I continued my digging with renewed energy; I should yet find the grand depot where all these passages centred; but the farther I excavated, the more complex and baffling the problem became; the ground was honeycombed with passages. What enemy has this weasel, I said to myself, that he should provide so many ways of escape, that he should have a back door at every turn? To corner him would be impossible; to be lost in his fortress was like being lost in Mammoth Cave. How he could bewilder his pursuer by appearing now at this door, now at that; now mocking him from the attic, now defying him from the cellar! So far, I had discovered but one entrance; but some of the chambers were so near the surface that it looked as if the planner had calculated upon an emergency when he might want to reach daylight quickly in a new place.
Finally I paused, rested upon my shovel a while, eased my aching back upon the ground, and then gave it up, feeling as I never had before the force of the old saying, that you cannot catch a weasel asleep. I had made an ugly hole in the bank, had handled over two or three times a ton or more of earth, and was apparently no nearer the weasel and his store of mice than when I began.
Then I regretted that I had broken into his castle at all; that I had not contented myself with coming day after day and counting his mice as he carried them in, and continued my observation upon him each succeeding year. Now the rent in his fortress could not be repaired, and he would doubtless move away, as he most certainly did, for his doors, which I had closed with soil, remained unopened after winter had set in.
But little seems known about the intimate private lives of any of our lesser wild creatures. It was news to me that any of the weasels lived in dens in this way, and that they stored up provision against a day of need. This species was probably the little ermine, eight or nine inches long, with tail about five inches. It was still in its summer dress of dark chestnut-brown above and whitish below.
It was a mystery where the creature had put the earth which it must have removed in digging its den; not a grain was to be seen anywhere, and yet a bushel or more must have been taken out. Externally, there was not the slightest sign of that curious habitation there under the ground. The entrance was hidden beneath dry leaves, and was surrounded by little passages and flourishes between the leaves and the ground. If any of my readers find a weasel's den, I hope they will be wiser than I was, and observe his goings and comings without disturbing his habitation.
A few years later I had another adventure with a weasel that had its den in a bank on the margin of a muck swamp in the same neighborhood. We had cleared and drained and redeemed the swamp and made it into a garden, and I had built me a lodge there. The weasel's hunting-grounds, where doubtless he had been wont to gather his supply of mice, had been destroyed, and he had "got even" with me by preying upon my young chickens. Night after night the number of chickens grew less, till one day we chanced to see the creature boldly chasing one of the larger fowls along the road near the henhouse. His career was cut short then and there by one of the men. We were then ignorant of the den in the bank a few yards away. The next season my chickens were preyed upon again; they were killed upon the roost, and their half-eaten bodies were found under the floor. One night I was awakened about midnight by that loud, desperate cry which a barn fowl gives when suddenly seized upon its roost. Was I dreaming, or was that a cry of murder from my chickens? I seized my lantern, and with my dog rushed out to where a pair of nearly grown roosters passed the nights upon a low stump. They were both gone, and the action of the dog betrayed the fresh scent of some animal. But we could get no clue to the chickens or their enemy. I felt sure that only one of the fowls had been seized, and that the other had dashed away wildly in the darkness, which proved to be the case. The dead chicken was there under the edge of the stump, where I found it in the morning, and its companion came forth unhurt during the day. Thenceforth the chickens, big and little, were all shut up in the henhouse at night. On the third day the appetite of the weasel was keen again, and it boldly gave chase to a chicken before our eyes. I was standing in my porch with my dog, talking with my neighbor and his wife, who, with their dog, were standing in the road a few yards in front of me. A chicken suddenly screamed in the bushes up behind the rocks just beyond my friends. Then it came rushing down over the rocks past them, flying and screaming, closely pursued by a long, slim red animal, that seemed to slide over the rocks like a serpent. Its legs were so short that one saw only the swift, gliding motion of its body. Across the road into the garden, within a yard of my friends, went the pursued and the pursuer, and into the garden rushed I and my dog. The weasel seized the chicken by the wing, and was being dragged along by the latter in its effort to escape, when I arrived upon the scene. With a savage glee I had not felt for many a day, I planted my foot upon the weasel. The soft muck underneath yielded, and I held him without hurting him. He let go his hold upon the chicken and seized the sole of my shoe in his teeth. Then I reached down and gripped him with my thumb and forefinger just back of the ears, and lifted him up, and looked his impotent rage in the face. What gleaming eyes, what an array of threatening teeth, what reaching of vicious claws, what a wriggling and convulsed body! But I held him firmly. He could only scratch my hand and dart fire from his electric, bead-like eyes. In the mean time my dog was bounding up, begging to be allowed to have his way with the weasel. But I knew what he did not: I knew that in anything like a fair encounter the weasel would get the first hold, would draw the first blood, and hence probably effect his escape. So I carried the animal, writhing and scratching, to a place in the road removed from any near cover, and threw him violently upon the ground, hoping thereby so to stun and bewilder him that the terrier could rush in and crush him before he recovered his wits. But I had miscalculated; the blow did indeed stun and confuse him, but he was still too quick for the dog, and had him by the lip like an electric trap. Nip lifted up his head and swung the weasel violently about in the air, trying to shake him off, uttering a cry of rage and pain, but did not succeed in loosening the animal's hold for some moments. When he had done so, and attempted to seize him a second time, the weasel was first again, but quickly released his hold and darted about this way and that, seeking cover. Three or four times the dog was upon him, but found him each time too hot to be held. Seeing that the creature was likely to escape, I set my foot upon him again, and made a finish of him.
The weasel is the boldest and most bloodthirsty of our small mammals; indeed, none of our larger beasts are more so. There is something devilish and uncanny about it. It persists like fate; it eludes, but cannot be eluded. The terror it inspires in the smaller creatures—rats, rabbits, chipmunks—is pitiful to behold. A rat pursued by a weasel has been known to rush into a room, uttering dismal cries, and seek the protection of a man in bed. A chipmunk will climb to the top of a tall tree to elude it, and then, when followed, let go its hold and drop with a cry of despair toward the ground. A friend of mine, walking along the road early one morning, saw a rat rush over the fence and cross a few yards ahead of him. Pressing it close came a weasel, which seized the rat before it could gain the opposite wall. My friend rushed to the aid of the rat with his cane. But the weasel dodged his blows, and in a moment or two turned fiercely upon him. My friend aimed more blows at it without effect, when the weasel began leaping up before him, within a few feet of his face, its eyes gleaming, its teeth threatening, and dodging every blow aimed at it. The effect, my friend says, was singularly uncanny and startling. It was like some infuriated imp of Satan dancing before him, and watching for a chance to seize him by the throat or to dash into his eyes. He slowly backed off, beating the air with his cane. Then the weasel returned to the disabled rat and attempted to drag it into the wall. My friend now began to hurl stones at it, but it easily dodged them. Now he was joined by another passer-by, and the two opened upon the weasel with stones, till finally, in dodging one, it was caught by the other, and so much hurt that it gave up the rat and sought shelter in the wall, where it was left waiting to secure its game when its enemies should have gone on.
I must give one more instance of the boldness and ferocity of the weasel. A woman in northern Vermont discovered that something was killing her hens, often on the nest. She watched for the culprit, and at last caught a weasel in the act. It had seized the hen, and refused to let go when she tried to scare it away. Then the woman laid hold of it and tried choking it, when the weasel released its hold upon the hen and fastened its teeth into her hand between the thumb and forefinger. She could not choke it off, and ran to a neighbor for help, but no one could remove it without tearing the flesh from the woman's hand. Then some one suggested a pail of water; into this the hand and weasel were plunged, but the creature would not let go even then, and did not until it was drowned.
