The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XXI

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IN the little black sentry-box where I pass the night there are two or three books belonging to its more permanent occupant. One of them is a British Bird book, and so last night when I got to bed I turned up the peregrine falcon. The author finds it the most infallible of all the hawk and eagle tribe; the one that least often misses its prey, and never attempts more than it is capable of performing. Never in his experience, I think he says, has he seen it strike in vain. I have not had his experience—I wish I had—but from the little I have seen and what I hear now from an eye-witness, I cannot help thinking that, in this respect, the peregrine does not differ greatly from others of his kind. It is there and thereabouts with him, I suspect, for under my very nose, down in Suffolk, he was foiled by a partridge in the most discreditable way, and here in the Shetlands he is quite capable of not succeeding with ordinary dovecote pigeons, as I will show, not upon my own evidence, unfortunately, for I wish I had seen it, but upon that of a lady, well known here, who saw it and told me of it herself. I got to Balta Sound last Sunday, and on the following Monday I called upon Mrs. Saxby at her pretty little white comfy cottage, who took me to look at a dovery which, since my last coming, she had had put up in her garden. Several rows of boxes were arranged against one side of the house, but a less usual and more attractive feature was a pretty little rockery on the lawn beneath, about which the birds loved to be. They cooed and strutted, or sat basking and sunning, on every little pinnacle and "jutty frieze" of it, thus at the same time emphasising their descent from the rock-loving Columbia Livia and the dullness and want of taste of the average mortal who, when he keeps pigeons, never thinks of providing a rockery for them, in accordance with their inherited tastes and proclivities. One glance was sufficient. It was instantly evident that not even on the most elegant cot do these pretty birds look nearly so pretty as amongst rocks and stones tastefully and conveniently arranged. This rockery was a flower-bed also, and with the flowers the pigeons did not interfere, whilst the beauty of them was greatly set off by their own, and their own by that of the flowers. The art of exhibiting birds and beasts to the most picturesque advantage, in which we should be equally studying both our and their happiness, as well as adding largely to our knowledge, is indeed hardly understood amongst us.

Mrs. Saxby told me that her pigeons had attracted some peregrines to the neighbourhood, and that they had several times attacked them, but, as yet, without success. In one pursuit which she witnessed a particular bird was singled out, separated from its companions, and struck at again and again, but always managed to avoid the rush of the hawk, and, at last, got back to the boxes, where it lay for some time in a seemingly exhausted condition. Dr. Bowdler Sharpe, in his gossipy work, The Wonders of Bird Life, describes how, in modern falconry, he has seen a rook dodge, time after time, with the same success, till he at last reached the wood for which he had been making; and here, I think, the falcon was also a peregrine. For myself, therefore, I do not believe that this bird is a greater adept than others of the class to which he belongs, nor do I see why he should be. All have to live by overcoming in speed and agility birds whose speed and agility has been gained in direct relation to themselves, from which it should follow that the hunter and the hunted ought to fail and succeed about as often as each other.

There is probably no bird of prey that pigeons have not a fair chance of foiling. I have seen some wild ones that lived amongst the rocky precipices of a hill overlooking Srinagar foil a pair of eagles many times in succession, and I do not think one of them had been caught when I went away. The great downward rushes of these eagles, or rather the tremendous rushing sound that they made—for I only seem to remember them as swift, storm-like shadows on the air—as also the marvels of speed and quick turning exhibited by the pigeons, and their dreadful fear—expressed sometimes vocally if I mistake not[1]—I shall never, to the end of life, forget. In effecting their numerous escapes, the face of the rock stood them in good stead, and they deliberately made use of it, in my opinion, for, dashing in and out, they would cling to or double against it in places where the eagles, as larger birds, could not follow them so deftly, and had perforce to check their speed. The principle was the same as that by which a hare would be enabled to run at top speed almost right up to a wall, whereas a man, pursuing on horseback, would be forced to pull up at a greater distance from it. The discrepancy, however, being here not so great, and the weaker party having often, in spite of the adage, to go from the wall, the interest and excitement—to say nothing of its loftier character—was in proportion. All this is vaguely, though vividly, in my recollection, but I can give no details; it was years ago, and I carried no notebook then. The sound, I find, is what has remained most strongly impressed on my mind; those wonderful grand rushing sweeps of the great pinions—the spirit of all storms seemed to live in each one of them.

  1. That peculiar coo of terror which anyone may hear who enters any place where dove-cot pigeons are kept, and approaches their boxes closely.