The Naturalist in La Plata
W. H. Hudson

Part 4 out of 5

call-note is constantly heard in the woods, for these birds, debarred
from associating together, satisfy their instinct by conversing with one
another over long distances.

The foregoing remarks apply to the Dendrocolap-tidae throughout the
temperate countries of South America--the birds inhabiting extensive
grassy plains and marshes, and districts with a scanty or scattered tree
and bush vegetation. In the forest areas of the hotter regions it is
different; there the birds form large gatherings or "wandering bands,"
composed of all the different species found in each district, associated
with birds of other families--wood-peckers, tyrant-birds, bush shrikes,
and many others. These miscellaneous gatherings are not of rare
occurrence, but out of the breeding season are formed daily, the birds
beginning to assemble at about nine or ten o'clock in the morning,
their number increasing through the day until it reaches its maximum
between two and four o'clock in the afternoon, after which it begins to
diminish, each bird going off to its customary shelter or
dwelling-place. Mr. Bates, who first described these wandering bands,
says that he could always find the particular band belonging to a
district any day he wished, for when he failed to meet with it in one
part of the forest he would try other paths, until he eventually found
it. The great Amazonian forests, he tells us, appear strangely silent
and devoid of bird life, and it is possible to ramble about for whole
days without seeing or hearing birds. But now and then the surrounding
trees and bushes appear suddenly swarming with them. "The bustling
crowd loses no time, and, always moving in concert, each bird is
occupied on its own account in searching bark, or leaf, or twig. In a
few moments the host is gone, and the forest path remains deserted and
silent as before." Stolzmann, who observed them in Peru, says that the
sound caused by the busy crowd searching through the foliage, and the
falling of dead leaves and twigs, resembles that produced by a shower of
rain. The Indians of the Amazons, Mr. Bates writes, have a curious
belief to explain these bird armies; they say that the Papa-uira,
supposed to be a small grey bird, fascinates all the others, and leads
them on a weary perpetual dance through the forest. It seems very
wonderful that birds, at other times solitary, should thus combine daily
in large numbers, including in their bands scores of widely different
species, and in size ranging from those no larger than a wren to others
as big as a magpie. It is certainly very advantageous to them. As Belt
remarks, they play into each other's hands; for while the larger
creepers explore the trunks of big trees, others run over the branches
and cling to the lesser twigs, so that every tree in their route, from
its roots to the topmost foliage, is thoroughly examined, and every
spider and caterpillar taken, while the winged insects, driven from
their lurking-places, are seized where they settle, or caught flying by
the tyrant birds.

I have observed the wandering bands only in Patagonia, where they are on
a very small scale compared with those of the tropical forests. In the
Patagonia thickets the small tit-like creeper, Laptas-thenura, is the
prime mover; and after a considerable number of these have gathered,
creepers of other species and genera unite with them, and finally the
band, as it moves through the thickets, draws to itself other
kinds--flycatchers, finches, &c.--many of the birds running or hopping
on the ground to search for insects in the loose soil or under dead
leaves, while others explore the thorny bushes. My observations of these
small bands lead me to believe that everywhere in South America the
Dendrocolaptidae are the first in combining to act in concert, and that
the birds of other families follow their march and associate with them,
knowing from experience that a rich harvest may be thus reaped. In the
same way birds of various kinds follow the movements of a column of
hunting ants, to catch the insects flying up from the earth to escape
from their enemies; swallows also learn to keep company with the
traveller on horseback, and, crossing and recrossing just before the
hoofs, they catch the small twilight moths driven up from the grass.

To return to the subject of voice. The tree-creepers do not possess
melodious, or at any rate mellow notes, although in so numerous a family
there is great variety of tone, ranging from a small reedy voice like
the faint stridulation of a grasshopper, to the resounding,
laughter-like, screaming concerts of Homorus, which may be heard
distinctly two miles away. As a rule, the notes are loud ringing calls;
and in many species the cry, rapidly reiterated, resembles a peal of
laughter. With scarcely an exception, they possess no set song; but in
most species that live always in pairs there are loud, vehement,
gratulatory notes uttered by the two birds in concert when they meet
after a brief separation. This habit they possess in common with birds
of other families, as, for instance, the tyrants; but, in some creepers,
out of this confused outburst of joyous sound has been developed a.
musical performance very curious, and perhaps unique among birds. On
meeting, the male and female, standing close together and facing each
other, utter their clear ringing concert, one emitting loud single
measured notes, while the notes of its fellow are rapid, rhythmical
triplets; their voices have a joyous character, and seem to accord, thus
producing a kind of harmony. This manner of singing is perhaps most
perfect in the oven-bird, Furnarias, and it is very curious that the
young birds, when only partially fledged, are constantly heard in the
nest or oven apparently practising these duets in the intervals when the
parents are absent; single measured notes, triplets, and long concluding
trills are all repeated with wonderful fidelity, although these notes
are in character utterly unlike the hunger cry, which is like that of
other fledglings. I cannot help thinking that this fact of the young
birds beginning to sing like the adults, while still confined in their
dark cradle, is one of very considerable significance, especially when
we consider the singular character of the performance; and that it might
even be found to throw some light on the obscure question of the
comparative antiquity of the different and widely separated
Dendrocolaptine groups. It is a doctrine in evolutionary science that
the early maturing of instincts in the young indicates a high antiquity
for the species or group; and there is no reason why this principle
should not be extended, in the case of birds at any rate, to language.
It is true that Daines Barrington's notion that young song-birds learn
to sing only by imitating the adults still holds its ground; and Darwin
gives it his approval in his _Descent of Man._ It is perhaps one of
those doctrines which are partially true, or which do not contain the
whole truth; and it is possible to believe that, while many singing
birds do so learn their songs, or acquire a greater proficiency in them
from hearing the adults, in other species the song comes instinctively,
and is, like other instincts and habits, purely an "inherited memory."

The case of a species in another order of birds--Crypturi--strikes me as
being similar to this of the oven-bird, and seems to lend some force to
the suggestion I have made concerning the early development of voice in
the young.

Birds peculiar to South America are said by anatomists to be less
specialized, lower, more ancient, than the birds of the northern
continents, and among those which are considered lowest and most ancient
are the Tinamous (rail and partridge like in their habits), birds that
lead a solitary, retiring life, and in most cases have sweet melancholy
voices. Rhynchotus rufescens, a bird the size of a fowl, inhabiting the
pampas, is perhaps the sweetest-voiced, and sings with great frequency.
Its song or call is heard oftenest towards the evening, and is composed
of five modulated notes, flute-like in character, very expressive, and
uttered by many individuals answering each other as they sit far apart
concealed in the grass. As we might have expected, the faculties and
instincts of the young of this species mature at a very early period;
when extremely small, they abandon their parents to shift for themselves
in solitude; and when not more than one-fourth the size they eventually
attain, they acquire the adult plumage and are able to fly as well as an
old bird. I observed a young bird of this species, less than a quail in
size, at a house on the pampas, and was told that it had been taken from
the nest when just breaking the shell; it had, therefore, never seen or
heard the parent birds. Yet this small chick, every day at the approach
of evening, would retire to the darkest corner of the dining room, and,
concealed under a piece of furniture, would continue uttering its
evening song for an hour or longer at short intervals, and rendering it
so perfectly that I was greatly surprised to hear it; for a thrush or
other songster at the same period of life, when attempting to sing, only
produces a chirping sound.

The early singing of the oven-bird fledgling is important, owing to the
fact that the group it belongs to comprises the least specialized forms
in the family. They are strong-legged, square-tailed, terrestrial birds,
generally able to perch, have probing beaks, and build the most perfect
mud or stick nests, or burrow in the ground. In the numerous
tree-creeping groups, which, seem as unrelated to the oven-bird as the
woodpecker is to the hoopoe, we find a score of wonderfully different
forms of beak; but many of them retain the probing character, and are
actually used to probe in rotten wood on trees, and to explore the holes
and deep crevices in the trunk. We have also seen that some of these
tree-creepers revert to the ancestral habit (if I may so call it) of
seeking their food by probing in the soil. In others, like Dendrornis,
in which the beak has lost this character, and is used to dig in the
wood or to strip off the bark, it has not been highly specialized, and,
compared with the woodpecker's beak, is a very imperfect organ,
considering the purpose for which it is used. Yet, on the principle that
"similar functional requirements frequently lead to the development of
similar structures in animals which are otherwise very distinct"--as we
see in the tubular tongue in honey-eaters and humming birds--we might
have expected to find in the Dendrocolaptidae a better imitation of the
woodpecker in so variable an organ as the beak, if not in the tongue.

Probably the oven-birds, and their nearest relations--generalized,
hardy, builders of strong nests, and prolific--represent the parental
form; and when birds of this type had spread over the entire continent
they became in different districts frequenters of marshes, forests,
thickets and savannas. With altered life-habits the numerous divergent
forms originated; some, like Xiphorynchus, retaining a probing beak in a
wonderfully modified form, attenuated in an extreme degree, and bent
like a sickle; others diverging more in the direction of nuthatches and

This sketch of the Dendrocolaptidae, necessarily slight and imperfect,
is based on a knowledge of the habits of about sixty species, belonging
to twenty-eight genera: from personal observation I am acquainted with
less than thirty species. It is astonishing to find how little has been
written about these most interesting birds in South America. One
tree-creeper only, Furnarius rufus, the oven-bird _par excellence,_ has
been mentioned, on account of its wonderful architecture, in almost
every general work of natural history published during the present
century; yet the oven-bird does not surpass, or even equal in interest,
many others in this family of nearly three hundred members.



In reading books of Natural History we meet with numerous instances of
birds possessing the habit of assembling together, in many cases always
at the same spot, to indulge in antics and dancing performances, with or
without the accompaniment of music, vocal or instrumental; and by
instrumental music is here meant all sounds other than vocal made
habitually and during the more or less orderly performances; as, for
instance, drumming and tapping noises; smiting of wings; and humming,
whip-cracking, fan-shutting, grinding, scraping, and horn-blowing
sounds, produced as a rule by the quills.

There are human dances, in which only one person performs at a time, the
rest of the company looking on; and some birds, in widely separated
genera, have dances of this kind. A striking example is the Rupicola, or
cock of-the-rock, of tropical South America. A mossy level spot of earth
surrounded by bushes is selected for a dancing-place, and kept well
cleared of sticks and stones; round this area the birds assemble, when a
cock-bird, with vivid orange-scarlet crest and plumage, steps into it,
and, with spreading wings and tail, begins a series of movements as if
dancing a minuet; finally, carried away with excitement, he leaps and
gyrates in the most astonishing manner, until, becoming exhausted, he
retires, and another bird takes his place.

In other species all the birds in a company unite in the set
performances, and seem to obey an impulse which affects them
simultaneously and in the same degree; but sometimes one bird prompts
the others and takes a principal part. One of the most curious instances
I have come across in reading is contained in Mr. Bigg-Wither's
_Pioneering in South Brazil._ He relates that one morning in the dense
forest his attention was roused by the unwonted sound of a bird
singing--songsters being rare in that district. His men, immediately
they caught the sound, invited him to follow them, hinting that he would
probably witness a very curious sight. Cautiously making their way
through the dense undergrowth, they finally came in sight of a small
stony spot of ground, at the end of a tiny glade; and on this spot, some
on the stone and some on the shrubs, were assembled a number of little
birds, about the size of tom-tits, with lovely blue plumage and red
top-knots. One was perched quite still on a twig, singing merrily, while
the others were keeping time with wings and feet in a kind of dance, and
all twittering an accompaniment. He watched them for some time, and was
satisfied that they were having a ball and concert, and thoroughly
enjoying themselves; they then became alarmed, and the performance
abruptly terminated, the birds all going off in different directions.
The natives told him that these little creatures were known as the
"dancing birds."

This species was probably solitary, except when assembling for the
purpose of display; but in a majority of cases, especially in the
Passerine order, the solitary species performs its antics alone, or with
no witness but its mate. Azara, describing a small finch, which he aptly
named _Oscilador,_ says that early and late in the day it mounts up
vertically to a moderate height; then, flies off to a, distance of
twenty yards, describing a perfect curve in its passage; turning, it
flies back over the imaginary line it has traced, and so on repeatedly,
appearing like a pendulum swung in space by an invisible thread.

Those who seek to know the cause and origin of this kind of display and
of song in animals are referred to Darwin's _Descent of Man_ for an
explanation. The greater part of that work is occupied with a laborious
argument intended to prove that the love-feeling inspires the animals
engaged in these exhibitions, and that sexual selection, or the
voluntary selection of mates by the females, is the final cause of all
set musical and dancing performances, as well as of bright and
harmonious colouring, and of ornaments.

