Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

and frequently do the enthusiastic writers and chroniclers of the Christian armies detail the services rendered to the soldiers of the cross by these Columbide. The custom of thus using these birds appears to have prevailed in the remotest regions of Asia during the middle ages, and the first travellers to the East have not failed to narrate the feats of the letter-bearing pigeon. Even in China this employment of the bird prevailed ages ago, and the “celestials” may have deemed such a conveyance far more suited to their high-flown epistolary correspondence, than a transmission along the miry roads which perplexed the traveller in the olden times.

The carrier-pigeon has fallen in these times from its once high estate, as the trusted bearer of royal messages and military documents, to be the carrier of news from the race-course or the betting ring. The electric telegraph is indeed a powerful rival to this once famous messenger-bird, which can scarcely hope to see itself restored to its former pre-eminence.

How does the carrier-pigeon find its way back to the places in which it has been reared ? This question has often perplexed the brains of naturalists, and is even yet unanswered. Some think that the eye alone guides the bird in these surprising journeys; but, if so, the optical powers of the carrier-pigeon must enable it to see objects at the distance of many hundreds of'miles. From some of the voyages performed by these winged travellers we must infer that, if a carrier-pigeon were let loose at the Land's-End, it would be able to see from that point the river Tweed, Melrose Abbey, and the Estuary of the Solway. All who believe that this bird returns to its distant home by the aid of the eye alone, cannot be startled by such a supposition; for some of the journeys accomplished by these once-prized messengers extended over a distance of more than three hundred miles.

The manner in which the birds commence their flight may perhaps favour the notion that an acute and powerful eye enables the pigeon to discern the scenery and distinctive objects which mark out its distant home. No sooner are they liberated than they fly in wide circles, rising higher and higher, and increasing the circles as they ascend. Why do the birds fly in this circular fashion? Is it to obtain a complete view of the most distant objects all round the horizon, and thus detect the spot whence they have been taken? Many persons believe this to be the case, and we must admit that the flight in large circles appears to favour their view of the matter. What a perfection of physical organisation is presented to us upon the supposition that the carrier-pigeon can detect its home at a distance of so many hundreds of miles. What power in that small eye, which, from the lofty aerial track, looks over a whole kingdom, taking in at one surprising sweep numerous provinces, hundreds of rivers, and far-stretching mountain-chains. We deem, and justly too, the human eye a wonderful little machine; but the eye of the pigeon may possess powers and adaptations still more surprising. Thus the retina of a bird may suggest a whole volume of interesting matter, simple enough to engage the attention of a child, and yet abounding with more mysteries than the wisest of men can fathom.

If we do not believe that the eye guides the pigeon in its voyages, we must then leave the matter in still greater obscurity; for to ascribe so wonderful a faculty to instinct does not, of course, throw much light upon the difficulty. There may be other means than those of sight by which the carrier-pigeon is guided, but to speculate upon these would be neither profitable nor interesting.

The speed with which these messengers travel is another surprising fact in animal mechanics, which proves that the anatomist may find a beautiful organisation in other creatures than man. Some have reckoned that this bird often flies at the rate of one hundred miles in the hour; thus travelling at a speed more than double the rate of a rapid railway-engine. It is recorded that two of these birds bore messages from Paris to Cologne, a distance of about three hundred miles, in two hours, which gives a rapidity equal to one hundred and fifty miles an hour. Such a rate of motion in an animal body is surprising, when we consider the almost innumerable movements of the muscles required for such a journey. These two birds were, however, in all probability, stronger than the average of carrier-pigeons, and the wind may have facilitated the passage ; for in other instances the rate of travelling was much less than that above mentioned. But even at the lowest rates of motion recorded, this pigeon will leave our patent steam locomotives far behind, not for a few minutes only, but for many hours.

The following facts will confirm this remark :

In the year 1833 twenty-four trained carrier-pigeons were taken from Gbent to Rouen, a distance of a hundred and fifty miles, and thrown up at the latter place, in the presence of

many witnesses, on the 24th of June. Now, supposing the average rate of a railway train to be twenty-five miles the hour, none of these pigeons could reach Ghent in less than six hours. What is the fact? One reached home in the surprisingly short space of one hour and a half ; exceeding fourfold the speed of an engine on the railroad. In two hours and a half, sixteen of the birds arrived at Ghent, and these must have moved at the rate of sixty miles an hour' for the whole journey. The average speed of these pigeons was, therefore, at the least, one mile in a minute. These Ghent birds were doubtless of a high breed, as we are inclined to think such feats above the average powers of the carrier.

Their performances nevertheless indicate the great speed and strength of wing which a careful training may enable these

Columbide to acquire; and as our object is to shew what this pigeon can be taught to accomplish, we have laid the above feat of the Ghent carriers before the reader.

We shall now give another case, the results of which confirm all that has been said of the capacity of these birds for maintaining a long-continued speed. The rapidity of the flight is not as great as that in the above-mentioned instance, nor do the birds appear to have been so well trained; but we shall find even in the following case sufficient proof of the extraordinary muscular power of these home-loving birds.

In the year 1819, thirty-two carrier-pigeons were brought from Antwerp to London, for the purpose of ascertaining the time in which they could pass from the vast city on the Thames to the old fortress on the banks of the Schelde. On July the 11th all the birds were thrown up on Tower Hill at a quarter to seven in the morning, and, after making some large circles in the air, bore away for their home. The distance was reckoned at 240 miles, and at twelve o'clock on the same day one of these energetic voyagers alighted near its home in Antwerp. This pigeon had therefore performed the ole journey at the sustained speed of forty-eight miles the hour, and this was continued for upwards of five hours. A second pigeon came in at a quarter past twelve, and a third at half-past. These three pigeons must therefore be deemed the prize winners in the great race over the sea. If we take the speed of the third pigeon, we shall then have a speed of forty miles the hour, maintained for nearly six hours. Taking these performances into consideration, with the feats of the Ghent pigeons, we see a clear proof that this variety of the domestic pigeon can be trained to fly for several hours at the rate of forty or fifty miles the hour.

