Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 44.djvu/79

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71
NATURE AT SEA.

after hour for days at a time, without uttering a note or showing the least sign of fatigue.

Dauntless, brave-hearted little bird!—bred in the storm and passing thy life on the ocean wastes. How nimbly you trip along the surging waves, now hid in their deep valleys, or skimming PSM V44 D079 Portuguese man of war.jpgFig. 2.—Portuguese Man-of-war. their crests, which you pat with your slender webbed feet, as if to caress them when ready to ingulf you!

We had not been at sea long before these petrels found us out, and they followed us hundreds of miles. At night I heard, or thought I heard, low, crooning notes from them, but was not sure this mournful sound did not come from some part of the ship's rigging. This is Wilson's petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), named in honor of that great lover of the birds, and well described by him in his American Ornithology. Wilson had an opportunity to study this species while coming by sailing vessel from New Orleans to New York. In order to examine them more particularly he shot a number, notwithstanding the superstitions of the sailors, who lowered a boat and helped him pick them up. These genii of the storm remind you of the swallow, whose graceful movement and power of wing they have, but, unlike the latter, they never soar above the turmoil of the sea. Their plumage is of a nearly uniform sooty-brown hue, excepting the tail coverts, or feathers at the base of the tail, which are snow-white. The physiognomy of the bird is marked by the beak, which points downward, thus enabling it to pick up objects with greater ease from the surface of the water. These delicate, soft-plumaged creatures are the scavengers of the sea. Toss out a few scraps of food, and the object of their comradeship is at once seen. Immediately their quick sense detects it, and all from far and near collect about the floating object, making a little dark cluster on the water. In thus taking their food they never alight, but hover over it, standing tiptoe on the wave or lifting their delicate black feet up and down as if dancing on the water. From this characteristic performance the name petrel is said to be derived from Saint Peter, in allusion to the story of his walking on the sea.