Hanes a dogfennau
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Friends in Fur and Feathers

The Buzzards

The Buzzards

THEY were moor-buzzards - birds which sail with their broad brown wings over desolate marshes, and build their nests in lonely places, where no footfall comes, and no sound is heard but the cry of the curlew and plover, and the scream of the gulls, and, far away, the moaning of the sea - where, in the hot sunshine, in summer days, knots of tangled snakes bask on the tufts of dry yellow grass amongst the heather-tussocks, and the fox, in the dusk evenings, creeps stealthily along, hunting for eggs in the wild-fowl nests.

It was in just such a wild and desolate place my buzzards were born. The squirrels looked out over miles and miles of it, all black bog and morass, from their magpie mansion on the hillside. A wonderful place it was. High up on the hills, from the squirrel's point of view, it looked as if nothing was wanted but a pair of seven-leagued boots to stride over it straight-on-end to the sea; but once upon it, unless you were brave of heart, and quick of eye, foot, and hand, and, in fact, well versed in the whole science of bog-trotting, you would probably flounder, at the first jump or two, in black mud, to your knees; the next time waist-deep (and unless there were two or three people, and a cart-rope at hand), down and down into the oozy depths, you would find yourself sinking, despairing, sucked down, the black horrid mud and water rising round your throat, the blue sky, and the wild birds wheeling in it above your head, and the heather-twigs, which would save you if you could but grasp them, within a foot of your hand, and you must die, for you have no power to reach them.

Many a cry for help, which no one ever heard, has been screamed over that wild black bog; and it is said, bleached bones have been found by the turf-cutters—bones of people who must have perished years and years ago—people who were waited and prayed for long, long ago, in the castle and cottage homes of those old days, when morning came and night, and they never came back, and the hearts at home wearied of waiting for them.

But no one knows their stories now. But one story I do know, and can tell, of some one who was very nearly lost, but who was saved by his own courage and cleverness. It is quite true, and was told to me by the gentleman to whom it happened; and I will tell it here to show you what sort of a place our great bog is.

It was an autumn morning forty or fifty years ago. The gentleman who told me this was crossing the bog with his dogs and gun; and nearly in the middle of it, miles from any help, springing on to some green moss, in a moment it gave way under him, and he sunk to his waist in the black bog and water which the moss had just thinly coated. There was no heather near, and nothing to lay hold of, and he felt he was sinking very slowly, but sinking lower and lower, for the bog was soon round his chest. His arms were out, and the gun had fallen across the moss. He managed to tie a white handkerchief to the gun, and held it above his head, waving it and shouting; but no sound came back but the cry of the birds over the bog. Then came despair, for he was sinking to the shoulders, and only holding by the gun, which was lying on the moss across the top of the sort of hole he was in. If the moss broke through, he would go down and die at once; and if the gun held, he must still die of starvation and horror, getting weaker and weaker till he had no strength to hold on by the gun. Then the black fearful mud would close over his head, and in an instant he would be buried alive in that unknown grave, and never heard of more.

He thought he must have been there nearly an hour, and all hope was nearly past, when the thought came to him which saved him. The dogs with him were two large pointers. They had kept beating about near, and one came up at once when he called it. He got hold of the dog when it was near enough, and suddenly, with a great exertion of strength, pushed it down upon the gun into the bog, and holding it there, called the other dog, and pushed him down on the top of the first. Then, with all his strength, with his hands on their backs, he pulled himself up out of the black grave, and got upon the solid edge of the bog, and was saved. The pointers soon floundered out, and were no worse for their bog-bath.So you see a walk on the bog is not all plain-sailing, and bog-trotting is not learnt in a day, and seven-leagued boots would not make much of a stalk of it over the great bog of G(ors) F(ochno).

But though the bog has its dangers, its beauties outdo them all; and the delight of a long summer's day lonely scramble, with a leaping-pole, three or four dogs, and a fishing-basket, over it, is not to be told. So my advice to all little people is to learn bog-trotting. To learn to balance in a sea of black mud on a heather-tussuck; and jump five feet of black water so lightly, that landing in soft squash, you may alight dry- footed like a curlew, and then you will be fit to come and see the wonders and beauties of the bog.

In the meantime, I will tell you what you will see there. And first for the flowers. In May and June there will be a carpet of golden asphodel—every bit of water will be fringed with white starry bog-bean, lifting its bunches of marabout feather-flowers up out of the ink-dark water—silky cotton-grass waving everywhere in the wind—miles and miles of cotton, enough to make pillows for all England!—rose-tipped bells of the Andromeda; the wonderful sun-dew, like a living creature, catching and crushing gnats in its tiny crimson leaves, and eating them up for breakfast and dinner; and above all, far away, where the heather grows waist-high, and hangs its myriad bells of palest lilac in great masses over the edges of still black pools, there is the queen of all the flowers. Floating amongst her broad green leaves, the alabaster cups to the blue sky, there are the water-lilies. Thousands of them, the lovely flowers, opening their beautiful buds upon the water, where no one ever sees them, and no one knew of their existence, till one famous and memorable day I and all the dogs came upon them, and kneeling down amongst the heather, watched them for an hour or more in wonder and delight at their marvellous beauty. The lovely white flowers ! But the sun was setting, and some blossoms must be got at, and carried off for all the world to see that it was no Mid-summer's Night's Dream of mine that the queen of the flowers really did live and reign far away on the great bog.So the fishing-basket was filled quite full of buds and blossoms and shiny wet green leaves, hooked out somehow, anyhow, with the leaping-pole; and we sallied home, as triumphant at the discovery as Columbus when he sailed back from his great find of North and South America.

But more enchanting even than the flowers of the bog are the birds. In winter, when hard weather is coming, the bleak north wind brings strange company for the stay-at-home ducks and curlew and snipe on the bog.Flights of wild-fowl of all sorts come to the broad river that skirts one side of it. You may often hear the sharp whirring of wings, and looking up, see two lines of birds, flying in the shape of a wedge, black against the sky. The grey wild-geese come every winter; and once, on an icy day, broad white wings flapped amongst the reeds of a pool, and close to my feet rose two great swans, and sailed away up in the blue sky, away to the river. But the first few days of spring send away all the stranger-birds northwards, in a great fright lest it should get too hot, to build their nests on the North Pole, or somewhere there-abouts, amongst the icebergs and the snow. Then the home-birds begin nesting all over the bog, and from every part of it sweet wild cries may be heard at morn and even. The curlew's, like a flute-note sad and sweet, the jarring bleat of the great snipe, ventriloquising his love-chant in his fitful flight backwards and forwards over his nest. The only way to see him is to lie flat on your back amongst the heather, to call the dogs in, and all to be quiet, and then, by good luck, you see him close to you, and hear his song far away, or vice versa, for he is ventriloquising. In the dusk of evening he and his sad weird note, now near, now far, himself unseen, might belong to some lost spirit, so sad and mysterious does it seem.

But I meant it to be broad bright daylight and hot spring sunshine to take you over the bog, for it is then you would see the birds in their glory. There is a laugh, low, like a chuckle at some great bit of fun, amongst the heather, then two or three people seem to join in it, and the fun gets fast and furious, till screams and shrieks of wild laughter sound all over the bog. You can hardly help joining in it, it sounds so merry; and up in the sky wheel white wings, sweeping round and round, and up and down, and you see the laughing-gulls having one of their sky-high frolics, till the curious human-like laughter, from which they are called, fills the air. Their nests are on the bog; and in some low birch trees near it the fern-owls build. From the noise a pair or two of these pretty little birds contrive to make, you would think the whole place was full of old women and their spinning-wheels. They go on spinning for hours and hours, and never seem to rest.

