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


Crossbills: Habits of; Nest — Snowy Owl — Great-eared Owl — Hoopoe — Shrike — Tawny and Snow Buntings — Lizards — Singular Pets — Toads: Utility of; Combats of — Adders — Dog and Snakes —Large Snake — Blind-Worm.

WHILST walking through the extensive fir and larch woods in this neighbourhood, I am often much amused by the proceedings of those curious little birds the crossbills. They pass incessantly from tree to tree with a jerking quick flight in search of their food, which consists of the seeds of the fir and larch. They extract these from the cones with the greatest skill and rapidity, holding the cone in one foot, and cutting it up quickly and thoroughly with their powerful beak, which they use much after the manner of a pair of scissors. When the flock has stripped one tree of all the sound cones, they simultaneously take wing, uttering at the same time a sharp harsh chattering cry. Sometimes they fly off to a considerable height, and after wheeling about for a short time, suddenly alight again on some prolific-looking tree, over which they disperse immediately, hanging and swinging about the branches and twigs, cutting off the cones, a great many of which they fling to the ground, often with a kind of impatient jerk. These cones, I conclude, are without any ripe seed. They continue uttering a constant chirping while in search of their food on the branches. I have never succeeded in finding the nest of the crossbill, though I am confident that they breed in this country, having seen the birds during every month of the year, so that either some barren ones must remain, or they hatch their young here. The nest has been described to me as placed at a considerable height from the ground, at the junction of some large branch with the main stem.

The crossbill itself is a busy, singular-looking little fellow, as he flits to and fro, or climbs, parrot-like, up and down the branches; and the cock, with his red plumage shining in the sun, has more the appearance of some Eastern or tropical bird than any other of our sober northern finches. When engaged in feeding, these birds are often so intent on their occupation that they will allow a horsehair snare, attached to the end of a long twig, to be slipped round their necks before they fly away. In captivity they are very tame, but restless, and are constantly tearing with their strong mandibles at the woodwork and wires of their cage.

Altogether the crossbill is a gay, lively bird, and, I hope, likely to increase and become a regular inhabitant of this country, as the numerous plantations of fir and larch which are daily being laid out afford them plenty of their favourite and natural food.

The eastern coast of Scotland, owing to its proximity -to Sweden and Norway, and also to the great prevalence of easterly winds, is often visited by foreign birds. Amongst these is that splendid stranger the snowy owl, who occasionally is blown over to our coast from his native fastnesses amongst the mountains and forests of the north of Europe. Now and then one of these birds is killed here, and I was told of one having been seen two or three years back on part of the ground rented by me. He was sitting on a high piece of muirland, and at a distance looked, said my informant, " like a milestone." This bird was pursued for some hours, but was not killed. The snowy owl has been also seen, to the astonishment of the fisherman or bent-puller, on the sand-hills, where he finds plenty of food amongst 'the rabbits that abound there. One was winged in that district a few years ago, and lived for some time in confinement. He was a particularly fine old bird, with perfect plumage, and of a great size. I am much inclined to think that the great-eared owl, Strix bubo, is also occasionally a visitor to the wildest parts of this district. A man described to me a large bird, which he called an eagle. The bird was sitting on a fir-tree, and his attention was called to it by the gray crows uttering their cries of alarm and war. He went up to the tree, and close above his head sat a great bird, with large staring yellow eyes, as bright (so he expressed it) as two brass buttons. The man stooped to pick up a stone or stick, and the bird dashed off the tree into the recesses of the wood, and was not seen again. I have no doubt that, instead of an eagle, as he supposed it to be, it was the great Strix bubo. The colour of its eyes, the situation the bird was in on the branch of a tall fir-tree, and its remaining quiet until the man approached so close to it, all con- vince me that it must have been the great owl, whose loud mid- night hootings disturb the solitude of the German forests, giving additional weight to the legends and superstitions of the peasants of that country, inclined as they are to belief in supernatural sounds and apparitions.

The hoopoe has been killed in the east of Sutherlandshire, on the bent-hills near Dornock, and so also has the rose-coloured ousel. These birds must have been driven over by the east winds, as neither of them are inhabitants of Britain. Indeed, many a rare and foreign bird may visit the uninhabited and desert tracts of bent and sand along the east coast without being observed, excepting quite by chance; and the probability is, that nine persons out of ten who might see a strange bird would take no notice of it.

Last winter I saw a great ash-coloured shrike or butcher-bird in my orchard. The gardener told me that he had seen it for some hours in pursuit of the small birds, and I found lying about the walls two or three chaffinches, which had been killed and partly eaten, in a style unlike the performance of any bird of prey that I am acquainted with; so much so, indeed, that before I saw the butcher-bird, my attention was called to their dead bodies by the curious manner in which they seemed to have been pulled to pieces. Having watched the bird for a short time as he sat perched on an apple-tree very near me, I went in for my gun, but did not see him again.

