The Erne
 Morris's British Birds 1891
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Image Title: Erne
Description: Erne (Haliaetus albicilla)

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Haliaetus albicilla, SELBY. Falco albicillz, MONTAGU. GMELTN. LATHAM. TEMMINCK. Aquila albicilla, JENYNS. BRISSON. FLEMING.
(H)als—The sea. Aietos—An eagle. Alba—White. Cilia—A tail.

IF beyond perhaps a kind of daring courage, and even this, most probably the mere result of hunger, the Golden Eagle cannot be shown to have any valid claim to the title usually conferred upon it, so neither can the present species, or in fact any other of the tribe to which it belongs, assert any nobility beyond that of appearance and personal strength.
The Erne, or Sea Eagle, seems to be a compound of the characteristics of the Vultures, the Eagles, the Hawks, the predatory Gulls, and the Raven. It is a bird of imposing aspect, though less striking and handsome than the Golden Eagle, and not so compact: when excited, it throws its head backwards, sets up the pointed feathers of its head and neck, and assumes many elegant and graceful attitudes. Its proper habitat is near the sea shore, or fresh-water lakes surrounded by precipitous mountains: it is not however confined exclusively to coast localities, for it sometimes has been met with inland—in one instance as much as forty miles from the sea, and it occasionally also resorts to the sides of streams, in quest of salmon, trout, and other fish.
The present species is of very frequent occurrence in many parts of the old world, and is in this country far more numerous than the Golden Eagle. It is the most abundant in the northern parts of Ireland and Scotland, and in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, but has also been repeatedly met with in England. In Scotland, chiefly north of Aberdeen and the Ord of Caithness, and but rarely south of St. Abb's Head. It occurs in the Braemar district in Aberdeenshire, and has also been noticed on an island in Loch Skene, among the high hills on the confines of the counties of Dumfries, Peebles, and Selkirk, and in a few places in Galloway; likewise at Loch Awe, near Edinburgh, and the Grampian range.
In Yorkshire one was obtained at Heywra Park; another in the West Riding, shot at Okely, came into the possession of John Walbanke Childers, Esq., M.P., of Cantley; also several in the North and East Ridings,—one near Stockton-on-Tees, on the 5th. of November, 1833, by L. Rudd, Esq., of Marston in Cleveland; one at Speeton Cliff, in October, 1863, where another had been killed two years before; one also in Bedale Wood near Scarborough, in 1868. In Dorsetshire one was taken at Longbredy, between Dorchester and Bridport, and another at Morden Decoy. In Somersetshire one near High Ham, in 1849; one was killed on the Mendip Hills in 1802; others also. In Kent one near Deal and one near Feversham about the year 1837, as I am in¬formed by Mr. Chaffey, of Dodington, near Sittingbourne, to whom I am indebted for various other records of rare birds in Kent; another near Chilham, January 11th., 1869. It has been occasionally seen on Romney Marsh. In Berkshire one near Shottesbrook in 1794, and one at Wantage Downs in January, 1793. In Oxfordshire one at Henley-on-Thames; and in Buckinghamshire one at Checquers Court in 1846. In Norfolk one was seen in May, 1848, near Yarmouth: another was killed by Sir Robert Lyttleton's gamekeeper in Shropshire, in 1792, and another seen near there at the same time. It continued longer in the neighbourhood, and used to roost on the highest trees of a wood. One had been seen in Epping Forest, Essex, a few weeks before; one at Russell Farm, Watford, in 1862. In the New Forest, in Hampshire, it has been very often noticed. In Northumberland three specimens were procured at Chillingham Park, Lord Tankerville's seat, in two successive years, two in the former, and one in the following.
