WAYS OF WOOD FOLK
WILLIAM J. LONG
BOSTON, U.S.A. GINN & COMPANY, PUBLISHERS The Athenaeum Press 1902
COPYRIGHT, 1899 BY WILLIAM J. LONG
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
TO PLATO, the owl, who looks over my shoulder as I write, and who knows all about the woods.
"All crows are alike," said a wise man, speaking of politicians. That is quite true—in the dark. By daylight, however, there is as much difference, within and without, in the first two crows one meets as in the first two men or women. I asked a little child once, who was telling me all about her chicken, how she knew her chicken from twenty others just like him in the flock. "How do I know my chicken? I know him by his little face," she said. And sure enough, the face, when you looked at it closely, was different from all other faces.
This is undoubtedly true of all birds and all animals. They recognize each other instantly amid multitudes of their kind; and one who watches them patiently sees quite as many odd ways and individualities among Wood Folk as among other people. No matter, therefore, how well you know the habits of crows or the habits of caribou in general, watch the first one that crosses your path as if he were an entire stranger; open eyes to see and heart to interpret, and you will surely find some new thing, some curious unrecorded way, to give delight to your tramp and bring you home with a new interest.
This individuality of the wild creatures will account, perhaps, for many of these Ways, which can seem no more curious or startling to the reader than to the writer when he first discovered them. They are, almost entirely, the records of personal observation in the woods and fields. Occasionally, when I know my hunter or woodsman well, I have taken his testimony, but never without weighing it carefully, and proving it whenever possible by watching the animal in question for days or weeks till I found for myself that it was all true.
The sketches are taken almost at random from old note-books and summer journals. About them gather a host of associations, of living-over-agains, that have made it a delight to write them; associations of the winter woods, of apple blossoms and nest-building, of New England uplands and wilderness rivers, of camps and canoes, of snowshoes and trout rods, of sunrise on the hills, when one climbed for the eagle's nest, and twilight on the yellow wind-swept beaches, where the surf sobbed far away, and wings twanged like reeds in the wind swooping down to decoys,—all thronging about one, eager to be remembered if not recorded. Among them, most eager, most intense, most frequent of all associations, there is a boy with nerves all a-tingle at the vast sweet mystery that rustled in every wood, following the call of the winds and the birds, or wandering alone where the spirit moved him, who never studied nature consciously, but only loved it, and who found out many of these Ways long ago, guided solely by a boy's instinct.
If they speak to other boys, as to fellow explorers in the always new world, if they bring back to older children happy memories of a golden age when nature and man were not quite so far apart, then there will be another pleasure in having written them.
My thanks are due, and are given heartily, to the editors of The Youth's Companion for permission to use several sketches that have already appeared, and to Mr. Charles Copeland, the artist, for his care and interest in preparing the illustrations.
WM. J. LONG.
ANDOVER, MASS., June, 1899.
I. FOX-WAYS 1 II. MERGANSER 27 III. QUEER WAYS OF BR'ER RABBIT 41 IV. A WILD DUCK 55 V. AN ORIOLE'S NEST 69 VI. THE BUILDERS 77 VII. CROW-WAYS 101 VIII. ONE TOUCH OF NATURE 117 IX. MOOSE CALLING 121 X. CH'GEEGEE-LOKH-SIS 135 XI. A FELLOW OF EXPEDIENTS 152 XII. A TEMPERANCE LESSON FOR THE HORNETS 161 XIII. SNOWY VISITORS 167 XIV. A CHRISTMAS CAROL 181 XV. MOOWEEN THE BEAR 187
WAYS OF WOOD FOLK.
Did you ever meet a fox face to face, surprising him quite as much as yourself? If so, you were deeply impressed, no doubt, by his perfect dignity and self-possession. Here is how the meeting generally comes about.
It is a late winter afternoon. You are swinging rapidly over the upland pastures, or loitering along the winding old road through the woods. The color deepens in the west; the pines grow black against it; the rich brown of the oak leaves seems to glow everywhere in the last soft light; and the mystery that never sleeps long in the woods begins to rustle again in the thickets. You are busy with your own thoughts, seeing nothing, till a flash of yellow passes before your eyes, and a fox stands in the path before you, one foot uplifted, the fluffy brush swept aside in graceful curve, the bright eyes looking straight into yours—nay, looking through them to read the intent which gives the eyes their expression. That is always the way with a fox; he seems to be looking at your thoughts.
Surprise, eagerness, a lively curiosity are all in your face on the instant; but the beautiful creature before you only draws himself together with quiet self-possession. He lifts his head slightly; a superior look creeps into his eyes; he seems to be speaking. Listen—
"You are surprised?"—this with an almost imperceptible lift of his eyebrows, which reminds you somehow that it is really none of your affair. "O, I frequently use this road in attending to some matters over in the West Parish. To be sure, we are socially incompatible; we may even regard each other as enemies, unfortunately. I did take your chickens last week; but yesterday your unmannerly dogs hunted me. At least we may meet and pass as gentlemen. You are the older; allow me to give you the path."
Dropping his head again, he turns to the left, English fashion, and trots slowly past you. There is no hurry; not the shadow of suspicion or uneasiness. His eyes are cast down; his brow wrinkled, as if in deep thought; already he seems to have forgotten your existence. You watch him curiously as he reenters the path behind you and disappears over the hill. Somehow a queer feeling, half wonder, half rebuke, steals over you, as if you had been outdone in courtesy, or had passed a gentleman without sufficiently recognizing him.
Ah, but you didn't watch sharply enough! You didn't see, as he circled past, that cunning side gleam of his yellow eyes, which understood your attitude perfectly. Had you stirred, he would have vanished like a flash. You didn't run to the top of the hill where he disappeared, to see that burst of speed the instant he was out of your sight. You didn't see the capers, the tail-chasing, the high jumps, the quick turns and plays; and then the straight, nervous gallop, which told more plainly than words his exultation that he had outwitted you and shown his superiority.
Reynard, wherever you meet him, whether on the old road at twilight, or on the runway before the hounds, impresses you as an animal of dignity and calculation. He never seems surprised, much less frightened; never loses his head; never does things hurriedly, or on the spur of the moment, as a scatter-brained rabbit or meddling squirrel might do. You meet him, perhaps as he leaves the warm rock on the south slope of the old oak woods, where he has been curled up asleep all the sunny afternoon. (It is easy to find him there in winter.) Now he is off on his nightly hunt; he is trotting along, head down, brows deep-wrinkled, planning it all out.
"Let me see," he is thinking, "last night I hunted the Draper woods. To-night I'll cross the brook just this side the old bars, and take a look into that pasture-corner among the junipers. There's a rabbit which plays round there on moonlight nights; I'll have him presently. Then I'll go down to the big South meadow after mice. I haven't been there for a week; and last time I got six. If I don't find mice, there's that chicken coop of old Jenkins. Only"—He stops, with his foot up, and listens a minute—"only he locks the coop and leaves the dog loose ever since I took the big rooster. Anyway I'll take a look round there. Sometimes Deacon Jones's hens get to roosting in the next orchard. If I can find them up an apple tree, I'll bring a couple down with a good trick I know. On the way—Hi, there!"
In the midst of his planning he gives a grasshopper-jump aside, and brings down both paws hard on a bit of green moss that quivered as he passed. He spreads his paws apart carefully; thrusts his nose down between them; drags a young wood-mouse from under the moss; eats him; licks his chops twice, and goes on planning as if nothing had happened.
"On the way back, I'll swing round by the Fales place, and take a sniff under the wall by the old hickory, to see if those sleepy skunks are still there for the winter. I'll have that whole family before spring, if I'm hungry and can't find anything else. They come out on sunny days; all you have to do is just hide behind the hickory and watch."
So off he goes on his well-planned hunt; and if you follow his track to-morrow in the snow, you will see how he has gone from one hunting ground directly to the next. You will find the depression where he lay in a clump of tall dead grass and watched a while for the rabbit; reckon the number of mice he caught in the meadow; see his sly tracks about the chicken coop, and in the orchard; and pause a moment at the spot where he cast a knowing look behind the hickory by the wall,—all just as he planned it on his way to the brook.
If, on the other hand, you stand by one of his runways while the dogs are driving him, expecting, of course, to see him come tearing along in a desperate hurry, frightened out of half his wits by the savage uproar behind him, you can only rub your eyes in wonder when a fluffy yellow ball comes drifting through the woods towards you, as if the breeze were blowing it along. There he is, trotting down the runway in the same leisurely, self-possessed way, wrapped in his own thoughts apparently, the same deep wrinkles over his eyes. He played a trick or two on a brook, down between the ponds, by jumping about on a lot of stones from which the snow had melted, without wetting his feet (which he dislikes), and without leaving a track anywhere. While the dogs are puzzling that out, he has plenty of time to plan more devices on his way to the big hill, with its brook, and old walls, and rail fences, and dry places under the pines, and twenty other helps to an active brain.
First he will run round the hill half a dozen times, crisscrossing his trail. That of itself will drive the young dogs crazy. Then along the top rail of a fence, and a long jump into the junipers, which hold no scent, and another jump to the wall where there is no snow, and then—
"Oh, plenty of time, no hurry!" he says to himself, turning to listen a moment. "That dog with the big voice must be old Roby. He thinks he knows all about foxes, just because he broke his leg last year, trying to walk a sheep-fence where I'd been. I'll give him another chance; and oh, yes! I'll creep up the other side of the hill, and curl up on a warm rock on the tiptop, and watch them all break their heads over the crisscross, and have a good nap or two, and think of more tricks."
