Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/March 1888/Flamingoes at Home
By HENRY A. BLAKE.
I DO not know if much has been written on the subject of the breeding of flamingoes, or if their habits have been closely examined; but I have a distinct recollection of a print in a book on natural history read by me many years ago, where the flamingo is depicted straddling on a very high nest, with the legs hanging down on either side. I have always thought this to be rather a peculiar way of sitting during incubation, and, finding that the birds bred in large numbers in the islands of Inagua, Andros, and Abaco, I determined to satisfy myself by personal observation as to the manner in which these birds sit on their eggs while hatching.
The flamingoes are very shy, and are only found in the remote and rarely-visited lagoons. When seen in flock? of some hundreds standing in long lines, they look at a distance like battalions of British troops on parade, their brilliant pink plumage showing up well against the dark-green mangroves with which the lagoons are generally fringed.
In May they begin to repair the old nests, or to raise new ones, which is done by scooping up the surrounding mud with the beak, while they stand on the nest and pat it into shape and proper consistency with the foot. It is no mere treading on the mud, but one foot is used at a time, and the sounding slaps with which the cones of mud are got into shape can be heard at a considerable distance.
The nests are always grouped close together, sometimes as many as four hundred being found in a "rookery." They stand from three to four feet apart, the area occupied by each nest being about twelve square feet. The birds do not always return to the same breeding-place, and if disturbed much while breeding, or if the very young birds are taken from the nest, they will probably breed next year in some other rookery, many of which are to be found in the least accessible parts of the great stretches of swamps.
Having settled upon their breeding-ground for the year, the old nests are at once taken possession of by the oldest or strongest birds, who proceed to repair them by adding to the top the inch or more washed off by the rains since last tenanted. If the nest is very low, four or five inches may be added, and sticks, shells, or anything else that may be lying about the base, are scooped up and worked in The Flamingo. without any apparent arrangement, just as if the soft mud with the débris contained in it were lifted with a trowel and placed on the top. There is no preparation made for the new repair of the old nest, and, if an addled egg remains, it is simply covered over with the fresh stuff and built into the cone. I measured some scores of nests. The highest was fifteen inches, the lowest eight inches, the latter being the height of the nests in the first year. The nests were about eighteen inches in diameter at the bottom, and nine to eleven inches on the top. The concavity was very slight. In a few cases about half a dozen feathers were found on the nest, but in general the eggs were laid on the bare mud. I said "eggs," but, out of some hundreds of nests examined by me in June, there were not half a dozen which contained two eggs, one being the usual number. As some of those taken at the time were in an advanced stage of incubation, it is probable that at each breeding-season but one egg is usually laid.
The nesting-season is from the middle to the end of May. The young birds are hatched about the end of June or beginning of July, and about the first week in August are so fully fledged that, while some can fly, almost all are capable of taking care of themselves. It is at this time that the young birds are taken, sometimes by scores. As the nests are in places so difficult of access, and the birds could not be carried without danger of breaking their slender legs, the problem of getting them to the shore for shipment would be difficult to solve, were it not that a flock of young birds are easily driven. When they are first approached, those who can fly get up and circle overhead, but in a very short time they pitch with the other young birds now being driven away, and they do not fly again. The entire lot are then driven like a flock of sheep over the flat banks of marl or through the shallow lagoons. In the molting-season the old birds are sometimes thus driven, as they can not then fly.
I left Nassau on the 3d of June, and, having called at several places on the way, dropped anchor at Bustick Point on the evening of Monday, the 6th of June. Bustick Point is on the island of Abaco, the eastern side of which is fringed with a line of bays forming an almost uninterrupted belt of land, with a few deep passages through which ships can enter. On two of these bays are built the settlements of Hope Town and Green Turtle Bay, the principal towns of Abaco. Between the bays and the shore of the island the beautifully clear water of the Bahamas is always smooth, and the sailing is delightful, the changing views of island and bays affording constant interest.
We had arranged with two guides to meet us, and at 5 a. m. on the 7th of June we landed. I was accompanied by Lord George FitzGerald, and Lieutenant Robertson, Second West Lidia Regiment. The air was still, but the morning was fresh and bright, and the walk across the island was most enjoyable. The ground was picturesquely rugged, and the path led up and down and around low hills planted with pineapples, of which great heaps of the full but green fruit were piled upon the shore ready for shipment, while the golden hue of the fruit with which the trees were still crowned showed that much of the crop was already too ripe to bear the voyage to a foreign market. All the care of cultivation could not keep down the creepers of all kinds that covered every available stump; white and purple passion-flowers and wild grape-vine fringed the path. Convolvuli of various hues opened their bell-shaped flowers to the morning sun, while the broad, green leaves of the bananas planted here and there were jeweled along the edges with sparkling dew-drops.
Beyond the pine-field we entered a thick wood, completely carpeted with maiden-hair and other ferns, while almost every tree was laden with orchids. Over the crest of the hill the scene changed. The wood ended and the path plunged downward through bracken so thick and so high that the morning-glory climbed the stem to thrust its bright, blue bells into the fresh morning air. One expected to see the deer start from its lair, and nothing was wanting, save the melody from the woods, to fancy one's self in an English park on a summer morning.