An Eagle, doubtless of this species, was shot in 1795 in Sussex, as re-corded by Markwick in his catalogue, says Mr. Knox; one also in Compton Wood, Firle Place near Lewes the seat of Lord Gage, the beginning of November, 1868. One was taken alive in a trap in Suffolk, also another pair, and another shot in that county in the winter of 1831; one at Lord Portrnan's seat at "Weybridge on the Thames. One was shot in 1843 at Elveden, near Thetford, in the act of preying on a rabbit which it had killed in a warren; one was taken near the Eddystone Lighthouse, and was kept alive for some time; another was shot in 1834 at Bridestowe, in Devonshire, and another on Dartmoor in the same county in 1832; also in 1834. One about the year 1862 at Skewjack in the parish of Seunen, and another at Oarnekey on the 9th. of November, 1844. Two occurred on the Northumbrian coast in 1828; one near Scremmerstone, and the other at Holy Island, both immature birds, supposed to be in their second or third year, one of them a female. A pair are recorded to have bred near Keswick, in Cumberland, one shot near there had a trout of twelve pounds in the nest. They have bred occasionally near there and Ulswater.
One hundred and seventy-one full-grown Eagles were killed in Sutherland shire in three years.
In the Orkney Islands they have several breeding-places, namely, Whitebreast, Dwarfie-hammer, and Old Man, in Hoy, and South Ronaldshay, and Costa Head, in Mainland. In Shetland also in a few of the most inaccessible places, such as Unst, Rona's Hill, Foula, etc.; also in the outer Hebrides, Skye, Mull, Rum, and Harris.
In Ireland, the 'Eagle's Crag' near the lakes, and 'Eagle's Nest' near Killarney, have derived their names from the eyries of either this species or the Golden Eagle. It also breeds at Fair Head, Horn Head, and Malin, Slieve Donald, in the county of Down, in Mayo, and among the Mourne Mountains.
In flight the feet are drawn close up, and the neck doubled back, so that the head appears as it were to grow from the shoulders. In this attitude it beats its hunting-grounds, the cliffs, or mountain sides, the open moors, or the shores of the ocean or lake, sailing with a gentle and hardly perceptible motion of its wings like the Buzzard, or, if flying off in a straight line to a distance, with regular flappings like the Raven. When at rest, in its ordinary position, it sits with its wings drooped in a slouching manner, as if to dry or air them, like the Cormorants and Vultures, with the latter of which it was indeed classed by Linnaeus, and it will be perceived that I have placed it next to those birds for the like and other reasons. It is not so easy on the wing as the Golden Eagle, though swift and strong in flight on occasion, and often extremely graceful. It rises with difficulty from a level surface, along which it flaps for some distance before it can do so, and may thus sometimes be brought within gun-shot, by running or riding down quickly upon it. It is described as being therefore for this reason seldom met with in such a situation at rest, but as then preferring some projection, or pointed surface, from which it can the more easily launch into the air: when it has done so, and has got upon the wing, it wheels away in large circles.
Fish afford its proper and most congenial food, and these it occasionally plunges upon, after the manner of the Osprey, a little below the surface, and sometimes, an humble imitator of the predaceous White-headed Eagle, is said to rob the original captor, the Osprey, of its prey, by forcing it to drop it in the air, and then seizing it before it has time to fall into its native element. Two have been seen to attack a doe at once, each pouncing on it and striking at its head with their wings in turn. One Sea Eagle, kept in confinement, is recorded by Montagu to have devoured its fellow captive. Two taken from the nest lived in harmony for three years, when, perhaps from some neglect in feeding them, one killed and ate the other.
It also preys on various aquatic birds, such as gulls, puffins, and guillemots; occasionally on fawns, young roebucks, and even, though very rarely, on weakly full-grown deer, as well as on sheep and other smaller animals, lambs, dogs and cats, as also on straggling domestic poultry, and in default of these, will readily feed on carrion of any kind. Herein also, it seems to shew a strong affinity to the Vultures, for on meeting with such, it remains on the spot for hours and sometimes for days together, and quits it only when it no longer affords the means of satisfying the cravings of its appetite. A whole puffin was once found in the stomach of one of these birds. They have also been seen to attack and feed on seals. This species has the power of abstaining for a very long time from food. One has been known to have lived for four or five weeks in 'total abstinence.''
