The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XXIII

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CHAPTER XXIII

LOVE ON THE LEDGES

THE ledges are thinning. There are only thirty-seven birds now where I counted more than a hundred the other day; but some may be coming back. My special young one is lying on the ledge with its face to the cliff, and the white-eyed bird standing over it; but very soon it turns, and is under the wing, as usual. The left wing seems the favoured one. Always, except once, it has been that. The other young one is also lying under the wing, just as it was yesterday, and here, too, as always before, it is the left one. All these guillemots keep constantly uttering exclamations, as they may be called—different intonations of a deep "ur!" or "oor!" with an occasional much louder "ara!" or "hara!" of which last I have spoken. This has been the case since I came here. There is a great deal of expression in these sounds—quite as much so, it seems to me, as in some of our own exclamations. Any emotion which rises above the ordinary level of feeling, be it to do with fighting, feeding, loving, may give rise to the prolonged, deep jodel. The plain parent now flies in with a fish for the young one, and there is exactly the same scene as the last time, all the birds near, as well as the father and mother, jodel-ing excitedly. The fish is then laid on the ledge before the chick, who, getting it head downwards, swallows it voraciously. Directly afterwards the white-eyed bird, for the first time that I have yet seen, flies from the ledge into the sea, but too far off for me to watch. The other one remains, but he does not seem ready with his wing. The chick makes several attempts to take sanctuary, but they are not responded to, so he is reduced to standing and preening himself, the father standing just behind him, between him and the sea. At last, however, he forces himself under the wing, but it hangs over him awkwardly, not clasping him at all, and very shortly—in less than a minute—he comes out again.

A well-grown young shag now, distinguishable only by its brownness, is fed on the rocks by the old bird. The manner of it is just the same as when on the nest. It flaps its wings the whole time it is being fed, as young rooks do, and the parent at last shakes it off and flies down into the sea. I cannot follow these shags for any distance under the water. They seem to strike deep from the moment they plunge, and the way they plunge, indeed, suggests this; but guillemots often swim for a long time, not far below the surface. Contradicted again! to my very face, by some shags in the pool here. They have swum quite like the guillemots in this respect. Birds are sometimes very rude.

The eyed guillemot has now been absent for two hours, and all this time the chick has sat or stood with the other parent by him, but not under his wing, nor have I seen any further attempt on his part to get there. This certainly looks like a partition of office as between the two parents, but it is hardly worth while saying so, for everything one says or thinks one hour or day is contradicted the next. There is little or no uniformity in the actions of birds. That is my constant experience. The other chick has been for long clasped under the parental (left) wing, but whether it has always been the same parent I cannot say, for there is nothing here to distinguish the two. Now, however, there is an interlude, both the parent and chick standing and preening themselves. The chick stands comparatively alone, with nothing between him and the sea. Now he has disappeared, moving a little along the cliff's edge, but soon I see him again, clasped tight beneath the wing of one or other parent, who sits close brooding on the rock. I think there has been a change of parents here, so here is the accustomed contradiction.

Looking down through the glasses at the chick, it appears to me to be feathered, but to have, at least on the back, a close crop of down projecting above them. The beak is nothing like so long as the parents', either actually or in proportion to the chick's size, or the size of its head. The feet, however, are relatively quite as large, or even larger. The bird is getting on in size, and again I wonder why, if it is taken down on the parent's back, this flight is so long delayed. It is difficult, indeed, when one sees the little wings flapped, to think that the chick can fly yet, in any proper sense of the word, but it does not seem to me impossible that these little wings should be adequate to take it down in a slanting line to the sea, and the longer it stays on the ledge the less impossible does this become. This gives a reason for its staying so long; but why should the mother not take it, if she does do so, almost from the very first?

