Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management/Chapter XXII



General Observations on Birds and on Poultry Breeding

Birds, the free tenants of land, air and ocean,
Their forms all symmetry, their motions grace;
In plumage, delicate and beautiful;
Thick without burthen, close as fishes' scales,
Or loose as full-blown poppies to the breeze.

The Pelican Island.

Birds are classified primarily on their habits of life and, structurally, on the shape of the sternum or breastbone. The first sub-class of the class Aves or Birds is called Ratitæ, and includes all birds having a sternum without a keel; the birds belonging to this sub-class are all natives of warm climates, as the ostrich, emu, cassowary, and the remarkable apteryx of New Zealand with rudimentary wings, and a long slender bill. The other sub-class is that of the Carinatae, and includes all birds having a keel on the sternum, as the parrot, pigeon, swallow and duck.

Birds are grouped broadly in eight orders—Raptores, birds of prey, such as eagle, vulture and owl; Insessores, perching birds, such as the lark, swallow, sparrow, and all singing birds; Scansores, climbing birds, such as the parrot and cuckoo; Rasores, scratching birds, such as the common fowl, partridge and pheasant; Cursores, running birds, such as the ostrich and cassowary; Grallatores, wading birds, such as the crane, the snipe, the stork and the heron; Natatores, swimming birds, characterized by webbed feet, such as the duck, the pelican and the gull; and Saururæ, lizard-tailed birds, which include the fossil bird Archaeopteryx, remarkable for its tail, which is longer than its body. A more scientific classification, based partly on external, and partly on internal, characteristics, by Professor Huxley and other naturalists, subdivides birds into other orders. It will be seen that by a particular adaptation of function to environment in the case of the birds comprised in the eight orders enumerated above, the air, the forest, the marsh, the land and the water has each its appropriate kind of inhabitant.

The Mechanism which enables Birds to fly is singular and instructive. Their bodies are covered with feathers which are much lighter than the hair with which quadrupeds are usually covered; the feathers are so placed as to overlap each other, like the slates or tiles on the roof of a house; they are also arranged from the fore-part backwards, so as to enable the birds to cleave their way through the air more conveniently. Their skeleton is well adapted for aerial existence; the bones are hollow and extremely light in comparison with those of terrestrial animals, the bone tissue containing a much larger proportion of phosphate of lime. Moreover, the long bones contain air instead of marrow, and are filled with air by means of special apertures connected with air-cells supplied from the lungs. This greatly facilitates their rising from the earth; their heads are comparatively small, their bills are wedge-shaped, and their bodies are slender, sharp below and round above. With all these conditions, however, birds could not fly without wings. These are the instruments which confer the power of rapid locomotion. They are constructed in such a manner that they are capable of great expansion when struck in a downward direction; if, in this action, we except the slight hollow which occurs on the under side they almost become two planes. That the downward action may be accomplished to the necessary extent, the muscles which move the wings have been made exceedingly large; so large, indeed, that, in some instances, they have been estimated at not less than a sixth of the weight of the whole body. Therefore, when a bird is on the ground and intends to fly, it takes a leap, and immediately stretching its wings, strikes them out with great force. By this act these are brought into an oblique direction, being turned partly upwards and partly horizontally forwards. That part of the force which has the upward tendency is neutralized by the weight of the bird, whilst the horizontal force serves to carry it forward. The stroke being completed it moves upon its wings which, being contracted and having their edges turned upwards, obviate, in a great measure, the resistance of the air. When it is sufficiently elevated it makes a second stroke downwards, and the impulse of the air again moves it forward. These successive strokes may be regarded as so many leaps taken in the air. When the bird desires to direct its course to the right or left it strikes strongly with the opposite wing, which impels it to the proper side. The tail plays a prominent part in the movements of the bird, acting like the rudder of a ship, except that it moves upwards and downwards instead of sideways; if the bird wishes to rise, it raises its tail; it depresses it when it desires to descend; if it wishes to preserve a horizontal position it keeps its tail steady. For example, a pigeon or a crow will preserve a horizontal flight for some time without any apparent motion of the wings; this is accomplished by the bird having already acquired sufficient velocity and by its meeting with but small resistance from the atmosphere, owing to its wings being parallel to the horizon. Should the bird begin to fall it can easily steer itself upward by means of its tail until the motion it had acquired is nearly spent, when by a few more strokes of the wings the impetus is renewed. When alighting a bird expands its wings and tail fully against the air, just as a ship, in tacking round, backs her sails in order that they may meet with the maximum of resistance.

