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Title: A Watcher in The Woods
Author: Sharp, Dallas Lore, 1870-1929
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Watcher in The Woods" ***

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[Illustration: "The feast is finished and the games are on."]



  Author of "Wild Life Near Home"


  [Illustration: logo]


  Copyright, 1901, by

  _Published November, 1903_





Leading superintendents of schools and teachers have been pointing out
that in "Wild Life Near Home," by Dallas Lore Sharp, there is much
valuable supplementary reading for schools, and no less an authority
than Mr. John Burroughs, in his recent article in the "Atlantic
Monthly" entitled "Real and Sham Natural History," made the statement
that "of all the nature books of recent years, I look upon Mr. Sharp's
as the best."

The present volume will be found to contain carefully selected
chapters from "Wild Life," arranged with special reference to nature
study in the schools, where it is hoped that it will become popular
with both teachers and pupils.

  October 15, 1903



  BIRDS' WINTER BEDS                                      1

  SOME SNUG WINTER BEDS                                  17

  "MUS'RATTIN'"                                          35

  FEATHERED NEIGHBORS                                    51

  FROM RIVER-OOZE TO TREE-TOP                           109

  RABBIT ROADS                                          135

  SECOND CROPS                                          161

  IN THE OCTOBER MOON                                   191



  The feast is finished and the games are on   Frontispiece

  The cheerful little goldfinches, that bend the
  dried ragweeds                                          7

  There she stood in the snow with head high,
  listening anxiously And--dreamed                       16

  I shivered as the icy flakes fell thicker and faster   22

  The meadow-mouse                                       25

  It was Whitefoot                                       30

  From his leafless height he looks down into the Hollow 33

  Uncle Jethro limbered his stiffened knees and went
  chuckling down the bank                                36

  The big moon was rising over the meadows               39

  Section of muskrat’s house                             40

  The snow has drifted over their house till only a
  tiny mound appears                                     43

  They rubbed noses                                      45

  Two little brown creatures washing calamus.            46

  They probe the lawns most diligently for worms         57

  Even he loves a listener                               58

  She flew across the pasture                            61

  A very ordinary New England "corner"                   64

  They are the first to return in the spring             67

  Where the dams are hawking for flies                   70

  They cut across the rainbow                            75

  The barn-swallows fetch the summer                     77

  From the barn to the orchard                           78

  Across the road, in an apple-tree, built a pair of
  redstarts                                              80

  Gathered half the gray hairs of a dandelion into
  her beak                                               83

  In the tree next to the chebec's was a brood of
  robins. The crude nest was wedged carelessly
  into the lowest fork of the tree, so that the cats
  and roving boys could help themselves without
  trouble                                                85

  I soon spied him on the wires of a telegraph-pole      88

  He will come if May comes                              91

  Within a few feet of me dropped the lonely frightened
  quail                                                  92

  On they go to a fence-stake                            94

  It was a love-song                                     96

  But the pair kept on together, chatting brightly      101

  In a dead yellow birch                                103

  So close I can look directly into it                  104

  "Spring! spring! spring!"                             114

  A wretched little puddle                              117

  Calamity is hot on his track                          140

  Bunny, meantime, is watching just inside the
  next brier-patch                                      143

  The squat is a cold place                             145

  The limp, lifeless one hanging over the neck of
  that fox                                              148

  His drop is swift and certain                         153

  Seven young ones in the nest                          159

  I knew it suited exactly                              166

  With tail up, head cocked, very much amazed,
  and commenting vociferously                           168

  In a solemn row upon the wire fence                   171

  Young flying-squirrels                                172

  The sentinel crows are posted                         174

  She turned and fixed her big black eyes hard on
  me                                                    179

  Wrapped up like little Eskimos                        180

  It is no longer a sorry forest of battered, sunken
  stumps                                                183

  Even the finger-board is a living pillar of ivy       186

  In October they are building their winter lodges      199

  The glimpse of Reynard in the moonlight               202

BIRDS' WINTER BEDS [Illustration: snowy]


The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.

A storm had been raging from the northeast all day. Toward evening the
wind strengthened to a gale, and the fine, icy snow swirled and
drifted over the frozen fields.

I lay a long time listening to the wild symphony of the winds,
thankful for the roof over my head, and wondering how the hungry,
homeless creatures out of doors would pass the night. Where do the
birds sleep such nights as this? Where in this bitter cold, this
darkness and storm, will they make their beds? The lark that broke
from the snow at my feet as I crossed the pasture this afternoon--

    What comes o' thee?
    Whar wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing,
    An' close thy e'e?

The storm grew fiercer; the wind roared through the big pines by the
side of the house and swept hoarsely on across the fields; the pines
shivered and groaned, and their long limbs scraped over the shingles
above me as if feeling with frozen fingers for a way in; the windows
rattled, the cracks and corners of the old farm-house shrieked, and a
long, thin line of snow sifted in from beneath the window across the
garret floor. I fancied these sounds of the storm were the voices of
freezing birds, crying to be taken in from the cold. Once I thought I
heard a thud against the window, a sound heavier than the rattle of
the snow. Something seemed to be beating at the glass. It might be a
bird. I got out of bed to look; but there was only the ghostly face of
the snow pressed against the panes, half-way to the window's top. I
imagined that I heard the thud again; but, while listening, fell
asleep and dreamed that my window was frozen fast, and that all the
birds in the world were knocking at it, trying to get in out of the
night and storm.

The fields lay pure and white and flooded with sunshine when I awoke.
Jumping out of bed, I ran to the window, and saw a dark object on the
sill outside. I raised the sash, and there, close against the glass,
were two quails--frozen stiff in the snow. It was they I heard the
night before fluttering at the window. The ground had been covered
deep with snow for several days, and at last, driven by hunger and
cold from the fields, they saw my light, and sought shelter from the
storm and a bed for the night with me.

Four others, evidently of the same covey, spent the night in the
wagon-house, and in the morning helped themselves fearlessly to the
chickens' breakfast. They roosted with the chickens several nights,
but took to the fields again as soon as the snow began to melt.

It is easy to account for our winter birds during the day. Along near
noon, when it is warm and bright, you will find the sparrows,
chickadees, and goldfinches searching busily among the bushes and
weeds for food, and the crows and jays scouring the fields. But what
about them during the dark? Where do they pass the long winter

Why, they have nests, you say. Yes, they _had_ nests in the summer,
and then, perhaps, one of the parent birds may be said to have slept
in the nest during the weeks of incubation and rearing of the young.
But nests are cradles, not beds, and are never used by even the young
birds from the day they leave them. Muskrats build houses, foxes have
holes, and squirrels sleep in true nests; but of the birds it can be
said, "they have not where to lay their heads." They sleep upon their
feet in the grass, in hollow trees, and among the branches; but, at
best, such a bed is no more than a roost. A large part of the year
this roost is new every night, so that the question of a
sleeping-place during the winter is most serious.

The cheerful little goldfinches, that bend the dried ragweeds and
grass-stalks down and scatter their chaff over the snow, sleep in the
thick cedars and pines. These warm, close-limbed evergreens I have
found to be the lodging-houses of many of the smaller winter
birds--the fox-colored sparrow, snowbird, crossbill, and sometimes of
the chickadee, though he usually tucks his little black cap under his
wing in a woodpecker's hole.

[Illustration: "The cheerful little goldfinches, that bend the dried

The meadow-larks always roost upon the ground. They creep well under
the grass, or, if the wind is high and it snows, they squat close to
the ground behind a tuft of grass or thick bush and sleep while the
cold white flakes fall about them. They are often covered before the
morning; and when housed thus from the wind and hidden from prowling
enemies, no bird could wish for a cozier, warmer, safer bed.

But what a lonely bed it is! Nothing seems so utterly homeless and
solitary as a meadow-lark after the winter nightfall. In the middle of
a wide, snow-covered pasture one will occasionally spring from under
your feet, scattering the snow that covered him, and go whirring away
through the dusk, lost instantly in the darkness--a single little life
in the wild, bleak wilderness of winter fields!

Again, the grass is often a dangerous bed. On the day before the great
March blizzard of 1888, the larks were whistling merrily from the
fences, with just a touch of spring in their call. At noon I noted no
signs of storm, but by four o'clock--an hour earlier than usual--the
larks had disappeared. They rose here and there from the grass as I
crossed the fields, not as they do when feeding, far ahead of me, but
close to my feet. They had gone to bed. By early evening the snow
began to fall, and for two days continued furiously.

A week later, when the deep drifts melted, I found several larks that
had perished from cold or starvation or had smothered under the weight
of snow.

There is something of awe in the thought of a bird nestling close
beneath a snow-laden bush in a broad meadow, or clinging fast to a
limb in the swaying top of some tall tree, rocked in its great arms
through the night by a winter gale. All trees, even the pines and
cedars, are fearfully exposed sleeping-places, and death from cold is
not infrequent among the birds that take beds in them.

The pine barrens, and especially certain pine clumps along Cohansey
Creek and at the head of Cubby Hollow, used to be famous crow-roosts.
Thousands of the birds, a few years ago, frequented these pieces of
wood in the winter. About the middle of the afternoon, during the
severest weather, they begin to fly over to the roost at the head of
the Hollow, coming in from the surrounding fields, some of them from
miles away, where they have been foraging all day for food. You can
tell the character of the weather by the manner of their flight. In
the fall and spring they went over cawing, chasing each other and
performing in the air; they were happy, and life was as abundant as
the spring promise or the autumn fullness everywhere. But in January
the land is bare and hard, and life correspondingly lean and
cheerless. You see it in their heavy, dispirited flight; all their
spring joyousness is gone; they pass over silent and somber, reluctant
to leave the fields, and fearful of the night. There is not a croak as
they settle among the pines--scores, sometimes hundreds of them, in a
single tree.

Here, in the swaying tops, amid the heavy roar of the winds, they
sleep. You need have no fear of waking them as you steal through the
shadows beneath the trees. The thick mat of needles or the sifted snow
muffles your footfalls; and the winds still the breaking branches and
snapping twigs. What a bed in a winter storm! The sky is just light
enough for you to distinguish the dim outlines of the sleepers as they
rock in the waves of the dark green that rise and fall above you; the
trees moan, the branches shiver and creak, and high above all, around
and beneath you, filling the recesses of the dark wood rolls the
volume of the storm.

But the crows sleep on, however high the winds. They sit close to the
branches, that the feathers may cover their clinging feet; they tuck
their heads beneath their wing-coverts, thus protecting the whole
body, except one side of the head, which the feathers of the wing
cannot quite shelter. This leaves an eye exposed, and this eye, like
the heel of Achilles, proves to be the one vulnerable spot. It freezes
in very severe weather, causing a slow, painful death. In the morning,
after an unusually cold night, you can find dozens of crows flapping
piteously about in the trees of the roost and upon the ground, with
frozen eyes. In January, 1895, I saw very many of them along the
Hollow, blind in one eye or in both eyes, dying of pain and
starvation. It was pitiful to see their sufferings. The snow in places
was sprinkled with their broken feathers, and with pine-needles which
they had plucked off and tried to eat. Nothing could be done for the
poor things. I have tried time and again to doctor them; but they were
sure to die in the end.

Who has not wondered, as he has seen the red rim of the sun sink down
in the sea, where the little brood of Mother Carey's chickens skimming
round the vessel would sleep that night? Or who, as he hears the
_honking_ of geese overhead in the darkness, has not questioned by

                            ... plashy brink
    Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
      Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
    On the chafed ocean-side,

they will find rest?

In winter, when a heavy southeast wind is blowing, the tides of
Delaware Bay are high and the waters very rough. Then the ducks that
feed along the reedy flats of the bay are driven into the quieter
water of the creeks, and at night fly into the marshes, where they
find safe beds in the "salt-holes."

The salt-holes are sheets of water having no outlet, with clean
perpendicular sides as if cut out of the grassy marsh, varying in size
from a few feet wide to an acre in extent. The sedges grow luxuriantly
around their margins, making a thick, low wall in winter, against
which the winds blow in vain. If a bird must sleep in the water, such
a hole comes as near to being a perfect cradle as anything could be,
short of the bottom of a well.

The ducks come in soon after dark. You can hear the whistle of their
wings as they pass just above your head, skimming along the marsh.
They settle in a hole, swim close up to the windward shore, beneath
the sedges, and, with their heads under their wings, go fast asleep.
And as they sleep the ice begins to form--first, along their side of
the hole, where the water is calmest; then, extending out around them,
it becomes a hard sheet across the surface.

A night that will freeze a salt-hole is not one in which there is
likely to be much hunting done by man or beast. But I have been on the
marshes such nights, and so have smaller and more justified hunters.
It is not a difficult feat to surprise the sleeping ducks. The ice is
half an inch thick when you come up, and seals the hole completely,
save immediately about the bodies of the birds. Their first impulse,
when taken thus at close range, is to dive; and down they go, turning
in their tracks.

Will they get out? One may chance to strike the hole which his warm
body kept open, as he rises to breathe; but it is more likely that he
will come up under the ice, and drown. I have occasionally found a
dead duck beneath the ice or floating in the water of a salt-hole. It
had been surprised, no doubt, while sleeping, and, diving in fright,
was drowned under the ice, which had silently spread like a strange,
dreadful covering over its bed.

Probably the life of no other of our winter birds is so full of
hardship as is that of the quail, Bob White.

In the early summer the quails are hatched in broods of from ten to
twenty, and live as families until the pairing season the next spring.
The chicks keep close to the neighborhood of the home nest, feeding
and roosting together, under the guidance of the parent birds. But
this happy union is soon broken by the advent of the gunning season.
It is seldom that a bevy escapes this period whole and uninjured.
Indeed, if _one_ of the brood is left to welcome the spring it is
little less than a miracle.

I have often heard the scattered, frightened families called together
after a day of hard shooting; and once, in the old pasture to the
north of Cubby Hollow, I saw the bevy assemble.

It was long after sunset, but the snow so diffused the light that I
could see pretty well. In climbing the fence into the pasture, I had
started a rabbit, and was creeping up behind a low cedar, when a
quail, very near me, whistled softly, _Whirl-ee!_ The cedar was
between us. _Whirl-ee, whirl-ee-gig!_ she whistled again.

[Illustration: "There she stood in the snow with head high, listening

It was the sweetest bird-note I ever heard, being so low, so liquid,
so mellow that I almost doubted if Bob White could make it. But there
she stood in the snow with head high, listening anxiously. Again she
whistled, louder this time; and from the woods below came a faint
answering call: _White!_ The answer seemed to break a spell; and on
three sides of me sounded other calls. At this the little signaler
repeated her efforts, and each time the answers came louder and
nearer. Presently something dark hurried by me over the snow and
joined the quail I was watching. It was one of the covey that I had
heard call from the woods.

Again and again the signal was sent forth until a third, fourth, and
finally a fifth were grouped about the leader. There was just an
audible twitter of welcome and gratitude exchanged as each new-comer
made his appearance. Once more the whistle sounded; but this time
there was no response across the silent field.

The quails made their way to a thick cedar that spread out over the
ground, and, huddling together in a close bunch under this, they
murmured something soft and low among themselves and--dreamed.

Some of the family were evidently missing, and I crept away, sorry
that even one had been taken from the little brood.

[Illustration: "And--dreamed."]

[Illustration: bird in flight]


It was a cold, desolate January day. Scarcely a sprig of green showed
in the wide landscape, except where the pines stood in a long blur
against the gray sky. There was not a sign that anything living
remained in the snow-buried fields, nor in the empty woods, shivering
and looking all the more uncovered and cold under their mantle of
snow, until a solitary crow flapped heavily over toward the pines in
search of an early bed for the night.

The bird reminded me that I, too, should be turning toward the pines;
for the dull gray afternoon was thickening into night, and my bed lay
beyond the woods, a long tramp through the snow.

As the black creature grew small in the distance and vanished among
the trees, I felt a pang of pity for him. I knew by his flight that he
was hungry and weary and cold. Every labored stroke of his unsteady
wings told of a long struggle with the winter death. He was silent;
and his muteness spoke the foreboding and dread with which he faced
another bitter night in the pines.

The snow was half-way to my knees; and still another storm was
brewing. All day the leaden sky had been closing in, weighed down by
the snow-filled air. That hush which so often precedes the severest
winter storms brooded everywhere. The winds were in leash--no, not in
leash; for had my ears been as keen as those of the creatures about
me, I might even now have heard them baying far away to the north. It
was not the winds that were still; it was the fields and forests that
quailed before the onset of the storm.

I skirted Lupton's Pond and saw the muskrat village, a collection of
white mounds out in the ice, and coming on to Cubby Hollow, I crossed
on the ice, ascended the hill, and keeping in the edge of the swamp,
left the pines a distance to the left. A chickadee, as if oppressed by
the silence and loneliness among the trees, and uneasy in his stout
little heart at the threatening storm, flew into the bushes as near to
me as he could get, and, apparently for the sake of companionship,
followed me along the path, cheeping plaintively.

As I emerged from the woods into a cornfield and turned to look over
at the gloomy pines, a snowflake fell softly upon my arm. The storm
had begun. Now the half-starved crows came flocking in by hundreds,
hurrying to roost before the darkness should overtake them. A biting
wind was rising; already I could hear it soughing through the pines.
There was something fascinating in the oncoming monster, and backing
up behind a corn-shock, I stopped a little to watch the sweep of its
white winds between me and the dark, sounding pines.

[Illustration: "I shivered as the icy flakes fell thicker and

I shivered as the icy flakes fell thicker and faster. How the wild,
unhoused things must suffer to-night! I thought, as the weary
procession of crows beat on toward the trees. Presently there was a
small stir within the corn-shock. I laid my ear to the stalks and
listened. Mice! I could hear them moving around in there. It was with
relief that I felt that here, at least, was a little people whom the
cold and night could not hurt.

