Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson


On the Birds of the Rio Negro of Patagonia.

By W.H. Hudson, CMZS. Published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 16 April 1872
Edited by David Dewar

I wrote a few days ago to inform Mr. Sclater that I had returned from Patagonia, and had determined to send to him all the specimens, or at least duplicates of all the specimens collected, as well as my notes on them. I now forward them.

My observations have been confined to the valley of the Rio Negro and to the adjacent high grounds. I advanced altogether not much over a hundred miles from the sea.

I met with one hundred and twenty-six species of birds altogether on the Rio Negro; but of these, ninety-three are also found in the Buenos Ayrean Pampas. I therefore met with only thirty-three species peculiar to Patagonia; and as some of these are very rarely seen, I did not succeed in obtaining them all. This is certainly a very insignificant number; but in a country with an excessively dry climate, the watercourses few and widely separated, an arid sandy soil, and scanty, dwarfish vegetation, it is impossible that there should be many species of birds. Still, had I been enabled to advance one or two hundred miles further, I am confident that this collection would have exhibited a far greater variety, as the country becomes much more thickly wooded in the interior. I did not succeed in obtaining specimens of the Rhea darwini. It is called by the Indians Molu Chinque, meaning Dwarf Chinque, the name of the common species being Chinque. They are found over the whole country, from the Rio Negro to the Straits of Magellan, and are also met with, but rarely, north of the river. They were formerly exceedingly numerous along the Rio Negro; but a few years ago their feathers rose to an exorbitant price. Gauchos and Indians found that hunting the ostrich was their most lucrative employment; and consequently these noble birds were pursued unceasingly, and slaughtered in such numbers that they have been nearly exterminated wherever the nature of the country admits of their being chased. I was so anxious to obtain specimens of this bird that I engaged ten or twelve Indians, by offering a liberal award, to hunt for me; they went out several times, but failed to capture a single adult bird.

A few facts I have been able to gather in reference to them may not prove uninteresting, as the R. darwini is but imperfectly known. When hunted it frequently attempts to elude the sight by suddenly squatting down amongst the bushes; and when lying close amid the grey-leaved bushes that cover the country it frequents, it very easily escapes the sight. When hotly pursued it possesses the same remarkable habit as the R. americana of raising the wings alternately and holding them erect; it also manifests the same facility for suddenly doubling, in order to avoid its pursuers. It runs more swiftly than the common species, but is also more quickly exhausted. When running, the R. americana carries the neck erect or slightly sloping forward; the R. darwini carries it stretched forward almost horizontally, making it appear smaller than it is. From this habit it is said to derive the vernacular name of Dwarf Ostrich. They go in flocks of from three or four to thirty or more individuals. I have not been able to learn if the males fight together as do those of the R. americana, or if they possess like that species a call note. The strange trumpeting cry of the R. americana is often heard after they have been hunted and scattered in all directions; it is an indescribable sound, and resembles somewhat the hollow heavy sigh with which a bull often ends his bellowing, and appears to fill the air, so that it is impossible to tell from which quarter it proceeds.

A number of females lay in one nest, the nest being merely a slight depression lined with a little dry rubbish; as many as fifty eggs are sometimes found in one nest. But the R. darwini, as well as the common species, lays many stray eggs, at a distance from the nest. I inspected a number of eggs brought in by a party of hunters, and was surprised at the great differences amongst them in size, form, and colour. The average size of the eggs was the same as those of the common species; in shape they were more or less oval or elliptical, scarcely two being found precisely alike. When newly laid, the eggs are of a deep rich green, and the shell possesses a fine polish. They very soon fade, however; and first the side exposed to the sun assumes a dull pale mottled green; this colour again changes to a yellowish, and again to a pale stone-blue, becoming at last almost white. The comparative age of each egg in the nest may be told by the colour of its shell.

When the females have finished laying, the male sits on and hatches the young. The young are hatched with the legs feathered to the toes; these feathers are not shed from the legs, but are gradually worn off as the bird grows old by continual friction against the stiff shrubs amid which they live.

I met with a species of hawk so remarkable in its structure and habits that I cannot refrain from giving a short notice of it, though, to my intense disappointment, I did not succeed in getting any specimens of it. The upper plumage is grey, the wings and under plumage white; the tail is long; the wings very blunt, and so short that when on the wing the bird rushes through the air with great violence. They are seen in pairs, sitting on the top of a bush, and at long intervals through the day suddenly burst into a loud excited chorus of notes, which resembles more the language of a Passerine bird than of a hawk. Whenever I approached one, it would utter a loud, long cry of alarm, and go on repeating it till, before I was within shot, it would fly off, and take up its position on a distant tree. I saw about a dozen individuals, and followed them about several days, but in vain.