The construction of Birds shows that their eyes are peculiarly adapted to the requirements of their environment. As a defence against external injury from the thickets and hedges in which they pass a great part of their life, and also as a protection against the effects of the light when they are flying in the face of the sun, their eyes are provided with a nictating or winking membrane, or third eyelid, placed below and within the ordinary lids, and moved by two little muscles on the back of the eyeball; this lid is kept moist by a gland which secretes a fluid, and it can be drawn at pleasure over the whole eye like a curtain. This covering is neither opaque nor wholly pellucid, but is somewhat transparent; and it is by its means that the eagle is said to be able to gaze at the sun. "In birds," says a writer on this subject, "we find that the sight is much more piercing, extensive and exact than in the other orders of animals. The eye is much larger in proportion to the bulk of the head than in any of these. This is a superiority conferred upon them not without a corresponding utility; it seems even indispensable to their safety and subsistence. Were this organ in birds dull, or in the least degree opaque, they would be in danger, from the rapidity of their motion, of striking against various objects in their flight. In this case their celerity, instead of being an advantage, would become an evil, and their flight be restrained by the danger resulting from it. Indeed, we may consider the velocity with which an animal moves as a sure indication of the perfection of its vision. Among the quadrupeds, the sloth has its sight greatly limited; whilst the hawk, as it hovers in in the air, can espy a lark sitting on a clod, perhaps at twenty times the distance at which a man or a dog could perceive it."

Respiration.—Of the many peculiarities in the construction of birds, not the least is the means by which they breathe. They do so by the aid of air-vessels extending throughout the body and adhering to the under surface of the bones; these by their motion force the air through the true lungs, which are very small and placed in the uppermost part of the chest, and closely braced down to the back and ribs; the blood is oxidized in the lungs. The arterial circulation of birds is similar to that of mammals, and consists of two auricles and two ventricles; of these vessels, those of the right send the venous, or impure blood, into the lungs for purification; those of the left send the arterial, or pure blood, out for circulation in the body; the blood of birds has a higher temperature than that of mammals, averaging 103° Fahr.

Birds are Distributed over every Part of the Globe, being found in the coldest as well as the hottest regions, although some species are restricted to particular countries, whilst others are widely dispersed. At certain seasons of the year many of them change their abodes, and migrate to climates better adapted to their temperaments or modes of life, for a time, than those which they leave. Many of the birds of Britain, directed by an unerring instinct, take their departure from the island before the commencement of winter, and proceed to the more congenial warmth of Africa, to return with the next spring. Various causes are assigned by naturalists for this peculiarity, some attributing it to deficiency of food, others to the want of a secure asylum for the incubation and nourishment of their young, and others again to the necessity of a certain temperature for existence; natural selection may be a probable explanation of the phenomenon of the migration of birds. Their migrations are generally performed in large companies; in the daytime they follow a leader who is occasionally changed; during the night-time many of the tribes send forth a continual cry, to keep themselves together, although it might be thought that the noise which must accompany their flight would be sufficient for that purpose.

The Food of Birds varies, as does the food of quadrupeds, according to the character of the species. Some are altogether carnivorous; others, as for instance many of the web-footed tribes, subsist on fish; others, on insects and worms; and others again on grain and fruit. The extraordinary powers of the gizzard of the gramnivorous birds enable them to comminute their food so as to prepare it for digestion. Their digestive system consists of glands of a simple form, of a single or double ingluvies or crop which receives the food; of the proventriculus, or true digestive cavity; of the gizzard furnished internally with horny ridges by means of which the food is broken up, and a comparatively short intestine and gall bladder. The stones found in the stomachs of birds take the place of teeth, in that they grind down the grain and other hard substances which constitute their food. The stones themselves, being also ground down and separated by the powerful action of the gizzard, are mixed with the food, and doubtless contribute greatly to the health as well as to the nourishment of the birds.

