Part 3 out of 4
gasping, his efforts were unceasing. Understanding the guile of the fish,
he sought to make the deeper part of the weir secure, and for an hour or
so he laboured in the water with head, hands, and feet. While with deft
fingers he weaved creepers and branches to the stakes, his feet beat the
surface into surf and surge to the scaring of the fish to the remote
limits of their retreat. But the tighter the weir became, the more the
pressure was on it. Fast as repairs were made at one spot gaps appeared
in another which demanded immediate attention. The quantity of material
that our works absorbed was scarcely to be realised. But a double-ended,
amphibious black boy can work every-day wonders. Not a single fish had
escaped. We had the whole shoal at our mercy, for George had confidently
provided against all contingencies.
Buoyant on the bosom of the stream came a good-sized log with raking,
shortened limbs. Under its cover the fish sallied forth a hundred strong,
strenuous in bravery and resolution. The log swept past me, making a
terrible breach in our weir, through which many fish shot. Some leaped
high overhead. Two landed on the sand, helplessly flapping and gasping.
George occupied the breach, and as he waved his arms and shouted, a
four-pounder, leaping high, struck him on the forehead. He sat down
emphatically, and another gap was made. As he struggled to his feet the
vanquished members of the assaulting party fled to the main host. Honours
were with the besieged. Blood oozed from a lump on George's forehead,
there were cruel breaches in the weir, the fish had gained confidence
and knowledge of our works, and only two were prisoners.
Now the sallies became frequent. Sometimes the fish came as scouts, more
often in battalions, and in the dashes for liberty many were successful.
George toiled like a fiend. His repairs looked all right on the surface,
but ever and anon considerable flotsam indicated vital gaps. In spite of
splashing and "shooing" and the complications of the weir, we had had
the mortification of seeing hosts escape.
Then George changed his tactics. Abandoning his faith in the weir, he
converted it into what he called, in his enthusiastic excitement, "a
bed." He laid branches of the weir so that the leaves and twigs
interlaced and crossed, buttressing the structure with another row of
palisades. His theory was that the fish, as the water became shallower,
would cease their efforts to wriggle through, and, leaping high, would
land on the bed and be easily captured. No preliminary shouting and
splashing affected the solidity of that determined array. Mullet knew all
about blackfellows' weirs and their beds. Some slid through. Many leaped,
and, curving gracefully in the air, struck the "bed" at such an angle
that it offered no more resistance to them than a sheet of damp
tissue-paper. They sniggered as they went through it, and splashed wildly
to the sea. They were grand fish--undaunted, afraid of no man or his
paltry obstacles to liberty, up to every cunning manoeuvre.
Were we to be beaten by a lot of silly, slippery fish in a shallow
stream? Never! January's unsheltered sun played upon my tanned, wet, and
shameless back; the salt sweat coursed down my shoulders and dripped from
my face. The scrub fowl babbled and chuckled, cockatoos jeered from the
topmost branches of giant milkwood trees and nodded with yellow crests
grave approval of the deeds of the besieged; fleet white pigeons flew
from a banquet of blue fruits to a diet of crude seeds, and not a single
one of the canons of the gentle art of fishing but was scandalously
violated. It was a coarse and unmanly encounter--the wit, strategy,
finesse, and boldness of fish pitted against the empty noise and bluster
of inferior man and the flimsiness of his despicable barriers.
In silence and magnificent resolve they came at us. We fought with
sticks and all the power of our lungs. Rest was out of the question. The
leafy dyke and "bed" stood ever in need of repair; the sallies were
continuous and determined. The "bed" was not made for those knightly
fish to lie ignobly upon. A single fish would slip down-stream, and,
gathering speed and effort, leap with the glitter of heroism in its eyes.
One such George caught in his arms. Another slipped through my fingers
and struck me on the shoulders, and I bore the mark of the assault for a
week. George's brow was bleeding. Indeed, all his blood was up. His
"heroic rage" was at bursting point. We had toiled for two hours and
counted but three fish, while as many hundred had battled past our siege
works. Quite as many remained, and time, as it generally does, seemed to
be in favour of the attacking party.
Was Charles Lamb right when he spoke of "the uncommunicating muteness of
fishes"? These beleaguered mullet surely exchanged ideas and acted with
deliberation and in concert. All swayed this way or that in accordance,
so it seemed, with the will of the front rank. A tremor there was
repeated instantly at the rear. When a detachment made a bid for liberty
it was in response to a common impulse. When a single individual started
on a forlorn hope the others seemed to watch our hostile demonstrations
as it leaped--flashing silvery lights from its scales--to prove the
unworthiness of weirs and beds, and we, of the ranks of Tuscany, cheered
if its deed of derring do was neatly and successfully achieved.
Fish to the number of five having fallen into our clutches, we stood by
and watched the rest. Most of them leaped gloriously to liberty. Some
ignominiously wriggled. Others remained in the pool, their nerves so
shattered by bluster and assault that they had not the melancholy courage
to slip away. In his wrath--for blood still oozed from his forehead--
George would have exterminated the skulkers, and, checked in his
bloodthirstiness, he showered upon them contemptible titles while he
cooked two of those we had captured. Wrapped in several folds of banana
and "ginger" leaves, and steamed in hot sand, the full flavour of the
fish was retained and something of the aroma of the leaves imparted. I
was not, therefore, astonished when George, having eaten a three-pounder,
finished off my leavings--nothing to boast of, by the way--and proceeded
to cook another (for the dog); and Barry, I am bound to say, got fairly
liberal pickings. The weather was close, and being satisfied, and, for
once, frugal, George cooked the two remaining fish, and swathing them
neatly in fresh green leaves, sauntered away, cooing a corroboree of
WET SEASON DAYS
"The north-east spends his rage; he now shut up
Within his iron cave, the effusive south
Warms the wide air and o'er the vault of heaven
Breathes the big clouds with vernal showers distent."
Just as in the spring a young man's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of
love, so at the beginning of each new year in tropical Queensland the
minds of the weather sages become sensitive and impressionable. All the
tarnish is rubbed off the recollection of former ill manners on the part
of the weather, when about the middle of January the wind begins to
bluster and to abuse good-natured trees, shaking off twigs and whirling
branches like a tipsy bully striving to dislocate a weak man's arm at the
shoulder. We remember dubious events all too vividly when the recitation
of them does not make for mutual consolation.
In January, 1909, for two days the sea burst on the black rocks of the
islet in the bay in clouds of foam. It was all bombast, froth and
bubble, or rather a gentle back-hander, for the cyclone was playing all
sorts of naughty pranks elsewhere. But why were we apprehensive? In
disobedience to the scriptural injunction, we had observed the clouds and
the birds. Twice a flock of lesser frigate-birds, those dark, fish-tailed
high-fliers which are for ever cutting animated "W's" in the air with
long lithe wings--had appeared. Seldom do they come unless as harbingers
of boisterous weather. On each recent occasion they had been absolutely
trustworthy messengers. Watching them soaring and swooping, we said one
to another: "Behold the cyclone cometh!" But it did not. With a
passing flick of its tail it passed elsewhere.
Altogether, however, we had very queer weather and two or three "rum"
sorts of nights. On the 19th the morning was calm, the sky brilliantly
clear. A north-east breeze sprang up at noon. Deep violet thunder-clouds
gathered in the west, and, muttering and grumbling, rolled across the
narrow strait slowly and sullenly. Australia scowled at our penitent
Island, threatening direful inflictions--lightning, thunder, and an
overwhelming cataclysm. Behind that frowning Providence there was a
smiling face. The good storm, albeit black and angry, behaved benignly.
Gentle rain came, and a picturesque little electrical display to a
humming accompaniment of far distant thunder, followed by a soothingly
cool south-westerly breeze. Just at sundown the weather-god, repenting of
his frown, bestowed a glorious benediction.
All afternoon a damp pall had overhung the Island, mopping up feeble
sounds and strangely muffling the stronger. Now it was translated.
Lifting so that the summits only of the hills were capped, the haze (for
it became nothing more) assumed a luminous yellow saffron suffused with
sage green. Against this singularly lovely, ample "cloth" branches and
leaves of steadfast trees stood out in high relief. All the lower levels
became transparently clear, the definition of distant objects magically
sharpened, spaces translucent. In a sea which shone like polished silver
the islet was a gem--green enamel, amethyst rocks, golden sand. The bold
white trunks of giant tea-trees glowed; the creamy blooms of bloodwoods
were as flecks of snow; the tips of the fronds of coco-nut palms
flickered vividly as burnished steel; the white-painted house assumed
speckless purity. All light colours were heightened; ruddy browns and
sombre greens seemed to have been smartened up by touches of fresh paint
and varnish. An idealistic artist had revealed for once living tints and
Was it not a landscape fresh from Nature's brush divinely transmogrified
by one bold smudge of yellow-green haze? Or was the effect partly due to
the dust raised by the golden fringe of the blue mantle which the sun
trailed over the glowing hills? I know naught of the chemistry of colours,
nor why this yellow-green medium should so clarify and etherealise the
atmosphere. But was ever clear sunset half so affecting? This tinted,
luminous cloud had bewitched the commonplace, converting familiar
surroundings into fairyland itself. If all the world's a stage, this truly
was one of the rarest transformation scenes.
What was about to happen? Surely this mysterious colouring portended some
astounding phenomena? Again, nothing did happen, save a stilly night and
VEGETATION AND MOISTURE
It seems fitting and quite safe to point a moral, by allusion to certain
conditions prevalent during 1907. Between January 1st and June 30th
80.80 inches of rain were registered. July, August, September, and October
provided only 1.74 inches, which quantity bespeaks quite a phenomenal
draught. The catchment area of the creek which discharges into Brammo Bay
is less than forty acres, and for the most part consists of exceedingly
steep declivities. The head of the creek is seven hundred feet above
sea level, and its total length less than three-quarters of a mile. Yet,
notwithstanding the circumscribed extent of the catchment, the steep,
in places almost precipitous, descents, and that for months the rain was
insufficient to cause a surface flow, the creek which had cut a gully or
canyon forty feet deep across the plateau, never ceased running, the
turbulence of the wet season having merely subsided into a tinkling
trickle. During the dry period the atmosphere was the reverse of humid;
but the almost impenetrable shield of vegetation--the beauty and glory of
the Island--discounted loss by evaporation. One can well imagine that in
the absence of this gracious protection the creek would cease to flow a
week or so after the cessation of rain.
The marked but consistent decrease of water in the creek by day and its
rise during the night having excited interest, a series of measurements
was taken, the result being somewhat astonishing. One day's readings
will suffice, for scarcely any variation from them was recorded for
weeks, concurrent meteorological conditions undergoing no sudden or
decided change while the experiment was in progress:
Sunday, November 10, 1907.
6.30 a.m. 10 1/4
9 " 10
Noon (high tide) 6 5/8
3 p.m. 3
5.30 p.m. 1 1/2
6.10 " (sundown) 1 1/2
7.10 " 3 7/8
9 " 10 1/8
At 7 a.m. on the 11th and 12th the water stood at 10 1/4 inches and I
assume that to have been the constant level throughout the night.
The conclusion I draw (rightly or wrongly) from the fact emphasised by
these figures is that the mass of vegetation exercises a direct and
immediate effect upon the flow of water by gravitation from the
catchment. A continual and increasing demand for refreshment existing
during the day, the root spongioles are in active operation intercepting
the moisture in its descent and absorbing it, while with the lessening of
the temperature on the going down of the sun reaction begins, the stomata
of the leaves exercise their functions, and by the absorption of gas
react on the root films, which for the time relax their duty of arresting
the passage of minute particles of water, with a very definite result on
the nocturnal flow.