The condor is met with occasionally on the Atlantic coast; I saw but one individual, and was surprised to find him proof against several charges of shot.

The song of the male Diuca finch is the sweetest I have heard in Patagonia, with two exceptions — that of the Cardinal amarillo and of the Calandria blanca, one who knows by heart ‘the songs of all the winged choristers.’ In summer, when these finches live in pairs thinly scattered over the country, the song of the male is the first indication of the approach of day. When the profound stillness of midnight yet reigns and the thick darkness that pre cedes the dawn envelopes earth, suddenly the noise of this little bird is heard wonderfully sweet and clear. In this quiet hour the song may be heard at a great distance, and is composed of half a dozen notes, repeated at short intervals till the day has fully dawned. But in winter, when they live in companies, their great singing time is in the evening, when the flock has gathered in some large thick-foliaged bush, which they have chosen for a winter roosting place. This winter evening song is very different from that heard in summer, the notes appearing sharper, and uttered in a wild and rapid manner. A little after sunset they burst into a concert, which lasts several minutes, sinking and growing louder by turns, and in which it is quite impossible to distinguish the song of any individual. After a few minutes of silence, the singing is suddenly renewed, and again almost as suddenly ended. For an hour after sunset this fitful and impetuous singing is continued. Close by a house I lived in several months were three large chanar bushes, where a multitude of these finches roosted every night; and they never missed singing a night, however cloudy, or cold, or rainy the weather was. So fond did they seem of this charming habit that when I would approach the bushes or stand beneath them, the alarm caused by my presence would interrupt the performance but a few moments; for suddenly they would burst almost simultaneously into singing, the birds all the time pursuing each other through the bushes often within a foot of my head.

The Patagonian calandria closely resembles the Buenos Ayrean calandria, but is smaller, the plumage deeper grey; the eye is also a darker green. When a person approaches the nest, the parent birds manifest their anxiety by perching and hopping on the twigs within a yard or two of his head, but without uttering any sound; the Buenos Ayres species, when alarmed, utters incessantly a loud, harsh, angry cry. Neither of these species will live in confinement.

The vocal performance of the Patagonian bird is characterised by the same apparently infinite variety as is that of the Buenos Ayrean bird. It would scarcely be possible for me to give an adequate idea of its powers in a description. The singing of the Patagonian species is perhaps inferior, his voice being less powerful than that of the other species; his mellow or clear notes are often mingled with shrill ones resembling the songs or cries of various birds. While incapable of notes so loud or harsh as those of the Buenos Ayres bird, or of changes so wild or sudden, he possesses even a greater variety of sweet notes; day after day, for months, I heard them singing, and I never once listened to them for any length of time without hearing some note or notes that I had never heard before. I have often observed that when a bird, while singing, emits a few of these new notes, he seems surprised and delighted with them; for after a silent pause he repeats them again and again a vast number of times, as if to impress them on his memory. When he once more resumes his varied singing, for hours, and sometimes for days, the expression he has discovered is still favourite, and recurs with the greatest frequency. Many individuals seem to possess a peculiar style of singing; and they seem more or less able to borrow or imitate each other’s notes; sometimes all the birds frequenting a thicket will be heard constantly repeating, for many days, a few particular notes as if they possessed no other song, while in other localities these notes will not be heard at all. The bird sits on the summit of a bush when singing; and its music is heard in all seasons, and in all weathers, from dawn till dark; but he usually sings in a leisurely unexcited manner, remaining silent a long interval after every five or six or a dozen notes, and apparently listening to his brother performers. These snatches of melody often seem like a prelude or promise of something better coming; there is in them such exquisite sweetness, such variety, that the hearer is ever expecting a fuller measure; and still the bird opens its bill to delight and disappoint him, as if not yet ready to begin.

I send you one specimen of the beautiful Calandria blanca. I do not know if any examples of this bird have ever been examined by naturalists. It is by no means numerous in Patagonia; certainly nothing was known of its song; but the pleasure I felt in making the discovery of its vocal powers it would be idle of me to attempt to portray. In October, a few days before leaving the Rio Negro, I was one morning walking through the thick woods of chanar, when my attention was suddenly arrested by the song of a bird issuing from a bush close by, a song to which I listened with astonishment and delight, so totally different, so vastly superior to the song of all other birds, whether native or foreign, to which I had ever listened. Notes surpassing in melody, power, and variety those of both the Patagonian and Buenos Ayrean calandria were rapidly pouring forth in an unbroken stream, till I marvelled that the throat of any bird could sustain so powerful a song for so long a time. No sooner had this flow of unfamiliar music ceased than I heard issuing from the same spot, the shrill, confused, and impetuous song of a small Patagonian fly-catcher; this was succeeded by the delightful matin song of the small grey finch.

