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

Wild Ducks: Edible kinds of — Breeding-places of Mallards — Change of Plumage — Shooting —Feeding-places — Half-Bred Wild Ducks — Anas glacialis — Anas clangula: Habits of — Teeth of Goosander — Cormorants — Anecdotes.

A few years ago I used to see a great many scaup ducks in the pools and burns near the coast, but now it is very seldom that I meet with a single bird of this kind; the last which I killed here was in the month of July. This is one of the few ducks frequenting the shore which has not a rank or fishy flavour: out of the numerous varieties of birds of the duck kind, I can only enumerate four that are really good eating, namely, the common mallard, the widgeon, the teal, and the scaup duck. The best of these is the mallard : with us they breed principally about the most lonely lochs and pools in the hills; sometimes I have seen these birds during the breeding-season very far up among the hills : a few hatch and rear their young about the rough ground and mosses near the sea, but these get fewer and fewer every year, in consequence of the increase of draining and clearing which goes on in all the swamps and wild grounds.

Some few breed in furze-bushes and quiet corners near the mouth of the river, and may be seen in some rushy pool, accompanied by a brood of young ones. Though so wild a bird, they sit close, allowing people to pass very near to them without moving. When they leave their nest, the eggs are always carefully concealed, so that a careless observer would never suppose that the heap of dried leaves and grass that he sees under a bush covers twelve or thirteen duck's eggs.

Occasionally a wild duck fixes on a most unlikely place to build her nest in; for instance, on a cleft of a rock, where you would rather expect to find a pigeon or jackdaw building, and I once, when fishing in a quiet brook in England, saw a wild duck fly out of an old pollard oak-tree. My curiosity being excited by seeing the bird in so unusual a place, I examined the tree, and found that she had a nest built of sticks and grass, containing six eggs, placed at the junction of the branches and the main stem. I do not know how she would have managed to get her young ones safely out of it when hatched, for on carefully measuring the height, I found that the nest was exactly fifteen feet from the ground.

As soon as hatched, the young ones take to the water, and it is very amusing to see the activity and quickness which the little fellows display in catching insects and flies as they skim along the surface of the water, led on by the parent bird, who takes the greatest care of them, bustling about with all the hurry and importance of a barn-yard hen. Presently she gives a low warning quack, as a hawk or carrion crow passes in a suspicious manner over them. One cry is enough, away all the little ones dart into the rushes, screaming and fluttering, while the old bird, with head flat on the water and upturned eye, slowly follows them, but not until she sees them all out of danger. After a short time, if the enemy has disappeared, the old bird peers cautiously from her covert, and if she makes up her mind that all is safe, she calls forth her offspring again, to feed and sport in the open water.

The young birds do not fly till they are quite full grown. I have observed that, as soon as ever the inner side of the wing is fully clothed, they take to flying; their bones, which before this time were more like gristle than anything else, quickly hardening, and giving the bird full power and use of its pinions. The old bird then leads them forth at night to the most distant feeding-places, either to the grass meadows where they search for snails or worms, or to the splashy. swamps, where they dabble about all night, collecting the different insects and young frogs that abound in these places. As the corn ripens, they fly to the oat-fields in the dusk of the evening, preferring this grain and peas to any other. They are now in good order and easily shot, as they come regularly to the same fields every night. As soon as they have satisfied their hunger, they go to some favourite pool, where they drink and wash themselves. After this, they repair, before dawn, to their resting-place for the day, generally some large piece of water, where they can float quietly out of reach of all danger. In October the drakes have acquired their splendid plumage, which they cast off in the spring, at that time changing their gay feathers for a more sombre brown, resembling the plumage of the female bird, but darker. During the time that they are clothed in this grave dress, the drakes keep in flocks together, and show themselves but little, appearing to keep as much out of observation as possible. During the actual time of their spring moulting, the drakes are for some days so helpless that I have frequently seen a dog catch them. The same thing occurs with the few wild geese that breed in the north of Scotland. With regard to shooting wild ducks, I am no advocate or follower of the punt and swivel system. I can see little amusement in taking a long shot at the sound of feeding water-fowl, killing and maiming you know not what; nor am I addicted to punting myself in a flat boat over half frozen mud, and waiting for hours together for the chance of a sweeping shot. There may be great sport in this kind of proceeding, but I cannot discover it. I much prefer the more active and independent amusement of taking my chance with a common gun, meeting the birds on their way to and from their feeding or resting places, and observing and taking note of their different habits and ways of getting their living.

