Climate of the north-eastern side of Nicaragua. Excursions around Santo Domingo. The Artigua. Corruption of ancient names. Butterflies, spiders, and wasps. Humming-birds, beetles, and ants. Plants and trees. Timber. Monkey attacked by eagle. White-faced monkey. Anecdotes of a tame one. Curassows and other game birds. Trogons, woodpeckers, mot-mots, and toucans.
THE climate of Santo Domingo and of the whole north-eastern side of Nicaragua is a very damp one. The rains set in in May, and continue with occasional intermission until the following January, when the dry season of a little more than three months begins. Even during the short-lived summer there are occasional rains, so that although the roads dry up, vegetation never does, the ground in the woods is ever moist, and the brooks perennial. In the shady forest, mosquitoes and sand-flies are rather troublesome; but the large cleared space about the houses of the mining company is almost free from them, and in the beautiful light evenings one can sit under the verandahs undisturbed, watching the play of the moonbeams on the silky leaves of the bananas, the twinkling north star just peeping over the range in front, with “Charlie’s Wain” in the upper half of its endless circlings, whilst in the opposite direction the eye rests on the beautiful constellations of the southern hemisphere. On the darkest nights innumerable fire-flies flash their intermittent lights as they pass amongst the low bushes or herbage, making another twinkling firmament on earth. On other evenings, sitting inside with lighted candles and wide opened doors, great bats flap inside, make a round of the apartment, and pass out again, whilst iris-winged moths, attracted by the light, flit about the ceiling, or long-horned beetles flop down on the table. In this way I made my first acquaintance with many entomological rarities.1
1 In moths, numerous fine Sphingidae and Bombycidae; and in beetles, amongst many others, the rare Xestia nitida (Bates) and Hexoplon albipenne (Bates) were first described from these evening captures.
The heaviest rains fall in July and August, and at these times the brooks are greatly swollen. The one in front of my house sometimes carried away the little wooden bridge that crossed it, and for an hour or two became impassable, but subsided again almost as soon as the heavy rain ceased falling, for the watershed above does not extend far. Every year our operations were impeded by runs in the mines, or by small landslips stopping up our tramways and levels, or floods carrying away our dam or breaking our watercourses; but after August we considered our troubles on this score at an end for the season. Occasionally the rains lasted three or four days without intermission, but generally they would come on in the afternoon, and there would be a downpour, such as is only seen in the tropics, for an hour or two, then some clear weather, until another great bank of clouds rolled up from the north-east and sent down another deluge. In September, October, and November there are breaks of fine weather, sometimes lasting for a fortnight; but December is generally a very wet month, the rains extending far into January, so that it is not until February that the roads begin to dry up.
I had much riding about. The mines worked by us, when I first went out, extended from Consuelo, a mile higher up the valley, to Pavon, a mile below Santo Domingo; and even after I had concentrated our operations on those nearer to our reduction works, there were many occasions for me to ride into the woods. I had to look after our wood-cutters and charcoal-burners, to see that they did not encroach upon the lands of our neighbours, as they were inclined to do, and involve us in squabbles and lawsuits; paths had to be opened out, to bring in nispera and cedar timber, our property surveyed, and new mines, found in the woods, visited and explored. Besides this, I spent most of my spare time in the forest, which surrounded us on every side. Longer excursions were frequent. The Nicaraguans, like all Spanish Americans, are very litigious, and every now and then I would be summoned, as the representative of the company, to appear at Libertad, Juigalpa, or Acoyapo, to answer some frivolous complaint, generally made with the expectation of extorting money, but entertained and probably remanded from time to time by unscrupulous judges, who are so badly paid by the government that they have to depend upon the fees of suitors for their support, and are much open to corruption. These rides and strolls into the woods were very fruitful in natural-history acquisitions and observations. I shall give an account of some of those made in the immediate vicinity of Santo Domingo, and I wish I could transfer to my readers some of the pleasure that they afforded me. They gave the relief that enabled me to carry on for years an incessant struggle, under great difficulties, to bring the mines into a paying state, continually hampered for want of sufficient capital, with most inadequate machinery, and all the annoyances, delays, and disappointments inevitable in carrying on such a precarious enterprise as gold-mining far in the interior of a half-civilised country.
