Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/October 1888/Bird Courts of Justice

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SEVERAL writers have given descriptions of proceedings of assemblies of birds of various species which they regarded as formal "trials in court." While this view of the nature of the transactions noticed can not yet be accepted as established by competent observation, they are certainly of an interesting character, and reveal a peculiar phase of bird-life. Dr. Edmondson describes regular assemblies of crows of the hooded species—"crow-courts" they are called—which are held at certain intervals in the Shetland Isles. A particular hill or field suitable for the business is selected, but nothing is done till all are ready, and consequently the earlier comers have sometimes to wait for a day or two till the others arrive. When all have come, the court opens in a formal manner, and the presumed criminals are arraigned at the bar. A general croaking and clamor are raised by the assembly, and judgment is delivered, apparently, by the whole court. As soon as the sentence is given, the entire assemblage, "judges, barristers, ushers, audience and all, fall upon the two or three prisoners at the bar, and beat them till they kill them." As soon as the execution is over, the court breaks up, and all its members disperse quietly.

The Rev. Dr. J. Edmund Cox has given the particulars of a trial by rooks which he witnessed between fifty and sixty years ago. He was riding along a quiet road in the vicinity of Norwich, England, when he was startled by sounds of an extraordinary commotion among the inhabitants of an adjacent rookery. Securing his horse to a gate, he cautiously crawled for a hundred feet or so, to a gap in the hedge of a grass-field, to investigate proceedings. A trial by jury was seemingly going on. The criminal rook "at first appeared very perky and jaunty, although encircled by about forty or fifty of an evidently indignant sable fraternity, and assailed by the incessantly vehement cawing of an outer ring, consisting of many hundreds, each and all showing even greater indignation than was manifested by the more select number." Even the scouts, although hovering about in all directions, were so deeply absorbed in the proceedings that they failed to notice their uninvited spectator. After a short time, the manner of the accused was seen suddenly and completely to change: his head bowed, his wings drooped, and he cawed faintly, as if imploring mercy. The inner circle closed in upon him and pecked him to pieces in a few moments, leaving nothing but a mangled carcass. The whole assembly then set up a tremendous screaming and dispersed; some seeking the adjacent rookery, but the greater number flying away across the fields. It is commonly known that rooks are addicted to pilfering, and that if the robbery is detected the offender is punished. It has been noticed that young rooks will often pilfer twigs or other useful materials from the nests of their elders, with which to build their own domiciles quickly; and although they are too cunning to be caught in the act, only committing their thefts when both the owners of the nest are absent, the robbery seems always to get known. When the crime has been discovered and proved, eight or ten rooks are apparently deputed to act on behalf of the whole community; they proceed to the convicts' nest, and in a few moments scatter it to the winds.

An Alpine tourist relates that, during an excursion in the Swiss mountains, he accidentally came upon a small secluded glen, which was surrounded by trees, and became the unexpected witness of a singular spectacle. About sixty or seventy ravens were ranged in a ring round one of their fellows, evidently reputed a culprit, and, with much clatter of tongues and wings, were engaged in discussing his alleged delinquencies. At intervals they paused in their debate, in order to permit the accused to reply, which he did most vociferously and with intense energy; but all his expostulations were speedily drowned in a deafening chorus of dissent. Eventually, the court appears to have arrived at the unanimous conclusion that the felon had utterly failed to exculpate himself; and they suddenly flew at him from all sides and tore him to pieces with their powerful beaks. Having executed their sentence, they speedily disappeared.

Sparrows also are said to hold judicial inquiry into the conduct of, and mete out punishment to, their fellow-sparrows, but without the formalities which the rooks seem to observe. When a misdeed has been brought home to any one of their community, a force of four or more sparrows is deputed to carry out the execution of the verdict. In their hurry to discharge the decree, they all tumble over one another with the greatest pugnacity, littering a violent clamor. The castigation is soon over, and "the unfortunate sufferer having endured the penalty," says Mr. G. Garratt, in his "Marvels of Instinct," "is as well received afterward by the community as if it had committed no transgression at all."

Mr. Garratt repeats the following story from Father Bougeant: "A sparrow, finding a nest that a martin had just built, possessed himself of it. The martin, seeing the usurper in her house, called for help to expel him. A thousand martins came full speed, and attacked the sparrow; but the latter being covered on every side, and presenting only his large beak at the entrance of the nest, was invulnerable, and made the boldest of them that dared approach him repent of their temerity. After a quarter of an hour's combat, all the martins disappeared. The sparrow thought he had got the better, and the spectators judged that the martins had abandoned their undertaking. Not in the least. They immediately returned to the charge; and each of them having procured a little of that tempered earth with which they make their nests, they all at once fell upon the sparrow, and inclosed him in the nest to perish there, though they could not drive him thence."

