Nearly a week afterward another dwelling was begun, well away from the treacherous channel, but the architects did not work at it with much heart: the material was very scarce, the ice hindered; and before the basement story was fairly finished, Winter had the pond under his lock and key.
In other localities I noticed that, where the nests were placed on the banks of streams, they were made secure against the floods by being built amid a small clump of bushes. When the fall of 1879 came, the muskrats were very tardy about beginning their house, laying the corner-stone—or the corner-sod—about December 1, and continuing the work slowly and indifferently. On the 15th of the month the nest was not yet finished. This, I said, indicates a mild winter; and, sure enough, the season was one of the mildest known for many years. The rats had little use for their house.
Again, in the fall of 1880, while the weather-wise were wagging their heads, some forecasting a mild, some a severe winter, I watched with interest for a sign from my muskrats. About November 1, a month earlier than the previous year, they began their nest, and worked at it with a will. They appeared to have just got tidings of what was coming. If I had taken the hint so palpably given, my celery would not have been frozen up in the ground, and my apples caught in unprotected places. When the cold wave struck us, about November 20, my four-legged "I-told-you-so's" had nearly completed their dwelling; it lacked only the ridge-board, so to speak; it needed a little "topping out," to give it a finished look. But this it never got. The winter had come to stay, and it waxed more and more severe, till the unprecedented cold of the last days of December must have astonished even the wise muskrats in their snug retreat. I approached their nest at this time, a white mound upon the white, deeply frozen surface of the pond, and wondered if there was any life in that apparent sepulchre. I thrust my walking-stick sharply into it, when there was a rustle and a splash into the water, as the occupant made his escape. What a damp basement that house has, I thought, and what a pity to rout a peaceful neighbor out of his bed in this weather, and into such a state of things as this! But water does not wet the muskrat; his fur is charmed, and not a drop penetrates it.
Where the ground is favorable, the muskrats do not build these mound-like nests, but burrow into the bank a long distance, and establish their winter-quarters there.
Shall we not say, then, in view of the above facts, that this little creature is weatherwise? The hitting of the mark twice might be mere good luck; but three bull's-eyes in succession is not a mere coincidence; it is a proof of skill. The muskrat is not found in the Old World, which is a little singular, as other rats so abound there, and as those slow-going English streams especially, with their grassy banks, are so well suited to him. The water-rat of Europe is smaller, but of similar nature and habits. The muskrat does not hibernate like some rodents, but is pretty active all winter. In December I noticed in my walk where they had made excursions of a few yards to an orchard for frozen apples. One day, along a little stream, I saw a mink track amid those of the muskrat; following it up, I presently came to blood and other marks of strife upon the snow beside a stone wall. Looking in between the stones, I found the carcass of the luckless rat, with its head and neck eaten away. The mink had made a meal of him.
CHEATING THE SQUIRRELS
For the largest and finest chestnuts I had last fall I was indebted to the gray squirrels. Walking through the early October woods one day, I came upon a place where the ground was thickly strewn with very large unopened chestnut burrs. On examination, I found that every burr had been cut square off with about an inch of the stem adhering, and not one had been left on the tree. It was not accident, then, but design. Whose design? The squirrels'. The fruit was the finest I had ever seen in the woods, and some wise squirrel had marked it for his own. The burrs were ripe, and had just begun to divide, not "threefold," but fourfold, "to show the fruit within." The squirrel that had taken all this pains had evidently reasoned with himself thus: "Now, these are extremely fine chestnuts, and I want them; if I wait till the burrs open on the tree, the crows and jays will be sure to carry off a great many of the nuts before they fall; then, after the wind has rattled out what remain, there are the mice, the chipmunks, the red squirrels, the raccoons, the grouse, to say nothing of the boys and the pigs, to come in for their share; so I will forestall events a little: I will cut off the burrs when they have matured, and a few days of this dry October weather will cause every one of them to open on the ground; I shall be on hand in the nick of time to gather up my nuts." The squirrel, of course, had to take the chances of a prowler like myself coming along, but he had fairly stolen a march on his neighbors. As I proceeded to collect and open the burrs, I was half prepared to hear an audible protest from the trees about, for I constantly fancied myself watched by shy but jealous eyes. It is an interesting inquiry how the squirrel knew the burrs would open if left to lie on the ground a few days. Perhaps he did not know, but thought the experiment worth trying.
The gray squirrel is peculiarly an American product, and might serve very well as a national emblem. The Old World can beat us on rats and mice, but we are far ahead on squirrels, having five or six species to Europe's one.
THE SKYLARK ON THE HUDSON
My note-book of the past season is enriched with the unusual incident of an English skylark in full song above an Esopus meadow. I was poking about a marshy place in a low field one morning in early May, when, through the maze of bird-voices,—laughter of robins, call of meadowlarks, song of bobolinks, ditty of sparrows, whistle of orioles, twitter of swallows,—with which the air was filled, my ear suddenly caught an unfamiliar strain. I paused to listen: can it be possible, I thought, that I hear a lark, or am I dreaming? The song came from the air, above a wide, low meadow many hundred yards away. Withdrawing a few paces to a more elevated position, I bent my eye and ear eagerly in that direction. Yes, that unstinted, jubilant, skyward, multitudinous song can be none other than the lark's! Any of our native songsters would have ceased while I was listening. Presently I was fortunate enough to catch sight of the bird. He had reached his climax in the sky, and was hanging with quivering wings beneath a small white cloud, against which his form was clearly revealed. I had seen and heard the lark in England, else I should still have been in doubt about the identity of this singer. While I was climbing a fence I was obliged to take my eye from the bird, and when I looked again the song had ceased and the lark had gone. I was soon in the meadow above which I had heard him, and the first bird I flushed was the lark.
How strange he looked to my eye (I use the masculine gender because it was a male bird, but an Irishman laboring in the field, to whom I related my discovery, spoke touchingly of the bird as "she," and I notice that the old poets do the same); his long, sharp wings, and something in his manner of flight suggested a shore-bird. I followed him about the meadow and got several snatches of song out of him, but not again the soaring, skyward flight and copious musical shower. By appearing to pass by, I several times got within a few yards of him; as I drew near he would squat in the stubble, and then suddenly start up, and, when fairly launched, sing briefly till he alighted again fifteen or twenty rods away. I came twice the next day and twice the next, and each time found the lark in the meadow or heard his song from the air or the sky. What was especially interesting was that the lark had "singled out with affection" one of our native birds, and the one that most resembled its kind, namely, the vesper sparrow, or grass finch. To this bird I saw him paying his addresses with the greatest assiduity. He would follow it about and hover above it, and by many gentle indirections seek to approach it. But the sparrow was shy, and evidently did not know what to make of her distinguished foreign lover. It would sometimes take refuge in a bush, when the lark, not being a percher, would alight upon the ground beneath it. This sparrow looks enough like the lark to be a near relation. Its color is precisely the same, and it has the distinguishing mark of the two lateral white quills in its tail. It has the same habit of skulking in the stubble or the grass as you approach; it is exclusively a field-bird, and certain of its notes might have been copied from the lark's song. In size it is about a third smaller, and this is the most marked difference between them. With the nobler bipeds, this would not have been any obstacle to the union, and in this case the lark was evidently quite ready to ignore the difference, but the sparrow persisted in saying him nay. It was doubtless this obstinacy on her part that drove the lark away, for, on the fifth day, I could not find him, and have never seen nor heard him since. I hope he found a mate somewhere, but it is quite improbable. The bird had, most likely, escaped from a cage, or, maybe, it was a survivor of a number liberated some years ago on Long Island. There is no reason why I the lark should not thrive in this country as well as in Europe, and, if a few hundred were liberated in any of our fields in April or May, I have little doubt they would soon become established. And what an acquisition it would be! As a songster, the lark is deserving of all the praise that has been bestowed upon him. He would not add so much to the harmony or melody of our bird-choir as he would add to its blithesomeness, joyousness, and power. His voice is the jocund and inspiring voice of a spring morning. It is like a ceaseless and hilarious clapping of hands. I was much interested in an account a friend gave me of the first skylark he heard while abroad. He had been so full of the sights and wonders of the Old World that he had quite forgotten the larks, when one day, as he was walking somewhere near the sea, a brown bird started up in front of him, and mounting upward began to sing. It drew his attention, and as the bird went skyward, pouring out his rapid and jubilant notes, like bees from a hive in swarming-time, the truth suddenly flashed upon the observer.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, "that is a skylark; there is no mistaking that bird."
