Other most valuable birds which nest in the Park are the black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos, whose depredations among the hairy and spiny caterpillars should arouse our gratitude. For these insects are refused by almost all other birds, and were it not for these slim, graceful creatures they would increase to prodigious numbers. Their two or three light blue eggs are always laid on the frailest of frail platforms made of a few sticks. The belted kingfisher bores into the bank of the river and rears his family of six or eight in the dark, ill-odoured chamber at the end. Young cuckoos and kingfishers are the quaintest of young birds. Their plumage does not come out a little at a time, as in other nestlings, but the sheaths which surround the growing feathers remain until they are an inch or more in length; then one day, in the space of only an hour or so, the overlapping armour of bluish tiles bursts and the plumage assumes a normal appearance.
The little black-and-white downy and the flicker are the two woodpeckers which make the Park their home. Both nest in hollows bored out by their strong beaks, but although full of splinters and sawdust, such a habitation is far superior to the sooty chimneys in which the young chimney swifts break from their snow-white eggs and twitter for food. How impatiently they must look up at the blue sky, and one would think that they must long for the time when they can spread their sickle-shaped wings and dash about from dawn to dark! Is it not wonderful that one of them should live to grow up when we think of the fragile little cup which is their home?—a mosaic of delicate twigs held together only by the sticky saliva of the parent birds.
A relation of theirs—though we should never guess it—is sitting upon her tiny air castle high up in an apple tree not far away,—a ruby-throated hummingbird. If we take a peep into the nest when the young hummingbirds are only partly grown, we shall see that their bills are broad and stubby, like those of the swifts. Their home, however, is indeed a different affair,—a pinch of plant-down tied together with cobwebs and stuccoed with lichens, like those which are growing all about upon the tree. If we do not watch the female when she settles to her young or eggs we may search in vain for this tiniest of homes, so closely does it resemble an ordinary knot on a branch.
The flycatchers are well represented in the Park, there being no fewer than five species; the least flycatcher, wood pewee, phoebe, crested flycatcher, and kingbird. The first two prefer the woods, the phoebe generally selects a mossy rock or a bridge beam, the fourth nests in a hollow tree and often decorates its home with a snake-skin. The kingbird builds an untidy nest in an apple tree. Our American crow is, of course, a member of this little community of birds, and that in spite of persecution, for in the spring one or two are apt to contract a taste for young ducklings and hence have to be put out of the way. The fish crow, a smaller cousin of the big black fellow, also nests here, easily known by his shriller, higher caw. A single pair of blue jays nest in the Park, but the English starling occupies every box which is put up and bids fair to be as great or a greater nuisance than the sparrow. It is a handsome bird and a fine whistler, but when we remember how this foreigner is slowly but surely elbowing our native birds out of their rightful haunts, we find ourselves losing sight of its beauties. The cowbird, of course, imposes her eggs upon many of the smaller species of birds, while our beautiful purple grackle, meadow lark, red-winged blackbird, and the Baltimore and orchard orioles rear their young in safety. The cardinal, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, and rose-breasted grosbeak form a quartet of which even a tropical land might well be proud, and the two latter species have, in addition to brilliant plumage, very pleasing songs. Such wealth of aesthetic characteristics are unusual in any one species, the wide-spread law of compensation decreeing otherwise. More sombre hued seed-eaters which live their lives in the Park are towhees, swamp, song, field, and chipping sparrows. The bank and barn swallows skim over field and pond all through the summer, gleaning their insect harvest from the air, and building their nests in the places from which they have taken their names. The rare rough-winged swallow deigns to linger and nest in the Park as well as do his more common brethren.
The dainty pensile nests which become visible when the leaves fall in the autumn are swung by four species of vireos, the white-eyed, red-eyed, warbling, and yellow-throated. Of the interesting and typically North American family of wood warblers I have numbered no fewer than eight which nest in the Park; these are the redstart, the yellow-breasted chat, northern yellow-throat, oven-bird, the yellow warbler, blue-winged, black-and-white creeping warblers, and one other to be mentioned later.
Injurious insects find their doom when the young house and Carolina wrens are on the wing. Catbirds and robins are among the most abundant breeders, while chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches are less often seen. The bluebird haunts the hollow apple trees, and of the thrushes proper the veery or Wilson's and the splendid wood thrush sing to their mates on the nests among the saplings.
The rarest of all the birds which I have found nesting in the Park is a little yellow and green warbler, with a black throat and sides of the face, known as the Lawrence warbler. Only a few of his kind have ever been seen, and strange to say his mate was none other than a demure blue-winged warbler. His nest was on the ground and from it six young birds flew to safety and not to museum drawers.
NIGHT MUSIC OF THE SWAMP
To many, a swamp or marsh brings only the very practical thought of whether it can be readily drained. Let us rejoice, however, that many marshes cannot be thus easily wiped out of existence, and hence they remain as isolated bits of primeval wilderness, hedged about by farms and furrows. The water is the life-blood of the marsh,—drain it, and reed and rush, bird and batrachian, perish or disappear. The marsh, to him who enters it in a receptive mood, holds, besides mosquitoes and stagnation,—melody, the mystery of unknown waters, and the sweetness of Nature undisturbed by man.
The ideal marsh is as far as one can go from civilisation. The depths of a wood holds its undiscovered secrets; the mysterious call of the veery lends a wildness that even to-day has not ceased to pervade the old wood. There are spots overgrown with fern and carpeted with velvety wet moss; here also the skunk cabbage and cowslip grow rank among the alders. Surely man cannot live near this place—but the tinkle of a cowbell comes faintly on the gentle stirring breeze—and our illusion is dispelled, the charm is broken.
But even to-day, when we push the punt through the reeds from the clear river into the narrow, tortuous channel of the marsh, we have left civilisation behind us. The great ranks of the cat-tails shut out all view of the outside world; the distant sounds of civilisation serve only to accentuate the isolation. It is the land of the Indian, as it was before the strange white man, brought from afar in great white-sailed ships, came to usurp the land of the wondering natives. At any moment we fancy that we may see an Indian canoe silently round a bend in the channel.
The marsh has remained unchanged since the days when the Mohican Indians speared fish there. We are living in a bygone time. A little green heron flies across the water. How wild he is; nothing has tamed him. He also is the same now as always. He does not nest in orchard or meadow, but holds himself aloof, making no concessions to man and the ever increasing spread of his civilisation. He does not come to his doors for food. He can find food for himself and in abundance; he asks only to be let alone. Nor does he intrude himself. Occasionally we meet him along our little meadow stream, but he makes no advances. As we come suddenly upon him, how indignant he seems at being disturbed in his hunting. Like the Indian, he is jealous of his ancient domain and resents intrusion. He retires, however, throwing back to us a cry of disdain. Here in the marsh is the last stand of primitive nature in the settled country; here is the last stronghold of the untamed. The bulrushes rise in ranks, like the spears of a great army, surrounding and guarding the colony of the marsh.
There seems to be a kinship between the voices of the marsh dwellers. Most of them seem to have a muddy, aquatic note. The boom of the frog sounds like some great stone dropped into the water; the little marsh wren's song is the "babble and tinkle of water running out of a silver flask."
The blackbird seems to be the one connecting link between the highlands and the lowlands. Seldom does one see other citizens of the marsh in the upland. How glorious is the flight of a great blue heron from one feeding-ground to another! He does not tarry over the foreign territory, nor does he hurry. With neck and head furled close and legs straight out behind, he pursues his course, swerving neither to the right nor the left.
"Vainly the fowler's eye Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong, As darkly painted on the crimson sky Thy figure floats along."
The blackbirds, however, are more neighbourly. They even forage in the foreign territory, returning at night to sleep.
In nesting time the red-wing is indeed a citizen of the lowland. His voice is as distinctive of the marsh as is the croak of the frog, and from a distance it is one of the first sounds to greet the ear. How beautiful is his clear whistle with its liquid break! Indeed one may say that he is the most conspicuous singer of the marshlands. His is not a sustained song, but the exuberant expression of a happy heart.
According to many writers the little marsh wren is without song. No song! As well say that the farmer boy's whistling as he follows the plough, or the sailor's song as he hoists the sail, is not music! All are the songs of the lowly, the melody of those glad to be alive and out in the free air.
When man goes into the marsh, the marsh retires within itself, as a turtle retreats within his shell. With the exception of a few blackbirds and marsh wrens, babbling away the nest secret, and an occasional frog's croak, all the inhabitants have stealthily retired. The spotted turtle has slid from the decayed log as the boat pushed through the reeds. At our approach the heron has flown and the little Virginia rail has scuttled away among the reeds.
Remain perfectly quiet, however, and give the marsh time to regain its composure. One by one the tenants of the swamp will take up the trend of their business where it was interrupted.
