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THE UNKNOWN PEOPLES

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Hello, crowned woods with rest of greenery!
Yellowing foliage on scattered lawns!
Hello! last beautiful days! The mourning of nature
Suitable for my pain and pleases to my looks!
(Lamartine.)

I was eager to escape the theater of my irreparable misfortune; I have to leave the woods. But, whether I had lost myself in my inexperience with the forests, whether I had strolled, or any other cause, I took more than a week to leave the vault of the trees, and was delighted to see the sky again, without intermediaries, above my head.

Just as I was coming out of the wood, an unexpected sight appeared to me. The trees of the forest were constantly decreasing in height. I had already noticed it as I approached the edge, but I saw that they ended up becoming dwarf bushes and grazed by the herds, then finally mingled with the heather. Now, these heaths stretched out before me as far as the eye could see, and again on the left and also on the right! … Heath, always heath and gorse! … I had a moment the thought of returning on my steps. How to find enough food to cross this immense desert without culture? From the top of the branch which served me as an observatory, I was sorry in advance, and cast an anxious glance towards certain black spots which I could see far away, far away, in the azure sky. Surely, they were still pirates!

How to avoid their pursuit in this plain without retreats and trees? … Decidedly, I was far too much in sight; and I knew from experience that the way to see well is to hide. So to reach the mainland and settle down as best I could on a small clump of grass among the grasses that gather at the feet of the heather, was a matter of a moment and I am delighted to see that from there, I will not lose anything that happens on or near a nearby pond. I was especially struck with a great astonishment at hearing so many cries uttered in languages ​​I did not understand, which made me think at first that I had reached the confines of the habitable earth. But I soon realized that this was due to the extreme difference of the races, for I saw several reed warblers near me, whose twitter I understood very well.

The sun was scarcely visible, and on every side I heard strange cries rise, resounding frightening noises which proved to me that there lived among me a population of which I had no idea. While I was trying to warm myself a little under the rays of the sun striking my retreat, the fog, which covered the earth, rose slowly, and I gazed at the magnificent sight I had before me.

The clod of turf on which I had taken refuge, was part of an immense marshy plain of which I saw each tuft come to life and give birth to a new bird, all carriers of beaks of an incredible length, some straight, the others curved beneath, some raised in the air.

It was easy to see that some lived in society and sought each other, while the others were solitary. But at first I could not find any striking difference between them. It took a great deal of attention to recognize that, despite their long beak at all, great differences of organization made them perfectly distinct birds and manners and needs.

Large societies, moreover, stood in the middle of swamp and heather, rarely coming to the edge of the water itself, while the isolated walkers hardly left the soft and muddy beaches of the tail of the pond, and even entered, at every moment, into the water to the belly, which the others did not dare to do, who merely dabbled in the small puddles of water which the marsh held back here and there.

For once, I could not help laughing, so much did the poor animals, in my opinion, made a singular figure!

The pond was covered with birds, which I had never seen before. Their appearance differed greatly from that of the woodland birds: their shape was heavier and more stocky. I allowed myself to flit around them to examine them, taking great care not to let myself fall into the water on which they floated. I succeeded, this way, to make sure that their legs were webbed and formed a sort of fan, each finger being bound to the other by a thin and elastic membrane. I also noticed that these birds had three fingers directed forward, supporting the membranes, while that of the back was practically zero. How can they perch? Obviously, this way of station is quite impossible for them. I first pitied them, but on further reflection, I recognized that, standing on the water without effort, they remained in some sort perched, though seated, and that besides their legs, arranged as they were, they formed powerful oars, which they needed most with every movement they wanted to execute.