It is this unique and unmistakable character of the lark's song, and its fountain-like sparkle and copiousness, that are the main sources of its charm.
How the nocturnal insects, the tree-crickets and katydids, fail as the heat fails! They are musicians that play fast or slow, strong or feeble, just as the heat of the season waxes or wanes; and they play as long as life lasts: when their music ceases, they are dead. The katydids begin in August, and cry with great vigor and spirit, "Katy-did," "Katydid," or "Katy-did n't." Toward the last of September they have taken in sail a good deal, and cry simply, "Katy," "Katy," with frequent pauses and resting-spells. In October they languidly gasp or rasp, "Kate," "Kate," "Kate," and before the end of the month they become entirely inaudible, though I suspect that if one's ear were sharp enough he might still hear a dying whisper, "Kate," "Kate." Those cousins of Katy, the little green purring tree-crickets, fail in the same way and at the same time. When their chorus is fullest, the warm autumn night fairly throbs with the soft lulling undertone. I notice that the sound is in waves or has a kind of rhythmic beat. What a gentle, unobtrusive background it forms for the sharp, reedy notes of the katydids! As the season advances, their life ebbs and ebbs: you hear one here and one there, but the air is no longer filled with that regular pulse-beat of sound. One by one the musicians cease, till, perhaps on some mild night late in October, you hear—just hear and that is all—the last feeble note of the last of these little harpers.
LOVE AND WAR AMONG THE BIRDS
In the spring movements of the fishes up the stream, toward their spawning-beds, the females are the pioneers, appearing some days in advance of the males. With the birds the reverse is the case, the males coming a week or ten days before the females. The female fish is usually the larger and stronger, and perhaps better able to take the lead; among most reptiles the same fact holds, and throughout the insect world there is to my knowledge no exception to the rule. Among the birds, the only exception I am aware of is in the case of the birds of prey. Here the female is the larger and stronger. If you see an exceptionally large and powerful eagle, rest assured the sex is feminine. But higher in the scale the male comes to the front and leads in size and strength.
But the first familiar spring birds are cocks; hence the songs and tilts and rivalries. Hence also the fact that they are slightly in excess of the other sex, to make up for this greater exposure; apparently no courting is done in the South, and no matches are prearranged. The males leave irregularly without any hint, I suspect, to the females as to when and where they will meet them. In the case of the passenger pigeon, however, the two sexes travel together, as they do among the migrating water-fowls.
With the song-birds, love-making begins as soon as the hens are here. So far as I have observed, the robin and the bluebird win their mates by gentle and fond approaches; but certain of the sparrows, notably the little social sparrow or "chippie," appear to carry the case by storm. The same proceeding may be observed among the English sparrows, now fairly established on our soil. Two or three males beset a female, and a regular scuffle ensues. The poor bird is pulled and jostled and cajoled amid what appears to be the greatest mirth and hilarity of her audacious suitors. Her plumage is plucked and ruffled; the rivals roll over each other and over her; she extricates herself as best she can, and seems to say or scream "no," "no," to every one of them with great emphasis. What finally determines her choice would be hard to say. Our own sparrows are far less noisy and obstreperous, but the same little comedy in a milder form is often enacted among them. When two males have a tilt, they rise several feet in the air, beak to beak, and seek to deal each other blows as they mount. I have seen two male chewinks facing each other and wrathfully impelled upward in the same manner, while the female that was the bone of contention between them regarded them unconcernedly from the near bushes.
The bobolink is also a precipitate and impetuous wooer. It is a trial of speed, as if the female were to say, "Catch me and I am yours," and she scurries away with all her might and main, often with three or four dusky knights in hot pursuit. When she takes to cover in the grass, there is generally a squabble "down among the tickle-tops," or under the buttercups, and "Winterseeble" or "Conquedle" is the winner.
In marked contrast to this violent love-making are the social and festive reunions of the goldfinches about mating time. All the birds of a neighborhood gather in a treetop, and the trial apparently becomes one of voice and song. The contest is a most friendly and happy one; all is harmony and gayety. The females chirrup and twitter, and utter their confiding "PAISLEY" "PAISLEY," while the more gayly dressed males squeak and warble in the most delightful strain. The matches are apparently all made and published during these gatherings; everybody is in a happy frame of mind; there is no jealousy, and no rivalry but to see who shall be gayest.
It often happens among the birds that the male has a rival after the nuptials have been celebrated and the work of housekeeping fairly begun. Every season a pair of phbe-birds have built their nest on an elbow in the spouting beneath the eaves of my house. The past spring a belated male made desperate efforts to supplant the lawful mate and gain possession of the unfinished nest. There was a battle fought about the premises every hour in the day for at least a week. The antagonists would frequently grapple and fall to the ground, and keep their hold like two dogs. On one such occasion I came near covering them with my hat. I believe the intruder was finally worsted and withdrew from the place. One noticeable feature of the affair was the apparent utter indifference of the female, who went on with her nest-building as if all was peace and harmony. There can be little doubt that she would have applauded and accepted the other bird had he finally been the victor.
One of the most graceful of warriors is the robin. I know few prettier sights than two males challenging and curveting about each other upon the grass in early spring. Their attentions to each other are so courteous and restrained. In alternate curves and graceful sallies, they pursue and circumvent each other. First one hops a few feet, then the other, each one standing erect in true military style while his fellow passes him and describes the segment of an ellipse about him, both uttering the while a fine complacent warble in a high but suppressed key. Are they lovers or enemies? the beholder wonders, until they make a spring and are beak to beak in the twinkling of an eye, and perhaps mount a few feet into the air, but rarely actually delivering blows upon each other. Every thrust is parried, every movement met. They follow each other with dignified composure about the fields or lawn, into trees and upon the ground, with plumage slightly spread, breasts glowing, their lisping, shrill war-song just audible. It forms on the whole the most civil and high-bred tilt to be witnessed during the season.
When the cock-robin makes love he is the same considerate, deferential, but insinuating gallant. The warble he makes use of on that occasion is the same, so far as my ear can tell, as the one he pipes when facing his rival.
FOX AND HOUND
I stood on a high hill or ridge one autumn day and saw a hound run a fox through the fields far beneath me. What odors that fox must have shaken out of himself, I thought, to be traced thus easily, and how great their specific gravity not to have been blown away like smoke by the breeze! The fox ran a long distance down the hill, keeping within a few feet of a stone wall; then turned a right angle and led off for the mountain, across a plowed field and a succession of pasture lands. In about fifteen minutes the hound came in full blast with her nose in the air, and never once did she put it to the ground while in my sight. When she came to the stone wall, she took the other side from that taken by the fox, and kept about the same distance from it, being thus separated several yards from his track, with the fence between her and it. At the point where the fox turned sharply to the left, the hound overshot a few yards, then wheeled, and, feeling the air a moment with her nose, took up the scent again and was off on his trail as unerringly as Fate. It seemed as if the fox must have sowed himself broadcast as he went along, and that his scent was so rank and heavy that it settled in the hollows and clung tenaciously to the bushes and crevices in the fence. I thought I ought to have caught a remnant of it as I passed that way some minutes later, but I did not. But I suppose it was not that the light-footed fox so impressed himself upon the ground he ran over, but that the sense of the hound was so keen. To her sensitive nose these tracks steamed like hot cakes, and they would not have cooled off so as to be undistinguishable for several hours. For the time being, she had but one sense: her whole soul was concentrated in her nose.
It is amusing, when the hunter starts out of a winter morning, to see his hound probe the old tracks to determine how recent they are. He sinks his nose down deep in the snow so as to exclude the air from above, then draws a long full breath, giving sometimes an audible snort. If there remains the least effluvium of the fox, the hound will detect it. If it be very slight, it only sets his tail wagging; if it be strong, it unloosens his tongue.
Such things remind one of the waste, the friction, that is going on all about us, even when the wheels of life run the most smoothly. A fox cannot trip along the top of 'a stone wall so lightly but that he will leave enough of himself to betray his course to the hound for hours afterward. When the boys play "hare and hounds," the hare scatters bits of paper to give a clew to the pursuers, but he scatters himself much more freely if only our sight and scent were sharp enough to detect the fragments. Even the fish leave a trail in the water, and it is said the otter will pursue them by it. The birds make a track in the air, only their enemies hunt by sight rather than by scent. The fox baffles the hound most upon a hard crust of frozen snow; the scent will not hold to the smooth, bead-like granules.