All Birds are Oviparous.—The eggs which the various species produce differ in shape and colour as well as in point of number. They contain protoplasm, the elements of the future young, for the perfecting of which in the incubation a bubble of air is always placed at the large end, between the shell and the inside skin. This air bubble gets larger by absorption through the shell and evaporation of the fluid contents, so that a large air-bubble is the sign of a stale egg. During incubation the shell is dissolved, and goes to form the bones of the chick. To preserve an egg perfectly fresh, and even fit for incubation, for five or six months after it has been laid, stop up its pores with a slight coating of varnish or mutton-suet. Birds, however do not lay eggs before they have some place to put them; accordingly, they construct nests for themselves with astonishing art.

Each circumstance
How artfully contrived to favour warmth!
Here read the reason of the vaulted roof;
How providence compensates, ever kind,
The enormous disproportion that subsists
Between the mother and the numerous brood,
Which her small bulk must quicken into life.

In building their nests the male and female generally assist each other, and they contrive to make the outside of their tenement bear as great a resemblance as possible to the surrounding foliage or branches, so that it cannot very easily be discovered even by those who are in search of it.

Birds as Food.—There is no bird, nor any bird's egg, that is known to be poisonous, though they may, and often do, become unwholesome by reason of the food that the birds eat, which at all times greatly changes the quality of the flesh, even in birds of the same breed.

Barndoor fowls are less fat than, but far superior in flavour to the fowls fed close crops for the town market, and the eggs of fowls fed on scraps and house refuse are generally strong and disagreeable. Wild ducks and other aquatic birds are often rank and fishy flavoured. The pigeon fattens and wastes in the course of a few hours. The pronounced flavour of the grouse is said to be due to the heather shoots on which it feeds.

Poultry.—Most poultry breeders arrange that poultry intended for the table shall undergo a special preparation previously to being killed, but it will be found that the flesh of a healthy fowl which has lived a free out-of-door life till the last moment is both better in flavour and more wholesome than that of one which has been kept in confinement, and fed perhaps compulsorily into an unhealthy condition of obesity. If well fed and killed at the right time, naturally fed birds will be quite plump enough. Pheasants and partridges, for instances, come fairly plump to table, even when left quite free to find their own living. Sussex has long been famous for the quality of the poultry it sends to market; the Sussex, or Surrey fowls, as they are more frequently called, invariably command the highest prices; and deservedly so, for they carry the largest proportion of flesh.

While the birds are being fattened they must have only soft food, no hard corn being admissible. The best fattening foods are ground oats, buckwheat-meal, maize-meal and whole wheat-meal. Some breeders add suet and other fatty substances. These undoubtedly contribute to the fat of the birds, but not so much to the flesh; and in fattening fowls, the true object is not to lay on fat, but to develop plenty of good, wholesome flesh. Whatever the breed, the treatment is the same in the fattening coop. Chickens should be confined in them when about three months old, and be fed three times a day, the troughs, which are hung outside the coop, being removed as soon as they have satisfied their appetites. Food should never be left standing by them, and in the early fattening stages it is a good plan to miss a meal at the first indication of failing appetite. The ground oats, which constitute their principal food, are nearly always mixed with separated milk, and made so moist that the birds cannot lift up a lump with their beaks. It is necessary that they should be kept in semidarkness; and when their appetites fail, as they usually do after a fortnight's restraint, the cramming machine has to be utilized, the same food being still given them, with the addition of suet or rough fat. The coops or pens employed by the poultry feeders are made of laths, stand raised from the ground, and are usually placed in sheds. They who have no fattening pens should confine the fowls in a small run, feed them three times a day on ground oats, barley-meal, and maize-meal mixed with potatoes. When a certain stage is reached the birds begin to go back, and should be killed at once, first letting them fast twenty-four hours to empty the crop. The longest period that is advisable for fattening a fowl is three weeks.

