Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

the foot in the water an impetus, which is very advantageous in swimming. The tarsus is commonly flattened sidewise, that less resistance may

[graphic][merged small]

be offered to progression in so dense a medium. “In order to make the stroke, the foot is first drawn forwards, when the toes close together and the webs fold, so as to offer to the water the least possible resistance; but when the back stroke is made, the toes spread out, while the action of the limb is at the same time, in most instances, obliquely outwards.”

The form of the body is flattened, not however laterally as in the Waders, but horizontally, the better to float on the surface; the breast-bone is very long, affording a bony protection to the greater portion of the intestines. The plumage is remarkably thick and close, particularly on the under parts of the most aquatic kinds; besides which the skin is furnished with a dense coat of soft down. The outer surface of the plumage is in general polished and satiny, having the property (perhaps from being anointed with an oily secretion frequently applied by the beak) of throwing off water unwetted. The secretion of fat in most of these birds is copious, and it is peculiarly oily in its character. They are the only birds, as Cuvier remarks, in which the neck is longer than the legs, which is sometimes the case to a considerable extent, for the purpose of enabling them to search for food in the depths below, while they swim on the surface. The tail is commonly very short, as are also the wings; hence flight is feebly performed ; and in some genera is altogether denied. It must, however, be observed, that in this Order are found the longest wings and the highest powers of flight of the whole class, in the Frigate Pelican ; the Petrels and the Terns also are remarkable for their great length of wing: it is remarkable that all these birds, though web-footed, are never seen to swim, though some of them dive or rather plunge with facility.

The flesh of many of the species is extensively used and esteemed as the food of man ; that of some, with their eggs, forming a main source of support to many hardy islanders. A few species have been domesticated in our waters and our poultry-yards.

Fens and morasses, broad rivers, and inland lakes, creeks, and estuaries, rocky coves, and muddy bays, precipitous islets and ledgy cliffs, the sinuous coasts of continents and islands, and the broad expanse of the horizon-bound ocean, are the resorts of the web-footed fowl. They are more numerous, particularly the marine kinds, in the colder seas both of the north and south, than in the tropical regions. Our own islands possess a very large number, almost one-third of the species marked as British belonging to this Order.

U

On this subject, and on the seasonal resorts and habits of these tribes we cannot refrain from presenting to our readers the following charming pictures geographically drawn by Sir William Jardine. After noting the great proportion borne by this Order in the British Fauna, and remarking, that while thousands in summer seek our precipitous coasts and headlands as breeding stations, others, scarcely less numerous, flock in winter to our bays and marine inlets,-he thus proceeds :

“ The contrast of these localities at the different seasons is most striking: rocks standing far in the ocean's void, and precipices of the most dizzy height, to which all approach by land is cut off, possess a dreary solitude for seven or eight months of the year; a few Cormorants seeking repose during the night, or some Gulls claiming a temporary shelter or resting-place from the violence of the storm, are almost the only, and then but occasional, tenants. In the throng of the season of breeding, a very different picture is seen: the whole rocks, and sea, and air, are one scene of animation, and the various groups have returned to take up their old stations, and are now employed in all the accessories of incubation, affording lessons to the ornithological student he will in vain look for elsewhere. The very rocks are lighted up, and would seem to take a brightness from the hurry around, while the cries of the inhabitants, alone discordant, harmonise with the scene.

“During the same season, upon the low sandy or muddy coasts, or extensive meres, where the tide recedes for miles, and the only interruption on the outline is the slight undulation of some mussel-scalps, the dark colour of some bed of zostera contrasting against the long bright crest of the surf, or in the middle distance some bare posts set up as a land-mark, or the timbers of some ill-fated vessel rising above the quicksand, —there reigns, on the contrary, a solitude of another kind; it is now broken only by the distant roll of the surf, by the shrill pipe of the Ring-dotterel, or the glance of its flight as it rises noiselessly; a solitary Gull or Tern that has lagged from the flock may sail along, uttering, as it were, an unwilling inward sound as it passes the intruder; every thing is calm and still, the sensation increased by the hot glimmer that spreads along the sands; there is no voice, there is no animal life. During winter the scene may at first sight appear nearly similar; the warm and flickering haze is changed for a light that can be seen into; the noise of the surge comes deeper through the clear air of frost, and with it at intervals hoarse sounds and shrill whistles, to which the ear is unaccustomed; acres of dark masses are seen, which may be taken for low rocks or scalps, and the line of the sea in the bays contains something which rises and falls, and seems as if it were about to be cast on shore with every coming swell. To the old sportsman all these signs are familiar, and he knows their meaning; but to one who has for the first time trodden these flat coasts, some distant shot or other alarm first explains every thing. The line of the coast is now one dark moving mass; the air seems alive with water-fowl, and is filled with sounds that rise and fall, and vary as the troops wheel around; and this continues until they have again settled to their rest.

dusk approaches these sounds are gradually resumed, at first coming from the ground, as warnings that it is time to be alert; as the darkness and stillness of night sets in, one large flock after another hastens to its feeding-ground, and the various calls and the noise of wings is heard with a clearness which is sufficient to enable the sportsman to mark the kinds and trace his prey to their feeding-stations, to make him aware of their approach long before they come within his reach."*

This Order comprises the following six Families, - Anatida, Colymbida, Alcada, Procellariade, Laridæ, and Pelecanida.

Family I. ANATIDÆ.

(Ducks.) The beak in this great Family is thick, broad, high at the base, covered throughout almost its whole length with a soft skin, the tip alone being horny (the former supposed by some to be analogous to the cere, and the small 'nail-like tip to correspond to what in other birds would be the true horny beak); the edges are cut into a number of thin parallel ridges, or small teeth: the tongue is large and fleshy, with its edges toothed. The wings are in general moderately long. The males have, for the most part, the windpipe enlarged, near the point of its division, into a bony chamber, or capsule, differing in form and size; and some have this tube much prolonged, and bent back in winding folds within the swollen keel of the breast-bone: both of these peculiarities of struc

* Nat. Lib. ORNITHOLOGY, iv. 456.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »