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Early writings from Southern Patagonia
Title: The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn
Sub-title: A study of life in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia
Author: John R. Spears
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1895



All things save song considered, the ostrich is the most interesting bird of Patagonia. There are really two kinds of ostriches in the territory, one at the north and one at the south, but in the eyes of an ordinary spectator they are all of one species.

The traveller will see them from the deck of the steamer as he approaches shore. From a distance they look like a flock of overgrown gray turkeys running around the desert. The angular gait of a turkey in pursuit of a grasshopper is theirs. That the ostrich existed in the days when sunny tropical skies hung over Patagonia is a fact well known to paleontologists. There are ostrich bones in the old clay beds of the region with those of the glyptodon and the monkey, but the monkey was wholly extinguished in the cataclysms of the early ages, while the ostrich, being better able to adapt himself to new conditions, survived, and is even now almost holding his own in the fight for existence on the desert, in spite of the onslaughts of the puma, the wild-cat, the fox, and the still more ruthless hunters who have human blood in their veins.

Just how it is that ostriches have survived can be understood by what the Patagonians tell of them. Thus the birds feed on flies, grasshoppers – about all the insects that appear in their region – and they do this from the moment they break their way through their eggshells. They are able to make their own living from the first. Then, too, they are brought into being in peculiar fashion. The old cock bird has a harem of several hens, and he is in some respects a marvellously good head of a family. He builds a nest for the harem, and the hens take turns in depositing their eggs in it until it is full. Nests having forty eggs in them are not uncommon. When the nest is full enough the old cock takes possession, and sits on and cares for them until they are hatched. Meantime the females go wandering about the plains having a good time, and, incidentally, laying eggs where there is no nest – eggs that are called "strays" by the gauchos, and remain fit to eat for many weeks after they are dropped.

When the eggs are hatched the male looks after the brood – leads them about where food is most abundant, and keeps his eyes open for the ever-near dangers. Although the young birds do not at first recognize an enemy in the predacious beasts and birds that surround them, the old cock remains with them sounding "a loud snorting or rasping warning call" whenever he sees a danger, until the youngsters know the dangers for themselves – a very short time sufficing.

The habit which ostriches have of sticking their heads into the sand, leaving the body exposed to danger, has often been mentioned in books and used as an illustration of what a fool will do. But when one comes to study the ostrich in its home on the desert the habit does not seem at all foolish. Indeed, it is a wise provision of nature for the safety of the bird in a region where hiding places are scarce. When a brood of young ostriches is warned by their guardian they instantly fade out of sight. Gauchos told me that they had surprised broods of more than a score, of which they were able to find no more than three or four, and yet those birds had no more shelter for hiding than was afforded by a dozen or so of small bushes. Squatting motionless, with his head in the sand, the ostrich is so near in color like the sand and the scant herbage that grows there that even experienced hunters fail to see him. His body looks like a gray desert bush – so much like it that a man may look at without recognizing it. When looking for young ostriches the gauchos examine every bush within many rods of the spot where a brood disappears, and so find very often that what seemed to be a bush was wholly or in part a young ostrich. With its head up, of course, the ostrich would be at once detected. With its head in the sand it often escapes even the keen-eyed fox, the gauchos say.

Ostriches readily learn the habits of their persecutors. When Patagonia was first discovered by white men the aborigines were afoot, and the ostriches, being hunted by men afoot, were accustomed to flee at the sight of a man afoot. The Spaniards introduced horses on the pampas and at first the ostriches were not greatly frightened by a man riding. Very soon, however, they found the mounted man dangerous. For some hundreds of years only mounted men pursued the ostriches, and they at last got to a point where they did not fear a man on foot. Then came a great flood of emigrants to Buenos Ayres – chiefly Englishmen and Italians, both classes everywhere the avowed and open enemies of innocent bird life. These took guns to slay the ostrich, and straightway a man afoot once more became an object of terror, while the smell of powder smoke, it is said, will set the pampa birds running away when the gun is at a distance of two miles.

Further than that, a ranch owner is found here and there who will not permit ostrich hunting on his grounds. The birds quickly learn where they are safe and gather from surrounding districts in great bands, leaving the hunted grounds bare. And what is more remarkable still, the very birds that will flee for their lives when started by a man on the hunted grounds will show not the least concern at the approach of a man when they are on safe ground.

That they are readily domesticated may be inferred from this, and so their plumes may be obtained without killing them. But not many are kept so, because the old cocks are often ugly and will attack even men accustomed to feed them.

