The prospectus, or advertisement, of a certain American typewriting machine commences by informing the public that "The —— typewriter is founded on an idea." When I saw this phrase I secured it for my collection, for I felt that, without jest, it contained the kernel of a true philosophy of Nature. The forms, the phainomena, of Nature are innumerable, multifarious, interwoven, and infinitely perplexing, and you may spend a happy life in unravelling their relations and devising their evolutions; but until you have looked through them and seen the ideas that are behind them you are a mere materialist and a blind worker. The soul of Nature is hid from you.
What is the bill of a bird and what does it mean? I do not refer to the bill of a hawk, or a heron, or an owl, or an ostrich, but to that which is the abstract of all these and a thousand more. I hold, regardless of anatomy and physiology, that a bird is a higher being than a beast. No beast soars and sings to its sweetheart; no beast remains in lifelong partnership with the wife of its youth; no beast builds itself a summer-house and decks it with feathers and bright shells. A beast is a grovelling denizen of the earth; a bird is a free citizen of the air. And who can say that there is not a connection between this difference and other developments? The beast, thinking only of its appetites, has evolved a delicate nose, a discriminating palate, three kinds of teeth to cut, tear, and grind its food, salivary glands to moisten the same, and a perfected apparatus of digestion.
The bird, occupied with thoughts of love and beauty, with "fields, or waves, or mountains" and "shapes of sky or plain," has made little advance in the art and instruments of good living. It swallows its food whole, scarcely knowing the taste of it, and a pair of forceps for picking it up, tipped and cased with horn, is the whole of its dining furniture. For the bill of a bird, primarily and essentially, is that and nothing else. In the chickens and the sparrows that come to steal their food, and the robin that looks on, and all the little dicky-birds, you may see it in its simplicity. The size and shape may vary, as a Canadian axe differs from a Scotch axe; some are short and stout and have a sharp edge for shelling seeds; some are longer and fine-pointed, for picking worms and caterpillars out of their hiding-places; some a little hooked at their points, and one, that of the crossbill, with points crossed for picking the small seeds out of fir-cones; but all are practically the same tool. Yet the last distinctly points the way to those modifications by which the simple bill is gradually adapted to one special purpose or another, until it becomes a wonderful mechanism in which the original intention is quite out of sight.
At this point I find an instructive parable in my tool chest. Fully half of the tools are just knives. A chisel is a knife, a plane is a knife set in a block of wood, a saw is a knife with the edge notched. Moreover, there are many sorts of curious planes and saws, each intended for one distinct kind of fine work. All these the joiner has need of, but a schoolboy would rather have one good, strong pocket-knife than the whole boxful. For, just in proportion as each tool is perfected for its own special work, it becomes useless for any other. And your schoolboy is not a specialist. He wants a tool that will cut a stick, carve a boat, peel an apple, dig out a worm—in short, one that will do whatever his active mind wants done.
Now apply this parable to the birds. If you see a bill that is nothing but a large and powerful pair of forceps, good for any rough job, you may know without further inquiry that the owner is no limited specialist, but a "handy man," bold, enterprising, resourceful, and good all round. He will not starve in the desert. No wholesome food comes amiss to him—grub, slug, or snail, fruit, eggs, a live mouse or a dead rat, and he can deal with them all. Such are the magpie, the crow, the jackdaw, and all of that ilk; and these are the birds that are found in all countries and climates, and prosper wherever they go.
But all birds cannot play that part. One is timid, another fastidious, another shy but ingenious. So, in the universal competition for a living, each has taken its own line according to the bent of its nature, and its one tool has been perfected for its trade until it can follow no other. The thrush catches such worms as rashly show themselves above-ground; but an ancient ancestor of the snipe found that, if it followed them into marshy lands, it could probe the soft ground and drag them out of their chambers. For this operation it has now a bill three inches long, straight, thin and sensitive at the tip, a beautiful instrument, but good for no purpose except extracting worms from soft ground. If frost or drought hardens the ground, the snipe must starve or travel. Among the many "lang nebbit" birds that follow the same profession as the snipe, some, like the curlew and the ibis, have curved bills of prodigious length. I do not know the comparative advantages of the two forms, but no doubt each bird swears by its own pattern, as every golfer does by his own putter.
But now behold another grub-hunter, which, distasting mud, has discovered an unworked mine in the trunks of trees. There, in deep burrows, lurked great succulent beetle-grubs, demanding only a tool with which they might be dug out. This has been perfected by many stages, and I have now before me a splendid specimen of the most improved pattern—namely, the bill of the great black woodpecker of Western India, a bird nearly as big as a crow. It is nothing else than a hatchet in two parts, which, when locked together, present a steeled edge about three-eighths of an inch in breadth. The hatchet is two and a half inches long by one in breadth at the base, and a prominent ridge, or keel, runs down the top from base to point. It is further strengthened by a keel on each side. Inside of it, ere the bird became a mummy, was her tongue, which I myself drew out three inches beyond the point of the bill. It was rough and tough, like gutta-percha, tipped with a fine spike, and armed on each side, for the last inch of its length, with a row of sharp barbs pointing backwards. The whole was lubricated with some patent stickfast, "always ready for use." That grub must sit tight indeed which this corkscrew will not draw when once the hatchet has opened a way.
The swallows and swifts, untirable on their wings, but too gentle to hold their own in a jostling crowd, soared away after the midges and May-flies and pestilent gnats that rise from marsh and pond to hold their joyous dances under the blue dome. Continually rushing open-mouthed after these, they have stretched their gape from ear to ear; but their bills have dwindled by disuse and left only an apology for their absence.