A South Sea Rookery

The feathered tribes are very numerous on these lonely isles of the southern hemisphere, both in the South Seas and in the South Pacific Ocean. Of penguins there are four kinds which resort to the Falkland Islands; viz. the king penguin, the macaroni, the jackass, and the rookery. The first of these is much larger than a goose; the other three are smaller, differing in appearance in several particulars. They all walk upright, as their legs project from their bodies in the same direction with their tails; and when fifty or more of them are moving in file, they appear at a distance like a company of juvenile soldiers. They carry their heads high, with their wings drooping like two arms. As the feathers on the breast are delicately white, with a line of black running across the crop, they have been aptly compared, when seen at a little distance, to a company of children with white aprons tied round their waists with black strings. This feathered animal may be said to combine the qualities of men, fishes, and fowls: upright like the first; their wings and feet acting the part of fins, like the second; and furnished with bills and feathers, like the third. Their gait on land, however, is very awkward; more so than that of a jack-tar just landed from a long voyage; their legs not being much better adapted for walking than their wings are for flying.

The next most remarkable bird to be found on these shores is the penguin's intimate associate and most particular friend, the albatross. This is one of the largest and most formidable of the South Sea birds; being of the gull kind, and taking its prey upon the wing. Like many other oceanic birds, the albatross never comes on land except for the purpose of breeding; when the attachment that exists between it and the penguin is evinced in many remarkable instances; indeed it seems as firm as any that can be formed by the sincerest friends. Their nests are constructed with great uniformity near to each other; that of the albatross being always in the centre of a little square, formed by the nests of four penguins. But more of this in its proper place.

Oct. 19.- On the day after our arrival at New Island, all hands were set to work, in the discharge of their peculiar and various duties. A part of the crew were engaged in refitting the schooner, by repairing her sails, rigging, &c. Another part were occupied in filling water; and the remainder were employed in gathering eggs from the rookeries on the back side of the island. As the latter process is not destitute of interest, I shall take this opportunity to make the reader better acquainted with a South Sea rookery, which is certainly a great curiosity. Indeed I know of few peculiarities in the history of animated nature that are better calculated to lead a reflecting mind to, a serious contemplation of the merciful economy of Providence, in his government of the creatures to which be has given existence, than the one now under consideration.

When a sufficient number of penguins, albatross, &c. are assembled on the shore, after a deliberate consultation on the subject, they proceed to the execution of the grand purpose for which they left their favourite element. In the first place, they carefully select a level piece of ground, of suitable extent, often comprising four or five acres, and as near the water as practicable; always preferring that which is the least encumbered with stones, and other hard substances, with which it would be dangerous to have their eggs come in contact. As soon as they are satisfied on this point, they proceed to lay out the plan of their projected encampment; which task they commence by tracing a well defined parallelogram, of sufficient magnitude to accommodate the whole fraternity, say from one to five acres. One side of this square runs parallel with the water's edge; and is always left open for egress and regress; the other three sides are differently arranged.

These industrious feathered labourers next proceed to clear all the ground within the square from obstructions of every kind; picking up the stones in their bills, and carefully depositing them outside of the lines before mentioned, until they sometimes, by this means, create quite a little wall on three sides of the rookery. Within this range of stones and rubbish they form a pathway, six or eight feet in width, and as smooth as any of the paved or gravelled walks in the New- York Park, or on the Battery. This path is for a general promenade by day, and for the sentinels to patrol at night.

Having thus finished their little works of defence on the three land-sides, they next lay out the whole area in little squares of equal sizes, formed by narrow paths which cross each other at right angles, and which are also made very smooth. At each intersection of these paths an albatross constructs her nest, while in the centre of each little square is a penguin's nest; so that each albatross is surrounded by four penguins; and each penguin has an albatross for its neighbour, in four directions. In this regular manner is the whole area occupied by these feathered sojourners, of different species; leaving, at convenient distances, accommodations for some other kinds of oceanic birds, such as the shag, or green cormorant, and another which the seamen call Nelly.

