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Paul du Chaillu

Curious African Birds

The sorrows of the birds.—Curious African birds.—The barbatula du Chaillu.—The barbatula fuliginosa.—The sycorbius nigerrimus.

Now I must speak to you of little birds!

I do love birds. They are Nature's beautiful creatures.

They are one of God's loveliest creations.

They cheer us in our lonely hours, when from their bowers their songs come upon our ears and gladden our hearts. Their melodies have often told me how happy they were, and how much one bird loved the other. They are the poets of nature.

Oh, little birds, I have often wondered how many sorrows you have! Pain I know you have. The shrill cries and plaintive notes I have often heard from you have told me that your little breasts felt the pangs of anguish. The hurried flights which I have often watched have said how anxious you were.

In our Northern climes, when the leaves have withered, when the cold winds blow, when the snow covers the earth, I know that you suffer from hunger, and I feel so sorry for you. When you come by the window you seem to say—"Do feed me, for I am so hungry and so cold!"

I have crossed the seas, and hundreds of miles away from land I have seen you, in your forlorn flight, looking in vain for the way that might lead to a land where your poor little bodies and tired wings and tiny little feet could find rest. The storm and the winds had carried you away from the land where you were accustomed to rejoice and sing, and taken you above that ocean on which you looked with such dread, and which is always ready to engulf you. You were so tired that you had not even the strength to utter your cries. How then I pitied you, for I thought of the days and sleepless nights you had spent over the vast sea! how weary those little wings of yours were! how painful must have been each effort you made to support you in the air. How sad must have been your thoughts, for you could see nothing to guide you to that place you longed to reach!

I have seen you when the good ship was close at hand. How welcome its sight seemed to be to you, who had suffered so much from thirst, hunger, and starvation, fatigue and exhaustion I and, as I watched your coming, I could detect joy and fear; for how strange the vessel appeared to you, how strange its ropes, how strange its sails.

When I have thought its masts and ropes would afford you rest, and seen you ready to reach them, you have dropped on the waves to rise no more. How you struggled before you came to this! You almost touched the water, when another effort would send you flying high above the sea; then again your flight became weaker; gradually you came down and made another frantic effort to escape by flight. At last you seemed not to know any longer what you were doing, and despite all your valiant struggles for life your doom came, and you dropped into the waves; and as the vessel sailed away I left you to your sad fate. At other times you fell on deck, for you were not strong enough to perch. Then how your bright little eyes became dim, for the touch of death was soon to close them, despite the care and the little water I would give you. How sweetly you looked as you laid still in the embrace of death! The storms of your life were over, your sorrows were ended, and your merry songs were to be heard no more in the groves you used to love. I know of nothing sweeter to look at than a dead little bird! and yet there is nothing which more pathetically touches my heart.

When the eagle, the hawk, and the falcon soar high in the sky, I know that they are your enemies. When the snake glides from branch to branch in search of your nest, to destroy your offspring, I know that pain will reach your heart. When you and your mate are flying above the earth, perchance a heartless sportsman appears, and with his gun brings one of you down. How I have seen you follow the unfortunate one in its downward flight! How painful to hear were your cries; how you tried to arrest the fall of the poor wounded one, and how touching was the scene as you soared and soared above the body of the little victim who had fallen on the ground. So plaintive were your cries that they ought to have disarmed the ruthless hand that separated you, so that he would say to himself—"I will nevermore kill a harmless little bird, for God has given them to us to cheer, to enliven the nature that surrounds us." When night comes, and your mate does not return, how anxious and sad you seem to feel! Perhaps a cruel cat, or some wild animal has destroyed his life. How often I have heard you call for the missing one, and could detect despair in the tone of your voice!

When the young fall from the nest I have watched your anxiety, and when danger threatened them I have seen you brace up your courage; and how angry then you did look, with your little feathers all standing out as if you were ready for a fight! When the storms had tumbled down the little nest you had built with so much trouble, how distressed you seemed to be, and how industrious you were to build another one! So, little birdies, I found that, like man, you have your joys, your cares, your troubles, and your sorrows. The stormy billows of life are also for you. I love you the more for this. I wish I were a poet, so that my lyre could sing songs to you, and I might tell you a softer tale than that which the nightingale tells to us.

