The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 719/Observational Diary of the Habits of Great Crested Grebe and Peewit, Selous

An Observational Diary of the Habits-Mostly Domestic-of the Great Crested Grebe (Podicipes cristatus) (1901)
by Edmund Selous
3846136An Observational Diary of the Habits-Mostly Domestic-of the Great Crested Grebe (Podicipes cristatus)1901Edmund Selous


No. 719.—May, 1901.


By Edmund Selous.

April 27th, 1900.—I noticed to-day a pair of these birds swimming about together on a large sheet of water some miles from where I live. I did not then, through the glasses, see anything resembling a nest.

May 3rd.—This morning one of the birds is sitting upon a large structure of weeds which I imagine to be the finished nest. It would seem, however, that some touches are added even after incubation—or, at least, the laying of the eggs—has commenced, for now the other bird is swimming to the nest, and, when within a little distance of it, dives, and, coming up with some weeds in its bill, lays them at the edge of it. He then swims out to the same place, dives again, and returns with some more; and this he does five times in succession. I now go nearer, and, though I am still a considerable distance off, the bird upon the nest leaves it and swims away. I sit down against a tree, and she soon returns, and, giving a long lithe leap out of the water on to the mass of weeds, again settles herself down upon it. She sits quietly, and must certainly be either incubating or in process of laying the eggs. Yet every now and then she bends the head forward, and with the beak arranges, or at least moves about, the weeds edging the structure. From her sitting so steadily, and her haste to return to the nest, I have little doubt that this is the female bird, and if so, as the male dived for weeds and brought them to the nest in the most accustomed manner, I imagine that both birds help in the building of it, for one can hardly suppose that the male alone does so. Whilst sitting the bird has her neck bent back between the shoulders in an easy curve, the head being just raised above the back, and held straight, with the beak pointing forward. On any alarm it is stretched a little forward, or raised straight up. When the female has sat like this for about an hour, the male again swims up, and, diving, brings some more weeds to the nest. He does this two or three times, bringing once a large green stalk of some plant or lily, and again quite a mass of weeds. The birds then, I think, arrange this a little together, but not much in this way appears to be done, and what is, principally by the male. There is then a short interval, during which the male swims about at a moderate distance from the nest, returning to which he now, to my astonishment, springs upon it, and, raising himself upright, or almost so, on his legs, which are placed as far back as a Penguin's, he pairs, or attempts to pair, with the female. If successful, the act is of extremely short duration, and, taking the water again, the male bird swims away. He returns, and again swims away several times at rather longer intervals than formerly, sometimes, but not often, bringing a little weed in his bill. During this time the female bird is occupied a little, but not, I think, very much, in arranging the materials of the nest. She is moving her head and neck freely about; but, if I mistake not, when she does this she is only preening herself. On one of the returns of the male bird, I notice that she bends down her head so that the beak, I think, touches the water, lying thus flat all along the nest; and whilst in this position the male swims to that side of the nest towards which her tail is turned, and seems two or three times to be on the point of leaping up again in order to pair as before, which, however, he does not do, but again swims off. The pairing, then, of these birds takes place on the nest, which, it would now seem, is not completed; nor can I think, under these circumstances, that the eggs are yet laid, or even that the hen is sitting to lay them. It would appear, that however the nest may be built during its initial stages, the hen bird at one period sits on a mass of weed whilst the male brings fresh weeds to it. Whilst swimming in the neighbourhood of the nest the male bird was constantly preening himself, not only the neck and upper parts, but the whole ventral surface, to do which he turned himself sideways in the water, thus presenting to the view a broad expanse of silvery feathers. The above took place, roughly, between 6.45 and 8.45 a.m.

I return about 5.30 p.m., and find things much as before; one bird still sits on the nest, the other floats about rather than swims in the neighbourhood, at just the same distance. His head, now, is flung right back upon his back, at almost the middle of it, and the white neck and upper part of the breast gleam like silver in the sun. Occasionally he preens himself, when a greater surface of silver becomes visible; but a little of this is exposed, as he moves, all along the water-line. After a little the sitting bird turns round in or on the nest, so that her back is towards me. In the morning she was sideways to me in two directions, thus making three points of the compass, turned to which I have seen her sitting. I now walk all round the lake, and, coming at last to the nest—now of course empty—which is just off the shore, I find that it has one egg in it, partially covered over with the weeds, &c., of which the nest is composed. Assuming that this egg was laid not later than the preceding night—which is likely—then the pairing of the birds took place not only on the nest, but whilst the female was actually sitting on the egg, which to me is surprising. Both birds are now swimming about together, and when just in front of each other one dives and brings up some weed, which they both discuss in the friendliest manner, pulling it about, and perhaps eating a little, though of this I cannot be sure.[1] Shortly after this the male bird swims to the nest, and, after swimming round about it a little, is evidently preparing to leap up. This he suddenly does in a very lithe and lissom manner, with neck bent yet extended, seeming to dive upwards, the long beak spearing the air. The sudden revealment of his lithe wet outline seems to diminish his size, and he becomes in a much greater degree long, lank, and snaky, like a Shag. For a moment—as he alights—he stands almost as upright as a Penguin; then, bending snakily forward, with legs straddled wide apart, he waddles a step or two along the raft, seeming to feel for the eggs with the feathers between his legs; then sinks forward on his breast, and sits at ease with his head drawn down upon his back. The female bird now swims much farther afield—too far for me to make out what she is doing, but probably she is feeding. I have now seen plainly that when preening these birds turn very much on one side, thus showing in a gleam—bright to dazzling—the silver of the breast, or rather ventral surface, almost in its full extent. I leave at seven, there having been no further change on the nest.

