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

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BOOK X.] History of Nature. 223

In those Birds whose Toes are not fitted to clasp and convey
the Eggs, this is reported to be done after a strange Manner :
for they lay a Twig over two Eggs, and glue them fast with a
Cement from their own Bowels; they then put their Necks
under the middle, which, hanging equally poised on each
Side, they carry away to another Place.

No less skilful are they that make their Nestling-cradles
in the Ground, as being forbidden by the Weight of their
Body to mount aloft. One is called Merops, 1 that useth to
feed her Parents as they lie hid. The inside of her Feathers
in the Wing is pale, the outside blue ; and those above about
the Neck, reddish. She maketh her Nest in a Hole six Feet
deep within the Ground. Partridges so fortify their Place of
deposit with Thorns and Twigs, that they are sufficiently
fenced against wild Beasts. They heap up over their Eggs a
covering of fine Dust; neither do they sit in the Place where
they laid them first, but lest their more frequent resort to it
should lead to Suspicion, they convey them to some other
Place. And, indeed, the Hens deceive also the Males ; for so
lecherous are they, that they break their Eggs, because they
may not be occupied about sitting. Then through desire
after the Hens, the Males fight among themselves ; and they
say that the one which is overcome, suffereth Venus. Trogus
reporteth the same of Quails, and sometimes of Dunghill
Cocks. He saith, also, that tame Partridges use to tread
the wild ; and those which are new taken or conquered by
others promiscuously. This libidinous Heat maketh them
so quarrelsome, that oftentimes it leads to their being taken.
For when the Fowler cometh with his Call, out goeth the
Leader of the whole Flock to fight him ; and when he is
caught, another followeth after, and so the rest one after
another. Again, they take the Females at the Time of the
Copulation ; for then forth they go against the female

1 Merops apiaster, LINN. Bee-eater. ^Elian says, that the young of
this bird exceeds in piety the young of the Stork in the care with which
they feed their parents when worn out with age ; which Cuvier explains
from their remaining a long time in the same retreats with them.
Wern. Club. %

224 History of Nature. [ BOOK X ,

Fowl that with their scolding they may drive her away.
There is not to be found in any other living Creature the
like amount of Lust. If the Hens stand over-against the
Cocks, the Air that passeth from them causes them to con-
ceive. For so hot are they in that Season, that they gape
and hang out the Tongue. And if the Males fly over them,
with the Breath that cometh from them they conceive : and
many Times if they do but hear their call. And so effec-
tually does their Lechery overcome their Affection to their
Young, that while they are incubating in some secret Place,
if they hear the Fowler's (Decoy) Female coming towards
the Male, she returns the Song, and calls back the Males,
and offers herself to his Pleasure. Indeed they are borne
away with such Rage, that, as if blind with the Trepidation,
they will settle upon the Head of the Fowler. If he begins
to approach the Nest of the breeding Hen, she will run forth
to his Feet, counterfeiting that she is very heavy and feeble;
and either in her running, or some short flight, she will sud-
denly fall, as if she had broken a Wing or her Leg : then
will she run again, and when he is just ready to take her up,
yet will she shift away, and so disappoint his Hope, until she
hath led him a contrary Way from the Young. When she is
free from Fear, and void of motherly Care, then will she get
into a Furrow of the Ground, lie on her Back, catch a Clot
of Earth with her Feet, and with it hide herself. Partridges
are supposed to live sixteen Years.

Of the Columba. 1

AFTER Partridges, the Nature of Doves is to be consi-
dered, since they have in a manner the same Habits ; but
they are highly chaste, and neither Male nor Female are

1 Pliny and Varro believe the existence of no more than two species
of Pigeons : Columba livia, or Rock-dove ; and C. palumbus, Ring-dove
(c. 35) ; and the latter author mentions a third sort, which he supposes to
be a hybrid between them, and which we may judge to be the C. CEnas, or
Stockdove. Wern. Club.

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 225

charged with Adultery. They do not violate the Bond of
Marriage, but keep at home together. They abandon not
their own Nests, unless they are in state of single Life, or a
Widow. The Females endure their imperious Males, and
even those which are churlish ; because they are jealous,
though their Nature is not that Way. Then the Throat is
full of Complaint, and they peck them cruelly with their
Beaks; and yet soon after, by way of Satisfaction, they kiss
them, and will make court to them, by turning round about
many Times with their Feet, and utter the Prayers of Venus.
The Male and the Female love their Young alike : and
often there is Correction, because the Hen does not more
frequently visit her Young. When they are about to lay,
they comfort and minister to them. So soon as the Eggs
are hatched they discharge into the Mouths of the Young a
salt kind of Earth, which they have gathered in their Throat,
to prepare their Stomachs in Time for Food. Doves and
Turtle-doves have this Property, that when they drink they
do not draw their Necks back, but take a large Draught in
the manner of Cattle.

