Ornithologist, naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) is best known for his 1827 masterpiece Birds of America, a collection of over 400 print etchings rendered by Robert Havell Jr. and still celebrated for its creative ingenuity and scientific relevance. At least 30 of those prints were based on Audubon’s travels through Florida in 1831 and 1832, which he narrates in Ornithological Biography (1831), Bird’s lesser-known but equally important four-volume narrative companion. Based on field notes and memory, and heavily edited by William MacGillivray, the Ornithological Biography blends Romantic reflection with empirical observation and reveals Audubon’s perspective as an enslaver, mill owner, and hunter.
Born in Haiti to a French plantation owner and domestic worker, Audubon was officially adopted by his father and educated in France, where he excelled as a painter. Audubon further developed as an ornithologist and woodsman working on his father’s Pennsylvania estate as a young man. Sent there to avoid military inscription in Napoleon’s army, it eventually became Audubon’s mission to hunt and catalog every species of bird in America, and he worked toward this goal for twenty years, while failing to grow his fortune by other means.
Audubon’s brief stint as a Kentucky mill owner was particularly fraught; after a series of poor investments, he sold almost everything in 1819–including nine enslaved workers–and briefly spent time in debtor’s prison. Romantic poet John Keats’ younger brother George partnered in one of the investments; in response to his brother’s loss, the sickly Keats to wrote George suggesting Audubon was a swindler and a fool.
Audubon’s ornithological career picked up around 1826, when he toured Europe aggressively seeking publication. There, the 41-year-old transformed himself into the American Woodsman, changing costume twice daily, with self-described hair “so beautifully long and curly as ever” that it would captivate investors. His work and performance were well-received there, and in one year, the ornithologist rallied enough subscribers to fund the publication of Birds, Ornithology, and his subsequent travels.
Of “The Florida Cormorant” (Plate 251): Christoph Irmscher writes that “in his best work, Audubon’s birds stare back at the viewers and, inevitably, find them wanting,” and the Florida Cormorant is one sublime example. Hunched over on rotting wood, with a silent gaping mouth and fixed eye, the murky bird seems to embody its sound: croak. Audubon discovered the subspecies during his six months in Florida, spending most of that time near St. Augustine at his friend George Bulow’s plantation and up the St. John’s River. Disappointed with “Bartram’s Garden,” the naturalist generally disliked Florida, calling St. Augustine “the poorest hole in the Creation.” However, he was enamored by the Keys and collected hundreds of birds from the trip. Audubon encountered his cormorant throughout Florida, but his plate depicts the Keys’ sweltering mangroves. In Ornithological Biography, Audubon narrates his encounter with the nest of long-necked birds, all perched “as if gazing upon beings strange to them,” before they were “murdered” by Audubon and his party.
Audubon was known for his unique dramatic flair, but he was also a product of his time. Supposedly trained by Romantic painter Jacques-Louis David, Audubon and his birds share a tune with Keats’s Nightingale and Shelley’s Skylark, signaling his connection to and dissociation from nature. In writing, he often supplements biographical entries with the animal’s domestic potential as a pet, for food, or both. Although Audubon disliked the Florida Cormorant‘s behavior and flavor, he records that Indigenous and Black Floridians utilized the young birds for protein. In lieu of scant written records by marginalized Floridians of the time, unexpected and even problematic sources like Audubon may aid the fragmented recovery of underrepresented Florida stories and cultural practices.
Of “The Turtlers”: A departure from Ornithological Biography’s main fare, this sketch (or what we would today call narrative nonfiction) follows Audubon into Key West to observe Florida sea turtles and early sea turtle fisheries. He begins with a moonlit description of a heavy female ritualistically unburdening her eggs before she slips into the sea “with a joyful heart.” However, Audubon’s Romantic inklings are quickly diffused when he describes the sea turtles’ market price and commercial use. In this section, Audubon’s captive birds were dinner guests not menu items, and while shopping for feed-quality turtles, he imagined a feast of tender eggs and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” sailing across the Carribean in a loggerhead’s shell. Here, fertile waters and commercial industry combine as a site of imagination, even as Audubon casts an aspersive eye at “eggers” or poachers of sea turtle eggs. A delicacy in Europe and the U.S. by this time, Florida’s sea turtle population saw a steep decline into the mid-20th century as turtle meat’s popularity increased. Although Audubon contributes to a damaging rhetoric on the sea turtle’s culinary and aesthetic worth, his records remain useful to researchers who track Florida’s threatened sea turtle population and its history of decline.