I had a furious desire to examine more closely my curious neighbors; but I was wary now of what I did not know. My innocent confidence had failed, I remembered, to put my life in jeopardy … So, I went as cautiously as our nature entails, and I was soon able to see that these palmipeds, having no finger back, could not close the hand, and therefore could not retain a prey. Moreover, their flat beak did not seem to be used to cut up flesh … I concluded that they could not be carnivorous and therefore dangerous. So I perched on a willow whose mourning branches allowed their points to bathe in the water, and there, within reach of these strangers, yet ready to fly if I saw an enemy emerge, I began to chirp, then to sing, hoping to be noticed. Bah! They did not just raise their heads. There was enough to really feel a movement of very marked spite and be a little humiliated; but at that moment a nightingale was heard… I was silent; what could my voice sound like next to that harmonious one of this charming singer? Alas! he was not more noticed than me …

I resolved then to fly near these good people, who had the effect of boors little friends of the fine arts. I went next to them and, perched on a reed, I quenched my thirst in that limpid water of which they seemed the only owners. Surprised at my boldness, they finally raised their heads and spoke to me in a language very difficult to understand, nazing in a frightful manner. Nevertheless, I engaged the conversation. Of course, I did some cock-and-bull, but I learned that they were called duck, the other teals, and that they were all from the same family.

I spoke to them of the singular conformation of their paws; they told me that they could not perch on the trees, that often, very often, it had been a great privation for them, and that they appreciated little the mode of salvation which was refused to them, for, when a bird of prey comes to attack them, if they see it in time, instead of fleeing as we do with wings, they plunge immediately to the bottom of the water and very often manage to avoid it, unless this one does not surprise them and falls on them like an arrow.

The day was spent chatting with my new acquaintances; but the conversation was so painful between us, that I soon became bored, and left them to return to the mainland.

There it was worse; I saw myself in the midst of a population of acute cries, and very uneasy at knowing the names of those animals whose language I did not understand at all. I sought for a bird which could serve me as a mediator, and which, by its mixed nature between the life of the woods and that of the reeds, easily understood me and gave me some information.

I stopped, then, a fine babbler’s warbler, of those who constantly haunt the reeds, and humbly begged her to have pity on a stranger, and to do me the honor of a scientific conversation. Alas! I had been as polite as I could, but at the reception I received, I realized that the world of waterbirds was far from being as civilized as that of the birds of the towns and fields.

“Go for a walk, curious and talkative that you are! … Do you think that I have time to lose to teach the ignorant like you? You are not disgusted, really, to address yourself to quality people! … But you do not know that the autumn is advancing and that I must make my travel arrangements? I do not stay here, me. This country is too cold; I hurry quickly, very quickly …

And she ran away, still speaking.

Oh! talkative,” I exclaimed. Reed warbler, that you are well named! With half the words you would have answered me and you would have done useful work, instead of having only struck the air with vain sounds!

I was no less embarrassed, when I saw fluttering in the rushes, near me, a charming bird, smaller than the foolish reed warbler, and carrying above each eye a band of a yellowish white, like a wide eyebrow, which gave a graceful air to his pretty face. The excess of his body was greenish-brown, inlaid with beautiful spots of the same color, but darker than the rest, and I noticed the facility with which he hung from the reeds and rushes, circling around, as well as the troglodyte around branches of a bush, climbing and descending, head down, along the same strand, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do!

I ventured a second step; this charming little warbler seems to me more amiable than the terrified red warbler. “Mrs Warbler,” I said in my sweetest voice, “pardon a stranger if he disturbs you in the midst of your occupation; but I need so much information in the new world in which I find myself thrown, that I assure you of a lively gratitude for those whom you will give me.

Mister Sparrow, I was just a little behind these reeds when you addressed the same request to a reed warbler, a little crazy, of my acquaintance. She badly received you; but you must not be angry with her; she does not have a very solid head. I am not of the same kind as she; you see that I am much smaller. I have been named the Warbler of the Rushes. I am very glad to meet you, for you must know many things that I do not know, since you are a traveler. I accept your proposal; I will speak to you about the birds of this country, and you will tell me the customs of the birds of the forest and of the city. You know them, whereas I have only seen them from afar.

Thus begun our knowledge. The sky, which always treated me like a spoiled child, sent me another friend who was going to replace my dear Lark and my good and cheerful Jean Robin.

“Men have baptized me Sylvia,” [1] she said to me; I know it, and I also know that they have added to it a horrible word, derived from the Greek, phragmitos, [2] which means that I live in hedges. It is absurd, since I never leave the reeds and rushes bathed in still waters. I allow you to call me Sylvie. And you? … how will I call you?

