S. L. (Samuel Levy) Bensusan.

The Heart of the Wild online

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[Illustration: GOLDEN EAGLE [Photo by C. Reid]]

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Nature Studies from Near and Far



Author of "A Countryside Chronicle," "Wild Life Stories,"
"Morocco," etc.

Illustrated with Actual Wild Life Photographs

London: John Milne

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I have but one regret in offering to you and to some small section of
lovers of wild life this bundle of stories, a regret that for the most
part they end with the violent death of the bird or beast whose
life-story is set out. One of my friendliest and most charming critics,
whom I would not willingly hurt or offend, told me lately that she will
read no more of my stories of bird and beast unless I promise to make
them end happily. I quoted Omar the Tentmaker in extenuation, and
pointed out that if we could shatter the sorry scheme of things and
remould it "nearer to the hearts desire" the lion and the lamb would lie
down side by side and the big game shooter would confine his skill to
the target. Then I added that for the time being the battle is to the
strong, and the explosive bullet and the hammerless ejector are to the
sportsman, but from the depth of a twelve year knowledge of the world
and a deep love of the life that is entrusted to our care, she turned
away declaring in great distress that I am "very horrid". Certainly I
was greatly abashed, even though I could not wish her to read this book.

You, no unworthy son of one who was a mighty hunter before the Lord,
know that these stories are true in substance if not in form, and that
such cruelty as is set out in its proper place is of the kind that man
has dealt in some way or another to the brute creation since the dim
far-off days when first he learned to fashion hatchet and spear and
knife. His excuse has passed, but the old-time savagery lingers. I have
done no more than set down what I have seen, though I have gifted bird
and beast with an intelligence they are not allowed to possess. You at
least will grant that there is some foundation for my lapse from the
grace in which serious naturalists thrive even to the second and third
edition of volumes that become works of reference to those who refuse to
admit imagination to their councils. You have seen much of the strange
camaraderie that exists in the African forest and on the heather-clad
hills of your native land, and you know that the philosophy of the
orthodox professor has not yet fashioned even in dreams all the wonders
of life in the heavens above and on the earth beneath and in the waters
under the earth. I am presumptuous enough to think that those of us who
have camped out under the canopy of the stars in the world's waste
places, and have followed the track for days and nights together, not
without privation, have caught glimpses of an order and union in the
wild life around us that will some day be recognised and investigated by
those who speak and write with more authority than I have even the
ambition to command. I must even confess, with all due humility, that I
am beyond the reach of rebuke for my attitude towards bird and beast so
long as it does not come from those, like yourself, whose experience of
the fauna and avi-fauna of North Africa, Southern Europe and the
Scottish Highlands is greater than my own.


October, 1908.

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It is not easy to explain how the Red Fox and the Golden Eagle came to
be friends. Perhaps there were hours in the months of his extreme
loneliness when the great bird was pleased to unbend, and the fox was
the only living creature that was neither to be eaten nor feared. Then
they were near neighbours. From the rocky ledge upon which the eagle's
eyrie was set you could throw a stone to the fox earth. The Golden
Eagle, king of the air and monarch of all the wild life he surveyed,
could well afford to feel generously disposed to the fox in this wild
highland country, for poor Reynard by no means cut the gallant figure of
his brethren in Leicestershire and other homes of grass land. He went
dejected and lived poorly, liable to be shot on sight, no more than
vermin in the eyes of gamekeepers and foresters.

It was early morning, from his vantage-ground the King of the Air
surveyed his splendid hunting grounds. All round as far as the eye could
see there were hills, the heather that covered their lower sides glowed
faintly in the morning light. The air had a nipping freshness that
dwellers in town cannot imagine. Even the fox appreciated it, though he
had been on the prowl all night. He was preparing to sleep, and only
kept one eye open to watch his patron.

The golden eagle stood erect, his keen eyes piercing the distance from
Ben Hope to Ben Hiel and south to the valleys that ended with Ben Loyal.
It was his territory, bird and beast paid him tribute over all the land
his far-seeing eye could reach, even to the distant sea. Then the joy of
morning and of power came to him. He flapped his wings and screamed, the
sound of his triumph echoed among the hills.

"Good-morning, my lord," said the fox obsequiously.

"Oh, it's you, is it?" replied the eagle with good-natured contempt.
"Don't you wish you could fly on a morning like this?" Once again he
flapped his wings that must have measured six feet from tip to tip, and
the rising light caught the orange-coloured feathers that lay sharp and
pointed along his neck, gilded the yellow cere at the base of bill, and
set the gold iris of his deep-set eyes aflame. Even the fox found his
fear mingled with admiration when he looked from the black claws to the
bill that was straight at base and hooked at the point, a weapon that
could tear life out of any wild thing that lived in the Highlands.