All about, the frogs rest on the green carpet of the lily pads, basking in the sun. The little rail again runs among the reeds, searching for food in the form of small snails. The blackbirds and wrens, most domestic in character, go busily about their home business; the turtles again come up to their positions, and a muskrat swims across the channel. One hopes that the little colony of marsh wren homes on stilts above the water, like the ancient lake dwellers of Tenochtitlan, may have no enemies. But the habit of building dummy nests is suggestive that the wee birds are pitting their wits against the cunning of some enemy,—and suspicion rests upon the serpent.
As evening approaches and the shadows from the bordering wood point long fingers across the marsh, the blackbirds straggle back from their feeding-grounds and settle, clattering, among the reeds. Their clamour dies gradually away and night settles down upon the marsh.
* * * * *
All sounds have ceased save the booming of the frogs, which but emphasises the loneliness of it all. A distant whistle of a locomotive dispels the idea that all the world is wilderness. The firefly lamps glow along the margin of the rushes. The frogs are now in full chorus, the great bulls beating their tom-toms and the small fry filling in the chinks with shriller cries. How remote the scene and how melancholy the chorus!
To one mind there is a quality in the frogs' serenade that strikes the chord of sadness, to another the chord of contentment, to still another it is the chant of the savage, just as the hoot of an owl or the bark of a fox brings vividly to mind the wilderness.
Out of the night comes softly the croon of a little screech owl—that cry almost as ancient as the hills. It belongs with the soil beneath our towns. It is the spirit of the past crying to us. So the dirge of the frog is the cry of the spirit of river and marshland.
Our robins and bluebirds are of the orchard and the home of man, but who can claim neighbourship to the bittern or the bullfrog? There is nothing of civilisation in the hoarse croak of the great blue heron. These are all barbarians and their songs are of the untamed wilderness.
The moon rises over the hills. The mosquitoes have become savage. The marsh has tolerated us as long as it cares to, and we beat our retreat. The night hawks swoop down and boom as they pass overhead. One feels thankful that the mosquitoes are of some good in furnishing food to so graceful a bird.
A water snake glides across the channel, leaving a silver wake in the moonlight. The frogs plunk into the water as we push past. A night heron rises from the margin of the river and slowly flops away. The bittern booms again as we row down the peaceful river, and we leave the marshland to its ancient and rightful owners.
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins, That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow In the rose and silver evening glow. Farewell, my lord Sun! The creeks overflow; a thousand rivulets run 'Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the marsh grass stir; Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward whirr. Sidney Lanier.
THE COMING OF MAN
If we betake ourselves to the heart of the deepest forests which are still left upon our northern hills, and compare the bird life which we find there with that in the woods and fields near our homes, we shall at once notice a great difference. Although the coming of mankind with his axe and plough has driven many birds and animals far away or actually exterminated them, there are many others which have so thrived under the new conditions that they are far more numerous than when the tepees of the red men alone broke the monotony of the forest.
We might walk all day in the primitive woods and never see or hear a robin, while in an hour's stroll about a village we can count scores. Let us observe how some of these quick-witted feathered beings have taken advantage of the way in which man is altering the whole face of the land.
A pioneer comes to a spot in the virgin forest which pleases him and proceeds at once to cut down the trees in order to make a clearing. The hermit thrush soothes his labour with its wonderful song; the pileated woodpecker pounds its disapproval upon a near-by hollow tree; the deer and wolf take a last look out through the trees and flee from the spot forever. A house and barn arise; fields become covered with waving grass and grain; a neglected patch of burnt forest becomes a tangle of blackberry and raspberry; an orchard is set out.
When the migrating birds return, they are attracted to this new scene. The decaying wood of fallen trees is a paradise for ants, flies, and beetles; offering to swallows, creepers, and flycatchers feasts of abundance never dreamed of in the primitive forests. Straightway, what must have been a cave swallow becomes a barn swallow; the haunter of rock ledges changes to an eave swallow; the nest in the niche of the cliff is deserted and phoebe becomes a bridgebird; cedarbirds are renamed cherrybirds, and catbirds and other low-nesting species find the blackberry patch safer than the sweetbrier vine in the deep woods. The swift leaves the lightning-struck hollow tree where owl may harry or snake intrude, for the chimney flue—sooty but impregnable.
When the great herds of ruminants disappear from the western prairies, the buffalo birds without hesitation become cowbirds, and when the plough turns up the never-ending store of grubs and worms the birds lose all fear and follow at the very heels of the plough-boy: grackles, vesper sparrows, and larks in the east, and flocks of gulls farther to the westward.
The crow surpasses all in the keen wit which it pits against human invasion and enmity. The farmer declares war (all unjustly) against these sable natives, but they jeer at his gun and traps and scarecrows, and thrive on, killing the noxious insects, devouring the diseased corn-sprouts,—doing great good to the farmer in spite of himself.
The story of these sudden adaptations to conditions which the birds could never have foreseen is a story of great interest and it has been but half told. Climb the nearest hill or mountain or even a tall tree and look out upon the face of the country. Keep in mind you are a bird and not a human,—you neither know nor understand anything of the reason for these strange sights,—these bipeds who cover the earth with great square structures, who scratch the ground for miles, who later gnaw the vegetation with great shining teeth, and who are only too often on the look out to bring sudden death if one but show a feather. What would you do?
THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF ANIMALS
What a great difference there is in brilliancy of colouring between birds and the furry creatures. How the plumage of a cardinal, or indigo bunting, or hummingbird glows in the sunlight, and reflects to our eyes the most intense vermilion or indigo or an iridescence of the whole gamut of colour. On the other hand, how sombrely clad are the deer, the rabbits, and the mice; gray and brown and white being the usual hue of their fur.
This difference is by no means accidental, but has for its cause a deep significance,—all-important to the life of the bird or mammal. Scientists have long known of it, and if we unlock it from its hard sheathing of technical terms, we shall find it as simple and as easy to understand as it is interesting. When we once hold the key, it will seem as if scales had fallen from our eyes, and when we take our walks abroad through the fields and woods, when we visit a zoological park, or even see the animals in a circus, we shall feel as though a new world were opened to us.
No post offices, or even addresses, exist for birds and mammals; when the children of the desert or the jungle are lost, no detective or policeman hastens to find them, no telephone or telegraph aids in the search. Yet, without any of these accessories, the wild creatures have marvellous systems of communication. The five senses (and perhaps a mysterious sixth, at which we can only guess) are the telephones and the police, the automatic sentinels and alarms of our wild kindred. Most inferior are our own abilities in using eyes, nose, and ears, when compared with the same functions in birds and animals.
Eyes and noses are important keys to the bright colours of birds and comparative sombreness of hairy-coated creatures. Take a dog and an oriole as good examples of the two extremes. When a dog has lost his master, he first looks about; then he strains his eyes with the intense look of a near-sighted person, and after a few moments of this he usually yelps with disappointment, drops his nose to the ground, and with unfailing accuracy follows the track of his master. When the freshness of the trail tells him that he is near its end he again resorts to his eyes, and is soon near enough to recognise the face he seeks. A fox when running before a hound may double back, and make a close reconnaissance near his trail, sometimes passing in full view without the hound's seeing him or stopping in following out the full curve of the trail, so completely does the wonderful power of smell absorb the entire attention of the dog.
Let us now turn to the oriole. As we might infer, the nostrils incased in horn render the sense of smell of but slight account. It is hard to tell how much a bird can distinguish in this way—probably only the odour of food near at hand. However, when we examine the eye of our bird, we see a sense organ of a very high order. Bright, intelligent, full-circled, of great size compared to the bulk of the skull, protected by three complete eyelids; we realise that this must play an important part in the life of the bird. There are, of course, many exceptions to such a generalisation as this. For instance, many species of sparrows are dull-coloured. We must remember that the voice—the calls and songs of birds—is developed to a high degree, and in many instances renders bright colouring needless in attracting a mate or in locating a young bird.
As we have seen, the sense of smell is very highly developed among four-footed animals, but to make this efficient there must be something for it to act upon; and in this connection we find some interesting facts of which, outside of scientific books, little has been written. On the entire body, birds have only one gland—the oil gland above the base of the tail, which supplies an unctuous dressing for the feathers. Birds, therefore, have not the power of perspiring, but compensate for this by very rapid breathing. On the contrary, four-footed animals have glands on many portions of the body. Nature is seldom contented with the one primary function which an organ or tissue performs, but adjusts and adapts it to others in many ingenious ways. Hence, when an animal perspires, the pores of the skin allow the contained moisture to escape and moisten the surface of the body; but in addition to this, in many animals, collections of these pores in the shape of large glands secrete various odours which serve important uses. In the skunk such a gland is a practically perfect protection against attacks from his enemies. He never hurries and seems not to know what fear is—a single wave of his conspicuous danger signal is sufficient to clear his path.
In certain species of the rhinoceros there are large glands in the foot. These animals live among grass and herbage which they brush against as they walk, and thus "blaze" a plain trail for the mate or young to follow. There are few if any animals which care to face a rhinoceros, so the scent is incidentally useful to other creatures as a warning.
It is believed that the hard callosities on the legs of horses are the remains of glands which were once upon a time useful to their owners; and it is said that if a paring from one of these hard, horny structures be held to the nose of a horse, he will follow it about, hinting, perhaps, that in former days the scent from the gland was an instinctive guide which kept members of the herd together.