These mice were as warmly sheltered inside this great shock as I
should be in my furnace-warmed home. Their tiny nests of corn-silk,
hidden away, perhaps, within the stiff, empty husks at the shock's
very center, could never be wet by a drop of the most driving rain nor
reached by the most searching frosts. And not a mouse of them feared
starvation. A plenty of nubbins had been left from the husking, and
they would have corn for the shelling far into the spring--if the
fodder and their homes should be left to them so long.

I floundered on toward home. In the gathering night, amid the swirl of
the snow, the shocks seemed like spectral tents pitched up and down
some ghostly camp. But the specters and ghosts were all with me, all
out in the whirling storm. The mice knew nothing of wandering,
shivering spirits; they nibbled their corn and squeaked in snug
contentment; for only dreams of the winter come to them in there.

These shock-dwellers were the common house-mice, _Mus musculus_. But
they are not the only mice that have warm beds in winter. In fact,
bed-making is a specialty among the mice.

_Zapus_, the jumping-mouse, the exquisite little fellow with the long
tail and kangaroo legs, has made his nest of leaves and grass down in
the ground, where he lies in a tiny ball just out of the frost's
reach, fast asleep. He will be plowed out of bed next spring, if his
nest is in a field destined for corn or melons; for _Zapus_ is sure to
oversleep. He is a very sound sleeper. The bluebirds, robins, and
song-sparrows will have been back for weeks, the fields will be
turning green, and as for the flowers, there will be a long procession
of them started, before this pretty sleepy-head rubs his eyes, uncurls
himself, and digs his way out to see the new spring morning.

Does this winter-long sleep seem to him only as a nap overnight?

[Illustration: The meadow-mouse.]

_Arvicola_, the meadow-mouse, that duck-legged, stump-tailed,
pot-bellied mouse whose paths you see everywhere in the meadows and
fields, stays wide awake all winter. He is not so tender as _Zapus_.
The cold does not bother him; he likes it. Up he comes from his
underground nest,--or home, rather, for it is more than a mere
sleeping-place,--and runs out into the snow like a boy. He dives and
plunges about in the soft white drifts, plowing out roads that
crisscross and loop and lady's-chain and lead nowhere--simply for the
fun of it.

Fairies do wonderful things and live in impossible castles; but no
fairy ever had a palace in fairy-land more impossible than this
unfairy-like meadow-mouse had in my back yard.

One February day I broke through the frozen crust of earth in the
garden and opened a large pit in which forty bushels of beets were
buried. I took out the beets, and, when near the bottom, I came upon a
narrow tunnel running around the wall of the pit like the Whispering
Gallery around the dome of St. Paul's. It completely circled the pit,
was well traveled, and, without doubt, was the corridor of some small
animal that had the great beet-pit for a winter home.

There were numerous dark galleries branching off from this main
hallway, piercing out into the ground. Into one of these I put my
finger, by way of discovery, thinking I might find the nest. I did
find the nest--and more. The instant my finger entered the hole a
sharp twinge shot up my arm, and I snatched away my hand with a large
meadow-mouse fastened to the end of my finger, and clinging
desperately to her, lo! two baby mice, little bigger than thimbles.

In this mild and even temperature, four feet below the frozen surface
of the garden, with never a care as to weather and provisions, dwelt
this single family of meadow-mice. What a home it was! A mansion,
indeed, with rooms innumerable, and a main hall girdling a very
mountain of juicy, sugary beets. This family could not complain of
hard times. Besides the beets, the mice had harvested for themselves a
number of cribs of clover-roots. These cribs, or bins, were in the
shape of little pockets in the walls of the great gallery. Each
contained a cupful of the thick, meaty tap-roots of clover, cut into
lengths of about half an inch. If the beets should fail (!), or cloy
upon them, they had the roots to fall back on.

It was absolutely dark here, and worse; there was no way to get fresh
air that I could see. Yet here two baby mice were born in the very
dead of winter, and here they grew as strong and warm and happy as
they would have grown had the season showered rose-petals instead of
snowflakes over the garden above.

_Hesperomys_ is the rather woodsy name of the white-footed or
deer-mouse, a shy, timid little creature dwelling in every wood, who,
notwithstanding his abundance, is an utter stranger to most of us. We
are more familiar with his tracks, however, than with even those of
the squirrel and rabbit. His is that tiny double trail galloped across
the snowy paths in the woods. We see them sprinkled over the snow
everywhere; but when have we seen the feet that left them? Here goes a
line of the wee prints from a hole in the snow near a stump over to
the butt of a large pine. Whitefoot has gone for provender to one of
his storehouses among the roots of the pine; or maybe a neighbor lives
here, and he has left his nest of bird-feathers in the stump to make a
friendly call after the storm.

A bed of downy feathers at the heart of a punky old stump beneath the
snow would seem as much of a snuggery as ever a mouse could build; but
it is not. Instead of a dark, warm chamber within a hollow stump,
Whitefoot sometimes goes to the opposite extreme, and climbs a
leafless tree to an abandoned bird's nest, and fits this up for his
winter home. Down by Cubby Hollow I found a wood-thrush's nest in a
slender swamp-maple, about fifteen feet from the ground. The young
birds left it late in June, and when Whitefoot moved in I do not know.
But along in the winter I noticed that the nest looked suspiciously
round and full, as if it were roofed over. Perhaps the falling leaves
had lodged in it, though this was hardly likely. So I went up to the
sapling and tapped. My suspicions were correct. After some thumps, a
sleepy, frightened face appeared through the side of the nest, and
looked cautiously down at me. No one could mistake that pointed nose,
those big ears, and the round pop-eyes so nearly dropping out with
blinking. It was Whitefoot. I had disturbed his dreams, and he had
hardly got his wits together yet, for he had never been awakened thus
before. And what could wake him? The black-snakes are asleep, and
there is not a coon or cat living that could climb this spindling
maple. Free from these foes, Whitefoot has only the owls to fear, and
I doubt if even the little screech-owl could flip through these
interlaced branches and catch the nimble-footed tenant of the nest.

[Illustration: "It was Whitefoot."]

In spite of the exposure this must be a warm bed. The walls are thick
and well plastered with mud, and are packed inside with fine, shredded
bark which the mouse himself has pulled from the dead chestnut limbs,
or, more likely, has taken from a deserted crow's nest. The whole is
thatched with a roof of shredded bark, so neatly laid that it sheds
water perfectly. The entrance is on the side, just over the edge of
the original structure, but so shielded by the extending roof that the
rain and snow never beat in. The thrushes did their work well; the
nest is securely mortised into the forking branches; and Whitefoot can
sleep without a tremor through the wildest winter gale. Whenever the
snow falls lightly a high white tower rises over the nest; and then
the little haycock, lodged in the slender limbs so far above our
heads, is a very castle indeed.

High over the nest of the white-footed mouse, in the stiffened top of
a tall red oak that stands on the brow of the hill, swings another
winter bed. It is the bulky oak-leaf hammock of the gray squirrel.

A hammock for a winter bed? Is there anything snug and warm about a
hammock? Not much, true enough. From the outside the gray squirrel's
leaf bed looks like the coldest, deadliest place one could find in
which to pass the winter. The leaves are loose and rattle in the wind
like the clapboards of a tumble-down house. The limb threatens every
moment to toss the clumsy nest out upon the storm. But the moorings
hold, and if we could curl up with the sleeper in that swaying bed, we
should rock and dream, and never feel a shiver through the homespun
blankets of chestnut bark that wrap us round inside the flapping

Be it never so cozy, a nest like this is far from a burrow--the bed of
a fat, thick-headed dolt who sleeps away the winter. A glance into the
stark, frozen top of the oak sends over us a chill of fright and
admiration for the dweller up there. He cannot be an ease-lover;
neither can he know the meaning of fear. We should as soon think of a
sailor's being afraid of the shrieking in the rigging overhead, as of
this bold squirrel in the tree-tops dreading any danger that the
winter winds might bring.

There are winters when the gray squirrel stays in the hollow of some
old tree. A secure and sensible harbor, this, in which to weather the
heavy storms, and I wonder that a nest is ever anchored outside in the
tree-tops. The woodsmen and other wiseacres say that the squirrels
never build the tree-top nests except in anticipation of a mild
winter. But weather wisdom, when the gray squirrel is the source, is
as little wise as that which comes from Washington or the almanac. I
have found the nests in the tree-tops in the coldest, fiercest

[Illustration: "From his leafless height he looks down into the

It is not in anticipation of fine weather, but a wild delight in the
free, wild winter, that leads the gray squirrel to swing his hammock
from the highest limb of the tallest oak that will hold it. He dares
and defies the winds, and claims their freedom for his own. From his
leafless height yonder he looks down into the Hollow upon the tops of
the swamp trees where his dizzy roads run along the angled branches,
and over the swamp to the dark pines, and over the pines, on, on
across the miles of white fields which sweep away and away till they
freeze with the frozen sky behind the snow-clouds that drift and pile.
In his aery he knows the snarl and bite of the blizzard; he feels the
swell of the heaving waves that drive thick with snow out of the cold
white north. Anchored far out in the tossing arms of the strong oak,
his leaf nest rocks in the storm like a yawl in a heaving sea.

But he loves the tumult and the terror. A night never fell upon the
woods that awed him; cold never crept into the trees that could chill
his blood; and the hoarse, mad winds that swirl and hiss about his
pitching bed never shook a nerve in his round, beautiful body. How he
must sleep! And what a constitution he has!

[Illustration: "Uncle Jethro limbered his stiffened knees and went
chuckling down the bank."]


One November afternoon I found Uncle Jethro back of the woodshed,
drawing a chalk-mark along the barrel of his old musket, from the
hammer to the sight.

"What are you doing that for, Uncle Jeth?" I asked.

"What fo'? Fo' mus'rats, boy."

"Muskrats! Do you think they'll walk up and toe that mark, while you
knock 'em over with a stick?"

"G'way fum yhere! What I take yo' possumin' des dozen winters fo', en
yo' dunno how to sight a gun in de moon yit? I's gwine mus'rattin' by
de moon to-night, en I won't take yo' nohow."

Of course he took me. We went out about nine o'clock, and entering the
zigzag lane behind the barn, followed the cow-paths down to the
pasture, then cut across the fields to Lupton's Pond, the little
wood-walled lake which falls over a dam into the wide meadows along
Cohansey Creek.

It is a wild, secluded spot, so removed that a pair of black ducks
built their nest for several springs in the deep moss about the upper

It is shallow and deeply crusted over with lily-pads and
pickerel-weed, except for a small area about the dam, where the water
is deep and clear. There are many stumps in the upper end; and here,
in the shallows, built upon the hummocks or anchored to the submerged
roots, are the muskrats' houses.

The big moon was rising over the meadows as we tucked ourselves snugly
out of sight in a clump of small cedars on the bank, within easy range
of the dam and commanding a view of the whole pond. The domed houses
of the muskrats--the village numbered six homes--showed plainly as the
moon came up; and when the full flood of light fell on the still
surface of the pond, we could see the "roads" of the muskrats, like
narrow channels, leading down through the pads to the open space about
the dam.

[Illustration: "The big moon was rising over the meadows."]

A muskrat's domestic life is erratic. Sometimes there will be a large
village in the pond, and, again, an autumn will pass without a single
new house being built. It may be that some of the old houses will be
fitted up anew and occupied; but I have known years when there was not
a house in the pond. At no time do all of the muskrats build winter
houses. The walls of the meadow ditches just under the dam are
honeycombed with subterranean passages, in which many of the muskrats
live the year round. Neither food nor weather, so far as I have found,
influence them at all in the choice of their winter quarters. In low,
wet meadows where there are no ditches, the muskrats, of course, live
altogether in mud and reed houses above ground, for the water would
flood the ordinary burrow. These structures are placed on the tussocks
along a water-hole, so that the dwellers can dive out and escape under
water when danger approaches. But here in the tide-meadows, where the
ditches are deep, the muskrats rear their families almost wholly in
underground rooms. It is only when winter comes, and family ties
dissolve, that a few of the more sociable or more adventurous club
together, come up to the pond, and while away the cold weather in
these haystack lodges.

[Illustration: Section of muskrat's house.]

These houses are very simple, but entirely adequate. If you will lift
the top off an ordinary meadow lodge you will find a single room, with
a bed in the middle, and at least one entrance and one exit which are
always closed to outsiders by water.

The meadow lodge is built thus: The muskrat first chooses a large
tussock of sedge that stands well out of the water for his bedstead.
Now, from a foundation below the water, thick walls of mud and grass
are erected inclosing the tussock; a thatch of excessive thickness is
piled on; the channels leading away from the doors are dug out if
necessary; a bunch of soaking grass is brought in and made into a bed
on the tussock--and the muskrat takes possession.

The pond lodges at the head of Lupton's are made after this fashion,
only they are much larger, and instead of being raised about, a
tussock of sedge, they are built upon, and inclose, a part of a log
or stump.

This lodge life is surely a cozy, jolly way of passing the winter. The
possums are inclined to club together whenever they can find stumps
that are roomy enough; but the muskrats habitually live together
through the winter. Here, in the single room of their house, one after
another will come, until the walls can hold no more; and, curling up
after their night of foraging, they will spend the frigid days
blissfully rolled into one warm ball of dreamful sleep. Let it blow
and snow and freeze outside; there are six inches of mud-and-reed wall
around them, and, wrapped deep in rich, warm fur, they hear nothing of
the blizzard and care nothing for the cold.

Nor are they prisoners of the cold here. The snow has drifted over
their house till only a tiny mound appears; the ice has sealed the
pond and locked their home against the storm and desolation without:
but the main roadway from the house is below the drifting snow, and
they know where, among the stumps and button-bushes, the warm-nosed
watchers have kept breathing-holes open. The ice-maker never finds
their inner stair; its secret door opens into deep, under-water paths,
which run all over the bottom of the unfrozen pond-world.

[Illustration: "The snow has drifted over their house till only a tiny
mound appears."]

Unless roused by the sharp thrust of a spear, the muskrats will sleep
till nightfall. You may skate around the lodge and even sit down upon
it without waking the sleepers; but plunge your polo-stick through the
top, and you will hear a smothered _plunk, plunk, plunk_, as one
after another dives out of bed into the water below.

The moon climbed higher up the sky and the minutes ran on to ten
o'clock. We waited. The night was calm and still, and the keen, alert
air brought every movement of the wild life about us to our ears. The
soft, cottony footfalls of a rabbit, hopping leisurely down the
moonlit path, seemed not unlike the echoing steps on silent, sleeping
streets, as some traveler passes beneath your window; a wedge of wild
geese _honked_ far over our heads, holding their mysterious way to the
South; white-footed mice scurried among the dried leaves; and our ears
were so sharpened by the frosty air that we caught their thin, wiry

Presently there was a faint plash among the muskrat houses. The
village was waking up. Uncle Jethro poked the long nose of his gun
cautiously through the bushes, and watched. Soon there was a wake in
one of the silvery roads, then a parting of waves, and stemming
silently and evenly toward us, we saw the round, black head of a

It was a pretty sight and a pretty shot; but I would not have had the
stillness and the moonlit picture spoiled by the blare of that
murderous musket for the pelts of fifty muskrats, and as the gun was
coming to Uncle Jethro's shoulder, I slipped my hand under the lifted

With just an audible grunt of impatience the old negro understood,--it
was not the first good shot that my love of wild things had spoiled
for him,--and the unsuspecting muskrat swam on to the dam.

[Illustration: "They rubbed noses."]

A plank had drifted against the bank, and upon this the little
creature scrambled out, as dry as the cat at home under the roaring
kitchen stove. Down another road came a second muskrat, and, swimming
across the open water at the dam, joined the first-comer on the plank.
They rubbed noses softly--the sweetest of all wild-animal
greetings--and a moment afterward began to play together.

[Illustration: "Two little brown creatures washing calamus."]

They were out for a frolic, and the night was splendid. Keeping one
eye open for owls, they threw off all other caution, and swam and
dived and chased each other through the water, with all the fun of
boys in swimming.

On the bottom of the pond about the dam, in ten or twelve feet of
water, was a bed of unios. I knew that they were there, for I had cut
my feet upon them; and the muskrats knew they were there, for they had
had many a moonlight lunch of them. These mussels the muskrats reckon
sweetmeats. They are hard to get, hard to crack, but worth all the
cost. I was not surprised, then, when one of the muskrats sleekly
disappeared beneath the surface, and came up directly with a mussel.

There was a squabble on the plank, which ended in the other muskrat's
diving for a mussel for himself. How they opened them I could not
clearly make out, for the shells were almost concealed in their paws;
but judging from their actions and the appearance of other shells
which they had opened, I should say that they first gnawed through the
big hinge at the back, then pried open the valves, and ate out the

Having finished this first course of big-neck clams, they were joined
by a third muskrat, and, together, they filed over the bank and down
into the meadow. Shortly two of them returned with great mouthfuls of
the mud-bleached ends of calamus-blades. Then followed the washing.

They dropped their loads upon the plank, took up the stalks, pulled
the blades apart, and soused them up and down in the water, rubbing
them with their paws until they were as clean and white as the whitest
celery one ever ate. What a dainty picture! Two little brown
creatures, humped on the edge of a plank, washing calamus in moonlit

One might have taken them for half-grown coons as they sat there
scrubbing and munching. Had the big barred owl, from the gum-swamp
down the creek, come along then, he could easily have bobbed down upon
them, and might almost have carried one away without the other knowing
it, so all-absorbing was the calamus-washing.

Muskrats, like coons, will wash what they eat, whether washing is
needed or not. It is a necessary preliminary to dinner--their
righteousness, the little Pharisees! Judging from the washing disease
which ailed two tame muskrats that I knew, it is perfectly safe to say
that had these found clean bread and butter upon the plank, instead of
muddy calamus, they would have scoured it just the same.