Judged by the eye alone, the fox is the lightest and most buoyant creature that runs. His soft wrapping of fur conceals the muscular play and effort that is so obvious in the hound that pursues him, and he comes bounding along precisely as if blown by a gentle wind. His massive tail is carried as if it floated upon the air by its own lightness.
The hound is not remarkable for his fleetness, but how he will hang!—often running late into the night, and sometimes till morning, from ridge to ridge, from peak to peak; now on the mountain, now crossing the valley, now playing about a large slope of uplying pasture fields. At times the fox has a pretty well- defined orbit, and the hunter knows where to intercept him. Again, he leads off like a comet, quite beyond the system of hills and ridges upon which he was started, and his return is entirely a matter of conjecture; but if the day be not more than half spent, the chances are that the fox will be back before night, though the sportsman's patience seldom holds out that long.
The hound is a most interesting dog. How solemn and long-visaged he is,—how peaceful and well-disposed! He is the Quaker among dogs. All the viciousness and currishness seem to have been weeded out of him; he seldom quarrels, or fights, or plays, like other dogs. Two strange hounds, meeting for the first time, behave as civilly toward each other as two men. I know a hound that has an ancient, wrinkled, human, far-away look that reminds one of the bust of Homer among the Elgin marbles. He looks like the mountains toward which his heart yearns so much.
The hound is a great puzzle to the farm dog; the latter, attracted by his baying, comes barking and snarling up through the fields, bent on picking a quarrel; he intercepts the hound, snubs and insults and annoys him in every way possible, but the hound heeds him not: if the dog attacks him, he gets away as best he can, and goes on with the trail; the cur bristles and barks and struts about for a while, then goes back to the house, evidently thinking the hound a lunatic, which he is for the time being,—a monomaniac, the slave and victim of one idea. I saw the master of a hound one day arrest him in full course, to give one of the hunters time to get to a certain runway; the dog cried and struggled to free himself, and would listen to neither threats nor caresses. Knowing he must be hungry, I offered him my lunch, but he would not touch it. I put it in his mouth, but he threw it contemptuously from him. We coaxed and petted and reassured him, but he was under a spell; he was bereft of all thought or desire but the one passion to pursue that trail.
We can boast a greater assortment of toads and frogs in this country than can any other land. What a chorus goes up from our ponds and marshes in spring! The like of it cannot be heard anywhere else under the sun. In Europe it would certainly have made an impression upon the literature. An attentive ear will detect first one variety, then another, each occupying the stage from three or four days to a week. The latter part of April, when the little peeping frogs are in full chorus, one comes upon places, in his drives or walks late in the day, where the air fairly palpitates with sound; from every little marshy hollow and spring run there rises an impenetrable maze or cloud of shrill musical voices. After the peepers, the next frog to appear is the clucking frog, a rather small, dark-brown frog, with a harsh, clucking note, which later in the season becomes the well-known brown wood-frog. Their chorus is heard for a few days only, while their spawn is being deposited. In less than a week it ceases, and I never hear them again till the next April. As the weather gets warmer, the toads take to the water, and set up that long-drawn musical tr-r-r- r-r-r-r-ing note. The voice of the bullfrog, who calls, according to the boys, "jug o' rum," "jug o' rum," "pull the plug," "pull the plug," is not heard much before June. The peepers, the clucking frog, and the bullfrog are the only ones that call in chorus. The most interesting and the most shy and withdrawn of all our frogs and toads is the tree-toad,—the creature that, from the old apple or cherry tree, or red cedar, announces the approach of rain, and baffles your every effort to see or discover it. It has not (as some people imagine) exactly the power of the chameleon to render itself invisible by assuming the color of the object it perches upon, but it sits very close and still, and its mottled back, of different shades of ashen gray, blends it perfectly with the bark of nearly every tree. The only change in its color I have ever noticed is that it is lighter on a light-colored tree, like the beech or soft maple, and darker on the apple, or cedar, or pine. Then it is usually hidden in some cavity or hollow of the tree, when its voice appears to come from the outside.
Most of my observations upon the habits of this creature run counter to the authorities I have been able to consult on the subject.
In the first place, the tree-toad is nocturnal in its habits, like the common toad. By day it remains motionless and concealed; by night it is as alert and active as an owl, feeding and moving about from tree to tree. I have never known one to change its position by day, and never knew one to fail to do so by night. Last summer one was discovered sitting against a window upon a climbing rosebush. The house had not been occupied for some days, and when the curtain was drawn the toad was discovered and closely observed. His light gray color harmonized perfectly with the unpainted woodwork of the house. During the day he never moved a muscle, but next morning he was gone. A friend of mine caught one, and placed it under a tumbler on his table at night, leaving the edge of the glass raised about the eighth of an inch to admit the air. During the night he was awakened by a strange sound in his room. Pat, pat, pat went some object, now here, now there, among the furniture, or upon the walls and doors. On investigating the matter, he found that by some means his tree-toad had escaped from under the glass, and was leaping in a very lively manner about the room, producing the sound he had heard when it alighted upon the door, or wall, or other perpendicular surface.
The home of the tree-toad, I am convinced, is usually a hollow limb or other cavity in the tree; here he makes his headquarters, and passes most of the day. For two years a pair of them frequented an old apple-tree near my house, occasionally sitting at the mouth of a cavity that led into a large branch, but usually their voices were heard from within the cavity itself. On one occasion, while walking in the woods in early May, I heard the voice of a tree-toad but a few yards from me. Cautiously following up the sound, I decided, after some delay, that it proceeded from the trunk of a small soft maple; the tree was hollow, the entrance to the interior being a few feet from the ground. I could not discover the toad, but was so convinced that it was concealed in the tree, that I stopped up the hole, determined to return with an axe, when I had time, and cut the trunk open. A week elapsed before I again went to the woods, when, on cutting into the cavity of the tree, I found a pair of tree-toads, male and female, and a large, shelless snail. Whether the presence of the snail was accidental, or whether these creatures associated together for some purpose, I do not know. The male toad was easily distinguished from the female by its large head, and more thin, slender, and angular body. The female was much the more beautiful, both in form and color. The cavity, which was long and irregular, was evidently their home; it had been nicely cleaned out, and was a snug, safe apartment.
The finding of the two sexes together, under such circumstances and at that time of the year, suggests the inquiry whether they do not breed away from the water, as others of our toads are known at times to do, and thus skip the tadpole state. I have several times seen the ground, after a June shower, swarming with minute toads, out to wet their jackets. Some of them were no larger than crickets. They were a long distance from the water, and had evidently been hatched on the land, and had never been polliwogs. Whether the tree-toad breeds in trees or on the land, yet remains to be determined. [FOOTNOTE: It now (1895) seems well established that both common toads and tree-toads pass the first period of their lives in water as tadpoles, and that both undergo their metamorphosis when very small. As soon as the change is effected, the little toads leave the water and scatter themselves over the country with remarkable rapidity, traveling chiefly by night, but showing themselves in the daytime after showers.]
Another fact in the natural history of this creature, not set down in the books, is that they pass the winter in a torpid state in the ground, or in stumps and hollow trees, instead of in the mud of ponds and marshes, like true frogs, as we have been taught. The pair in the old apple-tree above referred to, I heard on a warm, moist day late in November, and again early in April. On the latter occasion, I reached my hand down into the cavity of the tree and took out one of the toads. It was the first I had heard, and I am convinced it had passed the winter in the moist, mud-like mass of rotten wood that partially filled the cavity. It had a fresh, delicate tint, as if it had not before seen the light that spring. The president of a Western college writes in "Science News" that two of his students found one in the winter in an old stump which they demolished; and a person whose veracity I have no reason to doubt sends me a specimen that he dug out of the ground in December while hunting for Indian relics. The place was on the top of a hill, under a pine-tree. The ground was frozen on the surface, and the toad was, of course, torpid.