Dear little birds, I thank you for all the joys you have given me during my wanderings. Your songs and melodies have often cheered me when wearied and lonely. Your plumage I have admired, and often have I exclaimed—"Little birds, how beautiful you are!" I thank you for the many days I have passed pleasantly while watching you; for I love dearly to look at you, to study your habits, to see how nice and loving you are. Many times I have said to myself, when admiring you—"Little birdie, do come to me, so that I may kiss thee and feel thy little beak upon my lips." O God, how kind to man thou art! for he is able to understand thy works. The wonders of thy creation he can admire, so that he may praise thee for thy goodness.

And now I will speak to you of some little birds of which we knew nothing, of little birds that had no name, and wandered unknown to civilized man, till he who has written this book saw them and brought them here.

In a forest of Equatorial Africa, on the banks of the Ovenga River not far from Obindji Village, there was a plantation where birds came every day. There were many curious kind of birds there, and many I had never seen before. The time to see them was early in the morning, before the sun became so hot that they had to retire in the forest, or in the afternoon after the sun was hidden by the hills. But the morning was the best time. The natives had no name for many of these birds. Among the most curious ones were the fly-catchers, the stranger bee-eaters, the queer crimpers, and some very strange woodpeckers; while flying over them all were some nice little black swallows that were very pretty indeed. I remember how much I loved in the morning to go over that plantation and watch them all, so that I might learn their habits and tell you something about them.

Among the strangest of them all there was one that especially attracted my attention. As I approached the plantation I could hear, just on the edge of the forest, a noise that sounded very much as if some far-away people were hammering at something, or I should rather say, as if people were hammering at a tree. I carefully approached the place. I am sure you could not have heard my steps on the ground, so carefully I approached. I was dressed in a dark-blue suit of cotton goods, so that the birds might at notice me. At last I recognized the noise as coming from old friends of mine. They were birds that were hammering at two or three dead trees in such earnest that none of them observed me.

It was a very pretty sight! The country being nothing else than a gigantic forest, of course, wherever a village or plantation is made, the trees have to be cut down, and nearly all are cut from a height of ten or fifteen feet. These in the course of time become dry, and after being dead a sufficient time the wood softens, and becomes the object of the attack of the beautiful little bird I am writing about. It is really a beautiful bird, and was unknown before I brought it here. It has been named the Barbatula du Chaillui. The throat and breast are of a glossy blue-black color; the head is scarlet; a line of canary yellow from above the eyes surrounds the neck, and the back, which is black, is covered with canary yellow spots. Above the bill it has what might be termed two little brushes.

The trunks of the trees on which they were so busily engaged were within a few yards of the forest. These birds were hard at work with their bills, pecking out circular openings about two inches in diameter. It was a tedious operation, and now and then a little bird had to rest, or its mate would come and take its place. Their little feet are constructed like those of the woodpeckers, to whom they are somewhat related, but their bill is much thicker, stronger, and shorter, hence better adapted to make holes in the trunks of trees.

It was very interesting to see them holding to the trees, sometimes with their heads upward and sometimes with their heads downward. Some had just begun to work at the aperture, others had already made a pretty deep hole, and the end of their tail only could be seen, while still others were working inside, and their bodies could not be seen at all, though now and then they came forth, bringing the wood they had pecked out.

What difficult and patient toil! The making of one of these nests requires many days. It is no easy work for birds a little bigger than a sparrow to peck out a circular opening of two inches in diameter, and more than two inches deep. This done, they dig perpendicularly down for about four, inches. The cavity thus made is their nest. As they are small birds, it takes them a long time to finish this piece of carpentering—often two or three weeks. There the female lays her eggs and hatches them in security, no snake or wild animal being able to disturb them.

Not only do they use these nests while they are hatching, but also during the rainy season. How cosy they must feel in these places of refuge when a storm is raging! Nothing could be safer, or better shelter them from the rain. The aperture being about two inches in thickness before you come to the perpendicular hollow, of course the rain can not reach the inside.

I have seen trees entirely perforated by them; that is to say, having more than a dozen of these holes in them; and thus forming what we may call a little village of themselves. I wonder if they had a king! These birds are very shy, and the least noise will frighten them. How affectionate the pair seemed to be, how willing they were to help each other in their work!

There is also another species of Barbatula  which I have discovered, of a gray color, called now Barbatula fuliginosa, of the same habits, but found in greater numbers. I have seen colonies of them, composed of thirty or forty nests, on the same tree.