THE ODOUR OF THE DEATH ADDER
February 2, 1909.
Whenever I take my walks abroad I have the companionship of a couple of
Irish terriers, enthusiastic hunters of all sorts of "vermin," from the
jeering scrub fowl, which they never catch, to the slothful, spiny
ant-eater, which they are counselled not to molest. Lizards and
occasionally snakes are disposed of without ceremony, though in the case
of the snakes the tactics of the dogs are quite discreet. Several years
ago the dogs (not those which now faithfully attend my walks, for more
than one generation has passed away) attracted attention by yapping
enthusiastically. I flatter myself that I understand the language of my
own dogs sufficiently to enable me to judge when they have detected
something demanding my co-operation in the killing. When assistance is
needed, there are notes of urgent appeal in their exclamations. As a
rule my opinion is not asked in respect of lizards, or rats, or the like;
but snakes are invariably held up until an armed force arrives.
On the occasion referred to I found them in a frenzy of excitement,
feinting and snapping at something sheltering at the base of a tussock of
grass. Peering closely, I saw, half concealed beneath grass, sand, and
leaves, what I took to be a death adder, which I summarily shot. Then it
became apparent that the dogs had blundered, for the reptile was a
lizard. The mistake in identity, was, however, excusable, for in size,
shape, colouring, and marking it so closely resembled an adder that I was
not readily convinced to the contrary. Placing the two pieces into which
the shot had divided the creature in juxtaposition, I sympathised with
the dogs more strongly, feeling certain that no one would have hesitated
to give the harmless lizard a very bad character. Before firing the fatal
shot the distention of the body had confirmed my opinion as to identity,
and the method of partial concealment and of lying inert were significant
of the dangerous little snake. I had no doubt at the time, too, that it
emitted a deceptive odour, which, being similar to that of the adder, had
been chiefly instrumental in exciting extraordinary suspicion on the part
of the terriers.
Dogs of another generation were concerned in a repetition of this
experience in its significant details more recently. Having crossed a
creek ahead, frantic appeals were made, but before I could reach the spot
the excitement got beyond bounds, and I saw one of them snap up
something, shake it viciously, and toss it away with every manifestation
of repugnance and caution. Again I presumed the squirming reptile to be
an adder, for the dogs, with bristling backs and uplifted lips, walked
round it gingerly, sniffing and starting as if it were most fearsome and
detestable. The bulk of the reptile gradually subsided, confirming the
opinion that the dog had actually killed an adder, a feat I had never
known it perform. Investigation again proved that an innocent lizard
parading as an offensive snake had lost its life. Does not this evidence
suggest that the lizard assumes the similitude and the odour of the
adder, its tactics of concealment, and its characteristic habit of
puffing itself out in order to warn off its foes? The spontaneous,
unsuborned, and independent evidence of two sets of dogs cannot be wholly
Testimony confirmatory of the contention that adders do diffuse a
specific odour, too subtle for man's perception though readily detectable
by the sensitive faculties of lower animals, and that such odour
affrights and therefore protects them from the reptiles, is contained in
Captain Parker Gillmore's work, "The Great Thirst Land." Having killed a
small specimen of the horned adder--the "poor venomous fowl" with which
Cleopatra ended her gaudy days--and having handled it to examine the
poison glands and returned to his pony, he writes: "As soon as I
advanced my hand to his head-stall to reverse the reins over his head, he
shied back as if in great alarm, and it required some minutes before he
would permit me to closely approach. The reason of this conduct in so
staid and proper-minded an animal is obvious. In handling the adder some
of the smell attached to its body must have adhered to my hands."
When four dogs and one horse, all apparently honourable and well brought
up, agree on such a point, to theorise to the contrary would be
February 16, 1909.
An easterly breeze coincident with a flowing tide occasionally (though
not invariably) creates a gentle swirl in Brammo Bay, a swirl so placid
as to be imperceptible in default of such indices as driftwood. Under
such a condition Neptune makes playthings which possibly in some future
age may puzzle men who happen to ponder seriously on first causes. I
recall an afternoon when such playthings were being manufactured
abundantly. Globular, oval, and sausage-shaped dollops of dark-grey mud
were twirling and rolling on the fringe of listless wavelets. The
uniformity of the several models and their apparent solidity excited
curiosity. Upon investigation all the large examples were more or less
coated with sand. Some were so completely and smoothly enveloped that
they appeared to be actual balls of sand and shell grit. The mass,
however, was found to be mud mixed with fine sand, with generally a
shell or portion thereof, or a fragment of coral as a kernel or core. In
fact, each of the dollops was a fair sample of the material of the ocean
floor extending from the inner edge of the coral to the beach.
With so many samples in view one could observe the whole process of
formation. The crescentic sweep of the wavelets rolled fragments of shell
or coral in the mud, successive revolutions adding to the respective
bulks by accretion. As the tide rose each piece was trundled on to the
sloping beach, to be rolled and compressed until coated with a mosaic of
white shell chips, angularities of silica and micaceous spangles, the
finished article being cast aside as the tide receded.
Sometimes the wavelets did the kneading and rolling so clumsily that the
nodule was malformed, but the majority were singularly symmetrical,
evidencing nice adjustment between the degree of adhesiveness of the
"pug" and the applied force of the wave. Several weighed nearly a quarter
of a pound, while the majority were not much bigger than marbles, and the
oval was the most frequent form.
Is it reasonable to conjecture that some of these singular formations
which Neptune turned out by the score during an idle afternoon may be
preserved--kernels of sedimentary rock each in a case of sandstone--
throughout the wreck of matter to form the texts of scientific
homilies in ages to come?
THE ATROCITY OF THE SNAKE
September 28, 1909.
A red snake discovered in a coop with a hen and clutch of chicks. The
coop had been deemed snake-proof, but the slim snake had easily passed in
at the half-inch mesh wire-netting in front. Upon investigation it was
found that the snake had swallowed one chick (and had thereby become a
prisoner), had killed three others and maimed a fifth so that it died,
and that the hen had killed the snake by pecking its head. The snake (a
non-venomous species) was about a yard long and had killed the chicks by
constriction. If snakes are in the habit of killing more than they can
eat of the broods of wild birds, how enormous the toll they take!
"Some day ere I grow too old to think I trust to be
able to throw away all pursuits, save natural history,
and to die with my mind full of God's facts instead
of men's lies."--CHARLES KINGSLEY.
August 2, 1909.
A lanky grasshopper with keeled back and pointed prow flew before me,
settling on a leaf of blady grass, at once became fidgety and restless;
flew to another blade and was similarly uneasy. It was bluff in colour
with a narrow longitudinal streak of fawn, while the blades of grass
whereon it rested momentarily were green. Each time it settled it
adjusted itself to the blade of grass, became conscious of discomfort or
apprehensive of danger, and sought another. Presently it settled on a
yellowing leaf, the tints of which exactly corresponded with its own. The
longitudinal streak became absorbed in the midrib of the blade, and the
insect rested secure in its invisibility. The event demonstrated the
purpose of its previous restlessness.
October 6, 1909.
This morning the soda siphon (which had not been used for a couple of
days) refused duty, owing to a plug of terra-cotta-coloured clay.
Upon the spout being probed the gush of gas expelled a quantity of
clay and thirty-five small spiders, representative of about six
different species. The spout had been converted into a nursery and
larder by a carnivorous wasp, for in addition to the moribund spiders
stored for the sustenance of future grubs were several unhatched
eggs. Such wasps are exceedingly common, some building "nests" as
large as a tea-cup, the last compartment being fitted with an
elegantly fashioned funnel, the purpose of which is not obvious.
If these nests are broken up, after the hatching out, the grubs are
found-several in each compartment--feasting on the comatose spiders
or caterpillars stored for their refreshment. Others of the species build
a series of nests, detached or semi-detached, and shaped in resemblance
to Greek amphora. Another species selects hollows in wood in which the
eggs and insects are scaled. The larger wasps are not fearful of
attacking so-called tarantulas, one sting rendering them paralytic.
November 10 1909.
Blue has a decided fascination for the bloodsucking "March" flies. In
the "blue" tub of the laundry hundreds are lured to suicide, while the
other tubs alongside count no voluntary victims. Blue clothing attracts
scores, whereas the effect of any other colour is normal upon the
appreciative sense of the flies. I am not well assured whether an attack
of the "humph"--"the humph which is black and blue"--is not also
diagnosed by the contemplative insects and forthwith attended to.
Certainly if one has the misfortune to have become associated for the
time being with devils of cerulean hue, the company of the flies seems
all the more persistent and provocative of vexation. Imagination reels
before the consequences of a blue costume, "all's blue," and the thrice
intensified attacks of the indolent but persevering blood-suckers.
November 16, 1909.
Found a flat hairy spider, about 1 in. in diameter of body, mottled pale
brown and grey, brooding over a flat egg capsule almost of the same tints
as itself. It was on the trunk of the jack fruit tree, and so closely
resembles the egg-capsule produced by contiguous fungi as to be
absolutely invisible unless the gaze happened to be concentrated on the
spot. No doubt in my mind that the similitude of the spider, together
with its egg-capsule, to the adjacent discs of fungi enabled it to escape
detection. When disturbed the spider whisked into absolute invisibility.
I inspected the trunk of the tree for several minutes before I found it,
within six inches of its original resting-place, perfectly still, acting
the part of an obscure vegetable.
TARANTULAS AND TARANTISMUS
A few months ago I read in a text-book a dogmatic assertion to the effect
that the so-called tarantulas were perfectly innocent of venom, and
formidable only to the insects on which they prey. The great,
good-tempered fellow, as uncouth in its hairiness as Nebuchadnezzar
during his lamentable but salutary attack of boanthropy, is regarded with
a good deal of suspicion, if not dread, though it pays for its lodging by
reason of its large appetite, which latter statement seems
self-contradictory. To satisfy its pangs of hunger it captures numbers of
small insects which, willy nilly, tenant our homes.
In well-ordered establishments the aid of a tarantula or two in the
suppression of insignificant undesirable creatures should, it might be
argued, be unnecessary. Indeed, does not the presence of a fat, flat
fellow lurking behind a rafter or in some gloomy corner, ever ready to
seize cockroach or beetle, imply lack of order? Yet I have known homes
where the tarantula was an honoured, if not a petted, lodger. When it had
cleared one room it was coaxed on to a card and thereon transported to
the next, and so it went the rounds. The children were wont to say that
it knew its carriage, and would sidle on it whenever it was presented. To
those of us who live in the bush, and who suffer fresh incursions almost
every hour of the day, the help of a long-limbed, obese-bodied spider
whose docility is beyond question, whose non-poisonous character is
vouched for by high authorities, is by no means unwelcome.
But in spite of negative knowledge I have had my suspicions that the
tarantula was not altogether wholesome in his anger, and now I have proof
in support of my doubts. In a cool, dark cavity under a log in the bush
were two huge representatives of the race. Each had its own compartment,
a smooth, worn gallery, and they appear to have been on good terms until
the moment of disturbance, for which each seemed to blame the other. They
fought. It was a very brief, casual, and unentertaining encounter; but
in less than half a minute one was dead, shrivelled and shrunk as though
fire had passed over it. As no dismemberment or wound was apparent, I
was fairly well satisfied that poison, very rapid in its effect, was at
the service of the tarantula when its anger was aroused.
The next fact settled the point. Tom, the black boy, felt a nip on the
arm as he put on a clean shirt an evening or two ago, and, reversing the
sleeve, found a tarantula. Blood was oozing from two tiny incisions, the
space between which was slightly raised. For two days Tom suffered pain
in the arm, which became slightly swollen, headache, and great
Reading my text-book, I found that the original tarantula spider (from
which the Australian species are misnamed) is so called from the town of
Tarentum, in Italy. Among the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood
it was a deeply-rooted belief that if any one was bitten by a tarantula
he would be instantly inflicted with a singular disease known as
tarantismus, which exhibited itself in two extremes, the one being a
profound and silent melancholy and the other a continual convulsive
movement of the whole body. It was thought that this disease could only
be cured by music, and that a certain tune was needful in each particular
case. This was the legend.