But of all the birds of the bog, the moor-buzzard is the grandest; at least, when the swans are gone home to the North Pole. If the water-lily is queen of the flowers, he is king of the birds; and as he sails on broad brown wings, slow and stately, sweeping with a swift flight, and then hanging still in the sky, as if no feather stirred, he looks almost as grand and right-royal as the eagle himself. But I am afraid his tastes and habits are not strictly imperial; for he will feed on carrion, and he carries on war in a very small fashion on rats and mice and such small deer, and is not too proud, if they are not to be had, to eat any rubbish he finds: old horse, dead cow, dead sheep, drowned cats. I am sorry to have to tell it of him, for it sounds anything but royal of my bird-king; and I am afraid you will scarcely think so much afterwards of the young prince and princess of the family, who came into my possession, and whose history, if I had not gone bog-trotting all this time, you ought to have heard half-an-hour ago.

That year there was but one buzzard's nest on all the bog. It was far out near the water-lilies, about three miles from the sea. Two gentlemen out shooting found it one spring day, and in it were some huge speckled green and brown eggs. The nest was built on a little island of dry bog where the heather grew very high. The birds had in some way bent down the stiff heather-stalks quite flat for a large space, and put a thick mat in the place, of withered grass and bullrush leaves and stalks. On this the eggs were laid. The gentlemen, did not touch the nest; but three or four weeks afterwards one of them took me to see it, and then we saw in a moment that a foot had been there before us. The foot-marks were fresh upon the soft bog. Going to the nest, we found neither eggs nor birds, only bits of a broken egg- shell, out of which a bird had been hatched. So we were sure the nest bad been found and robbed, and from the freshness of the foot-marks, probably that day. So we set off to some cottages a long way off, on the edge of the bog, where I knew the thief would be found who had harried our nest. I soon got traces of him, and half-an-hour after we arrived at the cottages, had heard the whole story. The cottages over-looked the bog, and from a great distance a boy had seen the birds above their nest, and only the day before had taken a comrade with him, and they had got to it and carried off two young birds. These they offered to give me at once. So I was taken to a back garden, and in an old rabbit-hutch I saw what looked like a dirty lump of cotton-wool, about as big as a hen, with no feathers, and no wings to be seen—a thing with a melancholy pair of immense black eyes, and legs as long as a Cochin China cock's, and wool instead of feathers, It squatted down, a helpless white-puff ball, for it was not strong enough to stand on its long legs. I got it out, and from some other dirty hole the other bird was fished out by the boys, and both crammed, a very tight fit, into the fishing-basket, and I took them home. What I should like to have done would have been to take them back to the nest, but they would have starved, for the old birds would not have me near the place again, so all I could do was to take them home, and try to bring them up as well as I could, and to act the part of a good mother-buzzard to the poor orphan puff-balls in the best way I knew how. But it was a difficult charge; and I have always been proud of having succeeded in it, and of having reared and fed and sent out into the world, two as fine young moor-buzzards as the world perhaps ever saw.

  When I got to the house, a large, old hawk-cage was rummaged out of a lumber-hoard, and the buzzards put in it on a little straw and heather. They  were   very sick and seedy, and no wonder; for the horrid boys had given them nothing but mashed potatoes, and mashed potatoes to buzzards must be extremely "stodgy,"( a word of great force and expression, for which England is no doubt indebted to her public schools) about as pleasant and digestible as a dinner of chopped straw and sawdust would be to me.   They were very sick, but able to swallow slowly tit-bits of liver and lights, dropped, into their wide-gaping beaks. When their crops had swelled out like the breasts of Christmas stuffed turkeys, I thought it was time to stop, so they were left to go to sleep and forget all their troubles, and "put their heads under their wings, poor things!"

