Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE BLACK GUILLEMOT.
URIA GRYLLE, Linn.
PLATE CCCCLXXIV.--ADULT IN SUMMER, ADULT IN WINTER, AND YOUNG.
It was a frightful thing to see my good Captain, HENRY EMERY, swinging on a
long rope upon the face of a rocky and crumbling eminence, at a height of
several hundred feet from the water, in search of the eggs of the Black
Guillemot, with four or five sailors holding the rope above, and walking along
the edge of the precipice. I stood watching the motions of the adventurous
sailor. When the friction of the rope by which he was suspended loosened a
block, which with awful crash came tumbling down from above him, he, with a
promptness and dexterity that appeared to me quite marvellous, would, by a
sudden jerk, throw himself aside to the right or left, and escape the danger.
Now he would run his arm into a fissure, which, if he found it too deep, he
would probe with a boat-hook. Whenever he chanced to touch a bird, it would
come out whirring like a shot in his face; while others came flying from afar
toward their beloved retreats with so much impetuosity as almost to alarm the
bold rocksman. After much toil and trouble he procured only a few eggs, it not
being then the height of the breeding season. You may imagine, good reader, how
relieved I felt when I saw Mr. EMERY drawn up, and once more standing on the
bold eminence waving his hat as a signal of success. This happened in one of
the Magdeleine Islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
During severe winters, I have seen the Black Guillemot playing over the
waters as far south as the shores of Maryland. Such excursions, however, are of
rare occurrence, and it is seldom that any of these birds are to be seen until
you reach the Bay of Boston. About the different entrances of the Bay of Fundy,
this species is a constant resident, and many individuals breed in fissures, at
a moderate height above the water, on the rocky shores of the Island of Grand
Manan, and others in the same latitude. Proceeding farther toward the
north-east, we found them on Jesticoe Island, and where-ever else we happened to
touch on our way to Labrador, in which country there is a regular nursery of
Unlike the Foolish and Thick-billed Guillemots, or the Razor-billed Auk,
they do not confine themselves to any particular spot, but take up their abode
for the season in any place that presents suitable conveniences. Wherever there
are fissures in the rocks, or great piles of blocks with holes in their
interstices, there you may expect to find the Black Guillemot.
Whether European writers have spoken of this species at random, or after
due observation, I cannot say. All I know is, that every one of them whose
writings I have consulted, says that the Black Guillemot lays only one egg. As
I have no reason whatever to doubt their assertion, I might be tempted to
suppose that our species differs from theirs, were I not perfectly aware that
birds in different places will construct different nests, and lay more or fewer
eggs. Our species always deposits three, unless it may have been disturbed; and
this fact I have assured myself of by having caught the birds in more than
twenty instances sitting on that number. Nay, on several occasions, at
Labrador, some of my party and myself saw several Black Guillemots sitting on
eggs in the same fissure of a rock, where every bird had three eggs under it, a
fact which I communicated to my friend THOMAS NUTTALL. What was most surprising
to me was, that even the fishermen there thought that this bird laid only a
single egg; and when I asked them how they knew, they simply and good-naturedly
answered that they had heard so. Thus, reader, I might have been satisfied with
the sayings of others, and repeated that the bird in question lays one egg; but
instead of taking this easy way of settling the matter, I found it necessary to
convince myself of the fact by my own observation. I had therefore to receive
many knocks and bruises in scrambling over rugged crags and desolate headlands;
whereas, with less incredulity, I might very easily have announced to you from
my easy chair in Edinburgh, that the Black Guillemots of America lay only a
single egg. No true student of nature ought ever to be satisfied without
personal observation when it can be obtained. It is the "American Woodsman"
that tells you so, anxious as he is that you should enjoy the pleasure of
studying and admiring the beautiful works of Nature.
To satisfy yourself as to the correctness of the statements which he here
lays before you, go to the desolate shores of Labrador. There, in the vernal
month of June, place yourself on some granite rock, against the base of which
the waves dash in impotent rage; and ere long you will see the gay Guillemot
coming from afar by the side of its mate. They shoot past you on fluttering
wings, and suddenly disappear. Go to the place; lay yourself down on the
dripping rock, and you will be sure to see the birds preparing their stony nest,
for each has brought a smooth pebble in its bill. See how industriously they
are engaged in raising this cold fabric into the form of a true nest, before the
female lays her eggs, so that no wet may reach them, from the constant trickling
of the waters beneath. Up to the height of two or three inches the pebbles are
gradually raised, the male stands by his beloved; and some morning when you peep
into the crevice, you observe that an egg has been deposited. Two days after
you find the number complete.