Before the two on the plank had finished their meal, the third muskrat
returned, dragging his load of mud and roots to the scrubbing. He was
just dipping into the water when there was a terrific explosion in my
ears, a roar that echoed round and round the pond. As the smoke
lifted, there were no washers upon the plank: but over in the quiet
water floated three long, slender tails.

"No man gwine stan' dat shot, boy, jis t' see a mus'rat wash hi'
supper"; and Uncle Jethro limbered his stiffened knees and went
chuckling down the bank.

[Illustration: telephone wire]



The electric cars run past my door, with a switch almost in front of
the house. I can hear a car rumbling in the woods on the west, and
another pounding through the valley on the east, till, shrieking,
groaning, crunching, crashing, they dash into view, pause a moment on
the switch, and thunder on to east and west till out of hearing. Then,
for thirty minutes, a silence settles as deep as it lay here a
century ago. Dogs bark; an anvil rings; wagons rattle by; and
children shout about the cross-roads. But these sounds have become the
natural voices of the neighborhood--mother-tongues like the chat of
the brook, the talk of the leaves, and the caw of the crows. And these
voices, instead of disturbing, seem rather to lull the stillness.

But the noise of the cars has hardly died away, and the quiet come,
when a long, wild cry breaks in upon it. _Yarup! yarup!
yarup-up-up-up-up_! in quick succession sounds the call, followed
instantly by a rapid, rolling beat that rings through the morning hush
like a reveille with bugle and drum.

It is the cry of the "flicker," the "high-hole." He is propped against
a pole along the street railroad, nearly a quarter of a mile away. He
has a hole in this pole, almost under the iron arm that holds the
polished, pulsing wire for the trolley. It is a new house, which the
bird has been working at for more than a week, and it must be finished
now, for this lusty call is an invitation to the warming. I shall go,
and, between the passing of the cars, witness the bowing, the
squeaking, the palaver. A high-hole warming is the most utterly polite
function in birddom.

Some of my friends were talking of birds, not long ago, when one of
them turned to me and said hopelessly:

"'Tis no use. We can't save them even if we do stop wearing them upon
our hats. Civilization is bound to sweep them away. We shall be in a
birdless world pretty soon, in spite of laws and Audubon societies."

I made no reply, but, for an answer, led the way to the street and
down the track to this pole which High-hole had appropriated. I
pointed out his hole, and asked them to watch. Then I knocked.
Instantly a red head appeared at the opening. High-hole was mad enough
to eat us; but he changed his mind, and, with a bored, testy flip,
dived into the woods. He had served my purpose, however, for his red
head sticking out of a hole in a street-railway pole was as a rising
sun in the east of my friends' ornithological world. New light broke
over this question of birds and men. The cars drive High-hole away?
Not so long as cars run by overhead wires on wooden poles.

High-hole is a civilized bird. Perhaps "domesticated" would better
describe him; though domesticated implies the purposeful effort of man
to change character and habits, while the changes which have come over
High-hole--and over most of the wild birds--are the result of
High-hole's own free choosing.

If we should let the birds have their way they would voluntarily fall
into civilized, if not into domesticated, habits. They have no
deep-seated hostility toward us; they have not been the aggressors in
the long, bitter war of extermination; they have ever sued for peace.
Instead of feeling an instinctive enmity, the birds are drawn toward
us by the strongest of interests. If nature anywhere shows us her
friendship, and her determination, against all odds, to make that
friendship strong, she shows it through the birds. The way they
forgive and forget, their endless efforts at reconciliation, and their
sense of obligation, ought to shame us. They sing over every acre that
we reclaim, as if we had saved it for them only; and in return they
probe the lawns most diligently for worms, they girdle the apple-trees
for grubs, and gallop over the whole wide sky for gnats and
flies--squaring their account, if may be, for cherries, orchards, and

[Illustration: "They probe the lawns most diligently for worms."]

The very crows, in spite of certain well-founded fears, look upon a
new farm--not upon the farmer, perhaps--as a godsend. In the cold and
poverty of winter, not only the crows, but the jays, quails, buntings,
and sparrows, help themselves, as by right, from our shocks and cribs.
Summer and winter the birds find food so much more plentiful about the
farm and village, find living in all respects so much easier and
happier here than in remote, wild regions, that, as a whole, they
have become a suburban people.

[Illustration: "Even he loves a listener."]

But life is more than meat for the birds. There is a subtle yet real
attraction for them in human society. They like its stir and change,
its attention and admiration. The shyest and most modest of the birds
pines for appreciation. The cardinal grosbeak, retiring as he is,
cannot believe that he was born to blush unseen--to the tip of his
beautiful crest. And the hermit-thrush, meditative, spiritual, and
free as the heart of the swamp from worldliness--even he loves a
listener, and would not waste his sweetness any longer on desert
forest air. I do not know a single bird who does not prefer a wood
with a wagon-road through it.

My friends had smiled at such assertions before their introduction to
the bird in the pole. They knew just enough of woodpeckers to expect
High-hole to build in the woods, and, when driven from there, to
disappear, to extinguish himself, rather than stoop to an existence
within walls of hardly the dignity and privacy of a hitching-post.

He is a proud bird and a wild bird, but a practical, sensible bird
withal. Strong of wing and mighty of voice, he was intended for a
vigorous, untamed life, and even yet there is the naked savage in his
bound and his whoop. But electric cars have come, with smooth-barked
poles, and these are better than rotten trees, despite the jangle and
hum of wires and the racket of grinding wheels. Like the rest of us,
he has not put off his savagery: he has simply put on civilization.
Street cars are a convenience and a diversion. He has wings and
wildest freedom any moment, and so, even though heavy timber skirts
the track and shadows his pole, and though across the road opposite
stands a house where there are children, dogs, and cats, nevertheless,
High-hole follows his fancy, and instead of building back in the
seclusion and safety of the woods, comes out to the street, the
railroad, the children, and the cats, and digs him a modern house in
this sounding cedar pole.

Perhaps it is imagination, but I think that I can actually see
High-hole changing his wood ways for the ways of the village. He grows
tamer and more trustful every summer.

[Illustration: "She flew across the pasture."]

A pair have their nest in a telegraph-pole near the school-house,
where they are constantly mauled by the boys. I was passing one day
when two youngsters rushed to the pole and dragged out the poor
harassed hen for my edification. She was seized by one wing, and came
out flapping, her feathers pulled and splintered. She had already lost
all but two quills from her tail through previous exhibitions. I
opened my hands, and she flew across the pasture to the top of a tree,
and waited patiently till we went away. She then returned, knowing,
apparently, that we were boys and a necessary evil of village life.

But this pole-life marks only half the distance that these birds have
come from the woods.

One warm Sunday of a recent March, in the middle of my morning sermon,
a ghostly rapping was heard through the meeting-house. I paused. _Tap,
tap, tap!_ hollow and ominous it echoed. Every soul was awake in an
instant. Was it a summons from--? But two of the small boys grinned;
some one whispered "flicker"; and I gathered my ornithological wits
together in time to save the pause and proceed with the service.

After the people went home I found three flicker-holes in the
latticework over the north windows. One of last year's tenants had got
back that morning from the South, and had gone to work cleaning up and
putting things to rights in his house, regardless of Sabbath and

This approach of the flicker to domestic life and human fellowship is
an almost universal movement among the birds. And no tendency anywhere
in wild life is more striking. The four-footed animals are rapidly
disappearing before the banging car and spreading town, yet the birds
welcome these encroachments and thrive on them. One never gets used to
the contrast in the bird life of uninhabited places with that about
human dwellings. Thoreau tells his wonder and disappointment at the
dearth of birds in the Maine woods; Burroughs reads about it, and goes
off to the mountains, but has himself such an aggravated shock of the
same surprise that he also writes about it. The few hawks and rarer
wood species found in these wild places are shy and elusive. More and
more, in spite of all they know of us, the birds choose our proximity
over the wilderness. Indeed, the longer we live together, the less
they fear and suspect us.


Using my home for a center, you may describe a circle of a
quarter-mile radius and all the way round find that radius
intersecting either a house, a dooryard, or an orchard. Yet within
this small and settled area I found one summer thirty-six species of
birds nesting. Can any cabin in the Adirondacks open its window to
more voices--any square mile of solid, unhacked forest on the globe
show richer, gayer variety of bird life?

[Illustration: "A very ordinary New England 'corner.'"]

The nightingale, the dodo, and the ivorybill were not among these
thirty-six. What then? If one can live on an electric-car line, inside
the borders of a fine city, have his church across the road, his
blacksmith on the corner, his neighbors within easy call, and, with
all this, have any thirty-six species of birds nesting within
ear-shot, ought he to ache for the Archæopteryx, or rail at
civilization as a destroyer?

There is nothing remarkable about this bit of country. I could plant
myself at the center of such a circle anywhere for miles around and
find just as many birds. Perhaps the land is more rocky and hilly, the
woods thicker, the gardens smaller here than is common elsewhere in
eastern Massachusetts; otherwise, aside from a gem of a pond, this is
a very ordinary New England "corner."

On the west side of my yard lies a cultivated field, beyond which
stands an ancient apple orchard; on the east the yard is hedged by a
tract of sprout-land which is watched over by a few large pines; at
the north, behind the house and garden, runs a wall of chestnut and
oak, which ten years ago would have been cut but for some fortunate
legal complication. Such is the character of the whole neighborhood.
Patches of wood and swamp, pastures, orchards, and gardens, cut in
every direction by roads and paths, and crossed by one tiny
stream--this is the circle of the thirty-six.

Not one of these nests is beyond a stone's throw from a house. Seven
of them, indeed, are in houses or barns, or in boxes placed about the
dooryards; sixteen of them are in orchard trees; and the others are
distributed along the roads, over the fields, and in the woods.

Among the nearest of these feathered neighbors is a pair of bluebirds
with a nest in one of the bird-boxes in the yard. The bluebirds are
still untamed, building, as I have often found, in the wildest spots
of the woods; but seen about the house, there is something so
reserved, so gentle and refined in their voice and manner as to shed
an atmosphere of good breeding about the whole yard. What a contrast
they are to the English sparrows! What a rebuke to city manners!

[Illustration: "They are the first to return in the spring."]

They are the first to return in the spring; the spring, rather, comes
back with them. They are its wings. It could not come on any others.
If it tried, say, the tanager's, would we believe and accept it? The
bluebird is the only possible interpreter of those first dark signs of
March; through him we have faith in the glint of the pussy-willows, in
the half-thawed peep of the hylas, and in the northward flying of the
geese. Except for his return, March would be the one month of all the
twelve never looked at from the woods and waysides. He comes, else we
should not know that the waters were falling, that a leaf could be
plucked in all the bare, muddy world.

Our feelings for the bluebird are much mixed. His feathers are not the
attraction. He is bright, but on the whole rather plainly dressed. Nor
is it altogether his voice that draws us; the snowflakes could hardly
melt into tones more mellow, nor flecks of the sky's April blue run
into notes more limpid, yet the bluebird is no singer. The spell is in
the spirit of the bird. He is the soul of this somber season, voicing
its sadness and hope. What other bird can take his place and fill his
mission in the heavy, hopeful days of March? We are in no mood for
gaiety and show. Not until the morning stars quarrel together will the
cat-bird or scarlet tanager herald the spring. The irreverent song of
a cat-bird in the gray gloom of March would turn the spring back and
draw the winter out of his uncovered grave. The bluebird comes and
broods over this death and birth, until the old winter sleeps his long
sleep, and the young spring wakes to her beautiful life.

_Within_ my house is another very human little bird--the
chimney-swallow. Sharing our very firesides as he does, he surely
ought to have a warm place in our hearts; but where have I ever read
one word expressing the affection for him that is universally shown
the bluebird?

I am thinking of our American swallow. We all know how Gilbert White
loved his chimney-swallows--how he loved every creature that flew or
crawled about the rectory. Was it an ancient tortoise in the garden?
the sheep upon the downs? a brood of birds in the chimney? No
matter. Let the creatures manifest never so slight a friendliness for
him, let them claim never so little of his protection, and the good
rector's heart went out toward them as it might toward children of his

[Illustration: "Where the dams are hawking for flies."]

But the swallows were White's fondest care. He and his hirundines were
inseparable. He thought of them, especially those of the chimney, as
members of his household. One can detect almost a father's interest
and joy in his notes upon these little birds. Listen to the parent in
this bit about the young in Letter XVIII. They are just out of the

"They play about near the place where the dams are hawking for flies;
and when a mouthful is collected, at a certain signal given, the dam
and the nestling advance, rising toward each other, and meeting at an
angle; the young one all the while uttering such a little quick note
of gratitude and complacency that a person must have paid very little
regard to the wonders of nature that has not often remarked this

Has anything been written about our swift showing as faithful and
sympathetic observation as that? No. He comes and goes without any
one, like Gilbert White, being cheered by his twitter or interested in
his doings. Perhaps it is because we have so many brighter, sweeter
birds about us here; or perhaps our chimneys are higher than those of
Selborne Rectory; or maybe we have no Gilbert White over here.

Of course we have no Gilbert White. We have not had time to produce
one. The union of man and nature which yields the naturalist of
Selborne is a process of time. Our soil and our sympathy are centuries
savager than England's. We still look at our lands with the spirit of
the ax; we are yet largely concerned with the contents of the gizzards
of our birds. Shall the crows and cherry-birds be exterminated? the
sparrows transported? the owls and hawks put behind bars? Not until
the collectors at Washington pronounce upon these first questions can
we hope for a naturalist who will find White's wonders in the

These little swifts are not as attractive as song-sparrows. They are
sooty--worse than sooty sometimes; their clothes are too tight for
them; and they are less musical than a small boy with "clappers."
Nevertheless I could ill spare them from my family. They were the
first birds I knew, my earliest home being so generous in its chimneys
as to afford lodgings to several pairs of them. This summer they again
share my fireside, squeaking, scratching, and thundering in the flue
as they used to when, real goblins, they came scrambling down to peek
and spy at me. I should miss them from the chimney as I should the
song-sparrows from the meadow. They are above the grate, to be sure,
while I am in front of it; but we live in the same house, and there is
only a wall between us.

If the chimney would be a dark, dead hole without the swifts, how
empty the summer sky would be were they not skimming, darting,
wiggling across every bright hour of it! They are tireless fliers,
feeding, bathing, love-making, and even gathering the twigs for their
nests on the wing, never alighting, in fact, after leaving the chimney
until they return to it. They rest while flying. Every now and then
you will see them throw their wings up over their heads till the tips
almost touch, and, in twos or threes, scale along to the time of
their jolly, tuneless rattle.

From May to September, is there a happier sight than a flock of
chimney-swallows, just before or just after a shower, whizzing about
the tops of the corn or coursing over the river, like so many streaks
of black lightning, ridding the atmosphere of its overcharge of gnats!
They cut across the rainbow and shoot into the rose- and pearl-washed
sky, and drop--into the depths of a soot-clogged chimney!

These swallows used to build in caves and in clean, hollow trees; now
they nest only in chimneys. So far have they advanced in civilization
since the landing of the Pilgrims!

Upon the beams in the top of the barn the brown-breasted, fork-tailed
barn-swallows have made their mud nests for years. These birds are
wholly domesticated. We cannot think of them as wild. And what a place
in our affections they have won! If it is the bluebirds that bring the
spring, the barn-swallows fetch the summer. They take us back to the
farm. We smell the hay, we see the cracks and knot-holes of light
cutting through the fragrant gloom of the mows, we hear the munching
horses and the summer rain upon the shingles, every time a
barn-swallow slips past us.

[Illustration: "They cut across the rainbow."]

For grace of form and poetry of motion there is no rival for the
barn-swallow. When on wing, where else, between the point of a beak
and the tips of a tail, are there so many marvelous curves, such
beautiful balance of parts? On the wing, I say. Upon his feet he is as
awkward as the latest Herreshoff yacht upon the stays. But he is the
yacht of the air. Every line of him is drawn for racing. The narrow,
wide-reaching wings and the long, forked tail are the perfection of
lightness, swiftness, and power. A master designed him--saved every
possible feather's weight, bent from stem to stern, and rigged him to
outsail the very winds.

From the barn to the orchard is no great journey; but it is the
distance between two bird-lands. One must cross the Mississippi basin,
the Rocky Mountains, or the Pacific Ocean to find a greater change in
bird life than he finds in leaping the bars between the yard and the

[Illustration: "The barn-swallows fetch the summer."]

A bent, rheumatic, hoary old orchard is nature's smile in the agony
of her civilization. Men may level the forests, clear the land and
fence it; but as long as they plant orchards, bird life, at least,
will survive and prosper.

[Illustration: "From the barn to the orchard."]

Except for the warblers, one acre of apple-trees is richer in the
variety of its birds than ten acres of woods. In the three unkempt,
decrepit orchards hereabout, I found the robin, chippy,
orchard-oriole, cherry-bird, king-bird, crow-blackbird, bluebird,
chebec, tree-swallow, flicker, downy woodpecker, screech-owl, yellow
warbler, redstart, and great-crested flycatcher--all nesting as
rightful heirs and proprietors. This is no small share of the glory
of the whole bird world.

I ought not to name redstart as a regular occupant of the orchard. He
belongs to the woods, and must be reckoned a visitor to the
apple-trees, only an occasional builder, at best. The orchard is too
open for him. He is an actor, and needs a leafy setting for his stage.
In the woods, against a dense background of green, he can play
butterfly with charming effect, can spread himself and flit about like
an autumn leaf or some wandering bit of paradise life, with wings of
the grove's richest orange light and its deepest shadow.

When, however, he has a fancy for the orchard, this dainty little
warbler shows us what the wood-birds can do in the way of friendship
and sociability.

