11 APRIL 1891, Page 13


" WHAT on earth is a Bonxie?" will be the exclamation of most of our readers on seeing the title above. Why he was so called we cannot say, except that it pleased the Shetlanders thus to name him. He was first introduced to

the civilised world by Hoier, a physician of Bergen, who, visiting the Freroes to investigate their natural history, sent thence to Clusius the Artesian, a celebrated naturalist then

1604 (we like to be particular in the matter of dates), and described in the auotarium, or supplement to his "Exoticorum Lihri Decem," published in the following year. This worthy also gave what professed to be a figure of this bird ; but the likeness is hardly to be seriously recognised, and yet is not funny enough to be a caricature. Moreover, because Hoier informed him that this Skua "carried on" (if so we may freely render the word grassatur) towards little birds and fishes, Cilusius was fain to persuade himself that it was of the same kind—with one trifling exception—as a marvellous bird

mentioned by Oviedo in his ever-to-be-remembered "Chronicle of the Conquest of the West Indies." This last was doubtless what is now known as the frigate-bird—a very different sort of sea-fowl, but the Spanish author said it had one foot smooth and webbed like a duck's, while the other was armed with claws like a vulture's or an eagle's—thus originating a legend which survived to the days of Linmens, though it got itself transplanted (bow, who can tell ?) to the osprey; but that we need not follow. Hoier gave no account of his Skna.'s habits, and we find them first mentioned in 1673 by Debes, one of the earliest writers on the Freroes, who describes the ferocity with which the birds protect their nesting-places against plunderers, so that the latter had in self-defence to put a knife point upwards on their heads, on which the former, in their assaults often bayonetted themselves.

Here ends this part of our story, which we may take up again in the light shed by the immortal pair, Ray and Willughby, who tell us of the species as occurring in England, though all they tell us is that their friend Needham sent them the " etuft " skin of a bird which he had found "hung up in a certain gentleman's hall." This they were able to identify with Hoier's Shin, and they gave another, and equally grotesque, portrait of it. They also got puzzled as to whether it was not the same as a certain Catarraota described and figured by Aldrovandi, which seems to have been the young of one of the larger sea-gulls; and they had hazy notions as to whether it might not also be the Cornishmen's gannet. Space would fail us, and we should inevitably bore our readers, were we to recount the literary history of Bonxie for the next century and more, though we may remark that Sibbald in 1684 was aware of its inhabiting Scotland, stating that it preyed upon teals (querguedulas) and other small birds. The real history of the

Skua begins with Low, an Orcadian minister who was com- missioned by Pennant to compile for his use a natural history of Orkney and Shetland, and with that object visited among other places the island of Foula, the most westerly of the latter group. Here he found our friend, as duly stated by Pennant ; but his own account of his introduction to Bonxie, which was not, however, published till 1813, is more full and quaint than that given by his employer. It is, besides, less well known, and therefore we may quote part of it :—

"As I approached the summits of the high mountains, I came near the Skua's quarters, which are affixed on the very peaks. I no sooner approached but I was attacked with so great fury, that every one of those who wore with me, as well as myself, were obliged to do him obeisance at every stroke. He beat my dog entirely out of the pit [we fear that the Rev, gentleman must have known something of cock-fighting], insomuch that he was obliged to run in among our legs for shelter, and would not be forced out again, for though Bonxie (as he is here called) had some regard for us while we kept together, on him he had no mercy, every whip he fetched him made his own wings crack, and the dog crouch into the hollows of the moor, till we came up and relieved him. I followed one of them to some distance from the rest, which made me part good company, and received some very rude salutes for my imprudence from three of these birds that made at me with the utmost rage. I defended myself the best way I could with my gun, fired several times at them, but, as none dropped, the report did not startle them in the least, rather seemed to

enrage them the more. When the inhabitants are looking after their sheep on the hills, the Skua often attacks them in such a manner that they are obliged to defend themselves with cudgels held above their heads, on which it often kills itself By the most minute inquiry, could not find that it ever meddled either with its congeners or others to destroy them. Its fury seems

to be more offensive than defensive In Foula this is a privileged bird, no man will nor dare shoot it, under the penalty of sixteen shillings and eightpence sterling, nor destroy its eggs. When they meet it at sea, whatever fish they have in the boat, Skua always gets a share, and all this out of gratitude for beating off the eagle, who dares not venture to prey on the island during the brooding season. Skua, indeed, is not so strong as the former, but much more nimble, strikes at him without mercy with such effect that he makes the eagle roar aloud, and his retreat is so sudden as to avoid all danger from his clumsier antagonist. I asked particularly whether Skua did not sometimes pay himself for defending their flocks, by taking a lamb now and then, but one and all assured me they had never soon or heard of a single instance of his doing so."

