Ornithological Biography/Volume 2/The Black Vulture

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1980046Ornithological Biography — The Black VultureJohn James Audubon


Cathartes Jota, Bonap.

PLATE CVI. Male and Female.

The habits of this species are so intimately connected with those of the Turkey Buzzard (Cathartes Aura), that I cannot do better than devote this article to the description of both. And here, I beg leave to request of you, reader, that you allow me to present you with a copy of a paper which I published several years ago on the subject, and which was read, in my presence, to a numerous assemblage of the members of the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh, by my friend Mr Neill, the Secretary of that Society. It is scarcely necessary for me to apologise for introducing here the observations which I then narrated, more especially as they referred principally to an interesting subject of discussion, which has been since resumed. They are as follows:—

"As soon as, like me, you shall have seen the Turkey Buzzard follow, with arduous closeness of investigation, the skirts of the forests, the meanders of creeks and rivers, sweeping over the whole of extensive plains, glancing his quick eye in all directions, with as much intentness as ever did the noblest of Falcons, to discover where below him lies the suitable prey; when, like me, you have repeatedly seen that bird pass over objects calculated to glut his voracious appetite, unnoticed, because unseen; and when you have also observed the greedy Vulture, propelled by hunger, if not famine, moving like the wind suddenly round his course, as the carrion attracts his eye; then will you abandon the deeplyrooted notion, that this bird possesses the faculty of discovering, by his sense of smell, his prey at an immense distance.

This power of smelling so acutely I adopted as a fact from my youth. I had read of this when a child; and many of the theorists, to whom I subsequently spoke of it, repeated the same with enthusiasm, the more particularly as they considered it an extraordinary gift of nature. But I had already observed, that nature, although wonderfully bountiful, had not granted more to any one individual than was necessary, and that no one was possessed of any two of the senses in a very high state of perfection; that if it had a good scent, it needed not so much acuteness of sight, and vice versa. When I visited the Southern States, and had lived, as it were, amongst these Vultures for several years, and discovered thousands of times that they did not smell me when I approached them, covered by a tree, until within a few feet; and that when so near, or at a greater distance, I shewed myself to them, they instantly flew away much frightened; the idea evaporated, and I assiduously engaged in a series of experiments, to prove to myself, at least, how far this acuteness of smell existed, or if it existed at all.

I sit down to communicate to you the results of those experiments, and leave for you to conclude how far and how long the world has been imposed on by the mere assertions of men who had never seen more than the skins of our Vultures, or heard the accounts from men caring little about observing nature closely.

My First Experiment was as follows:—I procured a skin of our common deer, entire to the hoofs, and stuffed it carefully with dried grass until filled rather above the natural size,— suffered the whole to become perfectly dry, and as hard as leather,—took it to the middle of a large open field,—laid it down on its back with the legs up and apart, as if the animal was dead and putrid. I then retired about a hundred yards, and in the lapse of some minutes, a Vulture, coursing round the field tolerably high, espied the skin, sailed directly towards it, and alighted within a few yards of it. I ran immediately, covered by a large tree, until within about forty yards, and from that place could spy the bird with ease. He approached the skin, looked at it with apparent suspicion, jumped on it, raised his tail, and voided freely (as you well know all birds of prey in a wild state generally do before feeding),—then approaching the eyes, that were here solid globes of hard, dried, and painted clay, attacked first one and then the other, with, however, no farther advantage than that of disarranging them. This part was abandoned; the bird walked to the other extremity of the pretended animal, and there, with much exertion, tore the stitches apart, until much fodder and hay was pulled out; but no flesh could the bird find or smell; he was intent on discovering some where none existed, and, after reiterated efforts, all useless, he took flight and coursed about the field, when, suddenly wheeling round and alighting, I saw him kill a small garter snake, and swallow it in an instant. The Vulture rose again, sailed about, and passed several times quite low over the stuffed deer-skin, as if loth to abandon so good looking a prey.

Judge of my feelings when I plainly saw that the Vulture, which could not discover, through its extraordinary sense of smell, that no flesh, either fresh or putrid, existed about that skin, could at a glance see a snake, scarcely as thick as a man's finger, alive, and destitute of odour, hundreds of yards distant. I concluded that, at all events, his ocular powers were much better than his sense of smell.

Second Experiment.—I had a large dead hog hauled some distance from the house, and put into a ravine, about twenty feet deeper than the surface of the earth around it, narrow and winding much, filled with briars and high cane. In this I made the negroes conceal the hog, by binding cane over it, until I thought it would puzzle either Buzzards, Carrion Crows, or any other birds to see it, and left it for two days. This was early in the month of July, when, in this latitude, a dead body becomes putrid and extremely fetid in a short time. I saw from time to time many Vultures, in search of food, sail over the field and ravine in all directions, but none discovered the carcass, although during this time several dogs had visited it, and fed plentifully on it. I tried to go near it, but the smell was so insufferable when within thirty yards, that I abandoned it, and the remnants were entirely destroyed at last through natural decay.

