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Curious Birds Of South America

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )



A SHORT railway-journey took us to Lima, the capital, which I am not going to describe, beyond mentioning that the houses have flat roofs and that a stream of water flows along the centre of all but the main thoroughfares.

There the first thing a lover of natural history notices is the strangely tame large birds sitting on these flat roofs in the most ridiculous attitudes, particularly if the weather be extra warm, when they extend their wings as though desirous of cooling themselves by letting in as much air as possible upon their bodies.

These domesticated wild-fowl are called in Spanish, Gallinâzas; in Indian, Urubus; and in English, Carrion Vultures, or Turkey-buzzards. They are about the size of the noble Thanksgiving bird, and, like it, their plumage is black and their necks bare and fleshy-red. But here the resemblance ceases, for the gallinâza is not the kind of poultry to welcome on the festive-board with an accompaniment of chine or sausages ! As a matter of fact, he is a scavenger, living on decomposed animal matter and refuse of all kinds. He is therefore most useful, and, as in the case of the Indian adjutant crane, a heavy fine is inflicted on any one who kills him. Thus, having acquired the rights of citizenship, and knowing himself protected by the arm of the law, he has become perfectly tame and confident.

Exploring the back streets of Lima early one morning, I saw these feathered scavengers at work. They were apparently indifferent to everything but the business upon which they were employed, until a window opened!

At the sound the gallinâzas were instantly on the alert. A woman appeared, and, without the warning cry of " gardeloo " (as used in old Edinburgh), emptied into the street the accumulated house refuse of the previous twenty-four hours, including two or three dead rats, a defunct cat, and a fowl in a " high " condition. This was some years ago. Lima is now sanitated in up-to-date style, I believe.

The gallinâzas were now transformed into incarnations of liveliness. They swallowed the refuse and at-tacked the carcases, poor pussy being seized upon by a bird at each end, and was completely torn asunder. The rats were swallowed whole; while the fowl, being soft and tender from decomposition, was easily separated into half a dozen tidbits. In ten minutes' time not a particle of insanitary matter remained in the road. The same process of " refuse-throwing " went on at intervals from most of the houses, until the birds were gorged and had to retire.

The Chinchas, 150 miles S.S.E. of Callao, was the destination of the barque, there to load with guano for Liver-pool. But Spanish " red-tape " ordained that the ship should sail past her destination on her way up from the south, to Callao, and thence beat back against the light trade-wind to the islands, and take in her cargo; the same formality of touching at Callao being required on the voyage home, a frightful waste of time and money.

At last we got away from Callao, and after three days of weary tacking, dropped anchor in very deep water off the principal, or Northern, island.

For centuries these islets, three in number, lying ten miles from the town of Pisco, on the mainland, in latitude 14.20 S., have been the resort of innumerable seals and sea-birds, the former crawling there to die. Their bodies, with those of sea-fowl, their eggs and excrement accumulating for centuries in this rainless climate, had gradually covered the bare rock and formed a mass averaging thirty feet deep, and rising into a peak eighty feet thick at the summit.

This is guano, the famous fertiliser brought to the notice of European farmers in 1841, but used by the Peruvians ages ago, long before the Spaniards came into South America.

The Republic of Peru derived a large revenue from its sale (I use the past tense, because practically all the guano has been cleared off), and, being naturally desirous of encouraging the birds to remain in the vicinity of the islands and thus help to replenish it, they imposed a big fine upon any person killing them or, in fact, any other creature (except man!). In effect, the shooting of a bird or a seal on or near the Chinchas, was strictly prohibited, and if a gun was even innocently discharged on board a vessel at anchor, as likely as not a smart boat would put off, and, ascertaining who the culprit was, would arrest and fine him.

But neither the guard-house nor the guard-boat could be everywhere, and two of the islands—the Middle and the South—were almost deserted being not yet worked, and became my happy hunting-grounds regardless of regulations.

Within a few yards from the guard-house stood a rock, approachable only by water, and appropriated by a solitary pelican as a convenient resting-place. It was a splendid bird with black wings, bright-coloured hackle blue, red, and yellow—and a fine tuft of upright feathers on its head. It was the biggest specimen I had ever seen, and inquiry elicited the fact that it had haunted the spot for years. So it was probably the oldest pelican on the islands.

For hours I used to watch the pelicans fishing round the islands, diving headlong from a great height with a splash whenever their sharp eyes detected a shoal of fish, and emerging from the water with their capacious pouches full of silvery mullet. Fish were everywhere, and no doubt this had always been the great attraction for seals and birds.

On the South Island were numerous small petrels, somewhat like skua gulls, living in burrows running deep in the dry guano. But when I put my arm into these burrows as far as it would go, to try to pull them out of their stronghold, they fought desperately, and their bite and scratch was no joke.

Beautiful terns—graceful performers on the wing—with red beaks, flicked about in every direction. Of land birds there were none; at any rate, I did not come across any, and I doubt if, in the absence of vegetation, they could have existed.

How I escaped drowning, or being shipwrecked on the rocks, I don't know! A friendly doctor, resident on the North Island, lent me his boat, seaworthy, but so small that there was room in her only for myself, and, perhaps, a big dog, or small boy. She was fitted with a leg-of-mutton sail, like the famous craft in which Robinson Crusoe escaped from Sallee, Morocco, with the faithful Xury.

In this cockle-shell I used to take lonely voyages, exploring the inlets, channels, and out-lying rocks of the Chincha group, fishing, and ever ready with gun for sea-fowl, and with rifle for the seals and sea-lions which swarmed.