Of the Palumbus.

WE have some Authors who affirm that the Palumbus
lives thirty Years, and some to forty Years, with no Incon-
venience but this : that their Claws become overgrown,
which is a Sign of old Age ; but they may be pared without
Danger. They have all one and the same manner of Tune;
they make three Rests in their Song, besides the close, which
is a Moan. In Winter they are silent; in Spring they are
loud. Nigidius is of opinion, that if a Palumbus is called by
Name in a House as she is sitting upon her Eggs, she will
leave her Nest. They lay after Midsummer. Calumbae and
Turturs live eight Years.


226 History of Nature. [BooK X.

Of Sparrows.

ON the other Hand, the Sparrow 1 is very short-lived, and
his Leachery is equal to it. The Cock Sparrow is reported
to live but one Year ; the Proof is, because in the Beginning
of Spring not one of them is found with a black Bill, which
begins from the Summer. The Hens live somewhat longer.
But to come again to Doves, it is true that they have a cer-
tain Understanding of Glory ; and you would think that
they have a Knowledge of their Colours, and their change-
able Disposition. Moreover, they seem to take a Pride in
flying in the Air, and cutting the Air every way. In which
Display, while they flap with their Wings with much Noise
(which cannot be without the dashing of the Feathers
of their Wings against their Shoulders), they are exposed to
the Hawks as if they were bound ; for otherwise, if the
Flight were free, they were much more swift of Wing. But
the Thief lieth hid among the Branches, and seizeth him as
he rejoices in his Glory.

Of the Tinnunculus.*

To prevent this (Danger), the Doves need to have with
them the Bird which is called the Tinnunculus, for she de-
fendeth them, and (by a natural Power) terrifieth the Acci-
piters, insomuch that they fly from her Sight or Voice. It is
on this Account that there is such remarkable Love among
the Doves to these Birds. And it is said that Pigeons will
not leave their own Dovecote if in the four Corners of it
there are buried four of the Tinnunculi in four new earthen
Pots well smeared over. But others have used Means to
keep Pigeons in their Dove-house (for otherwise they are

1 Fringilla domestic^ LINN. House-sparrow. Wern. Club.
a Supposed to be the Cenchris (B.xxix. ch. vi.)- Falco cenchris, Cuv.
Wern. Club.

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 227

Birds that wander abroad) by slitting up the Joints of their
Wings with Gold ; for without this Precaution their Wounds
will be dangerous. And in Truth, these Birds have the Art
to flatter and entice one another ; and thus they return to
their Homes the better accompanied on Account of their
Roguery. Doves also have served for Messengers in great
Affairs : as at the Siege of Mutina, Decimus Brutus sent out
of the Town Letters tied to their Feet, to the Camp of the
Consuls. What good, then, did the Rampart and Watch in
the Siege, and the Nets stretched across the River, to
Antony, when the Messenger was able to pass through the
Air? Many Men are gone mad in their Love to these Birds:
they build Towers above the tops of their Houses for them ;
and they reckon up their Origin and Nobility, as in one old
Example. L. Axius, a Roman Knight, before the Civil War
with Pompey, sold every pair (of Pigeons) for four hundred
Denarii, 1 as M. Varro* reports. Besides this, they have
rendered their Country noble ; for Campania is supposed
to produce by far the greatest. Their manner of flying leads
me to the Consideration of the Flight of other Fowls.

Of the Pace and Flight of Birds.

ALL other living Creatures have one certain and uniform
manner of going, each according to its kind. Birds only
vary their Course, whether they go upon the Ground or fly
in the Air. Some walk as Crows (Cornices) ; others hop, .as
Sparrows and Thrushes (Passeres, merulse) ; some run, as

1 12 lib. 10 sh.

2 The care of Pigeons for profit entered more into the rural economy
of the ancients than with us of the present day. They were fattened for
the market under the parent ; their food being made easy of access, while
a few quill-feathers were drawn from the wing, and the thighs broken.
It was found that fastening the legs made them more uneasy, and thus
proved a greater hindrance to their fattening than the fracture. The
Romans had their favourite varieties, for which they paid enormous
prices : varying from one or two to twelve or fourteen pounds a couple.
Wern. Club.

