The Wild Mother

I HEAR the bawling of my neighbor’s cow. Her calf was carried off yesterday, and since then, during the long night, and all day long, her insistent woe has made our hillside melancholy. But I shall not hear her to-night, not from this distance. She will lie down tonight with the others of the herd, and munch her cud. Yet, when the rattling stanchions grow quiet and sleep steals along the stalls, she will turn her ears at every small stirring; she will raise her head to listen and utter a low tender moo. Her full udder hurts; but her cud is sweet. She is only a cow.

Had she been a wild cow, or had she been out with her calf in a wild pasture, the mother in her had lived for six months. Here in the stable it will be forced to forget in a few hours, and by morning will have died.

There is a mother-principle alive in all nature which never dies. This is different from the mother-instinct, the mother-passion. The oak and the amœba respond to the mother-principle. It is a law of life; it is one of the constants of being. The mother-instinct or passion, on the other hand, occurs only among the higher animals; occurs not sporadically quite, for it is common enough; yet while generally found, and while one of the strongest, most interesting, most beautiful of animal traits, it is at the same time the most individual and the least constant.

This cow of my neighbor’s that I hear lowing (the ‘Big Blue’ cow of the herd) is an entirely gentle creature ordinarily, but with a calf at her side she will pitch at any one who approaches her. And there is no other cow of the herd that mourns so long when her calf is taken away. The mother in her is stronger, more enduring, than in any of the other nineteen in the barn. In my own cow it is hardly more than blind principle, hardly advanced beyond the oak tree’s feeling for its acorns, or the amœba’s for its divided self.

Out of the mother-principle there develops, far down the animal scale, the sexless, neuter, motherless-mother, — the parent. It is out of this mere parent, as we ascend the scale, that we find the mother growing.

The female crab, attaching her eggs to her swimmerets, carries them about with her for their protection as the most devoted of mothers; yet she has no more concern for them, is no more conscious of them, feels no more for them, than the fruiting frond of a cinnamon fern feels for its spores. Here in the crab is the form, but not the substance, of the mother.

In the spider, however, just one remove up the scale from the crab, you find the mother-passion. Crossing a field the other day, I came upon a large female spider of the hunter family, carrying a round white sack of eggs, half the size of a cherry, attached to her spinnerets. Plucking a long stem of herd’s grass, I detached the sack of eggs without bruising it. Instantly the spider turned and sprang at the grass-stem, fighting and biting until she got to the sack, which she seized in her strong jaws and made off with as fast as her rapid legs would carry her.

I laid the stem across her back and again took the sack away. She came on for it again, fighting more fiercely than before. Once more she seized it; once more I forced it from her jaws, while she sprang and bit at the grassstem to annihilate it. The fight must have been on for two minutes when, by a regrettable move on my part, one of her legs was injured. She did not falter in her fight. On she rushed for the sack as fast as I pulled it away. The mother in her was rampant. She would have fought for that sack, I believe, until she had not one of her eight legs to stand on, had I been cruel enough to compel her. It did not come to this, for suddenly the sack burst, and out poured a myriad of tiny brown spiderlings. Before I could think, that mother had rushed among them and caused them to swarm upon her, covering her, many deep, even to the outer joints of her long legs,—so deep that I could not now have touched her with a needle except at the risk of crushing the young. I stood by and watched her slowly move off with her encrusting family to a place of safety.

I had seen these spiders try hard to escape with their egg-sacks before, but had never tested the strength of their purpose. I was interested to know how common this mother-instinct might be in them, and for a time made a point of taking the sacks away from every one I found. There was great difference of nature shown among them, the majority scurrying off with no other purpose than their own safety; one of them dropping the sack of its own accord; some of them showing a decided reluctance to leave it; a few of them a disposition to fight; but none of them the fierce consuming fire of the one that lost her leg.

It seems scarcely possible that in the same family and among the same species so great variation of instinct should exist; and no less remarkable that in so humble a form as the spider should be found, even occasionally, the fully developed mother, as against the mere parent, especially when among the fishes, higher forms and far removed from these invertebrate arachnids, we find the part of the mother (not the function of maternity) being largely assumed by the males.

It is the male stickleback that builds the nest; then goes out and drives the female in to lay her eggs; then straightway drives her out to prevent her eating them; then puts himself on guard to protect them from their other enemies, until the young shall hatch and be able to swim away by themselves.

It is the male toadfish (Batrachus Tau) that crawls into the nest hole and takes charge of the numerous family. He may dig the hole, too, as the male stickleback builds the nest. I do not know as to that. But I do know that I once raised a stone in the edge of the tide along the shore of Naushon Island in Buzzards Bay, to find its under surface covered with round, drop-like, amber eggs, and in the shallow cavity beneath, an old male toadfish, slimy and croaking, and with a countenance ugly enough to tie a prowling egg-eating eel into a hard knot. I have done this a score of times. The female deposits the eggs, glues them fast with much nicety to the under surface of the rock, as a female might, and finishes her work. Departing at once, she leaves the coming brood to the care of the male, who, from this time, without relief or even food in all probability, assumes the rôle and all the responsibilities of mother.