Across the road, in an apple-tree whose branches overhang a kitchen
roof, built a pair of redstarts. No one discovered the birds till the
young came; then both parents were seen about the yard the whole day
long. They were as much at home as the chickens, even more familiar.
Having a leisure moment one day, when a bicycle was being cleaned
beneath the tree, the inquisitive pair dropped down, the female
actually lighting upon the handle-bar to see how the dusting was done.
On another occasion she attempted to settle upon the baby swinging
under the tree in a hammock; and again, when I caught one of her own
babies in my hands, she came, bringing a worm, and, without the
slightest fear of me, tried to feed it. Yet she was somewhat daunted
by the trap in which her infant was struggling; she would fan my hands
with her wings, then withdraw, not able to muster quite enough courage
to settle upon them.

[Illustration: "Across the road, in an apple-tree, built a pair
of redstarts."]

Neither of these birds ever showed alarm at the people of the house.
In fact, I never saw a redstart who seemed to know that we humans
ought to be dreaded. These birds are now as innocent of suspicion as
when they came up to Adam to be named. On two occasions, during severe
summer storms, they have fluttered at my windows for shelter, and
dried their feathers, as any way-worn traveler might, in safety
beneath my roof.

From the window one morning I saw Chebec, the least flycatcher, light
upon the clothes-line. She teetered a moment, balancing her big head
by her loosely jointed tail, then leaped lightly into the air,
turned,--as only a flycatcher can,--and, diving close to the ground,
gathered half the gray hairs of a dandelion into her beak, and darted
off. I followed instantly, and soon found her nest in one of the
orchard trees. It was not quite finished; and while the bird was gone
for more of the dandelion down, I climbed up and seated myself within
three feet of the nest.

Back came Mrs. Chebec with a swoop, but, on seeing me, halted short of
the nest. I was motionless. Hopping cautiously toward the nest, she
took an anxious look inside; finding nothing disturbed, she concluded
that there was no evil in me, and so went on with her interesting
work. It was a pretty sight. In a quiet, capable, womanly way she laid
the lining in, making the nest, in her infinite mother-love, fit for
eggs with shells of foam.

The chebec is a finished architect. Better builders are few indeed.
The humming-bird is slower, more painstaking, and excels Chebec in
outside finish. But Chebec's nest is so deep, so soft, so round and
hollow! There is the loveliness of pure curve in its walls. And small
wonder! She bends them about the beautiful mold of her own breast.
Whenever she entered with the dandelion cotton, she went round and
round these walls, before leaving, pressing them fondly with her chin
close against her breast. She could not make them sufficiently safe
nor half lovely enough for the white, fragile treasures to be cradled

[Illustration: "Gathered half the gray hairs of a dandelion into her

Artists though they be, the chebecs, nevertheless, are very tiresome
birds. They think that they can sing--a sad, sorry, maddening mistake.
Mr. Chapman says the day that song was distributed among the birds the
chebecs sat on a back seat. Would they had been out catching flies! In
the chatter of the English sparrow, no matter how much I may resent
his impudence and swagger, there is something so bright and lively
that I never find him really tiresome. But the chebecs come back very
early in spring, and sit around for days and days, catching flies, and
jerking their heads and calling, _Chebec! chebec! chebec!_ till you
wish their heads would snap off.

In the tree next to the chebec's was a brood of robins. The crude nest
was wedged carelessly into the lowest fork of the tree, so that the
cats and roving boys could help themselves without trouble. The mother
sputtered and worried and scolded without let-up, trying to make good
her foolishness in fixing upon such a site by abundance of anxiety and

The fussiest, least sensible mother among the birds is the robin. Any
place for her nest but a safe one! The number of young robins annually
sacrificed to pure parental carelessness is appalling. The female
chooses the site for the home, and her ability for blundering upon
unattractive and exposed locations amounts to genius. She insists upon
building on the sand. Usually the rain descends, the floods come, the
winds blow, and there is a fall.

[Illustration: "In the tree next to the chebec's was a brood of
robins. The crude nest was wedged carelessly into the lowest fork of
the tree, so that the cats and roving boys could help themselves
without trouble."]

Here is a pair building upon a pile of boards under a cherry-tree;
another pair plaster their nest to the rider of an old worm-fence;
while a third couple, abandoning the woods near by, plant theirs,
against all remonstrance, upon the top of a step-ladder that the
brickmakers use daily in their drying-sheds.

It was the superlative stupidity of this robin that saved her family.
The workmen at first knocked her nest off to the ground. She had
plenty of clay at hand, however, and began her nest again, following
the ladder as it moved about the shed. Such amazing persistence won,
of course. Out of wonder, finally, the men gave the ladder over to her
and stood aside till her family affairs were attended to. Everything
was right in time. After infinite scolding, she at last came off in
triumph, with her brood of four.

A striking illustration of this growing alliance between us and the
birds is the nest of the great-crested flycatcher in the orchard.
Great-crest has almost become an orchard-bird. At heart he is, and
ever will be, a bird of the wilds. He is not tame--does not want to be
tame; he is bold, and the dangers and advantages of orchard life
attract him. His moving into an apple orchard is no less a wonder than
would be an Apache chief's settling in New York or Boston.

Most observers still count Great-crest among the wild and unreclaimed.
Florence A. Merriam, speaking of his return in spring, says: "Not many
days pass, however, before he is so taken up with domestic matters
that his voice is rarely heard outside the woods"; and in Stearns's
"Birds" I find: "It does not court the society of man, but prefers to
keep aloof in the depths of the forest, where it leads a wild, shy,
and solitary life." This is not Great-crest as I know him. I have
found many of his nests, and never one in any but orchard trees.
Riding along a country road lately, I heard Great-crest's call far
ahead of me. I soon spied him on the wires of a telegraph-pole. Under
him was a pear-tree, and a hundred yards away a farm-house. In the
pear-tree I found his nest--snake-skins and all.

I disagree, too, with most descriptions of this bird's cry. The
authors I have read seem never to have heard him on a quiet May
morning across a fifty-acre field. His voice is "harsh and
discordant" when sounded into one's very ears. The sweetest-toned
organ would be discordant to one inside the instrument. Give the bird
the room he demands,--wide, early-morning fields,--and listen. A
single shout, almost human it seems, wild, weird, and penetrating, yet
clear and smooth as the blast of a bugle. One can never forget it, nor
resist it; for it thrills like a resurrection call--the last, long
summons to the spring waking. This solitary note is often repeated,
but is never so rapid nor so long drawn out as the call of the

[Illustration: "I soon spied him on the wires of a telegraph-pole."]

Great-crest is a character, one of the most individual of all our
birds. What other bird lines his nest with snake-skins? or hangs such
gruesome things out for latch-strings? He has taken up his residence
among us, but he has given us pretty plainly to understand that we
need not call, else I mistake the hint in the scaly skin that dangles
from his door. The strong personality of the bird is stamped even upon
its eggs. Where are any to match them for curious, crazy coloring? The
artist had purple inks, shading all the way from the deepest
chestnut-purple to the faintest lilac. With a sharp pen he scratched
the shell from end to end with all his colors till it was covered,
then finished it off with a few wild flourishes and crosswise scrawls.

Like the birds of the orchards and buildings, the field-birds also are
yielding to human influences. We can almost say that we have an order
of farm-birds, so many species seem to have become entirely dependent
upon the pasture and grain-field.

"Where did Bobolink disport himself before there were meadows in the
North and rice-fields in the South? Was he the same lithe,
merry-hearted beau then as now?" I do not know. But I do know that, in
the thirty and three years since Mr. Burroughs asked the question,
Bobolink has lost none of his nimbleness, nor forgotten one bubbling,
tinkling note of his song. Yet in his autumn journey South, from the
day he reaches the ripe reeds of the Jersey marshes till he is lost in
the wide rice-lands of Georgia, his passage is through a ceaseless,
pitiless storm of lead. Dare he return to us in spring? and can he
ever sing again? He will come if May comes--forgetting and forgiving,
dressed in as gay a suit as ever, and just as full of song.

There is no marvel of nature's making equal to the miracle of her
temper toward man. How gladly she yields to his masterful dominion!
How sufferingly she waits for him to grow out of his spoiled, vicious
childhood. The spirit of the bobolink ought to exorcise the savage out
of us. It ought, and it does--slowly.

We are trying, for instance, to cow the savage in us by law, to
restrain it while the birds are breeding; but we hardly succeed yet.
The mating season is scarcely over, the young not yet grown, when the
gunners about me go into the fields with their dogs and locate every
covey of quail, even counting the number of birds in each. With the
dawn of the first day of open season they are out, going from flock to
flock, killing, till the last possible bird is in their bloody bags.

[Illustration: "He will come if May comes."]

One of the most pathetic of all the wordless cries of the out-of-doors
is the covey-call of the female quail at night, trying to gather the
scattered flock together after the dogs are called off and the hunters
have gone home.

[Illustration: "Within a few feet of me dropped the lonely frightened

It was nearly dark one December afternoon, the snow ankle-deep and
falling swiftly, when, crossing a wide field, I heard this call from a
piece of sprout-land ahead of me. Kneeling in the snow, I answered the
whistle. Instantly came a reply. Back and forth we signaled till there
was a whir of wings, and down in the soft snow within a few feet of me
dropped the lonely, frightened quail. She was the only one left of a
covey that the night before had roosted unbroken, snugly wedged, with
their tails together, under a pile of brush.

Sharing the fields with the quails are the meadow-larks. They scale
along the grass, rarely rising higher than the cedars, flapping
rapidly for a short distance, then sailing a little in a cautious,
breath-held manner, as though wings were a new invention and just a
trifle dangerous yet. On they go to a fence-stake, and land with many
congratulatory flirts of wings and tail. Has anybody observed the
feat? They look around. Yes; here I sit,--a man on a fence across the
field,--and the lark turns toward me and calls out: "Did you see me?"

He would be the best-bred, most elegant of our birds, were it not for
his self-consciousness. He is consumed with it. There is too much gold
and jet on his breast. But, in spite of all this, the plain, rich back
and wings, the slender legs, the long, delicate beak, the erect
carriage, the important air, the sleek, refined appearance, compel us
to put him down an aristocrat.

In a closely cropped pasture near the house, in early June, I found
the eggs of the night-hawk. There was no nest, of course: the eggs
lay upon the grass, and, for safety, had been left directly under the
fence. The cows might not step on them here, but nothing prevented
their crushing the fragile things with their noses.

[Illustration: "On they go to a fence-stake."]

Lengthwise, upon one of the rails, slept the mother. She zigzagged off
at my approach, dazzled and uncertain in the white light of the noon,
making no outcry nor stopping an instant to watch the fate of her
eggs. She acted like a huge bat, slinking and dodging, out of her
element in the light, and anxious to be hid. She did not seem like a
creature that had a voice, and the way she flew would make one think
that she did not know the use of her wings. But what a circus flier
she is at night! and with what an uncanny noise she haunts the
twilight! She has made more hair stand on end, with her earthward
plunge and its unearthly boom through the dusk, than all the owls
together. It is a ghostly joke. And who would believe in the daylight
that this limp, ragged lump, dozing upon the fence or the kitchen
roof, could play the spook so cleverly in the dark?


On the 25th of April, before the trees were in leaf, I heard the first
true wood-note of the spring. It came from the tall oaks beyond the
garden. "_Clear, clear, clear up!_" it rang, pure, untamed, and
quickening. The solitary vireo! It was his whistle, inimitable,
unmistakable; and though I had not seen him since last July, I hurried
out to the woods, sure he would greet me.

Solitary is the largest, rarest, tamest, and sweetest-voiced of the
vireos. I soon found him high in the tops of the trees; but I wanted
him nearer. He would not descend. So I chased him, stoning and
mocking him even, till, at last, he came down to the bushes and showed
me his big blue head, white eye-rings, wing-bars, and yellow-washed

[Illustration: "It was a love-song."]

He did more than show himself: he sang for me. Within ten feet of me,
he began a quiet little warble of a tenderness and contentment I never
heard before. Such variety of notes, such sweetness of melody, such
easy, unconscious rendering! It was a love-song, but sung all to
himself, for he knew that there was no gentle heart to listen this
side of Virginia. He sang to his own happy heart as pure and sweet a
song as the very angels know.

Solitary disappeared from that day. I concluded he had gone to
heavier, wilder woods to nest. It was late in June that, passing
through this brush-land, I saw hanging from an oak sapling, just above
my head, a soft, yellowish basket. It was a vireo's nest; but it was
too large, too downy, too yellow for Red-eye. There were no bunches of
white spider-webs upon it, such as Red-eye hangs all over his nest. I
stepped aside for a better view, and had just caught the glint of a
large, white-ringed eye peering over the nest's edge at me, when, off
in the woods behind me, the noon hush was startled by Solitary's
whistle--a round, pure, pearly note that broke the quiet as pearly
teeth break through the smile of a beautiful face. He soon appeared,
coming on, a tree at a time, looking and asking, in no hurry and in no
alarm. When he reached the pine overhead, his mate left the nest to
confer with him. They scolded me mildly while I climbed for a look at
the four delicately spotted eggs; but as soon as I lay down upon the
ground, the mother, without fuss or fear, slipped into the nest and
cuddled down over the eggs till her head hardly showed above the rim.
Had a few bushes been removed I could have seen the nest from my front

Why do the wood-birds so persistently build their nests along the
paths and roads? I said that even the hermit-thrush prefers a wood
with a road through it. If he possibly can he will build along that
road. And what one of the birds will not? Is it mere stupidity? Is it
curiosity to see what goes on? Is there some safety here from enemies
worse than boys and cats and dogs? Or is it that these birds take this
chance for human fellowship? If this last is the reason for their
rejecting the deep tangles for limbs that overhang roads and tufts of
grass in constantly traveled foot-paths, then they can be pardoned;
otherwise they are foolish--fatally foolish.

The first black-and-white warbler's nest I ever found was at the base
of a clump of bushes in a narrow wood-path not ten feet from a
highway. There were acres of bushes beyond, thick and pathless, all
theirs to choose from.

In the same piece of scrub-oak the summer after I found another
black-and-white warbler's nest. The loud talk of three of the birds
attracted me. Two of them were together, and just mated, evidently;
the third was a male, and just as plainly the luckless suitor. He was
trying to start a quarrel between the young couple, doing his best to
make the new bride break her vows. He flew just ahead of them, darting
to the ground, scuttling under the brush, and calling out, "See here!
Come here! Don't fool with him any longer! I have the place for a

But the pair kept on together, chatting brightly as they ran up and
down the trees and hunted under the fallen limbs and leaves for a
home-site. The male led the way and found the places; the female
passed judgment. I followed them.

Every spot the cock peeped into was the finest in the woods; his
enthusiasm was constant and unbounded. "Any place is heaven," he kept
repeating, "any place, so long as I have you." But she was to do the
housekeeping, and the ecstasies of the honeymoon were not to turn her
head. She was house-hunting; and, like every woman, at her best. She
said "no," and "no," and "no." I began to think they never would find
the place, when the male darted far ahead and went out of sight
beneath some low huckleberry-bushes near a stone wall. This wall ran
between the woods and a pasture; and parallel with it, on the woods
side, was a foot-path.

Up came the little hen, and together they scratched about under the
leaves. Suddenly the cock flew away and fetched a strip of chestnut
bark. This he turned over to his wife. Then both birds flew out to the
chestnut limbs for bark, and brought their strips back. The home was

It was the merest cavity, pushed into the dead leaves, with three
shreds of bark for first timbers. In less than a week the structure
was finished and furnished--with a tiny white egg thickly sprinkled
with brown. I watched the spot daily, and finally saw the four young
warblers safely out into their new woods-world. But from the day the
first egg was laid until the nestlings left I constantly expected to
find everything crushed under the foot of some passer-by.

When free from household cares the chickadee is the most sociable of
the birds of the woods. But he takes family matters seriously, and
withdraws so quietly to the unfrequented parts of the woods during
nesting-time as to seem to have migrated. Yet of the four chickadees'
nests found about the house, one was in a dead yellow birch in a bit
of deep swamp, two others were in yellow birches along wood-roads, and
the fourth was in a rotten fence-post by the main road, a long way
from any trees.

[Illustration: "But the pair kept on together, chatting brightly."]

A workman while mending the fence discovered this last nest. The post
crumbled in his hands as he tried to pull it down, revealing the nest
of moss and rabbit hair, with its five brown-and-white eggs. He left
the old post, propped it up with a sound one, and, mending the broken
walls of the cavity the best he could, hurried along with his task,
that the birds might return. They came back, found the wreckage of
dust and chips covering the eggs, tried the flimsy walls--and went
away. It was a desecrated home, neither safe nor beautiful now; so
they forsook it.

There is no eagle's nest in this collection of thirty-six. But if Mr.
Burroughs is correct, there is the next thing to it--a humming-bird's
nest; three of them, indeed, one of which is within a stone's throw
of my door! This one is in the oaks behind my garden, but the other
two are even nearer to houses. One of these is upon the limb of a
pear-tree. The tip of this limb rubs against a woodshed connected with
a dwelling. The third nest is in a large apple orchard, in the tree
nearest the house, and saddled upon that branch of the tree which
reaches farthest toward the dwelling. So close is this nest that I can
look out of the garret window directly into it.

[Illustration: "In a dead yellow birch."]

I believe that Ruby-throat is so far domesticated that he rejoices
over every new flowergarden. There was nearly half an acre of gladioli
in the neighborhood one summer, where all the humming-birds gathered
from far and near. Here, for the only time in my life, I saw a _flock_
of humming-birds. I counted eight one day; and the gardener told me
that he had often seen a dozen of them among the spikes. They squeaked
like bats, and played--about as bullets might play. In fact, I think I
dodged when they whizzed past me, as a soldier does the first time he
is under fire.

[Illustration: "So close I can look directly into it."]

One of my friends had a cellar window abloom with geraniums. A
ruby-throat came often to this window. One day the mistress of the
flowers caught the wee chap in her hands. He knew at once that she
meant no harm and quietly submitted. A few days later he returned and
was captured again. He liked the honey, and evidently the fondling,
too, for he came very regularly after that for the nectar and the
lady's soft hands.