–Jacqueline Carlson, University of South Florida
Audubon, John James, and William MacGillivray. Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America?; Accompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work Entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners. Adam Black, vol. 3, 1835.
Irmscher, Christoph. “Controversies Remind Us of How Complex John James Audubon Always Was.” Library of America, LOA.org, August 17, 2022.
Krummrich, Philip. “Keats and Audubon: A Curious Episode in the Early History of Kentucky.” Journal of Kentucky Studies, vol. 28, Sep 2011, pp. 136-140.
Proby, Kathryn Hall. Audubon in Florida. With Selections from the Writings of John James Audubon. Coral Gables, Fla., University of Miami Press, 1974.
The Florida Cormorant–Phalacrocorax Floridanus (Plate CCLII. Male)
Few birds inhabiting the United States are aso little known, or have been so incorrectly described, as the Cormorants. Nay even some of the European species of this genus are yet not well understood, so imperfectly have they been studied by writers who, although they have defined their forms, have not sufficiently studied them in the places to which they resort during the breeding season. Of the three species of which I shall speak in this volume, only one has been accurately described. I allude to the Double-crested Cormorant, P. dilophus, which was met with by the intrepid Dr. Richardson in the course of his Arctic journeys, and introduced to the scientific world in the Fauna Boreali-Americana, but without a figure, a circumstance to be regretted, as good representations of birds are fully as necessary as good description. When the student has perused both, he cannot fail to recognise the species in whatever part of the world he may afterwards meet with it. [….]
The Florida Cormorant seldom goes far out to sea, but prefers the neighbourhood of the shores, being found in the bays, inlets, and large rivers. I never met with one at a greater distance from land than five miles. It is at all seasons gregarious, although it is not always found in large flocks. The birds of this species never suffer others of the same genus to resort to their breeding places, although they sometimes associate with individuals belonging to different genera. The P. Carbo appropriates to itself the upper shelves of the most rugged and elevated rocks, whose bases are washed by the sea; P. dilophus breeds on flat rocky islands at some distance from the shores of the mainland; and the Florida Cormorant nestles on trees. In the many breeding places of all these species which I have visited, I never found individuals of one intermingled with those of another, although the Large Cormorant did not seem averse from having the Peregrine Falcon in its vicinity, while the Double-crested allowed a few Gannets or Guillemots to nestle beside it, and the Florida Cormorant associated with Herons, Frigate Pelicans, Grakles, or Pigeons.
This species seldom flies far over land, but follows the sinuosities of the shores or the waters of rivers, although its course towards a given point should thus be three times as long. It is the only one that, in as far as I have observed in America, alights on trees. My learned friend, the Prince of MUSIGNANO, mentions in his valuable Synopsis of the Birds of the United States, a species of Cormorant under the name of P. Graculus, which he describes as being when adult greenish-black, with a few scattered white streaks on the neck, in winter bronzed, and having a golden-green crest, the head, neck, and thighs with short small white feathers, and adds that it “inhabits both continents and both hemispheres: not uncommon in spring and autumn in the Middle States: very common in the Floridas, where it breeds, though very abundant in the arctic and antarctic circles.” Unfortunately no dimensions are given, except of the bill, which is said to be three and a half inches long. The Florida Cormorant, however, does not at any season present these characters, and therefore conceiving it to be different from any hitherto described, I have taken the liberty of giving it a name, while the figure and description will enable the scientific to form a distinct idea of it, and thus to confirm the species, or restore to it its previous appellation, should it have received one.
