Frontispiece by Walter King Stone
THE LOG OF THE SUN A Chronicle of Nature's Year
By WILLIAM BEEBE
Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. Garden City, New York
BY HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TO MY Mother and Father WHOSE ENCOURAGEMENT AND SYMPATHY GAVE IMPETUS AND PURPOSE TO A BOY'S LOVE OF NATURE
In the fifty-two short essays of this volume I have presented familiar objects from unusual points of view. Bird's-eye glances and insect's-eye glances, at the nature of our woods and fields, will reveal beauties which are wholly invisible from the usual human view-point, five feet or more above the ground.
Who follows the lines must expect to find moods as varying as the seasons; to face storm and night and cold, and all other delights of what wildness still remains to us upon the earth.
Emphasis has been laid upon the weak points in our knowledge of things about us, and the principal desire of the author is to inspire enthusiasm in those whose eyes are just opening to the wild beauties of God's out-of-doors, to gather up and follow to the end some of these frayed-out threads of mystery.
Portions of the text have been published at various times in the pages of "Outing," "Recreation," "The Golden Age," "The New York Evening Post," and "The New York Tribune."
C. W. B.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PAGE JANUARY Birds of the Snow 3 Winter Marvels 10 Cedar Birds and Berries 16 The Dark Days of Insect Life 20 Chameleons in Fur and Feather 25
FEBRUARY February Feathers 31 Fish Life 37 Tenants of Winter Birds' Nests 44 Winter Holes 48
MARCH Feathered Pioneers 55 The Ways of Meadow Mice 61 Problems of Bird Life 65 Dwellers in the Dust 71
APRIL Spring Songsters 75 The Simple Art of Sapsucking 81 Wild Wings 85 The Birds in the Moon 88
MAY The High Tide of Bird Life 91 Animal Fashions 97 Polliwog Problems 102 Insect Pirates And Submarines 105 The Victory Of The Nighthawk 109
JUNE The Gala Days Of Birds 113 Turtle Traits 118 A Half-Hour In A Marsh 124 Secrets Of The Ocean 129
JULY Birds In A City 153 Night Music Of The Swamp 160 The Coming Of Man 167 The Silent Language Of Animals 170 Insect Music 176
AUGUST The Gray Days Of Birds 181 Lives Of The Lantern Bearers 188 A Starfish And A Daisy 191 The Dream Of The Yellow-Throat 195
SEPTEMBER The Passing Of The Flocks 199 Ghosts Of The Earth 204 Muskrats 207 Nature's Geometricians 210
OCTOBER Autumn Hunting With A Field Glass 217 A Woodchuck And A Grebe 223 The Voice of Animals 227 The Names Of Animals, Frogs, and Fish 234 The Dying Year 246
NOVEMBER November's Birds of the Heavens 249 A Plea for the Skunk 255 The Lesson Of The Wave 258 We Go A-Sponging 262
DECEMBER New Thoughts About Nests 269 Lessons From An English Sparrow 275 The Personality Of Trees 281 An Owl Of The North 297
A fiery mist and a planet, A crystal and a cell; A jelly fish and a saurian, And the caves where the cave men dwell; Then a sense of law and beauty And a face turned from the clod, Some call it evolution, And others call it God. W. H. Carruth.
BIRDS OF THE SNOW
No fact of natural history is more interesting, or more significant of the poetry of evolution, than the distribution of birds over the entire surface of the world. They have overcome countless obstacles, and adapted themselves to all conditions. The last faltering glance which the Arctic explorer sends toward his coveted goal, ere he admits defeat, shows flocks of snow buntings active with warm life; the storm-tossed mariner in the midst of the sea, is followed, encircled, by the steady, tireless flight of the albatross; the fever-stricken wanderer in tropical jungles listens to the sweet notes of birds amid the stagnant pools; while the thirsty traveller in the desert is ever watched by the distant buzzards. Finally when the intrepid climber, at the risk of life and limb, has painfully made his way to the summit of the most lofty peak, far, far above him, in the blue expanse of thin air, he can distinguish the form of a majestic eagle or condor.
At the approach of winter the flowers and insects about us die, but most of the birds take wing and fly to a more temperate climate, while their place is filled with others which have spent the summer farther to the north. Thus without stirring from our doorway we may become acquainted with many species whose summer homes are hundreds of miles away.
No time is more propitious or advisable for the amateur bird lover to begin his studies than the first of the year. Bird life is now reduced to its simplest terms in numbers and species, and the absence of concealing foliage, together with the usual tameness of winter birds, makes identification an easy matter.
In January and the succeeding month we have with us birds which are called permanent residents, which do not leave us throughout the entire year; and, in addition, the winter visitors which have come to us from the far north.
In the uplands we may flush ruffed grouse from their snug retreats in the snow; while in the weedy fields, many a fairy trail shows where bob-white has passed, and often he will announce his own name from the top of a rail fence. The grouse at this season have a curious outgrowth of horny scales along each side of the toes, which, acting as a tiny snowshoe, enables them to walk on soft snow with little danger of sinking through.
Few of our winter birds can boast of bright colours; their garbs are chiefly grays and browns, but all have some mark or habit or note by which they can be at once named. For example, if you see a mouse hitching spirally up a tree-trunk, a closer look will show that it is a brown creeper, seeking tiny insects and their eggs in the crevices of the trunk. He looks like a small piece of the roughened bark which has suddenly become animated. His long tail props him up and his tiny feet never fail to find a foothold. Our winter birds go in flocks, and where we see a brown creeper we are almost sure to find other birds.
Nuthatches are those blue-backed, white or rufous breasted little climbers who spend their lives defying the law of gravity. They need no supporting tail, and have only the usual number of eight toes, but they traverse the bark, up or down, head often pointing toward the ground, as if their feet were small vacuum cups. Their note is an odd nasal nyeh! nyeh!
In winter some one species of bird usually predominates, most often, perhaps, it is the black-capped chickadee. They seem to fill every grove, and, if you take your stand in the woods, flock after flock will pass in succession. What good luck must have come to the chickadee race during the preceding summer? Was some one of their enemies stricken with a plague, or did they show more than usual care in the selecting of their nesting holes? Whatever it was, during such a year, it seems certain that scores more of chickadee babies manage to live to grow up than is usually the case. These little fluffs are, in their way, as remarkable acrobats as are the nuthatches, and it is a marvel how the very thin legs, with their tiny sliver of bone and thread of tendon, can hold the body of the bird in almost any position, while the vainly hidden clusters of insect eggs are pried into. Without ceasing a moment in their busy search for food, the fluffy feathered members of the flock call to each other, "Chick-a-chick-a-dee-dee!" but now and then the heart of some little fellow bubbles over, and he rests an instant, sending out a sweet, tender, high call, a "Phoe-be!" love note, which warms our ears in the frosty air and makes us feel a real affection for the brave little mites.
Our song sparrow is, like the poor, always with us, at least near the coast, but we think none the less of him for that, and besides, that fact is true in only one sense. A ripple in a stream may be seen day after day, and yet the water forming it is never the same, it is continually flowing onward. This is usually the case with song sparrows and with most other birds which are present summer and winter. The individual sparrows which flit from bush to bush, or slip in and out of the brush piles in January, have doubtless come from some point north of us, while the song sparrows of our summer walks are now miles to the southward. Few birds remain the entire year in the locality in which they breed, although the southward movement may be a very limited one. When birds migrate so short a distance, they are liable to be affected in colour and size by the temperature and dampness of their respective areas; and so we find that in North America there are as many as twenty-two races of song sparrows, to each of which has been given a scientific name. When you wish to speak of our northeastern song sparrow in the latest scientific way, you must say Melospiza cinerea melodia, which tells us that it is a melodious song finch, ashy or brown in colour.
Our winter sparrows are easy to identify. The song sparrow may, of course, be known by the streaks of black and brown upon his breast and sides, and by the blotch which these form in the centre of the breast. The tree sparrow, which comes to us from Hudson Bay and Labrador, lacks the stripes, but has the centre spot. This is one of our commonest field birds in winter, notwithstanding his name.
The most omnipresent and abundant of all our winter visitors from the north are the juncos, or snowbirds. Slate coloured above and white below, perfectly describes these birds, although their distinguishing mark, visible a long way off, is the white V in their tails, formed by several white outer feathers on each side. The sharp chirps of juncos are heard before the ice begins to form, and they stay with us all winter.
We have called the junco a snowbird, but this name should really be confined to a black and white bunting which comes south only with a mid-winter's rush of snowflakes. Their warm little bodies nestle close to the white crystals, and they seek cheerfully for the seeds which nature has provided for them. Then a thaw comes, and they disappear as silently and mysteriously as if they had melted with the flakes; but doubtless they are far to the northward, hanging on the outskirts of the Arctic storms, and giving way only when every particle of food is frozen tight, the ground covered deep with snow, and the panicled seed clusters locked in crystal frames of ice.
The feathers of these Arctic wanderers are perfect non-conductors of heat and of cold, and never a chill reaches their little frames until hunger presses. Then they must find food and quickly, or they die. When these snowflakes first come to us they are tinged with gray and brown, but gradually through the winter their colours become more clear-cut and brilliant, until, when spring comes, they are garbed in contrasting black and white. With all this change, however, they leave never a feather with us, but only the minute brown tips of the feather vanes, which, by wearing away, leave exposed the clean new colours beneath.