In the sun the deep brown feathers of the eagle's body were turned to
purple, the muscles stood out like whipcord on the yellow legs feathered
to the toes. Those talons, nearly three inches long, could catch and
kill any game bird in the Highlands, from the capercailzie that lives
among the dark woods upon the shoots of the larch and pine, down to the
ptarmigan of the barren hill-tops, or his red cousin of the heather and

"It is so fine that I must enjoy the view before I start," continued the
eagle. "I suppose you supped late?"

"Yes, my lord," replied the fox nervously, "I found a couple of
dead - - "

"Faugh!" interrupted the eagle in great disgust. "Carrion: I can't enjoy
anything that I haven't struck down for myself. Sometimes, when the snow
is on the ground, and I have flown some hundreds of miles in search of a
dinner, I may have to content myself with a stillborn lamb, or even with
frozen birds, but I couldn't make a rule of it, or ever thrive on such

"Do you fly for hundreds of miles literally and truly?" asked the
astonished fox. "Why, if I go over ten miles of ground, in the spring
for example, I expect my vixen to say quite a number of flattering
things; and in the winter, when I'm living solitary, I would never think
of going so far as that unless I were starving."

"My speed is about one hundred miles an hour," said the eagle solemnly,
"and I can increase it for a short distance. And now I'll bid you
good-morning." He gave another wild exultant cry and flung himself into
space. Before the fox could open the other eye, the bird was a speck of
brown without definite shape, rapidly disappearing.

"Well, well," soliloquised the fox, "if I can't fly, I don't have to
travel hundreds of miles to find a meal." So saying, he retired to his

But the Golden Eagle had not far to fly on this occasion. For the first
few moments he soared higher and higher, rejoicing in the vast spaces of
the sky, in the illimitable freedom of life, in the caress of the
morning. Only when the ecstasy had passed did he look below, far below,
where men and beasts live cribbed, cabined and confined to the surface
of mother earth. Below the hill-tops, where the ptarmigan in their
winter garb were invisible even to his keen eyes amid the surrounding
snow, past long ranges of moor where fur and feather lay low amid the
heather in an agony of apprehension, he saw a great blackcock sunning
himself on a rock by the side of a plantation of Scotch firs. The guns
had all gone south, the artful bird had baffled them time and again,
though some of his brothers, and his sister the grey hen, had gone to
bag. Now, careless of danger, the bronze-plumaged bird sat sunning
himself in the sunlight, spreading his handsome white tail feathers and
thinking of the days that were not far away when he would do battle with
his brethren for the grey hens. Around him fur and feather crouched low
and shut eyes; little birds that had come down from the high lying moors
checked their song, a shadow seemed to drop across the wintry sun. Too
late the blackcock looked up, saw his terrible enemy literally dropping
upon him, saw the huge wings and the tail feathers open like a fan to
break the impending fall, was conscious of a sudden blow - and knew no
more. In a moment the Golden Eagle's talons had pierced the blackcock to
the heart, and all that remained on the rock was a handful of bronze
feathers, as the captor rose with a shrill cry of triumph. He made
straight for a bare rock some mile or more away, and then with one foot
upon the dead bird he plucked it rapidly with his beak, scattering the
feathers on all sides. This done, he tore the skin open and feasted
ravenously on the still warm flesh.

His meal over, he preened himself, and with sudden movement rose from
the rock and resumed his flight, still hungry. This time he went in the
direction of the moorland, and instead of floating over it at a great
height travelled low, as though he had been an owl. The place was
solitary at all times, undrained and seldom shot, and he knew it for a
place where white hares might be found. Nor was he disappointed, for he
started one unfortunate puss, and laughing at her feverish attempts to
escape, dropped heavily upon her. In that moment the poor hare screamed
and died. The terrible talons had gone right through her lungs, and at
the same instant the curved beak delivered a stunning blow upon her
head. Looking hastily round, the eagle saw a piece of high flat ground
by the side of a wood, and rose in flight towards it, carrying his prey
in his talons without any apparent effort. But as he lifted it, and
before he had put the dead hare in the best position for his attack, two
ravens came suddenly from a neighbouring corrie and flew screaming
towards him, calling him all manner of insulting names for daring to
poach on their preserves. Without waiting to argue with them, he gripped
the hare again and flew away, followed for a long distance by the black,
angry birds, whose language will not bear repetition. Finally they tired
of pursuit, or perhaps remembered that he might lose command of his
temper and turn upon them. But to do that with any effect he must have
dropped the hare, and they knew well enough that he would be by no means
anxious to do that. So they abused him until they were tired, and then
returned to their corrie, feeling certain that their reputation would be
enhanced by what had taken place.

