Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

food, for frogs and snails and snakes and mice, all prime delicacies with our hermit, abound there, and, with an occasional minnow, supply all his wants. And yet his safety is not perfect, for the prying naturalist, for whom mud and water have no terrors, sometimes comes across his home and family; and the wanton gunner, starting him up from bis fishing and frogging, never spares him, but shoots him at sight; and what man, with an arm and a leg broken and body pierced with a dozen bullets will make as good a fight as does our bird when the destroyer goes to pick him up? As long as life is in his wrangled body, he never ceases to lunge and thrust at his murderer's eyes with his spear-like bill, scorning to yield to either pain or fear.

He comes to us from Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies (the European species winters in Africa) early in the spring (I bought one, freshly killed, in the latter part of March, 1868, though that was very early indeed), and probably takes up his abode in the same swamp which last year he frequented. The "tinkle of the sheep bell” does not banish the bold bird ; he and his mate live in their five or ten acres the whole summer through, although just outside their bushy quagmire the white-shirted haymakers may whet their scythes and shout to their horses, and the locomotive with his thundering train may go tearing by almost every hour in the day. It seems that the raven avoids the bittern's domains, because he don't like the "reek o' the rotten fen.” Very well, let him stay away if he likes, the beautiful yellow-throats and swamp-sparrows, and, if there is a rotten stump, the chickadees, make his place good and more than good. With their company and with surroundings of purple-blossomed Kalmia, glossy-leaved Smilax and pink Calopogon, quiet cedars, nodding sedges, and rustling grasses, Old Sooty's absence will be little mourned.

Some speak of finding the bittern breeding in colonies in trees. Good observers say so, and I believe them ; but I think that all such cases are owing to accidental circum

[ocr errors]

stances, such as the inundation of their marshes. Certain it is that I have never found them so associated. "Le butor," says M. Holandre, "est très sauvage, farouche, solitaire." One tiger's den to a jungle, one eyry to a mountain, and one pair of bitterns to a bog seems to be the rule.

In the place where I have found them, there is retired feeding ground for a thousand, dense cedar swamps extensive enough for as many nests if they only chose to congregate, like their social cousins, the herons; and yet two by two they live, their next neighbors nobody knows how far away,—not in the same swamp at any rate; and on the ground, the bare ground, they lay their four or five eggs, among low laurel, tufts of grass, or, as in the case of the first nest I ever found, at the foot of a swamp huckleberry (from which the four callow young, unable yet to stand, tried to drive me away by repeated tumbling charges, menacing me by clumping their soft mandibles, and by sending angry hisses from their wide-yawning, yellow throats).

I have been surprised to find the general uncertainty which pervades ornithological works, upon the subject of the color of the bittern's eggs. These really are of a dark drab color in the case of our own bird as well as of the European; in fact I could find no distinguishing marks between these two species when examining a large number of both, which I was enabled to do by the kindness of Mr. Samuels. I have not been able to find any variation in the color of those of our species, though I have inspected eggs from all parts of the Union. Hear now what a few of the authorities say: Audubon declares that he never found the bittern's nest, nor, apparently, did he ever see its eggs, for he says nothing of them. Nuttall writes, "the bittern is said to lay cinereous green eggs." Wilson, "they breed at Hudson's Bay in swamps, and lay four cinereous green eggs,

are informed.Richardson, "they lay, according to Mr. Hutchins, four eggs of a cinereous green color.” Latham, "breeds at Hudson's Bay, and lays four cinereous