"Civet," which is obtained from the civet cat, and "musk," from the queer little hornless musk deer, are secretions of glands. It has been suggested that the defenceless musk deer escapes many of its enemies by the similarity of its secretion to the musky odour of crocodiles. In many animals which live together in herds, such as the antelope and deer, and which have neither bright colours nor far-reaching calls to aid straying members to regain the flock, there are large and active scent glands. The next time you see a live antelope in a zoological park, or even a stuffed specimen, look closely at the head, and between the eye and the nostril a large opening will be seen on each, side, which, in the living animal, closes now and then, a flap of skin shutting it tight.
Among pigs the fierce peccary is a very social animal, going in large packs; and on the back of each of these creatures is found a large gland from which a clear watery fluid is secreted. Dogs and wolves also have their odour-secreting glands on the back, and the "wolf-pack" is proverbial.
The gland of the elephant is on the temple, and secretes only when the animal is in a dangerous mood, a hint, therefore, of opposite significance to that of the herding animals, as this says, "Let me alone! stay away!" Certain low species of monkeys, the lemurs, have a remarkable bare patch on the forearm, which covers a gland serving some use.
If we marvel at the keenness of scent among animals, how incredible seems the similar sense in insects—similar in function, however different the medium of structure may be. Think of the scent from a female moth, so delicate that we cannot distinguish it, attracting a male of the same species from a distance of a mile or more. Entomologists sometimes confine a live female moth or other insect in a small wire cage and hang it outdoors in the evening, and in a short time reap a harvest of gay-winged suitors which often come in scores, instinctively following up the trail of the delicate, diffused odour. It is surely true that the greatest wonders are not always associated with mere bulk.
Among insects, sounds are produced in many ways, and for various reasons. A species of ant which makes its nest on the under side of leaves produces a noise by striking the leaf with its head in a series of spasmodic taps, and another ant is also very interesting as regards its sound-producing habit. "Individuals of this species are sometimes spread over a surface of two square yards, many out of sight of the others; yet the tapping is set up at the same moment, continued exactly the same space of time, and stopped at the same instant. After the lapse of a few seconds, all recommence simultaneously. The interval is always approximately of the same duration, and each ant does not beat synchronously with every other ant, but only like those in the same group, so the independent tappings play a sort of tune, each group alike in time, but the tapping of the whole mass beginning and ending at the same instant. This is doubtless a means of communication."
The organ of hearing in insects is still to be discovered in many forms, but in katydids it is situated on the middle of the fore-legs; in butterflies on the sides of the thorax, while the tip of the horns or antennae of many insects is considered to be the seat of this function. In all it is little more than a cavity, over which a skin is stretched like a drum-head, which thus reacts to the vibration. This seems to be very often "tuned," as it were, to the sounds made by the particular species in which it is found. A cricket will at times be unaffected by any sound, however loud, while at the slightest "screek" or chirp of its own species, no matter how faint, it will start its own little tune in all excitement.
The songs of the cicadas are noted all over the world. Darwin heard them while anchored half a mile off the South American coast, and a giant species of that country is said to produce a noise as loud as the whistle of a locomotive. Only the males sing, the females being dumb, thus giving rise to the well-known Grecian couplet:
"Happy the cicadas' lives, For they all have voiceless wives."
Anyone who has entered a wood where thousands of the seventeen-year cicadas were hatching has never forgotten it. A threshing machine, or a gigantic frog chorus, is a fair comparison, and when a branch loaded with these insects is shaken, the sound rises to a shrill screech or scream. This noise is supposed—in fact is definitely known—to attract the female insect, and although there may be in it some tender notes which we fail to distinguish, yet let us hope that the absence of any highly organised auditory organ may result in reducing the effect of a steam-engine whistle to an agreeable whisper! It is thought that the vibrations are felt rather than heard, in the sense that we use the word "hear"; if one has ever had a cicada zizz in one's hand, the electrical shocks which seem to go up the arm help the belief in this idea. To many of us the song of the cicada—softened by distance—will ever be pleasant on account of its associations. When one attempts to picture a hot August day in a hay-field or along a dusty road, the drowsy zee-ing of this insect, growing louder and more accelerated and then as gradually dying away, is a focus for the mind's eye, around which the other details instantly group themselves.
The apparatus for producing this sound is one of the most complex in all the animal kingdom. In brief, it consists of two external doors, capable of being partly opened, and three internal membranes, to one of which is attached a vibrating muscle, which, put in motion, sets all the others vibrating in unison.
We attach a great deal of importance to the fact of being educated to the appreciation of the highest class of music. We applaud our Paderewski, and year after year are awed and delighted with wonderful operatic music, yet seldom is the limitation of human perception of musical sounds considered.
If we wish to appreciate the limits within which the human ear is capable of distinguishing sounds, we should sit down in a meadow, some hot midsummer day, and listen to the subdued running murmur of the myriads of insects. Many are very distinct to our ears and we have little trouble in tracing them to their source. Such are crickets and grasshoppers, which fiddle and rasp their roughened hind legs against their wings. Some butterflies have the power of making a sharp crackling sound by means of hooks on the wings. The katydid, so annoying to some in its persistent ditty, so full of reminiscences to others of us, is a large, green, fiddling grasshopper.
Another sound which is typical of summer is the hum of insects' wings, sometimes, as near a beehive, rising to a subdued roar. The higher, thinner song of the mosquito's wings is unfortunately familiar to us, and we must remember that the varying tone of the hum of each species may be of the greatest importance to it as a means of recognition. Many beetles have a projecting horn on the under side of the body which they can snap against another projection, and by this means call their lady-loves, literally "playing the bones" in their minstrel serenade.
Although we can readily distinguish the sounds which these insects produce, yet there are hundreds of small creatures, and even large ones, which are provided with organs of hearing, but whose language is too fine for our coarse perceptions. The vibrations—chirps, hums, and clicks—can be recorded on delicate instruments, but, just as there are shades and colours at both ends of the spectrum which our eyes cannot perceive, so there are tones running we know not how far beyond the scale limits which affect our ears. Some creatures utter noises so shrill, so sharp, that it pains our ears to listen to them, and these are probably on the borderland of our sound-world.
Pipe, little minstrels of the waning year, In gentle concert pipe! Pipe the warm noons; the mellow harvest near; The apples dropping ripe;
The sweet sad hush on Nature's gladness laid; The sounds through silence heard! Pipe tenderly the passing of the year. Harriet Mcewen Kimball.
I love to hear thine earnest voice, Wherever thou art hid, Thou testy little dogmatist, Thou pretty Katydid! Thou mindest me of gentlefolks,— Old gentlefolks are they,— Thou say'st an undisputed thing In such a solemn way. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
THE GRAY DAYS OF BIRDS
The temptation is great, if we love flowers, to pass over the seed time, when stalks are dried and leaves are shrivelled, no matter how beautiful may be the adaptation for scattering or preserving the seed or how wonderful the protective coats guarding against cold or wet. Or if insects attract us by their many varied interests, we are more enthusiastic over the glories of the full-winged image than the less conspicuous, though no less interesting, eggs and chrysalides hidden away in crevices throughout the long winter.
Thus there seems always a time when we hesitate to talk or write of our favourite theme, especially if this be some class of life on the earth, because, perchance, it is not at its best.
Even birds have their gray days, when in the autumn the glory of their plumage and song has diminished. At this time few of their human admirers intrude upon them and the birds themselves are only too glad to escape observation. Collectors of skins disdain to ply their trade, as the ragged, pin-feathery coats of the birds now make sorry-looking specimens. But we can find something of interest in birddom, even in this interim.
Nesting is over, say you, when you start out on your tramps in late summer or early autumn; but do not be too sure. The gray purse of the oriole has begun to ravel at the edges and the haircloth cup of the chipping sparrow is already wind-distorted, but we shall find some housekeeping just begun.
The goldfinch is one of these late nesters. Long after his northern cousins, the pine siskins and snowflakes, have laid their eggs and reared their young, the goldfinch begins to focus the aerial loops of his flight about some selected spot and to collect beakfuls of thistledown. And here, perhaps, we have his fastidious reason for delaying. Thistles seed with the goldenrod, and not until this fleecy substance is gray and floating does he consider that a suitable nesting material is available.
When the young birds are fully fledged one would think the goldfinch a polygamist, as we see him in shining yellow and black, leading his family quintet, all sombre hued, his patient wife being to our eyes indistinguishable from the youngsters.
But in the case of most of the birds the cares of nesting are past, and the woods abound with full-sized but awkward young birds, blundering through their first month of insect-hunting and fly-catching, tumbling into the pools from which they try to drink, and shrieking with the very joy of life, when it would be far safer for that very life if they remained quiet.
It is a delightful period this, a transition as interesting as evanescent. This is the time when instinct begins to be aided by intelligence, when every hour accumulates fact upon fact, all helping to co-ordinate action and desire on the part of the young birds.