A closet-naturalist was quite surprised, I have been told, when he read in
one of my volumes that Grakles form no nests in one portion of the United
States, being there contented with merely dropping their eggs in the bottom of a
Woodpecker's hole; while in the Middle States the same species forms a very snug
nest. That his astonishment was great I do not in the least doubt, especially
as I know how surprised I was to find the Larus argentatus breeding on fir-trees
forty feet above the ground, and to see three eggs, instead of one, placed on a
bed of small pebbles beautifully arranged, and every one belonging to a single
pair of Black Guillemots. Yet, good reader, as I have also been told, the same
person had no doubt whatever that ermines turn from brown to white in winter,
that snakes and crabs cast off their skins and shells, and that "fleas are not
lobsters;" but then the reason of his belief was simply that he had read of
these things; and his doubts as to the Grakles arose from the facts having been
recently reported by a stranger from the "far west," who, it seems, talked of
things which he had not read of before.
Whilst in Labrador, I was delighted to see with what judgment the Black
Guillemot prepares a place for its eggs. Whenever the spot chosen happens to be
so situated as to preclude damp, not a pebble does the bird lay there, and its
eggs are placed on the bare rock. It is only in what I call cases of urgency
that this trouble is taken. About fifty or sixty pebbles or bits of stone are
then used, and the number is increased or diminished according to circumstances.
The eggs of this species, which appear disproportionately large, measure
two inches and three-eighths in length, by an inch and five-eighths in breadth.
Their form is regular; they are rather rough to the touchy although not
granulated; their ground colour an earthy white, thickly blotched with very dark
purplish-black, the markings larger and closer towards the great end, which,
however, is generally left free of them. The shell is much thinner than that of
the egg of the Foolish Guillemot or Razor-billed Auk. As an article of food
they are excellent, being delicate and nutritious.
The parents pluck the feathers from a space across the lower part of their
belly, as soon as incubation commences; and this bare place, when the bird is
taken alive, it immediately conceals by drawing the feathers of the upper part
of the abdomen over it, as if it were anxious that it should not be observed.
When driven from the nest, the Black Guillemot at once runs out of its
hiding-place and flies to the water, on which it plays, bathes as it were, dives
a few times, and anxiously watches your retreat, after which it soon returns and
resumes the arduous task of incubation.
The young, which are at first quite black, are covered with soft down, and
emit, although in an under tone, the same lisping notes as their parents. Their
legs, feet, and bill are black. The red colour of the legs of the old birds is
much brighter during the breeding-season than at any other time, and the mouth
also is bright red. About the first of August the Guillemots lead their progeny
to the water, and although at this time neither old nor young are able to fly,
they dive deeply and with great ease, which enables them to procure abundance of
food, for at this season, lints, shrimps, and marine insects are plentiful in
all the waters.
While in Labrador, I made a severe experiment to ascertain how long the
Black Guillemot could live without food,--an experiment on which I have never
since been able to think, without some feeling of remorse. I confined a pair of
them in the fissure of a rock for many days in succession. After the entrance
was securely closed, I left the place, and for eight days the wind blew so hard
that no boat was safe on the waters without the harbour. Many a time I thought
of the poor captives, and at last went to their retreat one rainy afternoon,
over a great swell of the sea. The entrance of the fissure was opened, and a
stick pushed into the hole, when I had the pleasure of seeing both birds,
although apparently in a state of distress, run out by me, and at once fly to
The flight of the Black Guillemot is rapid and continued. As they proceed
in their course, they alternately shew the black of their lower parts and the
white of their wings. They walk on the rocks with considerable ease, using
short steps, and whenever they wish to remove from one crag or block to another,
make use of their wings. When their nests are very high above the water, they
fly directly into them; and from such heights, if necessity demands it, they at
once dive towards the water.
I kept many alive on board the Ripley. They ran on the floor in an erect
position for a few yards, fell down on their breasts, rose again, and continued
their exertions to escape until they got fairly concealed behind a chest or
The winter plumage of this species differs so greatly from that of summer,
that I have been induced to present you with a figure of the bird in both
states. It is difficult to perceive any external difference between the sexes,
only the males are rather larger than the females. Their flesh, although black
and tough, is not very unpalatable.
The trachea is flattened, with numerous close, transparent rings. The
gullet, as in all the other species of this genus, is very dilatable. The
gizzard, which is small, has its inner membrane thin and of a yellow colour.
The intestines are about the thickness of a goose quill, and measure two feet
eight inches in length.
URIA GRYLLE, Bonap. Syn., p. 423.
URIA GRYLLE, Black Guillemot, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 523.