The weasel is a subtle and destructive enemy of the birds. It climbs trees and explores them with great ease and nimbleness. I have seen it do so on several occasions. One day my attention was arrested by the angry notes of a pair of brown thrashers that were flitting from bush to bush along an old stone wall in a remote field. Presently I saw what it was that excited them,—three large red weasels, or ermines, coming along the stone wall, and leisurely and half playfully exploring every tree that stood near it. They had probably robbed the thrashers. They would go up the trees with great ease, and glide serpent-like out upon the main branches. When they descended the tree, they were unable to come straight down, like a squirrel, but went around it spirally. How boldly they thrust their heads out of the wall, and eyed me and sniffed me as I drew near,—their round, thin ears, their prominent, glistening, bead-like eyes, and the curving, snake-like motions of the head and neck being very noticeable. They looked like blood-suckers and egg-suckers. They suggested something extremely remorseless and cruel. One could understand the alarm of the rats when they discover one of these fearless, subtle, and circumventing creatures threading their holes. To flee must be like trying to escape death itself. I was one day standing in the woods upon a flat stone, in what at certain seasons was the bed of a stream, when one of these weasels came undulating along and ran under the stone upon which I was standing. As I remained motionless, he thrust out his wedge-shaped head, and turned it back above the stone as if half in mind to seize my foot; then he drew back, and presently went his way. These weasels often hunt in packs like the British stoat. When I was a boy, my father one day armed me with an old musket and sent me to shoot chipmunks around the corn. While watching the squirrels, a troop of weasels tried to cross a bar-way where I sat, and were so bent on doing it that I fired at them, boy-like, simply to thwart their purpose. One of the weasels was disabled by my shot, but the troop was not discouraged, and, after making several feints to cross, one of them seized the wounded one and bore it over, and the pack disappeared in the wall on the other side.
Let me conclude this chapter with two or three more notes about this alert enemy of the birds and lesser animals, the weasel.
A farmer one day heard a queer growling sound in the grass: on approaching the spot he saw two weasels contending over a mouse; both held the mouse, pulling in opposite directions, and they were so absorbed in the struggle that the farmer cautiously put his hands down and grabbed them both by the back of the neck. He put them in a cage, and offered them bread and other food. This they refused to eat, but in a few days one of them had eaten the other up, picking his bones clean, and leaving nothing but the skeleton.
The same farmer was one day in his cellar when two rats came out of a hole near him in great haste, and ran up the cellar wall and along its top till they came to a floor timber that stopped their progress, when they turned at bay, and looked excitedly back along the course they had come. In a moment a weasel, evidently in hot pursuit of them, came out of the hole, but, seeing the farmer, checked his course and darted back. The rats had doubtless turned to give him fight, and would probably have been a match for him.
The weasel seems to track its game by scent. A hunter of my acquaintance was one day sitting in the woods, when he saw a red squirrel run with great speed up a tree near him, and out upon a long branch, from which he leaped to some rocks, disappearing beneath them. In a moment a weasel came in full course upon his trail, ran up the tree, then out along the branch, leaping from there to the rocks just as the squirrel had done and pursuing him into their recesses.
Doubtless the squirrel fell a prey to him. The squirrel's best game would have been to keep to the higher treetops, where he could easily have distanced the weasel. But beneath the rocks he stood a very poor chance. I have often wondered what keeps such an animal as the weasel in check, for they are quite rare. They never need go hungry, for rats and squirrels and mice and birds are everywhere. They probably do not fall a prey to any other animal, and they are very rarely captured or killed by man. But the circumstances or agencies that check the increase of any species of animal are, as Darwin says, very obscure and but little known.
In walking through the woods one day in early winter, we read upon the newly fallen snow the record of a mink's fright the night before. The mink had been traveling through the woods post-haste, not along the watercourses where one sees them by day, but over ridges and across valleys. We followed his track some distance to see what adventures he had met with. We tracked him through a bushy swamp, and saw where he had left it to explore a pile of rocks, then where he had taken to the swamp again, and where he had entered the more open woods. Presently the track turned sharply about, and doubled upon itself in long hurried strides. What had caused the mink to change his mind so suddenly? We explored a few paces ahead, and came upon a fox track. The mink had probably seen the fox stalking stealthily through the woods, and the sight had doubtless brought his heart into his mouth. I think he climbed a tree, and waited till the fox had passed. His track disappeared amid a clump of hemlocks, and then reappeared again a little beyond them. It described a big loop around, and then crossed the fox track only a few yards from the point where its course was interrupted. Then it followed a little watercourse, went under a rude bridge in a wood-road, then mingled with squirrel tracks in a denser part of the thicket. If the mink met a muskrat or a rabbit in his travels, or came upon a grouse, or quail, or a farmer's henroost, he had the supper he was in quest of.
I followed a mink's track one morning upon the snow till I found where the prowler had overtaken and killed a muskrat by a stone wall near a little stream. The blood upon the snow and the half-devoured body of the rat told the whole story. The mink is very fond of muskrats, and trappers often use this flesh to bait their traps. I wonder if he has learned to enter the under-water hole to the muskrat's den, and then seek him in his chamber above, where the poor rat would have little chance to escape.
The mink is only a larger weasel, and has much of the boldness and bloodthirstiness of that animal. One summer day my dog Lark and I were sitting beside a small watercourse in the woods, when I saw a mink coming up the stream toward us. I sat motionless till the mink was within a few feet of us, when the dog saw him. As the dog sprang, the mink darted under a large flat stone. Lark was very fierce, and seemed to say to me, "Just lift up that stone and I will show you my way with minks." This I quickly did, and the dog sprang for the game, but he as quickly withdrew with a cry of pain as if he had touched something red-hot. The mink had got in the first blow or bite, and then effected his escape between my feet and the dog's, as if he had vanished in the air. Where he went to was a mystery. There was no hole; no depth of water; no hiding-place anywhere that I could discover or that the dog could discover, and yet the mink had disappeared. It was like some conjurer's trick.
Minks are fond of fish, and can capture them in the water. This makes them very destructive along small trout streams and ponds. I once saw a trout with an ugly gash in its side, which was doubtless the work of a mink. With a friend, I once had a camp by a trout stream in the Catskills that we named "Mink Camp," by reason of the number of minks that came every night as soon as it was dark, to devour the fish-heads and entrails that we threw over on the opposite bank. We could often hear them disputing over the spoils, and in the dim light of the camp-fire could sometimes see them.
You may know the mink's track upon the snow from those of the squirrels at once. In the squirrel-track the prints of the large hind feet are ahead, with the prints of the smaller fore feet just behind them, as in the case of the rabbit. The mink, in running, usually plants his hind feet exactly upon the track of his fore feet, and closer together than the squirrel, so that his trail upon the snow is something like this:—
The squirrel's track, as well as those of the rabbit and the white-footed mouse, is in form like this:—
One winter day I had a good view of a mink running upon the snow and ice along the edge of a stream. He had seen or heard me, and was making a little extra speed. He bounded along with his back much arched, in a curiously stiff and mechanical sort of way, with none of the grace and ease of the squirrel. He leaped high, and cleared about two and a half feet at a bound.
In March that brief summary of a bear, the raccoon, comes out of his den in the ledges, and leaves his sharp digitigrade track upon the snow,—traveling not unfrequently in pairs,—a lean, hungry couple, bent on pillage and plunder. They have an unenviable time of it,—feasting in the summer and fall, hibernating in winter, and starving in spring. In April I have found the young of the previous year creeping about the fields, so reduced by starvation as to be quite helpless, and offering no resistance to my taking them up by the tail and carrying them home.
The old ones also become very much emaciated, and come boldly up to the barn or other out-buildings in quest of food. I remember, one morning in early spring, hearing old Cuff, the farm-dog, barking vociferously before it was yet light. When we got up we discovered him at the foot of an ash-tree, which stood about thirty rods from the house, looking up at some gray object in the leafless branches, and by his manners and his voice evincing great impatience that we were so tardy in coming to his assistance. Arrived on the spot, we saw in the tree a coon of unusual size. One bold climber proposed to go up and shake it down. This was what old Cuff wanted, and he fairly bounded with delight as he saw his young master shinning up the tree. Approaching within eight or ten feet of the coon, the climber seized the branch to which it clung and shook long and fiercely. But the coon was in no danger of losing its hold; and when the climber paused to renew his hold it turned toward him with a growl, and showed very clearly a purpose to advance to the attack. This caused its pursuer to descend to the ground again with all speed. When the coon was finally brought down with a gun, it fought the dog, which was a large, powerful animal, with great fury, returning bite for bite for some moments; and after a quarter of an hour had elapsed, and its unequal antagonist had shaken it as a terrier does a rat, making his teeth meet through the small of its back, the coon still showed fight.
The coon is very tenacious of life, and like the badger will always whip a dog of its own size and weight. A woodchuck can bite severely, having teeth that cut like chisels, but a coon has agility and power of limb as well.
