Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 17: The Crested Screamer

_(Chalina chavarria.)_

Amongst the feathered notables from all parts of the world found
gathered at the Zoological Gardens in London is the Crested Screamer
from South America. It is in many respects a very singular species, and
its large size, great strength, and majestic demeanour, with the
surprising docility and intelligence it displays when domesticated, give
it a character amongst birds somewhat like that of the elephant amongst
mammals. Briefly and roughly to describe it: in size it is like a swan,
in shape like a lapwing, only with a powerful curved gallinaceous beak.
It is adorned with a long pointed crest and a black neck-ring, the
plumage being otherwise of a pale slaty blue, while the legs and the
naked skin about the eyes are bright red. On each wing, in both sexes,
there are two formidable spurs; the first one, on the second joint, is
an inch and a half long, nearly straight, triangular, and exceedingly
sharp; the second spur, on the last joint, being smaller, broad, and
curved, and roughly resembling in shape and size a lion's claw. There is
another stinking peculiarity. The skin is _emphysematous_--that is,
bloated and yielding to pressure. It crackles when touched, and the
surface, when the feathers are removed, presents a swollen bubbly
appearance; for under the skin there is a layer of air-bubbles extending
over the whole body and even down the legs under the horny tesselated
skin to the toes, the legs thus having a somewhat massive appearance.

And now just a few words about the position of the screamer in
systematic zoology. It is placed in the Family Palamedeidae, which
contains only three species, but about the Order it belongs to there is
much disagreement. It was formerly classed with the rails, and in
popular books of Natural History still keeps its place with them. "Now
the rail-tribe," says Professor Parker, speaking on this very matter,
"has for a long time been burdened (on paper) with a very false army
list. Everything alive that has had the misfortune to be possessed of
large unwieldy feet has been added to this feeble-minded cowardly group,
until it has become a mixed multitude with discordant voices and with
manners and customs having no consonance or relation." He takes the
screamer from the rail-tribe and classes it with the geese (as also does
Professor Huxley), and concludes his study with these words:--"Amongst
living birds there is not one possessing characters of higher interest,
none that I am acquainted with come nearer, in some important points, to
the lizard; and there are parts of the organization which make it very
probable that it is one of the nearest living relations of the
marvellous _Archaeopteryx_"--an intermediate form between birds and
reptiles belonging to the Upper Jurassic period.

The screamer's right to dwell with the geese has not been left
unchallenged. The late Professor Garrod finds that "from considerations
of pterylosis, visceral anatomy, myology, and osteology the screamer
cannot be placed along with the Anserine birds." He finds that in some
points it resembles the ostrich and rhea, and concludes: "It seems
therefore to me that, summing these results, the screamer must have
sprung from the primary avian stock as an independent offshoot at much
the same time as did most of the other important families." This time,
he further tells us, was when there occurred a general break-up of the
ancient terrestrial bird-type, when the acquisition of wings brought
many intruders into domains already occupied, calling forth a new
struggle for existence, and bringing out many special qualities by means
of natural selection.

With this archaeological question I have little to do, and only quote
the above great authorities to show that the screamer appears to be
nearly the last descendant of an exceedingly ancient family, with little
or no relationship to other existing families, and that its pedigree has
been hopelessly lost in the night of an incalculable antiquity. I have
only to speak of the bird as a part of the visible world and as it
appears to the non-scientific lover of nature; for, curiously enough,
while anatomists nave been laboriously seeking for the screamer's
affinities in that "biological field which is as wide as the earth and
deep as the sea," travellers and ornithologists have told us almost
nothing about its strange character and habits.

