The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XXIV

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THE wind last night was simply awful. Why it has no effect on the sea I cannot understand, for it is always calm now. No, there is little beauty in the sound of the wind here—no mournful sighings, no weary complainings, no intangible strange sounds, but a horrible howling and blustering, the whole night through, like a mere rage, so that it has not that soothing quality that it is wont to have in England: there is no lullaby in it. Bed here is dreadful, partly on account of its hardness, partly of its narrowness, partly of its coming-untuckedness, partly because the wind comes in on both sides, through walls and clothes, and shares it with one. With all this I lie in a continual prologue to a play of lumbago, with wandering pains all about me. Oh for a nice little cosy, comfy cottage here, with my good old Mrs. Brodby to cook for me! I could be always out then. For the outdoor part of it, "this life is most jolly," but the indoor part is a weariness, and, with all he can do, man, in this country and climate, is a wretched indoor animal. If it were not so, I would be beetling over the ledges, now, for though moist and damp, and under a heavy pall of dun-grey cloud, it is yet not raining, so may pass for a fine day here: it is not Tahiti. But to get up a fire, to wash, and have some sort of breakfast—all in huge discomfort—takes time. Biscuits and cheese in my pockets serve me for the day, but rain and mist may drive me in, and something for a supper one must have. Oh the time that goes in waste of time, when one has to cook for one's self! And the washing first, at intervals—for I leave everything dirty as long as I can, that is my system—is worse still, much the worst. I thought, at first, I would only use one plate, and never wash it, but I had to give that up. How I do hate the washing! Oh, if there are meals in heaven, and I get there, I hope Mrs. Brodby may get there too!

This morning I heard a great noise of skuas—the smaller kind—and, coming out, saw a crowd of them chasing four ravens that were passing over the ness. I had previously seen them thus mobbing one. The ravens sometimes uttered an annoyed croak, and gave a twist round as though to defend themselves, but whether they were ever seriously attacked or pecked at I cannot say. The cries of the skuas, on this occasion, were different from their ordinary one, though the general tone and character was there.

On my island there were no ravens. Either the pair that bred there two years ago had hatched out another brood, and they had then all left the island together, or else, in spite of all Mr. Hoseason's efforts, they have been driven away by persecution—perhaps killed. A general raven battue is now in progress throughout the Shetlands, every landowner being anxious to exterminate this bird, so interesting both in itself and through the world of old legend and superstition that adheres to it, in order that they may have grouse to bang at over their barren brown moors. Had these men anything within them that responded to the real and only charms that these bleak northern isles they were born in possess, or ever can possess, except to vulgarians—their wildness, that is to say, their wild bird-life, and their past—they would care more for one raven than for a thousand brace of grouse. They would rejoice and congratulate themselves whenever they saw its sable flight, and think its presence amongst them a point of high superiority over richer and more fertile lands. They would see, then, how the gaunt, black bird was in keeping and harmony with their scathed hills and storm-lashed coasts, and, seeing and knowing and feeling, they would seek to keep it amongst them, with every other wild and waste-haunting thing. But no; instead of rejoicing they lament. Born to such a heritage, they would exchange it for a park and a game-preserve if they could; as they cannot—for the grouse will have nothing to say to them, it draws the line at the Orkneys—they will do their best to turn a living wilderness into a dead one, they will chase away the only smile that ever sat on the hard-featured face of their country, take away its youth—for the birds, each spring, are that—and leave it childless and unchildbearing, like a gaunt, hideous, barren old hag. That is what they will do, these romantic islanders, for the rugged old mother that bore them.[1] "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!" is their cry. Down with the raven, the eagle, the peregrine, gull, skua, cormorant, and let the soul of the gamekeeper live for ever in the wild Shetland Islands!

There is something, I verily believe, in a gun and cartridges, that dries up all poetry in a man's heart. Of all the inventions that this world has ever seen, I most deplore that of gunpowder—not because it kills men, but because it kills beasts—and next to that I deplore railways, which take away all charm from the country, and kill the ballads and songs of a people. Would that I had lived before them, in the quiet days of Gilbert White! It is the absence, I believe, of all reference to railways in the writings of our grandfathers and grandmothers that makes, or helps to make, them such pleasant reading. Who would care for Sterne's Sentimental Journey, had he made it by rail? and is it not delightful, when reading Miss Austen, to know that none of those dear little quiet-world circles, into which, for years, you have had the entrée, and which have given you a thousand times more pleasure, through life, than you have derived from your real acquaintance—is it not delightful to know that they could none of them run up to town in an hour or a few minutes, as is the case now? How nice it is to have Highbury, through the whole of Emma, a quiet, untownified little place, and to know that it was not till long afterwards that it became absorbed into London, like the village that you once used to live in. Considerations of this kind add a charm, I really do believe, even to the character-drawing of Jane Austen. We are not so lucky with the other—the gunpowder. It is always, I confess, a little unpleasant to me to find Mr. Bennet going pheasant-shooting. I always wish he hadn't, such an esprit fin as he is. Bingley—or even Darcie—but I can't see Mr. Bennet pheasant-shooting. However, those were not the days of battues, and he would have worn knee-breeches, not knickerbockers.