Coons are considered game only in the fall, or towards the close of summer, when they become fat and their flesh sweet. At this time, cooning is a famous pastime in the remote interior. As these animals are entirely nocturnal in their habits, they are hunted only at night. A piece of corn on some remote side-hill near the mountain, or between two pieces of woods, is most apt to be frequented by them. While the corn is yet green they pull the ears down like hogs, and, tearing open the sheathing of husks, eat the tender, succulent kernels, bruising and destroying much more than they devour. Sometimes their ravages are a matter of serious concern to the farmer. But every such neighborhood has its coon-dog, and the boys and young men dearly love the sport. The party sets out about eight or nine o'clock of a dark, moonless night, and stealthily approaches the cornfield. The dog knows his business, and when he is put into a patch of corn and told to "hunt them up" he makes a thorough search, and will not be misled by any other scent. You hear him rattling through the corn, hither and yon, with great speed. The coons prick up their ears, and quickly take themselves off on the opposite side of the field. In the stillness you may sometimes hear a single stone rattle on the wall as they hurry toward the woods. If the dog finds nothing he comes back to his master in a short time, and says in his dumb way, "No coon there." But if he strikes a trail you presently hear a louder rattling on the stone wall, and then a hurried bark as he enters the woods, succeeded in a few minutes by loud and repeated barkings as he reaches the foot of the tree in which the coon has taken refuge. Then follows a pellmell rush as the cooning party dash up the hill, into the woods, through the brush and the darkness, falling over prostrate trees, pitching into gullies and hollows, losing hats and tearing clothes, till finally, guided by the baying of the faithful dog, they reach the tree. The first thing now in order is to kindle a fire, and, if its light reveals the coon, to shoot him; if not, to fell the tree with an axe, unless this last expedient happens to be too great a sacrifice of timber and of strength, in which case it is necessary to sit down at the foot of the tree and wait till morning.
Among our wild animals there are three that are slow-moving, dull-witted, and almost fearless,—the skunk, the opossum, and the porcupine. The two latter seem to be increasing in most parts of the country. The opossum is becoming quite common in the valley of the Hudson, and the porcupine is frequently met with in parts of the country where it was rarely or never seen forty years ago.
When the boys in late fall now go cooning where I used to go cooning in my youth, the dogs often run on a porcupine or drive him up a tree, and thus the sport is interrupted. Sometimes the dog comes to them with his mouth stuck full of quills, and is then compelled to submit to the painful operation of having them withdrawn.
A sportsman relates that he once came upon a dead porcupine and a dead bald eagle lying upon the ground within a few yards of each other. The eagle had partly torn the porcupine to pieces, but in attacking it with its beak it had driven numerous spines of the animal into its throat, and from their effect had apparently died as soon as its victim.
The quill of a porcupine is like a bad habit: if it once gets hold it constantly works deeper and deeper, though the quill has no power of motion in itself; it is the live, active flesh of its victim that draws it in by means of the barbed point. One day my boy and I encountered a porcupine on the top of one of the Catskills, and we had a little circus with him; we wanted to wake him up, and make him show a little excitement, if possible. Without violence or injury to him, we succeeded to the extent of making his eyes fairly stand out from his head, but quicken his motion he would not,—probably could not.
What astonished and alarmed him seemed to be that his quills had no effect upon his enemies; they laughed at his weapons. He stuck his head under a rock and left his back and tail exposed. This is the porcupine's favorite position of defense. "Now come if you dare," he seems to say. Touch his tail, and like a trap it springs up and strikes your hand full of little quills. The tail is the active weapon of defense; with this the animal strikes. It is the outpost that delivers its fire before the citadel is reached. It is doubtless this fact that has given rise to the popular notion that the porcupine can shoot its quills, which of course it cannot do.
With a rotten stick we sprang the animal's tail again and again, till its supply of quills began to run low, and the creature grew uneasy. "What does this mean?" he seemed to say, his excitement rising. His shield upon his back, too, we trifled with, and when we finally drew him forth with a forked stick, his eyes were ready to burst from his head. In what a peevish, injured tone the creature did complain of our unfair tactics! He protested and protested, and whimpered and scolded, like some infirm old man tormented by boys. His game after we led him forth was to keep himself as much as possible in the shape of a ball, but with two sticks and a cord we finally threw him over on his back and exposed his quill-less and vulnerable under side, when he fairly surrendered and seemed to say, "Now you may do with me as you like." Then we laughed in his face and went our way.
Before we had reached our camp I was suddenly seized with a strange, acute pain in one of my feet. It seemed as if a large nerve was being roughly sawed in two. I could not take another step. Sitting down and removing my shoe and stocking, I searched for the cause of the paralyzing pain. The foot was free from mark or injury, but what was that little thorn or fang of thistle doing on the ankle? I pulled it out and found it to be one of the lesser quills of the porcupine. By some means, during our "circus," the quill had dropped inside my stocking, the thing had "taken," and the porcupine had his revenge for all the indignities we had put upon him. I was well punished. The nerve which the quill struck had unpleasant memories of it for many months afterward.
When you come suddenly upon the porcupine in his native haunts, he draws his head back and down, puts up his shield, trails his broad tail, and waddles slowly away. His shield is the sheaf of larger quills upon his back, which he opens and spreads out in a circular form so that the whole body is quite hidden beneath it. The porcupine's great chisel-like teeth, which are quite as formidable as those of the woodchuck, he does not appear to use at all in his defense, but relies entirely upon his quills, and when those fail him he is done for.
I once passed a summer night alone upon the highest peak of the Catskills, Slide Mountain. I soon found there were numerous porcupines that desired to keep me company. The news of my arrival in the afternoon seemed to have spread rapidly among them. They probably had scented me. After resting awhile I set out to look up the spring, and met a porcupine on his way toward my camp. He turned out in the grass, and then, as I paused, came back into the path and passed directly over my feet. He evidently felt that he had as good a right to the road as I had; he had traveled it many times before me. When I charged upon him with a stick in my hand, he slowly climbed a small balsam fir.
I soon found the place of the spring, and, having dredged it and cleaned it, I sat down upon a rock and waited for the water slowly to seep in. Presently I heard something in the near bushes, and in a moment a large porcupine came into view. I thought that he, too, was looking for water; but no, he was evidently on his way to my camp. He, also, had heard the latest rumor on the mountain-top. It was highly amusing to watch his movements. He came teetering along in the most aimless, idiotic way. Now he drifted off a little to the right, then a little to the left; his blunt nose seemed vaguely to be feeling the air; he fumbled over the ground, tossed about by loose boulders and little hillocks; his eyes wandered stupidly about; I was in plain view within four or five yards of him, but he heeded me not. Then he turned back a few paces, but some slight obstacle in his way caused him to change his mind. One thought of a sleep-walker; uncertainty was stamped upon every gesture and movement; yet he was really drifting towards camp. After a while he struck the well-defined trail, and his gray, shapeless body slowly disappeared up the slope. In five or six minutes I overtook him shuffling along within sight of the big rock upon which rested my blanket and lunch. As I came up to him he depressed his tail, put up his shield, and slowly pushed off into the wild grass. While I was at lunch I heard a sound, and there he was, looking up at me from the path a few feet away. "An uninvited guest," I said; "but come on." He hesitated, and then turned aside into the bracken; he would wait till I had finished and had gone to sleep, or had moved off.
How much less wit have such animals,—animals like the porcupine, opossum, skunk, turtle,—that nature has armed against all foes, than the animals that have no such ready-made defenses, and are preyed upon by a multitude of enemies! The price paid for being shielded against all danger, for never feeling fear or anxiety, is stupidity. If the porcupine were as vulnerable to its enemies as, say, the woodchuck, it would probably soon come to be as alert and swift of foot as that marmot.
For an hour or more, that afternoon on the mountain top, my attention was attracted by a peculiar continuous sound that seemed to come from far away to the east. I queried with myself, "Is it the sound of some workman in a distant valley hidden by the mountains, or is its source nearer by me on the mountain side?" I could not determine. It was not a hammering or a grating or the filing of a saw, though it suggested such sounds. It had a vague, distant, ventriloquial character. In the solitude of the mountain top there was something welcome and pleasing in it. Finally I set out to try to solve the mystery. I had not gone fifty yards from camp when I knew I was near the source of the sound. Presently I saw a porcupine on a log, and as I approached the sound ceased, and the animal moved away. A curious kind of chant he made, or note of wonder and surprise at my presence on the mountain,—or was he calling together the clan for a midnight raid upon my camp?
I made my bed that night of ferns and balsam boughs under an overhanging rock, where the storm that swept across the mountain just after dark could not reach me. I lay down, rolled in my blankets, with a long staff by my side, in anticipation of visits from the porcupines. In the middle of the night I was awakened, and, looking out of my den, saw a porcupine outlined against the starlit sky. I made a thrust at him with my staff, when, with a grunt or grumble, he disappeared. A little later I was awakened again by the same animal, or another, which I repelled as before. At intervals during the rest of the night they visited me in this way; my sleep was by short stages from one porcupine to another.
