Images de page
PDF
ePub

of falcons who in former ages used to afford so much elegant yet bloodthirsty sport to kings and nobles, lords and ladies; all the birds who were trained to sweep the air at the word of command for their prey, as dogs were trained on earth, and to bring it bleeding to their master's hand. They are mostly of a dark plumage, generally of a handsome brown, interspersed with whiter streaks. Their power of flight is wonderful. A case is recorded in which a falcon flew 1,324 miles in 22 hours, i.e., 60 miles an hour. But war against other birds is written upon every feature. They are the soldiers of the sky.

Then come the Eagles. I cannot pretend to give you in words a due impression of the splendid quality of this collection. Here are eagles from the wide world, assembled (as in the vision of St. John) from the whole kingdom of the air. And they are all kings. Well is the eagle regarded by all nations as the king of birds. Such marvellous beauty and majesty combined in the plumage, such breadth and strength of wing, such sublime daring of expression, such royalty of repose in his uplifted head! What must he be when he springs from the mountain summit and soars like an angel to the blazing sun; and what, when he descends, like a thunderboltthe bird of Jove-and strikes his foe, like the lightning! So, it is said—“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint."

Next come the birds that prey by night, chiefly the Owls. They were formerly called the birds of Minerva, probably because they look so wise, and Minerva was the goddess of wisdom. It was said by one of the enemies of Lord Thurlow, the Tory Chancellor in Mr. Pitt's time, that nobody could possibly be as wise as he looked in his wig on the woolsack; and, indeed, many people look a good deal wiser than they are, some stupendous fools having the art of looking so awfully grave, that superficial judges mistake it for wisdom. True wisdom, however, can both laugh and cry; and I don't think the owls ever deserved their reputation for wisdom any more than their human congeners. They have, however, one great faculty, they can hold their tongues. They sit in the dark, with their vast goggle eyes, looking out for mice and insects, and acquiring, by the easy process of holding still, keeping out of harm's way, and looking with calm earnestness into vacancy, a reputation for intelligence.

The second division is that of the perchers, the most numes rous of all; and here the birds are arranged in the cases as thick as thieves. They shine in every colour of the rainbow, and in a great many combinations of colour not seen in the

however, cred their repuv have, howevethe dark, wi

rainbow. The perching-birds are divided according to their beaks, as you might arrange men according to their noses :-1, wide gapers ; 2, slender beaks; 3, noteh bills; 4, cone beaks ; and 5, crook bills.

The first set (wide gapers) include the goat-suckers, so called from a mistaken notion that they could milk the goats on their own account; but in fact they fiy about in the dark, with their vast mouths open to catch moths and beetles on the wing. Among the wide gapers are the martens (the whole tribe of swallows, so termed from their great gulping mouths) including the swifts, whose wings are never weary, the chimney marten, the sand marten, who bores a hole in the cliffs for its nest, the window swallow, who builds under the eaves, and sometimes is said to punish a thievish sparrow, who has taken possession of an old nest during his winter elsewhere, by bricking up the entrance, and shutting him in to die. Among the wide gapers are the kingfishers, or halcyons, and a very glorious case of kingfishers there is in the museum. These little kings and queens, in their bright robes, live on fish, and dart like lightning on their prey. There was a fable in the ancient world that when the kingfisher's queen was sitting on her nest, the mighty ocean ceased from his raging. Hence, from her name of the halcyon, such days of calm at sea were called halcyon days.

The second group, the slender beaks, are the birds that live on small insects, and the honeydew of flowers. Of these the chief are the humming-birds—the living fireworks of nature. There seem to be nearly five hundred varieties of them. It is worth a visit to the museum only to see these winged gems in a bright sunlight, with their breasts of green light, purple light, crimson light, flashing in the noontide radiance. But no words descriptive of common colours can pourtray the splendour of the irradescence in the plumage of these wonderful little souls in glory, who hover over the tropical flowers of the garden and the wilderness, and light up the day, as the fire-flies light up the night. Some of the humming-birds are no bigger than bees, and look as brisk and light as when they fluttered over the gardens of Brazil. If you have an opportunity of borrowing the Duke of Argyll's “ Reign of Law," read his fine chapter on humming-birds.

Now come the notch bills-the third family of perchers. Their food consists of insects and worms, only resorting to grain and berries when the insects fail. To this group belong the song-birds—the nightingale, the blackcap, the wren, the redstart, the wagtail, the thrush, the fieldfare, the blackbird, the mocking bird, the shrike, the redbreast, and a hundred others. There they sit, all dead-on little box perches-a sad mockery

of their aspect when alive. They try to look cheerful, but they have hopped the twig for ever, and will sit as long as their stuffed little bodies will last in this motionless form, to be looked at by the holiday visitors of many generations.

Then come the cone-beaked birds-all sorts of crows, from all parts of the world-jays, magpies, rooks, ravens, jackdaws, choughs--the negroes of bird-nature, but certainly negroes only in colour, for these black fellows have "never been in bondage to any man.” They are rather the most impudent and talkative class of birds in existence. Everything about them is long, their feathers are long, their tongues are long, their lives are long, and some of them extend their existence through the best part of a century.

To the same class belong the birds of paradise, the starlings, the finches, the grosbeak, the piefinch, the chaffinch, the goldfinch (who can be taught all sorts of tricks), the linnet (so called from being fond of the seeds of flax or the linen-plant), the greenfinch, the bullfinch (who can be taught to imitate song). Then come the canaries, all kinds of sparrows (common fellows the whole lot-dirty, thievish, and noisy), all kinds of buntings, all kinds of yellowhammers, and, lastly, all kinds of larksGod's choristers, at morning service in His great temple of the sky. These cone-beaked perchers have more genius than any other class of birds. Their talents and power of speech and song are indeed wonderful.

