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Marabous and Hyenas - Harper's

 

The ugliest storks in the world are found in Southern Asia and Central Africa. Their flesh-colored heads are only partially covered with stiff, wiry feathers, and hanging on the breast they bear a disgusting pouch, which answers the purpose of a crop. One of the largest of these storks is the marabou. It stalks about the great sandy plains of Central Africa with a composure and lordly grandeur, as if it were the most beautiful bird in the world. Its body feathers are of a dull metallic green color, and its wings and tail are dingy black. Looking at the awkward creature, no one would suspect that under its ungainly wings it carried the most exquisite and fairy-like little plumes, so airy that it takes basketfuls of them to weigh an ounce. They are pure white, and so much desired for trimming that the bird is vigorously hunted by the natives, who sell these dainty feathers to traders for a very large price.

Hunting the marabou is attended with great difficulty, as the bird possesses wonderful cunning, and often contrives to outwit the most skillful hunter. With laughable dignity it measures the ground between itself and its pursuer, and takes very good care not to exhaust itself by too rapid flight. If the hunter moves slowly, the bird at once adopts an equally easy pace, but if the hunter quickens his steps, the bird is off like an arrow. It is very difficult to get within gun-range of this calculating creature, but the natives adopt a novel means of capturing it, which the bird, with all its astuteness, is unable to comprehend, and falls an easy victim. A tempting morsel of meat is tied to the end of a long stout cord, which the skillful hunter flings to a great distance, as he would a lasso, the bait falling as near the fleeing bird as he can aim it. He then conceals himself hastily behind a bush, or crouches low on the sand. The marabou, which always keeps its eye on the hunter, seeing him vanish, quietly stops and devours the bait, when it is easily secured by the hunter, who runs toward it, coiling the rope as he goes.

The marabou feeds on carrion, like the vulture. Its throat is very large, and it will greedily eat everything that comes in its way. In the swamps and plains around Khartoom, on the Nile, are immense flocks of marabous, and they are so daring as to come to the slaughter-houses on the outskirts of the city in search of food, and whole ox ears, and shin-bones with hoof attached, have been found in the crop of specimens which have been killed.

This bird is a very skillful fisher. It haunts the low marshy islands in the rivers and lakes of Central Africa, with elephants, monkeys, flamingoes, and many varieties of birds for its companions, and gains its principal food from the water. It often goes in companies of ten or twelve to fish. Wading in the water, the birds form a circle which they gradually draw together, gathering the frightened fish in the centre as with a net, when with their long bills and quick movement they speedily provide themselves with a hearty meal.

Although marabou mammas have been seen proudly parading round with a brood of diminutive downy young ones, so shy and retiring is this bird in its domestic habits that naturalists have been unable to determine when and how it builds its nest. The natives assert that it nests in high trees, but their statement is not confirmed.

In captivity the marabou is lord of the inclosure, and in zoological gardens where specimens have been confined no other birds, nor even small beasts, dare approach the feeding trough until the hunger of this impudent bird is satisfied, and it has retired to the warmest corner for a nap. The immense strength of its bill makes it a formidable enemy, and when fighting for food it will often overcome the largest vultures, and wage successful battle with beasts of prey.

MARABOU FIGHTING WITH HYENAS. MARABOU FIGHTING WITH HYENAS.

The hyena inhabits the same portions of Asia and Africa as the marabou, and travellers give accounts of terrible contests between these two singular members of the animal kingdom. The hyena is called the vulture among beasts, as it prefers carrion for its food, and as long as it can find dead animals to devour, it leaves the flocks and herds in peace. Cowardly by nature, it rarely attacks man or beast unless driven to desperation by hunger.

The striped hyena inhabits the northern latitudes of Africa, Persia, and Syria, while the spotted species, which is easily tamed, and is sometimes called hyena-dog, is found in large numbers in the vast plains of South Africa.

The hyena is a strange-looking beast. It has a big head and a heavy shaggy mane. The hind part of its body is much lower than its shoulders, and its hind-legs are short. This odd formation gives it an awkward shambling manner of walking, which is both ludicrous and hideous.

This creature rarely shows itself by day, but when the shadows of night fall on the plains and forests, it comes out from its home among the rocks and caverns in search of food. African travellers are much annoyed by it. When the camp is silent, and all are sleeping, the hyena comes prowling round, uttering hoarse human cries; and should it fail to find sufficient camp refuse to satisfy its hunger, some poor donkey is sure to be torn in pieces by its terribly strong jaws.

Few animals have been the subject of so much superstition. In ancient times it was believed that a dog went mad if a hyena turned its evil-eye upon it, and the beast was believed by many to be a wicked sorcerer who went about in human form by day, and at night assumed the shape of a hyena. The poor and ignorant peasantry of Arabia, even at the present day, believe in the evil-eye of this beast, and are afraid to shoot it lest they should incur the wrath of the wicked spirit which they imagine walks the earth in this ugly form.

The poor hyena, however, far from being an evil spirit, is a real blessing to the regions it inhabits, as it is a natural scavenger, provided by the kind wisdom of nature to clear the ground of much loathsome and decaying matter, thereby rendering the air sweeter and purer and more healthful.