May 4th.—At 5 a.m. I find the male bird on the nest. As I approach the tree from which I watch, and whilst still a great way off, he leaves it, but keeps close about, sometimes swimming a few yards away from it, then turning, diving, and emerging again just beside it. Then pressing against it with his breast, he cranes forward his neck, and looks into it, then coasts round it a little, again cranes his neck, and in a moment makes his lithe Cormorant leap, and is on it. The spring is very quick and sudden, yet smooth and without splash, suggesting that the bird has been oiled, or that he passes from oil rather than water. He stands but a moment—just one flash of a Cormorant—and then sinks flatly and smoothly down.

5.50.—The female, who has been before invisible, is now all at once there, and approaches the nest, swimming to it quietly and placidly over the sun-bathed mirror of the lake. It is clearly the female, for the other, the male, is considerably larger, and has a larger crest. Both birds remain quietly by the nest for a minute or so, the male turned sideways in the water so that full three-fourths of his beautiful silver breast is exposed; and as he preens it, assiduously spearing into the thick fur of feathers with his long finely-pointed bill, one of his finned feet or paddles is often raised above the surface of the water, and beats it idly. The female then takes her place on the nest, but her leap is not so lithe and subtle, so instinct with nervous energy, so Cormorant-like as the male's. The male floats or swims about in the neighbourhood as before, continually preening himself. Sometimes he will make a little swift gliding leap up in the water and smartly shake his wings. This upward motion is very graceful and snake-like, for, as the body rises, the long neck, which seems but an extension of it, curves backwards, upwards, and again forwards as the bird sinks back on the water, the whole motion much resembling the quick forward glide of a serpent. The male bird makes now, at short intervals, four approaches to the nest, and at each of these the female lowers her head, and, with neck stretched forward, lies all along the nest, obviously prepared for and expecting his marital attentions. Each time, too, the male swimming to the right place at the nest and craning his neck over it, seems on the point of springing up, but does not do so. He preens the feathers of his neck, again seems about to spring, preens again, and swims away. After the fourth return he swam to a good way off, and remained some time away, after which there were three more approaches, when the same thing took place. The female must have put herself in position on the nest at least a dozen times, and would often slightly raise her head and look round at the male, then again lower it as before. On no other occasion have I seen her lie thus with her head and neck stretched straight out, and flat along the nest. I wish to make it quite plain that these actions of the two birds, seen, practically, by the aid of the glasses at a few yards distance, could admit of no other interpretation than that which I have placed upon them: so that, taken together with what I have already recorded, they seem to show that the nest is the habitual pairing-place of these Grebes.

After the seventh failure the female came off the nest, and the male bird shortly took her place. This was at 7. She then swam right away, and when I left about 7.40 she had not returned. On the third return of the male bird to the nest he dived, and came up with a large lump of weed in his bill, which he brought to the nest. On the fourth there was an incident with a Moor-hen. The latter stood just on the edge of the bank, which formed an abrupt grassy slope, and its presence seemed resented by the male Grebe, who swam towards it in a hostile manner. The Moor-hen retreated a little way up the bank, and the Grebe returned to the nest; but, on the Moor-hen's again descending, he again swam towards it, this time in a little threatening rush, driving it right up the bank. This took place yet a third time, and then, before descending the bank again, the Moor-hen walked some way farther off along the top of it. This, it must be remembered, was not under the actual stress of an attack, but deliberately, and though it was evident that the particular spot off the water which the Moor-hen was thus leaving was the particular spot where it wished to be. Two attempts to return and a previous lengthy occupation are sufficient to show this. It is in little everyday things like this, I think, that one can best trace the working of reason in animals. Elaborate experiments in which they are placed under quite artificial conditions are of little value. I have read a whole series of such where Cats and Dogs were put into boxes which opened by a certain mechanical contrivance, and it seemed to be expected of them that they should calmly examine the interior with a view to piercing into this, the result, of course, being held to show that they had no reasoning power. Probably as long as they were there, their mental distress and confusion was such that they had not. When Foxes, however, and Wolverines walk round traps and examine them (as to which see Professor Romanes' 'Animal Intelligence') they are calm, and have their wits about them. Moreover, they have had time and that kind of vivid experience which impresses things on the mind—factors which, in the wooing of reason, are found sometimes to be almost as much needed by men as by animals. There is too much tendency, I think, to go by experiments made in the study rather than by those which nature may be said to make. The reason of this is not difficult to understand. Men, as a rule, are more comfortable in their study, and they admire their own or each other's ingenuity. But the greatest ingenuity can hardly ever give what is the most absolutely essential factor in all experiments where animal psychology is concerned, viz. natural—or at any rate accustomed—conditions. I therefore think that to watch an experiment made by nature is in nine cases out of ten much better than to make one oneself.

