Po' Jo and His Neighbors

WIDE wastes of green or golden-brown, level as the sea and utterly bare of trees, the salt marshes lie silent and imperturbable beneath the fierce summer sun. Fringing the shores of every creek and river, girding the margin of every shallow sound, filling in the broad spaces between the narrow sandy coast-islands and the mainland behind, they cover thousands and thousands of acres — acres of real primeval wilderness that for more than two hundred years has defied the white man’s civilization and will probably defy it to the end. Man builds no houses in the marsh. To him it is so much waste land and desert where neither xe nor plough can win him any profit; and so it is that here, in one of the oldest of the old thirteen states, you may travel for miles through lands where houses are to-day no more numerous than they were on that fateful August morning of 1492 when a certain daring mariner sailed out of Palos on that great quest which was to add a new continent to the white man’s world.

This, I think, is in large part the secret of the marsh-lands’ charm — the fact that they have not changed as the dry lands have changed; that, in spite of the plantation houses along their edges, and the boats that ply their creeks and sounds, they are now, in all essentials, just as they have always been. In a very real sense, they are remnants of the ancient wilderness; and upon their level expanses the tyrannous hand of man rests far less heavily than upon the solid lands. At any season, of course, small boats may thread the innumerable narrow tideways that wind here and there with endless serpentine meanderings; but it is only at comparatively rare intervals, when the full-moon tides spread far and wide over the low-lying flats, that you may invade the broad bosom of the marsh itself. On most days, if you attempt to land, you sink, at each step, up to your knees in the soft black soil of the marsh, and in a moment you turn and flounder back to the creek where you left the boat. Close by a clapper-rail cackles noisily, as though laughing at your discomfiture; and, as you straddle the bow of the drifting bateau, dangling your feet in the water to rid your shoes of the mud, you reflect that perhaps it is as well, after all, that the marshes are closed to mankind.

For the clapper — marsh-hen, we call him hereabouts — is an example and a most instructive one. When the big tides come and dozens of boats are poled over marsh-lands which previously had been three or four inches above high-water mark, the rails killed in a day are numbered, not in dozens, but in hundreds and thousands; and yet, with each returning spring, the green flats ring as loudly as ever with the laughter of the clapper, and, aside from the little fiddler-crabs and other small backboneless folk, his tribe still outnumbers all the other peoples of the marsh. And now becomes obvious his value as an example — an example of what a strictly observed “close season” will do toward preserving any bird. The rail’s close season is granted him, not by human law, but by Nature herself. During most of the year he is safe from man, since man can invade his home only on the comparatively rare days of abnormally high water. Thus he has a fair chance in the fight against his great foeman, and, in consequence, despite occasional days of massacre, he still holds his own in the land. The fishcrow pilfers his eggs, and the marshhawk takes toll of his young; but from the arch-enemy of the wild creatures the inaccessibility of his home safeguards him save at certain seasons. And as it is with the clapper, so is it in greater or less degree with those other long-legged marsh-dwellers who are, to my mind, among the most interesting of all the feathered kindred — the herons.

The land where I live is a veritable paradise of herons. To the inlander, the sight of a Great Blue Heron navigating the thin atmosphere high over field and woodland is an event to be remembered, perhaps an omen of approaching good or evil; but here in the land of the salt marshes, “ Po’ Jo,” as the darkies call him, is an ever-present inhabitant. He is the largest and most impressive of all the marsh-inhabiting birds, and there is about him a certain admirable dignity which should have earned him a worthier, more stately name. In the early morning, when the dull crimson of the newly-risen sun is just merging into dazzling gold, he comes sweeping across the level plain of marsh, his wide wings moving with slow, measured beats, his slender neck bent into a snake-like fold, his long legs trailing behind him. He comes at no great speed — for he is never in a hurry; and a little awkwardly, with a craning of his sinuous neck, he alights on the muddy margin of the narrow, slow-flowing creek. There, it may be, he stands for an hour, never moving out of his tracks, yet taking heavy toll of the little finny companies that come swimming past his black toes. His head is drawn far back between his narrow shoulders, his long, spear-like beak rests lightly upon his lean breast, his small round eyes glitter sharply, keen and alert like the eyes of a hawk. Suddenly the snaky neck lengthens, the straight, strong beak shoots forward and downward, cleaving the muddy, marginal water like a javelin — and behold! there is a mullet the less in the world.

When the southern spring comes — stealthily and unobtrusively as is its wont in these latitudes, where winter is seldom really cold and the mockingbirds and white-throated sparrows sing sweetly even in February — the Great Blue wearies of the solitary life which he leads during the greater part of the year. He finds him a mate, as melancholy and dignified as himself; and the nest which is presently built is not a lonely castle in the wilderness, but one of many similar homes belonging to others of his kind.