Though dressed with Quaker-like sobriety, and without the elegance of
form distinguishing the swan or peacock, this bird yet appeals to the
aesthetic feelings in man more than any species I am acquainted with.
Voice is one of its strong points, as one might readily infer from the
name: nevertheless the name is not an appropriate one, for though the
bird certainly does scream, and that louder than the peacock, its scream
is only a powerful note of alarm uttered occasionally, while the notes
uttered at intervals in the night, or in the day-time, when it soars
upwards like the lark of some far-off imaginary epoch in the world's
history when all tilings, larks included, were on a gigantic scale, are.
properly speaking, singing notes and in quality utterly unlike screams.
Sometimes when walking across Regent's Park I bear the resounding cries
of the bird confined there attempting to sing; above the concert of
cranes, the screams of eagles and macaws, the howling of dogs and wolves
and the muffled roar of lions, one can hear it all over the park. But
those loud notes only sadden me. Exile and captivity have taken all
joyousness from the noble singer, and a moist climate has made him
hoarse; the long clear strains are no more, and he hurries through his
series of confused shrieks as quickly as possible, as if ashamed of the
performance. A lark singing high up in a sunny sky and a lark singing in
a small cage hanging against a shady wall in a London street produce
very different effects; and the spluttering medley of shrill and harsh
sounds from the street singer scarcely seems to proceed from the same
kind of bird as that matchless melody filling the blue heavens. There is
even a greater difference in the notes of the crested screamer when
heard in Regent's Park and when heard on the pampas, where the bird
soars upwards until its bulky body disappears from sight, and from that
vast elevation pours down a perpetual rain of jubilant sound.

_Screamer_ being a misnomer, I prefer to call the bird by its vernacular
name of _chajá,_ or _chakar_, a more convenient spelling.

With the chakar the sexes are faithful, even in very large flocks the
birds all being ranged in couples. When one bird begins to sing its
partner immediately joins, but with notes entirely different in quality.
Both birds have some short deep notes, the other notes of the female
being long powerful notes with a trill in them; but over them sounds the
clear piercing voice of the male, ringing forth at the close with great
strength and purity. The song produces the effect of harmony, but,
comparing it with human singing, it is less like a _duo_ than a
_terzetto_ composed of bass, contralto, and soprano.

At certain times, in districts favourable to them, the chakars often
assemble in immense flocks, thousands of individuals being sometimes
seen congregated together, and in these gatherings the birds frequently
all sing in concert. They invariably--though without rising--sing at
intervals during the night, "counting the hours," as the gauchos say;
the first song being at about nine o'clock, the second at midnight, and
the third just before dawn, but the hours vary in different districts.

I was once travelling with a party of gauchos when, about midnight, it
being intensely dark, a couple of chakars broke out singing right ahead
of us, thus letting us know that we were approaching a watercourse,
where we intended refreshing our horses. We found it nearly dry, and
when we rode down to the rill of water meandering over the broad dry bed
of the river, a flock of about a thousand chakars set up a perfect roar
of alarm notes, all screaming together, with intervals of silence after;
then they rose up with a mighty rush of wings. They settled down again a
few hundred yards off, and all together burst forth in one of their
grand midnight songs, making the plains echo for miles around.