The theory, with regard to birds is, that in the love-season, when the
males are excited and engage in courtship, the females do not fall to
the strongest and most active, nor to those that are first in the field;
but that in a large number of species they are endowed with a faculty
corresponding to the aesthetic feeling or taste in man, and deliberately
select males for their superiority in some aesthetic quality, such as
graceful or fantastic motions, melody of voice, brilliancy of colour, or
perfection of ornaments. Doubtless all birds were originally
plain-coloured, without ornaments and without melody, and it is assumed
that so it would always have been in many cases but for the action of
this principle, which, like natural selection, has gone on accumulating
countless small variations, tending to give a greater lustre to the
species in each case, and resulting in all that we most admire in the
animal world--the Rupicola's flame-coloured mantle, the peacock's crest
and starry train, the joyous melody of the lark, and the pretty or
fantastic dancing performances of birds.

My experience is that mammals and birds, with few exceptions--probably
there are really no exceptions--possess the habit of indulging
frequently in more or less regular or set performances, with or without
sound, or composed of sound exclusively; and that these performances,
which in many animals are only discordant cries and choruses,
and uncouth, irregular motions, in the more aerial, graceful, and
melodious kinds take immeasurably higher, more complex, and more
beautiful forms. Among the mammalians the instinct appears
almost universal; but their displays are, as a rule, less admirable than
those seen in birds. There are some kinds, it is true, like the
squirrels and monkeys, of arboreal habits, almost birdlike in their
restless energy, and in the swiftness and certitude of their motions, in
which the slightest impulse can be instantly expressed in graceful or
fantastic action; others, like the Chinchillidae family, have greatly
developed vocal organs, and resemble birds in loquacity; but mammals
generally, compared with birds, are slow and heavy, and not so readily
moved to exhibitions of the kind I am discussing.

The terrestrial dances, often very elaborate, of heavy birds, like those
of the gallinaceous kind, are represented in the more volatile species
by performances in the air, and these are very much more beautiful;
while a very large number of birds--hawks, vultures, swifts, swallows,
nightjars, storks, ibises, spoonbills, and gulls--circle about in the
air, singly or in flocks. Sometimes, in serene weather, they rise to a
vast altitude, and float about in one spot for an hour or longer at a
stretch, showing a faint bird-cloud in the blue, that does not change
its form, nor grow lighter and denser like a flock of starlings; but in
the seeming confusion there is perfect order, and amidst many hundreds
each swift- or slow-gliding figure keeps its proper distance with such
exactitude that no two ever touch, even with the extremity of the
long-wings, flapping or motionless:--such a multitude, and such
miraculous precision in the endless curving motions of all the members
of it, that the spectator can lie for an hour on his back without
weariness watching this mystic cloud-dance in the empyrean.

The black-faced ibis of Patagonia, a bird nearly as large as a turkey,
indulges in a curious mad performance, usually in the evening when
feeding-time is over. The birds of a flock, while winging their way to
the roosting-place, all at once seem possessed with frenzy,
simultaneously dashing downwards with amazing violence, doubling about
in the most eccentric manner; and when close to the surface rising again
to repeat the action, all the while making the air palpitate for miles
around with their hard, metallic cries. Other ibises, also birds of
other genera, have similar aerial performances.

The displays of most ducks known to me take the form of mock fights on
the water; one exception is the handsome and loquacious whistling
widgeon of La Plata, which has a pretty aerial performance. A dozen or
twenty birds rise up until they appear like small specks in the sky, and
sometimes disappear from sight altogether; and at that great altitude
they continue hovering in one spot, often for an hour or longer,
alternately closing and separating; the fine, bright, whistling notes
and flourishes of the male curiously harmonizing with the grave,
measured notes of the female; and every time they close they slap each
other on the wings so smartly that the sound can be distinctly heard,
like applauding hand-claps, even after the birds have ceased to be

The rails, active, sprightly birds with powerful and varied voices, are
great performers; but owing to the nature of the ground they inhabit and
to their shy, suspicious character, it is not easy to observe their
antics. The finest of the Platan rails is the ypecaha, a beautiful,
active bird about the size of the fowl. A number of ypecahas have their
assembling place on a small area of smooth, level ground, just above the
water, and hemmed in by dense rush beds. First, one bird among the
rushes emits a powerful cry, thrice repeated; and this is a note of
invitation, quickly responded to by other birds from all sides as they
hurriedly repair to the usual place. In a few moments they appear, to
the number of a dozen or twenty, bursting from the rushes and running
into the open space, and instantly beginning the performance. This is a
tremendous screaming concert. The screams they utter have a certain
resemblance to the human voice, exerted to its utmost pitch and
expressive of extreme terror, frenzy, and despair. A long, piercing
shriek, astonishing for its vehemence and power, is succeeded by a lower
note, as if in the first the creature had well nigh exhausted itself:
this double scream is repeated several times, and followed by other
sounds, resembling, as they rise and fall, half smothered cries of pains
and moans of anguish. Suddenly the unearthly shrieks are renewed in all
their power. While screaming the birds rush from side to side, as if
possessed with madness, the wings spread and vibrating, the long-beak
wide open and raised vertically. This exhibition lasts three or four
minntes, after which the assembly peacefully breaks up.

The singular wattled, wing-spurred, and long-, toed jacana has a
remarkable performance, which seems specially designed to bring out the
concealed beauty of the silky, greenish-golden wing-quills-The birds go
singly or in pairs, and a dozen or fifteen individuals may be found in a
marshy place feeding within sight of each other. Occasionally, in
response to a note of invitation, they all in a moment leave off feeding
and fly to one spot, and, forming a close cluster, and emitting short,
excited, rapidly repeated notes, display their wings, like beautiful
flags grouped loosely together: some hold the wings up vertically and
motionless; others, half open and vibrating rapidly, while still others
wave them up and down with a slow, measured motion.

In the ypecaha and jacana displays both sexes take part. A stranger
performance is that of the spur-winged lapwing of the same region--a
species resembling the lapwing of Europe, but a third larger, brighter
coloured, and armed with spurs. The lapwing display, called by the
natives its "dance," or "serious dance"--by which they mean square
dance--requires three birds for its performance, and is, so far as I
know, unique in this respect. The birds are so fond of it that they
indulge in it all the year round, and at frequent intervals during the
day, also on moonlight nights. If a person watches any two birds for
some time--for they live in pairs--he will see another lapwing, one of a
neighbouring couple, rise up and fly to them, leaving his own mate to
guard their chosen ground; and instead of resenting this visit as an
unwarranted intrusion on their domain, as they would certainly resent
the approach of almost any other bird, they welcome it with notes and
signs of pleasure. Advancing to the visitor, they place themselves
behind it; then all three, keeping step, begin a rapid march, uttering
resonant drumming notes in time with their movements; the notes of the
pair behind being emitted in a stream, like a drum-roll, while the
leader utters loud single notes at regular intervals. The march ceases;
the leader elevates his wings and stands erect and motionless, still
uttering loud notes; while the other two, with puffed-out plumage and
standing exactly abreast stoop forward and downward until the tips of
their beaks touch the ground, and, sinking their rhythmical voices to a
murmur, remain for some time in this posture. The performance is then
over and the visitor goes back to his own ground and mate, to receive a
visitor himself later on.

In the Passerine order, not the least remarkable displays are witnessed
in birds that are not accounted songsters, as they do not possess the
highly developed vocal organ confined to the suborder Oscines. The
tyrant-birds, which represent in South America the fly-catchers of the
Old World, all have displays of some kind; in a vast majority of cases
these are simply joyous, excited duets between male and female, composed
of impetuous and more or less confused notes and screams, accompanied
with beating of wings and other gestures. In some species choruses take
the place of duets, while in others entirely different forms of display
have been developed. In one group--Cnipolegus--the male indulges in
solitary antics, while the silent, modest-coloured female keeps in
hiding. Thus, the male of Cnipolegus Hudsoni, an intensely
black-plumaged species with a concealed white wing-band, takes his stand
on a dead twig on the summit of a bush. At intervals he leaves his
perch, displaying the intense white on the quills, and producing, as the
wings are thrown open and shut alternately, the effect of successive
flashes of light. Then suddenly the bird begins revolving in the air
about its perch, like a moth wheeling round and close to the flame of a
candle, emitting a series of sharp clicks and making a loud humming with
the wings. While performing this aerial waltz the black and white on the
quills mix, the wings appearing like a grey mist encircling the body.
The fantastic dance over, the bird drops suddenly on to its perch again;
and, until moved to another display, remains as stiff and motionless as
a bird carved out of jet.

The performance of the scissors-tail, another tyrant-bird, is also
remarkable. This species is grey and white, with black head and tail and
a crocus-yellow crest. On the wing it looks like a large swallow, but
with the two outer tail-feathers a foot long. The scissors-tails always
live in pairs, but at sunset several pairs assemble, the birds calling
excitedly to each other; they then mount upwards, like rockets, to a
great height in the anand, after wheeling about for a few moments,
pro-cipitate themselves downwards with amazing violence in a wild
zigzag, opening and shutting the long tail-feathers like a pair of
shears, and producing loud whirring sounds, as of clocks being wound
rapidly up, with a slight pause after each turn of the key. This aerial
dance over, they alight in separate couples on the tree tops, each
couple joining in a kind of duet of rapidly repeated, castanet-like

The displays of the wood-hewers, or Dendrocolap-tidae, another extensive
family, resemble those of the tyrant-birds in being chiefly duets, male
and female singing excitedly in piercing or resonant voices, and with
much action. The habit varies somewhat in the cachalote, a Patagonian
species of the genus Homorus, about the size of the missel-thrush. Old
and young birds live in a family together, and at intervals, on any fine
day, they engage in a grand screaming contest, which may be heard
distinctly at a distance of a mile and a half. One bird mounts on to a
bush and calls, and instantly all the others hurry to the spot, and
burst out into a chorus of piercing cries that sound like peals and
shrieks of insane laughter. After the chorus, they all pursue each other
wildly about among the bushes for some minutes.

In some groups the usual duet-like performances have developed into a
kind of harmonious singing, which is very curious and pleasant to hear.
This is pre-eminently the case with the oven-birds, as D'Orbigney first
remarked. Thus, in the red oven-bird, the first bird, on the appearance
of its mate flying to join it, begins to emit loud, measured notes, and
sometimes a continuous trill, somewhat metallic in sound; but
immediately on the other bird striking in this introductory passage is
changed to triplets, strongly accented on the first note, in a _tempo
vivace;_ while the second bird utters loud single notes in the same
time. While thus singing they stand facing each other, necks
outstretched and tails expanded, the wings of the first bird vibrating
rapidly to the rapid utterance, while those of the second bird beat
measured time. The finale consists of three or four notes, uttered by
the second bird alone, strong and clear, in an ascending scale, the last
very piercing.

In the melodists proper the displays, in a majority of cases, are
exclusively vocal, the singer sitting still on his perch. In the
Troupials, a family of starling-like birds numbering about one hundred
and forty species, there are many that accompany singing with pretty or
grotesque antics. The male screaming cow-bird of La Plata, when perched,
emits a hollow-sounding internal note that swells at the end into a
sharp metallic ring, almost bell-like: this is uttered with wings and
tail spread and depressed, the whole plumage being puffed out as in a
strutting turkey-cock, while the bird hops briskly up and down on its
perch as if dancing. The bell-like note of the male is followed by an
impetuous scream from the female, and the dance ends. Another species,
the common Argentine cow-bird of La Plata, when courting puffs out his
glossy rich violet plumage, and, with wings vibrating, emits a
succession of deep internal notes, followed by a set song in clear,
ringing tones; and then, suddenly taking wing, he flies straight away,
close to the surface, fluttering like a moth, and at a distance of
twenty to thirty yards turns and flies in a wide circle round the
female, singing loudly all the time, hedging her in with melody as it

Many songsters in widely different families possess the habit of soaring
and falling alternately while singing, and in some cases all the aerial
postures and movements, the swift or slow descent, vertical, often, with
oscillations, or in a spiral, and sometimes with a succession of smooth
oblique lapses, seem to have an admirable correspondence with the
changing and falling voice--melody and motion being united in a more
intimate and beautiful way than in the most perfect and poetic forms of
human dancing.