The nest behind my garden is in the top of a tall, slender maple, with
oaks and chestnuts surrounding and overshadowing it. Finding a nest
like this is inspiration for the rest of life. The only feat
comparable to it is the discovery of a bee-tree. Finding wild bees, I
think, would be good training for one intending to hunt humming-birds'
nests in the woods. But no one ever had such an intention. No one ever
deliberately started into the woods a-saying, "Go to, now; I'll find a
humming-bird's nest in here!"

Humming-birds' nests are the gifts of the gods--rewards for patience
and for gratitude because of commoner grants. My nests have invariably
come this way, or, if you choose, by accident. The nearest I ever came
to earning one was in the case of this one in the maple. I caught a
glimpse of a humming-bird flashing around the high limbs of a
chestnut, so far up that she looked no bigger than a hornet. I
suspected instantly that she was gathering lichens for a nest, and, as
she darted off, I threw my eyes ahead of her across her path. It was
just one chance in ten thousand if I even saw her speeding through the
limbs and leaves, if I got the line of her flight, to say nothing of a
clue to her nesting-place. It was little short of a miracle. I had
tried many times before to do it, but this is the only time I ever
succeeded: my line of vision fell directly upon the tiny builder as
she dropped to her nest in the sapling.

The structure was barely started. I might have stared at it with the
strongest glass and never made it out a nest; the sapling, too, was no
thicker at the butt than my wrist, and I should not have dreamed of
looking into its tall, spindling top for any kind of a nest.
Furthermore, as if to rob one of the last possibility of discovering
it, a stray bud, two years before, had pushed through the bark of the
limb about three inches behind where the nest was to be fixed, and
had grown, till now its leaves hung over the dainty house in an almost
perfect canopy and screen.

For three weeks the walls of this house were going up. Is it
astonishing that, when finished, they looked like a growth of the
limb, like part and parcel of the very tree? I made a daily visit to
the sapling until the young birds flew away; then I bent the tree to
the ground and brought the nest home. It now hangs above my desk, its
thick walls, its downy bed, its leafy canopy telling still of the
little mother's unwearied industry, of her infinite love and
foresight. So faultlessly formed, so safely saddled to the limb, so
exquisitely lichened into harmony with the green around, this tiniest
nest speaks for all of the birds. How needless, how sorry, would be
the loss of these beautiful neighbors of our copses and fields!

[Illustration: frog]


There are many lovers of the out-of-doors who court her in her robes
of roses and in her blithe and happy hours of bird-song only. Now a
lover that never sees her barefoot in the meadow, that never hears her
commonplace chatter at the frog-pond, that never finds her in her
lowly, humdrum life among the toads and snakes, has little genuine
love for his mistress.

To know the pixy when one sees it, to call the long Latin name of the
ragweed, to exclaim over the bobolink's song, to go into ecstasies at
a glorious sunset, is not, necessarily, to love nature at all. One who
does all this sincerely, but who stuffs his ears to the din of the
spring frogs, is in love with nature's pretty clothes, her dainty airs
and fine ways. Her warm, true heart lies deeper down. When one has
gone down to that, then a March without peepers will be as lonesome
as a crowd without friends; then an orchard without the weather-wise
hyla can never make good his place with mere apples; and the front
door without a solemn, philosophic toad beneath its step will lack
something quite as needful to its evening peace and homeness as it
lacks when the old-fashioned roses and the honeysuckle are gone.

We are not humble nor thoughtful out of doors. There is too much
sentiment in our passion for nature. We make colored plates and poems
to her. All honor to the poets! especially to those who look carefully
and see deeply, like Wordsworth and Emerson and Whitman. But what the
common run of us needs, when we go a-wooing nature, is not more
poetry, but a scientific course in biology. How a little study in
comparative anatomy, for instance, would reveal to us the fearful and
wonderful in the make-up of all animal forms! And the fearful and
wonderful have a meaning and a beauty which we ought to realize.

We all respond to the flowers and birds, for they demand no mental
effort. What about the snakes and frogs? Do we shiver at them? Do we
more than barely endure them? No one can help feeling the comfort and
sympathy of the bluebird. The very drifts soften as he appears. He
comes some March morning in a flurry of snow, or drops down out of a
cheerless, soaking sky, and assures us that he has just left the South
and has hurried ahead at considerable hazard to tell us that spring is
on the way. Yet, here is another voice, earlier than the bluebird's
often, with the bluebird's message, and with even more than the
bluebird's authority; but who will listen to a frog? A prophet is not
without honor save in his own country. One must needs have wings and
come from a foreign land to be received among us as a prophet of the
spring. Suppose a little frog noses his way up through the stiff, cold
mud, bumps against the ice, and pipes, _Spring! spring! spring!_ Has
he not as much claim upon our faith as a bird that drops down from no
one knows where, with the same message? The bluebird comes because he
has seen the spring; Hyla comes because he has the spring in his
heart. He that receives Hyla in the name of a prophet shall receive a
prophet's reward.

[Illustration: "'Spring! spring! spring!'"]

For me there is no clearer call in all the year than that of the
hylas' in the break-up days of March. The sap begins to start in my
roots at the first peep. There is something in their brave little
summons, as there is in the silvery light on the pussy-willows, that
takes hold on my hope and courage, and makes the March mud good to
tramp through. And this despite the fact that these early hylas so
aggravated my first attack of homesickness that I thought it was to be
fatal. The second night I ever spent away from home and my mother was
passed with old Mrs. Tribbet, who had a large orchard, behind which
was a frog-pond. In vain did she stay me with raisins and comfort me
with apples. I was sick for home. And those frogs! When the guineas
got quiet, how dreadful they made the long May twilight with their
shrieking, strangling, homesick cries! After all these years I cannot
listen to them in the evenings of early spring without catching an
echo from the back of that orchard, without just a throb of that pain
so near to breaking my heart.

Close by, in a corner lot between the two cross-roads of the village,
lies a wretched little puddle, the home of countless hylas until the
June suns dry it up. Among the hundred or more people who live in the
vicinity and who pass the pond almost daily, I think that I am the
only one who, until recently, was sure he had ever seen a peeper, and
knew that they were neither tadpoles, salamanders, nor turtles. As I
was standing by the puddle, one May day, a good neighbor came along
and stopped with me. The chorus was in full blast--cricket-frogs,
Pickering's frogs, spring frogs, and, leading them all, the melancholy
quaver of Bufo, the "hop-toad."

"What is it that makes the _dreadful_ noise?" my neighbor asked,
meaning, I knew, by "dreadful noise," the song of the toad. I handed
her my opera-glass, pointed out the minstrel with the doleful bagpipe
sprawling at the surface of the water, and, after sixty years of
wondering, she saw with immense satisfaction that one part in this
familiar spring medley was taken by the common toad.

Sixty springs are a good many springs to be finding out the author of
so well-known a sound as this woeful strain of the serenading toad;
but more than half a century might be spent in catching a
cricket-frog at his song. I tried to make my neighbor see one that was
clinging to a stick in the middle of the puddle; but her eyes were
dim. Deft hands have dressed these peepers. We have heard them by the
meadowful every spring of our life, and yet the fingers of one hand
number more than the peepers we have seen. One day I bent over three
lily-pads till nearly blind, trying to make out a cricket-frog that
was piping all the while somewhere near or upon them. At last, in
despair, I made a dash at the pads, only to see the wake as the peeper
sank to the bottom an instant before my net struck the surface.

[Illustration: "A wretched little puddle."]

The entire frog family is as protectively colored as this least
member, the cricket-frog. They all carry fern-seed in their pockets
and go invisible. Notice the wood-frog with his tan suit and black
cheeks. He is a mere sound as he hops about over the brown leaves. I
have had him jump out of the way of my feet and vanish while I stared
hard at him. He lands with legs extended, purposely simulating the
shape of the ragged, broken leaves, and offers, as the only clue for
one's baffled eyes, the moist glisten as his body dissolves against
the dead brown of the leaf-carpet. The tree-toad, _Hyla versicolor_,
still more strikingly blends with his surroundings, for, to a certain
extent, he can change color to match the bark upon which he sits. More
than once, in climbing apple-trees, I have put my hand upon a
tree-toad, not distinguishing it from the patches of gray-green lichen
upon the limbs. But there is less of wonder in the tree-toad's
ability to change his colors than in the way he has of changing his
clothes. He is never troubled with the getting of a new suit; his
labor comes in caring for his old ones. It is curious how he disposes
of his cast-off clothes.

One day late in autumn I picked up a tree-toad that was stiff and
nearly dead with cold. I put him in a wide-mouthed bottle to thaw, and
found by evening that he was quite alive, sitting with his toes turned
in, looking much surprised at his new quarters. He made himself at
home, however, and settled down comfortably, ready for what might
happen next.

The following day he climbed up the side of the bottle and slept
several hours, his tiny disked toes holding him as easily and
restfully as if he were stretched upon a feather-bed. I turned him
upside down; but he knew nothing of it until later when he awoke; then
he deliberately turned round with his head up and went to sleep again.
At night he was wide awake, winking and blinking at the lamp, and
watching me through his window of green glass.

A few nights after his rescue Hyla sat upon the bottom of his bottle
in a very queer attitude. His eyes were drawn in, his head was bent
down, his feet rolled up--his whole body huddled into a ball less than
half its normal size. After a time he began to kick and gasp as if in
pain, rolling and unrolling himself desperately. I thought he was
dying. He would double up into a bunch, then kick out suddenly and
stand up on his hind legs with his mouth wide open as if trying to
swallow something. He _was_ trying to swallow something, and the thing
had stuck on the way. It was a kind of cord, and ran out of each
corner of his mouth, passing over his front legs, thinning and
disappearing most strangely along his sides.

With the next gulp I saw the cord slip down a little, and, as it did
so, the skin along his sides rolled up. It was his old suit! He was
taking it off for a new one; and, instead of giving it to the poor, he
was trying to economize by eating it. What a meal! What a way to
undress! What curious economy!

Long ago the naturalists told us that the toads ate their skins--after
shedding them; but it was never made plain to me that they ate them
_while_ changing them--indeed, _swallowed_ them off! Three great
gulps more and the suit--shirt, shoes, stockings, and all--disappeared.
Then Hyla winked, drew his clean sleeve across his mouth, and settled
back with the very air of one who has magnificently sent away the waiter
with the change.

Four days later Hyla ate up this new suit. I saw the entire operation
this time. It was almost a case of surgery. He pulled the skin over
his head and neck with his fore feet as if it were a shirt, then
crammed it into his mouth; kicked it over his back next; worked out
his feet and legs, then ate it off as before. The act was accomplished
with difficulty, and would have been quite impossible had not Hyla
found the most extraordinary of tongues in his head. Next to the
ability to speak Russian with the tongue comes the power to skin one's
self with it. The tree-toad cannot quite croak Russian, but he can
skin himself with his tongue. Unlike ours, his tongue is hung at the
front end, with the free end forked and pointing toward his stomach.
When my little captive had crammed his mouth full of skin, he stuck
this fork of a tongue into it and forced it down his throat and held
it down while he kicked and squirmed out of it.

Though less beautifully clothed than Hyla, our common toad, Bufo, is
just as carefully clothed. Where the rain drips from the eaves, clean,
narrow lines of pebbles have been washed out of the lawn. On one side
of the house the shade lies all day long and the grass is cool and
damp. Here, in the shade, a large toad has lived for two summers. I
rarely pass that way without seeing him, well hidden in the grass. For
several days lately he had been missing, when, searching more closely
one morning, I found him sunk to the level of his back in the line of
pebbles, his spots and the glands upon his neck so mingling with the
varied collection of gravel about him that only a practised eye, and
that sharp with expectation, could have made him out.

In a newly plowed field, with some of the fresh soil sticking to him,
what thing could look more like a clod than this brown, shapeless lump
of a toad? But there is a beauty even in this unlovely form; for here
is perfect adaptability.

Our canons of the beautiful are false if they do not in some way
include the toad. Shall we measure all the out-of-doors by the
linnet's song, the cardinal-flower's flame, and the hay-field's odor?
Deeper, wider, more fundamental and abiding than these standards, lie
the intellectual principles of plan and purpose and the intellectual
quality of perfect execution. We shall love not alone with all our
heart, but with all our mind as well. If we judge the world beautiful
by the superficial standard of what happens to please our eye, we
shall see no more of the world than we do of the new moon. Whole
classes of animals and wide regions of the earth's surface must, by
this test, be excluded. The only way the batrachians could possibly
come in would be by rolling the frogs in bread-crumbs and frying them.
Treated thus, they look good and taste good, but this is all that can
be said for the entire family. Studied, however, from the single
view-point of protective coloring, or again, as illustrating the ease
with which the clumsiest forms can be fitted to the widest variety of
conditions, the toads do not suffer by any comparison. In the light of
such study, Bufo loses his repulsiveness and comes to have a place
quite as unique as the duckbill's, and a personality not less
fascinating than the swallow's or the gray squirrel's.

However, the toad to the most of us is anything but a poem. What,
indeed, looks less lovely, less nimble and buoyant, more chained to
the earth, than a toad? But stretch the least web between his toes,
lengthen his hind legs, and--over he goes, the leopard-frog, champion
high diver of the marsh! Or, instead of the web, tip his toes with the
tiniest disks, and--there he swings, Pickering's little hyla, clinging
as easily to the under surface of that oak-leaf high in the tree as a
fly clings to the kitchen ceiling.

When a boy I climbed to the top of the flagpole on one of the State
geological survey stations. The pole rose far above the surrounding
pines--the highest point for miles around. As I clinched the top of
the staff, gripping my fingers into the socket for the flag-stick, I
felt something cold, and drawing myself up, found a tree-toad asleep
in the hole. Under him was a second toad, and under the second a
third--all dozing up here on the very topmost tip of all the region.

From the river-ooze to the tree-top, nature carries this toad-form
simply by a thin web between the toes, or by tiny disks at their tips.
And mixing her greens and browns with just a dash of yellow, she
paints them all so skilfully that, upon a lily-pad, beside a lump of
clay, or against the lichened limb of an old apple-tree, each sits as
securely as Perseus in the charmed helmet that made him invisible.

The frogs have innumerable enemies among the water-birds, the fish,
the snakes, and such animals as the fisher, coon, possum, and mink.
The toads fortunately are supplied with glands behind their heads
whose secretion is hateful to most of their foes, though it seems to
be no offense whatever to the snakes. A toad's only chance, when a
snake is after him, lies in hiding. I once saw a race between a toad
and an adder snake, however, in which the hopper won.

One bright May morning I was listening to the music of the church
bells, as it floated out from the city and called softly over the
fields, when my reverie was interrupted by a sharp squeak and a thud
beside the log on which I sat; something dashed over my foot; and I
turned to catch sight of a toad bouncing past the log, making hard
for the brush along the fence. He scarcely seemed to touch the ground,
but skimmed over the grass as if transformed into a midget
jack-rabbit. His case was urgent; and little wonder! At the opposite
end of the log, raised four or five inches from the grass, her eyes
hard glittering, her nose tilted in the air, and astonishment all over
her face, swayed the flat, ugly head of a hognose-adder. Evidently
she, too, had never seen a toad get away in any such time before; and
after staring a moment, she turned under the log and withdrew from the
race, beaten.

Hungry snakes and hot, dusty days are death to the toads. Bufo would
almost as soon find himself at the bottom of a well as upon a dusty
road in blazing sunshine. His day is the night. He is not particular
about the moon. All he asks is that the night be warm, that the dew
lay the dust and dampen the grass, and that the insects be out in
numbers. At night the snakes are asleep, and so are most of those
ugly, creaking beasts with rolling iron feet that come crushing along
their paths. There is no foe abroad at night, and life, during these
dark, quiet hours, has even for a toad something like a dash of

In one of the large pastures not far away stands a pump. It is shaded
by an ancient apple-tree, under which, when the days are hottest, the
cattle gather to doze and dream. They have worn away the grass about
the mossy trough, and the water, slopping over, keeps the spot cool
and muddy the summer through. Here the toads congregate from every
quarter of the great field. I stretched myself out flat on the grass
one night and watched them in the moonlight. There must have been
fifty here that night, hopping about over the wet place--as grotesque
a band as ever met by woods or waters.

We need no "second sight," no pipe of Pan, no hills of Latmos with a
flock to feed, to find ourselves back in that enchanted world of the
kelpies and satyrs. All we need to do is to use the eyes and ears we
have, and haunt our hills by morning and by moonlight. Here in the
moonlight around the old pump I saw goblins, if ever goblins were seen
in the light of our moon.

There was not a croak, not a squeak, not the slightest sound, save
the small _pit-pat, pit-pat_, made by their hopping. There may have
been some kind of toad talk among them, but listen never so closely, I
could not catch a syllable of it.

Where did they all come from? How did they find their way to this wet
spot over the hills and across the acres of this wide pasture? You
could walk over the field in the daytime and have difficulty in
finding a single toad; but here at night, as I lay watching, every few
minutes one would hop past me in the grass; or coming down the narrow
cow-paths in the faint light I could see a wee black bunch bobbing
leisurely along with a hop and a stop, moving slowly toward the pump
to join the band of his silent friends under the trough.

Not because there was more food at the pump, nor for the joy of
gossip, did the toads meet here. The one thing necessary to their
existence is water, and doubtless many of these toads had crossed this
pasture of fifteen acres simply to get a drink. I have known a toad to
live a year without food, and another to die in three days for lack of
water. And yet this thirsty little beast never knows the pleasure of
a real drink, because he does not know how to drink.

I have kept toads confined in cages for weeks at a time, never
allowing them water when I could not watch them closely, and I never
saw one drink. Instead, they would sprawl out in the saucer on their
big, expansive bellies, and _soak_ themselves full, as they did here
on the damp sand about the pump.