The brook that ran at the foot of the bank below my house, and there called the “Quebrada de Santo Domingo,” is dignified half a mile lower down, after passing the mines of the Javali Company and receiving the waters of another brook coming down from the westward, by the name of the Javali river. The Indians, however, both at the Indian village of Carca, seven miles back in the mountains, and those lower down the river itself, call it “Artigua.” The preservation of these old Indian names is important, as they might some time or other throw considerable light on the early inhabitants of the country. In all parts of the world the names of mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers are among the most certain memorials of the ancient inhabitants. The reason the names of the natural features of a country remain unchanged under the sway of successive nations, speaking totally different languages, appears to be this. The successful invaders of a country, even in the most cruel times, never exterminated the people they conquered; at the least, the young women were spared. The conquerors established their own language, and to everything they had known in their own land they gave their own names; but to things quite new to them, which nearly always included the mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers, and often the towns and many of the natural productions, they accepted the existing names from the survivors of the conquered people. Often the names were corrupted, the new inhabitants altering them just a little, to render their pronunciation easier, or to make them significant in their own language. Thus the fruit of the Persea gratissima was called “ahuacatl” by the ancient Mexicans; the Spaniards corrupted it to “avocado,” which means an advocate; and our sailors still further, to “alligator pears.” The town of Comelapa, in Chontales, the name of which means, in Spanish, “Eat a macaw,” is undoubtedly a corruption of some old Indian name of similar form to that of the neighbouring village of Comoapa, although the Spaniards give an absurd explanation of it, evidently invented, according to which it was so called because a sick man was cured of a deadly disease by eating the bird indicated.
The Artigua — I shall call it so, to do what I can to save the name from oblivion — is woefully polluted by the gold-mining on its banks, and flows, a dark muddy stream, through the village of Santo Domingo, and just below it precipitates itself one hundred and twenty feet over a rocky fall. One of the forest roads leads down its banks for several miles to some small clearings, where a few scattered, Spanish-speaking Indians and half-breeds cultivate maize and plantains. After leaving Santo Domingo, it at first follows the left bank of the stream, through low bushes and small trees of second growth, then crosses a beautiful clear brook coming down from the east, and finally winding round a slope covered with great trees and dense undergrowth, reaches the site chosen for the machinery at Pavon, where a large space has been cleared, much of which is covered with grass. After descending a steep hill, the Artigua, with its muddy water, is crossed. Here, in the dry season, in the hot afternoons, the wet sandy banks were the favourite resorts of multitudes of butterflies, that gathered in great masses on particular moist spots in such numbers that with one swoop of my net I have enclosed more than thirty in its gauzy folds. These butterflies were principally different species of Callidryas, yellow and white, mixed with brown and red species of Timetes, which, when disturbed, rose in a body and circled about; on the ground, looking like a bouquet; when rising, like a fountain of flowers. In groups, by themselves, would be five or six specimens of yellow and black Papilios, greedily sucking up the moisture, and vibrating their wings, now and then taking short flights and settling again to drink. Hesperidae, too, abounded; and in a favourable afternoon more than twenty different species of butterflies might be taken at these spots, the finest being a lovely white, green, and black swallow-tailed Papilio, the first capture of which filled me with delight. Near the river were some fallen-down wooden sheds, partly overgrown with a red-flowered vine. Here a large spider (Nephila) built strong yellow silken webs, joined one on to the other, so as to make a complete curtain of web, in which were entangled many large butterflies, generally forest species, caught when flying across the clearing. I was at first surprised to find that the kinds that frequent open places were not caught, although they abounded on low white-flowered shrubs close to the webs; but, on getting behind them, and trying to frighten them within the silken curtain, their instinct taught them to avoid it, for, although startled, they threaded their way through open spaces and between the webs with the greatest ease. It was one instance of many I have noticed of the strong instinct implanted in insects to avoid their natural enemies. I shall mention two others. The Heliconidae, a tribe of butterflies peculiar to tropical America, with long, narrow, weak wings, are distasteful to most animals: I have seen even spiders drop them out of their webs again; and small monkeys, which are extremely fond of insects, will not eat them, as I have proved over and over again. Probably, in consequence of this special protection, they have not needed stronger wings, and hence their weak flight. They are also very bold, allowing one to walk close up to flowers on which they alight. There is one genus with transparent wings that frequents the white-flowered shrubs in the clearings, and I have sometimes advanced my hand within six inches of them without frightening them. There is, however, a yellow and black banded wasp that catches them to store his nest with; and whenever one of these came about, they would rise fluttering in the air, where they were safe, as I never saw the wasp attack them on the wing. It would hawk round the groups of shrubs, trying to pounce on one unawares; but their natural dread of this foe made it rather difficult to do so. When it did catch one, it would quietly bite off its wings, roll it up into a ball, and fly off with it. Again, the cockroaches that infest the houses of the tropics are very wary, as they have numerous enemies — birds, rats, scorpions, and spiders: their long, trembling antennae are ever stretched out, as if feeling the very texture of the air around them; and their long legs quickly take them out of danger. Sometimes I tried to chase one of them up to a corner where on the wall a large cockroach-eating spider stood motionless, looking out for his prey; the cockroach would rush away from me in great fear; but as soon as it came within a foot of its mortal foe nothing would force it onwards, but back it would double, facing all the danger from me rather than advance nearer to its natural enemy.