228 History of Nature. [BooK X.

Partridges, Woodcocks (Perdices, Rusticulae); others, again,
throw out their Feet before them, as Storks and Cranes
(Ciconiae, Grues); some spread their Wings broad, and hang
on them, shaking them but now and then ; others more
rapidly ; but the utmost Feathers only. Some Birds stretch
out their whole Wings, and others in their Flight keep them
in, for the most part close. Some of them give one or two
Claps with their Wings, and are borne away with the Air;
or they press the Air as if enclosed within their Wings,
and shoot themselves up aloft, straight forward, or fall flat
down. Ye would think some were hurled with Violence,
and others to fall down plump from on high, or to leap.
Ducks, and such only as are of that kind, lift themselves
up aloft presently from the Ground, and instantly mount
into the Sky, even out of the very Water : which is the
Cause, that if they fall into those Pits in which we take wild
Beasts, they alone will make their Escape. The Vulture,
and for the most part all heavy Birds, cannot take flight,
unless they fetch a Run, or else rise from some high Heap.
And such are directed in the Air by their Tails. Some look
about, others bend their Necks ; some feed on the Prey
which they have snatched away in their Talons. Most Birds
utter their Voice as they fly ; yet some, on the contrary, in
their Flight are always silent. Some fly half upright ; others
tending downward : some fly obliquely ; to the Sides, to the
Bills : and some are bent backward, so that if many Sorts
could be seen together, they would appear to pass along as
if they were of a very different Nature.

OftheApu*. 1

THE Birds which they call Apodes (because they are
without the use of the Feet), and others, Cypseli, are very
strong on the Wing. They are a kind of Swallows. They

J Cypselus apus, Cuv. The Swift. Strong on the wing: plurimum
volant; probably referring to a supposition repeated in most books on
natural history, that the Swift spends more time on the wing than other

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 229

build their Nests in Rocks. These are the same that are
seen over all the Sea : for however distant the Ships may be
from Land, and their Course ever so continued, these Apodes
will always be flying about them. All other kinds alight
and perch : these never rest, but when they are in their
Nest. Either they hang or lie along. Their Shifts are
equally various, and chiefly when they feed.

Of the Caprimulgus 1 and Platea.

THE Birds called Caprimulgi have the Appearance of the
bigger Merula ; and they are Night-Thieves ; for by Day

kinds of Swallows; which is not the fact. Their efforts in flight are

for a time more strenuous ; but they spend more hours in rest than the

kindred species Wern. Club.

1 Caprimulgus Europceus, LINN. Goat-Sucker, or Night Jar. The

ancient superstition attached to this bird, bears much resemblance to that

of the more modern Vampire :

" There is a class of birds, of greedy kind
Not Harpeys they, and yet of kindred mind ;
The head is large, and fierce with staring eye,
The beak well formed for rapine, wings that fly
With hoary feathers ; feet that grasp the prey
With claws like fish-hooks ; from the light of day
They shrink affrighted ; but when darkness shrouds
The face of Nature with its veil of clouds,
Their flight begins ; where infants sink in sleep
Uncared for by the nurse, they glide, and deep
Within their tender entrails fix their claw,
And tear them with their beak ; they fill their maw
With milk but newly drawn, and reeking blood ;
And ravenously obscene they swill the flood.
From horrid sounds that fill the air by night,
And strike the listening mortals with affright,
They take the name of Strix ; but whence they came
If, with the muttered charm of some old dame,
By melancholy verse transform'd ; or fowl
From the first hand of Nature (like the owl)."

Ovii>'s Fasti, vi.

The effect of such an awful visit could only be obviated by a magical

sacrifice. Wern. Club.

230 History of Nature. [BooK X.

they cannot see. They enter the Sheep-folds, and fly to the
Goats' Udders, to suck the Milk from their Teats ; and from
the Injury so done to it, the Udder wasteth away, and the
Goats which have been so milked are rendered blind.

There is a Bird named Platea. 1 Their Manner is to fly at
those which use to dive in the Sea, and so bite them by the
Heads that they compel them to let go their hold of the
Fish they have caught. This Bird, when his Belly is full of
Shell-fish that he hath devoured, and hath by the Heat of
his Crop concocted them, vomits them up again, and then
picketh out the Meat, leaving the Shells behind.

The Ingenuity of Birds.

THE Hens of Country-houses possess some Religion. 2
When they have laid an Egg they fall a trembling, and
shake themselves. They turn about, also, to be purified, and
with some Sprigs of a Bush they purify by Lustration them-
selves and their Eggs.