It seems odd to think of penguins in the tropics. We generally associate them with antarctic regions, lonely, storm-swept islands, or on the mysterious, snow-covered continent around the South Pole, partly explored by Sir George Newnes's good ship, Southern Cross, where the voyagers found king and emperor penguins, bulky travesties of birds, and wingless, the latter five feet high.

But all up the west coast of South America, probably because of the abundant fish life, small penguins (not unlike those of the Cape and South Africa) swarm, and may be seen standing on the rocks close to the water, into which they can dive in a second. They are neither shy nor suspicious on land, and are easily approached. Once in the water they are almost impossible to shoot, being quick as grebes, and diving at the flash of the gun.

Like their big relations far south, the west-coast penguins have curious feathery head-ornaments, reminding one of Red Indians. They rejoice in white breasts, which they keep scrupulously clean ; their backs are black, and when seen from a distance standing bold upright, they look exactly like little boys in white waistcoats. At sea (where they are often found far from land) they utter a strange, wailing cry, and many a mate, keeping watch in the small hours off the Falkland Islands, has mistaken it for the distressed cry of some poor fellow-mariner fallen overboard from a distant ship.

River Plate Birds.— The River Plate, or Argentina, as it is usually called, is veritably a land of pastures; a land covered with sheep and oxen sufficient to feed Britain year after year with ease.

Wherever the branches of the mighty Parana, and Uruguay, that form the Rio de la Plata, are large (which most of them are), a fringe of wood belts their courses, emerging wherefrom are rising hillocks, covered to the summit with pasturage clear of shrubs, the district being like the South Downs, but with black loamy soil, immensely fertile.

Beyond, the country is generally flat and open, or presents a monotonous succession of gentle undulations with here and there an isolated tree. In the spring, the grass is a vivid green, gemmed with wild flowers, such as scarlet verbena, red, yellow, and blue clover, and white campanula. The cattle spread out in groups as far as the eye can reach; while innumerable flocks of sheep are dotted over the ground; and one realises that this is in-deed a country of flocks and herds.

The first thing I noticed was the extraordinary tameness of most of the birds except in spots where they had been much shot at by Englishmen, the natives rarely using a gun.

The isolated trees were full of small finches, miniature doves, linnets, and cardinal-birds ; the last-named looking most knowing with their red top-knots. They are of a playful disposition, and love a bit of fun, and they dodged me round and round a tree looking most impudent all the time. When I approached quite close, they slipped through the branches, and I believe would have repeated this process indefinitely rather than take the trouble to fly off to another tree ; though the neighbouring presence of hawks and eagles, ready to pounce upon them if they broke cover, might partly account for their conduct.

These raptorials are as fearless as the kites in India or the eagles in Tartary, where it is related that some travelers were once seated round a pot in which venison had been stewed, and were just about to partake of it, when they heard a noise overhead like the rushing of a storm, and a great bird dashed down, rising with a piece of meat in its claws, and simultaneously giving the cook a sound box on the ears with its outstretched wings.

I had no such experience in the River Plate, for there eagles get more than they want to eat, in the shape of young lambs and stray calves and foals. I narrowly escaped, however, being much hurt. I was out with a rifle, hoping for a shot at an ostrich or a deer, when a big eagle came and hovered around me. I fired, and brought it down with a broken wing. Having had little experience with eagles, I thought it was in a helpless condition, but, to make sure, I hit it, as it lay on its back, a heavy, and, I hoped, a mortal blow with the butt end of the rifle. In an instant it seized the weapon with its powerful talons, tore it from my hands wrenched the lock from the stock, and bent the hammer !

Looking at the creature's magnificent form, a model of compacted strength, I recalled Tennyson's lines ----

" He clasps the crag with hooked hands,
Close to the sun in lonely lands
Ring'd with the azure world he stands,
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunder-bolt he falls."

As a matter of course my ambition was to become the possessor of an American ostrich shot by myself. There was a flock of about twenty in the estancia (sheep and cattle-farm) where I was staying; and, borrowing a horse, I set out for a ten-mile ride to the district frequented by them. They are not shy of men on horse-back, being accustomed to them, but an individual on foot is an alarming object, while dogs are their pet aversion, and they will scour away at the sight of a puppy.

They are called rheas, and—as can be seen in the Zoo —resemble small ostriches, but have three, instead of two, toes. Like cattle, they browse on grass; they are of gentle disposition, and become so domesticated that they may often be seen in small and remote towns marching into the houses, making the tour of the rooms—generally all on the ground floor—and going back to their roosting-places at eventide.

However, to return to my hunt. Presently I came in sight of the flock, and had no difficulty in getting within reasonable distance. But firing a rifle from terra-firma is very different from doing so on horseback. It was useless, for as my steed cantered round them the barrel wobbled up and down, until in desperation I let fly anyhow, and, of course, missed.

The report startled the rheas, and they set off at a dignified, and what appeared to be, a moderate, run, which I thought would be easy to surpass. Not a bit of it. They let me get within a couple of hundred yards, and my horse, who was keen on the chase, did his best to close with them; but, without any apparent effort, the rheas glided ever so far away, paused, and looked back as much as to say, " What is the use of your attempting it !

This performance was repeated, until both I and my horse were tired. So I dismounted, let the broncho go (he needed no hobbling), and proceeded to stalk the flock. But it was no good. They had become suspicious, and made for the top of one of the hillocks whence they could see ever so far; so I never got nearer than five hundred yards of them, and though I blazed away with my old-fashioned rifle, all the ostriches lived to tell the tale.

As a rule, ostriches are ridden down by the gauchos, who circle round the flocks and secure them with the bolas, or the lasso; or they are chased straight on end by dogs and relays of horsemen.



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