The tawny bunting and the snow-bunting visit us in large flocks, especially the latter, which birds remain here during the whole winter, appearing in greater or lesser flocks according to the temperature. In severe weather the fields near the sea-shore, and the shore itself, are sometimes nearly covered by them. When the snow-buntings first arrive, in October and November, they are of a much darker colour than they are afterwards as the winter advances. If there is much snow, they put on a white plumage immediately. I do not know how this change of colour is effected, but it is very visible, and appears to depend entirely on the severity of the season. They feed a great deal on the shore. When flying they keep in close rank, but as soon as they alight the whole company instantly disperse, and run (not jump, like many small birds) quickly about in search of their food, which consists principally of small insects and minute seeds.

They often pitch to look for these on the barest parts of the sand-hills, the dry sands always producing a number of small flies and beetles. So fine and dry is the sand which composes the hillocks and plains of that curious district, that every beetle and fly that walks or crawls over its surface in calm and dry weather leaves its track as distinctly marked on the finely pulverised particles, as the rabbit or hare does on snow.

The footprints of the lizards, which abound there, are very neatly and distinctly marked, till the first breath of wind drifting the sand erases the impressions. One of my children brought home a large lizard one day, and put it into a box, intending to keep it as a pet, boys having strange tastes in the animals which they select as favourites. I remember that when I was a boy at school, I was the owner of three living pets—a rat, a bat, and a snake, all of which lived and flourished for some months under my tender care, notwithstanding the occasional edicts sent forth from head-quarters against any living animal whatever being kept in the school-room. But to return to the lizard in the box. The next morning, to the children's great delight, the lizard had become much reduced in circumference, but had produced four young ones, who were apparently in full and vigorous enjoyment of life. They were voted, at a consultation of the children, to be entitled to, and worthy of liberty, and were all (mother and children) carefully put into the garden, in a sunny corner under the wall. For my own part, I can see nothing more disgusting in animals usually called reptiles, such as lizards and toads, than in any other living creatures.

A toad is a most useful member of society, and deserves the freedom of all floricultural societies, as well as entire immunity from all the pains and penalties which he undergoes at the hands of the ignorant and vulgar. In hotbeds and hothouses he is extremely useful, and many gardeners take great care of toads in these places, where they do good service by destroying beetles and other insects. In the flower-beds too they are of similar use. Of quiet and domestic habits, the toad seldom seems to wander far from his seat or form under a loose stone, or at the foot of a fruit-tree or box-edging. There are several habitues of this species in my garden, whom I always see in their respective places during the middle of the day. In the evening they issue out in search of their prey. I found a toad one day caught by the leg in a horsehair snare which had been placed for birds. The animal, notwithstanding the usual placid and phlegmatic demeanour of its race, seemed to be in a perfect fury, struggling and scratching at everything within his reach, apparently much more in anger than fear. Like many other individuals of quiet exterior, toads are liable to great fits of passion and anger, as is seen in the pools during April, when five or six will contend for the good graces of their sultanas with a fury and pertinacity that is quite wonderful, fighting and struggling for hours together. And where a road intervenes between two ditches, I have seen the battle carried on even in the dry dust, till the rival toads, in spite of their natural aquatic propensities, became perfectly dry and covered with sand, and in this powdered state will they continue fighting, regardless of the heat, which shrivels up their skin, or of passers by, who may tread on them and maim them, but cannot stop their fighting. There is more character and energy in a toad than is supposed. After the young ones have acquired their perfect shape, they appear to leave the water, and frequently the roads and paths are so covered with minute but well-formed toadlings, that it is impossible to put your foot down without crushing some of them.

In some of the drier banks and hills in this country, there are numerous adders; like most other snakes, however, they never willingly fly at people, only biting when trod upon or taken hold of. I have had my dogs occasionally, but rarely, bitten by adders. The swelling is very severe, and only reduced after several hours' rubbing with oil and laudanum. A retriever of mine, having been bit by an adder, conceived the most deadly hatred against them ever after, and killed a great number of them without being again bit; his method was to snap quickly at the adder, biting it in two almost instantaneously, and before the reptile could retaliate. A favourite amusement of this dog, when he was in Sussex with me some time afterwards, used to be hunting the hedgerows for snakes and adders. He made a most marked distinction between the two, killing the former quietly and without hurry, but whenever he found an adder, he darted on it with a perfect frenzy of rage, at the same time always managing to escape the fangs of the venomous reptile, quickly as it can use them. The poisonous teeth of the adder greatly resemble the talons of a cat in shape, and can be raised or laid fiat on the jaw according to the wish of their owner; indeed, the fangs of the adder, which are hollow throughout, are only raised when he is angry, and in self-defence. The common snake, which is quite harmless, has no such teeth. There are stories among the peasants, of adders being seen in Darnaway Forest, of great size and length, measuring five or six feet, but I do not believe that there are any larger than the usual size.

I have never seen the Anguis fragilis, or blind-worm, as it is called, but once in this country, though I am told it is not uncommon; a man brought me one last year which he had found floating down the river after a flood, as if swept off some rock by the sudden rise of the water. I mentioned the circumstance to some of my acquaintance, but could find no one who had either seen or heard of such a creature in this country. This one was alive when brought to me, but had received a cut which nearly divided its body in two, so that it did not long survive.

Amongst the rare feathered visitors to these woods, I forgot to mention the spotted woodpecker, Picas medius, which bird I killed in Inverness-shire; I was attracted to the spot, where he was clinging to the topmost shoot of a larch-tree, by hearing his strange harsh cry.


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