ALL that May clay long I had been trying to break my record of birds seen and heard between dawn and dark. Toward the end of the gray afternoon an accommodating Canadian warbler, wearing a black necklace across his yellow breast, carried me past my last year’s mark, and I started for home in great contentment. My path wound in and out among the bare white boles of a beech wood all feathery with new green-sanguine-colorecl leaves. Always as I enter that wood I have a sense of a sudden silence, and I walk softly, that I may catch perhaps a last word or so of what They are saying.
That day, as I moved without a sound among the trees, suddenly, not fifty feet away, loping wearily down the opposite slope, came a gaunt red fox and a cub. With her head down, she looked like the picture of the wolf in Red Riding-Hood. The little cub was all woolly, like a lamb. His back was reddish-brown, and he had long stripes of gray across his breast and round his small belly, and his little sly face was so comical that I laughed at the very first sight of it. What wind there was blew from them to me, and my khaki clothes blended with the coloring around me.
As I watched them, another larger cub trotted down the hill. The first cub suddenly yapped at him, with a snarling little bark quite different from that of a dog; but the other paid no attention, but stalked sullenly into a burrow which for the first time I noticed among the roots of a white-oak tree. Back of the burrow lay a large chestnut log which evidently served as a watch-tower for the fox family. To this the mother fox went, and climbing up on Lop of it, lay down, with her head on her paws and her magnificent brush dangling down beside the log, and went to sleep.
The little cub that was left trotted to the entrance of the burrow and for a while played by himself, like a puppy or a kitten. First he snapped at some blades of grass and chewed them up fiercely. Then, seeing a leaf that had stuck in the wool on his back, he whirled round and round, snapping at it with his little jaws. Failing to catch it, he rolled over and over in the dirt until he had brushed it off. Then he proceeded to stalk the battered carcass of an old black crow that lay in front of the burrow. Crouching and creeping up on it inch by inch, he suddenly sprang and caught that unsuspecting corpse and worried it ferociously, with fierce little snarls. All the time his wrinkled-up, funny little face was so comical that I nearly laughed aloud every time he moved. At last he curled up in a round ball, with his chin on his forepaws like his mother.
There before me, at the end of the quiet spring afternoon, two of the wildest and shyest of all of our native animals lay asleep. Never before had I seen a fox in all that country, or even suspected that one had a home within a scant mile of mine. As I watched them sleeping, I felt somehow that the wildwood had taken me into her confidence and was trusting her children to my care; and I would no more have harmed them, than I would my own.
As I watched the cub curled up in a woolly ball, I wanted to creep up and stroke his soft fur. Leaving the hard path, I started to cover as silently as possible the fifty feet that lay between us. Before I had gone far, a leaf rustled underfoot, and in a second the cub was on his feet, wide awake, and staring down at me. With one foot in the air, I waited and waited until he settled down to sleep again. A minute later the same thing happened once more, only to be repeated at every step or so. It took me something like half an hour to reach a point within twenty feet of where he lay, and I looked straight into his eyes each time that he stood up.
No wild animal can tell a man from a tree by sight alone if only he stands still. Suddenly, as the cub sprang up, perhaps for the tenth time, there about six feet to one side of him stood the old mother fox. I had not heard a sound or seen a movement, but there she was. I was so close that I dared not move my head to look at the cub, but turned only my eyes. When I looked back the mother fox was gone. With no sudden movement that I could detect, there almost before my eyes she had melted into the landscape.
I stood like a stone until the cub had lain down once more. This time evidently he was watching me out of his wrinkled-up little eyes, for at my very first forward movement he got up, and with no appearance of haste turned round and disappeared down in the burrow. The watch-towrer log was vacant, although I have no doubt that the mother fox was watching me from some unseen spot.
When I came to examine the den, I found that there were three burrows in a line, perhaps fifteen feet in length, with a hard-worn path leading from one to the other. The watch-log behind them was rubbed smooth and shiny, with reddish fox-hairs caught in every crevice. Near the three burrows was a tiny one, which I think was probably dug as an air-hole; while in front I found the feathers of a flicker, a purple grackle, and a chicken, besides the remains of the crow aforesaid. How any fox outside of the fable could beguile a crow is a puzzle to me. All of these burrows were in plain sight, and I hunted a long time to find the concealed one which is a part of the home of every well-regulated fox family. For a while I could find no trace of it. Finally I saw on the side of a stump one reddish hair that gave me a clue. Examining the stump carefully, I found that it was hollow and formed the entrance to the secret exit from the three main burrows.