During the present season, I obtained additional proof of the fact that the tree-toad hibernates on dry land. The 12th of November was a warm, spring-like day; wind southwest, with slight rain in the afternoon,—just the day to bring things out of their winter retreats. As I was about to enter my door at dusk, my eye fell upon what proved to be the large tree-toad in question, sitting on some low stone-work at the foot of a terrace a few feet from the house. I paused to observe his movements. Presently he started on his travels across the yard toward the lawn in front. He leaped about three feet at a time, with long pauses between each leap. For fear of losing him as it grew darker, I captured him, and kept him under the coal sieve till morning. He was very active at night trying to escape. In the morning, I amused myself with him for some time in the kitchen. I found he could adhere to a window- pane, but could not ascend it; gradually his hold yielded, till he sprang off on the casing. I observed that, in sitting upon the floor or upon the ground, he avoided bringing his toes in contact with the surface, as if they were too tender or delicate for such coarse uses, but sat upon the hind part of his feet. Said toes had a very bungling, awkward appearance at such times; they looked like hands encased in gray woolen gloves much too large for them. Their round, flattened ends, especially when not in use, had a comically helpless look.
After a while I let my prisoner escape into the open air. The weather had grown much colder, and there was a hint of coming frost. The toad took the hint at once, and, after hopping a few yards from the door to the edge of a grassy bank, began to prepare for winter. It was a curious proceeding. He went into the ground backward, elbowing himself through the turf with the sharp joints of his hind legs, and going down in a spiral manner. His progress was very slow: at night I could still see him by lifting the grass; and as the weather changed again to warm, with southerly winds before morning, he stopped digging entirely. The next day I took him out, and put him into a bottomless tub sunk into the ground and filled with soft earth, leaves, and leaf mould, where he passed the winter safely, and came out fresh and bright in the spring.
The little peeping frogs lead a sort of arboreal life, too, a part of the season, but they are quite different from the true tree- toads above described. They appear to leave the marshes in May, and to take to the woods or bushes. I have never seen them on trees, but upon low shrubs. They do not seem to be climbers, but perchers. I caught one in May, in some low bushes a few rods from the swamp. It perched upon the small twigs like a bird, and would leap about among them, sure of its hold every time. I was first attracted by its piping. I brought it home, and it piped for one twilight in a bush in my yard and then was gone. I do not think they pipe much after leaving the water. I have found them early in April upon the ground in the woods, and again late in the fall.
In November, 1879, the warm, moist weather brought them out in numbers. They were hopping about everywhere upon the fallen leaves. Within a small space I captured six. Some of them were the hue of the tan-colored leaves, probably Pickering's hyla, and some were darker, according to the locality. Of course they do not go to the marshes to winter, else they would not wait so late in the season. I examined the ponds and marshes, and found bullfrogs buried in the mud, but no peepers.
THE SPRING BIRDS
We never know the precise time the birds leave us in the fall: they do not go suddenly; their departure is like that of an army of occupation in no hurry to be off; they keep going and going, and we hardly know when the last straggler is gone. Not so their return in the spring: then it is like an army of invasion, and we know the very day when the first scouts appear. It is a memorable event. Indeed, it is always a surprise to me, and one of the compensations of our abrupt and changeable climate, this suddenness with which the birds come in spring,—in fact, with which spring itself comes, alighting, maybe, to tarry only a day or two, but real and genuine, for all that. When March arrives, we do not know what a day may bring forth. It is like turning over a leaf, a new chapter of startling incidents lying just on the other side.
A few days ago, Winter had not perceptibly relaxed his hold; then suddenly he began to soften a little, and a warm haze to creep up from the south, but not a solitary bird, save the winter residents, was to be seen or heard. Next day the sun seemed to have drawn immensely nearer; his beams were full of power; and we said, "Behold the first spring morning! And, as if to make the prophecy complete, there is the note of a bluebird, and it is not yet nine o'clock." Then others, and still others, were heard. How did they know it was going to be a suitable day for them to put in an appearance? It seemed as if they must have been waiting somewhere close by for the first warm day, like actors behind the scenes,— the moment the curtain was lifted, they were ready and rushed upon the stage. The third warm day, and, behold, all the principal performers come rushing in,—song sparrows, cow blackbirds, grackles, the meadowlark, cedar-birds, the phbe-bird, and, hark! what bird laughter was that? the robins, hurrah! the robins! Not two or three, but a score or two of them; they are following the river valley north, and they stop in the trees from time to time, and give vent to their gladness. It is like a summer picnic of school-children suddenly let loose in a wood; they sing, shout, whistle, squeal, call, in the most blithesome strains. The warm wave has brought the birds upon its crest; or some barrier has given way, the levee of winter has broken, and spring comes like an inundation. No doubt, the snow and the frost will stop the crevasse again, but only for a brief season.
Between the 10th and the 15th of March, in the Middle and Eastern States, we are pretty sure to have one or more of these spring days. Bright days, clear days, may have been plenty all winter; but the air was a desert, the sky transparent ice; now the sky is full of radiant warmth, and the air of a half-articulate murmur and awakening. How still the morning is! It is at such times that we discover what music there is in the souls of the little slate- colored snowbirds. How they squeal, and chatter, and chirp, and trill, always in scattered troops of fifty or a hundred, filling the air with a fine sibilant chorus! That joyous and childlike "chew," "chew," "chew" is very expressive. Through this medley of finer songs and calls, there is shot, from time to time, the clear, strong note of the meadowlark. It comes from some field or tree farther away, and cleaves the air like an arrow. The reason why the birds always appear first in the morning, and not in the afternoon, is that in migrating they travel by night, and stop and feed and disport themselves by day. They come by the owl train, and are here before we are up in the morning.
A LONE QUEEN
Once, while walking in the woods, I saw quite a large nest in the top of a pine-tree. On climbing up to it, I found that it had originally been a crow's nest. Then a red squirrel had appropriated it; he had filled up the cavity with the fine inner bark of the red cedar, and made himself a dome-shaped nest upon the crow's foundation of coarse twigs. It is probable that the flying squirrel, or the white-footed mouse, had been the next tenants, for the finish of the interior suggested their dainty taste. But when I found it, its sole occupant was a bumblebee,—the mother or queen bee, just planting her colony. She buzzed very loud and complainingly, and stuck up her legs in protest against my rude inquisitiveness, but refused to vacate the premises. She had only one sack or cell constructed, in which she had deposited her first egg, and, beside that, a large loaf of bread, probably to feed the young brood with, as they should be hatched. It looked like Boston brown bread, but I examined it and found it to be a mass of dark brown pollen, quite soft and pasty. In fact, it was unleavened bread, and had not been got at the baker's. A few weeks later, if no accident befell her, she had a good working colony of a dozen or more bees.
This was not an unusual incident. Our bumblebee, so far as I have observed, invariably appropriates a mouse-nest for the site of its colony, never excavating a place in the ground, nor conveying materials for a nest, to be lined with wax, like the European species. Many other of our wild creatures take up with the leavings of their betters or strongers. Neither the skunk nor the rabbit digs his own hole, but takes up with that of a wood-chuck, or else hunts out a natural den among the rocks. In England the rabbit burrows in the ground to such an extent that in places the earth is honeycombed by them, and the walker steps through the surface into their galleries. Our white-footed mouse has been known to take up his abode in a hornet's nest, furnishing the interior to suit his taste. A few of our birds also avail themselves of the work of others, as the titmouse, the brown creeper, the bluebird, and the house wren. But in every case they refurnish the tenement: the wren carries feathers into the cavity excavated by the woodpeckers, the bluebird carries in fine straws, and the chickadee lays down a fine wool mat upon the floors. When the high-hole occupies the same cavity another year, he deepens and enlarges it; the phbe-bird, in taking up her old nest, puts in a new lining; so does the robin; but cases of reoccupancy of an old nest by the last-named birds are rare.
A BOLD LEAPER
One reason, doubtless, why squirrels are so bold and reckless in leaping through the trees is, that, if they miss their hold and fall, they sustain no injury. Every species of tree squirrel seems to be capable of a sort of rudimentary flying,—at least of making itself into a parachute, so as to ease or break a fall or a leap from a great height. The so-called flying squirrel does this the most perfectly. It opens its furry vestments, leaps into the air, and sails down the steep incline from the top of one tree to the foot of the next as lightly as a bird. But other squirrels know the same trick, only their coat-skirts are not so broad. One day my dog treed a red squirrel in a tall hickory that stood in a meadow on the side of a steep hill. To see what the squirrel would do when closely pressed, I climbed the tree. As I drew near, he took refuge in the topmost branch, and then, as I came on, he boldly leaped into the air, spread himself out upon it, and, with a quick, tremulous motion of his tail and legs, descended quite slowly and landed upon the ground thirty feet below me, apparently none the worse for the leap, for he ran with great speed and escaped the dog in another tree.