To return to the spiders. Besides the large owner and manufacturer of each web who was stationed near its centre, there were on the outskirts several very small ones, belonging, I think, to two different species. I sometimes threw a fly into one of the webs. The large spider would seize it and commence sucking its blood. The small ones, attracted by the sight of the prey, would advance cautiously from the circumference, but generally stop short about halfway up the web, evidently afraid to come within reach of the owner; thus having to content themselves with looking at the provisions, like hungry urchins nosing the windows of an eating-house. Sometimes a more audacious one would advance closer, but the owner would, when it came within reach, quickly lift up one of its feet and strike at it, like a feeding horse kicking at another that came near its provender, and the intruder would have to retire discomfited. These little spiders probably fed on minute insects entangled in the web, too small for the consideration of the huge owner, to whom they may be of assistance in clearing it.
Soon after crossing the muddy Artigua below Pavon, a beautifully clear and sparkling brook is reached, coming down to join its pure waters with the soiled river below. In the evening this was a favourite resort of many birds that came to drink at the pellucid stream, or catch insects playing above the water. Amongst the last was the beautiful blue, green, and white humming-bird (Florisuga mellivora, Linn.); the head and neck deep metallic-blue, bordered on the back by a pure white collar over the shoulders, followed by deep metallic-green; on the underside the blue neck is succeeded by green, the green from the centre of the breast to the end of the tail by pure white; the tail can be expanded to a half circle, and each feather widening towards the end makes the semicircle complete around the edge. When catching the ephemeridae that play above the water, the tail is not expanded: it is reserved for times of courtship. I have seen the female sitting quietly on a branch, and two males displaying their charms in front of her. One would shoot up like a rocket, then suddenly expanding the snow-white tail like an inverted parachute, slowly descend in front of her, turning round gradually to show off both back and front. The effect was heightened by the wings being invisible from a distance of a few yards, both from their great velocity of movement and from not having the metallic lustre of the rest of the body. The expanded white tail covered more space than all the rest of the bird, and was evidently the grand feature in the performance. Whilst one was descending, the other would shoot up and come slowly down, expanded. The entertainment ended in a fight between the two performers; but whether the more beautiful or the more pugnacious were the accepted suitor, I know not. Another fine humming-bird seen about this brook was the long-billed, fire-throated Heliomaster pallidiceps (Gould), generally engaged in probing long narrow-throated red flowers, forming, with their attractive nectar, complete traps for the small insects on which the humming-birds principally feed, the bird returning the favour by carrying the pollen of one flower to another. A third species, also seen at this brook, Petasophora delphinae, Less., is of a dull brown colour, with brilliant purple ear-feathers and metallic-green throat. Both it and Florisuga mellivora are short billed, generally catching flying insects, and do not frequent flowers so much as other humming-birds. I have seen the Petasophora fly into the centre of a dancing column of midges and rapidly darting first at one and then at another, secure half-a-dozen of the tiny flies before the column was broken up; then retire to a branch and wait until it was re-formed, when it made another sudden descent on them. A fourth species (Heliothrix barroti, Bourc.), brilliant green above, white below, with a shining purple crest, has also a short bill, and I never saw it about flowers, but always hovering underneath leaves and searching for the small soft-bodied spiders that are found there. Two of them that I examined had these spiders in their crops. I have no doubt many humming-birds suck the honey from flowers, as I have seen it exude from their bills when shot, but others do not frequent them. The principal food of all is small insects. I have examined scores of them, and never without finding insects in their crops. Their generally long bills have been spoken of by some naturalists as tubes into which they suck the honey by a piston-like movement of the tongue; but suction in the usual way would be just as effective; and I am satisfied that this is not the primary use of the tongue, nor of the mechanism which enables it to be exserted to a great length beyond the end of the bill. The tongue, for one-half of its length, is semi-horny and cleft in two, the two halves are laid flat against each other when at rest, but can be separated at the will of the bird and form a delicate pliable pair of forceps, most admirably adapted for picking out minute insects from amongst the stamens of the flowers. The woodpecker, which has a similar extensile mechanism for exserting its tongue to a great length, also uses it to procure its food — in its case soft grubs from holes in rotten trees — and to enable it to pull these out, the end of the tongue is sharp and horny, and barbed with short stiff recurved bristles.
