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    Ch. 3: A Wave of Life

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    For many years, while living in my own home on the pampas, I kept a
    journal, in which all my daily observations on the habits of animals and
    kindred matters were carefully noted. Turning back to 1872-3, I find my
    jottings for that season contain a history of one of those waves of
    life--for I can think of no better name for the phenomenon in
    question--that are of such frequent occurrence in thinly-settled
    regions, though in countries like England, seen very rarely, and on a
    very limited scale. An exceptionally bounteous season, the accidental
    mitigation of a check, or other favourable circumstance, often causes an
    increase so sudden and inordinate of small prolific species, that when
    we actually witness it we are no longer surprised at the notion
    prevalent amongst the common people that mice, frogs, crickets, &c., are
    occasionally rained down from the clouds.

    In the summer of 1872-3 we had plenty of sunshine, with frequent
    showers; so that the hot months brought no dearth of wild flowers, as in
    most years. The abundance of flowers resulted in a wonderful increase of
    humble bees. I have never known them so plentiful before; in and about
    the plantation adjoining my house I found, during the season, no fewer
    than seventeen nests.

    The season was also favourable for mice; that is, of course, favourable
    for the time being, unfavourable in the long run, since the short-lived,
    undue preponderance of a species is invariably followed by a long period
    of undue depression. These prolific little creatures were soon so
    abundant that the dogs subsisted almost exclusively on them; the fowls
    also, from incessantly pursuing and killing them, became quite rapacious
    in their manner; whilst the sulphur tyrant-birds (Pitangus) and the
    Guira cuckoos preyed on nothing but mice.

    The domestic cats, as they invariably do in such plentiful seasons,
    absented themselves from the house, assuming all the habits of their
    wild congeners, and slinking from the sight of man--even of a former
    fireside companion--with a shy secrecy in their motions, an apparent
    affectation of fear, almost ludicrous to see. Foxes, weasels, and
    opossums fared sumptuously. Even for the common armadillo (Dasypus
    villosus) it was a season of affluence, for this creature is very adroit
    in capturing mice. This fact might seem surprising to anyone who marks
    the uncouth figure, toothless gums, and the motions--anything but light
    and graceful--of the armadillo and perhaps fancying that, to be a
    dexterous mouser, an animal should bear some resemblance in habits and
    structure to the felidas. But animals, like men, are compelled to adapt
    themselves to their surroundings; new habits are acquired, and the exact
    co-relation between habit and structure is seldom maintained.

    I kept an armadillo at this time, and good cheer and the sedentary life
    he led in captivity made him excessively fat; but the mousing exploits
    of even this individual were most interesting. Occasionally I took him
    into the fields to give him a taste of liberty, though at such times I
    always took the precaution to keep hold of a cord fastened to one of his
    hind legs; for as often as he came to a kennel of one of his wild
    fellows, he would attempt to escape into it. He invariably travelled
    with an ungainly trotting gait, carrying his nose, beagle-like, close to
    the ground. His sense of smell was exceedingly acute, and when near his
    prey he became agitated, and quickened his motions, pausing frequently
    to sniff the earth, till, discovering the exact spot where the mouse
    lurked, he would stop and creep cautiously to it; then, after slowly
    raising himself to a sitting posture, spring suddenly forwards, throwing
    his body like a trap over the mouse, or nest of mice, concealed beneath
    the grass.

    A curious instance of intelligence in a cat was brought to my notice at
    this time by one of my neighbours, a native. His children had made the
    discovery that some excitement and fun was to be had by placing a long
    hollow stalk of the giant thistle with a mouse in it--and every hollow
    stalk at this time had one for a tenant--before a cat, and then watching
    her movements. Smelling her prey, she would spring at one end of the
    stalk--the end towards which the mouse would be moving at the same time,
    but would catch nothing, for the mouse, instead of running out, would
    turn back to run to the other end; whereupon the cat, all excitement,
    would jump there to seize it; and so the contest would continue for a
    long time, an exhibition of the cleverness and the stupidity of
    instinct, both of the pursuer and the pursued. There were several cats
    at the house, and all acted in the same way except one. When a stalk was
    placed before this cat, instead of becoming excited like the others, it
    went quickly to one end and smelt' at the opening, then, satisfied that
    its prey was inside, it deliberately bit a long piece out of the stalk
    with its teeth, then another strip, and so on progressively, until the
    entire stick had been opened up to within six or eight inches of the
    further end, when the mouse came out and was caught. Every stalk placed
    before this cat was demolished in the same businesslike way; but the
    other cats, though they were made to look on while the stick was being
    broken up by their fellow, could never learn the trick.