A recent American traveler in Mexico gives a still more striking instance of this power of squirrels partially to neutralize the force of gravity when leaping or falling through the air. Some boys had caught a Mexican black squirrel, nearly as large as a cat. It had escaped from them once, and, when pursued, had taken a leap of sixty feet, from the top of a pine-tree down upon the roof of a house, without injury. This feat had led the grandmother of one of the boys to declare that the squirrel was bewitched, and the boys proposed to put the matter to further test by throwing the squirrel down a precipice six hundred feet high. Our traveler interfered, to see that the squirrel had fair play. The prisoner was conveyed in a pillow-slip to the edge of the cliff, and the slip opened, so that he might have his choice, whether to remain a captive or to take the leap. He looked down the awful abyss, and then back and sidewise,—his eyes glistening, his form crouching. Seeing no escape in any other direction, "he took a flying leap into space, and fluttered rather than fell into the abyss below. His legs began to work like those of a swimming poodle-dog, but quicker and quicker, while his tail, slightly elevated, spread out like a feather fan. A rabbit of the same weight would have made the trip in about twelve seconds; the squirrel protracted it for more than half a minute," and "landed on a ledge of limestone, where we could see him plainly squat on his hind legs and smooth his ruffled fur, after which he made for the creek with a flourish of his tail, took a good drink, and scampered away into the willow thicket."
The story at first blush seems incredible, but I have no doubt our red squirrel would have made the leap safely; then why not the great black squirrel, since its parachute would be proportionately large?
The tails of the squirrels are broad and long and flat, not short and small like those of gophers, chipmunks, woodchucks, and other ground rodents, and when they leap or fall through the air the tail is arched and rapidly vibrates. A squirrel's tail, therefore, is something more than ornament, something more than a flag; it not only aids him in flying, but it serves as a cloak, which he wraps about him when he sleeps. Thus, some animals put their tails to various uses, while others seem to have no use for them whatever. What use for a tail has a wood-chuck, or a weasel, or a mouse? Has not the mouse yet learned that it could get in its hole sooner if it had no tail? The mole and the meadow mouse have very short tails. Rats, no doubt, put their tails to various uses. The rabbit has no use for a tail,—it would be in its way; while its manner of sleeping is such that it does not need a tail to tuck itself up with, as do the coon and the fox. The dog talks with his tail; the tail of the possum is prehensile; the porcupine uses his tail in climbing and for defense; the beaver as a tool or trowel; while the tail of the skunk serves as a screen behind which it masks its terrible battery.
Writers upon rural England and her familiar natural history make no mention of the marmot or woodchuck. In Europe this animal seems to be confined to the high mountainous districts, as on our Pacific slope, burrowing near the snow-line. It is more social or gregarious than the American species, living in large families like our prairie dog. In the Middle and Eastern States our woodchuck takes the place, in some respects, of the English rabbit, burrowing in every hillside and under every stone wall and jutting ledge and large boulder, from whence it makes raids upon the grass and clover and sometimes upon the garden vegetables. It is quite solitary in its habits, seldom more than one inhabiting the same den, unless it be a mother and her young. It is not now so much a WOODchuck as a FIELDchuck. Occasionally, however, one seems to prefer the woods, and is not seduced by the sunny slopes and the succulent grass, but feeds, as did his fathers before him, upon roots and twigs, the bark of young trees, and upon various wood plants.
One summer day, as I was swimming across a broad, deep pool in the creek in a secluded place in the woods, I saw one of these sylvan chucks amid the rocks but a few feet from the edge of the water where I proposed to touch. He saw my approach, but doubtless took me for some water-fowl, or for some cousin of his of the muskrat tribe; for he went on with his feeding, and regarded me not till I paused within ten feet of him and lifted myself up. Then he did not know me, having, perhaps, never seen Adam in his simplicity, but he twisted his nose around to catch my scent; and the moment he had done so he sprang like a jumping-jack and rushed into his den with the utmost precipitation.
The woodchuck is the true serf among our animals; he belongs to the soil, and savors of it. He is of the earth, earthy. There is generally a decided odor about his dens and lurking-places, but it is not at all disagreeable in the clover-scented air; and his shrill whistle, as he takes to his hole or defies the farm dog from the interior of the stone wall, is a pleasant summer sound. In form and movement the woodchuck is not captivating. His body is heavy and flabby. Indeed, such a flaccid, fluid, pouchy carcass I have never before seen. It has absolutely no muscular tension or rigidity, but is as baggy and shaky as a skin filled with water. Let the rifleman shoot one while it lies basking on a sideling rock, and its body slumps off, and rolls and spills down the hill, as if it were a mass of bowels only. The legs of the woodchuck are short and stout, and made for digging rather than running. The latter operation he performs by short leaps, his belly scarcely clearing the ground. For a short distance he can make very good time, but he seldom trusts himself far from his hole, and, when surprised in that predicament, makes little effort to escape, but, grating his teeth, looks the danger squarely in the face.
I knew a farmer in New York who had a very large bob-tailed churn- dog by the name of Cuff. The farmer kept a large dairy and made a great deal of butter, and it was the business of Cuff to spend nearly the half of each summer day treading the endless round of the churning-machine. During the remainder of the day he had plenty of time to sleep and rest, and sit on his hips and survey the landscape. One day, sitting thus, he discovered a woodchuck about forty rods from the house, on a steep sidehill, feeding about near his hole, which was beneath a large rock. The old dog, forgetting his stiffness, and remembering the fun he had had with woodchucks in his earlier days, started off at his highest speed, vainly hoping to catch this one before he could get to his hole. But the wood-chuck seeing the dog come laboring up the hill, sprang to the mouth of his den, and, when his pursuer was only a few rods off, whistled tauntingly and went in. This occurred several times, the old dog marching up the hill, and then marching down again, having had his labor for his pains. I suspect that he revolved the subject in his mind while he revolved the great wheel of the churning-machine, and that some turn or other brought him a happy thought, for next time he showed himself a strategist. Instead of giving chase to the wood-chuck, when first discovered, he crouched down to the ground, and, resting his head on his paws, watched him. The woodchuck kept working away from his hole, lured by the tender clover, but, not unmindful of his safety, lifted himself up on his haunches every few moments and surveyed the approaches. Presently, after the woodchuck had let himself down from one of these attitudes of observation and resumed his feeding, Cuff started swiftly but stealthily up the hill, precisely in the attitude of a cat when she is stalking a bird. When the woodchuck rose up again, Cuff was perfectly motionless and half hid by the grass. When he again resumed his clover, Cuff sped up the hill as before, this time crossing a fence, but in a low place, and so nimbly that he was not discovered. Again the woodchuck was on the outlook, again Cuff was motionless and hugging the ground. As the dog neared his victim he was partially hidden by a swell in the earth, but still the woodchuck from his outlook reported "All right," when Cuff, having not twice as far to run as the chuck, threw all stealthiness aside and rushed directly for the hole. At that moment the woodchuck discovered his danger, and, seeing that it was a race for life, leaped as I never saw marmot leap before. But he was two seconds too late, his retreat was cut off, and the powerful jaws of the old dog closed upon him.
The next season Cuff tried the same tactics again with like success, but when the third woodchuck had taken up his abode at the fatal hole, the old churner's wits and strength had begun to fail him, and he was baffled in each attempt to capture the animal.
The woodchuck always burrows on a sidehill. This enables him to guard against being drowned out, by making the termination of the hole higher than the entrance. He digs in slantingly for about two or three feet, then makes a sharp upward turn and keeps nearly parallel with the surface of the ground for a distance of eight or ten feet farther, according to the grade. Here he makes his nest and passes the winter, holing up in October or November and coming out again in April. This is a long sleep, and is rendered possible only by the amount of fat with which the system has become stored during the summer. The fire of life still burns, but very faintly and slowly, as with the draughts all closed and the ashes heaped up. Respiration is continued, but at longer intervals, and all the vital processes are nearly at a standstill. Dig one out during hibernation (Audubon did so), and you find it a mere inanimate ball, that suffers itself to be moved and rolled about without showing signs of awakening. But bring it in by the fire, and it presently unrolls and opens its eyes, and crawls feebly about, and if left to itself will seek some dark hole or corner, roll itself up again, and resume its former condition.