So he trots past you, still planning; crosses the wall by a certain stone that he has used ever since he was a cub fox; seems to float across an old pasture, stopping only to run about a bit among some cow tracks, to kill the scent; and so on towards his big hill. Before he gets there he will have a skilful retreat planned, back to the ponds, in case old Roby untangles his crisscross, or some young fool-hound blunders too near the rock whereon he sits, watching the game.
If you meet him now, face to face, you will see no quiet assumption of superiority; unless perchance he is a young fox, that has not learned what it means to be met on a runway by a man with a gun when the dogs are driving. With your first slightest movement there is a flash of yellow fur, and he has vanished into the thickest bit of underbrush at hand.—Don't run; you will not see him again here. He knows the old roads and paths far better than you do, and can reach his big hill by any one of a dozen routes where you would never dream of looking. But if you want another glimpse of him, take the shortest cut to the hill. He may take a nap, or sit and listen a while to the dogs, or run round a swamp before he gets there. Sit on the wall in plain sight; make a post of yourself; keep still, and keep your eyes open.
Once, in just such a place, I had a rare chance to watch him. It was on the summit of a great bare hill. Down in the woods by a swamp, five or six hounds were waking the winter echoes merrily on a fresh trail. I was hoping for a sight of Reynard when he appeared from nowhere, on a rock not fifty yards away. There he lay, his nose between his paws, listening with quiet interest to the uproar below. Occasionally he raised his head as some young dog scurried near, yelping maledictions upon a perfect tangle of fox tracks, none of which went anywhere. Suddenly he sat up straight, twisted his head sideways, as a dog does when he sees the most interesting thing of his life, dropped his tongue out a bit, and looked intently. I looked too, and there, just below, was old Roby, the best foxhound in a dozen counties, creeping like a cat along the top rail of a sheep-fence, now putting his nose down to the wood, now throwing his head back for a great howl of exultation.—It was all immensely entertaining; and nobody seemed to be enjoying it more than the fox.
One of the most fascinating bits of animal study is to begin at the very beginning of fox education, i.e., to find a fox den, and go there some afternoon in early June, and hide at a distance, where you can watch the entrance through your field-glass. Every afternoon the young foxes come out to play in the sunshine like so many kittens. Bright little bundles of yellow fur they seem, full of tricks and whims, with pointed faces that change only from exclamation to interrogation points, and back again. For hours at a stretch they roll about, and chase tails, and pounce upon the quiet old mother with fierce little barks. One climbs laboriously up the rock behind the den, and sits on his tail, gravely surveying the great landscape with a comical little air of importance, as if he owned it all. When called to come down he is afraid, and makes a great to-do about it. Another has been crouching for five minutes behind a tuft of grass, watching like a cat at a rat-hole for some one to come by and be pounced upon. Another is worrying something on the ground, a cricket perhaps, or a doodle-bug; and the fourth never ceases to worry the patient old mother, till she moves away and lies down by herself in the shadow of a ground cedar.
As the afternoon wears away, and long shadows come creeping up the hillside, the mother rises suddenly and goes back to the den; the little ones stop their play, and gather about her. You strain your ears for the slightest sound, but hear nothing; yet there she is, plainly talking to them; and they are listening. She turns her head, and the cubs scamper into the den's mouth. A moment she stands listening, looking; while just within the dark entrance you get glimpses of four pointed black noses, and a cluster of bright little eyes, wide open for a last look. Then she trots away, planning her hunt, till she disappears down by the brook. When she is gone, eyes and noses draw back; only a dark silent hole in the bank is left. You will not see them again—not unless you stay to watch by moonlight till mother-fox comes back, with a fringe of field-mice hanging from her lips, or a young turkey thrown across her shoulders.
One shrewd thing frequently noticed in the conduct of an old fox with young is that she never troubles the poultry of the farms nearest her den. She will forage for miles in every direction; will harass the chickens of distant farms till scarcely a handful remains of those that wander into the woods, or sleep in the open yards; yet she will pass by and through nearer farms without turning aside to hunt, except for mice and frogs; and, even when hungry, will note a flock of chickens within sight of her den, and leave them undisturbed. She seems to know perfectly that a few missing chickens will lead to a search; that boys' eyes will speedily find her den, and boys' hands dig eagerly for a litter of young foxes.
Last summer I found a den, beautifully hidden, within a few hundred yards of an old farmhouse. The farmer assured me he had never missed a chicken; he had no idea that there was a fox within miles of his large flock. Three miles away was another farmer who frequently sat up nights, and set his boys to watching afternoons, to shoot a fox that, early and late, had taken nearly thirty young chickens. Driven to exasperation at last, he borrowed a hound from a hunter; and the dog ran the trail straight to the den I had discovered.
Curiously enough, the cubs, for whose peaceful bringing up the mother so cunningly provides, do not imitate her caution. They begin their hunting by lying in ambush about the nearest farm; the first stray chicken they see is game. Once they begin to plunder in this way, and feed full on their own hunting, parental authority is gone; the mother deserts the den immediately, leading the cubs far away. But some of them go back, contrary to all advice, and pay the penalty. She knows now that sooner or later some cub will be caught stealing chickens in broad daylight, and be chased by dogs. The foolish youngster takes to earth, instead of trusting to his legs; so the long-concealed den is discovered and dug open at last.
When an old fox, foraging for her young some night, discovers by her keen nose that a flock of hens has been straying near the woods, she goes next day and hides herself there, lying motionless for hours at a stretch in a clump of dead grass or berry bushes, till the flock comes near enough for a rush. Then she hurls herself among them, and in the confusion seizes one by the neck, throws it by a quick twist across her shoulders, and is gone before the stupid hens find out what it is all about.
But when a fox finds an old hen or turkey straying about with a brood of chicks, then the tactics are altogether different. Creeping up like a cat, the fox watches an opportunity to seize a chick out of sight of the mother bird. That done, he withdraws, silent as a shadow, his grip on the chick's neck preventing any outcry. Hiding his game at a distance, he creeps back to capture another in the same way; and so on till he has enough, or till he is discovered, or some half-strangled chick finds breath enough for a squawk. A hen or turkey knows the danger by instinct, and hurries her brood into the open at the first suspicion that a fox is watching.
A farmer, whom I know well, first told me how a fox manages to carry a number of chicks at once. He heard a clamor from a hen-turkey and her brood one day, and ran to a wood path in time to see a vixen make off with a turkey chick scarcely larger than a robin. Several were missing from the brood. He hunted about, and presently found five more just killed. They were beautifully laid out, the bodies at a broad angle, the necks crossing each other, like the corner of a corn-cob house, in such a way that, by gripping the necks at the angle, all the chicks could be carried at once, half hanging at either side of the fox's mouth. Since then I have seen an old fox with what looked like a dozen or more field-mice carried in this way; only, of course, the tails were crossed corn-cob fashion instead of the necks.
The stealthiness with which a fox stalks his game is one of the most remarkable things about him. Stupid chickens are not the only birds captured. Once I read in the snow the story of his hunt after a crow—wary game to be caught napping! The tracks showed that quite a flock of crows had been walking about an old field, bordered by pine and birch thickets. From the rock where he was sleeping away the afternoon the fox saw or heard them, and crept down. How cautious he was about it! Following the tracks, one could almost see him stealing along from stone to bush, from bush to grass clump, so low that his body pushed a deep trail in the snow, till he reached the cover of a low pine on the very edge of the field. There he crouched with all four feet close together under him. Then a crow came by within ten feet of the ambush. The tracks showed that the bird was a bit suspicious; he stopped often to look and listen. When his head was turned aside for an instant the fox launched himself; just two jumps, and he had him. Quick as he was, the wing marks showed that the crow had started, and was pulled down out of the air. Reynard carried him into the densest thicket of scrub pines he could find, and ate him there, doubtless to avoid the attacks of the rest of the flock, which followed him screaming vengeance.
A strong enmity exists between crows and foxes. Wherever a crow finds a fox, he sets up a clatter that draws a flock about him in no time, in great excitement. They chase the fox as long as he is in sight, cawing vociferously, till he creeps into a thicket of scrub pines, into which no crow will ever venture, and lies down till he tires out their patience. In hunting, one may frequently trace the exact course of a fox which the dogs are driving, by the crows clamoring over him. Here in the snow was a record that may help explain one side of the feud.
From the same white page one may read many other stories of Reynard's ways and doings. Indeed I know of no more interesting winter walk than an afternoon spent on his last night's trail through the soft snow. There is always something new, either in the track or the woods through which it leads; always a fresh hunting story; always a disappointment or two, a long cold wait for a rabbit that didn't come, or a miscalculation over the length of the snow tunnel where a partridge burrowed for the night. Generally, if you follow far enough, there is also a story of good hunting which leaves you wavering between congratulation over a successful stalk after nights of hungry, patient wandering, and pity for the little tragedy told so vividly by converging trails, a few red drops in the snow, a bit of fur blown about by the wind, or a feather clinging listlessly to the underbrush. In such a tramp one learns much of fox-ways and other ways that can never be learned elsewhere.