Because the ostrich, though having wings, is unable to fly, it furnished such sport on the desert as may rarely be found elsewhere. Consider the healthful dash of the athletic young men and women when hunting on Long Island. Remember the old time southern planter, when with thorough-breds and yelping hounds he ran to death the long-winded red fox. And then there are the races across the Colorado plains in chase of a coyote or an antelope or a deer. The game is worth the struggle then, and the struggle is worth – how can one estimate the value of such a mad chase? It is simply glorious, but there is a race better still – the race for the life of an old cock ostrich. With both wings drooping if he be at the south, but with one up and spread like a great sail if he be at the north, he stretches out his neck and flees away. The sportsman has no need to urge a well-broken desert horse – it will turn into the hot trail and stretch out in pursuit till the speed sends a gale whistling past the ears of the rider and the dust from his heels lingers above the mesa like the smoke from a flying express.

Nor is the thrill in the race alone, for there are pitfalls in the shape of burrows where a misstep will send the rider flying sure enough, while gullies and gulches with perpendicular walls lie here and there across the trail, The bird with widespread wings will land in safety after a jump over a precipice, but rider and horse must stop short on the brink or plunge to certain death.

And when the bird is overtaken he is never shot to death. The sportsman must loose the bolas from his waist, and, swinging them with whizzing speed around his head, launch them forth at the right moment to tangle the feet of the bird before it can dodge the blow. Men pay good prices in the States to see a Capt. Brewer knock down a pigeon at thirty yards with a scatter gun, and they probably get the worth of their money, but what is the skill of a pigeon shooter compared with that of the man who can strike a running ostrich with the bolas at a range of sixty yards?

Among the gauchos the chase of the ostrich is known as "the wild mirth of the desert."

The ostrich can swim after a fashion, but the water in cold weather numbs its legs until it is barely able to crawl out on the bank after crossing a stream. The Indians take advantage of this and drive the ostriches to water in cold weather.

Once upon a time a milk-white ostrich appeared among the gray birds that roamed about to the south of Carmen de Patagones. Its conspicuous color at once drew the Indians and gauchos after it, but for some reason their attempts to kill it failed, and within a few days the belief that it was the god of the ostriches was spread among the hunters, and thereafter their superstitious fear of disaster made them avoid it altogether. It was seen for some years, but the unsuperstitious panther probably got it at last. Both the eggs and the flesh of the ostrich are counted good eating, the wings being the most approved part of the flesh.

Next in point of interest to the ostrich are the various kinds of wild fowl. It is with a curious feeling that the traveller sees ducks singly and in flocks come hastening toward his steamer on the Patagonian coast instead of flying from it in wild alarm. A steamer passes each way along that coast once in three or four weeks, but the curiosity of the ducks is not satisfied by that, nor does such shooting as the steamer officers do serve to frighten them to a noticeable extent. I have seen a flock that had been driven away when one of its number had been shot return again to hover above the spars, and so lose a second and even a third individual.

Then, too, in the harbors flocks of ducks fly up and down and often alight within easy gunshot of the landings, while a gunner in a boat can have all the shooting he wants without the trouble of rigging up blinds or using decoys. In fact to kill ducks was too easy when I was there. The number of ducks seen was not prodigious. There was no wild celery or wild rice for food along shore. It was, indeed, difficult to see what they found to feed on about the harbors, but enough were there to keep a shooter busy. This refers to the months of April and May, and the people said it was the same the year round.

The best sport with a gun, however, is to be had with the geese. There are two varieties, and both are quite numerous enough to satisfy anyone, even about the harbors. On the lakes – both salt and fresh – back in the interior they are found really by the million, and so, too, are the ducks. Around the harbors the geese frequented the low marshes and the borders of the lagoons that were filled with water at high tide. No one among the population had a decoy, and the birds were wild enough to get up at very long range if a man approached them openly either on foot or on horseback. They are much swifter on the wing than they seem to be, and so a sportsman could find use for any grade of skill that he possessed. On the other hand, the tenderfoot would not be obliged to go away without a trophy. It is an open country, so that the birds can be seen a long way off, but there are bushes enough behind which one may creep within easy gunshot range.

As trophies the geese found in Patagonia are remarkably beautiful. The Antarctic gander is snow white, with a bluish bill, while the female is colored and mottled in a way that makes her little, if any, less attractive to the eye than a North American wood duck. The ducks, on the other hand, are not especially beautiful. The teal is about the handsomest of the lot.