One of the soaring singers is a small yellow field-finch of La
Plata--Sycalis luteola; and this species, like some others, changes the
form of its display with the seasons. It lives in immense flocks, and
during the cold season it has, like most finches, only aerial pastimes,
the birds wheeling about in a cloud, pursuing each other with lively
chirpings. In August, when the trees begin to blossom, the flock betakes
itself to a plantation, and, sitting on the branches, the birds sing in
a concert of innumerable voices, producing a great volume of sound, as
of a high wind when heard at a distance. Heard near, it is a great mass
of melody; not a confused tangle of musical sounds as when a host of
Troupials sing in concert, but the notes, although numberless, seem to
flow smoothly and separately, producing an effect on the ear similar to
that which rain does on the sight, when the sun shines on and lightens
up the myriads of falling drops all falling one way. In this manner the
birds sing for hours, without intermission, every day. Then the passion
of love infects them; the pleasant choir breaks up, and its ten thousand
members scatter wide over the surrounding fields and pasture lands.
During courtship the male has a feeble, sketchy music, but his singing
is then accompanied with very charming love antics. His circlings about
the hen-bird; his numberless advances and retreats, and little soarings
above her when his voice swells with importunate passion; his fluttering
lapses back to earth, where he lies prone with outspread, tremulous
wings, a suppliant at her feet, his languishing voice meanwhile dying
down to lispings--all these apt and graceful motions seem to express the
very sickness of the heart. But the melody during this emotional period
is nothing. After the business of pairing and nest-building is over, his
musical displays take a new and finer form. He sits perched on a stalk
above the grass, and at intervals soars up forty or fifty yards high;
rising, he utters a series of long melodious notes; then he descends in
a graceful spiral, the set of the motionless wings giving him the
appearance of a slowly-falling parachute; the voice then also falls, the
notes coming lower, sweeter, and more expressive until he reaches the
surface. After alighting the song continues, the strains becoming
longer, thinner, and clearer, until they dwindle to the finest threads
of sound and faintest tinklings, as from a cithern touched by fairy
fingers. The great charm of the song is in this slow gradation from the
somewhat throaty notes emitted by the bird when ascendino-to the
excessively attenuated sounds at the close.

In conclusion of this part I shall speak of one species more--the
white-banded mocking-bird of Patagonia, which greatly excels all other
songsters known to me in the copiousness, variety and brilliant
character of its music. Concealed in the foliage this bird will sing by
the half-hour, reproducing with miraculous fidelity the more or less
melodious set songs of a score of species--a strange and beautiful
performance; but wonderful as it seems while it lasts, one almost ceases
to admire this mimicking bird-art when the mocker, as if to show by
contrast his unapproachable superiority, bursts into his own divine
song, uttered with a power, abandon and joyousness resembling, but
greatly exceeding, that of the skylark "singing at heaven's gate;" the
notes issuing in a continuous torrent; the voice so brilliant and
infinitely varied, that if "rivalry and emulation" have as large a place
in feathered breasts as some imagine all that hear this surpassing
melody might well languish ever after in silent despair.

In a vast majority of the finest musical performances the same notes are
uttered in the same order, and after an interval the song is repeated
without any variation: and it seems impossible that we could in any
other way have such beautiful contrasts and harmonious lights and
shades--the whole song, so to speak, like a "melody sweetly played in
tune." This seeming impossibility is accomplished in the mocking-bird's
song: the notes never come in the same order again and again, but, as if
inspired, in a changed order, with variations and new sounds: and here
again it has some resemblance to the skylark's song, and might be
described as the lark's song with endless variations and brightened and
spiritualized in a degree that cannot be imagined.

This mocking-bird is one of those species that accompany music with
appropriate motions. And just as its song is, so to speak, inspired and
an im-provization, unlike any song the bird has ever uttered, so its
motions all have the same character of spontaneity, and follow no order,
and yet have a grace and passion and a perfect harmony with the music
unparalleled among birds possessing a similar habit. While singing he
passes from bush to bush, sometimes delaying a few moments on and at
others just touching the summits, and at times sinking out of sight in
the foliage: then, in an access of rapture, soaring vertically to a
height of a hundred feet, with measured wing-beats, like those of a
heron: or, mounting suddenly in a wild, hurried zigzag, then slowly
circling downwards, to sit at last with tail outspread fanwise, and
vans, glistening white in the sunshine, expanded and vibrating, or waved
languidly up and down, with, a motion like that of some broad-winged
butterfly at rest on a flower.

I wish now to put this question: What relation that we can see or
imagine to the passion of love and the business of courtship, have these
dancing and vocal performances in nine cases out of ten? In such cases,
for instance, as that of the scissors-tail tyrant-bird, and its
pyrotechnic evening displays, when a number of couples leave their nests
containing eggs and young to join in a wild aerial dance: the mad
exhibitions of ypecahas and ibises, and the jacanas' beautiful
exhibition of grouped wings: the triplet dances of the spur-winged
lapwing, to perform which two birds already mated are compelled to call
in a third bird to complete the set: the harmonious duets of the
oven-birds, and the duets and choruses of nearly all the wood-hewers,
and the wing-slapping aerial displays of the whistling widgeons--will it
be seriously contended that the female of this species makes choice of
the male able to administer the most vigorous and artistic slaps?

The believer in the theory would put all these cases lightly aside, to
cite that of the male cow-bird practising antics before the female and
drawing a wide circle of melody round her; or that of the jet-black,
automaton-like, dancing tyrant-bird; and concerning this species he
would probably say that the plain-plumaged female went about unseen,
critically watching the dancing of different males, to discover the most
excellent performer according to the traditional standard. And this was,
in substance, what Darwin did. There are many species in which the male,
singly or with others, practises antics or sings during the love-season
before the female; and when all such cases, or rather those that are
most striking and bizarre, are brought together, and when it is
gratuitously asserted that the females _do_ choose the males that show
off in the best manner or that sing best, a case for sexual selection
seems to be made out. How unfair the argument is, based on these
carefully selected cases gathered from all regions of the globe, and
often not properly reported, is seen when we turn from the book to
nature and closely consider the habits and actions of all the species
inhabiting any _one_ district. We see then that such cases as those
described and made so much of in the _Descent of Man,_ and cases like
those mentioned in this chapter, are not essentially different in
character, but are manifestations of one instinct, which appears to be
almost universal among the animals. The explanation I have to offer lies
very much on the surface and is very simple indeed, and, like that of
Dr. Wallace with regard [Footnote: It is curious to find that Dr.
Wallace's idea about colour has been independently hit upon by Ruskin.
Of stones he writes in _Frondes Agrestis_:--"I have often had occasion
to allude to the apparent connection of brilliancy of colour with vigour
of life and purity of substance. This is pre-eminently the case in the
mineral kingdom. The perfection with which the particles of any
substance unite in crystallization, corresponds in that kingdom to the
vital power in organic nature."] to colour and ornaments covers the
whole of the facts. We see that the inferior animals, when the
conditions of life are favourable, are subject to periodical fits of
gladness affecting them powerfully and standing out in vivid contrast to
their ordinary temper. And we know what this feeling is--this periodic
intense elation which even civilized man occasionally experiences when
in perfect health, more especially when young. There are moments when
he is mad with joy, when he cannot keep still, when his impulse is to
sing and shout aloud and laugh at nothing, to run and leap and exert
himself in some extravagant way. Among the heavier mammalians the
feeling is manifested in loud noises, bellowings and screamings, and in
lumbering, uncouth motions--throwing up of heels, pretended panics, and
ponderous mock battles.

In smaller and livelier animals, with greater celerity and certitude in
their motions, the feeling shows itself in more regular and often in
more complex ways. Thus, Felidae when young, and, in very agile,
sprightly species like the Puma, throughout life, simulate all the
actions of an animal hunting its prey--sudden, intense excitement of
discovery, concealment, gradual advance, masked by intervening objects,
with intervals of watching, when they crouch motionless, the eyes
flashing and tail waved from side to side; finally, the rush and spring,
when the playfellow is captured, rolled over on his back and worried to
imaginary death. Other species of the most diverse kinds, in which voice
is greatly developed, join in noisy concerts and choruses; many of the
cats may be mentioned, also dogs and foxes, capybaras and other
loquacious rodents; and in the howling monkeys this kind of performance
rises to the sublime uproar of the tropical forest at eventide.

Birds are more subject to this universal joyous instinct than mammals,
and there are times when some species are constantly overflowing with
it; and as they are so much freer than mammals, more buoyant and
graceful in action, more loquacious, and have voices so much finer,
their gladness shows itself in a greater variety of ways, with more
regular and beautiful motions, and with melody. But every species, or
group of species, has its own inherited form or style of performance;
and, however rude and irregular this may be, as in the case of the
pretended stampedes and fights of wild cattle, that is the form in which
the feeling will always be expressed. If all men, at some exceedingly
remote period in their history, had agreed to express the common glad
impulse, which they now express in such an infinite variety of ways or
do not express at all, by dancing a minuet, and minuet-dancing had at
last come to be instinctive, and taken to spontaneously by children at
an early period, just as they take to walking "on their hind legs,"
man's case would be like that of the inferior animals.

I was one day watching a flock of plovers, quietly feeding on the
ground, when, in a moment, all the birds were seized by a joyous
madness, and each one, after making a vigorous peck at his nearest
neighbour, began running wildly about, each trying in passing to peck
other birds, while seeking by means of quick doublings to escape being
pecked in turn. This species always expresses its glad impulse in the
same way; but how different in form is this simple game of
touch-who-touch-can from the triplet dances of the spur-winged lapwings,
with their drumming music, pompous gestures, and military precision of
movement! How different also from the aerial performance of another bird
of the same family--the Brazilian stilt--in which one is pursued by the
others, mounting upwards in a wild, eccentric flight until they are all
but lost to view; and back to earth again, and then, skywards once more;
the pursued bird when overtaken giving place to another individual, and
the pursuing pack making the air ring with their melodious barking
cries! How different again are all these from the aerial pastimes of the
snipe, in which the bird, in its violent descent, is able to produce
such wonderful, far-reaching sounds with its tail-feathers! The snipe,
as a rule, is a solitary bird, and, like the oscillating finch mentioned
early in this paper, is content to practise its pastimes without a
witness. In the gregarious kinds all perform together: for this feeling,
like fear, is eminently contagious, and the sight of one bird mad with
joy will quickly make the whole flock mad. There are also species that
always live in pairs, like the scissors-tails already mentioned, that
periodically assemble in numbers for the purpose of display. The crested
screamer, a very large bird, may also be mentioned: male and female sing
somewhat harmoniously together, with voices of almost unparalleled
power: but these birds also congregate in large numbers, and a thousand
couples, or even several thousands, may be assembled together: and, at
intervals, both by day and night, all sing in concert, their combined
voices producing a thunderous melody which seems to shake the earth. As
a rule, however, birds that live always in pairs do not assemble for the
purpose of display, but the joyous instinct is expressed by duet-like
performances between male and female. Thus, in the three South American
Passerine families, the tyrant-birds, wood-hewers, and ant-thrushes,
numbering together between eight and nine hundred species, a very large
majority appear to have displays of this description.

In my own experience, in cases where the male and female together, or
assembled with others, take equal parts in the set displays, the sexes
arc similar, or differ little; but where the female takes no part in the
displays the superiority of the male in brightness of colour is very
marked. One or two instances bearing on this point may be given.

A scarlet-breasted troupial of La Plata perches conspicuously on a tall
plant in afield, and at intervals soars up vertically, singing, and, at
the highest ascending point, flight and song end in a kind of aerial
somersault and vocal flourish at the same moment. Meanwhile, the
dull-plumaged female is not seen and not heard: for not even a skulking
crake lives in closer seclusion under the herbage--so widely have the
sexes diverged in this species. Is the female, then, without an instinct
so common r--has she no sudden fits of irrepressible gladness?
Doubtless she has them, and manifests them down in her place of
concealment in lively chirpings and quick motions--the simple, primitive
form in which gladness is expressed in the class of birds. In the
various species of the genus Cnipolegus, already mentioned, the
difference in the sexes is just as great as in the case of the troupial:
the solitary, intensely black, statuesque male has, we have seen, a set
and highly fantastic performance; but on more than one occasion I have
seen four or five females of one species meet together and have a little
simple performance all to themselves--in form a kind of lively mock

It might be objected that when a bird takes its stand and repeats a set
finished song at intervals for an hour at a stretch, remaining quietly
perched, such a performance appears to be different in character from
the irregular and simple displays which are unmistakably caused by a
sudden glad impulse. But we are familiar with the truth that in organic
nature great things result from small beginnings--a common flower, and
our own bony skulls, to say nothing of the matter contained within them,
are proofs of it. Only a limited number of species sing in a highly
finished manner. Looking at many species, we find every gradation, every
shade, from the simple joyous chirp and cry to the most perfect melody.
Even in a single branch of the true vocalists we may see it--from the
chirping bunting, and noisy but tuneless sparrow, to linnet and
goldfinch and canary. Not only do a large majority of species show the
singing instinct, or form of display, in a primitive, undeveloped state,
but in that state it continues to show itself in the young of many birds
in which melody is most highly developed in the adult. And where the
development has been solely in the male the female never rises above
that early stage; in her lively chirpings and little mock fights and
chases, and other simple forms which gladness takes in birds, as well as
in her plainer plumage, and absence of ornament, she represents the
species at some remote period. And as with song so with antics and all
set performances aerial or terrestrial, from those of the whale and the
elephant to those of the smallest insect.