A week later I went again to look at the home of that fox family; but it was deserted by them and was now tenanted by a fat woodchuck who would never have ventured near the den, if the owners had not left it. Mrs. Fox had evidently feared the worst from my visit, and in the night had moved her whole family to some better-hidden home. This was three years ago, and, although I visit the place every winter, no tell-tale tracks ever show that she has moved back.
It is not necessary to go to the forest for adventures: they lie in wait for us at our very doors. My home is in a built-up suburb of a large city, apparently hopelessly civilized. The other morning I was out early for some before-breakfast chopping, the best of all setting-up exercises. As I turned the corner of the garage, I suddenly came face to face with a black-and-white animal with a pointed nose, a bushy tail, and an air of justified confidence. I realized that I was on the brink of a meeting which demanded courage but not rashness. ‘Be brave, be brave, but not too brave,’should always be the motto of the man who meets the skunk. From my past experience, however, I knew that the skunk is a good sportsman. Unless rushed, he always gives three warnings before he proceeds to extremities.
As I came near, he stopped and shook his head sadly as if saying to himself, ‘I’m afraid there’s going to be trouble, but it is n’t my fault. As I still came on, he gave me danger signal number one by suddenly stamping his forepaws rapidly on the hard ground. Upon my further approach followed signal number two, to wit, the hoisting aloft of his aforesaid long, bushy tail. As I came on more and more slowly, I received the third and last warning — the end of the erect tail moved quietly back and forth a few times.
It was enough. I stood stony still, for I knew that if, after that, I moved forward but by the fraction of an inch, I would meet an unerring barrage which would send a suit of clothes to an untimely grave. For perhaps half a minute we eyed each other. Like the man in the story, I made up my mind that one of us would have to run — and that I was that one. Without any false pride I backed slowly and cautiously out of range. Thereupon the threatening tail descended, and Mr. Skunk trotted away through a gap in the fence into the long grass of an unoccupied lot, probably seeking a breakfast of field-mice.
I felt a definite sense of relief, for it is usually more dangerous to meet a skunk than a bear. In fact, all the bears that I have ever come upon were disappearing with great rapidity across the landscape.
But there are times, when a meeting with either Mr. or Mrs. Bruin is apt to be an unhappy one. Several years ago I was camping out in Maine one March, in a lumberman’s shack. A few days before I came, two boys in a village near by decided to go into the woods hunting, with a muzzleloading shot-gun and a long stick between them. One boy was ten years old, while the other was a patriarch of twelve. On a hillside under a great bush they noticed a small hole which seemed to have melted through the snow, and which had a gamey savor that made them suspect a coon. The boy with the stick poked it in as far as possible until he felt something soft.
‘I think there’s something here,’ he remarked, poking with all his might.
He was quite right. The next moment the whole bank of frozen snow suddenly caved out, and there stood a cross and hungry bear, prodded out of his winter sleep by that stick. The boys were up against a bad proposition. The snow was too deep for running, and when it came to climbing — that was Mr. Bear’s pet specialty. So they did the only thing left for them to do: they waited. The little one with the stick got behind the big one with the gun, which weapon wavered unsteadily.
‘Now, don’t you miss,’ he said, ‘’cause this stick ain’t very sharp.’
Sometimes an attacking bear will run at a man like a biting dog. More often it rises on its haunches and depends on the smashing blows of its mighty arms and steel-shod paws. So it happened in this case. Just before the bear reached the boys, he lifted his head and started to rise. The first boy, not six feet away, aimed at the white spot which most black bears have under their chin, and pulled the trigger. At that close range the heavy charge of number six shot crashed through the animal’s throat, making a single round hole like a big bullet, cutting the jugular vein, and piercing the neck vertebra? beyond. The great beast fell forward with hardly a struggle, s close to the boys that its blood splash on their rubber boots. They got ten ’ollars for the skin and ten dollars for the ! and about one million dollars’ worth of glory.
