Chapter VI - Some Bird Adventures

Visit to a river on the pampas--A first long walk--Waterfowl--My first sight of flamingoes--A great dove visitation--Strange tameness of the birds--Vain attempts at putting salt on their tails--An ethical question: When is a lie not a lie?--The carancho, a vulture-eagle--Our pair of caranchos--Their nest in a peach tree--I am ambitious to take their eggs--The birds' crimes--I am driven off by the birds--The nest pulled down.

Just before my riding days began in real earnest, when I was not yet quite confident enough to gallop off alone for miles to see the world for myself, I had my first long walk on the plain. One of my elder brothers invited me to accompany him to a water-course, one of the slow-flowing shallow marshy rivers of the pampas which was but two miles from home. The thought of the half-wild cattle we would meet terrified me, but he was anxious for my company that day and assured me that he could see no herd in that direction and he would be careful to give a wide berth to anything with horns we might come upon. Then I joyfully consented and we set out, three of us, to survey the wonders of a great stream of running water, where bulrushes grew and large wild birds, never seen by us at home, would be found. I had had a glimpse of the river before, as, when driving to visit a neighbour, we had crossed it at one of the fords and I had wished to get down and run on its moist green low banks, and now that desire would be gratified. It was for me a tremendously long walk, as we had to take many a turn to avoid the patches of cardoon and giant thistles, and by and by we came to low ground where the grass was almost waist-high and full of flowers. It was all like an English meadow in June, when every grass and every herb is in flower, beautiful and fragrant, but tiring to a boy six years old to walk through. At last we came out to a smooth grass turf, and in a little while were by the stream, which had overflowed its banks owing to recent heavy rains and was now about fifty yards wide. An astonishing number of birds were visible--chiefly wild duck, a few swans, and many waders-ibises, herons, spoonbills, and others, but the most wonderful of all were three immensely tall white-and-rose-coloured birds, wading solemnly in a row a yard or so apart from one another some twenty yards out from the bank. I was amazed and enchanted at the sight, and my delight was intensified when the leading bird stood still and, raising his head and long neck aloft, opened and shook his wings. For the wings when open were of a glorious crimson colour, and the bird was to me the most angel-like creature on earth.

What were these wonderful birds? I asked of my brothers, but they could not tell me. They said they had never seen birds like them before, and later I found that the flamingo was not known in our neighbourhood as the water-courses were not large enough for it, but that it could be seen in flocks at a lake less than a day's journey from our home.

It was not for several years that I had an opportunity of seeing the bird again; later I have seen it scores and hundreds of times, at rest or flying, at all times of the day and in all states of the atmosphere, in all its most beautiful aspects, as when at sunset or in the early morning it stands motionless in the still water with its clear image reflected below; or when seen flying in flocks--seen from some high bank beneath one--moving low over the blue water in a long crimson line or half moon, the birds at equal distances apart, their wing-tips all but touching; but the delight in these spectacles has never equalled in degree that which I experienced on this occasion when I was six years old.

The next little bird adventure to be told exhibits me more in the character of an innocent and exceedingly credulous baby of three than of a field naturalist of six with a considerable experience of wild birds.

One spring day an immense number of doves appeared and settled in the plantation. It was a species common in the country and bred in our trees, and in fact in every grove or orchard in the land--a pretty dove-coloured bird with a pretty sorrowful song, about a third less in size than the domestic pigeon, and belongs to the American genus Zenaida. This dove was a resident with us all the year round, but occasionally in spring and autumn they were to be seen travelling in immense flocks, and these were evidently strangers in the land and came from some sub-tropical country in the north where they had no fear of the human form. At all events, on going out into the plantation I found them all about on the ground, diligently searching for seeds, and so tame and heedless of my presence that I actually attempted to capture them with my hands. But they wouldn't be caught: the bird when I stooped and put out my hands slipped away, and flying a yard or two would settle down in front of me and go on looking for and picking up invisible seeds.

My attempts failing I rushed back to the house, wildly excited, to look for an old gentleman who lived with us and took an interest in me and my passion for birds, and finding him I told him the whole place was swarming with doves and they were perfectly tame but wouldn't let me catch them--could he tell me how to catch them? He laughed and said I must be a little fool not to know how to catch a bird. The only way was to put salt on their tails. There would be no difficulty in doing that, I thought, and how delighted I was to know that birds could be caught so easily! Off I ran to the salt-barrel and filled my pockets and hands with coarse salt used to make brine in which to dip the hides; for I wanted to catch a great many doves--armfuls of doves.