BLACK GUILLEMOT, Uria Grylle, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 148; vol. v.p. 627.
Adult, 13 7/8, 21 1/2.
Accidental as far south, on the eastern coast, as New York; not rare from
thence eastward, during winter. Breeds from the Bay of Fundy along all the
rocky shores, to Labrador, and the highest latitudes, where considerable numbers
even spend the winter.
Adult in summer.
Bill shorter than the head, straight, rather stout, tapering, compressed,
acute. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly straight and sloping, towards
the tip slightly arched, the sides sloping and towards the end a little convex,
the edges sharp and slightly inflected. Nostrils basal, lateral, linear,
partially concealed by the feathers. Lower mandible with the angle long and
very narrow, the dorsal line ascending, straight, the sides sloping upwards,
slightly convex, flat at the base, the edges sharp and inflected, the tip acute.
Head of moderate size, oblong; neck short; body full, depressed; wings
rather small. Feet placed far behind, short, of moderate size; tarsus short,
compressed, anteriorly scutellate, laterally covered with reticulated angular
scales; toes rather slender, scutellate above, connected by entire reticulated
webs the outer and inner with a small marginal membrane; the first toe wanting,
the third and fourth about equal, the second shortest; claws small, arched,
compressed, rather obtuse, that of the middle toe with a dilated thin inner
Plumage soft, close, blended and velvety; feathers of the head very short,
on the back broadly rounded, of the lower parts more elongated. Wings rather
small; primary quills curved, the first longest, the second little shorter, the
rest rather rapidly diminishing; secondary incurved, broadly rounded. Tail
short, narrow, rounded, of twelve rather pointed feathers.
Bill black, inside of mouth vermilion tinged with carmine. Iris deep
brown. Feet of the same colour as the mouth, claws black. The general colour
of the plumage is deep black, on the upper part tinged with green, on the lower
with red, there being only a large patch on each wing, including the secondary
coverts and some of the smaller feathers, pure white, as are the lower
wing-coverts. The quills and tail are tinged with brown.
Length to end of tail 13 7/8 inches, to end of claws 16 1/4, to end of
wings 13; extent of wings 21 1/2; wing from flexure 6 1/2; tail 2; bill along
the ridge 1 1/4, along the gap 1 7/8; tarsus 1 2/12; middle toe 1 1/2, its claw
3/8. Weight 13 1/2 oz.
Adult in winter.
The bill and iris are of the same colour as in summer, but the red of the
feet is paler. The general colour of the plumage is white, the sides of the
head, the neck all round, the lower parts, and the rump being of that colour,
more or less shaded with grey. The upper part of the head obscurely mottled
with greyish-black; the back and scapulars black, each feather tipped with
greyish-white, those of the latter more broadly. The wings and tail
brownish-black, the former with the conspicuous white patch, as in summer.
Young a few days old.
Bill and feet black, the former tinged with red; iris dark brown. The
general colour of the soft thick down with which the whole body is covered is
Male from Dr. T. M. BREWER. The palate is flat, with two papillate ridges,
and a series of papillae on each side, parallel to the posterior aperture of the
nares, which is linear, and 10 twelfths long; the anterior part concave, with
five prominent lines. Tongue 1 3/4 inches long, slender, tapering, trigonal,
horny beneath, papillate at the base, and channelled towards the extremity, the
tip pointed and thin-edged. OEsophagus 6 1/2 inches long, 9 twelfths in width
along the neck, within the thorax dilated into an enormous sac, 2 inches in
length, 1 1/4 in breadth. The stomach is rather large, 1 1/2 inches long, 1 1/4
broad; the epithelium dense, tough, light red, with strong longitudinal rugae.
The proventricular glands form a belt 1 1/4 inches in width, extending over the
wider part of the sac. The left lobe of the liver is 2 1/4 inches long, the
right lobe 3 inches; the gall-bladder 9 twelfths long, 4 1/2 twelfths in
breadth. The intestine is 4 twelfths in width; the coeca 1 inch 4 twelfths
long, 3 1/4 twelfths in their greatest breadth, 2 1/4 inches distant from the
extremity; the cloaca ovate, 10 twelfths long. Trachea 4 inches 4 twelfths
long, from 4 twelfths to 2 1/2 twelfths in breadth; the rings 115. Bronchial
half rings 26. The tracheal rings are feeble, unossified, narrow in the middle
and behind, as in the Auks, Gulls, Terns, and generally in all birds of which
the rings are unossified. There are cleido-tracheal muscles, lateral muscles,
sterno-tracheal, and a single pair of inferior laryngeal.