* * * * *
The fox whose life has been spent on the hillsides surrounding a New England village seems to have profited by generations of experience. He is much more cunning every way than the fox of the wilderness. If, for instance, a fox has been stealing your chickens, your trap must be very cunningly set if you are to catch him. It will not do to set it near the chickens; no inducement will be great enough to bring him within yards of it. It must be set well back in the woods, near one of his regular hunting grounds. Before that, however, you must bait the fox with choice bits scattered over a pile of dry leaves or chaff, sometimes for a week, sometimes for a month, till he comes regularly. Then smoke your trap, or scent it; handle it only with gloves; set it in the chaff; scatter bait as usual; and you have one chance of getting him, while he has still a dozen of getting away. In the wilderness, on the other hand, he may be caught with half the precaution. I know a little fellow, whose home is far back from the settlements, who catches five or six foxes every winter by ordinary wire snares set in the rabbit paths, where foxes love to hunt.
In the wilderness one often finds tracks in the snow, telling how a fox tried to catch a partridge and only succeeded in frightening it into a tree. After watching a while hungrily,—one can almost see him licking his chops under the tree,—he trots off to other hunting grounds. If he were an educated fox he would know better than that.
When an old New England fox in some of his nightly prowlings discovers a flock of chickens roosting in the orchard, he generally gets one or two. His plan is to come by moonlight, or else just at dusk, and, running about under the tree, bark sharply to attract the chickens' attention. If near the house, he does this by jumping, lest the dog or the farmer hear his barking. Once they have begun to flutter and cackle, as they always do when disturbed, he begins to circle the tree slowly, still jumping and clacking his teeth. The chickens crane their necks down to follow him. Faster and faster he goes, racing in small circles, till some foolish fowl grows dizzy with twisting her head, or loses her balance and tumbles down, only to be snapped up and carried off across his shoulders in a twinkling.
But there is one way in which fox of the wilderness and fox of the town are alike easily deceived. Both are very fond of mice, and respond quickly to the squeak, which can be imitated perfectly by drawing the breath in sharply between closed lips. The next thing, after that is learned, is to find a spot in which to try the effect.
Two or three miles back from almost all New England towns are certain old pastures and clearings, long since run wild, in which the young foxes love to meet and play on moonlight nights, much as rabbits do, though in a less harum-scarum way. When well fed, and therefore in no hurry to hunt, the heart of a young fox turns naturally to such a spot, and to fun and capers. The playground may easily be found by following the tracks after the first snowfall. (The knowledge will not profit you probably till next season; but it is worth finding and remembering.) If one goes to the place on some still, bright night in autumn, and hides on the edge of the open, he stands a good chance of seeing two or three foxes playing there. Only he must himself be still as the night; else, should twenty foxes come that way, he will never see one.
It is always a pretty scene, the quiet opening in the woods flecked with soft gray shadows in the moonlight, the dark sentinel evergreens keeping silent watch about the place, the wild little creatures playing about among the junipers, flitting through light and shadow, jumping over each other and tumbling about in mimic warfare, all unconscious of a spectator as the foxes that played there before the white man came, and before the Indians. Such scenes do not crowd themselves upon one. He must wait long, and love the woods, and be often disappointed; but when they come at last, they are worth all the love and the watching. And when the foxes are not there, there is always something else that is beautiful.—
Now squeak like a mouse, in the midst of the play. Instantly the fox nearest you stands, with one foot up, listening. Another squeak, and he makes three or four swift bounds in your direction, only to stand listening again; he hasn't quite located you. Careful now! don't hurry; the longer you keep him waiting, the more certainly he is deceived. Another squeak; some more swift jumps that bring him within ten feet; and now he smells or sees you, sitting motionless on your boulder in the shadow of the pines.
He isn't surprised; at least he pretends he isn't; but looks you over indifferently, as if he were used to finding people sitting on that particular rock. Then he trots off with an air of having forgotten something. With all his cunning he never suspects you of being the mouse. That little creature he believes to be hiding under the rock; and to-morrow night he will very likely take a look there, or respond to your squeak in the same way.
It is only early in the season, generally before the snow blows, that one can see them playing; and it is probably the young foxes that are so eager for this kind of fun. Later in the season—either because the cubs have lost their playfulness, or because they must hunt so diligently for enough to eat that there is no time for play—they seldom do more than take a gallop together, with a playful jump or two, before going their separate ways. At all times, however, they have a strong tendency to fun and mischief-making. More than once, in winter, I have surprised a fox flying round after his own bushy tail so rapidly that tail and fox together looked like a great yellow pin-wheel on the snow.
When a fox meets a toad or frog, and is not hungry, he worries the poor thing for an hour at a time; and when he finds a turtle he turns the creature over with his paw, sitting down gravely to watch its awkward struggle to get back onto its feet. At such times he has a most humorous expression, brows wrinkled and tongue out, as if he were enjoying himself hugely.
Later in the season he would be glad enough to make a meal of toad or turtle. One day last March the sun shone out bright and warm; in the afternoon the first frogs began to tune up, cr-r-r-runk, cr-r-runk-a-runk-runk, like a flock of brant in the distance. I was watching them at a marshy spot in the woods, where they had come out of the mud by dozens into a bit of open water, when the bushes parted cautiously and the sharp nose of a fox appeared. The hungry fellow had heard them from the hill above, where he was asleep, and had come down to see if he could catch a few. He was creeping out onto the ice when he smelled me, and trotted back into the woods.
Once I saw him catch a frog. He crept down to where Chigwooltz, a fat green bullfrog, was sunning himself by a lily pad, and very cautiously stretched out one paw under water. Then with a quick fling he tossed his game to land, and was after him like a flash before he could scramble back.
On the seacoast Reynard depends largely on the tides for a living. An old fisherman assures me that he has seen him catching crabs there in a very novel way. Finding a quiet bit of water where the crabs are swimming about, he trails his brush over the surface till one rises and seizes it with his claw (a most natural thing for a crab to do), whereupon the fox springs away, jerking the crab to land. Though a fox ordinarily is careful as a cat about wetting his tail or feet, I shall not be surprised to find some day for myself that the fisherman was right. Reynard is very ingenious, and never lets his little prejudices stand in the way when he is after a dinner.
His way of beguiling a duck is more remarkable than his fishing. Late one afternoon, while following the shore of a pond, I noticed a commotion among some tame ducks, and stopped to see what it was about. They were swimming in circles, quacking and stretching their wings, evidently in great excitement. A few minutes' watching convinced me that something on the shore excited them. Their heads were straight up from the water, looking fixedly at something that I could not see; every circle brought them nearer the bank. I walked towards them, not very cautiously, I am sorry to say; for the farmhouse where the ducks belonged was in plain sight, and I was not expecting anything unusual. As I glanced over the bank something slipped out of sight into the tall grass. I followed the waving tops intently, and caught one sure glimpse of a fox as he disappeared into the woods.
The thing puzzled me for years, though I suspected some foxy trick, till a duck-hunter explained to me what Reynard was doing. He had seen it tried successfully once on a flock of wild ducks.—
When a fox finds a flock of ducks feeding near shore, he trots down and begins to play on the beach in plain sight, watching the birds the while out of the "tail o' his ee," as a Scotchman would say. Ducks are full of curiosity, especially about unusual colors and objects too small to frighten them; so the playing animal speedily excites a lively interest. They stop feeding, gather close together, spread, circle, come together again, stretching their necks as straight as strings to look and listen.
Then the fox really begins his performance. He jumps high to snap at imaginary flies; he chases his bushy tail; he rolls over and over in clouds of flying sand; he gallops up the shore, and back like a whirlwind; he plays peekaboo with every bush. The foolish birds grow excited; they swim in smaller circles, quacking nervously, drawing nearer and nearer to get a better look at the strange performance. They are long in coming, but curiosity always gets the better of them; those in the rear crowd the front rank forward. All the while the show goes on, the performer paying not the slightest attention apparently to his excited audience; only he draws slowly back from the water's edge, as if to give them room as they crowd nearer.
They are on shore at last; then, while they are lost in the most astonishing caper of all, the fox dashes among them, throwing them into the wildest confusion. His first snap never fails to throw a duck back onto the sand with a broken neck; and he has generally time for a second, often for a third, before the flock escapes into deep water. Then he buries all his birds but one, throws that across his shoulders, and trots off, wagging his head, to some quiet spot where he can eat his dinner and take a good nap undisturbed.
When with all his cunning Reynard is caught napping, he makes use of another good trick he knows. One winter morning some years ago, my friend, the old fox-hunter, rose at daylight for a run with the dogs over the new-fallen snow. Just before calling his hounds, he went to his hen-house, some distance away, to throw the chickens some corn for the day. As he reached the roost, his steps making no sound in the snow, he noticed the trail of a fox crossing the yard and entering the coop through a low opening sometimes used by the chickens. No trail came out; it flashed upon him that the fox must be inside at that moment.
Hardly had he reached this conclusion when a wild cackle arose that left no doubt about it. On the instant he whirled an empty box against the opening, at the same time pounding lustily to frighten the thief from killing more chickens. Reynard was trapped sure enough. The fox-hunter listened at the door, but save for an occasional surprised cut-aa-cut, not a sound was heard within.
Very cautiously he opened the door and squeezed through. There lay a fine pullet stone dead; just beyond lay the fox, dead too.
"Well, of all things," said the fox-hunter, open-mouthed, "if he hasn't gone and climbed the roost after that pullet, and then tumbled down and broken his own neck!"
Highly elated with this unusual beginning of his hunt, he picked up the fox and the pullet and laid them down together on the box outside, while he fed his chickens.
