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Chapter Ten. Burrowing Birds.
The fruit diet, however delicious, was not strengthening. Saloo said so, and Murtagh agreed with him. The Irishman declared he would rather have a meal of plain “purtatees and buttermilk,” though a bit of bacon, or even ship’s “junk,” would be more desirable.

All agreed that a morsel of meat—whether salted or fresh—would be highly beneficial; indeed, almost necessary to the complete restoration of their strength.

How was animal food to be procured? The forest, so far as Captain Redwood had explored it, seemed altogether untenanted by living creature. He had now been tramping for upwards of an hour among the trees without seeing either bird or quadruped. And although there were fish in the stream, and should have been shell-fish along the sea-beach, neither Murtagh nor Saloo had succeeded in procuring any. A keen craving for animal food had grown upon them, and they were not without some regretful thoughts at having permitted the dead gavial to drift out to sea. Even from the carcass of the saurian they might have obtained steaks that, if not very dainty or delicate, would at least have been eatable.

Discouraged by their want of success, and still feeling feeble, they did not go out again that day, but remained resting under the tree.

While they were munching their evening meal—of durions, as the dinner had been—the Malay commenced discoursing upon eggs, which set them all thinking about them. If they only had a few, it would be just the very thing to nourish and give them strength. But where were the eggs to be obtained? This was the question asked him by the Irishman, who could at that moment have eaten a dozen, boiled, fried, poached, in omelette, or even, as he said himself, have “sucked” them.

“Iggs indade!” he exclaimed, as Saloo made mention of the article; “I’d loike to see one, an could ate a basketful of them, if they were as big as swans’. What puts iggs in your head, nigger?”

“Eggs no long way off,” rejoined the Malay. “Plenty egg if we knowee whale find ’em.”

“How do you know that? Ye’re ravin’, Saloo.”

“No lavin, Multa. You heal lass night the malee? All night longee he cly wail.”

“Hear the malee. What’s that?”

“Biggee fowl like tulkey. Saloo heal him. Make moan likee man go die.”

“Och, thair was that, thrue enough. I heerd something scramin’ all the night. I thought it might be a banshee, if thair is that crayther in this counthry. A bird, you say? What of that? Its squalling won’t give us any iggs, nor lade to its nest nayther.”

“Ness not belly fal way. Malee make ness in sand close to sea-shole. Mollow mornin’ I go lookee, maybe findee.”

All throughout the previous night they had heard a voice resounding along the shore in loud, plaintive wailings, and Captain Redwood had remarked its being a strange note to him, never having heard the like before. He believed the cries to come from some species of sea-fowl that frequented the coast, but did not think of the probability of their nests being close at hand. As day broke he had looked out for them in hopes of getting a shot. Even had they been gulls, he would have been glad of one or two for breakfast. But there were no birds in sight, not even gulls.

Saloo now told them that the screams heard during the night did not come from sea-fowl, but from birds of a very different kind, that had their home in the forest, and only came to the sea-coast during their season of breeding; that their presence was for this purpose, and therefore denoted the proximity of their nests.

While they were yet speaking on the subject, their eyes were suddenly attracted to a number of the very birds about which they were in converse. There was quite a flock of them—nearly fifty in all. They were not roosted upon the trees, nor flying through the air, but stepping along the sandy beach with a sedate yet stately tread, just like barn-door fowl on their march toward a field of freshly-sown grain, here and there stooping to pick up some stray seed. They were about the size of Cochin-Chinas, and from their flecked plumage of glossy black and rose-tinted white colour, as well as from having a combed or helmeted head, and carrying their tails upright, they bore a very striking resemblance to a flock of common hens.

They, in fact, belonged to an order of birds closely allied to the gallinaceous tribe, and representing it on the continent of Australia as also in several of the Austro-Malayan islands, where the true gallinaceae do not exist. There are several distinct species of them; some, as the tallegalla or “brush turkey” of Australia, approaching in form and general appearance to the turkey, while others resemble the common fowl, and still others might be regarded as a species of pheasant. They have the singular habit of depositing their eggs in mounds of rubbish, which they scrape together for this purpose, and then leave them to what might appear a sort of spontaneous incubation. Hence they are usually called “mound-builders,” though they do not all adhere to the habit; some of them choosing a very different though somewhat analogous mode of getting their eggs hatched. Naturalists have given them the name of megapoda, on account of their very large feet, which, provided with long curved claws, enable them to scratch the ground deeply and rake together the rubbish into heaps for the safe deposit of their eggs.