A GOOD SEASON FOR THE BIRDS
The season of 1880 seems to have been exceptionally favorable to the birds. The warm, early spring, the absence of April snows and of long, cold rains in May and June,—indeed, the exceptional heat and dryness of these months, and the freedom from violent storms and tempests throughout the summer,—all worked together for the good of the birds. Their nests were not broken up or torn from the trees, nor their young chilled and destroyed by the wet and the cold. The drenching, protracted rains that make the farmer's seed rot or lie dormant in the ground in May or June, and the summer tempests that uproot the trees or cause them to lash and bruise their foliage, always bring disaster to the birds. As a result of our immunity from these things the past season, the small birds in the fall were perhaps never more abundant. Indeed, I never remember to have seen so many of certain kinds, notably the social and the bush sparrows. The latter literally swarmed in the fields and vineyards; and as it happened that for the first time a large number of grapes were destroyed by birds, the little sparrow, in some localities, was accused of being the depredator. But he is innocent. He never touches fruit of any kind, but lives upon seeds and insects. What attracted this sparrow to the vineyards in such numbers was mainly the covert they afforded from small hawks, and probably also the seeds of various weeds that had been allowed to ripen there. The grape-destroyer was a bird of another color, namely, the Baltimore oriole. One fruit-grower on the Hudson told me he lost at least a ton of grapes by the birds, and in the western part of New York and in Ohio and in Canada, I hear the vineyards suffered severely from the depredations of the oriole. The oriole has a sharp, dagger-like bill, and he seems to be learning rapidly how easily he can puncture fruit with it. He has come to be about the worst cherry bird we have. He takes the worm first, and then he takes the cherry the worm was after, or rather he bleeds it; as with the grapes, he carries none away with him, but wounds them all. He is welcome to all the fruit he can eat, but why should he murder every cherry on the tree, or every grape in the cluster? He is as wanton as a sheep-killing dog, that will not stop with enough, but slaughters every ewe in the flock. The oriole is peculiarly exempt from the dangers that beset most of our birds: its nest is all but impervious to the rain, and the squirrel, or the jay, or the crow cannot rob it without great difficulty. It is a pocket which it would not be prudent for either jay or squirrel to attempt to explore when the owner, with his dagger-like beak, is about; and the crow cannot alight upon the slender, swaying branch from which it is usually pendent. Hence the orioles are doubtless greatly on the increase.
There has been an unusual number of shrikes the past fall and winter; like the hawks, they follow in the wake of the little birds and prey upon them. Some seasons pass and I never see a shrike. This year I have seen at least a dozen while passing along the road. One day I saw one carrying its prey in its feet,—a performance which I supposed it incapable of, as it is not equipped for this business like a rapacious bird, but has feet like a robin. One wintry evening, near sunset, I saw one alight on the top of a tree by the roadside, with some small object in its beak. I paused to observe it. Presently it flew down into a scrubby old apple-tree, and attempted to impale the object upon a thorn or twig. It was occupied in this way some moments, no twig or knob proving quite satisfactory. A little screech owl was evidently watching the proceedings from his doorway in the trunk of a decayed apple-tree ten or a dozen rods distant. Twilight was just falling, and the owl had come up from his snug retreat in the hollow trunk, and was waiting for the darkness to deepen before venturing forth. I was first advised of his presence by seeing him approaching swiftly on silent, level wing. The shrike did not see him till the owl was almost within the branches. He then dropped his game, which proved to be a part of a shrew-mouse, and darted back into the thick cover uttering a loud, discordant squawk, as one would say, "Scat! scat! scat!" The owl alighted, and was, perhaps, looking about him for the shrike's impaled game, when I drew near. On seeing me, he reversed his movement precipitately, flew straight back to the old tree, and alighted in the entrance to the cavity. As I approached, he did not so much seem to move as to diminish in size, like an object dwindling in the distance; he depressed his plumage, and, with his eye fixed upon me, began slowly to back and sidle into his retreat till he faded from my sight. The shrike wiped his beak upon the branches, cast an eye down at me and at his lost mouse, and then flew away. He was a remarkably fine specimen,—his breast and under parts as white as snow, and his coat of black and ashen gray appearing very bright and fresh. A few nights afterward, as I passed that way, I saw the little owl again sitting in his doorway, waiting for the twilight to deepen, and undisturbed by the passers-by; but when I paused to observe him, he saw that he was discovered, and he slunk back into his den as on the former occasion.
SHAKESPEARE'S NATURAL HISTORY
It is surprising that so profuse and prodigal a poet as Shakespeare, and one so bold in his dealings with human nature, should seldom or never make a mistake in his dealings with physical nature, or take an unwarranted liberty with her. True it is that his allusions to nature are always incidental,—never his main purpose or theme, as with many later poets; yet his accuracy and closeness to fact, and his wide and various knowledge of unbookish things, are seen in his light "touch and go" phrases and comparisons as clearly as in his more deliberate and central work.
In "Much Ado about Nothing," BENEDICK says to MARGARET:—
"Thy wit is as quick as the greyhound's mouth—it catches."
One marked difference between the greyhound and all other hounds and dogs is, that it can pick up its game while running at full speed, a feat that no other dog can do. The foxhound, or farm dog, will run over a fox or a rabbit many tunes without being able to seize it.
In "Twelfth Night" the clown tells VIOLA that
"Fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings—the husband's the bigger."
The pilchard closely resembles the herring, but is thicker and heavier, with larger scales.
In the same play, MARIA, seeing MALVOLIO coming, says:—
"Here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling."
Shakespeare, then, knew that fact so well known to poachers, and known also to many an American schoolboy, namely, that a trout likes to be tickled, or behaves as if he did, and that by gently tickling his sides and belly you can so mesmerize him, as it were, that he will allow you to get your hands in position to clasp him firmly. The British poacher takes the jack by the same tactics: he tickles the jack on the belly; the fish slowly rises in the water till it comes near the surface, when, the poacher having insinuated both hands under him, he is suddenly scooped out and thrown upon the land.
Indeed, Shakespeare seems to have known intimately the ways and habits of most of the wild creatures of Britain. He had the kind of knowledge of them that only the countryman has. In "As You Like It," JAQUES tells AMIENS:—
"I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs."
Every gamekeeper, and every farmer for that matter, knows how destructive the weasel and its kind are to birds' eggs, and to the eggs of game-birds and of domestic fowls.
In "Love's Labor's Lost," BIRON says of BOYET:—
"This fellow picks up wit as pigeons peas."
Pigeons dp not pick up peas in this country, but they do in England, and are often very damaging to the farmer on that account. Shakespeare knew also the peculiar manner in which they feed their young,—a manner that has perhaps given rise to the expression "sucking dove." In "As You Like It" is this passage:—
"CELIA. Here comes Monsieur Le Beau.
"ROSALIND. With his mouth full of news.
"CELIA. Which he will put on us as pigeons feed their young.
"ROSALIND. Then shall we be news-crammed."
When the mother pigeon feeds her young she brings the food, not in her beak like other birds, but in her crop; she places her beak between the open mandibles of her young, and fairly crams the food, which is delivered by a peculiar pumping movement, down its throat. She furnishes a capital illustration of the eager, persistent newsmonger.
"Out of their burrows like rabbits after rain" is a comparison that occurs in "Coriolanus." In our Northern or New England States we should have to substitute woodchucks for rabbits, as our rabbits do not burrow, but sit all day in their forms under a bush or amid the weeds, and as they are not seen moving about after a rain, or at all by day; but in England Shakespeare's line is exactly descriptive.
Says BOTTOM to the fairy COBWEB in "Midsummer Night's Dream:"—
"Mounsieur Cobweb; good mounsieur, get you your weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipp'd humble-bee on the top of a thistle, and, good mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag."
This command might be executed in this country,
for we have the "red-hipp'd humble-bee;" and we have the thistle, and there is no more likely place to look for the humblebee in midsummer than on a thistle-blossom.