Another point remains to be noticed, and that is the greater frequency
and fulness in displays of all kinds, including song, during the love
season. And here Dr. Wallace's colour and ornament theory helps us to an
explanation. At the season of courtship, when the conditions of life are
most favourable vitality is at its maximum, and naturally it is then
that the proficiency in all kinds of dancing-antics, aerial and
terrestrial, appears greatest, and that melody attains its highest
perfection. This applies chiefly to birds, but even among birds there
are exceptions, as we have seen in the case of the field-finch, Sycalis
luteola. The love-excitement is doubtless pleasurable to them, and it
takes the form in which keenly pleasurable emotions are habitually
expressed, although not infrequently with variations due to the greater
intensity of the feeling. In some migrants the males arrive before the
females, and no sooner have they recovered from the effects of their
journey than they burst out into rapturous singing; these are not
love-strains, since the females have not yet arrived, and pairing-time
is perhaps a mouth distant; their singing merely expresses their
overflowing gladness. The forest at that season is vocal, not only with
the fine melody of the true songsters, but with hoarse cawings, piercing
cries, shrill duets, noisy choruses, drummings, boomings, trills,
wood-tappings--every sound with which different species express the glad
impulse; and birds like the parrot that only exert their powerful voices
in screamings--because "they can do no other"--then scream their
loudest. When courtship begins it has in many cases the effect of
increasing the beauty of the performance, giving added sweetness, verve,
and brilliance to the song, and freedom and grace to the gestures and
motions. But, as I have said, there are exceptions. Thus, some birds
that are good melodists at other times sing in a feeble, disjointed
manner during courtship. In Patagonia I found that several of the birds
with good voices--one a mocking bird--were, like the robin at home,
autumn and winter songsters.

The argument has been stated very binefly: but little would be gained by
the mere multiplication of instances, since, however many, they would bo
selected instances--from a single district, it is true, while those in
the _Descent of Man_ were brought together from an immeasurably wider
field; but the principle is the same in both cases, and to what I have
written it may be objected that, if, instead of twenty-five, I had given
a hundred cases, taking them as they came, they might have shown a
larger proportion of instances like that of the cow-bird, in which the
male has a set performance practised only during the love-season and in
the presence of the female.

It is, no doubt, true that all collections of facts relating to animal
life present nature to us somewhat as a "fantastic realm"--unavoidably
so, in a measure, since the writing would be too bulky, or too dry, or
too something inconvenient, if we did not take only the most prominent
facts that come before us, remove them from their places, where alone
they can be seen in their proper relations to numerous other less
prominent facts, and rearrange them patch work-wise to make up our
literature. But I am convinced that any student of the subject who will
cast aside his books--supposing that they have not already bred a habit
in his mind of seeing only "in accordance with verbal statement"--and go
directly to nature to note the actions of animals for himself--actions
which, in many cases, appear to lose all significance when set down in
writing--the result of such independent investigation will be a
conviction that conscious sexual selection on the part of the female is
not the cause of music and dancing performances in birds, nor of the
brighter colours and ornaments that distinguish the male. It is true
that the females of some species, both in the vertebrate and insect
kingdoms, do exercise a preference; but in a vast majority of species
the male takes the female he finds, or that he is able to win from other
competitors; and if we go to the reptile class we find that in the
ophidian order, which excels in variety and richness of colour, there is
no such thing as preferential mating; and if we go to the insect class,
we find that in butterflies, which surpass all creatures in their
glorious beauty, the female gives herself up to the embrace of the first
male that appears, or else is captured by the strongest male, just as
she might be by a mantis or some other rapacious insect.



_(Lagostomus Trichodactylus.)_

The vizcacha is perhaps the most characteristic of the South American
Rodentia, [Footnote: "According to Mr. Waterhouse, of all rodents the
vizcacha is most nearly related to marsupials; but in the points in
which it approaches this order its relations are general, that is, not
to any one marsupial species more than to another. As these points of
affinity are believed to be real and not merely adaptive, they must be
due in accordance with our view to inheritance from a common progenitor.
Therefore wo must suppose either that all rodents, including the
vizcacha, branched off from some ancient marsupial, which will naturally
have been more or less intermediate in character with respect to all
existing marsupials; or, that both lodents and marsupials branched off
from a common progenitor. ... On either view we must suppose that the
vizcacha has retained, by inheritance, more of the characters of its
ancient progenitor than have other rodents."--DARWIN; _Origin of
Species._] while its habits, in some respects, are more interesting than
those of any other rodent known: it is, moreover, the most common mammal
we have on the pampas; and all these considerations have induced me to
write a very full account of its customs. It is necessary to add that
since the following pages were written at my home on the pampas a great
war of extermination has been waged against this animal by the
landowners, which has been more fortunate in its results--or unfortunate
if one's sympathies are with the vizcacha--than the war of the
Australians against their imported rodent--the smaller and more prolific

The vizcachas on the pampas of Buenos Ayres live in societies, usually
numbering twenty or thirty members. The village, which is called
Vizcachera, is composed of a dozen or fifteen burrows or mouths; for one
entrance often serves for two or more distinct holes. Often, where the
ground is soft, there are twenty or thirty or more burrows in an old
vizcachera; but on stony, or "tosca" soil even an old one may have no
more than four or five burrows. They are deep wide-mouthed holes, placed
very close together, the entire village covering an area of from one
hundred to two hundred square feet of ground.

The burrows vary greatly in extent; and usually in a vizcachera there
are several that, at a distance of from four to six feet from the
entrance, open into large circular chambers. From these chambers other
burrows diverge in all directions, some running horizontally, others
obliquely downwards to a maximum depth of six feet from the surface:
some of these burrows or galleries communicate with those of other
burrows. A vast amount of loose earth is thus brought up, and forms a
very irregular mound, fifteen to thirty inches above the surrounding

It will afford some conception of the numbers of these vizcacheras on
the settled pampas when I say that, in some directions, a person might
ride five hundred miles and never advance half a mile without seeing one
or more of them. In districts where, as far as the eye can see, the
plains are as level and smooth as a bowling-green, especially in winter
when the grass is close-cropped, and where the rough giant-thistle has
not sprung up, these mounds appear like brown or dark spots on a green
surface. They are the only irregularities that occur to catch the eye,
and consequently form an important feature in the scenery. In some
places they are so near together that a person on horseback may count a
hundred of them from one point of view.

The sites of which the vizcacha invariably makes choice to work on, as
well as his manner of burrow-ing, adapt him peculiarly to live and
thrive on the open pampas. Other burrowing species seem always to fix
upon some spot where there is a bank or a sudden depression in the soil,
or where there is rank herbage, or a bush or tree, about the roots of
which to begin their kennel. They are averse to commence digging on a
clear level surface, either because it is not easy for them where they
have nothing to rest their foreheads against while scratching, or
because they possess a wary instinct that impels them to place the body
in concealment whilst working on the surface, thus securing the
concealment of the burrow after it is made. Certain it is that where
large hedges have been planted on the pampas, multitudes of opossums,
weasels, skunks, armadillos, &c., come and make their burrows beneath
them; and where there are no hedges or trees, all these species make
their kennels under bushes of the perennial thistle, or where there is a
shelter of some kind. The vizcacha, on the contrary, chooses an open
level spot, the cleanest he can find to burrow on. The first thing that
strikes the observer when viewing the vizcachera closely is the enormous
size of the entrance of the burrows, or, at least, of several of the
central ones in the mound; for there are usually several smaller outside
burrows. The pit-like opening to some of these principal burrows is
often four to six feet across the mouth, and sometimes deep enough for a
tall man to stand up waist-deep in. How these large entrances can be
made on a level surface may be seen when the first burrow or burrows of
an incipient vizcachera are formed. It is not possible to tell what
induces a vizcacha to be the founder of a new community; for they
increase very slowly, and furthermore are extremely fond of each other's
society; and it is invariably one individual that leaves his native
village to found a new and independent one. If it were to have better
pasture at hand, then he would certainly remove to a considerable
distance; but he merely goes from forty to fifty or sixty yards off to
begin his work. Thus it is that in desert places, where these animals
are rare, a solitary vizcachera is never seen; but there are always
several close together, though there may be no others on the surrounding
plain for leagues. When the vizcacha has made his habitation, it is but
a single burrow, with only himself for an inhabitant, perhaps for many
months. Sooner or later, however, others join him: and these will be the
parents of innumerable generations; for they construct no temporary
lodging-place, as do the armadillos and other species, but their
posterity continues in the quiet possession of the habitations
bequeathed to it; how long, it is impossible to say. Old men who have
lived all their lives in one district remember that many of the
vizcacheras around them existed when they were children. It is
invariably a male that begins a new village, and makes his burrow in the
following manner, though he does not always observe the same method. He
works very straight into the earth, digging a hole twelve or fourteen
inches wide, but not so deep, at an angle of about 25 degrees with the
surface. But after he has progressed inwards a few feet, the vizcacha is
no longer satisfied with merely scattering away the loose earth he
fetches up, but cleans it away so far in a straight line from the
entrance, and scratches so much on this line (apparently to make the
slope gentler), that he soon forms a trench a foot or more in depth, and
often three or four feet in length. Its use is, as I have inferred, to
facilitate the conveying of the loose earth as far as possible from the
entrance of the burrow. But after a while the animal is unwilling that
it should accumulate even at the end of this long passage; he therefore
proceeds to make two additional trenches, that form an acute, sometimes
a right angle, converging into the first, so that when the whole is
completed it takes the form of a capital Y.

These trenches are continually deepened and lengthened as the burrow
progresses, the angular segment of earth between them, scratched away,
until by degrees it has been entirely conveyed off, and in its place is
the one deep great unsymmetrical mouth I have already described. There
are soils that will not admit of the animals working in this manner.
Where there are large cakes of "tosca" near the surface, as in many
localities on the southern pampas, the vizcacha makes its burrow as best
he can, and without the regular trenches. In earths that crumble much,
sand or gravel, he also works under great disadvantages.

The burrows are made best in the black and red moulds of the pampas; but
even in such soils the entrances of many burrows are made differently.
In some the central trench is wanting, or is so short that there appear
but two passages converging directly into the burrow; or these two
trenches may be so curved inwards as to form the segment of a circle.
Many other forms may also be noticed, but usually they appear to be only
modifications of the most common Y-shaped system.

As I have remarked that its manner of burrowing has peculiarly adapted
the vizcacha to the pampas, it may be asked what particular advantage a
species that makes a wide-mouthed burrow possesses over those that
excavate in the usual way. On a declivity, or at the base of rocks or
trees, there would be none; but on the perfectly level and shelterless
pampas, the durability of the burrow, a circumstance favourable to the
animal's preservation, is owing altogether to its being made in this
way, and to several barrows being made together. The two outer trenches
diverge so widely from the mouth that half the earth brought out is cast
behind instead of before it, thus creating a mound of equal height about
the entrance, by which it is secured from water during great rainfalls,
while the cattle avoid treading over the great pit-like entrances. But
the burrows of the dolichotis, armadillo, and other species, when made
on perfectly level ground, are soon trod on and broken in by cattle; in
summer they are choked up with dust and rubbish; and, the loose earth
having all been thrown up together in a heap on one side, there is no
barrier to the water which in eveiy great rainfall flows in and
obliterates the kennel, drowning or driving out the tenant.

I have been minute in describing the habitations of the vizcacha, as I
esteem the subject of prime importance in considering the zoology of
this portion of America. The vizcacha does not benefit himself alone by
his perhaps unique style of burrowing; but this habit has proved
advantageous to several other species, and has been so favourable to two
of our birds that they are among the most common species found here,
whereas without these burrows they would have been exceedingly rare,
since the natural banks in which they breed are scarcely found anywhere
on the pampas. I refer to the Minera (Geositta cunicularia), which makes
its breeding-holes in the bank-like sides of the vizcacha's burrow, and
to the little swallow (Atticora cyanoleuca) which breeds in these
excavations when forsaken by the Minera. Few old vizcacheras are seen
without some of these little parasitical burrows in them.