Thus we find that there are problems innumerable to verify and to solve, even when the tide of the year's life is at its lowest ebb.
From out the white and pulsing storm I hear the snowbirds calling; The sheeted winds stalk o'er the hills, And fast the snow is falling.
On twinkling wings they eddy past, At home amid the drifting, Or seek the hills and weedy fields Where fast the snow is sifting.
Their coats are dappled white and brown Like fields in winter weather, But on the azure sky they float Like snowflakes knit together.
I've heard them on the spotless hills Where fox and hound were playing, The while I stood with eager ear Bent on the distant baying.
The unmown fields are their preserves, Where weeds and grass are seeding; They know the lure of distant stacks Where houseless herds are feeding.
Let us suppose that a heavy snow has fallen and that we have been a-birding in vain. For once it seems as if all the birds had gone the way of the butterflies. But we are not true bird-lovers unless we can substitute nature for bird whenever the occasion demands; specialisation is only for the ultra-scientist.
There is more to be learned in a snowy field than volumes could tell. There is the tangle of footprints to unravel, the history of the pastimes and foragings and tragedies of the past night writ large and unmistakable. Though the sun now shines brightly, we can well imagine the cold darkness of six hours ago; we can reconstruct the whole scene from those tiny tracks, showing frantic leaps, the indentation of two wing-tips,—a speck of blood. But let us take a bird's-eye view of things, from a bird's-head height; that is, lie flat upon a board or upon the clean, dry crystals and see what wonders we have passed by all our lives.
Take twenty square feet of snow with a streamlet through the centre, and we have an epitome of geological processes and conditions. With chin upon mittens and mittens upon the crust, the eye opens upon a new world. The half-covered rivulet becomes a monster glacier-fed stream, rushing down through grand canyons and caves, hung with icy stalactites. Bit by bit the walls are undermined and massive icebergs become detached and are whirled away. As for moraines, we have them in plenty; only the windrows of thousands upon thousands of tiny seeds of which they are composed, are not permanent, but change their form and position with every strong gust of wind. And with every gust too their numbers increase, the harvest of the weeds being garnered here, upon barren ground. No wonder the stream will be hidden from view next summer, when the myriad seeds sprout and begin to fight upward for light and air.
If we cannot hope for polar bears to complete our Arctic scene, we may thrill at the sight of a sinuous weasel, winding his way among the weeds; and if we look in vain for swans, we at least may rejoice in a whirling, white flock of snow buntings.
A few flakes fall gently upon our sleeve and another world opens before us. A small hand-lens will be of service, although sharp eyes may dispense with it. Gather a few recently fallen flakes upon a piece of black cloth, and the lens will reveal jewels more beautiful than any ever fashioned by the hand of man. Six-pointed crystals, always hexagonal, of a myriad patterns, leave us lost in wonderment when we look out over the white landscape and think of the hidden beauty of it all. The largest glacier of Greenland or Alaska is composed wholly of just such crystals whose points have melted and which have become ice.
We may draw or photograph scores of these beautiful crystals and never duplicate a figure. Some are almost solid and tabular, others are simple stars or fern-branched. Then we may detect compound forms, crystals within crystals, and, rarest of all, doubles, where two different forms appear as joined together by a tiny pillar. In all of these we have an epitome of the crystals of the rocks beneath our feet, only in their case the pressure has moulded them into straight columns, while the snow, forming unhindered in midair, resolves itself into these exquisite forms and floral designs. Flowers and rocks are not so very unlike after all.
Few of us can observe these wonderful forms without feeling the poetry of it all. Thoreau on the fifth day of January, 1856, writes as follows:... "The thin snow now driving from the north and lodging on my coat consists of those beautiful star crystals, not cottony and chubby spokes as on the 13th of December, but thin and partly transparent crystals. They are about one tenth of an inch in diameter, perfect little wheels with six spokes, without a tire, or rather with six perfect little leaflets, fern-like, with a distinct, straight, slender midrib raying from the centre. On each side of each midrib there is a transparent, thin blade with a crenate edge. How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat. Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity, so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand. Nothing is cheap and coarse, neither dewdrops nor snowflakes. Soon the storm increases (it was already very severe to face), and the snow becomes finer, more white and powdery.
"Who knows but this is the original form of all snowflakes, but that, when I observe these crystal stars falling around me, they are only just generated in the low mist next the earth. I am nearer to the source of the snow, its primal auroral, and golden hour of infancy; commonly the flakes reach us travel-worn and agglomerated, comparatively, without order or beauty, far down in their fall, like men in their advanced age. As for the circumstances under which this occurs, it is quite cold, and the driving storm is bitter to face, though very little snow is falling. It comes almost horizontally from the north.... A divinity must have stirred within them, before the crystals did thus shoot and set: wheels of the storm chariots. The same law that shapes the earth and the stars shapes the snowflake. Call it rather snow star. As surely as the petals of a flower are numbered, each of these countless snow stars comes whirling to earth, pronouncing thus with emphasis the number six, order, [Greek: cosmos]. This was the beginning of a storm which reached far and wide, and elsewhere was more severe than here. On the Saskatchewan, where no man of science is present to behold, still down they come, and not the less fulfil their destiny, perchance melt at once on the Indian's face. What a world we live in, where myriads of these little discs, so beautiful to the most prying eye, are whirled down on every traveller's coat, the observant and the unobservant, on the restless squirrel's fur, on the far-stretching fields and forests, the wooded dells and the mountain tops. Far, far away from the haunts of men, they roll down some little slope, fall over and come to their bearings, and melt or lose their beauty in the mass, ready anon to swell some little rill with their contribution, and so, at last, the universal ocean from which they came. There they lie, like the wreck of chariot wheels after a battle in the skies. Meanwhile the meadow mouse shoves them aside in his gallery, the schoolboy casts them in his ball, or the woodman's sled glides smoothly over them, these glorious spangles, the sweepings of heaven's floor. And they all sing, melting as they sing, of the mysteries of the number six; six, six, six. He takes up the waters of the sea in his hand, leaving the salt; he disperses it in mist through the skies; he re-collects and sprinkles it like grain in six-rayed snowy stars over the earth, there to lie till he dissolves its bonds again."
But here is a bit of snow which seems less pure, with grayish patches here and there. Down again to sparrow-level and bring the glass to bear. Your farmer friend will tell you that they are snow-fleas which are snowed down with the flakes; the entomologist will call them Achorutes nivicola and he knows that they have prosaically wiggled their way from the crevices of bark on the nearest tree-trunk. One's thrill of pleasure at this unexpected discovery will lead one to adopt sparrow-views whenever larger game is lacking.
I walked erstwhile upon thy frozen waves, And heard the streams amid thy ice-locked caves; I peered down thy crevasses blue and dim, Standing in awe upon the dizzy rim. Beyond me lay the inlet still and blue, Behind, the mountains loomed upon the view Like storm-wraiths gathered from the low-hung sky. A gust of wind swept past with heavy sigh, And lo! I listened to the ice-stream's song Of winter when the nights grow dark and long, And bright stars flash above thy fields of snow, The cold waste sparkling in the pallid glow.
CEDAR BIRDS AND BERRIES
Keep sharp eyes upon the cedar groves in mid-winter, and sooner or later you will see the waxwings come, not singly or in pairs, but by dozens, and sometimes in great flocks. They will well repay all the watching one gives them. The cedar waxwing is a strange bird, with a very pronounced species-individuality, totally unlike any other bird of our country. When feeding on their favourite winter berries, these birds show to great advantage; the warm rich brown of the upper parts and of the crest contrasting with the black, scarlet, and yellow, and these, in turn, with the dark green of the cedar and the white of the snow.
The name waxwing is due to the scarlet ornaments at the tips of the lesser flight feathers and some of the tail feathers, which resemble bits of red sealing wax, but which are really the bare, flattened ends of the feather shafts. Cherry-bird is another name which is appropriately applied to the cedar waxwing.
These birds are never regular in their movements, and they come and go without heed to weather or date. They should never be lightly passed by, but their flocks carefully examined, lest among their ranks may be hidden a Bohemian chatterer—a stately waxwing larger than common and even more beautiful in hue, whose large size and splashes of white upon its wings will always mark it out.
This bird is one of our rarest of rare visitors, breeding in the far north; and even in its nest and eggs mystery enshrouds it. Up to fifty years ago, absolutely nothing was known of its nesting habits, although during migration Bohemian chatterers are common all over Europe. At last Lapland was found to be their home, and a nest has been found in Alaska and several others in Labrador. My only sight of these birds was of a pair perched in an elm tree in East Orange, New Jersey; but I will never forget it, and will never cease to hope for another such red-letter day.
The movements of the cedar waxwings are as uncertain in summer as they are in winter; they may be common in one locality for a year or two, and then, apparently without reason, desert it. At this season they feed on insects instead of berries, and may be looked for in small flocks in orchard or wood. The period of nesting is usually late, and, in company with the goldfinches, they do not begin their housekeeping until July and August. Unlike other birds, waxwings will build their nests of almost anything near at hand, and apparently in any growth which takes their fancy,—apple, oak, or cedar. The nests are well constructed, however, and often, with their contents, add another background of a most pleasing harmony of colours. A nest composed entirely of pale green hanging moss, with eggs of bluish gray, spotted and splashed with brown and black, guarded by a pair of these exquisite birds, is a sight to delight the eye.