Something like this is true of the common hornpout or catfish, I believe, though I have never seen it recorded, and lack the chance at present of proving my earlier observations. I think it is father catfish who takes charge of the brood, of the swarm, of kitten catfish, from the time the spawn is laid.

Instead of digging a hole under a stone after the fashion of the toadfish, or scooping out a shallow nest in the marginal sand of the pond, as does the sunfish, the ‘catty’ or hornpout seeks out an abandoned muskrat burrow that runs into the bank from the edge of the water, and here deposits her eggs. As a boy I never questioned but that it was the mother fish on guard. I believe now, however, that it is the father fish in charge. I am hoping to get down to Lupton’s Pond this spring to make sure of the matter; for all around the shores of that pond, in every muskrat hole and runway, I can scare out an old catfish by stamping hard on the tussocks or roots above the holes. Out he will come with a flop, and with a dart will make for the bottom of the pond; and out with him will spread the family of little catfish in a fine black cloud.

The old fish disappears almost at once, but in a moment, you can see him coming back to the scattered family, to the little black things that look like small tadpoles, who soon cluster about him, as bees about their queen, and wiggle away with him into the deep dark waters of the pond.

We find the undeveloped mother in groups still higher up the scale — among the toads and reptiles, and even among the birds and mammals; but the higher we ascend the more pronounced and constant becomes the motherpassion in the female, and the more variable, weak, and intermittent its manifestation among the males.

A curious sharing of mother qualities by male and female is shown in the Surinam toads of South America, where the male, taking the newly deposited eggs, places them with his own hands upon the back of the female. Here, glued fast by their adhesive jelly, they are soon surrounded by fresh-formed cells, each cell capped by a lid. In these cells the eggs hatch and the young go through their metamorphoses, apparently absorbing some nourishment through the skin of their mother, until they break through the lids of their cells finally and hop away. They might as well be toadstools on a dead stump, so far as motherly care or concern goes, for aside from allowing the male to spread the eggs upon her back, she is no more a mother to them than the dead stump is to the toadstools. She is host only to the little parasites.

I do not know of a single mother among our reptiles, or a single fathermother. The mother-passion, so far as my observation goes, plays no part whatever in reptilian life. Whereas, passing on to the birds, the next order in the line, the mother-passion becomes, by all odds, the most interesting item, the most determining single factor in bird life. More than the song or the color or the courting of the male is the mother-love of the female in every ornithologist’s records.

This is strikingly true also of the mammals. It is as if the watcher in the woods went out to see the mother animal only. It is her going and coming that he follows; her faring, foraging, and watch-care that let him deepest into the secrets of wild animal life.

On one of the large estates here in Hingham, a few weeks ago, a fox was found to be destroying poultry. The time of the raids, and their boldness, were proof enough that the fox must be a female with young. Poisoned meat was prepared for her, and at once the raids ceased. A few days later one of the workmen of the estate came upon the den of a fox, at the mouth of which lay dead a whole litter of young ones. They had been poisoned. The mother had not eaten the doctored food herself, but had carried it home to her family. They must have died in the burrow, for it was evident from the signs that she had dragged them out into the fresh air, to revive them, and deposited them gently on the sand by the hole. Then in her perplexity she had brought various tidbits of mouse and bird and rabbit and placed at their noses to tempt them to wake up out of their strange sleep and eat as hungry children ought to eat. Who knows how long she watched beside the still forms, and what her emotions were? She must have left the neighborhood soon after, however, for no one has seen her since about the estate.

I have elsewhere told of the cat, Calico, and her strange family; the thwarted cat-mother making good the loss of her kittens by adopting a nest of young gray squirrels. A similar story comes to me from a reader in NewYork State. I will quote my correspondent’s letter verbatim, not because there is an item in her account, remarkable as it is, that the most careful and experienced of observers would find hard to credit, but because it reads so much like a page out of the Natural History of Selborne.

She writes: —

‘Our Tootsy became a mother of several little kittens; as she was not in the best, of health we thought best not to let her raise any of them. For a day or two she mourned for her little ones. As she was the pet of the family, we consoled her as best we could. This day I had her out on the lawn. I looked down to the bridge, saw a little squirrel up on one of the bridge-posts. I picked Tootsy up and let her climb the post and catch the squirrel, thinking it would take her mind off from her grief for a while.