  The next morning, when I went out to see my strange wild nurslings, I found they were both better, and quite ready for breakfast. The largest, the hen, even tried to get up on the top of her Cochin China legs, and came down with what nurses call a " flump," and did not try it again for a week, when, one day, suddenly she and her brother both found their legs, and stood up resolutely from that time, sometimes on one leg, sometimes on both. But for the first week they squatted like hens on a nest, and were the most laughable-looking things. Some one said they were just like young barristers. The white down on their heads came in a peak over their faces, in which you saw only a large pair of black eyes, and a dark beak, which made a very good barrister's nose, and was no caricature at all of many a hooked nose under many a wig, which I have seen in my day at Westminster Hall. That first morning, and as far as I remember, ever afterwards, the barristers were decidedly hungry, not to say greedy. Liver and lights were, I think, a quite new and delicious delicacy to them, and they gulped down square pieces of both as fast as they could be given. Any one who was squeamish had better finish breakfast before going to preside at a young buzzard's.  The horrid raw meat, and the gobbling and gulping, and the altogether, the je ne sais quoi, might be too much for many people; but having undertaken a foster-mother buzzard's duties, I went through with it. Only substituting a groom-boy's fingers for my own for the morning, noon, and evening cramming, I always conscientiously looked on at the ceremony, to see that the poor orphans were stuffed out to the proper dimensions. The quantity they devoured was immense. Besides all the liver and lights supplied by the butcher, once a week, they had “no end" of rabbits and rats and mice. A kind of black-mail in the latter was raised in the neighbourhood. sympathizing and civil villagers saved and sent up a good many head of such small game—long-tailed marauders, who had succumbed to their traps, depriving their own tabbies of dainty dinners to send presents to my hobgoblins.  They certainly looked very elfish at this stage of their existence; and I think our villagers, who believe in everything, from fairies to witches, ghosts and goblins, giants and dwarfs and all, thought very badly of these strange-looking birds, and I dare say had many misgivings that they were "no that canny " to have about a house; and if the butter didn't come, and the eggs were addled, it was no more than was to be expected. But the black-mail would not have gone far towards feeding two such cormorants, and it was lucky they were within reach of another supply. The great bog, as I said before, is the scene of many murderous disasters; and several casualties occurred during the buzzards' minority, by which they profited immensely. I don't mean to say they ever got a taste of drowned old turf-cutter or anything of that sort; but of suicidal mutton, drowned sheep, fished out of bog-drains, they had plenty. They had once, in their larder in the fir-tree, at one time, besides ever so much mutton, some rabbits, and rats and mice, two fore-quarters of pony— a poor fellow, who had also, like the mutton, committed felo-da-se.  They liked their meat well hung.   The gamier it was the faster they gobbled it; but they always had bits of rabbit-fur or feathers given with their horse and mutton, because, like all their cousins, the kites and hawks, and even the owls, once or twice a day they have to be sick. It's very nasty, but they can't help it; and if they are not sick they are very ill: and they can't be sick unless they swallow fur or feathers, which they always take care to do in their wild state. Old Tu-whit Tu-whoo, in the church tower, swallows his mice whole for this very reason, and has to be very poorly, and then he is all right again, and ready for more.  