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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter X

The Eagle: Habits; Greediness; Anecdotes of; Killing Eagles; Trapping; Food of — The Peregrine Falcon: Manner of Hunting — Tame Falcon: Anecdotes of — Guinea-Hen and Ducks — The Osprey —The Kite: Trapping — The Buzzard: Nests and Habits of.

I SAW an eagle to-day passing southwards, apparently on his way from the mountains of Sutherland or Caithness to the more southern heights of the Grampians. The bird was flying very near the ground, making his way against the wind, and pursued by a whole squadron of grey crows, who had found out that he was a stranger, and taking advantage of the unconcerned contempt with which he treated their attacks, kept up a continual clamour and petty warfare against the royal bird. The eagle, as he came over the more enclosed part of the country, flew higher, as if suspicious of concealed foes amongst the hedges and enclosures. I have almost every year during my stay in Morayshire seen the eagles occasionally passing, at the beginning of winter invariably going southwards, and again early in the spring on their return northwards ; in windy weather flying low, but when calm, cleaving the air at a great height. The eagle's flight, when passing from one point to another, is peculiarly expressive of strength and vigour. He wends his way with deliberate strong strokes of his powerful wing, every stroke apparently driving him on a considerable distance, and in this manner advancing through the air as rapidly as the pigeon or any other bird which may appear to fly much more quickly.

Notwithstanding the facility with which he flies when once fairly launched, like many other heavy birds, a very slight wound disables him from rising into the air when on level ground. Even after having gorged himself to excess (and there is no greater glutton than this king of the air) the eagle is unable to rise, and falls a victim occasionally to his want of moderation in feeding. When in Sutherlandshire, I twice fell in with instances of eagles being knocked down when unable to rise from overeating. On one occasion a curious kind of character, who acted the part of hanger-on to me in my deer-shooting excursions, brought home an eagle which he had killed with his stick before it could rise from the ground. This man, who was dumb, and was supposed (very erroneously) to be half-witted also, had a great penchant for assisting in beating the woods for roe or deer ; and from long acquaintance with the country; and from a propensity (very common to people similarly afflicted) for wandering about, he had a perfect knowledge of every corner of the extensive woods on the property, and also a most shrewd guess as to where the deer would be lying, and in which direction they would break cover. Though generally of a most morose and even malicious temper, Muckle Thomas, as they called him, entertained a great affection, in his way, for me ; and every morning was to be found seated in front of the windows, smoking a solitary pipe, and waiting to see if I wanted him. Though dumb, he was not deaf, and understanding what was said to him, could make himself quite intelligible by signs, assisting my comprehension by drawing, in a rude way, figures on the ground with the long staff which he invariably carried. One morning I had sent him to look in a certain part of the woods to see if any deer's tracks were visible. In an hour or two he returned with something large bundled up in his plaid, which he opened, and cast down his load at my feet with a look and grunt of triumph. After some explanatory signs, etc., I found out that he had come on the eagle, who had so completely gorged himself with a rotten sheep in the wood that it could not rise.

Another instance occurred in the same country. A shepherd's boy found an eagle gorging itself on some drowned sheep in a watercourse, and being, like all herd-boys, as skilful as David in the use of sling and stone, he had broken the eagle's pinion with a pebble, and had actually stoned the poor bird to death. In this case the eagle was taken at peculiar disadvantage, being surprised in a deep rocky burn, out of which he would have had difficulty in rising quickly, even if he had not dined so abundantly. When wounded by shot, or even after escaping (but maimed) from a trap, the eagle is often unable to rise. A curious anecdote was told me by a friend. An eagle had been caught in a vermin-trap, and, by his struggles, had drawn the peg by which the trap was fastened to the ground, and had flown away with it. Nothing was seen for some weeks of eagle or trap, till one day my friend, seeing some strange object hanging from the branch of a tree, went to examine what it was, and found the poor bird hanging by his leg, which was firmly held by the trap. The chain and peg had got fixed amongst the branches, and the poor eagle had died miserably from starvation in this position, suspended by the foot. Though certainly the eagles in some localities commit great havoc amongst the lambs, and also destroy the grouse when no larger game offers itself it would be a great pity that this noble bird should become extinct in our Highland districts, who, notwithstanding his carnivorous propensities, should be rather preserved than exterminated. How picturesque he looks, and how perfectly he represents the genius loci, as, perched on some rocky point or withered tree, he sits unconcerned in wind and storm, motionless and statue-like, with his keen, stern eye, however, intently following every movement of the shepherd or of the sportsman, who, deceived by his apparent disregard, attempts to creep within rifle-shot. Long before he can reckon on reaching so far with his bullet, the bird launches himself into the air, and gradually sweeping upwards, wheels high out of shot, leaving his enemy disappointed and vexed at having crept in vain through bog and over rock in expectation of carrying home so glorious a trophy of his skill. When intent on his game, the eagle frequently will venture within a short distance of the grouse-shooter or deer-stalker. I have seen him pounce (no, that is not the proper word, for he rather rushes) down on a pack of grouse, and, with outspread wings, he so puzzles and confuses the birds, that he seizes and carries off two or three before they know what has happened, and in the very face of the astonished sportsman and his dogs. The mountain hare, too, is carried off by the eagle with as much apparent ease as the mouse is born away by the kestrel.