The Moor-hen seemed to know that the Grebe would not follow him up the bank, for always, though he might be a little more or less frightened away, one could read in his actions the idea that there was no further need for exertion when he was once out of the "reach" of the latter's long neck. He thus took the minimum of trouble necessary to avoid the danger, and this I have often observed with birds. Moor-hens, though so pugnacious, know well their limitations, giving instant way, as a rule, even to a Coot when attacked by one. However, so do the weaker to the stronger ones amongst themselves.

Seen now swimming close, the Great Crested Grebe shows not a particle of his silver feathering—I speak, of course, of the under surface—above the water-line. In a wind the handsome crest or double tippet is being constantly blown back round his head and face, giving him a funny dishevelled appearance. It is of a fine orange[2] and black, whilst from amidst it projects the thin white face with the long sharp-pointed spear of a beak. The long serpent neck is brown on the back, white and silver-white on the belly, and, with the swelling crested head, makes the bird look like a Water-Cobra. His dive is sometimes quite informal, just lazily spearing the water, sinking a little in it before he spears it; sometimes it is with the right Cormorant leap upwards and then downwards, though much less vigorously carried out. Sometimes again the long straight-stretched neck with sharp pickaxe beak shooting out at a right angle sweeps down without a curve. Certainly one of the most ornamental of water-birds, and that it should require protection shows us to be still inappreciative savages.

He has just come up with a good-sized fish in his bill, which he shifts about till he gets the head downwards in it before swallowing. Yet fish abound in this water, and were far more numerous, according to all accounts, in the Norfolk Broads in those days when the Crested Grebe was also—a remark which can be equally well applied to the Otter. No doubt when we import Sheep and Goats into a country infested with Wolves, the latter must be got rid of, but it is the height of absurdity to interfere between one indigenous wild creature and another. All that we have to do is to leave them both alone, and both flourish. The very existence of a preying species must show an abundance of the species preyed upon in exact proportion to its own, as is—or was—well seen in a country like Africa.

Our real efforts should be directed against ourselves—that is to say, against the inordinate love of one thing in us at the expense of another. It ought, for instance, to be for all as it is for many, a greater loss never to see such birds as Kites, Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, Eagles, Ravens, &c., than it is a gain to have a larger number of Pheasants, Partridges, Grouse, or Blackcock to the end of killing more of them; and it ought to be an infinitely greater pleasure not only to see a bird or other animal in life and nature, but even to know that it is so, than to hold it dead in our own poor possession. That this is largely not the case shows lack of taste, lack of imagination, lack of a true love of nature. Let us supply these wants in our proper selves, and "keep down" those redundancies which prey upon them, and the cruel extermination—now in active process—of so many beautiful and interesting forms of life will cease. By preserving our own "balance"—the proper proportion of our tastes and pleasures—we should be preserving that of nature. What, for instance, would not a proper balance of appreciation in women as between their own beauty and that of birds effect in favour of the latter?

Extermination is a real evil. The desire to check it is not mere sentimentality, as some writers seem to imagine. "Why," for instance, asks Sir Herbert Maxwell[3] (and he intends the question as a reductio ad absurdum), "should not insects, which are preyed upon by birds, be as much protected as the birds?" Certainly, if it would be ridiculous to save some most beautiful butterfly from disappearance at the hands of man, it would be equally so to save a Humming-Bird or Bird of Paradise; but, as Touchstone says, "much virtue in your if." It is marvellous how men, who would be in despair (yet not more so than myself) at the threatened destruction of some fine painting or piece of sculpture, can see with imperturbability the artificial extermination of a living work. I admit that, when we look at, say, the Laocoon, the Assumption, or a portrait by Rembrandt, it is difficult to bear in mind the relative proportions of human and divine genius, but reason should tell us how immeasurably superior are the works of nature to those of art. If we must love killing, yet let us not, even as pure egotists, tolerate making to cease, for the more cessation the less killing in the long run—the end should sanctify the means.

May 8th.—At 1.40 p.m. find both birds off the nest, and I can see, through the glasses, at least two of the white eggs quite distinctly. There was no question of the birds having been alarmed by me, for I was much beyond the limit at which I have ever alarmed them before. It would seem therefore as if the birds did not cover their eggs in leaving when not disturbed. In a minute or two the male makes his leap on to the nest, and sits on the eggs. In coming up to the tree from which I watch, I do not this time disturb him. As usual, I soon lose sight of the female, who has swum right away.

1.40.—The female returns to the nest, swimming quietly up to it. I do not see her till she is there. The male then stands up, gives himself a preen or two with the beak, and takes the water, when the hen with hardly a pause jumps up. She stands a little, and moves the weeds about with her beak before settling down. The male, on leaving, goes to the bank, and (I think without diving) brings from it to the nest a small piece of weed. He then swims twice a little distance out, dives, and, coming up each time with a good beakful, brings them both to the nest, and the female afterwards arranges them upon it with her beak. Thus day by day, while the birds are sitting, the bulk of the nest is added to, and always, so far as I have yet seen, by the male bird.