No hint of migration has yet passed over the land, and the quiet of summer still reigns; but even as we say this a confused chuckling is heard; this rises into a clatter of harsh voices, and a small flock of blackbirds—two or three families—pass overhead. The die is cast! No matter how hot may be the sunshine during succeeding days, or how contented and thoughtless of the future the birds may appear, there is a something which has gone, and which can never return until another cycle of seasons has passed.
During this transition time some of our friends are hardly recognisable; we may surprise the scarlet tanager in a plumage which seems more befitting a nonpareil bunting,—a regular "Joseph's coat." The red of his head is half replaced with a ring of green, and perhaps a splash of the latter decorates the middle of his back. When he flies the light shows through his wings in two long narrow slits, where a pair of primaries are lacking. It is a wise provision of Nature which regulates the moulting sequence of his flight feathers, so that only a pair shall fall out at one time, and the adjoining pair not before the new feathers are large and strong. A sparrow or oriole hopping along the ground with angular, half-naked wings would be indeed a pitiful sight, except to marauding weasels and cats, who would find meals in abundance on every hand.
Let us take our way to some pond or lake, thick with duckweed and beloved of wild fowl, and we shall find a different state of affairs. We surprise a group of mallard ducks, which rush out from the overhanging bank and dive for safety among the sheltering green arrowheads. But their outspread wings are a mockery, the flight feathers showing as a mere fringe of quill sticks, which beat the water helplessly.
Another thing we notice. Where are the resplendent drakes? Have they flown elsewhere and left their mates to endure the dangers of moulting alone? Let us come here a week later and see what a transformation is taking place. When most birds moult it is for a period of several months, but these ducks have a partial fall moult which is of the greatest importance to them. When the wing feathers begin to loosen in their sockets an unfailing instinct leads these birds to seek out some secluded pond, where they patiently await the moult. The sprouting, blood-filled quills force out the old feathers, and the bird becomes a thing of the water, to swim and to dive, with no more power of flight than its pond companions, the turtles.
If, however, the drake should retain his iridescent head and snowy collar, some sharp-eyed danger would spy out his helplessness and death would swoop upon him. So for a time his bright feathers fall out and a quick makeshift disguise closes over him—the reed-hued browns and grays of his mate—and for a time the pair are hardly distinguishable. With the return of his power of flight comes renewed brightness, and the wild drake emerges from his seclusion on strong-feathered, whistling wings. All this we should miss, did we not seek him out at this season; otherwise the few weeks would pass and we should notice no change from summer to winter plumage, and attribute his temporary absence to a whim of wandering on distant feeding grounds.
Another glance at our goldfinch shows a curious sight. Mottled with spots and streaks, yellow alternating with greenish, he is an anomaly indeed, and in fact all of our birds which undergo a radical colour change will show remarkable combinations during the actual process.
It is during the gray days that the secret to a great problem may be looked for—the why of migration.
A young duck of the year, whose wings are at last strong and fit, waves them in ecstasy, vibrating from side to side and end to end of his natal pond. Then one day we follow his upward glances to where a thin, black arrow is throbbing southward, so high in the blue sky that the individual ducks are merged into a single long thread. The young bird, calling again and again, spurns the water with feet and wings, finally rising in a slowly ascending arc. Somewhere, miles to the southward, another segment approaches—touches—merges.
But what of our smaller birds? When the gray days begin to chill we may watch them hopping among the branches all day in their search for insects—a keener search now that so many of the more delicate flies and bugs have fallen chilled to the earth. Toward night the birds become more restless, feed less, wander aimlessly about, but, as we can tell by their chirps, remain near us until night has settled down. Then the irresistible maelstrom of migration instinct draws them upward,—upward,—climbing on fluttering wings, a mile or even higher into the thin air, and in company with thousands and tens of thousands they drift southward, sending vague notes down, but themselves invisible to us, save when now and then a tiny black mote floats across the face of the moon—an army of feathered mites, passing from tundra and spruce to bayou and palm.
In the morning, instead of the half-hearted warble of an insect eater, there sounds in our ears, like the ring of skates on ice, the metallic, whip-like chirp of a snowbird, confident of his winter's seed feast.
LIVES OF THE LANTERN BEARERS
To all wild creatures fire is an unknown and hated thing, although it is often so fascinating to them that they will stand transfixed gazing at its mysterious light, while a hunter, unnoticed, creeps up behind and shoots them.
In the depth of the sea, where the sun is powerless to send a single ray of light and warmth, there live many strange beings, fish and worms, which, by means of phosphorescent spots and patches, may light their own way. Of these strange sea folk we know nothing except from the fragments which are brought to the surface by the dredge; but over our fields and hedges, throughout the summer nights, we may see and study most interesting examples of creatures which produce their own light. Heedless of whether the moon shines brightly, or whether an overcast sky cloaks the blackest of nights, the fireflies blaze their sinuous path through life. These little yellow and black beetles, which illumine our way like a cloud of tiny meteors, have indeed a wonderful power, for the light which they produce within their own bodies is a cold glow, totally different from any fire of human agency.
In some species there seems to be a most romantic reason for their brilliance. Down among the grass blades are lowly, wingless creatures—the female fireflies, which, as twilight falls, leave their earthen burrows in the turf and, crawling slowly to the summit of some plant, they display the tiny lanterns which Nature has kindled within their bodies.
Far overhead shoot the strong-winged males, searching for their minute insect food, weaving glowing lines over all the shadowy landscape, and apparently heedless of all beneath them. Yet when the dim little beacon, hung out with the hopefulness of instinct upon the grass blade, is seen, all else is forgotten and the beetle descends to pay court to the poor, worm-like creature, so unlike him in appearance, but whose little illumination is her badge of nobility. The gallant suitor is as devoted as if the object of his affection were clad in all the gay colours of a butterfly; and he is fortunate if, when he has reached the signal among the grasses, he does not find a half-dozen firefly rivals before him.
When insects seek their mates by day, their characteristic colours or forms may be confused with surrounding objects; or those which by night are able in that marvellous way to follow the faintest scent up wind may have difficulties when cross currents of air are encountered; but the female firefly, waiting patiently upon her lowly leaf, has unequalled opportunity for winning her mate, for there is nothing to compare with or eclipse her flame. Except—I wonder if ever a firefly has hastened downward toward the strange glow which we sometimes see in the heart of decayed wood,—mistaking a patch of fox-fire for the love-light of which he was in search!
In other species, including the common one about our homes, the lady lightning-bug is more fortunate in possessing wings and is able to fly abroad like her mate.
Although this phosphorescence has been microscopically examined, it is but slightly understood. We know, however, that it is a wonderful process of combustion,—by which a bright light is produced without heat, smoke, or indeed fuel, except that provided by the life processes in the tiny body of the insect.
So shines a good deed in a naughty world. Shakespeare.
A STARFISH AND A DAISY
Day after day the forms of horses, dogs, birds, and other creatures pass before our eyes. We look at them and call them by the names which we have given them, and yet—we see them not. That is to say, we say that they have a head, a tail; they run or fly; they are of one colour beneath, another above, but beyond these bare meaningless facts most of us never go.
Let us think of the meaning of form. Take, for example, a flower—a daisy. Now, if we could imagine such an impossible thing as that a daisy blossom should leave its place of growth, creep down the stem and go wandering off through the grass, soon something would probably happen to its shape. It would perhaps get in the habit of creeping with some one ray always in front, and the friction of the grass stems on either side would soon wear and fray the ends of the side rays, while those behind might grow longer and longer. If we further suppose that this strange daisy flower did not like the water, the rays in front might be of service in warning it to turn aside. When their tips touched the surface and were wet by the water of some pool, the ambulatory blossom would draw back and start out in a new direction. Thus a theoretical head (with the beginnings of the organs of sense), and a long-drawn-out tail, would have their origin.
Such a remarkable simile is not as fanciful as it might at first appear; for although we know of no blossom which so sets at naught the sedentary life of the vegetable kingdom, yet among certain of the animals which live their lives beneath the waves of the sea a very similar thing occurs.
Many miles inland, even on high mountains, we may sometimes see thousands of little joints, or bead-like forms, imbedded in great rocky cliffs. They have been given the name of St. Cuthbert's beads. Occasionally in the vicinity of these fossils—for such they are—are found impressions of a graceful, flower-like head, with many delicately divided petals, fixed forever in the hard relief of stone. The name of stone lilies has been applied to them. The beads were once strung together in the form of a long stem, and at the top the strangely beautiful animal-lily nodded its head in the currents of some deep sea, which in the long ago of the earth's age covered the land—millions of years before the first man or beast or bird drew breath.
