Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  9 (1884–85), 419–28.

Guardian Birds

John R Coryell



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [7]


Ornithology, Natural History, Ancient Authorities, Animal Behaviour, Anthropomorphism, Hunting, Ethics

People mentioned:

Roualeyn G G Cumming , John Cassin , François le Vaillant

    Finds the earliest account of a 'guardian bird' in Herodotus's description of the 'curious relationship' between the crocodile and the 'crocodile watcher' or 'trochilus', which enters the reptile's mouth and removes the leeches which cling to its teeth. While 'Subsequent writers [...] denied the story of the old Greek on the ground of improbability', now 'Modern writers who have been to Egypt confirm the substance of the story'. (419) Details the peculiar symbiotic relationships of several other types of 'guardian bird', frequently comparing their habits to human actions. The crocodile watcher, for instance, is 'strikingly like our human trochilus, the dentist', while for 'red-beaked ox-biters' the 'ticks [on the back of a rhinoceros] are as so many nuggets of gold to the prospecting man' (419–20). Describes the treacherous habits of the 'white-beaked honey guide', a 'very Judas among birds', which, by its 'importunate invitation[s]' to lead the way to a 'nest of wild bees', frequently causes 'black attendants' to desert a 'white hunter [who] is eagerly pursuing the fresh spoor of one of the great pachyderms'. Notes that the bird is 'apparently entirely devoid of conscience, which will not be so much wondered at, perhaps, when it is known that it belongs to the cuckoos'. (422). Exclaims 'Guardianship in birds! The motive? Alas! the answer must usually be, ticks, bats, flies, snakes—a good meal, in short' (426). However, 'pure disinterestedness is sometimes seen', and the 'crane does, indeed, perform one of the purest and most beautiful acts of benevolence recorded in natural history' by allowing a 'great many small birds [...] incapable of long sustained flight' to migrate from Europe to warmer climes on the 'backs of their long-legged, big-hearted friends' (426–27). The smaller birds 'comfortably sit [on the back of the crane], and repay their benefactors by their cheery twittering and merry songs'. Concedes that 'It may be that future investigation will prove that the conduct of the crane is the result of some less noble impulse than that of doing good for good's sake', but suggests that 'in the absence of the necessary proof to that effect it will do no harm to accept it as it appears to be'. (427)

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