2.—The male bird has also now gone a good way off, but I still see him on the water.

2.25.—The male back at the nest, and there is now more arranging of the weeds by the two birds together. After this the male swims off again, there being no change on the nest.

2.55.—The female leaves the nest, in alarm, I think, at an approaching boy in charge of a flock of Sheep.

May 17th.—Upon coming here to watch again I find the nest plundered and destroyed.

May 19 th.—Coming again this morning, about 6.30 a.m., I see one bird swimming by itself in the neighbourhood of the destroyed nest, and farther off a pair of them.

After some time the single male bird swims to and meets the female of the other two, she having swum to him, leaving her companion—a male in splendid plumage.[4] When the two birds meet they remain for some moments at rest on the water fronting each other, their heads and necks close together, whilst each tâtes the other's bill with his own. They then swim down to a part of the water nearer to me, followed by the odd male bird, who when the others pause remains near about them, having a somewhat "out of it" appearance. The accepted male, which I believe to be the one whose nest has been destroyed, now swims towards him with neck drawn in, head lowered, and bill pointing straight forward just above the water-line. All at once, and when still a little way off, he dives; a moment or two afterwards there is a sudden start and retreat on the part of the rival bird, the other one reappearing on the surface a little behind him. In a minute or two this happens again, and this time it is more pronounced, the start of the attacked bird being much more sudden, his retreat more alarmed and rapid, whilst his enemy emerges just where he has been, having evidently attacked him under the water. Once more, about half an hour afterwards, this mode of warfare is exhibited, if possible, still more clearly. During the interval the discomfited bachelor bird has remained alone near the bank where the destroyed nest has been, and the married couple now swim directly down upon him. The male is in advance, and as he approaches he again exhibits the angry mien, holding the head low, with the neck drawn in and the beak pointed straightly forward, looking like a stiletto. But he swerves from his course, and seems now to be swimming towards the female, who has glided out to one side, and rides at ease—a spectator—when he dives. This, however, must have been a ruse, for a few seconds afterwards the unhappy persecuted male not only starts, but rises in great confusion out of the water, and flies right away to a distant part of the lake. From the moment of his flight I watch for the reappearance of the other, and, sure enough, he comes up shortly in the place, or approximately the place, that has just been left vacant. He swims about for a little with the head still lowered, and in a proud sort of way; then, raising it, goes to the female, and there is now between the two the same scene of gratulation as before, but much more marked. They again front each other with their heads and necks almost touching, and keep moving them from side to side in opposite directions, their two beaks crossing each other and shooting out suddenly on each side of the two necks like sharp little daggers. At the same time they both utter a short, quickly repeated note of a clucking or clacking description, strongly expressive of content and gratulation—and this they did before, though I omitted to note it. It is thus evident that it is the habit of these birds when fighting to dive and attack each other under the water, and this habit they share with the Black Guillemot, and no doubt with other diving birds. Judging by the way in which the one bird flew off, he must, I think, have received a very effective spear-thrust from the other's beak.

I now think it possible that I was mistaken as to its having been the male which I first saw alone by the ruined nest that went through the first congratulation scene with the female. It does not seem likely that a bird so favoured and victorious should have allowed a third party to "consort" with its spouse, and afterwards, till the final discomfiture of the third bird, the pair were always together. I might have mistaken the two birds, as one, at least, was frequently diving, probably the other also, but I cannot now recall it clearly. It is even possible that there may have been a transposition of the two owing to such an attack as I have described, but which, not being quite so salient as the other ones, as well as quite new to me, I may have missed. Still there is nothing except what seems to me now to be the probability of the case which should make me doubt the accuracy of my observation. But we have this point which is interesting, that the solitary and defeated male remained during the interval between two attacks made upon him near the place where the nest had been, and this was where I first saw the supposed other male. Now, what should a new arrival know about this nest of two other birds? unless, indeed, he had destroyed it; and then his feelings would not be of such a nature as to prompt him to hang sadly about it. But now, suppose that he had indeed destroyed it, ousted the other bird, and supplanted him in the affections of his wife, then we can understand that other one lingering near the ruins of his home. That this should really have been the case seems altogether improbable, but perhaps the possibility is not quite excluded. It was on the morning that I first found the nest destroyed that I saw for the first time this third bird. That some drama had taken place between the 8th and the 17th I cannot help suspecting, and I regret now extremely that I was unable to watch during the intervening days. However, what seems most probable is that the nest was plundered and destroyed by someone,[5] that the two birds then swam about all day on the lake, and that an unpaired male, seeing a female whom he thought might possibly be also free, approached her with honourable intentions, for which she never forgave him.[6]