The marten and the wild cat are favourite morsels. A tame eagle which I kept for some time killed all the cats about the Place. Sitting motionless on his perch, he waited quietly and seemingly unheeding till the unfortunate animal came within reach of his chain. Then down he flew, and surrounding the cat with his wings, seized her in his powerful talons, with one foot planted firmly on her loins, and the other on her throat ; and nothing more was seen of poor Grimalkin except her skin, which the eagle left empty and turned inside out, like a rabbit-skin hung up by the cook, the whole of the carcass, bones and all, being stowed away in the bird's capacious maw. The quantity of meat taken from the stomach of an eagle killed on the mountain is sometimes perfectly incredible. I regret not having taken a note of the weight of mutton I once saw taken out of one I shot.

We are occasionally visited, too, by the peregrine falcon, who makes sad havoc in the poultry-yard when he appears here. There is a nest of these birds always built in the inaccessible rocks of the Findhorn. Indeed, in the good old days of hawking, when a gentleman was known by his hawk and hound, and even a lady seldom went abroad without a hawk on her gloved hand, the Findhorn hawks were always in great" request. The peregrine seems often to strike down birds for his amusement ; and I have seen one knock down and kill two rooks, who were unlucky enough to cross his flight, without taking the trouble to look at them after they fell. In the plain country near the seashore the peregrine frequently pursues the peewits and other birds that frequent the coast. The golden-plover, too, is a favourite prey, and affords the hawk a severe chase before he is caught. I have seen a pursuit of this kind last ,for nearly ten minutes, the plover turning and doubling like a hare before greyhounds, at one moment darting like an arrow into the air, high above the falcon's head ; at the next, sweeping round some bush or headland—but in vain. The hawk, with steady, relentless flight, without seeming to hurry herself, never gives up the chase, till the poor plover, seemingly quite exhausted, slackens her pace, and is caught by the hawk's talons in mid-air, and carried off to a convenient hillock or stone to be quietly devoured. Two years ago I brought a young peregrine falcon down from near the source of the Findhorn, where I found her in the possession of a shepherd's boy, who fed her wholly on trout. For the first year the bird was of a dark brown colour above, with longitudinal spots on the feathers of her breast. On changing her plumage during the second autumn of her existence, she became of a most beautiful dark slate colour above, and the spots on her breast turned into cross-bars, every feather being barred with black ; her throat became of a beautiful cream colour. With great strength, she is possessed of the most determined courage, and will attack any person or dog whom she takes a dislike to. Her poultry-killing propensities oblige me to keep her chained in the kitchen-garden, where no other bird, except a tame owl, resides. The owl she appears to tolerate with great good nature, and even allows him to carry off any remains of pigeon or crow that she leaves after she has satisfied her hunger. One day an unfortunate duck strayed within reach of her chain, and was immediately pounced on and devoured, leaving a numerous family of ducklings to mourn her loss.

A curious stepmother took them in hand, however. A Guinea-fowl, whose mate had been condemned to death for killing young poultry, took compassion on the orphan ducklings, and led them about, calling them, and tending them with as much or more care than their deceased parent. It was a most singular sight to see the Guinea-fowl quite changing her natural habits, and walking about followed by a brood of young ducks. She never left them for a moment, excepting when she retired to her nest to lay ; and even then, if the ducks uttered any cry of alarm, on the approach of dog or children, their stepmother came flying over bushes and fences in a most furious hurry. Indeed she became quite the terror of the children, running after them and pecking their legs if they came too near to her adopted brood ; although at other times she was rather a wild and shy bird. The ducks had a habit of hunting for worms in the dusk of the evening, and the poor Guinea-hen, much against her inclination and natural propensities, thought it necessary always to accompany them. Frequently tired out, she used to fly up to roost, but always kept her eye on the young ducks, and on the least alarm came bustling down to protect them if she thought it necessary, at any hour of the night. A pugnacious cock another time was rash enough to attack the hawk, and was not only killed, but devoured. Frequently, unlucky pigeons came within reach of her chain, and were also eaten. In consequence of these depredations, she is exiled to the walled garden. One day I was altering her chain, and she flew away. After flying three or four times round the house and garden, she perched in a high tree and would not come down. I was obliged to leave her at night, and in the morning the hawk was nowhere to be found. For four days I saw nothing of her ; but on going out early on the fifth morning, I saw her wheeling about at a great height, with some hooded crows giving battle to her. I stood out in an open place and whistled. As soon as she heard me, after two or three rapid sweeps round my head, she perched down on my arm, and immediately began caressing me, and as plainly as possible expressing her delight at having found me again ; whether hunger or affection induced her to return, I know not ; though I rather fear the former, as, on my giving her a rabbit, she commenced devouring it as if her fast had not been broken since she got away. In feeding on birds, 'I observe that she invariably begins by plucking them of almost all their feathers, however hungry she may be ; and when I give her a rat or rabbit, she always pulls off most of the hair before commencing her meal. The only animal that she appears unwilling to eat is a mole, everything else is devoured without hesitation, and, when hungry, no bird is too large for her to attack. Black-backed gull or cormorant is instantly seized and plucked ; and one day, a Skye terrier going too near her chain, she instantly flew at it, and, had I not come to the rescue, would probably have killed it, as, perching on the dog's back, the hawk commenced immediately tearing at its head and eyes. The male peregrine is considerably smaller than the female, and of a much lighter colour ; their nest is built in some inaccessible niche or shelf of a lofty cliff or rock, and both birds assist in the business of incubation. The quantity of game killed by a pair of these birds to feed their young is immense ; and, from their great courage and strength, no bird of the game kind in this country has any chance with them.