Continuing down the river, the road again crosses it, and enters on the primeval forest almost untouched by the hand of man, excepting in spots where the trees that furnish the best charcoal have been cut down by the charcoal-burners, or a gigantic isolated cedar (Cedrela odorata) has been felled for shingles, bringing down in its fall a number of the neighbouring trees entangled in the great bush ropes. Such open spots, letting in the sunshine into the thick forests, were favourite stopping-places; for numerous butterflies frequent them, all beautiful and most varied in their colours and marking. The fallen trees, too, are the breeding-places of multitudes of beetles, whose larvae riddle them with holes. Some beetles frequent different varieties of timber, others are peculiar to a single tree. The most noticeable of these beetles are the numerous longicorns, to the collection of which I paid a great deal of attention, and brought home more than three hundred species. More than one-half of these were new to science, and have been described by Mr. Bates. To show how prolific the locality was in insect life, I need only state that about two hundred and ninety of the species were taken within a radius of four miles, having on one side the savannahs near Pital, on the other the ranges around Santo Domingo. Some run and fly only in the daytime, others towards evening and in the short twilight; but the great majority issue from their hiding-places only in the night-time, and during the day lie concealed in withered leaves, beneath fallen logs, under bark, and in crevices amongst the moss growing on the trunks of trees, or even against the bare trunk, protected from observation by their mottled brown, grey, and greenish tints — assimilating in colour and appearance to the bark of the tree. Up and down the fallen timber would stalk gigantic black ants, one inch in length, provided with most formidable stings, and disdaining to run away from danger. They are slow and stately in their movements, seeming to prey solely on the slow-moving wood-borers, which they take at a great disadvantage when half buried in their burrows, and bear off in their great jaws. They appear to use their sting only as a defensive weapon; but other smaller species that hunt singly, and are very agile, use their stings to paralyse their prey. I once saw one of these on the banks of the Artigua chasing a wood-louse (Oniscus), very like our common English species, on a nearly perpendicular slope. The wood-louse, when the ant got near it, made convulsive springs, throwing itself down the slope, whilst the ant followed, coursing from side to side, and examining the ground with its vibrating antennae. The actions of the wood-louse resembled that of the hunted hare trying to throw the dog off its scent, and the ant was like the dog in its movements to recover the trail. At last the wood-louse reached the bottom of the slope, and concealed itself amongst some leaves; but the ant soon discovered it, paralysed it with a sting, and was running away with it, turned back downwards, beneath itself, when I secured the hunter for my collection. All these ants that hunt singly have the eyes well developed, and thus differ greatly from the Ecitons, or army ants.
