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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Crows and Gulls

ROOKS and gulls follow the plough which is turning over the fallow. The peasant looks not from his team. The child, sitting on his father’s jacket, points not his chubby finger at one bird more than the other. Even the dog troubles not to chase them. Plainly the gulls are not strangers, so near the inland cottage with its honey-suckled doorway, and the windy elms where the rooks rock of a night.

Black and white, from sea and land, they seem as unlike as birds could be, save in the common appetite which draws them to the same field and into one furrow. So misleading are appearances.

Say by some trick of harlequinade the colours were suddenly transferred, so that the gulls wore the sooty garb, and the crows the lighter gull shades. One might rub his eyes as when something has happened, he cannot tell what; and after a more searching glance conclude that he is under some mistake. The herring-gulls in the field might pass for rooks even when a rook is by, and waken just so much curiosity, and no more, in the driver of the team. The child and the dog would see no change.

For each species of the groups might be found a fitting double. Chough would pass for kittiwake as they sat side by side on the same rock ledge overlooking the warring sea. The black-headed gull has the quaint strut—a little quicker irk the step—and knowing ways of the jackdaw. Needs but the staining of the wings to be carried over the body, for the lesser black-back to masquerade as carrion or grey crow. Raven and great black-back in each other’s garb, might pass among the clans over which they reign in chief.

In habits they are still more alike. If some are bad habits, it is from no special seeking of theirs. When the spheres are somewhat different—which is by no means always the case, since each is equally at home in that of the other—the acts are of like shade and often black. There is some reason for this. They have neither place nor function they can call their own. Nothing grows for them in nature’s wild garden, nor is hatched for them in nature’s wild nursery. What they most incline to can be had only by crooked methods, when it is not placed just tantalizingly beyond their reach. Their food is picked up by the way; they live on scraps. Well-nigh anything will do at a pinch, and must be taken without so much as by your leave. Scavengers are they, raiders, thieves, murderers, what you will!

By the seaside, which is supposed to be its home, is no more helpless creature than the gull. The duck can make an honest living; it can dive. So can the guillemot and the razor-bill, the red-throated diver and the black. From aloft, tern and gannet dash down on the sand-eels. Each has its sphere. The appetites are fixed, the actions outlined. Each has its special prey which it is fitted to pursue; and where the prey, there it is found. No temptation besets them to take from another. These are the respectable members of this society, observing its conventions and with the full approval of the feathered Mrs. Grundy. I have seen them gorging, and have been sorry for the lookers-on, who, save when some of the frightened fish were driven to the surface, had no food.

The gull cannot dive, much as it would wish, when the shoal is passing almost within reach of its pendent legs. A touch of irony is in these webbed feet, which might have helped it down as they help others, but only serve as paddles to drive it aimlessly over the surface. At sea, it is a pensioner on the divers. It loafs about the harbour for the refuse of the fishing-boats; it scans the shore for what may be cast up by the waves. When these chance sources fail—as they often do, especially in the summer—it is glad to get a bite of anything. With eyes on the ground, it sails over village, lane, and field, dropping down on whatever has been thrown out, or wherever the peasant is turning over the clod.

So with the crows. They may not live on heather tips like the grouse, not being made that way. Nor, by reason of heaviness of wing, are they fitted to kill fresh food. Merlin and peregrine are born raiders, a part being assigned to them from whose performance they may in nowise escape. Crow and raven must take what comes their way—must pick up what the falcon leaves, must scan the slope for wounded birds, for dead or dying sheep, for the halt, the lame, and the blind. When these fail, and with no steady income, they have long spells of hunger.

Eggs and even young birds come in as dainty scraps. Such is the head and front of their offending. From that they may not be absolved. Over against a heronry on a cliff face, was a colony of jackdaws. Frequently were the herons’ eggs taken. The keepers climbed the rocks, and round about the jackdaws’ nests found tell-tale bits of shell. Of course the herons should have stayed more at home, or left a sentinel on guard with his bayonet-like bill. A lady sat at a window looking out on Strathearn, whose harvests were to Ruskin the most generous and lovely on earth. In the immediate foreground was a tree, and on the tree a nest. The parent birds were absent, turning the leaves or searching the lawn for food for their young. It was an idyllic picture, into which came a dark shadow, which fell on and enveloped the nest. A carrion crow bore off as many as his feet and beak would hold.

