Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/April 1876/An Interesting Bird

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By J. H. KIDDER, M. D.,


KERGUELEN Island is in latitude 48°—49° south; longitude 70° east from Greenwich, That is to say, it is in the South Indian Ocean, about half-way between the Cape of Good Hope and Australia, but well to the southward of both. It is rather an archipelago than an island, innumerable small peaks being grouped around and in the estuaries of a central mass of volcanic rock, about ninety miles long by fifty wide, and shaped somewhat like a spider, of which its numerous long promontories and peninsulas represent the legs. Being

Fig. 1.—The Sheath-bill, of Kerguelen Island.

treeless, barren, uninhabited, and uninhabitable, and situated in a region given over to boisterous gales and continual rain or snow, it is a country seldom visited. It was discovered about a hundred years ago, by the unfortunate Lieutenant Kerguelen, of the French marine, and about two years afterward found again by Captain Cook, who gave it the name of Desolation Island. During May, June, and July, 1840, Sir James Clark Ross remained there with the Erebus and Terror; and it is to this visit, and to the fact that Dr. Joseph D. Hooker was botanist to the expedition, that we owe our present full knowledge of the botany of the island. Had it not been long noted as a favorite breeding-place for the sea-elephant, and hence resorted to by sealers and whalers, it is doubtful whether any human being, other than the intrepid explorers already alluded to, would have cared to visit so desolate and forbidding a spot, until it came to be fixed upon as a locality whence the transit of Venus could advantageously be observed.

Lying, as this island does, upon the very skirts of the world, far removed from any large body of land, and so placed as to be very unlikely to receive additions to its flora and fauna by the agency of either winds or currents, it was to be expected that its natural history would present very many peculiarities, both of form and of adaptation. Its flora, accordingly, and invertebrate animal life include an unusually large number of genera and species peculiar to the island and its near neighbors; a fact which, considered in connection with its geological characters, has led some scientific men[1] to regard it as one of the few remaining peaks of a great Antarctic Continent, probably (judging from its botanical relations) once continuous with that of South America.

Even among birds there are at least two species not found elsewhere, one of which, the Chionis minor of Hartlaub, or White Paddy, sheath-bill, and "sore-eyed pigeon" of sealers and whalers, I propose to give a short account of.

It was first seen by the transit-of-Venus parties and ship's company of the Swatara on the 11th of September, 1874, as that vessel was steaming up Royal Sound toward the spot selected as the observing station of the Kerguelen part of the expedition. It was a very pretty white bird, of about the size and much the appearance of a large pigeon, which came flying over from the shore, and alighted on the keel of a boat that had been secured bottom-up at the stern-davits. It walked up and down the keel of the boat, turning its head from side to side, and examining with great curiosity the crowd of interested spectators gathered on the poop, but showing not the slightest fear. After a few minutes it flew back again, with a note, while flying, not unlike the "chat-chat" of the common blackbird. That afternoon several were caught without difficulty; some were knocked down with stones, and some were actually taken, unhurt, by hand, being approached very gradually, and fed with crumbs until they came within reach.

The nearer examination thus afforded gave us a plump bird, much like a pigeon in size and shape, of pure white, very soft and downy plumage, and with bright black eyes, surrounded by a quite distinct, pale-pink eyelid (whence the name "sore-eyed pigeon"). The bill was black, conical, and very strong; the nostrils oval, placed at about the centre of the bill, and directed fore-and-aft. Covering just half of the nostril on each side was the curved anterior edge of a saddle-shaped horny sheath (Fig. 2), also black, and bestriding the posterior half of the bill. The pommel of the saddle was canted upward, so as to clear the bill by about three-tenths of an inch; its cantle was lost in the short feathers covering the forehead, and the flaps continued downward on each side, becoming soldered to the upper mandible

Fig. 2.—Head of Chionis Minor.

near its base. On each side they sent up a black fleshy process (caruncle), deeply pitted with holes, which lay in contact with the upper eyelid. And, a fact not before observed, on clipping away the forehead-feathers, this black fleshy mass was found to extend entirely across the forehead, like the upper part of a black-silk domino, the little feathers which hide it during life passing through the holes with which it was everywhere pitted (Fig. 3). The legs were stout, pale flesh-colored, and scaly, with large, pavement-like knobs, but not what ornithologists call "scutellated," excepting over the upper surfaces of the toes. There were four toes, the first or hinder one being of good size for a hind-toe, and elevated above the rest, arising a little to the inner side of the leg. The claws were large, blunt, and black, and on the wrist-joint of each wing was a small black knob, like a spur (flesh-colored in females and young birds), which was afterward found to be supported by a distinct bony process, or exostosis, from the bone of the wing. The tail was very slightly rounded, and composed of twelve feathers—the wing-primaries were ten, and the first three of equal length.