On the 26th of April, 1832, I and my party visited several small Keys, not many miles distant from the harbour in which our vessel lay. Mr. THRUSTON had given us his beautiful barge, and accompanied us with his famous pilot, fisherman and hunter, Mr. EGAN. The Keys were separated by narrow and tortuous channels, from the surface of the clear waters of which were reflected the dark mangroves, on the branches of which large colonies of Cormorants had already built their nests, and were sitting on their eggs. There were many thousands of these birds, and each tree bore a greater or less number of their nests, some five or six, others perhaps as many as ten. The leaves, branches, and stems of the trees, were in a manner white-washed with their clung. The temperature in the shade was about 90 degrees Fahr., and the effluvia which impregnated the air of the channels was extremely disagreeable. Still the mangroves were in full bloom, and the Cormorants in perfect vigour. Our boat being secured, the people scrambled through the bushes, in search of the eggs. Many of the birds dropped into the water, dived, and came up at a safe distance; others in large groups flew away affrighted; while a great number stood on their nests and the branches, as if gazing upon beings strange to them. But alas! they soon became too well acquainted with us, for the discharges from our guns committed frightful havoc among them. The dead were seen floating on the water, the crippled making towards the open sea, which here extended to the very Keys on which we were, while groups of a hundred or more swam about a little beyond reach of our shot, awaiting the event, and the air was filled with those whose anxiety to return to their eggs kept them hovering over us in silence. In a short time the bottom of our boat was covered with the slain, several hats and caps were filled with eggs; and we may now intermit the work of destruction. You must try to excuse these murders, which in truth might not have been nearly so numerous, had I not thought of you quite as often while on the Florida Keys, with a burning sun over my head, and my body oozing at every pore, as I do now while peaceably scratching my paper with an iron-pen, in one of the comfortable and quite cool houses of the most beautiful of all the cities of old Scotland.
The Florida Cormorant begins to pair about the first of April, and commences the construction of its nest about a fortnight after. Many do not lay quite so early, and I found some going through their preparations until the middle of May. Their courtships are performed on the water. On the morning, beautiful but extremely hot, of the 8th of that month, while rambling over one of the Keys, I arrived at the entrance of a narrow and rather deep channel, almost covered over by the boughs of the mangroves and some tall canes, the only tall canes I had hitherto observed among those islands. I paused, looked at the water, and observing it to be full of fish, felt confident that no shark was at hand. Cocking both locks of my gun, I quietly waded in. Curious sounds now reached my ears, and as the fishes did not appear to mind me much, I proceeded onward among them for perhaps a hundred yards, when I observed that they had all disappeared. The sounds were loud and constantly renewed, as if they came from a joyous multitude. The inlet suddenly became quite narrow, and the water reached to my arm-pits. At length I placed myself behind some mangrove trunks, whence I could see a great number of Cormorants not more than fifteen or twenty yards from me. None of them, it seemed, had seen or heard me; they were engaged in going through their nuptial ceremonies. The males while swimming gracefully around the females, would raise their wings and tail, draw their head over their back, swell out their neck for an instant, and with a quick forward thrust of the head utter a rough guttural note, not unlike the cry of a pig. The female at this moment would crouch as it were on the water, sinking into it, when her mate would sink over her until nothing more than his head was to be seen, and soon afterwards both sprung up and swam joyously around each other, croaking all the while. Twenty or more pairs at a time were thus engaged. Indeed, the water was covered with Cormorants, and, had I chosen, I might have shot several of them. I now advanced slowly towards them, when they stared at me as you might stare at a goblin, and began to splash the water with their wings, many diving. On my proceeding they all dispersed, either plunging beneath or flying off, and making rapidly towards the mouth of the inlet. Only a few nests were on the mangroves, and I looked upon the spot as analogous to the tournament grounds of the Pinnated Grouse, although no battles took place in my presence. A few beautiful Herons were sitting peaceably on their nests, the musquitoes were very abundant, large ugly blue land-crabs crawled among the mangroves, hurrying towards their retreats, and I retired, as I had arrived, in perfect silence. While proceeding I could not help remarking the instinctive knowledge of the fishes, and thought how curious it was that, as soon as they had observed the Cormorants’ hole, none had gone farther, as if they were well aware of the danger, but preferred meeting me as I advanced towards the birds. [….]
The Florida Cormorant, like all the other species with which I am acquainted, swims deep, and dives with great expertness, so that it is almost useless to follow one when wounded, unless it has been greatly injured. On seeing an enemy approach, it first beats the water with its wings, as if in play, or as it would do if washing itself, raises both wings for a minute or more, then paddles off, and takes to wing. When on a lake, they prefer diving to flying, swim with all but the neck and head under water, in the manner of the Anhinga or Snake-bird, and easily dive without shewing their backs.