But the following picture of a "wet spell" is more English than American:—
"The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain, The plowman lost his sweat; and the green corn Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard; The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrain flock."
Shakespeare knew the birds and wild fowl, and knew them perhaps as a hunter, as well as a poet. At least this passage would indicate as much:—
"As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye, Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort, Rising and cawing at the gun's report, Sever themselves and madly sweep the sky."
In calling the choughs "russet-pated" he makes the bill tinge the whole head, or perhaps gives the effect of the birds' markings when seen at a distance; the bill is red, the head is black. The chough is a species of crow.
A poet must know the birds well to make one of his characters say, when he had underestimated a man, "I took this lark for a bunting," as LAFEU says of PAROLLES in "All's Well that Ends Well." The English bunting is a field-bird like the lark, and much resembles the latter in form and color, but is far inferior as a songster. Indeed, Shakespeare shows his familiarity with nearly all the British birds.
"The ousel-cock, so black of hue, With orange-tawny bill, The throstle with his note so true, The wren with little quill.
"The finch, the sparrow, and the lark, The plain-song cuckoo gray, Whose note full many a man doth mark. And dares not answer nay."
In "Much Ado about Nothing" we get a glimpse of the lapwing:—
"For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs Close by the ground, to hear our conference."
The lapwing is a kind of plover, and is very swift of foot. When trying to avoid being seen they run rapidly with depressed heads, or "close by the ground," as the poet puts it. In the same scene, HERO says of URSULA:—
"I know her spirits are as coy and wild As haggards of the rock."
The haggard falcon is a species of hawk found in North Wales and in Scotland. It breeds on high shelving cliffs and precipitous rocks. Had Shakespeare been an "amateur poacher" in his youth? He had a poacher's knowledge of the wild creatures. He knew how fresh the snake appears after it has cast its skin; how the hedgehog makes himself up into a ball and leaves his "prickles" in whatever touches him; how the butterfly comes from the grub; how the fox carries the goose; where the squirrel hides his store; where the martlet builds its nest, etc.
"Now is the woodcock near the gin,"
says FABIAN, in "Twelfth Night," and
"Stalk on, stalk on; the fowl sits,"
says CLAUDIO to LEONATO, in "Much Ado."
"Instruct thee how To snare the nimble marmozet,"
says CALIBAN, in The Tempest." Sings the fool in "Lear:"—
"The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long That it had it head bit off by it young."
The hedge-sparrow is one of the favorite birds upon which the European cuckoo imposes the rearing of its young. If Shakespeare had made the house sparrow, or the blackbird, or the bunting, or any of the granivorous, hard-billed birds, the foster-parent of the cuckoo, his natural history would have been at fault.
Shakespeare knew the flowers, too, and knew their times and seasons:—
"When daisies pied, and violets blue, And lady smocks all silver-white, And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue, Do paint the meadows with delight."
They have, in England, the cuckoo-flower, which comes in April and is lilac in color, and the cuckoo-pint, which is much like our "Jack in the pulpit;" but the poet does not refer to either of these (if he did, we would catch him tripping), but to buttercups, which are called by rural folk in Britain "cuckoo-buds."
In England the daffodil blooms in February and March; the swallow comes in April usually; hence the truth of Shakespeare's lines:—
"Daffodils, That come before the swallow dares, and take The winds of March with beauty."
The only flaw I notice in Shakespeare's natural history is in his treatment of the honey-bee, but this was a flaw in the knowledge of the times as well. The history of this insect was not rightly read till long after Shakespeare wrote. He pictures a colony of bees as a kingdom, with
"A king and officers of sorts"
(see "Henry V."), whereas a colony of bees is an absolute democracy; the rulers and governors and "officers of sorts" are the workers, the masses, the common people. A strict regard to fact also would spoil those fairy tapers in "Midsummer Night's Dream,"—
"The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees, And, for night-tapers, crop their waxen thighs, And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes,"—
since it is not wax that bees bear upon their thighs, but pollen, the dust of the flowers, with which bees make their bread. Wax is made from honey.
The science or the meaning is also a little obscure in this phrase, which occurs in one of the plays:—
"One heat another heat expels,"—
as one nail drives out another, or as one love cures another.
In a passage in "The Tempest" he speaks of the ivy as if it were parasitical, like the mistletoe:—
"Now, he was The ivy which had hid my princely trunk, And sucked my verdure out on't."
I believe it is not a fact that the ivy sucks the juice out of the trees it climbs upon, though it may much interfere with their growth. Its aerial rootlets are for support alone, as is the case with all climbers that are not twiners. But this may perhaps be regarded as only a poetic license on the part of Shakespeare; the human ivy he was picturing no doubt fed upon the tree that supported it, whether the real ivy does or not.
It is also probably untrue that
"The poor beetle that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great As when a giant dies,"
though it has suited the purpose of other poets besides Shakespeare to say so. The higher and more complex the organization, the more acute the pleasure and the pain. A toad has been known to live for days with the upper part of its head cut away by a scythe, and a beetle will survive for hours upon the fisherman's hook. It perhaps causes a grasshopper less pain to detach one of its legs than it does a man to remove a single hair from his beard. Nerves alone feel pain, and the nervous system of a beetle is a very rudimentary affair.
In "Coriolanus" there is a comparison which implies that a man can tread upon his own shadow,—a difficult feat in northern countries at all times except midday; Shakespeare is particular to mention the time of day:—
"Such a nature, Tickled with good success, disdains the shadow Which he treads on at noon."
AN intelligent English woman, spending a few years in this country with her family, says that one of her serious disappointments is that she finds it utterly impossible to enjoy nature here as she can at home—so much nature as we have and yet no way of getting at it; no paths, or byways, or stiles, or foot-bridges, no provision for the pedestrian outside of the public road. One would think the people had no feet and legs in this country, or else did not know how to use them. Last summer she spent the season near a small rural village in the valley of the Connecticut, but it seemed as if she had not been in the country: she could not come at the landscape; she could not reach a wood or a hill or a pretty nook anywhere without being a trespasser, or getting entangled in swamps or in fields of grass and grain, or having her course blocked by a high and difficult fence; no private ways, no grassy lanes; nobody walking in the fields or woods, nobody walking anywhere for pleasure, but everybody in carriages or wagons.
She was staying a mile from the village, and every day used to walk down to the post-office for her mail; but instead of a short and pleasant cut across the fields, as there would have been in England, she was obliged to take the highway and face the dust and the mud and the staring people in their carriages.
She complained, also, of the absence of bird voices,—so silent the fields and groves and orchards were, compared with what she had been used to at home. The most noticeable midsummer sound everywhere was the shrill, brassy crescendo of the locust.
All this is unquestionably true. There is far less bird music here than in England, except possibly in May and June, though, if the first impressions of the Duke of Argyle are to be trusted, there is much less even then. The duke says: "Although I was in the woods and fields of Canada and of the States in the richest moments of the spring, I heard little of that burst of song which in England comes from the blackcap, and the garden warbler, and the whitethroat, and the reed warbler, and the common wren, and (locally) from the nightingale." Our birds are more withdrawn than the English, and their notes more plaintive and intermittent. Yet there are a few days here early in May, when the house wren, the oriole, the orchard starling, the kingbird, the bobolink, and the wood thrush first arrive, that are so full of music, especially in the morning, that one is loath to believe there is anything fuller or finer even in England. As walkers, and lovers of rural scenes and pastimes, we do not approach our British cousins. It is a seven days' wonder to see anybody walking in this country except on a wager or in a public hall or skating-rink, as an exhibition and trial of endurance.
Countrymen do not walk except from necessity, and country women walk far less than their city sisters. When city people come to the country they do not walk, because that would be conceding too much to the country; beside, they would soil their shoes, and would lose the awe and respect which their imposing turn-outs inspire. Then they find the country dull; it is like water or milk after champagne; they miss the accustomed stimulus, both mind and body relax, and walking is too great an effort.
There are several obvious reasons why the English should be better or more habitual walkers than we are. Taken the year round, their climate is much more favorable to exercise in the open air. Their roads are better, harder, and smoother, and there is a place for the man and a place for the horse. Their country houses and churches and villages are not strung upon the highway as ours are, but are nestled here and there with reference to other things than convenience in "getting out." Hence the grassy lanes and paths through the fields.