Its note, which is a double one-a harsh and loud scream, uttered many times in succession—and which may be heard at the distance of a mile or more, is shriller aud sharper than that of the Golden Eagle, and is rendered by the words-kooluk, klook, or klick, queek.
The following curious exploit of one of these birds is related by Mr. Meyer:—'A. circumstance illustrative of the great muscular strength which these birds possess, I had the pleasure of witnessing in one confined in the Zoological Gardens in the Regent's Park, in the severe winter of 1835. I was employed in completing a sketch of the bird in question, when I observed him make many endeavours with his beak to break the ice that had frozen upon the tub of water placed in his cage. Finding all his efforts to get at the water in this manner were ineffectual, he deliberately mounted the uppermost perch in his cage, then suddenly collecting his strength he rushed down with irresistible force, and striking the ice with his powerful claws dashed it to atoms, throwing the water around him in all directions. After performing this feat of strength and sagacity, he quietly allayed his thirst and returned to his perch. This is no doubt the mode employed by this species in a wild state, to obtain its aquatic food, from the frozen rivers and inland seas it frequents in various parts of the Continent.'
From the vast altitude at which the Erne often flies, it would seem, in common with those of its class, to be able to live in a much more rarefied atmosphere than many other birds. Occasionally a pair of these Eagles are seen fighting in the air, and their evolutions are described as being then most beautiful, as indeed they may easily be imagined to be. The 'point d'appui' is, in common parlance, to get the upper hand, so as, secure from assault, to be able to attack from a vantage ground, thus to call it though in the air, and when one of the two has succeeded in this endeavour, and is launching itself at its adversary, the latter suddenly turns on its back, and is in a moment prepared, with upraised feet and outspread talons to receive its foe; a 'cheval de frise' not the most desirable to impinge upon. Two were observed thus fighting in the air over Loch Lomond; both fell together into the lake. The uppermost one managed to escape, but the other was captured by a Highlander who witnessed the contest, and waited till the wind wafted it to the shore.
In the Hebrides, the great damage done by, and therefore feared from Eagles of this species, makes the people interested in their destruction. Various ingenious and yet simple modes of trapping and destroying them have been devised, some requiring great perseverance but all at times successful in the end. Sometimes the farmer builds a temporary hut, in which he lies hid within sight of the carcase of some animal, which he has placed at once both within shot and within view, and after a greater or less exercise of patience, is rewarded by the approach of the Eagle, attracted to its quarry, either by its own immediate perceptions, or from its following other birds drawn to it by the exercise of theirs. The ravens, crows, and sea-gulls have preceded him to the repast, but his arrival, Harpy like, at once disperses them; the tables are turned, and they are compelled at first to withdraw to a respectful distance while he regales himself. But when he himself has become a carrion, laid low by the deadly aim of the ambuscade, it falls again to their lot to finish at leisure the feast which so lately he had disturbed; perhaps even to make a second course of his own defunct body. Mr. Macgillivray says that he has known no fewer than five of these birds destroyed in this manner by a single shepherd in the course of one winter, and he also says that in the Hebrides, where a small premium, a hen, I believe, from each house, or each farmhouse in the parish, is given for every Eagle killed, as many as twenty fall victims every year. Sir Robert Sibbald has recorded that in Orkney a child of a year old was carried off by one of these Eagles to its eyrie four miles distant, but it was providentially rescued from the very jaws of death.
