Compared with all these, the birds that can do with a diet of fruit only lead an easy life. They have just to pluck and eat—that is, if they are pleased with small fruits and content to swallow them whole. But the hornbills, being too bulky to hop among twigs, need a long reach; hence the portentous machines which they carry on their faces. The beak of a hornbill is nothing else than a pair of tongs long enough to reach and strong enough to wrench off a wild fig from its thick stem. If it were of iron it would be thin and heavy; being of cellular horn-stuff it is bulky but light. If you ask why it should rise up into an absurd helmet on the queer fowl's head, I cannot tell. Nature has quaint ways of using up surplus material.
An easy life begets luxury, and among fruit-eaters the parrot has become an epicure. It will not swallow its food whole, and its bill deserves study. In birds generally the upper mandible is more or less joined to the skull, leaving only the lower jaw free to move. But in the parrot the upper mandible is also hinged, so that each plays freely on the other. The upper, as we all know, is hooked and pointed; the lower has a sharp edge. The tongue is thick, muscular, and sensitive. The whole makes a wonderful instrument, unique among birds, for feelingly manipulating a dainty morsel, shelling, peeling, and slicing, until nothing is left but the sweetest part of the core. Of all gourmands Polly is the most shameless waster.
Long before land, trees, and air had been exploited the primitive bird must have discovered the harvest of the waters, and here the competition has been very keen indeed. Yet the form of bill most in use is very simple—just a plain pair of forceps, long and sharp-pointed like scissors. This is evidently hard to beat, for birds of many sorts use it, handling it variously. The kingfisher plumps bodily down on the minnow from an overhanging perch; the solan goose, soaring, plunges from a "pernicious height"; the heron, high on its stilts, darts out a long and serpentine neck; the diver, with similar beak and neck, but different legs, pursues the fleeing shoals under water; to the swift and slippery fish all are alike terrible in their certainty.
There are, however, other varieties of the fishing bill. Some have a hook at the point, as that of the cormorant, and some are straight at the top, but curved on the under side. This last form is handy for storks, which do not pluck fish out of water so much, but scoop up frogs, crabs, and reptiles from the ground. The ridiculous bill of the puffin, or sea-parrot, is an eccentricity. There may be some idea in it, but I suspect it is an effect of vanity merely, being coloured blue, yellow, and red, and quite in keeping with the other absurdities of the wearer.
Apart from all these and by itself stands a princely fisher whose bill is no modification, but an original invention and a marvellous one. Larger than a swan and gluttonous withal, the pelican cannot live on single fishes. It has given up angling altogether and taken to netting; and the way in which the net has been constructed out of the pair of forceps provided in the original plan of its construction is as well worth your examining as anything I know. It is a foot in length, the upper jaw is flat and broad, while the lower consists of two thin, elastic bones joined at the point, a mere ring to carry the curious yellow bag that hangs from it. In pictures this is represented as a creel in which the kind pelican carries home the children's breakfast; you are allowed to see the tail of a big fish hanging out. But it is not a creel; it is a net. The great birds, marshalled in line on some broad lake or marsh, and beating the water with their wings, drive the fish before them until they have got a dense crowd huddled in panic and confusion between them and the shore. Now watch them narrowly. As each monstrous bill opens, the thin bones of the lower jaw stretch sideways to the breadth of a span by some curious mechanism not described in the books, and at the same time the shrunken bag expands into a deep, capacious net. Simultaneously the whole instrument is plunged into the struggling, silvery mass and comes up full. The side bones instantly contract again, and the upper jaw is clapped on them like a lid. No wonder the fishermen of the East detest the pelican.
In the same marsh, perhaps, standing with unequalled grace upon the longest legs known in this world, is a troop of giant birds as wonderful as the pelican, but how opposite! The beautiful flamingo is a bird of feeble intellect, delicate appetite, and genteel tastes. It cannot eat fish, for its slender throat would scarcely admit a pea. Besides, the idea of catching anything, or even picking up food from the ground, does not occur to its simple mind. Its diet consists of certain small crustaceans, classed by naturalists with water-fleas, which abound in brackish water; and it has an instrument for taking these which it knows how to use. I kept flamingos once, and, after trying many things in vain, offered them bran, or boiled rice, floating in water. Then they dined, and I learned the construction and working of the most marvellous of all bills. The lower jaw is deep and hollow, and its upper edges turn in to meet each other, so that you may fairly describe it as a pipe with a narrow slit along the upper side. In this pipe lies the tongue, and it cannot get out, for it is wider than the slit, but it can be pressed against the top to close the slit, and then the lower jaw becomes an actual pipe. The root of the tongue is furnished on both sides with a loose fringe which we will call the first strainer. The upper jaw is thin and flat and rests on the lower like a lid, and it is beautifully fringed along both sides with small, leathery points, close set, like the teeth of a very fine saw. This is the second strainer. To work the machine you dip the point into dirty water full of water-fleas, draw back the tip of the tongue a little, and suck in water till the lower jaw (the pipe) is full, then close the point again with the tip of the tongue and force the water out. It can only get out by passing through the first strainers at the root of the tongue, then over the palate, and so through the second strainers at the sides of the bill; and all the solid matter it contained will remain in the mouth. The sucking in and squirting out of the water is managed by the cheeks, or rather by the cheek, for a flamingo has only one cheek, and that is situated under the chin. When the bird is feeding you will see this throbbing faster than the eye can follow it, while water squirts from the sides of the mouth in a continuous stream. I should have said that the whole bill is sharply bent downwards at the middle. The advantage of this is that when the bird lets down its head into the water, like a bucket into a well, the point of the bill does not stick in the mud, but lies flat on it, upside down.
In conclusion, let us not fail to note, whatever be our political creed, that, while all the birds pursue their respective industries, there sit apart, in pride of place, some whose bills are not tools wherewith to work, but weapons wherewith to slay. And these take tribute of the rest, not with their consent, but of right.