When the young have left the nest, if alarmed by an intruder, they will frequently, trusting to their protective dress of streaky brown, freeze into most unbird-like attitudes, drawing the feathers close to the body and stretching the neck stiffly upward,—almost bittern-like. Undoubtedly other interesting habits which these strangely picturesque birds may possess are still awaiting discovery by some enthusiastic observer with a pair of opera-glasses and a stock of that ever important characteristic—patience.
Although, during the summer months, myriads of insects are killed and eaten by the cedar waxwings, yet these birds are preeminently berry eaters,—choke-cherries, cedar berries, blueberries, and raspberries being preferred. Watch a flock of these birds in a cherry tree, and you will see the pits fairly rain down. We need not place our heads, a la Newton, in the path of these falling stones to deduce some interesting facts,—indeed to solve the very destiny of the fruit. Many whole cherries are carried away by the birds to be devoured elsewhere, or we may see parent waxwing filling their gullets with ten or a dozen berries and carrying them to the eager nestlings.
Thus is made plain the why and the wherefore of the coloured skin, the edible flesh, and the hidden stone of the fruit. The conspicuous racemes of the choke-cherries, or the shining scarlet globes of the cultivated fruit, fairly shout aloud to the birds—"Come and eat us, we're as good as we look!" But Mother Nature looks on and laughs to herself. Thistle seeds are blown to the land's end by the wind; the heavier ticks and burrs are carried far and wide upon the furry coats of passing creatures; but the cherry could not spread its progeny beyond a branch's length, were it not for the ministrations of birds. With birds, as with some other bipeds, the shortest way to the heart is through the stomach, and a choke-cherry tree in full blaze of fruit is always a natural aviary. Where a cedar bird has built its nest, there look some day to see a group of cherry trees; where convenient fence-perches along the roadside lead past cedar groves, there hope before long to see a bird-planted avenue of cedars. And so the marvels of Nature go on evolving,—wheels within wheels.
THE DARK DAYS OF INSECT LIFE
Sometimes by too close and confining study of things pertaining to the genus Homo, we perchance find ourselves complacently wondering if we have not solved almost all the problems of this little whirling sphere of water and earth. Our minds turn to the ultra questions of atoms and ions and rays and our eyes strain restlessly upward toward our nearest planet neighbour, in half admission that we must soon take up the study of Mars from sheer lack of earthly conquest.
If so minded, hie you to the nearest grove and, digging down through the mid-winter's snow, bring home a spadeful of leaf-mould. Examine it carefully with hand-lens and microscope, and then prophesy what warmth and light will bring forth. "Watch the unfolding life of plant and animal, and then come from your planet-yearning back to earth, with a humbleness born of a realisation of our vast ignorance of the commonest things about us."
Though the immediate mysteries of the seed and the egg baffle us, yet the most casual lover of God's out-of-doors may hopefully attempt to solve the question of some of the winter homes of insects. Think of the thousands upon thousands of eggs and pupae which are hidden in every grove; what catacombs of bug mummies yonder log conceals,—mummies whose resurrection will be brought about by the alchemy of thawing sunbeams. Follow out the suggestion hinted at above and place a handkerchief full of frozen mould or decayed wood in a white dish, and the tiny universe which will gradually unfold before you will provide many hours of interest. But remember your responsibilities in so doing, and do not let the tiny plant germs languish and die for want of water, or the feeble, newly-hatched insects perish from cold or lack a bit of scraped meat.
Cocoons are another never-ending source of delight. If you think that there are no unsolved problems of the commonest insect life around us, say why it is that the moths and millers pass the winter wrapped in swaddling clothes of densest textures, roll upon roll of silken coverlets; while our delicate butterflies hang uncovered, suspended only by a single loop of silk, exposed to the cold blast of every northern gale? Why do the caterpillars of our giant moths—the mythologically named Cecropia, Polyphemus, Luna, and Prometheus—show such individuality in the position which they choose for their temporary shrouds? Protection and concealment are the watchwords held to in each case, but how differently they are achieved!
Cecropia—that beauty whose wings, fully six inches across, will flap gracefully through the summer twilight—weaves about himself a half oval mound, along some stem or tree-trunk, and becomes a mere excrescence—the veriest unedible thing a bird may spy. Polyphemus wraps miles of finest silk about his green worm-form (how, even though we watch him do it, we can only guess); weaving in all the surrounding leaves he can reach. This, of course, before the frosts come, but when the leaves at last shrivel, loosen, and their petioles break, it is merely a larger brown nut than usual that falls to the ground, the kernel of which will sprout next June and blossom into the big moth of delicate fawn tints, feathery horned, with those strange isinglass windows in his hind wings.
Luna—the weird, beautiful moon-moth, whose pale green hues and long graceful streamers make us realise how much beauty we miss if we neglect the night life of summer—when clad in her temporary shroud of silk, sometimes falls to the ground, or again the cocoon remains in the tree or bush where it was spun.
But Prometheus, the smallest of the quartet, has a way all his own. The elongated cocoon, looking like a silken finger, is woven about a leaf of sassafras. Even the long stem of the leaf is silk-girdled, and a strong band is looped about the twig to which the leaf is attached. Here, when all the leaves fall, he hangs, the plaything of every breeze, attracting the attention of all the hungry birds. But little does Prometheus care. Sparrows may hover about him and peck in vain; chickadees may clutch the dangling finger and pound with all their tiny might. Prometheus is "bound," indeed, and merely swings the faster, up and down, from side to side.
It is interesting to note that when two Prometheus cocoons, fastened upon their twigs, were suspended in a large cageful of native birds, it took a healthy chickadee just three days of hard pounding and unravelling to force a way through the silken envelopes to the chrysalids within. Such long continued and persistent labour for so comparatively small a morsel of food would not be profitable or even possible out-of-doors in winter. The bird would starve to death while forcing its way through the protecting silk.
These are only four of the many hundreds of cocoons, from the silken shrouds on the topmost branches to the jugnecked chrysalis of a sphinx moth—offering us the riddle of a winter's shelter buried in the cold, dark earth.
Is everything frozen tight? Has Nature's frost mortar cemented every stone in its bed? Then cut off the solid cups of the pitcher plants, and see what insects formed the last meal of these strange growths,—ants, flies, bugs, encased in ice like the fossil insects caught in the amber sap which flowed so many thousands of years ago.
When the fierce northwestern blast Cools sea and land so far and fast, Thou already slumberest deep; Woe and want thou canst outsleep.
CHAMELEONS IN FUR AND FEATHER
The colour of things in nature has been the subject of many volumes and yet it may be truthfully said that no two naturalists are wholly agreed on the interpretation of the countless hues of plants and animals. Some assert that all alleged instances of protective colouring and mimicry are merely the result of accident; while at the opposite swing of the pendulum we find theories, protective and mimetic, for the colours of even the tiny one-celled green plants which cover the bark of trees! Here is abundant opportunity for any observer of living nature to help toward the solution of these problems.
In a battle there are always two sides and at its finish one side always runs away while the other pursues. Thus it is in the wars of nature, only here the timid ones are always ready to flee, while the strong are equally prepared to pursue. It is only by constant vigilance that the little mice can save themselves from disappearing down the throats of their enemies, as under cover of darkness they snatch nervous mouthfuls of grain in the fields,—and hence their gray colour and their large, watchful eyes; but on the other hand, the baby owls in their hollow tree would starve if the parents were never able to swoop down in the darkness and surprise a mouse now and then,—hence the gray plumage and great eyes of the parent owls.
The most convincing proof of the reality of protective coloration is in the change of plumage or fur of some of the wild creatures to suit the season. In the far north, the grouse or ptarmigan, as they are called, do not keep feathers of the same colour the year round, as does our ruffed grouse; but change their dress no fewer than three times. When rocks and moss are buried deep beneath the snow, and a keen-eyed hawk appears, the white-feathered ptarmigan crouches and becomes an inanimate mound. Later in the year, with the increasing warmth, patches of gray and brown earth appear, and simultaneously, as if its feathers were really snowflakes, splashes of brown replace the pure white of the bird's plumage, and equally baffle the eye. Seeing one of these birds by itself, we could readily tell, from the colour of its plumage, the time of year and general aspect of the country from which it came. Its plumage is like a mirror which reflects the snow, the moss, or the lichens in turn. It is, indeed, a feathered chameleon, but with changes of colour taking place more slowly than is the case in the reptile.
We may discover changes somewhat similar, but furry instead of feathery, in the woods about our home. The fiercest of all the animals of our continent still evades the exterminating inroads of man; indeed it often puts his traps to shame, and wages destructive warfare in his very midst. I speak of the weasel,—the least of all his family, and yet, for his size, the most bloodthirsty and widely dreaded little demon of all the countryside. His is a name to conjure with among all the lesser wood-folk; the scent of his passing brings an almost helpless paralysis. And yet in some way he must be handicapped, for his slightly larger cousin, the mink, finds good hunting the year round, clad in a suit of rich brown; while the weasel, at the approach of winter, sheds his summer dress of chocolate hue and dons a pure white fur, a change which would seem to put the poor mice and rabbits at a hopeless disadvantage. Nevertheless the ermine, as he is now called (although wrongly so), seems just able to hold his own, with all his evil slinking motions and bloodthirsty desires; for foxes, owls, and hawks take, in their turn, heavy toll. Nature is ever a repetition of the "House that Jack built";—this is the owl that ate the weasel that killed the mouse, and so on.