Some days ago, I spent a half-hour in a village of Po’ Jo’s. Some twenty nests there were, perhaps, built in a scattered grove of giant pines rising high above the dense, half-tropical jungle on one of the sandy sea-islands of this island-fringed coast. The hoarse squawking and deepthroated croaking of the villagers guided us to the spot, and we found it an evilsmelling place but well worth visiting. Here and there, from one lofty tree to another, the big birds flapped with a noisy beating of their wide wings, protesting loudly as we wormed our way through the tangled lower growth. The nests were rather bulky affairs of sticks, none of them less than forty feet above the ground: and on each nest, or on the branches near-by, stood either two or three youthful Po’ Jo’s, about two-thirds grown but still unable to fly. They stood rigid and absolutely motionless, looking not at all like birds, their long necks stretching straight upward and their wings flattened tightly against their lean bodies. So silent were they that, but for the constant flapping and raucous squawking of the parent birds, we might have passed close to the village and never suspected the presence of a score of dwellings high up in the pines. It was, as I have said, an interesting community, and our visit would have been a longer one had we not presently become aware of the fact that we were intruding upon certain other visitors of a different and not altogether friendly race. The deadly cotton-mouth moccasin, the scourge of the jungly sea-island forests, makes many a hearty meal upon the fragments of fish and frogs littering the ground beneath a Po’ Jo village; and when one of us narrowly escaped being bitten, and when I glanced casually downward to find two evil-looking reptiles within a yard of my foot, we thought it time to seek fresher and somewhat less perilous woods.

Whatever measure of handsomeness there is about the Great Blue Heron is due to his imposing height and his undeniable dignity. Sometimes there is a certain grace about his movements; but in general he is rather an awkward fellow, too long of neck and leg, though marvelously skillful with his javelin of a beak, and blessed with a vast patience which the human fisherman must needs envy. In point of genuine beauty, he is far surpassed by some of his smaller kinsmen — by one especially which is, I think, in certain respects, the loveliest feathered creature that I have ever looked upon.

Time was when the marshes whose praises [ sing knew the Snowy Heron as familiarly as to-day they know the Po’ Jo. Armies whitened the mud-flats at low tide, multitudes nested and reared their young, year after year, on little bushcovered islets or “hammocks” scattered here and there on the face of the marsh. Men would have laughed you to scorn had you, in those halcyon days, foretold the imminent passing of the Snowy Heron — a bird so strong in numbers, so marvelously beautiful, and so harmless to mankind, that one could scarce imagine a cause which might lead to its extinction. Yet, in less than a quarter of a century, the Snowy Heron has all but joined the great company of vanished races — blotted out of existence because woman must wear upon her head feathers plucked from the bleeding back of a murdered parent-bird. It is an ugly tale, the massacre of the Snowy Heron — a tale that one does not like to repeat—the story of the almost complete annihilation of the most beautiful of North American waterbirds. Even here, in this land of herons, where the Great Blue and the Little Blue, the Louisiana and the Green, the Night Herons and the bitterns still flourish as of old, the “Egret infinitely fair”—to translate somewhat loosely the Snowy’s technical name—was, until very recently, considered almost, if not absolutely extinct.

A few weeks ago, on a calm, cloudless morning in May, I learned something that no one else knew, and saw a sight that will linger long in my memory. For half-an-hour, as our launch sped swiftly down a certain broad marsh-bordered river, which for excellent reasons shall be nameless, we had watched with languid interest a small bush-grown hammock ahead of us, whence every now and then a few herons, some white, some dark, would rise a little way into the air and drift about for a while before settling down again. Our skipper had told us of this hammock, which was situated in the marsh about a hundred and fifty yards from the edge of the river, saying that he had often seen many “cranes ” flying about above it; and we had decided to land and explore the place, though I never doubted that the “ cranes ” were merely Little Blue Herons, an abundant species. So, as we drew near, the launch swung in toward the green edge of the marsh and glided a little way up a narrow creek that brought us nearer to the hammock; and we, serene in the knowledge that our clothes were of the oldest, stepped out upon the soft “ pluff mud.”

Often, as we ploughed our way across the marsh, we sank almost to our knees; but being lean and long-legged and, for the time, not especially desirous of cleanliness, we pushed steadily though slowly forward until half the distance to the hammock had been covered. And then we saw the sight of which I spoke a moment ago. Up from the dense bushes clothing the island rose cloud after cloud of herons — some white and blue, some spotless white, some brown, some gray and black, some bluish-green. In hundreds, and as if by magic, they came up out of the green thickets, some of them perching on the tops of the bushes and examining us with outstretched necks, most of them rising twenty or thirty feet in the air and wheeling about in aimless intersecting circles. A wonderful sight it was, and one that I would have walked a dozen miles to see; for I knew that we had found something worth the finding. The pure white birds that swept here and there among their darker kinsmen had black legs and yellow feet — the distinguishing marks of the supposedly vanished Snowy Heron!