It seems funny to be looking over a ledge, all day long, and to eat one's lunch whilst so doing. But I just look up to make my notes, and on looking down again, almost right under me, I see a seal hanging lazily in this quiet shore-pool of the sea; for to-day there is hardly a foam-line round the stacks and rocks. When he sinks I can follow him for some time under the water. His hind fins or feet seem to become quiescent, as though only the front ones were used; but this last I cannot see. As he recedes, going both downwards and outwards, he becomes greener and greener, and the green darker and fainter, till, at last, having first looked dimly luminous, he disappears. Some guillemots are on the water, too—thirty-two in all, that I can see—but not one of these has a young one swimming by it. Farther off, a kittiwake, I think, is feeding on the floating carcase of one of its own species—a young one. Horrid sight! The prettiness of the bird contrasts so with what it is doing. But what a joy should this be to the optimist, who always seems to extract a comfort from the most uncomfortable things, as though they not only justified his position, but made it self-evident.

Another half-hour has gone, and still the eyed or white-eyed parent has not returned, nor has the chick ever been taken properly under the wing of the other one, or stayed there more than a few seconds, when it has managed to squeeze itself in. For the last two hours and more, too, it has stood and squatted on the rock, giving up all attempts, and the parent never volunteering. Thus I leave them; but coming again the next day, about noon, I find the chick lying in the usual way under the right wing of the plain parent bird. It is evident, therefore, that this office may be performed by either parent; but I still think one of them—the mother, as I suppose—undertakes it more willingly and cheerfully. She—the white-eyed bird—is off the ledge, this being the first time I have not found her there on my arrival.

The other chick is gone. Yes, gone; for I go to several points from which I can see the whole of this small ledge—on a part of which only I look directly down—and from none of them can I see the second chick, which, were it there, I think I must. Without any doubt, this time, I think, it is gone, and so must have either flown or been carried down within the last twenty-four, or rather twenty-two, hours; for it was here on the ledge with its parent when I went away yesterday, at two or thereabouts. There are only seven birds in all, on this ledge, now. On another one where, when I first came, there were more than a hundred, and, two days ago, sixty odd, there are now fifteen only. Elsewhere, counting all the ledges I can see, there are only forty odd birds— so that soon the whole cliff will be empty. That, however, will be nothing to me. But my little chick! Would I had seen it go!

A guillemot now flies up to the ledge underneath this one, and which I cannot see for this—for I have returned to my original position—and as it disappears there, there is a great jodel-ing from several birds—I cannot say how many. On going round to the point of rock which fronts them both, I see that there is another young guillemot on this lower ledge, squeezed into the corner angle of it, which I think I have missed all along. It is, indeed, extremely easy to miss a chick, even when one seems to see the whole ledge very plainly. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that one of the two on my ledge is gone. My own little one—still under its mother's left wing—is the only one left there now. After a while it comes out, and the mother, as she stands by it, from time to time just stirs or nibbles the feathers of its face with the end of her bill—an action which has all the spirit of wiping a child's face or nose. The father now walks up, stops in front of the chick, bends down its head, and jodels. Then it lifts it up and jodels more loudly; then, stooping again, preens the chick's head and face a little with the point of its bill, and nibbles at it affectionately. The chick, after this, goes off on a little excursion along the ledge, then toddles back again, and, on getting near home, makes a little run to one of its parents, who, again bending down its head with the neck curved over it till the point of its bill almost touches the ledge, and with both the wings extended so as altogether to enclose it, jodels and trills softly, and then nibbles it as before. And are not these pretty little domestic scenes, on the cold bare rock, with the sea beneath and the blowing wind all about? What a snug little boudoir this ledge of the precipice—white with droppings and wet with the sea-spray—becomes as one watches them! Such tenderness amidst such roughness seems wonderful.

And now I have to make one of those doubtful-certain entries—certain at the time, doubtful as one thinks of it afterwards—like that about the raven. It will be admitted that it was natural for me to suppose that the bird which has just acted this scene with the chick was one or other of its parents; but, to my surprise, just after it is over and the chick has toddled away to the white-eyed bird—undoubtedly its parent, and the only one so marked on the ledge—in flies another guillemot with a fish, and amidst loud jodel-ings from the few birds on the ledge, gives it to the chick. Afterwards this bird, who seems thus to have proved its relationship, walks a little way along the ledge, then returns, and he and the white-eyed one make passes at and then nibble one another with their bills so energetically, jodel-ing and barking the while, that it almost seems as though it would pass into a fight—more proof that they are married. Then the one that has brought the fish flies off to sea again. Now he flew in with that fish just as the chick had toddled away from the bird that had petted it, this bird continuing to stand where it had been, and I had been watching them up almost to that very second, my head over the ledge all the time. Even could the bird which had petted the chick have flown off without my noticing it—which I do not think it could have done—it would have been impossible, surely, for it to have caught a fish and returned in so very short a time. The chick, therefore, appears to have been petted by a third bird, not being either of its parents, for the white-eyed one stood apart all the time, so that even if it had not been distinguished in this way I could not have confused it with either of the other two. This is interesting, I think, if it is really the case, for here, as with terns, we see the beginning of what might in time lead to something similar, in a social community of birds, to what we see in those of insects—the absorption, that is to say, of the individualised parental instinct into the generalised one of the whole community.