The little tail-tips of milady's ermine coat are black; and herein lies an interesting fact in the coloration of the weasel and one that, perhaps, gives a clue to some other hitherto inexplicable spots and markings on the fur, feathers, skin, and scales of wild creatures. Whatever the season, and whatever the colour of the weasel's coat,—brown or white,—the tip of the tail remains always black. This would seem, at first thought, a very bad thing for the little animal. Knowing so little of fear, he never tucks his tail between his legs, and, when shooting across an open expanse of snow, the black tip ever trailing after him would seem to mark him out for destruction by every observing hawk or fox.
But the very opposite is the case as Mr. Witmer Stone so well relates. "If you place a weasel in its winter white on new-fallen snow, in such a position that it casts no shadow, you will find that the black tip of the tail catches your eye and holds it in spite of yourself, so that at a little distance it is very difficult to follow the outline of the rest of the animal. Cover the tip of the tail with snow and you can see the rest of the weasel itself much more clearly; but as long as the black point is in sight, you see that, and that only.
"If a hawk or owl, or any other of the larger hunters of the woodland, were to give chase to a weasel and endeavour to pounce upon it, it would in all probability be the black tip of the tail it would see and strike at, while the weasel, darting ahead, would escape. It may, morever, serve as a guide, enabling the young weasels to follow their parents more readily through grass and brambles.
"One would suppose that this beautiful white fur of winter, literally as white as the snow, might prove a disadvantage at times by making its owner conspicuous when the ground is bare in winter, as it frequently is even in the North; yet though weasels are about more or less by day, you will seldom catch so much as a glimpse of one at such times, though you may hear their sharp chirrup close at hand. Though bold and fearless, they have the power of vanishing instantly, and the slightest alarm sends them to cover. I have seen one standing within reach of my hand in the sunshine on the exposed root of a tree, and while I was staring at it, it vanished like the flame of a candle blown out, without leaving me the slightest clue as to the direction it had taken. All the weasels I have ever seen, either in the woods or open meadows, disappeared in a similar manner."
To add to the completeness of proof that the change from brown to white is for protection,—in the case of the weasel, both to enable it to escape from the fox and to circumvent the rabbit,—the weasels in Florida, where snow is unknown, do not change colour, but remain brown throughout the whole year.
February holes are most interesting places and one never knows what will be found in the next one investigated. It is a good plan, in one's walks in the early fall, to make a mental map of all the auspicious looking trees and holes, and then go the rounds of these in winter—as a hunter follows his line of traps. An old, neglected orchard may seem perfectly barren of life; insects dead, leaves fallen, and sap frozen; but the warm hearts of these venerable trees may shelter much beside the larvae of boring beetles, and we may reap a winter harvest of which the farmer knows nothing.
Poke a stick into a knothole and stir up the leaves at the bottom of the cavity, and then look in. Two great yellow eyes may greet you, glaring intermittently, and sharp clicks may assail your ears. Reach in with your gloved hand and bring the screech owl out. He will blink in the sunshine, ruffling up his feathers until he is twice his real size. The light partly blinds him, but toss him into the air and he will fly without difficulty and select with ease a secluded perch. The instant he alights a wonderful transformation comes over him. He stiffens, draws himself as high as possible, and compresses his feathers until he seems naught but the slender, broken stump of some bough,—ragged topped (thanks to his "horns"), gray and lichened. It is little short of a miracle how this spluttering, saucer-eyed, feathered cat can melt away into woody fibre before our very eyes.
We quickly understand why in the daytime the little owl is so anxious to hide his form from public view. Although he can see well enough to fly and to perch, yet the bright sunlight on the snow is too dazzling to permit of swift and sure action. All the birds of the winter woods seem to know this and instantly take advantage of it. Sparrows, chickadees, and woodpeckers go nearly wild with excitement when they discover the little owl, hovering about him and occasionally making darts almost in his very face. We can well believe that as the sun sets, after an afternoon of such excitement, they flee in terror, selecting for that night's perch the densest tangle of sweetbrier to be found.
One hollow tree may yield a little gray owl, while from the next we may draw a red one; and the odd thing about this is that this difference in colour does not depend upon age, sex, or season, and no ornithologist can say why it occurs. What can these little fellows find to feed upon these cold nights, when the birds seek the most hidden and sheltered retreats? We might murder the next owl we come across; but would any fact we might discover in his poor stomach repay us for the thought of having needlessly cut short his life, with its pleasures and spring courtships, and the delight he will take in the half a dozen pearls over which he will soon watch?
A much better way is to examine the ground around his favourite roosting place, where we will find many pellets of fur and bones, with now and then a tiny skull. These tell the tale, and if at dusk we watch closely, we may see the screech owl look out of his door, stretch every limb, purr his shivering song, and silently launch out over the fields, a feathery, shadowy death to all small mice who scamper too far from their snow tunnels.
When you feel like making a new and charming acquaintance, take your way to a dense clump of snow-laden cedars, and look carefully over their trunks. If you are lucky you will spy a tiny gray form huddled close to the sheltered side of the bark, and if you are careful you may approach and catch in your hand the smallest of all our owls, for the saw-whet is a dreadfully sleepy fellow in the daytime. I knew of eleven of these little gray gnomes dozing in a clump of five small cedars.
The cedars are treasure-houses in winter, and many birds find shelter among the thick foliage, and feast upon the plentiful supply of berries, when elsewhere there seems little that could keep a bird's life in its body. When the tinkling of breaking icicles is taken up by the wind and re-echoed from the tops of the cedars, you may know that a flock of purple finches is near, and so greedy and busy are they that you may approach within a few feet. These birds are unfortunately named, as there is nothing purple about their plumage. The males are a delicate rose-red, while the females look like commonplace sparrows, streaked all over with black and brown.
There are other winter birds, whose home is in the North, with a similar type of coloration. Among the pines you may see a flock of birds, as large as a sparrow, with strange-looking beaks. The tips of the two mandibles are long, curved, and pointed, crossing each other at their ends. This looks like a deformity, but is in reality a splendid cone-opener and seed-extracter. These birds are the crossbills.
Even in the cold of a February day, we may, on very rare occasions, be fortunate enough to hear unexpected sounds, such as the rattle of a belted kingfisher, or the croak of a night heron; for these birds linger until every bit of pond or lake is sealed with ice; and when a thaw comes, a lonely bat may surprise us with a short flight through the frosty air, before it returns to its winter's trance.
Of course, in the vicinity of our towns and cities, the most noticeable birds at this season of the year (as indeed at all seasons) are the English sparrows and (at least near New York City) the starlings, those two foreigners which have wrought such havoc among our native birds. Their mingled flocks fly up, not only from garbage piles and gutters, but from the thickets and fields which should be filled with our sweet-voiced American birds. It is no small matter for man heedlessly to interfere with Nature. What may be a harmless, or even useful, bird in its native land may prove a terrible scourge when introduced where there are no enemies to keep it in check. Nature is doing her best to even matters by letting albinism run riot among the sparrows, and best of all by teaching sparrow hawks to nest under our eaves and thus be on equal terms with their sparrow prey. The starlings are turning out to be worse than the sparrows. Already they are invading the haunts of our grackles and redwings.
On some cold day, when the sun is shining, visit all the orchards of which you know, and see if in one or more you cannot find a good-sized, gray, black, and white bird, which keeps to the topmost branch of a certain tree. Look at him carefully through your glasses, and if his beak is hooked, like that of a hawk, you may know that you are watching a northern shrike, or butcher bird. His manner is that of a hawk, and his appearance causes instant panic among small birds. If you watch long enough you may see him pursue and kill a goldfinch, or sparrow, and devour it. These birds are not even distantly related to the hawks, but have added a hawk's characteristics and appetite to the insect diet of their nearest relations. If ever shrikes will learn to confine their attacks to English sparrows, we should offer them every encouragement.
All winter long the ebony forms of crows vibrate back and forth across the cold sky. If we watch them when very high up, we sometimes see them sail a short distance, and without fail, a second later, the clear "Caw! caw!" comes down to us, the sound-waves unable to keep pace with those of light, as the thunder of the storm lags behind the flash. These sturdy birds seem able to stand any severity of the weather, but, like Achilles, they have one vulnerable point, the eyes,—which, during the long winter nights, must be kept deep buried among the warm feathers.
We have all looked down through the clear water of brook or pond and watched the gracefully poised trout or pickerel; but have we ever tried to imagine what the life of one of these aquatic beings is really like? "Water Babies" perhaps gives us the best idea of existence below the water, but if we spend one day each month for a year in trying to imagine ourselves in the place of the fish, we will see that a fish-eye view of life holds much of interest.