Black-necked swans are common enough, the bodies, save for the head and neck, being entirely white. So, too, are swans that have black heads, necks, backs and wings, with snow-white breasts. This is a most beautiful bird, and when roasted gaucho fashion over an open fire is said to be the best eating of any bird of the south end of the continent.

The swans, geese, and ducks are all found on the lakes 7000 feet or more above the sea, as well as on the seashore. The lakes form their favorite breeding-places.

Another bird sure to interest the sportsman is the Patagonian prairie chicken known as the tinamou. It lives on the most arid desert as well as near the streams. There are two varieties. The larger one is known as the rufous and the smaller one as the spotted tinamou. Both give as good shooting, and are as good to eat as prairie chickens or quails, and as game they are not materially different from their North American cousins. But the spotted fellow has peculiarities. The cowboys, when a flock is started, make a dash at the birds with yells and howls that simply unnerve the game. The birds squat down and permit themselves to be lifted up in the hands, and then, after a gasp or two, stretch out as if dead. If in this case, however, the bird be released from the hand, it springs away with a partridge-like whirr that is startling even to the experienced. More curious still, when the number of charging gauchos is enough to surround the flock, and the noise and excitement is in consequence great, the birds are actually frightened to death. The gauchos are a heartless lot as a class, and many birds that are only simulating death are mutilated in the most cruel fashion.

We now come to the birds that are interesting to the naturalist as distinguished from the sportsman, although the list of edible birds has been by no means exhausted. Of these the gulls, cormorants, and penguins will first attract the attention of the traveller. The Cape Horn pigeon, a gull the size of a pigeon, is the most beautiful picture in black and white I ever saw. It hovers about the ship in the most friendly fashion and with never a quiver or flop of the wings sails right into the teeth of the hardest gale – rising or sinking at will. But when caught in a flaw of wind near a wave-crest it gives a few energetic wing beats, and then is away again as easily as before.

The ability to sail directly into the wind with wings held extended and without flopping, which all seagulls possess, can nowhere be more readily studied than on the Patagonia coast.

Here, too, one sees the albatross, the largest of seabirds. With its gray and white plumage and a spread of wings of from eight to ten feet (the sailors said specimens of fifteen feet spread were found), it is a remarkable sight for the inexperienced traveller. Captain Cook, when near Cape Horn, found the albatross made a very good meal, so that it was preferred to any meat the crew of the Endeavor had, but in modern times the sailors believe that killing an albatross will bring disaster to a ship, even more quickly than spilling salt brings bad luck to some shore folks.

The penguin is interesting because it flies through the water as some birds fly through the air. It beats the water with its muscular wings, which, by the way, have only short and hair-like feathers on them. The penguins are good to eat in spite of a fish diet, but are not sought after by anyone in Patagonia. In the Cape Horn region the Indians pursue them eagerly.

Then for the Yankee traveller who is interested in bird life, there are the shore birds that nest in the Arctic region, even in Greenland – but at the call of the migrating instinct hurry away south when the northern winter comes, to land at last on the desert shores of Patagonia. There are at least thirteen varieties of shore birds that do this. That is a most remarkable journey. There are other birds found in north Patagonia in the winter time that go away south in the summer, but how far south they go no one knows. When I was in the Beagle channel I made diligent inquiry about the birds going away south, hoping to learn something to indicate whether or not South American birds visit the unknown regions of the Antarctic continent, but the people down there had never been interested in such subjects as bird migration. In fact, I am conscious that such subjects as digging gold and raising sheep are of interest to many more people in the United States than anything that can be said of birds, unless it be the market value of bird skins.

However, there are some doings among Patagonia birds still to be considered, because they are strange as well as beautiful. For instance, there is a spur-winged lapwing that dances, what Spanish-Americans call a serious dance, such a dance as a quadrille.

"The birds are so fond of it," says one who has seen the dance often, "that they indulge in it all the year round, and at frequent intervals during the day, also on moonlight nights. If a person watches any two birds for some time – for they live in pairs – he will see another lapwing, one of a neighboring couple, rise up and fly to them, leaving his own mate to guard their chosen ground; and instead of resenting this visit as an unwarranted intrusion on their domain, as they would certainly resent the approach of almost any other bird, they welcome it with notes and signs of pleasure. Advancing to the visitor, they place themselves behind it; then all three, keeping step, begin a rapid march, uttering resonant drumming notes in time with their movements, the notes of the pair behind coming in a stream like a drum roll, while the leader utters loud single notes at regular intervals. Then the march ceases; the leader elevates his wings and stands erect and motionless, still uttering loud notes, while the other two, with puffed out plumage and standing exactly abreast, stoop forward and downward until their beaks touch the ground, and, sinking their rythmical voices to a murmur, remain in this posture."