The road, continuing down the Artigua, crosses it again, winds away from it, then comes to it again, at a beautiful rocky spot overhung by trees; the banks covered with plants and shrubs, and the rocks with a great variety of ferns, whilst a babbling, clear brook comes down from the ranges to the right. Some damp spots near the river are covered with a carpet of a beautiful variegated, velvety-leaved plant (Cyrtodeira chontalensis) with a flower like an achimenes, whilst the dryer slopes bear melastomae and a great variety of dwarf palms, amongst which the Sweetie (Geonoma sp.), used for thatching houses, is the most abundant. About here grows a species of cacao (Herrania purpurea) differing from the cultivated species (Theobroma cacao). Amongst the larger trees is the “cortess,” having a wood as hard as ebony, and at the end of March entirely covered with brilliant yellow flowers, unrelieved by any green, the tree casting its leaves before flowering. The great yellow domes may be distinguished amongst the dark green forest at the distance of five or six miles. Near at hand they are absolutely dazzling when the sun is shining on them; and when they shed their flowers, the ground below is carpeted as with gold. Another valuable timber tree, the “nispera” (Achras sapota), is also common, growing on the dryer ridges. It attains to a great size, and its timber is almost indestructible, so that we used it in the construction of all our permanent works. White ants do not eat it, nor, excepting when first cut, and before it is barked, do any of the wood-boring beetles. It bears a round fruit about the size of an apple, hard and heavy when green, and at this time is much frequented by the large yellowish-brown spider-monkeys (Ateles), which roam over the tops of the trees in bands of from ten to twenty. Sometimes they lay quiet until I was passing underneath, and then shaking a branch of the nispera tree, they would send down a shower of the hard round fruit. Fortunately I was never struck by them. As soon as I looked up, they would commence yelping and barking, and putting on the most threatening gestures, breaking off pieces of branches and letting them fall, and shaking off more fruit, but never throwing anything, simply letting it fall. Often, when on lower trees, they would hang from the branches two or three together, holding on to each other and to the branch with their fore feet and long tail, whilst their hind feet hung down, all the time making threatening gestures and cries. Occasionally a female would be seen carrying a young one on its back, to which it clung with legs and tail, the mother making its way along the branches, and leaping from tree to tree, apparently but little encumbered with its baby. A large black and white eagle is said to prey upon them, but I never witnessed this, although I was constantly falling in with troops of the monkeys. Don Francisco Velasquez, one of our officers, told me that one day he heard a monkey crying out in the forest for more than two hours, and at last, going to see what was the matter, he saw one on a branch and an eagle beside it trying to frighten it to turn its back, when it would have seized it. The monkey, however, kept its face to its foe, and the eagle did not care to engage with it in this position, but probably would have tired it out. Velasquez fired at the eagle, and frightened it away. I think it likely from what I have seen of the habits of the spider-monkeys that they defend themselves from this peril by keeping two or three together, thus assisting each other, and that it is only when the eagle finds one separated from its companions that it dares to attack it.
Sometimes, but more rarely, we would fall in with a troop of the white-faced cebus monkey, rapidly running away, throwing themselves from tree to tree. This monkey feeds also partly on fruit, but is incessantly on the look-out for insects, examining the crevices in trees and withered leaves, seizing the largest beetles and munching them up with great relish. It is also very fond of eggs and young birds, and must play havoc amongst the nestlings. Probably owing to its carnivorous habits, its flesh is not considered so good by monkey-eaters as that of the fruit-feeding spider-monkey, but I never myself tried either. It is a very intelligent and mischievous animal. I kept one for a long time as a pet, and was much amused with its antics. At first, I had it fastened with a light chain; but it managed to open the links and escape several times, and then made straight for the fowls’ nest, breaking every egg it could get hold of. Generally, after being an hour or two loose, it would allow itself to be caught again. I tried tying it up with a cord, and afterwards with a raw-hide thong, but had to nail the end, as it could loosen any knot in a few minutes. It would sometimes entangle itself round a pole to which it was fastened, and then unwind the coils again with great discernment. Its chain allowed it to swing down below the verandah, but it could not reach to the ground. Sometimes, when there were broods of young ducks about, it would hold out a piece of bread in one hand, and, when it had tempted a duckling within reach, seize it by the other, and kill it with a bite in the breast. There was such an uproar amongst the fowls on these occasions, that we soon knew what was the matter, and would rush out and punish Mickey (as we called him) with a switch, which ultimately cured him of his poultry-killing propensities. Once, when whipping him, I held up the dead duckling in front of him, and at each blow of the light switch told him to take hold of it, and at last, much to my surprise, he did so, taking it and holding it tremblingly in one hand. He would draw things towards him with a stick, and even use a swing