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Chapter III: Maldonado (Page 2)


Mr. Swainson has well remarked, [8] that with the exception of the Molothrus pecoris, to which must be added the M. niger, the cuckoos are the only birds which can be called truly parasitical; namely, such as "fasten themselves, as it were, on another living animal, whose animal heat brings their young into life, whose food they live upon, and whose death would cause theirs during the period of infancy." It is remarkable that some of the species, but not all, both of the Cuckoo and Molothrus, should agree in this one strange habit of their parasitical propagation, whilst opposed to each other in almost every other habit: the molothrus, like our starling, is eminently sociable, and lives on the open plains without art or disguise: the cuckoo, as every one knows, is a singularly shy bird; it frequents the most retired thickets, and feeds on fruit and caterpillars. In structure also these two genera are widely removed from each other. Many theories, even phrenological theories, have been advanced to explain the origin of the cuckoo laying its eggs in other birds' nests. M. Prevost alone, I think, has thrown light by his observations [9] on this puzzle: he finds that the female cuckoo, which, according to most observers, lays at least from four to six eggs, must pair with the male each time after laying only one or two eggs. Now, if the cuckoo was obliged to sit on her own eggs, she would either have to sit on all together, and therefore leave those first laid so long, that they probably would become addled; or she would have to hatch separately each egg, or two eggs, as soon as laid: but as the cuckoo stays a shorter time in this country than any other migratory bird, she certainly would not have time enough for the successive hatchings. Hence we can perceive in the fact of the cuckoo pairing several times, and laying her eggs at intervals, the cause of her depositing her eggs in other birds' nests, and leaving them to the care of foster-parents. I am strongly inclined to believe that this view is correct, from having been independently led (as we shall hereafter see) to an analogous conclusion with regard to the South American ostrich, the females of which are parasitical, if I may so express it, on each other; each female laying several eggs in the nests of several other females, and the male ostrich undertaking all the cares of incubation, like the strange foster-parents with the cuckoo.

I will mention only two other birds, which are very common, and render themselves prominent from their habits. The Saurophagus sulphuratus is typical of the great American tribe of tyrant-flycatchers. In its structure it closely approaches the true shrikes, but in its habits may be compared to many birds. I have frequently observed it, hunting a field, hovering over one spot like a hawk, and then proceeding on to another. When seen thus suspended in the air, it might very readily at a short distance be mistaken for one of the Rapacious order; its stoop, however, is very inferior in force and rapidity to that of a hawk. At other times the Saurophagus haunts the neighbourhood of water, and there, like a kingfisher, remaining stationary, it catches any small fish which may come near the margin. These birds are not unfrequently kept either in cages or in courtyards, with their wings cut. They soon become tame, and are very amusing from their cunning odd manners, which were described to me as being similar to those of the common magpie. Their flight is undulatory, for the weight of the head and bill appears too great for the body. In the evening the Saurophagus takes its stand on a bush, often by the roadside, and continually repeats without a change a shrill and rather agreeable cry, which somewhat resembles articulate words: the Spaniards say it is like the words "Bien te veo" (I see you well), and accordingly have given it this name.

A mocking-bird (Mimus orpheus), called by the inhabitants Calandria, is remarkable, from possessing a song far superior to that of any other bird in the country: indeed, it is nearly the only bird in South America which I have observed to take its stand for the purpose of singing. The song may be compared to that of the Sedge warbler, but is more powerful; some harsh notes and some very high ones, being mingled with a pleasant warbling. It is heard only during the spring. At other times its cry is harsh and far from harmonious. Near Maldonado these birds were tame and bold; they constantly attended the country houses in numbers, to pick the meat which was hung up on the posts or walls: if any other small bird joined the feast, the Calandria soon chased it away. On the wide uninhabited plains of Patagonia another closely allied species, O. Patagonica of d'Orbigny, which frequents the valleys clothed with spiny bushes, is a wilder bird, and has a slightly different tone of voice. It appears to me a curious circumstance, as showing the fine shades of difference in habits, that judging from this latter respect alone, when I first saw this second species, I thought it was different from the Maldonado kind. Having afterwards procured a specimen, and comparing the two without particular care, they appeared so very similar, that I changed my opinion; but now Mr. Gould says that they are certainly distinct; a conclusion in conformity with the trifling difference of habit, of which, of course, he was not aware.