May 21st.—Arrive at 6 a.m. The two birds are swimming together, and I at once notice a new nest in the same place as the other, which has been built since yesterday. It looks, through the glasses, as large and substantial as was the first. The birds swim about together as usual, preening themselves, &c.; but in about ten minutes the male, with a little turn towards the female, as though to ask her concurrence, starts towards the nest, swimming straight on without pausing, in a purposive manner. Soon he dives, and, coming up with weeds, continues towards it, and works at it for some few minutes without being joined by the female; so that I begin to think the male alone builds the nest. After a time, however, the female comes, and at once shows herself the more efficient of the two (though the male is also very efficient), diving more frequently, and bringing up larger masses of weed. Both birds now work together quickly and systematically, generally diving for each load of material, but sometimes—and especially the female—collecting it from the surface near the bank. They must have carried perhaps a dozen cargoes between them before I take out my watch. It is then 6.20, and in the next ten minutes they bring, together, twenty-five cargoes. The female then—at 6.30—springs upon the nest, and lies all along it in the way I have described, wishing evidently to receive the male. He, however, does not respond. She soon comes off again (in less than a minute), and the building continues with the greatest activity, as before. "Fervet opus," and by 7 o'clock forty-nine more cargoes—thus making seventy-four within forty minutes—have been brought by the two birds.

The male now swims to the bank, and stands up upon the sedge and mud at the extreme edge of the water. After standing a moment or two he sits, but soon again rises, then sits and seems resting. Afterwards he again stands and preens himself a little. The female meanwhile continues to work by herself, and brings ten more cargoes to the nest before desisting. This would be towards 7.30, for there has been some pause after 7, and afterwards she has not worked so quickly, besides being alone. During the greater portion of this time the male, who has re-entered the water, has also been working, but, instead of helping the female as before, he is now carrying weeds to the bank where he has been standing and sitting. He swims out each time some little distance, and dives for them exactly as in building the nest. By 7.30 he has brought twenty-seven cargoes thus to the bank, arranging each one with his bill as at the nest. Then—at 7.30—he stands up exactly where he has placed the weeds—upon them, that is to say—having evidently been making a platform with them for this purpose. He shortly again takes the water, brings one more weed-load, and then swims away, joining, after a time, the female, who has by this time also desisted, and both birds now float idly on the water. I now walk along the bank to the nest, which I find to be twenty-three paces beyond the old one, and at another twenty-three paces beyond the new nest I find the little platform or foothold of weeds which the male bird has made. This is adjoining to and just on the extreme edge of the bank, where it is hardly above the water and more composed of sedge than soil. The nest is a massive structure, and seems to be anchored and kept in place by being woven, under water, in the growing weeds of which, uprooted, it is formed. Several long and water-logged sticks are also fixed amidst it by one end, the other end sinking down amidst the mud and weeds; so that they too help to hold it fast. I had several times seen the female, but not the male, placing and struggling with these sticks. One has, I may say, often to scribble very fast in order to keep up with the birds, and so must leave a few things to be added.

Now sticks, being usually pieces of floating spar from wrecks, are stuck by the Shag amongst the mass of seaweed which forms its nest, and here it does not seem as if they could serve any definite purpose. May we not see in such things as this the origin—one of the origins—of the idea of ornament. Something felt to be necessary—large and conspicuous, but of no definite use—has, one may almost say, the elements of ornament within it, and even amongst ourselves, it is probable that many things are fiddled about and "arranged" as ornaments, with but a very slight æsthetic sense of them. Use passes insensibly into ornament, as one may see if one watches the laying of a cloth and setting out the things upon it. On independent grounds I came to the conclusion that these conspicuous bleached spars stuck amongst the brown seaweed of the Shag's nest serve now as ornaments, yet surely we may see in them the survival of a habit, once of definite service, to a river-haunting ancestry who built their nests on the water, and thus helped to anchor them. The Shag is more marine than the Common Cormorant, and there are other species, if I mistake not, who live wholly or mostly on rivers. An inquiry into the nest-building habits of the whole family might prove instructive.

Revenons à nos "podicipes." Judging by the insignificant appearance of the platform—made up of at least twenty-eight cargoes—and comparing it with the huge mass of the nest, one would say that the latter must be the result of thousands of similar loads. Yet I could see no trace of it yesterday, nor were the birds working at it that morning, at any rate after 6.30. Most birds that I have watched, build their nests almost exclusively in the early morning, nor did I ever see these Grebes do so at any other time.

This morning I occasionally saw both the birds swim with weeds to the nest, having one foot raised up above the surface of the water.