Sparrow,” I said, quite simply. I am a member of the famous tribe of sparrows, the most beautiful that nature has …

Well, well, I hear! … Known! my friend Sparrow. Learn that from the top to the bottom of the ladder of beings, everyone says the same, and draw from this the conclusion that your self-esteem must accept.

Dear Sylvie, thank you for your warning. I will think about it…

“At this moment, I have not time to talk with you for a long time, I have lunch. Do as much on your side, the worms are not lacking around you, and come back in an hour to join me here; you will ride on this reed stopper; from there, you will call me, I will arrive and we will talk …

I did as Sylvie had said.

The worms were not so abundant as she claimed, and I did not have in my service the great pickaxe of my neighbors to dig them up. I plunged my paws into the mud and was very uncomfortable when I thought of demolishing the clumps of dirt by side instead of wading in the water that was between them. I thus found an abundant lunch of larvae, chrysalis and worms.

My meal finished, I flew on the great cattail of reed where the warbler had given me an appointment, and I called: Sylvie! Sylvie !! …

She ran up. We went to sit in the sun, at the foot of a tuft of heather, sheltered from the wind, and my new friend began as follows:

I will call your attention to the fact that nature has endowed almost all birds with finesse, grace and lightness. It seems to have created us to animate the countryside and to spread movement and gaiety among the motionless objects of the landscape. This is striking for forest and field hosts, is it not, Sparrow?

It is obvious!

The marsh birds, on the contrary, have been much mistreated in these respects. Their senses are obtuse, their instinct reduced to the most vulgar sensations, their cares limited to seek their food in the mud or the muddy lands. These species, which are attached to silt, would be readily believed from the first ages of the world, and could not take part in the remarkable progress which the successive creations have undergone. A certain number of types have been developed, extended, embellished, perfected under the powerful hand of nature, and under that of man, the master whom she has given us here below; while the inhabitants of the marsh remained stationary in the imperfect state of their sketched nature.

In none of them, my dear Sparrow, will you find the grace, the kindness, the cheerfulness of us, the birds of the flowering countryside. They do not know how, like us, to practice, to rejoice together, to take their frolics on earth or in the air. Their abrupt and jerky flight is only a flight, a quick line from one cold swamp to another. Held on the wet ground, they can not, like the birds of wood and reeds, play in the foliage, or rest on the folding leaves; the organization of their feet is opposed to it. They lie on the ground, and, while sadly and solemnly pacing the bare places, utter, most often, hoarse and inarticulate cries.

Many stand in the shade during the day; their feeble sight, their timid, wild, uneasy natures, make them prefer the darkness of the night or the glow of twilight to the brilliant light of the sun. It is less by the eyes than by the sense of smell and tact with which the end of their long beak is endowed, that they seek and collect their food.

As long as they find the ground wet, all hunt for worms, leeches, soft larvae of aquatic insects. If the drought comes, they fall back on the insects of the earth and take beetles, spiders, flies; but it is pitiful to see how much evil they give themselves for this hunt, where their long bill serves them badly. They knock on the side; their soft mandibles do not grasp the agile insect, and I saw the other day a poor curlew who, after having tried to captivate at least half a dozen flies, without succeeding in taking a single one, he gave it up, and went off sadly, his expression bored.

Painting by a master’s hand, dear Sylvie! and how much I thank you for not disdaining to instruct a poor stranger! What strikes me, above all, is that you do not seem an ordinary bird … Your language has an elevation of feelings that would prove that you have attended men, if I did not know that all our hearts are likely to as much elevation as theirs …

“You are not mistaken, my dear Sparrow. Last year, I was able to witness, invisible, hidden by my reeds, the interviews of a father who was training his young son to study nature. Both lived in the castle whose chimneys you see there, among the trees, and came every evening to make a long boat trip on the lake. The first night I was frightened, but I dared not fly … I waited, and a few words from their conversation interested me. From that day on, I became their most diligent listener.

Heaven is blessed with such a happy circumstance!

“Go away, my dear Sparrow. But hurry up. Our cooking, for us, is done only when we go to the provisions …

“Agree! tell me then, good Sylvie, what are these black birds that gather in groups, over there, far enough from the pond, in the wet parts of the moor? Why do not they come to the water’s edge like those we see walking on their big feet?