Ravens, however, are very wary, and I hope may be able to hold their own in this their last stronghold of the British Isles, in spite of all the efforts of their unworthy and little-souled persecutors. Things seem to me to go very strangely in this world, and only satisfactorily to the optimist. In the days when Britain was full of birds and animals, before there were railways or breechloaders, before there was a large population, before the fens were drained or the broads crowded, in those days there were no naturalists, and now that there are naturalists the materials for natural history have disappeared, or are fast disappearing. Railways, towns, factories, golf-links, breech-loading guns, quietude banished, solitude overrun—all is over, and the real naturalist is not a man for this world. But regrets are useless, so let me on to the affairs of state.

Along the opposite shores of the bay that skirts this hill on one side, a raven or two are generally to be seen; and I once saw one, whilst flying at some height, make an odd sort of manœuvre, the meaning of which I did not quite catch. It appeared to me, however, that he brought his foot forward towards his bill, and, at the same time, disgorged something, which he caught hold of with it. A second or two afterwards, as he came back into his natural pose, I thought I just saw something fall from him, like a faint shadow on the air, and almost instantly disappear. This raven had not been carrying anything in his bill before—at least, I believe not, for nothing broke the clear outline of it against the sky. What I believe he did was to bring up one of those curious pellets of indigestible materials that birds, generally, are in the habit of disgorging. But who would have thought that he would have first taken it into his claws, whilst flying, before letting it drop? But though I cannot be quite certain, yet I feel certain that this is what he did do.

Herrings are still scattered over that part of the ness where the great skua breeds, and still they are headless, as I noticed the first time I came here, and have recorded in my Bird Watching. Out of twenty-four, for instance, that I have counted, all but three of them are in this condition. With the exception of the head but little of them has been eaten, and, of some, not any. Whether it is the old bird that eats the head only, before bringing the fish to the chick, or whether the chick helps to eat it, or whether it is eaten at all, I cannot say; but I have noticed that the guillemot, also, sometimes brings in a sand-eel to the ledges, that has been neatly decapitated. I can quite understand that the head of a herring, if swallowed by a greedy young chick, might have a bad effect on it, but that the old birds, through some process of natural selection—for we cannot suppose that they are impelled by ordinary foresight—should have acquired the habit of first decapitating the herrings and thus removing the risk, seems very unlikely. On the other hand, that they should eat one particular part, and no other, of each fish that they bring to their young, is almost as difficult to believe. I have elsewhere suggested another explanation,[2] but this too I find it difficult to adopt, and the only remaining one I can think of is that the gulls who catch these herrings, and who are robbed of them by the skua, either bite off their heads in order to kill them, or eat the head separately. Whatever the reason of it may be, I once more draw attention to the fact.

At the tail, so to speak, of this track of herrings, I find another young great skua, and sit down by him to make my entry. He is a big chick, but the fluff still remains upon his head, neck, and under surface, springing from the ends of the true feathers, which have thus gradually pushed it out. On the back it is almost gone, thin patches of it only appearing above a thick brown panoply of the mature plumage. This chick is of milder mood than either of the other two. He lets me stroke him, and though, when I approach my finger to his face, he opens his beak, yet he cannot be said to show much fierceness. The father and mother sail overhead, and once the chick reaches up with its neck stretched straight into the air, and opening its mandibles widely and excitedly, utters a thin little sound. This is to the parents, I feel sure—a cry of distress—and has no reference to me, unless it be to call a rescue. It seems like this, certainly, yet neither of them make, for some time, even a pretence of swooping at me. Now, however, they begin, but always swerve off when some yards away. Meanwhile the chick has run off; but when I follow him I find him just as he was before, crouched against a little bank of heather, with his head pressed somewhat into it. It is curious how he now, a second time, lets me stroke him, without in the least moving.