It was for a long time supposed that these wonderful creatures were extinct, but dredges have brought up from the dark depths of the sea actual living stone lilies, or crinoids, this being their real name. Few of us will probably ever have an opportunity of studying a crinoid alive, although in our museums we may see them preserved in glass jars. That, however, detracts nothing from the marvel of their history and relationship. They send root-like organs deep into the mud, where they coil about some shell and there cling fast. Then the stem grows tall and slender, and upon the summit blooms or is developed the animal-flower. Its nourishment is not drawn from the roots and the air, as is that of the daisy, but is provided by the tiny creatures which swim to its tentacles, or are borne thither by the ocean currents. Some of these crinoids, as if impatient of their plant-like life and asserting their animal kinship, at last tear themselves free from their stem and float off, turn over, and thereafter live happily upon the bottom of the sea, roaming where they will, creeping slowly along and fulfilling the destiny of our imaginary daisy.
And here a comparison comes suddenly to mind. How like to a many-rayed starfish is our creeping crinoid! Few of us, unless we had studies about these creatures, could distinguish between a crinoid and one of the frisky little dancing stars, or serpent stars, which are so common in the rocky caves along our coast. This relationship is no less real than apparent. The hard-skinned "five finger," or common starfish, which we may pick up on any beach, while it never grew upon a stem, yet still preserves the radial symmetry of its stalked ancestors. Pick up your starfish, carry it to the nearest field, and pluck a daisy close to the head. How interesting the comparison becomes, now that the knowledge of its meaning is plain. Anything which grows fast upon a single immovable stem tends to grow equally in all directions. We need not stop here, for we may include sea anemones and corals, those most marvellously coloured flowers of the sea, which grow upon a short, thick stalk and send out their tentacles equally in all directions. And many of the jelly-fish which throb along close beneath the surface swells were in their youth each a section of a pile of saucer-like individuals, which were fastened by a single stalk to some shell or piece of coral.
We will remember that it was suggested that the theoretical daisy would soon alter its shape after it entered upon active life. This is plainly seen in the starfish, although at first glance the creature seems as radially symmetrical as a wheel. But at one side of the body, between two of the arms, is a tiny perforated plate, serving to strain the water which enters the body, and thus the circular tendency is broken, and a beginning made toward right and left handedness. In certain sea-urchins, which are really starfishes with the gaps between the arms filled up, the body is elongated, and thus the head and tail conditions of all animals higher in the scale of life are represented.
THE DREAM OF THE YELLOW-THROAT
Many of us look with longing to the days of Columbus; we chafe at the thought of no more continents to discover; no unknown seas to encompass. But at our very doors is an "undiscovered bourne," from which, while the traveller invariably returns, yet he will have penetrated but slightly into its mysteries. This unexplored region is night.
When the dusk settles down and the creatures of sunlight seek their rest, a new realm of life awakens into being. The flaring colours and loud bustle of the day fade and are lost, and in their place come soft, gray tones and silence. The scarlet tanager seeks some hidden perch and soon from the same tree slips a silent, ghostly owl; the ruby of the hummingbird dies out as the gaudy flowers of day close their petals, and the gray wraiths of sphinx moths appear and sip nectar from the spectral moonflowers.
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With feet shod with silence, let us creep near a dense tangle of sweetbrier and woodbine late some summer evening and listen to the sounds of the night-folk. How few there are that our ears can analyse! We huddle close to the ground and shut our eyes. Then little by little we open them and set our senses of sight and hearing at keenest pitch. Even so, how handicapped are we compared to the wild creatures. A tiny voice becomes audible, then dies away,—entering for a moment the narrow range of our coarse hearing,—and finishing its message of invitation or challenge in vibrations too fine for our ears.
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Were we crouched by a dense yew hedge, bordering an English country lane, a nightingale might delight us,—a melody of day, softened, adapted, to the night. If the air about us was heavy with the scent of orange blossoms of some covert in our own southland, the glorious harmony of a mockingbird might surge through the gloom,—assuaging the ear as do the blossoms another sense.
But sitting still in our own home tangle let us listen,—listen. Our eyes have slipped the scales of our listless civilised life and pierce the darkness with the acuteness of our primeval forefathers; our ears tingle and strain.
A slender tongue of sound arises from the bush before us. Again and again it comes, muffled but increasing in volume. A tiny ball of feathers is perched in the centre of the tangle, with beak hidden in the deep, soft plumage, but ever and anon the little body throbs and the song falls gently on the silence of the night: "I beseech you! I beseech you! I beseech you!" A Maryland yellow-throat is asleep and singing in its dreams.
As we look and listen, a shadowless something hovers overhead, and, looking upward, we see a gray screech owl silently hanging on beating wings. His sharp ears have caught the muffled sound; his eyes search out the tangle, but the yellow-throat is out of reach. The little hunter drifts away into the blackness, the song ends and the sharp squeak of a mouse startles us. We rise slowly from our cramped position and quietly leave the mysteries of the night.
THE PASSING OF THE FLOCKS
It is September. August—the month of gray days for birds—has passed. The last pin-feather of the new winter plumage has burst its sheath, and is sleek and glistening from its thorough oiling with waterproof dressing, which the birds squeeze out with their bills from a special gland, and which they rub into every part of their plumage. The youngsters, now grown as large as their parents, have become proficient in fly-catching or berry-picking, as the case may be. Henceforth they forage for themselves, although if we watch carefully we may still see a parent's love prompting it to give a berry to its big offspring (indistinguishable save for this attention), who greedily devours it without so much as a wing flutter of thanks.
Two courses are open to the young birds who have been so fortunate as to escape the dangers of nestlinghood. They may unite in neighbourly flocks with others of their kind, as do the blackbirds of the marshes; or they may wander off by themselves, never going very far from their summer home, but perching alone each night in the thick foliage of some sheltering bush.
How wonderfully the little fellow adapts himself to the radical and sudden change in his life! Before this, his world has been a warm, soft-lined nest, with ever anxious parents to shelter him from rain and cold, or to stand with half-spread wings between him and the burning rays of the sun. He has only to open his mouth and call for food and a supply of the choicest morsels appears and is shoved far down his throat. If danger threatens, both parents are ready to fight to the last, or even willing to give their lives to protect him. Little wonder is it that the young birds are loth to leave; we can sympathise heartily with the last weaker brother, whose feet cling convulsively to the nest, who begs piteously for "just one more caterpillar!" But the mother bird is inexorable and stands a little way out of reach with the juiciest morsel she can find. Once out, the young bird never returns. Even if we catch the little chap before he finishes his first flight and replace him, the magic spell of home is broken, and he is out again the instant our hand frees him.
What a change the first night brings! Yet with unfailing instinct he squats on some twig, fluffs up his feathers, tucks his wee head behind his wing, and sleeps the sleep of his first adult birdhood as soundly as if this position of rest had been familiar to him since he broke through the shell.
We admire his aptitude for learning; how quickly his wings gain strength and skill; how soon he manages to catch his own dinner. But how all this pales before the accomplishment of a young brush turkey or moundbuilder of the antipodes. Hatched six or eight feet under ground, merely by the heat of decaying vegetation, no fond parents minister to his wants. Not only must he escape from the shell in the pressure and darkness of his underground prison (how we cannot tell), but he is then compelled to dig through six feet of leaves and mould before he reaches the sunlight. He finds himself well feathered, and at once spreads his small but perfect wings and goes humming off to seek his living alone and unattended.
It is September—the month of restlessness for the birds. Weeks ago the first migrants started on their southward journey, the more delicate insect-eaters going first, before the goldfinches and other late nesters had half finished housekeeping. The northern warblers drift past us southward—the magnolia, blackburnian, Canadian fly-catching, and others, bringing memories of spruce and balsam to those of us who have lived with them in the forests of the north.
"It's getting too cold for the little fellows," says the wiseacre, who sees you watching the smaller birds as they pass southward. Is it, though? What of the tiny winter wren which spends the zero weather with us? His coat is no warmer than those birds which have gone to the far tropics. And what of the flocks of birds which we occasionally come across in mid-winter, of species which generally migrate to Brazil? It is not the cold which deprives us of our summer friends, or at least the great majority of them; it is the decrease in food supply. Insects disappear, and only those birds which feed on seeds and buds, or are able to glean an insect diet from the crevices of fence and tree-trunk, can abide.
This is the month to climb out on the roof of your house, lie on your back and listen. He is a stolid person indeed who is not moved by the chirps and twitters which come down through the darkness. There is no better way to show what a wonderful power sound has upon our memories. There sounds a robin's note, and spring seems here again; through the night comes a white-throat's chirp, and we see again the fog-dimmed fields of a Nova Scotian upland; a sandpiper "peets" and the scene in our mind's eye as instantly changes, and so on. What a revelation if we could see as in daylight for a few moments! The sky would be pitted with thousands and thousands of birds flying from a few hundred yards to as high as one or two miles above the earth.
It only adds to the interest of this phenomenon when we turn to our learned books on birds for an explanation of the origin of migration, the whence and whither of the long journeys by day and night, and find—no certain answer! This is one of the greatest of the many mysteries of the natural world, of which little is known, although much is guessed, and the bright September nights may reveal to us—we know not what undiscovered facts.
I see my way as birds their trackless way. I shall arrive; what time, what circuit first, I ask not; but unless God sends his hail Of blinding fire-balls, sleet or driving snow, In sometime, his good time, I shall arrive; He guides me and the bird. In his good time. Robert Browning.