Their feeder had to be sure the barristers had been sick, or they would never have turned into buzzards. In a fortnight they began to look brownie about their heads, and bluish quills came on their apologies for wings. In a few days more they were brown in patches all over, wearing the displaced white down still at the ends of their feathers. They were funnier than ever. But very soon the down dropped off, the feathers spread out, and they stood two beautiful full-fledged moor-buzzards. The hen, the largest of the two, was almost two feet high, and must have mesured four feet across the wings. Every shade of soft grey and brown pencilled their plumage in delicate curves and lines and spots; and on their heads they had a mat of palest golden-fawn feathers. Their black eyes had won the true hawk look—the wild, far-away, beautiful look of fearless free creatures—the look with which the eagle, the royal bird of his race gazes from his eyrie; and which seen in human eyes is that right-royal glance, seen once in ten thousand, far seeing, soul-piercing, we call an eagle look—with such a look as Wellington looked over Waterloo. But don't go up-stairs, little people, and practice hawk-glances in the glass. The chances are, you would come down squinting abominably, certainly staring more like an owl than an eagle, and I am quite sure I should never be able to see the slightest likeness to my buzzards. The chief use they made of their eagle looks was to gaze right away up to the sky. I thought they were turning astronomers. They would sit still for hours watching upwards, as if they were expecting some one from the clouds. And so they were, I found; for once or twice, when I too stared up, I saw above the yard, where they were sitting, a great pair of wings sailing sky-high, and heard the wild buzzard note, and was sure it was one of the old birds, who somehow had heard the cry of the young ones, and was taking a bird's-eye view of them from cloud-land. But they always soared away again, and never, came down to their children that I could discover; but I sincerely hope they were satisfied with what they saw, and felt that their young birds were being brought up as young buzzards ought to be. I don't know what their father and mother called them; we called them Jupiter and Juno, Juno was the largest and most beautiful, as the hens of the hawk tribe always are. Amongst all the other feathered creatures it is the gentlemen-birds who wear the finest feathers, sing the best songs, and have the best of it, in fact, in every way. But in the great hawk family the hens are the biggest and most beautiful, and the husbands are smaller than their mates, and have paler-tinted plumage.   The lovely hen harrier-hawk is the exception; who isn't a hen at all, but has a dowdy wife in dingy brown, the real hen-barrier, whom no one ever sees or knows about. The buzzards, as soon as they were fully fledged, began to try their wings a little.   But they were very slow about it, and seemed quite contented with having got the complete use of their long legs, upon which they stalked round the house like a pair of barn-door fowls. They began to wage war with the dogs, and could hold their own, and keep their dinners against two large pointers, a cat, and a Skye terrier. They always began the fight in the most lawless and unprovoked way, without the slightest provocation from the poor dogs, who were inclined to be very civil to them. As soon as they could fly a little, their great delight was to soar for a few moments, and then with a cry like an Indian war-whoop, swoop down on the pointers, stick their claws in their backs, scream in their ears, and buffet about their heads with their wings, till the dogs shook themselves free and escaped with a howl and a scuffle, and their tails between their legs.   For some reason, their wars with the cats were more cautiously conducted. I don't think it ever came to a fair fight between them, though a good deal of guerilla skirmishing round the bushes went on from time to time. The poor dogs led wretched lives; they had no peace either eating or sleeping. They had to cower away in corners to munch their bones, and sleep with one eye open, lest both should be pecked out. One day, hearing a great noise in the drawing-room, I opened the door, and found a buzzard had hunted a Skye terrier through an open window, and, with claws well stuck down in his long coat, was careering round and round the table on his back; poor Tammie, at a breathless gallop, trying to shake off his tormentor, frightened into fits by the screams in his ears, and the claws in his back. I soon rescued him, poor little fellow, and turned his fierce foeman out to cool his temper on the lawn.

