It was a frightful thing to see my good Captain, HENRY EMERY, swinging on a long rope upon the face of a rocky and crumbling eminence, at a height of several hundred feet from the water, in search of the eggs of the Black Guillemot, with four or five sailors holding the rope above, and walking along the edge of the precipice. I stood watching the motions of the adventurous sailor. When the friction of the rope by which he was suspended loosened a block, which with awful crash came tumbling down from above him, he, with a promptness and dexterity that appeared to me quite marvellous, would, by a sudden jerk, throw himself aside to the right or left, and escape the danger. Now he would run his arm into a fissure, which, if he found it too deep, he would probe with a boat-hook. Whenever he chanced to touch a bird, it would come out whirring like a shot in his face; while others came flying from afar toward their beloved retreats with so much impetuosity as almost to alarm the bold rocksman. After much toil and trouble he procured only a few eggs, it not being then the height of the breeding season. You may imagine, good reader, how relieved I felt when I saw Mr. EMERY drawn up, and once more standing on the bold eminence waving his hat as a signal of success. This happened in one of the Magdeleine Islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
During severe winters, I have seen the Black Guillemot playing over the waters as far south as the shores of Maryland. Such excursions, however, are of rare occurrence, and it is seldom that any of these birds are to be seen until you reach the Bay of Boston. About the different entrances of the Bay of Fundy, this species is a constant resident, and many individuals breed in fissures, at a moderate height above the water, on the rocky shores of the Island of Grand Manan, and others in the same latitude. Proceeding farther toward the north-east, we found them on Jesticoe Island, and where-ever else we happened to touch on our way to Labrador, in which country there is a regular nursery of these birds.
Unlike the Foolish and Thick-billed Guillemots, or the Razor-billed Auk, they do not confine themselves to any particular spot, but take up their abode for the season in any place that presents suitable conveniences. Wherever there are fissures in the rocks, or great piles of blocks with holes in their interstices, there you may expect to find the Black Guillemot.
Whether European writers have spoken of this species at random, or after due observation, I cannot say. All I know is, that every one of them whose writings I have consulted, says that the Black Guillemot lays only one egg. As I have no reason whatever to doubt their assertion, I might be tempted to suppose that our species differs from theirs, were I not perfectly aware that birds in different places will construct different nests, and lay more or fewer eggs. Our species always deposits three, unless it may have been disturbed; and this fact I have assured myself of by having caught the birds in more than twenty instances sitting on that number. Nay, on several occasions, at Labrador, some of my party and myself saw several Black Guillemots sitting on eggs in the same fissure of a rock, where every bird had three eggs under it, a fact which I communicated to my friend THOMAS NUTTALL. What was most surprising to me was, that even the fishermen there thought that this bird laid only a single egg; and when I asked them how they knew, they simply and good-naturedly answered that they had heard so. Thus, reader, I might have been satisfied with the sayings of others, and repeated that the bird in question lays one egg; but instead of taking this easy way of settling the matter, I found it necessary to convince myself of the fact by my own observation. I had therefore to receive many knocks and bruises in scrambling over rugged crags and desolate headlands; whereas, with less incredulity, I might very easily have announced to you from my easy chair in Edinburgh, that the Black Guillemots of America lay only a single egg. No true student of nature ought ever to be satisfied without personal observation when it can be obtained. It is the "American Woodsman" that tells you so, anxious as he is that you should enjoy the pleasure of studying and admiring the beautiful works of Nature.
To satisfy yourself as to the correctness of the statements which he here lays before you, go to the desolate shores of Labrador. There, in the vernal month of June, place yourself on some granite rock, against the base of which the waves dash in impotent rage; and ere long you will see the gay Guillemot coming from afar by the side of its mate. They shoot past you on fluttering wings, and suddenly disappear. Go to the place; lay yourself down on the dripping rock, and you will be sure to see the birds preparing their stony nest, for each has brought a smooth pebble in its bill. See how industriously they are engaged in raising this cold fabric into the form of a true nest, before the female lays her eggs, so that no wet may reach them, from the constant trickling of the waters beneath. Up to the height of two or three inches the pebbles are gradually raised, the male stands by his beloved; and some morning when you peep into the crevice, you observe that an egg has been deposited. Two days after you find the number complete.