Of Carduelis, 3 Psittacus, of Birds that speak.

THE Carduelis is the smallest of Birds ; and they execute
Commands, not only with their Voice, but also with their
Feet and Mouth, as if they were Hands. In the Territory of
Arelate, there is a Bird called Taurus, 4 because it loweth like
a Bull, although otherwise a small Bird. There is another
also named Anthus, 5 which imitates the neighing of Horses ;
and if by the Approach of Horses it is driven from their
Grass on which it feeds, it will neigh, and so be revenged of
them. But above all other Things they repeat human Lan-

1 Platalealeucorodia,Ijiyw. Spoonbill. Wern. Club.

2 See B. viii. ch. i. Wern. Club.

3 FHngilla carduelis, LINN. Goldfinch. Wern. Club.

4 Ardea stellaris, LINN. Bittern. Wern. Club.

5 Some have supposed this to be Emberiga citrinella, LINN. ; the Yel-
low Amraer: but it is more probably Anthus pratensis, Cuv. Titlark.
Wern. Club.

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 231

guage, and the Psittaci 1 even hold a Conversation. This Bird
cometh from India, where they call it Sittace. It is green all
over the Body, only it hath a distinct Collar about the Neck
of vermilion red. The Parrot salutes Emperors, and pro-
nounces what Words she heareth ; she is also very wanton
under the Influence of Wine. Her Head is as hard as her
Beak. When she learns to speak, she must be beaten about
the Head with a Rod of Iron : for otherwise she careth for
no Blows. When she taketh her Flight downward, she
alighteth upon her Bill, and leans upon it, and by that
means favoureth her Feet, which are but feeble.

There is a kind of Pica (Magpie) of less excellency, be-
cause she does not come from so far ; but she pronounceth
what is taught her more freely and distinctly. These take a
Love to the Words they speak ; for they not only learn
them, but they delight in them : insomuch that they study
them inwardly, and by their careful thinking upon what
they learn, they show how attentive they are. It is known
that they have died for Grief that they could not conquer
the Difficulty of some Words ; as also, that unless they hear
the same Words repeated often, their Memory fails to retain
them. If they are in search of a Word, and chance te hear
it pronounced, they will show wonderful Signs of Joy. Their
Beauty is not ordinary, although not very lovely. But they
are handsome enough in the Power to imitate human Speech.
It is said, that none of their kind are able to learn, except
such only as feed upon Mast; and among them, those acquire
the more easily that have five toes to their Feet: but not
even these unless in the two first Years of their Age. Their
Tongue is broader than ordinary : as they are all in every
separate kind that counterfeit Man's Voice : although this
happens to almost all Birds. Agrippina, the Wife of Clau-
dius Caesar , had a Turdus (Thrush) at the Time I compiled
this Book, which imitated Man's Speech ; a Thing never
known before. The young Ccesars, also, had a Sturnus
(Starling) and Nightingales taught to speak Greek and

1 Psittacus Alexandra LINN. Parrot. Wern. Club.

232 History of Nature. [BooK X.

Latin. Moreover, they would study their Lessons all Day,
and continually come out with new Words formed into a long
Speech. To teach them, these Birds must be in a Place
apart, where they can hear no other Voice to mingle with
what they learn ; and one is to sit by them, who must repeat
often what he would have them fix in their Memory, and
please them also with giving them Meat.

The Understanding of Ravens (Conn).

LET us not defraud the Ravens also of their due Praise,
as witnessed not only by the Knowledge but the Indignation
of the People of Rome. When Tiberius was Prince, there
was a young Raven hatched in a Nest upon the Temple of
Castor (and Pollux), which took his Flight into a Shoe-
maker's Shop overagaiiist the Temple, and thus was com-
mended to the Master of the Shop by the Obligation of
Religion. This Raven in Time became accustomed to Man's
Speech, and every Morning would fly to the Rostra, and
turning to the Forum, he would salute Tiberius, and after
him Germanicus and Drusus, the Ccesars, by their Names ;
and presently the People of Rome that passed by. And
when he had so done, he would fly again to the Warehouse.
This Practice he continued for several Years together, to the
Wonder of all. The Master of the nearest Shoemaker's
Shop, either through Envy of his Neighbour, or some sudden
fit of Anger (as he wished it to appear) because the Raven
had made a Spot upon a Pair of his Shoes with his Dung,
killed the Bird ; at which the People took such Indignation,
that they first drove him out of that Neighbourhood, and
not long after murdered him ; and the Funeral of the Raven
was solemnly performed with all the ceremonial Obsequies.
For the Bier was formed and bedecked, and so carried upon
the Shoulders of two Ethiopians, with a Piper going before,
with Crowns of all kinds, as far as to the funeral Fire ;
which was piled at the right Hand of the Appian Way, at
the secoHd Stone, in a Field called Rediculi, Thus the