When he came out, a minute later, there was the box and a feather or two, but no fox and no pullet. Deep tracks led out of the yard and up over the hill in flying jumps. Then it dawned upon our hunter that Reynard had played the possum-game on him, getting away with a whole skin and a good dinner.
There was no need to look farther for a good fox track. Soon the music of the hounds went ringing over the hill and down the hollow; but though the dogs ran true, and the hunter watched the runways all day with something more than his usual interest, he got no glimpse of the wily old fox. Late at night the dogs came limping home, weary and footsore, but with never a long yellow hair clinging to their chops to tell a story.
The fox saved his pullet, of course. Finding himself pursued, he buried it hastily, and came back the next night undoubtedly to get it.
Several times since then I have known of his playing possum in the same way. The little fellow whom I mentioned as living near the wilderness, and snaring foxes, once caught a black fox—a rare, beautiful animal with a very valuable skin—in a trap which he had baited for weeks in a wild pasture. It was the first black fox he had ever seen, and, boylike, he took it only as a matter of mild wonder to find the beautiful creature frozen stiff, apparently, on his pile of chaff with one hind leg fast in the trap.
He carried the prize home, trap and all, over his shoulder. At his whoop of exultation the whole family came out to admire and congratulate. At last he took the trap from the fox's leg, and stretched him out on the doorstep to gloat over the treasure and stroke the glossy fur to his heart's content. His attention was taken away for a moment; then he had a dazed vision of a flying black animal that seemed to perch an instant on the log fence and vanish among the spruces.
Poor Johnnie! There were tears in his eyes when he told me about it, three years afterwards.
* * * * *
These are but the beginning of fox-ways. I have not spoken of his occasional tree climbing; nor of his grasshopper hunting; nor of his planning to catch three quails at once when he finds a whole covey gathered into a dinner-plate circle, tails in, heads out, asleep on the ground; nor of some perfectly astonishing things he does when hard pressed by dogs. But these are enough to begin the study and still leave plenty of things to find out for one's self. Reynard is rarely seen, even in places where he abounds; we know almost nothing of his private life; and there are undoubtedly many of his most interesting ways yet to be discovered. He has somehow acquired a bad name, especially among farmers; but, on the whole, there is scarcely a wild thing in the woods that better repays one for the long hours spent in catching a glimpse of him.
Shelldrake, or shellbird, is the name by which this duck is generally known, though how he came to be called so would be hard to tell. Probably the name was given by gunners, who see him only in winter when hunger drives him to eat mussels—but even then he likes mud-snails much better.
The name fish-duck, which one hears occasionally, is much more appropriate. The long slender bill, with its serrated edges fitting into each other like the teeth of a bear trap, just calculated to seize and hold a slimy wriggling fish, is quite enough evidence as to the nature of the bird's food, even if one had not seen him fishing on the lakes and rivers which are his summer home.
That same bill, by the way, is sometimes a source of danger. Once, on the coast, I saw a shelldrake tying in vain to fly against the wind, which flung rudely among some tall reeds near me. The next moment Don, my old dog, had him. In a hungry moment he had driven his bill through both shells of a scallop, which slipped or worked its way up to his nostrils, muzzling the bird perfectly with a hard shell ring. The poor fellow by desperate trying could open his mouth barely wide enough to drink or to swallow the tiniest morsel. He must have been in this condition a long time, for the bill was half worn through, and he was so light that the wind blew him about like a great feather when he attempted to fly.
Fortunately Don was a good retriever and had brought the duck in with scarcely a quill ruffled; so I had the satisfaction of breaking his bands and letting him go free with a splendid rush. But the wind was too much for him; he dropped back into the water and went skittering down the harbor like a lady with too much skirt and too big a hat in boisterous weather. Meanwhile Don lay on the sand, head up, ears up, whining eagerly for the word to fetch. Then he dropped his head, and drew a long breath, and tried to puzzle it out why a man should go out on a freezing day in February, and tramp, and row, and get wet to find a bird, only to let him go after he had been fairly caught.
Kwaseekho the shelldrake leads a double life. In winter he may be found almost anywhere along the Massachusetts coast and southward, where he leads a dog's life of it, notwithstanding his gay appearance. An hundred guns are roaring at him wherever he goes. From daylight to dark he has never a minute to eat his bit of fish, or to take a wink of sleep in peace. He flies to the ocean, and beds with his fellows on the broad open shoals for safety. But the east winds blow; and the shoals are a yeasty mass of tumbling breakers. They buffet him about; they twist his gay feathers; they dampen his pinions, spite of his skill in swimming. Then he goes to the creeks and harbors.
Along the shore a flock of his own kind, apparently, are feeding in quiet water. Straight in he comes with unsuspecting soul, the morning light shining full on his white breast and bright red feet as he steadies himself to take the water. But bang, bang! go the guns; and splash, splash! fall his companions; and out of a heap of seaweed come a man and a dog; and away he goes, sadly puzzled at the painted things in the water, to think it all over in hunger and sorrow.
Then the weather grows cold, and a freeze-up covers all his feeding grounds. Under his beautiful feathers the bones project to spoil the contour of his round plump body. He is famished now; he watches the gulls to see what they eat. When he finds out, he forgets his caution, and roams about after stray mussels on the beach. In the spring hunger drives him into the ponds where food is plenty—but such food! In a week his flesh is so strong that a crow would hardly eat it. Altogether, it is small wonder that as soon as his instinct tells him the streams of the North are open and the trout running up, he is off to a land of happier memories.
In summer he forgets his hardships. His life is peaceful as a meadow brook. His home is the wilderness—on a lonely lake, it may be, shimmering under the summer sun, or kissed into a thousand smiling ripples by the south wind. Or perhaps it is a forest river, winding on by wooded hills and grassy points and lonely cedar swamps. In secret shallow bays the young broods are plashing about, learning to swim and dive and hide in safety. The plunge of the fish-hawk comes up from the pools. A noisy kingfisher rattles about from tree to stump, like a restless busy-body. The hum of insects fills the air with a drowsy murmur. Now a deer steps daintily down the point, and looks, and listens, and drinks. A great moose wades awkwardly out to plunge his head under and pull away at the lily roots. But the young brood mind not these harmless things. Sometimes indeed, as the afternoon wears away, they turn their little heads apprehensively as the alders crash and sway on the bank above; a low cluck from the mother bird sends them all off into the grass to hide. How quickly they have disappeared, leaving never a trace! But it is only a bear come down from the ridge where he has been sleeping, to find a dead fish perchance for his supper; and the little brood seem to laugh as another low cluck brings them scurrying back from their hiding places.
Once, perhaps, comes a real fright, when all their summer's practice is put to the test. An unusual noise is heard; and round the bend glides a bark canoe with sound of human voices. Away go the brood together, the river behind them foaming like the wake of a tiny steamer as the swift-moving feet lift them almost out of water. Visions of ocean, the guns, falling birds, and the hard winter distract the poor mother. She flutters wildly about the brood, now leading, now bravely facing the monster; now pushing along some weak little loiterer, now floundering near the canoe as if wounded, to attract attention from the young. But they double the point at last, and hide away under the alders. The canoe glides by and makes no effort to find them. Silence is again over the forest. The little brood come back to the shallows, with mother bird fluttering round them to count again and again lest any be missing. The kingfisher comes out of his hole in the bank. The river flows on as before, and peace returns; and over all is the mystic charm of the wilderness and the quiet of a summer day.
This is the way it all looks and seems to me, sitting over under the big hemlock, out of sight, and watching the birds through my field-glass.
Day after day I have attended such little schools unseen and unsuspected by the mother bird. Sometimes it was the a-b-c class, wee little downy fellows, learning to hide on a lily pad, and never getting a reward of merit in the shape of a young trout till they hid so well that the teacher (somewhat over-critical, I thought) was satisfied. Sometimes it was the baccalaureates that displayed their talents to the unbidden visitor, flashing out of sight, cutting through the water like a ray of light, striking a young trout on the bottom with the rapidity and certainty almost of the teacher. It was marvelous, the diving and swimming; and mother bird looked on and quacked her approval of the young graduates.—That is another peculiarity: the birds are dumb in winter; they find their voice only for the young.
While all this careful training is going on at home, the drake is off on the lakes somewhere with his boon companions, having a good time, and utterly neglectful of parental responsibility. Sometimes I have found clubs of five or six, gay fellows all, living by themselves at one end of a big lake where the fishing was good. All summer long they roam and gad about, free from care, and happy as summer campers, leaving mother birds meanwhile to feed and educate their offspring. Once only have I seen a drake sharing the responsibilities of his family. I watched three days to find the cause of his devotion; but he disappeared the third evening, and I never saw him again. Whether the drakes are lazy and run away, or whether they have the atrocious habit of many male birds and animals of destroying their young, and so are driven away by the females, I have not been able to find out.
These birds are very destructive on the trout streams; if a summer camper spare them, it is because of his interest in the young, and especially because of the mother bird's devotion. When the recreant drake is met with, however, he goes promptly onto the bill of fare, with other good things.
Occasionally one overtakes a brood on a rapid river. Then the poor birds are distressed indeed. At the first glimpse of the canoe they are off, churning the water into foam in their flight. Not till they are out of sight round the bend do they hear the cluck that tells them to hide. Some are slow in finding a hiding place on the strange waters. The mother bird hurries them. They are hunting in frantic haste when round the bend comes the swift-gliding canoe. With a note of alarm they are all off again, for she will not leave even the weakest alone. Again they double the bend and try to hide; again the canoe overtakes them; and so on, mile after mile, till a stream or bogan flowing into the river offers a road to escape. Then, like a flash, the little ones run in under shelter of the banks, and glide up stream noiselessly, while mother bird flutters on down the river just ahead of the canoe. Having lured it away to a safe distance, as she thinks, she takes wing and returns to the young.
