Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/May 1899/The Physical Geography of the West Indies: Birds II

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 55 May 1899  (1899) 
The Physical Geography of the West Indies: Birds II by Felix Leopold Oswald




THE abundance of birds on the four largest islands of the West Indian archipelago, where indigenous mammals are almost limited to rodents and bats, has often suggested the conjecture that the ancestors of those islanders must have been immigrants from the east coasts of the American mainland; and that theory seems to be confirmed by two facts: the identity, or similarity, of numerous Mexican and West Indian species, and the circumstance that those analogies include so many swift-winged birds.

There are no woodpeckers in the forests of the Antilles, and only two species of large gallinaceous birds, but a prodigious variety of pigeons, swallows, finches, and crows. Crown Pigeon The alcedos (kingfishers) are scarce, but the blackbirds so numerous that some of the countless species seem to claim a South American and even transatlantic ancestry. The restless estornino of the Cuban highland forests, for instance, might be mistaken for a varnished starling, resembling the Sturnus vulgaris of western Europe in everything but the more brilliant luster of its plumage. The curious codornilla, or dove quail, too, has its nearest relatives on the other side of the Atlantic, in Syria, Arabia, and the foothills of the Atlas. It builds its nest on the ground and, judging from its appearance, would seem to form a connecting link between the doves and small gallinæ; but its wings are those of a pigeon, and with the assistance of a, northeast gale may possibly have carried it across the ocean.

In studying the geographical distribution of animals, we may estimate the prevalence of special genera by the number of their varieties, or by the aggregate sum of individuals, and in the latter sense the migratory pigeons of our forest States once nearly outnumbered all the other birds of North America, though the family is limited to five or six species. But in the West Indies the Columbidæ predominate in both respects. Cuba is a country of wild pigeons as preeminently as South Africa is a land of pachyderms and Madagascar of night monkeys. The Columba leucocephala (a congener of our ringdove) inhabits the mountain forests in countless swarms, and at the end of the rainy season visits grainfields in such numbers that hundreds are sometimes captured in nets, by means of corn scattered along the furrows.

A closely allied variety is found in San Domingo, where in many upland regions a darkey, equipped with a shotgun and a supply of gunpowder, can dispense with agriculture and raise a family of anthropoids on pigeon pies and tortillas, compounded from the grain found in the crops of his victims.

But the tittyblang (tête-blanc) has scores of smaller and larger cousins, culminating in the Cuban primate of the family, the splendid paloma real, with its coronet of pearl-gray plumes and dark-blue wings.

Ducks, too, must number some twenty West Indian species, and one kind of wild geese often obliged the rice planters to employ mounted sharpshooters, who galloped up and down the long dikes, yelling blasphemies, and every now and then enforcing their quotations with a handful of buckshot. But, for all that, the planter could think himself lucky

Crested Curassow. Porto Rico Parrakeet.

to gather a sixty-per-cent harvest of the total produce, for experience soon enabled the long-necked depredators to estimate the target range of the cazador within a dozen yards and take wing in the nick of time, only to resume their feast at the other end of the plantation.

A long-continued process of natural selection has also modified the habits of numerous species of West Indian parrots. Four hundred years ago, when Fernan Oviedo superintended the placer mines of Hayti, loris were so abundant and tame that his assistants often

Vervain Humming Bird and Nest.

amused themselves prowling about a thicket of berry bushes and capturing the chattering visitors by means of a common ring net. Nestlings could be taken from every hollow tree, and often from the thatchwork of deserted Indian cabins; but the overconfident specimens came to grief, and the survivors have learned to give the Caucasian varieties of the Simia destructor a wide berth. They raise their young in the cavities of the tallest forest trees, and approach human habitations only at dawn of day and sometimes during the noonday heat, when Creoles can be relied upon to indulge in a siesta nap. In reliance on their protective colors, gray parrakeets frequent the dead timber of the coffee plantations, while the leaf-green Amazon parrot sticks to leaf trees.

"When they alight on a dry branch," says Captain Gosse, in his Jamaica chronicle, "their emerald hue is conspicuous and affords a fair mark for the gunner, but in a tree of full foliage their color proves an excellent concealment. They seem aware of this, and their sagacity prompts them to rely on it for protection. Often we hear their voices proceeding from a certain tree, or have marked the descent of a flock, but on proceeding to the spot, though the eye has not wandered from it, we can not discover an individual; we go close to the tree, but all is silent; we institute a careful survey of every part with the eye, to detect the slightest motion, or the form of a bird among the leaves, but in vain, and we begin to think that they have stolen off unperceived, but on throwing a stone into the tree a dozen voices burst forth into cry, and as many green birds dart forth upon the wing."

The gorgeous macaws, on the other hand, seem to owe their color contrasts to sexual selection. "Ya son vencidos los pavos de India"—"That does beat a Hindostan peacock"—exclaimed King Ferdinand, when Columbus introduced those most splendid products of the American tropics.