These animals are great gnawers. They seem to be specially fond of gnawing any tool or object that has been touched or used by human hands. They would probably have gnawed my shoes or lunch basket or staff had I lain still. A settler at the foot of the mountain told me they used to prove very annoying to him by getting into his cellar or woodshed at night, and indulging their ruling passion by chewing upon his tool-handles or pails or harness. "Kick one of them outdoors," he said, "and in half an hour he is back again." In winter they usually live in trees, gnawing the bark and feeding upon the inner layer. I have seen large hemlocks quite denuded and killed in this way.
A new track has appeared upon the snow in my neighborhood here on the Hudson within the past few years. It is a strange track, and suggests some small, deformed human hand. If the dwarfs or brownies we read of in childhood were to walk abroad in winter, they might leave such an imprint behind them as this.
This track, which we seldom see later than December, is made by the opossum. This animal is evidently multiplying in the land, and is extending its range northward. Ten years ago they were rarely found here, and now they are very common. I hear that they are very abundant and troublesome on parts of Long Island. The hind foot of the opossum has a sort of thumb that opposes the other toes, and it is the imprint of this member that looks so strange. The under side of the foot is as naked as the human hand, and this adds to the novel look of the track in the snow.
Late in the fall, my hired man set a trap in a hole in hopes of catching a skunk, but instead he caught a possum by one of its fore feet. The poor thing was badly crippled, and he kept it in a barrel for a couple of weeks and fed it, to try and make amends for the injury he had done. Then he gave it its freedom, though the injured foot had healed but little.
Soon after he set his trap in the same hole, and to his annoyance caught the possum again, this time by one of the hind feet. He brought the quiet, uncomplaining creature to me by its prehensile tail, and asked me what should be done with or for it. I concluded to make a hospital for it in one corner of my study. I made it a nest behind a pile of magazines, and fed and nursed it for several weeks. It never made a sound, or showed the least uneasiness or sign of suffering, that I was aware of, in all that time. By day it slept curled up in its nest. If disturbed, it did not "play possum," that is, did not feign sleep or death, but opened its mouth and grinned up at you in a sort of comical, idiotic way. At night it hobbled about the study, and ate the meat and cake I had placed for it. Sometimes by day it would come out of the corner and eat food under the lounge, eating very much after the manner of a pig, though not so greedily. Indeed, all its motions were very slow, like those of the skunk.
The skin of the opossum is said to be so fetid that a dog will not touch it. A dog is always suspicious of an animal that shows no fear and makes no attempt to get out of his way. This fetidness of the opossum is not apparent to my sense.
After a while my patient began to be troublesome by climbing upon the book-shelves and inspecting the books, so I concluded to discharge him from the hospital. One night I carried him to the open door by his tail, put him down upon the door-sill, and told him to go forth. He hesitated, looked back into the warm room, then out into the winter night, then thought of his maimed feet, and of traps in holes where unsuspecting possums live, and could not reach a decision. "Come," I said, "I have done all I can for you; go forth and shift for yourself." Slowly, like a very old man, he climbed down out of the door and disappeared in the darkness. I have no doubt he regained his freedom with a sigh. It is highly probable that, if a trap is set in his way again, he will put his foot in it as innocently as before.
One day in March one of my neighbors brought to me a handful of young possums, very young, sixteen of them, like newly born mice. The mother had been picked up dead on the railroad, killed, as so often happens to coons, foxes, muskrats, and woodchucks, by the night express. The young were in her pouch, each clinging to its teat, dead. The young are carried and nursed by the mothers in this curious pocket till they are four or five weeks old, or of the size of large mice. After this she frequently carries them about, clinging to various parts of her body, some with their tails wound around hers.
The next winter, two or more possums and a skunk took up their quarters under my study floor. It was not altogether a happy family. Just what their disagreements were about, I do not know, but the skunk evidently tried to roast the possums out. The possums stood it better than I could. I came heartily to wish they were all roasted out. I was beginning to devise ways and means, when I think the skunk took himself off. After that, my only annoyance was from the quarreling of the possums among themselves, and their ceaseless fussing around under there, both day and night. At times they made sounds as if they were scratching matches on the under side of the floor: then they seemed to be remaking or shifting their beds from one side to the other. Sometimes I think they snored in their sleep. One night, as I was going from the house to the study, I heard a rustling in the dry leaves and grass, beside the path. Lighting a match, I approached the spot, and found one of the possums just setting out on his night's excursions. I stooped down and stroked his head and scratched his back, but he did not move; he only opened his mouth a little and looked silly.
One of the prettiest and most abundant of our native mice is the deer mouse, also called the white-footed mouse; a very beautiful creature, nocturnal in his habits, with large ears, and large, fine eyes full of a wild, harmless look. He is daintily marked, with white feet and a white belly. When disturbed by day he is very easily captured, having none of the cunning or viciousness of the common Old World mouse. He is found in both fields and woods.
It is he who, high in the hollow trunk of some tree, lays by a store of beech-nuts for winter use. Every nut is carefully shelled, and the cavity that serves as storehouse lined with grass and leaves. The wood-chopper frequently squanders this precious store. I have seen half a peck taken from one tree, as clean and white as if put up by the most delicate hands,—as they were. How long it must have taken the little creature to collect this quantity, to hull them one by one, and convey them up to his fifth-story chamber!
But the deer mice do not always carry their supplies home in this manner; they often hide them in the nearest convenient place. I have known them to carry a pint or more of hickory nuts and deposit them in a pair of boots standing in the chamber of an outhouse. Near the chestnut-trees they will fill little pocket-like depressions in the ground with chestnuts; in a grain-field they carry the grain under stones; under some cover beneath cherry-trees they collect great numbers of cherry-pits. Hence, when cold weather comes, instead of staying at home like the chipmunk, they gad about hither and thither looking up their supplies. One may see their tracks on the snow everywhere in the woods and fields and by the roadside. The advantage of this way of living is that it leads to activity, and probably to sociability.
One day, on my walk in the woods, I saw at one point the mice-tracks unusually thick around a small sugar-maple. It was doubtless their granary; they had beech-nuts stored there, I'll warrant. There were two entrances to the cavity of the tree,—one at the base, and one seven or eight feet up. At the upper one, which was only just of the size of a mouse, a squirrel had been trying to break in. He had cut and chiseled the solid wood to the depth of nearly an inch, and his chips strewed the snow all about. He knew what was in there, and the mice knew that he knew; hence their apparent consternation. They had rushed wildly about over the snow, and, I doubt not, had given the piratical red squirrel a piece of their minds. A few yards away the mice had a hole down into the snow, which perhaps led to some snug den under the ground. Hither they may have been slyly removing their stores while the squirrel was at work with his back turned. One more night and he would effect an entrance: what a good joke upon him if he found the cavity empty! These native mice, I imagine, have to take many precautions to prevent their winter stores being plundered by the squirrels, who live, as it were, from hand to mouth.
The wild mice are fond of bees and of honey, and they apparently like nothing better than to be allowed to take up their quarters in winter in some vacant space in a hive of bees. A chamber just over the bees seems to be preferred, as here they get the benefit of the warmth generated by the insects. One very cold winter I wrapped up one of my hives with a shawl. Before long I noticed that the shawl was beginning to have a very torn and tattered appearance. On examination, I found that a native mouse had established itself in the top of the hive, and had levied a ruinous tax upon the shawl to make itself a nest. Never was a fabric more completely reduced into its original elements than were large sections of that shawl. It was a masterly piece of analysis. The work of the wheel and the loom was exactly reversed, and what was once shawl was now the finest and softest of wool.
The white-footed mouse is much more common along the fences and in the woods than one would suspect. One winter day I set a mouse-trap—the kind known as the delusion trap—beneath some ledges in the edge of the woods, to determine what species of mouse was most active at this season. The snow fell so deeply that I did not visit my trap for two or three weeks. When I did so, it was literally packed full of white-footed mice. There were seven in all, and not room for another. Our woods are full of these little creatures, and they appear to have a happy, social time of it, even in the severest winters. Their little tunnels under the snow and their hurried leaps upon its surface may be noted everywhere. They link tree and stump, or rock and tree, by their pretty trails. They evidently travel for adventure and to hear the news, as well as for food. They know that foxes and owls are about, and they keep pretty close to cover. When they cross an exposed place, they do it hurriedly.