They procure their food entirely by diving from the surface of the water, never from on wing, as some compilers assert; nay, the very form of their bill, and the want of air-cells, such as plunging birds are usually provided with, prevent them from darting from above into the water, as is the habit of Gannets and other birds, which seek for food on wing, go far out to sea, and stand gales such as the Cormorant, which rarely ventures out of sight of the shores, does not dare to encounter, or of those which, like Gulls, pass swiftly in curved lines over the surface, picking up their prey. On emerging, these Cormorants usually swallow their prey if it has been so seized as to enable them to do so with ease; if not, they throw it up to a short distance in the air, receive it with open bill, and gulp it head foremost. If the fish is large, they swim or fly to the shore, or alight on a tree with it, and there beat and tear it to pieces, after which they swallow it. Their appetite is scarcely satiable, and they gorge themselves to the utmost at every convenient opportunity.
The flight of this species is perhaps more rapid than that of the others, and is performed by continued flappings when the bird is travelling, but by alternate flappings and sailings of great elegance during the beginning of the breeding season, or when they collect in large flocks in lowering weather, sometimes also when about to alight. Their food consists chiefly of fish, and they generally prefer those of small size. While on the Florida Keys, I procured five specimens of the Hippocampus, fresh and uninjured, from the gullets of some of these Cormorants. They are hard to kill, and live to a great age.
They are easily treated in captivity; but their awkward movements on the ground, where they often use the tail as a support, render them less pleasing objects than other feathered pets. Besides, they eat and mute inordinately, and instead of charming you with songs, utter no sound excepting a grunt. Their flesh is dark, generally tough, and has a rank fishy taste. The Indians and Negroes of the Floridas kill the young when nearly able to fly, and after skinning them, salt them for food. I have seen them offered for sale in the New Orleans market, the poorer people there making gombo soup of them.
A bird of this species, which I shot near its breeding place, and which, on being examined, proved to be a female, had the feathers of the tail covered with delicate slender sea-weeds of a bright green colour, such as I have often observed on marine turtles, and which appeared to have actually grown there.
The slender feathers on the sides of the head fall off by the time incubation has commenced, and do not appear during winter, as is alleged by authors when speaking of the crests or appendages of Cormorants, nor do they last more than a few weeks, as is also the case in the Egrets and Herons.
The Tortugas are a group of islands lying about eighty miles from Key West, and the last of those that seem to defend the peninsula of the Floridas. They consist of five or six extremely low uninhabitable banks formed of shelly sand, and are resorted to principally by that class of men called Wreckers and Turtlers. Between these islands are deep channels, which, although extremely intricate, are well known to those adventurers, as well as to the commanders of the revenue cutters, whose duties call them to that dangerous coast. The great coral reef or wall lies about eight miles from these inhospitable isles, in the direction of the Gulf, and on it many an ignorant or careless navigator has suffered shipwreck. The whole ground around them is densely covered with corals, sea fans, and other productions of the deep, amid which crawl innumerable testaceous animals, while shoals of curious and beautiful fishes fill the limpid waters above them. Turtles of different species resort to these banks, to deposit their eggs in the burning sand, and clouds of sea-fowl arrive every spring for the same purpose. These are followed by persons called “Eggers,” who, when their cargoes are completed, sail to distant markets, to exchange their ill-gotten ware for a portion of that gold, on the acquisition of which all men seem bent.
The “Marion” having occasion to visit Tortugas, I gladly embraced the opportunity of seeing those celebrated islets. A few hours before sunset the joyful cry of “land” announced our approach to them, but as the breeze was fresh, and the pilot was well acquainted with all the windings of the channels, we held on, and dropped anchor before twilight. If you have never seen the sun setting in those latitudes, I would recommend to you to make a voyage for the purpose, for I much doubt if, in any other portion of the world, the departure of the orb of the day is accompanied with such gorgeous appearances. Look at the great red disk, increased to triple its ordinary dimensions! Now it has partially sunk beneath the distant line of waters, and with its still remaining half irradiates the whole heavens with a flood of golden light, purpling the far off clouds that hover over the western horizon. A blaze of refulgent glory streams through the portals of the west, and the masses of vapour assume the semblance of mountains of molten gold. But the sun has now disappeared, and from the east slowly advances the grey curtain which night draws over the world.