It may be as well to mention here that this species was erected by Dr. Hartlaub in 1841, when he wrote to the Revue Zoölogique[2] that he had found in the museum at Leyden a new species of chionis, "patrie inconnue," He called it Chionis minor, and distinguished it from Forster's Chionis alba, described in 1788, as being of smaller size, having a black bill and sheath, and a fleshy process of the same color over the eye. He also noted the color of the thickened eyelid and of the legs, and gave measurements of the principal dimensions. In 1842[3] appeared in the same journal a driving of the head of the Leyden specimen, also from Dr. Hartlaub.

In 1849 it was figured by G, R. Gray,[4] being classed by him with the Gallinæ or fowl order, and associated with two other curious antartctic

Fig. 3.—Bill of Chionis, with Frontal Feathers cut away, to show the Caruncle.

genera, called Thinocorus and Attagis. It would seem probable that Gray's drawing was made from the Leyden specimen also, since I have been able to find a record of only three other individuals (besides the eleven specimens brought to the National Museum by myself), all of which were sent to the Zoölogical Society. These were: a living specimen sent from Cape Town by Mr. Layard, of which the skin was exhibited to the society by Mr. Sclater, November 28, 1867;[5] and two skins received October 26, 1868,[6] also from Mr. Layard. All three of these specimens came originally from the Crozet Islands, which lie about six hundred miles to the west of Kerguelen, and present substantially the same natural history characteristics. An egg was received by the Zoölogical Society[7] in January, 1871, and described by Mr. Alfred Newton as the first of either species of the genus ever known, overlooking Mr. Layard's description of the egg of C. minor published in 1867.[8] Schlegel gives a figure and some description,[9] which I suppose, from the date, to refer also to the Leyden specimen, but have not yet been able to get access to the article.

If there ever were any other specimens, I have not been able to find the record of their receipt; and, whether there be or not, it is very evident that the birds are but little known to science, since the history of the species can be summed up in so few lines.

During a four months' residence on Kerguelen Island I had ample opportunity for observing the habits of the few living things which inhabited it, and none were more interesting in their ways than the chionis. Two or three lived near our huts, frequenting the rocks along the shore between tides. They were particularly plentiful upon a bold promontory called Malloy's Point, where many cormorants nested; and at another place, some two miles away, where the débris broken off from lofty, precipitous cliffs had made a sort of "lean-to" of irregular fragments of rocks. Here, likewise, was a nesting-place for cormorants, and also a great rookery of the curious "rock-hoppers," or crested penguins. These two birds were the chosen companions of the chionis, which lived with them on terms of perfect friendship and close association. One day (October 15th), seeing a large number of white specks on the farther side of Malloy's Point, I began to approach them very cautiously, so as to watch their movements at closer quarters. Caution proved, however, to be quite thrown away in that instance, since so great was the curiosity of the birds that they would scarcely get out of my way. When I finally sat down upon a rock and kept perfectly still for a few moments, they crowded around me like a mob of street-boys around an organ-grinder. Others flew up from more distant rocks, apparently called by the short, rattling croaks of those already near, and some came almost within reach of my arm. All seemed perfectly fearless and trustful, and very unlike in this respect to any other birds that I had ever seen. They ran with great swiftness over the rocks, stopping now and then to peck at a common green sea-weed (ulva), upon which they seemed to feed, shaking the water from it by a rapid, flirting motion of the bill. In running over the rocks they rather avoided the little pools of water left by the tide, seeming to dislike wetting their feet.

After sufficient time spent in observation, I changed the cartridges in my gun for others loaded with small shot, and moved off, so as to get far enough away to shoot two or three without tearing the skins; not without a good deal of compunction at destroying their friendly illusions. The interest of all was at once renewed; some started to follow me, making little swift runs and stopping short to look. Even after one had been shot they seemed rather startled than frightened by the noise of the gun. A few flew off for a short distance, but most remained, looking from me to the dead bird with great surprise, so that I was enabled to secure four specimens without moving from where I stood.