The field or meadow mice doubtless welcome the snow. They can now come out of their dens in the ground or beneath the flat stones and lead a more free and active life. The snow is their friend. It keeps off the cold, and it shields their movements from the eyes of their enemies, the owls, hawks, and foxes. Now they can venture abroad from their retreats without fear. They make little tunnels and roadways everywhere over the surface of the ground. They build winter houses under the great drifts. They found little mouse colonies in places where they have never been in summer. The conditions of life with them are entirely changed. They can get at the roots of the grasses, or the various herbs and seeds they feed upon, as well as in the snowless seasons, and without exposure to their enemies.
I fancy they have great times there beneath the drifts. Maybe they have their picnics and holidays then as we have ours in summer. When the drifts disappear in spring, you may often see where they have had their little encampments: a few square yards of the pasture or meadow bottom will look as if a map had been traced upon it; tunnels and highways running and winding in every direction and connecting the nests of dry grass, which might stand for the cities and towns on the map. These runways are smooth and round like pipes, and only a little larger than the bodies of the mice. I think it is only the meadow field-mouse that lives in this way beneath the snow.
I met one of these mice in my travels one day under peculiar conditions. He was on his travels also, and we met in the middle of a mountain lake. I was casting my fly there, when I saw, just sketched or etched upon the glassy surface, a delicate V-shaped figure, the point of which reached about to the middle of the lake, while the two sides, as they diverged, faded out toward the shore. I saw the point of this V was being slowly pushed across the lake. I drew near in my boat, and beheld a little mouse swimming vigorously for the opposite shore. His little legs appeared like swiftly revolving wheels beneath him. As I came near, he dived under the water to escape me, but came up again like a cork and just as quickly. It was laughable to see him repeatedly duck beneath the surface and pop back again in a twinkling. He could not keep under water more than a second or two. Presently I reached him my oar, when he ran up it and into the palm of my hand, where he sat for some time and arranged his fur and warmed himself. He did not show the slightest fear. It was probably the first time he had ever shaken hands with a human being. He had doubtless lived all his life in the woods, and was strangely unsophisticated. How his little round eyes did shine, and how he sniffed me to find out if I was more dangerous than I appeared to his sight!
After a while I put him down in the bottom of the boat and resumed my fishing. But it was not long before he became very restless, and evidently wanted to go about his business. He would climb up to the edge of the boat and peer down into the water. Finally he could brook the delay no longer and plunged boldly overboard; but he had either changed his mind or lost his reckoning, for he started back in the direction from which he had come, and the last I saw of him he was a mere speck vanishing in the shadows near the shore.
Later on I saw another mouse, while we were at work in the fields, that interested me also. This one was our native white-footed mouse. We disturbed the mother with her young in her nest, and she rushed out with her little ones clinging to her teats. A curious spectacle she presented as she rushed along, as if slit and torn into rags. Her pace was so hurried that two of the young could not keep their hold and were left in the weeds. We remained quiet, and presently the mother came back looking for them. When she had found one, she seized it as a cat seizes her kitten and made off with it. In a moment or two she came back and found the other one and carried it away. I was curious to see if the young would take hold of her teats again as at first, and be dragged away in that manner, but they did not. It would be interesting to know if they seize hold of their mother by instinct when danger threatens, or if they simply retain the hold which they already have. I believe the flight of the family always takes place in this manner with this species of mouse.
I suspect that our white-footed mouse is capable of lending a hand to a fellow in distress; at least, the following incident looks like it. One season they overran my cabin in the woods, and gave me a good deal of annoyance; so much so that I tried trapping them, using the ordinary circular trap with four or five holes and wire springs. One night I heard the trap spring in the attic over my head, followed by the kicking and straggling of the mouse. This continued for a few moments, when all was still. "There," I said, "that mouse is dead." Presently the rattling of the trap recommenced, and continued so long at short intervals that going to sleep was out of the question. I fancied the mouse was too strong for the trap, so I went upstairs to investigate. The captive was dead, sure enough, and I was more puzzled than ever. On examining him closely, I found the fur on his back was wet and much rumpled. I concluded, therefore, that his companions had seized him there, and had been tugging away at him to drag him out of the trap, causing the rattling I had heard. No other explanation seems probable.
The least mammal in our woods is the little mouse-like shrew, scarcely more than three inches long, tail and all. And it is the shyest and least known. One gets a glimpse of it only at rare intervals, while sitting or standing motionless in the woods. There is a slight rustle under the leaves, and you may see a tiny form dart across a little opening in the leafy carpet. Its one dread seems to be exposure to the light. If it were watched and waited for by a hundred enemies, it could hardly be more hurried and cautious in its movements. And when once captured and fairly exposed to the light, it soon dies, probably of fright. One night in midsummer, when I was camping in the woods, one of them got into an empty tin pail and was dead in the morning. A teacher caught one in a delusion trap, and attempted to take it to her school, to show her children, but it was dead when she got there. In winter it makes little tunnels under the snow in the woods, now and then coming to the surface, and, after a few jumps, diving under the snow again. Its tracks are like the most delicate stitching. I have never found its nest or seen its young. Like all the shrews, it lives mainly upon worms and insects.
The track of one of our native mice we do not see upon the snow,—that of the jumping mouse. So far as I know, it is the only one of our mice that hibernates. It is much more rare than its cousin the deer mouse, or white-footed mouse, and I have never known it to be found in barns or dwellings. I think I have heard it called the kangaroo mouse, because of its form and its manner of running, which is in long leaps. Its fore legs are small and short, and its hind legs long and strong. It bounds along, leaping two or more feet at a time. I used to see it when a boy, but have not met with one for many years.
One summer, a boy who lives in Dutchess County, across the Hudson from my house, caught four of these mice in a wire trap, two males and two females. The boy said that when he picked up the trap the two males fell dead, from fright he thought. One of the females died in October, but the other lived and began hibernating early in November. He took it to his teacher in New York, who kept it through the winter. She made a pocket for it in a woolen sock, but it was not suited with it, for in January it woke up and made itself a neat little blanket from the wool which it nibbled from the sock. In this it rolled itself and went to sleep again. A week or two later I was at the school, and the teacher showed me her sleeping mouse. It was rolled up in a ball, with its tail wrapped about its head. I held it in the palm of my hand. It seemed almost as cold as a dead mouse, and I could not see it breathe. It was carefully put back in its blanket.
Not long after this, a small house-mouse was put in the box with it. "It was the tiniest little mouse," says Miss Burt, "you ever saw. It cuddled in with the hibernator, who got up at once and took care of this baby. The baby struck out independently and burrowed in the sand, and stole some of the wool and feathers from hibernator to line his own nest. But the jumping mouse went in with him, enlarged the nest, and cuddled down to him. They were great friends. But the baby smelled dreadfully, as all house-mice do, and I took him out. Then the hibernator curled up again and went into winter quarters.
"When the warm weather came on, she uncurled and ate and drank. She preferred pecan nuts and shredded-wheat biscuit, and ate corn. I tried to tame her. I took a strong feather and played with her. At first she resisted and was frightened, but after a while she 'stood it,' and would even eat and clean herself while I scratched her with this feather. But she was always terribly frightened, when coming out of her day's sleep, if I began to play with her. After being thoroughly waked up, she did not mind it. She would let me smooth her with my finger, and she would smell of my finger and go on eating, keeping an eye out. Three times she had a perfect fit of fright, lying on her back, and kicking and trembling violently. On these occasions she made a scuttling noise or cry, and I thought each time she would die, so I grew more and more cautious about meddling with her. There was one interesting thing about it,—she rose from these fits and ate heartily, and cleaned herself with great unconcern. I was tempted to believe that she shammed dying.
"The most interesting thing I ever saw her do was to climb up on her glass of water, sit on the rim, and put both little paws down and scoop up a big double-handful of water and wash her face and head. She made her face very wet, just like a person washing his face. She ate sunflower seeds, and often kept one eye shut a long time on first waking up. After the apple-blossoms came, I kept her box supplied with flowers, such as apple-blossoms, cherry, spruce, maple, and so on. Also I kept her box disinfected, with plenty of good, fresh country dirt. But she stuck to the old wool and feathers, and the little piano-duster."