I then took a young pig, put a knife through its neck, and made it bleed on the earth and grass about the same place, and having covered it closely with leaves, also watched the result. The Vultures saw the fresh blood, alighted about it, followed it down into the ravine, discovered by the blood the pig, and devoured it, when yet quite fresh, within my sight.

Not contented with these experiments, which I already thought fully conclusive, having found two young Vultures, about the size of pullets, covered yet with down, and looking more like quadrupeds than birds, I had them brought home and put into a large coop in the yard, in the view of every body, and attended to their feeding myself. I gave them a great number of Red-headed Woodpeckers and Parokeets, birds then easy to procure, as they were feeding daily on the mulberry trees in the immediate neighbourhood of my orphans.

These the young Vultures could tear to pieces by putting both feet on the body, and applying the bill with great force. So accustomed to my going towards them were they in a few days, that when I approached the cage with hands filled with game for them, they immediately began hissing and gesticulating very much like young pigeons, and putting their bills to each other, as if expecting to be fed mutually, as their parent had done.

Two weeks elapsed, black feathers made their appearance, and the down diminished. I remarked an extraordinary increase of their legs and bill, and thinking them fit for trial, I closed three sides of the cage with plank, leaving the front only with bars for them to see through,—had the cage cleaned, washed, and sanded, to remove any filth attached to it from the putrid flesh that had been in it, and turned its front immediately from the course I usually took towards it with food for them.

I approached it often barefooted, and soon perceived that if I did not accidentally make a noise, the young birds remained in their silent upright attitudes, until I shewed myself to them by turning to the front of their prison. I frequently fastened a dead squirrel or rabbit, cut open, with all the entrails hanging loosely, to a long pole, and in this situation would put it to the back part of the cage; but no hissing, no movement, was made; when, on the contrary, I presented the end of the pole thus covered over the cage, no sooner would it appear beyond the edge, than my hungry birds would jump against the bars, hiss furiously, and attempt all in their power to reach the food. This was repeatedly done with fresh and putrid substances, all very congenial to their taste.

Satisfied within myself, I dropped these trials, but fed the birds until full grown, and then turned them out into the yard of the kitchen, for the purpose of picking up whatever substances might be thrown to them. Their voracity, however, soon caused their death: young pigs were not safe if within their reach; and young ducks, turkeys, or chickens, were such a constant temptation, that the cook, imable to watch them, killed them both, to put an end to their depredations.

Whilst I had these two young vultures in confinement, an extraordinary occurrence took place respecting an old bird of the same kind, which I cannot help relating to you. This bird, sailing over the yard, whilst I was experimenting with the pole and squirrels, saw the food, and alighted on the roof of one of the outhouses; then alighted on the ground, walked directly to the cage, and attempted to reach the food within. I approached it carefully, and it hopped off a short distance; as I retired, it returned, when always the appearances of the strongest congratulations would take place from the young towards this new comer. I directed several young negroes to drive it gently towards the stable, and to try to make it go in there. This would not do; but, after a short time, I helped to drive it into that part of the gin-house where the cotton seeds are deposited, and there caught it. I easily discovered that the bird was so emaciated, that to this state of poverty only I owed my success. I put it in with the young, who both at once jumped about him, making most extraordinary gestures of welcome, whilst the old bird, quite discomfited at his confinement, lashed both with great violence with his bill. Fearing the death of the young, I took them out, and fed plentifully the old bird; his appetite had become so great through fasting, that he ate too much, and died of suffocation.

I could enumerate many more instances, indicating that the power of smelling in these birds has been grossly exaggerated, and that, if they can smell objects at any distance, they can see the same objects much farther. I would ask any observer of the habits of birds, why if Vultures could smell at a great distance their prey, they should spend the greater portion of their lives hunting for it, when they are naturally so lazy, that, if fed in one place, they never leave it, and merely make such a change as is absolutely necessary to enable them to reach it. But I will now enter on their habits, and you will easily discover how this far famed power has originated.

Vultures are gregarious, and often associate in flocks of twenty, forty, or more;—hunting thus together, they fly in sight of each other, and thus cover an immense extent of country. A flock of twenty may easily survey an area of two miles, as they go turning in large circles, often intersecting each other in their lines, as if forming a vast chain of rounded links;—some are high, whilst others are low;—not a spot is passed unseen, and, consequently, the moment that a prey is discovered, the favoured bird rounds to, and, by the impetuosity of its movements, gives notice to its nearest companion, who immediately follows him, and is successively attended by all the rest. Thus the farthest from the discoverer being at a considerable distance, sails in a direct line towards the spot indicated to him by the flight of the others, who all have gone in a straight course before him, with the appearance of being impelled by this extraordinary power of smelling, so erroneously granted to them. If the object discovered is large, lately dead, and covered with a skin too tough to be eaten and torn asunder, and affords free scope to their appetites, they remain about it, and in the neighbourhood. Perched on high dead limbs, in such conspicuous positions, they are easily seen by other Vultures, who, through habit, know the meaning of such stoppages, and join the first flock, going also directly, and affording further evidence to those persons who are satisfied with appearance only. In this manner I have seen several hundreds of Vultures and Carrion Crows assembled near a dead ox at the dusk of evening, that had only two or three about it in the morning; when some of the later comers had probably travelled hundreds of miles searching diligently themselves for food, and probably would have had to go much farther, had they not espied this association.