In a few minutes I was out again in the plantation, with doves in hundreds moving over the ground all about me and taking no notice of me. It was a joyful and exciting moment when I started operations, but I soon found that when I tossed a handful of salt at the bird's tail it never fell on its tail--it fell on the ground two or three or four inches short of the tail. If, I thought, the bird would only keep still a moment longer! But then it wouldn't, and I think I spent quite two hours in these vain attempts to make the salt fall on the right place. At last I went back to my mentor to confess that I had failed and to ask for fresh instructions, but all he would say was that I was on the right track, that the plan I had adopted was the proper one, and all that was wanted was a little more practice to enable me to drop the salt on the right spot. Thus encouraged I filled my pockets again and started afresh, and then finding that by following the proper plan I made no progress I adopted a new one, which was to take a handful of salt and hurl it at the bird's tail. Still I couldn't touch the tail; my violent action only frightened the bird and caused it to fly away, a dozen yards or so, before dropping down again to resume its seed-searching business.

By-and-by I was told by somebody that birds could not be caught by putting salt on their tails; that I was being made a fool of, and this was a great shock to me, since I had been taught to believe that it was wicked to tell a lie. Now for the first time I discovered that there were lies and lies, or untruths that were not lies, which one could tell innocently although they were invented and deliberately told to deceive. This angered me at first, and I wanted to know how I was to distinguish between real lies and lies that were not lies, and the only answer I got was that I could distinguish. them by not being a fool!

In the next adventure to be told we pass from the love (or tameness) of the turtle to the rage of the vulture. It may be remarked in passing that the vernacular name of the dove I have described is _Torcasa,_ which I take it is a corruption of Tortola, the name first given to it by the early colonists on account of its slight resemblance to the turtle-dove of Europe.

Then, as to the vulture, it was not a true vulture nor a strictly true eagle, but a carrion-hawk, a bird the size of a small eagle, blackish brown in colour with a white neck and breast suffused with brown and spotted with black; also it had a very big eagle-shaped beak, and claws not so strong as an eagle's nor so weak as a vulture's. In its habits it was both eagle and vulture, as it fed on dead flesh, and was also a hunter and killer of animals and birds, especially of the weakly and young. A somewhat destructive creature to poultry and young sucking lambs and pigs. Its feeding habits were, in fact, very like those of the raven, and its voice, too, was raven-like, or rather like that of the carrion-crow at his loudest and harshest. Considering the character of this big rapacious bird, the Polyborus tharus of naturalists and the carancho of the natives, it may seem strange that a pair were allowed to nest and live for years in our plantation, but in those days people were singularly tolerant not only of injurious birds and beasts but even of beings of their own species of predaceous habits.

On the outskirts of our old peach orchard, described in a former chapter, there was a solitary tree of a somewhat singular shape, standing about forty yards from the others on the edge of a piece of waste weedy land. It was a big old tree like the others, and had a smooth round trunk standing about fourteen feet high and throwing out branches all round, so that its upper part had the shape of an open inverted umbrella. And in the convenient hollow formed by the circle of branches the caranchos had built their huge nest, composed of sticks, lumps of turf, dry bones of sheep and other animals, pieces of rope and raw hide, and any other object they could carry. The nest was their home; they roosted in it by night and visited it at odd times during the day, usually bringing a bleached bone or thistle- stalk or some such object to add to the pile.

Our birds never attacked the fowls, and were not offensive or obtrusive, but kept to their own end of the plantation furthest away from the buildings. They only came when an animal was killed for meat, and would then hang about, keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings and watching their chance. This would come when the carcass was dressed and lights and other portions thrown to the dogs; then the carancho would swoop down like a kite, and snatching up the meat with his beak would rise to a height of twenty or thirty yards in the air, and dropping his prize would deftly catch it again in his claws and soar away to feed on it at leisure. I was never tired of admiring this feat of the carancho, which is, I believe, unique in birds of prey.

The big nest in the old inverted-umbrella-shaped peach tree had a great attraction for me; I used often to visit it and wonder if I would ever have the power of getting up to it. Oh, what a delight it would be to get up there, above the nest, and look down into the great basin-like hollow lined with sheep's wool and see the eggs, bigger than turkey's eggs, all marbled with deep red, or creamy white splashed with blood-red! For I had seen carancho eggs brought in by a gaucho, and I was ambitious to take a clutch from a nest with my own hands. It was true I had been told by my mother that if I wanted wild birds' eggs I was never to take more than one from a nest, unless it was of some injurious species. And injurious the carancho certainly was, in spite of his good behaviour when at home. On one of my early rides on my pony I had seen a pair of them, and I think they were our own birds, furiously attacking a weak and sickly ewe; she had refused to lie down to be killed, and they were on her neck, beating and tearing at her face and trying to pull her down. Also I had seen a litter of little pigs a sow had brought forth on the plain attacked by six or seven caranchos, and found on approaching the spot that they had killed half of them (about six, I think), and were devouring them at some distance from the old pig and the survivors of the litter. But how could I climb the tree and get over the rim of the huge nest? And I was afraid of the birds, they looked so unspeakably savage and formidable whenever I went near them. But my desire to get the eggs was over-mastering, and when it was spring and I had reason to think that eggs were being laid, I went oftener than ever to watch and wait for an opportunity. And one evening just after sunset I could not see the birds anywhere about and thought my chance had now come. I managed to swarm up the smooth trunk to the branches, and then with wildly beating heart began the task of trying to get through the close branches and to work my way over the huge rim of the nest. Just then I heard the harsh grating cry of the bird, and peering through the leaves in the direction it came from I caught sight of the two birds flying furiously towards me, screaming again as they came nearer. Then terror seized me, and down I went through the branches, and catching hold of the lowest one managed to swing myself clear and dropped to the ground. It was a good long drop, but I fell on a soft turf, and springing to my feet fled to the shelter of the orchard and then on towards the house, without ever looking back to see if they were following.

