The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter 10

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I HAVE been watching the black guillemots. Like the common ones, they often carry a fish they have caught, for a very long time in the bill, before swallowing it, or even before giving it to their young. They will swim with it for half an hour or so, constantly dipping it beneath the water, and apparently nibbling on it with the bill, whilst they hold it thus submerged. Then finding themselves near a rock which is ascendable, they ascend it, and lie couched there for a while, resting, always with the fish in their bill. Anon, with refreshed energies, they're-enter the sea with it, and, if very patient, and prepared to watch indefinitely, one may at last see that fish swallowed; but I hardly think I should be exaggerating were I to say that hours may pass in this way. They usually hold the fish by the middle, or just below the head, and if they want to shift their hold from one place to the other, they sink down their bills into the water, as though better able to do so through its medium. To mandibulate a fish in the air, quite freely, as does the cormorant, is, perhaps, beyond their power. Any moment, however, may show me that it is not. So, too, when I have seen them swallow the fish, they have done so in the same way. Instead of raising the head and gulping it down, they gulped it up, with the water to help them; though I can hardly think that they are compelled to act in this way.

These little birds—old ocean's pets, his darlings—seem to me to play at fighting. Whilst swimming together in little changing troops—for the numbers are always increasing or diminishing—they constantly approach one another in a threatening manner, the body raised in the water, the head held straight up, and the mandibles opening and shutting like a slender pair of scissors—a thoroughly warlike appearance. Yet it hardly ever ends in anything, nor does the threatened bird seem really alarmed. Generally, the threatener, as he comes alongside, subsides into quiet humdrum, or two birds, after circling round one another in this way, each almost on its own pivot, like a pair of whirligig corks, both quiet down. Each, whilst thus acting, will, at intervals, drop the head and sink the beak a little in the water—one of their most usual actions. Sometimes, indeed, the menacing bird may fly at the one he menaces, who ducks at the right moment; but what makes me think it more play than wrath is that, often, instead of flying right at him, he flies to beside him only, and both then swim together, looking the best of friends. Yet too much stress is not to be laid on this either, and certainly it can be "miching malicho" on occasions. Often, when one bird is attacked, all the others will dive and scurry about under the water, in the most excited manner, seeming to pursue one another, as though it were a game or romp. Sometimes, indeed, there will be a little bit of a scuffle; but if there be fighting, still more, as it appears to me, is there the play or pretence of fighting, which is tending to pass into a social sport or dance.

The antics of birds are often so very curious, and the whole subject of their origin and meaning is so full of interest, that nothing which might by any possibility throw light upon this ought to be neglected, or can be too closely observed. I believe that the feelings of animals, still more than is known to be the case with savages, pass easily from one channel into another, and that, therefore, nervous excitement brought forth by one kind of emotion is apt, in its turn, to produce another kind, so that if any special transition of this sort were at all frequent, it might, through memory and association of ideas, become habitual. If, however, a mêlée or scrimmage—to meet the case of these guillemots—became, almost as soon as started, a mere hurrying and scurrying about, it would be difficult to detect the one as the cause of the other, and this is just the difficulty one might expect, for in such a sequence the tendency would, no doubt, be for the first or causal part of the activity to become more and more abbreviated (what should delay the passage?) till, at length, a mere start on the part of any one bird might set the others off dancing. Finally, what had become a mere pretence or starting-point might vanish entirely, or only survive as an indistinguishable part of the other, in which case there would be the dance or sport alone, which would then seem a very unaccountable thing. In this way I can imagine the evening dances or antics of the great plover, which used to impress me so when I lived in Suffolk, to have originated. One might watch these performances a great many times without seeing anything to suggest that a feeling of pugnacity entered into them. Nevertheless, there is, sometimes, a slight appearance of this, for I have several times seen a bird pursue and wave its wings over another one. My theory is that an initial energy or emotion sometimes flows out into subsidiary channels, and that gradually this secondary factor may encroach upon and take the place of the primary one.

At any rate, to come back from the general to the particular, it is apparent to me that these little ebullitions, or whatever they may be called, of the black guillemots are of a blended nature, and I should think it misleading to describe them simply as fights. Whatever they are, they are very pretty to see. The actions of all the little dumpling birds are so pert, brisk, and vivacious—so elegant, too. Yet a bird will go through it all, play every part in the little affaire, carrying, all the while, a fish in its bill. It makes no difference to him; he will even threaten in the way I have described, whilst thus encumbered. Whether this makes it more likely that the whole thing is sport, I hardly know.[1] It seems strange to seek one's enemy with one's dinner in one's hand—the beak is used more as a hand here than a mouth—yet what is done with entire ease is as though it were not done at all. Even so do the guillemots—the common ones, I mean—but then, they used to fight for their fish. Here I saw little or nothing of any real attempt on the part of one bird, to take the fish from another.

In swimming under water the black guillemot uses its wings only—the rose-red legs trail behind it, a fading fire as it goes down. The body becomes one great glaucous-green bubble, which has, still more, a luminous appearance. The effect may almost be called beautiful, but it is still more odd and bottle-imp-like. Most diving sea-birds exhibit this appearance under water, but not all in the same degree. Whether sexual selection has come into play here I know not.

A pair of these birds are now feeding their young. The nest is in a hole in the earth, on a ridge of the precipitous grass-slope of the cliff, just above where it breaks into rocks, and drops sheer to the sea. Both parents feed the chick—for their family is no larger—but one more often than the other. They bring, each time, a single fish—a sand-eel, often of a fair size—and disappear with it into the hole, reappearing shortly afterwards. Once both are in the hole together, having entered in succession, each with a fish, but generally when the two meet at the entrance one only brings a fish and goes in, and the other, having nothing, stays outside. When the parent bird has fed its young and come out again, it will often sit for a little on the steep slope, above or below the hole, before flying away. It looks solicitously at the hole, and from time to time utters a little thin note that just reaches me where I am. Once both the birds sat like this, one above and one below the hole. What I particularly noticed was that when the bird that had taken a fish in had come out again, the other, even though it had nothing, would always go in too, as though to pay the chick a little visit. It stayed about the same time—less than a minute that is to say. How interesting are these little birds to watch, and how delightful is it to watch them from the summit of precipices that "beetle o'er their base into the sea," where all is wild and tremendous, and in the midst of utter solitude!

  1. On second thoughts it does not, since sparrows will attack martins though holding grass, etc., for nest-building, in their beaks—as I have seen.