Then the Golden Eagle sought another rock, and devoured the hare at his
leisure - very angrily withal, for he hated being made ridiculous by
contemptible eaters of carrion like ravens. But the rich repast
comforted him, and when he left the rock and ascended high in air, it
was to seek a river or loch. That was soon found, and he dropped slowly
by its edge, with more grace and less force than he had used when
falling upon the blackcock. His wings and tail were spread sooner than
before, and he came to anchor as a fine sailing yacht might come to rest
with all her canvas fluttering down. By the edge of the loch he washed
with great care, removing the bloodstains from talons, beak and cere,
but he did not drink. Thirst seldom troubled him.

His hunger satiated at last, and there being no little ones to provide
for, the Golden Eagle rose high, and sailed in leisurely fashion for
miles, keeping a watchful eye on the earth, where he saw fear-stricken
birds and beasts seeking what shelter the land afforded. But he was not
hungry enough to take anything that offered, and preferred to wait until
some dainty morsel was put directly in his way. And it happened that a
red grouse, hit in the wing during the last drive of the season, was to
be seen fluttering vainly over the moorland, and the eagle fell on this
unfortunate, bringing the gift of instant death. Perhaps he was
unintentionally kind. Not being hungry, he was content to eat the dainty
parts that pleased him best, and leave the rest for fox or stoat, or any
vermin that might come along. Once again he washed with scrupulous care,
and then, rising high, turned in the direction of home. He was many
miles away, but before the widespread sweep of his wings miles
disappeared, and the thirty or forty that he had covered took less than
half an hour to race through. With his familiar scream of triumph he
lighted on his home rock, surveyed the world, and knew that it was good.

The fox had had a very long nap. He, too, had washed in his own
half-hearted fashion, and was preparing for his evening prowl.

"I hope you have had a good day, my lord," he said rather anxiously. He
had a vague fear that the hour might come when a succession of bad days
would make the great bird too careless or too hungry to regard foxes
with his present indifference.

"I've done very well, thank you," replied the Golden Eagle with the
graciousness born of a full meal. "Good luck to your hunting." So saying
he stretched himself to his fullest extent, then gradually drew his
feathers closely together, allowed the bright eyes that had never winked
at December's sun to close, and the alert, vigorous head to sink slowly
down. And so he slept.

He had but one care. His mate, who had built and lived with him for five
long years, had disappeared a month before, and he could find no trace
of her. In vain he had travelled as far as Caithness on the east, and to
Foula among the Shetlands in the north, and down south as far as
Perthshire, screaming the old love-cry as he went that she might hear
and answer him. She had left the eyrie as usual one morning; they never
hunted together, and he had not seen her again. Nor would he, for she
had failed to find food and had been tempted by carrion. The carrion - a
dead chicken - covered a steel fox-trap, and though, in her frenzied
fight for liberty, she had torn the controlling staple from the ground,
a keeper had passed within shot before she could get clear of the wood,
and now her skin was being stuffed by a Perth taxidermist, and she would
presently appear under a glass case in the hall of the shooting lodge by
the loch side.

One day differed only from another by reason of the success or failure
of its hunting. If rabbits and grouse - red, black, or white - were
plentiful, the Golden Eagle sought no other food and returned to his
eyrie at peace with all the world. But there were days in the winter
season when nothing was to be found, or more often still when the quarry
got to cover, and then the eagle would come home screaming with rage,
and the red fox would slink to his earth and remain until he was well
assured that the great bird was asleep.

Towards January's end the Golden Eagle fasted for two days, and on the
third rose in the air, feeling strangely weak and ill at ease. Happily
the mist, that had been lying all over the land and had helped to keep
him hungry, was growing thin and yielding altogether in places where the
sun struck boldly at it. So the bird winged his way to one of the
wildest forests in Sutherlandshire, a place seldom disturbed for nine
months out of the twelve. The last stalker had left with October, the
monarchs of the herd had long ceased from "belling" and had been forced
to the lowlands and the root-crop fields by the stress of severe
weather. With keen eyes, and a rage born of hunger in his heart, the
Golden Eagle saw a small herd of young stags and hinds disappear into a
wood where he could not hope to follow them, and then he skirted a few
corries and came to a wild glen where rocks lay strewn haphazard as
though there had been a battle of giants there in the days of old. But
the eagle only saw one rock - a high one standing at the brow of the glen
and bathed in sudden sunshine. A young fawn not a year old had left its
herd and was basking in the light. With a scream of triumph the Golden
Eagle swooped down upon the luckless little animal, drove the cruel
talons deep into its back, and buffeted its head with his heavy wings.
Dazed by the suddenness of the attack and blinded by the blows from the
bird's strong pinions, the poor fawn staggered to the edge of the rock,
the eagle released his grip, and his victim fell headlong on to a rock
below, striking it with a force that broke its neck and ended its