When the birds had quite got the use of their wings, they used to fly away to some distance, and be out of sight for hours. But morning and evening, a long whistle, though they were nowhere to be seen, always brought them back to be fed; and it was a strange sight to see these grand wild birds come sailing along as if just below the clouds, mere specks in the sky, and to hear their musical cry, and "the sudden scythe-like sweep of wings," as, sweeping in circles downwards, they came flying round and round, nearer and nearer, till they folded their great wings, sitting on my arm or shoulder. Then, with a sharp clutch of their strong yellow claws, they grasped the meat, and sailed away with it in their feet to eat upon the lawn, coming back over and over again, till they had carried it all away. They roosted in the woods at night, and in the day were generally to he found in some trees near the bog, at the outskirts of the wood.   As soon as I and the dogs sallied out " into the open," for a scramble amongst the heather, there would be a cry of the buzzards from the wood, and they would soar up from amongst the trees and come after us, wheeling about in the air and swooping down on the dogs, following ever so far, till they had had enough of the fun. Then they would rise high on the wing, and sweep slowly and grandly back to their wood. Two or three times they followed me when I was on horseback, and I found myself riding, like a lady of the olden time, with hawk and hound; but I think my grand Juno would have astonished any one who had tried to make her sit on their wrist with a hood on her nose and bells on her toes, like the hawks in old pictures, where a blindfolded bird sits mumping on her lady's glove, with a tufted red tassel on the top of her hood. My birds would wheel about my head and the pony's, to the great astonishment of the latter; and once or twice I thought Juno was going to hawk at her, as she did at the pointers, but luckily she gave up the notion. I think it was the end of October when Jupiter appeared no more. I had watched him very often flying towards the river, and we always thought he had been beguiled by the buzzards, who live on the marshes over the water, to come and live in that famous hunting-ground, the chief haunt of his race in our neighbourhood. - There he would have good society and plenty of frogs, and drowned sheep now and then; in short, all a buzzard could wish or hope for. Juno stayed with me much longer, coming at intervals to the windows to ask for food. I often heard her cry, far away, and looking out of my window would see her, a speck high up in the blue sky; and a moment or two afterwards she would be folding her wings on the ledge below my window, uttering her wild musical cry. No royal arrival was ever more welcomed. Then and there was there a hurrying to and fro to fetch her royalty her dinner, lest she should be off to the clouds again, and think herself neglected. She would take the meat daintily up in her claws and alight with it on the ground, looking up and screaming between each beakful, as if she had so much on her mind she could not eat till she had told her tale at the very top of her querulous voice. But I don't think she had much to complain of. She looked well-to-do, was always in good feather, and not hungry; and although she would peck a little at the food that was brought her, she evidently came more for the sociability of the thing than the luncheon. About this time I discovered she had found out a much easier way of getting her own living than hunting mice, or scenting out drowned mutton. Two miles off, at the back of the house in the great wood, high up in the trees, she had found that delectable institution- a dog's larder— a better-stocked larder than her own had ever been, even at that memorable era of the days of the drowned pony; and there she revelled. Once or twice, riding up through the wood, I had met her flying back from breakfast, and she had screamed out her pleasure at the meeting, in answer to a whistle, but had gone on her way to her noonday's siesta in her home woods. Jupiter seemed quite gone, and Juno well able to take care of herself; but I was sorry when we went away for the rest of the winter, and the house was almost shut up, to think my poor pet might come down sometimes, hungry, and find nothing to eat, and no one to welcome her.  But as far as I could find out, from a servant who had promised to watch for her and feed her if she came, she never flew down once the whole winter.   But it was certainly Juno, the next spring, who came sailing slowly on wide wings every now and then over the lawn and woods, and poising herself in her dreamy flight above the house, would look as if asleep in the air, she hung so still. And no doubt she was in a day-dream of her early days—haunted, perhaps, by visions of herself as a puff- ball in that very spot, and of that other puff-ball (her only brother) who had left her so long—perhaps by some lingering recollections of her lady—but most of all (as she was but a buzzard) by sweet and savoury memories of high-scented mutton and gamey pony; but neither for love or for mutton would she come down more. No call seemed to reach her ears. The bird-queen was too proud now to stoop her wing to a whistle, and no sweet wild cry came back in answer, as, waking from her dream, she soared away in her graceful flight to her old haunts on the bog.   Where also, I think, about this time other broad wings were seen. (Not Jupiter's.) So no doubt it was the old old story over again. Juno had been wooed and won, she had found her mate, and the bird-queen was a bride. And somewhere in the heather there will be more puff-balls to be found, only I earnestly hope they never will be found; for, if all tales be true, Juno is about the last of her race who builds on the bog, and if her nests are harried, when you come for your scramble in the heather, there will be no broad wings in the blue sky to show you what my strange and beautiful pets were like—the wild and beautiful moor-buzzards.

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