Around the spot both species remain; some of them from time to time examining the dead body, giving it a tug in those parts most accessible, until putridity ensues. The accumulated number then fall to work, exhibiting a most disgusting picture of famished cannibals; the strongest driving the weakest, and the latter harassing the former with all the animosity that a disappointed hungry stomach can excite. They are seen jumping off the carcass, reattacking it, entering it, and wrestling for portions partly swallowed by two or more of them, hissing at a furious rate, and clearing every moment their nostrils from the filth that enters there, and stops their breathing. No doubt remains on my mind, that the great outward dimensions of these nostrils were allotted them for that especial and necessary purpose.

The animal is soon reduced to a mere skeleton, no portion of it being now too hard to be torn apart and swallowed, so that nothing is left but the bare bones. Soon all these bloody feeders are seen standing gorged, and scarcely able to take wing. At such times the observer may approach very near the group, whilst engaged in feeding, and see the Vultures in contact with the Dogs, who really by smelling have found the prey;—whenever this happens, it is with the greatest reluctance that the birds suffer themselves to be driven off, although frequently the sudden scowl or growl of the Dogs will cause nearly all the Vultures to rise a few yards in the air. I have several times seen the Buzzards feeding at one extremity of the carcass, whilst the Dogs were tearing the other; but if a single Wolf approached, or a pair of White-headed Eagles, driven by extreme hunger, then the place was abandoned to them until their wants were supplied.

The repast finished, each bird gradually rises to the highest branches of the nearest trees, and remains there until the full digestion of all the food they have swallowed is completed; from time to time opening their wings to the breeze, or to the sun, either to cool or to warm themselves, The traveller may then pass under them unnoticed; or, if regarded, a mere sham of flying off is made. The bird slowly recloses its wings, looks at the person as he passes, and remains there until hunger again urges him onwards. This takes often times more than a day, when gradually, and very often singly, each vulture is seen to depart.

They now rise to an immense height; cutting, with great elegance and ease, many circles through the air; now and then gently closing their wings, they launch themselves obliquely, with great swiftness, for several hundred yards, check and resume their portly movements, ascending until, like specks in the distance, they are seen altogether to leave that neighbourhood, to seek elsewhere the required means of subsistence.

Having heard it said, no doubt with the desire of proving that Buzzards smell their prey, that these birds usually fly against the breeze, I may state that, in my opinion, this action is simply used, because it is easier for birds to sustain themselves on the wing, encountering a moderate portion of wind, than when flying before it; but I have so often witnessed these birds bearing away under the influence of a strong breeze, as if enjoying it, that I consider either case as a mere incident connected with their pleasures or their wants.

Here, my dear Sir, let me relate one of those facts, curious in itself, and attributed to mere instincts but which I cannot admit under that appellation, and which, in my opinion, so borders on reason, that, were I to call it by that name, I hope you will not look on my judgment as erroneous, without your further investigating the subject in a more general point of view.

During one of those heavy gusts that so often take place in Louisiana, in the early part of summer, I saw a flock of these birds, which had undoubtedly discovered that the current of air that was tearing all over them, was a mere sheet, raise themselves obliquely against it, with great force, slide through its impetuous current, and reassume above it, their elegant movements. The power given to them by nature of discerning the approaching death of a wounded animal, is truly remarkable. They will watch each individual thus assailed by misfortune, and follow it with keen perseverance, until the loss of life has rendered it their prey. A poor old emaciated horse or ox, a deer mired on the margin of the lake, where the timid animal has resorted to escape flies and musquitoes, so fatiguing in summer, is seen in distress with exultation by the Buzzard. He immediately alights; and, if the animal does not extricate itself, waits and gorges in peace on as much of the flesh as the nature of the spot will allow. They do more: they often watch the young kid, the lamb and the pig issuing from the mother's womb, and attack it with direful success; yet, notwithstanding this, they frequently pass over a healthy horse, hog, or other animal, lying as if dead, basking in the sunshine, without even altering their course in the least. Judge then, my dear Sir, how well they must see.