The number, tameness, and disgusting habits of the carrion-feeding hawks of South America make them pre-eminently striking to any one accustomed only to the birds of Northern Europe. In this list may be included four species of the Caracara or Polyborus, the Turkey buzzard, the Gallinazo, and the Condor. The Caracaras are, from their structure, placed among the eagles: we shall soon see how ill they become so high a rank. In their habits they well supply the place of our carrion-crows, magpies, and ravens; a tribe of birds widely distributed over the rest of the world, but entirely absent in South America. To begin with the Polyborus Brasiliensis: this is a common bird, and has a wide geographical range; it is most numerous on the grassy savannahs of La Plata (where it goes by the name of Carrancha), and is far from unfrequent throughout the sterile plains of Patagonia. In the desert between the rivers Negro and Colorado, numbers constantly attend the line of road to devour the carcasses of the exhausted animals which chance to perish from fatigue and thirst. Although thus common in these dry and open countries, and likewise on the arid shores of the Pacific, it is nevertheless found inhabiting the damp impervious forests of West Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The Carranchas, together with the Chimango, constantly attend in numbers the estancias and slaughtering-houses. If an animal dies on the plain the Gallinazo commences the feast, and then the two species of Polyborus pick the bones clean. These birds, although thus commonly feeding together, are far from being friends. When the Carrancha is quietly seated on the branch of a tree or on the ground, the Chimango often continues for a long time flying backwards and forwards, up and down, in a semicircle, trying each time at the bottom of the curve to strike its larger relative. The Carrancha takes little notice, except by bobbing its head. Although the Carranchas frequently assemble in numbers, they are not gregarious; for in desert places they may be seen solitary, or more commonly by pairs.

The Carranchas are said to be very crafty, and to steal great numbers of eggs. They attempt, also, together with the Chimango, to pick off the scabs from the sore backs of horses and mules. The poor animal, on the one hand, with its ears down and its back arched; and, on the other, the hovering bird, eyeing at the distance of a yard the disgusting morsel, form a picture, which has been described by Captain Head with his own peculiar spirit and accuracy. These false eagles most rarely kill any living bird or animal; and their vulture-like, necrophagous habits are very evident to any one who has fallen asleep on the desolate plains of Patagonia, for when he wakes, he will see, on each surrounding hillock, one of these birds patiently watching him with an evil eye: it is a feature in the landscape of these countries, which will be recognised by every one who has wandered over them. If a party of men go out hunting with dogs and horses, they will be accompanied, during the day, by several of these attendants. After feeding, the uncovered craw protrudes; at such times, and indeed generally, the Carrancha is an inactive, tame, and cowardly bird. Its flight is heavy and slow, like that of an English rook. It seldom soars; but I have twice seen one at a great height gliding through the air with much ease. It runs (in contradistinction to hopping), but not quite so quickly as some of its congeners. At times the Carrancha is noisy, but is not generally so: its cry is loud, very harsh and peculiar, and may be likened to the sound of the Spanish guttural g, followed by a rough double r r; when uttering this cry it elevates its head higher and higher, till at last, with its beak wide open, the crown almost touches the lower part of the back. This fact, which has been doubted, is quite true; I have seen them several times with their heads backwards in a completely inverted position. To these observations I may add, on the high authority of Azara, that the Carrancha feeds on worms, shells, slugs, grasshoppers, and frogs; that it destroys young lambs by tearing the umbilical cord; and that it pursues the Gallinazo, till that bird is compelled to vomit up the carrion it may have recently gorged. Lastly, Azara states that several Carranchas, five or six together, will unite in chase of large birds, even such as herons. All these facts show that it is a bird of very versatile habits and considerable ingenuity.