These birds, from which you can see from here the black egret, are lying behind, like a feather behind the ear of an office worker, are lapwings. [3] Their name comes from the word van, (4) perhaps because the sound of their large wings recalls, when they fly, that of the instrument that serves, for men, to clean the grain. They have black heads and foreheads, white belly. Their backs have beautiful green reflections; their paws are pale; you see that they have a body about the size of a young pigeon.

They are the most intelligent, with the plovers, among the birds of the shore, and this improvement results from their essentially sociable manners. The instinct of sociability is, among the birds, a definite index of intellectual development. In lapwings, the community of tastes, projects, pleasures is complete, and this union of will is precisely the source of their mutual attachment and the motive of their general connection. Always ready to come together, to join, to remain and to travel together, the lapwings arrive, like all the birds gifted with the social instinct, to understand each other and to communicate to each other enough intelligence to know the first laws of the society. With them reign affection, confidence, peace, except when the season of love brings a certain disturbance in their habits; but this state of agitation lasts a short time, and the appearance of the young is an occasion of tender care exchanged for the benefit of a general solicitude.

Lapwings are not the only shorebirds with mild and sociable manners. Plovers imitate them and present touching examples of trust to each other. A few months ago I witnessed a fact that demonstrates this truth. A young hunter beat the moor on which we are, when he heard a little band of six Guinard plovers. He turns, shoots the first that passes; the bird falls … All the plovers rush at the same time as the poor animal struck to death, all crowd around him, and, by their little cries of encouragement, seem to engage him to regain his strength and to go back with them in the air … Alas! on his second stroke the hunter killed them all five on the corpse of their brother! … That’s what I saw! They were five martyrs of fraternal friendship! …

Poor people!

“It is necessary now, my young friend, that I speak to you of the ruffs, whom you see there, passing and skimming their hunt down the heaths of the moor. They arrive at the marsh, and just now you will see that their manners are very different from those of our friends the plovers. Always irritated, especially in spring, always quarrelsome, these fighters do not know so to speak the rest. The battle is their element, the quarrel their habit: one by one, two by two, six against six, they must fight, they bicker! Ah! the sad brood!

And to say that they are so pretty!

It’s true … But that’s enough, friend, see you tomorrow!

Left alone, I chose a bed for the night among the reeds, and the next day I began, at dawn, to survey the moor. I wanted to see, and I see

My God! that the world is great, and that it therefore contains beautiful things!

I passed beside birds with beaks bent like picks, digging in the damp mud; one of them, sullen, nearly hurt me with this enormous tool. Sylvie’s remarks came back to my memory, and returning to the pond, I noticed a very tall bird mounted on two tall legs, motionless, on a small eminence hidden under the water: his coat was gray, his shoulders high and hunchbacked, between them a long straight beak advanced … Suddenly, I saw him relax like a spring and deploy a neck of an incredible length, which, coming out of between the two wings, was immersed in the water like an arrow … and brought back a fish caught in the beak. The heron – I knew from Sylvie that he was one – deftly threw this fish in the air, above him, received him by the head in his open beak and engulfed him. Then he went back to his bored position and his grotesque immobility …

I was confused by what I saw, marveling at so many beautiful things. Time passed like a lightning, evening was coming; I ran to Sylvie’s rendezvous and found her, as before, kind and affectionate. My first care was to tell him what I had observed on my side; she laughs at first of my remarks. But, soon recovering her seriousness, she addressed to me, with a serious air, the following words:

“You are a bird of too great sense, and an animal too well endowed to lack courage. I want to treat you as a serious friend, and the greatest proof of esteem I want to give you, will be to introduce you to a project that is coming soon.

For too long now, a bird of prey has ravaged these edges. He decimates the winged people; today one, tomorrow the other; everything is good for him to satisfy his fierce appetite. Pushed to the limit, we made a pact between all the inhabitants of the lake; we want to avenge ourselves! Join us, you must, if only to make common cause against one of the energetic enemies of peaceful birds.