Birds are not the only beings in this way related to the vizcachas: the
fox and the weasel of the pampas live almost altogether in them. Several
insects also frequent these burrows that are seldom found anywhere else.
Of these the most interesting are:--a large predacious nocturnal bug,
shining black, with red wings; a nocturnal Cicindela, a beautiful
insect, with dark green striated wing-cases and pale red legs; also
several diminutive wingless wasps. Of the last I have counted six
species, most of them marked with strongly contrasted colours, black,
red, and white. There are also other wasps that prey on the spiders
found on the vizcachera. All these and others are so numerous on the
mounds that dozens of them might there be collected any summer day; but
if sought for in other situations they are exceedingly rare. If the dry
mound of soft earth which the vizcacha elevates amidst a waste of humid,
close-growing grass is not absolutely necessary to the existence of all
these species, it supplies them with at least one favourable condition,
and without doubt thereby greatly increases their numbers: they, too,
whether predacious or preyed on, have so many relations with other
outside species, and these again with still others, that it would be no
mere fancy to say that probably hundreds of species are either directly
or indirectly affected in their struggle for existence by the
vizcacheras so abundantly sprinkled over the pampas.

In winter the vizcachas seldom leave their burrows till dark, but in
summer come out before sunset; and the vizcachera is then a truly
interesting spectacle. Usually one of the old males first appears, and
sits on some prominent place on the mound, apparently in no haste to
begin his evening meal. When approached from the front he stirs not, but
eyes the intruder with a bold indifferent stare. If the person passes to
one side, he deigns not to turn his head.

Other vizcachas soon begin to appear, each one quietly taking up his
station at his burrow's mouth, the females, known by their greatly
inferior size and lighter grey colour, sitting upright on their
haunches, as if to command a better view, and indicating by divers
sounds and gestures that fear and curiosity struggles in them for
mastery; for they are always wilder and sprightlier in their motions
than the males. With eyes fixed on the intruder, at intervals they dodge
the head, emitting at the same time an internal note with great
vehemence; and suddenly, as the danger comes nearer, they plunge
simultaneously, with a startled cry, into their burrows. But in some
curiosity is the strongest emotion; for, in spite of their fellow's
contagious example, and already half down the entrance, again they start
up to scrutinize the stranger, and will then often permit him to walk
within five or six paces of them.

Standing on the mound there is frequently a pair of burrowing owls
(Pholeoptynx cunicularia). These birds generally make their own burrows
to breed in, or sometimes take possession of one of the lesser outside
burrows of the village; but their favourite residence, when not engaged
in tending their eggs or young, is on the vizcachera. Here a pair will
sit all day; and I have often remarked a couple close together on the
edge of the burrow; and when the vizcacha came out in the evening,
though but a hand's breadth from them, they did not stir, nor did he
notice them, so accustomed are these creatures to each other. Usually a
couple of the little burrowing Geositta are also present. They are
lively creatures, running with great rapidity about the mound and bare
space that surrounds it, suddenly stopping and jerking their tails in a
slow deliberate manner, and occasionally uttering their cry, a trill, or
series of quick short clear notes, resembling somewhat the shrill
excessive laughter of a child. Among the grave, stationary vizcachas, of
which they take no heed, perhaps half a dozen or more little swallows
(Atticora cyanoleuca) are seen, now clinging altogether to the bank-like
entrance of a burrow, now hovering over it in a moth-like manner, as if
uncertain where to alight, and anon sweeping about in circles, but never
ceasing their low and sorrowful notes.

The vizcachera with all its incongruous inhabitants thus collected upon
it is to a stranger one of the most novel sights the pampas afford.

The vizcacha appears to be a rather common species over all the
extensive Argentine territory; but they are so exceedingly abundant on
the pampas inhabited by man, and comparatively so rare in the desert
places I have been in, that I was at first much surprised at finding
them so unequally distributed. I have also mentioned that the vizcacha
is a tame familiar creature. This is in the pastoral districts, where
they are never disturbed; but in wild regions, where he is scarce, he is
exceedingly wary, coming forth long after dark, and plunging into his
burrow on the slightest alarm, so that it is a rare thing to get a sight
of him. The reason is evident enough; in desert regions the vizcacha has
several deadly enemies in the larger rapacious mammals. Of these the
puma or lion (Felis concolor) is the most numerous, as it is also the
swiftest, most subtle, and most voracious; for, as regards these traits,
the jaguar (F. onca) is an inferior animal. To the insatiable bloody
appetite of this creature nothing comes amiss; he takes the male ostrich
by surprise, and slays that wariest of wild things on his nest; He
captures little birds with the dexterity of a cat, and hunts for diurnal
armadillos; he comes unawares upon the deer and huanaco, and, springing
like lightning on them, dislocates their necks before their bodies touch
the earth. Often after he has thus slain them, he leaves their bodies
untouched for the Polyborus and vulture to feast on, so great a delight
does he take in destroying life. The vizcacha falls an easy victim to
this subtle creature; and it is not to be wondered at that it becomes
wild to excess, and rare in regions hunted over by such an enemy, even
when all other conditions are favourable to its increase. But as soon
as these wild regions are settled by man the pumas are exterminated, and
the sole remaining foe of the vizcacha is the fox, comparatively an
insignificant one.

The fox takes up his residence in a vizcachera, and succeeds, after
some quarrelling (manifested in snarls, growls, and other subterranean
warlike sounds), in ejecting the rightful owners of one of the burrows,
which forthwith becomes his. Certainly the vizcachas are not much
injured by being compelled to relinquish the use of one of their kennels
for a season or permanently; for, if the locality suits him, the fox
remains with them always. Soon they grow accustomed to the unwelcome
stranger; he is quiet and unassuming in demeanour, and often in the
evening sits on the mound in their company, until they regard him with
the same indifference they do the burrowing owl. But in spring, when the
young vizcachas are large enough to leave their cells, then the fox
makes them his prey; and if it is a bitch fox, with a family of eight or
nine young to provide for, she will grow so bold as to hunt her helpless
quarry from hole to hole, and do battle with the old ones, and carry off
the young in spite of them, so that all the young animals in the village
are eventually destroyed. Often when the young foxes are large enough to
follow their mother, the whole family takes leave of the vizcachera
where such cruel havoc has been made to settle in another, there to
continue their depredations. But the fox has ever a relentless foe in
man, and meets with no end of bitter persecutions; it is consequently
much more abundant in desert or thinly settled districts than in such as
are populous, so that in these the check the vizcachas receive from the
foxes is not appreciable.

The abundance of cattle on the pampas has made it unnecessary to use the
vizcacha as an article of food. His skin is of no value; therefore man,
the destroyer of his enemies, has hitherto been the greatest benefactor
of his species. Thus they have been permitted to multiply and spread
themselves to an amazing extent, so that the half-domestic cattle on the
pampas are not nearly so familiar with man, or so fearless of his
presence as are the vizcachas. It is not that they do him no injury, but
because they do it indirectly, that they have so long enjoyed immunity
from persecution. It is amusing to see the sheep-farmer, the greatest
sufferer from the vizcachas, regarding them with such indifference as to
permit them to swarm on his "run," and burrow within a stone's throw of
his dwelling with impunity, and yet going a distance from home to
persecute with unreasonable animosity a fox, skunk, or opossum on
account of the small annual loss it inflicts on the poultry-yard. That
the vizcacha has comparatively no adverse conditions to war with
wherever man is settled is evident when we consider its very slow rate
of increase, and yet see them in such incalculable numbers. The female
has but one litter in the year of two young, sometimes of three. She
becomes pregnant late in April, and brings forth in September; the
period of gestation is, I think, rather less than five months.

The vizcacha is about two years growing. A full-sized male measures to
the root of the tail twenty-two inches, and weighs from fourteen to
fifteen pounds; the female is nineteen inches in length, and her
greatest weight nine pounds. Probably it is a long-lived, and certainly
it is a very hardy animal. Where it has any green substance to eat it
never drinks water; but after a long summer drought, when for months it
has subsisted on bits of dried thistle-stalks and old withered grass, if
a shower falls it will come out of its burrows even at noonday and drink
eagerly from the pools. It has been erroneously stated that vizcachas
subsist on roots. Their food is grass and seeds; but they may also
sometimes eat roots, as the ground is occasionally seen scratched up
about the burrows. In March, when the stalks of the perennial cardoon or
Castile thistle (Cynara cardunculus) are dry, the vizcachas fell them by
gnawing about their roots, and afterwards tear to pieces the great dry
flower-heads to get the seeds imbedded deeply in them, of which they
seem very fond. Large patches of thistle are often found served thus,
the ground about them literally white with the silvery bristles they
have scattered. This cutting down tall plants to get the seeds at the
top seems very like an act of pure intelligence; but the fact is, the
vizcachas cut down every tall plant they can. I have seen whole acres of
maize destroyed by them, yet the plants cut down were left untouched. If
posts be put into the ground within range of their nightly rambles they
will gnaw till they have felled them, unless of a wood hard enough to
resist their chisel-like incisors.

The strongest instinct of this animal is to clear the ground thoroughly
about its burrows; and it is this destructive habit that makes it
necessary for cultivators of the soil to destroy all the vizcachas in or
near their fields. On the uninhabited pampas, where the long grasses
grow, I have often admired the vizcachera; for it is there the centre of
a clean space, often of half an acre in extent, on which there is an
even close-shaven turf: this clearing is surrounded by the usual rough
growth of herbs and giant grasses. In such situations this habit of
clearing the ground is eminently advantageous to them, as it affords
them a comparatively safe spot to feed and disport themselves on, and
over which they can fly to their burrows without meeting any
obstruction, on the slightest alarm.

Of course the instinct continues to operate where it is no longer of any
advantage. In summer, when the thistles are green, even when growing
near the burrows, and the giant thistle (Carduus mariana) springs up
most luxuriantly right on the mound, the vizcachas will not touch them,
either disliking the strong astringent sap, or repelled by the thorns
with which they are armed. As soon as they dry, and the thorns become
brittle, they are levelled; afterwards, when the animal begins to drag
them about and cut them up, as his custom is, he accidentally discovers
and feasts on the seed: for vizcachas are fond of exercising their teeth
on hard substances, such as sticks and bones, just as cats are of
"sharpening their claws" on trees.

Another remarkable habit of the vizcacha, that of dragging to and
heaping about the mouth of his burrow every stalk he cuts down, and
every portable object that by dint of great strength he can carry, has
been mentioned by Azara, Darwin, and others. On the level plains it is a
useful habit; for as the vizcachas are continually deepening and
widening their burrows, the earth thrown out soon covers up these
materials, and so assists in raising the mound. On the Buenos-Ayrean
pampas numbers of vizcacheras would annually be destroyed by water in
the great sudden rainfalls were the mounds loss high. But this is only
an advantage when the animals inhabit a perfectly level country subject
to flooding rains; for where the surface is unequal they invariably
prefer high to low ground to burrow on, and are thus secured from
destruction by water; yet the instinct is as strong in such situations
as on the level plains. The most that can be said of a habit apparently
so obscure in its origin and uses is, that it appears to be part of the
instinct of clearing the ground about the village. Every tall stalk the
vizcacha cuts down, every portable object he finds, must be removed to
make the surface clean and smooth; but while encumbered with it he does
not proceed further from his burrows, but invariably re-tires towards
them, and so deposits it upon the mound. So well known is this habit,
that whatever article is lost by night--whip, pistol, or knife--the
loser next morning visits the vizcacheras in the vicinity, quite sure of
finding it there. People also visit the vizcacheras to pick up sticks
for firewood.

The vizcachas are cleanly in their habits; and the fur, though it has a
strong earthy smell, is kept exceedingly neat. The hind leg and foot
afford a very beautiful instance of adaptation. Propped by the hard
curved tail, they sit up erect, and as firmly on the long horny disks on
the undersides of the hind legs as a man stands on his feet. Most to be
admired, on the middle toe the skin thickens into a round cushion, in
which the curved teeth-like bristles are set; nicely graduated in
length, so that "each particular hair" may come into contact with the
skin when the animal scratches or combs itself. As to the uses of this
appendage there can be no difference of opinion, as there is about the
serrated claw in birds. It is quite obvious that the animal cannot
scratch himself with his hind paw (as all mammals do) without making use
of this natural comb. Then the entire foot is modified, so that this
comb shall be well protected, and yet not be hindered from performing
its office: thus the inner toe is pressed close to the middle one, and
so depressed that it comes under the cushion of skin, and cannot
possibly get before the bristles, or interfere their coming against the
skin in scratching, as certainly be the case if this toe were free as
outer one.