‘She brought it up on the lawn, and in place of playing with it and finally eating it, as is the nature of cats, she wanted to mother it. We then left her, and soon we discovered she had taken it upstairs in mother’s bed and hid it. She staid with it all night, and we see the little squirrel could take nourishment.

‘The next day she found two more squirrels and brought them home, so we had a family of three. She brought them up until they were able to eat, meanwhile giving loads of pleasure; when they became so large and frisky we could do nothing with them, they would get into everything. We kept one, which disappeared shortly after. We think it had gotten with other squirrels, for sometimes when it did get out on the trees the cat would sit under the tree for hours at a time coaxing it back.’

I have known a hen, too, deprived of her chickens, to adopt a litter of tiny kittens, brooding them and guarding them as her own.

The birds are structurally lower than the most primitive of the mammals; they are close kin to the cold-hearted reptiles, yet it is the bird, the mother bird, rather, that has touched our imaginations as perhaps the most nearly human of all wild things.

0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.

And an earlier Hebrew prophet, likening God’s harsh providences to the rending of a lion, hastened on with the assurance that in his heart God hovers over Jerusalem as little mother birds hover over their nests.

Hovering He will deliver it,
And passing back and forth
He will preserve it.1

The bird-mother is the bravest, tenderest, most solicitous, most appealing thing one ever comes upon in the fields; the problem of her presence or absence, the degree or intensity of her being, and her behavior under stress, add more than anything else to the interest and charm of bird-study. It is the rare exception, but we sometimes find the mother-instinct wholly lacking among the birds, as in the case of our notorious cowbird, who sneaks around, watching her chance when some smaller bird is gone, to drop her egg into its nest. The egg must be laid, the burden of the race has been put upon the cowbird, but not the precious burden of the child. Hers are only the functions of maternity. She is not a mother. She is body only, not a soul.

The same is true of the European cuckoo, but not quite true of our American cuckoo, in spite of popular belief. For our birds (both species) build rude, elementary nests as a rule, and brood their eggs. Occasionally they may steal a robin’s or a catbird’s nest, may even destroy the owner’s eggs (though never to my knowledge), in order to save labor—the unimaginative labor of laying one stick across another when one does not know how. But here is a plain case of knowledge waiting on desire. So undeveloped is the mother in the cuckoo that if you touch her eggs she will leave them — abandon her rude nest and eggs, as if any excuse were excuse enough for an escape from the cares of motherhood. How should a bird with so little motherlove ever learn to build a firm-walled, safe, and love-lined nest?

The great California condor, according to the records of the only one ever studied, is a most faithful and anxious mother, the dumb affection of both parents indeed, for their single offspring, being at times pathetically human. On the other hand, the mother in our Eastern turkey-buzzard is so evenly balanced against the vulture in her that I have known a brooding bird to be entirely undone by the sudden approach of a man and to rise from off her eggs and devour them instantly, greedily, and then make off on her serenely soaring wings into the clouds.

Such bird-mothers, however, are not the rule. The buzzard, the cuckoo, and the cowbird are striking exceptions. The flicker will keep on laying eggs as fast as you take them from the nest hole, until she has no more eggs to lay. The quail, like the cuckoo, will sometimes desert her nest if even an egg is so much as touched, but only because she knows that her nest has been discovered and must be started anew, in some more hidden place, for safety. She is a wise and devoted mother, keeping her brood with her as a ‘covey’ all winter long.

One of the most interesting instances of variation of the mother-instinct in the same species of birds, which has ever come under my observation, occurred in the summer of 1912 in the rookeries of the Three-Arch Rocks Reservation off the coast of Oregon.

We had gone out to the Reservation in order to study and photograph its wild life, and were making our slow way toward the top of the outer rock. Up the sheer south face of the cliff we had climbed, through rookery after rookery of nesting birds, until we reached the edge of the blade-like back, or top, that ran up to the peak. Scrambling over this edge we found ourselves in the midst of a great colony of nesting murres — hundreds of them—covering the steep rocky part of the top.

As our heads appeared above the rim, many of the colony took wing and whirred over us out to sea, but most of them sat close, each bird upon her egg or over her chick, loath to leave, and so expose to us her hidden treasure.

The top of the rock was somewhat cone-shaped, and in order to reach the peak, and the colonies on the west side, we had to make our way through this rookery of the murres. The first step among them, and the whole colony was gone, with a rush of wings and feet that sent several of the top-shaped eggs rolling, and several of the young birds toppling, over the cliff to the pounding waves and ledges far below.

We stopped instantly. We had not come to frighten and kill. Our climb up had been very disturbing to the birds, and had been attended with some loss of both eggs and young. This we could not help; and we had been too much concerned for our own lives really to notice what was happening. But here on the top, with the climb beneath us, the sight of a young murre going over the rim, clawing and clinging with beak and nails and unfledged wings, down from jutting point to shelf, to ledge, down, down — the sight of it made one dizzy and sick.

