Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/December 1885/The Social Life of Arctic Birds

950716Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 December 1885 — The Social Life of Arctic Birds1885Alfred Edmund Brehm



"WHEN the great architect of the universe had finished his favorite star, the earth, Satan aspired to destroy it. From the seventh heaven he slung down a great stone toward the blooming earth; but an archangel, witnessing the wicked act, flew down faster than the falling rock, and turned it aside. The stone fell away up in the Northern Sea, and was broken up. The fragments scattered on every side and formed cliffs, some of which sunk in the deeps, while others rose black out of the waters. God in his infinite mercy pitied the bare devil's rock and made it fruitful." Thus runs an ancient Lap legend. The rock is Scandinavia; the fragments are the innumerable islands that surround it; and the fiords are the clefts between the larger stone and the fragments. One should have seen the country, rowed through the fiords, and gone down the icy mountains to the lakes and bays, to appreciate the appropriateness of the Saga.

Scandinavia is an Alpine country, and has, like Switzerland and the Tyrol, majestic glaciers, musical, dancing mountain-brooks, and strong rivers rushing over the blue slopes which are reflected in the transparent dark lakes. High up among these lie the prettily poised dwellings of the men, like eagles' nests stuck to the rocks. To make the similarity with the Swiss Alps complete, the green meadows are also not wanting in Scandinavia; and, while the northern mountains do not resound with the exultant jodel, joyous, fresh, melodious songs may be heard in the valleys and on the heights. The difference between Switzerland and Scandinavia is nevertheless great, even if we only consider how the deep sea cuts into the land and forms large bays which receive, from the shadows thrown upon them by the dark surrounding rocks, a mysterious yet not fearful aspect.

The fiords of Norway are remarkable, but they are not the most peculiar feature of the country; this is found in the innumerable islands which rise more than a thousand metres above the sea, or, planting their roots in the boundless deep, are visible only at low water. These islands are charming in the highest degree, and their peculiar beauty approves itself when the sun is resting below the horizon at midnight, and only a breath of twilight sweeps over the masses overflowed by the water. One might then well believe himself in a scene of enchantment.

