in this especially the Haley ones 2 are remarkable.
The Seas, and they that sail on them, know the Days when
they breed. This Bird is little bigger than a Sparrow ; for

1 Albinoes are not uncommon in most sorts of birds ; but the black
Ibis is a separate species : Ibis falcinellus, Cuv. Wern. Club.

2 Alcedo ispidcij LINN., Common Kingfisher; and A. halcyon, the
smaller Kingfisher. The former is commonly silent; but the latter
is highly musical, Belon praises highly its varied notes; which were
uttered so incessantly through the day and night, as to cause him to
wonder at its powers of song ; and to pity it, as if condemned to such
persevering labour. In addition to Pliny, who probably copies Aristotle,
uiElian (B. ix. ch. xvii.) also so minutely describes the nest of the King-
fisher, as to prove that he had closely examined something which had
been represented as such. But it was very different from what has been
since known when this bird builds a nest ; for it will not always under-
take the labour, but sometimes contents itself with leaving the eggs on
the bare earth, at the end of a hole in the ground. The only natural
object resembling that which Pliny and JSlian describe as the nest of the
Kingfisher, is the crust of a spatangus. For the Halcyon days, see
Vol. i. p. 85. Wern, Club.

220 History of Nature. [BooK X.

the greater Part of a Sky-blue Colour, yet with white and
purple Feathers intermingled, and having a long and slender
Neck. There is another Kind of them that differs in size
and Song. The lesser sing among the Reeds. It is very
rare to see an Halcyon, and never except at the setting of
Virgilise, or about the Solstices or Mid-winter; for some-
times they fly about a Ship, but immediately they go into
Concealment. They breed in Mid-winter, and the Days
when this is are called the Halcyon Days : for while they
last, the^Sea is calm and navigable, especially in Sicily. In
other Parts, also, the Ocean is not so boisterous ; but surely
the Sicilian Sea is navigable, both in the Straits and the
open Ocean. Now, seven Days before Mid-winter they build
their Nests; and within as many after, they have hatched.
Their Nests are wonderfully made, in the shape of a Ball :
the Entrance narrow, and standing somewhat out, much
like that of great Sponges. They cannot be cut asunder with
an iron Instrument ; but they will break with a strong Blow,
like the dry Foam of the Sea : and no Man could ever find
of what they are made. Some think they are formed of the
sharp pointed Prickles of Fishes; for these Birds live on
Fish. They come up also into Rivers. They lay five Eggs.
The Gaviae 1 build in Rocks: and the Mergus 2 also in
Trees. They usually lay four Eggs : but the Gavite in
Summer, the Mergi in the beginning of Spring.


Of the Skill of Birds in building their Nests. Of the
Hirundo, 3 the Argatilis, Cinnamologus, and Perdix.

THE Form of the Halcyon's Nest puts me in mind of the
Skill of other Birds : and in no other Thing is the Ingenuity

1 A general name for all the Gulls. Wern. Club.

2 Mergus merganser, LINN. Goosander. Wern. Club.

3 The first, H. rustica, LINN.; Chimney Swallow. Second: H. wlica,
LINN. ; House Martin. The third : H. riparia, Bank Martin. The story
of an embankment of the Nile formed by Martins' nests, must be set down
among the Wonders of Egypt. Wern. Club.

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 221

of Birds more admirable than in this. The Hirundines
frame their Nests of Clay, but they strengthen them with
Straw. If at any Time there is a scarcity of Clay, they wet
their Feathers with a quantity of Water, and sprinkle the
Dust with it. They line the Nest itself with soft Feathers
or fine Flox, to keep the Eggs warm, and also that it may
not be hard to the young Birds. They distribute the Food
by turns to the Young with strict Equality. They remove
the Excrement of the young ones with remarkable Attention
to Cleanness ; but when they are grown something more,
they teach them to turn about, and discharge their Fulness
beyond it.

There is another kind of Hirundo, that keeps in the
country Villages and Fields, which seldom build their Nests
in Houses ; but their Nests are formed of the same Material
as the former, although of a different Shape, supine, with the
Entrance thrust forward straight and narrow ; but "the Capa-
city within is large ; so that it is wonderful how skilful and
capable they are in concealing their young ones, and in
lining it with soft Materials. In the Heracleotic Mouth of
Egypt, there is a mighty Bank raised by a continual Course
of Nests for the length almost of one Stadium (half-a-quarter
of a Mile) ; which is impregnable against the spreading
abroad of the Nile : a piece of Work which could not have
been accomplished by human Labour. In the same Egypt,
near the Town Coptos, there is an Island sacred to Isis,
which, that the same River may not tear to Pieces, these
Swallows fortify by their Labour : in the beginning of the
Spring, for three Days and Nights, employing their Bill to
make it strong with Straw and Chaff; and they continue
their Work by Night with so much Labour, that it is
known many of them have died with the Labour. This
public Work always recurs to them with the return of the

There is a third sort of these Swallows, which dig Hol-
lows in the Banks, and so form Nests within. The young
Birds of these, if burnt to Ashes, are a Remedy for the
deadly Quinsey, and many other Diseases of the human

222 History of Nature. [BooK X.

Body. These do not build Nests ; but if they perceive that
the River is going to increase, and will rise as high as their
Holes, they go away many Days before.

There are Birds of the kind of Parrse, 1 which with dry
Moss make a Nest, resembling so perfectly a round Bali
that the Entrance cannot be discovered. Another, called
Argatilis, 2 makes her Nest of the same form, but it is woven
of Flax.

A kind of Picus 3 maketh a Nest in the manner of a Gob-
let, and hangeth it at a Twig, on the uppermost Branches,
that no Quadruped may be able to reach it. It is established
that Galguli (Orioles) take their Sleep hanging by their
Legs, hoping by that means to be in more Safety. It is, in-
deed, commonly known, that all these Birds, with good
Providence, choose some cross Boughs for Rafters, to sup-
port their Nests ; and then cover them from the Rain with
an arched Roof, or else enclose them among the thick

In Arabia there is a Bird called Cinnamologos, 4 which
builds her Nest with Twigs of the Cinnamon-tree. The
Inhabitants of that Country shake them down with Arrows
headed with Lead, for the sake of Profit. In Scythia, there
is a Bird of the bigness of an Otis, which layeth two Eggs;
and she always wraps them in a Hare's Skin ; and hangeth
them upon the top Branches of Trees. The Picae, when
they perceive with their watching Eye that a Man hath dis-
covered their Nest, presently remove their Eggs to another.

1 In this place Gaza reads, Ripariarum ; that is, of bank birds ; and
Gesner, Parorum, or Tomtits ; Gelenius reads Perrarum. Dalechampius'
reading is "In genere paratum est, cui Nidus;" which leaves the species
still more uncertain. Wern. Club.

2 An uncertain species. Wern. Club.

3 It is certain that no species of Woodpecker suspends its nest in this
way. Aldrovandus, therefore, supposed it to be the Galbula, or Oriole ;
which he, on that account, denominated Picus nidum suspendcns. It is
just as probable that it is the Parus caudatus, or Long-tailed Tit.

Wern. Club.

4 An unrecognised species. Dalechampius remarks, that the cinna-
mon does not grow in Arabia. Wern. Club.

Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 58 of 60)