What a delightful sensation must it be to all but escape the eternal downpull of gravity, to float and turn and rise and fall at will, and all by the least twitch of tail or limb,—for fish have limbs, four of them, as truly as has a dog or horse, only instead of fingers or toes there are many delicate rays extending through the fin. These four limb-fins are useful chiefly as balancers, while the tail-fin is what sends the fish darting through the water, or turns it to right or left, with incredible swiftness.
If we were able to examine some inhabitant of the planet Mars our first interest would be to know with what senses they were endowed, and these finny creatures living in their denser medium, which after a few seconds would mean death to us, excite the same interest. They see, of course, having eyes, but do they feel, hear, and smell!
Probably the sense of taste is least developed. When a trout leaps at and catches a fly he does not stop to taste, otherwise the pheasant feather concealing the cruel hook would be of little use. When an animal catches its food in the water and swallows it whole, taste plays but a small part. Thus the tongue of a pelican is a tiny flap all but lost to view in its great bill.
Water is an excellent medium for carrying minute particles of matter and so the sense of smell is well developed. A bit of meat dropped into the sea will draw the fish from far and wide, and a slice of liver will sometimes bring a score of sharks and throw them into the greatest excitement.
Fishes are probably very near-sighted, but that they can distinguish details is apparent in the choice which a trout exhibits in taking certain coloured artificial flies. We may suppose from what we know of physics that when we lean over and look down into a pool, the fishy eyes which peer up at us discern only a dark, irregular mass. I have seen a pickerel dodge as quickly at a sudden cloud-shadow as at the motion of a man wielding a fish pole.
We can be less certain about the hearing of fishes. They have, however, very respectable inner ears, built on much the same plan as in higher animals. Indeed many fish, such as the grunts, make various sounds which are plainly audible even to our ears high above the water, and we cannot suppose that this is a useless accomplishment. But the ears of fishes and the line of tiny tubes which extends along the side may be more effective in recording the tremors of the water transmitted by moving objects than actual sound.
Watch a lazy catfish winding its way along near the bottom, with its barbels extended, and you will at once realise that fishes can feel, this function being very useful to those kinds which search for their food in the mud at the bottom.
* * * * *
Not a breath of air stirs the surface of the woodland pond, and the trees about the margin are reflected unbroken in its surface. The lilies and their pads lie motionless, and in and out through the shadowy depths, around the long stems, float a school of half a dozen little sunfish. They move slowly, turning from side to side all at once as if impelled by one idea. Now and then one will dart aside and snap up a beetle or mosquito larva, then swing back to its place among its fellows. Their beautiful scales flash scarlet, blue, and gold, and their little hand-and-foot fins are ever trembling and waving. They drift upward nearer the surface, the wide round eyes turning and twisting in their sockets, ever watchful for food and danger. Without warning a terrific splash scatters them, and when the ripples and bubbles cease, five frightened sunfish cringe in terror among the water plants of the bottom mud. Off to her nest goes the kingfisher, bearing to her brood the struggling sixth.
Later in the day, when danger seemed far off, a double-pointed vise shot toward the little group of "pumpkin seeds" and a great blue heron swallowed one of their number. Another, venturing too far beyond the protection of the lily stems and grass tangle of the shallows, fell victim to a voracious pickerel. But the most terrible fate befell when one day a black sinuous body came swiftly through the water. The fish had never seen its like before and yet some instinct told them that here was death indeed and they fled as fast as their fins could send them. The young otter had marked the trio and after it he sped, turning, twisting, following every movement with never a stop for breath until he had caught his prey.
But the life of a fish is not all tragedy, and the two remaining sunfish may live in peace. In spawning time they clear a little space close to the water of the inlet, pulling up the young weeds and pushing up the sandy bottom until a hollow, bowl-like nest is prepared. Thoreau tells us that here the fish "may be seen early in summer assiduously brooding, and driving away minnows and larger fishes, even its own species, which would disturb its ova, pursuing them a few feet, and circling round swiftly to its nest again; the minnows, like young sharks, instantly entering the empty nests, meanwhile, and swallowing the spawn, which is attached to the weeds and to the bottom, on the sunny side. The spawn is exposed to so many dangers that a very small proportion can ever become fishes, for beside being the constant prey of birds and fishes, a great many nests are made so near the shore, in shallow water, that they are left dry in a few days, as the river goes down. These and the lampreys are the only fishes' nests that I have observed, though the ova of some species may be seen floating on the surface. The sunfish are so careful of their charge that you may stand close by in the water and examine them at your leisure. I have thus stood over them half an hour at a time, and stroked them familiarly without frightening them, suffering them to nibble my fingers harmlessly, and seen them erect their dorsal fins in anger when my hand approached their ova, and have even taken them gently out of the water with my hand; though this cannot be accomplished by a sudden movement, however dexterous, for instant warning is conveyed to them through their denser element, but only by letting the fingers gradually close about them as they are poised over the palm, and with the utmost gentleness raising them slowly to the surface. Though stationary, they kept up a constant sculling or waving motion with their fins, which is exceedingly graceful, and expressive of their humble happiness; for unlike ours, the element in which they live is a stream which must be constantly resisted. From time to time they nibble the weeds at the bottom or overhanging their nests, or dart after a fly or worm. The dorsal fin, besides answering the purpose of a keel, with the anal, serves to keep the fish upright, for in shallow water, where this is not covered, they fall on their sides. As you stand thus stooping over the sunfish in its nest, the edges of the dorsal and caudal fins have a singular dusty golden reflection, and its eyes, which stand out from the head, are transparent and colourless. Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint. It is a perfect jewel of the river, the green, red, coppery, and golden reflections of its mottled sides being the concentration of such rays as struggle through the floating pads and flowers to the sandy bottom, and in harmony with the sunlit brown and yellow pebbles."
When the cold days of winter come and the ice begins to close over the pond, the sunfish become sluggish and keep near the bottom, half-hibernating but not unwilling to snap at any bit of food which may drift near them. Lying prone on the ice we may see them poising with slowly undulating fins, waiting, in their strange wide-eyed sleep, for the warmth which will bring food and active life again.
3rd. Fish. Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea. 1st. Fish. Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones. Shakespeare.
TENANTS OF WINTER BIRDS' NESTS
When we realise how our lives are hedged about by butchers, bakers, and luxury-makers, we often envy the wild creatures their independence. And yet, although each animal is capable of finding its own food and shelter and of avoiding all ordinary danger, there is much dependence, one upon another, among the little creatures of fur and feathers.
The first instinct of a gray squirrel, at the approach of winter, is to seek out a deep, warm, hollow limb, or trunk. Nowadays, however, these are not to be found in every grove. The precepts of modern forestry decree that all such unsightly places must be filled with cement and creosote and well sealed against the entrance of rain and snow. When hollows are not available, these hardy squirrels prepare their winter home in another way. Before the leaves have begun to loosen on their stalks, the little creatures set to work. The crows have long since deserted their rough nest of sticks in the top of some tall tree, and now the squirrels come, investigate, and adopt the forsaken bird's-nest as the foundation of their home. The sticks are pressed more tightly together, all interstices filled up, and then a superstructure of leafy twigs is woven overhead and all around. The leaves on these twigs, killed before their time, do not fall; and when the branches of the tree become bare, there remains in one of the uppermost crotches a big ball of leaves,—rain and snow proof, with a tiny entrance at one side.
On a stormy mid-winter afternoon we stand beneath the tree and, through the snowflakes driven past by the howling gale, we catch glimpses of the nest swaying high in air. Far over it leans, as the branches are whipped and bent by the wind, and yet so cunningly is it wrought that never a twig or leaf loosens. We can imagine the pair of little shadow-tails within, sleeping fearlessly throughout all the coming night.
But the sleep of the gray squirrel is a healthy and a natural one, not the half-dead trance of hibernation; and early next morning their sharp eyes appear at the entrance of their home and they are out and off through the tree-top path which only their feet can traverse. Down the snowy trunks they come with a rush, and with strong, clean bounds they head unerringly for their little caches of nuts. Their provender is hidden away among the dried leaves, and when they want a nibble of nut or acorn they make their way, by some mysterious sense, even through three feet of snow, down to the bit of food which, months before, they patted out of sight among the moss and leaves.
It would seem that some exact sub-conscious sense of locality would be a more probable solution of this feat than the sense of smell, however keenly developed, when we consider that dozens of nuts may be hidden or buried in close proximity to the one sought by the squirrel.
Even though the birds seem to have vanished from the earth, and every mammal be deeply buried in its long sleep, no winter's walk need be barren of interest. A suggestion worth trying would be to choose a certain area of saplings and underbrush and proceed systematically to fathom every cause which has prevented the few stray leaves still upon their stalks from falling with their many brethren now buried beneath the snow.
The encircling silken bonds of Promethea and Cynthia cocoons will account for some; others will puzzle us until we have found the traces of some insect foe, whose girdling has killed the twig and thus prevented the leaf from falling at the usual time; some may be simply mechanical causes, where a broken twig crotch has fallen athwart another stem in the course of its downward fall. Then there is the pitiful remnant of a last summer's bird's-nest, with a mere skeleton of a floor all but disintegrated.
