Animals of Central Brazil

Together with mention of the geographical work of the Roosevelt-Rondon South American expedition in exploring the “River of Doubt”

One day when we were going down the Unknown River Mr. Cherrie and I in the same canoe, we saw a flying fish. Of course everyone knows about the flying fish on the ocean but I had no idea there were flying fish on the South American streams. I very much wish that some ichthyologist would go down to South America and come back with not only a collection of the fishes but also full notes on their life histories.

We did not see very many snakes, I suppose only about twenty venomous ones. The most venomous are those somewhat akin to our rattlesnakes but with no rattles. One of the most common is the jararaca, known in Martinique as the fer-de-lance. One of the biggest is called the bushmaster and attains a length of about ten feet. These snakes are very poisonous and very dangerous. The mussurama is another South American snake, and it lives on poisonous snakes. It habitually kills and eats these dangerous reptiles, its most common prey being the jararaca. I saw the feat performed at a laboratory where poisonous snakes are being studied to secure antidotes to the poisons and to develop enemies to the snakes themselves. Such an enemy is this mussurama which must be like our king snake—but larger. The king snake is a particularly pleasant snake; it is friendly toward mankind, not poisonous and can be handled freely. The scientists at the laboratory brought out a big good-natured mussurama which I held between my arm and coat. Then they brought out a fairly large fer-de-lance about nine inches shorter than the mussurama and warning me to keep away, put it on the table. Then they told me to put my snake where it could get at the fer-de-lance. I put down my snake on the table and it glided up toward the coiled fer-de-lance. My snake was perfectly free from excitement and I did not suppose it meant to do anything, that it was not hungry. It put its "nose" against the body of the fer-de-lance and moved toward the head. The fer-de-lance's temper was aroused and it coiled and struck. The return blow was so quick that I could not see just what happened. The mussurama had the fer-de-lance by the lower jaw, the mouth wide open. The latter struck once again. After that it made no further effort to defend itself in any way. The poisonous snake is a highly specialized creature and practically helpless when once its peculiarly specialized traits are effectively nullified by an opponent. The mussurama killed the snake and devoured it by the simple process of crawling outside it. Many snakes will not eat if people interfere with them, but the mussurama had no prejudices in this respect. We wanted to take a photograph of it while eating, so I took both snakes up and had them photographed against a white cloth while the feast went on uninterruptedly.

Birds and mammals interested me chiefly, however. I am only an amateur ornithologist but I saw a great deal there that would be of interest to any of us who care for birds. For instance there are two hundred and thirteen families of birds very plentiful there, either wholly unknown to us, or at least very few of them known.

The most conspicuous birds I saw were members of the family of tyrant fly-catchers, like our kingbird, great crested flycatcher and wood pewee. All are birds that perch and swoop for insects. One species, the bientevido, is a big bird like our kingbird, but fiercer and more powerful than any northern kingbird. One day I saw him catching fish and little tadpoles and also I found that he would sometimes catch small mice. Another kind of tyrant, the red-backed tyrant, is a black bird with reddish on the middle of the back. We saw this species first out on the bare Patagonian plains. It runs fast over the ground exactly like our pippit or longspur.

Curved-bill wood-hewers, birds the size and somewhat the coloration of veeries, but with long, slender sickle-bills were common about the gardens and houses.

Most of the birds build large nests. The oven-birds build big, domed nests of mud. Telegraph poles offer splendid opportunities for building nests. Sometimes for miles every telegraph pole would have an oven-bird's nest upon it. These birds come around the houses. They look a little bit like wood thrushes and are very interesting in that they have all kinds of individual ways. The exceedingly beautiful honey creepers are like little clusters of jet. They get so familiar that they come into the house and hop on the edge of the sugar bowl.

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