Again, the vizcachas appear to form the deep trenches before the burrows
by scratching the earth violently backwards with the hind claws. Now
these straight, sharp, dagger-shaped claws, and especially the middle
one, are so long that the vizcacha is able to perform all this rough
work without the bristles coming into contact with the ground, and so
getting worn by the friction. The Tehuelcho Indians in Patagonia comb
their hair with a brush-comb very much like that on the vizcacha's toe,
but in their case it does not properly fulfil its office, or else the
savages make little use of it. Vizcachas have a remarkable way of
dusting themselves: the animal suddenly throws himself on his back, and,
bringing over his hind legs towards his head, depresses them till his
feet touch the ground. In this strange posture he scratches up the earth
with great rapidity, raising a little cloud of dust, then rights himself
with a jerk, and, after an interval, repeats the dusting. Usually they
scratch a hole in the ground to deposit their excrements in. Whilst
opening one of the outside burrows that had no communication with the
others, I once discovered a vast deposit of their dung (so great that it
must have been accumulating for years) at the extremity. To ascertain
whether this be a constant, or only a casual habit, it would be
necessary to open up entirely a vast number of vizcacheras. When a
vizcacha dies in his burrow the carcass is, after some days, dragged out
and left upon the mound.

The language of the vizcacha is wonderful for its variety. When the male
is feeding he frequently pauses to utter a succession of loud,
percussive, and somewhat jarring cries; these he utters in a leisurely
manner, and immediately after goes on feeding. Often he utters this cry
in a low grunting tone. One of his commonest expressions sounds like the
violent hawking of a man clearing his throat. At other times he bursts
into piercing tones that may be heard a mile off, beginning like the
excited and quick-repeated squeals of a young pig, and growing longer,
more attenuated, and quavering towards the end. After retiring alarmed
into the burrows, he repeats at intervals a deep internal moan. All
these, and many other indescribable guttural, sighing, shrill, and deep
tones, are varied a thousand ways in strength and intonation, according
to the age, sex, or emotions of the individual; and I doubt if there is
in the world any other four-footed thing so loquacious, or with a
dialect so extensive. I take great pleasure in going to some spot where
they are abundant, and sitting quietly to listen to them; for they are
holding a perpetual discussion, all night long, which the presence of a
human being will not interrupt.

At night, when the vizcachas are all out feeding, in places where they
are very abundant (and in some districts they literally swarm) any very
loud and sudden sound, as the report of a gun, or a clap of unexpected
thunder, will produce a most extraordinary effect. No sooner has the
report broken on the stillness of night than a perfect storm of cries
bursts forth over the surrounding country. After eight or nine seconds
there is in the storm a momentary hill or pause; and then it breaks
forth again, apparently louder than before. There is so much difference
in the tones of different animals that the cries of individuals close at
hand may be distinguished amidst the roar of blended voices coming from
a distance. It sounds as if thousands and tens of thousands of them
were striving to express every emotion at the highest pitch of their
voices; so that the effect is indescribable, and fills a stranger with
astonishment. Should a gun be fired off several times, their cries
become less each time; and after the third or fourth time it produces no
effect. They have a peculiar, sharp, sudden, "far-darting" alarm-note
when a dog is spied, that is repeated by all that hear it, and produces
an instantaneous panic, sending every vizcacha flying to his burrow.

But though they manifest such a terror of dogs when out feeding at night
(for the slowest dog can overtake them), in the evening, when sitting
upon their mounds, they treat them with tantalizing contempt. If the dog
is a novice, the instant he spies the animal he rushes violently at it;
the vizcacha waits the charge with imperturbable calmness till his enemy
is within one or two yards, and then disappears into the burrow. After
having been foiled in this way many times, the dog resorts to stratagem:
he crouches down as if transformed for the nonce into a Felis, and
steals on with wonderfully slow and cautious steps, his hair bristling,
tail hanging, and eyes intent on his motionless intended victim; when
within seven or eight yards he makes a sudden rush, but invariably with
the same dis-appointing result. The persistence with which the dogs go
on hoping against hope in this unprofitable game, in which they always
act the stupid part, is highly amusing, and is very interesting to the
naturalist; for it shows that the native dogs on .the pampas have
developed a very remarkable instinct, and one that might be perfected by
artificial selection; but dogs with the hunting habits of the cat would,
I think, be of little use to man. When it is required to train dogs to
hunt the nocturnal armadillo (Dasypus villosus), then this deep-rooted
(and, it might be added, hereditary) passion for vizcachas is
excessively annoying, and it is often necessary to administer hundreds
of blows and rebukes before a dog is induced to track an armadillo
without leaving the scent every few moments to make futile grabs at his
old enemies.

The following instance will show how little suspicion of man the
vizcachas have. A few years ago I went out shooting them on three
consecutive evenings. I worked in a circle, constantly revisiting the
same burrows, never going a greater distance from home than could be
walked in four or five minutes. During the three evenings I shot sixty
vizcachas dead; and probably as many more escaped badly wounded into
their burrows; for they are hard to kill, and however badly wounded, if
sitting near the burrow when struck, are almost certain to escape into
it. But on the third evening I found them no wilder, and killed about as
many as on the first. After this I gave up shooting them in disgust; it
was dull sport, and to exterminate or frighten them away with a gun
seemed an impossibility.

It is a very unusual thing to eat the vizcacha, most people, and
especially the gauchos, having a silly unaccountable prejudice against
their flesh. I have found it very good, and while engaged writing this
chapter have dined on it served up in various ways. The young animals
are rather insipid, the old males tough, but the mature females are
excellent--the flesh being tender, exceedingly white, fragrant to the
nostrils, and with a very delicate game-flavour.

Within the last ten years so much new land has been brought under
cultivation that farmers have been compelled to destroy incredible
numbers of vizcachas: many large "estancieros" (cattle-breeders) have
followed the example set by the grain-growers, and have had them
exterminated on their estates. Now all that Azara, on hearsay, tells
about the vizcachas perishing in their burrows, when these are covered
up, but that they can support life thus buried for a period of ten or
twelve days, and that during that time animals will come from other
villages and disinter them, unless frightened off with dogs, is strictly
true. Country workmen are so well acquainted with these facts that they
frequently undertake to destroy all the vizcacheras on an estate for so
paltry a sum as ten-pence in English money for each one, and yet will
make double the money at this work than they can at any other. By day
they partly open up, then cover up the burrows with a great quantity of
earth, and by night go round with dogs to drive away the vizcachas from
the still open burrows that come to dig out their buried friends. After
all the vizcacheras on an estate have been thus served, the workmen are
usually bound by previous agreement to keep guard over them for a space
of eight or ten days before they receive their hire: for the animals
covered up are then supposed to be all dead. Some of these men I have
talked with have assured me that living vizcachas have been found after
fourteen days--a proof of their great endurance. There is nothing
strange, I think, in the mere fact of the vizcacha being unable to work
his way out when thus buried alive; for, for all I know to the contrary,
other species may, when their burrows are well covered up, perish in the
same manner; but it certainly is remarkable that other vizcachas should
come from a distance to dig out those that are buried alive. In this
good office they are exceedingly zealous; and I have frequently
surprised them after sunrise, at a considerable distance from their own
burrows, diligently scratching at those that had been covered up. The
vizcachas are fond of each other's society, and live peaceably together;
but their goodwill is not restricted to the members of their own little
community; it extends to the whole species, so that as soon as night
comes many animals leave their own and go to visit the adjacent
villages. If one approaches a vizcachera at night, usually some of the
vizcachas on it scamper off to distant burrows: these are neighbours
merely come to pay a friendly visit. This intercourse is so frequent
that little straight paths are formed from one vizcachera to another.
The extreme attachment between members of different communities makes it
appear less strange that they should assist each other: either the
desire to see, as usual, their buried neighbours becomes intense enough
to impel them to work their way to them; or cries of distress from the
prisoners reach and incite them to attempt their deliverance. Many
social species are thus powerfully affected by cries of distress from
one of their fellows; and some will attempt a rescue in the face of
great danger--the weasel and the peccary for example.

Mild and sociable as the vizcachas are towards each other, each one is
exceedingly jealous of any intrusion into his particular burrow, and
indeed always resents such a breach of discipline with the utmost fury.
Several individuals may reside in the compartments of the same burrow;
but beyond themselves not even their next-door neighbour is permitted to
enter; their hospitality ends where it begins, at the entrance. It is
difficult to compel a vizcacha to enter a burrow not his own; even when
hotly pursued by dogs they often refuse to do so. When driven into one,
the instant their enemies retire a little space they rush out of it, as
if they thought the hiding-place but little less dangerous than the open
plain. I have frequently seen vizcachas, chased into the wrong burrows,
summarily ejected by those inside: and sometimes they make their escape
only after being well bitten for their offence.

I have now stated the most interesting facts I have collected concerning
the vizcacha: when others rewrite its history they doubtless will,
according to the opportunities of observation they enjoy, be able to
make some additions to it, but probably none of great consequence. I
have observed this species in Patagonia and Buenos Ayres only; and as I
have found that its habits are considerably modified by circumstances in
the different localities where I have met with it, I am sure that other
variations will occur in the more distant regions, where the conditions

The most remarkable thing to be said about the vizcacha is, that
although regarded by Mr. Waterhouse, and others who have studied its
affinities, as one of the lowest of the rodents, exhibiting strong
Marsupial characters, the living animal appears to be more intelligent
than other rodents, not of South America only, but also of those of a
higher type in other continents. A parallel case is, perhaps, to be
found in the hairy armadillo, an extremely versatile and intelligent
animal, although only an edentate. And among birds the ypecaha--a large
La Plata rail--might also be mentioned as an example of what ought not
to be; for it is a bold and intelligent bird, more than a match for the
fowl, both in courage and in cunning; and yet it is one of the family
which Professor Parker--from the point of view of the
anatomist--characterizes as a "feeble-minded, cowardly group."



Lest any one should misread the title to this chapter, I hasten to say
that the huanaco, or guanaco as it is often spelt, is not a perishing
species; nor, as things are, is it likely to perish soon, despite the
fact that civilized men, Britons especially, are now enthusiastically
engaged in the extermination of all the nobler mammalians:--a very
glorious crusade, the triumphant conclusion of which will doubtless be
witnessed by the succeeding generation, more favoured in this respect
than ours. The huanaco, happily for it, exists in a barren, desolate
region, in its greatest part waterless and uninhabitable to human
beings; and the chapter-heading refers to a singular instinct of the
dying animals, in very many cases allowed, by the exceptional conditions
in which they are placed, to die naturally.

And first, a few words about its place in nature and general habits. The
huanaco is a small camel--small, that is, compared with its existing
relation--without a hump, and, unlike the camel of the Old World,
non-specializad; doubtless it is a very ancient animal on the earth, and
for all we know to the contrary, may have existed contemporaneously with
some of the earliest known representatives of the camel type, whose
remains occur in the lower and upper miocene deposits--Poebrotherium,
Protolabis, Procamelus, Pliauchenia, and Macrauchenia. It ranges from
Tierra del Fuego and the adjacent islands, northwards over the whole of
Patagonia, and along the Andes into Peru and Bolivia. On the great
mountain chain it is both a wild and a domestic animal, since the llama,
the beast of burden of the ancient Peruvians, is no doubt only a
variety: but as man's slave it has changed so greatly from the original
form that some naturalists have regarded the llama as a distinct
species, which, like the camel of the East, exists only in a domestic
state. It has had time enough to vary, as it is more than probable that
the tamed and useful animal was inherited by the children of the sun
from races and nations that came before them: and how far back Andean
civilization extends may be inferred from the belief expressed by the
famous American archaeologist, Squiers, that the ruined city of
Tiahuanaco, in the vicinity of Lake Titicaca, is as old as Thebes and
the Pyramids.

