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BIRDS OF THE NIGHT.
NUMEROUS swarms of insects and many small quadrupeds that require darkness for their security come abroad only during the night or twilight. These creatures would multiply almost without check, were it not that certain birds, having the power of seeing in the dark, and being partially blinded by daylight, are forced to seek their food in the night. Many species of insects, not strictly nocturnal, – those in particular that pass their life chiefly in the air,
are most active after dewfall. Hence the very late hour at which certain species of Swallows retire to rest, the period of sunset and early twilight affording them a fuller repast than any other part of the day. No sooner has the Swallow gone to rest than the NightJar and Whippoorwill come forth to prey on the larger kinds of aerial insects. The bat, an animal of antediluvian type, comes out a little earlier, and assists in lessening these multitudinous swarms.
The small Owls, though they pursue the larger beetles and moths, direct their efforts chiefly at the small quadrupeds that steal out in the twilight to nibble the tender herbs and grasses. Thus, the night, except the hours of total darkness, is with many species of animals, though they pursue their objects with great stillness and silence, a period of general activity.
The birds of the night may be classed under two heads, including, beside the true nocturnal birds, that go abroad in the night to seek their subsistence, those diurnal birds that continue their songs. There are other species that are quiet both at noonday and midnight. Such is the Chimney-Swallow. This bird employs the middle of the day in sleep after excessive activity from the earliest dawn. It is seen afterwards circling about at the decline of day, and is sometimes abroad in fine weather the greater part of the night, when the young require almost unremitted exertions on the part of the old birds to procure their subsistence.
The true nocturnal birds, of which the Owl and the Whippoorwill are prominent examples, are distinguished by a peculiar sensibility of the eye that enables them to see clearly by twilight and in cloudy weather, while they are dazzled by the broad light of day. Their organs of hearing are proportionally delicate and acute. Their wing-feathers have a peculiar downy softness, so that they move through the air without the usual fluttering sounds that attend the flight of other birds. Hence they are able to steal unawares upon their prey, and to make their predal excursions without disturbing the general silence of the hour. This noiseless flight is remarkable in the Owl, as may be observed if a tame one is confined in a room, when we can perceive his motions only by our sight. It is remarkable that this peculiar structure of the wing-feathers does not exist in the Woodcock, which is a nocturnal feeder. Nature makes no useless provisions for her creatures. Hence this bird, that obtains its food by digging into the ground and takes no part of it while on the wing, has no need of such a contrivance. Neither stillness nor stealth would assist him in digging for his helpless prey.
Among the nocturnal birds the most celebrated is the Owl, of which there are many species, varying from the size of an Eagle down to the Acadian, which is no larger than a Robin. The resemblance of the Owl to the feline race has been a frequent subject of remark. Like the cat, he sees most clearly by twilight or the light of the moon, seeks his prey in the night, and spends the greater part of the day in sleep. This likeness is made stronger by his earlike tufts of feathers, that correspond with the ears of a quadruped; by his large head; his round, full, and glaring eyes, set widely apart; by the extreme contractility of the pupil; and by his peculiar habit of surprising his victims by watchfulness and stealth. His eyes are partially encircled by a disk of feathers, giving a remarkably significant expression to his face. His hooked bill, turned downwards so as to resemble the nose in the human face, the general flatness of his features, and his upright position produce a grave and intelligent look. It was this expression that caused him to be selected by the ancients as the emblem of wisdom and to be consecrated to Minerva.
The Owl is remarkable for the acuteness of his hearing, having a large ear-drum and being provided with an apparatus by which he can exalt this faculty when he wishes to listen with great attention. Hence, while he is noiseless in his own motions, he is able to perceive the least sound from the motion of any other object, and overtakes his prey by coming upon it in silence and darkness. The stillness of his flight adds mystery to his character, and assists in making him an object of superstitious dread. Aware of his defenceless condition in the bright daylight, when his purblindness would prevent him from evading the attacks of his enemies, he seeks some secure retreat where he may pass the day unexposed to observation.
It is this necessity which has caused him to make his abode in desolate and ruined buildings, in old towers and belfries, and in the crevices of dilapidated walls. In these places he hides from the sight of other birds, who regard liim as a common enemy, and who show him no mercy when they have discovered him. Here also he rears his ofispring, and we associate his image with these solitary haunts, as that of the Loon with our secluded lakes. In thinly settled and wooded countries, he selects the hollows of old trees and the clefts of rocks for his retreats. All the smaller Owls, however, seem to multiply with the increase of human population, subsisting upon the minute animals that accumulate in outhouses, orchards, and fallows.
When the Owl is discovered in his hiding-place, the alarm is given, and there is a general excitement among the small birds. They assemble in great numbers, and with loud chattering assail and annoy him in various ways, and soon drive him out of his retreat. The Jay, commonly his first assailant, like a thief employed as a thief-taker, attacks him with great zeal and animation. The Chickadee, the Nuthatch, and the Red-thrush peck at his head and eyes, while other birds less bold fly round him, and by their vociferation encourage his assailants and increase the terror of their victim.
It is while sitting on the branch of a tree or on a fence after his misfortune and escape that he is most frequently seen in the daytime. Here he has formed a subject for painters, who have generally introduced him into their pictures as he appears in one of these open situations. He is sometimes represented ensconced in his own select retreat, apparently peeping out of his hiding-place and only half concealed; and the discovery of him in such lonely places has caused the supernatural horrors attached to his image. His voice is supposed to bode misfortune, and his spectral visits are regarded as the forerunners of death. His occupancy of deserted houses and ruins has invested him with a romantic character, while the poets, by introducing him to deepen the force of their pathetic or gloomy descriptions, have enlivened our associations connected with his image; and he deserves therefore in a special degree to be classed an ong those animals which we call picturesque.
Though the Owl was selected by the ancients as the emblem of wisdom, the moderns have practically renounced this idea, which had its foundation in the gravity and not in the real character of the bird, which possesses only the sly and sinister traits that mark the feline race. A very different train of associations and a new series of picturesque images are now suggested by the figure of the Owl, who has been more correctly portrayed by modern poetry than by ancient mythology. He is now universally regarded as the emblem of ruins and of desolation,
true to his character and habits, which are intimately allied with this description of scenery.
I will not enter into a speculation concerning the nature and origin of those agreeable emotions which are so generally produced by the sight of objects that suggest ideas of ruins. It is happy for us that by the alchemy of poetry we are able to turn some of our misfortunes into sources of melancholy pleasure, after the poignancy of grief has been assuaged by time. Nature has also benevolently provided that many an object that is capable of communicating no direct pleasure to our senses shall affect us agreeably through the medium of sentiment. Thus, the image of the Owl awakens the sentiment of ruin; and to this feeling of the human soul we may trace the pleasure we derive from the sight of this bird in his appropriate scenery. Two Doves upon the mossy branch of a tree, in a wild and beautiful sylvan retreat, are the pleasing emblems of love and constancy; but they are not more suggestive of poetic fancies than an Owl sitting, upon an old gate-post near a deserted house. I have alluded in another page to the faint sounds we