we

green eggs.” Peabody, "eggs of a green color.” Thompson, "six eggs, of a dark, bluish-brown, clay color.” Finding the venerated authorities determined that the eggs should have green on them of some shade or other, I made a fresh examination, thinking I might have been mistaken. I studied them long and carefully in every light, and gave them full consideration, but it was all in vain. I did once think I had detected a glancing greenish reflection, but found the color came from a window blind. I have stated that the eggs of the American and the European species are just alike. Let us see what European authors say: Selby says, pale green; Bewick, greenish white; Fleming, olive green; a writer for the London Tract Society, pale greenish-ash ; Mudie, greenish brown; Albin, whitish, inclining to ashy or green ; Latham, pale ash-green; Goodrich, pale green; M. Holandre, blanc-verdâtre; Nauman and Buhle give a figure much too dark. It is hard to be obliged to say of so many well known men that their statements are unreliable; but seeing is believing, and the truth is the truth, and the color is as I have said. Mr. Samuels gives the true state of the case with regard to our bird, and Yarrell in regard to the European species, and Hewitson and Atkinson, the former of whom borrowed the specimen he figures from Mr. Yarrell, both give accurately colored plates. When writers will say such things of the European kind, we need not be surprised, however incredulous, when Latham tells us that a Cayenne species lays "round whitish eggs, spotted with green.” Besides all these errors, the author of the article "Bittern," in the "New American Cyclopædia,” says that the bird "builds in trees, like the herons, ordinarily rearing two young," a statement about as incorrect as it could be. Mudie speaks as follows of the European bittern's voice: "Anon a burst of savage laughter breaks upon you, gratingly loud, and so unwonted and odd that it sounds as if the voices of a bull and a horse were combined; the former breaking down his bellow to suit the neigh of the latter in mocking you from the sky." "When the bittern booms and bleats overhead

" one certainly feels as if the earth were shaking.” Goldsmith's description of the bittern's voice is one of his most pleasing passages. Many of the poets speak of the bird's strange voice, and even in the time of Thompson (Thompson of the Seasons) it was thought that the bill was thrust into the mud in making it. Chaucer speaks as follows in The Wife of Bath's Tale :

" And as a bitore bumbleth in the mire,

She laid hire mouth into the water doun,
Bewray me not, thou water, with thy soun',
Quod she, 'to the I tell it, and no mo
Min husbond hath long asses eres two.""

Another notion was that the bill was put inside a reed to increase the sound; the truth is, of course, that the bird uses no means to produce its bellow but its own organs of voice. Our own bittern has no such roar, but, as its name in most parts of the country denotes, makes a noise very much like driving a stake with an axe. It has also a hollow croak at the moment of alarm.

These remarks apply to the American and European species ; the geographical range of the former is from latitude 60° north, to Central America and the West Indies, having never been found, I believe, south of latitude 10° north. It is of rare occurrence west of the Rocky Mountains, though not uncommon in other parts of the United States. Many specimens of this bird have been shot in the British Isles, particularly in Ireland. The first recorded capture was in Devonshire, England, in October, 1804; the prize was by sone regarded as a new species. All such specimens have been killed in the fall, so that there can be no doubt that they were blown out to sea in their autumnal migration.

The European species has a wider range. Selby says it is confined to Europe, but such is not the case; it occurs, though rarely, in Norway, Russia and Siberia, up to latitude 65° north, and is found breeding at the Cape of Good Hope, in latitude 350 south. In the other direction it extends from

the Atlantic to the River Lena, in Siberia, and is found, though sparingly, in Hindostan. It is very rare in the British Islands, owing, probably, to drainage of bogs; so rare in fact, that some naturalists have thought it worth their while to give date and place of the killing of all specimens they have seen.

In England it is said to breed only in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. In old times the bittern was held in high esteem for the sport it afforded when pursued by trained falcons. Both birds would mount in spirals, oftentimes out of sight; the bittern straining every nerve to keep above the hawk, the hawk doing his best to rise above the bittern so as to make the fatal pounce. The bittern, being of weaker flight, rarely escaped, but often in his death involved his enemy's; for as the cruel falcon came down with rushing wings, exulting in his fierce soul, the bittern, in his dire extremity, thrusting up his sharp beak, empaled the triumphant savage, and both came tumbling from the clouds together, striking the earth with a thump which drove the last breath from both. A lesson to tyrants not to push the weak to despair.

On account of its furnishing such excellent sport to the humane of former times, rigorous laws for its protection were passed in the reign of Henry VIII, and of Edward VI, which imposed a fine of eight pence and a year's imprisonment for every egg taken or destroyed. There was something like protection. The long hind claw was a most excellent toothpick, for, besides its functions as such, it had, if the wisdom of our ancestors was infallible, the highly meritorious property of preserving the teeth from decay. It appears, moreover, that the fowl had then the power of displaying a brilliant light from the centre of its breast, which attracted fish to it in great shoals, so that the satisfying of its hunger took but a small part of the night, and much tinie was left for other pursuits, one of the most cheerful of which was to soar above the hovel of the British ploughman or hedger or ditcher, and rouse him from his lethargic sleep

« AnteriorContinuar »