The mouse continued hibernating at intervals till May. One damp, chilly morning Miss Burt thought she would add to her pet's coverings, the creature seemed so cold to the touch. "Little by little, much of her bedding of wool had been removed, although she had a pretty good blanket of it left, and the feather duster over her, which she appropriated long ago. So I resolved to carry some bits of flannel to school and, when I went to her box to give her the extra clothing, again found her as you saw her, rolled up in a ball. I covered her carefully, wrapped her all up, and put her back. Later in the day I peeped in, and she was awake. In the afternoon I took her out in her little blanket and looked at her. She was asleep, but started up, and, seeing herself out of her box, put up her little paw in fright. She trembled violently, and I hastily returned her to her box, but before I could cover her she fell back dead of fright." Miss Burt adds: "I have had her put in alcohol. One tiny paw is raised imploringly, suggestive of the sensitive nerves that caused her death."
GLIMPSES OF WILD LIFE
So fond am I of seeing Nature reassert herself that I even found some compensation in the loss of my chickens that bright November night when some wild creature, coon or fox, swept two of them out of the evergreens, and their squawking as they were hurried across the lawn called me from my bed to shout good-by after them. It gave a new interest to the hen-roost, this sudden incursion of wild nature. I feel bound to caution the boys about disturbing the wild rabbits that in summer breed in my currant-patch, and in autumn seek refuge under my study floor. The occasional glimpses I get of them about the lawn in the dusk, their cotton tails twinkling in the dimness, afford me a genuine pleasure. I have seen the time when I would go a good way to shoot a partridge; but I would not have killed, if I could, the one that started out of the vines that cover my rustic porch, as I approached that side of the house one autumn morning. How much of the woods, and of the untamable spirit of wild nature, she brought to my very door! It was tonic and exhilarating to see her whirl away toward the vineyard. I also owe a moment's pleasure to the gray squirrel that, finding my summer-house in the line of his travels one summer day, ran through it and almost over my feet as I sat idling with a book.
I am sure my power of digestion was improved that cold winter morning when, just as we were sitting down to breakfast about sunrise, a red fox loped along in front of the window, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and disappeared amid the currant-bushes. What of the wild and the cunning did he not bring! His graceful form and motion were in my mind's eye all day. When you have seen a fox loping along in that way, you have seen the poetry there is in the canine tribe. It is to the eye what a flowing measure is to the mind, so easy, so buoyant; the furry creature drifting along like a large red thistledown, or like a plume borne by the wind. It is something to remember with pleasure, that a muskrat sought my door one December night when a cold wave was swooping down upon us. Was he seeking shelter, or had he lost his reckoning? The dogs cornered him in the very doorway, and set up a great hubbub. In the darkness, thinking it was a cat, I put my hand down to feel it. The creature skipped to the other corner of the doorway, hitting my hand with its cold, rope-like tail. Lighting a match, I had a glimpse of him sitting up on his haunches like a woodchuck, confronting his enemies. I rushed in for the lantern, with the hope of capturing him alive, but before I returned, the dogs, growing bold, had finished him.
I have had but one call from a coon, that I am aware of, and I fear we did not treat him with due hospitality. He took up his quarters for the day in a Norway spruce, the branches of which nearly brushed the house. I had noticed that the dog was very curious about that tree all the afternoon. After dinner his curiosity culminated in repeated loud and confident barking. Then I began an investigation, expecting to find a strange cat, or at most a red squirrel. But a moment's scrutiny revealed his coonship. Then how to capture him became the problem. A long pole was procured, and I sought to dislodge him from his hold. The skill with which he maintained himself amid the branches excited our admiration. But after a time he dropped lightly to the ground, not in the least disconcerted, and at once on his guard against both man and beast. The dog was a coward, and dared not face him. When the coon's attention was diverted, the dog would rush in; then one of us would attempt to seize the coon's tail, but he faced about so quickly, his black eyes gleaming, that the hand was timid about seizing him. But finally in his skirmishing with the dog I caught him by the tail, and bore him safely to an open flour-barrel, and he was our prisoner.
Much amusement my little boy and I anticipated with him. He partook of food that same day, and on the second day would eat the chestnuts in our presence. Never did he show the slightest fear of us or of anything, but he was unwearied in his efforts to regain his freedom. After a few days we put a strap upon his neck and kept him tethered by a chain. But in the night, by dint of some hocus-pocus, he got the chain unsnapped and made off, and he is now, I trust, a patriarch of his tribe, wearing a leather necktie.
The skunk visits every farm sooner or later. One night I came near shaking hands with one on my very door-stone. I thought it was the cat, and put down my hand to stroke it, when the creature, probably appreciating my mistake, moved off up the bank, revealing to me the white stripe on its body and the kind of cat I had saluted. The skunk is not easily ruffled, and seems to employ excellent judgment in the use of its terrible weapon.
Several times I have had calls from woodchucks. One looked in at the open door of my study one day, and, after sniffing a while, and not liking the smell of such clover as I was compelled to nibble there, moved on to better pastures. Another one invaded the kitchen door while we were at dinner. The dogs promptly challenged him, and there was a lively scrimmage upon the door-stone. I thought the dogs were fighting, and rushed to part them. The incident broke in upon the drowsy summer noon, as did the appearance of the muskrat upon the frigid December night.
The woodchuck episode that afforded us the most amusement occurred one midsummer. We were at work in a newly-planted vineyard, when the man with the cultivator saw, a few yards in front of him, some large gray object that at first puzzled him. He approached it, and found it to be an old woodchuck with a young one in her mouth. She was carrying her kitten as does a cat, by the nape of the neck. Evidently she was moving her family to pastures new. As the man was in the line of her march, she stopped and considered what was to be done. He called to me, and I approached slowly. As the mother saw me closing in on her flank, she was suddenly seized with a panic, and, dropping her young, she fled precipitately for the cover of a large pile of grape-posts some ten or twelve rods distant. We pursued hotly, and overhauled her as she was within one jump of the house of refuge. Taking her by the tail, I carried her back to her baby; but she heeded it not. It was only her own bacon now that she was solicitous about. The young one remained where he had been dropped, keeping up a brave, reassuring whistle that was in ludicrous contrast to his exposed and helpless condition. He was the smallest woodchuck I had ever seen, not much larger than a large rat. His head and shoulders were so large in proportion to the body as to give him a comical look. He could not walk about yet, and had never before been above ground. Every moment or two he would whistle cheerily, as the old one does when safe in his den with the farm-dog fiercely baying outside.
We took the youngster home, and my little boy was delighted over the prospect of a tame woodchuck. Not till the next day would he eat. Then, getting a taste of the milk, he clutched the spoon that held it with great eagerness, and sucked away like a little pig. We were all immensely diverted by him. He ate eagerly, grew rapidly, and was soon able to run about.
As the old one had been killed, we became curious as to the fate of the rest of her family, for no doubt there were more. Had she moved them, or had we intercepted her on her first trip? We knew where the old den was, but not the new. So we would keep a lookout. Near the end of the week, on passing by the old den, there were three young ones creeping about a few feet from its mouth. They were starved out, and had come forth to see what could be found. We captured them all, and the young family was again united. How these poor, half-famished creatures did lay hold of the spoon when they got a taste of the milk! One could not help laughing. Their little shining black paws were so handy and so smooth; they seemed as if encased in kid gloves. The captives throve well upon milk, and then upon milk and clover.
But after the novelty of the thing had worn off, the boy found he had incumbered himself with serious duties in assuming the position of foster-mother to this large family; so he gave them all away but one, the first one captured, which had outstripped all the others in growth. This soon became a very amusing pet, but he always protested when handled, and always objected to confinement. I should mention that the cat had a kitten about the age of the chuck, and, as she had more milk than the kitten could dispose of, the chuck, when we first got him, was often placed in the nest with the kitten, and was regarded by the cat as tenderly as her own, and allowed to nurse freely. Thus a friendship sprang up between the kitten and the woodchuck, which lasted as long as the latter lived. They would play together precisely like two kittens,—clinch and tumble about and roll upon the grass in a very amusing way. Finally the woodchuck took up his abode under the floor of the kitchen, and gradually relapsed into a half-wild state. He would permit no familiarities from any one save the kitten, but each day they would have a turn or two at their old games of rough-and-tumble. The chuck was now over half grown, and procured his own living. One day the dog, who had all along looked upon him with a jealous eye, encountered him too far from cover, and his career ended then and there.