It will be remembered that among the tales told by "a great traveller" to
Pepys was one on the subject of the tarantula. He says that all the
harvest long (about which time they are most busy) there are fiddlers go
up and down the fields everywhere in expectation of being hired by
those who are stung.
Of the disease there is no doubt, and that it could be cured by dancing
stimulated by music is a natural conclusion. Each patient indulged in
long and violent exercise, which produced profuse perspiration; he then
fell exhausted, slept calmly, and awoke cured.
For the best part of a day Tom lay stretched on his face in the sun. Like
David the psalmist, he refused to be comforted. A profound and silent
melancholy subdued the wandering spirit which invariably manifests
itself on Sunday. He just "sweated out" the day he usually devotes to
hunting, and on Monday was himself again, save for a greyish blue tinge
encircling each of the little wounds on his arm.
Though it is certain that the tarantula of Italy and the spider which
robbed Tom of his Sunday are of different species, yet one is struck by
the similarity of the toxic effects of the bite with that of the
manifestations of the disease of tarantismus. The fact that after a good
sweating--hot sand and unshaded sun are fairly active sudorifics--all
untoward effects (physical and mental) passed away seems to suggest close
intimacy between the symptoms of the poison of tarantula and the disease.
I do not apologise for thus gravely recording an incident of the bush
which has neither humour nor romance to recommend it, because I think,
friendly as I am to the "tarantula," the truth--the whole truth and
nothing but the whole truth--should be told about him. Like the pet
pussy-cat, "if you don't hurt him he'll do you no harm"; but put him
in a tight corner and offer him violence and he will heroically defend
himself and be very nasty about it. Having studied Tom's demeanour while
under the effects of the poison, I am satisfied that if one desires a
visit from "divinest melancholy" without any of the thrills of poetry,
let him provoke an angry tarantula to assault him. All "vain, deluding
joys" will pass away, and for twenty-four hours he will be as dull as a
log, and as sweatful as a fat Southerner in a canefield.
The local name of the house-haunting "tarantula," though befitting and
unique, imposes a singularly slight strain upon the resources of the
alphabet. What combination of eight letters could be softer and more
coaxing? And yet the startled Eves of Dunk Island were wont not only to
specialise the spider but to shriek out affright at its unexpected
presence by the exclamation "Oo-boo-boo!"
To prove that the "Oo-boo-boo" is not always victorious in the fights
which take place in the dark, let me tell of a combat between a giant
and a slim-waisted orange and black wasp. The latter buzzed about
angrily, and, following up a feint, stung the "Oo-boo-boo," which became
nerveless on the instant and fell. As it was all too heavy to fly away
with, the wasp dragged it along the ground with much labour and incessant
fuss. The terra-cotta larder was in a hollow log, and only after immense
exertions and many failures was the limp carcass tugged to the spot. Then
there was more buzzing than ever, for the wasp discovered that its prey
was many sizes too large for the clay compartment prepared for it. No
amount of trampling and shoving of the limp tarantula was of any avail.
Several minutes elapsed before the obvious fact dawned upon the baffled
insect. Then it abandoned its efforts at compression, and with many loads
of moist clay moulded a special compartment in which the tarantula, still
in a state of suspended animation, was snugly stowed.
Just one more. A wasp dropped on the bench a few inches from my nose--a
tiny wasp with a rollicking gait. Closer inspection showed half a wasp
only. It had been neatly severed at the delicate waist and on the thatch
above was an Oo-boo-boo--a big Oo-boo-boo--and it seemed to me to be
beaming with that broad, self-satisfied expression that the cat wears
when it has eaten the canary.
I. A BIRD SCOUT
Among those birds of North Queensland jungles which have marked
individualistic characters is that known as the koel cuckoo, which the
blacks of some localities have named "calloo-calloo"--a mimetic term
imitative of the most frequent notes of the bird. The male is lustrous
black, the female mottled brown, and during most parts of the year both
are extremely shy, though noisy enough in accustomed and quiet haunts.
The principal note of the male is loud, ringing, and most pleasant, but
its vocabulary is fairly extensive. Sometimes it yelps loud and long like
a puppy complaining of a smart whipping, sometimes in the gloom of the
evening it moans and wails pitifully like an evil thing tortured mentally
and physically, sometimes it announces the detection of unwelcome
intruders upon its haunts with a blending of purr and hiss.
When "calloo-calloo" comes to the islands, resident blacks look to the
flowering of the bean-tree, for the events are coincident; while as they
understand all its vocal inflections an important secret is often
revealed to them by noisy exclamations. Living in flowerland among the
tops of the trees, the bird is favourably located for the discovery of
snakes, but being strong and lusty there is reason to believe that the
presence of slim green and grey arboreal species is ignored. The
important office that it holds in the domestic economy of the blacks is
in the detection of carpet snakes, which to them form an ever welcome
article of diet. Thus when "calloo-calloo" shouts "snake" in excited,
chattering phrases they run off in the hope of being able to find the
game, and generally one suffices to rid the bird of a deceitful and
implacable enemy and to provide the camp with a substantial meal.
A few months ago a friend who owns a fruitful estate fronting one of the
rivers of the mainland, who was not aware of the aptitude of the bird,
was working with his blacks when "calloo-calloo" gave voice. "That's one!"
exclaimed Dilly Boy, as he rushed into a thick patch of jungle; "he
bin lookout snake!" The boss, concluding that Dilly Boy had merely
invented a plausible excuse for a spell, smiled to himself when he came
back in half an hour wearing an air of philosophic disappointment. "That
fella snake along a tree; bin lookout; too much leep [leaf]. That
calloo-calloo, him sing out proper. Him no more humbug!"
Huge carpet snakes frequently coil themselves so carefully among
parasitic ferns and orchids in the trees that it is impossible to detect
them from below. A couple of days after work was proceeding in the same
locality when a snake, 12 feet long, was found and killed, but the fact
was then not accepted as proof of the theory of the blacks. In the course
of a few days the bird again proclaimed "snake," and all the blacks
hastened to the spot to set about a systematic search. Applying the
detective principle of isolation to various parts of the tree in which by
general consent (corroborating the evidence of the bird) the snake was
concluded to be, the blacks at last decided that the only possible place
of concealment was a mass of elk's-horn fern encircling the trunk about
40 feet from the ground. One of them thereupon climbed the tree, and soon
a carpet snake, 14 feet 6 inches long and 12 inches in girth, was
writhing on the ground. It is well known that these snakes are frequently
found in pairs, and no doubt the "calloo-calloo" had signified the
presence of the mate on the occasion of the first alarm.
Other instances of the shrewdness of the bird and its care for the
wellbeing of the order generally by detecting and proclaiming the
presence of the universal enemy might be cited. One authority asserts
that the bird and the snake are nearly always found together, and seems
to imply that a friendship exists between them, for the bird is referred
to as a "messmate" of the snake. "The bird," he writes, "flies over
the snake with a 'clucky' chirp, and whenever the natives hear it in
the dense scrubs they sneak in to discover the reptile, which is caught
by being grabbed at the back of the head."
In heralding the flower of the bean-tree, and thus awakening thoughts of
the beans, and in indicating snakes (both desirable and indeed essential
articles of food), the "calloo-calloo" performs such valuable service
that it is highly commended. Those who are familiar with the unreflective
omnivority of the blacks and their indelicate appetites generally, may
with difficulty credit the fact that in those districts in which the bird
is recognised as a trustworthy guide it is honoured, and under no
circumstances will they kill it. Of course, the blacks of North
Queensland in native worth have not much art in the killing of birds, but
in every case "calloo-calloo" is tabu.
One instance may be quoted. A great outcry was heard on the edge of the
jungle, and upon investigation a grey falcon and a "calloo-calloo" were
found in such preoccupied "holts" that both were captured. Here was an
opportunity for a meal. The birds were parted, and the falcon given over
to the custody of a gin for execution, while the "calloo-calloo," which
was dazed, was petted and revived until it at last flew away with a glad
call, the blacks assuring a witness, "B'mbi that fella look out snake
belong me fella!"
II. DO BIRDS PLAY?
A somewhat too rigorous critic of the antics of birds has expressed the
opinion that playfulness is unknown among them, that their occasional
friskiness is not an exhibition of lightness of heart, but merely a
martial exercise. The corroboree of native companions (ANTIGONE
AUSTRALASIANA) may certainly be the practice of a defensive manoeuvre,
though it has the appearance of a graceful dance. A partially disabled
bird will pirouette on tiptoes and flap its wings wildly in the face of
its foe, and it is reasonable to imagine that the great birds in
community would keep themselves well trained in their particular methods
A flock of dotterels bobbing, bowing, skipping, and shouldering one
another may be merely practising some evolution with serious intent,
though it is far more natural to conclude that the frail little birds
are in holiday humour. For all their exercises, they have but one resort
in the presence of a superior foe or an alert single enemy, and that is
in hasty and inconsiderate flight.
From my own experience may be drawn proof of the contention that birds do
practise defensive and offensive tactics, and also that they have their
moments of unreflecting play.
The cassowary (CASUARIUS AUSTRALIS) is a skilful fighter. It hits out
with such force and precision that a weaponless man who stands before the
bird when it is angry and vicious is ridiculously overmatched. The great
bird is so quick that you do not realise that it has got its blow in
first until you see the blood flow. It strikes with its middle toe, and
that toe is a lance, keen if not bright. How does the regal bird of the
jungles of North Queensland acquire this lightning-like stroke? The
answer is, by constant and intelligent practice while young. A year or
two ago I had frequent opportunities for observing a pair of young
cassowaries patiently, yet playfully, performing martial exercises. They
were about the size of a full grown bustard (say, 28 lb. weight); but if
their bulk had been in ratio to their lightheartedness and playfulness,
they would have loomed large as bullocks.
Their favourite spot was round and about a stout post about three feet
high, the ground encircling which had been beaten down by constant use to
polished smoothness. That the ruling passion of the young birds during
their idle hours was determination to acquire skill and alertness there
can be no doubt. Invariably the game began in a particular way. One of
the pair striding round the post--apparently oblivious of its
existence--would lurch against it as a man inspired with rum might treat a
lamp-post intent on getting in his way. Leering at the post for a second,
the bird would march round again to shoulder it roughly a second time.
Then a queer look of simulated petulance and indignation would spread
over its features, and, taking in its measure, the bird would lash out at
the post with grim earnestness. A cyclonic attack ensued. With many
feints and huddling up of its neck, and dodges, and ducks, and lateral
movements of the head quick as thought, the post was chastised for its
insolence and stolid stupidity. It seemed to be hit in several places at
one and the same moment. Its features bore ever increasing scores and
furrows, for it was used for hours every day as a punching-ball.
When one bird grew tired the other imitated most laughably the antics of
its brother, first ignoring the presence of the post, and then, having
lurched dreamily against it, assaulting it with unrestrained fury. Play
and significant offensive tactics were undoubtedly blended in the
pastimes of the cassowary.
Before the boldest of these birds grew to maturity it became such an
expert boxer and so pugnacious and truculent that it was declared unfit
to be at large, and as the State offered no secure asylum the death
penalty was pronounced and duly carried into effect. By good luck I
happened along before all the roast leg had been disposed of, and in
spite of testimony to the contrary have pleasure in declaring that,
notwithstanding the heroic training to which the youthful bird had
subjected itself, the flesh was as tender and as gamey as that of a young
The other case in point may be briefly cited. While yet young there came
into our possession a magpie (GYMNORHINA TIBICEN), to which as soon as it
was fit for responsibilities full liberty was cheerfully granted.