But occasionally a substantial ball of dead leaves will be noticed, swung amid a tangle of brier. No accident lodged these, nor did any insect have aught to do with their position. Examine carefully the mass of leaves and you will find a replica of the gray squirrel's nest, only, of course, much smaller. This handiwork of the white-footed or deer mouse can be found in almost every field or tangle of undergrowth; the nest of a field sparrow or catbird being used as a foundation and thickly covered over and tightly thatched with leaves. Now and then, even in mid-winter, we may find the owner at home, and as the weasel is the most bloodthirsty, so the deer mouse is the most beautiful and gentle of all the fur-coated folk of our woods. With his coat of white and pale golden brown and his great black, lustrous eyes, and his timid, trusting ways, he is altogether lovable.
He spends the late summer and early autumn in his tangle-hung home, but in winter he generally selects a snug hollow log, or some cavity in the earth. Here he makes a round nest of fine grass and upon a couch of thistledown he sleeps in peace, now and then waking to partake of the little hoard of nuts which he has gathered, or he may even dare to frolic about upon the snow in the cold winter moonlight, leaving behind him no trace, save the fairy tracery of his tiny footprints.
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa sae hasty, Wi' bickering brattle! I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee, Wi' murd'ring prattle! ROBERT BURNS.
The decayed hollows which we have mentioned as so often productive of little owls have their possibilities by no means exhausted by one visit. The disturbed owl may take himself elsewhere, after being so unceremoniously disturbed; but there are roving, tramp-like characters, with dispositions taking them here and there through the winter nights, to whom, at break of day, a hole is ever a sought-for haven.
So do not put your hand too recklessly into an owl hole, for a hiss and a sudden nip may show that an opossum has taken up his quarters there. If you must, pull him out by his squirming, naked tail, but do not carry him home, as he makes a poor pet, and between hen-house traps and irate farmers, he has good reason, in this part of the country at least, to be short tempered.
Of course the birds'-nests are all deserted now, but do not be too sure of the woodpeckers' holes. The little downy and his larger cousin, the hairy woodpecker, often spend the winter nights snug within deep cavities which they have hollowed out, each bird for itself. I have never known a pair to share one of these shelters.
Sometimes, in pulling off the loose bark from a decayed stump, several dry, flattened scales will fall out upon the snow among the debris of wood and dead leaves. Hold them close in the warm palm of your hand for a time and the dried bits will quiver, the sides partly separate, and behold! you have brought back to life a beautiful Euvanessa, or mourning-cloak butterfly. Lay it upon the snow and soon the awakened life will ebb away and it will again be stiff, as in death. If you wish, take it home, and you may warm it into activity, feed it upon a drop of syrup and freeze it again at will. Sometimes six or eight of these insects may be found sheltered under the bark of a single stump, or in a hollow beneath a stone. Several species share this habit of hibernating throughout the winter.
Look carefully in old, deserted sheds, in half-sheltered hollows of trees, or in deep crevice-caverns in rocks, and you may some day spy one of the strangest of our wood-folk. A poor little shrivelled bundle of fur, tight-clasped in its own skinny fingers, with no more appearance of life in its frozen body than if it were a mummy from an Egyptian tomb; such is the figure that will meet your eye when you chance upon a bat in the deep trance of its winter's hibernation. Often you will find six or a dozen of these stiffened forms clinging close together, head downward.
As in the case of the sleeping butterfly, carry one of the bats to your warm room and place him in a bird-cage, hanging him up on the top wires by his toes, with his head downward. The inverted position of these strange little beings always brings to mind some of the experiences of Gulliver, and indeed the life of a bat is more wonderful than any fairy tale.
Probably the knowledge of bats which most of us possess is chiefly derived from the imaginations of artists and poets, who, unlike the Chinese, do not look upon these creatures with much favour, generally symbolising them in connection with passages and pictures which relate to the infernal regions. All of which is entirely unjust. Their nocturnal habits and our consequent ignorance of their characteristics are the only causes which can account for their being associated with the realm of Satan. In some places bats are called flittermice, but they are more nearly related to moles, shrews, and other insect-eaters than they are to mice. If we look at the skeleton of an animal which walks or hops we will notice that its hind limbs are much the stronger, and that the girdle which connects these with the backbone is composed of strong and heavy bones. In bats a reverse condition is found; the breast girdle, or bones corresponding to our collar bones and shoulder blades, are greatly developed. This, as in birds, is, of course, an adaptation to give surface for the attachment of the great propelling muscles of the wings.
Although the hand of a bat is so strangely altered, yet, as we shall see if we look at our captive specimen, it has five fingers, as we have, four of which are very long and thin, and the webs, of which we have a very noticeable trace in our own hands, stretch from finger-tip to finger-tip, and to the body and even down each leg, ending squarely near the ankle, thus giving the creature the absurd appearance of having on a very broad, baggy pair of trousers.
When thoroughly warmed up, our bat will soon start on a tour of inspection of his cage. He steps rapidly from one wire to another, sometimes hooking on with all five toes, but generally with four or three. There seems to be little power in these toes, except of remaining bent in a hooked position; for when our bat stops and draws up one foot to scratch the head, the claws are merely jerked through the fur by motions of the whole leg, not by individual movements of the separate toes. In this motion we notice, for the first time, that the legs and feet grow in a kind of "spread eagle" position, making the knees point backward, in the same direction as the elbows.
We must stop a moment to admire the beautiful soft fur, a golden brown in colour, with part of the back nearly black. The tiny inverted face is full of expression, the bead-like eyes gleaming brightly from out of their furry bed. The small moist nostrils are constantly wrinkling and sniffling, and the large size of the alert ears shows how much their owner depends upon them for information. If we suddenly move up closer to the wires, the bat opens both wings owl-like, in a most threatening manner; but if we make still more hostile motions the creature retreats as hastily as it can, changing its method of progress to an all-fours, sloth-like gait, the long free thumb of each hand grasping wire after wire and doing most of the leverage, the hind legs following passively.
When at what he judges a safe distance he again hangs pendent, bending his head back to look earnestly at us. Soon the half-opened wings are closed and brought close to the shoulders, and in this, the usual resting position, the large claws of the thumbs rest on the breast in little furrows which they have worn in the fur.
Soon drowsiness comes on and a long elaborate yawn is given, showing the many small needle-like teeth and the broad red tongue, which curls outward to a surprising length. Then comes the most curious process of all. Drawing up one leg, the little creature deliberately wraps one hand with its clinging web around the leg and under the arms, and then draws the other wing straight across the body, holds it there a moment, while it takes a last look in all directions. Then lifting its fingers slightly, it bends its head and wraps all in the full-spread web. It is most ludicrously like a tragedian, acting the death scene in "Julius Caesar," and it loses nothing in repetition; for each time the little animal thus draws its winding sheet about its body, one is forced to smile as he thinks of the absurd resemblance.
But all this and much more you will see for yourself, if you are so fortunate as to discover the hiding-place of the hibernating bat.
Our little brown bat is a most excellent mother, and when in summer she starts out on her nocturnal hunts she takes her tiny baby bat with her. The weird little creature wraps his long fingers about his mother's neck and off they go. When two young are born, the father bat is said sometimes to assume entire control of one.
After we come to know more of the admirable family traits of the fledermaus—its musical German name—we shall willingly defend it from the calumny which for thousands of years has been heaped upon it.
Hibernation is a strange phenomenon, and one which is but little understood. If we break into the death-like trance for too long a time, or if we do not supply the right kind of food, our captive butterflies and bats will perish. So let us soon freeze them up again and place them back in the care of old Nature. Thus the pleasure is ours of having made them yield up their secrets, without any harm to them. Let us fancy that in the spring they may remember us only as a strange dream which has come to them during their long sleep.
In the annual war of the seasons, March is the time of the most bitterly contested battles. But we—and very likely the birds—can look ahead and realise what the final outcome will invariably be, and, our sympathies being on the winning side, every advance of spring's outposts gladdens our hearts. But winter is a stubborn foe, and sometimes his snow and icicle battalions will not give way a foot. Though by day the sun's fierce attack may drench the earth with the watery blood of the ice legions, yet at night, silently and grimly, new reserves of cold repair the damage.
Our winter visitors are still in force. Amid the stinging cold the wee brown form of a winter wren will dodge round a brush pile—a tiny bundle of energy which defies all chill winds and which resolves bug chrysalides and frozen insects into a marvellous activity. Other little birds, as small as the wren, call to us from the pines and cedars—golden-crowned kinglets, olive-green of body, while on their heads burns a crest of orange and gold.
When a good-sized brown bird flies up before you, showing a flash of white on his rump, you may know him for the flicker, the most unwoodpecker-like of his family. He is more or less deserting the tree-climbing method for ground feeding, and if you watch him you will see many habits which his new mode of life is teaching him.
Even in the most wintry of Marches some warm, thawing days are sure to be thrown in between storms, and nothing, not even pussy willows and the skunk cabbage, yield more quickly to the mellowing influence than do the birds—sympathetic brethren of ours that they are. Hardly has the sunniest icicle begun to drop tears, when a song sparrow flits to the top of a bush, clears his throat with sharp chirps and shouts as loud as he can: "Hip! Hip! Hip! Hurrah—!" Even more boreal visitors feel the new influence, and tree and fox sparrows warble sweetly. But the bluebird's note will always be spring's dearest herald. When this soft, mellow sound floats from the nearest fence post, it seems to thaw something out of our ears; from this instant winter seems on the defensive; the crisis has come and gone in an instant, in a single vibration of the air.