    In the autumn of the .year countless numbers of storks (Ciconia maguari)
    and of short-eared owls (Otus brachyotus) made their appearance. They
    had also come to assist at the general feast.

    Remembering the opinion of Mr. E. Newman, quoted by Darwin, that
    two-thirds of the humble bees in England are annually destroyed by mice,
    I determined to continue observing these insects, in order to ascertain
    whether the same thing occurred on the pampas. I carefully revisited all
    the nests I had found, and was amazed at the rapid disappearance of all
    the bees. I was quite convinced that the mice had devoured or driven
    them out, for the weather was still warm, and flowers and fruit on which
    humble bees feed were very abundant.

    After cold weather set in the storks went away, probably on account of
    the scarcity of water, for the owls remained. So numerous were they
    during the winter, that any evening after sunset I could count forty or
    fifty individuals hovering over the trees about my house. Unfortunately
    they did not confine their attentions to the mice, but became
    destructive to the birds as well. I frequently watched them at dusk,
    beating about the trees and bushes in a systematic manner, often a dozen
    or more of them wheeling together about one tree, like so many moths
    about a candle, and one occasionally dashing through the branches until
    a pigeon--usually the Zenaida maculata--or other bird was scared from
    its perch. The instant the bird left the tree they would all give chase,
    disappearing in the darkness. I could not endure to see the havoc they
    were making amongst the ovenbirds (Furnarius rufus--a species for which
    I have a regard and affection almost superstitious), so I began to shoot
    the marauders. Very soon, however, I found it was impossible to protect
    my little favourites. Night after night the owls mustered in their usual
    numbers, so rapidly were the gaps I made in their ranks refilled. I grew
    sick of the cruel war in which I had so hopelessly joined, and resolved,
    not without pain, to let things take their course. A singular
    circumstance was that the owls began to breed in the middle of winter.
    The field-labourers and boys found many nests with eggs and young birds
    in the neighbourhood. I saw one nest in July, our coldest month, with
    three half-grown young birds in it. They were excessively fat, and,
    though it was noon-day, had their crops full. There were three mice and
    two young cavies (Cavia australis) lying untouched in the nest.

    The short-eared owl is of a wandering disposition, ard performs long
    journeys at all seasons of the year in search of districts where food is
    abundant; and perhaps these winter-breeders came from a region where
    scarcity of prey, or some such cause, had prevented them from nesting at
    their usual time in summer.

    The gradual increase or decrease continually going on in many species
    about us is little remarked; but the sudden infrequent appearance in
    vast numbers of large and comparatively rare species is regarded by most
    people as a very wonderful phenomenon, not easily explained. On the
    pampas, whenever grasshoppers, mice, frogs or crickets become
    excessively abundant we confidently look for the appearance of
    multitudes of the birds that prey on them. However obvious may be the
    cause of the first phenomenon--the sudden inordinate increase during a
    favourable year of a species always prolific--the attendant one always
    creates astonishment: For how, it is asked, do these largo birds, seldom
    seen at other times, receive information in the distant regions they
    inhabit of an abundance of food in any particular locality? Years have
    perhaps passed during which, scarcely an individual of these kinds has
    been seen: all at once armies of the majestic white storks are seen
    conspicuously marching about the plain in all directions; while the
    night air resounds with the solemn hootings of innumerable owls. It is
    plain that these birds have been drawn from over an immense area to one
    spot; and the question is how have they been drawn?

