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The Fierce Falcon, edited by Andrew Lang

From Wild Sports of the Highlands. By C. St. John.

There are not nearly so many stories about birds as about dogs and cats, because birds can fly away, and it is more difficult to know what becomes of them. Perhaps, properly speaking, stories about birds have no business in a ‘Beast Book,’ but as long as the story is interesting, it does not do to be too particular.

A good many years ago, a gentleman named St. John was exploring the high hills near the source of the Findhorn, in Inverness-shire, when he found a young falcon which was being reared as a pet by a shepherd boy, who gave her trout to eat. There was not much beauty about the falcon when Mr. St. John first saw her, for her plumage was dark-brown, with long-shaped spots on the breast, but in spite of that he took a fancy to her, and persuaded her master to sell her to him. When, however, she had passed her second birthday, and might be considered grown up, she put on all her finest feathers, and was very much admired by everyone. Her throat became a lovely soft cream colour, and the brown on her back changed into a lovely dark grey, while on her bosom, each little feather was crossed by a bar. But lovely though she was, Mr. St. John felt her to be a great care, for she was very strong as well as very brave, and would never think twice about attacking dogs or even people, if they offended her. As for the fowls, she soon made such short work of them, that her master was obliged to chain her up in the kitchen garden, which had hitherto formed the  property of a tame owl. Luckily for the owl, the falcon at once made friends with him, and he was even allowed to finish up any of the falcon’s dinner which she did not want herself.

Matters went quite smoothly for some weeks, and Mr. St. John was beginning to flatter himself that his pet was quieting down, and becoming quite a home bird, when one day a duck, tempted by the sight of the garden, whose gate had been carelessly left open, advanced a few steps along the path. Seeing nothing and nobody (for being daylight, the owl was asleep and the falcon too cunning to move) the duck became bolder, and walked merrily on, pecking at anything that took her fancy, and making funny little noises of satisfaction, unconscious of a pair of bright eyes that were watching her from behind a bush. Indeed, so absorbed was the duck in her afternoon tea, that she never even saw the falcon steal softly out and soar a little way up into the air, and suddenly swoop down with great force, and before the victim had time to be frightened she was dead, and her body was carried away in the falcon’s claws, to serve for her supper.

Now the duck was the mother of a large family, all newly hatched, and it would have fared very badly with them in their babyhood, had it not been for the kindness of a guinea-fowl, who adopted them as her own, directly she heard that they were left orphans and helpless. The guinea-fowl, indeed, was quite glad of the chance, because she had a warm heart, and had mourned sadly for her husband, who had been lately condemned to death on account of a series of horrible murders he had committed among the young chickens. So the good creature thought the duck’s sad accident quite providential, and at once set about filling her place. Like many other mothers, instead of making the little ducklings fall into her ways, she fell into theirs, and never left their sides, except on urgent business. And they had, even then, only to call to her if they saw great clumsy animals such as dogs or children coming their way,  and down she would rush in a frightful hurry, half scrambling, half flying over bushes and palings, and making furious pecks at the children’s legs, if they ventured too close to her little ones.

Still, not all her love nor all her courage would have prevented the guinea-fowl falling a victim to the falcon, if once the bird had got loose, and as it was, the falcon continued to do a good deal of damage to the creatures about the farmyard. A cock, who had hitherto crowed very loudly and declared himself king of the birds, was foolish enough to give battle to our falcon. An hour after, a few feathers were all that remained of him, and as to the pigeons, if they ever happened to get within the length of her chain, their doom was certain. At last the gaps in the poultry yard became so serious that Mr. St. John made up his mind that the falcon must be fastened up in a still more out-of-the-way place, and while he was altering her chain away she flew. Of course he thought she was gone for ever, and he watched her circling about the house with a very sad heart, for he still was fond of her, though she was such a very bad bird, and gave him so much trouble; but as it was getting dark, he had to go in, and stealing a last look at her as he entered the house, he saw her settling down for the night, in the top of a tall tree.

For five days no more was seen or heard of the wanderer, and it was not until the fifth morning that Mr. St. John observed her, high in the air, fighting fiercely with some hooded crows. He stood out on the grass, where there was nothing to hide him, and whistled loudly. In an instant the falcon heard him, busily engaged though she was, and wheeled down to her old master, perching on his arm, and rubbing her beak against him. She did not seem to have been softened or improved by her taste of liberty, for she showed herself quite as ready as of old to attack everything within reach of her chain, first killing them, and then pulling off their hair or plucking out their feathers, before she began her meal. The only animal  which she could not swallow was a mole, and one day she swooped down on a Skye terrier, and it would certainly not have escaped alive, had not its master come to the rescue. But it is time we thought of something nicer than this dreadful bird.