After this I heard the trilling song of the red bird, with its silvery bell-like sound; then followed the leisurely uttered, mellow, delicious strain of the yellow cardinal. These songs followed rapidly (for no sooner did one end than the other began) and were all repeated with miraculous fidelity. At first I imagined that all these birds that had been imitated had actually been singing near me; but when the sweet vocalist resumed his own matchless song again, and I discovered that all the strains that I had heard had issued from a single throat, how much was my wonder and admiration for the delightful performer increased! I soon advanced near enough to catch sight of the singer, and found it to be the Calandria blanca. I found the pleasure of listening to him enhanced if he was at the same time seen; so carried away with rapture at his own melody seems the bird, so many and so beautiful are the gestures and motions with which he accompanies the performance. He would incessantly pass from bush to bush, sometimes soar above the thicket for a hundred yards, with a flight as slow as that of a heron, and at times rise with a swift, wild flight, then circle down and sit on the summit of a bush, with the broad wings and tail spread out, an object beautiful to see. What pity it is that this bird should frequent only a desert country, where so very few can hear it. I cannot help saying that I consider it the finest singer in America, though such an opinion may be thought extravagant; but it possesses to perfection the marvellous faculty of imitation, that has given such celebrity to the Virginian mocking-bird, and I cannot believe that the mocking-bird of the north, in its own song, can surpass or even equal the C. blanca.

The Cnipolegus hudsoni, a new species, is readily distinguishable by the white spotting of the flank feathers. This character is not found in any other species of the genus.

This bird makes his appearance in September in the close thickets bordering on the Rio Negro; he is usually seen perched on the topmost twig of a bush watching for insects, after which he darts with great swiftness. He has one most remarkable habit; suddenly quitting his perch he glides two or three times close round it, uttering at the same time a peculiar sharp note. It also frequently utters a sharp, rapid chirping, but has no song. When, flying, it displays the white bars on its wings it has a strange and pretty appearance.

The Gallito derives its vernacular name meaning Little Cock from the manner of carrying the tail elevated like the domestic fowl.

I found it exceedingly numerous in the thickets near to the town of Carmen. It is in its habits an amusing bird, scarcely possessing the power of flight, but so ready to take alarm, swift of foot, and fond of concealment, that it is often very difficult to get a sight of it. No sooner do they spy out an intruder in the thicket, than the alarm is spread, each bird hopping up into a bush, and uttering incessantly, at intervals of three or four seconds, a loud, hollow chirrup, and at times a violent scolding cry, several times repeated. If the bird finds himself approached, he immediately springs to the ground and runs off with amazing rapidity to a safe distance. Then he again ascends a bush and resumes the angry note. Three or four times I have seen one raise itself from the ground, and fly several yards with a low feeble flight; but whenever I chanced to come on one on an open place I found that I could overtake it running, without the bird being able to raise itself. They often fly down from a bush, but always ascend it by hopping from branch to branch.

I send you two, unfortunately much injured, specimens of the Synallaxis sulphurifera. It must be exceedingly rare in Patagonia; for this pair were the only ones I saw during my sojourn in that country, though I constantly sought for them in the most likely places.

The homely and interesting Homorus guttaralis is, perhaps, a new species. It frequents open plains abounding in low, thorny, and widely scattered bushes, and on the approach of a traveller shows itself on the summit of a bush, with crest erect, and uttering a succession of sharp, angry chirps. The male and female perform a chorus of notes so powerful that they may be heard distinctly a mile away. Its flight is low and feeble; but it runs very rapidly on the ground. This bird builds a nest extraordinary for its size and strength; it is placed in the middle of a low, thorny, and widely spreading bush; it is perfectly round, the lower part just raised only a few inches above the ground; the depth of the whole nest is usually from four to five feet, the cavity inside is one foot in depth. The opening is on the side and small, and has in front of it a narrow arched gallery resting on the horizontal twigs, and thirteen or fourteen inches in length. The nest is composed entirely of thick sticks, and is so compactly built that I had hard work to demolish one by thrusting the barrel of a long musket into it and prizing it up by pieces. I also, to test the strength of a nest, stood on one for some time, stamping my heel on it with great force, without injuring it in the least.