Sometimes these megapodes, as the Australians call them, for they are as common in Australia as Borneo, raise heaps of fifteen feet in height, and not less than sixty feet in circumference at the base.

They are large and heavy birds, unwieldy in their motions, slow and lumbering in their flight. Their legs are thick, and their toes are also thick and long.

There is some difference between their nest-building ways and those of the tallegalla; yet, on the whole, the similarity is very striking, as may be seen from the following account.

Tracing a circle of considerable radius, says Mr Wood, the birds begin to travel round it, continually grasping with their large feet the leaves, and grasses, and dead twigs which are lying about, and flinging them inwards towards the centre. Each time they finish their rounds they narrow their circle, so that they soon clear away a large circular belt, having in its centre a low, irregular heap. By repeating the operation they decrease the diameter of the mound while increasing its height, until at length a large and rudely conical mound is formed.

Next they scrape out a cavity of about four feet in the middle of the heap, and here deposit the eggs, which are afterwards covered up, to be hatched by the combined effects of fermentation and the sun. But the bird does not thus escape any of the cares of maternity, for the male watches the eggs carefully, being endowed with a wonderful instinct which tells him the temperature suitable for them. Sometimes he covers them thickly with leaves, and sometimes lays them nearly bare, repeating these operations frequently in the course of a single day.

The eggs at last are hatched, but when the young bird escapes from the shell it does not leave the mound, remaining therein for at least twelve hours. Even after a stroll in the open air it withdraws to its mound toward evening, and is covered up, like the egg, only not to so great a depth. It is a singular fact that in all cases a nearly cylindrical hole, or shaft, is preserved in the centre of the heap, obviously intended to admit the cooling air from without, and to allow of the escape of the gases fermenting within.

In each nest as much as a bushel of eggs is frequently deposited. As these are of excellent flavour, they are quite as much esteemed by the white man as by the aborigine. The tallegalla has a habit of scratching large holes in the ground while dusting itself, says Mr Wood, after the manner of gallinaceous birds; and these holes often serve to guide the egg-hunter towards the nest itself.

After this digression let us return to the megapodes of Borneo, whose appearance had strongly excited the curiosity of Captain Redwood and his party.

The birds that had now displayed themselves to the eyes of our party of castaways were of the species known as “maleos,” by Saloo called malee. They had not just then alighted, but came suddenly into view around the spur of a “dune,” or sand-hill, which up to that moment had hindered them from being observed.

As the spectators were quietly reclining under the obscure shadow of the tree, the birds did not notice them, but stalked along the shore about their own business.

What this business was soon became apparent; for although one or another of the birds made occasional stop to pick up some worm, weed, or seed, it was evident they were not making their evening promenade in search of food. Now and again one would dart quickly away from the flock, running with the swiftness of a pheasant, then suddenly stop, survey the ground in every direction, as if submitting it to examination, and finally, with a cackling note, summon the others to its side. After this a general cackle would spring up, as if they were engaged in some consultation that equally regarded the welfare of all.

It was noticed that those taking the initiative in these prospecting rushes and summonings, differed a little from the others. The casque or bonnet-shaped protuberance at the back of their heads was larger, as were also the tubercles at their nostrils; the red upon their naked cheeks was of brighter and deeper hue; while their plumage was gayer and more glossy, the rufous-white portion of it being of a more pronounced rose or salmon colour. These were the male birds or “cocks” of the flock, though the difference between them and the hens was much less than that between chanticleer and the ladies of his barn-yard harem, and only noticeable when they drew very near to the spectators.

They were still two hundred yards from the spot where the latter lay watching them, and by the direction in which they were going it was not likely they would come any nearer. Captain Redwood had taken hold of the musket, intending to load it with some slugs he chanced to have, and try a long shot into the middle of the flock; but Saloo restrained him with a word or two spoken in a whisper. They were,—

“Don’t try shot, cappen. Too long way off. You miss all. Maybe they go lookee place for billy eggs. Much betta we waitee while.”