Hasting homeward for more peaceful adventures, I find, near the road which leads to the railway station over which scores and hundreds of my friends and neighbors, including myself, pass every day, a little patch of marshland. In the fall it is covered with a thick growth of goldenrod, purple asters, joe-pye-weed, wild sunflowers, white boneset, tear-thumb, black bindweed, dodder, and a score or more of other common fall flowers.
One night, at nine o’clock, I noticed that an ice-blue sky shone from almost the very zenith of the heavens. Below her were two faint stars making a tiny triangle, the left-hand one showing as a beautiful double under an operaglass. Below were a row of other dim points of light in the black sky. It was Vega of the Lyre, the great Harp Star. Then I knew that the time had come. We humans think, arrogantly, that we are the only ones for whom the stars shine, and forget that flowers also, and birds and all the wild folk are born each under its own special star.
The next morning I was up with the sun and visited that bit of unpromising marshland past which all of us had plodded year in and year out. In one corner, through the dim grass, I found flaming like deep-blue coals one of the most beautiful flowers in the world, the fringed gentian. The stalk and flower-stems looked like green candelabra, while the unopened blossoms showed sharp edges like beech-nuts. Above them glowed square fringed flowers of the richest, deepest blue that nature holds. It is bluer than the bluebird’s back, and fades the violet, the aster, the great lobelia, and all the other blue flowers that grow. The four petals were fringed, and the flower seemed like a blue eye looking out of long lashes to the paler sky above. The calyx inside was of a veined purple or a silver-white, while four gold-tipped, light purple stamens clustered around a canary-yellow pistil. There is only this one clump, and every year I look forward to the day when it blooms. That morning after breakfast I wore on the train one of the two flowers which I allowed myself to pick. Every friend I met spoke of it admiringly. Some had heard of it, others had seen it for themselves in places far distant. None of them knew that every day until frost they would pass unheedingly within ten feet of nearly thirty of these flowers.
Sometimes the adventure, unlike good children, is to be heard, not seen. It was the end of a hot August day. I had been down for a late dip in the lake, and was coming back through the woods to the old farmhouse where I have spent so many of my summers. The path wound through a grove of slim birches, and the lights in the afterglow were all green and gold and white. From the nearby road a field sparrow, with a pink beak, sang his silver flute song, and I stopped to listen, and thought to myself, if he were only as rare as the nightingale, how people would crowd to hear him.
Suddenly from the depths of the twilight woods a thrush song began. At first I thought that it was the wood thrush, which, and the veery or Wilson thrush, were the only two that I had supposed were to be found in that Connecticut township. It, however, had a more ethereal quality, and I listened in vain for the drop to the harsh bass notes which always blemish the strain of the wood thrush. Instead, after three arpeggio notes, the singer’s voice went up and up, with a sweep that no human voice or instrument could compass, and I suddenly realized that I was in the presence of one of the great singers of the world. For years I had read of the song of the hermit thrush, but in all my wanderings I had never chanced to hear it before.
Lafcadio Hearn writes of a Japanese bird whose song has the power to change a man’s whole life. So it was with me that midsummer evening. Something had been added to the joy of living that could never be taken from me. Since that twilight I have heard the hermit thrush sing many times. Through the rain in the dawndusk on the top of Mount Pocono, he sang for me once, while all around a choir of veerys accompanied him with their strange minor harp-chords. One Sunday morning, at the edge of a little Canadian river, I heard five singing together on the farther side. ‘ Ah-h-h, holy, holy, holy,’ their voices chimed across the still water. In the woods, in migration, I have heard their whispersong, which the hermit sings only when traveling; and once on a May morning in my back yard, near Philadelphia, one sang for me from the low limb of a bush as loudly as if he were in his mountain home. No thrush song, however, will ever equal that first one which I heard among the birch trees. Creeping softly along the path that evening, I finally saw the little singer on a branch against the darkening sky. Again and again he sang, until at last I noticed that, when the highest notes were reached and the song ceased to my ears, the singer sang on still. Quivering in an ecstasy, with open beak and half-fluttering wings, the thrush sang a strain that went beyond my range. Like the love-song of the bat, the best part of the song of the hermit thrush can never be heard by any human ear.