The farther the traveler advances beyond the polar circle toward the north, the larger and more comfortable are the houses, while in the south, where the population is denser, they are of slighter construction. Yet no furrow is turned, no scythe is swung there; the sea is the field from which man derives his living. At the parting of day and night, when the sun goes away for months, the men sail recklessly in their boats and canoes to their anchoring-places far up in the north, and their spacious houses are quickly filled with guests. Obeying the resistless drift, come hosts of fishes out of the deepest deeps of the sea, so that the net cast for them mocks the strength of the Herculean men, or is torn under the burden. The throng of the foolish fish is so dense that an oar pushed perpendicularly through it remains upright. Millions are caught, and millions go on, so that there is no sign of a decrease in the number. This migration of the fishes reaches its extreme point at about Christmas-time. No pencil could reproduce the picture which the polar sea exhibits at this season. Hundreds of craft, manned with stalwart fishers, are being incessantly filled with speckled prey; as far as the eye can reach, nothing but fish, which crowd and press upon one another to get to the breeding-place; the massive glaciers and rock-built shores in the background, and, as illuminants to the scene, the ghostly moon and the crackling northern lights. All this time there is also twilight on the southern horizon, and toward February a narrow strip of the sun shows itself again, gradually to rise higher. With the first appearance of day the fishes begin to sink slowly in the fathomless depths. As the sky becomes brighter, the sea and its bays become more quiet. The boats cease to glide over the surface of the waters, the fishermen go home with their spoil, and the northern world lies silent, basking in the beams of the returning sun. But this quiet only lasts for a few weeks, when new noisy, swarming hosts come to the islands. They are the birds, which come up from the sea to the land. It is a deeply poetic trait in the lives of these creatures that only two causes determine them to seek terra firma—the power of love and the approach of death. The sea-bird, weather-proof, lives on the sea. He hunts his food by diving, swinging over the billows, and sleeps and dreams with his head hidden under his wings. But there comes a time when the earlier sunbeams kiss the northern islands; then he is mightily moved in his soul, and hastens to the coast to celebrate there his annual wedding. And, when he feels that death is near, he swims with his feeble limbs back to the place of his birth, there to close his life. It is the same feeling that inspires in aged men that ardent desire to return to their old home to die and be buried there. To the naturalist who goes to the north to study the ways of the birds this trait in their character is of peculiar interest. Of one of the tribes of these colonists of the northern bird-mountain I must make particular mention. It is the eider duck, the producer of down. It belongs to the family of the ducks, and forms, so far as bodily stature is concerned, one of the largest species of the group. The plumage of the male is handsome and brilliant. In it black, red, ashen-gray, ice-green, white, brown, and yellow are mingled with splendid effect. His head and back are snow-white, his neck is rose-red, and the lower part of his body is deep black. The female is less richly colored, in a modest garment adorned with gray and black spots and stripes. The eider-duck is a real sea-bird, and is excelled by none of its fellows in diving, while no other bird is more awkward in flying and helpless in walking. On the ground it moves with a toilsome waddle, stumbles and falls flat; and it greatly prefers the fluid element to the solid land. The birds generally live during the winter in large flocks on the open sea, and feed themselves with shell-fish which they bring up from the bottom. But, as soon as the spring sun begins to shine over the waves, the drake feels newly awakened the old love in his heart for his mate, and he renews his wooing. One pair after another leave the host and swim steadily toward the land. This wedding-journey toward the breeding-place offers a pretty picture of conjugal life. From the moment when the pair have found one another again there rules only one will, that of the duck, to which the male yields fully and without any wavering. Quite noticeable are his courteous attention and tenderness toward his spouse, which Madame Duck takes, as matters of course, in calm dignity. She steadily makes toward the shore, and finally lands, hardly heeding the cautions of her mate, whose instinct, sharpened by the experiences of former journeys he may have made, prompts him to beware of the devices of men. Loyally he waddles into the country, and follows her in her interminable tours while she is looking for a suitable nesting-place. Madame shows an exceedingly dainty taste during her explorations, carefully examining every bush, shrub, stone, and protected spot, venturing without fear into the dwelling-houses, even into the kitchens and chambers, where, if she finds a spot to her taste, she does not hesitate to take possession of it. Occasionally she will fix her nest in the oven, leaving it to the worthy matron of the establishment to find another place to bake her bread. The thrift of the woman generally gets the better of her vexation, and she lets the fowl alone so as not to lose its down. The nest is quickly built. The foundation is laid with dry grass and straw, after which the duck strips herself of down and forms with it a thickly soft-cushioned bowl. The drake follows every step of his mistress during these excursions and preparations, and looks out for her safety, without, however, "lending a hand" in any of her labors. As soon as the eggs are laid he deserts nest and mate and flies off to the sea to join the other males again. Great throngs of these grass widowers may then be seen sailing among the islands, wholly unconcerned about what is going on on the mainland. But we shall see how soon they are driven from this careless life.