The Polyborus Chimango is considerably smaller than the last species. It is truly omnivorous, and will eat even bread; and I was assured that it materially injures the potato crops in Chiloe, by stocking up the roots when first planted. Of all the carrion-feeders it is generally the last which leaves the skeleton of a dead animal, and may often be seen within the ribs of a cow or horse, like a bird in a cage. Another species is the Polyborus Novae Zelandiae, which is exceedingly common in the Falkland Islands. These birds in many respects resemble in their habits the Carranchas. They live on the flesh of dead animals and on marine productions; and on the Ramirez rocks their whole sustenance must depend on the sea. They are extraordinarily tame and fearless, and haunt the neighborhood of houses for offal. If a hunting party kills an animal, a number soon collect and patiently await, standing on the ground on all sides. After eating, their uncovered craws are largely protruded, giving them a disgusting appearance. They readily attack wounded birds: a cormorant in this state having taken to the shore, was immediately seized on by several, and its death hastened by their blows. The Beagle was at the Falklands only during the summer, but the officers of the Adventure, who were there in the winter, mention many extraordinary instances of the boldness and rapacity of these birds. They actually pounced on a dog that was lying fast asleep close by one of the party; and the sportsmen had difficulty in preventing the wounded geese from being seized before their eyes. It is said that several together (in this respect resembling the Carranchas) wait at the mouth of a rabbit-hole, and together seize on the animal when it comes out. They were constantly flying on board the vessel when in the harbour; and it was necessary to keep a good look out to prevent the leather being torn from the rigging, and the meat or game from the stern. These birds are very mischievous and inquisitive; they will pick up almost anything from the ground; a large black glazed hat was carried nearly a mile, as was a pair of the heavy balls used in catching cattle. Mr. Usborne experienced during the survey a more severe loss, in their stealing a small Kater's compass in a red morocco leather case, which was never recovered. These birds are, moreover, quarrelsome and very passionate; tearing up the grass with their bills from rage. They are not truly gregarious; they do not soar, and their flight is heavy and clumsy; on the ground they run extremely fast, very much like pheasants. They are noisy, uttering several harsh cries, one of which is like that of the English rook, hence the sealers always call them rooks. It is a curious circumstance that, when crying out, they throw their heads upwards and backwards, after the same manner as the Carrancha. They build in the rocky cliffs of the sea-coast, but only on the small adjoining islets, and not on the two main islands: this is a singular precaution in so tame and fearless a bird. The sealers say that the flesh of these birds, when cooked, is quite white, and very good eating; but bold must the man be who attempts such a meal.

We have now only to mention the turkey-buzzard (Vultur aura), and the Gallinazo. The former is found wherever the country is moderately damp, from Cape Horn to North America. Differently from the Polyborus Brasiliensis and Chimango, it has found its way to the Falkland Islands. The turkey-buzzard is a solitary bird, or at most goes in pairs. It may at once be recognised from a long distance, by its lofty, soaring, and most elegant flight. lt is well known to be a true carrion-feeder. On the west coast of Patagonia, among the thickly-wooded islets and broken land, it lives exclusively on what the sea throws up, and on the carcasses of dead seals. Wherever these animals are congregated on the rocks, there the vultures may be seen. The Gallinazo (Cathartes atratus) has a different range from the last species, as it never occurs southward of lat. 41 degs. Azara states that there exists a tradition that these birds, at the time of the conquest, were not found near Monte Video, but that they subsequently followed the inhabitants from more northern districts.At the present day they are numerous in the valley of the Colorado, which is three hundred miles due south of Monte Video. It seems probable that this additional migration has happened since the time of Azara. The Gallinazo generally prefers a humid climate, or rather the neighbourhood of fresh water; hence it is extremely abundant in Brazil and La Plata, while it is never found on the desert and arid plains of Northern Patagonia, excepting near some stream. These birds frequent the whole Pampas to the foot of the Cordillera, but I never saw or heard of one in Chile; in Peru they are preserved as scavengers. These vultures certainly may be called gregarious, for they seem to have pleasure in society, and are not solely brought together by the attraction of a common prey. On a fine day a flock may often be observed at a great height, each bird wheeling round and round without closing its wings, in the most graceful evolutions. This is clearly performed for the mere pleasure of the exercise, or perhaps is connected with their matrimonial alliances.