Breakfast, several tiffens, lunches, and afternoon snacks, and a full
evening's dinner was provided. The dish of scraps was always available.
At will the pet flew in and out of the kitchen, and if by chance food was
not spread out at the accustomed place it protested loudly, and always
effectively. Although a large quantity of food was self-earned, there was
always a substantial meal in reserve.
The bird spent many wayward hours endeavouring to sing. No cultured
relative was present to teach the notes of its kind, so that in default
it learned the complete vocabulary of the domestic poultry, besides the
more familiar calls and exclamations of its mistress, the varied barks of
two dogs, the shrieks of many cockatoos, the gabble of scrub fowls.
The bird also began to play in semi-human style, performing marvellous
acrobatic feats on the clothes-line, and lying on its back juggling with
a twig as some "artists" do with a barrel in the circus. A white-eared
flycatcher took up its abode near the house, and the magpie, after a
decent lapse of time, admitted the stranger to its companionship. The
wild, larderless bird, however, had little time to play. All its wit and
energies were devoted to the serious business of life. It knew none of
the games that the magpie invented save one, and that was a kind of
aerial "peep-bo" to which the brainier bird lured it by means of a
The magpie found a moth, big of abdomen, fat, and brown, a tempting
morsel to any insectivorous bird. Envious of the dainty, the wagtail
fluttered and skipped about the magpie with cheerful chatter; but the
fluttering moth, daintily held by the extremity of its body, was
alternately presented and denied. They danced about a bush, the magpie
tantalisingly holding the moth for acceptance and hopping off as the
wagtail was about to snatch it. To the tame bird, fortified by knowledge
that its meals were provided, it was all fun. To the hungry wild one the
moth dangled temptingly before it and whipped disappointingly away was a
meal almost to be fought for. It was a game equally sincere but of varied
interest. The one assumed a whimsical air, chuckling in encouraging
tones; the other took it all in earnest.
At last, unable to restrain an exclamation of delight, the magpie
unwarily slackened its hold, and the moth fluttered off to be snapped up
on the instant by the wild bird and gulped without ceremony. After this
the game was frequently played, but the magpie had invariably to make it
worth the while of the wagtail by offering a prize in the shape of some
Do not these cases support the theories that birds sharpen their
faculties by the exercise of defensive and offensive tactics, and also
that they do indulge in irresponsible play?
III. BIRDS WHICH HAVE REASONED
If one begins to reflect upon the mental attributes of inferior animals,
how aptly is evidence in support of a favourite theory presented? Are
the actions of birds due to automatic impulses or hereditary traits? Is
instinct merely "lapsed intelligence," or do birds actually reflect? Are
they capable of applying the results of habit and observations in respect
of one set of circumstances to other and different conditions? John
Burroughs expresses the opinion that birds have perceptions, but not
conceptions; that they recognise a certain fact, but are incapable of
applying the fact to another case. I am almost convinced that some birds
are capable of logical actions under circumstances absolutely new to
them, and as a bright and shining affirmation quote "Baal Burra."
Beautiful in appearance, for it was what is generally known as a blue
mountain parrot (red-collared lorikeet), its cleverness and affectionate
nature were far more engaging than all the gay feathers. It came as the
gift of a human derelict, who knew how to gain the confidence of dumb
creatures, though society made of him an Ishmaelite. Vivacious, noisy,
loving the nectar of flowers and the juices of fruits, Baal Burra was
phenomenal in many winsome ways, but in a spirit of rare self denial
I refrain from the pleasure of chronicling some of them in order to
give place to instance and proof of the reasoning powers of an
astonishingly high order.
Are apologies to be offered, too, for the homeliness of the example--its
unrelieved domesticity? I must begin at the very beginning lest some
necessary point be lost, and the beginning is porridge! A small portion
was invariably left for Baal Burra. On the morning of this strange
history a miniature lagoon, irregular in shape, of porridge and milk had
settled in the very centre of the dry desert of plate. In response to
customary summons to breakfast, Baal Burra skipped along the veranda. It
was a daily incident, and no one took particular notice until unusual
exclamations on the part of the bird denoted something extraordinary. By
circumnavigating the plate and at the same time stretching its neck to
the utmost it had contrived to convert the shapeless lagoon into a
perfectly symmetrical pond just out of the reach of the stubby tongue.
Hence the scolding. Three witnesses--each ardently on the side of the
bird--watched intently. Decently mannered, it refused to clamber on to the
edge of the plate, for it was ever averse from defilement of food. The
tit-bit was just beyond avaricious exertions--just at that tantalising
distance and just so irresistibly desirable as might be directly
stimulative of original enterprise towards acquirement.
The chatter and abuse continued for a couple of minutes. Then the bird
stood still while seeming to reflect, with wise head askew after the
manner of other thinkers. Hurrying, to its playthings--which happened to
be at the far end of the veranda--it selected a matchbox, dragged it
clatteringly along, ranged it precisely close to the plate, mounted it,
and from the extra elevation sipped the last drop with a chuckle of
content. That the bird on deliberation conceived the scheme for
over-reaching the coveted food I have not the slightest doubt.
Baal Burra bestowed frank friendship on a fat, good-humoured, yellow cat,
fond of luxury and ease during the day, a "rake-helly" prowler at
night. Into Sultan's fur Baal Burra would burrow, not without occasional
result, if the upbraiding tongue was to be believed. Baal Burra would
fill its lower mandible with water from a drinking dish and tip it neatly
into the cat's ear, and scream with delight as Sultan shook his sleepy
head. To dip the tip of the cat's tail into the water and mimic the
scrubbing of the floor was an everyday pastime. In addition to being an
engineer and a comedian the bird was also a high tragedian. In the cool
of the evening upon the going down of the sun the cat and the bird would
set out together to the accustomed stage. Baal Burra burrowing through
the long grass, painfully slow and cheeping plaintively, while Sultan
stalked ahead mewing encouragingly. The tragedy, which was in one act,
was repeated so often that each became confidently proficient, while the
setting--free from the constraints of space--helped towards that degree of
deception which is the highest form of art. Often we feared lest Sultan,
carried away by enrapt enthusiasm, would unwittingly sustain his part
even to the lamentable though natural DÉNOUEMENT. Baal Burra was, of'
course, the engaging and guileless victim, while Sultan, with triumphant
realism, rehearsed a scene ruthlessly materialised elsewhere.
Climbing into a low-growing bush, Baal Burra would become preoccupied,
innocently absorbed in an inspection of the young shoots and tender
leaves which it seemed to caress. Assuming a ferocious mien, Sultan
approached soliloquising, no doubt, "Ah, here is another silly wild-fowl!
Come, let me indulge my bloodthirstiness!" His eyes glittered as he
crouched, his tail thickened and swayed, his ears were depressed, his
whiskers and nose twitched, his jaws worked, his claws were unsheathed
and sheathed spasmodically as he crept stealthily towards the apparently
unconscious bird. After two or three preliminary feints for the perfect
adjustment of his faculties and pose, he bounded into the air with
distended talons well over his screeching playmate. The scene would be
rehearsed several times before Sultan, tired of mummery and eager for
actualities, slunk yawling into the bush, while Baal Burra, whimpering in
the dusk, waddled home to be caged.
Towards the further justification of the argument two cases in which
scrub fowl (MEGAPODIUS DUPERREYI TUMULUS) are concerned may be cited.
Being a previously recorded fact, the first is excusable only on the
grounds of its applicability to a debatable point.
1. On a remote spot in a very rough and rugged locality, hemmed in by
immense blocks of granite, is a large incubating mound. Save at one point
it is encompassed by rocks, but the opening does not grant facilities
for the accumulation of vegetable debris, yet the mound continually
increases in dimensions. At first glance there seems no means by which
such a large heap could have been accumulated for the birds do not carry
their materials, but kick and scratch them to the site. A hasty survey
shows that the birds have taken advantage of the junction of two
impending rocks which form a fortuitous shoot down which to send the
rubbish with the least possible exertion on their part. The shoot is
always in use, for the efficacy of the mound depends upon the heat
generated by actually decaying vegetation. Did the birds think out this
simple labour-saving method before deciding on the site for the mound, or
was it a gracious afterthought--one of those automatic impulses by which
Nature confronts difficulties?
2. As I wandered on the hilltops far from home I was astonished when Tom,
the cutest of black boys, dropped on his knees to investigate a crevice
between two horizontal slabs of granite filled with dead leaves and loam.
The spot, bare of grass, was about twenty yards from the edge of a fairly
thick, low-growing scrub where scrub fowls are plentiful. I was inclined
to smile when he said, "Might be hegg belonga scrub hen sit down!" He
scooped out some of the rubbish--the crevice was so narrow that it barely
admitted his arm--and finally dug a hole with his fingers fully fourteen
inches deep, revealing an egg, pink with freshness.
A more unlikely spot for a scrub fowl to lay, could hardly be imagined.
There was no mound, the crevice being merely filled flush, and the
vegetable rubbish packed between the flat rocks did not appear to be
sufficient in quantity to generate in its decay the temperature necessary
to bring about incubation. Yet the egg was warm, and upon reflecting that
the sun's rays keep the granite slabs in the locality hot during the day,
so hot, indeed, that there is no sitting down on them with comfort, I
perceived that here was evidence on which to maintain an argument of rare
sagacity on the part of the bird, and that the hypothesis might be thus
stated: This cool-footed cultivator of the jungle floor had during the
casual rambling on sunlit spaces become conscious of the heat of the
rocks. Being impressed, she surveyed the locality, and of her deliberate
purpose selected a spot for the completion of her next ensuing maternal
duties which, while it scandalised the traditions of her tribe, presented
This was a natural incubator, certainly, but superior to those in common
use in that the solar heat stored by the stone during the day rendered
superfluous any large accumulation of vegetable matter. Surely it is but
a short and easy step from the perception of solar heat to the conception
that such heat would assist in the incubation of eggs. None but a
mound-builder who, of course, must have general knowledge on the subject
of temperatures and the maintenance thereof, could conceive that these
heated rocks would obviate the labour of raking together a mass of
rubbish. Further, her inherent perception that moist heat due to the
fermentation was vital towards the fulfilment of her hopes of posterity
would avert the blunder of trusting to the dry rocks alone. The hot rocks
and a small quantity of decaying leaves stood in her case for a huge
mound, innocent of extraneous heat. Having, therefore more time to
scratch for her living, she would naturally become a more robust bird,
more attractive to the males, and the better qualified to transmit her
exceptional mental qualities to her more numerous offspring.
These are the bare facts. Let those who believe that birds are capable of
taking the step from the fact to the principle continue the trains of
thought into which they inevitably lead. Will this particular scrub fowl
by force of her accidental discovery start a revolutionary change in the
life-history of mound-builders generally? Or will the bird----? But there
are the facts to conjure or to play with.
SWIFTS AND EAGLES
I. A RARE NEST
Among the resident birds one of the most interesting from an
ornithological standpoint is that known as the grey-rumped swiftlet
(COLLOCALIA FRANCICA), referred to by Macgillivray as "a swallow which
Mr. Gould informs me is also an Indian species." That ardent naturalist
is, therefore, entitled to the credit of discovery. Sixty-one years had
passed since Macgillivray's visit, during which no knowledge of the
life-history of the bird which spends most of its time hawking for
insects in sunshine and shower had been revealed, when a fragment of a
nest adhering to the roof of a cave on one of the highest points of the
Island attracted attention. Submitted to an expert (Mr. A. J. Campbell,
of Melbourne, Victoria), the identity of the builder was guessed.
