Parrot Island.—How the parrots build their nests.—Parrot soup.
There is an Island by the sea, in a far country, called Nengue Ngozo.
I shall always remember that Island; for when I went there I was young and wild—as wild as the waves of that sea. I had no mother to care for me; I had no sister to love me when I came to this Island. The wide world was before me. But I loved to roam in wild and distant countries; I loved to look upon and study the men, the beasts, the birds, the fishes, the insects, and the trees. I had no one with me, but God was kind to me, and took care of me, and he has now brought me back safely, so that I might tell you all I have seen.
On Nengue Ngozo there was a little village. That village had a King, who instead of a crown wore a woolen cap, and for a sceptre he had a cane.
Indeed, the Island of Nengue Ngozo, which means Parrot Island, is a little kingdom of itself. It is covered with forest, and is situated in the estuary called the Gabon, formed in the bight of Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, some fifteen or sixteen miles north of the equator, and a few miles from the sea. Not far from it there is another Island called Konikey. (Both of these islands are marked in the map published in my work called "Explorations in Equatorial Africa.")
One part of Nengue Ngozo is tolerably high, the other part is low and swampy. It is covered with a great forest; some of the trees are very large and tall, and the foliage of the palm-trees is very beautiful.
The Island is but a few miles in circumference.
The people of this Island are safe from wild beasts, as there are no leopards to carry them away or kill their goats, no elephants to destroy their plantations, and no gorillas to roam about and frighten them. The cries of the chimpanzee are not heard, the wild buffalo is not to be seen, the graceful antelopes and gazelles are unknown, and the chatter of monkeys does not fall upon the ear of the people or resound strangely in the woods. But all these roam at leisure on the main-land, where the villages of the warlike Shekiani and Bakalai people are scattered over the great, wild forest.
As I looked upon the water I could see the majestic pelican chasing the fishes, and the gulls flying in great numbers through the air, their shrill cries sounding strangely in the midst of the grand solitude by which I was surrounded.
Cranes and other birds were walking to and fro on the beach in search of their food. How quiet, silent and sly they were as they stepped from place to place looking for their prey; and, when they saw it, how quickly their long beaks dipped into the water to seize it!
It was a very warm day when I landed on Nengue Ngozo. The rays of the sun were powerful, and there was not a ripple on the water. It was so hot that my men had not even strength to paddle. Our sail, made of natives' mats, flapped against the mast and was not of the slightest use except to fan us. Happily the tide carried us toward the Island. I had an umbrella over my head, and now and then I wetted a handkerchief which was in my hat to keep my head cool. I felt that I was as red as a boiled lobster. I remember well how much I suffered from the heat that day.
Now and then we could see the fins of sharks as they came near our canoe, and a shudder went through us all, for we knew well what would become of us if by some misfortune we were to upset.
A few days before a fine boy had been devoured by these monsters. The sight of a shark when I am in a canoe always makes me shudder. I fear a shark more than I do snakes. Which is saying a great deal!
How glad I was when I landed and rested myself under the shade of the forest which grew to the very water's edge. I quenched my thirst in a little brook which rose in the interior of the Island, and oh! how much better I felt afterward. I had to drink out of a large leaf which I folded in the form of a cornucopia.
I saw on the sands what I knew to be the foot-prints of men; we followed them and at last came to the very small village of which I have spoken to you. The men with me were Mpongwes, and belonged to the same tribe as the people of the Island. The King and his people at first stared at me, but a word or two from my men made every thing right.
The luggage was landed from our canoe, the canoe was then hauled on to the main-land and put under the shade of the trees, and we were ready to rest, for we were all very tired and I felt rather feverish.
The wives of the King cooked food for us, and in the mean time huts had been given to us by his sable Majesty.
I hardly tasted the food that was presented to me. After my sham meal I fell asleep, and when I awoke the sun had set, and all was dark and silent. I felt better, however, and came out of my hut; the King was quietly smoking his pipe, and we had a chat together; the Queen came forth also; then a few old men of the place, whom we may call the gray-beards, made their appearance.
These people of course knew what the sea was, knew that the vessels sailed upon it to come to their country; but they asked me many questions about the white man's country. For instance:—
Had we men with only one eye in the middle of the forehead?
Did our babies feed on milk? They had heard they fed on spirits.
Of what material were our houses? Were they built with the bark of trees? And many other apparently foolish questions.
When I told them that we had no people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads they did not believe me. They had never seen any white man manufacturing before them the goods we brought, therefore they thought another species of men must make them, from whom we bought them.
At last, looking at my watch, I saw that it was ten o'clock: time to go to bed: so I bade good-night to the King and his people and went back to my hut. I barricaded myself; slept with my gun by my side, and for my pillow laid my head on my revolvers.
Toward three or four o'clock in the morning I was startled by a tremendous noise. At first, just waking up, I could not make out what it was; when lo! I discovered it was made by parrots, chattering away in a most jolly and discordant manner. I had never heard such a noise in my life before. The Island must have been full of them. I tried in vain to sleep—turned myself one way, then the other, but it was of no avail; the noise was so terrific there was no rest for me. I don't think a hundred bells tolling together could have made more noise. At any rate as they went on I wondered if they could understand each other, and how they could have come to the Island. They had probably arrived while I was asleep, just before sunset.
Before the morning twilight came I was out, and as soon as the dawn of day made its appearance, flock after flock flew from the trees and went in different directions toward the main-land. I followed them as far as my eyes could reach, but soon lost sight of them, for they were going far away, very far away. They were in flocks, and each flock went in search of places where they knew food was abundant. They went off by tens, by twenties, and by hundreds together.
By sunrise not a parrot was to be seen on the Island, and I could only hear the chatter of other birds. How silent then every thing seemed!