The same motive which prompts to the destruction of the parent birds, leads also to various 'hair-breadth 'scapes' in attempts to destroy their young. By means of ropes, the attacking party is lowered over the edge of some awful-looking precipice, some 'imminent deadly' crag-for it is only in the most secure retreats that the Erne builds, conscious as it would seem, of the odium under which he lives, and the proclamation of outlawry which had been made against him in consequence-and having taken dry heather and a match with him, sets fire to the nest, and both it and its tenants are consumed before the gaze of the bereaved parents. Sometimes the eyrie can be approached and destroyed without the aid of ropes by the experienced and adventurous climbers, who, habituated to the perils of those stupendous cliffs, make little of descents and ascents which would infallibly turn dizzy the heads of those who have only been accustomed to 'terra firma.' Macgillivray writes, 'On observing a person walking near their nest, they fly round him at a respectful distance, sailing with out-stretched wings, occasionally uttering a savage scream of anger, and allowing their legs to dangle, with outspread talons, as if to intimidate him.'
This bird is the perpetual object of the buffets of the raven and the skua-gull, of whom he seems to be in the greatest dread. It is indeed related that the latter does not exercise this hostility in the Hebrides, but that it does in the Shetland Islands; but I cannot understand how one individual bird, and still less how a colony of birds can be gifted with an instinct not possessed by another colony of its own species in the same region.
In prowling for food near the ocean, the Erne generally flies along the side of the cliff, at an elevation of a few hundred feet, but its powers of sight, or of smell, enable it to discover a dead quarry from a vastly greater height, and from thence it will stoop like a thunder-bolt upon it.True it is. that its sense of smell does not enable it to detect the presence of a man concealed from its sight at the distance of only a few yards, but this can be no argument whatever against its having a keen perception of that which forms naturally a large proportion of its food, and especially when it is so strongly calculated to act powerfully on the organs of scent.
The Erne is never a gregarious bird; its habits perhaps forbid the exercise of the sociable qualities. Five is the largest number that has been seen in company, even when assembled to prey on a common carrion, and at other times, if as many as three are observed together, it is probably just before the breeding season, or at, and subsequent to that time; it is not until some weeks after the young birds have forsaken the nest, that both the parents leave it altogether.
An Erne has been known to be attacked by a hawk, supposed to be, probably, a Goshawk, and struck down into the sea, both birds falling together. One has been seen in the Island of Hoy, sailing off with a pig in its talons, which on enquiry at the farm from whence it had been stolen, was found by the Olergyinan of the place, who witnessed the fact, to have been four weeks old. Another, which had a hen in its talons, forgetting the proverb that 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,' dropped it, to make a swoop at a litter of pigs, but the sow with maternal courage, repelled the aggressor, who consequently lost his previous prey, which escaped safely, decidedly a narrow escape, into the farmhouse. Another is recorded to have entered a turf pig-stye, in which a pig had died, and being unable to escape through the hole at the top, by which it had descended, in the way of the hungry mouse in the fable, was caught in this novel and unintentional kind of trap; and slain in due course. Others are decoyed in Sutherlandshire, and doubtless in the same manner elsewhere, into a square kind of stone box with an opening at one end, in which has been fixed a noose: the Eagle, after flying in and eating of the bait placed within it, walks lazily out of the opening', and is caught by the loop.
On one occasion, a large salmon was found dead on the shore of Moffat water, and an immense Erne lifeless also beside it, having met its fate by being hooked by its own claws to a fish too large and powerful for it to carry off-an unwilling example of 'the ruling passion strong in death,' and an unwonted passage in the life and death of a fish, in whose case the usual order of things in the matter of hooking was reversed.
The following somewhat similar story is related by Bishop Stanley, 'A halibut, a large flat-fish, resembling a turbot, reposing on or near the surface of the water, was perceived by an Erne, which immediately pounced down and struck his talons into the fish with all his force. Should the halibut be too strong, the Eagle it is said, is sometimes, but rarely, drowned in the struggle. In this case, however, as more frequently happens, he overcame the fish, on which he remained as if floating on a raft, and then spreading out his wide wings, he made use of them as sails, and was driven by the wind towards the shore/ In Nottinghamshire, 'as a gentleman's groom was early one morning exercising his master's horses, a terrier dog which accompanied him put up from a bush a fine Eagle, measuring from tip to tip of his wings nearly eight feet. It flew slowly over the hedge into a neighbouring field, pursued by the dog, who came up with and attacked it before it could fairly rise; a sharp contest took place, during which the dog was severely bitten, but gallantly persevered in maintaining his hold; when at length, with the assistance of the groom, and a person accidentally passing by, the bird was finally secured.