Subsequently I had the satisfaction of finding a colony close to the
water's edge, on the weather side, where the birds had frequently been
seen darting among blocks of granite almost obscured by jungle.
No nests were found in crevices deemed to be favourable spots, though
the predilection of the genus for gloom was appreciated, but upon the
exploration of a confined cave the excited flutterings of invisible birds
betrayed a hitherto well-kept secret. When my eyes became accustomed to
the dimness I saw that the roof of the cave (which is fairly smooth and
regular with an inclination of about thirty degrees) was studded with
nests. Fifty-three were placed irregularly about the middle of the roof,
some in pairs, none on the walls. Some were not quite finished; twenty
contained a single white egg each; none contained young. All were
adherent to the stone by a semi-transparent white substance resembling
isinglass, with which also the fine grass, moss, and fibre composing the
nests were consolidated. The vegetable material of the first fragmentary
nest (found September 17, 1908) was quite green and the gluten moist and
sticky. Those now described (two months later) were dry and tough, the
dimensions being 2 to 2½ inches across and about ¾ inch deep. The cave is
only about 30 feet above high-water mark and the entrance the birds
favour is, strange to say, averse from the sea and much obscured by
After the first fright the birds became quiet and confident. A young one
flew into my half-closed hand, and I detained it for a while and it
never struggled. Another tried to snoodle into the shirt-pocket of the
black boy who accompanied me. Several brushed against our faces. Clouds
partially obscured the sun and what with the screen of foliage and the
prevailing gloom of the cave we could not always distinguish the nests.
When the sun shone brightly all were plainly discernible, those with the
single pearly egg being quaintly pretty. As they flitted in and out of
the cave, the birds were as noiseless as butterflies save when they
wheeled to avoid each other. Those which were brooding, as they flitted
over the nests or clung to the edges, uttering a peculiar note hard to
vocalise. To my cars it sounded as a blending of cheeping, clinking, and
chattering, yet metallic, and not very unlike the hasty winding up of a
One bird flew to her nest a foot or so from my face and clung to it. To
test its timidity or otherwise I approached my face to within two inches,
but she continued to scrutinise me even at such close quarters with
charming assurance. Then I gently placed my hand over her. She struggled.
but not wildly, for a few seconds and then remained passive with bright
eyes glinting in the gloom. She was a dusky little creature, the
primaries, the back of the head, neck, the shoulders, and tail being
black, but when the wings were extended the grey fluff of the base of the
tail was conspicuous. After a few minutes I put her back on the nest,
and she clung, to it having no shyness or fear. I noticed that the beak
was very short, the gape very large, the legs dwarfed, and the toes
We remained in the cave for about half an hour, during which time the
birds came and went indifferent to our presence. As far as I am aware
members of the species never rest save in their headquarters, clinging to
the roof or the nests and never utter a sound except the reassuring,
prattle upon alighting on the edge of the nest. It was interesting to
note that while many young birds were fluttering about in the cave none
occupied a nest, and eggs were in successive stages of incubation, as
proved by appearance and test.
The fact that the nests of these swifts are cemented with coagulated
saliva establishes analogy with that other member of the family which
builds in the caves of frowning precipices near the sea, making edible
nests greatly appreciated by Chinese gourmands, some of whom maintain the
fantastic theory that the swift catches quantities of a small, delicately
flavoured fish which it exposes on rocks until desiccated, to be
afterwards compounded into nests. The ancients were wont to believe in
the existence of hostile mutuality between the swifts and the
bêche-de-mer, though they have little in common in respect of appearance,
attributes, and habits. If memory serves, one of the genera had the
specific title of HIRUNDO, founded on the faith that the swift, by flying
over the sea-slug exposed by receding tide, and vexing it by jeers,
caused it to exude glutinous threads which the swift seized and bore away
to its cave to be consolidated and moulded into a nest. To the fable was
appended a retributive moral, viz., that the bêche-de-mer occasionally
revenged itself by expelling such a complicated mass of gluten that it
became a net for the capture of the swift, which was slowly assimilated
by its enemy. The Chinese, it may be said, with but slight perversion of
fact, show equal partiality for the respective emblems of speed and
Since the dates mentioned it has been ascertained by personal observation
that the breeding season of the swiftlet extends over four months,
during which probably four young are reared, each clutch being single.
The nests do not provide accommodation for more than one chick, which
before flight is obviously top large for its birthplace. Looking down
into the cave, the eggs well advanced towards incubation seem to have a
slight phosphorescent glow. The earliest date so far recorded of the
discovery of a newly laid egg is October 14th, but there is reason to
believe that the breeding season begins at least a month earlier. On
January 10th this year (1910) half the nests in the cave originally
described contained eggs, in most of which (judging by opacity)
incubation was far advanced, while in several were young birds, some
newly hatched, others apparently ready to depart from their gloomy,
foul-smelling quarters. These latter clung so determinedly to their nests
with needle-like toes that the force necessary to remove them would
certainly have caused injury.
It may be remarked that the breeding season of the nutmeg pigeon is also
protracted over a third of the year--from September to the end of
January, two or three single successive clutches being reared. The pigeon
is a visitor, the swift a resident.
II. THREE FISHERS
At the outset it is almost incumbent to announce that this is not a fish
story. It is not even a story, though fish play a secondary part in it.
Therefore it should not make shipwreck of the faith of those who smile
and sniff whensoever a fish or a snake is informally introduced in print.
The imagination of some observers of the wonders of natural history
paints incidents so extravagantly that their illustrative value is
depreciated if not entirely distorted.
As I would wish to establish a sort of general confidence with any chance
reader of these lines who, like myself, finds no need for exaggeration
in the chronicling of observations, being well aware that Nature with the
ease of consummate art outwits the wisest and laughs at the blotches of
the boldest impressionist, it seems but common politeness to explain that
though the Island may be romantic, the art of romancing is alien from its
shores, albeit (as some one has hinted) that in imagination reverently
applied lies the higher truth.
The distance from the mainland is not so great as to deprive the Island
of generally distinctly Australian characteristics. It was, no doubt, in
the remote past, merely a steep and high range of hills separated from
other hills and mountains by plains and lagoons. Delicate land shells,
salt-hating frogs, and subtle snakes are among the living testifiers to
past connection with Australia, but while all the animals and nearly all
the birds native to the island are common on the mainland, several
mainland types are conspicuously absent.
If, therefore, the birds and mammals seem in these literal chronicles to
have little ways of their own, may they not owe obedience to true and
abiding circumstances--a kind of unavoidable fate--due to isolation? It
would indeed be singular if an island so long separated from Australia as
to possess no marsupial did not impress certain idiosyncrasies upon its
fauna and flora. It would be absurd to contend that as a rule, the
untamed creatures carry any marks of distinction, but I have had the
opportunity of studying facts of which I have never been fortunate to
have confirmation either by reading or by "swapping lies" with other
students of Nature.
Occasionally when bewilderment has come I call to mind what Mrs. Jarley
said of her waxwork, and let the case pass: "I won't go so far as to
say that, as it is, I've seen waxwork quite like life but I've certainly
seen some life that was exactly like waxwork." When I see a crab not
easily distinguishable from a piece of sponge and a piece of sponge far
more like a crab generally than the crab, that unconsciously mimics it,
and possessing just as much apparent animation, I am content to be
tricked in many other ways by the good mother of us all.
Having ventured so far by way of preface, it is quite possible that the
reader may have concluded that something exceptionally marvellous is to
follow. Disappointment was inevitable from the first. The relation of
some of the quaint distinguishing traits of the Island fauna must be left
until the historian imagines that he has established a reputation for
subduing, rather than heightening, the tone of his facts. This
introduction has not a particular but a wide bearing.
Chief among the birds of prey are the osprey, the white-headed sea-eagle,
and the white-bellied sea-eagle. The great wedge-tailed eagle (eagle-hawk)
is a rare visitor, and is not a fisher. The others are resident and are
industrious practisers of the art which, according to their
interpretation, is anything but gentle. As they indulge in it, the sport
is so rough and boisterous and clumsy that one wonders that so many fish
should be caught. Each soars over the sea in circles at a height of
about 60 feet or 80 feet, and when fish are seen flies down and, plunging
into the water, seizes its prey with its talons. Unless the bird is
watched closely its attitudes while preparing for the downward cast and
during the descent are misunderstood. "And like a thunderbolt he falls"
is quite, according to local observations, an erroneous description of
the feat performed by the fishing eagle. Take as an example of the others
the actions of the noble bird the white-headed sea-eagle. As it circles
over the blue water its gaze is fixed and intent. Flight seems
automatic--steady, fairly swift, rippleless. Immediately a fish is
sighted, attitudes and poses become comparatively strained and awkward.
Flight is checked by the enormous brake-power of outspread tail, and
backward beating wing. The eagle poises over the spot, stretches out its
legs, and extends its talons to the utmost; flies down in a series of
zig-zags, and with the facial expression of the dirty boy undergoing the
torture of face-washing, plunges breast first with outstretched wings
with a mighty splash into the water. Disappearing for four or five
seconds, it finds it no easy task to rise with a two-pound mullet.
Splendid as the feat undoubtedly is, it does not coincide with the
description usually given. Have we not often been told of the headlong,
lightning like drop that almost baffles eyesight? The circumstance that
baffles is that fish are so unobservant or so slow that they do not
always, in place of sometimes, escape. For the excuse of the fish it must
be acknowledged that very few members of the tribe are fitted with eyes
for star-gazing. The eagle captures a dinner, not by the exercise of any
very remarkable fleetness or adaptiveness or passion for fishing, but
because of certain physical limitations on the part of the fish.
"As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature."
The subserviency of fish to the osprey was noted by the ancients, who
attributed a fabulous power of fascination to the bird so that as it flew
over the ponds the fish "turned their glistering bellies up" that it
might take liberal choice. Certainly some limitation on the part of the
fish seems to operate in favour of the osprey, otherwise the clumsy
fisher would oft go hungry.
It goes against the grain to speak slightingly of the knightly,
white-headed sea-eagle--a friend and almost a companion; but as any one
may see that it fishes not for the sport but for the pot, and that the
plunge into the water is a shock that is dreaded, no injustice is done.
Some birds--and they the most graceful--seem to fish for sport alone. These
three fishers fish because, like Kipling's kangaroo, they have to--only
the kangaroo hopped.
Now, the white-headed sea-eagle, which seems, and with good reason, to be
proud of its ruddy back, appears to have no enemy of its kind. While the
osprey and the white-bellied sea-eagle fall out and chide and fight, it
looks down from some superior height and placidly watches the fish
trap, for though knightly it is not above accepting tribute, for it likes
fish though it hates fishing.
The great osprey seldom crosses the bay without a challenge from its
stealthy foe, the white-belly. The voices of both are alike in their
dissonance though different in quality and tone, and the smaller bird is
invariably the aggressor. This is how they fight, or rather engage in a
vulgar brawl which has in it a smack of tragedy. The osprey, with steady
beat of outstretched wing, flies "squaking" from its agile enemy, who
endeavours to alight on the osprey's back. Just as white-belly stretches
its talons for a grip among the osprey's feathers, the osprey turns--and
turns without a tremor in its long, sweeping wings--to shake hands with
white-belly. For a moment the huge bird rests on its back, silhouetted
against the luminous sky, to interlock talons with its nimble foe. But
white-belly is fully alive to the risk of getting "into hoults" with so
heavy a weight, for on the instant it swoops up with a harsh cry of rage
or disappointment. With but a single flap and no quiver of wing the
osprey rights itself and sails away (a methodic, unflurried flight) with
fleeter white-belly in pursuit, which when within striking distance
swoops again, to be faced by the grim, outstretched talons of the osprey,
who has turned in flight with machine-like precision. So swift and sudden
is the discreet upward swoop of the white-belly that it almost appears to
be a rebound after contact with the bigger bird. So the scrimmage, or, to
be exact, screamage, proceeds, for each party to it tells the whole
Island of its valour, and business stands still as the series of most
graceful, yet savage, aerial evolutions is repeated until the rivals are
blotted out by distance.