In July the woodchuck was forgotten in our interest in a little gray rabbit which we found nearly famished. It was so small that it could sit in the hollow of one's hand. Some accident had probably befallen its mother. The tiny creature looked spiritless and forlorn. We had to force the milk into its mouth. But in a day or two it began to revive, and would lap the milk eagerly. Soon it took to grass and clover, and then to nibbling sweet apples and early pears. It grew rapidly, and was one of the softest and most harmless-looking pets I had ever seen. For a month or more the little rabbit was the only company I had, and it helped to beguile the time immensely. In coming in from the field or from my work, I seldom failed to bring it a handful of red clover blossoms, of which it became very fond. One day it fell slyly to licking my hand, and I discovered it wanted salt. I would then moisten my fingers, dip them into the salt, and offer them to the rabbit. How rapidly the delicate little tongue would play upon them, darting out to the right and left of the large front incisors, the slender paws being pressed against my hand as if to detain it!
But the rabbit proved really untamable; its wild nature could not be overcome. In its large box-cage or prison, where it could see nothing but the tree above it, it was tame, and would at times frisk playfully about my hand and strike it gently with its forefeet; but the moment it was liberated in a room, or let down in the grass with a string about its neck, all its wild nature came forth. In the room it would run and hide; in the open it would make desperate efforts to escape, and leap and bound as you drew in the string that held it. At night, too, it never failed to try to make its escape from the cage, and finally, when two thirds grown, it succeeded, and we saw it no more.
A LIFE OF FEAR
As I sat looking from my window the other morning upon a red squirrel gathering nuts from a small hickory, and storing them up in his den in the bank, I was forcibly reminded of the state of constant fear and apprehension in which the wild creatures live, and I tried to picture to myself what life would be to me, or to any of us, hedged about by so many dangers, real or imaginary.
The squirrel would shoot up the tree, making only a brown streak from the bottom to the top; would seize his nut and rush down again in the most hurried manner. Half way to his den, which was not over three rods distant, he would rush up the trunk of another tree for a few yards to make an observation. No danger being near, he would dive into his den and reappear again in a twinkling.
Returning for another nut, he would mount the second tree again for another observation. Satisfied that the coast was clear, he would spin along the top of the ground to the tree that bore the nuts, shoot up it as before, seize the fruit, and then back again to his retreat.
Never did he fail during the half hour or more that I watched him to take an observation on his way both to and from his nest. It was "snatch and run" with him. Something seemed to say to him all the time: "Look out! look out!" "The cat!" "The hawk!" "The owl!" "The boy with the gun!"
It was a bleak December morning; the first fine flakes of a cold, driving snowstorm were just beginning to sift down, and the squirrel was eager to finish harvesting his nuts in time. It was quite touching to see how hurried and anxious and nervous he was. I felt like going out and lending a hand. The nuts were small, poor pig-nuts, and I thought of all the gnawing he would have to do to get at the scanty meat they held. My little boy once took pity on a squirrel that lived in the wall near the gate, and cracked the nuts for him, and put them upon a small board shelf in the tree where he could sit and eat them at his ease.
The red squirrel is not so provident as the chipmunk. He lays up stores irregularly, by fits and starts; he never has enough put up to carry him over the winter; hence he is more or less active all the season. Long before the December snow, the chipmunk has for days been making hourly trips to his den with full pockets of nuts or corn or buckwheat, till his bin holds enough to carry him through to April. He need not, and I believe does not, set foot out of doors during the whole winter. But the red squirrel trusts more to luck.
As alert and watchful as the red squirrel is, he is frequently caught by the cat. My Nig, as black as ebony, knows well the taste of his flesh. I have known him to be caught by the black snake and successfully swallowed. The snake, no doubt, lay in ambush for him.
This fear, this ever-present source of danger of the wild creatures, we know little about. Probably the only person in the civilized countries who is no better off than the animals in this respect is the Czar of Russia. He would not even dare gather nuts as openly as my squirrel. A blacker and more terrible cat than Nig would be lying in wait for him and would make a meal of him. The early settlers in this country must have experienced something of this dread of apprehension from the Indians. Many African tribes now live in the same state of constant fear of the slave-catchers or of other hostile tribes. Our ancestors, back in prehistoric times, must have known fear as a constant feeling. Hence the prominence of fear in infants and children when compared with the youth or the grown person. Babies are nearly always afraid of strangers.
In the domestic animals also, fear is much more active in the young than in the old. Nearly every farm boy has seen a calf but a day or two old, which its mother has secreted in the woods or in a remote field, charge upon him furiously with a wild bleat, when first discovered. After this first ebullition of fear, it usually settles down into the tame humdrum of its bovine elders.
Eternal vigilance is the price of life with most of the wild creatures. There is only one among them whose wildness I cannot understand, and that is the common water turtle. Why is this creature so fearful? What are its enemies? I know of nothing that preys upon it. Yet see how watchful and suspicious these turtles are as they sun themselves upon a log or a rock. While you are yet many yards away from them, they slide down into the water and are gone.
The land turtle, on the other hand, shows scarcely a trace of fear. He will indeed pause in his walk when you are very near him, but he will not retreat into his shell till you have poked him with your foot or your cane. He appears to have no enemies; but the little spotted water turtle is as shy as if he were the delicate tidbit that every creature was searching for. I did once find one which a fox had dug out of the mud in winter, and carried a few rods and dropped on the snow, as if he had found he had no use for it.
One can understand the fearlessness of the skunk. Nearly every creature but the farm-dog yields to him the right of way. All dread his terrible weapon. If you meet one in your walk in the twilight fields, the chances are that you will turn out for him, not he for you. He may even pursue you, just for the fun of seeing you run. He comes waltzing toward you, apparently in the most hilarious spirits.
The coon is probably the most courageous creature among our familiar wild animals. Who ever saw a coon show the white feather? He will face any odds with perfect composure. I have seen a coon upon the ground, beset by four men and two dogs, and never for a moment losing his presence of mind, or showing a sign of fear. The raccoon is clear grit.
The fox is a very wild and suspicious creature, but curiously enough, when you suddenly come face to face with him, when he is held by a trap, or driven by the hound, his expression is not that of fear, but of shame and guilt. He seems to diminish in size and to be overwhelmed with humiliation. Does he know himself to be an old thief, and is that the reason of his embarrassment? The fox has no enemies but man, and when he is fairly outwitted he looks the shame he evidently feels.
In the heart of the rabbit fear constantly abides. How her eyes protrude! She can see back and forward and on all sides as well as a bird. The fox is after her, the owls are after her, the gunners are after her, and she has no defense but her speed. She always keeps well to cover. The northern hare keeps in the thickest brush. If the hare or rabbit crosses a broad open exposure it does so hurriedly, like a mouse when it crosses the road. The mouse is in danger of being pounced upon by a hawk, and the hare or rabbit by the snowy owl, or else the great horned owl.
A friend of mine was following one morning a fresh rabbit track through an open field. Suddenly the track came to an end, as if the creature had taken wings,—as it had after an unpleasant fashion. There, on either side of its last foot imprint, were several parallel lines in the snow, made by the wings of the great owl that had swooped down and carried it off. What a little tragedy was seen written there upon the white, even surface of the field!
The rabbit has not much wit. Once, when a boy, I saw one that had been recently caught, liberated in an open field in the presence of a dog that was being held a few yards away. The poor thing lost all presence of mind, and was quickly caught by the clumsy dog.
A hunter once saw a hare running upon the ice along the shore of one of the Rangeley lakes. Presently a lynx appeared in hot pursuit; as soon as the hare found it was being pursued, it began to circle, foolish thing. This gave the lynx greatly the advantage, as it could follow in a much smaller circle. Soon the hare was run down and seized.
I saw a similar experiment tried with a red squirrel with quite opposite results. The boy who had caught the squirrel in his wire trap had a very bright and nimble dog about the size of a fox, that seemed to be very sure he could catch a red squirrel under any circumstances if only the trees were out of the way. So the boy went to the middle of an open field with his caged squirrel, the dog, who seemed to know what was up, dancing and jumping about him. It was in midwinter; the snow had a firm crust that held boy and dog alike. The dog was drawn back a few yards and the squirrel liberated.
Then began one of the most exciting races I have witnessed for a long time. It was impossible for the lookers-on not to be convulsed with laughter, though neither dog nor squirrel seemed to regard the matter as much of a joke. The squirrel had all his wits about him, and kept them ready for instant use. He did not show the slightest confusion. He was no match for the dog in fair running, and he discovered this fact in less than three seconds; he must win, if at all, by strategy. Not a straight course for the nearest tree, but a zigzag course, yea, a double or treble zigzag course. Every instant the dog was sure the squirrel was his, and every instant he was disappointed. It was incredible and bewildering to him. The squirrel dodged this way and that. The dog looked astonished and vexed. Then the squirrel issued from between his enemy's hind legs and made three jumps towards the woods before he was discovered. Our sides ached with laughter, cruel as it may seem.