We next reach the Climbing Birds (Scansores). The toucans, with bills so big, nearly down to their feet, that it makes one thankful our noses are not constructed on the same principle; the dozens of species of macaws, clothed in all sorts of gaudy colours; the dozens of parrots and cockatoos; the immense regiment of woodpeckers (who can bore a hole into any tree, and despatch a mahogany table as easily as the food placed upon it), and the cuckoos. The fourth order is that of scraping birdsthose which we term poultry—the doves, the pigeons, the pheasants, the domestic fowls, the turkeys, the partridges, the quails, the grouse, the ptarmigans, the capercailzies. Here they are in numbers sufficient to stock a dozen farmyards or preserves, and in all their glory of plumage. The pheasants, especially, are resplendent-one super-eminent specimen of the common pheasant and another of the Argus, with extended plumes, overwhelming the eye with the magnificence of their colours, flashing in the noonday sun. It was on looking at such as these that Mrs. Schimmel-Pennnick relates that when a child, in her days of Quakerism, she once asked her mother, why it was that Providence had not clothed the birds on “ Friends' Principles !"

The long-leggeil birds include the ostriches, the herons, the bitterns, the storks, the ibises, the cranes, the plovers, the snipes some of them, as the crimson ibis, marvels of beauty in colour, and some, as the little egrett (called the Herodias, from Athens), marvels in beauty of form. This bird, of spotless white, and about 18 inches in height, is kept under a bell-glass, and realizes one's utmost conceptions of perfection in outline.

Lastly, there are the swimming birds. Geese from every country under heaven. Geese and men are everywhere: they seem to inherit the earth in joint occupation ; but there are many kinds of geese besides those slow-coaches that waddle in a file over a common, like policemen changing guard when half asleep at six in the morning. Some of the geese can fly like any vultures. Here, too, are all sorts of swans, all sorts of widgeon, teal, grebe, and duck. Then come the puffins, and those ugly penguins, all nose and stomach, who sit up on end in a row, and eat fish till they are ready to explode with crapulence. Then the petrels-birds of evil omen, mostly black; "Mother Carey's chickens," the enormous albatrosses, mostly white, and able to sail for days in the upper sky; and, finally, the pelicans and gulls. The last, I think, though such greedy creatures, the most beautiful birds in the whole collection. There are some of the larger gulls of a faint dove-colour all over, but with heads and necks of mottled black and white, like ostrich feathers, and mild black eyes, which, both for form and tint, are so lovely that you might stand and look at them for hours. The curve in the outline of their breasts, and the matchless elegance of their wings are alike a study for the artist, and a wonder to the crowd.

I have thus run through the chief divisions ; but under each kind that I have mentioned you are to fancy scores and even hundreds of varieties.

What I have to offer to you now are a few hints on birds in general-their hatching, building, flight, and food. And this I shall do in the fewest words.

First, on Hatching. All these birds come from eggs. The number of eggs hatched every year on the globe is quite inconceivable. The American pigeons alone will sometimes occupy for one swarm a belt of forest four miles broad and forty miles long-"thus numbering," says Audubon, " probably a billion in one company a million of millions.": How many birds there are on earth God only knows: the number defies imagination. All these five thousand kinds represent, each of them, an army -if they could be placed in a row, and then in close lines behind each representative bird in front all the individuals of the same sort—who can fancy where those lines would end, or to which

of the stars the lines would stretch away? The human inhabitants of Hindostan, arranged in rows of thirty abreast, and at a yard apart, would extend from the Land's End across all Europe to the other side of the Caspian Sea ; and the whole human race would form a column six times longer. So if we were to arrange all the birds in columns and regiments, some of them would form battalions extending to the other side of the orbit of the moon. The numbers, indeed, stupify the mind. The eggs hatched every year would make, if piled together, a great mountain. The common fowls' eggs, not hatched, but used for culinary purposes in Europe, would make an annual heap much bigger than could be piled up within the railings of St. Paul'schurchyard to the ball and cross.

And now what is it that goes on inside every one of these eggs when it is hatched into a bird-into a lark, into a nightingale, a peacock, an eagle, a common sparrow, an ostrich, a wild pigeon ? We know what is inside when the process begins. There is the yolk, and there is the white of the egg ; there is no trace of organization apparent in either. The two fluids may be poured out, and your common egg you may, you know, either poach or boil, and then your white of egg becomes a solid white substance, and your yolk hardens; yet when you boil your egg, you do not hatch it. But what takes place when the mother-bird sits upon it and patiently warms it with her vital heat under her downy breast? What occurs can be best represented by some such device as this, suggested by Macculloch. Suppose a large level area of ground, out of which should rise one leaden pipe, laid on by a water company, and that this pipe was full of water. You, by some means or other, begin to warm this water-pipe by applying a small fire to it, just where it comes through the ground. The effect is that it opens at the end, and begins to shoot out just below the surface of the ground other leaden pipes in every directionwhich, however, run along of their own accord in a figure suitable to the outline of a church. Suppose that out of these long pipes opened innumerable inouths, through which flows the water, but each little mouth has the power of turning the water into concrete for the foundations, and then into the footings of the brickwork, all round, till at length the walls begin to push through the earth, and go on rising in every direction, the leaden pipes growing up too, and taking the place of bricklayers and masons, and turning the water into brick and stone, working in order, placing the bricks in courses, leaving all the right space for the windows, and so going on till they reached the proper height, where they stopped, except in the front where the tower and steeple

« PrécédentContinuer »