It is natural, at present, we will suppose, for every pair of birds in a colony of terns or guillemots to feel affection for, and to tend, their own young. Were this affection, and the active expression of it, to extend to the young of other members of the community, then, as every pair of birds would probably be able to supply the wants of more than its own young, a lesser number than the whole community would be sufficient for nursery work, leaving the others free for—what we cannot say, but nature might evolve her product out of the material thus placed at her disposal. Some new activity might well rise, which, if fostered, would be of advantage to the general commonwealth. But let us consider the old ones. Terns, as we have seen, are vigorous in the defence of their eggs and young. They mob and attack any one—be it bird, beast, or man—who trespasses upon their breeding-grounds. If, therefore, only about half the colony were needed for the nurture of the young, and thus gradually came to be the equivalent of the workers amongst ants and bees, in the other half there would exist the elements of a soldier caste. Of these it would become at first the more special, and in time the exclusive business, to drive all enemies away from the ternery; and since efficiency in so important an office might well outweigh the otherwise ill effects of a loss of fertility in certain members of the commonwealth, the soldiers, both male and female, might, in the continuous prosecution of their task, come gradually to lose the sexual instinct, which, again, would allow the others to lay, with advantage, a greater number of eggs. I have mentioned the case of a dog making regular daily expeditions to a ternery, in order to feast upon the eggs; and if one dog could commit havoc like this, what might not some wild egg-eating species do, if not efficiently kept away? It is obvious that the eggs thus destroyed might amount to more in number than those by the loss of which they would be saved to the community; and, on the other hand, a caste whose sole task it was to guard the eggs and young might be competent to guard a greater number than the whole community would be, if "a divided duty" claimed their attention.

It is not at all necessary to show that the socialism of insects has advanced along these lines—their greater fertility allowing of a still more remarkable specialisation—in order to make out a case for the possibility, or even likelihood, of its hereafter doing so in the case of some birds. There are insect communities, however, composed of males and fertile females, or of the latter only, that may be compared, without much violence, to those of terns or weaver-birds. There are the mason-bees, for instance—numbers of whom labour side by side, each at making its own nest, in which, perhaps, we see an early state of our more truly social hymenoptera. But in nature many ways constantly lead to the same goal, and what this is, or is likely to be, must depend on the kind of advantages which the general conditions prescribe and make possible. It is difficult in the case of animals, no less than in that of man, to imagine any great social advance except through, or side by side with, subdivision of labour; and for real social labour to be subdivided, it must first be extended, that is to say in common. The separate attention paid by each pair of birds in a community to its own young only is not subdivision of labour in the proper socialistic sense of the term; for this labour is not social, but solitary. It appertains, that is to say, to every solitary-breeding animal, or, if not to both parents, at least to one, so that, at best, we do not get beyond the family, which in social matters is generally taken as a unit. Numbers of animals living and breeding together may be said to be social by virtue of their contiguity, and, no doubt, are so, to a greater or less extent, in their feelings. But until they help and support one another in some way, true social labour has not begun amongst them. When it does begin it will become distributed through the whole community, and it is only after this early point in social advance has been reached, that the other and greater advance, which consists in the limitation to a certain number of the labour which was before shared by all, can take place.