Occasionally an osprey comes sailing down the course of the river, but does not breed anywhere in our immediate neighbourhood. This very beautiful bird drops like a stone on any unlucky fish that its sharp eye may detect in the clear pools of the river, and I believe she seldom pounces in vain. Having caught a trout or small salmon, she flies with it to land, or to some rock, and there tears it up. When the river is too high and black for the fish to be attainable, no dead carcass comes amiss to her ; and in floods on the Findhorn there is seldom any dearth of food of this kind. Mountain sheep or wounded roe are frequently swept down its rapid course, when swollen with much rain or by the melting of snows on the higher mountains from whence this river derives its source. This winter, a young red deer (a calf of about eight months old) was found in the river. The animal had been shot with a slug through the shoulder, and had probably taken to the water (as wounded deer are in the habit of doing), and had been drowned and carried down the stream.

That beautiful bird the kite is now very rare in this country. Occasionally I have seen one wheeling and soaring at an immense height ; but English keepers and traps have nearly extirpated this bird, as no greater enemy or more destructive a foe to young grouse can exist. Their large and ravenous young require a vast quantity of food, and the old birds manage to keep their craving appetite well supplied. Not only young grouse and black game, but great numbers of young hares are carried to the nest. Though a bird of apparently such powerful and noble flight, the kite appears not to be very destructive to old grouse, but to confine her attacks to the young broods. During the season of the year, too, when she has no young ones to provide for, carrion of all kinds forms her principal food. In consequence of her greedy disposition, the kite is very easily trapped. From her habit of following the course of streams, and hunting along the shores of the loch in search of dead fish or drowned animals of any kind, one of the most successful ways of trapping the kite is to peg down the entrails of some animal in the shallow part of the water, and then to place the trap either on the shore immediately adjoining; or, what is often done, to form a small artifical promontory close to the bait, and to set the trap on this. The garbage catches the sharp eye of the bird, as she soars at a great height above it, and the clever trapper seldom fails in catching her in this manner.

The buzzard is another of the hawk tribe, which is gradually becoming rarer and rarer, and from the same cause. Like the kite, too, the buzzard is a carrion-feeding bird, find seldom kills anything but small birds, mice, or frogs, excepting during the breeding season, when it is very destructive to game ; at other times the buzzard lives an indolent lazy life. After having satisfied her hunger, this bird will sit for hours perfectly motionless on some withered branch or on a projecting corner of rock, whence she commands a good view of the surrounding country, and can easily detect the approach of danger. A cowardly bird, except when excited by hunger, she submits patiently to the attacks of the smaller birds, and flies from the magpie or jackdaw. Like the kite, the raven, the eagle, and all birds who feed much on carrion, the buzzard has a lofty flight when in search of food. Soaring high up in the air, and wheeling in circles, she appears to examine the surface of the land for miles and miles, in hopes of detecting some dead sheep or other carcass. The buzzard evinces little cunning in avoiding traps, and is easily caught. I have found their nests, containing from three to four large and nearly white eggs, in different situations ; sometimes built on rocks, and at other times in the branches of a tree, at no great height from the ground. She sits close, and will allow the near approach of a passer by before she leaves her eggs. Though she is one of the most ignoble of the hawk kind, I have a lingering affection for this bird, in consequence of her being connected in my remembrances with the rocky burns and hanging woods of the most romantic glens in the Highlands, where I have frequently fallen in with her nest and young. In this part of the country the buzzard has become very rare, and is only seen as an occasional visitor.

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