GHOSTS OF THE EARTH
We may know the name of every tree near our home; we may recognise each blossom in the field, every weed by the wayside; yet we should be astonished to be told that there are hundreds of plants—many of them of exquisite beauty—which we have overlooked in very sight of our doorstep. What of the green film which is drawn over every moist tree-trunk or shaded wall, or of the emerald film which coats the water of the pond's edge? Or the gray lichens painting the rocks and logs, toning down the shingles; the toadstools which, like pale vegetable ghosts, spring up in a night from the turf; or the sombre puff balls which seem dead from their birth?
The moulds which cover bread and cheese with a delicate tracery of filaments and raise on high their tiny balls of spores are as worthy to be called a plant growth as are the great oaks which shade our houses. The rusts and mildews and blights which destroy our fruit all have their beauty of growth and fruition when we examine them through a lens, and the yeast by which flour and water is made to rise into the porous, spongy dough is just as truly a plant as is the geranium blossoming at the kitchen window.
If we wonder at the fierce struggle for existence which allows only a few out of the many seeds of a maple or thistle to germinate and grow up, how can we realise the obstacles with which these lowly plants have to contend? A weed in the garden may produce from one to ten thousand seeds, and one of our rarest ferns scatters in a single season over fifty millions spores; while from the larger puff-balls come clouds of unnumbered millions of spores, blowing to the ends of the earth; yet we may search for days without finding one full-grown individual.
All the assemblage of mushrooms and toadstools,—although the most deadly may flaunt bright hues of scarlet and yellow,—yet lack the healthy green of ordinary plants. This is due to the fact that they have become brown parasites or scavengers, and instead of transmuting heat and moisture and the salts of the earth into tissue by means of the pleasant-hued chlorophyll, these sylvan ghosts subsist upon the sap of roots or the tissues of decaying wood. Emancipated from the normal life of the higher plants, even flowers have been denied them and their fruit is but a cloud of brown dust,—each mote a simple cell.
But what of the delicate Indian pipe which gleams out from the darkest aisles of the forest? If we lift up its hanging head we will find a perfect flower, and its secret is discovered. Traitor to its kind, it has dropped from the ranks of the laurels, the heather, and the jolly little wintergreens to the colourless life of a parasite,—hobnobbing with clammy toadstools and slimy lichens. Its common names are all appropriate,—ice-plant, ghost-flower, corpse-plant.
Nevertheless it is a delicately beautiful creation, and we have no right to apply our human standards of ethics to these children of the wild, whose only chance of life is to seize every opportunity,—to make use of each hint of easier existence.
We have excellent descriptions and classifications of mushrooms and toadstools, but of the actual life of these organisms, of the conditions of their growth, little is known. Some of the most hideous are delicious to our palate, some of the most beautiful are certain death. The splendid red and yellow amanita, which lights up a dark spot in the woods like some flowering orchid, is a veritable trap of death. Though human beings have learned the fatal lesson and leave it alone, the poor flies in the woods are ever deceived by its brightness, or odour, and a circle of their bodies upon the ground shows the result of their ignorance.
Long before man began to inherit the earth, giant beavers built their dams and swam in the streams of long ago. For ages these creatures have been extinct. Our forefathers, during historical times, found smaller beavers abundant, and with such zeal did they trap them that this modern race is now well-nigh vanished. Nothing is left to us but the humble muskrat,—which in name and in facile adaptation to the encroachments of civilization has little in common with his more noble predecessor. Yet in many ways his habits of life bring to mind the beaver.
Let us make the most of our heritage and watch at the edge of a stream some evening in late fall. If the muskrats have half finished their mound of sticks and mud, which is to serve them for a winter home, we will be sure to see some of them at work. Two lines of ripples furrow the surface outward from the farther bank, and a small dark form clambers upon the pile of rubbish. Suddenly a spat! sounds at our very feet, and a muskrat dives headlong into the water, followed by the one on the ground. Another spat! and splash comes from farther down the stream, and so the danger signal of the muskrat clan is passed along,—a single flap upon the water with the flat of the tail.
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If we wait silent and patient, the work will be taken up anew, and in the pale moonlight the little labourers will fashion their house, lining the upper chamber with soft grasses, and shaping the steep passageway which will lead to the ever-unfrozen stream-bed. Either here or in the snug tunnel nest deep in the bank the young muskrats are born, and here they are weaned upon toothsome mussels and succulent lily roots.
Safe from all save mink and owl and trap, these sturdy muskrats spend the summer in and about the streams; and when winter shuts down hard and fast, they live lives more interesting than any of our other animals. The ground freezes their tunnels into tubes of iron,—the ice seals the surface, past all gnawing out; and yet, amid the quietly flowing water, where snow and wind never penetrate, these warm-blooded, air-breathing muskrats live the winter through, with only the trout and eels for company. Their food is the bark and pith of certain plants; their air is what leaks through the house of sticks, or what may collect at the melting-place of ice and shore.
Stretched full length on the smooth ice, let us look through into that strange nether world, where the stress of storm is unknown. Far beneath us sinuous black forms undulate through the water,—from tunnel to house and back again. As we gaze down through the crystalline mass, occasional fractures play pranks with the objects below. The animate shapes seem to take unto themselves greater bulk; their tails broaden, their bodies become many times longer. For a moment the illusion is perfect; thousands of centuries have slipped back, and we are looking at the giant beavers of old.
Let us give thanks that even the humble muskrat still holds his own. A century or two hence and posterity may look with wonder at his stuffed skin in a museum!
Spiders form good subjects for a rainy-day study, and two hours spent in a neglected garret watching these clever little beings will often arouse such interest that we shall be glad to devote many days of sunshine to observing those species which hunt and build, and live their lives in the open fields. There is no insect in the world with more than six legs, and as a spider has eight he is therefore thrown out of the company of butterflies, beetles, and wasps and finds himself in a strange assemblage. Even to his nearest relatives he bears little resemblance, for when we realise that scorpions and horseshoe crabs must call him cousin, we perceive that his is indeed an aberrant bough on the tree of creation.
Leaving behind the old-fashioned horseshoe crabs to feel their way slowly over the bottom of the sea, the spiders have won for themselves on land a place high above the mites, ticks, and daddy-long-legs, and in their high development and intricate powers of resource they yield not even to the ants and bees.
Nature has provided spiders with an organ filled always with liquid which, on being exposed to the air, hardens, and can be drawn out into the slender threads we know as cobweb. The silkworm encases its body with a mile or more of gleaming silk, but there its usefulness is ended as far as the silkworm is concerned. But spiders have found a hundred uses for their cordage, some of which are startlingly similar to human inventions.
Those spiders which burrow in the earth hang their tunnels with silken tapestries impervious to wet, which at the same time act as lining to the tube. Then the entrance may be a trap-door of soil and silk, hinged with strong silken threads; or in the turret spiders which are found in our fields there is reared a tiny tower of leaves or twigs bound together with silk. Who of us has not teased the inmate by pushing a bent straw into his stronghold and awaiting his furious onslaught upon the innocent stalk!
A list of all the uses of cobwebs would take more space than we can spare; but of these the most familiar is the snare set for unwary flies,—the wonderfully ingenious webs which sparkle with dew among the grasses or stretch from bush to bush. The framework is of strong webbing and upon this is closely woven the sticky spiral which is so elastic, so ethereal, and yet strong enough to entangle a good-sized insect. How knowing seems the little worker, as when, the web and his den of concealment being completed, he spins a strong cable from the centre of the web to the entrance of his watch-tower. Then, when a trembling of his aerial spans warns him of a capture, how eagerly he seizes his master cable and jerks away on it, thus vibrating the whole structure and making more certain the confusion of his victim.
What is more interesting than to see a great yellow garden-spider hanging head downward in the centre of his web, when we approach too closely, instead of deserting his snare, set it vibrating back and forth so rapidly that he becomes a mere blur; a more certain method of escaping the onslaught of a bird than if he ran to the shelter of a leaf.
Those spiders which leap upon their prey instead of setting snares for it have still a use for their threads of life, throwing out a cable as they leap, to break their fall if they miss their foothold. What a strange use of the cobweb is that of the little flying spiders! Up they run to the top of a post, elevate their abdomens and run out several threads which lengthen and lengthen until the breeze catches them and away go the wingless aeronauts for yards or for miles as fortune and wind and weather may dictate! We wonder if they can cut loose or pull in their balloon cables at will.
Many species of spiders spin a case for holding their eggs, and some carry this about with them until the young are hatched.
A most fascinating tale would unfold could we discover all the uses of cobweb when the spiders themselves are through with it. Certain it is that our ruby-throated hummingbird robs many webs to fasten together the plant down, wood pulp, and lichens which compose her dainty nest.
Search the pond and you will find another member of the spider family swimming about at ease beneath the surface, thoroughly aquatic in habits, but breathing a bubble of air which he carries about with him. When his supply is low he swims to a submarine castle of silk, so air-tight that he can keep it filled with a large bubble of air, upon which he draws from time to time.