It was the morning of June twentieth. I stood at the gate of the farmhouse where three roads met, and the air was full of bird-songs. For a long time I stood there, and tried to note how many different songs I could hear. Nearby were the alto joy-notes of the Baltimore oriole. Up from the meadow where the trout brook flowed came the bubbling, gurgling notes of the bobolink. Robins, wood thrushes, song sparrows, chipping sparrows, bluebirds, vireos, goldfinches, chebecs, indigo birds, flickers, phoebes, scarlet tanagers, red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, house wrens — altogether, without moving from my place, I counted thirty-three different bird-songs and bird-notes.
Nearby I saw a robin’s nest, curiously enough built directly on the ground on the side of the bank of one of the roads, and lined with white wool, evidently picked up in the neighboring sheeppasture. This started me on another of the games of solitaire which I like to play out-of-doors, and I tried to see how many nests I could discover from the same vantage-point without moving. This is really a good way to find birds’ nests, and the one who stands still and watches the birds will often find more than he who beats about. For a long time the robin’s nest was the only one on my list. At last the flashing orange and black of a Baltimore oriole betrayed its gray, swinging pouch of a nest in a nearby spruce tree — the first time that I have ever seen an oriole’s nest in an evergreen tree. In a lilac bush I saw the deep nest of the cat-bird, with its four vivid blue eggs and the inevitable grapevine-bark lining around its edge.
In a high fork in a great maple tree at the corner of the road the chebec, or least flycatcher, showed me her home. Sooner or later, if you watch any of the flycatchers long enough, they will generally show you their nests. This one was high up in a fork, and made of string and wool and down. Over in the adjoining orchard I saw a kingbird light on her nest in the very top of an apple tree, and I have no doubt that, if I had climbed up to it, I should have seen three beautiful cream-white eggs blotched with chocolate-brown.
The last nest of all was my treasure nest of the summer. I was about to give up the game and start off for a walk, when suddenly, right ahead of me, hanging on the limb of a sugarmaple, not five feet above the stone wall, I saw the swinging basket-nest of a vireo, with the woven white strips of birch-bark on the outside which all vireos use in that part of the country. It was as if a veil had suddenly dropped from my eyes, for I had been looking in that direction constantly, without seeing the nest directly in front of me. Probably, at last, I must have slightly turned my head and finally caught the light in a different direction. I supposed that the nest was that of the redeyed vireo, the only one of the five vireos which would be likely to build in such a location. Climbing upon the wall to look at it, I saw that the mother bird was on the nest. Even when I took hold of the limb, she did not fly. Then I slowly pulled the limb down, and still the brave little bird stayed on her nest, although several times she started to her feet and, ruffling her feathers, made as if to fly. As the nest came nearer and nearer, I could see that she was quivering all over with fear, and that her heart was beating so rapidly as to shake her tiny body. Finally, as she came almost within reach of my outstretched hand, she gave me one long look and then suddenly cuddled down over her dearly loved eggs and hid her head inside of the nest. Reaching my hand out very carefully, I stroked her quivering little back. She raised her head and gave me another long look, as if to make sure whether I meant her any harm. Evidently I seemed friendly, for as I stroked her head she turned and gave my finger a little peck, and then snuggled her head up against it in the most confiding, engaging way. As she did so, I noticed that a white line ran from the beak to the eye, and that she had a white eyering and a bluish-gray head. As I looked at her, suddenly from a nearby branch the father bird sang, ‘See-ee, see-me, you-you,’and I recognized the song of the solitary or blue-headed vireo, who belongs in the deep woods and whose rare nest is usually found in their depths. As the male came nearer, I could see his pure white throat which, with the white line from eye to bill and the greenish-yellow markings on either flank, make good field-marks. The four eggs, which I saw afterwards when the mother bird was off the nest, were white with reddish markings all over instead of being blotched at one end as are those of the red-eyed vireo. Every day for the rest of that week I visited my little friend; and before I left she grew to know me so well that she would not even ruffle up her feathers when I pulled the limb down.