Opportunities of devouring young living animals are so very frequent around large plantations in this country, that to deny them would be ridiculous, although I have heard it attempted by European writers. During the terrifying inundations of the Mississippi, I have very frequently seen many of these birds alight on the dead floating bodies of animals, drowned by the waters in the lowlands, and washed by the current, gorging themselves at the expense of the squatter, who often loses the greater portion of his wandering flocks on such occasions. Dastardly withal, and such cowards are they, that our smaller hawks can drive them off any place: the little king-bird proves indeed a tyrant, whenever he espies the large marauder sailing about the spot where his dearest mate is all intent on incubation; and the eagle, if hungry, will chase him, force him to disgorge his food in a moment, and leave it at his disposal.

Many of those birds accustomed, by the privileges granted them by law, of remaining about cities and villages in our southern states, seldom leave them, and might almost be called a second set, differing widely in habits from those that reside constantly at a distance from these places. Accustomed to be fed, they are still more lazy; their appearance exhibits all the nonchalance belonging to the garrisoned half-paid soldier. To move is for them a hardship, and nothing but extreme hunger will make them fly down from the roof of the kitchen into the yard, or follow the vehicles employed in cleaning the streets of disagreeable substances, except where (at Natchez for instance), the number of these expecting parasites is so great that all the refuse of the town, within their reach, is insufficient: they then are seen following the scavengers' cart, hopping, flying, and alighting all about it, amidst grunting hogs and snarling dogs, until the contents, having reached a place of destination outside the suburbs, are deposited, and swallowed by them.

Whilst taking a view of this city from her lower ancient fort I have for several days seen exhibitions of this kind.

I do not think that the vultures thus attached to cities are so much inclined to multiply as those more constantly resident in the forests, perceiving the diminution of number during the breeding season, and having remarked that many individuals known to me by particular marks made on them, and a special cast of countenance, were positively constant residents of town. The Vultur Aura is by no means so numerous as the atratus. I have seldom seen more than from twenty-five to thirty together; when, on the contrary, the latter are frequently associated to the number of an hundred.

The Vultur Aura is a more retired bird in habits, and more inclined to feed on dead game, snakes, lizards, frogs, and the dead fish that frequently are found about the sand-flats of rivers and borders of the sea-shore; is more cleanly in its appearance; and, as you will see by the difference in the drawings of both species, a neater and better formed bird. Its flight is also vastly superior in softness and elegance, requiring but a few flaps of its large wings to raise itself from the ground; after which it will sail for miles by merely turning either on one side or the other, and using its tail so slowly, to alter its course, that a person looking at it, whilst elevated and sailing, would be inclined to compare it to a machine fit to perform just a certain description of evolutions. The noise made by the vultures through the air, as they glide obliquely towards the earth, is often as great as that of our largest hawks, when falling on their prey; but they never reach the ground in this manner, always checking when about 100 yards high, and going several rounds, to examine well the spot they are about to alight on. The Vultur Aura cannot bear cold weather well; the few who, during the heat of summer, extend their excursions to the middle or northern states, generally return at the approach of winter; and I believe also, that very few of these birds breed east of the pine swamps of New Jersey. They are much attached to particular roosting-trees, and I know will come to them every night from a great distance. On alighting on these, each of them, anxious for a choice of place, creates always a general disturbance; and often, when quite dark, their hissing is heard in token of this inclination for supremacy. These roosting-trees of the Buzzards are generally in deep swamps, and mostly in high dead cypress trees; frequently, however, they roost with the carrion crows (Vultur attratus), and then it is on the largest dead timber of our fields, not unfrequently near the houses. Sometimes, also, this bird will roost close to the body of a thickly leaved tree: in such a position I have killed several when hunting wild turkeys by moonlight, mistaking them for these latter birds.

In Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Carolina, they prepare to breed early in the month of February, in common with most of the genus Falco. The most remarkable habit attached to their life is now to be seen: they assemble in parties of eight or ten, sometimes more, on large fallen logs, males and females, exhibiting the strongest desire to please mutually, and forming attachments in the choice of a mate, when each male, after many caresses, leads his partner off on the wing from the group, neither to mix nor associate with any more, until their offspring are well able to follow them in the air; after which, and until incubation takes place (about two weeks), they are seen sailing side by side the whole day.

These birds form no nest, yet are very choice respecting the place of deposite for their two eggs. Deep in the swamps, but always above the line of overflowing water-mark, a large hollow tree is sought, either standing or fallen, and the eggs are dropped on the mouldering particles inside, sometimes immediately near the entrance, at other times as much as twenty feet within. Both birds alternately incubate, and each feeds the other, by disgorging the contents of the stomach, or part of them, immediately before the bird that is sitting. Thirty-two days are required to bring forth the young from the shell; a thick down covers them completely; the parents, at that early period, and indeed for nearly two weeks, feed them by disgorging food considerably digested from their bills, in the manner of the common pigeons. The down acquires length, becomes thinner, and of a darker tint as the bird grows older. The young vultures, at three weeks, are large for their age, weighing then upwards of a pound, but extremely clumsy and inactive; unable to keep up their wings, then partly covered by large pin feathers, dragging them almost upon the ground, and bearing their whole weight on the full length of their legs and feet.