May 22nd.—Same place at 6.10 a.m., and find the birds building another nest a considerable way from the last—i.e. the second one—always in the same direction, and just off the bank. By 7 they had brought between them—as well as I could count—exactly one hundred cargoes of weed, and by 6.45, when a slight pause occurred, they had brought eighty-six. The last ten or twelve of the hundred were brought by the male only, who continued to work thus alone for a short time afterwards; yet the nest, when I first saw it at 6.10, looked as large as the other, and as though it represented a great deal more weed than the birds had brought in these fifty minutes. They must, I think, have been working from earliest dawn. The male did not, this time, leave off nest-building to continuously build a platform, but on three or four occasions he varied the former by taking a cargo to a patch of very green and grassy-looking rushes, just off the bank, returning, then, to the nest and continuing to work as before. On the last of these journeys he brought a stick to the bank, and, having laid it down, he immediately stood up—I have no doubt upon it, as part of the platform. I had seen him standing there before, also, as well as sitting, shortly after I arrived. The male Crested Grebe therefore, at any rate, makes a platform of weeds, &c., at a little distance from the nest, on which to stand or sit during the building of it, and also probably during incubation. Both to-day and yesterday the female sometimes carried a very large mass of weed to the nest. Once yesterday her head and neck, as she dragged it, were pulled right back, and this morning her head was once almost hidden behind the mass she was holding. The male never carried quite so large a quantity, though his average was about the same, and he worked very quickly and eagerly. Generally he carried a longer and thinner piece, which would rest on his back and stream behind him along the water. To see him swimming thus draped, very quickly and straight as a die, to the nest was a pretty—indeed, a fascinating—sight. He would swim out from the nest, dive and emerge generally, if not always, with his head turned the other way—to it, that is—and swim back almost without a pause. He swam much faster than the female.

7.30.—I now notice the male bird making his platform or raft systematically, bringing cargo after cargo to it. He takes three or four (how many he may have taken before I caught sight of him I do not know), but now, at 7.35, both birds are at the nest again, and the female places a stick upon it.

7.40.—Male carrying loads to his platform again. He has carried, I think, two or three more, and now stands up, and then sits upon it in the same way as does the female on the nest.

7.43.—He is off again, and carries another load a little past the nest, as though to take it to the platform; then hesitates, turns, and places it on the nest. The next bunch of weed he passes to the female, who takes it from him and deposits it on the nest, whilst he swims a little farther, and dives for more.

7.47.—Male taking a cargo to platform. He takes four in succession, then meets female at nest, and passes her a load as before, which, however, she allows to drop. One of the birds now jumps on to the nest, and sits there a moment or so; then off again. I think it was the female, but am not quite certain.

7.55.—The male is now again taking loads to his platform, and also to the nest; but he has taken some four to the former, only one to the latter. He then takes two more to the platform. I now again see the third Grebe in the distance, but he keeps aloof, and plays no part in the drama.

The morning's work seems now (at 8.10) to be finished, and I can only see one of the two birds a long way from the nest. I leave at 8.15.

This occasional hesitation of the male between the nest and his platform, as though he were in doubt to which to take his load of weed to, is a thing to be noted, for it may throw a light on the possible origin of the habit of making such a platform—that is, supposing such a habit to exist; but as to this, other questions now arise. Why should the birds, having almost completed one nest, have commenced making another? Let us suppose that, owing to restlessness at the destruction of the first nest, or, again, to what we may call a wandering of the instinct—which last a male bird might be more subject to in nest-building than the female on account of the habit having been more lately acquired by the progenitors of the former than of the latter, and being therefore less fixed—let us suppose that from either of these causes, or from some other cause, the male bird had wandered, and begun to deposit his loads in another place; then, the female, seeing him do so, might have followed his example, in which case what had seemed a platform made for a special purpose would have become another nest. On the other hand, let us suppose that the female is not to be led away by the unsteadiness of the male, and that she by persevering brings him back, then we have the nest and a small collection of materials near it, which the male, having once begun, would be likely to add to to a certain extent, never getting it quite out of his mind, so to speak. His occasional hesitation between the two would be quite natural, as natural, I think, as most other hesitations either in man or beasts. It is not difficult, then, to imagine the inchoate nest being put to some other purpose, or even that it might be either so put, or become another nest, in the case of one and the same bird or pair of birds; or that some birds of a species, till the habit had become fixed in one or another direction, might be more prone to do the one thing, and some the other. Thus there would be a fluctuating and personal element—something, I think, should be allowed for the personality of each individual creature. Of course, if such an explanation would account in any degree for a superfluity of nests, or for uncompleted nests being put to some other purpose in the case of Grebes, it would do so to the same extent in the case of other birds; and here we come to the one or more extra nests—usually called "cock-nests"—built by Wrens, and the conflict of evidence or opinion as to whether these extra ones are or are not put to any special purpose. But it is not only Wrens—or, as we have now seen, Grebes—that abandon the nest they have been building, and build another. Blackbirds—and here it is the hen only that builds, though closely attended on by the male—are liable to do the same; for I watched a building pair most closely this spring, and, when the nest was almost finished, it was abandoned—quite capriciously, as it appeared to me—and another commenced not far from it. For this reason, and from what we know in regard to the Wren, I do not think the destruction of the original nest was the cause of these Grebes building a third one as well as a second. I attribute it to unsteadiness, or what I have called wavering of the instinct—not meaning by this to wrap up ignorance in a phrase, but rather to imply that no specially induced cause need be assumed. As nature can thus act in the female, one might expect her to do so more often, and in a greater degree, in the male, when he is also the builder.