That ends the performance. One kind of the rails has a different gathering. It is a long-legged bird, with a body as big as the ordinary barnyard hen. These birds always have a dancing platform in the shape of a smooth piece of ground, well concealed in the tall grass or reeds near the water they frequent. The invitation for the dance is a loud cry repeated three times in succession by one bird. They are a fun-loving race, and instantly gather at their old resort when the call is heard. The moment they reach the open ground they spread their wings, elevate their heads, and open their mouths. Then, with vibrating wings and yells as of lost spirits, they rush from side to side. From piercing shrieks their voices descend to moans and cries that sound like human beings in mortal pain, and then once more screams of anguish arise. It is the song and dance of the rail, but the performance sounds like the voices of men and women in the hands of demons.

The black-faced ibises mentioned by Darwin as a common species at Port Desire have a most remarkable song and dance, so to speak, in mid-air. As they fly along toward the roosting-place at sundown they will, without warning, dash themselves toward the ground, twisting and gyrating about in all directions, to rise again in like frenzied fashion, while they scream in wild glee, albeit their voices are anything but cheerful to a human being.

On the lagoons south of the Rio Gallegos is found a kind of a duck that has a curious performance in the air, also. The birds in small flocks rise to a great height and then divide into two lines, which alternately separate and come together, while all whistle and call in the happiest manner. As the two lines close up together they strike each other with their wings with a sound something like the spatting of hands at a minstrel jig. The performance may last an hour.

Let no one infer from what has been said here of songs and screams that the desert is a noisy place. It is, on the contrary, distinctively the silent land. One may ride all day and yet hear nothing but the beating of the horse's feet and the brushing of his own feet against the bushes. Even the fierce wind does not whistle or even sigh through the brush. In this land the birds, save only the water fowl, are as a whole silent or low-voiced. To one who has heard the constant and tremendous noises the birds of the tropical forest make the contrast is something wonderful.

Of the other birds that the traveller may see a brief space must suffice. Condors, with an eight-foot spread of wing, are common in the Andean region, and are rather numerous at Port Desire and among the rocks up the river there. The carancho is a great white-breasted bird, that is something like an eagle and something like a buzzard; it is everywhere abundant. Seated on the top of a bush on the gray-brown expanse of the desert, it is a most conspicuous object to the eye. Both condors and caranchos follow the panther, to feast on the game it slays for fun. The shepherds say they watch these birds when hunting panthers, and where a number of them gather somewhat excitedly, they invariably find a panther hiding near the dead carcass of some animal. Both kinds of birds, too, have the faculty of seeing when an animal of any kind is from any cause so near to death as to be unable to defend itself, and so gather to tear the unfortunate beast to pieces while yet alive. In the old days, when Punta Arenas was a convict station, the prisoners often escaped to the desert singly or in twos or threes. Hardy ones were known to work their way at times to the Argentine with the aid of Indians or even alone, but the majority fell by the way. Their fate was pitiful. With the lack of food and the gnawing of thirst, their strength gave way until they could but stagger on with faces to the north. And as they staggered came shadows circling over the sand about them. Then the shadows became substance in the form of black-winged condors and white-crested vultures of fierce aspects and an eager hunger for living human flesh. The unfortunate would rouse himself to shout and hurl stones at this devilish host – for a time with success, but sooner or later he would stumble and fall, and then they came and tore him to pieces.

Remarkable as it must seem to the reader, parrots are found in the forests of the Andes as far south as the heads of the Gallegos River. They can be taught to talk, too, and are, in fact, very much like tropical parrots in all respects. They exist in the Rio Negro region in great flocks.

There is but one species of bird there, they say, that does not fear the feathered cats of the air, and that is a species which one naturally would not expect to find in Patagonia at all – the humming bird. It does not seem to be a region of flowers and honey, as we commonly expect a humming bird's resort to be, though it abounds in insects such as humming birds like, but both flowers and honey are there, and so, too, are several kinds of humming birds in the summer season.

As has been said, let the Yankee tourist who is a lover of nature visit Patagonia, if only to see and study the birds. We Americans generally ask when something is proposed for us to do whether it will pay. I am not sure that even a Yankee could make money out of a tour through this desert, but if anyone has made his pile high enough so that he can afford to go away and see some other part of the world, let him travel out of the way – go to Patagonia and Punta Arenas instead of Paris.

[end of Chapter X]