To this first stage these guillemots have, perhaps, not yet attained, but if some of them are interested in, and show kindness towards, the young of the community generally, as distinct from their own, then, as it appears to me, they are on the way towards it, and when they have reached it they will probably begin to advance socially along the general lines by which both man and social insects have advanced. This is why such a little incident as that I have just recorded is to me a matter of so much interest, so that I get quite excited in trying to be sure about it. It may be little or nothing now, but what does that matter if, in no more, perhaps, than another million of years, it has led to most important developments, if not in guillemots, yet in some other species of bird, possibly in a very great many?—supposing, that is, that we do not exterminate all of them—which is likely, except perhaps sparrows—not counting poultry of course. Already the terns have gone a good deal further than the guillemots, for they not only show the liveliest interest in the common progeny, and combine together for their defence, but there is also, I believe, a good deal of communistic feeding amongst them. Other birds, perhaps, have gone further still.

In what does the interest taken by a bird—let us say by one of these guillemots—in a chick which is not its own originate? Does not the sight of it arouse, by association of ideas, all those feelings which, but shortly before, its own chick was daily arousing? And if this be so, does it not in a manner mistake it for its own? It would be interesting, were something to happen to the parents of this little chick, to see if it would be fed and taken care of by any of the other birds on the ledge. If it were to be, I should be inclined to think this the reason of it. That one bird (or pair of birds) should foster the young of another, knowing all the while that it was another's, and not its own, seems to me very unlikely. There must be some confusion of thought. By association of ideas the stranger chick would excite in the stranger bird the feelings proper to rearing, whilst at the same time supplying in itself the proper object for their translation into act. When once this point had been reached, the foster-parent, if it did not look upon the chick as its own, would have—always supposing it to be one of these guillemots here—to retain a clear recollection of the chick that it had reared, all the while that it was rearing the foundling, to keep the two distinct, and remember not only that it had finished with its own chick, and seen it leave or gone off with it from the ledge, but also that it had not had another one since then. But though I believe that mental association may call up a very clear image of some past event in a bird's mind, I cannot credit it with such retentiveness and perspicuity of memory as this. Moreover, what idea of ownership in a chick can a bird have, other than those feelings which compel it to rear it? When once they are roused, the chick before it is its own.

But has not this a bearing upon the nature and origin of sympathy? When we sympathise with others we, by a quick mental process, put ourselves in their place, and feel to a lesser degree in ourselves what we suppose them to be feeling. In a certain degree, therefore, we are them, but our reason assures us that this is not really the case. We can distinguish; but can animals, or can they other than partially? Anthropologists have much to say—sometimes, perhaps, almost too much—on the extent to which savages mistake their subjective impressions for objective reality; but what applies to the savage should apply with much greater force to the animal. When a herd of fierce animals—as, say, of peccaries—are filled with sudden rage at the sight of a companion struck down by some beast of prey—bear, jaguar, or puma—and attack the assailant, is each member of it distinctly conscious that he is acting in defence of another, or does he not, rather, imagine that he is repelling an attack made upon himself? I believe myself that this last, or something very like it, is really the case, and that sympathy, if traced far enough back along the line of our descent, would lead us to a time when it made no conscious distinction between itself and its object; thus rooting our best feelings in the purest selfishness.

There is, indeed, this to be objected against the noblest emotions by which the highest natures are actuated—those very exalted ones about which there has been, and still is, so much self-laudation—viz. that they are all tainted in their origin. This is an objection—I mean as against the optimistic standpoint—which nobody ever seems to consider; but with me it is a very grave one. What matters it—that is to say, what ground of jubilation is it—that some "noble numbers," as Herrick calls them, have somehow got into a great "sculduddery book," written upon a plan, and, as far as we can see, with an object which never contemplated or thought of them at all, but only of the sculduddery, in relation to which they exist as a small pool may by the side of a great muddy, turbulent river, out of which it has leaked, and, by some accident, become clear? If this is all, then they are mere by-products, and it is not by a by-product that any scheme can be justified. It is to the scheme itself we must look, judging of it by what seems its clear object and intent, and having regard to the mass of the facts through which it reveals itself; not to some few merely which may seem, at first sight, to be in opposition to these, but, looked at more closely, are seen to be sequences only, quite reconcilable with them, and not obstructing them in any way. In a word, we must think of the stream and flow of the river, not of some eddies in it, or a back-wash here and there. Though it does not seem to be, yet the water that makes these is really going the way that the stream is, and our "noblest numbers," when closely analysed, are found to be "sculduddery" after all.

