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Genus AMPELIS. (Linn.) Until recently, the genus before us was known only by two species, one of which is spread over Europe, the northern parts of Asia as far as Japan, and the western portion of North America, as far as the Rocky Mountains; and the other inhabits the Atlantic side of the last-named continent, extending from Canada to Mexico. A third species has, however, of late years, been discovered, of much more limited range, being confined to the remote islands of Japan.
The distinctive characters of this genus may be thus summed up; the beak short, strong, elevated, broad at the base, the upper mandible curved towards its extremity, with a strongly marked notch; the gape very wide; the nostrils oval, covered at the base with feathers, or strong hairs, directed forwards; the wings moderately long, with the first, or the first and second quills longest; the tail short and nearly even; the feet rather short, plumed slightly below the heel, the outmost and middle toes connected. The plumage of the head forms a long and pointed crest, capable of being erected, which is common to both sexes. Two of the species, at least, are distinguished by having singular appendages to the secondaries of the wing, and sometimes to the feathers of the tail; the shaft of the feather being prolonged beyond the vane, and its tip dilated into a flat oval appendage, of a brilliant scarlet hue, and exactly resembling in appearance red sealing-wax. Hence these birds are frequently known by the name of Wax-wings, as from the silky softness and smoothness of the plumage generally, and particularly of that of the tail, they are sometimes called Silk-tails.
We have alluded to the very wide geographical range of the only species known in Europe, which, from its greater frequency and abundance in the south-east of Germany, is commonly known as the Bohemian Chatterer, or Silk-tail (Ampelis garrulus, Linn.). Its occurrence, however, in most of the countries where it has been recognized, is desultory, irregular, and not determined by any known laws. At uncertain intervals they appear in particular districts in immense flocks, and so remarkable have such visitations appeared, that they have been carefully recorded as events of history, and supposed to be in some way ominous of great public calamities. Thus in 1530, 1551, and 1571, vast numbers appeared in northern Italy, and in 1552, along the Rhine, near Mentz, they flew in clouds so dense, as to darken the sun. Of late years, however, in Italy, and Germany, and especially in France, they have been rarely observed, and then only in small flocks that seemed to have strayed from the great body. In 1807 and 1814, they were numerous in western Europe.
În the British islands the Bohemian Chatterer can be considered only as a rare and straggling
visitant, though many instances of its occurrence, and that in some numbers, are on record, more particularly in the north, and during winters of extraordinary severity. In the winter of 1787, many flocks were seen all over the county of York; in that of 1810 large flocks were dispersed over the kingdom, and in the great storm in the winter
of 1823, several were again observed. In the extreme north of Norway and Sweden, and the icy forests of Russia, they are met with in great numbers every winter, appearing much earlier than in more temperate countries; yet even here they are only migratory visitors, receding from
regions still more inhospitable, which we may conjecture to be those cold and arid plains of great elevation, which occupy the central portion of Asia, or the bleak and barren wilds of northern Siberia. The Silk-tail is somewhat less than a Thrush
; its general plumage is of a vinous or purplish-red
the throat is deep black, as is a band on each side of the head; the crown and crest are chestnut brown; the tail and wings are black with yellow tips; the coverts have white tips; some five or six of the secondaries, and, in very old males, some of the tail-feathers also, have the dilated, scarlet appendages to the shafts already alluded to.
The Prince of Canino thus speaks of the habits of this pretty bird. “Besides their social disposition, and general love of their species, these birds appear susceptible of individual attachment, as if they felt a particular sentiment of benevolence, even independent of reciprocal sexual attraction. Not only do the male and female caress and feed each other, but the same proofs of mutual kindness have been observed between individuals of the same sex. This amiable disposition, so agreeable for others, often becomes a serious disadvantage to its possessor. It always supposes more sensibility than energy, more confidence than penetration, more simplicity than prudence, and precipitates these as well as nobler victims, into the snares prepared for them by more artful and selfish beings. Hence they are stigmatized as stupid ; and as they keep generally close together, many are easily killed at once by a single discharge of a gun. They always alight on trees, hopping awkwardly on the ground. Their flight is very rapid ; when taking wing they utter a note resembling the syllables zi, zi, ri, but are generally silent, notwithstanding the name that has been given them. They are, however, said to have a sweet and agreeable song in the time of breeding, though at others it is a mere whistle.”*
The zoologist just cited speaks of the food of these birds in America, as consisting of different kinds of juicy berries, and in summer principally of insects. They are fond of the berries of the mountain ash, and poke-weed (Phytolacca), are extremely greedy of grapes, and also, though in a less degree, of juniper and laurel berries, apples, currants, figs, and other fruits. In Britain, Sir William Jardine and other naturalists, mention the various kinds of winter berries, and those of the holly in particular. And Bechstein, noticing its habits in Germany, says, “When wild we see it in the spring eating, like Thrushes, all sorts of flies and other insects; in autumn and winter, different kinds of berries; and in time of need, the buds and sprouts of the beech, maple, and various fruit-trees. Indeed, from his account of its manners in captivity, its appetite would seem to be almost omnivorous. His opinion of its character is somewhat less favourable than Prince Bonaparte's. In fact, he draws so unpleasing a picture of its greediness and dirty habits, in his work on Cage-birds, that, if correct, few would desire its captivity. The following is a portion of his observations, omitting what is more repulsive. “During the ten or twelve years that it can exist in confinement, and on very meagre
* Amer. Ornithology, iv. 76. (Constable’s ed.)