Before leaving this subject I will just hint the possibility—for here I can do no more—of abandoned nests being the origin of the bower or run of the Australian Bower-birds. Had these two Grebes paired or coquetted about the old nest whilst they were building the new one, here would have been, in fact, something very like the actual bower; and that a nest might come in time to be regularly made for this special purpose, and then used more generally, and also to be more and more ornamented and modified owing to general or special causes (with regard to which latter I would refer again to my previous remarks), should not seem very astonishing to any evolutionist.

Once let there be pairing on the nest—which I have seen in other instances—and the bower, as it appears to me, is no longer such a mystery.

Of course, I am aware how widely the bower often differs from the nest of the same bird, yet not more widely than does one nest, or even one bower, from another, or than a palace or other elaborate building differs from a savage dwelling, or even from a small house or cottage.

Differences in the site chosen for the nest and bower may offer a difficulty, but, if I mistake not, the principle of evolution has been accepted as overcoming greater difficulties than this. Birds, indeed, exhibit great adaptability in the placing of their nests.

It is true that in standard works of ornithology we are told that the "bowers" have nothing to do with the nests of the species making them, whilst, at the same time, complete ignorance as to their origin and meaning is confessed. If we know nothing about a thing, how do we know that it has nothing to do with some other thing? On the other hand, when we find a vast number of birds making a certain structure—the nest—which is an outcome and effect, with them, of the sexual instinct, and when we find also a few birds making, besides the regular nest, other structures of a more directly sexual character—as to which one has only to read the accounts, or to observe the actions, of the Satin Bower Birds in the Zoological Gardens—the prima facie likelihood would seem to be that there is, and not that there is not, a connection between the two instincts.

May 23rd.—First I will say that I forgot to note down yesterday that, after the birds had been building some little while, the female not only ascended the nest, but lay along it as before, with the same evident intention of receiving the male, and the same non-result.

At 5.30 a.m. I find the birds not working, but floating idly on the water. They are now side by side, each with the long neck drawn back, so that the head rises like a button from the centre of the back, making them look like pork- or game-pies floating about.

6.8.—Both now swimming to the nest, and when just off the bed of weeds where it is situated, first one and then another of them lies on the water, with the beak held down in a somewhat curious manner, as though minutely observing it, for the beaks point in its direction. It is the female who does this first, and I thought she wished to receive the male, for her attitude was just the same as when, upon the nest, she undoubtedly intended this. She soon desists, however, and it is then that the male assumes the same attitude, in which he continues longer.

At 6.30 the male goes again to the nest, and remains about it, but never going quite up to it, for some five or six minutes; then swims again to the female, who has not accompanied him. The interest taken by the male in the nest has been very marked throughout, more so even—in appearance, at any rate—than that of the female, though in the actual building of it she has been yet more efficient than he. He has always led the way to it, and yesterday—as noted—he continued building longer than she did.

6.54.—Male at nest as before, and begins now to dive and add to it. After a minute or two he ascends the nest, and I shall now—as hitherto—record exactly what I saw. After standing a little with straddled legs, he sinks down, and lies along the nest in just the same manner, as far as I can see, as the female has done, once before actual or attempted pairing, and many times, as prepared for and wishing it. The female is now swimming up, and, on arriving at the nest, she acts exactly as the male has done when contemplating ascending it in order to pair with her. Both in action, manner, and strongly implied intent the sexes seem to be reversed, yet there is no doubt as to which is which, for the male is very considerably larger than the female.

The male rises once or twice, standing upright, and each time lies along again in the same attitude, the female continuing to act as described. Finally, however, the male takes the water, and begins again to fish up and bring weeds to the nest. In a little while the female ascends the nest, and lies along it just as the male has done (and she herself formerly), though perhaps with a greater earnestness and wraptness. Besides the marked difference in size, I should say that, since the descent of the male, I have kept the two birds quite distinct. Nor have they been close together, but wide apart; for the male, as he came down, swam to the bank, and then along it, whilst the female swam out into the middle of the lake. The male now comes up to the nest, where he first acts in the same way as he has done before, and as the female has just done; and then, after a few moments, leaps up, coming down and standing firm and upright on the back of the female some way forward towards the centre of it. Either he now, or the female, or the two birds together—as I think is the case—utter a sharp little note of one syllable, quickly repeated, which I can hear plainly, though faintly. But the attempt to pair is unsuccessful, the male bird being, apparently, unable to move backwards, and soon passing forwards along the back of the female, and so taking the water. Judging from this, and from the first occasion, the pairing of these birds would seem to be a matter of some difficulty. There is no second attempt, but the male begins to preen himself, and the female soon entering the water, both birds swim away.

7.50.—The two birds swim again to the nest, and the female now lies along on the water just off the bed of weeds in precisely the same attitude as on the nest during the pairing. The male bird comes up as though about to pair, then passes by her, returns and passes again, and, at the third time, swims right into the weeds near the bank, where he lies along in the same manner, just as she has been doing, and as he has before done, both on the water (though I did not then catch the import) and on the nest. There is no difference in the action and attitude of the two birds; one seems as strongly indicative as the other. The female now, whilst the male is still acting thus, or immediately after he has done so, ascends the nest, and lies along it in the usual manner. The male ascends as before, and it would seem that this time the pairing is accomplished. I, however, only judge so by the subsequent behaviour of the two birds, which has that satisfied appearance as of something successfully accomplished, which all who have watched birds will know. The time occupied was extremely short, and one would hardly have thought from the position of the two birds that actual pairing had been possible.