We stopped, but the colony had bolted, leaving scores of eggs and scores of downy young squealing and running together for shelter, like so many beetles under a lifted board.

But the birds had not every one bolted, for here sat two of the colony among the broken rocks. These two had not been frightened off. That both of them were greatly alarmed, any one could see from their open beaks, their rolling eyes, their tense bodies on tiptoe for flight. Yet here they sat, their wings out like props, or more like gripping hands, as if they were trying to hold themselves down to the rocks against their wild desire to fly.

And so they were in truth, for under their extended wings I saw little black feet moving. Those two mother murres were not going to forsake their babies — no, not even for fear of these approaching monsters, which had never been seen clambering over their rocks before!

One of the monsters stood stock still a moment for the other one, the photographer, to come up. Then both of them took a step nearer. It was very interesting. I had often come slowly up to quails on their nests, and to other birds. Once I crept upon a killdeer in a bare field until my fingers were almost touching her. She did not move because she thought I did not see her, it being her trick thus to hide within her own feathers, colored as they are to blend with the pebbly fields where she lays her eggs. So the brown quail also blends with its brown grass nest. But those murres, though colored in harmony with the rocks, were still, not because they hoped I did not see them. I did see them. They knew it. Every bird in the great colony had known it, and had gone — with the exception of these two.

What was different about these two? They had their young ones to protect. But so had every bird in the great colony its young one, or its egg, to protect; yet all the others had gone. Did these two have more love than the others, and with it, or because of it, more courage, more intelligence?

We took another step towards them, and one of the two birds sprang into the air, knocking her baby over and over with the stroke of her wing, coming within an inch of hurling it across the rim to be battered on the ledges below. The other bird raised her wings to follow, then clapped them back over her baby. Fear is the most contagious thing in the world; and that flap of fear by the other bird thrilled her, too, but as she had withstood the stampede of the colony, so she caught herself again and held on.

She was now alone on the bare top of the rock, with ten thousand circling birds screaming to her in the air above, and with two men creeping up to her with a big black camera which clicked ominously. She let the multitude scream, and with threatening beak watched the two men come on. A motherless baby spying her, ran down the rock squealing for his life. She spread her wing, put her bill behind him and shoved him quickly in out of sight with her own baby. The man with the camera saw the act, for I heard his machine click, and I heard him say something under his breath that you would hardly expect a mere man and a gamewarden to say. But most men have a good deal of the mother in them; and the old bird had acted with such decision, such courage, such swift, compelling instinct, that any man, short of the wildest savage, would have felt his heart quicken at the sight.

Just how compelling might that mother-instinct be? I wondered. Just how much would that mother-love stand?

I had dropped to my knees, and on all fours had crept up within about three feet of the bird. She still had a chance for flight. Would she allow us to crawl any nearer? Slowly, very slowly, I stretched forward on my hands, like a measuring worm, until my body lay flat on the rocks, and my fingers were within three inches of her. But her wings were twitching; a wild light danced in her eyes; and her head turned itself toward the sea.

For a whole minute I did not stir. Then the wings again began to tighten about the babies; the wild light in the eyes died down; the long sharp beak turned once more toward me. Then slowly, very slowly, I raised my hand, and gently touched her feathers with the tip of one finger — with two fingers — with my whole hand, while the loud camera click-clacked, click-clacked hardly four feet away!

It was a thrilling moment. I was not killing anything. I had no highpowered rifle in my hands, coming up against the wind toward an unsuspecting creature hundreds of yards away. This was no wounded leopard charging me; no mother bear defending with her giant might a captured cub. It was only a mother bird, the size of a wild duck, with swift wings at her command, hiding under those wings her own and another’s young, and her own boundless fear!

For the second time in my life I had taken captive with my bare hands a free wild bird. No, I had not taken her captive. She had made herself a captive; she had taken herself in the strong net of her mother-love.

And now her terror seemed quite gone. At the first touch of my hand she felt, I think, the love restraining it, and without fear or fret allowed me to push my hand under her and pull out the two downy babies. But she reached after them with her bill to tuck them back out of sight, and when I did not let them go, she sidled toward me, quacking soflly, — a language that I perfectly understood, and was quick to answer.

I gave them back, fuzzy, and black and white. She got them under her, stood up over them, pushed her wings down hard around them, her stout tail down hard behind them, and together with them pushed in an abandoned egg which was close at hand. Her own baby, some one else’s baby, and some one else’s forsaken egg! She could cover no more; she had not feathers enough. But she had heart enough; and into her mother’s heart she had already tucked every motherless egg and nestling of the thousands of frightened birds that were screaming and wheeling in the air high over her head.

  1. Author’s translation from the Hebrew, Isa., chap. 31.