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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLIX

The Hedgehog an Egg and Bird Eater?—Bird-catching—"Old Cowie"—Mackenzie— Lanius Excubitor—The Butcher-Bird or Shrike—Tea drinking and Sobriety.

Audi alteram, partem is a sensible maxim, so reasonable in itself, and mild and deprecatory of tone, that it rarely fails to commend itself to our sense of right and candour; for if we would arrive at a right conclusion on any matter in dispute, we must learn to listen without prejudice to both sides of a question. We can only hold our own convictions wisely and well, by knowing all that can be said in antagonism and per contra. The following letter from a correspondent in London, who writes under the pseudonym of "Observer," tells rather in favour of those who entertain grave suspicions as to the morality and harmlessness of our prickly friend the hedgehog, and, of course, against Mr. Frank Buckland and ourselves. We are honest enough, however, to give "Observer's" communication in full, meanwhile merely remarking that, obliged as we are to our correspondent for his attention, and really interesting note, we are by no means convinced that the hedgehog is either oviphagous or a bird-killer and bird-eater. At this date [February 1876], and with all our knowledge of the animal, we fear that nothing less than the catching of him in the very act would convince us, any number of uncompromising and hard-hearted gamekeepers, with "Observer" to back them, to the contrary notwithstanding.

While perusing your interesting article on the hedgehog, some slight personal experiences of this animal recurred to my mind, and I therefore thought it might be as well to communicate them to you, to show that, according to my limited experience, the hedgehog is not quite such a harmless and innocent creature as you endeavour to make him, and further, that your practical experiments with the hungry animals and the eggs are not sufficiently satisfactory to establish and set at rest once and for ever the hedgehog's innocency. To be brief: two or three summers ago, while living in the Highlands of Scotland, and within one hundred and fifty miles of the Highland capital, about ten o'clock on a beautiful Sunday evening in the month of June, and shortly after a most genial shower of rain had fallen to refreshen the young crops, my attention was attracted by the most alarming and violent cackling of a hen that had just begun to incubate on two or three addled eggs, or ' nest eggs' as they are called. "Wondering what would be the cause of this noisy demonstration on the part of the hen, and thinking that probably a thief might be at hand, I at once repaired to where the hen was. I could see no one about, but there the hen was, as noisy as ever, looking towards her nest, advancing apparently to charge some unseen enemy, and then suddenly making a retrograde movement in the most frantic manner, without attacking her enemy. On stooping down and peeping into the corner where the nest was (for by this time it was almost dark), I observed a round dark object in comfortable possession of the nest; this was a hedgehog. If I remember well, one of the eggs was broken, and there was very little of the contents left. This, I am almost sure, was the case, though I would hardly go so far as to swear to it at this distance of time. Probably in these circumstances you will say, ' Then, if you can't actually swear to it, your information deserves no attention.' However, bear with me a little longer. On another occasion, on a similar fine evening, about the same hour, and about four weeks after the above, I heard another hen, which, with a brood of some eight or ten fine young chickens, had taken up its night quarters quite near the scene of the first row, making a like noise. Thinking a cat might he about, and therefore must be the enemy now, I went up to see what was doing. There the hen was, standing a short distance from the nest, with only two chickens by her side; the others could not be seen. On going nearer the nest, there was another hedgehog in quiet possession. Below him in the nest were one or two dead chickens; their little heads were crushed quite flat and wet, as if some animal had been trying to chew the heads. Outside the nest were two more dead chickens, their heads being in the same flat and wet condition. The chickens were about a week old, and, so far as I can recollect, there was no other disfigurement. In the morning two more live chickens turned up, and the poor hen had to be content with a reduced brood of four or five instead of eight or ten. The hedgehog had been sentenced to a violent death, but, fortunately for himself, made his escape while search was being made for any of the surviving chickens. During the next summer a duck had laid a number of eggs—more than a dozen—in a quiet secluded spot at the root of a birch tree, and which were not discovered by human eye until they were rather far on in a state of incubation to be fit for use; so the duck was allowed to keep her eggs in order to hatch them. One night, about 11 or 11.30 p.m., some of the inmates of the house were disturbed by the duck coming to one of the doors, making a great noise, and would not leave. So, to save further annoyance, the servant rose and locked up poor duck with the other ducks. In the morning the prisoner was released, and allowed to go to resume possession of the nest, which, on examination, was found undisturbed, except that two or three of the eggs were amissing; but this was thought nothing of, and allowed to pass unnoticed. However, a few nights after this occurrence, the duck repeated her visit to the house, was in a greatly disturbed state, and would on no account whatever be pacified; so, as the night was dark, a light was procured, and the writer, along with a friend, went to the nest, and found a hedgehog sitting on the eggs. Some of them were broken, and the nest in a great mess. Outside there was an empty shell, and a large round hole in it. On this occasion the hedgehog had to pay the extreme penalty. Mentioning these things to the people about, the writer was informed that it was understood generally that hedgehogs destroyed eggs, but it had never been known to them that they attacked young chickens. However, they had never given the matter any attention. Perhaps these facts I have related may be of some use to you in making further inquiries about the hedgehog. At any rate, you may rely on the truth of my statements, as they are no hearsay stories, but facts that took place before my own eyes. Query—Granted that the hedgehog does not eat eggs, then what was he doing in possession of these three different nests 1 How were the eggs broken 1 What animal killed the chickens, if it was not the hedgehog 1 Perhaps a weasel would have done it, but in that case, would the weasel not have inflicted some serious wound about the throat, and which would have left some bloody marks?"