Although the penguin and the albatross are on such intimate terms, and appear to be so affectionately and sincerely attached to each other, they not only form their nests in a very different manner, but the penguin will even rob her friend's nest whenever she has an opportunity. The penguin's nest is merely a slight excavation in the earth, just deep enough to prevent her single egg rolling from its primitive position; while the albatross throws up a little mound of earth, grass, and shells, eight or ten inches high, and about the size of a water-bucket, on the summit of which she forms her nest, and thus looks down upon her nearest neighbours and best friends.

None of the nests in these rookeries are ever left unoccupied for a single moment, until the eggs are hatched and the young ones old enough to take care of themselves. The male goes to sea in search of food until his hunger is appeased; he then promptly returns and affectionately takes the place of his mate, while she resorts to the same element for the like purpose. In the interchange of these kind offices, they so contrive it as not to leave the eggs uncovered at all; the present incumbent (say the female) making room for the partner of her cares and pleasures on his return from the sea, while lie nestled in by her side until the eggs are completely covered by his feathers. By this precaution they prevent their eggs being stolen by the other birds, which would be the case were they left exposed; for the females are so ambitious of producing a large family at once, that they rob each other whenever they have an opportunity. Similar depredations are also committed by a bird called the rook, which is equally mischievous as the monkey. The royal penguin is generally foremost in felonies, and never neglects an opportunity of robbing a neighbour. Indeed, it often happens that when the period of incubation is terminated, the young brood will consist of three or four different kinds of birds in one nest. This is strong circumstantial evidence that the parent bird is not more honest than her neighbours.

To stand at a little distance and observe the movements of the birds in these rookeries, is not only amusing, but edifying, and even affecting. The spectacle is truly worthy the contemplation of a philosophic mind. You will see them marching round the encampment- in the outside path, or public promenade, in pairs, or in squads of four, six, or eight, forcibly reminding you of officers and subalterns on a parade day. At the same time, the camp, or rookery, is in continual motion; some penguins passing through the different paths, or alleys, on their return from an aquatic excursion, eager to caress their mates after a absence; while the latter are passing out, in their turn, in quest of refreshment and recreation. At the same time, the air is almost darkened by an immense number of the albatross hovering over the rookery like a dense cloud, some continually lighting and meeting their companions, while others are constantly rising and shaping their course for the sea.

To see these creatures of the ocean so faithfully discharge the various duties assigned them by the great Creator; to witness their affectionate meetings after a short absence on their natural element ; to observe their numerous little acts of tenderness and courtesy to each other; - all this, and much more that might be mentioned, is truly interesting and affecting to the contemplative and sympathetic spectator. I have observed them 14 hours together, and could not help thinking that if there was only as much order, harmony, and genuine affection between wedded pairs of the human race, as there is among these feathered people, the connubial state would then indeed be "all that we dream of heaven." A moral philosopher could not, perhaps, be more usefully employed, for it few days, than in contemplating the movements and operations of a South Sea rookery, and marking the almost incredible order and regularity with which every thing is performed. Such a spectator could not fail to confess, that so wonderful an instinct must be "the Divinity which stirs within" them.

Poe seems to have taken much of the above selection for use in his description of a rookery in Episode 8 of Pym. Notable differences occur: though Morrell cites the resemblance of the penguins to children and sentinels, the term "human figure" is Poe's; Morrell attests to the implicit role of Providence and "the great Creator" in the action of the birds; Morrell attributes to the rookery an aspect that is "calculated to lead a reflecting mind to. . . contemplation," while Poe places a "spirit of reflection" in the birds which is "calculated to elicit reflection in. . . human intellect." Reflection, for Poe, is not a desirable human capacity; indeed, the effect of reflection--here, in the birds, and later in mirrors--is one which must be tempered by the intellect, or else it becomes quite terrifying.

Table of Contents