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Che Gulture Family.
Let us enter a zoological garden, and take our stand near a group of vultures. We shall probably see little to admire in the appearance of these birds. If the spectator be a lady, she will doubtless dislike the collection. Others may pronounce, with Goldsmith, the vulture “ an unclean, cruel, and indolent brute, feeding on carrion, and only deserving contempt.” But let such persons take a journey to Egypt; there they will find this unsightly bird protected by laws, heavy penalties await its assailant, whilst the natives rejoice to find a pair hovering near their village.
Why is this? If the question were proposed to some, they might answer by ascribing this regard to a stupid superstition respecting the vulture. But this bird would be prized by the most delicate ladies were they compelled to live in torrid regions, or in the filthy cities of the East. In England we pay scavengers to cleanse our towns, and the police indict the man who encumbers the footpath with putrid matter. The vulture saves all this trouble ; he, considerate bird, stoops from his aërial height to become the purifier of cities. He is, indeed, more effective than a whole college of physicians and a board of health ; for the putrid substances which would quickly taint the air are borne off by the vulture.
The chief use of this family of birds is, to keep the atmosphere free from pestilential taint; and truly the office is an important
There is something remarkably striking in this arrangement. Let us consider the facts. Substances accumulate in crowded cities, which would send forth, in a short time, a pestiferous effluvia. Great labour and care would be required to bury such putrifying matter deep in the earth: it could scarcely be done on a large scale. But here comes in the provision of nature; a bird frequents those regions, exactly fitted by taste and organisation to live upon the very materials which would generate the means of destruction to mankind. This is the vulture. So completely is the system and taste of the bird adapted to the end of its creation, that carrion is preferred to fresh meat.
In warm climates the vultures may be observed through the day, soaring high in air, and circling over a city on the watch ; the instant any offal or carrion is thrown into the street, they descend in crowds and remove the nuisance. In some parts of America, vast quantities of large animals are killed for their hides only ; the hunters, having skinned the beast, leave the body ; in every case the observant vultures descend, and quickly leave nothing of the largest buffalo save the bones, thus removing so prolific a
source of pestilence. As vultures often fly at great elevations, where the human eye cannot perceive them, it is evident that strong powers of vision belong to these birds ; for no prey, however small, escapes their observation. The traveller jourveying througli the desert often leaves behind him a dead horse or camel ; in a short time he may see, far up in the sky, a number of small black spots ; whilst he is speculating on the cause of this appearance, the objects grow larger, and have a circling motion ; nearer and nearer they approach, till at length a troop of vultures is clearly discerned. They must have seen the animal fall, and immediately descended from their invisible heights. Some naturalists have ascribed this keen detection of distant food to great powers of smell ; but it is clear that the birds would not Ay at such immense heights for the sake of smelling ; this would rather lead them to keep near the ground. Besides, effluvia cannot be supposed to extend to such heights, as it must become diffused through the atmosphere, and so destroyed.
Experiments also have been made which clearly prove that sight, not smell, brings the vulture from his lofty track.
Dried skins, from which no effluvia could rise, have been stuffeil with straw to represent the figure of some dead animal. These stuffed resemblances being left on the ground, in a short time the vultures were seen descending with rapid sweeps towards the objects. Nor did they discover the deception till alighting, when, attempting to drive their beaks into the impenetrable substance, they evinced every symptom of surprise at the unusual occurrence. It is not, however, our desire to tease the reader by drawing out for his inspection the numerous arguments on this head; those who contend for the honour of the vulture's nose having fought most stoutly with the equally determined assertors of the bird's power of vision. On such a point we have hinted our opinion, and beyond this we do not intend to proceed, the vultures themselves being, after all, the best judges on such a subject. The geographical range of these birds is remarkably wide, extending from India to the coasts of Britain, abounding in America, and reaching from Africa on the south, to Norway on the north. But their principal home is in warm regions, where their peculiar habits of feeding are most usefully exercised.
We cannot reckon vultures amongst our British birds; though Mr. Yarrell has ventured upon such a classification, from the fact that one was taken in Somersetshire in 1825, whilst feeding on the carcass of a sheep. Such an isolated fact no more entitles us to rank the vulture amongst British birds, than to call a Spaniard an Englishman, because we may happen to meet with him in a Buckinghamshire village. The different species of vultures need not be described ; some are classed according to colour, as the golden and the brown; others according to the region inhabited,
as the Egyptian vulture. The appearance of the whole family clearly distinguishes them from the eagles. The head and neck are without feathers, which gives them an unsightly appearance ; the eyes project, whilst those of the eagle are deeply set in the head; the claws are stouter and less hooked than in the eagle. The vulture's beak is more straight, and does not bend till near the point, whilst the eagle's curves from the base throughout. One of the largest birds we are acquainted with, the Condor, properly belongs to the vulture family. These giant birds are generally found in the lonely peaks and valleys of the Andes, though at certain seasons they descend towards the coast, and frequent the wild shores of sea-beaten cliffs. Some are said to measure eighteen feet from wing to wing; the largest specimen which we have seen measures but ten feet; this, however, might not have been full grown. The appearance of this majestic bird, as he sails above the snow-capped mountains, is sublime; with a single sweep of those mighty wings, he soars away into the distant heavens, where the keenest sight is unable to follow his track. Sometimes the deep silence of a valley is broken by the rush of his flight, as, rising from an abutting rock, he sails through the long ravine, startling with his shadow the cowering birds. The strength of the condor enables it to carry off the largest animals; but unless pressed by hunger they rarely attack living creatures. Mr. Darwin, who visited the haunts of these birds in the desolate mountains of Patagonia, and amongst the valleys of the Andes, thus describes their appearance in their native regions.
