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SUCH a winter as was that of 1880-81— deep snows and zero weather for nearly three months — proves especially trying to the wild creatures that attempt to face it. The supply of fat (or fuel) with which their bodies become stored in the fall is rapidly exhausted by the severe and uninterrupted cold, and the sources from which fresh supplies are usually obtained are all but wiped out. Even the fox was very hard pressed and reduced to the unusual straits of eating frozen apples; the pressure of hunger must be great, indeed, to compel Reynard to take up with such a diet. A dog will eat corn, but he cannot digest it, and I doubt if the fox extracted anything more than the cider from the frozen and thawed apples. They perhaps served to amuse and occupy his stomach for the time. Humboldt says wolves eat earth, especially clay, during winter, and Pliny makes a similar observation. In Greenland the dog eats seaweed when other food fails. In tropical countries, during the tropical winter, many savage tribes eat clay. It distends their stomachs, and in a measure satisfies the cravings of hunger. During the season referred to, the crows appeared to have little else than frozen apples for many weeks; they hung about the orchards as a last resort, and, after scouring the desolate landscape over, would return to their cider with resignation, but not with cheerful alacrity. They grew very bold at times, and ventured quite under my porch, and filched the bones that Lark, the dog, had left. I put out some corn on the wall near by, and discovered that crows will not eat corn in the winter, except as they can break up the kernels. It is too hard for their gizzards to grind. Then the crow, not being properly a granivorous bird, but a carnivorous, has not the digestive, or rather the pulverizing power of the domestic fowls. The difficulty also during such a season of coming at the soil and obtaining gravel-stones, which, in such cases, are really the millstones, may also have something to do with it. Corn that has been planted and has sprouted, crows will swallow readily enough, because it is then soft, and is easily ground. My impression has always been that in spring and summer they will also pick up any chance kernels the planters may have dropped. But, as I observed them the past winter, they always held the kernel under one foot upon the wall, and picked it to pieces before devouring it. This is the manner of the jays also. The jays, perhaps, had a tougher time during the winter than the crows, because they do not eat fish or flesh, but depend mainly upon nuts. A troop of them came eagerly to my ash-heap one morning, which had just been uncovered by the thaw, but they found little except cinders for their gizzards, which, maybe, was what they wanted. They had foraged nearly all winter upon my neighbor's corn-crib, and probably their millstones were dull and needed replacing. They reached the corn through the opening between the slats, and were the envy of the crows, who watched them from the near trees, but dared not venture up. The chickadee, which is an insectivorous bird, will eat corn in winter. It will carry a kernel to the limb of a tree, where, held beneath its tiny foot, it will peck out the eye or chit of the corn, — the germinal part only. I have also seen the woodpecker in winter eat the berries of the poison ivy. Quails will eat the fruit of the poison sumac, and grouse are killed with their crops distended with the leaves of the laurel. Grouse also eat the berries of the bitter-sweet.
The general belief among country-people that the jay hoards up nuts for winter use has probably some foundation in fact, though one is at a loss to know where he could place his stores so that they would not be pilfered by the mice and the squirrels. An old hunter told me he had seen jays secreting beechnuts in a knothole in a tree. Probably a red squirrel saw them, too, and laughed behind his tail. One day, in October, two friends of mine, out hunting, saw a blue jay carrying off chestnuts to a spruce swamp. He came and went with great secrecy and dispatch. He had several hundred yards to fly each way, but occupied only a few minutes each trip. The hunters lay in wait to shoot him, but so quickly would he seize his chestnut and be off, that he made more than a dozen trips before they killed him.
A lady writing to me from Iowa says: “I must tell you what I saw a blue jay do last winter. Flying down to the ground in front of the house, he put something in the dead grass, drawing the grass over it, first on one side, then on the other, tramped it down just exactly as a squirrel would, then walked around the spot, examining it to see if it was satisfactory. After he had flown away, I went out to see what he had hidden; it was a nicely shucked peanut that he had laid up for a time of scarcity.” Since then I have myself made similar observations. I have several times seen jays carry off chestnuts and hide them here and there upon the ground. They put only one in a place, and covered it up with grass or leaves. Instead, therefore, of hoarding up nuts for future use, when the jay carries them off, he is really planting them. When the snows come these nuts are lost to him, even if he remembered the hundreds of places where he had dropped them. May not this fact account in a measure' for the oak and chestnut trees that spring up where a pine forest has been cleared from the ground? Probably the crows secrete nuts in the same way. The acorns at least germinate and remain small, insignificant shoots until the pine is cut away and they have a chance. In almost any pine wood these baby oaks may be seen scattered here and there. Jays will carry off and secrete corn in the same way. One winter I put out ears of corn near my study window to attract these birds. They were not long in finding them out, nor long in stripping the cob of its kernels. They finally came to the window-sill and picked up the loose kernels I scattered there. At no time did they eat any on the spot, but were solely intent on carrying it away. They would take eight or ten grains at a time, apparently holding it in the throat and bill. They carried it away and deposited it in all manner of places; sometimes on the ground, sometimes in decayed trees. Once I saw a jay deposit his load in an old worm's nest in a near-by apple-tree. Whether these stores were visited afterward by the birds, I cannot say. Red-headed woodpeckers have been seen to fill crevices in posts and rails with acorns, where they were found and eaten by gray squirrels. Oregon and Mexican woodpeckers drill holes in decayed trees, and store them with acorns, putting but one acorn in a hole, but hundreds of holes in a tree or branch.