Just after sunset, when the fireflies light up and the crickets and
katydids begin to chirp, the toad that sleeps under my front step hops
out of bed, kicks the sand off his back, and takes a long look at the
weather. He seems to _think_ as he sits here on the gravel walk, sober
and still, with his face turned skyward. What does he think about? Is
he listening to the chorus of the crickets, to the whippoorwills, or
is it for supper he is planning? It may be of the vicissitudes of toad
life, and of the mutability of all sublunary things, that he
meditates. Who knows? Some day perhaps we shall have a batrachian
psychology, and I shall understand what it is that my door-step lodger
turns over and over in his mind as he watches the coming of the stars.
All I can do now is to minute his cogitations, and I remember one
evening when he sat thinking and winking a full hour without making a
single hop.

As the darkness comes down he makes off for a night of bug-hunting. At
the first peep of dawn, bulging plump at the sides, he turns back for
home. Home to a toad usually means any place that offers sleep and
safety for the day; but if undisturbed, like the one under the step,
he will return to the same spot throughout the summer. This chosen
spot may be the door-step, the cracks between the bricks of a well, or
the dense leaves of a strawberry bed.

In the spring of 1899 so very little rain fell between March and June
that I had to water my cucumber-hills. There was scarcely a morning
during this dry spell that I did not find several toads tucked away
for the day in these moist hills. These individuals had no regular
home, like the one under the step, but hunted up the coolest, shadiest
places in the soft soil and made new beds for themselves every

Their bed-making is very funny, but not likely to meet the approval of
the housewife. Wearied with the night's hunting, a toad comes to the
cool cucumber-vines and proceeds at once to kick himself into bed. He
backs and kicks and elbows into the loose sand as far as he can, then
screws and twists till he is worked out of sight beneath the soil,
hind end foremost. Here he lies, with only his big pop-eyes sticking
out, half asleep, half awake. If a hungry adder crawls along, he
simply pulls in his eyes, the loose sand falls over them, and the
snake passes on.

When the nights begin to grow chilly and there are threatenings of
frost, the toads hunt up winter quarters, and hide deep down in some
warm burrow--till to-morrow if the sun comes out hot, or, it may be,
not to wake until next April. Sometimes an unexpected frost catches
them, when any shelter must do, when even their snake-fear is put
aside or forgotten. "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,"
said Trinculo, as he crawled in with Caliban from the storm. So might
the toad say in an early frost.

The workmen in a sandstone-quarry near by dug out a bunch of toads one
winter, all mixed up with a bunch of adders. They were wriggled and
squirmed together in a perfect jumble of legs, heads, and tails--all
in their dead winter sleep. Their common enemy, the frost, had taken
them unawares, and driven them like friends into the crevice of the
rocks, where they would have slept together until the spring had not
the quarrymen unearthed them.

There is much mystery shrouding this humble batrachian. Somewhere in
everybody's imagination is a dark cell harboring a toad. Reading down
through literature, it is astonishing how often the little monster has
hopped into it. There is chance for some one to make a big book of the
fable and folk-lore that has been gathering through the ages about the
toads. The stories of the jewels in their heads, of their age-long
entombments in the rocks, of the warts and spells they induce, of
their eating fire and dropping from the clouds, are legion.

And there seems to be some basis of fact for all these tales. No one
has yet written for us the life-history of the toad. After having
watched the tadpole miracle, one is thoroughly prepared to see toads
jump out of the fire, tumble from broken marble mantles, and fall from
the clouds. I never caught them in my hat during a shower; but I have
stood on Mauricetown Bridge, when the big drops came pelting down, and
seen those drops apparently turn into tiny toads as they struck the
planks, until the bridge was alive with them! Perhaps they had been
hiding from the heat between the cracks of the planks--but there are
people who believe that they came down from the clouds.

How, again, shall I explain this bit of observation? More than six
years I lived near a mudhole that dried up in July. I passed it almost
daily. One spring there was a strange toad-call in the hole, a call
that I had never heard anything like before--a deafening, agonizing
roar, hoarse and woeful. I found on investigation that the water was
moving with spade-foot toads. Two days later the hole was still; every
toad was gone. They disappeared; and though I kept that little puddle
under watch for several seasons after that, I have not known a
spade-foot to appear there since.

The water was almost jellied with their spawn, and a little later was
swarming with spade-foot tadpoles. Then it began to dry up, and some
of the tadpoles were left stranded in the deep foot-prints of the
cows along the edge of the hole. Just as fast as the water disappeared
in these foot-prints, the tails of the tadpoles were absorbed and legs
formed, and they hopped away--some of them a week before their
brothers, that were hatched at the same time, but who had stayed in
the middle of the pond, where the deeper water allowed them a longer
babyhood for the use of their tails. So swiftly, under pressure, can
nature work with this adaptable body of the toad!

Long before the sun-baked mud began to crack these young ones had
gone--where? And whence came their parents, and whither went they?
When will they return?

[Illustration: design]

[Illustration: scene]


In your woods walks did you ever notice a little furrow or tunnel
through the underbrush, a tiny roadway in the briers and
huckleberry-bushes? Did you ever try to follow this path to its
beginning or end, wondering who traveled it? You have, doubtless. But
the woods must be wild and the undergrowth thick and you must be as
much at home among the trees as you are in your own dooryard, else
this slight mark will make no impression upon you.

But enter any wild tract of wood or high swamp along the creek, and
look sharp as you cut across the undergrowth. You will not go far
before finding a narrow runway under your feet. It is about five
inches wide, leading in no particular direction, and is evidently made
by cutting off the small stems of vines and bushes at an inch or more
from the ground. The work looks as if it had been laid out by rule and
done with a sharp knife, it is so regular and clean.

This is a rabbit road. Follow it a few rods and you will find it
crossed by another road, exactly similar. Take this new path now, and
soon you are branching off, turning, and joining other roads. You are
in rabbit-land, traveling its highways--the most complicated and
entangling system of thoroughfares that was ever constructed. The
individual roads are straight and plain enough, but at a glance one
can see that the plan of the system is intended to bewilder and lead
astray all who trespass here. Without a map and directions no one
could hope to arrive at any definite point through such a snarl.

There often comes along with the circus a building called the
"Moorish Maze," over whose entrance is this invitation:

                      COME IN AND GET LOST!

This is what one reads at the cross-roads in rabbit-land. There are
finger-boards and milestones along the way; but they point nowhere and
mark no distances except to the rabbits.

An animal's strong points usually supplement each other; its
well-developed powers are in line with its needs and mode of life. So,
by the very demands of his peculiar life, the beaver has become chief
among all the animal engineers, his specialty being dams. He can make
a good slide for logging, but of the construction of speedways he
knows absolutely nothing. The rabbit, on the other hand, is a runner.
He can swim if he is obliged to. His interests, however, lie mostly in
his heels, and hence in his highways. So Bunny has become an expert
road-maker. He cannot build a house, nor dig even a respectable den;
he is unable to climb, and his face is too flat for hole-gnawing: but
turn him loose in a brambly, briery wilderness, and he will soon
thread the trackless waste with a network of roads, and lay it open
to his nimble feet as the sky lies open to the swallow's wings.

[Illustration: "Calamity is hot on his track."]

But how maddening these roads are to the dogs and foxes! In the first
place, they have a peculiar way of beginning nowhere in particular,
and of vanishing all at once, in the same blind fashion. I am not sure
that I ever found a satisfactory end to a rabbit's road--that is, a
nest, a playground, or even a feeding-place. Old Calamity, the hound,
is always tormented and undone whenever she runs foul of a rabbit

She will start Bunny in the open field, and trail away after him in
full tongue as fast as her fat bow-legs will carry her. The rabbit
makes for the woods. Calamity is hot on his track, going down toward
the creek. Suddenly she finds herself plunging along a rabbit road,
breaking her way through by sheer force where the rabbit slipped along
with perfect ease. She is following the path now rather than the
scent, and, all at once, discovers that she is off the trail. She
turns and goes back. Yes, here the rabbit made a sharp break to the
right by a side-path; the track is fresh and warm, and the old hound
sings in her eager delight. On she goes with more haste, running the
path again instead of the trail, and--there is no path! It is gone.
This bothers the old dog; but her nose is keen and she has picked up
the course again. Here it goes into another road. She gives tongue
again, and rushes on, when--_Wow!_ she has plunged into a thick and
thorny tangle of greenbrier.

That is where the torment comes in. These roads have a habit of taking
in the brier-patches. Calamity will go round a patch if she can; she
will work her way through if she must--but it is at the cost of bloody
ears and a thousand smarting pricks. Bunny, meantime, is watching
just inside the next brier-patch, counting the digs of his clumsy

I suppose that this "blind alley" kind of road is due to the fact that
the rabbits have no regular homes. They make a nest for the young; but
they never have dens, like minks and coons. In New England they often
live in holes and among the crannies of the stone walls; and there, as
far as I have seen, they rarely or never make roads. Farther south,
where the winters are less severe, they dig no holes, for they prefer
an open, even an exposed, bed to any sort of shelter.

Shelters are dangerous. Bunny cannot back into a burrow and bare his
teeth to his enemy; he is not a fighter. He can run, and he knows it;
legs are his salvation, and he must have room to limber them. If he
has to fight, then give him the open, not a hole; for it is to be a
kangaroo kicking match, and a large ring is needed. He had as well
surrender himself at once as to run into a hole that has only one

During the cold, snowy weather the rabbits usually leave the bare
fields for the woods, though the older and wiser ones more frequently
suffer the storms than risk the greater danger of such a move. When
pressed by hunger or hounded hard, they often take to a rail-pile, and
sometimes they grow so bold as to seek hiding under a barn or house.
One young buck lived all winter in the wood-pile of one of my
neighbors, becoming so tame that he fed with the chickens.

[Illustration: "Bunny, meantime, is watching just inside the next

The nearest approach that a rabbit makes to a house is his "squat," or
form. This is simply a sitting-place in the fields or along the woods,
that he will change every time he is thoroughly frightened out of it.
Undisturbed he will stay in this squat for months at a time.
Occasionally a rabbit will have two or three squats located over his
range, each one so placed that a wide view on every side may be had.
If it is along the woods, then he sits facing the open fields, with
his ears laid back toward the trees. He can hear as far as he can see,
and his nose tells him who is coming up the wind sooner than either
eyes or ears.

It is cold, lonely living here in the winter. But everybody, except
the mice and little birds, are enemies, his only friends being his
wits and legs. In the long run, wits and legs are pretty safe
insurance. "He who fights and runs away will live to fight another
day," is Bunny's precept--and it works well; he still thrives.

The squat is a cold place. The sky is its roof, and its only
protection is the tuft of grass, the stone, or the stump beside which
it is placed. Bunny may change to the lee or windward side, as suits
him, during a storm; but usually he keeps his place and lies close to
the ground, no matter how the wind blows, or how fiercely falls the
rain and snow. I have frequently started them from their squats in
bleak, wind-swept fields, when the little brown things were
completely snowed under.

There is great individuality among all animals, and though the rabbits
look as much alike as peas, they are no exception to the rule. This
personality is especially shown in their whimsical fancies for certain
squats. Here, within sight of the house and the dog, an old rabbit
took up her abode on a big, flat rail in the corner of the fence. Of
course no hawk or owl could touch her here, for they dared not swoop
between the rails; the dog and cat could scent her, but she had
already whipped the cat, and she had given Calamity so many long runs
that the hound was weary of her. The strategic value of such a
situation is plain: she was thus raised just above the level of the
field and commanded every approach. Perhaps it was not whim, but
wisdom, that led to this selection.

I knew another, a dwarf rabbit, that always got into a bare or plowed
field and squatted beside a brown stone or clod of earth. Experience
had taught him that he looked like a clod, and that no enemy ever
plagued him when he lay low in the brown soil.

[Illustration: "The squat is a cold place."]

One summer I stumbled upon a squat close along the public road.
Cart-loads of trash had been dumped there, and among the debris was a
bottomless coal-scuttle. In the coal-scuttle a rabbit made his squat.
Being open at both ends, it sheltered him beautifully from sun and
rain. Here he sat, napping through the day, watching the interesting
stream of passers-by, himself hidden by the rank weeds and grass. When
discovered by a dog or boy, he tripped out of one of his open doors
and led the intruder a useless run into the swamp.

At one time my home was separated from the woods by only a
clover-field. This clover-field was a favorite feeding-ground for the
rabbits of the vicinity. Here, in the early evening, they would gather
to feed and frolic; and, not content with clover, they sometimes went
into the garden for a dessert of growing corn and young cabbage.

Take a moonlight night in autumn and hide in the edge of these woods.
There is to be a rabbit party in the clover-field. The grass has long
been cut and the field is clean and shining; but still there is plenty
to eat. The rabbits from both sides of the woods are coming. The full
moon rises above the trees, and the cottontails start over. Now, of
course, they use the paths which they cut so carefully the longest
possible way round. They hop leisurely along, stopping now and then to
nibble the sassafras bark or to get a bite of wintergreen, even
quitting the path, here and there, for a berry or a bunch of sweet

"Stop a moment; this won't do! Here is a side-path where the briers
have grown three inches since they were last cut off. This path must
be cleared out at once," and the old buck falls to cutting. By the
time he has finished the path a dozen rabbits have assembled in the
clover-field. When he appears there is a _thump_, and all look up;
some one runs to greet the new-comer; they touch whiskers and smell,
then turn to their eating.

The feast is finished, and the games are on. Four or five of the
rabbits have come together for a turn at hop-skip-and-jump. And such
hop-skip-and-jump! They are professionals at this sport, every one of
them. There is not a rabbit in the game that cannot leap five times
higher than he can reach on his tiptoes, and hop a clean ten feet.

[Illustration: "The limp, lifeless one hanging over the neck of that

Over and over they go, bounding and bouncing, snapping from their
marvelous hind legs as if shot from a spring-trap. It is the greatest
jumping exhibition that you will ever see. To have such legs as these
is the next best thing to having wings.

Right in the thick of the fun sounds a sharp _thump! thump!_ Every
rabbit "freezes." It is the stamp of an old buck, the call, _Danger!
danger!_ He has heard a twig break in the woods, or has seen a soft,
shadowy thing cross the moon.

As motionless as stumps squat the rabbits, stiff with the tenseness of
every ready muscle. They listen. But it was only a dropping nut or a
restless bird; and the play continues.

They are chasing each other over the grass in a game of tag. There go
two, round and round, tagging and re-tagging, first one being "it" and
then the other. Their circle widens all the time and draws nearer to
the woods. This time round they will touch the bush behind which we
are watching. Here they come--there they go; they will leap the log
yonder. Flash! squeak! scurry! Not a rabbit in the field! Yes; one
rabbit--the limp, lifeless one hanging over the neck of that fox
trotting off yonder in the shadows, along the border of the woods!

The picnic is over for this night, and it will be some time before the
cottontails so far forget themselves as to play in this place again.

It is small wonder that animals do not laugh. They have so little
play. The savage seldom laughs, for he hunts and is hunted like a wild
animal, and is allowed so scant opportunity to be off guard that he
cannot develop the power to laugh. Much more is this true of the
animals. From the day an animal is born, instinct and training are
bent toward the circumvention of enemies. There is no time to play, no
chance, no cause for laughter.

The little brown rabbit has least reason of all to be glad. He is
utterly inoffensive, the enemy of none, but the victim of many. Before
he knows his mother he understands the meaning of _Be ready! Watch!_
He drinks these words in with his milk. The winds whisper them; the
birds call them; every leaf, every twig, every shadow and sound, says:
_Be ready! Watch!_ Life is but a series of escapes, little else than
vigilance and flight. He must sleep with eyes open, feed with ears
up, move with muffled feet, and, at short stages, he must stop, rise
on his long hind legs, and listen and look. If he ever forgets, if he
pauses one moment for a wordless, noiseless game with his fellows, he
dies. For safety's sake he lives alone; but even a rabbit has fits of
sociability, and gives way at times to his feelings. The owl and the
fox know this, and they watch the open glades and field-edges. They
must surprise him.

The barred owl is quick at dodging, but Bunny is quicker. It is the
owl's soft, shadow-silent wings that are dreaded. They spirit him
through the dusk like a huge moth, wavering and aimless, with dangling
dragon-claws. But his drop is swift and certain, and the grip of those
loosely hanging legs is the very grip of death. There is no terror
like the ghost-terror of the owl.

The fox is feared; but then, he is on legs, not wings, and there are
telltale winds that fly before him, far ahead, whispering, _Fox, fox,
fox!_ The owl, remember, like the wind, has wings--wings that are
faster than the wind's, and the latter cannot get ahead to tell of his
coming. Reynard is cunning. Bunny is fore-sighted, wide awake, and
fleet of foot. Sometimes he is caught napping--so are we all; but if
in wits he is not always Reynard's equal, in speed he holds his own
very well with his enemy. Reynard is nimble, but give the little
cottontail a few feet handicap in a race for life, and he stands a
fair chance of escape, especially in the summer woods.

When the hounds are on his trail the rabbit saves his legs by
outwitting his pursuers. He will win a long distance ahead of them,
and before they overtake him he will double on his track, approaching
as near as he dare to the dogs, then leap far aside upon a log, into a
stream, or among the bushes, and strike out in a new direction,
gradually making back toward the starting-place. He rises on his
haunches to listen, as he goes along, and before the dogs have again
picked up the trail, he has perhaps had time to rest and lunch.

If it were a matter of dogs only, life would be just full enough of
excitement to be interesting. He can double, balk, and mix trails on
them, and enjoy it. They are nothing to fool. But the gun! Ah, that's
a foe which he cannot get up with. He may double and confuse the
dogs; but as he comes back along a side-road, with them yelping far in
the rear, he often hops right into a game-bag.

[Illustration: "His drop is swift and certain."]

To do justice to the intelligence of the dog, and to be truthful about
the rabbit, it must be remembered that, in the chase, Bunny usually
has the advantage of knowing the lay of the land. The short cuts,
streams, logs, briers, and roads are all in mind before he takes a
jump. The dog is often on strange ground. Free the rabbit for the
hunt, as you do the fox, on unknown territory, and the dogs will soon
take the frightened, bewildered little creature.