The Night-hawk is flapping its noiseless wings in the gentle sea-breeze; the Terns, safely landed, have settled on their nests; the Frigate Pelicans are seen wending their way to distant mangroves; and the Brown Gannet, in search of a resting-place, has perched on the yard of the vessel. Slowly advancing landward, their heads alone above the water, are observed the heavily-laden Turtles, anxious to deposit their eggs in the well-known sands. On the surface of the gently rippling stream, I dimly see their broad forms, as they toil along, while at intervals may be heard their hurried breathings, indicative of suspicion and fear. The moon with her silvery light now illumines the scene, and the Turtle having landed, slowly and laboriously drags her heavy body over the sane, her “flappers” being better adapted for motion in the water than on shore. Up the slop, however, she works her way, and see how industriously she removes the sand beneath her, casting it out on either side. Layer after layer, she deposits her eggs, arranging them in the most careful manner, and, with her hind-paddles, beings the sand over them. The business is accomplished, the spot is covered over, and, with a joyful heart, the Turtle swiftly retires toward the shore, and launches into the deep.
But the Tortugas are not the only breeding places of the Turtles; these animals, on the contrary, frequent many other keys, as well as various parts of the coast of the mainland. There are four different species, which are known by the names of the Green Turtle, the Hawk-billed Turtle, the Logger-head Turtle, and the Trunk Turtle. The first is considered the best as an article of food, in which capacity it is well known to most epicures. It approaches the shores, and enters the bays, inlets and rivers, early in the month of April, after having spent winter in the deep waters. It deposits eggs in convenient places, at two different times in May, and once again in June. The first deposit is the largest, and the last the least, the total quantity being an average of about two hundred and forty. The Hawk-billed Turtle, whose shell is so valuable as an article of commerce, being used for various purposes in the arts, is the next with respect to the quality of its flesh. It resorts to the router keys only, where it deposits its eggs in two sets, first in July, and again in August, although it “crawls” the beaches of these keys much earlier in the season, as if to look for a safe place. The average number of its eggs is about three hundred. The Loggerhead visits the Tortugas in April, and lays from that period until late in June three sets of eggs, eat set averaging a hundred and seventy. The Trunk Turtle, which is sometimes of an enormous size, and which has a pouch like a pelican, reaches the shores the latest. The shell and flesh are so soft that one may push his finger into them almost as into a lump of butter. This species is therefore considered as the least valuable, and indeed is seldom eaten, unless by the Indians, who ever alert when the turtle season commences, first carry off the eggs, and afterwards catch the Turtles themselves. The average number of eggs which it lays in the season, in two sets, may be three hundred and fifty.
The Loggerhead and the Trunk Turtles are the least cautious in choosing the places in which to deposit their eggs, whereas the other two species select the wildest and most secluded spots. The Green Turtle resorts either to the shores of the Main, between Cape Sable and Cape Florida, or enters Indian, Halifax, and other large rivers or inlets, from which it makes its retreat as speedily as possible, and betakes itself to the open sea. Great numbers, however, are killed by the Turtlers and Indians, as well as by various species of carnivorous animals, as cougars, lynxes, bears, and wolves. The Hawkbill, which is still more wary, and is always the most difficult to surprise, keeps to the sea islands. All the species employ nearly the same method in depositing their eggs in the sand, and as I have several times observed them in the act, I am enables to present you with a circumstantial account of it.