During the day I went to the top of the hill in search of land shells, and after five o'clock in the afternoon the parrots began to arrive again. From the top of the hill I could see them as far as my eyes could reach: they were coming from immense distances. They continued pouring in and pouring in, and I should not wonder if some had come from thirty or forty miles, or perhaps even more. They came and they came, and they continued coming, even after the sun had set, and two flocks came when it was almost dark. These had probably come from far away and had miscalculated the time their flight would take; or perhaps they had been detained by some dainty fruit on the road. At any rate they came very late. I calculated that at least twenty thousand parrots had arrived on the Island, although there may have been one hundred thousand, for I do not claim to have counted them all. They came to spend the night on the Island of Nengue Ngozo, and I now ceased to wonder at the strange name the natives had given to the Island.
These gray parrots are said to live to be a hundred years old and even more. Some years ago I myself knew a sea-captain in New York by the name of Brown, an old trader on the African coast, who had a parrot which he had kept for thirty years. I wish you could have heard him talk and sing songs. Captain Brown is dead, and I know not where his widow has gone, but perhaps the parrot is still living. I could not help thinking that some of these old parrots had come here every day, perhaps, for a hundred years.
They perched by hundreds and perhaps thousands on the same trees, and the trees on which they perched showed their heads far above those of the other trees. How beautifully their gray plumage and their red tails contrasted with the green leaves from the midst of which they appeared! Some of the old ones were almost white. When old their feathers seem to be covered with a white powder, and if you pass your hand over their plumage this powder comes off. I have killed wild ones perfectly splendid, much larger and handsomer than any I have seen tame.
I wondered why these parrots had chosen this Island as their bedroom. Why did they come from such distances every day when there were so many tall trees in the forest on the main-land? I found that it was because they were safer than on the main-land; there were no genetta (a kind of wild cat) to pounce upon them and disturb, or rather devour, them at night.
Days passed, and every morning and every evening the parrots went away and the parrots came back, and between three and four o'clock in the morning began their charming noise; but I became quite accustomed to it and did not mind it at all after a while. I noticed also that Generally the same number that started together in the morning came back together.
These parrots must certainly be endowed with a very great instinct to know the way to the Island, as they come from great distances, and from every direction.
Not only do they come to the Island of Nengue Ngozo to sleep, but in the month of February and the beginning of March many remain and have their nests on the Island. They all would have had their nests, I am sure, if there had been hollows of trees enough for them.
These grey parrots do not build a regular nest, but choose a tree where there is a deep hollow to lay their eggs in. The nests are discovered by hearing their young calling all day long for their parents to feed them. I never saw more than two young ones in one nest, or hollow of a tree, and very funny they looked when covered with down before their feathers had grown.
What awful cries they utter as they see the human hand coming through the darkness ready to catch hold of them. And you had better look out for your fingers, for they bit terribly hard, I assure you, as I know by experience, and that in despite of their being very young. There were many days when I hid myself near a tree close by the place where they came to sleep, but the parrots seemed to know it, and would fly round and round it, and then go away. It is but very seldom that I ever was able to approach parrots when they were perched on a tree standing by itself: they would fly away before I could come within gunshot distance. They are exceedingly shy.
When they approach their nests they always come in the most silent manner, not uttering a single cry.
For a while after they have taken their flight the young ones will follow their parents; after a while the birds of the same age flock together. A young gray parrot has entirely black eyes. Before he is a year old a change takes place: a ring shows itself round the black, which gradually turns yellow, then whitish-yellow. In the breeding season the natives capture a great many young ones in their nests before they can fly away.
After a few days the fowls of the little kingdom of Nengue Ngozo became scarce, and at last the King had no more to give me; so I said to myself, Why should not I kill some parrots and cook them?
One morning I awoke before daylight. Two evenings before I had watched a tree not far away where the parrots were roosting in great numbers, and had made a path leading to it. When I went by that path it was pitch dark; I could not help thinking of snakes, but at last I came to the foot of the tree. It was just before day-break; the birds did not see me, but they seemed to mistrust something, for, though I had come very noiselessly, their chatter was of that kind which showed distinctly that they were disturbed.
At last I raised my gun in the direction of what I thought the midst of the tree; then I touched both triggers, and, bang! bang! I let go both barrels at the same time. The gun gave an awful recoil which almost knocked me down, and I heard a shower of parrots falling all round me; one fell right on the top of my head and nearly frightened the life out of me, for I fancied a snake had just tumbled on top of me, or that a bough of the tree was coming down.
What a terrific noise followed my two shots! I had never heard any thing like it. They fled in dismay, with all their might; but where were they to go? it was dark; and the whole population of parrots was in terrible trouble. The next evening not a parrot came upon that tree, and they were all very suspicious as they came to the Island, flying round and round the trees before they roosted.
When daylight came, I found twenty dead parrots on the ground, and had a grand feast. I had parrot soup which was not at all bad; roasted parrot; and grilled parrot. The old parrots were very tough, but the young ones were excellent; their flesh was black and resembled in taste that of the pigeon.
Now I have told you all I know about Nengue Ngozo: Nengue, as I have said before, means an Island, and Ngozo, parrot. Should any one of you ever go to the Gabon country he will find the Island, and he will see the parrots—unless the natives have out down all the trees.
In that part of Africa there are only two kinds of parrots: the gray sort—which is very abundant, and much handsomer than the gray one found near Sierra Leone, the gray being of a lighter color—and the green one, which is very rare.
But I have one now in my possession, the only one I have ever seen which is extraordinary. It is pink and gray; that is, it has pink and gray feathers, and is a very beautiful bird, the rarest that was ever brought to America or Europe, and probably the only one of its kind that ever existed, for it is not a distinct species, but a freak of Nature.