No rule can be laid down for wild-fowl shooting; what succeeds in one place fails in another. The best plan, in whatever district the sportsman is located is to take note where the birds feed, where they rest in the daytime, and where they take shelter in heavy winds. By observing these different things it is always easy enough to procure a few wild ducks. On the coast, the birds change their locality with the ebb and flow of the tide, generally feeding with the ebb, and resting with the flow. I believe that about the best wild-fowl shooting in the kingdom is in the Cromarty Firth, where thousands of birds of every variety pass the winter, feeding on the long sea-grass, and passing backwards and forwards constantly at every turn of the tide. I have here often killed wild ducks by moonlight. It is an interesting walk in the bright clear winter nights, to go round by the shore, listening to the various calls of the birds, the constant quack of the mallard, the shrill whistle of the widgeon, the low croaking note of the teal, and the fine bugle voice of the wild swan, varied every now and then by the loud whistling of a startled curlew or oyster-catcher. The mallard and teal are the only exclusively night-feeding birds; the others feed at any time of the night or day, being dependent on the state of the tide to get at the banks of grass and weed, or the sands where they find shell-fish. All ducks are quite as wary in the bright moonlight as in the day time, but at night are more likely to be found near the shore. Between the sea and the land near my abode is a long stretch of green embankment, which was made some years back in order to reclaim from the sea a great extent of land, which then consisted of swampy grass and herbage, overflowed at every high tide, but which now repays the expense of erecting the embankments, by affording as fine a district of corn-land as there is in the kingdom. By keeping the landward side of this grass-wall, and looking over it with great care, at different spots, I can frequently kill several brace of ducks and widgeon in an evening; though, without a clever retriever, the winged birds must invariably escape. Guided by their quacking, I have also often killed wild ducks at springs and running streams in frosty nights. It is perfectly easy to distinguish the birds as they swim about on a calm moonlight night, particularly if you can get the birds between you and the moon. It is a great assistance in night shooting to paste a piece of white paper along your gun-barrel, half-way down from the muzzle. In the stillness of the night the birds are peculiarly alive to sound, and the slightest noise sends them immediately out of shot. Their sense of smelling being also very acute, you must always keep to leeward of them. The mallard duck is more wary than any other kind in these respects, rising immediately with loud cries of warning, and putting all the other birds within hearing on the alert. I have seen the wild swans at night swim with a low cheeping note close by me ; their white colour, however, makes them more difficult to distinguish than any other bird. It is quite easy to shoot ducks flying by moonlight, as long as you can get them between you and the clear sky. Practice, however, is required to enable the shooter to judge of distance at night time.

I have frequently caught and brought home young wild ducks. If confined in a yard, or elsewhere, for a week or two with tame birds, they strike up a companionship which keeps them from wandering when set at liberty. Some few years back I brought home three young wild ducks : two of them turned out to be drakes. I sent away my tame drakes, and, in consequence, the next season had a large family of half-bred and whole wild ducks, as the tame and wild breed together quite freely. The wild ducks which have been caught are the tamest of all; throwing off all their natural shyness, they follow their feeder, and will eat corn out of the hand of any person with whom they are acquainted. The half-bred birds are sometimes pinioned, as they are inclined to fly away for the purpose of making their nests at a distance : at other times they never attempt to leave the field in front of the house. A pair or two always breed in the flower-garden. They appear to have a great penchant for forming their nests in certain flowerbeds, and they are allowed to have their own way in this respect, as their elegant and high-bred appearance interests even the gardener, enemy as he is to all intruders on his favourite flowers.