On first nearing the shores, and mostly on fine calm moonlight nights, the Turtle raises her head above the water, being still distant thirty or forty yards from the beach, looks around her, and attentively examines the objects on the shore. Should she observe nothing likely to disturb her intended operations, she emits a loud hissing sound, by which such of her many enemies as are unaccustomed to it, are startled, and so are apt to remove to another place, although unseen by her. Should she hear any noise, or perceive indications of danger, she instantly sinks and goes off to a considerable distance; but should everything be quiet, she advances slowly towards the beach, crawls over it, her head raised to the full stretch of her neck, and when she has reached a place fitted for her purpose, she gazes all round in silence. Finding “all well,” she proceeds to form a hole in the sand, which she effects by removing it from under her body with her hind flappers, scooping it out with so much dexterity that the sides seldom if ever fall in. The sand is raised alternately with each flapper, as with a large ladle, until it has accumulated behind her, when supporting herself with her head and fore part on the ground fronting her body, she with a spring from each flapper, sends the sand around her, scattering it to the distance of several feet. In this manner the hole is dug to the depth of eighteen inches or sometimes more than two feet. This labour I have seen performed in the short period of nine minutes. The eggs are then dropped one by one and disposed in regular layers, to the number of a hundred and fifty, or sometimes nearly two hundred. The whole time is spent in this part of the operation may be about twenty minutes. She now scrapes the loose sand back over the eggs, and so levels and smooths the surface, that few persons on seeing the spot could imagine any thing that had been done to it. This accomplished to her mind, she retreats to her water with all possible dispatch, leaving the hatching of the eggs to the heat of the sand. When a turtle, a loggerhead for examples, in in the act of dropping her eggs, she will not move although one should go up to her, or even seat himself on her back, for it seems that at this moment she finds it necessary to proceed at all events, and is unable to intermit her labour. The moment it is finished, however, off she starts; nor would it then be possible for one, unless he were as strong as Hercules, to turn her over and secure her.
To upset a turtle on the shore, one is obliged to fall on his knees and, placing his shoulder behind her forearm, gradually raise her up by pushing with great force, and then with a jerk throw her over. Sometimes it requires the united strength of several men to accomplish this; and, if the turtle should be of very great size, as often happens on that coast, even hand-spikes are employed. Some turtles are so daring as to swim up to them while lying asleep on the surface of the water, and then turn them over in their own element, when, however, a boat must be at hand to enable them secure their prize. Few turtles can bite beyond the reach of their fore legs, and few, when once turned over, can, without assistance, regain their natural position; but, not withstanding this, their flappers are generally secured by ropes so as to render their escape impossible.
Persons who search for turtles’ eggs are provided with a light stiff cane or gun-rod, with which they go along the shores, probing the sand near the tracks of the animals, which, however, cannot always be seen, on the account of the winds and heavy rains, that often obliterate them. The nests are discovered not only by men, but also by beasts of prey, and the eggs are collected, or destroyed on the spot in great numbers, as on certain parts of the shores hundreds of turtles are known to deposit their eggs within the space of a mile. They form a new hole each time they lay, and the second is generally dug near the first, as if the animal were quite unconscious of what had befallen it. It will readily be understood that the numerous eggs seen in a turtle on cutting it up could not be all laid in the same season. The whole number deposited by an individual in one summer may amount to four hundred, whereas if the animal is caught on or near her nest, as I have witnessed, the remaining eggs, all small, without shells, and as it were threaded like so many large beads,exceed three thousand. In an instance where I found that number, the turtle weighed nearly four hundred pounds. The young, soon after being hatched, and when yet scarcely larger than a dollar, scratch their way through their sandy covering, and immediately betake themselves to the water.
The food of the Green Turtle consists chiefly of marine plants, more especially the Grasswrack (Zostera marina), which they cut near the roots to procure the most tender and succulent parts. Their feeding grounds, as I have elsewhere said, are easily discovered by floating masses of these plants on the flats, or along the shores to which they resort. The Hawk-billed species feeds on sea-weeds, crabs, various kinds of shellfish, and fishes; the Loggerhead mostly on the fish of conch-shells of large size, which they are enabled, by means of their powerful beak, to crush pieces with apparently as much ease as a man cracks a walnut. One which was brought on board the Marion, and placed near the fluke of one of her anchors, make a deep indentation in that hammered piece of iron that quite surprised me. The Trunk Turtle feeds on mollusca, fish, crustacea, sea urchins, and various marine plants.
All the species move through the water with surprising speed; but the Green and Hawk-billed in particular, remind you, by their celebrity and ease of their motions, of the progress of a bird in the air. It is therefore no easy matter to strike one with a spear, and yet this is often done by an accomplished turtler.