There is no braver or more devoted mother in all the wilds than Molly
Cottontail. She has a mother's cunning and a mother's resourcefulness,
also. But this is to be expected. If number of children count for
experience, then, surely, Molly ought to be resourceful. There are
seasons when she will raise as many as three families--and
old-fashioned families for size, too. It is not uncommon to find ten
young rabbits in a nest. Five times twins! And all to be fed, washed,
and kept covered up in bed together! But animal children, as a rule,
behave better than human children, so we may not measure the task of
Mother Molly by any standard of our own. It is task enough, however,
since you can scarcely count the creatures that eat young rabbits, nor
the enemies that unwittingly destroy them. A heavy rain may drown
them, cattle may crush them, mowing-machines may cut them to pieces,
and boys who are starting menageries may carry them away to starve.

Molly's mother-wit and craft are sufficient for most of these things.
She picks out a sunny hillside among high grasses and bushes for the
nest, so that the rain will flow off and not flood it, and because
that here the cows are not so likely to trample, nor the plow and
mowing-machine to come. She must also have ready and hidden access to
the nest, which the grass and bushes afford.

She digs a little hollow in the sand about a foot deep and as big
around as a duck's nest, lines it first with coarse grasses and
leaves, then with a layer of finer grass, and fills the whole with
warm, downy fur plucked from her own sides and breast. This nest, not
being situated at the end of an inaccessible burrow, like the tame
rabbit's or woodchuck's, requires that all care be taken to conceal
every sign of it. The raw sand that is thrown out is artfully covered
with leaves and grass to blend with the surrounding ground; and over
the nest itself I have seen the old rabbit pull vines and leaves until
the inquisitive, nosing skunk would have passed it by.

Molly keeps the young ones in this bed for about two weeks, after
which time, if frightened, they will take to their heels. They are
exceedingly tender at this age and ought not to be allowed to run out.
They do not know what a man is, and hardly understand what their hind
legs are. I saw one that was at least a month old jump up before a
mowing-machine and bolt across the field. It was his first real scare,
and the first time that he had been called upon to test his legs. It
was funny. He didn't know how to use them. He made some tremendous
leaps, and was so unused to the powerful spring in his hind feet that
he turned several complete somersaults in the air.

Molly feeds the family shortly after nightfall, and always tucks them
in when leaving, with the caution to lie quiet and still. She is not
often surprised with her young, but lingers near on guard. You can
easily tell if you are in the neighborhood of her nest by the way she
thumps and watches you, and refuses to be driven off. Here she waits,
and if anything smaller than a dog appears she rushes to meet it,
stamping the ground in fury. A dog she will intercept by leaving a
warm trail across his path, or, in case the brute has no nose for her
scent, by throwing herself in front of him and drawing him off on a
long chase.

One day, as I was quietly picking wild strawberries on a hill, I heard
a curious grunting down the side below me, then the quick _thud!
thud!_ of an angry rabbit. Among the bushes I caught a glimpse of
rabbit ears. A fight was on.

Crouching beside a bluish spot, which I knew to be a rabbit's nest,
was a big yellow cat. He had discovered the young ones, and was making
mouths at the thought of how they would taste, when the mother's thump
startled him. He squatted flat, with ears back, tail swelled, and hair
standing up along his back, as the rabbit leaped over him. It was a
glimpse of Molly's ears, as she made the jump, that I had caught. It
was the beginning of the bout--only a feint by the rabbit, just to try
the mettle of her antagonist.

The cat was scared, and before he got himself together, Molly, with a
mighty bound, was in the air again, and, as she flashed over him, she
fetched him a stunning whack on the head that knocked him endwise. He
was on his feet in an instant, but just in time to receive a stinging
blow on the ear that sent him sprawling several feet down the hill.
The rabbit seemed constantly in the air. Back and forth, over and over
the cat she flew, and with every bound landed a terrific kick with her
powerful hind feet, that was followed by a puff of yellow fur.

The cat could not stand up to this. Every particle of breath and fight
was knocked out of him at about the third kick. The green light in his
eyes was the light of terror. He got quickly to a bush, and ran away,
else I believe that the old rabbit would have beaten him to death.

The seven young ones in the nest were unharmed. Molly grunted and
stamped at me for looking at them; but I was too big to kick as she
had just kicked the cat, and I could not be led away to chase her, as
she would have led a dog. The little fellows were nearly ready to
leave the nest. A few weeks later, when the wheat was cut in the field
above, one of the seven was killed by the long, fearful knife of the

[Illustration: "Seven young ones in the nest."]

Perhaps the other six survived until November, the beginning of the
gunning season. But when the slaughter was past, if one lived, he
remembered more than once the cry of the hounds, the crack of the gun,
and the sting of shot. He has won a few months' respite from his human
enemies; but this is not peace. There is no peace for him. He may
escape a long time yet; but his foes are too many for him. He fights a
good fight, but must lose at last.

[Illustration: winter]



Take it the year round, the deadest trees in the woods are the livest
and fullest of fruit--for the naturalist. Dr. Holmes had a passion for
big trees; the camera-carriers hunt up historic trees; boys with deep
pockets take to fruit-trees: but dead trees, since I developed a
curiosity for dark holes, have yielded me the most and largest crops.

An ardor for decayed trees is not from any perversity of nature. There
is nothing unreasonable in it, as in--bibliomania, for instance. I
discover a gaunt, punky old pine, bored full of holes, and standing
among acres of green, characterless companions, with the held breath,
the jumping pulse, the bulging eyes of a collector stumbling upon a
Caxton in a latest-publication book-store. But my excitement is really
with some cause; for--sh! look! In that round hole up there, just
under the broken limb, the flame of the red-headed woodpecker--a light
in one of the windows of the woods. Peep through it. What rooms! What
people! No; I never paid ten cents extra for a volume because it was
full of years and mildew and rare errata (I sometimes buy books at a
reduction for these accidents); but I have walked miles, and passed
forests of green, good-looking trees, to wait in the slim shade of
some tottering, limbless old stump.

Within the reach of my landscape four of these ancient derelicts hold
their stark arms against the horizon, while every wood-path,
pasture-lane, and meadow-road leads past hollow apples, gums, or
chestnuts, where there are sure to be happenings as the seasons come
and go. Sooner or later, every dead tree in the neighborhood finds a
place in my note-book. They are all named and mentioned, some over and
over,--my list of Immortals,--all very dead or very hollow, ranging
from a big sweet-gum in the swamp along the creek to an old pump-tree,
stuck for a post within fifty feet of my window. The gum is the
hollowest, the pump the deadest, tree of the lot.

The nozle-hole of the one-time pump stares hard at my study window
like the empty socket of a Cyclops. There is a small bird-house nailed
just above the window, which gazes back with its single eye at the
staring pump. For some time one April the sputtering sparrows held
this box above the window against the attacks of two tree-swallows.
The sparrows had been on the ground all winter, and had staked their
claim with a nest that had already outgrown the house when the
swallows arrived. In love of fair play, and remembering more than one
winter day made alive and cheerful by the sparrows, I could not
interfere and oust them, though it grieved me to lose the pretty pair
of swallows as summer neighbors.

The swallows disappeared. All was quiet for a few days, when, one
morning, I saw the flutter of steel-blue wings at the hole in the
pump, and there, propped hard with his tail over the hole, hung my
tree-swallow. I should have that pair as tenants yet, and in a house
where I could see everything they did. He peered quickly around, then
peeped cautiously into the opening, and slipped out of sight through
the dark, round hole.

[Illustration: "I knew it suited exactly."]

I knew it suited exactly by the glad, excited way he came out and
darted off. He soon returned with the little shining wife; and through
a whole week there was a constant passing of blue backs and white
breasts as the joyous pair fitted up the inside of that pump with
grass and feathers fit for the cradle of a fairy queen.

By the rarest fortune I was on hand when one of the sparrows
discovered what had happened in the pump. There is not a single
microbe of Anglophobia in my system. But need one's love for things
English include this pestiferous sparrow? Anyhow, I feel just a mite
of satisfaction when I recall how that sparrow, with the colonizing
instinct of his race, dropping down upon the pump with the notion that
he "had a duty to the world," dropped off that pump straightway,
concluding that his "duty" did not relate to that particular pump any
longer. The sparrows had built everywhere about the place, but that
that pump--a post, and a post to a pair of bars at that--was worth
settling had not dawned on them. When they saw that the swallows had
taken it, one of them lighted there instantly, with tail up, head
cocked, very much amazed, and commenting vociferously. He looked into
the hole from every possible point, and was about to enter, when there
came a whizz of wings, a flash of blue, and a slap that sent him
spinning. When the indignant swallow low swooped back, like a
boomerang, the sparrow had scuttled off to an apple-tree.

[Illustration: "With tail up, head cocked, very much amazed, and
commenting vociferously."]

That was a _coup de grâce_. Peace reigned after that; and along in
July the five white eggs had found wings and were skimming about the
fly-filled air or counting and preening themselves demurely in a
solemn row upon the wire fence.

Between two pastures, easily seen from the same study window, stands a
wild apple-tree, pathetically diseased and rheumatic, which, like one
of Mr. Burroughs's trees, never bore very good crops of apples, but
four seasons a year is marvelously full of animals. It is chiefly
noted for a strange collection I once took out of its maw-like cavity.

It was a keen January morning, and I stopped at the tree, as usual,
and thumped. No lodgers there that day, it seemed. I mounted the rail
fence and looked in. Darkness. No; there at the bottom was a patch of
gray, and--I pulled out a snapping, blinking screech-owl. Down went my
hand again, and a second owl came blinking to the light--this one in
rich brown plumage. When I turned him up, his clenched claws held
fistfuls of possum hair. Once more I pushed my hand down the hole,
gingerly, and up to the shoulder. No mistake. Mr. Possum was in there,
and after a little manoeuvering I seized him by the collar, and out he
came grinning, hissing, and winking at the hard, white winter day.

And how exactly like a possum! "There is a time for all things," comes
near an incarnation in him. There is a time for eating owls--at night,
of course, if owls can then be had. But day is the time to sleep; and
if owls want to share his bed and roost upon him, all right. He
_will_ sleep on till nightfall, in spite of owls. And he would sleep
on here till dusk, in spite of my rude awakening, if I gave him leave.
I dropped him back to the bottom of the hole, then put the two owls
back upon him, and went my way, knowing I should find the three still
sleeping on my return. And it was so. The owls were just as surprised
and just as sleepy when I disturbed them the second time that day. I
left them to finish their nap. But the possum was served for dinner
the following evening--for this, too, is strictly in accord with his
time-for-all-things philosophy.

This pair of owls were most persistent in their attachment to the
apple-tree. Several times in the course of the winter I found them
sleeping soundly in this same deep cavity, making their winter
lodgings in the bent, tumble-down shanty which, standing not far from
the woods and between the uplands and meadows, has been home, hotel,
post-office, city of refuge, and lookout for many of the wild folk
about the fields.

A worn-out, gone-to-holes orchard is a very city of hollows-loving
animals. Not far away is one such orchard with a side bordering an
extensive copse. Where the orchard and copse meet is an apple-tree
that has been the ancestral home of unnumbered generations of
flying-squirrels. The cavity was first hollowed out by flickers. The
squirrels were interlopers. When the young come in April the large
opening is stuffed with shredded chestnut bark, leaving barely room
enough for the parents to squeeze through. The sharpest-eyed hawk
awing would never dream of waiting outside that insignificant door for
a meal of squirrel.

[Illustration: "In a solemn row upon the wire fence."]

[Illustration: "Young flying-squirrels."]

But such precautions are not always proof against boys. I robbed that
home one spring of its entire batch of babies (no one with any love of
wild things could resist the temptation to kidnap young
flying-squirrels), and tried to bring them up in domestic ways. But
somehow I never succeeded with pets. Something always happened. One
of these four squirrels was rocked on, a second was squeezed in a
door, a third fell before he could fly, and the fourth I took to
college with me. He had perfect liberty, for I had no other room-mate.
I set aside one hour a day to putting corks, pens, photographs, and
knives back in their places, for him to tuck away the next day in one
of my shoes or under my pillow. More than once I have awakened to find
him curled up in my neck or up my sleeve, the dearest little bedfellow
alive. But it was three stories from my window to the street; and one
day he tried his wings. They were not equal to the flight. Since then
I have left my wild pets in the woods.

If one wants to know what birds are about, especially the larger, more
cautious species, let him get under cover near a tall dead oak or
walnut, standing alone in the middle of open fields. Such a tree is
the natural rest and lookout for every passer. Here come the hawks to
wait and watch; here the sentinel crows are posted while the flock
pilfers corn and plugs melons; here the flickers and woodpeckers
light for a quick lunch of grubs, to call for company or telegraph
across the fields on one of the resonant limbs; here the flocking
blackbirds swoop and settle, making the old tree look as if it had
suddenly leaved out in mourning--leaves black and crackling; and here
the turkey-buzzards halt heavily in their gruesomely glorious flight.

With good field-glasses there is no other vantage-ground for bird
study equal to this. Not in a day's tramp will one see so many birds,
and have such chances to observe them, as in a single hour, when the
sun is rising or setting, in the neighborhood of some great, gaunt
tree that has died of years or lonesomeness, or been smitten by a bolt
from the summer clouds.

[Illustration: "The sentinel crows are posted."]


Nature's prodigality and parsimony are extremes farther apart than her
east and west. Why should she be so lavish of interstellar space, and
crowd a drop of stagnant water so? Why give the wide sea surface to
the petrels, and screw the sea-urchins into the rocks on Grand Manan?
Why scatter in Delaware Bay a million sturgeon eggs for every one
hatched, while each mite of a paramecium is cut in two, and wholes
made of the halves? Why leave an entire forest of green, live pines
for a lonesome crow hermitage, and convert the rottenest old stump
into a submerged-tenth tenement?

Part of the answer, at least, is found in nature's hatred and horror
of death. She fiercely refuses to have any dead. An empty heaven, a
lifeless sea, an uninhabited rock, a dead drop of water, a dying
paramecium, are intolerable and impossible. She hastens always to give
them life. The succession of strange dwellers to the decaying trees is
an instance of her universal and endless effort at making matter

Such vigilance over the ever-dying is very comforting--and marvelous
too. Let any indifferent apple-tree begin to have holes, and the
tree-toads, the bluebirds, and the red squirrels move in, to fill the
empty trunk with new life and the sapless limbs with fresh fruit. Let
any tall, stray oak along the river start to die at the top, and
straightway a pair of fish-hawks will load new life upon it. And these
other, engrafted lives, like the graft of a greening upon wild wood,
yield crops more valuable often, and always more interesting, than
come from the native stock.

Perhaps there is no more useless fruit or timber grown than that of
the swamp-gums (_Nyssa uniflora_) of the Jersey bottoms. But if we
value trees according to their capacity for cavities,--the naturalist
has a right to such a scale of valuation,--then these gums rank first.
The deliberate purpose of a swamp-gum, through its hundred years of
life, is to grow as big as possible, that it may hollow out
accordingly. They are the natural home-makers of the swamps that
border the rivers and creeks in southern New Jersey. What would the
coons, the turkey-buzzards, and the owls do without them? The wild
bees believe the gums are especially built for them. No white-painted
hive, with its disappearing squares, offers half as much safety to
these free-booters of the summer seas as the gums, open-hearted,
thick-walled, and impregnable.

When these trees alone make up the swamp, there is a roomy, empty,
echo-y effect among the great gray boles, with their high, horizontal
limbs spanned like rafters above, produced by no other trees I know.
It is worth a trip across the continent to listen, under a clear
autumn moon, to the cry of a coon-dog far away in the empty halls of
such a swamp. To get the true effect of a barred owl's hooting, one
wants to find the home of a pair in an ancient gum-swamp. I know such
a home, along Cohansey Creek, where, the neighboring farmer tells me,
he has heard the owls hoot in spring and autumn since he remembers
hearing anything.

I cannot reach around the butt of the tree that holds the nest.
Tapering just a trifle and a little on the lean, it runs up smooth and
round for twenty feet, where a big bulge occurs, just above which is
the capacious opening to the owls' cave. There was design in the
bulge, or foresight in the owls' choice; for that excrescence is the
hardest thing to get beyond I ever climbed up to. But it must be
mounted, or the queerest pair of little dragons ever hatched will go

The owls themselves first guided me to the spot. I was picking my way
through this piece of woods, one April day, when a shadowy something
swung from one high limb to another overhead, following me. It was the
female owl. Every time she lighted she turned and fixed her big black
eyes hard on me, silent, somber, and watchful. As I pushed deeper
among the gums, she began to snap her beak and drop closer. Her
excitement grew every moment. I looked about for the likely tree. The
instant I spied the hole above the bulge, the owl caught the direction
of my eyes, and made a swoop at me that I thought meant total

I began to climb. With this the bird lapsed into the quiet of despair,
perched almost in reach of me, and began to hoot mournfully: _Woo-hoo,
woo-hoo, woo-hoo, oo-oo-a!_ And faint and far away came back a timid
_Woo-hoo, woo-a!_ from her mate, safely hid across the creek.

The weird, uncanny cry rolled round under the roof of limbs, and
seemed to wake a ghost-owl in every hollow bole, echoing and reëchoing
as it called from tree to tree, to die away down the dim, deep vistas
of the swamp. The silent wings, the snapping beaks, the eery hoots in
the soft gloom of the great trees, needed the help of but little
imagination to carry one back to the threshold of an unhacked world,
and embolden its nymphs and satyrs, that these centuries of science
have hunted into hiding.

[Illustration: "She turned and fixed her big black eyes hard on me."]

I wiggled above the bulge at the risk of life, and was greeted at the
mouth of the cavern with hisses and beak-snappings from within. It
was a raw spring day; snow still lingered in shady spots. But here,
backed against the farther wall of the cavity, were two young owls,
scarcely a week old, wrapped up like little Eskimos--tiny bundles of
down that the whitest-toothed frost could never bite through.