Of some half-dozen bird-catchers, or bird-fanciers, as they prefer calling themselves, that visit the West Highlands professionally from time to time, our favourite is Mackenzie, a north countryman, we believe, as one indeed might readily guess from his surname, and well enough known, we daresay, in and about Inverness, where during our last visit we noticed with pleasure—for it is a good sign of a people—that birds in cages were exceedingly common. "Old Cowie," another of the fraternity, is a respectable man, with more knowledge, perhaps, of things in general than any of his brethren that have chanced to come our way; but for a knowledge of our native wild-birds, their favourite haunts, food, song, and individual habits—idiosyncrasies—for a knowledge, we say, precise and accurate to the most astonishing degree on all those matters, you may trust Mackenzie, for lie is far and away at the head of his class, positively unrivalled by any one else that we ever met with. Of the ornithology of books, of ornithology as a science, with its systems, classifications, genera, and species, he knows nothing, of course, but he knows every bird you can refer to under some favourite provincial cognomen, and he knows it so thoroughly that no one could possibly know it better. It is true that he knows little or nothing but birds, but he knows them so well (the birds of Scotland), so intimately, from constant intercourse with them in their native haunts and homes, that a "crack" with him about them, when once you get him fairly started, is no ordinary treat to any one so interested in all that concerns our wild-birds as we are, and have been for well-nigh a quarter of a century. Remembering that bird-catching is a sort of profession or trade, by which a livelihood, however precarious, is encompassed, an affair of demand and supply, with the usual prosaic result of pounds, shillings, and pence—or rather of shillings and pence without the pounds, these last seldom tickling the palms or troubling the purses of the order—one would expect to find the bird-catcher a dull, mechanical rogue, a mere bird-trapper and bird-seller in the dearest market, with no more of poetry or sentiment about him than about a white-aproned poulterer. This, however, is far from being the case, at least not always nor even frequently, for Mackenzie, "Old Cowie," and others that we could name, really and truly love birds for their own sakes, without a thought frequently of their market value, and you can gather as you converse with them from their frequent references to the delights as well as the desagrements of their profession, that they are by no means either unconscious of or indifferent to the poetry of birds and bird life in their native haunts, whether on moor or mountain side, by solitary tarn or stream, in copse and wlldwood, amid the wildernesses of inland mountains or by the margin of the sea. We never knew any one so correctly and minutely conversant with the language of birds as Mackenzie is. By the language of birds, we do not mean their song, for song is no more the ordinary speech of birds, though most people think it is, than it is the ordinary speech of men. Mackenzie, it is true, can imitate the songs of our different species of warblers with great taste and exactness, but when we say that he is conversant with the language of birds, we mean not their song, but their little notes, abrupt chirpings, and faint whisperings, indicative to the initiated of the particular thought or motif at the moment predominant in the feathered breast, whether love or terror, or mere apprehension of danger, or envy, or rivalry, or combativeness, or notes of warning, or call of invitation to its kind—all these, and for every separate species, Mackenzie imitates with such consummate skill, exactness, and dexterity, that he not only deceives an ordinary listener when off his guard—he has more than once deceived us, though familiar with birds and bird-notes all our life —but he deceives the very birds themselves, as we have often witnessed with no little admiration and delight. That much of this imitatory