That was my only attempt to raid the nest, and from that time the birds continued in peaceful possession of it, until it came into some person's mind that this huge nest was detrimental to the tree, and was the cause of its producing so little fruit compared with any other tree, and the nest was accordingly pulled down, and the birds forsook the place.

In the description in a former chapter of our old peach trees in their blossoming time I mentioned the paroquets which occasionally visited us but had their breeding-place some distance away. This bird was one of the two common parrots of the district, the other larger species being the Patagonian parrot, Conarus patagonus, the _Loro barranquero_ or Cliff Parrot of the natives. In my early years this bird was common on the treeless pampas extending for hundreds of miles south of Buenos Ayres as well as in Patagonia, and bred in holes it excavated in cliffs and steep banks at the side of lakes and rivers. These breeding-sites were far south of my home, and I did not visit them until my boyhood's days were over.

In winter these birds had a partial migration to the north: at that season we were visited by flocks, and as a child it was a joy to me when the resounding screams of the travelling parrots, heard in the silence long before the birds became visible in the sky, announced their approach. Then, when they appeared flying at a moderate height, how strange and beautiful they looked, with long pointed wings and long graduated tails, in their sombre green plumage touched with yellow, blue, and crimson colour! How I longed for a nearer acquaintance with these winter visitors and hoped they would settle on our trees! Sometimes they did settle to rest, perhaps to spend half a day or longer in the plantation; and sometimes, to my great happiness, a flock would elect to remain with us for whole days and weeks, feeding on the surrounding plain, coming at intervals to the trees during the day, and at night to roost. I used to go out on my pony to follow and watch the flock at feed, and wondered at their partiality for the bitter-tasting seeds of the wild pumpkin. This plant, which was abundant with us, produced an egg-shaped fruit about half the size of an ostrich's egg, with a hard shell-like rind, but the birds with their sharp iron-hard beaks would quickly break up the dry shell and feast on the pips, scattering the seed-shells about till the ground was whitened with them. When I approached the feeding flock on my pony the birds would rise up and, flying to and at me, hover in a compact crowd just above my head, almost deafening me with their angry screams.

The smaller bird, the paroquet, which was about the size of a turtle- dove, had a uniform rich green colour above and ashy-grey beneath, and, like most parrots, it nested in trees. It is one of the most social birds I know; it lives all the year round in communities and builds huge nests of sticks near together as in a rookery, each nest having accommodation for two or three to half-a-dozen pairs. Each pair has an entrance and nest cavity of its own in the big structure.

The only breeding-place in our neighbourhood was in a grove or remains of an ancient ruined plantation at an estancia house, about nine miles from us, owned by an Englishman named Ramsdale. Here there was a colony of about a couple of hundred birds, and the dozen or more trees they had built on were laden with their great nests, each one containing as much material as would have filled a cart.

Mr. Ramsdale was not our nearest English neighbour--the one to be described in another chapter; nor was he a man we cared much about, and his meagre establishment was not attractive, as his old slatternly native housekeeper and the other servants were allowed to do just what they liked. But he was English and a neighbour, and my parents made it a point of paying him an occasional visit, and I always managed to go with them--certainly not to see Mr. Ramsdale, who had nothing to say to a shy little boy and whose hard red face looked the face of a hard drinker. My visits were to the paroquets exclusively. Oh, why, thought I many and many a time, did not these dear green people come over to us and have their happy village in our trees! Yet when I visited them they didn't like it; no sooner would I run out to the grove where the nests were than the place would be in an uproar. Out and up they would rush, to unite in a flock and hover shrieking over my head, and the commotion would last until I left them.