The duck lays from four to eight, sometimes indeed ten grayish-green eggs, and then begins to sit upon them. The Northmen have been only waiting for this time to gather their spoil. Thirty ducks' nests furnish a pound of down, which can be sold on the spot for thirty marks German or $7.50 American money. The eggs are also worth money, and are generally sent to England. A duck-colony of this kind is a capital, the income from which is all clear gain, for the bird feeds itself and costs nothing. As soon as the eggs are laid the Northman appears with a great basket, into which he puts nest and eggs. The duck is deeply distressed over this unrighteous seizure of her property, and in her inexpressible agony flies out to sea to seek comfort with her mate. Whether he receives her with tender expressions of sympathy or with scoldings for her neglect of his warnings is still an unsolved problem; but it is certain that he becomes tender again toward her, and after a few weeks waddles back behind her to the same bay where she had been so badly treated. She again gathers straw and grass for the new nest; but how about its warm lining? The new down has not grown upon her in so short a time; what shall she do? There is no mother, not even a duck, that can not find her way out of a difficulty when the question concerns her offspring. Her breast is indeed bare, but her mate still has his full coating of down, and is now obliged to sacrifice it on the altar of affection. He cheerfully adapts himself to the unavoidable, and begins to strip himself. The process does not go on fast enough for the impatient duck, and she helps in the work, and both persevere in it till the drake stands out entirely bald. Then he flies away, and troubles himself no more about wife and nest, an indifference for which we need not blame him in view of his own forlorn condition. The duck herself also thinks of only one thing—her brood. She leaves the nest only once a day for a little while in the morning, to take her bath in the sea, plume herself, and get some food; but while attending to these details she does not forget to cover the eggs carefully with down, so as to keep them warm. Danger no longer threatens the brood from man, who generally takes good care of this hatching to preserve the species; but it is likely to come from birds of prey. Under these circumstances the practical value of the duck's simple duskily speckled coat is fully demonstrated. The color of its plumage agrees so well with that of the ground that it is very hard to distinguish the bird from its surroundings. It has happened to me more than twenty times to be standing directly over a nest and not remark it till I felt a gentle pecking at the feet, which the bird gave me by way of warning that I was approaching too near; for the duck hardly ever thinks of flying from man during the time of its brooding. I have frequently bent down over a nest, stroked the bird, and felt the eggs without its rising. The most it would do was to snap, as if in play, at my fingers.

A characteristic trait of the eider-duck is to have as many eggs as possible, whether they be its own or strange ones; it is a trait that is not found to exist to so great an extent in any other being. The sitting birds steal one from another whenever they have an opportunity. It is no uncommon occurrence, when one of them is away from her nest for a little while, for her neighbor to purloin three or four eggs, carry them to her nest, and hatch them out with her own. The robbed duck discovers the theft immediately on her return, but gives no sign of concern about it, seeming to say, "We will wait till you go away, and then I shall take my revenge." Her time comes at last; and thus no duck knows whether it is sitting on its own eggs or another's.

The young come out from the eggs at the end of thirty-six days, but do not stay in the nest any longer than till they have become completely dry, when the mother takes them to the sea, which she does not leave till the young have become tired in this their first swimming lesson, and can no longer ride on the backs of the strong waves. It is usually a considerable distance from the nest to the shore, and the chicks are exposed to many enemies in the shape of hawks, ravens, and gulls, which keep an eager lookout for them. Now the Northman steps in with his protecting hand and comes along with a pair of large baskets, into one of which he puts the young birds and into the other the precious down, while he goes from nest to nest, examining them to see in what ones the brood is ready to be removed. Hence he takes the young ones to the sea, while the mother waddles along behind, well knowing where he is leading her. At the shore he turns the basket over and goes away, leaving it to the old birds to find their own. They plunge into the flock, and each speedily gets as many of the chicks as she can. After a few hours the family bonds are closely sealed again, and each mother has gathered her little ones around her, which she treats with the most tender care, while they in return show the most grateful affection for her. They go with the old ones into the water, crawl around on their backs, and receive instruction in swimming and diving for mussels, the mother in the last exercise going down with a chick under each wing. In the course of eight weeks the young become fully instructed, and are ready to begin the struggle for existence on their own account. Now appears the Hen* Papa again upon the scene, when there is nothing more to be done, and proudly conducts the whole company over the open sea to their winter home. Such is the history of the best-known and most interesting of the birds that people the mountains of the North. I have thought it proper to give in brief a clear picture of its habits, because it forms in some respects the central point of the motley, busy company. We will now sketch in broad outline a general picture of one of these bird mountains.