There is something strangely impressive in these spontaneous outbursts
of a melody so powerful from one of these large flocks, and though
accustomed to hear these birds from childhood, I have often been
astonished at some new effect produced by a large multitude singing
under certain conditions. Travelling alone one summer day, I carne at
noon to a lake on the pampas called Kakel--a sheet of water narrow
enough for one to see across. Chakars in countless numbers were gathered
along its shores, but they were all ranged in well-defined flocks,
averaging about five hundred birds in each flock. These flocks seemed to
extend all round the lake, and had probably been driven by the drought
from all the plains around to this spot. Presently one flock near me
began singing, and continued their powerful chant for three or four
minutes; when they ceased the next flock took up the strains, and after
it the next, and so on until the notes of the flocks on the opposite
shore came floating strong and clear across the water--then passed away,
growing fainter and fainter, until once more the sound approached me
travelling round to my side again. The effect was very curious, and I
was astonished at the orderly way with which each flock waited its turn
to sing, instead of a general outburst taking place after the first
flock had given the signal. On another occasion I was still more
impressed, for here the largest number of birds I have ever found
congregated at one place all sung together. This was on the southern
pampas, at a place called Gualicho, where I had ridden for an hour
before sunset over a marshy plain where there was still much standing
water in the rushy pools, though it was at the height of the dry season.
This whole plain was covered with an endless flock of chakars, not in
close order, but scattered about in pairs and small groups. In this
desolate spot I found a small rancho inhabited by a gaucho and his
family, and I spent the night with them. The birds were all about the
house, apparently as tame as the domestic fowls, and when I went out to
look for a spot for my horse to feed on, they would not fly away from
me, but merely moved, a few steps out of my path About nine o'clock we
were eating supper in the rancho when suddenly the entire multitude of
birds covering the marsh for miles around burst forth into a tremendous
evening song. It is impossible to describe the effect of this mighty
rush of sound; but let the reader try to imagine half-a-million voices,
each far more powerful than that one which makes itself heard all over
Regent's Park, bursting forth on the silent atmosphere of that dark
lonely plain. One peculiarity was that in this mighty noise, which
sounded louder than the sea thundering on a rocky coast, I seemed to be
able to distinguish hundreds, even thousands, of individual voices.
Forgetting my supper, I sat motionless and overcome with astonishment,
while the air, and even the frail rancho, seemed to be trembling in that
tempest of sound. When it ceased my host remarked with a smile, "We are
accustomed to this, señor--every evening we have this concert." It was a
concert well worth riding a hundred miles to hear. But the chakar
country is just now in a transitional state, and the precise conditions
which made it possible for birds so large in size to form such immense
congregations are rapidly passing away. In desert places, the bird
subsists chiefly on leaves and seeds of aquatic plants; but when the
vast level area of the pampas was settled by man, the ancient stiff
grass-vegetation gave place to the soft clovers and grasses of Europe,
and to this new food the birds took very kindly. Other circumstances
also favoured their increase. They were never persecuted, for the
natives do not eat them, though they are really very good--the flesh
being something like wild goose in flavour. A _higher_ civilization is
changing all this: the country is becoming rapidly overrun with
emigrants, especially by Italians, the pitiless enemies of all

The chakars, like the skylark, love to soar upwards when singing, and at
such times when they have risen till their dark bulky bodies appear like
floating specks on the blue sky, or until they disappear from sight
altogether, the notes become wonderfully etherealized by distance to a
soft silvery sound, and it is then very delightful to listen to them.

It seems strange that so ponderous a fowl with only six feet and a half
spread of wings should possess a power of soaring equal to that of
vultures and eagles. Even the vulture with its marvellous wing power
soars chiefly from necessity, and when its crop is full finds no
pleasure in "scaling the heavens by invisible stairs." The chakar leaves
its grass-plot after feeding and soars purely for recreation, taking so
much pleasure in its aerial exercises that in bright warm weather, in
winter and spring, it spends a great part of the day in the upper
regions of the air. On the earth its air is grave and its motions
measured and majestic, and it rises with immense labour, the wings
producing a sound like a high wind. But as the bird mounts higher,
sweeping round as it ascends, just as vultures and eagles do, it
gradually appears to become more buoyant, describing each succeeding
circle with increasing grace. I can only account for this magnificent
flight, beginning so laboriously, by supposing that the bubble space
under the skin becomes inflated with an air lighter than atmospheric
air, enabling a body so heavy with wings disproportionately short to
float with such ease and evident enjoyment at the vast heights to which
the bird ascends. The heavenward flight of a large bird is always a
magnificent spectacle; that of the chakar is peculiarly fascinating on
account of the resounding notes it sings while soaring, and in which the
bird seems to exult in its sublime power and freedom.

I was once very much surprised at the behaviour of a couple of chakars
during a thunderstorm. On a still sultry day in summer I was standing
watching masses of black cloud coming rapidly over the sky, while a
hundred yards from me stood the two birds also apparently watching the
approaching storm with interest. Presently the edge of the cloud touched
the sun, and a twilight gloom fell on the earth. The very moment the sun
disappeared the birds rose up and soon began singing their long'
resounding notes, though it was loudly thundering at the time, while
vivid flashes of lightning lit the black cloud overhead at short
intervals. I watched their flight and listened to their notes, till
suddenly as they made a wide sweep upwards they disappeared in the
cloud, and at the same moment their voices became muffled, and seemed to
come from an immense distance. The cloud continued emitting sharp
flashes of lightning, but the birds never reappeared, and after six or
seven minutes once more their notes sounded loud and clear above the
muttering thunder. I suppose they had passed through the cloud into the
clear atmosphere above it, but I was extremely surprised at their
fearlessness; for as a rule when soaring birds see a storm coming they
get out of its way, flying before it or stooping to the earth to seek
shelter of some kind, for most living things appear to have a wholesome
dread of thunder and lightning.

