LESSON 10 The frigate-bird
What bird is this? It is the little ocean-eagle, first and chief of the winged race, the daring navigator who never furls his sails, the lord of the tempest, the scorner of all peril—the man-of-war or frigate-bird.(1)
Here we have a bird which is virtually nothing more than wings: scarcely any body—barely as large as that of the domestic cock—while his prodigious pinions are fifteen feet in span! The great problem of flight is solved and overpassed, for the power of flight seems useless. Such a bird, naturally sustained by such supports, needs but allow himself to be borne along. The storm bursts; he mounts to lofty heights, where he finds tranquillity. The poetic metaphor, untrue when applied to any other bird, is no exaggeration when applied to him: literally, he sleeps upon the storm.
When he chooses to oar his way seriously, all distance vanishes: he breakfasts at the Senegal;(2) he dines in America.
Or if he thinks fit to take more time, and amuse himself on route,(3) he can do so. He may continue his progress through the night uninterruptedly, certain of reposing himself. Upon what? On his huge motionless pinion, which takes upon itself all the weariness of the voyage; or on the wind, his slave, which eagerly hastens to cradle him.
Amid the glowing azure of the tropics, at incredible altitudes, almost imperceptible in the dim remoteness, we see him triumphantly sweeping past us—this black, solitary bird, alone in the waste of heaven; or, at the most, at a lower elevation, the snow-white sea-swallow crosses his flight in easy grace!
On looking at him closely, you perceive that he has no feet. At all events, his feet, being exceedingly short, can neither walk nor perch. With a formidable beak, he has not the talons of a true eagle of the sea.
Thence arises his life of uncertainty and hazard—the life of a corsair(4) and a pirate rather than of a mariner.
The immense and superb apparatus of his wings becomes on land a danger and an embarrassment. To raise himself, he needs a strong wind and a lofty station—a promontory, a rock. Surprised on a sandy level, on the banks, the low reefs where he sometimes halts, the frigate-bird is defenceless; in vain he threatens, in vain he strikes, for a blow from a stick will overcome him.
At sea, those vast wings, of such admirable utility in ascent, are ill fitted for skimming the surface of the water. When wetted, they may over-weight and sink him. And thereupon, woe to the bird!
And yet, what shall he do? His food lies in the waters. He is ever compelled to draw near them, to return to them, to skim incessantly the hateful and prolific sea which threatens to engulf him.
Thus, then, this being, so well armed and winged, superior to all others in power of flight and vision as in daring, leads but a trembling and precarious life. He would die of hunger had he not the ingenuity to create for himself a purveyor, whom he cheats of his food. His ignoble resource, alas! is to attack a dull and timorous bird, the noddy, famous as a fisher. The frigatebird, which is of no larger dimensions, pursues him, strikes him on the neck with his beak, and constrains him to yield up his prey. All this takes place in the air. The noddy drops the fish; but the frigate-bird catches it before it can reach the water.