It is, however, with the wild animal, the huanaco, that I am concerned.
A full-grown male measures seven to eight feet in length, and four feet
high to the shoulder; it is well clothed in a coat of thick woolly hair,
of a pale reddish colour, Longest and palest on the under parts. In
appearance it is very unlike the camel, in spite of the long legs and
neck; in its finely-shaped head and long ears, and its proud and
graceful carriage, it resembles an antelope rather than its huge and,
from an aesthetic point of view, deformed Asiatic relation. In habits it
is gregarious, and is usually seen in small herds, but herds numbering
several hundreds or even a thousand are occasionally met with on the
stony, desolate plateaus of Southern Patagonia; but the huanaco is able
to thrive and grow fat where almost any other herbivore would starve.
While the herd feeds one animal acts as sentinel, stationed on the
hillside, and on the appearance of danger utters a shrill neigh of
alarm, and instantly all take to flight. But although excessively shy
and wary they are also very inquisitive, and have enough intelligence to
know that a single horseman can do them no harm, for they will not only
approach to look closely at him, but will sometimes follow him for
miles. They are also excitable, and at times indulge in strange freaks.
Darwin writes:--"On the mountains of Tierra del Fuego I have more than
once seen a huanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but
prance and leap about in a most ridiculous manner, apparently in
defiance as a challenge." And Captain King relates that while sailing
into Port Desire he witnessed a chase of a huanaco after a fox, both
animals evidently going at their greatest speed, so that they soon
passed out of sight. I have known some tame huanacos, and in that state
they make amusing intelligent pets, fond of being caressed, but often so
frolicsome and mischievous as to be a nuisance to their master. It is
well known that at the southern extremity of Patagonia the huanacos have
a dying place, a spot to which all individuals inhabiting the
surrounding plains repair at the approach of death to deposit their
bones. Darwin and Fitzroy first recorded this strange instinct in their
personal narratives, and their observations have since been fully
confirmed by others. The best known of these dying or burial-places are
on the banks of the Santa Cruz and Gallegos rivers, where the river
valleys are covered with dense primeval thickets of bushes and trees of
stunted growth; there the ground is covered with the bones of countless
dead generations. "The animals," says Darwin, "in most cases must have
crawled, before dying, beneath and among the bushes." A strange instinct
in a creature so preeminently social in its habits; a dweller all its
life long on the open, barren plateaus and mountain sides! What a
subject for a painter! The grey wilderness of dwarf thorn trees, aged
and grotesque and scanty-leaved, nourished for a thousand years on the
bones that whiten the stony ground at their roots; the interior lit
faintly with the rays of the departing sun, chill and grey, and silent
and motionless--the huanacos' Golgotha. In the long centuries,
stretching back into a dim immeasurable past, so many of this race have
journeyed hither from the mountain and the plain to suffer the sharp
pang of death, that, to the imagination, something of it all seems to
have passed into that hushed and mournful nature. And now one more, the
latest pilgrim, has come, all his little strength spent in his struggle
to penetrate the close thicket; looking old and gaunt and ghostly in the
twilight; with long ragged hair; staring into the gloom out of
death-dimmed sunken eyes. England has one artist who might show it to us
on canvas, who would be able to catch the feeling of such a scene--of
that mysterious, passionless tragedy of nature--I refer to J. M. Swan,
the painter of the "Prodigal Son" and the "Lioness Defending her Cubs."

To his account of the animal's dying place and instinct, Darwin adds: "I
do not at all understand the reason of this, but I may observe that the
wounded huanacos at the Santa Cruz invariably walked towards the river."

It would, no doubt, be rash to affirm of any instinct that it is
absolutely unique; but, putting aside some doubtful reports about a
custom of the Asiatic elephant, which may have originated in the account
of Sindbad the Sailor's discovery of an elephant's burial place, we have
no knowledge of an instinct similar to that of the huanaco in any other
animal. So far as we know, it stands alone and apart, with nothing in
the actions of other species leading up, or suggesting any family
likeness to it. But what chiefly attracts the mind to it is its
strangeness. It looks, in fact, less like an instinct of one of the
inferior creatures than the superstitious observance of human beings,
who have knowledge of death, and believe in a continued existence after
dissolution; of a triba that in past times had conceived the idea that
the liberated spirit is only able to find its way to its future abode by
starting at death from the ancient dying-place of the tribe or family,
and thence moving westward, or skyward, or underground, over the
well-worn immemorial track, invisible to material eyes.

But, although alone among animal instincts-in its strange and useless
purpose--for it is as absolutely useless to the species or race as to
the dying individual--it is not the only useless instinct we know of:
there are many others, both simple and complex; and of such instincts we
believe, with good reason, that they once played an important part in
the life of the species, and were only rendered useless by changes in
the condition of life, or in the organism, or in both. In other words,
when the special conditions that gave them value no longer existed, the
correlated and perfect instinct was not, in these cases, eradicated, but
remained, in abeyance and still capable of being called into activity by
a new and false stimulus simulating the old and true. Viewed in this
way, the huanaco's instinct might be regarded as something remaining to
the animal from a remote past, not altogether unaffected by time
perhaps; and like some ceremonial usage among men that has long ceased
to have any significance, or like a fragment of ancient history, or a
tradition, which in the course of time has received some new and false
interpretation. The false interpretation, to continue the metaphor, is,
in this case, that the _purpose_ of the animal in going to a certain
spot, to which it has probably never previously resorted, is to die
there. A false interpretation, because, in the first place, it is
incredible that an instinct of no advantage to the species, in its
struggle for existence and predominance should arise and become
permanent; and, in the second place, it is equally incredible that it
could ever have been to the advantage of the species or race to, have a
dying place. We must, then, suppose that there is in the sensations
preceding death, when death comes slowly, some resemblance to the
sensations experienced by the animal at a period when its curious
instinct first took form and crystallized; these would be painful
sensations that threatened life; and freedom from them, and safety to
the animal, would only exist in a certain well-remembered spot. Further,
we might assume that it was at first only the memory of a few
individuals that caused the animals to seek the place of safety; that a
habit was thus formed; that in time this traditional habit became
instinctive, so that the animals, old and young, made their way
unerringly to the place of refuge whenever the old danger returned. And
such an instinct, slowly matured and made perfect to enable this animal
to escape extinction during periods of great danger to mammalian life,
lasting hundreds or even thousands of years, and destructive of
numberless other species less hardy and adaptive than the generalized
huanaco, might well continue to exist, to be occasionally called into
life by a false stimulus, for many centuries after it had ceased to be
of any advantage.

Once we accept this explanation as probable--namely, that the huanaco,
in withdrawing from the herd to drop down and die in the ancient dying
ground, is in reality only seeking an historically remembered place of
refuge, and not of death--the action of the animal loses much of its
mysterious character; we come on to firm ground, and find that we are no
longer considering an instinct absolutely unique, with no action or
instinct in any other animal leading up or suggesting any family
likeness to it, as I said before. We find, in fact, that there is at
least one very important and very well-known instinct in another class
of creatures, which has a strong resemblance to that of the huanaco, as
I have interpreted it, and which may even serve to throw a side light on
the origin of the huanaco's instinct. I refer to a habit of some
ophidians, in temperate and cold countries, of returning annually to
hybernate in the saine den.

A typical instance is that of the rattlesnake in the colder parts of
North America. On the approach of winter these reptiles go into hiding,
and it has been observed that in some districts a very large number of
individuals, hundreds, and even thousands, will repair from the
surrounding country to the ancestral den. Here the serpents gather in a
mass to remain in a wholly or semi-torpid condition until the return of
spring brings them out again, to scatter abroad to their usual summer
haunts. Clearly in this case the knowledge of the hyberna-ting den is
not merely traditional--that is, handed down from generation to
generation, through the young each year following the adults, and so
forming the habit of repairing at certain seasons to a certain place;
for the young serpent soon abandons its parent to lead an independent
life; and on the approach of cold weather the hybernating den may be a
long distance away, ten or twenty, or even thirty miles from the spot in
which it was born. The annual return to the hybernating den is then a
fixed unalterable instinct, like the autumnal migration of some birds to
a warmer latitude. It is doubtless favourable to the serpents to
hybernate in large numbers massed together; and the habit of resorting
annually to the same spot once formed, we can imagine that the
individuals--perhaps a single couple in the first place--frequenting
some very deep, dry, and well-sheltered cavern, safe from enemies, would
have a great advantage over others of their race; that they would be
stronger and increase more, and spread during the summer months further
and further from the cavern on all sides; and that the further afield
they went the more would the instinct be perfected; since all the young
serpents that did not have the instinct of returning unerringly to the
ancestral refuge, and that, like the outsiders of their race, to put it
in that way, merely crept into the first hole they found on the approach
of the cold season, would be more liable to destruction. Probably most
snakes get killed long before a natural decline sets in; to say that not
one in a thousand dies of old age would probably be no exaggeration; but
if they were as safe from enemies and accidents as some less prolific
and more highly-organized animals, so that many would reach the natural
term of life, and death came slowly, we can imagine that in such a
heat-loving creature the failure of the vital powers would simulate the
sensations caused by a falling temperature, and cause the old or sick
serpent, even in midsummer, to creep instinctively away to the ancient
refuge, where many a long life-killing frost had been safely tided over
in the past.

The huanaco has never been a hybernating animal; but we must assume
that, like the crotalus of the north, he had formed a habit of
congregating with his fellows at certain seasons at the same spot;
further, that these were seasons of suffering to the animal--the
suffering, or discomfort and danger, having in the first place given
rise to the habit. Assuming again that the habit had existed so long as
to become, like that of the reptile, a fixed, immutable instinct, a
hereditary knowledge, so that the young huanacos, untaught by the
adults, would go alone and unerringly to the meeting-place from any
distance, it is but an easy step to the belief, that after the
conditions had changed, and the refuges were no longer needed, this
instinctive knowledge would still exist in them, and that they would
take the old road when stimulated by the pain of a wound; or the
miserable sensations experienced in disease or during the decay of the
life-energy, when the senses grow dim, and the breath fails, and the
blood is thin and cold.

I presume that most persons who have observed animals a great deal have
met with cases in which the animal has acted automatically, or
instinctively, when the stimulus has been a false one. I will relate one
such case, observed by myself, and which strikes me as being apposite to
the question I am considering. It must be premised that this is an
instance of an acquired habit; but this does not affect my argument,
since I have all along assumed that the huanaco--a highly sagacious
species in the highest class of vertebrates--first acquired a habit from
experience of seeking a remembered refuge, and that such habit was the
parent, as it were, or the first clay model, of the perfect and
indestructible instinct that was to be.

It is not an uncommon thing in the Argentino pampas--I have on two
occasions witnessed it myself--for a riding-horse to come home, or to
the gate of his owner's house, to die. I am speaking of riding-horses
that are never doctored, nor treated mercifully; that look on their
master as an enemy rather than a friend; horses that live out in the
open, and have to be hunted to the corral or enclosure, or roughly
captured with a lasso as they run, when their services are required. I
retain a very vivid recollection of the first occasion of witnessing an
action of this kind in a horse, although I was only a boy at the time.
On going out one summer evening I saw one of the horses of the
establishment standing unsaddled and unbridled leaning his head over the
gate. Going to the spot, I stroked his nose, and then, turning to an old
native who happened to be near, asked him what could be the meaning of
such a thing. "I think he is going to die," he answered; "horses often
come to the house to die." And next morning the poor beast was found
lying dead not twenty yards from the gate; although he had not appeared
ill when I stroked his nose on the previous evening; but when I saw him
lying there dead, and remembered the old native's words, it seemed to me
as marvellous and inexplicable that a horse should act in that way, as
if some wild creature--a rhea, a fawn, or dolichotes--had come to exhale
his last breath at the gates of his enemy and constant persecutor, man.

I now believe that the sensations of sickness and approaching death in
the riding-horse of the pampas resemble or similate the pains, so often
experienced, of hunger, thirst and fatigue combined, together with the
oppressive sensations caused by the ponderous native saddle, or recado,
with its huge surcingle of raw hide drawn up so tightly as to hinder
free respiration. The suffering animal remembers how at the last relief
invariably came, when the twelve or fifteen hours' torture were over,
the toil and the want, and when the great iron bridle and ponderous gear
were removed, and he had freedom and food and drink and rest. At the
gate or at the door of his master's house, the sudden relief had always
come to him; and there does he sometimes go in his sickness, his fear
overmastered by his suffering, to find it again.

Discussing this question with a friend, who has a subtle mind and great
experience of the horse in semi-barbarous countries, and of many other
animals, wild and tame, in many regions of the globe, he put forward a
different explanation of the action of the horse in coming home to die,
which he thinks simpler and more probable than mine. It is, that a dying
or ailing animal instinctively withdraws itself from its fellows--an
action of self-preservation in the individual in opposition to the
well-known instincts of the healthy animals, which impels the whole herd
to turn upon and persecute the sickly member, thus destroying its
chances of recovery. The desire of the suffering animal is not only to
leave its fellows, but to get to some solitary place where they cannot
follow, or would never find him, to escape at once from a great and
pressing danger. But on the pastoral pampas, where horses are so
numerous that on that level, treeless area they are always and
everywhere visible, no hiding-place is discoverable. In such a case, the
animal, goaded by its instinctive fear, turns to the one spot that
horses avoid; and although that spot has hitherto been fearful to him,
the old fear is forgotten in the present and far more vivid one; the
vicinity of his master's house represents a solitary place to him, and
he seeks it, just as the stricken deer seeks the interior of some close
forest, oblivious for the time, in its anxiety to escape from the herd,
of the dangers lurking in it, and which he formerly avoided.

