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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XXXV – Zoology

Now for a little laughter in the fields with the butterfly and wagtail. And to sit under a tree and listen to the brief yet rollicking canticle of the blackbird’s tenor, the mellifluous and elaborate treble of the thrush, the round harmonising warble of the chaffinch, and to view, amidst odours of uncloying freshness, the bright scenes of nature, excites feelings of the purest pleasure. Civilization, and the downfall of the Caledonian forest, no doubt cleared the county of many of its wilder classes of animals, such as the wolf, the wild boar, and various birds of prey; still a zoological hunt, even now, in certain parts of the shire, is neither tame, nor without interest and profit.

The eagle (Aquilla) is seen at times on Ben-lomond. Lately, a very fine specimen was caught there in a trap. The ptarmigan, or white grouse (Lagopus mutus), is also found on the mountain. But grouse are common over the whole of the bleak upland moors of Buchanan; while roes and black game seem to multiply with the increasing shelter of wood. Pheasants were introduced by the late Duke of Montrose, and have spread throughout the whole extent of Strath-Endrick. The common squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) so completely formed for an arborial life, and so engaging with its long, beautiful, and spreading tail, is a voluntary resident in the plantations, and finds no scarcity of its favourite food in nuts, acorns, and beech-mast.

In Strathblane parish, game of all the ordinary sorts is very plentiful. A few of the common roes are likewise met with. Here, too, we have seen the polecat, or foumart (Mustela putorius), one of the most remarkable European species of the weasel tribe, which preys indiscriminately on the smaller animals. The specimen was about 17 inches in length, exclusive of the tail which measured 6 inches. Its color was a deep-blackish brown, with a tawny cast slightly intermixed. That aquatic quadruped the otter (Lutra vulgaris), which feeds almost entirely on fish, is no stranger in the waters of the district. Its general length is about 2 feet, from the nose to the insertion of the tail. With a body elongated and much flattened, and legs short and strong, it swims and dives with great ease, and peculiar elegance. Along with the ring-tailed kite, goshawk, raven, hooded crow, jay, and owl, there is also the buzzard (Falco buteo). This bird is supposed to be the most common in Britain of all the hawk tribe. It has a thick heavy body about 22 inches in length; while the full expansion of its wings measure near 50. The bird is its dainty; but, sluggish and inactive, it condescends to feed on mice and even frogs.

Roe-deer breed in great numbers in the glen of Boquhan. They also frequent the glen of Leckie. In the woods are seen foxes, badgers, and weasels, with the usual game on which they prey. The badger (Meles vulgaris) is a carnivorous animal – solitary and stupid, that seeks refuge in the most sequestered spots, and shuns sun-light. It has very short legs, and a broad flat body. Besides the common species of small birds in the parish of Gargunnock, there are pheasants, magpies, woodcocks, snipes, wild ducks, herons, and hawks. The heron (Ardea), for time immemorial, built its nest on a row of Scotch firs near the mansion of Meiklewood; but, after a modern house was erected, it took its departure. The hawks build their nests on the almost inaccessible cliffs of Ballochleam.

A century ago, the golden eagle bred regularly in Campsie; so did the gentil, or gentile, falcon (Falco gentiles). This bird is somewhat larger than a goshawk, and of elegant form. The bill is of a lead colour, the cere and legs yellow, and the head of a light ferruginous shade, with oblong black spots. The back is brown, and the whole of the under parts are whitish, with brown spots and dashes. Badgers are still found here occasionally; while foxes are very numerous. Otters and foumarts are still to be seen. A martin-cat was taken in the Finglen some years ago. The goshawk, buzzard, and kite are common in the district. Eagles, however, are no longer observed; neither is the red-legged crow, nor the hen-harrier. Roe-deer and red-deer are now permanent residents. Squirrels are abundant. The jack-daw (Corvus monedula) first made its appearance about 1808. Pheasants were introduced some years later. The misletoe thrush, the beautiful kingfisher and the water-ouzel now breed regularly. The dabchick, the baldcoot, the little golden-crested wren, the red-start, and the golden-eyed diver have also appeared of late. In December, 1838, Mr. Stirling of Craigbarnet shot two cross-bills, the first that had been seen in this quarter. They were very beautiful birds, and are preserved in a fine general collection of ornithological specimens. So far good. But why not have given the interesting little strangers a chance of living and breeding in the district they had so pluckily visited?

With other game in the lower parts of Fintry parish, there is a plentiful supply of pheasants. The roe-deer is not unfrequently to be seen bounding through the woods; while the moors are well stocked with heathfowl. The rocks give shelter to the mountain raven, the hawk, and other smaller birds of prey. Here the fox has also secured a snug retreat. Foumarts, and other vermin of a like nature, are not uncommon; and the harmless and graceful little squirrel has long had residence in the local woods.