The likeness of habit is best seen when the two are together. The crows come down to the sea to share with the gulls. They are the experter, the sharper; and where is any scarcity and competition they outwit their duller rivals. They make the better scouts. They are early up and along the shore to see what has been cast in by the last tide. One whose duty lies that way, and whose hour is the dawn, tells me that he was never abroad before the crow. Many stay all winter, some all the year round. On the back of storm, multitudes come down, as though they scented the spoils of the sea from afar.

And the gulls go up-country, not necessarily for such hours of comparative innocence and idyllic charm, at least for the onlooker, as they pass in the furrow near the windy elms and in the wake of the picturesque peasant. They are found at the feast on the hillside. Then does the lesser black-back most resemble the carrion crow, and the greater black-back the raven, when all four are at some unsavoury or nefarious piece of work.

Every one’s hand is against the crow. The kindliest of naturalists and of men tells us that he never spared the grey crow. He who protests against the destruction of hawks has no word for this double-dyed offender. And on the face of it he seems to deserve all the hard words and harder deeds. But is he so much to blame to whom nature is so stepmotherly, giving him bare lodging on the moor or in mountain corrie, and sending him out to find his own board? If the gulls are not so unpopular, it may be because they look so much whiter than they are, and their deeds are not so often seen.

I confess to a warm side to these tramps, overlooked when the others got their portions, and taught no trade whereby they might win their own food. For the gulls who watch the divers going down among the shoals till the last sand-eel stands out of their bills, and can only kick their webbed feet in impotence against the yielding water. For the crows, ousted even from the respectable society of the hawks and dubbed rascals. It is so like something we are familiar with in our own kind.

Two of our crows are not sombre, but dressed in gay attire. They are the most striking, if not also the most charming, of natives. No bird can be quite so gay as a crow. Liveliness and wit heighten the charm. Both are large enough to show the colours distinctly, in the distance at which wild birds allow themselves to be seen. A weakness in many of the smaller species, the details of whose markings are dimmed in the shades, or merged aiid lust in the expanse of the open.

For the amenity lent to their haunts, jay and magpie are worth carefully keeping; but they are not kept. A very common man with no trace of what, for want of a better name, is called a soul, inherits a property, and follows out his common ideas. For some petty personal interest, the life-renter, for such he is, may destroy objects of beauty, which, though unfortunately living on his estate, are really general possessions. The bystander can only chafe.; he can do nothing. Let him keep his property for his tenure. I for one am no socialist. But hands off some things.

It is one of the weaknesses of our system to give so much away with the land, that he who owns can do anything within his march stone, except perhaps kill a man. Wherefore the restriction is not very obvious. Gurth wore a brass ring resembling a dog’s collar, but without any opening, and soldered round his neck to mark him the born thrall of Cedric. Had he disappeared, no one would have asked where he had gone. We in these days respect human liberty and spare human life. It is a part of a miserable creed based on selfishness. A further emancipation is awaiting. Apart from aesthetic considerations, there is room for a wider sense of obligation—a nobler stewardship of life. There are other thralls. The modern serfs are the wild creatures. One wonders if there is a lack of humour in his lordship, who gravely writes: "I have ordered the jays and magpies to be killed out."

On the magpie’s plumage is a soft sheen, an effect in black and white, which nature alone may produce. Man could not arrange the feathers for another magpie; he can only disarrange them with a shot. And then there is the vivacity. Any atrabilious proprietor who has been put all wrong by the loss of a few pheasants’ eggs may learn that it is possible to be light-hearted on very much less than he possesses; no stately dinner, but a chance bite in the covert.

The bird has a strange nest. Most like a big loose bundle of twigs, approximately circular, and pushed into the bush or tree. One must go round about it before he can make quite sure what it is. Somewhere is a hole in the side, through which the nest proper, and the eggs, if such there be, appear. If the curious would go further, he may find the entrance somewhat tortuous and the guarding twigs beset with thorns, which scratch the hand. This is supposed to be a robber’s haunt, the precautions of a notorious egg-stealer to prevent reprisals. And it looks marvellous like. If it be so, then there is no shame nor delicacy. Only, petty thieves among birds are few, and in Scotland mainly confined to the crow family. The design, therefore, is meant to deceive or puzzle those of its own kind, and quick-witted as itself. One magpie would be sure to find its way into another magpie’s nest. The chevaux de frise may be raised against the squirrel—a noted pilferer—whose fur would catch on the thorns. Of all this the bird may know nothing. It may be but the interpretation of those who look on. The very size of the nest would challenge attention and raid. A simpler explanation may be found in the restlessness, or bizarre tastes of the builder.