Distances are not so great in that country; the population occupies less space. Again, the land has been, longer occupied and is more thoroughly subdued; it is easier to get about the fields; life has flowed in the same channels for centuries. The English landscape is like a park, and is so thoroughly rural and mellow and bosky that the temptation to walk amid its scenes is ever present to one. In comparison, nature here is rude, raw, and forbidding; has not that maternal and beneficent look, is less mindful of man, runs to briers and weeds or to naked sterility.
Then as a people the English are a private, domestic, homely folk: they dislike publicity, dislike the highway, dislike noise, and love to feel the grass under their feet. They have a genius for lanes and footpaths; one might almost say they invented them. The charm of them is in their books; their rural poetry is modeled upon them. How much of Wordsworth's poetry is the poetry of pedestrianism! A footpath is sacred in England; the king himself cannot close one; the courts recognize them as something quite as important and inviolable as the highway.
A footpath is of slow growth, and it is a wild, shy thing that is easily scared away. The plow must respect it, and the fence or hedge make way for it. It requires a settled state of things, unchanging habits among the people, and long tenure of the land; the rill of life that finds its way there must have a perennial source, and flow there tomorrow and the next day and the next century.
When I was a youth and went to school with my brothers, we had a footpath a mile long. On going from home after leaving the highway there was a descent through a meadow, then through a large maple and beech wood, then through a long stretch of rather barren pasture land which brought us to the creek in the valley, which we crossed on a slab or a couple of rails from the near fence; then more meadow land with a neglected orchard, and then the little gray schoolhouse itself toeing the highway. In winter our course was a hard, beaten path in the snow visible from afar, and in summer a well-defined trail. In the woods it wore the roots of the trees. It steered for the gaps or low places in the fences, and avoided the bogs and swamps in the meadow. I can recall yet the very look, the very physiognomy of a large birch-tree that stood beside it in the midst of the woods; it sometimes tripped me up with a large root it sent out like a foot. Neither do I forget the little spring run near by, where we frequently paused to drink, and to gather "crinkle-root" (DENTARIA) in the early summer; nor the dilapidated log fence that was the highway of the squirrels; nor the ledges to one side, whence in early spring the skunk and coon sallied forth and crossed our path; nor the gray, scabby rocks in the pasture; nor the solitary tree, nor the old weather-worn stump; no, nor the creek in which I plunged one winter morning in attempting to leap its swollen current. But the path served only one generation of school-children; it faded out more than thirty years ago, and the feet that made it are widely scattered, while some of them have found the path that leads through the Valley of the Shadow. Almost the last words of one of these schoolboys, then a man grown, seemed as if he might have had this very path in mind, and thought himself again returning to his father's house: "I must hurry," he said; "I have a long way to go up a hill and through a dark wood, and it will soon be night."
We are a famous people to go " 'cross lots," but we do not make a path, or, if we do, it does not last; the scene changes, the currents set in other directions, or cease entirely, and the path vanishes. In the South one would find plenty of bridle-paths, for there everybody goes horseback, and there are few passable roads; and the hunters and lumbermen of the North have their trails through the forest following a line of blazed trees; but in all my acquaintance with the country,— the rural and agricultural sections,—I do not know a pleasant, inviting path leading from house to house, or from settlement to settlement, by which the pedestrian could shorten or enliven a journey, or add the charm of the seclusion of the fields to his walk.
What a contrast England presents in this respect, according to Mr. Jennings's pleasant book, "Field Paths and Green Lanes"! The pedestrian may go about quite independent of the highway. Here is a glimpse from his pages: "A path across the field, seen from the station, leads into a road close by the lodge gate of Mr. Cubett's house. A little beyond this gate is another and smaller one, from which a narrow path ascends straight to the top of the hill and comes out just opposite the post-office on Ranmore Common. The Common at another point may be reached by a shorter cut. After entering a path close by the lodge, open the first gate you come to on the right hand. Cross the road, go through the gate opposite, and either follow the road right out upon Ranmore Common, past the beautiful deep dell or ravine, or take a path which you will see on your left, a few yards from the gate. This winds through a very pretty wood, with glimpses of the valley here and there on the way, and eventually brings you out upon the carriage-drive to the house. Turn to the right and you will soon find yourself upon the Common. A road or path opens out in front of the upper lodge gate. Follow that and it will take you to a small piece of water from whence a green path strikes off to the right, and this will lead you all across the Common in a northerly direction." Thus we may see how the country is threaded with paths. A later writer, the author of "The Gamekeeper at Home" and other books, says: "Those only know a country who are acquainted with its footpaths. By the roads, indeed, the outside may be seen; but the footpaths go through the heart of the land. There are routes by which mile after mile may be traveled without leaving the sward. So you may pass from village to village; now crossing green meadows, now cornfields, over brooks, past woods, through farmyard and rick 'barken.' "
The conditions of life in this country have not.been favorable to the development of byways. We do not take to lanes and to the seclusion of the fields. We love to be upon the road, and to plant our houses there, and to appear there mounted upon a horse or seated in a wagon. It is to be distinctly stated, however, that our public highways, with their breadth and amplitude, their wide grassy margins, their picturesque stone or rail fences, their outlooks, and their general free and easy character, are far more inviting to the pedestrian than the narrow lanes and trenches that English highways for the most part are. The road in England is always well kept, the roadbed is often like a rock, but the traveler's view is shut in by high hedges, and very frequently he seems to be passing along a deep, nicely graded ditch. The open, broad landscape character of our highways is quite unknown in that country.
The absence of the paths and lanes is not so great a matter, but the decay of the simplicity of manners, and of the habits of pedestrianism which this absence implies, is what I lament. The devil is in the horse to make men proud and fast and ill-mannered; only when you go afoot do you grow in the grace of gentleness and humility. But no good can come out of this walking mania that is now sweeping over the country, simply because it is a mania and not a natural and wholesome impulse. It is a prostitution of the noble pastime.
It is not the walking merely, it is keeping yourself in tune for a walk, in the spiritual and bodily condition in which you can find entertainment and exhilaration in so simple and natural a pastime. You are eligible to any good fortune when you are in the condition to enjoy a walk. When the air and the water taste sweet to you, how much else will taste sweet! When the exercise of your limbs affords you pleasure, and the play of your senses upon the various objects and shows of nature quickens and stimulates your spirit, your relation to the world and to yourself is what it should be,— simple and direct and wholesome. The mood in which you set out on a spring or autumn ramble or a sturdy winter walk, and your greedy feet have to be restrained from devouring the distances too fast, is the mood in which your best thoughts and impulses come to you, or in which you might embark upon any noble and heroic enterprise. Life is sweet in such moods, the universe is complete, and there is no failure or imperfection anywhere.
A BUNCH OF HERBS
FRAGRANT WILD FLOWERS
The charge that was long ago made against our wild flowers by English travelers in this country, namely, that they are odorless, doubtless had its origin in the fact that, whereas in England the sweet-scented flowers are among the most common and conspicuous, in this country they are rather shy and withdrawn, and consequently not such as travelers would be likely to encounter. Moreover, the British traveler, remembering the deliciously fragrant blue violets he left at home, covering every grassy slope and meadow bank in spring, and the wild clematis, or traveler's joy, overrunning hedges and old walls with its white, sweet-scented blossoms, and finding the corresponding species here equally abundant but entirely scentless, very naturally infers that our wild flowers are all deficient in this respect. He would be confirmed in this opinion when, on turning to some of our most beautiful and striking native flowers, like the laurel, the rhododendron, the columbine, the inimitable fringed gentian, the burning cardinal-flower, or our asters and goldenrod, dashing the roadsides with tints of purple and gold, he found them scentless also. "Where are your fragrant flowers?" he might well say; "I can find none." Let him look closer and penetrate our forests, and visit our ponds and lakes. Let him compare our matchless, rosy-lipped, honey-hearted trailing arbutus with his own ugly ground-ivy; let him compare our sumptuous, fragrant pond-lily with his own odorless NYMPHĈ ALBA. In our Northern woods he will find the floors carpeted with the delicate linnĉa, its twin rose-colored, nodding flowers filling the air with fragrance. (I am aware that the linnĉa is found in some parts of Northern Europe.) The fact is, we perhaps have as many sweet-scented wild flowers as Europe has, only they are not quite so prominent in our flora, nor so well known to our people or to our poets.