The picture given by the artist represents the birds working and making their nests.


The barbatula working.

Now I must speak to you of another bird, a very curious one, the Sycobius nigerrimus, which is found in almost if not all the regions I have explored in Equatorial Africa. The habits of this bird are most extraordinary. They are extremely sociable birds; the woods or the uninhabited plantations have no charm for them; they must be where people live, and hence they prefer always to live in the neighborhood of a village. If there are trees in the middle of the village they will live there, or on the trees back of the huts, and not far from where the palm or plantain trees abound; but man must be in sight, for they seem to love his society.

In some villages they are found in immense numbers, often there are several hundreds of nests on the same tree, but it depends on the size of the tree. I have seen several thousands of nests on a single tree, of which they take entire possession for years. The Sycobii  are a little larger than sparrows, and the habits of these little twitterers are so remarkable that I never wearied of watching their curious ways, and very skillful and intelligent manúuvres in nest-building or in gathering food. A native village would lose a great charm without them. In many villages of the interior, where people do not move about, trees are planted specially for them, and it is considered an ill omen if they do not come. They make such a noise from morning till night that sometimes it is almost impossible to hear when close to them; the harder at work they are the more noise they make.

There are two species, but both live in the same trees and associate indiscriminately with each other, though not, of course, in the same nests. The male of one species is entirely black, and the female a dark gray, while in the other the male is yellow, with black and yellow throat. The eggs of the first mentioned are bluish, with black spots, while those of the other species are light pink, with dark spots. Both kinds of eggs are very beautiful.

They are singularly industrious birds: they seem never to weary of work. When they have settled upon a tree on which to plant a colony they labor from daylight till dark, day after day, with seemingly the utmost joy, fun, and perseverance at their very singular pendent nests.


African hanging birds' nests.

The nest is round in shape, or nearly so, with a narrow passage for entrance and exit leading down one side and opening beneath. It is securely fastened to an outstretched twig, and I have sometimes counted in one tree more than two thousand of such pendent little balls, each inhabited by a family, male and female, of these birds; and once I am sure I saw four or five thousand of these nests. This I saw in the Ishogo country, of which I may speak to you one of these days. The birds when building strip the leaf off the palm, or plantain, or banana tree. They split the leaf into very narrow strips, not more than two or three lines wide, but through the whole length of the leaf in the palm, and the whole breadth of the leaf in the plantain, beginning from the rib.

Male and female both work at gathering this material, and every piece is brought up to the tree. How strangely they look as they fly with them from the place where they took them to that where their colony is situated! It seems as if they were carrying away a long, narrow ribbon. The pendent twig having been chosen, the birds begin to turn their leaf-strips over the twig, and to interlace them below in such a way as to enable the finished nest to shed rain. The birds work with the greatest assiduity with both beak and feet, sometimes with the head up, sometimes with the head down. Often I would see one little fellow one minute holding by his feet and working the strips in with his bill, the next suspended by his bill and pushing all together with his feet, then adroitly slipping inside, and by pushing and working with his body giving the nest a round shape. The entrance is the last made, and they are knowing enough to build its mouth down, so that the inside may be sheltered from the rains, which I can assure you pour down in good earnest in these equatorial regions. A few leaves are put inside where the eggs are to be laid.

Sometimes trees on which these industrious little fellows build are quite killed by the weight of so many nests, and by the space they occupy preventing the regular growth of the branches. The nests are not only used to breed in, but also to live in, and each pair breeds several times a year, raising two young ones in a brood. Of course, with such a rapid increase, they are always needing new nests, so that the building process is going on almost all the time.

The nests looked all alike to my eyes, yet each bird was always able to find its own. But sometimes I noticed a strong fellow trying with might and main to oust one of his weaker brethren from his home, or to drive him from the work he had begun; then there was a downright fight for possession.

They have a foreknowledge of the rainy season evidently, for just before this sets in they are particularly active in building and repairing, and at such a time the village where they have settled is alive with their merry twittering and active bustle.

Of course, during the dry or cold season very little building is going on.

I shall always have a pleasant recollection of these Sycobii, and no one was ever allowed to disturb them at Washington, where I had three or four little trees full of their nests. The natives like to see them round them, and no village is thought to be perfect without them.