And so we might go on enumerating almost endless uses for the web which is Nature's gift to these little waifs, who ages ago left the sea and have won a place for themselves in the sunshine among the butterflies and flowers.
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In the balsam-perfumed shade of our northern forests we may sometimes find growing in abundance the tiny white dwarf cornel, or bunch-berry, as its later cluster of scarlet fruit makes the more appropriate name. These miniature dogwood blossoms (or imitation blossoms, as the white divisions are not real petals) are very conspicuous against the dark moss, and many insects seem to seek them out and to find it worth while to visit them. If we look very carefully we may find that this discovery is not original with us, for a little creature has long ago found out the fondness of bees and other insects for these flowers and has put his knowledge to good use.
One day I saw what I thought was a swelling on one part of the flower, but a closer look showed it was a living spider. Here was protective colouring carried to a wonderful degree. The body of the spider was white and glistening, like the texture of the white flower on which he rested. On his abdomen were two pink, oblong spots of the same tint and shape as the pinkened tips of the false petals. Only by an accident could he be discovered by a bird, and when I focussed my camera, I feared that the total lack of contrast would make the little creature all but invisible.
Confident with the instinct handed down through many generations, the spider trusted implicitly to his colour for safety and never moved, though I placed the lens so close that it threw a life-sized image on the ground-glass. When all was ready, and before I had pressed the bulb, the thought came to me whether this wonderful resemblance should be attributed to the need of escaping from insectivorous birds, or to the increased facility with which the spider would be able to catch its prey. At the very instant of making the exposure, before I could will the stopping of the movement of my fingers, if I had so wished, my question was answered. A small, iridescent, green bee flew down, like a spark of living light, upon the flower, and, quick as thought, was caught in the jaws of the spider. Six of his eight legs were not brought into use, but were held far back out of the way.
Here, on my lens, I had a little tragedy of the forest preserved for all time.
There was no bud, no bloom upon the bowers; The spiders wove their thin shrouds night by night; The thistledown, the only ghost of flowers, Sailed slowly by—passed noiseless out of sight. Thomas Buchanan Read.
AUTUMN HUNTING WITH A FIELD GLASS
One of the most uncertain of months is October, and most difficult for the beginner in bird study. If we are just learning to enjoy the life of wood and field, we will find hard tangles to unravel among the birds of this month. Many of the smaller species which passed us on their northward journey last spring are now returning and will, perhaps, tarry a week or more before starting on the next nocturnal stage of their passage tropicward. Many are almost unrecognisable in their new winter plumage. Male scarlet tanagers are now green tanagers, goldfinches are olive finches, while instead of the beautiful black, white, and cream dress which made so easy the identification of the meadow bobolinks in the spring, search will now be rewarded only by some plump, overgrown sparrows—reedbirds—which are really bobolinks in disguise.
Orchard orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks come and are welcomed, but the multitude of female birds of these species which appear may astonish one, until he discovers that the young birds, both male and female, are very similar to their mother in colour. We have no difficulty in distinguishing between adult bay-breasted and black poll warblers, but he is indeed a keen observer who can point out which is which when the young birds of the year pass.
October is apt to be a month of extremes. One day the woods are filled with scores of birds, and on the next hardly one will be seen. Often a single species or family will predominate, and one will remember "thrush days" or "woodpecker days." Yellow-bellied sapsuckers cross the path, flickers call and hammer in every grove, while in the orchards, and along the old worm-eaten fences, glimpses of red, white, and black show where redheaded woodpeckers are looping from trunk to post. When we listen to the warble of bluebirds, watch the mock courtship of the high-holders, and discover the fall violets under leaves and burrs, for an instant a feeling of spring rushes over us; but the yellow leaves blow against our face, the wind sighs through the cedars, and we realise that the black hand of the frost will soon end the brave efforts of the wild pansies.
The thrushes, ranking in some ways at the head of all our birds, drift through the woods, brown and silent as the leaves around them. Splendid opportunities they give us to test our powers of woodcraft. A thrush passes like a streak of brown light and perches on a tree some distance away. We creep from tree to tree, darting nearer when his head is turned. At last we think we are within range, and raise our weapon. No, a leaf is in the way, and the dancing spots of sunlight make our aim uncertain. We move a little closer and again take aim, and this time he cannot escape us. Carefully our double-barrelled binoculars cover him, and we get what powder and lead could never give us—the quick glance of the hazel eye, the trembling, half-raised feathers on his head, and a long look at the beautifully rounded form perched on the twig, which a wanton shot would destroy forever. The rich rufous colouring of the tail proclaims him a singer of singers—a hermit thrush. We must be on the watch these days for the beautiful wood thrush, the lesser spotted veery, the well named olive-back and the rarer gray-cheeked thrush. We may look in vain among the thrushes in our bird books for the golden-crowned and water thrush, for these walkers of the woods are thrushes only in appearance, and belong to the family of warblers. The long-tailed brown thrashers, lovers of the undergrowth, are still more thrush-like in look, but in our classifications they hold the position of giant cousins to the wrens. Even the finches contribute a mock thrush to our list, the big, spotted-breasted fox sparrow, but he rarely comes in number before mid October or November. Of course we all know that our robin is a true thrush, young robins having their breasts thickly spotted with black, while even the old birds retain a few spots and streaks on the throat.
If we search behind the screen of leaves and grass around us we may discover many tragedies. One fall I picked up a dead olive-backed thrush in the Zoological Park. There were no external signs of violence, but I found that the food canal was pretty well filled with blood. The next day still another bird was found in the same condition, and the day after two more. Within a week I noted in my journal eight of these thrushes, all young birds of the year, and all with the same symptoms of disorder. I could only surmise that some poisonous substance, some kind of berry, perhaps some attractive but deadly exotic from the Botanical Gardens, had tempted the inexperienced birds and caused their deaths.
As we walk through the October woods a covey of ruffed grouse springs up before us, overhead a flock of robins dashes by, and the birds scatter to feed among the wild grapes. The short round wings of the grouse whirr noisily, while the quick wing beats of the robins make little sound. Both are suited to their uses. The robin may travel league upon league to the south, while the grouse will not go far except to find new bud or berry pastures. His wings, as we have noticed before, are fitted rather for sudden emergencies, to bound up before the teeth of the fox close upon him, to dodge into close cover when the nose of the hound almost touches his trembling body. When he scrambled out of his shell last May he at once began to run about and to try his tiny wings, and little by little he taught himself to fly. But in the efforts he got many a tumble and broke or lost many a feather. Nature, however, has foreseen this, and to her grouse children she gives several changes of wing feathers to practise with, before the last strong winter quills come in.
How different it is with the robin. Naked and helpless he comes from his blue shell, and only one set of wing quills falls to his share, so it behooves him to be careful indeed of these. He remains in the nest until they are strong enough to bear him up, and his first attempts are carefully supervised by his anxious parents. And so the glimpse we had in the October woods of the two pair of wings held more of interest than we at first thought.
In many parts of the country, about October fifteenth the crows begin to flock back and forth to and from their winter roosts. In some years it is the twelfth, or again the seventeenth, but the constancy of the mean date is remarkable. Many of our winter visitants have already slipped into our fields and woods and taken the places of some of the earlier southern migrants; but the daily passing of the birds which delay their journey until fairly pinched by the lack of food at the first frosts extends well into November. It is not until the foliage on the trees and bushes becomes threadbare and the last migrants have flown, that our northern visitors begin to take a prominent place in our avifauna.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn Among the river-sallows, borne aloft Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft, And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
A WOODCHUCK AND A GREBE
No fact comes to mind which is not more impressed upon us by the valuable aid of comparisons, and Nature is ever offering antitheses. At this season we are generally given a brief glimpse—the last for the year—of two creatures, one a mammal, the other a bird, which are as unlike in their activities as any two living creatures could well be.
What a type of lazy contentment is the woodchuck, as throughout the hot summer days he lies on his warm earthen hillock at the entrance of his burrow. His fat body seems almost to flow down the slope, and when he waddles around for a nibble of clover it is with such an effort that we feel sure he would prefer a comfortable slow starvation, were it not for the unpleasant feelings involved in such a proceeding.
As far as I know there are but two things which, can rouse a woodchuck to strenuous activity; when a dog is in pursuit he can make his stumpy feet fairly twinkle as he flies for his burrow, and when a fox or a man is digging him out, he can literally worm his way through the ground, frequently escaping by means of his wonderful digging power. But when September or October days bring the first chill, he gives one last yawn upon the world and stows himself away at the farthest end of his tunnel, there to sleep away the winter. Little more does he know of the snows and blizzards than the bird which has flown to the tropics. Even storing up fruits or roots is too great an effort for the indolent woodchuck, and in his hibernation stupor he draws only upon the fat which his lethargic summer life has accumulated within his skin.