While at Key West and other islands on the coast, where I made the observations here presented to you, I chanced to have need to purchase some turtles, to feed by friends on board the Lady of the Green Mantle–not my friends her gallant officers, or the brace tars who formed her crew, for all of them had already be satiated with turtle soup, but my friends the Herons, of which I had a goodly number alive in coops, intending to carry them to John Bachman of Charleston, and other persons for whom I ever feel sincere regard. So I went to a “crawl,” accompanied by Dr. Benjamin Strobel, to inquire about prices, when, to my surprise, I found that the smaller the turtles, above ten pounds weight, the dearer they were, and that I could have purchased one of the loggerhead kind that weighed more than seven hundred pounds, for little more money than another of only thirty pounds. While I gazed on the large one, I thought of the soups the contents of its shell would have furnished for a “Lord Mayor’s dinner,” of the numerous eggs which its swollen body contained, and of the curious carriage which might be made of its shell,–a car in which Venus herself might sail over the Caribbean sea, provided her tender doves lent their aid in drawing divinity, and provided no shark or hurricane came to upset it. The turtler assured me that although the “great monster” was in fact a better meat than any other of a less size, there was no disposing of it, unless indeed it had been in his power to have sent it to some very distant market. I would willingly have purchased it, but I knew that if killed, its flesh could not keep much longer than a day, and on that account I bought eight or ten small ones, which “my friends” really relished exceedingly, and which served to support them for a long time.
Turtles such as I have spoken of, are caught in various ways on the coasts of the Floridas, or in estuaries and rivers. Some turtles are in the habit of setting great nets across the entrance of streams, so as to answer the purpose either at the flow or at the ebb of the waters. These nets are formed of very large meshes, into which the turtles partially enter, when, the more they attempt to extricate themselves, the more they get entangled. Others harpoon them in the usual manner; but in my estimation no method is equal to that employed by Mr. Egan, the Pilot of Indian Isle.
That extraordinary turtler had an iron instrument, which he called a peg, and which at each end had a point not unlike what nail-makers call a brad, it being four cornered by flattish, and of a shape somewhat resembling the beak of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, together with a neck and shoulder. Between the two shoulders of the instrument a fine tough line, fifty or more fathoms in length, was fastened by one end being passed through a hole in the centre of the peg, and the line itsself was carefully coiled up and placed in a convenient part of the canoe. One extremity of this peg enters a sheath of iron that loosely attaches it to a long wooden spear, until a turtle has been pierced through the shell by the other extremity. He of the canoe paddles away as silently as possible whenever he spies a turtle basking on the water, until he gets within a distance of ten or twelve yards, when he throws the spear so as to hit the animal about the place which an entomologist would choose, were it a large insect, for pinning it to a piece of cork. As soon as the turtle is struck, the wooden handle separates from the peg, in consequence of the looseness of its attachment. The smart of the wound urges on the animal as if distracted, and it appears that the longer the peg remains in its shell, the more firmly it is, so great a pressure is exercised upon it by the shell of the turtle, which being suffered to run like a whale, soon becomes fatigued, and is secured by hauling in the line with great care. In this manner, as the Pilot informed me, eight hundred Green Turtles were caught by one man in twelve months.
Each turtler has his crawl, which is a square wooden building or pen, formed of logs, which are so far separated as to allow the tide to pass freely through, and stand erect in the mud. The turtles are placed in this inclosure, fed and kept there until sold. If the animals thus confined have not laid their eggs previous to their seizure, they drop them in the water so that they are not lost. The price of Green Turtles, when I was at Key West, was from four to six cents per pound.
The loves of the turtles are conducted in a most extraordinary manner; but as the recital of them must prove out of place here, I shall pass them over. There is, however, a circumstance relating to their habits, which I cannot omit, although I have it not from my own ocular evidence, but from report. When I was in the Floridas, several of the turtles assured me, that any turtle taken from the depositing ground, and carried to the deck of a vessel several hundred miles, would, if then let loose, certainly be met with at the same spot, either immediately after, or in the following breeding season. Should this prove true, and it certainly may, how much will be enhanced the belief of the student in the uniformity and solidity of Nature’s arrangements, when he finds that the turtle, like a migratory bird, returns to the same locality, with perhaps a delight similar to that experienced by the traveller, who, after visiting distant countries, once more returns to the bosom of his cherished family.