Their powers of endurance are remarkable. Once, on the Restigouche, we started a brood of little ones late in the afternoon. We were moving along in a good current, looking for a camping ground, and had little thought for the birds, which could never get far enough ahead to hide securely. For five miles they kept ahead of us, rushing out at each successive stretch of water, and fairly distancing us in a straight run. When we camped they were still below us. At dusk I was sitting motionless near the river when a slight movement over near the opposite bank attracted me. There was the mother bird, stealing along up stream under the fringe of bushes. The young followed in single file. There was no splashing of water now. Shadows were not more noiseless.
Twice since then I have seen them do the same thing. I have no doubt they returned that evening all the way up to the feeding grounds where we first started them; for like the kingfishers every bird seems to have his own piece of the stream. He never fishes in his neighbor's pools, nor will he suffer any poaching in his own. On the Restigouche we found a brood every few miles; on other rivers less plentifully stocked with trout they are less numerous. On lakes there is often a brood at either end; but though I have watched them carefully, I have never seen them cross to each other's fishing grounds.
Once, up on the Big Toledi, I saw a curious bit of their education. I was paddling across the lake one day, when I saw a shellbird lead her brood into a little bay where I knew the water was shallow; and immediately they began dipping, though very awkwardly. They were evidently taking their first lessons in diving. The next afternoon I was near the same place. I had done fishing—or rather, frogging—and had pushed the canoe into some tall grass out of sight, and was sitting there just doing nothing.
A musquash came by, and rubbed his nose against the canoe, and nibbled a lily root before he noticed me. A shoal of minnows were playing among the grasses near by. A dragon-fly stood on his head against a reed—a most difficult feat, I should think. He was trying some contortion that I couldn't make out, when a deer stepped down the bank and never saw me. Doing nothing pays one under such circumstances, if only by the glimpses it gives of animal life. It is so rare to see a wild thing unconscious.
Then Kwaseekho came into the shallow bay again with her brood, and immediately they began dipping as before. I wondered how the mother made them dive, till I looked through the field-glass and saw that the little fellows occasionally brought up something to eat. But there certainly were no fish to be caught in that warm, shallow water. An idea struck me, and I pushed the canoe out of the grass, sending the brood across the lake in wild confusion. There on the black bottom were a dozen young trout, all freshly caught, and all with the air-bladder punctured by the mother bird's sharp bill. She had provided their dinner, but she brought it to a good place and made them dive to get it.
As I paddled back to camp, I thought of the way the Indians taught their boys to shoot. They hung their dinner from the trees, out of reach, and made them cut the cord that held it, with an arrow. Did the Indians originate this, I wonder, in their direct way of looking at things, almost as simple as the birds'? Or was the idea whispered to some Indian hunter long ago, as he watched Merganser teach her young to dive?
Of all the broods I have met in the wilderness, only one, I think, ever grew to recognize me and my canoe a bit, so as to fear me less than another. It was on a little lake in the heart of the woods, where we lingered long on our journey, influenced partly by the beauty of the place, and partly by the fact that two or three bears roamed about there, which I sometimes met at twilight on the lake shore. The brood were as wild as other broods; but I met them often, and they sometimes found the canoe lying motionless and harmless near them, without quite knowing how it came there. So after a few days they looked at me with curiosity and uneasiness only, unless I came too near.
There were six in the brood. Five were hardy little fellows that made the water boil behind them as they scurried across the lake. But the sixth was a weakling. He had been hurt, by a hawk perhaps, or a big trout, or a mink; or he had swallowed a bone; or maybe he was just a weak little fellow with no accounting for it. Whenever the brood were startled, he struggled bravely a little while to keep up; then he always fell behind. The mother would come back, and urge, and help him; but it was of little use. He was not strong enough; and the last glimpse I always had of them was a foamy wake disappearing round a distant point, while far in the rear was a ripple where the little fellow still paddled away, doing his best pathetically.
One afternoon the canoe glided round a point and ran almost up to the brood before they saw it, giving them a terrible fright. Away they went on the instant, putter, putter, putter, lifting themselves almost out of water with the swift-moving feet and tiny wings. The mother bird took wing, returned and crossed the bow of the canoe, back and forth, with loud quackings. The weakling was behind as usual; and in a sudden spirit of curiosity or perversity—for I really had a good deal of sympathy for the little fellow—I shot the canoe forward, almost up to him. He tried to dive; got tangled in a lily stem in his fright; came up, flashed under again; and I saw him come up ten feet away in some grass, where he sat motionless and almost invisible amid the pads and yellow stems.
How frightened he was! Yet how still he sat! Whenever I took my eyes from him a moment I had to hunt again, sometimes two or three minutes, before I could see him there.
Meanwhile the brood went almost to the opposite shore before they stopped, and the mother, satisfied at last by my quietness, flew over and lit among them. She had not seen the little one. Through the glass I saw her flutter round and round them, to be quite sure they were all there. Then she missed him. I could see it all in her movements. She must have clucked, I think, for the young suddenly disappeared, and she came swimming rapidly back over the way they had come, looking, looking everywhere. Round the canoe she went at a safe distance, searching among the grass and lily pads, calling him softly to come out. But he was very near the canoe, and very much frightened; the only effect of her calls was to make him crouch closer against the grass stems, while the bright little eyes, grown large with fear, were fastened on me.
Slowly I backed the canoe away till it was out of sight around the point, though I could still see the mother bird through the bushes. She swam rapidly about where the canoe had been, calling more loudly; but the little fellow had lost confidence in her, or was too frightened, and refused to show himself. At last she discovered him, and with quacks and flutters that looked to me a bit hysteric pulled him out of his hiding place. How she fussed over him! How she hurried and helped and praised and scolded him all the way over; and fluttered on ahead, and clucked the brood out of their hiding places to meet him! Then, with all her young about her, she swept round the point into the quiet bay that was their training school.
And I, drifting slowly up the lake into the sunset over the glassy water, was thinking how human it all was. "Doth he not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?"
III. QUEER WAYS OF BR'ER RABBIT.
Br'er Rabbit is a funny fellow. No wonder that Uncle Remus makes him the hero of so many adventures! Uncle Remus had watched him, no doubt, on some moonlight night when he gathered his boon companions together for a frolic. In the heart of the woods it was, in a little opening where the moonlight came streaming in through the pines, making soft gray shadows for hide-and-seek, and where no prowling fox ever dreamed of looking.
With most of us, I fear, the acquaintance with Bunny is too limited for us to appreciate his frolicsome ways and his happy, fun-loving disposition. The tame things which we sometimes see about country yards are often stupid, like a playful kitten spoiled by too much handling; and the flying glimpse we sometimes get of a bundle of brown fur, scurrying helter-skelter through and over the huckleberry bushes, generally leaves us staring in astonishment at the swaying leaves where it disappeared, and wondering curiously what it was all about. It was only a brown rabbit that you almost stepped upon in your autumn walk through the woods.
Look under the crimson sumach yonder, there in the bit of brown grass, with the purple asters hanging over, and you will find his form, where he has been sitting all the morning and where he watched you all the way up the hill. But you need not follow; you will not find him again. He never runs straight; the swaying leaves there where he disappeared mark the beginning of his turn, whether to right or left you will never know. Now he has come around his circle and is near you again—watching you this minute, out of his bit of brown grass. As you move slowly away in the direction he took, peering here and there among the bushes, Bunny behind you sits up straight in his old form again, with his little paws held very prim, his long ears pointed after you, and his deep brown eyes shining like the waters of a hidden spring among the asters. And he chuckles to himself, and thinks how he fooled you that time, sure.
To see Br'er Rabbit at his best, that is, at his own playful comical self, one must turn hunter, and learn how to sit still, and be patient. Only you must not hunt in the usual way; not by day, for then Bunny is stowed away in his form on the sunny slope of a southern hillside, where one's eyes will never find him; not with gun and dog, for then the keen interest and quick sympathy needed to appreciate any phase of animal life gives place to the coarser excitement of the hunt; and not by going about after Bunny, for your heavy footsteps and the rustle of leaves will only send him scurrying away into safer solitudes. Find where he loves to meet with his fellows, in quiet little openings in the woods. There is no mistaking his playground when once you have found it. Go there by moonlight and, sitting still in the shadow, let your game find you, or pass by without suspicion; for this is the best way to hunt, whether one is after game or only a better knowledge of the ways of bird and beast.
The very best spot I ever found for watching Bunny's ways was on the shore of a lonely lake in the heart of a New Brunswick forest. I hardly think that he was any different there, for I have seen some of his pranks repeated within sight of a busy New England town; but he was certainly more natural. He had never seen a man before, and he was as curious about it as a blue jay. No dog's voice had ever wakened the echoes within fifty miles; but every sound of the wilderness he seemed to know a thousand times better than I. The snapping of the smallest stick under the stealthy tread of fox or wildcat would send him scurrying out of sight in wild alarm; yet I watched a dozen of them at play one night when a frightened moose went crashing through the underbrush and plunged into the lake near by, and they did not seem to mind it in the least.