When taken young the chakar becomes very tame and attached to man,
showing no inclination to go back to a wild life. There was one kept at
an estancia called Mangrullos, on the western frontier of Buenos Ayres,
and the people of the house gave me a very curious account of it. The
bird was a male, and had been reared by a soldier's wife at a frontier
outpost called La Esperanza, about twenty-five miles from Mangrullos.
Four years before I saw the bird the Indians had invaded the frontier,
destroying the Esperanza settlement and all the estancias for some
leagues around. For some weeks after the invasion the chakar wandered
about the country, visiting all the ruined estancias, apparently in
quest of human beings, and on arriving at Mangrullos, which had not been
burnt and was still inhabited, it settled down at ones and never
afterwards showed any disposition to go away. It was extremely tame,
associating by day with the poultry, and going to roost with them at
night OH a high perch, probably for the sake of companionship, for in a
wild state the bird roosts on the ground. It was friendly towards all
the members of the household except one, a peon, and against this person
from the first the bird always displayed the greatest antipathy,
threatening him with its wings, puffing itself out, and hissing like an
angry goose. The man had a swarthy, beardless face, and it was
conjectured that the chakar associated him in its mind with the savages
who had destroyed its early home.

Close to the house there was a lagoon, never dry, which was frequently
visited by flocks of wild chakars. Whenever a flock appeared the tame
bird would go out to join them; and though the chakars are mild-tempered
birds and very rarely quarrel, albeit so well provided with formidable
weapons, they invariably attacked the visitor with great fury, chasing
him back to the house, and not ceasing their persecutions till the
poultry-yard was reached. They appeared to regard this tame bird that
dwelt with man as a kind of renegade, and hated him accordingly.

Before he had been long at the estancia it began to be noticed that he
followed the broods of young chickens about very assiduously, apparently
taking great interest in their welfare, and even trying to entice them
to follow him. A few newly-hatched chickens were at length offered to
him as an experiment, and he immediately took charge of them with every
token of satisfaction, conducting them about in search of food and
imitating all the actions of a hen. Finding him so good a nurse, large
broods were given to him, and the more the foster-chickens were the
better he seemed pleased. It was very curious to see this big bird with
thirty or forty little animated balls of yellow cotton following him
about, while he moved majestically along, setting down his feet with the
greatest care not to tread on them, and swelling himself up with jealous
anger at the approach of a cat or dog.

The intelligence, docility, and attachment to man displayed by the
chakar in a domestic state, with perhaps other latent aptitudes only
waiting to be developed by artificial selection, seem to make this
species one peculiarly suited for man's protection, without which it
must inevitably perish. It is sad to reflect that all our domestic
animals have descended to us from those ancient times which we are
accustomed to regard as dark or barbarous, while the effect of our
modern so-called humane civilization has been purely destructive to
animal life. Not one type do we rescue from the carnage going on at an
ever-increasing rate over all the globe. To Australia and America, North
and South, we look in vain for new domestic species, while even from
Africa, with its numerous fine mammalian forms, and where England has
been the conquering colonizing power for nearly a century, we take
nothing. Even the sterling qualities of the elephant, the unique beauty
of the zebra, appeal to us in vain. We are only teaching the tribes of
that vast continent to exterminate a hundred noble species they would
not tame. With grief and shame, even with dismay, we call to mind that
our country is now a stupendous manufactory of destructive engines,
which we are rapidly placing in the hands of all the savage and
semi-savage peoples of the earth, thus ensuring the speedy destruction
of all the finest types in the animal kingdom.

W. H. Hudson