If approached at that time by a stranger or enemy, they hiss with a noise resembling that made by a strangling cat or fox, swell themselves, and hop sideways as fast as in their power. The parents, while sitting, and equally disturbed, act in the same manner; fly only a very short distance, waiting there the departure of the offender, to resume their duty. As the young grow larger, the parents simply throw their food before them; and, with all their exertions, seldom bring their offspring fat to the field. Their nests become so fetid, before the final departure of the young birds, that a person forced to remain there half an hour would be in danger of suffocation.

I have been frequently told, that the same pair will not abandon their first nest or place of deposit, unless broken up during incubation. This would attach to the vulture a constancy of affection that I cannot believe exists; as I do not think that pairing, in the manner described, is of any longer duration than the necessitous call of nature for the one season; and again, were they so inclined, they would never congregate in the manner they do, but would go in single pairs all their lives like eagles. Vultures do not possess, in any degree, the power of bearing off their prey as falcons do, unless it be slender portions of entrails hanging by the bill. When chased by others from a carcass, it even renders them very awkward in their flight, and forces them to the earth again almost immediately.

Many persons in Europe believe that Buzzards prefer putrid flesh to any other. This is a mistake. Any flesh that they can at once tear with their very powerful bill in pieces, is swallowed, no matter how fresh. What I have said of their killing and devouring young animals, affords sufficient proofs of this; but it frequently happens that these birds are compelled to wait until the hide of their prey will yield to the bill. I have seen a large dead alligator, surrounded by vultures and carrion crows, of which nearly the whole of the flesh was so completely decomposed before these birds could perforate the tough skin of the monster, that, when at last it took place, their disappointment was apparent, and the matter, in an almost fluid state, abandoned by the vultures."

The above account of my experiments was read on the 16th day of December 1826, and was what I may call my "maiden speech." Well do I remember the uneasy feelings which I experienced: the audience was large, and composed of many of the most distinguished men of that enlightened country. My paper was a long one; and it contradicted all former opinions on the subject under discussion; yet the cheering appearance of kindness which every where met my eye, as I occasionally glanced around, gradually dispelled my uneasiness, and brought me to a state of confidence. The reading of the paper being at length accomplished, I was congratulated by the President, as well as by every member present. Many questions were put to me, all of which I answered as well as I could. My esteemed and learned friend, Professor Jameson, requested permission to publish my paper in his valuable journal, which I most readily granted. Strolling homeward, I felt proud that I had at last broken the charm by which men had so long been held in ignorance respecting the history of our Vultures, assured that the breach which I had made upon a general and deeply rooted opinion, must gradually dissolve it, as well as many other absurdities which have for ages infested science, like the vile grub beneath the bark of the noblest forest tree, retarding its growth, until happily removed by the constant hammerings of the industrious Woodpecker!

I returned to America, urged by enthusiasm, to pursue the study of Nature in the majestic forests; and finding that doubts excited by persons prejudiced against me, existed in the minds of some individuals, I resolved to have my series of experiments repeated by some other person, in those districts where Vultures abound, and in the presence of a number of scientific men, with the view of satisfying the incredulous as much as in my power. My travels were continued, and 1 became acquainted with one of the best practical ornithologists our country affords, and moreover a man of general learning, my worthy and esteemed friend the Reverend John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina. To him I frequently wrote, requesting him to make experiments on the faculty of smelling in our vultures. In the winter of 1833-4, the following were made, and afterwards published in Loudon's Magazine of Natural History (No. 38, March 1834, p. 164).

"On the 16th December 1833, I commenced a series of experiments on the habits of our Vultures, which continued till the end of the month, and these have been renewed at intervals till the 15th of January 1834. Written invitations were sent to all the Professors of the two Medical Colleges in this city, to the officers and some of the members of the Philosophical Society, and such other individuals as we believed might take an interest in the subject. Although Mr Audubon was present during most of this time, and was willing to render any assistance required of him, yet he desired that we might make the experiments ourselves—that we might adopt any mode that the ingenuity or experience of others could suggest, at arriving at the most correct conclusions. The manner in which these experiments were made, together with the results, I now proceed to detail.

There were two points in particular on which the veracity of Audubon had been assailed, 1st, Whether the Vultures feed on fresh or putrid flesh, and, 2d, Whether they are attracted to their food by the eye or scent.