An easy way to kill a fowl is to hang it up by the legs, and with a sharp knife pierce the roof of the mouth until the point touches the brain. Death is instantaneous, and the fowl should be plucked whilst warm, and then placed in a V-shaped trough, back uppermost, a board being laid on the top with a heavy weight upon it, to ensure the fowl being a good shape when cold.

Fattening Turkeys for the Table.—Turkeys grow very slowly; therefore, the earlier they are hatched the better when it is necessary that they should attain their full growth by Christmas. They need plenty of liberty and good feeding from the day of their hatching until they come to the fattening shed. A roomy shed, open to the south, should be selected for the purpose, for these birds thrive best when kept warm and dry. The shed should be supplied with low perches, kept scrupulously clean, and provided with means for excluding the light. They are usually fed twice a day; in the morning on a mixture of meals, such as ground oats, barley-meal, sharps or pollard, and a little maize, moistened with separated milk. The afternoon meal sometimes consists of whole corn, previously soaked in hot water and given to them whilst warm, or it may be simply a repetition of the morning's meal. The addition of fat helps to make the flesh of the birds white, and a certain amount of flint grit is necessary to their well-being. They should not be permitted to see fowls at liberty while under restraint themselves, otherwise they are apt to fret and refuse their food.

Fattening Ducks for the Table.—The secret of success in fattening ducks consists in starting the process almost as soon as they are hatched, in order to have them ready before their first moult, which takes place when they are about ten weeks old. The Aylesbury "duckers," as the duck fatteners are called, get their ducklings to scale four pounds and over when eight or nine weeks old. Ducklings should be bedded on straw in an airy shed, kept clean and only let out to feed, when they should have all they will eat and drink, and then be driven back to the shed The food should be mixed fairly moist, and consist of mixed meals, ground oats, biscuit-meal, barley-meal, sharps or well-boiled rice, to which a little fat is added. They should not be permitted to swim, and should be sheltered from the sun. As soon as the adult quill-feathers appear on their wings, they go back in condition and are troublesome to pluck; therefore, unless killed before that stage is reached, they should be turned out, and kept until about three or four months old. Flint grit should be put in their water-trough while they are fattening.

Fattening Geese for the Table.—Goslings are generally allowed their liberty during the summer, and have little food except the grass they gather. It is not advisable to shut them up when the time comes to fatten them; they should simply be well fed morning and evening, and permitted to range at liberty and eat all the grass possible, for grass forms a considerable portion of their food. A mixture of boiled rice, sharps and various meals should be given them in the morning, and maize or wheat at night, the latter being put in the water-trough. They should be allowed all the food they will eat for three or four weeks before killing. If shut up they can be made fatter; but fat geese are not desirable, for they lose too much weight in cooking.

To Choose Poultry.—When fresh, the eyes should be clear and not sunken, the feet limp and pliable, stiff dry feet being a sure indication that the bird has not been recently killed; and if the bird is plucked should be no discoloration of the skin.

Fowls, when young, should have smooth legs and feet; the cock bird is young when it has smooth legs and short spurs; hens when young have smooth legs. The bones of all young birds are soft and gelatinous and they always harden with age; the end of the breast-bone when young is soft and pliable; when otherwise, it may be accepted as sure evidence of the advanced age of the bird. The signs of an old fowl are its stiff, horny-looking feet, long spurs, dark-coloured and hairy thighs, stiff beak and bones. Game fowls, and those with dark-coloured legs, are better for roasting then for boiling. White fowls, such as Dorkings, are more suitable for boiling.

Turkeys.—Turkeys, when young, have short spurs and smooth black legs; when the legs are pale, or reddish and rough, and the spurs long, these marks may be taken as sure indications of age. When freshly killed the eyes should be full and bright. Norfolk turkeys are considered the best; the cock bird is usually selected for roasting, and the hen for boiling.

Geese and ducks when young have yellow feet and bills; as they grow old they become darker and reddish in colour. The feet of freshly killed geese and ducks are moist and soft, but, like those of fowls and turkeys, they become dry and stiff when they have been killed some time.