A closet-naturalist was quite surprised, I have been told, when he read in one of my volumes that Grakles form no nests in one portion of the United States, being there contented with merely dropping their eggs in the bottom of a Woodpecker's hole; while in the Middle States the same species forms a very snug nest. That his astonishment was great I do not in the least doubt, especially as I know how surprised I was to find the Larus argentatus breeding on fir-trees forty feet above the ground, and to see three eggs, instead of one, placed on a bed of small pebbles beautifully arranged, and every one belonging to a single pair of Black Guillemots. Yet, good reader, as I have also been told, the same person had no doubt whatever that ermines turn from brown to white in winter, that snakes and crabs cast off their skins and shells, and that "fleas are not lobsters;" but then the reason of his belief was simply that he had read of these things; and his doubts as to the Grakles arose from the facts having been recently reported by a stranger from the "far west," who, it seems, talked of things which he had not read of before.
Whilst in Labrador, I was delighted to see with what judgment the Black Guillemot prepares a place for its eggs. Whenever the spot chosen happens to be so situated as to preclude damp, not a pebble does the bird lay there, and its eggs are placed on the bare rock. It is only in what I call cases of urgency that this trouble is taken. About fifty or sixty pebbles or bits of stone are then used, and the number is increased or diminished according to circumstances.
The eggs of this species, which appear disproportionately large, measure two inches and three-eighths in length, by an inch and five-eighths in breadth. Their form is regular; they are rather rough to the touchy although not granulated; their ground colour an earthy white, thickly blotched with very dark purplish-black, the markings larger and closer towards the great end, which, however, is generally left free of them. The shell is much thinner than that of the egg of the Foolish Guillemot or Razor-billed Auk. As an article of food they are excellent, being delicate and nutritious.
The parents pluck the feathers from a space across the lower part of their belly, as soon as incubation commences; and this bare place, when the bird is taken alive, it immediately conceals by drawing the feathers of the upper part of the abdomen over it, as if it were anxious that it should not be observed. When driven from the nest, the Black Guillemot at once runs out of its hiding-place and flies to the water, on which it plays, bathes as it were, dives a few times, and anxiously watches your retreat, after which it soon returns and resumes the arduous task of incubation.
The young, which are at first quite black, are covered with soft down, and emit, although in an under tone, the same lisping notes as their parents. Their legs, feet, and bill are black. The red colour of the legs of the old birds is much brighter during the breeding-season than at any other time, and the mouth also is bright red. About the first of August the Guillemots lead their progeny to the water, and although at this time neither old nor young are able to fly, they dive deeply and with great ease, which enables them to procure abundance of food, for at this season, lints, shrimps, and marine insects are plentiful in all the waters.
While in Labrador, I made a severe experiment to ascertain how long the Black Guillemot could live without food,--an experiment on which I have never since been able to think, without some feeling of remorse. I confined a pair of them in the fissure of a rock for many days in succession. After the entrance was securely closed, I left the place, and for eight days the wind blew so hard that no boat was safe on the waters without the harbour. Many a time I thought of the poor captives, and at last went to their retreat one rainy afternoon, over a great swell of the sea. The entrance of the fissure was opened, and a stick pushed into the hole, when I had the pleasure of seeing both birds, although apparently in a state of distress, run out by me, and at once fly to the water.
The flight of the Black Guillemot is rapid and continued. As they proceed in their course, they alternately shew the black of their lower parts and the white of their wings. They walk on the rocks with considerable ease, using short steps, and whenever they wish to remove from one crag or block to another, make use of their wings. When their nests are very high above the water, they fly directly into them; and from such heights, if necessity demands it, they at once dive towards the water.
I kept many alive on board the Ripley. They ran on the floor in an erect position for a few yards, fell down on their breasts, rose again, and continued their exertions to escape until they got fairly concealed behind a chest or barrel.
The winter plumage of this species differs so greatly from that of summer, that I have been induced to present you with a figure of the bird in both states. It is difficult to perceive any external difference between the sexes, only the males are rather larger than the females. Their flesh, although black and tough, is not very unpalatable.
The trachea is flattened, with numerous close, transparent rings. The gullet, as in all the other species of this genus, is very dilatable. The gizzard, which is small, has its inner membrane thin and of a yellow colour. The intestines are about the thickness of a goose quill, and measure two feet eight inches in length.
URIA GRYLLE, Bonap. Syn., p. 423.
URIA GRYLLE, Black Guillemot, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 523.
BLACK GUILLEMOT, Uria Grylle, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 148; vol. v.p. 627.
Adult, 13 7/8, 21 1/2.