Once I saw a bunch of feathers fly from the osprey's back. The aerial
capsize had not been timed with accustomed accuracy. Weight told, and it
speedily shook itself free; but I am waiting for the day when, in
mid-air, the osprey and the white-bellied sea-eagle shall clasp hands. It
will be an exciting moment for the sea-eagle. The osprey is a cuter as
well as a heavier bird, and, in the phrase of the blacks, "That fella
carn let go!"
When the osprey comes skirting the hollows of the hills for cockatoos,
its hunger will be unsatisfied until, by elaborate and disdainful
manoeuvres, the cockatoos are induced to take flight. Perched on the top
of a tree, they may jeer in safety as long as they like; but let the
flock fly into the open and the osprey will be surprised if it does not
get one, and that which is singled out it follows "like a grim murderer
still steady to his purpose." Now is the time for this, greatest of the
three fishers, to, wax fat and become pompous, for its diet is to be
varied with nutmeg pigeons, and the pigeons have come in their thousands
and tens of thousands, and if the eaglets do lack and suffer hunger, it
will be on account of the laziness of their parents.
For all its laborious fishing, the red-backed sea-eagle is sometimes
deprived of its spoil by a bird much inferior in size and weight and
which has not the slightest pretensions to the art. An eagle had captured
a "mainsail" fish (banded dory) which loomed black against its snowy
breast as in strenuous spirals it sought to gain sufficient height whence
to soar over the spur of the hill to its eyrie. The fish, though not
weighty, was awkward to carry, and the presence of the boat rather
baffled the bird, which was shadowed in envious though discreet flight by
a white-bellied eagle. Low over the water, close to the fringe of jungle
the eagle flew, when a grey falcon dashed out, snatched from its talons
the wriggling fish, and with one swoop disappeared under a
yellow-flowered hibiscus bush overhanging the tideway. The falcon is no
match for the eagle; but, most subtle of birds of prey, it had watched
the perplexity of its lord and master, and with audacious courage taken
advantage of a moment's embarrassment.
Repeated observations and diary records have established August 12th as
the beginning of the local "bird season." About that date two of the most
notable birds arrive from the North--the nutmeg pigeon (MYRISTICIVORA
SPILORRHOA) and the metallic starling (CALORNIS METALLICA). Having spent
five months in Papua, Java, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, the former
revisit the islands for incubating purposes.
Where the metallic starlings spend their retreat I know not; but they
return with impetuous haste, as if absence had been disciplinary and not
for pleasure. They assemble in glittering throngs, shrilly discussing
their plans for the season, without reserve debating important concerns
of house and home. Shall the tall Moreton Bay ash in the forest be again
occupied and the shabby remnants of old nests designedly destroyed before
departure last season be renovated, or shall a new settlement be
established and the massive milkwood-tree overtopping the jungle be
selected as a capital site? Discussion is acidulous and constant. For
days the majority of the burnished citizens do little else but talk,
while the industrious few begin, some to build nests on the sites of the
old, others to lay hasty foundations among the leaves of the milkwood.
Each faction wishes to carry its point, for ever and anon both rejoin the
main body and proclaim and testify. Then all adjourn to the disputed
sites successively and join in frantic commotion until some sage makes an
entirely original proposition, and off they all go on a flight of
inspection and abruptly end all differences of opinion by favouring a
tree which appears to have no distinctive merits.
These delightfully engaging birds have been known to nest in a particular
tree for a quarter of a century, and again they may select a different
site every year. Though I have no evidence in confirmation of the theory,
I am inclined to think that arboreal snakes are influential in causing
changes. Although the domed nests must be difficult for even a snake to
enter so large a congregation of noisy birds would inevitably attract
these slim nocturnal marauders.
Moreover, a case may be cited in support of the theory. In a Moreton Bay
ash (EUCALYPTUS TESSELARIS), not far from this spot, there nested a pair
of white-headed sea eagles, a pair of cockatoos, and a colony of metallic
starlings, four or five hundred strong. The memory of man knows not the
first settlement of this amicable community, which remained until during
temporary absence the blacks were suborned to climb the tree to secure
the eggs of the eagle. They also helped themselves to a few of the callow
starlings. The sea eagles and cockatoos discarded the tree forthwith, and
the starlings in a couple of years. And why? Because, in my opinion at
least, the eagles had policed the tree, killing offhand any green or grey
snake which had the stupidity to sneak among the nests. When the
policemen went to another beat the snakes took to frightening the
unprotected birds and to the burgling of their nest. This incident caused
a revision of the protective laws. They are much more explicit, and the
pains and penalties for the violation of them are now absolutely unholy
in their truculence.
During the 1909 season a serious diminution was noted in the number of
metallic starlings and nutmeg pigeons. In the case of the former I am at
a loss to account for the cause of the comparatively few visitors--always
highly esteemed and admired and preserved from interference--except on
the theory of the outbreak of an epidemic or in the possible fact that
they are falling victims to the feminine passion for fine feathers.
The Grouse Disease Commission has found a recognised period in the
fluctuations of the number of those game birds. During a cycle of sixty
years there recur the good year, the very good year, the record year, the
bad disease year, the recovery, the average, and the good average. The
round is said to be almost invariable. So may it be with the metallic
With the nutmeg pigeons the case is different. Here we have direct
evidence of the desolating effects of the interference of man.
Congregating in large numbers on the islands to nest, and only to nest,
these birds offer quite charming sport to men with guns. They are the
easiest of all shooting. Big and white, and given to grouping themselves
in cloudy patches on favourable trees, I have heard of a black boy, with
a rusty gun, powder, and small stones for shot, filling a flour-sack full
during an afternoon. It is, therefore, not strange that men shoot 250 in
an hour or so. The strange thing is that "men" boast of such butchery. On
the very island where this bag Of 250 was obtained a little black boy,
twelve years old, killed four pigeons with a single sweep of a long
stick. He did not boast--to his father and mother and himself the four
birds represented supper; but in the case of the sportsman it might be
asked, how many of the butchered doves went into the all-redeeming pot?
These pigeons are one of the natural features of the coast of North
Queensland, in the conservation of which the State and the Commonwealth
are concerned. It may be contended that the extermination of a species
represented by such multitudes is impossible. But while the history of
the passenger pigeon of North America is extant such argument carries no
When the birds are, so to speak, shot on their nests or sitting in their
crowded dormitories a whole season's natural increase may be discounted
by an afternoon's wretched "sport." If nutmeg pigeons are to be preserved
as one of the attractions and natural features of the coast of North
Queensland, extensive sanctuaries must be established. Strict prohibition
might be enforced for a period of, say, five years to enable the colonies
to regain their population, and thenceforward they might--if the shooting
of sitting birds is still deemed to be "sport"--be allowed a "jubilee"
every second year.
If the unrestricted molestation is permitted, the day is not far distant
when indignation will arise and lovers of Nature will ask passionately
why a unique feature of the coast was allowed to be obliterated in blood.
True sportsmen would unanimously rejoice in the permanent preservation of
birds elegant and swift of flight, not very good to eat, and which visit
us at a time when inhospitality is a wanton crime.
For this indulgence of my feelings I have, I am aware, laid myself open
to censure. It is foreign to, indeed, quite out of place in, a book which
professes neither message nor mission. Yet, mayhap, some kindred spirit
having influence and judicious eloquence at command may read these lines.
Then the birds need not much longer fear the naughty local man. Long may
the dulcet islands within the Barrier Reef burst morn and eve into snowy
bloom as the pigeons go and come!
So having soothed my fretfulness by irresponsible scolding, consigned
countless white pigeons to inviolable sanctuary and thereby confirmed to
perpetuity the charter under which a bustling interchange of seeds and
the kernels of fruit-trees between isle and mainland is maintained, I am
at liberty to chronicle certain every-day incidents in the establishment
of a colony by those other companionable birds, metallic starlings, also
under engagement to Nature as distributing agents.
Whereas the bulk of the traffic of the pigeons is with the mainland, that
of the metallic starlings is purely local, though, perhaps, just as
important. The insular communities do not venture for their merchandise
across the water, and those of the mainland have no dealings with the
Reference has been made to the disappointment occasioned by the violation
of a colony at the instance of a semi-professional egg-snatcher, and of
the subsequent abandonment of the tree which had been used as a building
site by the birds as far back as the memory of the blacks went.
The tree was in the midst of the forest, and season after season upon the
return of the members of the colony they assembled in the vicinity, but
never again built in the neighbourhood. Last season, however, the pent-up
exasperation of years found a certain sort of relief, for a new colony
was started in a Moreton Bay ash-tree not a hundred yards away and in
full view from my veranda. There are five other colonies of these
socialistic, disputative birds on this Island; but they happen to be in
out-of-the-way spots, where continuous detailed observation of their
habits and customs would be impossible. Hence, when I saw the noisy
throng gather together discussing the imperious business of nesting, I
watched with eager and hopeful anticipation. About the third day from the
first demonstration in favour of the particular tree building operations
began, and thenceforward daily notes were taken of the doings of the
colony. Great pleasure was found in being the spectator of the
establishment of a new colony.
In 1908 the earliest arrivals appeared, on August 2nd--eight days before
the herald of the nutmeg pigeons. The colony the history of which it is
proposed to relate was no doubt an offshoot of the first brood of those
which had arrived on that date. Circumstances exist which persuade me
that the shining Calornis rear two broods during the season. Nutmeg
pigeons rear as many as three young successively.
Just about the time the site of the new colony was selected young birds
were fairly numerous, so that it seems safe to assume that, expelled from
parental nests, they determined to set up an establishment on their own
account forthwith. In their industry they seemed to display the defects
and advantages of the quality of youth--enthusiasm, impulsiveness and
vigour, inexperience, haste, and irrelevance.
Let the diary notes tell of the enterprise as scrutinised through the
Nov. 15. Shining Calornis (all young birds, mottled grey and black with
green sheen on back) busy surveying tree (Moreton Bay ash) on plateau to
16. Birds seem inclined to build.
17. Notice that the birds are in pairs; no old, full-plumaged among them.
18. First beginning of nests. About thirty birds. All seem very excited
and full of business.
20. Several nests well forward. Other parts of the tree now being
22. Seventeen nests; some nearly complete
23. Eighteen nests; several apparently complete, save for the overhanging
entrance. Many quarrels and squabbles in the family, for the nests are in
groups and in close quarters.
27. Three new nests, or rather foundations thereof.
Dec. 1. Now 25 nests. Those which appeared to be near completion are
still being added to. Many have entrances, so that one of the pair works
from inside, placing and threading the materials. Sometimes one sits for
a long time with the head protruding, as if testing the comfort of the
nest. Squabbles are frequent. The backs of some betray a lovely green
sheen in the sunshine, with rich purple at the base of the neck.
4. After two days' heavy rain the birds are as busy as ever. Many
flirtations. The great want of the colony seems to be insect powder.
5. The tree now is in full flower. I watch the birds making feints at
bees and butterflies visiting the blooms but they do not seem to catch
insects. Fruit, seeds, and nuts form their diet. The nests, which are
composed of tendrils and pliant twigs elaborately intertwined, are domed,
and in size somewhat less than a football.