The Ochils abound in rabbits, and game of the ordinary kinds is abundant. Foxes are not numerous. A good many grouse are to be found on the uplands, and a few pheasants in the low grounds and plantations. Squirrels number thousands in the woods of Airthrie. Hawks of various sorts are to be met with, and the blue hunting falcon occasionally makes his nest on Dunmyat. Deer are few, and are only to be seen on the hills. The rarest animal found in Alva parish is the Falco peregrinus. For ages, this bird has had its residence on a very high perpendicular rock, called Craigleith, projecting from the brow of the Westhill of Alva. Only one pair, it is affirmed by the villagers, build in the front of this precipice. These hatch annually; and when the progeny are of proper age, the parents compel them to seek another habitation – death alone obliging the old or original pair to resign their ancestral quarters, which fall to their next survivors. In ancient times, when "lords and ladies gay" were fond of the sport of falconry, a bird of this species was deemed valuable. From Craigleith, Queen Mary got falcons after her arrival from France; and gentlemen, in several parts of England, have repeatedly sent for these birds, to tame them, from the nest, for hunting. Eagles are now rarely seen among the Ochils.

Otters are plentiful on the water which flows from the old coal workings of Bannockburn and Auchenbowie; but, when they have reached the excavations, they are safe. Squirrels are also common in St. Ninians parish. Roe are numerous in the woods of Plean, Auchenbowie, and Sauchie. Black grouse and other heath fowl are found in the moorland districts. Ducks frequent the smaller lochs, and the wild goose is sometimes to be seen on Loch Coulter.

Badgers, not many years ago, lodged in Dunimore woods; but they have entirely disappeared through an assault which was made upon them one night, by mischievous persons, with dogs. Hares and rabbits, however, are about as abundant as the leaves of Vallambrosa; and pheasants are likewise in great numbers in the deep plantations.

The close population of the eastern part of the county has left little there to be noted zoologically. Still, otters continue to be got, now and again, on the Carron; and are frequently so tamed that they follow the human footstep with even canine sagacity. On the Callendar estate, there is a large stock of game of every ordinary description; while the fox is by no means uncommon between this point and the western portion of Linlithgowshire.

Little need be said here of the smaller birds, which are common all over the lowlands. Their appearance and habits are fully known by the youngest schoolboy, and that from the pawky robin, the piping lark, or the humble sparrow, to the woodland blackbird and thrush. Of late years, the starling has become very numerous through the shire; and has been blamed, not without reason, for playing havoc with the lark. Nothwithstanding its capabilities of vocal imitation, both in song and speech, it is not a bird that repays the trouble of such teaching; for, domesticated, it seldom reaches its third year, and the same may be said of about the whole of the soft-feeding species. The rock, or heather, linnet is indeed the only one of our sweet outdoor songsters that takes kindly to the cage for a lengthened life. The bullfinch is another pretty warbler, with its jet black cap and crimson breast. It wants trigness, however, for beauty of form; but some of its notes are very rich and melodious. It is by no means a bird common in the county, although a number are to be found in Torwood glen, and other similarly secluded parts. Of the migratory class, we have only to mention the swift-winged swallow and the shy cuckoo. Feathered stranger was perhaps never more honoured by poet’s song than the latter bird of "modest brown." In spite of its trick of leaving the hatching and rearing of its young to native birds – dropping its eggs into a stolen nest – it is ever warmly welcomed as the harbinger of spring.

"Last night a vision was dispelled
Which I can never dream again;
A wonder from the earth has gone,
A passion from my brain.
I saw upon a budding ash
A cuckoo, and she blithely sung
To all the valleys round about,
While on a branch she swung.

And twice today I heard the cry,
The hollow cry of melting love,
And twice a tear bedimmed my eye –
I saw the singer in the grove,
I saw him pipe his eager tone,
Like any other common bird;
And, as I live, the sovereign cry
Was not the one I always heard."

The wanton lapwing was almost overlooked. In the quiet of a summer evening, few sounds are more stillness-striking than the shrill notes of this scheming trumpeter, as, with low and circling flight, it would decoy the intruder from off the field of its guardianship.

As we write these lines in city pent, a blackbird caged on a neighbouring window-sill pipes bravely, as if it would strain its little throat, recalling many a similar, but not sweeter, song, to which we have listened enraptured, in leafiest woodland. In another box cage, too, a merry mavis hops and sings day after day, just as happily and contented as if it were perched in some shrubbery garden, miles removed from the dirt, dust, and disorder of a great city.

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