The spot referred to was the only camping ground on the lake; so Simmo, my Indian guide, assured me; and he knew very well. I discovered afterward that it was the only cleared bit of land for miles around; and this the rabbits knew very well. Right in the midst of their best playground I pitched my tent, while Simmo built his lean-to near by, in another little opening. We were tired that night, after a long day's paddle in the sunshine on the river. The after-supper chat before the camp fire—generally the most delightful bit of the whole day, and prolonged as far as possible—was short and sleepy; and we left the lonely woods to the bats and owls and creeping things, and turned in for the night.
I was just asleep when I was startled by a loud thump twice repeated, as if a man stamped on the ground, or, as I thought at the time, just like the thump a bear gives an old log with his paw, to see if it is hollow and contains any insects. I was wide awake in a moment, sitting up straight to listen. A few minutes passed by in intense stillness; then, thump! thump! thump! just outside the tent among the ferns.
I crept slowly out; but beyond a slight rustle as my head appeared outside the tent I heard nothing, though I waited several minutes and searched about among the underbrush. But no sooner was I back in the tent and quiet than there it was again, and repeated three or four times, now here, now there, within the next ten minutes. I crept out again, with no better success than before.
This time, however, I would find out about that mysterious noise before going back. It isn't so pleasant to go to sleep until one knows what things are prowling about, especially things that make a noise like that. A new moon was shining down into the little clearing, giving hardly enough light to make out the outlines of the great evergreens. Down among the ferns things were all black and uniform. For ten minutes I stood there in the shadow of a big spruce and waited. Then the silence was broken by a sudden heavy thump in the bushes just behind me. I was startled, and wheeled on the instant; as I did so, some small animal scurried away into the underbrush.
For a moment I was puzzled. Then it flashed upon me that I was camped upon the rabbits' playground. With the thought came a strong suspicion that Bunny was fooling me.
Going back to the fire, I raked the coals together and threw on some fresh fuel. Next I fastened a large piece of birch bark on two split sticks behind the fireplace; then I sat down on an old log to wait. The rude reflector did very well as the fire burned up. Out in front the fern tops were dimly lighted to the edge of the clearing. As I watched, a dark form shot suddenly above the ferns and dropped back again. Three heavy thumps followed; then the form shot up and down once more. This time there was no mistake. In the firelight I saw plainly the dangle of Br'er Rabbit's long legs, and the flap of his big ears, and the quick flash of his dark eyes in the reflected light,—got an instantaneous photograph of him, as it were, at the top of his comical jump.
I sat there nearly an hour before the why and the how of the little joker's actions became quite clear. This is what happens in such a case. Bunny comes down from the ridge for his nightly frolic in the little clearing. While still in the ferns the big white object, standing motionless in the middle of his playground, catches his attention; and very much surprised, and very much frightened, but still very curious, he crouches down close to wait and listen. But the strange thing does not move nor see him. To get a better view he leaps up high above the ferns two or three times. Still the big thing remains quite still and harmless. "Now," thinks Bunny, "I'll frighten him, and find out what he is." Leaping high he strikes the ground sharply two or three times with his padded hind foot; then jumps up quickly again to see the effect of his scare. Once he succeeded very well, when he crept up close behind me, so close that he didn't have to spring up to see the effect. I fancy him chuckling to himself as he scurried off after my sudden start.
That was the first time that I ever heard Bunny's challenge. It impressed me at the time as one of his most curious pranks; the sound was so big and heavy for such a little fellow. Since then I have heard it frequently; and now sometimes when I stand at night in the forest and hear a sudden heavy thump in the underbrush, as if a big moose were striking the ground and shaking his antlers at me, it doesn't startle me in the least. It is only Br'er Rabbit trying to frighten me.
The next night Bunny played us another trick. Before Simmo went to sleep he always took off his blue overalls and put them under his head for a pillow. That was only one of Simmo's queer ways. While he was asleep the rabbits came into his little commoosie, dragged the overalls out from under his head, and nibbled them full of holes. Not content with this, they played with them all night; pulled them around the clearing, as threads here and there plainly showed; then dragged them away into the underbrush and left them.
Simmo's wrath when he at last found the precious garments was comical to behold; when he wore them with their new polka-dot pattern, it was still more comical. Why the rabbits did it I could never quite make out. The overalls were very dirty, very much stained with everything from a clean trout to tobacco crumbs; and, as there was nothing about them for a rabbit to eat, we concluded that it was just one of Br'er Rabbit's pranks. That night Simmo, to avenge his overalls, set a deadfall supported by a piece of cord, which he had soaked in molasses and salt. Which meant that Bunny would nibble the cord for the salt that was in it, and bring the log down hard on his own back. So I had to spring it, while Simmo slept, to save the little fellow's life and learn more about him.
Up on the ridge above our tent was a third tiny clearing, where some trappers had once made their winter camp. It was there that I watched the rabbits one moonlight night from my seat on an old log, just within the shadow at the edge of the opening. The first arrival came in with a rush. There was a sudden scurry behind me, and over the log he came with a flying leap that landed him on the smooth bit of ground in the middle, where he whirled around and around with grotesque jumps, like a kitten after its tail. Only Br'er Rabbit's tail was too short for him ever to catch it; he seemed rather to be trying to get a good look at it. Then he went off helter-skelter in a headlong rush through the ferns. Before I knew what had become of him, over the log he came again in a marvelous jump, and went tearing around the clearing like a circus horse, varying his performance now by a high leap, now by two or three awkward hops on his hind legs, like a dancing bear. It was immensely entertaining.
The third time around he discovered me in the midst of one of his antics. He was so surprised that he fell down. In a second he was up again, sitting up very straight on his haunches just in front of me, paws crossed, ears erect, eyes shining in fear and curiosity. "Who are you?" he was saying, as plainly as ever rabbit said it. Without moving a muscle I tried to tell him, and also that he need not be afraid. Perhaps he began to understand, for he turned his head on one side, just as a dog does when you talk to him. But he wasn't quite satisfied. "I'll try my scare on him," he thought; and thump! thump! thump! sounded his padded hind foot on the soft ground. It almost made me start again, it sounded so big in the dead stillness. This last test quite convinced him that I was harmless, and, after a moment's watching, away he went in some astonishing jumps into the forest.
A few minutes passed by in quiet waiting before he was back again, this time with two or three companions. I have no doubt that he had been watching me all the time, for I heard his challenge in the brush just behind my log. The fun now began to grow lively. Around and around they went, here, there, everywhere,—the woods seemed full of rabbits, they scurried around so. Every few minutes the number increased, as some new arrival came flying in and gyrated around like a brown fur pinwheel. They leaped over everything in the clearing; they leaped over each other as if playing leap-frog; they vied with each other in the high jump. Sometimes they gathered together in the middle of the open space and crept about close to the ground, in and out and roundabout, like a game of fox and geese. Then they rose on their hind legs and hopped slowly about in all the dignity of a minuet. Right in the midst of the solemn affair some mischievous fellow gave a squeak and a big jump; and away they all went hurry-skurry, for all the world like a lot of boys turned loose for recess. In a minute they were back again, quiet and sedate, and solemn as bull-frogs. Were they chasing and chastising the mischief-maker, or was it only the overflow of abundant spirits as the top of a kettle blows off when the pressure below becomes resistless?
Many of the rabbits saw me, I am sure, for they sometimes gave a high jump over my foot; and one came close up beside it, and sat up straight with his head on one side, to look me over. Perhaps it was the first comer, for he did not try his scare again. Like most wild creatures, they have very little fear of an object that remains motionless at their first approach and challenge.
Once there was a curious performance over across the clearing. I could not see it very plainly, but it looked very much like a boxing match. A queer sound, put-a-put-a-put-a-put, first drew my attention to it. Two rabbits were at the edge of the ferns, standing up on their hind legs, face to face, and apparently cuffing each other soundly, while they hopped slowly around and around in a circle. I could not see the blows but only the boxing attitude, and hear the sounds as they landed on each other's ribs. The other rabbits did not seem to mind it, as they would have done had it been a fight, but stopped occasionally to watch the two, and then went on with their fun-making. Since then I have read of tame hares that did the same thing, but I have never seen it.
At another time the rabbits were gathered together in the very midst of some quiet fun, when they leaped aside suddenly and disappeared among the ferns as if by magic. The next instant a dark shadow swept across the opening, almost into my face, and wheeled out of sight among the evergreens. It was Kookoo-skoos, the big brown owl, coursing the woods on his nightly hunt after the very rabbits that were crouched motionless beneath him as he passed. But how did they learn, all at once, of the coming of an enemy whose march is noiseless as the sweep of a shadow? And did they all hide so well that he never suspected that they were about, or did he see the ferns wave as the last one disappeared, but was afraid to come back after seeing me? Perhaps Br'er Rabbit was well repaid that time for his confidence.
They soon came back again, as I think they would not have done had it been a natural opening. Had it been one of Nature's own sunny spots, the owl would have swept back and forth across it; for he knows the rabbits' ways as well as they know his. But hawks and owls avoid a spot like this, that men have cleared. If they cross it once in search of prey, they seldom return. Wherever man camps, he leaves something of himself behind; and the fierce birds and beasts of the woods fear it, and shun it. It is only the innocent things, singing birds, and fun-loving rabbits, and harmless little wood-mice—shy, defenseless creatures all—that take possession of man's abandoned quarters, and enjoy his protection. Bunny knows this, I think; and so there is no other place in the woods that he loves so well as an old camping ground.