A bevy of quail in my vicinity got through the winter by feeding upon the little black beans contained in the pods of the common locust. For many weeks their diet must have been almost entirely leguminous. The surface snow in the locust-grove which they frequented was crossed in every direction with their fine tracks, like a chain-stitch upon muslins, showing where they went from pod to pod and extracted the contents. Where quite a large branch, filled with pods, lay upon the snow, it looked as if the whole flock had dined or breakfasted off it. The wind seemed to shake down the pods about as fast as they were needed. When a fresh fall of snow had blotted out everything, it was not many hours before the wind had placed upon the cloth another course; but it was always the same old course — beans, beans. What would the birds and the fowls do during such winters, if the trees and the shrubs and plants all dropped their fruit and their seeds in the fall, as they do their leaves? They would nearly all perish. The apples that cling to the trees, the pods that hang to the lowest branches, and the seeds that the various weeds and grasses hold above the deepest snows, alone make it possible for many birds to pass the winter among us. The red squirrel, too, what would he do? He lays up no stores like the provident chipmunk, but scours about for food in all weathers, feeding upon the seeds in the cones of the hemlock that still cling to the tree, upon sumac-bobs, and the seeds of frozen apples. I have seen the ground under a wild apple-tree that stood near the woods completely covered with the “chonkings” of the frozen apples, the work of the squirrels in getting at the seeds; not an apple had been left, and apparently not a seed had been lost. But the squirrels in this particular locality evidently got pretty hard up before spring, for they developed a new source of food-supply. A young bushy-topped sugar-maple, about forty feet high, standing beside a stone fence near the woods, was attacked, and more than half denuded of its bark. The object of the squirrels seemed to be to get at the soft, white, mucilaginous substance (cambium layer) between the bark and the wood. The ground was covered with fragments of the bark, and the white, naked stems and branches had been scraped by fine teeth. When the sap starts in the early spring, the squirrels add this to their scanty supplies. They perforate the bark of the branches of the maples with their chisel-like teeth, and suck the sweet liquid as it slowly oozes out. It is not much as food, but evidently it helps.
I have said the red squirrel does not lay by a store of food for winter use, like the chipmunk and the wood-mice; yet in the fall he sometimes hoards in a tentative, temporary kind of way. I have seen his savings — butternuts and black walnuts — stuck here and there in saplings and trees near his nest; sometimes carefully inserted in the upright fork of a limb or twig. One day, late in November, I counted a dozen or more black walnuts put away in this manner in a little grove of locusts, chestnuts, and maples by the roadside, and could but smile at the wise forethought of the rascally squirrel. His supplies were probably safer that way than if more elaborately hidden. They were well distributed; his eggs were not all in one basket, and he could go away from home without any fear that his storehouse would be broken into in his absence. The next week, when I passed that way, the nuts were all gone but two. I saw the squirrel that doubtless laid claim to them, on each occasion.
There is one thing the red squirrel knows unerringly that I do not (there are probably several other things); that is, on which side of the butternut the meat lies. He always gnaws through the shell so as to strike the kernel broadside, and thus easily extract it; while to my eyes there is no external mark or indication, in the form or appearance of the nut, as there is in the hickory-nut, by which I can tell whether the edge or the side of the meat is toward me. But examine any number of nuts that the squirrels have rifled, and, as a rule, you will find they always drill through the shell at the one spot where the meat will be most exposed. It stands them in hand to know, and they do know. Doubtless, if butternuts were a main source of my food, and I were compelled to gnaw into them, I should learn, too, on which side my bread was buttered.
A hard winter affects the chipmunks very little; they are snug and warm in their burrows in the ground and under the rocks, with a bountiful store of nuts or grain. I have heard of nearly a half-bushel of chestnuts being taken from a single den. They usually hole in November, and do not come out again till March or April, unless the winter is very open and mild. Gray squirrels, when they have been partly domesticated in parks and groves near dwellings, are said to hide their nuts here and there upon the ground, and in winter to dig them up from beneath the snow, always hitting the spot accurately. A pair of flying squirrels which I observed one season in an unoccupied country-house had a pile of large, fine chestnuts near their nest till spring, when the nuts disappeared. They probably kept them till the period of greatest scarcity, and until their young made demands upon them.
