The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XX

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CHAPTER XX

"BY ANY OTHER NAME"!

AT last I have been able to extract a young puffin from an all-turf hole, which, by reason of its straightness, shortness and narrowness, seems to have been made by the parent birds themselves, not merely found and appropriated by them. Comme il est drôle, ce petit!—though not quite so comic as he will be by and by. Here we have a very salient example of the difference exhibited between the young and mature animal, in regard to some specially developed part or organ, since the beak of this baby is not only without the smallest trace of the colours which seem painted on that of its parents, but, to the eye at least, shows hardly anything of the mature shape, though measurement brings it out more clearly. It is of a uniform black, and hardly looks more than an ordinary beak when one thinks of the grown puffin, or rather when one looks at any of the hundreds standing all about. Though of a good size—some three-quarters grown perhaps—there are no true feathers on the body, at present—all fluffy, black above and whitish underneath. That this black, fluffy, colourless thing should ever become a puffin at all, seems wonderful.

This is not the only little funny thing I have seen to-day. On my way back to the hut I saw an absurd little figure running before me, which, at first, looked like nothing, but soon became a little great skua ("my little good Lord Cardinal"). I pressed after, and when it found me overtaking it, it stopped and bit at me, but not as hard as another had done, nor was it so rude when I took it up. This little thing was still covered with a whitey—yellowish fluff, under which the brown feathers were well appearing. When I put it down it ran away lustily, yet in a slow and heavy fashion, as though a great skua through all. All the while, the two parent birds kept circling round with distressed cries of "ak, ak!" and swoopingat me often. This they continued to do till I went right away, even whilst I lay on the ground at some distance, in hopes to see something between them and the chick. They never touched me, however, so that it is evident that the fierceness of these birds very much diminishes as the chicks get older. This one must have been out some time, I think, though still in the fluff—or partly in it—so that I cannot say exactly when the diminution commences; but the younger the chick, I think, the fiercer the attack. Valour, probably, has the same ebb and flow with the smaller skua, but I cannot be sure of this, since I did not see the chicks of the birds that attacked me lately. What I am sure of, however, is that they attacked me with unimpaired vigour and no loss of nerve, so that, had I set my cap for them to knock off, why, they would have knocked it off, and some one with a camera might have made a photograph of it.

For all his hat tricks—and I have certainly felt mine move as he flicked it—this great skua seems to me a rather uninteresting bird, so far as he can be studied on land. His piracies, presumably, take place far out at sea, whilst jealousy to guard his young makes it impossible to watch him in his care and nurture of them. For the rest, he does nothing in particular, and he has no wild cry like that which rings out so beautifully to "the wild sky" from his smaller relative. In beauty of form and of colour, in grace and speed of flight, in the wild, inspiring music of its cry, in its sportings, its piracies, its pretty sociable ablutions, and in its attacks, too, wherein the boldness is equal and the poised sweeps more splendid and lovely, the lesser skua, say I, the Arctic skua—Stercorarius crepidatus—a bird that has only one thing prosaic about it, its prænomen of "Richardson's" namely, which is a thing it can't help, it having been forced upon it by prosaic people. Oh, how all the poetry seems to go out of bird or beast when it is named in that Philistine fashion, brought into perpetual association with some man—some civilised man—appropriated to him, made the slave of the "Smith," or the "Brown" or the "Robinson"! What a vulgar absurdity to make the name of a species a mere vehicle for the sordid commemoration of some one or other's having been the first to see and slaughter it! What, when we think of any wild creature, do we care to know about that? What should its name call up before us but a picture of its wild self alone? Who wants some man's ugly phiz to be projected upon it? The lion—the eagle—the albatross—we see them as we say their names. But Jones's lion—Smith's eagle—Thomson's or somebody's albatross, what do these body forth for us? Not only the animal itself, but everything it suggests, as pertaining to it, that should make its appropriate setting in our minds, the sea, the mountain peaks, the sand-swept, bush-strewn desert, with the ideas belonging to each, the feelings they arouse, the whole mental picture in fact, is blurred or cruelly blotted out by the obtrusive image of some human face or form, which insists upon fitting itself to the irrelevant human name, and which, as there is no knowledge to guide it, is made up, usually, of the most commonplace elements. Thus an indistinct prosaic figure of our own species is substituted for that of the species itself—obsesses us, as it were, and prevents that legitimate, placid enjoyment which a naturalist should receive through the name alone of any animal. I hate these obtrusions. Why, at least, cannot they be shrouded in the Latin only—since every species has its Latin name? Thus decently buried, the Temmincks and the Richardsons, the Schalks, Burchells, and Grevys, would not so much bother us. But for heaven's sake let the vernacular name of any creature have to do with itself only. It is intolerable to want to see a bird of paradise—"in my mind's eye Horatio"—and to have to see Herr Schalk, or a zebra and have to see Monsieur Grevy—a shadowy gentleman each time, which we know is not the real one—instead of a beautiful bird or beast. However, it's a prosaic age, and few feel strongly on such matters.

The other young great skua that I came across—a day or two ago—was almost full-fledged, with only hairs of fluff here and there. But though he looked much more emancipated he did not run away like this one, but lay crouched where he was. On approaching my hand, however, he bit it more fiercely than any gull yet has, and when I took him up his anger, or fear, or both, discharged itself at either extremity, for from one he ejected a fish, and from the other a mighty volume of white matter in a semi-fluid state. It took effect, fortunately, on my umbrella only, which I had to wash, and was very effective in allowing the perpetrator to escape à la cuttlefish.

The note of the puffin is very peculiar—sepulchrally deep and full of the deepest feeling. In expression it comes from the heart, but in tone and quality from somewhere much lower down. It varies a little, however, or rather there are more notes than one, and some of them are combined into a poem or symphony, which is the puffin's chief effort. This, however, is not often heard in its entirety—from end to end, like the whole of a fine poem. As a rule one has to be satisfied with extracts; but when one does get it all, it sounds something like this—for I can best express it by a diagram.

Another note is much more commonly heard, viz. a long, deep, slowly-rising "awe!" uttered in something a tone of solemn expostulation, as though the bird were in the pulpit. In the general quality and character of the sound, this less-developed note resembles the more elaborate one, or collection of ones. It is more continuous, however; the theme is less broken. There are no separate headings; the remonstrance is general, and includes everything worth it in one grand diapason that never leaves off, I do not, therefore, consider it a mere part of the other—an extract from the full poem, or sermon—but something different, yet akin; another, though allied, treatment of a closely similar theme.