The play was soon over; for it is only in the early part of the evening, when Br'er Rabbit first comes out after sitting still in his form all day, that he gives himself up to fun, like a boy out of school. If one may judge, however, from the looks of Simmo's overalls, and from the number of times he woke me by scurrying around my tent, I suspect that he is never too serious and never too busy for a joke. It is a way he has of brightening the more sober times of getting his own living, and keeping a sharp lookout for cats and owls and prowling foxes.
Gradually the playground was deserted, as the rabbits slipped off one by one to hunt their supper. Now and then there was a scamper among the underbrush, and a high jump or two, with which some playful bunny enlivened his search for tender twigs; and at times one, more curious than the rest, came hopping along to sit erect a moment before the old log, and look to see if the strange animal were still there. But soon the old log was vacant too. Out in the swamp a disappointed owl sat on his lonely stub that lightning had blasted, and hooted that he was hungry. The moon looked down into the little clearing with its waving ferns and soft gray shadows, and saw nothing there to suggest that it was the rabbits' nursery.
Down at the camp a new surprise was awaiting me. Br'er Rabbit was under the tent fly, tugging away at the salt bag which I had left there carelessly after curing a bearskin. While he was absorbed in getting it out from under the rubber blanket, I crept up on hands and knees, and stroked him once from ears to tail. He jumped straight up with a startled squeak, whirled in the air, and came down facing me. So we remained for a full moment, our faces scarcely two feet apart, looking into each other's eyes. Then he thumped the earth soundly with his left hind foot, to show that he was not afraid, and scurried under the fly and through the brakes in a half circle to a bush at my heels, where he sat up straight in the shadow to watch me.
But I had seen enough for one night. I left a generous pinch of salt where he could find it easily, and crept in to sleep, leaving him to his own ample devices.
IV. A WILD DUCK.
The title will suggest to most boys a line across the autumn sky at sunset, with a bit of mystery about it; or else a dark triangle moving southward, high and swift, at Thanksgiving time. To a few, who know well the woods and fields about their homes, it may suggest a lonely little pond, with a dark bird rising swiftly, far out of reach, leaving the ripples playing among the sedges. To those accustomed to look sharply it will suggest five or six more birds, downy little fellows, hiding safe among roots and grasses, so still that one seldom suspects their presence. But the duck, like most game birds, loves solitude; the details of his life he keeps very closely to himself; and boys must be content with occasional glimpses.
This is especially true of the dusky duck, more generally known by the name black duck among hunters. He is indeed a wild duck, so wild that one must study him with a gun, and study him long before he knows much about him. An ordinary tramp with a field-glass and eyes wide open may give a rare, distant view of him; but only as one follows him as a sportsman winter after winter, meeting with much less of success than of discouragement, does he pick up many details of his personal life; for wildness is born in him, and no experience with man is needed to develop it. On the lonely lakes in the midst of a Canada forest, where he meets man perhaps for the first time, he is the same as when he builds at the head of some mill pond within sight of a busy New England town. Other ducks may in time be tamed and used as decoys; but not so he. Several times I have tried it with wing-tipped birds; but the result was always the same. They worked night and day to escape, refusing all food and even water till they broke through their pen, or were dying of hunger, when I let them go.
One spring a farmer, with whom I sometimes go shooting, determined to try with young birds. He found a black duck's nest in a dense swamp near a salt creek, and hatched the eggs with some others under a tame duck. Every time he approached the pen the little things skulked away and hid; nor could they be induced to show themselves, although their tame companions were feeding and running about, quite contented. After two weeks, when he thought them somewhat accustomed to their surroundings, he let the whole brood go down to the shore just below his house. The moment they were free the wild birds scurried away into the water-grass out of sight, and no amount of anxious quacking on the part of the mother duck could bring them back into captivity. He never saw them again.
This habit which the young birds have of skulking away out of sight is a measure of protection that they constantly practise. A brood may be seen on almost any secluded pond or lake in New England, where the birds come in the early spring to build their nests. Watching from some hidden spot on the shore, one sees them diving and swimming about, hunting for food everywhere in the greatest freedom. The next moment they scatter and disappear so suddenly that one almost rubs his eyes to make sure that the birds are really gone. If he is near enough, which is not likely unless he is very careful, he has heard a low cluck from the old bird, which now sits with neck standing straight up out of the water, so still as to be easily mistaken for one of the old stumps or bogs among which they are feeding. She is looking about to see if the ducklings are all well hidden. After a moment there is another cluck, very much like the other, and downy little fellows come bobbing out of the grass, or from close beside the stumps where you looked a moment before and saw nothing. This is repeated at frequent intervals, the object being, apparently, to accustom the young birds to hide instantly when danger approaches.
So watchful is the old bird, however, that trouble rarely threatens without her knowledge. When the young are well hidden at the first sign of the enemy, she takes wing and leaves them, returning when danger is over to find them still crouching motionless in their hiding places. When surprised she acts like other game birds,—flutters along with a great splashing, trailing one wing as if wounded, till she has led you away from the young, or occupied your attention long enough for them to be safely hidden; then she takes wing and leaves you.
The habit of hiding becomes so fixed with the young birds that they trust to it long after the wings have grown and they are able to escape by flight. Sometimes in the early autumn I have run the bow of my canoe almost over a full-grown bird, lying hidden in a clump of grass, before he sprang into the air and away. A month later, in the same place, the canoe could hardly approach within a quarter of a mile without his taking alarm.
Once they have learned to trust their wings, they give up hiding for swift flight. But they never forget their early training, and when wounded hide with a cunning that is remarkable. Unless one has a good dog it is almost useless to look for a wounded duck, if there is any cover to be reached. Hiding under a bank, crawling into a muskrat hole, worming a way under a bunch of dead grass or pile of leaves, swimming around and around a clump of bushes just out of sight of his pursuer, diving and coming up behind a tuft of grass,—these are some of the ways by which I have known a black duck try to escape. Twice I have heard from old hunters of their finding a bird clinging to a bunch of grass under water, though I have never seen it. Once, from a blind, I saw a black duck swim ashore and disappear into a small clump of berry bushes. Karl, who was with me, ran over to get him, but after a half-hour's search gave it up. Then I tried, and gave it up also. An hour later we saw the bird come out of the very place where we had been searching, and enter the water. Karl ran out, shouting, and the bird hid in the bushes again. Again we hunted the clump over and over, but no duck could be seen. We were turning away a second time when Karl cried: "Look!"—and there, in plain sight, by the very white stone where I had seen him disappear, was the duck, or rather the red leg of a duck, sticking out of a tangle of black roots.
With the first sharp frost that threatens to ice over the ponds in which they have passed the summer, the inland birds betake themselves to the seacoast, where there is more or less migration all winter. The great body of ducks moves slowly southward as the winter grows severe; but if food is plenty they winter all along the coast. It is then that they may be studied to the best advantage.
During the daytime they are stowed away in quiet little ponds and hiding places, or resting in large flocks on the shoals well out of reach of land and danger. When possible, they choose the former, because it gives them an abundance of fresh water, which is a daily necessity; and because, unlike the coots which are often found in great numbers on the same shoals, they dislike tossing about on the waves for any length of time. But late in the autumn they desert the ponds and are seldom seen there again until spring, even though the ponds are open. They are very shy about being frozen in or getting ice on their feathers, and prefer to get their fresh water at the mouths of creeks and springs.
With all their caution,—and they are very good weather prophets, knowing the times of tides and the approach of storms, as well as the days when fresh water freezes,—they sometimes get caught. Once I found a flock of five in great distress, frozen into the thin ice while sleeping, no doubt, with heads tucked under their wings. At another time I found a single bird floundering about with a big lump of ice and mud attached to his tail. He had probably found the insects plentiful in some bit of soft mud at low tide, and stayed there too long with the thermometer at zero.
Night is their feeding time; on the seacoast they fly in to the feeding grounds just at dusk. Fog bewilders them, and no bird likes to fly in rain, because it makes the feathers heavy; so on foggy or rainy afternoons they come in early, or not at all. The favorite feeding ground is a salt marsh, with springs and creeks of brackish water. Seeds, roots, tender grasses, and snails and insects in the mud left by the low tide are their usual winter food. When these grow scarce they betake themselves to the mussel beds with the coots; their flesh in consequence becomes strong and fishy.
When the first birds come in to the feeding grounds before dark, they do it with the greatest caution, examining not only the little pond or creek, but the whole neighborhood before lighting. The birds that follow trust to the inspection of these first comers, and generally fly straight in. For this reason it is well for one who attempts to see them at this time to have live decoys and, if possible, to have his blind built several days in advance, in order that the birds which may have been feeding in the place shall see no unusual object when they come in. If the blind be newly built, only the stranger birds will fly straight in to his decoys. Those that have been there before will either turn away in alarm, or else examine the blind very cautiously on all sides. If you know now how to wait and sit perfectly still, the birds will at last fly directly over the stand to look in. That is your only chance; and you must take it quickly if you expect to eat duck for dinner.
By moonlight one may sit on the bank in plain sight of his decoys, and watch the wild birds as long as he will. It is necessary only to sit perfectly still. But this is unsatisfactory; you can never see just what they are doing. Once I had thirty or forty close about me in this way. A sudden turn of my head, when a bat struck my cheek, sent them all off in a panic to the open ocean.