“When the condors in a flock are wheeling round and round any spot, their flight is beautiful. Near Lima I watched several for nearly half an hour, without once taking off my eyes. They moved in large curves, sweeping in circles, descending and ascending without once flapping their wings. As they glided close over my head, I intently watched from an oblique position the outlines of the separate and terminal feathers of the wing; if there had been the least vibratory movement, these would have been blended together, but they were seen distinct against the blue sky. The head and neck were moved frequently, and apparently with force; and it appeared as if the extended wings formed the fulcrum on which the movements of the neck, body, and tail acted. It is truly wonderful and beautiful to see so great a bird, hour after hour, without any apparent exertion, wheeling and gliding over mountain and river.”
It is only recently that the true history of the condor has become known, many wild tales having been formerly current amongst even naturalists, especially its size and habits. Some reckoned it the same as that gigantic bird called Roc, in the Arabian romances, and even Linnæus himself was so influenced by the prevalent rumours, that he describes men as deafened by the roaring sound produced by the wings. Our English naturalist Ray was so perplexed by these reports that he was afraid to insert any account of the condor in his works, until he at last received a wing-feather from a gentleman who obtained it from Sir Hans Sloane. It is beyond all doubt a noble bird, but its magnitude has been much exaggerated; some having given the measurement from wing to wing as eighteen feet; but it now appears that one half of this is nearer the truth. Humboldt, indeed, never saw any longer than these ; but others mention some which measure eleven or twelve feet. These birds are fond of great elevations, soaring to the height of 12,000 feet above the sea-level; and many of the higher peaks are named “Condor Rock,” and “ Condor's Watch,” being frequented, age after
age, by these magnificent birds.
The reader has doubtless remarked that the neck of the vulture is, in general, destitute of feathers; but there is one species which has that part of the body so thickly covered, as to receive, in some countries, the name of father longbeard,' and bearded vulture. This is the Lammergeyer, which seems to link the vul. tures with the eagles, as it will frequently attack living animals of the larger kind, such as goats and sheep. This species was numerous in Switzerland and the mountains of Germany in the last century, but is now rare in Europe, having retired into more lonely regions before the advances of population.
The following extracts from the African traveller Bruce will give some idea of the boldness of this bird : “Upon the highest top of the mountain Lamalmon, while my servants were refreshing themselves from that toilsome rugged ascent, and enjoying the pleasure of a most delightful climate, eating their dinner in the outer air, with several large dishes of boiled goat's flesh before them, this enemy, as he turned out to be to them, appeared suddenly; he did not stoop rapidly from a height, but came flying slowly along the ground, and sat down close to the meat, within the ring the men had made round it. A great shout, or rather cry of distress, called me to the place. I saw the eagle stand for a minute, as if to recollect himself, while the servants ran for their lances and shields. I walked up nearly to him, as I had time to do. His attention was fully fixed upon the flesh. I saw him put his foot into the pan, where was a large piece in water prepared for boiling, but finding the smart which he had not expected, he withdrew it, and forsook the piece which he held.
“There were two large pieces, a leg and a shoulder, lying upon a wooden platter; into these he trussed both his claws, and carried them off; but I thought he looked wistfully at the large piece which remained in the warın water. Away he went slowly along the ground, as he had come. The face of the cliff, over which criminals are thrown, took him from our sight. The Mahomedans that drove the asses, who had, as we have already observed, in the course of the journey suffered from the hyena, were much alarmed, and assured me of his return.
“As I had myself a desire of more intimate acquaintance with him, I loaded a rifle-gun with ball, and sat down close to the platter by the meat. It was not many minutes before he came; and a prodigious shout was raised by my attendants, enough to have discouraged a less courageous animal. Whether he was not quite so hungry as at his first visit, or suspected something from my appearance, I know not; but he made a small turn, and sat down about ten yards from me, the pan with the meat being between me and him. As the field was clear before me, and I did not know but his next move might bring him opposite to some of my people, and so that he might actually get the rest of the meat and make off, I shot him with the ball through the middle of his body, about two inches below the wing, so that he lay down upon the grass without a single flutter. Upon laying hold of his monstrous carcass, I was not a little surprised at seeing my hands covered and tinged with yellow powder or dust. Upon turning him upon his belly, and examining the feathers of his back, they produced a brown dust, the colour of the feathers there. This dust was not in small quantities, for upon striking his breast the yellow powder flew in fully greater quantity than from a hair-dresser's powder puff.”
The vultures are not so solitary in their habits as the other rapacious birds, but often settle near human dwellings, and especially do they love to dwell by the camp of an Arab tribe, and watch for the refuse matter which may be thrown out, such as the entrails and bones of animals. But many species delight to roam over the far-stretching desert, or keep their seats on the peaks of the Andes, or on the wild cliffs of lonely and sea-beaten shores ; whilst others frequent the defiles of the Siberian mountains. There are many varieties of these powerful birds, such as the Griffin Vulture, Chinese Vulture, &c., but as these all agree in their general characteristics, a notice of each is unnecessary. Those who wish to observe a few varieties may gratify their curiosity by a visit to the gardens of the Zoological Society, where, in their gloomy cages, these birds of mighty wing are cooped like slaves in a deep dungeon.