On subsequent occasions several specimens were captured alive, by hand, all that was necessary being to remain perfectly still, and feed them with breadcrumbs until they ventured within reach. When brought home, and let loose within-doors, they still showed no fear, running about the room actively, eating freely what was given them, and, oddly enough, fighting fiercely among themselves (a habit which I never observed an instance of when they were in the open air), but never using their wing-spurs as weapons. We put several of them into an extemporized coop, where they fought and pecked at the woodwork all night, chirping the while so like chickens that I once got up, thinking that some of our fowls had been fastened into the house. When shut up in this way they bore the confinement very illy, beating themselves constantly against the bars of the cage, and pecking fiercely at the woodwork. They would often stay around the house for several days, however, when let loose, running with our chickens and feeding with them like tame pigeons. One, whose wing had been clipped, remained for a week or more, but finally wandered off and was killed by the great southern skua which fills the place of a hawk in those regions.

Cuvier,[10] on the authority of Vieillot, attributes to the larger species a propensity for carrion, and a power of erecting the horny sheath, neither of which characters was to be found in those which we observed. The Australian species (identical with Chionis alba of Forster[11]) was named C. necrophaga by Vieillot on this account, but our chionis was one of the very few birds never found feeding on carrion. It was quite omnivorous in its diet, taking with equal readiness bread, vegetables, and fresh meat. The sheath was found to be firmly soldered to the base of the upper mandible, and therefore could not possibly be erectile.

About the middle of December (midsummer in the antarctic region) the sheath-bills began to break up into pairs, and to show signs of breeding. I never was so fortunate as to find a completed nest, although I often observed the pairs frequenting the crevices of fallen rocks, as if preparing to build. By the sealers, of whom several visited the island during our stay, I was informed that they build in the localities that I had attributed to them, constructing a nest of grass-stems, and laying three party-colored eggs; moreover, that they are exceedingly dexterous in misleading the egg-hunter as to the locality of their nests. The Rev. Mr. Eaton, naturalist to the English party, kindly gave me an egg which he had found on the day of our breaking up camp, January 10th, it being one of a nest of three, and evidently very fresh. It is a large egg, rather less than a hen's, pointed like a Guinea-fowl's, and marked by streaks and blotches of different shades of brown, which are said to vary much in hue in different specimens.

The sheath-bill is not only "an interesting bird" to know, on account of its trustful and familiar habits, but has been something of a puzzle to ornithologists from the time of its first description, by Forster, in 1788.[12] Up to 1841 his species, C. alba (necrophaga, Vieillot) was the only one known, and has been quite variously classified. By G. R. Gray it was placed as a member of the fifth family (Chionididœ) of the order Gallinœ, a place retained for it in the British Museum Catalogue. Bonaparte associated it with gulls and petrels, as a member of his tribe Longipennes, order Gaviœ; and De Blainville,[13] after a careful anatomical examination, decided that its nearest affinities were with the Oyster-catchers (Hœmatopus). This last decision has been accepted as final by ornithologists in general. Mr. W. K. Parker[14] thus refers to another relationship: "There are certain curious, thoroughly marine plovers (chionis), in which the sheathing of the upper jaw is very perfect; they thus retain a struthious character, but have it in an exaggerated condition." Were this a proper place for the discussion of osteological details, it would be easy to point out other characteristics that might show a very plausible affinity of chionis to the ostrich!

Not to go deeply into the troubled and doubtful sea of the various grounds of classification of birds, it will perhaps not be out of place to mention some of the principal groups of characteristics upon which we rely to determine the place in Nature of any particular bird. First, there are the external parts: bill, eyes, plumage, feet, legs, etc., relied upon almost entirely by the older writers, and likely to hold their own, because of their convenience, for a long time yet. Then there is the digestive system, indicating also some of the affinities based upon habit. Third, and doubtless most to be relied upon, the structure of the skeleton, particularly of the skull (Huxley) and sternum, and the variations in muscular form and attachment. Last, but by no means, in my opinion, least, the habits and behavior of the bird during life.