for the same purpose. It had been put up for the children, and could be reached by Mickey, who now and then indulged himself with a swing on it. One day, I had put down some bird-skins on a chair to dry, far beyond, as I thought, Mickey’s reach; but, fertile in expedients, he took the swing and launched it towards the chair, and actually managed to knock the skins off in the return of the swing, so as to bring them within his reach. He also procured some jelly that was set out to cool in the same way. Mickey’s actions were very human-like. When any one came near to fondle him, he never neglected the opportunity of pocket-picking. He would pull out letters, and quickly take them from their envelopes. Anything eatable disappeared into his mouth immediately. Once he abstracted a small bottle of turpentine from the pocket of our medical officer. He drew the cork, held it first to one nostril then to the other, made a wry face, recorked it, and returned it to the doctor. Another time, when he got loose, he was detected carrying off the cream-jug from the table, holding it upright with both hands, and trying to move off on his hind limbs. He gave the jug up without spilling a drop, all the time making an apologetic grunting chuckle he often used when found out in any mischief, and which meant, “I know I have done wrong, but don’t punish me; in fact, I did not mean to do it — it was accidental.” Whenever, however, he saw he was going to be punished, he would change his tone to a shrill, threatening note, showing his teeth, and trying to intimidate. He had quite an extensive vocabulary of sounds, varying from a gruff bark to a shrill whistle; and we could tell by them, without seeing him, when it was he was hungry, eating, frightened, or menacing; doubtless, one of his own species would have understood various minor shades of intonation and expression that we, not entering so fully into his feelings and wants, passed over as unintelligible.1 There is a third species of monkey (Mycetes palliatus), called by the natives the congo, which occasionally is heard howling in the forest; but they are not often seen, as they generally remain quiet amongst the upper branches of particular trees.
1 Mickey came into Belt’s possession in rather an interesting way. He belonged to the well-known German botanist Dr. Seemann, who was the manager at that time of the neighbouring Javali mine. Seemann died at Javali; and when Belt went to read the Burial Service over him, as was his custom upon the death of any European, the monkey sprang upon him and, seizing him by the neck, clung to him with all his might. So determined was he to adopt Belt as his protector that the matter ended by his being taken back to Chontales where he lived in great contentment.
This frantic clinging to some one for protection was always the conclusion of Mickey’s short experiences of freedom. He probably did not find his captivity at all irksome, for on getting loose from his chain he made no attempt to escape into the adjoining forest, but contented himself with running round and round the house and garden thoroughly enjoying the hue and cry after him. But becoming either alarmed at or weary of his escapade, he always ended by making a rush for the eldest of the children whom he half throttled with his sinewy little arms while offering voluble excuses in his own language. On one occasion, however, it was feared that Mickey was really gone, for, contrary to all precedent, he had left the garden and betaken himself to the forest where of course all trace of him was at once lost. But after nightfall a pattering of small feet was heard in the passage, and there was Mickey with a very woe-begone and penitent expression on his white face, asking to be received and forgiven.
One day, when riding down this path, I came upon a pack of pisotes (Nasua fusca, Desm.), a raccoon-like animal, that ascends all the small trees, searching for birds’ nests and fruits. There were not less than fifty in the pack I saw, and nothing seemed likely to escape their search in the track they were travelling. Sometimes solitary specimens of the pisoti are met with, hunting alone in the forest. I once saw one near Juigalpa, ascending tree after tree, and climbing every branch, apparently in search of birds’ nests. They are very fond of eggs; and the tame ones, which are often kept as pets, play havoc amongst the poultry when they get loose. They are about the size of a hare, with a taper snout, strong tusks, a thick hairy coat, and bushy tail. When passing down this road, I at times saw the fine curl-crested curassow (Crax globicera), as large as a turkey, jet black, excepting underneath. This kind would always take to the trees, and was easy to shoot, and as good eating as it was noble in appearance. The female is a very different-looking bird from the male, being of a fine brown colour. Dr. Sclater, in a paper read before the Zoological Society of London, June 17th, 1873, stated that in the South and Central American species of Crax there is a complete gradation from a species in which the sexes scarcely differ, through others in which they differ more and more, until in Crax globicera they are quite distinctly coloured, and have been described as different species. The natives call them “pavones,” and often keep them tame; but I never heard of them breeding in confinement. Another fine game bird is a species of Penelope, called by the natives “pavos.” It feeds on the fruits of trees, and I never saw it on the ground. A similar, but much smaller, bird, called “chachalakes,” is often met with in the low scrub.
Mountain hens (species of Tinamus) were not uncommon, about the size of a plump fowl, and tasting like a pheasant. There were also two species of grouse and a ground pigeon, all good eating.