Second of the gay crows is the jay; with plumage soft as an owl to brush through among the thick branches, and bluish toned to be lost in the blue woodland shadows. It is a very Puck of the shades; a most lively imp; its chatter now here, now yonder. Were there no jay, how much would one be worth for the great woodland cage?

But jays are thieves. The coverts are the areas of mischief. In Sutherlandshire they are kept down for the harm they do; the policy is liberal there. Elsewhere they are killed. Pheasants are not worth the price. Many woods, once lively, are silent, save for the jarring screech of the tame pheasant, which has no longer any wild jay to fear. After a careful watch for years over the bird life of the east coast and Perthshire, the late Colonel Drummond Hay reported that the jay was rapidly becoming scarce through incessant persecutions and would soon be exterminated.

Throughout Scotland, the distribution of the gay crows is ragged, with many fresh rents. Less strictly a woodland bird, and better able to look after itself, the magpie is the commoner. Though here and there, especially in the Highlands, the jay persists while the magpie is absent. Where are no pheasants, the woodland crow will be less harmful.

The plea of a life for an egg, supposed to be conclusive, is not without a possible answer.

"I will use them according to their desert."

"Odds bodikins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who will escape whipping?"

Even the black crows are charming in their glossy coat, with, betimes, a hood of soft grey over their heads. Their alertness passes into an amusing boldness approaching to impudence. They are interesting in a nimbleness of wit beyond that of other birds, partly the gift of their mode of life.

Wild and remote, or near and familiar, the environment is always striking. The raven to the corrie, the rook to the windy elms of the manor-house, the jackdaw to the grey old church tower, the chough to the rocky coast where the waves chafe. Even the crow lends its touch of weirdness to the bare upland pasture, where the black-faced sheep feed on the half-wild grasses. I know not one scene of which poets have written, or where lovers of grand or picturesque nature go, that would not lose by the absence of One or other of the crows.

Their voices are not lovely, nor do they seem to offer any encouragement to cultivation. Does not Lady Nairn say, "Send a craw to the singing and still he will craw"? But strange as it may seem, the voice would be missed as greatly as their presence. Harsh as it is, unelastic and unsympathetic, a mere single cry, or equally rude chatter, it appeals to the imagination and emotion in an altogether powerful and peculiar way. The range on either side is far, as from the raven of Edgar Allan Poe to the jackdaw of Rheims. It can rouse the fears, and make each particular hair to stand on end; it can give shape to the superstitions, these nameless haunters, even of a brave and sane spirit; it can open the closet and let the sheeted ghosts come forth.

The croak at midday is ominous, how much more at midnight. Picture a group round the fire over ghost stories, and a raven appearing at the door and uttering one sound. If the croak from the corrie stirs one’s blacker moods, how does the caw from over the swaying branches set one a-dreaming. Tut! tut! We know not our chief possessions. Nor have we any soul behind the ear.

And so with the gulls. There are noble forms among them. A soft play of light shades is in their plumage, grey and blue, toning the white. Quaint ways have many. In all is a majesty of flight denied to the crows. For a certain command of the wing, for motion without jerk or effort, for an almost lazy power, the gull is supreme.

Divers may be dipping beyond, or sandpipers running over the bank, but they are unseen. The gull is in the foreground and the sea beyond, that is all—the two simple elements in the seaside picture. The gull rides the waves like a white cloud, or rests on the sands at the ebb. The painter comes and puts on his canvas the sea, and then he puts in the gulls. Only that and nothing more—the sea and the gulls. If he could paint a sound, it would be the trumpeting of the herring-gull.

Just as he might go into the country and paint the grey old tower, and then fill in the jackdaws; or paint the manor-house with its rich woodlands, and fill in the rooks. If he could paint sound he would put in the idyllic caw. Just as he might look over the hedgerow and paint the field and the team and the peasant, and then fill in both gull and crow.

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