Children are of great help in the life adventurous. They have an inexhaustible fund of admiration for even the feeblest efforts of their parents in adventuring. Many a dull dog, who once heard nothing in all the world but the clank of business, has been changed into a confirmed adventurer by sheer appreciation. Moreover, children possess an energy and imagination which we grown-ups often lack. Only the other afternoon I started off for a walk with my four boys, to find myself suddenly dining in the New Forest with Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Allan a’ Dale. Owing probably to a certain comfortable habit of person, I was elected to be Friar Tuck.
The forest itself is a wonderful wood of great trees hidden in a little valley between two round green hills. In its centre is a bubbling spring of clear water that never freezes in winter or dries up in summer. That afternoon we had explored the Haunted House at the edge of the wood, with its datestone of 1809, ten-foot fireplace, and vast stone chimney, and had fearfully approached that door under which a dark stream of blood flowed a half-century ago, on the day when all humans stopped dwelling in that house forever.
Little John climbed puffingly up through two sets of floor-beams, to where a few warped hemlock boards still made a patch of flooring in the attic. Under a rafter he found a cunningly concealed hidey-hole, drilled like a flicker’s nest into one of the soft mica-schist stones of the chimney. Inside were a battered home-made top, whittled out of a solid block, and two flint Indian arrow-heads, ghosts of some long-dead boyhood which still lingered in the little attic chamber.
In the spring twilight we stole out by a side door, so that we might not cross that stained threshold. A lilac bush, which in a century of growth had become a thicket of purple, scented bloom, surrounded the whole side of the house; while beside a squat buttonwood tree of monstrous girth was the dome of a Dutch oven. We followed a dim path fringed with white-thorn and sprays of sweet viburnum blossoms.
From the distance, beyond the farther hill, came the crooning of the toads on their annual pilgrimage back to the marsh where they were born. In time we reached a bank all blue and white with enameled innocents. In front of this the camp-fire was alwrays kindled. The Band scattered for firewood — although not far. There were too many lurking shadows among those tree-trunks. At last the fire was laid and lighted. Five minutes later all powers of darkness fled for their lives before the steady roaring column of smokeless flame that surged up in front of the Band. Followed wassail and feasting galore. Haunches of venison, tasting much like mutton-chops, broiled hissingly at the end of green beechwood spits. Flagons of Adam’s ale were quaffed, and the loving-cup — it was of the folding variety — passed from hand to hand.
All at once the substantial Tuck heaved himself up to his feet beside the dying fire. There was not a sound in the sleeping forest. Night-folk, woodfolk, water-folk, all were still. Then from the pursed lips of the Friar sounded a long, wavering, mournful call. Again and again it shuddered away across the hills. Suddenly, so far away that at first it seemed an echo, it was answered. Once and twice more the call sounded, and each time the answer was nearer and louder. Something was coming. As the Band listened aghast, around the circle made by the firelight glided a dark shape with fiery eyes. It realized their worst fears, and with one accord they threw themselves on the Friar who rocked under the impact.
‘Send it back, fathie, send it back!’ they shouted in chorus.
The good Friar unpuckered his lips.
‘I am surprised, comrades,’ he said severely. ‘You are n’t afraid of an old screech-owl, are you?’
‘N-n-n-ooo,’ quavered little Will Scarlet, ’if you’re sure it’s a nowl.’
‘Certain sure,’ asserted the Friar reassuringly, and gave the call again.
On muffled, silent wings the dark form drifted round and round the light, but never across it, and then alighted on a nearby tree and gave an indescribable little crooning note which the Friar could only approximate. At last, disgusted with the clumsy attempts to continue a conversation so well begun, the owl melted away into the darkness and was gone.
After that, the Band decided that home was the one place for them. Water was poured on the blaze, and earth heaped over the hissing embers. Under the sullen flare of Arcturus and the glow of Algieba, Spica, and all the stars of spring, they started back by dim wood roads and flower-scented lanes. Will Scarlet, Little John, and Allan a’ Dale frankly shared the hands of the Friar, and in the darkest places even the redoubtable Robin himself casually took possession of an unoccupied thumb.