These birds conceal their eggs with great care, and I have often been amused at the trouble the poor duck is put to in collecting dead leaves and straw to cover her eggs, when they are laid in a well-kept flower-bed. I often have a handful of straw laid on the grass at a convenient distance from the nest, which the old bird soon carries off, and makes use of. The drakes, though they take no portion of the nesting labours, appear to keep a careful watch near at hand during the time the duck is sitting. The half-bred birds have a peculiarity in common with the wild duck—which is, that they always pair, each drake taking charge of only one duck—not, as is the case with the tame ducks, taking to himself half-a-dozen wives. The young, too, when first hatched, have a great deal of the shyness of wild ducks, showing itself in a propensity to run off and hide in any hole or corner that is at hand. When in full plumage my drakes also have the beautifully mottled feathers above the wing which are so much used in fly-dressing. With regard to the larder, the half-wild ducks are an improvement on both the tame and wild, being superior to either in delicacy and flavour. Their active and neat appearance, too, make them a much more ornamental object (as they walk about in search of worms on the lawn or field) than a waddling, corpulent barn-yard duck.

There is a very pretty and elegant little duck, which is common on our coast—the long-tailed duck, Anas glacialis. Its movements and actions are peculiarly graceful and amusing, while its musical cry is quite unlike that of any other bird, unless a slight resemblance to the trumpeting of the wild swan may be traced in it. Lying concealed on the shore, I have often watched these birds as they swim along in small companies within twenty yards of me; the drake, with his gay plumage, playing quaint antics round the more sad-coloured female—sometimes jerking himself half out of the water, at others diving under her, and coming up on the other side. Sometimes, by a common impulse, they all set off swimming in a circle after each other with great rapidity, and uttering their curious cry, which is peculiarly wild and pleasing. When feeding, these birds dive constantly, remaining under water for a considerable time. Turning up their tails, they dip under with a curious kind of motion, one after the other, till the whole flock is under water. They are not nearly so wild or shy as many other kinds of wild-fowl, and are easily shot, though if only winged it is almost impossible to catch them, even with the best retriever, so. quickly do they dive. They swim in with the flowing tide, frequently following the course of the water to some little distance from the mouth of the river. When I see them in the heavy surf on the main shore, they seem quite at their ease, floating high in the water, and diving into the midst of the wildest waves. When put up, they seldom fly far, keeping low, and suddenly dropping into the water again, where they seem more at their ease than in the air. When I have shot one of these birds, its mate (whether the duck or the drake is the survivor) returns frequently to the spot, flying round and round, and uttering a plaintive call.

On the open part of the coast they are often seen in company with the velvet duck. The latter very seldom comes into the bay, but keeps without the bar, quite regardless of storm or wind. It is a fine handsome bird, though of a rather heavy make. When flying, they have very much the appearance of a black-cock, having the same white mark on the wing, and being black in all other parts of their plumage. It is not difficult to approach these birds in a boat, but as they are not fit to eat, they are not much sought after. They are excellent divers, and must be shot dead, or they generally escape.

The golden-eye, Anas clangula, and the morillon, are common about the mouth of the river and burns. I have often heard it argued that these two birds are merely the same species in different degrees of maturity; but I do not consider that there is the least doubt as to their being quite distinct. I have frequently shot what I suppose to be the young golden-eye not arrived at its full plumage ; but in these the white spot at the corner of the mouth is more or less visible. The birds are larger than the morillon, besides which the golden-eye, in whatever stage of maturity it is found, always makes that peculiar noise with its wings, when flying, which is not heard in the flight of the morillon, or of any other kind of duck. I remember too, once watching a pair of morillons in a Highland loch, late in the spring ; they had evidently paired, and were come to the age of maturity, and ready for breeding.

The golden-eye dives well, remaining a considerable time under water seeking its food, which consists of the small shellfish which it finds at the bottom. The morillon frequents the same places as the golden-eye, but always remains singly or in pairs, whereas the latter birds frequently unite in small flocks, paiticularly when they take to the inland lochs, which they do at the commencement of the spring. The golden-eye is frequently very fat and heavy, but is of a rank, coarse flavour.