6. Birds very busy. Most of the nests appear to be fit for habitation.
Work is suspended at sundown. They do not roost in the tree. Have not
detected their resting-place; but it seems to be some distance in the
7. Sunset (6.45). The birds disappeared from vicinity of the tree almost
immediately, though twilight lasted half an hour.
8. Three minutes before sunrise (5.48) birds' voices heard as they
approached trees. They were in three or four companies in a
bloodwood-tree, where they flirted and fussed and made violent love; then
in a trailing mob flew noisily and began work in haste and excitement,
one eager bird manipulating a long, slender, partly dry leaf,
industriously trying to fit it in various spots. Finding its due place,
the limp leaf was thrust in among the compact twigs and tendrils. The
leaf was seized close to the stalk, which was deftly inserted, then it
was gripped a trifle farther back and pushed and re-gripped, the process
being repeated rapidly until nothing but the tip remained visible.
9. Most of the exterior of the nests is now finished. Work continues
briskly on the lining, though the material used therefor does not seem to
be different from the bulk. When one of a pair has disappeared inside of
the tunnel-like entrance, if the other arrives it clings to the threshold
until its mate emerges, and then briskly enters. This evening work was
suspended at 6.40--cloudy. A few butterflies still flitting about the
10. Another new nest. As with the others, a few tendrils are laid across
dependent sprays of leaves, engaging and intertwining them. These
represent the foundations upon which the superstructure is partly built,
but both sides and dome are made to entangle other frail branches and
leaves, so that the nest is supported throughout its various parts. A
considerable quantity of material is lost from each nest, owing to the
difficulty of contriving to make initial tendrils engage the leaves and
pedicels. The space for the circular entrance is sketched out at quite an
early stage. In this colony with few exceptions it faces the south, and
is so overhung by a veranda as to be undiscernible except from
The situation of the nests on the extremities of the outermost branches,
parts of some being lower than the leaves to which they are attached, is
no doubt an illustration of acquired sagacity. Such impetuous birds
living in large communities, and thus compounding a savour calculated to
attract arboreal snakes, would in the course of nature take precautions.
The nests in position and design represent the crystallisation of the wit
of the bird in antagonism to the wile of the snake.
In the morning, fuss, fierce purpose, and hurry are shown. As the
afternoon wears on, less and less industry prevails. Work is suspended at
6.45 p.m. when the last of the crowd hastily departed. Before sundown all
are spent and weary. Some of the birds begin to darken on the sides of
the upper part of the breasts. The purple sheen on the back of the neck
is more brilliant. There is a glowing patch, too, at the base of the
tail, though the other parts of the back are dingy with a green tinge in
reflected light. The nuptial costume is fast becoming, more attractive.
14. Nests were not deserted until 7.30 p.m. The last half-dozen birds,
alert and anxious, dashed off upon a common impulse noisily. They roost
in the jungle adjoining.
15. A more sedate condition prevails in the demeanour of the birds, due
peradventure to domestic responsibilities. Fewer are about, and they
spend leisure moments on the top of or near the nests, while others pop
in and out. Are these signs of the beginning of egg-laying?
17. Egg-laying undoubtedly begins, though improvements to nests, which
seemed to be finished over a week ago, occupy odd moments.
20. Two past days have been dull and showery. Quietude reigns; a tendril
or twig is occasionally threaded or poked into the nests. The male muses
on the top of the nest, or closely adjacent thereto. The female pops in
and out of apparently cosy quarters. Circumstances point to the
conclusion that most of the nests contain eggs.
21. Good deal of rain, which bothers the birds. They play about excitedly
in one company. Towards evening very few are about. The nests are
deserted, though five or six birds in one mob are in a neighbouring tree.
22. Heavy rain and never-ceasing squalls. No sign of the birds, though a
few notes of passers-by were heard. Finer evening.
23. Fine and calm. Nests deserted all morning. Late afternoon many
returned, though not, I think, the full company. They seem to be
inspecting and repairing the nests.
24. Did not see any of the birds.
25. At 3 p.m. several appeared--some entering the nests two at a time,
though without customary fuss and excitement.
26. Full company in possession throughout the day. Several (which are
assumed to be males) are better plumaged, the breasts being streaked with
black, and the backs much more lustrous.
27. Serious business of incubation deprives the colony of customary
gaiety and impulsiveness. While the female sits close, the male perches
on top of the nest, occasionally beguiling the time by inconsequent
repairs and petty squabbles with next door neighbours. How brilliant are
their eyes, especially when they sparkle with spite--flame red and
28. I am astonished at the sobering effect of pending domestic troubles.
Is it that the sitting hen is responsible for the great part of the
gaiety and impulsiveness, as well as for the quibbles and brawls that
often disturb the happy family? Whatever the cause, whoever responsible,
order and tranquillity reign, each expectant father spending hours
demurely on his respective nest, a model of staid deportment, though ever
ready to resent intrusion on the part of a friend. Portending cares sit
heavily on the young and inexperienced colonists.
29. All quiet and industrious. Fancy that the chicks are well
forward--rather to my surprise.
Jan. 2. Very rainy all morning. Did not see any of the birds until the
weather cleared. Though the nests looked sodden, the owners were cheerful
and noisy--a tone of pleasure because of the return of the sunshine
being, as I fancied, noticeable.
3. Busy all day. At 6.45 a.m. all gathered in a company on the topmost
branches, and after two or three preliminary flights to the accompaniment
of much commotion and chattering, dashed into the jungle with a unanimous
and most acidulous shriek. One of the nests is hanging in shreds.
4. This morning the birds were engaged for some little time pulling their
nests to pieces, strands of tendrils being jerked out and cast away with
a contemptuous fling. Most are still fairly rotund and compact, and
appear to be weather-proof, while others are already loopholed and
ragged. The duty was performed in a most haphazard, halfhearted way.
Beneath the tree are many varieties of seeds and nuts, and portions of
fruits, but no egg-shells. After the members of the colony had swooped
and swept about as if practising military manoeuvres, sometimes silently
but generally to the accompaniment of much shrieking in unison, the tree
was entirely deserted for the rest of the afternoon.
5. Before 7 a.m. dismantlement of nests was resumed with enthusiasm and
deliberate purpose, shreds being twitched out and cast down. A good deal
of chatter. There are a few completely feathered youngsters, the breasts
being almost pure white, but not more than one to each nest. Most of the
nests have no output, in which case the responsible birds have no
assistance in the work of destruction. Late in the afternoon all were
very busy again, repairs to nests engaging attention. The birds are so
unsettled that I am puzzled. Occasionally one would sit in a
semi-dismantled nest snoodling down cosily and peering out with shining
eyes, the glow and glitter of which from the darksome entrance have a
jewel-like effect. While the one sat close and still the mate would
repair the exterior, and in a flash of electric suddenness all would dart
out of the tree to swoop about as if to perfect themselves in an exercise
designed towards the evasion of the dash of a hawk.
6. Early again the wrecking of the nests began; but was soon abandoned,
the colony being deserted for the last part of the day.
7. Demolition very casual. The birds are averse from working in the rain,
and, to-day several showers have occurred.
8. Notwithstanding light rain the duty of demolition began at 6.30 a.m.
As much energy and purpose are expended withdrawing the strands by a
series of tugs as were displayed in the building. Occasionally the whole
branch from which the nest is pendant sways with the work of a single
bird, the eyes of which glitter the more fiercely as it pulls and jerks
at an obstinate strand. Twenty-five birds are counted, so it would seem
that the enterprise has failed in respect of increase. No doubt some are
absent. Both young and old birds take part in the work of destruction.
One, I notice, has a black blotch on his otherwise mottled breast, while
his back shines with the polished radiance of a soap-bubble.
9. Tree visited at odd intervals--not at all during early morning.
Dismantlement proceeds half-heartedly.
10. Very early, the morning being fine and clear, the birds resumed in a
playful, lackadaisical way the demolition of the nests; without apparent
cause, save the shriek of a passing cockatoo, they fled into the jungle.
Did not see them again until late in the afternoon.
11. Again the birds visited the reserve early. Shortly before sundown I
counted sixteen. They were resting silently on the sodden remains of the
nests, for there have been heavy showers; some were picking idly at
loosened strands as if merely to beguile time. Now and again they fly
briskly and noisily in close company--always "diagonalising." Failure to
add largely to the population of birds does not seem to have damped the
gaiety and impulsiveness of the erratic flights. They are as sprightly in
their confabulations and as spiteful in their squabbles. The founders of
the colony were, I am convinced, this season's birds. If so they could
not have been more than two months old when they began to build. The
young brood from old-established colonies hatched out just about two
months before these appeared.
12. Yesterday's occupations and recreations repeated. The inheritance of
parasitic intruders, to cut off which the nests are torn to pieces, now
depends on unsubstantialities.
13. This morning, the flock assembled at break of day, and began, some to
extricate tendrils from, others to repair woebegone nests. When the sun
shone on the tree the plumage of the birds gleamed with almost dazzling
iridescence, the shoulders green, the back of the neck purple and lake of
the richest hue.
14. One casual visit to the tree was observed.
15. No visit.
16. No appearance until late in the afternoon, when four, wildly flying,
settled for a few minutes and departed shrieking. The tree is not now a
home, merely a rendezvous.
And so the history ends. Next August, no doubt, the surviving members of
the colony will return, all fully feathered in glossy black, and with
eyes aflame, to complete the destruction of the nests--according to
habit--and build afresh.
Dec. 10 (1910). True to attributes, the bird's returned yesterday. To-day
the one nest which had withstood a year's buffeting was demolished
offhand, and twenty-two are now being built with frantic haste.
Dec. 12. To the solidification of the joy of the Isle no less than four
new colonies are being established close at hand, the very tree which was
raided years ago being again occupied by a jubilant and clamorous crowd.
One of the new colonies is over one hundred nests strong. Does this
regeneration signify the beginning of a favourable phase analogous to
that discovered by the commission previously referred to in respect of
SHARKS AND RAYS
Among the commonest of fish in the shallow waters of the coast are the
rays, of which there are many species--eighteen, according to the list
prepared by Mr. J. Douglas Ogilby. Some attain enormous size, some
display remarkable variations from the accepted type, and at least two
are edible though not generally appreciated, for the hunger of the
littoral Australian is not as a rule sufficiently speculative to prompt
to gastronomic experiment, else food that other nations cherish would not
be deemed unclean. Between sharks and rays relationship exists, for a
certain ray has been sneered at as only a flattened-out shark. There are
five species of shark-like rays, which have all the outward form and
appearance and vagrant mode of life of their prototype, and four species
of sharks that might pass as rays. One of them, with a big head,
tadpole-like tail and generally frayed and sea-tattered appearance, is,
in fact, accepted in some quarters as a ray, while the shovel-like skate
is commonly regarded as a shark.
The most delicately flavoured of the rays is known as the "blue-spotted"
(DASYBATUS KUHLI). It does not appear to attain a large size, but it is
fairly common, and is one of the most comely of the creatures of the
coral reefs, the bright blue decorative blotches on a ground of old gold
being most effective. It is often found in a few inches of water
perfectly motionless, and on being disturbed flutters and glides away
swiftly and with little apparent effort. Roasted on an open fire, when a
large proportion of the pungent oil escapes, the flesh is pleasant,
though possessing the distinctive flavour of the order, which is,
however, acceptable at all times to the palate of the black.
One of the formidable sting rays--dark brown in colour (probably
DASYBATUS THETIDES, Ogilby), which revels on oysters--has the habit of
burying itself in the mud, leaving an angular depression, corresponding
to the size of the body, from which the pedestal eyes alone obtrude. In
such position it is difficult for the inexperienced to detect the fish
until by misadventure it is trodden on, in which circumstance one of two
manoeuvres is adopted. Either it flaps and flounders in the slush so that
the intruder is startled and jumps clear, or else it lashes out with its
whip-like tail in the endeavour to bring into play its serrated weapon,
charged with pain, and fearsome on account of the blood-poisoning effect
of the mucus with which it is coated.
