common skua



common skua defined in 1930 year

common skua - Common Skua;
common skua - Upper parts mottled brown; shafts of the quills and tail-feathers white; under parts rufous-brown; bill, legs, and feet black. Length, twenty-five inches.

Of skuas there are but six species, two of which inhabit the southern hemisphere, and breed on the confines of the antarctic regions. The others belong to the northern half of the globe, and range in summer to the arctic regions. These four are all claimed as members of the British avifauna, but only two species need be fully described in this work. The skuas are gull-like birds, very strong on the wing, and swift flyers; and, like the gulls, they have a variety of feeding-habits, and are both the vultures and hawks of the sea, In the skuas there is more of the hawk and not so much of the vulture. Their predatory habits, extreme violence in attack, and readiness to take and destroy their feathered fellow-creatures and toilers of the deep when the occasion offers, have won them a reputation among birds similar to that of a pirate among men - the lawless rover of the sea, who is without compunction, and whose hand is against every man. In shape and general appearance the skuas are gull-like; they differ chiefly from the gulls in the form of the beak, which is straight for two-thirds of its length, and for the rest curved into a hook, as in the raptorial birds; and in the form of the tail, which is cuneiform, with the two centre feathers projecting beyond the others. In the gulls the tail-feathers are of equal length; while the terns, at the other end of this order of birds, have sharply forked tails like the swallow.

The great skua, or bonxie, as it is called by the Shetlanders, is the largest of the family. Except during the breeding season it is a solitary bird, oceanic in its habits, roaming far and wide over the waters in quest of food, its visits to land being restricted to rocky island coasts. Like the marine gulls, it feeds on dead fish found stranded or floating on the water, and on dead animal matter of all kinds, and also catches fish by pouncing on them as they swim near the surface. But it prefers to watch the movements of the other fishing-birds, which it follows and associates with to rob them of their prey. The herring-gull and lesser black-back may be frequently seen pursuing a tern or kittiwake to take from it the fish it has just captured; but these would-be robbers are not very successful - the chased tern, or small gull, in most cases proves too quick for them. These are like the merest mock chases and playful interludes in the day's work compared with the sudden, furious onslaught of the bonxie. The swiftest gull or tern cannot escape from him; he can turn as quickly as a swallow, and keep close to his victim in all his doublings, until the chased bird in his terror disgorges the fish he has just swallowed. The skua stays his flight to pick up the falling morsel, and the chase is over. Besides robbing the birds of their prey, he is also a bird-killer, making his deadly attacks on the sickly or wounded, and on the young in the breeding season.

The great skua breeds in the Shetlands, but the birds have now been reduced to a few pairs, chiefly owing to the persecution of collectors. Every effort has been made to protect the birds in their two small colonies on Unst and Foula, but it is scarcely to be hoped that this insignificant remnant will continue to exist many years, when we consider that the childish and contemptible craze of eggshell-collecting is very common, and that many collectors do not hesitate to steal, or to bribe others to steal for them, the eggs they desire to have in their cabinets.

About April the surviving birds return to their ancestral breeding-grounds and make their simple nests, composed of a few twigs or a little dry grass, in a slight hollow in the ground. The two eggs laid vary in ground-colour from pale to dark buffish brown, and are spotted with dark brown, with greyish brown underlying spots. They resemble the eggs of the herring-gull and lesser black-back.

In the breeding season the skua is a terror to all birds in the vicinity of its nest, as it is even more savage and impetuous in the defence of its eggs than when seeking its prey. Ravens, sea-eagles, dogs, and foxes, are violently attacked and driven off by it. It is also very bold towards a human intruder, gliding to and fro close to the surface within a few feet of him, and hovering overhead, screaming, and occasionally dashing down violently at his head, and all but striking it. They do strike sometimes, it is said, and it is related by the Shetlanders that birds have impaled themselves on a knife held up to ward off an attack, and have met their death in other curious ways, when trying to defend their nests. These stories are doubtless true, although the birds are less bold now than formerly, a long and sad experience having taught them that there is one enemy they cannot frighten away. I have often been struck by birds engaged in defending their nests - hawks, waders, and perching birds - and in some cases the striker has stunned himself; but this happened at a distance from Britain, in a region where birds have not been persecuted so long, and fear man less.

It is from its exceedingly violent down-rushing method of attack that the great skua derives its specific name of catarrhactes. It rushes down like a cataract. This is an ancient name for a bird of prey, and, in this case, a singularly fit one. But what shall we say of Brisson's hideous and ridiculous invention of Stercorarius as the generic name for all the skuas?

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