Page images
PDF
EPUB

court the water, as their names respectively imply. These are two great classes, separating our British birds into two nearly equal parts; the number of land birds amounting to about 171, the water birds to about 166 species.

The first great division of these two classes is, into the five “ORDERS;" the members of which are of somewhat similar habits and formation, and partake of the same general characteristics.

Of these five, the first is the “Raptorial" order, composed of those birds usually known as birds of prey;' and, as their natural habit is the destruction of the feebler tribes and the smaller animals, they have been most mercilessly persecuted by man in all countries : this continual persecution will easily account for their rarity and their habitual shyness, seldom venturing near the habitation of man, and always taking flight at the distant approach of their great enemy : still sometimes in our great woods or thick enclosures, and often on our open downs, the most unobservant must have seen the hawk hovering with expanded wings high in the air, or dashing in pursuit after a luckless bird, or pouncing with unerring aim on some unfortunate mouse: the most careless must have occasionally heard the wild hooting or the unearthly shriekings of the owl, as it has hurried past in search of prey in the shades of evening. The principal characteristics of this order are the long and curved claws, the hooked and powerful bill, the muscular limbs, the great strength, the predatory habits, the love of animal food : these are traits so marked and peculiar, that it will require but little discrimination to distinguish birds belonging to this order from all the others.

The second embraces those innumerable small birds which are so familiar to all of us; and contains a much larger number of species than either of the other four orders. These are the 'Insessores' or 'perching birds, which fill our woods and gardens, abound in our fields, and may be met with at every turn in our daily walks: they possess far more intelligence than birds of any other class, are remarkable for the vocal powers with which some of them are endowed: but especially derive their name from the perfect form

of the foot, which is so admirably adapted for perching or grasping, and in which the hind toe is always present. When we come to examine the subdivisions of this order, we shall find that the • Insessores' comprise birds varying greatly from one another in habits and general appearance; yet, all belonging to this division partake of the grand distinguishing features, which I have shewn to be characteristic of it.

The third order contains the “Rasores' or 'ground birds,' comprehending all such as being land birds, and yet not being birds of prey, and not having feet perfectly adapted to perching, obtain the principal part of their food upon the ground; their wings in general are short, and they are not capable of such extended flight as belongs to members of the two preceding orders; but in lieu of this they are provided with very strong limbs and powerful muscles, and with short toes, enabling them to run with great swiftness. This division does not contain any great number of species, and yet as many of them are sought for by the epicure, and others still more by the sportsman; there is, perhaps, no class of birds, the habits and general nature of which are so generally known as this. When I mention that the rasores’ include not only all the gallinaceous birds, as our barn-door fowls, but also partridges, pheasants, and grous, the truth of this statement will bę at once seen. As all the members of this order are extremely good for food, a beneficent Providence has .caused them to be yery productive, and the number of eggs to a nest is usually very considerable.

The fourth order begins the other great division, viz., the Water birds, and comprises those numerous aquatic birds, which, not having webbed feet, and so not being perfectly framed for swimming and diving, nevertheless, are formed for living partly in the water, and generally procure their food from wet and marshy places, if not from rivers, lakes, and the sea shore. These are the 'Grallatores' or waders, and are distinguished from the land birds by their habits, as well as by the length of leg and neck so fitted for their aquatic ways, also by the formation of their feet, so admirably

adapted for wading on soft mud, for running lightly over water plants, and enabling them to move easily in their accustomed haunts. The herons, snipes, and plovers may serve as examples of this class.

The fifth and last order contains the true water birds, whose domain is essentially the sea, or the inland lake and large river: these are bonâ fidé inhabitants of the water, passing nearly all their time there, retiring far away from land as day approaches, feeding in the sea, sleeping on the sea, and only occasionally visiting the shore. These are the “Natatorés' or 'swimmers' whose boat-shaped bodies and webbed feet attest their remarkable powers of swimming and diving, and render it impossible to mistake them as belonging to any other order. From the position and extent of the British islands, the birds which comprise this division are very numerous on our coasts, as any one will at once acknowledge who has seen the clouds of ducks, gulls, &c., darkening the sea shore in the autumn.

Now, such being a sketch of the five great orders of birds, and such the characteristics of each, the lines of demarcation between them seem so broad, and well-defined, that one might almost be inclined to doubt the possibility of confusing them : yet, (as I before remarked) in nature there seem to be no sudden transitions : no rapid jumps from one kind to another: no gaps between them : all is done gradually and with becoming method: we are led almost insensibly from one order to another, so much does the last species of one assimilate to the first species of the next. Thus, for instance, when passing from the first to the second, from the birds of prey to the perchers, see the connecting link between the two, so ably sustained by the shrikes or butcher-birds : perchers indeed they are, with feet as perfect for grasping as any in the class; at the same time, how like to the birds of prey in their habits, in their cruel method of seizing, impaling on a thorn and devouring their prey. Again, in passing from the perchers to the ground birds, mark the pigeons, what a connecting link between the two orders do they form ; some partaking of the character of true 'Insessores,"

« PreviousContinue »