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

The Hen Harrier: Destructiveness to game; Female of — Trapping — The Sparrowhawk: Courage of; Ferocity; Nest — The Kestrel: Utility of — The Merlin: Boldness — The Hobby — Increase of small Birds.

IN the autumn my partridges suffer much from the hen-harrier. As soon as the corn is cut this bird appears, and hunts the whole of the low country in the most determined and systematic manner. The hen-harrier, either on the hill-side or in the turnip-field, is a most destructive hunter. Flying at the height of only a few feet from the ground, he quarters the ground as regularly as an old pointer, crossing the field in every direction; nor does he waste time in hunting useless ground, but tries turnip-field after turnipfield, and rushy field after rushy field, passing quickly over the more open ground, where he thinks his game is not so likely to be found. The moment he sees a bird, the hawk darts rapidly to a height of about twenty feet, hovers for a moment, and then comes down with unerring aim on his victim, striking dead with a single blow partridge or pheasant, grouse or black-cock, and showing a strength not to be expected from his light figure and slender though sharp talons.

I saw on a hill-side in Ross-shire a hen-harrier strike a heath hen. I instantly drove him away, but too late, as the head of the bird was cut as clean off by the single stroke as if done with a knife. On another day, when passing over the hill in the spring, I was attended by a hen-harrier for some time, who struck down and killed two hen grouse that I had put up. Both these birds I contrived to take from him; but a third grouse rose, and was killed and carried off over the brow of a hill before I could get up to him. There is no bird more difficult to shoot than this. Hunting always in the open country, though appearing intent on nothing but his game, the wary bird, with an instinctive knowledge of the range of shot, will keep always just out of reach, and frequently carry off before your very face the partridge you have flushed, and perhaps wounded.

There is a diversity of opinion whether the hawk commonly called the ringtail is the female of the hen-harrier. I have, however, no doubt at all on the subject. The ringtail is nothing more than the female or young bird. The male does not put on his blue and white plumage till he is a year old. I have frequently found the nest both on the mountain, where they build in a patch of rough heather, generally by the side of a burn, and also in a furze-bush. Though very destructive to grouse and other game, this bird has one redeeming quality, which is, that he is a most skilful rat-catcher. Skimming silently and rapidly through a rick-yard, he seizes on any incautious rat who may be exposed to view; and from the habit this hawk has of hunting very late in the evening, many of these vermin fall to his share. Though of so small and light a frame, the hen-harrier strikes down a mallard without difficulty; and the marsh and swamp are his favourite hunting-grounds. Quick enough to catch a snipe, and strong enough to kill a mallard, nothing escapes him. Although so courageous in pursuit of game, he is a wild, untamable bird in captivity; and though I have sometimes endeavoured to tame one, I could never succeed in rendering him at all familiar. As he disdains to eat any animal not killed by himself, he is a very difficult bird to trap. The best chance of catching him is in what is called a pole-trap, placed on a high post in the middle of an open part of the country; for this hawk has (in common with many others) the habit of perching on upright railings and posts, particularly as in the open plains, where he principally hunts, there are but few trees, and he seldom perches on the ground. His flight is leisurely and slow when searching for game; but his dart, when he has discovered his prey, is inconceivably rapid and certain.

There is another most destructive kind of hawk who frequently pays us a visit—the sparrowhawk. Not content with the partridges and other ferae naturae, this bold little freebooter invades the poultry-yard rather too frequently. The hens scream, the ducks quack, and rush to the cover of the plantations; whilst the tame pigeons dart to and fro amongst the buildings, but in vain. The sparrowhawk darts like an arrow after one of the latter birds, and carries it off, though the pigeon is twice or three times his own weight. The woman who takes care of the poultry runs out, but is too late to see anything more than a cloud of white feathers, marking the place where the unfortunate pigeon was struck. Its remains are, however, generally found at some little distance; and when this is the case, the hawk is sure to be caught, as he invariably returns to what he has left, and my boys bring the robber to me in triumph before many days elapse. Sometimes he returns the same day to finish picking the bones of the bird, but often does not come back for two or three. In the meantime, whatever part of the pigeon he has left is pegged to the ground, and two or three rat-traps are set round it, into one of which he always contrives to step. When caught, instead of seeming frightened, he flies courageously at the hand put down to pick him up, and fights with beak and talons to the last. Occasionally, when standing still amongst the trees, or even when passing the corner of the house, I have been startled by a sparrowhawk gliding rapidly past me. Once one came so close to me, that his wing actually brushed my arm; the hawk being in full pursuit of an unfortunate blackbird. On another occasion, a sparrow-hawk pursued a pigeon through the drawing-room window, and out at the other end of the house through another window, and never slackened his pursuit, notwithstanding the clattering of the broken glass of the two windows they passed through. But the most extraordinary instance of impudence in this bird that I ever met with, was one day finding a sparrowhawk deliberately standing on a very large pouter-pigeon on the drawing-room floor, and plucking it, having entered in pursuit of the unfortunate bird through an open window, and killed him in the room.