The Patagonian pigeon appears in winter in the settled parts of the Rio Negro; they come in large flocks, and gather in great numbers on the ploughed fields, eager to devour the wheat; so that the farmers, when sowing broadcast, have to be constantly firing at them, or keep trained dogs to chase them from the fields. The lively, brisk manner of a Patagonian pigeon is in strong contrast with the slow, stately steps and deliberate manner of picking up its food of the Buenos Ayrean species. Its song is composed of notes equal in length and number to that of the Buenos Ayrean bird; but the voice of the former is exceedingly hoarse, while that of the latter is the most agreeable dove melody I have ever heard.

The Perdiz grande is common on the Buenos Ayrean plains, wherever the long grasses abound. I do not know how far north it extends; but south it is common as far as the Colorado. South of this river it becomes very rare, and disappears before the Rio Negro is reached. This bird has no cover but the giant grasses, through which it pushes like a rail; and wherever the country is settled it soon disappears, so that it is now extinct over a vast portion of this province.

It is solitary in its habits, conceals itself in the grass very closely, and flies with great reluctance. I doubt if there is anywhere a bird with such a sounding flight as this; and I can only compare the whirr of its wings to the rattling of a light vehicle driven at great speed over a hard road. From the moment it rises until it again alights there is no cessation in the rapid vibration of the wings; but like a ball thrown by the hand the bird goes gradually sloping towards the earth, the distance it is able to accomplish at a flight being from fifteen hundred to two thousand yards. This flight it can repeat when driven up again as many as three times, after which the bird can rise no more. The call is heard at all seasons of the year; on pleasant days, and invariably near sunset, it is uttered while the bird sits concealed in the grass, many birds answering each other; for though I call it a solitary bird (they rarely being seen in company) several individuals are mostly found living near each other. The song or call is composed of five or six long notes, with a mellow, flute-like sound, and so impressively uttered and sweetly modulated that it is, perhaps, the sweetest bird music heard in the Pampas.

The Martineta, from its size and mottled plumage, somewhat resembles the Perdiz grande, the most apparent exterior difference being the redder plumage and longer bill of the latter, and the long slender crest of the former, which, when excited, the bird carries direct forward, like a horn. There is, however, an anatomical difference between the species of far more consequence. The structure of the intestinal canal in the Martineta is most extraordinary, and totally unlike that of any other bird I have ever dissected; the canal divides near the stomach into a pair of great ducts that extend almost the entire length of the abdominal cavity, and are thickly set with rows of large membranous clam-shaped protuberances.

They are extremely fond of dusting themselves, and form circular nest-like hollows in the ground for that purpose; these hollows are deep and neatly made, and are visited by the birds every day. They go in coveys of from half a dozen to twenty individuals, and when disturbed do not usually take to flight, but start up one after another, and run off with amazing swiftness, uttering as they run shrill, squealing cries, as if in great terror. Their flight, though violent, is not sounding as that of the Perdiz grande, and differs remarkably in another respect; every twenty or thirty yards the wings cease their vibration, remaining motionless for a second, when the bird renews the effort. The flight is accompanied with a soft wailing note that appears to die away and again swell as the flapping of the wings is renewed. Thus the flight is a series of rushes, rather than a continuous rush like that of the P. grande.

After arriving in Patagonia, I was told by several persons residing there that there were two species of small partridge; one I found to be the lesser partridge of Buenos Ayres, which frequents only the valley of the Rio Negro; the other was a smaller species, of which I send you several examples, and found only on the high tablelands. The adults of the last species resemble the young of the former; and after having observed them for several months, I am satisfied that they are not identical, nor varieties; for they differ not only in size and colouring, but in habits.

The lesser partridges, so abundant everywhere on the Pampas, are tame in disposition, and move in a leisurely manner, uttering as they walk or run a succession of soft whistling notes. When numerous it is unnecessary to shoot them, as any number can be killed with a long whip or stick. This species has two distinct songs or calls, pleasing to the ear, and heard all the year round; one is a succession of twenty or thirty short, impressive notes of great compass, and ended by half a dozen rapidly uttered notes, beginning loud, and sinking lower till they cease; the other call is a soft continuous trill, appearing to swell mysteriously on the air; for the hearer cannot tell whence it proceeds; it lasts several seconds, then seems gradually to die away.

The valley of the Rio Negro, usually nine or ten miles in width, is a flat plain, resembling the Buenos Ayrean pampas; and wherever long grasses and reeds abound the call note of the lesser partridge is heard winter and summer; but outside of the valley I have never met with it.

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