[Illustration: "Wrapped up like little Eskimos."]

Very green babies of all kinds are queer, uncertain, indescribable
creations--faith generators. But the greenest, homeliest, unlikeliest,
babiest babes I ever encountered were these two in the hole. I wish
Walt Whitman had seen them. He would have written a poem. They defy my
powers of portrayal, for they challenge the whole mob of my normal

But quite as astonishing as the appearance of the young owls was the
presence beneath their feet of the head of a half-grown muskrat, the
hind quarters of two frogs, one large meadow-vole, and parts of four
mice, with many other pieces too small to identify. These all were
fresh--the _crumbs_ of one night's dinner, the leavings of _one_
night's catch. If these were the fragments only, what would be a
conservative estimate of the night's entire catch?

Gilbert White tells of a pair of owls that built under the eaves of
Selborne Church, that he "minuted" with his "watch for an hour
together," and found that they returned to the nest, the one or the
other, "about once in every five minutes" with a mouse or some little
beast for the young. Twelve mice an hour! Suppose they hunted only two
evening hours a day? The record at the summer's end is almost beyond

Not counting what the two old owls ate, and leaving out of the count
the two frogs, it is within limits to reckon not less than six small
animals brought to the hollow gum every night of the three weeks that
these young owls were dependent for food--a riddance in this short
time of not less than one hundred and twenty-five muskrats, mice, and
voles. What four boys in the same time could clear the meadows of half
that number? And these animals are all harmful, the muskrats
exceedingly so, where the meadows are made by dikes and embankments.

Not a tree in South Jersey that spring bore a more profitable crop.
When fruit-growing in Jersey is done for pleasure, the altruistic
farmer with a love for natural history will find large reward in his
orchards of gums, that now are only swamps.

Just as useful as the crop of owls, and beyond all calculation in its
sweetening effects upon our village life, is the annual yield of
swallows by the piles in the river. Years ago a high spring tide
carried away the south wing of the old bridge, but left the piles,
green and grown over with moss, standing with their heads just above
flood-tide mark. In the tops of the piles are holes, bored to pass
lines through, or left by rusted bolts, and eaten wide by waves and
wind. Besides these there are a few genuine excavations made by
erratic woodpeckers. This whole clump of water-logged piles has been
colonized by blue-backed tree-swallows, every crack and cranny wide
enough and deep enough to hold a nest being appropriated for domestic
uses by a pair of the dainty people. It is no longer a sorry forest of
battered, sunken stumps; it is a swallow-Venice. And no gayer
gondoliers ever glided over wave-paved streets than these swallows on
the river. When the days are longest the village does its whittling on
the new bridge in the midst of this twittering bird life, watching the
swallows in the sunset skim and flash among the rotting timbers over
the golden-flowing tide.

[Illustration: "It is no longer a sorry forest of battered, sunken

If I turn from the river toward the woods again, I find that the
fences all the way are green with vines and a-hum with bumblebees.
Even the finger-board at the cross-roads is a living pillar of ivy.
All is life. There are no dead, no graveyards anywhere. A nature-made
cemetery does not exist in my locality. Yonder, where the forest-fire
came down and drank of the river, is a stretch of charred stumps; but
every one is alive with some sort of a tenant. Not one of these stumps
is a tombstone. We have graves and slabs and names in our
burial-place, and nothing more. But there is not so much as a slab in
the fields and woods. When the telegraph-poles and the piles are cut,
the stumps are immediately prepared for new life, and soon begin
blossoming into successive beds of mosses and mushrooms, while the
birds are directed to follow the bare poles and make them live again.

A double line of these pole-specters stretches along the road in front
of my door, holding hands around the world. I have grown accustomed to
the hum of the wires, and no longer notice the sound. But one May
morning recently there was a new note in the pole just outside the
yard. I laid my ear to the wood. _Pick--pick--pick_; then all was
still. Again, after a moment's pause, I heard _pick--pick--pick_ on
the inside. At my feet was a scattering of tiny yellow chips. Backing
off a little, I discovered the hole, about the size of my fist, away
up near the cross-bars. It was not the first time I had found
High-hole laying claim to the property of the telegraph companies. I
stole back and thumped. Instantly a dangerous bill and a flashing eye
appeared, and High-hole, with his miner's lamp burning red in the top
of his cap lunged off across the fields in some ill humor, no doubt.

[Illustration: "Even the finger-board is a living pillar of ivy."]

Throughout the summer there was telegraphing with and without wires on
that dry, resonant pole. And meantime, if there was anything
unintelligible in the ciphers at Glasgow or Washington, it was
high-hole talk. For there was reared inside that pole as large, as
noisy, and as red-headed a family of flickers as ever hatched. What a
brood they were! They must have snarled the wires and Babelized their
talk terribly.

While this robust and uncultured family of flickers were growing up,
only three doors away (counting by poles) a modest and soft-voiced
pair of bluebirds, with a decently numbered family of four, were
living in a hole so near the ground that I could look in upon the meek
but brave little mother.

There is still another dead-tree crop that the average bird-lover and
summer naturalist rarely gathers--I mean the white-footed mice. They
are the jolliest little beasts in all the tree hollows. It is when the
woods are bare and deep with snow, when the cold, dead winter makes
outside living impossible, that one really appreciates the coziness
and protection of the life in these deep rooms, sunk like wells into
the hearts of the trees. With what unconcern the mice await nightfall
and the coming of the storms! They can know nothing of the anxiety and
dread of the crows; they can share little of the crows' suffering in
the bitter nights of winter. A warm, safe bed is a large item in
out-of-doors living when it is cold; and I have seen where these mice
tuck themselves away from the dark and storm in beds so snug and warm
that I wished to be an elf myself, with white feet and a long tail,
to creep in with them.

I had some wood-choppers near the house on the lookout for mice, but,
though they often marked the stumps where they had cut into nests, the
winter nearly passed before I secured a single white-foot. Coming up
from the pond one day with a clerical friend, after a vain attempt to
skate, we lost our way in the knee-deep snow, and while floundering
about happened upon a large dead pine that was new to me. It was as
stark, as naked, and as dead a tree, apparently, as ever went to dust.
The limbs were broken off a foot or more from the trunk, and stuck out
like stumps of arms; the top had been drilled through and through by
woodpeckers, and now lay several feet away, buried in the snow; and
the hole, like the limbs, was without a shred of bark, but covered
instead with a thin coating of slime. This slime was marked with fine
scratches, as would be made by the nails of very small animals. I
almost rudely interrupted my learned friend's discussion of the
documentary hypothesis with the irreverent exclamation that there were
mice in the old corpse. The Hebrew scholar stared at the tree. Then
he stared at me. Had I gone daft so suddenly? But I was dropping off
my overcoat and ordering him away to borrow the ax of a man we heard
chopping. He looked utterly undone, but thought it best to humor me,
though I know he dreaded putting an ax in my hands just then, and
would infinitely rather have substituted his skates. I insisted,
however, and he disappeared for the ax.

The snow was deep, the pine was punky and would easily fall; and now
was the chance to get my mice. They were in there, I knew, for those
fine, fresh scratches told of scramblers gone up to the woodpecker
holes since the last storm.

The preacher appeared with the ax. Off came his coat. He was as eager
now as though this tottering pine were an altar of Baal. He was
anxious, also, to know if I had an extra sense--a kind of X-ray organ
that saw mice at the centers of trees. And, priest though he was
(shame on the human animal!), he had grown excited at the prospect of
the chase of--mice!

I tramped away the snow about the tree. The ax was swinging swiftly
through the air; the preacher was repeating between strokes:
"_I'm--truly--sorry--man's--dominion--has--_" when suddenly there was
a crunch, a crash, and the axman leaped aside with the yell of a
fiend; for, as the tree struck, three tiny, brown-backed, white-footed
creatures were dashed into the soft snow. "The prettiest thing I ever
saw," he declared enthusiastically, as I put into his hand the only
mouse captured.

We traced the chambers up and down the tree as they wound,
stairway-like, just inside the hard outer shell. Here and there we
came upon garners of acorns and bunches of bird feathers and shredded
bark--a complete fortress against the siege of winter.

That pine had not borne a green needle for a decade. It was too long
dead and too much decayed to have even a fat knot left. Yet there was
not a livelier, more interesting tree in the region that winter, nor
one half so full of goings on, as this same old shell of a pine, with
scarcely heart enough to stand.

[Illustration: moon]


An October night, calm, crisp, and moonlit! There is a delicate aroma
from the falling leaves in the air, as sweet as the scent of
fresh-filled haymows. The woods are silent, shadowy, and sleepful,
lighted dimly by the moon, as a vague, happy dream lights the dark
valley of our sleep. Dreamful is this night world, but yet not
dreaming. When, in the highest noon, did every leaf, every breeze,
seem so much a self, so full of ready life? The very twigs that lie
brittle and dead beneath our feet seem wakeful now and on the alert.
In this silence we feel myriad movings everywhere; and we know that
this sleep is but the sleep of the bivouac fires, that an army is
breaking camp to move under cover of the night. Every wild thing that
knows the dark will be stirring to-night. And what softest foot can
fall without waking the woods?

    Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead;
    They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit's tread.

Not a mouse can scurry, not a chestnut drop, not a wind whisper among
these new-fallen leaves without discovery; even a weasel cannot dart
across the moon-washed path and not leave a streak of brown upon the
silver, plain enough to follow.

A morning in May is best of all the year to be afield with the birds;
but to watch for the wild four-footed things, a moonlight night in
October is the choice of the seasons. May-time is bird-time. That is
their spring of mate-winning and nest-building, and it bubbles over
with life and song. The birds are ardent lovers; they sometimes fight
in their wooing: but fighting or singing, they are frank, happy
creatures, and always willing to see you. The mammals are just as
ardent lovers as the birds, and infinitely more serious. But they are
not poets; they are not in the show business; and they want no
outsider to come and listen to their pretty story of woe. Their
spring, their courting-time, is not a time of song and play. The
love-affairs of a timid, soulful-eyed rabbit are so charged and
intense as not always to be free from tragedy. Don't expect any
attention in the spring, even from that bunch of consuming curiosity,
the red squirrel; he has something in hand, for once, more to his mind
than quizzing you. Life with the animals then, and through the summer,
has too much of love and fight and fury, is too terribly earnest, to
admit of any frolic.

But autumn brings release from most of these struggles. There is
surcease of love; there is abundance of food; and now the only
passions of the furry breasts are such gentle desires as abide with
the curious and the lovers of peace and plenty. The animals are now
engrossed with the task of growing fat and furry. Troubled with no
higher ambitions, curiosity, sociability, and a thirst for adventure
begin to work within them these long autumn nights, and not one of
them, however wild and fearful, can resist his bent to prowl in the
light of the October moon.

To know much of the wild animals at home one must live near their
haunts, with eyes and ears open, forever on the watch. For you must
wait their pleasure. You cannot entreat them for the sake of science,
nor force them in the name of the law. You cannot set up your easel in
the meadow, and hire a mink or muskrat to pose for you any time you
wish; neither can you call, when you like, at the hollow gum in the
swamp and interview a coon. The animals flatly refuse to sit for their
pictures, and to see reporters and assessors. But carry your
sketch-book and pad with you, and, after a while, in the most unlikely
times and places, the wariest will give you sittings for a finished
picture, and the most reticent will tell you nearly all that he knows.

At no time of the year are the animals so loquacious, so easy of
approach, as along in the October nights. There is little to be seen
of them by day. They are cautious folk. By nature most of them are
nocturnal; and when this habit is not inherited, fear has led to its
acquisition. But protected by the dark, the shy and suspicious creep
out of their hiding-places; they travel along the foot-paths, they
play in the wagon-roads, they feed in our gardens, and I have known
them to help themselves from our chicken-coops. If one has never
haunted the fields and woods at night he little knows their multitude
of wild life. Many a hollow stump and uninteresting hole in the
ground--tombs by day--give up their dead at night, and something more
than ghostly shades come forth.

If one's pulse quickens at the sight and sound of wild things
stirring, and he has never seen, in the deepening dusk, a long,
sniffling snout poked slowly out of a hollow chestnut, the glint of
black, beady eyes, the twitch of papery ears, then a heavy-bodied
possum issue from the hole, clasping the edge with its tail, to gaze
calmly about before lumbering off among the shadows--then he still has
something to go into the woods for.

Our forests by daylight are rapidly being thinned into picnic groves;
the bears and panthers have disappeared, and by day there is nothing
to fear, nothing to give our imaginations exercise. But the night
remains, and if we hunger for adventure, why, besides the night, here
is the skunk; and the two offer a pretty sure chance for excitement.
Never to have stood face to face in a narrow path at night with a
full-grown, leisurely skunk is to have missed excitement and suspense
second only to the staring out of countenance of a green-eyed wildcat.
It is surely worth while, in these days of parks and chipmunks, when
all stir and adventure has fled the woods, to sally out at night for
the mere sake of meeting a skunk, for the shock of standing before a
beast that will not give you the path. As you back away from him you
feel as if you were really escaping. If there is any genuine adventure
left for us in this age of suburbs, we must be helped to it by the

Who ever had a good look at a muskrat in the glare of day? I was
drifting noiselessly down the river, recently, when one started to
cross just ahead of my boat. He got near midstream, recognized me, and
went under like a flash. Even a glimpse like this cannot be had every
summer; but in the autumn nights you cannot hide about their houses
and fail to see them. In October they are building their winter
lodges, and the clumsiest watcher may spy them glistening in the
moonlight as they climb with loads of sedge and mud to the roofs of
their sugar-loaf houses. They are readily seen, too, making short
excursions into the meadows; and occasionally the desire to rove and
see the world will take such hold upon one as to drive him a mile from
water, and he will slink along in the shadow of the fences and explore
your dooryard and premises. Frequently, in the late winter, I have
followed their tracks on these night journeys through the snow between
ponds more than a mile apart.

[Illustration: "In October they are building their winter lodges."]

But there is larger game abroad than muskrats and possums. These
October nights the quail are in covey, the mice are alive in the dry
grass, and the foxes are abroad. Lying along the favorite run of
Reynard, you _may_ see him. There are many sections of the country
where the rocks and mountains and wide areas of sterile pine-land
still afford the foxes safe homes; but in most localities Reynard is
rapidly becoming a name, a creature of fables and folk-lore only. The
rare sight of his clean, sharp track in the dust, or in the mud along
the margin of the pond, adds flavor to a whole day's tramping; and the
glimpse of one in the moonlight, trotting along a cow-path or lying
low for Br'er Rabbit, is worth many nights of watching.

I wish the game-laws could be amended to cover every wild animal left
to us. In spite of laws they are destined to disappear; but if the
fox, weasel, mink, and skunk, the hawks and owls, were protected as
the quail and deer are, they might be preserved a long time to our
meadows and woods. How irreparable the loss to our landscape is the
extinction of the great golden eagle! How much less of spirit, daring,
courage, and life come to us since we no longer mark the majestic
creature soaring among the clouds, the monarch of the skies! A dreary
world it will be out of doors when we can hear no more the scream of
the hawks, can no longer find the tracks of the coon, nor follow a fox
to den. We can well afford to part with a turnip, a chicken, and even
with a suit of clothes, now and then, for the sake of this wild flavor
to our fenced pastures and close-cut meadows.

I ought to have named the crow in the list deserving protection. He
steals. So did Falstaff. But I should miss Falstaff had Shakspere left
him out; yet no more than I should miss the crow were he driven from
the pines. They are both very human. Jim Crow is the humanest bird in
feathers. The skunk I did include in the list. It was not by mistake.
The skunk has a good and safe side to him, when we know how to
approach him. The skunk wants a champion. Some one ought to spend an
entire October moon with him and give us the better side of his
character. If some one would take the trouble to get well acquainted
with him at home, it might transpire that we have grievously abused
and avoided him.

[Illustration: "The glimpse of Reynard in the moonlight."]

There is promise of a future for the birds in their friendship for us
and in our interest and sentiment for them. Everybody is interested in
birds; everybody loves them. There are bird-books and bird-books and
bird-books--new volumes in every publisher's spring announcements.
Every one with wood ways knows the songs and nests of the more common
species. But this is not so with the four-footed animals. They are
fewer, shyer, more difficult of study. Only a few of us are
enthusiastic enough to back into a hole in a sand-bank and watch all
night for the "beasts" with dear old Tam Edwards.

But such nights of watching, when every fallen leaf is a sentinel and
every moonbeam a spy, will let us into some secrets about the ponds
and fields that the sun, old and all-seeing as he is, will never know.
Our eyes were made for daylight; but I think if the anatomists tried
they might find the rudiments of a third, a night eye, behind the
other two. From my boyhood I certainly have seen more things at night
than the brightest day ever knew of. If our eyes were intended for day
use, our other senses seem to work best by night. Do we not take the
deepest impressions when the plates of these sharpened senses are
exposed in the dark? Even in moonlight our eyes are blundering things;
but our hearing, smell, and touch are so quickened by the alertness of
night that, with a little training, the imagination quite takes the
place of sight--a new sense, swift and vivid, that adds an excitement
and freshness to the pleasure of out-of-door study, impossible to get
through our two straightforward, honest day eyes.

Albeit, let us stay at home and sleep when there is no moon; and even
when she climbs up big and round and bright, there is no surety of a
fruitful excursion before the frosts fall. In the summer the animals
are worn with home cares and doubly wary for their young; the grass is
high, the trees dark, and the yielding green is silent under even so
clumsy a crawler as the box-turtle. But by October the hum of insects
is stilled, the meadows are mown, the trees and bushes are getting
bare, the moon pours in unhindered, and the crisp leaves crackle and
rustle under the softest-padded foot.

[Illustration: leaves]

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Watcher in The Woods" ***

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