The storm-gulls are inseparable from the eider-duck. If there are ten thousand pairs of ducks on a mountain, then the number of gulls nesting there will be at least fifty thousand. They come rushing up in graceful, rapid flight, presenting a pleasant aspect with their snow white and dark-colored feathers. They are the real but innocent betrayers of the eider-colonies, for where gulls circle in great numbers around the island one is sure to find nests of down. The host is further increased by large flocks of a kind of snipe which are distinguished by their clear voices. They are the police of the mountain, the guardians of the safety of the bird-republic; for as soon as they perceive anything that betokens danger, say an approaching boat, they cry out in chorus and give an alarm that instantly sets the whole population in motion. The gulls immediately send forth scouts which go toward the boat, soaring, screeching around it, swooping down upon it with the speed of an arrow, and often touching the boatman with the tips of their pinions. The mass of the army follows the scouts. They come by thousands and thousands, in so thick masses as to obscure the sun. The explorer is forced to come to the shore veiled in this living, fluttering, screeching, rushing cloud. The ducks, if they are not actually sitting, fly, the snipes hastily seek the sea, and the wagtails follow in noisy flight, but the host of gulls stands firm, screams and bustles and whirls and plunges, as if it could prevent the advance by noise and sham fighting. One may walk the shore and see nothing but birds and nests, and hear nothing but the discordant din of voices, accompanied by the thunderous rushing of thousands of wings lashing the air.

A more quiet picture is afforded by the hill where the auks brood. They resemble the eider-duck in shape, except that their bills are sharp and not flat, like those of the latter. There are three species of them, which are distinguished from one another by the length of the bill and its curvature. All three species live and brood in the same places. I was told of a mountain where a million of them had built their nests. I am sure of one thing—that no man has ever seen a million birds, even though he has traveled over half the earth. Doubting the accounts, I visited the described mountain. On a bright summer day my companion and myself took a boat and rowed toward it, over the smooth, transparent water, between beautiful islands, followed by the screeching of the startled gulls. High above us on a towering ridge we saw the watchful ospreys; by our side, on right and left, along the shore-cliffs, the sitting eider-ducks. Finally we came to the populous part of the mountain, which is from three hundred and twenty to three hundred and thirty feet high, and saw really immense numbers of birds sitting on the ridges. The higher parts of the cone were covered with a brown spoonwort, and as we approached the shore the birds drew back thither, and suddenly disappeared from view as if by concerted agreement. When we had reached the shore and landed, and were wondering what had become of the hosts of birds, we found the ground burrowed all over with holes that looked like common rabbit-holes. We soon learned that they were the entrances to the nest-chambers of the auks. The holes are large enough to permit the birds to pass through, and then widen on the inside so as to give room for the nest and the two birds. As we climbed toward the height, the tenants first carefully and anxiously peered at us, then slipped out and threw themselves screaming into the sea, which was soon covered, as far as the eye could reach, with birds whose cry resembled the noise of a gigantic surf or of a raging storm. At last we reached the top of the mountain, where two falcons that had been soaring over our heads swooped down like arrows into the swimming mass; each seized an auk in its claws, and then rose slowly toward the clouds. But the sea extended its wide, dark blue, bare surface before the eye, for the white swarm of birds had disappeared, having dived down beneath the protecting waves. After one or two minutes one arose, then a second, and a third, and so on in quick succession, and, as they thus gradually appeared on the surface, they looked like flecks of white foam. With marvelous rapidity the little dots increased, till soon it was only here and there that a strip of water could be seen. The screeching began anew, and the birds arose again from the water and moved toward the heights. We had sat down; the rustling, like that of the surf, and the monotonous cry of the birds, had lulled us gradually into a deep sleep. When we awoke and opened our eyes we could have believed that we were transported into a fairy land. In numbers like the sand on the sea-shore, the auks were squatting at our feet and down to the edge of the water, and curiously looking at us. We were the giants of the fairy story; they were the dwarfs, who dwelt in the secret caves of the mountain. The millions were there, if one could judge by the eye alone, but it is probable that, on an exact count, they would be many thousands short.