It was a red-letter day, — the day on which we found this city of Snowies, — and yet I cannot stop now to describe its glories. Somewhat later we found another islet, miles distant from the first, where a still larger colony was established ; and during the next two weeks I made several trips to the two hammocks and saw something of the home life of their inhabitants. On each islet five different species of herons were breeding, — the Snowy, Louisiana, Little Blue, Green, and Black-crowned Night Heron, - associating in perfect peace and harmony: while, in addition, hundreds of boat-tailed grackles or “jackdaws,” many red-winged blackbirds, a few nonpareils, and at least one pair of Carolina doves, had built their nests among the sparldeberries, yuccas, and palmettos which held the rickety castles of the “ cranes.” The area of the larger hammock hardly exceeds four acres, while the smaller is scarcely two-thirds as large; yet on one hammock there must have been at least a thousand herons, and on the other between six hundred and seven hundred. The Snowies, needless to say, formed only a comparatively small proportion of the total population. To count them accurately was an utter impossibility. At each island, as we drew near, the birds rose in successive companies of hundreds, — all five species mingling together, — so rapidly that by the time we had counted forty or fifty Snowies among their number, we were obliged invariably to abandon the attempt in despair. Hence our estimate of the number of Snowies — one hundred to one hundred and fifty on the smaller hammock, two hundred on the larger — may be considerably wide of the mark. But, however that may be, there is little doubt that these two colonies are among the strongest in all North America, just as they are, so far as I am aware, the only colonies of the Snowy Heron known to exist today on the Atlantic Coast.

It would be difficult indeed to imagine a spot more interesting to the student of birds than either of these two heronries during the latter part of May. It mattered little that the sun beat down upon one’s head with terrific force, that the grass was full of wicked, long-spined cactus-plants, that the air was heavy with the stench which is an inevitable characteristic of every heron-city. One took no account of these things. The air above was full of herons, herons were perching on the tops of the bushes all around, some of them within twenty feet of where I stood, hundreds of nests were hidden in the thickets within easy reach from the ground; and, with all this to see, of what consequence were a sun that burned like fire and an odor not altogether suggestive of myrrh? The hours flew by like minutes; and whether we stood out in the open, in plain view of the birds, or concealed ourselves in the thickets containing the nests, there was always so much movement, so much animation, so much to see and to hear, that the effect was bewildering.

Of the five different species of herons inhabiting these two islets, the Snowies were, of course, by virtue of their rarity, most interesting. They were, however, much shyer than their more commonplace kinsmen. If we stood in the open, they approached within gunshot range comparatively seldom; and, in fact, on each of our visits, most of them decamped temporarily, some rising hundreds of feet into the air, and flying away out of sight, others congregating in the marsh a quarter of a mile distant, their spotless bodies shining like whitest marble in the sun. The noisy, short-legged Black-crowned Night Herons also were rather shy: but the graceful Louisianas and the familiar Little Greens or “ Skeows ” were wonderfully tame. On each islet these two species outnumbered all the rest; and probably they were the owners of two-thirds of the hundreds of flimsily built homes in the thickets, from which, had we desired, we could have gathered bushels of eggs. The nests indeed seemed innumerable. Every clump of sparkleberry was full of them, and some were even placed amid the needlepointed, sword-like blades of the yucca or Spanish bayonet. I counted ten within a radius of six feet, and thirty-five within a radius of twenty-five feet, ten of the latter lot, however, being grackle nests. Of the heron homes, some were empty, many held from one to five pale blue eggs, while most contained young birds in every stage of development, from helpless, flabby lumps covered sparsely with yellowish down, to weird fantastic creatures whose scant covering of feathers only partly concealed their greenish skins. We looked into the bright, twinkling eyes of hundreds of young herons, of five species and of every age and size, on our visits to these islands during the latter half of May, and I might discourse at length upon the varied manners and characteristics of the promising youth of the islands — the rising generation whose members, when spring comes round again, will become the parents of yet another generation. This, however, would be too lengthy a proceeding, and I must take leave of the nestling herons with the somewhat unkindly remark that never have I met with so fantastically hideous a crew, nor one so utterly ignorant of the cardinal laws of good breeding.

The constant clamor, the ceaseless activity of populous breeding strongholds such as these which I have attempted to describe, stand in sharp contrast with the imperturbable calm which broods over the trackless surrounding wastes; and in the marsh itself there is not, of course, so crowded a population as upon the bushy hammocks where the herons and grackles gather to build their nests. Now and again, as your boat slips down the creek with the falling tide, a long-necked Po’ Jo rises and flaps heavily away. A Green Heron flies swiftly over your head, shouting his queer falsetto call; and yonder, on an exposed mud-flat, half-adozen graceful Louisianas and three or four Little Blues, most of the latter wearing the white plumage of immaturity, are idling in the sun. Invisible clapper-rails cackle and laugh at one another, drowning momentarily the bubbling songs of scores of tiny marsh-wrens. High up in the blue, an eagle sweeps ceaselessly round and round, his wide wings motionless, his white head and tail shining like silver, his fierce far-sighted eyes fixed intently upon an osprey which, at a lesser altitude, circles above the calm water, searching keenly for the prey of which, it may be, the eagle will presently rob him. These are some of the commoner marsh-land birds — some of the feathered kindred whose homes and hunting-grounds are the pathless, treeless wastes where the foot of the tyrant seldom treads and his hand is not yet all-powerful.1

  1. The discovery of the two colonies of the Snowy Heron (egretta candidissima) mentioned in this article affords a ray of hope that this beautiful speciesmayyet recoveritslost ground. Before the next breeding season opens, steps will be taken to ensure the strict protection of these two colonies.