The Erne, like the Golden Eagle, is said to have not unfrequently supplied the wants of different families in the Hebrides, by the food it had brought to its nest in abundance, for its young. It does not, as that bird, attack those who molest its nestlings, but there are two curious accounts on record of its assailing, in an unprovoked manner, persons whom it had surprised in hazardous situations on the edges of some dangerous cliffs. Mr. Leadbeater had one of these birds which became quite tame, and even affectionate to those about it. One kept by Mr. Selby laid an egg after having been in confinement twenty years. Another, which Mr. Hoy had, laid three eggs in one year: and Mr. Yarrell mentions one which seemed to be pleased with those who attended to it.
It is said that the Erne is more plentiful in Britain in the winter than at any other season, which, if so, would make it appear that it partially migrated. It builds in March, and sits very close, but is by no means so courageous as the Golden Eagle in defending its brood; one instance to the contrary is indeed on record, but the ' exception proves the rule.'' Montagu relates of one pair that they violently attacked a man who was robbing their nest. They will not in their wild state attempt to cope with a fox or a dog that shows resistance. An Erne and a fox have been seen banquetting together on a dead goat, but the latter repelled the former from its portion.
The nest, which is about five feet wide, and very flat, having only a slight hollow in the middle, is a mass of sticks, heather, or sea¬weed, as the case may be, arranged in a slovenly manner, and lined with any soft material, such as grass, wool, or feathers. It is placed on some precipice, or in the hollow of a crag, or rock, overhanging the sea, or else on some inland fastness, perhaps an island in a lake, or sometimes on a rock at the thunder-riven edge of one, and has been known in one instance placed on the flat ground. The male bird is said to take his turn at incubation with the female. The Erne is less strongly attached to its haunts than the Golden Eagle, but it seems in some degree fond of them, and not unfrequently returns to the same breeding-place for several years in succession.
The eggs, which, by a merciful provision, are few in number, as are those of the other Eagles, one, or at the most, two, though some say three, and that the third is always an addled one-three are stated to have been taken out of a nest of four, found near West Nab, but doubtless they must have been laid by two different birds -are white, yellowish white, or yellowish brown: some are wholly covered with light red spots, while others have only the large end dotted over. One variety is dull yellowish white, much dotted and blotted over at and about the smaller end with pale ferruginous brown, and a few irregular faint spots or specks of the same scattered over the remainder. A second is clear bluish white, with a few fine large and distinct blots run together at the thickest end, and a few other smaller ones here and there. A third is dull pale yellowish, with several blots of a slightly darker shade. A fourth is dull white, faintly tinged and slightly blotted with shades of pale yellowish.
The young are hatched about the beginning of June, and fully fledged about the middle of August.