A curious thing frequently noticed about these birds as they come in at night is their power to make their wings noisy or almost silent at will. Sometimes the rustle is so slight that, unless the air is perfectly still, it is scarcely audible; at other times it is a strong wish-wish that can be heard two hundred yards away. The only theory I can suggest is that it is done as a kind of signal. In the daytime and on bright evenings one seldom hears it; on dark nights it is very frequent, and is always answered by the quacking of birds already on the feeding grounds, probably to guide the incomers. How they do it is uncertain; it is probably in some such way as the night-hawk makes his curious booming sound,—not by means of his open mouth, as is generally supposed, but by slightly turning the wing quills so that the air sets them vibrating. One can test this, if he will, by blowing on any stiff feather.
On stormy days the birds, instead of resting on the shoals, light near some lonely part of the beach and, after watching carefully for an hour or two, to be sure that no danger is near, swim ashore and collect in great bunches in some sheltered spot under a bank. It is indeed a tempting sight to see perhaps a hundred of the splendid birds gathered close together on the shore, the greater part with heads tucked under their wings, fast asleep; but if you are to surprise them, you must turn snake and crawl, and learn patience. Scattered along the beach on either side are single birds or small bunches evidently acting as sentinels. The crows and gulls are flying continually along the tide line after food; and invariably as they pass over one of these bunches of ducks they rise in the air to look around over all the bank. You must be well hidden to escape those bright eyes. The ducks understand crow and gull talk perfectly, and trust largely to these friendly sentinels. The gulls scream and the crows caw all day long, and not a duck takes his head from under his wing; but the instant either crow or gull utters his danger note every duck is in the air and headed straight off shore.
The constant watchfulness of black ducks is perhaps the most remarkable thing about them. When feeding at night in some lonely marsh, or hidden away by day deep in the heart of the swamps, they never for a moment seem to lay aside their alertness, nor trust to their hiding places alone for protection. Even when lying fast asleep among the grasses with heads tucked under their wings, there is a nervous vigilance in their very attitudes which suggests a sense of danger. Generally one has to content himself with studying them through a glass; but once I had a very good opportunity of watching them close at hand, of outwitting them, as it were, at their own game of hide-and-seek. It was in a grassy little pond, shut in by high hills, on the open moors of Nantucket. The pond was in the middle of a plain, perhaps a hundred yards from the nearest hill. No tree or rock or bush offered any concealment to an enemy; the ducks could sleep there as sure of detecting the approach of danger as if on the open ocean.
One autumn day I passed the place and, looking cautiously over the top of a hill, saw a single black duck swim out of the water-grass at the edge of the pond. The fresh breeze in my face induced me to try to creep down close to the edge of the pond, to see if it were possible to surprise birds there, should I find any on my next hunting trip. Just below me, at the foot of the hill, was a swampy run leading toward the pond, with grass nearly a foot high growing along its edge. I must reach that if possible.
After a few minutes of watching, the duck went into the grass again, and I started to creep down the hill, keeping my eyes intently on the pond. Halfway down, another duck appeared, and I dropped flat on the hillside in plain sight. Of course the duck noticed the unusual object. There was a commotion in the grass; heads came up here and there. The next moment, to my great astonishment, fully fifty black ducks were swimming about in the greatest uneasiness.
I lay very still and watched. Five minutes passed; then quite suddenly all motion ceased in the pond; every duck sat with neck standing straight up from the water, looking directly at me. So still were they that one could easily have mistaken them for stumps or peat bogs. After a few minutes of this kind of watching they seemed satisfied, and glided back, a few at a time, into the grass.
When all were gone I rolled down the hill and gained the run, getting soaking wet as I splashed into it. Then it was easier to advance without being discovered; for whenever a duck came out to look round—which happened almost every minute at first—I could drop into the grass and be out of sight.
In half an hour I had gained the edge of a low bank, well covered by coarse water-grass. Carefully pushing this aside, I looked through, and almost held my breath, they were so near. Just below me, within six feet, was a big drake, with head drawn down so close to his body that I wondered what he had done with his neck. His eyes were closed; he was fast asleep. In front of him were eight or ten more ducks close together, all with heads under their wings. Scattered about in the grass everywhere were small groups, sleeping, or pluming their glossy dark feathers.
Beside the pleasure of watching them, the first black ducks that I had ever seen unconscious, there was the satisfaction of thinking how completely they had been outwitted at their own game of sharp watching. How they would have jumped had they only known what was lying there in the grass so near their hiding place! At first, every time I saw a pair of little black eyes wink, or a head come from under a wing, I felt myself shrinking close together in the thought that I was discovered; but that wore off after a time, when I found that the eyes winked rather sleepily, and the necks were taken out just to stretch them, much as one would take a comfortable yawn.
Once I was caught squarely, but the grass and my being so near saved me. I had raised my head and lay with chin in my hands, deeply interested in watching a young duck making a most elaborate toilet, when from the other side an old bird shot suddenly into the open water and saw me as I dropped out of sight. There was a low, sharp quack which brought every duck out of his hiding, wide awake on the instant. At first they all bunched together at the farther side, looking straight at the bank where I lay. Probably they saw my feet, which were outside the covert as I lay full length. Then they drew gradually nearer till they were again within the fringe of water-grass. Some of them sat quite up on their tails by a vigorous use of their wings, and stretched their necks to look over the low bank. Just keeping still saved me. In five minutes they were quiet again; even the young duck seemed to have forgotten her vanity and gone to sleep with the others.
Two or three hours I lay thus and watched them through the grass, spying very rudely, no doubt, into the seclusion of their home life. As the long shadow of the western hill stretched across the pool till it darkened the eastern bank, the ducks awoke one by one from their nap, and began to stir about in preparation for departure. Soon they were collected at the center of the open water, where they sat for a moment very still, heads up, and ready. If there was any signal given I did not hear it. At the same moment each pair of wings struck the water with a sharp splash, and they shot straight up in that remarkable way of theirs, as if thrown by a strong spring. An instant they seemed to hang motionless in the air high above the water, then they turned and disappeared swiftly over the eastern hill toward the marshes.
V. AN ORIOLE'S NEST.
How suggestive it is, swinging there through sunlight and shadow from the long drooping tips of the old elm boughs! And what a delightful cradle for the young orioles, swayed all day long by every breath of the summer breeze, peeping through chinks as the world sweeps by, watching with bright eyes the boy below who looks up in vain, or the mountain of hay that brushes them in passing, and whistling cheerily, blow high or low, with never a fear of falling! The mother bird must feel very comfortable about it as she goes off caterpillar hunting, for no bird enemy can trouble the little ones while she is gone. The black snake, that horror of all low-nesting birds, will never climb so high. The red squirrel—little wretch that he is, to eat young birds when he has still a bushel of corn and nuts in his old wall—cannot find a footing on those delicate branches. Neither can the crow find a resting place from which to steal the young; and the hawk's legs are not long enough to reach down and grasp them, should he perchance venture near the house and hover an instant over the nest.
Besides all this, the oriole is a neighborly little body; and that helps her. Though the young are kept from harm anywhere by the cunning instinct which builds a hanging nest, she still prefers to build near the house, where hawks and crows and owls rarely come. She knows her friends and takes advantage of their protection, returning year after year to the same old elm, and, like a thrifty little housewife, carefully saving and sorting the good threads of her storm-wrecked old house to be used in building the new.
Of late years, however, it has seemed to me that the pretty nests on the secluded streets of New England towns are growing scarcer. The orioles are peace-loving birds, and dislike the society of those noisy, pugnacious little rascals, the English sparrows, which have of late taken possession of our streets. Often now I find the nests far away from any house, on lonely roads where a few years ago they were rarely seen. Sometimes also a solitary farmhouse, too far from the town to be much visited by sparrows, has two or three nests swinging about it in its old elms, where formerly there was but one.
It is an interesting evidence of the bird's keen instinct that where nests are built on lonely roads and away from houses they are noticeably deeper, and so better protected from bird enemies. The same thing is sometimes noticed of nests built in maple or apple trees, which are without the protection of drooping branches, upon which birds of prey can find no footing. Some wise birds secure the same protection by simply contracting the neck of the nest, instead of building a deep one. Young birds building their first nests seem afraid to trust in the strength of their own weaving. Their nests are invariably shallow, and so suffer most from birds of prey.
In the choice of building material the birds are very careful. They know well that no branch supports the nest from beneath; that the safety of the young orioles depends on good, strong material well woven together. In some wise way they seem to know at a glance whether a thread is strong enough to be trusted; but sometimes, in selecting the first threads that are to bear the whole weight of the nest, they are unwilling to trust to appearances. At such times a pair of birds may be seen holding a little tug-of-war, with feet braced, shaking and pulling the thread like a pair of terriers, till it is well tested.
It is in gathering and testing the materials for a nest that the orioles display no little ingenuity. One day, a few years ago, I was lying under some shrubs, watching a pair of the birds that were building close to the house. It was a typical nest-making day, the sun pouring his bright rays through delicate green leaves and a glory of white apple blossoms, the air filled with warmth and fragrance, birds and bees busy everywhere. Orioles seem always happy; to-day they quite overflowed in the midst of all the brightness, though materials were scarce and they must needs be diligent.
The female was very industrious, never returning to the nest without some contribution, while the male frolicked about the trees in his brilliant orange and black, whistling his warm rich notes, and seeming like a dash of southern sunshine amidst the blossoms. Sometimes he stopped in his frolic to find a bit of string, over which he raised an impromptu jubilate, or to fly with his mate to the nest, uttering that soft rich twitter of his in a mixture of blarney and congratulation whenever she found some particularly choice material. But his chief part seemed to be to furnish the celebration, while she took care of the nest-making.