Bright colours are still scarce among our birds, but another blue form may occasionally pass us, for blue jays are more noticeable now than at any other time of the year. Although not by any means a rare bird, with us jays are shy and wary. In Florida their southern cousins are as familiar as robins, without a trace of fear of mankind. What curious notes our blue jays have—a creaking, wheedling, rasping medley of sounds coming through the leafless branches. At this time of year they love acorns and nuts, but in the spring "their fancy turns to thoughts of" eggs and young nestlings, and they are accordingly hated by the small birds. Nevertheless no bird is quicker to shout and scream "Thief! Robber!" at some harmless little owl than are these blue and white rascals.
You may seek in vain to discover the first sign of nesting among the birds. Scarcely has winter set in in earnest, you will think, when the tiger-eyed one of the woods—the great horned owl—will have drifted up to some old hawk's nest, and laid her white spheres fairly in the snow. When you discover her "horns" above the nest lining of dried leaves, you may find that her fuzzy young owls are already hatched. But these owls are an exception, and no other bird in our latitude cares to risk the dangers of late February or early March.
March is sometimes a woodpecker month, and almost any day one is very likely to see, besides the flicker, the hairy or downy woodpecker. The latter two are almost counterparts of each other, although the downy is the more common. They hammer cheerfully upon the sounding boards which Nature has provided for them, striking slow or fast, soft or loud, as their humour dictates.
Near New York, a day in March—I have found it varying from March 8 to March 12—is "crow day." Now the winter roosts apparently break up, and all day flocks of crows, sometimes thousands upon thousands of them, pass to the northward. If the day is quiet and spring-like, they fly very high, black motes silhouetted against the blue,—but if the day is a "March day," with whistling, howling winds, then the black fellows fly close to earth, rising just enough to clear bushes and trees, and taking leeward advantage of every protection. For days after, many crows pass, but never so many as on the first day, when crow law, or crow instinct, passes the word, we know not how, which is obeyed by all.
For miles around not a drop of water may be found; it seems as if every pool and lake were solid to the bottom, and yet, when we see a large bird, with goose-like body, long neck and long, pointed beak, flying like a bullet of steel through the sky, we may be sure that there is open water to the northward, for a loon never makes a mistake. When the first pioneer of these hardy birds passes, he knows that somewhere beyond us fish can be caught. If we wonder where he has spent the long winter months, we should take a steamer to Florida. Out on the ocean, sometimes a hundred miles or more from land, many of these birds make their winter home. When the bow of the steamer bears down upon one, the bird half spreads its wings, then closes them quickly, and sinks out of sight in the green depths, not to reappear until the steamer has passed, when he looks after us and utters his mocking laugh. Here he will float until the time comes for him to go north. We love the brave fellow, remembering him in his home among the lakes of Canada; but we tremble for him when we think of the terrible storm waves which he must outride, and the sneering sharks which must sometimes spy him. What a story he could tell of his life among the phalaropes and jelly-fishes!
Meadow larks are in flocks in March, and as their yellow breasts, with the central crescent of black, rise from the snow-bent grass, their long, clear, vocal "arrow" comes to us, piercing the air like a veritable icicle of sound. When on the ground they are walkers like the crow.
As the kingfisher and loon appear to know long ahead when the first bit of clear water will appear, so the first insect on the wing seems to be anticipated by a feathered flycatcher. Early some morning, when the wondrous Northern Lights are still playing across the heavens, a small voice may make all the surroundings seem incongruous. Frosty air, rimmed tree-trunks, naked branches, aurora—all seem as unreal as stage properties, when phoe-be! comes to our ears. Yes, there is the little dark-feathered, tail-wagging fellow, hungry no doubt, but sure that when the sun warms up, Mother Nature will strew his aerial breakfast-table with tiny gnats,—precocious, but none the less toothsome for all that.
Hark 'tis the bluebird's venturous strain High on the old fringed elm at the gate— Sweet-voiced, valiant on the swaying bough, Alert, elate, Dodging the fitful spits of snow, New England's poet-laureate Telling us Spring has come again! Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
THE WAYS OF MEADOW MICE
Day after day we may walk through the woods and fields, using our eyes as best we can, searching out every moving thing, following up every sound,—and yet we touch only the coarsest, perceive only the grossest of the life about us. Tramp the same way after a fall of snow and we are astonished at the evidences of life of which we knew nothing. Everywhere, in and out among the reed stems, around the tree-trunks, and in wavy lines and spirals all about, runs the delicate tracery of the meadow mice trails. No leapers these, as are the white-footed and jumping mice, but short-legged and stout of body. Yet with all their lack of size and swiftness, they are untiring little folk, and probably make long journeys from their individual nests.
As far north as Canada and west to the Plains the meadow or field mice are found, and everywhere they seem to be happy and content. Most of all, however, they enjoy the vicinity of water, and a damp, half-marshy meadow is a paradise for them. No wonder their worst enemies are known as marsh hawks and marsh owls; these hunters of the daylight and the night well know where the meadow mice love to play.
These mice are resourceful little beings and when danger threatens they will take to the water without hesitation; and when the muskrat has gone the way of the beaver, our ditches and ponds will not be completely deserted, for the little meadow mice will swim and dive for many years thereafter.
Not only in the meadows about our inland streams, but within sound of the breakers on the seashore, these vigorous bits of fur find bountiful living, and it is said that the mice folk inhabiting these low salt marshes always know in some mysterious way when a disastrous high tide is due, and flee in time, so that when the remorseless ripples lap higher and higher over the wide stretches of salt grass, not a mouse will be drowned. By some delicate means of perception all have been notified in time, and these, among the least of Nature's children, have run and scurried along their grassy paths to find safety on the higher ground.
These paths seem an invention of the meadow mice, and, affording them a unique escape from danger, they doubtless, in a great measure, account for the extreme abundance of the little creatures. When a deer mouse or a chipmunk emerges from its hollow log or underground tunnel, it must take its chances in open air. It may dart along close to the ground or amid an impenetrable tangle of briers, but still it is always visible from above. On the other hand, a mole, pushing blindly along beneath the sod, fears no danger from the hawk soaring high overhead.
The method of the meadow mice is between these two: its stratum of active life is above the mole and beneath the chipmunk. Scores of sharp little incisor teeth are forever busy gnawing and cutting away the tender grass and sprouting weeds in long meandering paths or trails through the meadows. As these paths are only a mouse-breadth in width, the grasses at each side lean inward, forming a perfect shelter of interlocking stems overhead. Two purposes are thus fulfilled: a delicious succulent food is obtained and a way of escape is kept ever open. These lines intersect and cross at every conceivable angle, and as the meadow mice clan are ever friendly toward one another, any particular mouse seems at liberty to traverse these miles of mouse alleys.
In winter, when the snow lies deep upon the ground, these same mice drive tunnels beneath it, leading to all their favourite feeding grounds, to all the heavy-seeded weed heads, with which the bounty of Nature supplies them. But at night these tunnels are deserted and boldly out upon the snow come the meadow mice, chasing each other over its gleaming surface, nibbling the toothsome seeds, dodging, or trying to dodge, the owl-shadows; living the keen, strenuous, short, but happy, life which is that of all the wild meadow folk.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble Has cost thee mony a weary nibble! Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste, An' weary winter comin' fast, An' cosey here, beneath the blast, Thou thought to dwell. Robert Burns.
PROBLEMS OF BIRD LIFE
The principal problems which birds, and indeed all other creatures, have to solve, have been well stated to be—Food, Safety, and Reproduction. In regard to safety, or the art of escaping danger, we are all familiar with the ravages which hawks, owls, foxes, and even red squirrels commit among the lesser feathered creatures, but there are other dangers which few of us suspect.
Of all creatures birds are perhaps the most exempt from liability to accident, yet they not infrequently lose their lives in most unexpected ways. Once above trees and buildings, they have the whole upper air free of every obstacle, and though their flight sometimes equals the speed of a railroad train, they have little to fear when well above the ground. Collision with other birds seems scarcely possible, although it sometimes does occur. When a covey of quail is flushed, occasionally two birds will collide, at times meeting with such force that both are stunned. Flycatchers darting at the same insect will now and then come together, but not hard enough to injure either bird.
Even the smallest and most wonderful of all flyers, the hummingbird, may come to grief in accidental ways. I have seen one entangled in a burdock burr, its tiny feathers fast locked into the countless hooks, and again I have found the body of one of these little birds with its bill fastened in a spiral tendril of a grapevine, trapped in some unknown way.
Young phoebes sometimes become entangled in the horsehairs which are used in the lining of their nest. When they are old enough to fly and attempt to leave, they are held prisoners or left dangling from the nest. When mink traps are set in the snow in winter, owls frequently fall victims, mice being scarce and the bait tempting.
Lighthouses are perhaps the cause of more accidents to birds than are any of the other obstacles which they encounter on their nocturnal migrations north and south. Many hundreds of birds are sometimes found dead at the base of these structures. The sudden bright glare is so confusing and blinding, as they shoot from the intense darkness into its circle of radiance, that they are completely bewildered and dash headlong against the thick panes of glass. Telegraph wires are another menace to low-flying birds, especially those which, like quail and woodcock, enjoy a whirlwind flight, and attain great speed within a few yards. Such birds have been found almost cut in two by the force with which they struck the wire.