It is also to be remarked that the difference in size between the male and the female, is not nearly so great as is usual in the case of the other Eagles, and so conspicuously so in the species next described, and "that they are also very similar in general appearance. The following is the description of the adult male bird:-Weight, about eight or nine pounds; length, about three feet; bill, dark straw-colour (at two years old, increasing in intensity of colour, as the bird grows older,) and with a bluish skin, slightly bristled over, extending from its base to the eyes; cere, yellow; iris, bright yellow, and remarkably beautiful and expressive. The feathers underneath the lower bill are bristly; crown of the head and neck, pale greyish or reddish brown, made up of a mixture of yellowish white and brown, the shaft of each feather darker than the rest, the feathers being hackles; breast and back, dark brown, with a few lighter coloured feathers intermixed, the former the darkest. The wings, when closed, reach to the end of the tail, the fourth and fifth quill feathers being the longest, the second and third equal, and nearly as long: their expanse is about six feet and a half. Primaries, blackish brown, nearly black, the bases of the feathers and the greater part of the secondaries brown, partly tinged with ash grey. The tail, which is rather short and slightly rounded, and consists of twelve broad feathers, has a small portion of its base deep brown, and the rest white, that is, when fully adult, which some say is after the third moult, and others not until the bird is five years old; upper tail coverts, white; the last part of the plumage, apparently, that attains the mature colour. The legs, which are feathered a little below the knee, are yellow straw-coloured, reticulated behind, and have a series of scales in front. The middle toe has eight large scales, the outer one five, and the inner and hinder ones four each. Another description assigns to the first and second toes three; to the third twelve; and to the fourth six. Another describes the middle toe as having sixteen, and the side and hind toes six each; and, again, another gives thirteen to the middle one; so that it seems to me pretty certain, that no dis-tinctive character is to be derived from their number: age may very possibly have something to do with it. The claws are black, strong and much hooked, the middle one being grooved on the under side. The female is nearly three feet and a quarter in length, but some vary very greatly in size. Her wings extend from seven feet to seven and a quarter or over. Macgillivray mentions one belonging to a Mr. Monroe, which he stated to measure nine feet from tip to tip.
The young birds, when first hatched, are covered with down of a whitish appearance: Montagu describes some he had as dark brown. When fully fledged the bill is deep brown tinged with blue, paler towards the base; the cere, greenish yellow; iris, dark brown; head, deep brown; chin, dingy white, nape, white, the feathers tipped with brown, giving these parts a spotted appearance, the extreme tips being paler than the rest; breast, dull white spotted with brown; back, light brown; primaries, blackish brown; lower tail coverts, dull white, tipped with deep brown; tail, greyish at the upper end, and the rest deep brown, with an irregular brownish white patch along the inner webs; legs and toes, yellow; claws, blackish brown.
When further advanced in plumage, the bill is bluish black, the tip of the upper mandible brownish and the greater part of the lower paler, and the sides yellowish towards the base; cere, greenish yellow; iris, chesnut brown; head, crown, and neck, still darker brown, the roots of the feathers white, and the tips paler than the rest. The breast is variegated with different shades of reddish brown, a few white feathers being interspersed; on the lower part pale brown, spotted with darker brown; the back on the upper part patched with brown of a darker and lighter shade, and some of the feathers on the shoulders glossed with purple, the feathers paler toward the base, and having the whole of their shafts dark; on the lower part white, the feathers tipped with brown. The tail is brown of different shades, darkest towards the end, and the base, and on the outer webs, except near the tips, which are white, as also the inner webs; under tail coverts, white tipped with deep brown; the legs and toes, yellow; and the claws, bluish black tinged with brown. Yarrell mentions a variety kept in the Garden of the Royal Zoological Society, which had the whole plumage of a uniform pale bluish grey colour.
The Erne varies much both in size and in colour, which latter becomes more cinereous as the bird advances in age, and this was the cause of the one species in the different stages of its plumage having been imagined to be two distinct ones. One has been killed in Sutherlandshire entirely of a silvery white hue, without any admixture of brown, and another of the like appearance was seen at the same time in company with it. A very curious variety in the Zoological Society's collection is thus described by Meyer, in his 'Illustrations of British Birds,' 'No painting can fitly represent the delicate and beautiful colour of this bird. When its feathers are ruffled, as may be frequently observed, at the pleasure of the creature, a delicate azure blue tint is seen to pervade the basal part of the feathers, which, appearing through the whole transparent texture, imparts to its plumage the singular tint it displays. It is observable that the beak of this individual is rather less in depth at the base than is usual in this species, and the iris yellowish white.'

"Upon her eyrie nods the Erne."—
The Lady of the Lake.

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