This instinct of crouching and lying still when young is one which both the skuas here share with terns, gulls, peewits, etc. All of them lie in a very marked attitude, with the head and neck stretched straight out along the ground; yet all of them, as soon as they learn to fly, quite give up this habit. The stone-curlew, however, which, when young, has a precisely similar one, is supposed to keep it through life, but though this may be the case, I am convinced, from my own observation, that the grown bird acts in this manner far less frequently. To run with great swiftness, and then, if they think it worth while, to fly, is their common practice when approached—I, at least, have found it so—whilst the young ones, according to Dr. Bowdler Sharpe, as invariably crouch. The question is if the latter, when of a respectable size, are not sometimes mistaken for the fully-grown birds, for certainly none of these have ever allowed me to come close up to them as they lay crouched, like a pheasant, revealing their presence, at last, only by the bright golden eye, as they are said to do. It is this element of confusion, in my opinion, together with the fact that it is "a ratite bird," and therefore ought to act like one, which has caused that strange scientific delusion in regard to the domestic habits of the ostrich; a delusion which, it seems, is destined to endure till some one or other of the learned persons responsible for it happens to be living on an ostrich-farm, instead of in a museum or a class-room, since the statements of those who have, or have had, that advantage are not regarded by them. No, no! the ostrich is "a ratite bird," and the scientific exigencies of such a position require it to do what it doesn't do. In regard to the above crouching habit, it may conceivably relate to an antecedent period in the life of the various species which, in their young days, practise it, during which they may have been flightless, though perhaps at a still earlier period they flew as well as, or better than, they do now. Doubtless, the ostrich once flew—so much of truth is contained in the Arab fable—and were any gradual change in the character of the countries it inhabits to render swift running less practicable whilst, at the same time, its growth became stunted, it would be almost certain to fly again.

Young kittiwakes—as no doubt the old ones, too, though I have not yet noticed them doing so—bathe, or rather play about in the sea, very prettily. They flap their wings in an excited way, or hold them spread on the water whilst turning round, or half round in it, then, with their wings still spread, they make a little spring upwards, and flop down on it again, like a kite falling flat, and repeat the performance any number of times. There are staider intervals during which they duck and sprinkle themselves in the ordinary way, but this is not such a prominent feature as the other. I doubt if these little roundabouts, which seem to please the bird so much, are really in the nature of bathing, and the same doubt has been still more strongly impressed upon me in the case of the shag, and, to some extent, of the coot. To me it seems that the so-called bathing of many aquatic birds much more resembles an antic than movements made for a definite purpose—or rather I suspect that the one thing is in process of passing into the other.

The passage, as I believe, might take place in this way. A land-bird bathes in water with the express object of cleaning itself, and therefore the energy which it expends in so doing is both guided and regulated. It is confined within a certain channel, which it does not leave. But when this same bird takes to the water—for I assume all aquatic birds to have been land-birds once—bathing, as a special activity, is not so necessary to it there as it was on the land. Being always in the bath, it needs not to specially bathe, or, always bathing, it wants no special bath. It finds itself, however, with an inherited habit which it is impelled to continue; but as the constant sensation of being in the water weakens the desire, as the fact of being there does the necessity, for special ablutions, this energy becomes gradually less governed, and its direction less fixed. The movements being no longer limited to the purpose in which they originated, or exclusively shaped by it, grow more violent, and corporeal activity producing mental excitement, which again reacts upon the former, this violence tends to increase. The result is a mad sort of romp, or play, more or less boisterous in proportion to the greater or less vitality of the bird, or its quieter or livelier disposition, which perhaps is the same thing; and when we have this we have what, in bird life, is called an antic. To generalise it, this antic will be due to the continuance of an energy once directed to a special purpose, but which is now no longer so, or not exclusively; and this, I believe, has been one of the principal paths along which antics have been evolved.

I can, I think, see another reason why the bathing of aquatic birds has passed, as I believe it has in several instances, into an antic or something partaking of that character. They bathe in their own element—water—in which they are thoroughly at home, whilst the wide expanse of it around them allows of free and extended movement. But when a land-bird washes itself it does so under very different conditions, and a more or less lively tubbing is the utmost one would expect it to evolve out of the situation. Anything more than this would probably go hand-in-hand with an increased liking for the water, that is to say with a gradual change of habitat. Some, perhaps, may think that the fact which I am trying to account for has not yet been made out, but I beg these, if they have not already done so, to watch shags bathing, and then I think they will say that it has. I have already described it in the work to which I so often have to allude,[3] but any mere description must be weak compared with the reality.

Numbers of young kittiwakes are still on the ledges; they look quite mature, and much like some pretty species of dove. Many are on the nests and close beside the parent birds, though sometimes, but not often, the latter seem impatient of their presence and force them to take flight. Anywhere else than on the ledges the young seem to keep to themselves, swimming together in large flocks upon the sea, or standing so on the rocks. One may sometimes see an old bird amongst them, but the association is half-hearted, nor does it last long. Of the fulmar petrels I have nothing more to record except that my statement in regard to the hen bird not permitting her husband to sit with her by the chick was incorrect, or, at least, needs qualification, as I have now seen several such family parties. The grown birds continue, in some cases, to swell the throat and open the beak at one another, rolling, at the same time, the head, and uttering the hoarse, scolding note which seems reserved for the ledges for I have never heard it in the air.

  1. Not all, of course. To Mr. Lawrence Edmondston, of Unst, and to Mr. Hoseason, of Yell, all lovers of birds and wild nature are greatly indebted.
  2. Bird Watching, p. 117.
  3. Bird Watching, pp. 170-1.