The sparrowhawk sometimes builds on rocks, and sometimes in trees. Like all rapacious birds, he is most destructive during the breeding-season. I have found a great quantity of remains of partridges, wood-pigeons, and small birds about their nests, though it has puzzled me to understand how so small a bird can convey a wood-pigeon to its young ones. There is more difference in size between the male and female sparrowhawk than between the different sexes of any other birds of the hawk kind, the cock bird being not nearly so large or powerful a bird as the hen. Supposing either male or female sparrowhawk to be killed during the time of incubation, the survivor immediately finds a new mate, who goes on with the duties of the lost bird, whatever stage of the business is being carried on at the time, whether sitting on the eggs or rearing the young.

The kestrel breeds commonly with us about the banks of the river, or in an old crow's nest. This is a very beautifully marked hawk, and I believe does much more good than harm. Though occasionally depriving us of some of our lesser singing birds, this hawk feeds principally, and indeed almost wholly, on mice. Any person who knows a kestrel-hawk by sight must have constantly observed them hovering nearly stationary in the air above a grass-field, watching for the exit from its hole of some unfortunate field-mouse. When feeding their young, a pair of kestrels destroy an immense number of these mischievous little quadrupeds, which are evidently the favourite food of these birds. Being convinced of their great utility in this respect, I never shoot at or disturb a kestrel. It is impossible, however, to persuade a gamekeeper that any bird called a hawk can be harmless; much less can one persuade so opinionated and conceited a personage (as most keepers are) that a hawk can be useful; therefore the poor kestrel generally occupies a prominent place amongst the rows of bipeds and quadrupeds nailed on the kennel, or wherever else those trophies of his skill are exhibited. It is a timid and shy kind of hawk, and therefore very difficult to tame, never having an appearance of contentment or confidence in its master when kept in captivity.

Another beautiful little hawk is common here in the winter, the merlin. This bird visits us about October, and leaves us in the spring. Scarcely larger than a thrush, the courageous little fellow glides with the rapidity of thought on blackbird or field-fare, sometimes even on the partridges, and striking his game on the back of the head, kills it at a single blow. The merlin is a very bold bird, and seems afraid of nothing. I one day winged one as he was passing over my head at a great height. The little fellow, small as he was, flung himself on his back when I went to pick him up, and gave battle most furiously, darting out his talons (which are as sharp and hard as needles) at everything that approached him. We took him home, however, and I put him into the walled garden, where he lived for more than a year. He very soon became quite tame, and came on being called to receive his food, which consisted of birds, mice, etc. So fearless was he, that he flew instantly at the largest kind of sea-gull or crow that we gave him. When hungry, and no other food was at hand, he would attend the gardener when digging, and swallow the large earthworms as they were turned up. To my great regret, we found the little bird lying dead under the tree in which he usually roosted; and though I examined him carefully, I could not find out the cause of his death.

Although all these small hawks which frequent this country destroy a certain quantity of game, their principal food consists of thrushes, blackbirds, and other small birds. In the winter, when the greenfinches collect in large flocks on the stubble fields, I have frequently seen the merlin or sparrowhawk suddenly glide round the angle of some hedgerow or plantation, and taking up a bird from the middle of the flock, carry it off almost before his presence is observed by the rest of the greenfinches.

Sometimes two merlins hunt together, and, as it were, course a lark, or even swallow, in the air, the two hawks assisting each other in the most systematic manner. First one hawk chases the unfortunate bird for a short time, while his companion hovers quietly at hand; in a minute or so, the latter relieves his fellow-hunter, who in his turn rests. In this way they soon tire out the lark or swallow; and catching the poor bird in mid-air, one of the hawks flies away with him, leaving his companion to hunt alone till his return from feeding their young brood.

The hobby, a beautiful little hawk, like a miniature peregrine falcon, is not very common here, though I have occasionally killed it. This kind of hawk leaves us before the winter. I have seen its nest in a fir or larch tree; but they seem to be very rare here. A strong courageous bird, the hobby attacks and preys on pigeons and partridges, though so much larger than himself.

Since the introduction of English traps and keepers, all birds of prey are gradually decreasing in this country, whilst blackbirds, thrushes, and other singing birds increase most rapidly. In the highland districts of Moray, where a few years back a blackbird or thrush was rather a rare bird, owing to the skill and perseverance of gamekeepers and vermin-trappers in exterminating their enemies, they now abound, devastating our fruit-gardens, but amply repaying all the mischief they do by enlivening every glade and grove with their joyous songs. This year (1846) the thrushes and blackbirds were in full voice in January, owing to the mildness of the winter; and I knew of a thrush who was sitting on eggs during the most severe storm of snow that we have had the whole season.

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