The woodpeckers and chickadees doubtless find food as plentiful during severe winters as during more open ones, because they confine their search almost entirely to the trunks and branches of trees. where the latter pick up the eggs of insects and various microscopic tidbits, and where the former find their accustomed fare of eggs and larvæ also. An enamel of ice upon the trees alone puts an embargo upon their supplies. At such seasons the ruffed grouse “buds” or goes hungry; while the snowbirds, snow buntings, Canada sparrows, goldfinches, shore larks, and redpolls are dependent upon the weeds and grasses that rise above the snow, and upon the litter of the haystack and barnyard. Neither do the deep snows and the severe cold materially affect the supplies of the rabbit. The deeper the snow, the nearer he is brought to the tops of the tender bushes and shoots. I see in my walks where he has cropped the tops of the small, bushy, soft maples, cutting them slantingly as you would do with a knife, and quite as smoothly. Indeed, the mark was so like that of a knife that, notwithstanding the tracks, it was only after the closest scrutiny that I was convinced it was the sharp, chisel-like teeth of the rabbit. He leaves no chips, and apparently makes clean work of every twig he cuts off.
The wild or native mice usually lay up stores in the fall, in the shape of various nuts, grain, and seeds, yet the provident instinct, as in the red squirrel and in the jay, seems only partly developed in them; instead of carrying these supplies home, they hide them in the nearest convenient place. I have known them to carry a pint or more of hickory nuts and deposit them in a pair of boots standing in the chamber of an outhouse. Near the chestnut-trees they will fill little pocket-like depressions in the ground with chestnuts; in a grain-field they carry the grain under stones; under some cover beneath cherry-trees they collect great numbers of cherry-pits. Hence, when cold weather comes, instead of staying at home like the chipmunk, they gad about hither and thither looking up their supplies. One may see their tracks on the snow everywhere in the woods and fields and by the roadside. The advantage of this way of living is that it leads to activity, and probably to sociability.
These wild mice are fond of bees and of honey, and they apparently like nothing better than to be allowed to take up their quarters in winter in some vacant space in a hive of bees. A chamber just over the bees seems to be preferred, as here they get the benefit of the warmth generated by the insects. One very cold winter I wrapped up one of my hives with my shawl. Before long I noticed that the shawl was beginning to have a very torn and tattered appearance. On examination, I found that a native mouse had established itself in the top of the hive, and had levied a ruinous tax upon the shawl to make itself a nest. Never was a fabric more completely reduced into its original elements than were large sections of that shawl. It was a masterly piece of analysis. The work of the wheel and the loom was exactly reversed, and what was once shawl was now the finest and softest of wool. The white-footed mouse is much more common along the fences and in the woods than one would suspect. One winter day I set a mouse-trap — the kind known as the delusion trap — beneath some ledges in the edge of the woods, to determine what species of mouse was most active at this season. The snow fell so deeply that I did not visit my trap for two or three weeks. When I did so, it was literally packed full of white-footed mice. There were seven in all, and not room for another. Our woods are full of these little creatures, and they appear to have a happy, social time of it, even in the severest winters. Their little tunnels under the snow and their hurried strides upon its surface may be noted everywhere. They link tree and stump, or rock and tree, by their pretty trails. They evidently travel for adventure and to hear the news, as well as for food. They know that foxes and owls are about, and they keep pretty close to cover. When they cross an exposed place, they do it hurriedly.
Such a winter as I have referred to probably destroys a great many of our half-migratory birds. The mortality appears to be the greatest in the Border States, where so many species, like the sparrows, robins, bluebirds, meadowlarks, kinglets, etc., usually pass the cold season. A great many birds are said to have died in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including game-birds. A man in Chester County saw a fox digging in the snow; on examining the spot, he found half a dozen quails frozen to death. Game-birds and nearly all other birds will stand the severest weather if food is plenty; but to hunger and cold both, the hardiest species may succumb.
Meadowlarks often pass the winter as far north as Pennsylvania. A man residing in that State relates how, in the height of the severest cold, three half-famished larks came to his door in quest of food. He removed the snow from a small space, and spread the poor birds a lunch of various grains and seeds. They ate heartily, and returned again the next day, and the next, each time bringing one or more drooping and half-starved companions with them, till there was quite a flock of them. Their deportment changed, their forms became erect and their plumage glossy, and the feeble mendicants became strong and vivacious birds again. These larks fell in good hands, but I am persuaded that this species suffered more than any other of our birds during that winter. In the spring they were unusually late in making their appearance, — the first one noted by me on the 9th of April, — and they were scarce in my locality during the whole season.
Birds not of a feather flock together in winter. Hard times or a common misfortune makes all the world akin. A Noah's ark with antagonistic species living in harmony is not an improbable circumstance in a forty-day and a forty-night rain. In severe weather, when the snow lies deep on the ground, I frequently see a loose, heterogeneous troop of birds pass my door, engaged in the common search for food: snowbirds, Canada sparrows, and goldfinches on the ground, and kinglets and nuthatches in the tree above, — all drifting slowly in the same direction, — the snowbirds and sparrows closely associated, but the goldfinches rather clannish and exclusive, while the kinglets and nuthatches keep still more aloof. These birds were probably not drawn, even thus loosely, together by any social instincts, but by a common want; all were hungry, and the activity of one species attracted and drew after it another and another. “I will look that way, too,” the kinglet and creeper probably said, when they saw the other birds busy, and heard their merry voices.