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Chapter X

BIRDS AND BIRD-CATCHING

Sea-birds the wealth of the people—Difficult to exaggerate the number of birds—89,600 puffins killed in one year—The birds prized for carcasses, feathers, and oil—The fulmar—The puffin—The gannet or solan goose— The guillemot—The razor-bill—The white-tailed eagle—The peregrine—The kestrel—The great auk—Other birds—Different methods of fowling— Cragsmen—How the fowlers descend the cliffs—Fatal accidents—Accoutrements carried by the fowler—Different ways of catching the birds—Peculiar mode of fowling the guillemot—An expedition to Boreray for gannets—Division of the spoil on Socialistic principles— Birds which are common property


AS I remarked in the previous chapter, the wealth of the little colony is chiefly in the sea-birds, which congregate on St. Kilda and the adjacent islands in countless myriads. It would be difficult to exaggerate the number of birds which are to be seen on the group of islands for eight or nine months of the year. A writer, usually careful about his facts, has put it on record that in one year, 1876, no fewer than 89,600 of one bird alone, the bougir or puffin, were slaughtered by the St. Kildians. Certainly the destruction of puffins, fulmars, and gannets amounts every year to a total that would hardly be credited, and yet the available supply seems to suffer hardly any appreciable diminution. In the St. Kildian economy every bird is prized for both its feathers and its carcass, the latter being the staple of the people's food ; one species, the fulmar, yields in addition a valuable oil, which is used for lighting purposes on the island, and is also exported.

The birds most plentiful on the St. Kilda group of islands are the fulmar-petrel, gannet or solan goose, puffin, guillemot, and razor-bill, all of which are valuable to the people. The Fulmar or Fulmar-petrel is the bird peculiarly identified with St. Kilda. In size it resembles a gull. It is to be found on the island all the year round, with the exception of the period between the end of August and the middle of November, and of a few days in spring. The islanders have no idea, where the bird migrates to; they say it merely goes out to the ocean. Perhaps no bird flies so gracefully as the fulmar. It seems to float in the air apparently without any effort, and can move for several minutes at a time without beating its wings. The plumage of the head, neck, breast, and tail is of a dingy white, and that of the back and wings slate-grey. The bill is of a pale-yellow colour, very strong, about an inch and a-half in length and sub-cylindrical in form. The female bird lays but one egg in a season, and that about the middle of May. Early in August the young fulmar is able to fly, and on the 12th of that month—a day associated in a similar manner with another bird—the fowling season begins, continuing for two or three weeks. Rarely does the fulmar burrow deep enough in the ground to conceal itself while incubating, and in the season some parts of the cliffs are to be seen literally white with the birds sitting on their nests. Whilst he is being caught the fulmar tries, as a defensive measure, to eject by his mouth and tubular nostrils an offensive smelling oil into the face of his captor. This oil is amber-coloured, and its disagreeable smell pervades everything and everybody in St. Kilda all the year round. It is the aim of the fowler to dispatch the bird expeditiously before the oil has been ejected, and if he succeeds in this, the oil, usually about half a pint in quantity, is extracted from the stomach of the bird, and emptied into a bag formed of the stomachs of solan geese and carried for the purpose. This oil is burned in the lamps, and a quantity is also exported to Skye, where it is used for smearing sheep. The people sell it to the factor at a shilling the St. Kilda pint, which is equal to five English pints. For the feathers of this bird the factor allows 5s. per St. Kilda stone of 24 lbs. As in the time of Martin so today, the St. Kildians prefer the flesh of the fulmar to any other article of diet. I tasted the flesh and found it to have a greasy, oily flavour, such as could not be relished but by those accustomed to it. Every family lays past several hundred carcasses of this bird for use during the winter. The fulmar has been not inaptly named the skunk of birds. Its principal food is fish, but it is often to be seen following whale-ships for any offal that may be thrown overboard, and a wounded whale is said to attract great flocks of the bird, eager to alight on the carcass and devour the blubber. Recent observations show that the fulmar is slightly decreasing in numbers in St. Kilda.

The Puffin, which comes next in usefulness to the fulmar, is the most common of the various birds. Every bit of suitable cliff on the group of islands is occupied by it, and at times great flocks literally obscure the sea. This bird, which is well known on different parts of the coast, is about the size of a pigeon.