This strange looking bird is also a bird of prey; but it feeds generally
on dead carcases or offal. There are several kinds of vulture. The
largest of all birds of prey is the Condor, a South American species.
There is also the King Vulture, a native of the same country, called so
not from its size, for it is the smallest of the race, but from its
elegant plumage. Mr. Waterton, the naturalist, relates a little story of
a King Vulture, which seems to show that, though so much smaller, this
bird is regarded with some degree of reverence by the common vultures.
He says that "the carcase of a large snake, which he had killed in the
forest, becoming putrid, about twenty of the common vultures came and
perched in the neighbouring trees; amongst them came also the King of
the Vultures; and he observed that none of the common ones seemed
inclined to begin breakfast till his majesty had finished. When he had
consumed as much snake as nature informed him would do him good, he
retired to the top of a high mora-tree, and then all the common vultures
fell to, and made a hearty meal." Mr. Waterton also observed that the
day after the planter had burnt the trash in a cane-field, the King
Vulture might be seen feeding on the snakes, lizards, and frogs, which
had suffered in the conflagration. Indeed the vulture is of real service
in this respect, for he clears the carrion away from the hot countries
he inhabits, which would otherwise putrify and infect the air. In some
places, as at Paramaribo, the value of these birds, on this account, is
so fully recognized, that they are protected by law, a fine being
imposed on him who kills one.
The vulture is to be found in almost all hot countries. A traveller in
Abyssinia speaks of having seen them hovering, as a black cloud, over an
army of soldiers, in numbers like the sands of the sea. After a battle
they come sweeping down to feed upon the slain. Indeed they prefer dead
to living food, and must be endowed with a wonderfully keen sense of
sight or smell, the former is thought most likely, as no sooner does a
beast of burden drop in the deserts exhausted on the sands, than
vultures begin to make their way towards the carcase. Whence they come
none can tell, and the only probable suggestion is that they hover at a
height beyond the ken of human eye over a passing caravan, for they are
first noticed as specks in the air above, moving slowly round in
circles as they descend spirally upon their prey.
These birds are most voracious, gorging themselves with as much as they
can possibly contrive to swallow. They are also very strong and
difficult to kill, one of the condors having been known to walk about
after it had been strangled and hung on a tree with a lasso for several
minutes, and to keep on its legs after receiving three balls from a
The vulture is wonderfully fitted by nature for the part it has to fill
as "scavenger" abroad, this being the name they often go by. It is large
and strong, so that the carcase of a horse or a buffalo is not too much
for it to attack. Its legs are strong, but not armed with sharp claws
like those of birds that feed on living prey. Its wings are long and
wide, and its bones, though thick, unusually light, so that the bird
can remain an immense time poised in the highest regions of the
atmosphere. Its beak is strong and hooked, and remarkably well formed
for tearing or dividing, and what is still more noticeable, the head and
neck which, from the disgusting nature of its food, must often be buried
in unclean carcases, are quite, or very nearly, destitute of feathers,
which, in such a situation, would be soon covered with dirt or blood,
and could not be kept clean by the bird's own bill. The smell of
vultures is, as may be supposed, very offensive, and they are altogether
very disagreeable birds to have anything to do with; but they are
appointed to fill a particular office in the world, and are found
invaluable in performing it.
The largest vultures are fifteen or sixteen feet from the tip of one
wing to the tip of the other, even when not stretched to the utmost,
and four feet from beak to tail. Its legs are as thick as a man's wrist,
and its middle claw seven inches long. They bring forth their young on
the tops of inaccessible rocks, in sunny regions, more than twelve
thousand feet above the level of the sea.
The European Vulture dwells amongst the Alps, but flies as far as the
mountains of Africa and Asia. It is not so large as the condor, seldom
exceeding the size of an eagle.
Now I have to talk to you of much prettier birds, though, alas! to tell
the truth, not half so useful as the disgusting vulture of whom we have
been speaking. This picture represents a cockatoo, one of the parrot
tribe, of which there are at least 250 species, including, besides this,
the parrot, macaw, lory, parrakeet, etc., etc.
Parrots are all, for the most part, tropical birds, and in their native
climates the most numerous of the feathered tribes. There, amongst
brilliant creepers and dazzling sunshine, the "parrots swing like
blossoms on the trees."
The foot of the parrot is formed for climbing, being, as Linnaeus would
say, _scansorial_, that is, with two toes forwards and two backwards.
The strong hooked beak is also used as a third foot in climbing, very
much as the long tail of a monkey helps him in flinging himself from one
branch to another.
They fly often in large flocks, and are killed and eaten as food. Indeed
they are so destructive to the farmer's crops, that he kills them in
self-defence. Do you know the pretty little Australian singing parrot,
about as large as a yellow hammer, green and gold coloured? Well, I was
told by a gentleman that he once ate part of a pudding which contained
at least thirty of these little creatures, for each of which here one
would have to pay heavily enough, and be only too anxious to take every
care of afterwards to preserve it alive.
The cockatoo is also found in New Holland, and is chiefly remarkable for
its beautiful sulphur coloured crest. The finest macaws come from South
America; they are larger than parrots, and have magnificent plumage of
blue, crimson, green and yellow. Seen in their native land in large
flocks they are said to resemble a flying rainbow. Lories are so called
from their frequently repeating the word lory. The grey African Parrot
is the best speaker, for I need not tell you how closely almost all
kinds of parrot can imitate the human voice. None imitate so closely as
this, the plainest in its personal appearance. It seems to take pains to
learn, but prefers being taught by children. Very many amusing stories
are told of its docility and sagacity. A very clever man tells of one
that was introduced to Prince Maurice in a room in Brazil, where he was
in company with several Dutchmen. The bird immediately exclaimed in the
Brazilian language, "What a company of white men is here." Being asked,
"Who is that man?" (pointing to the Prince) it answered, "Some general
or other." When asked, "Where do you come from?" it replied, "From
Marignan." "To whom do you belong?" "To a Portuguese." The Prince then
asked, "What do you do there?" it answered, "I look after the chickens."
The Prince, laughing, exclaimed, "You look after the chickens!" "Yes,"
says Poll, "I can, I know very well how to do it," clucking at the same
time like a hen calling her brood. We are told also of a parrot that
learned to repeat the Apostles' Creed quite perfectly, and on that
account was bought by a cardinal for 100 crowns.
The bite of a parrot is very violent, so that unless assured they are
good tempered you will do well not to approach a strange bird too
closely. The cause of this power in the beak is that, in order to
enable it to climb about more easily, the upper mandible, or bone,
instead of forming a continuation as it were of the skull bone, as in
other birds, is united by a membrane which enables it to raise or
depress the beak at its pleasure. This gives much greater force to its
power of grasping. Parrots do not build nests nor hatch young in this
country, but they thrive abundantly, and, when well treated, show no
symptoms of pining.
There are some very pretty little birds of the parrot tribe called
love-birds, from their affectionate nature. They are quite worthy of the
name, as they show the utmost tenderness for each other, both in health