On the first head it was unnecessary to make many experiments, it being a subject with which even the most casual observer amongst us is well acquainted. It is well known that the roof of our market-house is covered with these birds every morning, waiting for any little scrap of fresh meat that may be thrown to them by the butchers. At our slaughterpens, the offal is quickly devoured by our vultures, whilst it is yet warm from the recent death of the slain animal. I have seen the Vultur Aura a hundred miles in the interior of the country, where he may be said to be altogether in a state of nature, regaling himself on the entrails of a deer which had been killed not an hour before. Two years ago, Mr Henry Ward, who is now in London, and who was in the employ of the Philosophical Society of this city, was in the habit of depositing at the foot of my garden, in the suburbs of Charleston, the fresh carcasses of the birds he had skinned, and in the course of half an hour, both species of Vulture, and particularly the Turkey Buzzard, came and devoured the whole. Nay, we discovered that Vultures fed on the bodies of those of their own species that had been thus exposed. A few days ago, a Vulture that had been killed by some boys in the neighbourhood, and that had fallen near the place where we were performing our experiments, attracted, on the following morning, the sight of a Turkey Buzzard, who commenced pulling off its feathers and feeding upon it. This brought down two of the Black Vultures, who joined him in the repast. In this instance, the former chased away the two latter to some distance,—an unusual occurrence, as the Black Vulture is the strongest bird, and generally keeps off the other species. We had the dead bird lightly covered with some rice chaff, where it still remains undiscovered by the Vultures.

2d, Whether is the Vulture attracted to its food by the sense of smell or sight? A number of experiments were tried to satisfy us on this head, and all led to the same result. A few of these I proceed to detail.

1st, A dead Hare (Lepus timidus), a Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a Kestrel (Falco Tinnunculus), a recent importation from Europe, together with a wheel-barrow full of offal from the slaughter-pens, were deposited on the ground, at the foot of my garden. A frame was raised above it at the distance of 12 inches from the earth; this was covered with brushwood, allowing the air to pass freely beneath it, so as to convey the effluvium far and wide; and although 25 days liave now gone by, and the flesh has become offensive, not a single Vulture appears to have observed it, though hundreds have passed over it, and some very near it, in search of their daily food. Although the Vultures did not discover this dainty mess, the dogs in the vicinity, who appeared to have better olfactory nerves, frequently visited the place, and gave us much trouble in the prosecution of our experiments.

2d, I now suggested an experiment which would enable us to test the inquiry whether the Vulture would be attracted to an object by the sight alone. A coarse painting on canvass was made, representing a sheep skinned and cut open. This proved very amusing;—no sooner was this picture placed on the ground, than the Vultures observed it, alighted near, walked over it, and some of them commenced tugging at the painting. They seemed much disappointed and surprised, and after having satisfied their curiosity, flew away. This experiment was repeated more than fifty times, with the same result. The painting was then placed within fifteen feet of the place where the offal was deposited; they came as usual, walked around it, but in no instance evinced the slightest symptoms of their having scented the offal which was so near him.

3d, The most offensive portions of the offal were now placed on the earth; these were covered over by a thin canvass cloth; on this were strewed several pieces of fresh beef The Vultures came, ate the flesh that was in sight, and although they were standing on a quantity beneath them, and although their bills were frequently within the eighth of an inch of this putrid matter, they did not discover it. We made a small rent in the canvass, and they at once discovered the flesh, and began to devour it. We drove them away, replaced the canvass with a piece that was entire; again they commenced eating the fresh pieces exliibited to their view, without discovering the hidden food they were trampling upon.

4th, The medical gentlemen who were present made a number of experiments to test the absurdity of a story, widely circulated in the United States, through the newspapers, that the eye of the Vulture, when perforated, and the sight extinguished, would in a few minutes be restored, in consequence of his placing his head under his wing, the down of which was said to renew his sight. The eyes were perforated; I need not add, that although they were refilled, and had the appearance of rotundity, yet the bird became blind, and that it was beyond the power of the healing art to restore his lost sight. His life was, however, preserved, by occasionally putting food in his mouth. In this situation they placed him in a small out-house, hung the flesh of the hare (which had now become offensive) within his reach; nay, they frequently placed it within an inch of his nostrils, but the bird gave no evidence of any knowledge that his favourite food was so near him. This was repeated from time to time during an interval of twenty-four days (the period of his death), with the same results.

We were not aware that any other experiment could be made to enable us to arrive at more satisfactory conclusions; and as we feared, if prolonged, they might become offensive to the neighbours, we abandoned them."

As my humble name can scarcely be known to many of those into whose hands this communication may fall, I have thought proper to obtain the signature of some of the gentlemen who aided me in, or witnessed these experiments; and I must also add, that there was not an individual among the crowd of persons who came to judge for themselves, who did not coincide with those who have given their signatures to this certificate.

"We the subscribers, having witnessed the experiments made on the habits of the Vultures of Carolina (Cathartes Aura and Cathartes Jota), commonly called Turkey Buzzard and Carrion Crow, feel assured that they devour fresh as well as putrid food of any kind, and that they are guided to their food altogether through their sense of sight, and not that of smell.

Robert Henry, A.M., President of the College of South Carolina.

John Wagner, M.D., Prof, of Surg, at the Med. Col. State So. Gar.

Henry R. Frost, M.D., Pro. Mat. Med. Col. State So. Car.

C. F. Leitner, Lecturer on Bot. and Nat. His. So. Car.

B. B. Strobel, M.D.

Martin Strobel."