But what became of the remaining twenty-nine birds ?. Of some no account was ever given ; for, either from insufficient training, from storms, or from losing the direction, no less than fourteen of the voyagers were lost to the owners. This fact shews that the carrier-pigeon cannot always be trusted for the safe conveyance of news for great distances, unless very well trained.

Seven of the birds thrown up on Tower Hill arrived at Antwerp on the same day, seven more reached home on the next day, after which the arrivals were solitary, a week elapsing before the fifteenth came, and three more days passed ere the last of the pigeons returned.

The above experiment proves two points ; first, that the carrier-pigeon can be trained to fly for hours at a rate much exceeding that of a railroad-engine; but, in the second place, it also shews that the accomplishment of the end cannot always be relied on.

Of course we need make no remark on the fact that eighteen out of thirty-two pigeons did at last find their way through the air from London to Antwerp, as the capability of finding their way home is a well-known characteristic of these birds.

Another remarkable species, known as the passenger-pigeon, must not be passed over without a few remarks. This variety abounds in the United States, where flocks, consisting of many millions of birds, are seen passing over the open country in the migrating season. The cause of these journeys appears to be the desire of obtaining food ; and the speed with which they are performed would be surprising, had we not already witnessed the great powers of the carrier-pigeons. The rate at which the passengers fly over the wide states of the American continent has been estimated by some at a mile a minute, which, if it be the fact, is perhaps more surprising than the feats of the trained carriers, for these passenger-pigeons have received no teaching from man; none of the perfections which result from the selection of the best breeds can belong to them. The natural powers of these pigeons must therefore exceed those of the carriers, which sel. dom attain the average speed of a mile a minute. But the velocity of their flight is not the chief subject for amazement in these pigeons, but rather the numerical vastness of the flocks, which darken the sun in their passage over the head of the astonished traveller, and fill the air with a sound like that produced by the roar of a sea in a tempest.

Here is Wilson's description of these winged armies :

“ I had left the public road to visit the remains of one of their breeding-places near Shelbyville, and was traversing the woods with my gun, on my way to Frankfort, when, about ten o'clock, the pigeons which I had observed flying the greater part of the morning northernly, began to return in such immense numbers as I never before had witnessed. Coming to an opening by the side of a creek called the Benson, where I had a more uninterupted view, I was astonished at their appearance; they were flying, with great steadiness and rapidity, at a height beyond gun. shot, in several strata deep, and so close together that, could shot have reached them, one discharge could not have failed of bring. ing down many of them. From right to left, as far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession extended. I took out my watch to note the time that this appearance would continue. It was then about half past one; I sat for more than an hour, but, instead of a diminution of this prodigious procession, it seemed rather to increase ; and, anxious to reach Frankfort before night, I rose and went on. About four o'clock I reached the town of Frankfort, at which time the living torrent seemed as numerous as ever. Long after this I observed them in large bodies, that continued to pass for six or eight minutes, and these again were followed by other detached bodies, all moving in the same southeast direction, till after six o'clock in the evening."

No one

The same naturalist saw on one occasion 163 vast flocks pass in twenty minutes ; and, as each army might be numbered by millions, the reader may form a conception of the multitudes which pass in a day. When such a winged host alights upon a forest, the largest branches are broken by the weight of the descending multitudes, which press by tens of thousands upon each other. The approach of such a moving column of life is announced by the roar of their wings, as they beat, with millions of rapid strokes, the resisting air, and then it is that whole camps of men, armed with fowling-pieces, prepare to discharge their loaded guns into the dense columns of the advancing mass.

The rude settlers in the western wilds of America do not assemble to gaze upon the magnificent spectacle presented by these flying armies, but to procure a large stock of food by a most wholesale slaugbter of the passing host. The pig-farmers of the western states even drive large herds of swine to feed upon the slaughtered bodies of the unfortunate pigeons. When a flock alights in a forest, the fowlers commence a discharge upon the birds, which, as they cover every branch of every tree, perish by tens of thousands by the sustained fire of their foes. thinks of stopping his fire to pick up the dead or wounded birds, but each continues to load and discharge as long as the pigeons remain within the range of shot.

These periodical destructions are, however, necessary, to prevent the numbers of these pigeons from becoming destructive to the cultivated grounds. The damage produced by such countless flocks, when they alight on the tilled lands, may be estimated from 'a calculation which Audubon has made. He supposes a column of pigeons, a mile wide, to be three hours in passing, and then estimates the quantity of food consumed by this host in a single day at eight millions of bushels. What would happen to our

lish farmers were such flocks to pass over Britain each spring and autumn? In America, the rice-grounds of the southern states often suffer severely; but, in general, the passengers frequent the wilder and less cultivated districts, delighting in the thick forests, where their breeding-places extend for four or five miles into the heart of the wood. Wilson thus depicts the effects produced on the forest-trees by the birds roosting in such multitudes among the branches: “ The roosting-places are always in the woods, and sometimes occupy a large extent of forest. When they have frequented one of those places for some time, the appearance it exhibits is surprising. The ground is covered to the depth of several inches with their dung ; all the tender grass and underwood destroyed; the surface strewed with large limbs of trees, broken down by the weight of the birds collecting one above another; and the trees themselves, for thousands of acres, killed as completely as if girdled with an axe. The marks of their desolation remain for many years on the spot; and numerous places could be pointed

« НазадПродовжити »