It will thus be seen, that before each of these pairings or attempts to pair, the male Grebe assumed the posture proper to the female on such occasions, and the first time actually went on to the nest in order to do so, that being, it would seem, the chosen spot for the performance of the nuptial rite. Except for this, and to take his share in incubation, I have not seen the male bird (nor, for that matter, the female either) ascend the nest; neither would one expect him to do so, as the birds do not ascend to build or shape it, and also he makes himself a special platform. I therefore attribute his doing so, as also the concomitant actions, to a peculiar, and, as we would call it, perverted sexual activity, in which, moreover, the female shared. I should say that during the last pairing the cries of the birds—for they were evidently uttered by both of them—were louder and more pronounced than before, and also of two kinds. The first and loudest note uttered was sharp and shrill in quality, approaching to a kind of screaming. The other I cannot now distinctly recall.

Now, with regard to the curious apparent change of sex in these two Grebes, I here recall what I have observed in the case of a pair of dovecot Pigeons, viz. that, immediately after the ordinary pairing of the birds, the male would crouch to the female, who then performed, apparently, the office of the male; so that anyone seeing the two, and unacquainted with such possibilities, would have sworn absolutely that the female bird was the male, and vice versâ. Should this appear incredible to some, I can only say that I saw it take place right in front of me, not once merely, but several times, and at no more than a step or two's distance—in fact, under such circumstances as eliminated the possibility of mal-observation.

Darwin, speaking of domesticated birds, says ('The Descent of Man,' p. 415) "these are often pampered by high feeding, and sometimes have their instincts vitiated to an extreme degree. Of this latter fact I could give sufficient proofs with Pigeons, and especially with Fowls, but they cannot be here related."

Possibly he may refer, amongst others, to such instances as the foregoing; but, if we can thus account for them in the case of Pigeons, what are we to say in regard to a pair of Great Crested Grebes, living a natural life upon a sheet of water as large perhaps as some of the smaller broads or meres? If we say it is vitiated or perverted instinct, still there must be a natural cause for what we regard as the perversion. As is well known, hermaphroditism preceded, in the march of life, the separation of the sexes, and all of the higher vertebrate animals, including man, retain in their organisms the traces of this early state. If the structure has been partly retained, it does not seem unlikely that the feelings connected with it have, through a long succession of generations, been retained also, and that, though more or less latent, they are still more or less liable to become occasionally active. This view would not only explain such actions as I have here recorded, but many others scattered throughout the whole animal kingdom, and might even help to guide us in the wide domain of human ethics.

May 24th.—Same place at 6.15 a.m. The birds are floating together again, like pork-pies on the water, but up till now (7.15) they have not approached the nest. I have then to leave.

May 25th.—Between 3 and 3.50 p.m. the birds are not at the nest, but swimming about near the opposite bank, and I think I notice in them some disposition to build another nest. The male, having swum to some distance from the bank, returns very fast to it with the other Grebe. All at once he dives, and, coming up near the bank, makes a sudden dart, and spears forward with his beak, to the confusion and flight of a Moor-hen. It is now, therefore, evident that one way, at least, of fighting adopted by these birds, is to dive, and either attack under water or just after rising—I say one because, on the first occasion, when I saw the male attack a Moor-hen near the first nest, he did not dive. I now think it probable that the first Moor-hen was attacked because he was near the platform of the male Grebe (possibly he had been using it), and the second, because he was near a contemplated one.

May 28th.—At about 6.30 this morning the birds were not at the nest, which they seemed to have abandoned, nor were they building another.

This was the last observation I could make on these birds, for I had now to leave for the Shetlands. When I returned in the latter part of July, they were swimming about with two young ones, which, in size at any rate—their appearance was very different—were getting well on towards maturity. On these I made a few notes, which I have now lost. Though I saw much to interest me in the Shetlands, I sometimes think that I should have learnt more if I had stayed and devoted the whole intervening period to these Grebes, that I was able to watch so closely and continuously. In such watching an unbroken sequence is of great importance.

  1. The Great Crested Grebe is certainly a fish-eater, but, as its relative the Little Grebe, or Dabchick, feeds largely on weeds, it may also do so to some extent. The Dabchick may also feed upon small fish, but I have never been able to see it with an unmistakable one in its bill. I have seen it dive and bring up weeds, which it has then eaten.
  2. Or perhaps, rather, chesnut.
  3. I am quoting not the letter, but the spirit, and this from memory. If I misrepresent, therefore, I must apologise.
  4. Yet not more so than the other male. All three, indeed, looked superb.
  5. The shepherd-boy, I may say, was half-witted, but this would leave him quite clever enough for the act.
  6. I have no doubt now that the bird I first saw by the nest was the male of the original pair, that the female going far afield—as she has often done—was courted by another male, and that this other one's remaining afterwards near the nest was mere chance.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1934, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 89 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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