Considered as to externals only, we find Chionis minor with the general form of a pigeon, the beak of a crow, surmounted by a sheath declared to be a characteristic of the ostrich family, with stout, knobby, short legs and feet, four-toed like a fowl's, but bare for a little way above the heel like a wading-bird. The "contour feathers" have a large downy "after-shaft," a characteristic of gallinaceous birds, and there is a thick, wattle-like caruncle on the forehead, a common feature of the swan family.

The intestinal canal presents first a large crop, a rather long proventriculus or true stomach, well furnished with tubular follicles, a decidedly muscular gizzard or grinding-stomach, and two long appendages, the cæca, all features which are characteristic of gallinaceous birds. On the other hand we find the gastric follicles large and tubular, more like those of the swan than of any other that I know of, and quite unlike the lobulated follicles of the Gallinœ. The tendinous parts of the gizzard, moreover, are at the sides, instead of before and behind as is the (almost?) universal rule.

It would probably be neither interesting nor profitable to recapitulate here the various resemblances to and differences from other families, presented by the bony framework of the chionis. The features of the skull are pretty evenly balanced between those characteristic of the plovers and of the gulls, with a slight sprinkling of the ostrich. The breastbone, a part to which great importance is attached by ornithologists in the determination of affinities, is decidedly like that of the gull family, between which and the plovers, considering only the skeleton, the genus must probably be placed, as De Blainville has already decided. That is to say, on summing up the various osteological peculiarities which mark the skeleton of this very composite bird, the greatest number is found to lie on the gull side.

Considered with regard to habits, however, the confusion grows worse again. It looks and flies like a pigeon, croaks like a crow, "chats" like a blackbird, or (in confinement) chirps like a fowl. It lives, to be sure, upon the seacoast, and feeds largely upon small marine animals and seaweed; but it dislikes wading, becomes perfectly helpless when accidentally in the water, and has no idea of swimming. Its diet is as various as that of fowls, and like them it swallows numbers of pebbles to aid digestion. Its natural tendencies seem to be toward domestication, or at least companionship with man. Like the plants of Kerguelen, it finds its nearest relatives in Patagonia, although Africa is so much less distant. How shall we explain all these incongruities? Perhaps it represents an older, more synthetic form, from which Gallinœ, Waders, and Gulls, are descended, preserving its own identity by its isolated habitat. Perhaps, as the ostrich represents an ancestral type, its apparent struthious characters may indicate real relationship after all, handed down from that distant time when all birds were more nearly allied than now. Since there certainly once was a time when Kerguelen Island, perhaps then part of a continent, was habitable, when the tree trunks that are now lying buried in its northern hills were upright and flourishing forests, perhaps the men of those days had also a bird tamed, like the domestic fowl; and perhaps the chionis is descended therefrom, and its liking for man is an inherited tendency.

Mr. Darwin exactly expressed the present attitude of this bird to science, as long ago as the voyage of the Beagle. He found a bird in Patagonia (Thinochorus rumicivorus) which "nearly equally partakes of the characters, different as they are, of the quail and snipe," and in this connection proceeds to remark: "A bird of another closely-allied genus, Chionis alba is an inhabitant of the antarctic regions; it feeds on seaweed and shells on the tidal rocks. . . . This small family of birds is one of those which from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organized beings have been created."

  1. See "Flora Antarctica," by Dr. J. D. Hooker (London, Reeve Brothers, 1847), vol ii., pp. 210-220, inter alia.
  2. Revue Zoölogique, 1841, p. 5.
  3. "Revue Zoölogique, 1842, pl. 2, Fig.2"
  4. "Genera of Birds," 1849, p. 522.
  5. "Proceedings of Zoölogical Society," 1867."
  6. Ibid., 1868.
  7. "Proceedings of Zoölogical Society," 1871, p. 57.
  8. Ibid., 1867, p. 458.
  9. Handl. Dierk., pl. 5—De Dierk., Fig., p. 232.
  10. "Animal Kingdom," London, 1849, p. 250.
  11. Vide "Genera of Birds," Gray, loc. cit.
  12. "Enchiridion Hist. Nat. Ins.," p. 37.
  13. "Sur la place que doit occuper dans le système ornithologique le genre Chionis, ou Bec-en-fourreau," De Blainville, Ann. Sc. Nat., 1836, vi., p. 93.
  14. "Osteology of Gallinaceous Birds," "Transactions of Zoölogical Society," p. 206.