The elements frequently catch birds unaware and overpower them. A sudden wind or storm will drive coast-flying birds hundreds of miles out to sea, and oceanic birds may be blown as far inland. Hurricanes in the West Indies are said to cause the death of innumerable birds, as well as of other creatures. From such a cause small islands are known to have become completely depopulated of their feathered inhabitants. Violent hailstorms, coming in warm weather without warning, are quite common agents in the destruction of birds, and in a city thousands of English sparrows have been stricken during such a storm. After a violent storm of wet snow in the middle West, myriads of Lapland longspurs were once found dead in the streets and suburbs of several villages. On the surface of two small lakes, a conservative estimate of the dead birds was a million and a half!
The routes which birds follow in migrating north and south sometimes extend over considerable stretches of water, as across the Caribbean Sea, but the only birds which voluntarily brave the dangers of the open ocean are those which, from ability to swim, or great power of flight, can trust themselves far away from land. Not infrequently a storm will drive birds away from the land and carry them over immense distances, and this accounts for the occasional appearance of land birds near vessels far out at sea. Overcome with fatigue, they perch for hours in the rigging before taking flight in the direction of the nearest land, or, desperate from hunger, they fly fearlessly down to the deck, where food and water are seldom refused them.
Small events like these are welcome breaks in the monotony of a long ocean voyage, but are soon forgotten at the end of the trip.
Two of these ocean waifs were once brought to me. One was a young European heron which flew on board a vessel when it was about two hundred and five miles southeast of the southern extremity of India. A storm must have driven the bird seaward, as there is no migration route near this locality.
The second bird was a European turtle dove which was captured not less than seven hundred and fifty miles from the nearest land—Ireland. When caught it was in an exhausted condition, but it quickly recovered and soon lost all signs of the buffeting of the storm. The turtle dove migrates northward to the British Islands about the first of May, but as this bird was captured on May 17th, it was not migrating, but, caught by a gust of wind, was probably blown away from the land. The force of the storm would then drive it mile after mile, allowing it no chance of controlling the direction of its flight, but, from the very velocity, making it easy for the bird to maintain its equilibrium.
Hundreds of birds must perish when left by storms far out at sea, and the infinitely small chance of encountering a vessel or other resting-place makes a bird which has passed through such an experience and survived, interesting indeed.
In winter ruffed grouse have a habit of burrowing deep beneath the snow and letting the storm shut them in. In this warm, cosey retreat they spend the night, their breath making its way out through the loosely packed crystals. But when a cold rain sets in during the night, this becomes a fatal trap, an impenetrable crust cutting off their means of escape.
Ducks, when collected about a small open place in an ice-covered pond, diving for the tender roots on which they feed, sometimes become confused and drown before they find their way out. They have been seen frozen into the ice by hundreds, sitting there helplessly, and fortunate if the sun, with its thawing power, releases them before they are discovered by marauding hawks or foxes.
In connection with their food supply the greatest enemy of birds is ice, and when a winter rain ends with a cold snap, and every twig and seed is encased in a transparent armour of ice, then starvation stalks close to all the feathered kindred. Then is the time to scatter crumbs and grain broadcast, to nail bones and suet to the tree-trunks and so awaken hope and life in the shivering little forms. If a bird has food in abundance, it little fears the cold. I have kept parrakeets out through the blizzards and storms of a severe winter, seeing them play and frolic in the snow as if their natural home were an arctic tundra, instead of a tropical forest.
A friend of birds once planted many sprouts of wild honeysuckle about his porch, and the following summer two pairs of hummingbirds built their nests in near-by apple trees; he transplanted quantities of living woodbine to the garden fences, and when the robins returned in the spring, after having remained late the previous autumn feeding on the succulent bunches of berries, no fewer than ten pairs nested on and about the porch and yard.
So my text of this, as of many other weeks is,—study the food habits of the birds and stock your waste places with their favourite berry or vine. Your labour will be repaid a hundredfold in song and in the society of the little winged comrades.
Worn is the winter rug of white, And in the snow-bare spots once more, Glimpses of faint green grass in sight,— Spring's footprints on the floor. Spring here—by what magician's touch? 'Twas winter scarce an hour ago. And yet I should have guessed as much,— Those footprints in the snow! Frank Dempster Sherman.
DWELLERS IN THE DUST
To many of us the differences between a reptile and a batrachian are unknown. Even if we have learned that these interesting creatures are well worth studying and that they possess few or none of the unpleasant characteristics usually attributed to them, still we are apt to speak of having seen a lizard in the water at the pond's edge, or of having heard a reptile croaking near the marsh. To avoid such mistakes, one need only remember that reptiles are covered with scales and that batrachians have smooth skins.
Our walks will become more and more interesting as we spread our interest over a wider field, not confining our observations to birds and mammals alone, but including members of the two equally distinctive classes of animals mentioned above. The batrachians, in the northeastern part of our country, include the salamanders and newts, the frogs and toads, while as reptiles we number lizards, turtles, and snakes.
Lizards are creatures of the tropics and only two small species are found in our vicinity, and these occur but rarely. Snakes, however, are more abundant, and, besides the rare poisonous copperhead and rattlesnake, careful search will reveal a dozen harmless species, the commonest, of course, being the garter snake and its near relative the ribbon snake.
About this time of the year snakes begin to feel the thawing effect of the sun's rays and to stir in their long winter hibernation. Sometimes we will come upon a ball of six or eight intertwined snakes, which, if they are still frozen up, will lie motionless upon the ground. But when spring finally unclasps the seal which has been put upon tree and ground, these reptiles stretch themselves full length upon some exposed stone, where they lie basking in the sun.
The process of shedding the skin soon begins; getting clear of the head part, eye-scales and all, the serpent slowly wriggles its way forward, escaping from the old skin as a finger is drawn from a glove. At last it crawls away, bright and shining in its new scaly coat, leaving behind it a spectral likeness of itself, which slowly sinks and disintegrates amid the dead leaves and moss, or, later in the year, it may perhaps be discovered by some crested flycatcher and carried off to be added to its nesting material.
When the broods of twenty to thirty young garter snakes start out in life to hunt for themselves, then woe to the earthworms, for it is upon them that the little serpents chiefly feed.
Six or seven of our native species of snakes lay eggs, usually depositing them under the bark of rotten logs, or in similar places, where they are left to hatch by the heat of the sun or by that of the decaying vegetation. It is interesting to gather these leathery shelled eggs and watch them hatch, and it is surprising how similar to each other some of the various species are when they emerge from the shell.
Early April sees the last contest which winter wages for supremacy, and often it is a half-hearted attempt; but after the army of the North has retreated, with its icicles and snowdrifts, spring seems dazed for a while. Victory has been dearly bought, and April is the season when, for a time, the trees and insects hang fire—paralysed—while the chill is thawing from their marrow. Our northern visitors of the bird world slip quietly away. There is no great gathering of clans like that of the tree swallows in the fall, but silently, one by one, they depart, following the last moan of the north wind, covering winter's disordered retreat with warbles and songs.
One evening we notice the juncos and tree sparrows in the tangled, frost-burned stubble, and the next day, although our eye catches glints of white from sparrow tails, it is from vesper finches, not from juncos, and the weed spray which a few hours before bent beneath a white-throat's weight, now vibrates with the energy which a field sparrow puts into his song. Field and chipping sparrows, which now come in numbers, are somewhat alike, but by their beaks and songs you may know them. The mandibles of the former are flesh-coloured, those of the latter black. The sharp chip! chip! is characteristic of the "chippy," but the sweet, dripping song of the field sparrow is charming. No elaborate performance this, but a succession of sweet, high notes, accelerating toward the end, like a coin of silver settling to rest on a marble table—a simple, chaste vespers which rises to the setting sun and endears the little brown singer to us.
We may learn much by studying these homely little frequenters of our orchards and pastures; each has a hundred secrets which await patient and careful watching by their human lovers. In the chipping sparrow we may notice a hint of the spring change of dress which warblers and tanagers carry to such an extreme. When he left us in the fall he wore a dull-streaked cap, but now he comes from the South attired in a smart head-covering of bright chestnut. Poor little fellow, this is the very best he can do in the way of especial ornament to bewitch his lady love, but it suffices. Can the peacock's train do more?
This is the time to watch for the lines of ducks crossing the sky, and be ready to find black ducks in the oddest places—even in insignificant rain pools deep in the woods. In the early spring the great flocks of grackles and redwings return, among the first to arrive as they were the last to leave for the South.
Before the last fox sparrow goes, the hermit thrush comes, and these birds, alike in certain superficialities, but so actually unrelated, for a time seek their food in the same grove.
The hardier of the warblers pass us in April, stopping a few days before continuing to the northward. We should make haste to identify them and to learn all we can of their notes and habits, not only because of the short stay which most of them make, but on account of the vast assemblage of warbler species already on the move in the Southern States, which soon, in panoply of rainbow hues, will crowd our groves and wear thin the warbler pages of our bird books.