work is done ventriloquistically renders it all the more effective, as well as more difficult of attainment by others of the fraternity ambitious of catching and cultivating on their own behalf so desirable a gift. This knowledge of bird language is, of course, of great value to him as a bird-catcher, and accounts for his success at seasons seemingly the most inopportune, and in localities the most unlikely, that an ordinary bird-catcher would probably search in vain for a single specimen of goldfinch or aberdevine, linnet or redpole, or anything else in the shape of a valuable song-bird. In passing and repassing our place, this wonderful bird-man, as our servant girl styles him, always calls with such bird news and rare specimens as he thinks most likely to interest us. The other day he came in a state of great excitement to inform us that just as he had got several siokins on his limed twigs, a bird—not a hawk of any kind, he was certain—dashed out of a copse at hand, pounced upon one of the siskins, and bore it off and away before his very eyes, ere he could do anything—so sudden and unexpected was the attack—to prevent it! Momentary as was his glimpse of it, however, Mackenzie's quick and practised eye enabled him to take in the marauder's predominant colouring, its shape and size, and mode of flight; and on describing these to us, we at once exclaimed, a butcher-bird—a shrike/ The description could apply to no other British bird-killer that we could think of; and that we were right we have no more doubt than if we had the culprit already in our cabinet. Mackenzie was in a rage. "You are right, sir; it must have been a butcher-bird, for now I recollect having once seen a specimen in Ayrshire. I'm bound, however, to lay salt on yon chap's tail before I am done with him; and you, sir, shall have him, dead or living. I swear it by all my illustrious ancestors, the Mackenzies of Kintail!" he exclaimed, with a melodramatic air that was very amusing; and shouldering his cages and other paraphernalia of his craft, he departed with a touch of his cap and a bow that showed that amongst birds he had learned good manners and politeness to an extent that as a navy or hired labourer he would probably be all his lifetime very much a stranger. He has not returned to us as yet, so we suppose he is still in pursuit, detective-wise, of the shrike; and it had better look out, for Mackenzie is just the man to succeed sooner or later in laying salt upon its tail, as threatened. The butcher-bird, or shrike, is the Lanius excubitor of Linnaeus, an exceeding rare bird in the West Highlands—in Scotland, indeed—so rare that we never saw a living bird of the order, only stuffed or otherwise preserved cabinet specimens. It preys on small birds, mice, insects, &c., which it does not tear up from under its feet like the hawk tribe, but fixes it on a thorn-prickle, or in the fork of a small branch, and then tears it to pieces with its bill, which is very strong, and toothed and hooked at the point. When Mackenzie catches the offender he is now in search of, we shall have something more to say about the butcher-hird, if butcher-bird it proves to be.

We have noticed, by the way, that all bird-catchers—all at least with whom we have had any acquaintance—are prodigious tea-drinkers, not sipping the grateful beverage from cups, observe, but literally drinking it in bowls'-full. They have assured us that they find it the best thing they can take, not merely as a refresher, but as a long sustaining element in their dietary throughout their many wanderings by flood and field. And like all large tea-drinkers, bird-catchers are a very sober class of men; that they should be so is indeed a necessity of their craft, for a knock-kneed, shaky-handed, blear-eyed, nerveless bird-catcher would be as unfit for the successful prosecution of the labours incident to his profession, as would a similar physical wreck be for the successful manipulation of his tools in the more minute and delicate departments of mathematical instrument making.

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