Es tanzen zwölf Klosterjungfraun herein
Die schielende Kupplerin führet den Reihn
Es folgen zwölf lüsterne Pfäffelein schon
Und pfeifen ein Schandlied im Kirchenton.

But can I be quite sure that it was a strange guillemot, and not one of the two parents, that acted that little scene with the chick which I have described? It is easy, certainly, as I know by experience, for a bird to go off the ledge without one's noticing it—even under one's very nose—if one's eye is not actually on it all the time, and that, I suppose, mine was not. Again, the plain parent has just made a very quick return with another fish, though not, I think, quite so quick as the other one would have been, had it been he and not a stranger bird that I had seen on the ledge all the while. All I can say is that it certainly looked like what I supposed was the case, and I feel pretty sure that it was so; but I have never seen such a thing before, and it is more likely, perhaps, that I was mistaken. Still, one must remember the interest taken by the other birds when a chick is fed, as shown by their jodel-ing, and also that these have now no chick of their own to be busy with.

There is something in the sight and feel of a fish, indeed, which goes to the soul of a guillemot. Two, with one between them, have been making a most extraordinary noise, harahing and jodel-ing as they bend over it. It is laid on the ledge and taken up again several times, by one or another of them, and finally one swallows it. This jodel-ing note of the guillemot—and there is no other word, to my mind, which expresses it nearly so well—constantly begins with another and almost louder one, of two syllables, which is pretty exactly like the word harā ("hurrah!" but with the first syllable as in harrow). There is a moment's pause, and then follows a second "hara"—or "harrah" would be the better spelling—in a higher key, and it is the last syllable of this which, prolonged in a wonderful manner, makes what I call the jodel, and this jodel often ends in a kind of barking. "Hărrăh—hărrăh—hărrăh!" from one bird or another, without its continuation and in a low, sometimes almost a soft tone, is constantly to be heard on this ledge, and, no doubt, on all the ledges. Though suitable to any and every occasion, it seems mostly the vehicle of parental affection. As, for example, the chick which has been asleep, and almost buried for some time, now rouses himself, comes out, and begins to walk along the ledge. The mother follows and says "harrah!" He stops and turns. She goes up to him with "harrah!"; then, bending down her head till her beak almost touches the rock, she jodels softly, as though very pleased both with herself and him. He moves on again. "Harrah!" ("Will he really do so?") He turns to go back. "Harrah!" ("In that case she will follow him.") And so on and so on, an "harrah!" for whatever he does, there being, in each one, a certain indefinable tone of interest, mixed with a little surprise.

During this last promenade the chick flapped its wings a good deal, and, once or twice, came a little towards the edge of the rock, nor did the mother keep so between it and him as I should have expected. By some instinct, however, he goes along the length of the ledge, but never for more than a step or two forward towards the sea. One of the two chicks is already gone, and this restlessness on the part of the other, which has never been so marked before, may be the prelude to his going too. I would fain see the flight, if I could, however it may be, but I have been here all day, and mother and chick are now, again, crouched together as usual. It is near seven, and so cold and wretched that I can stand it no longer, but have to go. When I get up I can hardly stand steady, and lumbago has crept upon me unawares. Understanding that he lodges with me, the toothache, later, pays him a little visit, and the two chat together all the evening. Bitterly cold it was during the last hour or so, and a wretched sort of day altogether. Getting to bed at last—for cooking takes a woful time—I turn to the British Bird-book again; and reading there about the plaintive cry of the young guillemot for food reminds me that I have not once heard either of my two little birds utter a syllable—at least, not to be sure. Once I thought I caught a very faint thin note, such as most young birds utter, but that was the only time. When I was here before, too, at a time when there were numbers of young birds on the ledges, I never noticed this cry, so find it difficult to believe that it ever attracted the attention of the French sailors sufficiently to make them name these birds "guillemots" in imitation of it, as is here suggested. To judge by all I have seen, the young guillemot is the most contented little thing, and generally squats asleep under the wing of the one parent, till the other brings it a fish, when it comes out, swallows it, swells, preens itself, and goes back to "seepy-by" again, like Stella.