I have now mentioned all the carrion-feeders, excepting the condor, an account of which will be more appropriately introduced when we visit a country more congenial to its habits than the plains of La Plata.

In a broad band of sand-hillocks which separate the Laguna del Potrero from the shores of the Plata, at the distance of a few miles from Maldonado, I found a group of those vitrified, siliceous tubes, which are formed by lightning entering loose sand. These tubes resemble in every particular those from Drigg in Cumberland, described in the Geological Transactions. [10] The sand-hillocks of Maldonado not being protected by vegetation, are constantly changing their position. From this cause the tubes projected above the surface, and numerous fragments lying near, showed that they had formerly been buried to a greater depth. Four sets entered the sand perpendicularly: by working with my hands I traced one of them two feet deep; and some fragments which evidently had belonged to the same tube, when added to the other part, measured five feet three inches. The diameter of the whole tube was nearly equal, and therefore we must suppose that originally it extended to a much greater depth. These dimensions are however small, compared to those of the tubes from Drigg, one of which was traced to a depth of not less than thirty feet.

The internal surface is completely vitrified, glossy, and smooth. A small fragment examined under the microscope appeared, from the number of minute entangled air or perhaps steam bubbles, like an assay fused before the blowpipe. The sand is entirely, or in greater part, siliceous; but some points are of a black colour, and from their glossy surface possess a metallic lustre. The thickness of the wall of the tube varies from a thirtieth to a twentieth of an inch, and occasionally even equals a tenth. On the outside the grains of sand are rounded, and have a slightly glazed appearance: I could not distinguish any signs of crystallization. In a similar manner to that described in the Geological Transactions, the tubes are generally compressed, and have deep longitudinal furrows, so as closely to resemble a shrivelled vegetable stalk, or the bark of the elm or cork tree. Their circumference is about two inches, but in some fragments, which are cylindrical and without any furrows, it is as much as four inches. The compression from the surrounding loose sand, acting while the tube was still softened from the effects of the intense heat, has evidently caused the creases or furrows. Judging from the uncompressed fragments, the measure or bore of the lightning (if such a term may be used) must have been about one inch and a quarter. At Paris, M. Hachette and M. Beudant [11] succeeded in making tubes, in most respects similar to these fulgurites, by passing very strong shocks of galvanism through finely-powdered glass: when salt was added, so as to increase its fusibility, the tubes were larger in every dimension, They failed both with powdered felspar and quartz. One tube, formed with pounded glass, was very nearly an inch long, namely .982, and had an internal diameter of .019 of an inch. When we hear that the strongest battery in Paris was used, and that its power on a substance of such easy fusibility as glass was to form tubes so diminutive, we must feel greatly astonished at the force of a shock of lightning, which, striking the sand in several places, has formed cylinders, in one instance of at least thirty feet long, and having an internal bore, where not compressed, of full an inch and a half; and this in a material so extraordinarily refractory as quartz!