Love heart! I answered, inflamed with courage and touched by the case that one made of my value. Let me know about the plan and you will see what the value of a sparrow can be!

“Long live God!” I like to hear you talk like that. You are valiant, I suspected it well. Come on! we will have occasion to put your courage in all his day. Come with me to see a pool of water of my acquaintance; it must play, in this drama, a role of first order. We will explain our fight plan there.

I followed her.

We reached the reeds, and at his call I saw them come out and walk on the water-lily leaves a new bird that I had not yet seen. It was the waterhen. His neck and the underside of his belly were black, slightly gray towards the flanks; the upper back is black too, but with greenish reflections; each wing bears three white feathers, and the whole tail is of that color. What surprised me was that the plumage of this bird, instead of being smooth and shiny, is entirely dull and dusty. It is a kind of oil that feathers the feathers and subtracts them from the action of water. The waterhen has green legs and beak too, she wears on each leg a pretty red garter. Each foot forms four fingers which are not webbed, but only bordered by a thin and independent membrane. As their thumb is long and it can be opposed to the other fingers, the waterhen perch easily: so she rose on a reed next to us and the conference began.

The sunset is approaching: the raptor will come to get his victim every night. Friends, I devote myself, because he devoured my children and I gave him a mortal hate! … I walk alone on the pond, he will cast on me … come to my rescue, and God will do the rest ! …

Amazed by so much stoicism, I understood the greatness of maternal love to the extent of the devotion it inspires, and, penetrated by a religious admiration, I was, more than ever, acquainted with this pact, so equitable with the weak against the tyrant. We parted.

The rest of the afternoon was spent assembling Sylvie and I, all the birds of the neighborhood, to give them the necessary instructions; then we waited, hidden some in the reeds, the others among the bushes at the edge of the pond: all in the greatest silence. One would have thought this place absolutely desolate … The waterhen, who devoted herself, but who, for her only defense, plunged admirably, had remained isolated in the middle of the pond, lounging softly by the waters and looking as if she were taking care of a little fish she was holding in her beak. The wait was full of anxiety. At last the sparrowhawk appeared. Seeing the waterhen only as a victim, the raptor began to descend in a spiral, at first uttering shrill cries; and then burst upon her like a lightning falling from the clouds! At that moment a snipe, which we had put in sentinel, uttered its piercing cry, and, a thousand, we cast ourselves on the common enemy.

Quick as the lightning bolt, the waterhen plunged just as the robber’s talons were about to seize her.

Stunned by the number, the cries, the pecking and especially the murderous attacks of the sword of the heron, the hawk couldn’t fly … He wanted to hide in the rushes and fell among the water lilies … From each leaf was born an enemy!

His great wings beat the water; from then on, his loss was certain: the ducks, coming out from under the leaves, went out of their way: their beaks held a feather and did not let him go …

Soon the head of the roguish touched the water, it was plunged … He made a supreme effort !!! … The feathers of the attackers, torn by his claws, scattered with the breath of the breeze … his sharp beak made shreds of flesh throbbing … Several dead fell at his side; but he could not resume his flight …

THE UNKNOWN PEOPLES
HIS GREAT WINGS BEAT THE WATER …”

A few more convulsions, and the water came into his beak, into his nostrils; he was asphyxiated! … and lay stretched out on the water, his wings open, his feathers bristling, the claws still quivering under the spasms of agony.

The hen was avenged; all the birds of the canton, delivered from their formidable enemy, made for this courageous mother a real ovation. She was surrounded, celebrated, thanked. Then came my turn, for I had bravely conducted myself, and had seen death more than once! I had left some feathers in the fight; I had been bruised, almost stunned with a terrible blow of a wing … It was then that I exclaimed:

“My friends, let’s think about the wounded!”

They were treated as best as possible.

Meanwhile, the sun had come down near the horizon. He disappeared, and the calm and deep night came to cover these places, formerly full of tumult and battles.

 

[1] In French language, the name of warbler is fauvette, 18 species of the genus Sylvia

[2] Marsh warblers meet for example in the genus Phragmites

[3] In French, vanneaux

[4] Van (winnowing) is an agricultural tool that peasants use to clean cereals to winnow (“vanner” in French)

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