Another equally tragic story is recorded by the Rev. G. Gogerly in "The Pioneers," his narrative of the Bengal mission: "The flamingo," he remarks, "is common in the low, marshy lands of Bengal. My friend Mr. Lacroix—the well-known missionary—when once sailing in his boat up the Hooghly, went on shore. His attention was shortly directed to a large gathering of these peculiar-looking birds in a field some little distance off. Knowing their timid character, he approached as near as he could without being observed or exciting alarm; and, hiding himself behind a tree, noticed all their proceedings, which were of a most remarkable character. After a great deal of noisy clamor, they formed themselves into a circle, in the center of which one of their number was left standing alone. Again there was a considerable amount of screeching bird oratory, when suddenly all the birds flew on the unhappy solitary one and literally tore him to pieces." The conclusion to which Mr. Lacroix came to was, that one of these flamingos had committed an offense against the rules of their order, that he had been tried by a kind of court martial, was found guilty, and had been adjudged, and met with, immediate punishment.

The following stories concerning storks seem to indicate that they have views concerning the purity of their race, and act upon them: Bishop Stanley relates that a French surgeon at Smyrna, being unable to procure a stork, on account of the great veneration entertained for them by the Turks, purloined all the eggs from a stork's nest, and replaced them with hens' eggs. Ultimately, chickens were hatched, greatly to the surprise of the storks. The male stork speedily disappeared, and was not seen for two or three days, when he returned with a large number of other storks, who assembled in a circle in the town, without paying any attention to the numerous spectators their proceedings attracted. The female stork was brought into the midst of the circle, and, after some discussion, was attacked by the whole flock and torn to pieces. The assemblage then dispersed, and the nest was left tenantless.

A somewhat similar case has been cited by the same author as having occurred in the vicinity of Berlin. Two storks made their nest on one of the chimneys of a mansion; and the owner of the house inspecting it, found in it an egg, which he replaced by one belonging to a goose. The storks did not appear to notice the change until the egg was hatched, when the male bird rose from the nest, and, after flying around it several times with loud screams, disappeared. For some days the female bird continued to tend the changeling without interruption; but on the morning of the fourth the inmates of the house were disturbed by loud cries in a field fronting it. The noise proceeded from nearly five hundred storks standing in a compact body listening, apparently, to the harangue of a solitary bird about twenty yards off. When this bird had concluded its address, it retired, and another took its place and addressed the meeting in a similar manner. These proceedings were continued by a succession of birds until eleven in the forenoon, when the whole court arose simultaneously into the air, uttering dismal cries. All this time the female had remained in her nest, but in evident fear. When the meeting broke up, all the storks flew toward her, headed by one—supposed to be the offended husband—who struck her violently three or four times, knocking her out of the nest. The unfortunate stork made no effort to defend herself, and was speedily destroyed by the troop, who also annihilated the hapless gosling, and left not a fragment of the contaminated nest.

The Rev. F. O. Morris, in his anecdotes of "Animal Sagacity," cites the following instance of a case which ended less tragically: "Some hens' eggs," he says, "were placed in a stork's nest, and the others removed. The female, not aware of the change, sat patiently the appointed number of days, till the shells were broken and the young chickens made their appearance. No sooner were they seen by the old birds, than they testified their surprise by harsh notes and fierce looks; and, after a short pause, they jointly fell upon the unfortunate chickens and pecked them to pieces, as if conscious of the disgrace which might be supposed to attach to a dishonored nest."

A singular case of almost poetic justice among storks is noticed even in so old a work as Goldsmith's "Natural History," into which, it was imported from Mrs. Starke's "Letters on Italy." "A wild stork," runs the tale, "was brought by a farmer in the neighborhood of Hamburg into his poultry-yard, to be the companion of a tame one he had long kept there; but the tame stork, disliking a rival, fell upon the poor stranger, and beat him so unmercifully that he was compelled to take wing, and escaped with difficulty. About four months afterward, however, the latter returned to the poultry-yard, in company with three other storks, who no sooner alighted, than they fell upon the tame stork and killed him."