It now remains for me to present you with an account of those habits of the Black Vulture which have not been described above. This bird is a constant resident in all our Southern States, extends far up the Mississippi, and continues the whole year in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and even in the State of Ohio as far as Cincinnati. Along the Atlantic coast, it is, I believe, rarely seen farther east than Maryland. It seems to give a preference to maritime districts, or the neighbourhood of water. Although shy in the woods, it is half domesticated in and about our cities and villages, where it finds food without the necessity of using much exertion. Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Natchez, and other cities, are amply provided with these birds, which may be seen flying or walking about the streets the whole day in groups. They also regularly attend the markets and shambles, to pick up the pieces of flesh thrown away by the butchers, and, when an opportunity occurs, leap from one bench to another, for the purpose of helping themselves. Hundreds of them are usually found, at all hours of the day, about the slaughterhouses, which are their favourite resort. They alight on the roofs and chimney-tops, wherever these are not guarded by spikes or pieces of glass, which, however, they frequently are, for the purpose of preventing the contamination by their ordure of the rain water, which the inhabitants of the Southern States collect in tanks, or cisterns, for domestic use. They follow the carts loaded with offal or dead animals, to the places in the suburbs where these are deposited, and wait the skinning of a cow or horse, when in a few hours they devour its flesh, in the company of the dogs, which are also accustomed to frequent such places. On these occasions, they fight with each other, leap about and tug in all the hurry and confusion imaginable, uttering a harsli sort of hiss or grunt, which may be heard at a distance of several hundred yards. Should eagles make their appearance at such a juncture, the Carrion Crows retire, and patiently wait until their betters are satisfied, but they pay little regard to the dogs. When satiated, they rise together, should the weather be fair, mount high in the air, and perform various evolutions, flying in large circles, and alternately plunging and rising, until they at length move off" in a straight direction, or alight on the dead branches of trees, where they spread out their wings and tail to the sun or the breeze. In cold and wet weather they assemble round the chimney-tops, to receive the warmth imparted by the smoke. I never heard of their disgorging their food on such occasions, that being never done unless when they are feeding their young, or when suddenly alarmed or caught. In that case, they throw up the contents of their stomach with wonderful quickness and power.

No law exists for the protection of this or the other species, their usefulness alone affording them security in the Southern States, although the people generally speak of a law with the view of preventing them from being molested. As to their propensity to attack live animals, at least those in a sickly state, although I could adduce numerous instances, it will suffice to produce the following attestations: —

"We the subscribers, natives of South Carolina, certify, that the Vultures of this State, commonly called the Turkey Buzzard and Carrion Crow, particularly the latter, will attack and destroy living animals, by feeding on them, such as young poultry, and the young of sheep and hogs; that they will also attack grown animals when in a helpless state, and destroy them in like manner.

Paul S. H. Lee. Thos. Riggs.

Stiles Rivers. Thos. W. Boone.

L. Witsell. Malachi Ford.

L. S. Fishburn.

Saint Bartholomew Parish, Colleton District,

32 miles from Charleston, 25th Jan. 1834."

"I hereby certify, that some years ago—I cannot specify the precise time, but have a perfect recollection of the fact—I saw a horse lying on the common, about half-a-mile from the city of Charleston, surrounded by a number of Buzzards, apparently feeding on him. My curiosity being excited by observing the horse move, I approached and drove off the Buzzards. They had already plucked out the eyes of the horse, and picked a wound in the anus, where I discovered a jet of blood from a small artery, which had been divided. I am well satisfied that the horse did not die for many hours afterwards. He struggled considerably whilst the Buzzards were operating on him, but was unable to rise from the ground.

B. B. Strobel, M. D.

Charleston, 5th Feb. 1834."

" I certify, that at my plantation, about four miles from the city of Charleston, one of my cattle, about two years old, in feeding in a ditch, got its horn so entangled in the root of a cane, as to be unable to get out. In this situation it was attacked by the Turkey Buzzard and Carrion Crow, who picked out one of its eyes, and would have killed it by feeding on it while alive, if it had not been discovered. It was extricated and driven home, but had been so much injured, that I had it knocked on the head to put it out of its misery.

Gilbert C. Geddes.

Charleston, 26th Feb. 1834."

The Carrion Crows of Charleston resort at night to a swampy wood across the Ashley river, about two miles from the city. I visited this roosting place in company with my friend John Bachman, approaching it by a close thicket of undergrowth, tangled with vines and briars. When nearly under the trees on which the birds were roosted, we found the ground destitute of vegetation, and covered with ordure and feathers, mixed with the broken branches of the trees. The stench was horrible. The trees were completely covered with birds, from the trunk to the very tips of the branches. They were quite unconcerned; but, having determined to send them the contents of our guns, and firing at the same instant, we saw most of them fly off, hissing, grunting, disgorging, and looking down on their dead companions as if desirous of devouring them. We kept up a brisk fusilade for several minutes, when they all flew off to a great distance high in the air; but as we retired, we observed them gradually descending and settling on the same trees. The piece of ground was about two acres in extent, and the number of Vultures we estimated at several thousands. During very wet weather, they not unfrequently remain the whole day on the roost; but when it is fine, they reach the city every morning by the first glimpse of day.