Amongst the smaller birds were trogons, mot-mots, toucans, and woodpeckers. The trogons are general feeders. I have taken from their crops the remains of fruits, grasshoppers, beetles, termites, and even small crabs and land shells. Three species are not uncommon in the forest around Santo Domingo. In all of them the females are dull brown or slaty black on the back and neck, these parts being beautiful bronze green in the males. The largest species (Trogon massena, Gould) is one foot in length, dark bronze green above, with the smaller wing feathers speckled white and black, and the belly of a beautiful carmine. Sometimes it sits on a branch above where the army ants are foraging below; and when a grasshopper or other large insect flies up and alights on a leaf, it darts after it, picks it up, and returns to its perch. I found them breaking into the nests of the termites with their strong bills, and eating the large soft-bodied workers; and it was from the crop of this species that I took the remains of a small crab and a land shell (Helicina). Of the two smaller species, one (Trogon atricollis, Vieill.) is bronze green above, with speckled black and white wings, belly yellow, and under feathers of the tail white, barred with black. The other (Trogon caligatus, Gould) is rather smaller, of similar colours, excepting the head, which is black, and a dark blue collar round the neck. Both species take short, quick, jerky flights, and are often met with along with flocks of other birds — fly-catchers, tanagers, creepers, woodpeckers, etc., that hunt together, traversing the forests in flocks of hundreds together, belonging to more than a score different species; so that whilst they are passing over, the trees seem alive with them. Mr. Bates has mentioned similar gregarious flocks met with by him in Brazil; and I never went any distance into the woods around Santo Domingo without seeing them. The reason of their association together may be partly for protection, as no rapacious bird or mammal could approach the flock without being discovered by one or other of them, but the principal reason appears to be that they play into each other’s hands in their search for food. The creepers and woodpeckers and others drive the insects out of their hiding-places under bark, amongst moss, and in withered leaves. The fly-catchers and trogons sit on branches and fly after the larger insects, the fly-catchers taking them on the wing, the trogons from off the leaves on which they have settled. In the breeding season, the trogons are continually calling out to each other, and are thus easily discovered. They are called “viduas,” that is, “widows,” by the Spaniards.
Woodpeckers are often seen along with the hunting flocks of birds, especially a small one (Centrurus pucherani, Mahl), with red and yellow head and speckled back. This species feeds on fruits, as well as on grubs taken out of dead trees. A large red-crested species is common near recently-made clearings, and I successively met with one of an elegant chocolate-brown colour, and another brown with black spots on the back and breast, with a lighter-coloured crested head (Celeus castaneus, Wagl.).
Of the mot-mots, I met with four species in the forest, all more or less olive green in colour (Momotus martii and lessoni, and Prionyrhynchus carinatus and platyrhynchus), having two of the tail-feathers very long, with the shafts denuded about an inch from the end. The mot-mots have all hoarse croak-like cries, heard at a great distance in the forest, and feed on large beetles and other insects.
The toucans are very curious-looking birds, with their enormous bills. They hop with great agility amongst the branches. The largest species at Santo Domingo was the Rhamphastus tocard, Vieill., twenty-three inches in length, of which one-fourth was taken up by the long bill and another fourth by the tail; above, all black, excepting the tail-coverts, which are white; below, throat and breast clear lemon yellow, bordered with red, the rest black, excepting the under tail-coverts, red. When alive, the bill is beautifully painted with red, brown, and yellow. I kept a young one for some time as a pet until it was killed by my monkey. It became very tame, and was expert in catching cockroaches, swallowing them with a jerk of its bill.
After passing through some low scrubby forest, very thick with tangled second growth, the clearings of the mestizoes were reached, about five miles below Santo Domingo. Maize, plantains, and a few native vegetables were grown here, and the owners now and then came up to the village to sell their produce. Their houses were open-sided low huts, thatched with palm-leaves; their furniture, rude bedsteads made out of a few rough poles, tied together with bark, supported on crutches stuck in the ground, with raw-hides stretched across them; their cooking utensils a tortilla-stone and a few coarse earthenware jars and pans; their clothing dirty cotton rags. This was the limit of my journeys in this direction, although the path continued on to the savannahs towards San Tomas. The soil at this place is good, and I think that it has been long cultivated, as much of the forest appears of second growth, in which small palms and prickly shrubs abound.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52