    Many large birds possessing great powers of flight are, when not
    occupied with the business of propagation, incessantly wandering from
    place to place in search of food. They are not, as a rule, regular
    migrants, for their wanderings begin and end irrespective of seasons,
    and where they find abundance they remain the whole year. They fly at a
    very great height, and traverse immense distances. When the favourite
    food of any one of these species is plentiful in any particular region
    all the individuals that discover it remain, and attract to them all of
    their kind passing overhead. This happens on the pampas with the stork,
    the short-eared owl, the hooded gull and the dominican or black-backed
    gull--the leading species among the feathered nomads: a few first appear
    like harbingers; these are presently joined by new comers in
    considerable numbers, and before long they are in myriads. Inconceivable
    numbers of birds are, doubtless, in these regions, continually passing
    over us unseen. It was once a subject of very great wonder to me that
    flocks of black-necked swans should almost always appear flying by
    immediately after a shower of rain, even when none had been visible for
    a long time before, and when they must have come from a very great
    distance. When the reason at length occurred to me, I felt very much
    disgusted with myself for being puzzled over so very simple a matter.
    After rain a flying swan may be visible to the eye at a vastly greater
    distance than during fair weather; the sun shining on its intense white
    plumage against the dark background of a rain-cloud making it
    exceedingly conspicuous. The fact that swans are almost always seen
    after rain shows only that they are almost always passing.

    Whenever we are visited by a dust-storm on the pampas myriads of hooded
    gulls--Larus macnlipen-nis--appear flying before the dark dust-cloud,
    even when not a gull has been seen for months. Dust-storms are of rare
    occurrence, and come only after a long drought, and, the water-courses
    being all dry, the gulls cannot have been living in the region over
    which the storm passes. Yet in seasons of drought gulls must be
    continually passing by at a great height, seeing but not seen, except
    when driven together and forced towards the earth by the fury of the

    By August (1873) the owls had vanished, and they had, indeed, good cause
    for leaving. The winter had been one of continued drought; the dry grass
    and herbage of the preceding year had been consumed by the cattle and
    wild animals, or had turned to dust, and with the disappearance of their
    food and cover the mice had ceased to be. The famine-stricken cats
    sneaked back to the house. It was pitiful to see the little burrowing
    owls; for these birds, not having the powerful wings and prescient
    instincts of the vagrant Otus brachyotus, are compelled to face the
    poverty from which the others escape. Just as abundance had before made
    the domestic cats wild, scarcity now made the burrowing owls tame and
    fearless of man. They were so reduced as scarcely to be able to fly, and
    hung about the houses all day long on the look-out for some stray morsel
    of food. I have frequently seen one alight and advance within two or
    three yards of the door-step, probably attracted by the smell of roasted
    meat. The weather continued dry until late in spring, so reducing the
    sheep and cattle that incredible numbers perished during a month of cold
    and rainy weather that followed the drought.

    How clearly we can see in all this that the tendency to multiply
    rapidly, so advantageous in normal seasons, becomes almost fatal to a
    species in seasons of exceptional abundance. Cover and food without
    limit enabled the mice to increase at such an amazing rate that the
    lesser checks interposed by predatory species were for a while
    inappreciable. But as the mice increased, so did their enemies.
    Insectivorous and other species acquired the habits of owls and weasels,
    preying exclusively on them; while to this innumerable army of residents
    was shortly added multitudes of wandering birds coming from distant
    regions. No sooner had the herbage perished, depriving the little
    victims of cover and food, than the effects of the war became apparent.
    In autumn the earth so teemed with them that one could scarcely walk
    anywhere without treading on mice; while out of every hollow weed-stalk
    lying on the ground dozens could be shaken; but so rapidly had they
    devoured, by the trained army of persecutors, that in spring it was hard
    to find a survivor, even in the barns and houses. The fact that species
    tend to increase in a geometrical ratio makes these great and sudden
    changes frequent in many regions of the earth; but it is not often they
    present themselves so vividly as in the foregoing instance, for here,
    scene after scene in one of Nature's silent passionless tragedies opens
    before us, countless myriads of highly organized beings rising into
    existence only to perish almost immediately, scarcely a hard-pressed
    remnant remaining after the great reaction to continue the species.
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