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 233

People of Rome regarded the ready Wit of this Bird a suffi-
cient Cause to justify a sumptuous Funeral, and also to
excuse the Murder of a Citizen of Rome in that City,
wherein many Princes have died, and no IV3an solemnized
their Funerals : one Instance of which is, that no one
avenged the Death of Scipio JEmiUanus, after he had de-
stroyed both Carthage and Numantia. This happened the
fifth Day before the Calends of April, in the Year when
M. Svrvilius and C. Cestius were Consuls. Even at this
Time, when I am writing, there is in the City of Rome a
Crow (Comix) belonging to a Roman Knight, who brought
it from Bsetica, which was an admirable Bird for the
exceeding black Colour of its Feathers, and also for pro-
nouncing many Words formed into a Sentence ; and it learns
more and more every Day. It is not long since that there
arose a Report of a Man in Erizena, a Country of Asia,
whose Name was Craterus Motioceros : who used to hunt by
the Help of Ravens, which he carried with him into the
Woods, perching upon his Shoulders and his Hunting-
horns : and these would seek out and put up others, and
bring them to him in their Company ; so that when he
returned homeward out of the Forest, the wild ones 'also
would accompany him. Some have thought it worth the
setting upon Record, that a Raven was seen, when she was
thirsty, to cast Stones into the Bucket belonging to a
Sepulchre, in which there was some Rain-water remaining,*
but which he was not able to reach: and being afraid to go
down into it, he thrust in so many Stories that he was enabled
to drink as much as he pleased.

Of the Birds of Diomedes.

NEITHER will I pass over the Birds (called) Diomedeae, 1
which Juba nameth Cataractae ; and he says they have

1 This appears to be Lestris cataractes, Cuv. ; Skua, or a kindred
species. ^Elian speaks of it as a kind of Heron : B. i. ch. i. Wern.

234 History of Nature. [Boon X .

Teeth ; with Eyes of the Colour of Fire ; but otherwise they are
white. They have always two Leaders, one to lead the Host,
and the other to guard the rear. With their Bills they dig
Furrows, over which they strew Bundles of Sticks, and cover
them with the Earth that they have before thrown out ; and
in these Recesses they breed. Every one of these Trenches
hath two Doors : one looking toward the East, through
which they go out to feed ; and the other looking west-
ward, by which they return. When these Birds discharge
themselves, they always fly against the Wind. They are
found only in one Place of all the World, which is an
Island, ennobled, as we have written before, for the Tomb
and Shrine of Diomedes, opposite the Coast of Apulia. These
Birds are like the Fulicae. They annoy Strangers that come
thither with their Cries ; but they fawn upon Greeks only, as
if they give such friendly Welcome to the Race of Diomedes.
Every Day they fill their Throat and Wings with Water, arid
so wash and purify the Temple; and hence arose the Fable,
that the Companions of Diomedes were turned into the
Shapes of these Birds.

What Animals cannot learn anything.

AND now that we are in this Discourse on Ingenuity, I
must not omit to note, that among Birds, the Swallows
(Hirundines), and of land Animals the Mouse (Mures),
are very untoward in being brought to learn. Whereas
Elephants do what they are commanded. Lions draw under
the Yoke : Seals (Vituli) in the Sea, and very many sorts
of Fishes grow to be tame.

The manner of Birds in their drinking.

BIRDS drink by sucking ; and those which have long-
Necks make Pauses between, with the Head thrown back-
ward, as if they would pour the Water into themselves. The

BOOK X.] History of Nature. 235

(Bird) Porphyrio 1 alone seemeth to bite the Water as he
drinketh. And this Bird hath the Property hy himself to dip
all his Meat at Times in Water, and then with his Foot in
the Place of a Hand, to reach it to his Bill. The best of his
kind are in Comagene. Their Bills and very long Thighs
are red.


Of the Himantopos^ the Onocrotalis, and other
foreign Birds.

LIKE in that respect to the Porphyrio, is the Himan-
topos ; which is far less, but full as long-legged. They are
bred in Egypt, and stand upon three Toes. Their chief
feeding is upon Flies. In Italy they will not live many
Days. All the heavier Fowls live on Fruits. They that fly
high prey only upon Flesh. Among Water-fowls the Mergi

Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 59 of 60)