I have not set this explanation down merely because it does credit to my
friend's ingenuity, but because it strikes me that it is the only
alternative explanation that can be given of the animal's action in
coming home to die. Another fact concerning the ill-tamed and
barbarously treated horses of the pampas, which, to my mind, strengthens
the view I have taken, remains to be mentioned. It is not an uncommon
thing for one of these horses, after escaping, saddled and bridled, and
wandering about for anight or night and day on the plains, to return of
its own accord to the house. It is clear that in a case of this kind the
animal comes home to seek relief. I have known one horse that always had
to be hunted like a wild animal to be caught, and that invariably after
being saddled tried to break loose, to return in this way to the gate
after wandering about, saddled and bridled, for over twenty hours in
uncomfortable freedom.

The action of the riding-horse returning to a master he is accustomed to
fly from, as from an enemy, to be released of saddle and bridle, is, no
doubt more intelligent than that of the dying horse coming home to be
relieved from his sufferings, but the motive is the same in both cases;
at the gate the only pain the animal has ever experienced has invariably
begun, and there it has ended, and when the spur of some new pain
afflicts him--new and yet like the old--it is to the well-remembered
hated gate that it urges him.

To return to the huanaco. After tracing the dying instinct back to its
hypothetical origin--namely, a habit acquired by the animal in some past
period of seeking refuge from some kind of pain and danger at a certain
spot, it is only natural to speculate a little further as to the nature
of that danger and of the conditions the animal existed in.

If the huanaco is as old on the earth as its antique generalized form
have led naturalists to suppose, we can well believe that it has
survived not only a great many lost mammalian types, but many changes in
the conditions of its life. Let us then imagine that at some remote
period a change took place in the climate of Patagonia, and that it
became colder and colder, owing to some cause affecting only that
portion of the antarctic region; such a cause, for instance, as a great
accumulation of icebergs on the northern shores of the antarctic
continent, extending century by century until a large portion of the now
open sea became blocked up with solid ice. If the change was gradual and
the snow became deeper each winter and lasted longer, an intelligent,
gregarious, and exceedingly hardy and active animal like the huanaco,
able to exist on the driest woody fibres, would stand the beat chance of
maintaining its existence in such altered conditions, and would form new
habits to meet the new danger. One would be that at the approach of a
period of deep snow and deadly cold, all the herds frequenting one
place would gather together at the most favourable spots in the river
valleys, where the vegetation is dense and some food could be had while
the surrounding country continued covered with deep snow. They would, in
fact, make choice of exactly such localities as are now used for dying
places. There they would be sheltered from the cutting-winds, the twigs
and bark would supply them with food, the warmth from a great many
individuals massed together would serve to keep the snow partially
melted under foot, and would prevent their being smothered, while the
stiff and closely interlaced branches would keep a roof of snow above
them, and thus protected they would keep alive until the return of mild
weather released them. In the course of many generations all weakly
animals, and all in which the habit of seeking the refuge at the proper
time was weak or uncertain in its action would perish, but their loss
would be an advantage to the survivors.

It is worthy of remark that it is only at the southern extremity of
Patagonia that the huanacos have dying places. In Northern Patagonia,
and on the Chilian and Peruvian Andes no such instinct has been



My purpose in this paper is to discuss a group of curious and useless
emotional instincts of social animals, which have not yet been properly
explained. Excepting two of the number, placed first and last in the
list, they are not related in their origin; consequently they are here
grouped together arbitrarily, only for the reason that we are very
familiar with them on account of their survival in our domestic animals,
and because they are, as I have said, useless; also because they
resemble each other, among the passions and actions of the lower
animals, in their effect on our minds. This is in all cases unpleasant,
and sometimes exceedingly painful, as when species that rank next to
ourselves in their developed intelligence and organized societies, such
as elephants, monkeys, dogs, and cattle, are seen under the domination
of impulses, in some cases resembling insanity, and in others simulating
the darkest passions of man.

These instincts are:--

(1) The excitement caused by the smell of blood, noticeable in horses
and cattle among our domestic animals, and varying greatly in degree,
from an emotion so slight as to be scarcely perceptible to the greatest
extremes of rage or terror.

(2) The angry excitement roused in some animals when a scarlet or
bright-red cloth is shown to them. So well known is this apparently
insane instinct in our cattle that it has given rise to a proverb and
metaphor familiar in a variety of forms to everyone.

(3) The persecution of a sick or weakly animal by its companions.

(4) The sudden deadly fury that seizes on the herd or family at the
sight of a companion in extreme distress. Herbivorous mammals at such
times will trample and gore the distressed one to death. In the case of
wolves, and other savage-tempered carnivorous species, the distressed
fellow is frequently torn to pieces and devoured on the spot.

To take the first two together. When we consider that blood is red; that
the smell of it is, or may be, or has been, associated with that vivid
hue in the animal's mind; that blood, seen and smelt is, or has been,
associated with the sight of wounds and with cries of pain and rage or
terror from the wounded or captive animal, there appears at first sight
to be some reason for connecting these two instinctive passions as
having the same origin--namely, terror and rage caused by the sight of a
member of the herd struck down and bleeding, or struggling for life in
the grasp of an enemy. I do not mean to say that such an image is
actually present in the animal's mind, but that the inherited or
instinctive passion is one in kind and in its working with the passion
of the animal when experience and reason were its guides.

But the more I consider the point the more am I inclined to regard these
two instincts as separate in their origin, although I retain the belief
that cattle and horses and several wild animals are violently excited by
the smell of blood for the reason just given--namely, their inherited
memory associates the smell of blood with the presence among them of
some powerful enemy that threatens their life. To this point I shall
return when dealing with the last and most painful of the instincts I am

The following incident will show how violently this blood passion
sometimes affects cattle, when they are permitted to exist in a
half-wild condition, as on the pampas. I was out with my gun one day, a
few miles from home, when I came across a patch on the ground where the
grass was pressed or trodden down and stained with blood. I concluded
that some thievish gauchos had slaughtered a fat cow there on the
previous night, and, to avoid detection, had somehow managed to carry
the whole of it away on their horses. As I walked on, a herd of cattle,
numbering about three hundred, appeared moving slowly on towards a small
stream a mile away; they were travelling in a thin long line, and would
pass the blood-stained spot at a distance of seven to eight hundred
yards, but the wind from it would blow across their track. When the
tainted wind struck the leaders of the herd they instantly stood still,
raising their heads, then broke out into loud excited bellowings; and
finally turning they started off at a fast trot, following up the scent
in a straight line, until they arrived at the place where one of their
kind had met its death. The contagion spread, and before long all the
cattle were congregated on the fatal spot, and began moving round in a
dense mass, bellowing continually.

It may be remarked here that the animal has a peculiar language on
occasions like this; it emits a succession of short bellowing cries,
like excited exclamations, followed by a very loud cry, alternately
sinking into a hoarse murmur, and rising to a kind of scream that grates
harshly on the sense. Of the ordinary "cow-music" I am a great admirer,
and take as much pleasure in it as in the cries and melody of birds and
the sound of the wind in trees; but this performance of cattle excited
by the smell of blood is most distressing to hear.

The animals that had forced their way into the centre of the mass to the
spot where the blood was, pawed the earth, and dug it up with their
horns, and trampled each other down in their frantic excitement. It was
terrible to see and hear them. The action of those on the border of the
living mass in perpetually moving round in a circle with dolorous
bellowings, was like that of the women in an Indian village when a
warrior dies, and all night they shriek and howl with simulated grief,
going round and round the dead man's hut in an endless procession.

The "bull and red rag" instinct, as it may be called, comes next in
order. It is a familiar fact that brightness in itself powerfully
attracts most if not all animals. The higher mammalians are affected in
the same way as birds and insects, although not in the same degree. This
fact partly explains the rage of the bull. A scarlet flag fluttering in
the wind or lying on the grass attracts his attention powerfully, as it
does that of other animals; but though curious about the nature of the
bright object, it does not anger him. His anger is excited--and this is
the whole secret of the matter--when the colour is flaunted by a man;
when it forces him to fix his attention on a man, i.e. an animal of
another species that rules or drives him, and that he fears, but with
only a slight fear, which may at any moment be overcome by his naturally
bold aggressive disposition, Not only does the vivid colour compel him
to fix his attention on the being that habitually interferes with his
liberty, and is consequently regarded with unfriendly eyes, but it also
produces the illusion on his mind that the man is near him, that he is
approaching him in an aggressive manner: it is an insult, a challenge,
which, being of so explosive a temper, he is not slow to accept.

On the pampas I was once standing with some gauchos at the gate of a
corral into which a herd of half-wild cattle had just been driven. One
of the men, to show his courage and agility, got off his horse and
boldly placed himself in the centre of the open gate. His action
attracted the attention of one of the nearest cows, and lowering her
horns she began watching him in a threatening manner. He then suddenly
displayed the scarlet lining of his poncho, and instantly she charged
him furiously: with a quick movement to one side he escaped her horns,
and after we had driven her back, resumed his former position and
challenged her again in the same way. The experiment was repeated not
less than half a dozen times, and always with the same result. The
cattle were all in a savage temper, and would have instantly charged him
on his placing himself before them on foot without the display of
scarlet cloth, but their fear of the mounted men, standing with lassos
in their hand on either side of him, kept them in check. But whenever
the attention of any one individual among them was forcibly drawn to him
by the display of vivid colour, and fixed on him alone, the presence of
the horsemen was forgotten and fear was swallowed by rage. It is a fact,
I think, that most animals that exhibit angry excitement when a scarlet
rag is flourished aggressively at them, are easily excited to anger at
all times. Domestic geese and turkeys may be mentioned among birds: they
do not fly at a grown person, but they will often fly at a child that
challenges them in this way; and it is a fact that they do not at any
time fear a child very much and will sometimes attack him without being
challenged. I think that the probability of the view I have taken is
increased by another fact--namely, that the sudden display of scarlet
colour sometimes affects timid animals with an extreme fear, just as, on
the other hand, it excites those that are bold and aggressive to anger.
Domestic sheep, forinstance, that vary greatly in disposition in
different races or breeds, and even in different individuals, may be
affected in the two opposite ways, some exhibiting extreme terror and
others only anger at a sudden display of scarlet colour by the shepherd
or herder.

The persecution of a sick animal by its companions comes next under

It will have been remarked, with surprise by some readers, no doubt,
that I have set down as two different instincts this persecution of a
sick or weakly individual by its fellows, and the sudden deadly rage
that sometimes impels the herd to turn upon and destroy a wounded or
distressed companion. It is usual for writers on the instincts of
animals to speak of them as one: and I presume that they regard this
sudden deadly rage of several individuals against a companion as merely
an extreme form of the common persecuting instinct or impulse. They are
not really one, but are as distinct in origin and character as it is
possible for any two instincts to be. The violent and fatal impulse
starts simultaneously into life and action, and is contagious, affecting
all the members of the herd like a sudden madness. The other is neither
violent nor contagious: the persecution is intermittent: it is often
confined to one or to a very few members of the herd, and seldom joined
in by the chief member, the leader or head to whom all the others give

Concerning this head of the herd, or flock, or pack, it is necessary to
say something more. Some gregarious animals, particularly birds, live
together in the most perfect peace and amity; and here no leader is
required, because in their long association together as a species in
flocks, they have attained to a oneness of mind, so to speak, which
causes them to move or rest, and to act at all times harmoniously
together, as if controlled and guided by an extrane-ous force. I may
mention that the kindly instinct in animals, which is almost universal
between male and female in the vertebrates, is most apparent in these
harmoniously acting birds. Thus, in La Plata, I have remarked, in more
than one species, that a lame or sick individual, unable to keop pace
with the flock and find its food, has not only been waited for, but in
some cases some of the flock have constantly attended it, keeping close
to it both when flying and on the ground; and, I have no doubt, feeding
it just as they would have fed their young.

Naturally among such kinds no one member is of more consideration than
another. But among mammals such equality and harmony is rare. The


Back to Full Books