The experience of all subsequent visitors to Pout% and the other two breeding-stations of Bonxie in Shetland—and be it known that here alone in the British Islands does he make his home—is to the same effect. Not only was the enter- prising Mr. Bullock's large dog "so roughly handled that it was obliged to come to us for assistance," but his "son received a violent blow on the back of his head, whilst stooping to secure a bird he had wounded." Blind courage, however, is of

little avail against firearms, and as time went on the species was persecuted, becoming rarer and rarer, as, indeed, was but

natural, considering the few places to which it resorted. At one of them it is stated to have become completely extinct, and at another—on Mist, the most northerly of our islands— the stock had been reduced to a single pair, but fortunately

finding a protector in Dr. Laurence Edmondston, it in a few years rallied. This gentleman, writing of the way in which it had been allowed to be shot down, observes :—"It is surprising that proprietors are in general so careless of the preservation of those ornaments of their properties and cheerers of these bleak and wild solitudes, which they possess in the wild fowl

that frequent them, or will persist in shutting their eyes to the fact that if once a colony inhabiting a certain situation is extirpated, by a law of instinct very general and very imperative, it will never again be tenanted by the same species, although it may be numerous at no great distance." Of the qualities of Bonxie, Dr. Edmondston goes on to say that he is " hardy and easily tamed. He does not possess the habit of his congener the Arctic gull, that of making some other water-birds not only cater fish, but cook it for his table. He has a good beak and pinions of his own, and he disdains to soarn for the disgorgement of others. In some countries he is proscribed, as well as the raven and eagle, and a price set on his head, from the notion that he is injurious to young lambs ; but this, I think, is incorrect.

Small sea-birds he does occasionally attack and devour. In captivity he is gentle and affectionate, and will feed on almost anything." Of Bonxie's aptitude for confinement, we may here remark that Selby mentions one which lived with Dr. Neill for at least twelve years.

Some of our readers will doubtless remember that last summer and autumn a considerable amount of excitement existed in Shetland, and Scotland generally, caused by the report that some gentlemen, landing on the island of Foula from a yacht, slew a great number of Skuas at their breeding- place, the Sneuk, where it has been for many years the object of the proprietor to preserve them as much as possible,—the

old prejudice in their favour among the crofters having yielded to the temptation offered by visitors. We believe that the report was exaggerated, but that two nesting-birds were admittedly slain, the defence being the poor one that they were wanted as specimens for a museum. However, it was, on the other side, maintained that, though possibly only two birds fell dead to the gun and were secured by the collectors, a much larger number of victims were mortally wounded, and their remains found by the islanders after the strangers had departed. This is highly probable, because it is what nearly always happens when the thronged breeding-places of sea-fowl are harassed. The shooters hold their guns straight enough to bit; but, misjudging the distance, which every one knows is an easy thing to do, they fail to kill on the spot, and the stricken birds go away to die. In this way, far greater destruction can be wrought than its perpetrator has any idea

of at the time, and thus it may have been in the recent case. Unfortunately, no legal proceedings were taken under the

Wild Birds Protection Act, in the schednle of which Bonxie finds a place, as certainly might have been done, for there was, we believe, no concealment of the yacht's name, or that of those concerned. Had a prosecution been. instituted, the truth would have been known, and it is quite possible that the defendants would have cleared themselves from at least the graver part of the charge, which they now cannot satisfactorily do. Unfortunately, too, the case seems to have been regarded in Scotland as one of laird against trespasser, and so, in the- discussion that followed, several side-issues were entered upon which bad nothing whatever to do with the real point, it being open to any one to set the law in motion and avenge, if proved, Bonxie's death. But considering the indignant outcry made on this ocaa.sion, it seems particularly appropriate to learn, as we do, that at the last meeting of the Zoo- logical Society of London, announcement was made that ita silver medal had been awarded to the proprietor of Foula,. Mr. Robert Scott of Melby, who, with his late father, has been, as above stated, for many years protecting Bonxie, as well as to Mrs. Edmondston, of Buness House, in Unst, the seat of that family, several members of which, and especially the Dr. Laurence Edmondston before-mentioned, have for sixty years, if not longer, been doing the like at his. more northern station. Without this protection, it is not doubted that Bonxie would long since have been extirpated as a native of Britain, though he might have continued to show himself occasionally on our sea-coasts as a straggler from the- homes still left him in the Roroes—there are not many now— and Iceland. But in no other part of the world has he am abiding place, and therefore his risk of total extinction is not small. There must have been a time, one would think, when he ranged over a much wider area, for far away down in the Southern Hemisphere live two of his cousins,—one the "Port Egmont hen," that readers of the Voyages of the last century will well remember, and another that has received no English, name, but keeps along the shores of South America. It takes. a skilful ornithologist to distinguish between these two,. though Mr. Howard Saunders, the recognised authority on the gull family, says that distinction can always be effected and doubtless all spring from the same ancestral stock. We might please ourselves with speculating whether, in the time of some glacial epoch, that stock had its home in the equatorial seas, as being the only habitable belt on the globe, and then, when temperature rose, parted compsiny, one portion coming to the North Atlantic, and the other going southwards and again splitting into two, one of which found a home in the Falkland Islands, while the other rounded Cape Horn anl burst into the Pacific. Be this as it may, we have the satis- faction of knowing that we still have our Bonxie with us, ands that his protectors have received a reward which, we trust,. will incite others to follow their good example.