The tubes, as I have already remarked, enter the sand nearly in a vertical direction. One, however, which was less regular than the others, deviated from a right line, at the most considerable bend, to the amount of thirty-three degrees. From this same tube, two small branches, about a foot apart, were sent off; one pointed downwards, and the other upwards. This latter case is remarkable, as the electric fluid must have turned back at the acute angle of 26 degs., to the line of its main course. Besides the four tubes which I found vertical, and traced beneath the surface, there were several other groups of fragments, the original sites of which without doubt were near. All occurred in a level area of shifting sand, sixty yards by twenty, situated among some high sand-hillocks, and at the distance of about half a mile from a chain of hills four or five hundred feet in height. The most remarkable circumstance, as it appears to me, in this case as well as in that of Drigg, and in one described by M. Ribbentrop in Germany, is the number of tubes found within such limited spaces. At Drigg, within an area of fifteen yards, three were observed, and the same number occurred in Germany. In the case which I have described, certainly more than four existed within the space of the sixty by twenty yards. As it does not appear probable that the tubes are produced by successive distinct shocks, we must believe that the lightning, shortly before entering the ground, divides itself into separate branches.

The neighbourhood of the Rio Plata seems peculiarly subject to electric phenomena. In the year 1793, [12] one of the most destructive thunderstorms perhaps on record happened at Buenos Ayres: thirty-seven places within the city were struck by lightning, and nineteen people killed. From facts stated in several books of travels, I am inclined to suspect that thunderstorms are very common near the mouths of great rivers. Is it not possible that the mixture of large bodies of fresh and salt water may disturb the electrical equilibrium? Even during our occasional visits to this part of South America, we heard of a ship, two churches, and a house having been struck. Both the church and the house I saw shortly afterwards: the house belonged to Mr. Hood, the consul-general at Monte Video. Some of the effects were curious: the paper, for nearly a foot on each side of the line where the bell-wires had run, was blackened. The metal had been fused, and although the room was about fifteen feet high, the globules, dropping on the chairs and furniture, had drilled in them a chain of minute holes. A part of the wall was shattered, as if by gunpowder, and the fragments had been blown off with force sufficient to dent the wall on the opposite side of the room. The frame of a looking-glass was blackened, and the gilding must have been volatilized, for a smelling-bottle, which stood on the chimney-piece, was coated with bright metallic particles, which adhered as firmly as if they had been enamelled.

[1] Hearne's Journey, p. 383.

[2] Maclaren, art. "America," Encyclop. Brittann.

[3] Azara says, "Je crois que la quantite annuelle des pluies est, dans toutes ces contrees, plus considerable qu'en Espagne." -- Vol. i. p. 36.

[4] In South America I collected altogether twenty-seven species of mice, and thirteen more are known from the works of Azara and other authors. Those collected by myself have been named and described by Mr. Waterhouse at the meetings of the Zoological Society. I must be allowed to take this opportunity of returning my cordial thanks to Mr. Waterhouse, and to the other gentleman attached to that Society, for their kind and most liberal assistance on all occasions.

[5] In the stomach and duodenum of a capybara which I opened I found a very large quantity of a thin yellowish fluid, in which scarcely a fibre could be distinguished. Mr. Owen informs me that a part of the oesophagus is so constructed that nothing much larger than a crowquill can be passed down. Certainly the broad teeth and strong jaws of this animal are well fitted to grind into pulp the aquatic plants on which it feeds.

[6] At the R. Negro, in Northern Patagonia, there is an animal of the same habits, and probably a closely allied species, but which I never saw. Its noise is different from that of the Maldonado kind; it is repeated only twice instead of three or four times, and is more distinct and sonorous; when heard from a distance it so closely resembles the sound made in cutting down a small tree with an axe, that I have sometimes remained in doubt concerning it.

[7] Philosoph. Zoolog., tom. i. p. 242.

[8] Magazine of Zoology and Botany, vol. i. p. 217.

[9] Read before the Academy of Sciences in Paris. L'Institut,

1834, p. 418.

[10] Geolog. Transact. vol. ii. p. 528. In the Philosoph. Transact. (1790, p. 294) Dr. Priestly has described some imperfect siliceous tubes and a melted pebble of quartz, found in digging into the ground, under a tree, where a man had been killed by lightning.

[11] Annals de Chimie et de Physique, tom. xxxvii. p. 319.

[12] Azara's Voyage, vol. i. p. 36.

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