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Fascination With Serpents

( Originally Published 1851 )



There is a very general opinion, which has been adopted even by some eminent naturalists, that several species of serpents possess the, power of fascinating birds and small quadrupeds, by fixing their eyes upon the animal, so that the poor victim is unable to escape from his formidable enemy. Dr. Barton, of Philadelphia, published, in 1796, a ` Memoir concerning the fascinating faculty which has been ascribed to the Rattle-snake, and other American Serpents,' in which he maintains that this supposed power of fascination does not exist, and offers some ingenious explanations of the origin of what he considers a popular mistake. Our readers will, we think, be interested by an extract or two from this work:

" In conducting my inquiries into this curious subject I endeavored to ascertain the two following points, viz. first, what species of birds are most frequently observed to be enchanted by the serpents ? and, secondly, at what season of the year has any particular species been the most commonly under this wonderful influence? I supposed this would furnish me with a clue to a right explanation of the whole mystery.

" Birds have an almost uniform and determinate method of building their nests, whether we consider the form of the nest, its materials, or the place in which it is fixed. Those birds which build their nests upon the ground, on the lower branches of trees, and on low bushes (especially on the sides of rivers, creeks, &c. that are frequented by different kinds of serpents,) have most frequently been observed to be under the enchanting faculty of the rattle-snake, &c. Indeed, the bewitching spirit of these serpents seems to be almost entirely limited to these kinds of birds. Hence we so frequently hear tales of the fascination of our cat-bird, which builds its nest in the low bushes, on the sides of creeks, and other waters, the most usual haunts of the black snake and other serpents. hence, too, upon opening the stomachs of some of our serpents, if we often find that they contain birds, it is almost entirely those birds which build in the manner I have just mentioned.

"The rattle-snake seldom, if ever, climbs up a tree. Ile is frequently, however, found about their roots, especially in wet situations. It is said that it is often seen, curled round a tree, darting terrible glances at a squirrel, which after some time is so much influenced by these glances, or by some subtile emanation from the body of the serpent, that the poor animal falls into the jaws of its enemy. Is the animal's fear and distress a matter of any wonder? Nature has taught different animals what animals are their enemies; and as the rattle-snake occasion-ally devours birds and squirrels, to these animals he must necessarily he an object of fear: Some-times the squirrel drives away the serpent, but occasionally approaching too near his enemy, he is bitten or immediately devoured. These hostilities, however, are not common.

" In almost every instance I have found that the supposed fascinating faculty of the serpent was exerted upon the birds at the particular season of their laying their eggs, or of their hatching, or of their rearing their young, still tender and defence-less. I now began to suspect, that the cries and fears of birds supposed to be fascinated originated in an endeavor to protect their nest or young. My inquiries have convinced me that this is the case.

I have already observed, that the rattle-snake does not climb up trees; but the black snake and some other species of the coluber do. When impelled by hunger and incapable of satisfying it by the capture of animals on the ground, they begin to glide up trees or bushes upon which a bird has its nest. The bird is not ignorant of the serpent's object. She leaves her nest, whether it contains eggs or young ones, and endeavors to oppose the reptile's progress. In doing this, she is actuated by the strength of her instinctive attachment to her eggs, or of affection to her young. Her cry is melancholy, her motions are tremulous. She exposes herself to the most imminent danger. Some-times she approaches so near_ the reptile that he seizes her as his prey. But this is far from being universally the case. Often she compels the serpent to leave the tree, and then returns to her nest.

" It is a well-known fact, that, among some species of birds, the female, at a certain period, is accustomed to compel the young ones to leave the nest; that is, when the young have acquired so much strength that they are no longer entitled to all her care. But they still claim some of her care. Their flights are awkward, and soon broken by fatigue: they fall to the ground, when they are frequently exposed to the attacks of the serpent, which attempts to devour them. In this situation of affairs, the mother will place herself upon a branch of a tree, or bush, in the vicinity of the serpent. She will dart upon the serpent, in order to prevent the destruction of her young; but fear, the instinct of self-preservation, will compel her to retire. She leaves the serpent, however, but for a short time, and then returns again. Oftentimes she prevents the destruction of her young, attacking the snake with her wing, her beak, or her claws. Should the reptile succeed in capturing the young, the mother is exposed to less danger. For, whilst engaged in swallowing them, he has neither inclination nor power to seize upon the old one. But the appetite of the serpent tribe is great: the capacity of their stomachs is not less so. The danger of the mother is at hand when the young are devoured : the snake seizes upon her; and this is the catastrophe which crowns the tale of fascination!

" Some years since, Mr. Rittenhouse, an accurate observer, was induced to suppose, from the peculiar melancholy cry of a red-winged maize-thief, that a snake was at no great distance from it, and that the bird was in distress. He threw a stone at the place from which the cry proceeded, which had the effect of driving the bird away. The poor animal, however, immediately returned to the same spot. Mr. Rittenhouse now went to the place where the bird alighted, and, to his great astonishment, he found it perched upon the back of a large black snake, which it was pecking with its beak. At this very time the serpent was in the act of swallowing a young bird, and from the enlarged size of the reptile's belly it was evident that it had already swallowed two or three other young birds. After the snake was killed the old bird flew away. Mr. R. says, that the cry and actions of this bird had been precisely similar to those of a bird which is said to be under the influence of a serpent. The maize-thief builds its nest in low bushes, the bottoms of which are the usual haunts of the black snake. The reptile found no difficulty in gliding up to the nest, from which most probably, in the absence of the mother, it had taken the young ones; or it had seized the young ones after they had been forced from the nest by the mother. In either case the mother had come to prevent them from being devoured."

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