On our return late one afternoon in early spring from one of our rare visits to Mr. Ramsdale, we witnessed a strange thing. The plain at that place was covered with a dense growth of cardoon-thistle or wild artichoke, and leaving the estancia house in our trap, we followed the cattle tracks as there was no road on that side. About half-way home we saw a troop of seven or eight deer in an open green space among the big grey thistle-bushes, but instead of uttering their whistling alarm-cry and making off at our approach they remained at the same spot, although we passed within forty yards of them. The troop was composed of two bucks engaged in a furious fight, and five or six does walking round and round the two fighters. The bucks kept their heads so low down that their noses were almost touching the ground, while with their horns locked together they pushed violently, and from time to time one would succeed in forcing the other ten or twenty feet back. Then a pause, then another violent push, then with horns still together they would move sideways, round and round, and so on until we left them behind and lost sight of them.

This spectacle greatly excited us at the time and was vividly recalled several months afterwards when one of our gaucho neighbours told us of a curious thing he had just seen. He had been out on that cardoon- covered spot where we had seen the fighting deer, and at that very spot in the little green space he had come upon the skeletons of two deer with their horns interlocked.

Tragedies of this kind in the wild animal world have often been recorded, but they are exceedingly rare on the pampas, as the smooth few-pronged antlers of the native deer, corvus campestris, are not so liable to get hopelessly locked as in many other species.

Deer were common in our district in those days, and were partial to land overgrown with cardoon thistle, which in the absence of trees and thickets afforded them some sort of cover. I seldom rode to that side without getting a sight of a group of deer, often looking exceedingly conspicuous in their bright fawn colour as they stood gazing at the intruder amidst the wide waste of grey cardoon bushes.

These rough plains were also the haunt of the rhea, our ostrich, and it was here that I first had a close sight of this greatest and most unbird-like bird of our continent. I was eight years old then, when one afternoon in late summer I was just setting off for a ride on my pony, when I was told to go out on the east side till I came to the cardoon-covered land about a mile beyond the shepherd's ranch. The shepherd was wanted in the plantation and could not go to the flock just yet, and I was told to look for the flock and turn it towards home.

I found the flock just where I had been told to look for it, the sheep very widely scattered, and some groups of a dozen or two to a hundred were just visible at a distance among the rough bushes. Just where these furthest sheep were grazing there was a scattered troop of seventy or eighty horses grazing too, and when I rode to that spot I all at once found myself among a lot of rheas, feeding too among the sheep and horses. Their grey plumage being so much like the cardoon bushes in colour had prevented me from seeing them before I was right among them.

The strange thing was that they paid not the slightest attention to me, and pulling up my pony I sat staring in astonishment at them, particularly at one, a very big one and nearest to me, engaged in leisurely pecking at the clover plants growing among the big prickly thistle leaves, and as it seemed carefully selecting the best sprays.

What a great noble-looking bird it was and how beautiful in its loose grey-and-white plumage, hanging like a picturesquely-worn mantle about its body! Why were they so tame? I wondered. The sight of a mounted gaucho, even at a great distance, will invariably set them off at their topmost speed; yet here I was within a dozen yards of one of them, with several others about me, all occupied in examining the herbage and selecting the nicest-looking leaves to pluck, just as if I was not there at all! I suppose it was because I was only a small boy on a small horse and was not associated in the ostrich brain with the wild-looking gaucho on his big animal charging upon him with a deadly purpose. Presently I went straight at the one near me, and he then raised his head and neck and moved carelessly away to a distance of a few yards, then began cropping the clover once more. I rode at him again, putting my pony to a trot, and when within two yards of him he all at once swung his body round in a quaint way towards me, and breaking into a sort of dancing trot brushed past me.

Pulling up again and looking back I found he was ten or twelve yards behind me, once more quietly engaged in cropping clover leaves!

Again and again this bird, and one of the others I rode at, practised the same pretty trick, first appearing perfectly unconcerned at my presence and then, when I made a charge at them, with just one little careless movement placing themselves a dozen yards behind me.

But this same trick of the rhea is wonderful to see when the hunted bird is spent with running and is finally overtaken by one of the hunters who has perhaps lost the bolas with which he captures his quarry, and who endeavours to place himself side by side with it so as to reach it with his knife. It seems an easy thing to do: the bird is plainly exhausted, panting, his wings hanging, as he lopes on, yet no sooner is the man within striking distance than the sudden motion comes into play, and the bird as by a miracle is now behind instead of at the side of the horse. And before the horse going at top speed can be reined in and turned round, the rhea has had time to recover his wind and get a hundred yards away or more. It is on account of this tricky instinct of the rhea that the gauchos say, "El avestruz es el mas gaucho de los animales," which means that the ostrich, in its resourcefulness and the tricks it practises to save itself when hard pressed, is as clever as the gaucho knows himself to be.