Beneath us the broad, lake-like lagoon stretched away to the dim distance. Not a ripple ruffled its surface, and on its calm breast, as in a mirror, were reflected two rocky islets, whose precipitous sides were crowned with a tropical wealth of vegetation, while over them wheeled in graceful circles a pair of "johnny-crows" found in the Bahamas on the islands of Abaco, Andros, and Bahama only. Away on the horizon to the west were low clumps of mangroves showing where the flat banks of marl begin among the lagoons of which the flamingoes build.Fastened among the great mangrove-trees that here fringe the
Nest of the Flamingo (according to the old belief).
lake we found a boat belonging to William Albury, one of our guides, and pulled away for the western shore. The lake, or lagoon, is here about five feet deep, the bottom soft, and covered with slimy weed. Albury, who is a keen old sportsman, informed us that the wild pigeon breeds about the lake, and in the season he shoots large numbers of them. If, however, they fall into the water, there is an end of them, as the lagoon is infested by numbers of small sharks, which not only snap up the birds, but are particularly bold—so much so that to swim for the pigeons would probably result in a serious bite, if not worse. I confess that I received this information with a certain amount of reserve, my experience being that sharks are very cowardly in these waters, so that even large ones rarely attack men. However, about two hours later, when we had pulled to the other side, where the waters were so shallow that all hands were obliged to wade, and drag the boat over the sharp rocks, covered with small univalve shell-fish, on which the flamingoes feed, I had ocular demonstration of their boldness. We had observed the ripple caused by a shoal of bonefish, when suddenly a small shark by which they were being chased turned and came straight for the bare, black legs of Edgar Archer, our second guide. He flung an oar at it, which missed it, but caused it to sheer off. The fish was only about two and a half feet long, but the determination to try the flavor of Archer's legs was unmistakable.
Hauling the boat high and dry, we started for the nests. By this time the sun was very strong, and, as the soft marl banks, sparsely clothed with dwarf mangrove and button-wood, afforded no shade, the walking was decidedly hot. The banks are penetrated in every direction with the arms of the lagoon, now almost dry, but after south-westerly winds they fill so that a boat will float in them. The nests are always built in these lagoons or on their brink, so that when the water rises the nests are almost awash. Indeed, in rough weather the eggs are sometimes washed out of them. The birds can thus feed while sitting.
A walk of about an hour brought us to a small clump of trees, from behind which we carefully reconnoitred, and there, within half a mile, we saw the birds. Very lovely the pink mass looked in the bright sunlight. There were three separate clusters of nests, every one of which was occupied, while the male birds stood around, their heads raised high, as they evidently suspected mischief. As I could not clearly make out with my glasses the position of the legs of the sitting birds, there was nothing for it but a long stalk over the intervening slob, and with the blazing sun now almost vertical. The first quarter of a mile was comparatively easy, as we could creep on our hands and knees; but then we came to a point where nothing but vermicular motion could avail us, and for real hard work let me recommend it to those who are content with very active exercise without attaining a high rate of progression. The tropical sun beat down upon us, hatless as we now were, from a cloudless sky; but I suppose that our profuse perspiration saved us from any ill effects, the rapid evaporation counteracting the sun's heat. It may be that I was too anxious about reaching a favorable point of observation to think of it, but I can not say that I even suffered any inconvenience.
At length, having crawled under the roots of the dwarf. mangroves that covered the slob like a network of croquet-hoops, we found ourselves at the edge of the marl, and within one hundred and fifty yards of the birds, who were still undisturbed. Here, with my glasses, I could see every feather, note the color of the eyes, and watch every movement. There were, we calculated, between seven hundred and a thousand birds, and a continuous low, goose-like cackling was kept up. Never did I see a more beautiful mass of color. The male birds had now all got together, standing about five feet high, and with necks extended and heads erect were evidently watching events, preserving in the mean time a masterly inactivity. Now and again one would stretch out his great black and scarlet wings, but the general effect was the most exquisite shade of pink, as the feathers of the breast and back are much lighter than those of the wings.
The hens sat on the nests, and some were sitting down in the muddy lagoon. I watched them carefully for nearly an hour, and looked at every nest to see if the legs were extended along the side. In no case did I see a leg. I saw the birds go on to the nest and sit down. I saw them get up, and step down from the nest. In every instance the legs were folded under the bird in the usual manner. In my opinion my observation settles the point as to the mode of sitting; for even if, as I had been assured, the birds sit both ways, it is improbable that among the hundreds then sitting not one would have extended the legs. Remembering the great length of the flamingo's legs, it is evident that on a new nest, not more than eight inches high, the hen could not thus sit, nor would even the highest nest allow of the legs being extended while the bird sat upon it.
After having watched the birds for the time named, we showed ourselves; but whether they had observed us before, and become somewhat accustomed to our presence, or that when sitting they are more easy to approach than I thought, the only effect was that the hens left the nest, and, joining the male birds, prepared for eventualities, nor did they take wing until we had begun to walk up to the rookery. While we were examining it, the birds flew round us within forty yards, so that we could have shot them easily. Of course, we did not do so. To prevent the destruction of flamingoes and pigeons by their wholesale slaughter during the breeding-season, the Bahamas Legislature passed in 1885 a Wild Birds' Protection Act, from which I hope for good results.
Having taken a few eggs as specimens, and lifted carefully on to a board a nest destined for presentation to the Zoological Society, which was carried safely to the ship on the head of Edgar Archer, but unfortunately broken afterward by a clumsy sailor, we started for the yacht. On our way back across the lagoon we pulled to a high clump of mangroves, in which the frigate-birds build every year. There were some scores of them sitting among the branches, but no nests had yet been built; nor could we discover in the clefts of the small rocky island near the landing-place the nest of the "johnny-crow," which breeds there every year.
In due course we wended our way back through the sturdy bracken and the silent woods. The morning-glory had already changed its blue coat for one of deep purple, and the leaves looked thirsting for their nightly draught of dew. We quenched our thirst with the warm juice of the pineapples cut fresh from the trees, and a plunge over-board into the clear cool water soon removed every trace of fatigue.—Nineteenth, Century.