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The Vulture

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

and sickness.