As we might expect from a liver of such a slothful life, the family traits of the woodchuck are far from admirable and there is said to be little affection shown by the mother woodchuck toward her young. The poor little fellows are pushed out of the burrow and driven away to shift for themselves as soon as possible. Many of them must come to grief from hawks and foxes. Closely related to the squirrels, these large marmots (for they are first cousins to the prairie dogs) are as unlike them in activity as they are in choice of a haunt.
What a contrast to all this is the trim feathered form which we may see on the mill pond some clear morning. Alert and wary, the grebe paddles slowly along, watchful of every movement. If we approach too closely, it may settle little by little, like a submarine opening its water compartments, until nothing is visible except the head with its sharp beak. Another step and the bird has vanished, swallowed up by the lake, and the chances are a hundred to one against our discovering the motionless neck and the tiny eye which rises again among the water weeds.
This little grebe comes of a splendid line of ancestors, some of which were even more specialised for an aquatic life. These paid the price of existence along lines too narrow and vanished from the earth. The grebe, however, has so far stuck to a life which bids fair to allow his race safety for many generations, but he is perilously near the limit. Every fall he migrates far southward, leaving his northern lakes, but if the water upon which he floats should suddenly dry up, he would be almost as helpless as the gasping fish; for his wings are too weak to lift him from the ground. He must needs have a long take-off, a flying start, aided by vigorous paddling along the surface of the water, before he can rise into the air.
Millions of years ago there lived birds built on the general grebe plan and who doubtless were derived from the same original stock, but which lived in the great seas of that time. Far from being able to migrate, every external trace of wing was gone and these great creatures, almost as large as a man and with sharp teeth in their beaks, must have hitched themselves like seals along the edge of the beach, and perhaps laid their eggs on the pebbles as do the terns to-day.
The grebe, denied the power to rise easily and even, to ran about on land without considerable effort, is, however, splendidly adapted to its water life, and the rapidity of its motions places it near the head of the higher active creatures,—with the woodchuck near the opposite extreme.
THE VOICE OF THE ANIMALS
Throughout the depths of the sea, silence, as well as absolute darkness, prevails. The sun penetrates only a short distance below the surface, at most a few hundred feet, and all disturbance from storms ceases far above that depth, Where the pressure is a ton or more to the square inch, it is very evident that no sound vibration can exist. Near the surface it is otherwise. The majority of fishes have no lungs and of course no vocal chords, but certain species, such as the drumfish, are able to distend special sacs with gas or air, or in other ways to produce sounds. One variety succeeds in producing a number of sounds by gritting the teeth, and when the male fish is attempting to charm the female by dashing round her, spreading his fins to display his brilliant colours, this gritting of the teeth holds a prominent place in the performance, although whether the fair finny one makes her choice because she prefers a high-toned grit instead of a lower one can only be imagined! But vibrations, whether of sound or of water pressure, are easily carried near the surface, and fishes are provided with organs to receive and record them. One class of such organs has little in common with ears, as we speak of them; they are merely points on the head and body which are susceptible to the watery vibrations. These points are minute cavities, surrounded with tiny cilia or hairs, which connect with the ends of the nerves.
The ears of the frogs and all higher animals are, like the tongue-bone and the lower jaw, derived originally from portions of gills, which the aquatic ancestors of living animals used to draw the oxygen from the water. This is one of the most wonderful and interesting changes which the study of evolution has unfolded to our knowledge.
The disproportionate voices are produced by means of an extra amount of skin on the throat, which is distensible and acts as a drum to increase the volume of sound. In certain bullfrogs which grow to be as large as the head of a man, the bellowing power is deafening and is audible for miles. In Chile a small species of frog, measuring only about an inch in length, has two internal vocal sacs which are put to a unique use. Where these frogs live, water is very scarce and the polliwogs have no chance to live and develop in pools, as is ordinarily the case. So when the eggs are laid, they are immediately taken by the male frog and placed in these capacious sacs, which serve as nurseries for them all through their hatching and growing period of life. Although there is no water in these chambers, yet their gills grow out and are reabsorbed, just as is the case in ordinary tadpoles. When their legs are fully developed, they clamber up to their father's broad mouth and get their first glimpse of the great world from his lower lip. When fifteen partly developed polliwogs are found in the pouches of one little frog, he looks as if he had gorged himself to bursting with tadpoles. To such curious uses may vocal organs be put.
Turtles are voiceless, except at the period of laying eggs, when they acquire a voice, which even in the largest is very tiny and piping, like some very small insect rather than a two-hundred-pound tortoise. Some of the lizards utter shrill, insect-like squeaks.
A species of gecko, a small, brilliantly coloured lizard, has the back of its tail armed with plates. These it has a habit of rubbing together, and by this means it produces a shrill, chirruping sound, which actually attracts crickets and grasshoppers toward the noise, so that they fall easy prey to this reptilian trapper. So in colour, sound, motion, and many other ways, animals act and react upon each other, a useful and necessary habit being perverted by an enemy, so that the death of the creature results. Yet it would never be claimed that the lizard thought out this mimicking. It probably found that certain actions resulted in the approach of good dinners, and in its offspring this action might be partly instinctive, and each generation would perpetuate it. If it had been an intentional act, other nearly related species of lizards would imitate it, as soon as they perceived the success which attended it.
That many animals have a kind of language is nowadays admitted to be a truism, but this is more evident among mammals and birds, and, reviewing the classes of the former, we find a more or less defined ascending complexity and increased number of varying sounds as we pass from the lower forms—kangaroos and moles—to the higher herb-and-flesh-eaters, and particularly monkeys.
Squeaks and grunts constitute the vocabulary, if we dignify it by that name, of the mammals. The sloths, those curious animals whose entire life is spent clinging to the underside of branches, on whose leaves they feed, may be said almost to be voiceless, so seldom do they give utterance to the nameless wail which constitutes their only utterance. Even when being torn to pieces by an enemy, they offer no resistance and emit no sound, but fold their claws around their body and submit to the inevitable as silently and as stoically as did ever an ancient Spartan.
Great fear of death will often cause an animal to utter sounds which are different from those produced under any other conditions. When an elephant is angry or excited, his trumpeting is terribly loud and shrill; but when a mother elephant is "talking" to her child, while the same sonorous, metallic quality is present, yet it is wonderfully softened and modulated. A horse is a good example of what the fear of death will do. The ordinary neigh of a horse is very familiar, but in battle when mortally wounded, or having lost its master and being terribly frightened, a horse will scream, and those who have heard it, say it is more awful than the cries of pain of a human being.
Deer and elk often astonish one by the peculiar sounds which they produce. An elk can bellow loudly, especially when fighting; but when members of a herd call to each other, or when surprised by some unusual appearance, they whistle—a sudden, sharp whistle, like the tin mouthpieces with revolving discs, which were at one time so much in evidence.
The growl of a bear differs greatly under varying circumstances. There is the playful growl, uttered when two individuals are wrestling, and the terrible "sound"—no word expresses it—to which a bear, cornered and driven to the last extremity, gives utterance—fear, hate, dread, and awful passion mingled and expressed in sound. One can realise the fearful terror which this inspires only when one has, as I have, stood up to a mad bear, repelling charge after charge, with only an iron pike between one's self and those powerful fangs and claws. The long-drawn moan of a polar bear on a frosty night is another phase; this, too, is expressive, but only of those wonderful Arctic scenes where night and day are as one to this great seal-hunter.
The dog has made man his god,—giving up his life for his master would be but part of his way of showing his love if he had it in his power to do more. So, too, the dog has attempted to adapt his speech to his master's, and the result is a bark. No wild coyotes or wolves bark, but when bands of dogs descended from domesticated animals run wild, their howls are modulated and a certain unmistakable barking quality imparted. The drawn-out howl of a great gray wolf is an impressive sound and one never to be forgotten. Only the fox seems to possess the ability to bark in its native tongue. The sounds which the cats, great and small, reproduce are most varied. Nothing can be much more intimidating than the roar of a lion, or more demoniacal than the arguments which our house-pets carry on at night on garden fences.
What use the sounds peculiar to sea-lions subserve in their life on the great ocean, or their haunts along the shore, can only be imagined, but surely such laudable perseverance, day after day, to out-utter each other, must be for some good reason!
Volumes have been written concerning the voices of the two remaining groups of animals—monkeys and birds. In the great family of the four-handed folk, more varieties of sound are produced than would be thought possible. Some of the large baboons are awful in their vocalisations. Terrible agony or remorse is all that their moans suggest to us, no matter what frame of mind on the part of the baboon induces them. Of all vertebrates the tiny marmosets reproduce most exactly the chirps of crickets and similar insects, and to watch one of these little human faces, see its mouth open, and instead of, as seems natural, words issuing forth, to hear these shrill squeaks is most surprising. Young orang-utans, in their "talk," as well as in their actions, are counterparts of human infants. The scream of frantic rage when a banana is offered and jerked away, the wheedling tone when the animal wishes to be comforted by the keeper on account of pain or bruise, and the sound of perfect contentment and happiness when petted by the keeper whom it learns to love,—all are almost indistinguishable from like utterances of a human child.