The flight of this species, although laboured, is powerful and protracted. Before rising from the ground, they are obliged to take several leaps, which they do in an awkward sidelong manner. Their flight is continued by flappings, repeated eight or ten times, alternating with sailings of from thirty to fifty yards. The wings are disposed at right angles to the body, and the feet protrude beyond the tail, so as to be easily seen. In calm weather, they may be heard passing over you at the height of forty or fifty yards; so great is the force with which they beat the air. When about to alight, they allow their legs to dangle beneath, the better to enable them to alight.

They feed on all sorts of flesh, fresh or putrid, whether of quadrupeds or birds, as well as on fish. I saw a great number of them eating a dead shark near the wharf at St Augustine in East Florida; and I observed them many times devouring young cormorants and herons in the nest, on the keys bordering that peninsula.

The Carrion Crow and Turkey Buzzard possess great power of recollection, so as to recognise at a great distance a person who has shot at them, and even the horse on which he rides. On several occasions I have observed that they would fly off at my approach, after I had trapped several, when they took no notice of other individuals; and they avoided my horse in the pastures, after I had made use of him to approach and shoot them.

At the commencement of the love season, which is about the beginning of February, the gesticulation and parade of the males are extremely ludicrous. They first strut somewhat in the manner of the Turkey Cock, then open their wings, and, as they approach the female, lower their head, its wrinkled skin becoming loosened, so as entirely to cover the bill, and emit a puffing sound, which is by no means musical. When these actions have been repeated five or six times, and the conjugal compact sealed, the "happy pair" fly off, and remain together until their young come abroad. These birds form no nest, and consequently never breed on trees; the hollow of a prostrate log, or the excavation of a bank of earth, suffices for them. They never lay more than two eggs, which are deposited on the bare ground; they are about three inches in length, rather pointed at the smaller end, thick in the shell, with a pure white ground, marked towards the greater ends with large irregular dashes of black and dark brown. Twenty-one days are required for hatching them. The male and female sit by turns, and feed each other. The young are at first covered with a light cream-coloured down, and have an extremely uncouth appearance. They are fed by regurgitation, almost in the same manner as pigeons, and are abundantly supplied with food. When fledged, which is commonly about the beginning of June, they follow their parents through the woods. At this period, their head is covered with feathers to the very mandibles. The plumage of this part gradually disappears, and the skin becomes wrinkled; but they are not in full plumage till the second year. During the breeding season, they frequent the cities less, those remaining at that time being barren birds, of which there appear to be a good number. I believe that the individuals which are no longer capable of breeding, spend all their time in and about the cities, and roost on the roofs and chimneys. They go out, in company with the Turkey Buzzards, to the yards of the hospitals and asylums, to feed on the remains of the provisions cooked there, which are as regularly thrown out to them.

I have represented a pair of Carrion Crows or Black Vultures in full plumage, engaged with the head of our Common Deer, the Cervus virginianus.

Cathartes Jota, Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 23.

Cathartes atratus, Swains and Richards, Fauna Boreali-Americ. Part 11. p. 6.

Vultur Jota, Gmel. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 247.

Black Vulture or Carrion Crow, Vultur atratus, Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. ix. p. 104. PI. 75. fig. 2—Nuttall, Manual, p. 46.

Adult Male. Plate CVI. Fig. 1.

Bill elongated, rather stout, straight at the base, slightly compressed; the upper mandible covered to the middle by the cere, broad, curved, and acute at the end, the edge doubly undulated. Nostrils medial, approximate, linear, pervious. Head elongated, neck longish, body robust. Feet strong; tarsus roundish, covered with small rhomboidal scales; toes scutellate above, the middle one much longer, the lateral nearly equal, second and third united at the base by a web. Claws arched, strong, rather obtuse.

Plumage rather compact, with ordinary lustre. The head and upper part of the neck are destitute of feathers, having a black, rugose, carunculated skin, sparsely covered with short hairs, and downy behind. Wings ample, long, the first quill rather short, third and fourth longest. Tail longish, even, or very slightly emarginated at the end, of twelve broad, straight, feathers.

Bill greyish-yellow at the end, dusky at the base, as is the corrugated skin of the head and neck. Iris reddish-brown. Feet yellowish-grey; claws black. The general colour of the plumage is dull-black, slightly glossed with blue; the primary quills light brownish on the inside.

Length 26 inches; extent of wings 54; bill 2½; tarsus 3½; middle toe 4.

Adult Female. Plate CVII. Fig. 2.

The female resembles the male in external appearance, and is rather less.