The auk lives a life of strict monogamy. It is to his beloved old wife, the flame of his youth, that he gives his attentions on every returning spring. The old auk is a constant, loving spouse, a pattern of a husband, and it is really a pity that the numerical relation of the sexes is such that not every young male can mate himself, and many are compelled to wander through life in compulsory bachelorhood. Particularly painful is the condition of the solitary one when the pairs go to the mountain in the spring. What shall he do? Shall he alone or with other morose companions wear out his life on the high sea? No, that would be suicide. He follows the bridal trains to the mainland and has at least a happy company around him, and may always hope that one of the males may perish, and he then in some possible way find favor in the eyes of the widow. The auks return every year to their old nests, which they readily distinguish, and the young, newly mated pairs build themselves new nests, or take possession of old ones whose owners have gone the way of all flesh. The male keeps watch at the entrance, while the female sets the house m order and lays her single egg, which is sat upon for about three weeks and a half. The female sits twenty-one hours a day, and the male ought to sit three hours, but he never does it, at least not in the beginning. As soon as the female goes away he rushes after her in a spasm of jealousy, for the young fellows are lurking around in all the corners and at all points. But this neglect of duty by the house-tyrant brings no harm to the egg. The nearest young fellow nimbly slips into the nest, and keeps the egg suitably warm till the mother returns. Shall he not also have a little satisfaction when others are sipping the joys of life in full draughts? There are no orphans among the auks. If a pair happen to die, the young fellows will hatch the egg out, or, if the chick is already hatched, they will take care of it. The early instruction of the chick is a matter of patience, time, and trouble. As soon as it is dry, the parents take it to a cliff by the sea-shore and spring down, while the young one remains standing above and not knowing what to do in his helpless condition. The old ones call, but he does not follow, for he is afraid of the leap and of the strange element. Father and mother repeat the leap again and again, and encourage the timid one. The young bird follows at last, not venturing upon the leap, but in a kind of desperate mood letting himself fall. As soon as he has touched the swinging wave he feels at home, and begins to swim bravely, the parents keeping by him, so as to give him rest on their backs when he is tired.

A quite different spectacle is presented by those mountains which are principally inhabited by a particular species of gull. To observe one of them I made a special excursion into Lapland. I had at the time a design of writing a book on the life of birds, and had read in some work about three-toed gulls that nested in the bird-mountains in such multitudes "that they darkened the sun when they rose, completely covered the mountain when they sat down upon it, deafened the ears when they screeched, and turned the verdure-clad rocks white where they were sitting." There are only three such mountains known—one in Lapland, one in Iceland, and one in Greenland. The one in Lapland, which is much the most remarkable, lies out of the course of the steamer, and we were therefore obliged to charter a special boat to reach it. A storm compelled us to go into a harbor of refuge. When the tempest had abated, about midnight, we continued our voyage. The waves were still high, and single gulls shot before and around us like dazzling white flashes. All at once, at Cape Svaerholm, not far from the North Strait, there rose before us a great black cliff. It looked like a large marble table covered with millions of little white points that shone like stars. We fired a shot at them, when, as soon as the report had ceased, these became living birds, pure white gulls, and sunk in a few minutes hastily down to the sea in so compact a throng that I might have thought a snow-storm had broken loose and was pouring its immense flakes down from the sky. For a few minutes it snowed birds as far as one could see. The surge rolled wild, but it was the euphonious accompaniment of the rustling of the wings and of the shrieks of the frightened sea-birds. As far as the eye could reach the waves were covered with the foam-born children of the sea, and the cliff and the mountain were as white-dotted as before. Yet these were only the males, which had rushed away on the approach of danger.