Ox-rays (UROGYMNUS ASPERRIMUS) grow to a great size, their backs being so
armoured with thick-set stellate bucklers on a horn-like skin, that to
secure them a heavy-hefted weapon and a strong right arm are necessary.
But among the largest of the family is that known as the devil fish
(MOBULA sp.), which, upon being harpooned, sinks placidly to the bottom,
and adhering thereto by suction, defies all ordinary attempts to raise
it. This often basks in calm water or swims slowly close to the surface,
when the pliant tips of its "wings," appearing at regular intervals
above the surface, create the illusion of a couple of large sharks moving
along in rhythmic regularity as to speed and muscular movement. Rarely,
and apparently only by mischance, does a ray take bait; but when hooked
it affords good sport, for its impassive resistance is incomprehensibly
great in comparison with its size, and comparable to the pull of a green
turtle which in its wanderings has become foul-hooked.
An exciting coursing match entertained me not long since, not only as an
exhibition of wonderful speed and agility, but because of the wit with
which the weaker creature eluded pursuit. Three hundred yards from the
beach the dorsal fin of a huge hammer-head shark obtruded about two feet
as it leisurely quartered a favourite hunting-ground. A sudden swirl and
splash indicated that game had been sighted, and the next instant an
eagle or flying ray (STOASODON NARINARI) leaped out of the sea with
prodigious eagerness to reach the beach. In a series of abrupt curves the
shark endeavoured to head off the ray, which, as its pursuer gained on
it, shot out of the water over the shoulders of the shark, each leap
being at least ten feet high. In rising it seemed to switch the shark
with its thong-like tail, although apparently in almost despairing fright.
After at least a dozen agile and desperate efforts, each timed to just
elude the rush of the shark, both came into shallow water in which the
quick and regular contours of the shark stirred the mud in a wavy
pattern; it became baffled, and in a few seconds the ray slowly, and with
infinite caution, "flew" (and that is the correct term to apply to a fish
the movements of which in the water are analogous to the flight of a
bird) into such meagre depths that the shark would have been stranded had
it followed. No ripple indicated its discreet course within a few feet of
the water line and it maintained its way for about two hundred yards
parallel with the beach, while the shark furiously quartered the sea off
On the occasion of a similar hunt a ray blundered fatally because of the
steeper incline of the beach. When about ten feet off the shore instead of
a lateral it took a directly forward "flight," landing six feet up on
the dry sand, where it fell an easy victim to a black boy, perhaps not as
hungry or as ferocious as the shark, but equally partial to rays as food
and incapable of any self-denying act.
Though the relationship is well defined, the shark makes no distinction
in favour of the ray when in pursuit of food. Indeed, certain members of
the predatory family seem to delight chiefly in a diet of rays, and
perhaps as a result of this persistent pursuit has the shape of the
latter been evolved, since it enables them to take refuge in water so
shallow that even a small shark would inevitably be stranded. Timorous by
nature, the smaller rays parade the beach-line, while the larger are
better able to hold their own in deep water. Although as a rule solitary
of habit, there seem to be occasions on which rays become gregarious,
when a considerable extent of sandy shallow has been observed to be
actually paved with motionless but vigilant individuals, the edge of the
"wing" of one overlapping that of the next with almost perfect
The monstrous grey-striped tiger shark (GALEOCERDO TIGRINUS) in my
experience generally keeps to deep water and hunts singly; but a recent
event sets at naught other local observations and at the same time
provides graphic proof of the rapacity and hardihood of the species.
About a hundred yards out from the beach, as we started on a strictly
sordid beachcombing expedition to the scene of the squashed wreck of a
Chinese sampan, a shark betrayed itself by the dorsal fin quartering the
glassy surface of the sea. Equipment for sport consisted of an axe, a
crowbar, a trivial fish spear, and a high-velocity rifle. Pulling out
noiselessly, a trail of oily blood was intersected and the next moment a
huge shark appeared, carrying in its jaws a black ray, which it mouthed
Intent upon its meal, the shark ranged parallel to the boat so that its
length could be accurately gauged. It was nearly sixteen feet long, while
the ray was almost as large in proportion. The relative sizes may be
estimated by the standard of a man bearing between his teeth a tea-tray,
Not the least anxiety or apprehension was manifested by the shark at the
presence of the boat. It rose frequently to the surface, and all its
movements being discernible as it swam close to the bottom in a
preoccupied manner, the boat was easily manoeuvred to be within almost
touching distance whensoever the head emerged. In quick succession three
out of the four bullets the magazine contained penetrated its body just
abaft the pectoral fins. A brief flurry followed each shot, and then the
shark, with passive fixity of purpose, resumed the mangling of the ray,
which with extended, backward strained eyes, seemed to implore rescue
from its fate. Were any other means of response to so tragic an appeal
available? The crowbar! Hastily made fast to the stern line, it was
hurled harpoon-like with energy sufficient to batter in the forehead of a
bullock. But the listless implement bounced off the head of the shark as
a stick from a drum, provoking merely a contemptuous wave of the tail
which seemed to signify a sneer. The axe was also employed with negative
results, for the difficulty of delivering an effective blow from the boat
could not be overcome.
All the sea about became ruddy, and the lust for still more of the
shark's blood being imperative, we returned to the beach, obtained a
fresh supply of ammunition, and a whale harpoon. In the meantime the
blood previously shed had spread far and wide, and instead of a solitary
gormandising shark a full half-dozen rollicked and revelled in the
stained area, all alike in size and alike, too, in absolute indifference
to the boat. Owing to the featherweight heft the harpoon failed in
penetrative force, and with the first tug invariably withdrew.
Frequently the sharks came within arm's length of the boat, and though
neither ammunition nor the bumps of the homely crowbar nor the pin-pricks
of the harpoon were spared, nor shouts of exultation when an individual
lashed out under the sting of a bullet, not a shark was in the least
perturbed. They romped about the boat, if not defiant at least heedless
of all the clamour and puny assaults, appearing to challenge to combat in
their natural element. The temper of the school was such that, no doubt,
all the occupants of the boat would have been accounted for had they by
some foolish miracle squandered themselves in the blood-stained sea. By
this time the shark which had first attracted attention had disappeared
with its prey, distressed and unseaworthy on account of several leaks;
and the others followed one by one, and not altogether in the best
condition imaginable, judging by the oily bubbles and tinges beyond the
limits of the bay.
On a quieter day I swam off to the anchored boat for some forgotten
purpose, which accomplished I prepared to slip off the stern when a
dark-coloured shark intervened, moving steadily along parallel to the
beach. Giving it precedence, I swam ashore without resting and watched
the big fish slide like a shadow up into the corner of the bay, where it
rested. Tom, the sport-loving black boy, being on the scene, his flattie
was soon afloat, and with a disdainful thrust of the harpoon he impaled
the creature, which did not exhibit the least sign of life. Hauled to the
surface, Tom declared it to be dead--that it had died from natural causes
ere the harpoon had touched it. Had ever shark taken quieter exit from
this hustling world! It was about six feet long and fairly robust, and
while being towed ashore wallowed helplessly, floating belly up and
submitting without a spasm of protest to nudges and slaps of the oars and
prods with the heft of the harpoon, but no sooner did it touch the
sand and its snout shoot into the foreign element than a furious fight
for life began. Did ever shark display such agility! Wriggling and
lashing with its tail, almost had it swept me off my feet and dragged me
into the sea; but Tom came to my aid, with a sudden and judiciously timed
tug as it swerved, the game was landed, to continue extraordinary
antics on the sand, though Tom was armed with a tomahawk.
When the struggles had ceased post-mortem examination was made. The
stomach was empty, but the liver promised so much oil that Tom
extirpated it and all other internal organs, and not until mutilation
was complete was any peculiarity about the jaws and teeth noticed. These
subsequently, proved that we had captured, not a shark but a
ray--Forskal's shovel-nosed ray (RHYNCHOBATUS DJIDDENSIS), which Tom, for
all his knowledge of sea things, had never before seen. Curiously
examining the jaws, he laid a rude forefinger on the tesselated plate
which stands in the species for teeth, and the disorganised remains, true
to the ruling passion, crunched, and Tom ruefully consoled the finger for
a fortnight. Hitherto his opinion, founded on contemporary experience and
the traditions of his race, had been that a shark would never fight a
live man. Was it not the refinement of irony that he should well nigh be
deprived of the best part of a finger by a dead ray masquerading as a
Many blacks refuse to eat shark because of totemic restrictions; but
where no tribal contrary law prevails, several of the species are cooked
and eaten without ceremony, but with most objectionable after effects to
those who are not partial to such fare. The specific odour of the shark
seems to be intensified and to be made almost as clinging as that of
musk, being far more expressive than the exhalation of a camp gorged with
green turtle. Discreet persons encounter such a scene as the do the jade
Care--by passing on the windy side.
THE RECLUSE OF RATTLESNAKE
"Live forgotten and die forlorn."
Am I, living in or rather off the land of magnificent distances, entitled
to claim as a neighbour a friend one hundred miles away? Sentiments
obliterate space. With the lonesome individual who dwelt in an oven-like
hut of corrugated iron on rocky, sunburnt Rattlesnake Island, and who
lost the habit of living a few years ago, I was on social terms--terms of
vague but cosy intimacy. On occasions of our rare meetings we found ideas
in common. Peradventure similarities of environment focussed similar
thoughts. Perhaps abnormal temperaments gave rise to becoming tenderness
and sympathy. Whatsoever and howsoever the mutual sentiment, it is of the
The history of the Recluse of that undesirable island, a mass of granite
and thin, unkindly soil is far removed from the prosaic. His was the
third life sacrificed because of the lust of man to own the unromantic
spot. He came to be known as "The Recluse of Rattlesnake," but the pain
of his life lies in the fact that his seclusion was not voluntary.
The earlier history of the "Recluse" embodies nothing very extraordinary.
Men have fallen in love as impetuously as he. The prologue of the little
drama in which he played the leading part was neither new nor strange.
The originality came after, and then only was it understood how
completely the divine passion had shattered his soul.
This, then, is the record of a part of his life--its dominating
theme--its dramatic and pathetic ending.
A fine young fellow they were wont to call him--blue-eyed, fair-haired,
sharp and shrewd and up to all the moves as becomes a man alert and
successful in business. Truly a universal favourite, for he was
good-humoured and amiable, full of wit and smart sayings. They say, too,
that she who had pledged her troth to him was just as fine a girl as he
was man. There came news to him of the death of a relative in Old England,
with a summons thither to take his share of a fortune. He tarried no long
time, for had he not left his heart behind him? But--and so the story
goes, whether true to the letter I do not vouch--when he landed in
Australia once again it was to learn that he had been slighted. His love
affair hopelessly damned, he at once began to drift. The drift ended
pitiably after half a lifetime--to him a lifetime and a half.
"God! we living ones--what of our tears
When a single day seems as a thousand years?"
For a decade or more he lived on the Island, his resources slender and
uncertain. Often he was on the verge of starvation. Once he told me that,
driven by the pangs of hunger, he had trapped quail, which he had trained
to come to his whistle to eat the crumbs which fell from his table during
those rare times when he fared sumptuously. Then his tender-heartedness
forbade him to kill them. But hunger is crueller than either jealousy or
the grave, and one by one his plump pets were sacrificed. He had two
faithful companions--mongrel dogs, "Billy" and "Clara"--and the
wistful, beseeching inquiry in the gaze of those two dogs when he talked