The goosander and merganser fish constantly in the river: they remain late in the spring and return early in the autumn. Quick-sighted, they perceive an enemy at a great distance, and keep a watch on all his movements. As long as he remains in full view and at a safe distance the birds do not move; but the moment the sportsman conceals himself, or approaches too near, they rise and go out to sea. They are easily killed by sending a person above them, and concealing oneself some way down the course of the stream, as when put up, although they may at first fly a short way up the water, they invariably turn downwards and repair to the open sea, following the windings of the river during their whole flight. If winged, they instantly dive, and rise at a considerable distance, keeping only their heads above the water, and making for the sea as fast as they can.

They feed on small trout and eels, which they fish for at the tails of the streams or in comparatively shallow water, unlike the cormorant, who, feeding on good-sized fish, is always seen diving in the large deep pools, where they are more likely to find trout big enough to satisfy their voracious appetite. The throat of the cormorant stretches to a very great extent, and their mouth opens wide enough to swallow a good-sized sea-trout. I saw a cormorant a few days ago engaged with a large white trout which he had caught in a quiet pool, and which he seemed to have some difficulty in swallowing. The bird was swimming with the fish across his bill, and endeavouring to get it in the right position, that is, with the head downwards. At last, by a dexterous jerk, he contrived to toss the trout up, and, catching it in his open mouth, managed to gulp it down, though apparently the fish was very much larger in circumference than the throat of the bird. The expanding power of a heron's throat is also wonderfully great, and I have seen it severely tested when the bird was engaged in swallowing a flounder something wider than my hand. As the flounder went down, the bird's throat was stretched out into a fan-like shape, as he strained, apparently half-choked, to swallow it. These fish-eating birds having no crop, all they gulp down, however large it may be, goes at once into their stomach, where it is quickly digested. Like the heron, the cormorant swallows young water-fowl, rats, or anything that comes in its way.

There is a peculiarity in the bills of most birds which live on worms or fish : they are all more or less provided with a kind of teeth, which, sloping inwards, admit easily of the ingress of their prey, but make it impossible for anything to escape after it has once entered. In the goosander and merganser this is particularly conspicuous, as their teeth are so placed that they hold their slippery prey with the greatest facility. The common wild duck has it also, though the teeth are not nearly so projecting or sharp feeding as it does on worms and insects, it does not require to be so strongly armed in this respect as those birds that live on fish.

I wonder that it has never occurred to any one in this country to follow the example of the Chinese in teaching the cormorant to fish. The bold and voracious disposition of this bird makes it easy enough to tame, and many of our lochs and river-mouths would be well adapted for a trial of its abilities in fishing; and it would be an amusing variety in sporting to watch the bird as he dived and pursued the fish in clear water. We might take a hint from our brethren of the Celestial Empire with some advantage in this respect.

A curious anecdote of a brood of young wild ducks was told me by my keeper to-day. He found in some very rough, marshy ground, which was formerly a peat-moss, eight young ducks nearly full-grown, prisoners, as it were, in one of the old peat-holes. They had evidently tumbled in some time before, and had managed to subsist on the insects, etc., that it contained or that fell into it. From the manner in which they had undermined the banks of their watery prison, the birds must have been in it for some weeks. The sides were perpendicular, but there were small resting-places under the bank which prevented their being drowned. The size of the place they were in was about eight feet square, and in this small space they had not only grown up, but thrived, being fully as large and heavy as any other young ducks of the same age.

In shooting water-fowl, I have often been struck by the fact that as soon as ever life is extinct in a bird which falls in the sea or river, the plumage begins to get wet and to be penetrated by the water, although as long as the bird lives it remains dry and the wet runs off it. I can only account for this by supposing that the bird, as long as life remains, keeps his feathers in a position throw off and prevent the water from entering between them. This power is of course lost to the dead bird, and the water penetrating through the outer part of the feathers wets them all. This appears to be more likely than that the feathers should be only kept dry by the oil supplied by the bird, as the effect of this oil could not be so instantaneously lost as to admit of wet as soon as the bird drops dead, while if the bird be only wounded they remain dry.

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