The dead body was too heavy for the bird to carry off, so he stayed by
its side and tore and ate ravenously, until all the hunger that troubled
him was forgotten. It was a very difficult task to rise from the heavy
meal, but he made way at once to the nearest stream in order to wash in
the icy water, and only then turned heavily towards home, feeling very
little inclined after the long fast and the heavy meal to move in any
but leisurely fashion. But he had to forget his inclinations. Two large
peregrine falcons spied their rival a long way off, and seeing that he
was not in a fit state to face their onslaught, made a furious attack
upon him. Could he have reached either of them it would have gone hard
with the one caught; but he was like a merchantman pursued by a couple
of fast cruisers, and while they could turn and twist and use their
wings in any direction they fancied, he had to follow a steady course,
and content himself with uttering threats of what he would do if he
caught one of them then or thereafter. When at last, having done all it
was safe to do without getting quite within reach of the terrible beak
or talons, the falcons flew screaming to their homes, the eagle was left
with a very bad indigestion. Had he been carrying his food in his talons
he must have dropped it, and the swift enemies would have caught it in
the air and made off beyond hope of recovery, for they could cover three
miles to his two.

Doubtless the crows and other eaters of carrion would soon leave nothing
of the carcase from which he had torn his meal.

Shortly after this day, a touch of mildness that seemed a forerunner of
spring came to the Highlands, and the Golden Eagle took a sudden flight
to the north-east. He passed beyond the limits of the land and the home
of the sea eagles, and moved swiftly in the direction of the desolate
island of Foula, beyond the larger group of the Shetlands. And on the
following day he turned to the south again, but not alone, his new mate
came with him, a beautiful creature, larger, heavier and even more
fierce than he. She had come from Norway to Foula Island, and consented
gladly enough to share his home in the wild hills of Sutherlandshire.

Through the slowly lengthening days of February the two eagles, while
hunting independently, worked together to restore the nest on the rock.
It was a very big and rough affair, six feet across at the base, built
of sticks taken from the Scotch fir and the larch and the thick twigs of
heather. Inside it was soft with grass and fern and mosses, and when it
was complete the mother eagle laid three eggs, each three inches long
and nearly as big round the broader end. They were purple, with
red-brown blotches and streaks of yellow and black. It was March before
the first egg was laid, and as the other two came at intervals of
several days, the first nestling came before the other eggs were
hatched. He was an ugly little fellow with big mouth, staring eyes, and
grey down in place of feathers.

Then the other two nestlings made their appearance, and the fox, whose
vixen had given him a litter of cubs, was more uneasy than ever. It was
apparently impossible to satisfy the appetite of the eaglets. The father
and mother birds thought less for the time being of their own wants than
of the requirements of their babies. For miles round all the weaklings
and cripples among the game birds were destroyed, and one afternoon the
mother eagle came to the eyrie with a young lamb in her claws. She had
snatched the new-born creature from the hill-side, and would have been
delighted to feed regularly on lamb, but the shepherd had seen her, and
when she paid her next visit to the hills on the following morning he
was waiting with a shot-gun. Anxiety made him fire too soon, a handful
of feathers came fluttering down, and the mother eagle received a couple
of pellets in her side and several through the outer edge of the
primaries of one wing. Thereafter she left the lambs alone. Her alarm
was the greater because she had never heard a gun before, and the shock
of the charge, though well-nigh spent before it reached her, was very

"What fools these men are," said the Golden Eagle angrily to the Red Fox
some days after the accident to his mate, "they grudge us the food for
our little ones. And yet if they had but the wit to understand, we serve
their purposes as well as our own. The strong birds and beasts that are
useful in the world can get away from us, the weak ones are taken. But
if they were not taken they would soon spoil the race. Why, I have taken
hundreds of crippled birds from these moors and valleys since men began
to shoot in these parts."

"Do you remember the place before shooting began?" asked the fox in
great wonderment.

"Not perhaps before the gun began to be used," replied the eagle, "but
my memory goes back to times when there was very little shooting indeed.
The moors were all undrained, the forests were sheep farms for the most
part, and the deer were not preserved. The Highland boys used to load
their old guns with slugs and black powder pushed in with a ramrod, and
would wait at the springs for the deer, and if they shot one would salt
it for winter eating. Then the lairds were poor men, and shared their
deer with the poachers. I was a young bird in those days, though I shall
never be old. The eagle renews his youth, and I expect to record a
hundred years. Now I must be off, here comes my mate."

The mother bird was a black speck in the distance, but her mate's loving
eye could find her out, and he sailed away to meet her as she came
heavily towards the nest, a young pig in her claws. She found a
farmhouse, and dropped on to the pig-sty, where mother sow had presented
her owners with a litter of seven. Six had managed to get within cover,
the seventh, a weakly little animal, had paid the penalty, and was

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Online LibraryS. L. (Samuel Levy) BensusanThe Heart of the Wild → online text (page 1 of 16)