Accidental as far south, on the eastern coast, as New York; not rare from thence eastward, during winter. Breeds from the Bay of Fundy along all the rocky shores, to Labrador, and the highest latitudes, where considerable numbers even spend the winter.
Adult, in summer.
Bill shorter than the head, straight, rather stout, tapering, compressed, acute. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly straight and sloping, towards the tip slightly arched, the sides sloping and towards the end a little convex, the edges sharp and slightly inflected. Nostrils basal, lateral, linear, partially concealed by the feathers. Lower mandible with the angle long and very narrow, the dorsal line ascending, straight, the sides sloping upwards, slightly convex, flat at the base, the edges sharp and inflected, the tip acute.
Head of moderate size, oblong; neck short; body full, depressed; wings rather small. Feet placed far behind, short, of moderate size; tarsus short, compressed, anteriorly scutellate, laterally covered with reticulated angular scales; toes rather slender, scutellate above, connected by entire reticulated webs the outer and inner with a small marginal membrane; the first toe wanting, the third and fourth about equal, the second shortest; claws small, arched, compressed, rather obtuse, that of the middle toe with a dilated thin inner edge.
Plumage soft, close, blended and velvety; feathers of the head very short, on the back broadly rounded, of the lower parts more elongated. Wings rather small; primary quills curved, the first longest, the second little shorter, the rest rather rapidly diminishing; secondary incurved, broadly rounded. Tail short, narrow, rounded, of twelve rather pointed feathers.
Bill black, inside of mouth vermilion tinged with carmine. Iris deep brown. Feet of the same colour as the mouth, claws black. The general colour of the plumage is deep black, on the upper part tinged with green, on the lower with red, there being only a large patch on each wing, including the secondary coverts and some of the smaller feathers, pure white, as are the lower wing-coverts. The quills and tail are tinged with brown.
Length to end of tail 13 7/8 inches, to end of claws 16 1/4, to end of wings 13; extent of wings 21 1/2; wing from flexure 6 1/2; tail 2; bill along the ridge 1 1/4, along the gap 1 7/8; tarsus 1 2/12; middle toe 1 1/2, its claw 3/8. Weight 13 1/2 oz.
Adult in winter.
The bill and iris are of the same colour as in summer, but the red of the feet is paler. The general colour of the plumage is white, the sides of the head, the neck all round, the lower parts, and the rump being of that colour, more or less shaded with grey. The upper part of the head obscurely mottled with greyish-black; the back and scapulars black, each feather tipped with greyish-white, those of the latter more broadly. The wings and tail brownish-black, the former with the conspicuous white patch, as in summer.
Young a few days old.
Bill and feet black, the former tinged with red; iris dark brown. The general colour of the soft thick down with which the whole body is covered is brownish-black.
Male from Dr. T. M. BREWER. The palate is flat, with two papillate ridges, and a series of papillae on each side, parallel to the posterior aperture of the nares, which is linear, and 10 twelfths long; the anterior part concave, with five prominent lines. Tongue 1 3/4 inches long, slender, tapering, trigonal, horny beneath, papillate at the base, and channelled towards the extremity, the tip pointed and thin-edged. OEsophagus 6 1/2 inches long, 9 twelfths in width along the neck, within the thorax dilated into an enormous sac, 2 inches in length, 1 1/4 in breadth. The stomach is rather large, 1 1/2 inches long, 1 1/4 broad; the epithelium dense, tough, light red, with strong longitudinal rugae. The proventricular glands form a belt 1 1/4 inches in width, extending over the wider part of the sac. The left lobe of the liver is 2 1/4 inches long, the right lobe 3 inches; the gall-bladder 9 twelfths long, 4 1/2 twelfths in breadth. The intestine is 4 twelfths in width; the coeca 1 inch 4 twelfths long, 3 1/4 twelfths in their greatest breadth, 2 1/4 inches distant from the extremity; the cloaca ovate, 10 twelfths long. Trachea 4 inches 4 twelfths long, from 4 twelfths to 2 1/2 twelfths in breadth; the rings 115. Bronchial half rings 26. The tracheal rings are feeble, unossified, narrow in the middle and behind, as in the Auks, Gulls, Terns, and generally in all birds of which the rings are unossified. There are cleido-tracheal muscles, lateral muscles, sterno-tracheal, and a single pair of inferior laryngeal.
For more on this species, see its entry in the Birds of North America Field Guide.