Nor can the exigencies of protection have evolved the glaring colors of the West Indian hornbill. The toco (toucan), as the Cubans call the yellow-billed species, can be descried from a distance of two hundred yards, and is, indeed, not anxious to be admired at close range. Old specimens get as wary as mountain ravens, but, like

The Smallest Bird.

crows, become ridiculously tame in captivity, and will follow their proprietors with loud croaks, every now and then opening their lunchtrap to indicate their desire for refreshment. They are, on the whole, the hardiest of all tropical birds, and can weather the winters of our coast towns as far north as Wilmington, in open-air cages, owing perhaps to their habit of extending their excursions to the high mountain ranges of their native land.

Economical Nature rarely wastes the gift of song on a bird of bright plumage, but it is less easy to understand why so many feathered beauties should have been afflicted with harsh and positively repulsive voices. The horrid screams of the peacocks, guinea hens, and macaws can hardly be supposed to charm their mates, and are too easily recognized to deter their natural enemies. But the roars (there is no more adequate word) of some species of hornbills would almost seem intended to serve the latter purpose.

"The voice of the Buceros bicornis" says Wallace, "can be plainly heard at a distance of a mile, so that the amazement of travelers visiting its haunts seems explicable enough. Its screams may be described as something between the bray of a jackass and the shriek of a locomotive, and are not surpassed in power by any sound that an animal is capable of making. They re-echo through the hills to such a degree that it is difficult to assign the noise to a bird, and are sometimes kept up so continuously as to become absolutely unbearable."

The condor and the harpy eagle have not found their way across the Caribbean Sea, but the West Indies boast three varieties of fish eagles, several species of mountain falcons, and a curious singing owl, the oriya, that chants its serenades in the plaintive strain of the whip-poor-will, and is dreaded by the Porto Rico darkeys as a bird of ill-omen:

"Grita l'oriya: Veuga amigo,
Venga coumigo a mi patria,
Venga te-digo!"

Small hooting owls abound, and there are four species of sparrow hawks, one of them not much larger than a finch.

It is probably the smallest bird of prey, and there is no doubt that one species of West Indian humming bird is the smallest bird on earth, the Vervain colibri, of Jamaica, that hides its nest under an orange leaf, and, though an insect-eater, could be easily overpowered by an able-bodied bumblebee. In beauty some of the south Cuban species rival those of the Amazon Valley, and frequent every flowering shrub from the jungles of the coast lands to the highland meadows of the Sierra Maestra. In Hayti there are parklike plateaus where they often appear in swarms at a time of the year when the forests of the foothills are drenched by the afternoon cloudbursts of the rainy season, and on some of the smaller Antilles they are seen only during the flowering period of special plants.

In the solitudes of the Morne Range (San Domingo) mountain ravens rear their brood in the crevices of steep rocks, and fiercely attack birds of prey, not excepting the black-crested eagle, that now and then visits the sierras in quest of conies. But the winged constables of the highlands rarely leave their mountain reservation. Of Abd-el-Wahab, the Arabian heretic, it used to be said that "Mohammedan zealots shrank in affright from his superior fanaticism," and on the midway terraces of the Dominican sierras the persecution mania of the giant crow yields to that of the great shrike, the Lanius rufus, that operates pairwise and assails all winged comers with absolutely reckless courage.

The raven of the Mornes seems to be identical with the cosmopolitan forager that is found in the uplands of the eastern continent from the bleak summit regions of the Hindu-Kush to the sierras of Portugal, and from the Atlas to the Norwegian Alps; but there are several exclusively West Indian species of the genus Corvus, including a steel-blue rook that flits about the Cuban coffee plantations and has a curious habit of perching on a stump and talking to itself in a sort of croaking chuckle for half hours together.

The gallinæ, as might be expected from their limited wing-power, are well represented in the number of individuals, rather than of species. Turkeys, though abundant in the coast forests of Central

The Caribbean Albatross.

America, are not found wild in any part of the West Indies, where the perennial presence of berries would be as inviting as the absence of foxes.

In the mountains some species of curassow have, however, developed into a stately game bird, the Oreophasis niger, or highland "pheasant," that lays a dozen large eggs, and in its courtship season becomes so infatuated that it can be approached and killed with a common walking-stick. The consequent persecution has made it rather scarce in famine-stricken Cuba, but in Hayti it can still be seen in troops of a dozen or more, scratching up the dry leaves of the sierra forests, or pecking at insect-haunted shrubs, exactly like a flock of Tennessee turkeys.

There are also several varieties of true pheasants, and two species of quail (besides the above-mentioned codornilla), and in eastern Cuba numerous barnyard chickens have taken to the woods and become so shy that it seems a puzzle how their ancestors in the coast range of Burmah could ever be captured and domesticated. They still practice polygamy, combined with a system of co-operative housekeeping, to judge from the number of eggs that are often found in one nest. At the approach of an unfeathered biped the hen bird takes wing with a screech, and is apt to vanish for the rest of that day. The roosters are rarely seen, their glaring colors having faded into more protective shades of olive and brown, but at dawn of day their shrill reveille can be heard from afar in the heart of the pathless jungle woods.

[To be continued.]