It was evident the squirrel would win. The dog seemed to redouble his efforts. He would overshoot the game, or shoot by it to the right or left. The squirrel was the smaller craft, and could out-tack him easily. One more leap and the squirrel was up a tree, and the dog was overwhelmed with confusion and disgust. He could not believe his senses. "Not catch a squirrel in such a field as that? Go to, I will have him yet!" and he bounded up the tree as high as one's head, and then bit the bark of it in his anger and chagrin.
The boy says his dog has never bragged since about catching red squirrels "if only the trees were out of reach!"
When any of the winged creatures are engaged in a life and death race in that way, or in any other race, the tactics of the squirrel do not work; the pursuer never overshoots nor shoots by his mark. The flight of the two is timed as if they were parts of one whole. A hawk will pursue a sparrow or a robin through a zigzag course and not lose a stroke or half a stroke of the wing by reason of any darting to the right or left. The clue is held with fatal precision. No matter how quickly nor how often the sparrow or the finch changes its course, its enemy changes, simultaneously, as if every move was known to it from the first.
The same thing may be noticed among the birds in their love chasings; the pursuer seems to know perfectly the mind of the pursued. This concert of action among birds is very curious. When they are on the alert, a flock of sparrows, or pigeons, or cedar-birds, or snow buntings, or blackbirds, will all take flight as if there were but one bird, instead of a hundred. The same impulse seizes every individual bird at the same instant, as if they were sprung by electricity.
Or when a flock of birds is in flight, it is still one body, one will; it will rise, or circle, or swoop with a unity that is truly astonishing.
A flock of snow buntings will perform their aerial evolutions with a precision that the best-trained soldiery cannot equal. Have the birds an extra sense which we have not? A brood of young partridges in the woods will start up like an explosion, every brown particle and fragment hurled into the air at the same instant. Without word or signal, how is it done?
Birds, simultaneous action in flight, 143, 144.
Calf, 138. Cat, nursing a young woodchuck, 131, 132; catching red squirrels, 137. Chipmunk, 10; its winter underground and reappearance in the spring, 15, 16; courting, 16; a solitary creature, 16, 18; nervousness of, 16, 18; chipping and clucking, 16, 17; storing food, 17, 18, 23, 31, 137; adventures with cats, 18-21; digging its hole, 21, 22; furnishing the house, 22; food of, 23, 31; an evidence of sociability, 23, 24; an adventure with a weasel, 24-26; attack by a shrike, 27, 28; eating strawberries, 29, 30; a game of tag, 30; never more than one jump from home, 30; shifting quarters, 31; its fear of the weasel, 83; its providence, 136, 137. Coon. See Raccoon.
Dog, the churn-dog and the woodchucks, 34-36; farm-dog and fox, 56, 57, 64, 65; moisture of his nose, 67, 68; fight with a weasel, 82, 83; encounter with a mink, 91, 92; farm-dog and coon, 94, 95; coon-dog and coon, 96, 97; farm-dog and skunk, 139; a race with a red squirrel, 141-143. See Foxhound.
Fox, gray, 71. Fox, red, tracks in the snow, 38, 39, 53, 54, 90, 91; bark of, 53; gait of, 54, 126; the author's first meeting with, 54, 55; chased by hounds, 56, 62, 64-68; chased by the farm-dog, 56, 57, 64, 65; tail of, 57; method of trapping, 58-61; behavior when trapped, 61, 139, 140; farm-yard depredations, 62-64; devices for eluding the hounds, 65-68; a method of calling, 68; burrows and young of, 69, 70; daylight naps of, 70; resemblance to the dog, 70, 71; a young one in the market, 70, 71; and mink, 90, 91; beauty and grace of, 126, 139; humiliation when captured, 139, 140. Fox, silver-gray, 67. Foxhound, baying of, 55, 56; the chase of the fox, 56, 62, 64-68; moisture of his nose, 67.
Hare, northern or varying, haunts of, 38, 42; habits of, 41, 42; tracks in the snow, 42; two suits of fur, 42, 140; pursuit and capture by a lynx, 141.
Mink, eating a muskrat, 47; tracks in the snow, 90, 91, 93; encounter with a fox, 90, 91; an enemy of the muskrat, 91; an encounter with a dog and a mysterious disappearance, 91, 92; as an eater of fish, 92; gait of, 93. Mouse, jumping, habits of, 120; a captive, 121-124. Mouse, meadow, life beneath the snow, 115, 116; a bold swimmer, 116, 117. Mouse, white-footed or deer, beauty of, 111; easily captured, 111; haunts of, 111; hoarding habits of, 111, 112; thwarting a piratical red squirrel, 112, 113; in the beehive, 113, 114; reducing a shawl to its original elements, 113, 114; seven in a trap, 114; tunnels and tracks in the snow, 114, 115; a female with young, 117, 118; an attempt to assist a friend in distress, 118, 119. Muskrat, nest-building of, 43-47; burrows of, 47; winter activity of, 47; devoured by a mink, 47; a doorway visit, 126, 127.
Opossum, 98; tracks in the snow, 106; extending its range, 106; foot of, 106; a captive, 106-108; skin said to be fetid, 108; young of, 108, 109; under the study floor, 109, 110.
Partridge, 125, 126. Porcupine, increasing in abundance, 98; a fight with an eagle, 98; quills as weapons of defense, 99-101; on Slide Mountain, 101-105; stupidity of, 103; sound made by, 104; propensity for gnawing, 105.
Rabbit, gray, haunts of, 38; under the study floor, 38; nest and young of, 39, 40; winter fare of, 41, 125; a captive, 132-134; her life full of fear, 140; a tragedy revealed by the snow, 140; stupidity of, 141. Raccoon, reappearance after hibernation, 94; a fight with the farm-dog, 94, 95; fighting qualities of, 95; coon-hunting, 96, 97; ravages in the corn-field, 96; a captive, 127, 128; courage of, 139. Rat, pursued by a weasel, 83, 84.
Shrew, 119, 120. Shrike, 27, 28. Skunk, tracks in the snow, 48; awakening from hibernation, 48; habits of, 48-50; as a pet, 49; its weapon of defense, 50-52; a plunderer of hen-roosts and birds' nests, 50, 51; an instance of its fearlessness, 52, 98; under the study floor, 109; at the doorstep, 128; not easily ruffled, 128; fearlessness of, 139. Snake, black, 137. Squirrel, black, 8. Squirrel, flying, flight of, 3, 5; habits of, 5, 6; nest of, 6. Squirrel, gray, habits of, 6-8; nest of, 7; hiding nuts, 10, 13, 126. Squirrel, Mexican black, 3, 4. Squirrel, red, a bold leap, 3, 4, 6; habits of, 9, 10; snickering of, 9, 13, 14; food of, 11-13; hoarding habits of, 12, 136, 137; his song and dance, 13, 14, 15; a game of tag, 31; pursued by a weasel, 88; a piratical raid by, 112, 113; his life full of fear, 135, 136; frequently caught by the cat, 137; a race with a dog, 141-143. Squirrels, gathering chestnuts, 1, 2; as parachutes, 2-5; tails of, 5; mirth and mockery of, 10.
Thrasher, brown, and weasels, 85. Turkey, fox and, 63, 64. Turtles, 138, 139.
Weasel, in pursuit of a chipmunk, 24-26; carrying food to its den, 72-75; an exploration of a weasel's hole, 74-79; food of, 77, 80, 85; depredations among the chickens, 80-82; a fight with a, 81-83; dog and, 82, 83; its boldness and bloodthirstiness, 83, 86; terror inspired by, 83, 86; a fight with a man over a rat, 84; a woman's experience, 85; a destructive enemy of the birds, 85; as a tree-climber, 86; hunting in packs, 86, 87; a contention over a mouse, 87; cannibalism, 87; pursuing two rats, 87, 88; tracks its game by scent, 88; pursuit of a red squirrel, 88. Woodchuck, 28, 29; haunts of, 32; adventure with a swimming man, 32, 33; odor of, 33; its whistle, 33, 130; form and motions of, 33; a churn-dog's tactics, 34-36; hole of, 36; hibernation of, 36, 37; about the house and study, 129; a mother with her young one, 129, 130; captives, 130-132; a friendship with a kitten, 132.
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Transcriber's note: Inconsistent hyphenations (cornfield/corn-field, henroost/hen-roost, outbuildings/out-buildings, runways/run-ways, sidehill/side-hill, snakelike/snake-like) have been retained.