Thus cautioned, the captain laid aside the gun, while they all remained silently watching the maleos, which continued their course, with its various divergences, still unconscious of being observed.

When they were nearly in front of the camping-place, at a spot where the sand lay loose and dry, above the reach of the ordinary tidal influx, all made a stop at the summons of one who, from the superior style of his plumage and the greater grandeur of his strut, appeared a very important individual of the tribe—in all likelihood the “cock of the walk.”

Here a much longer period was spent in the cackling consultation, which at length came to an end, not as before in their passing on to another place, but by the whole flock setting to, and with their great clawed feet scratching up the sand, which they scattered in clouds and showers all around them.

For a time they were scarce visible, the sand dust flying in every direction, and concealing the greater portion of them beneath its dun cloud; and this sort of play was continued for nearly half an hour. It was not intended for play, however, for when it at length came to a termination the spectators under the tree could perceive that a large cavity had been hollowed out in the sand, of such extent, as to diameter and depth, that more than half the flock, when within its circumference, were invisible from their point of observation.

From that moment it could be noted that several birds were always down in the pit thus excavated, some going in, others coming out, as if taking their turn in the performance of a common duty; and it was further noticed that the ones so occupied were those of less conspicuous plumage—in fact the hens; while the cocks strutted around, with their tails elevated high in the air, and with all the pride and importance usually assumed by masters of a grand ceremonial.

For another hour this singular scene was kept up, Saloo hindering his companions from making any movement to interrupt it, by promising them a great reward for non-interference.

The scene at length terminated in another grand scraping match, by which the sand was flung back into the pit with the accompanying storm of dust, and then emerging from the cloud there commenced a general stampede of the megapodes, the birds separating into parties of two and three, and going in different directions. They rushed away at lightning speed, some along the smooth sand beach, while others rose right up into the air, and on loud whirring wings flew off into the forest.

“Now!” said Saloo, with joy gleaming in his dark, Oriental eyes. “Now we getee pay for patient waitee—we hab egg—better than dulion—belly bess solt of egg malee.”

As there was no need for further concealment or caution, all started to their feet and hastened out to the spot where the departed fowls had been at work. There was no longer any signs of a hollow, but a level surface corresponding with that around, and but for the fresh look of the recently disturbed sand, and the scoring that told of claws having disturbed it, no one could have thought that a flock of birds resembling barn-door fowl had just made such a large cavity in the ground, and then filled it up again.

Saloo and Murtagh ran down to the pinnace, and each brought back an oar. With these used as shovels, the loose sand was once more removed, and nearly three dozen large eggs of a reddish or brick colour were exposed to view, lying in a sort of irregular stratification. They were of the usual ovoid form, smaller at one end than the other, though but slightly elongated. What was most notable was their immense size, considering the bulk of the birds that voided them; for while the latter were not larger than common hens, the eggs were as big as those of a goose. The contents of one which Murtagh, in his careless Hibernian way, accidentally broke—and which were caught in a tin pannikin that held as much as a good-sized breakfast cup—filled the pannikin to its brim.

It was quite a seasonable supply. These fine eggs proved not inferior to those of the common hen; indeed they were thought superior, and in flavour more like the eggs of a guinea-fowl or turkey.

About a dozen of them were cooked for breakfast, and in more ways than one. Some were boiled, one of the half shells of the same Singapore oyster serving for a saucepan; while in the other, used as a frying-pan, an immense omelette was frittered to perfection. It was quite a change from the fruit diet of the durion, reversing our present as well as the old Roman fashion of eating, though not contrary to the custom of some modern nations—the Spaniards, for example. Instead of being ab ovo ad malum, it was ab malo ad ovum. (Note 2.)

Note 1. The Banshee, or Benshie, sometimes called the Shrieking Woman, is an imaginary being, supposed by the Irish to predict, by her shrieks and wails, the death of some member in the family over which she exercises a kind of supervision. To this fable Moore alludes in one of his songs—

    “How oft has the Benshee cried.”

Note 2. The Romans began their noonday meal with eggs, and ended with a dessert; ab ovo ad malum.


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