Here to return to
FLYING SQUIRRELS AND SPADE-FOOT FROGS
IT is pleasant to realize familiar truths anew; to have it brought freshly to mind, for example, how many forms of animal life there are about us of which we seldom get so much as a glimpse.
In all my tramping over eastern Massachusetts I have met with two foxes. One I saw for perhaps the tenth part of a second, the other for perhaps two or three seconds. And probably my experience bas not been exceptional. In this one particular it would be safe to wager that not one in ten of those who read this article will be able to boast of any great advantage over the man who wrote it. Yet every raiser of poultry hereabout will certify that foxes are by no means uncommon, and I know a man living within fifteen miles of the State House who, last winter, by a kind of “still hunt” — without a dog — killed three foxes in as many successive days. Reynard has fine gifts of invisibility, but a man with foxes on his mind will be likely to find them.
This same near neighbor of mine takes now and then an otter; only three or four weeks ago he showed me the skin of one on its stretching-board; and the otter is an animal that I not only have never seen in this part of the world, but never expect to see. I haven’t that kind of an eye. As for muskrats, the trapper takes them almost without number; “rats,” he calls them; while to me it is something like an event if once or twice a year I happen to come upon one swimming in a brook.
Another of these seclusive races, that manage to live close about us unespied by all except the most inquisitive of their human neighbors, is the race of flying squirrels. Whether they are more or less common than red squirrels, gray squirrels, and chipmunks, it would be difficult to say; but while red squirrels, gray squirrels, and chipmunks flit before you wherever you go, you may haunt the woods from year's end to year's end without seeing hide or hair of their interesting cousin. Flying squirrels stir abroad after dark; not because their deeds are evil (though they are said to like small birds and birds' eggs), but because — well, as the wise old nursery saw very conclusively puts it, because “it is their nature to.”
Several times during the past winter I made attempts to see them (the story of one of these attempts has been told in a previous chapter), but always without success, though twice I was taken to a nest that was known to be in use. The other day I went to the same place again, the friend who conducted me having found a squirrel there that very forenoon. He shook the tree, a small gray birch, with a nest of leaves and twigs perched in its top, and out peeped the squirrel. “See him?” said my friend. “Yes.” Then he gave the tree a harder shake, and in a moment the creature spread his “wings” and sailed gracefully away, landing on the trunk of an oak not far off, at about the height of my head. There he clung, his large handsome eye, full of a startled emotion, fastened upon me. I wondered if he would let me put my hand on him; but as I approached within three or four yards he scrambled up the tree into the small branches at the top. He was going to take another flight, if the emergency seemed to call for it, and the higher he could get, the better. The oak was too big to be shaken, but a smaller tree stood near it. This my companion shook in the squirrel's face, and again he took flight. This time he passed squarely over my head, showing a flat outspread surface sailing through the air, looking not the least in the world like a squirrel or any other quadruped. Again he struck against a trunk, and again he ran up into the treetop. And again he was shaken off.
Four times he flew, and then I protested that I had seen enough and would not have him molested further. We left him in a maple-top, surrounded by handsome red flower clusters.
The flight, even under such unnatural conditions, is a really pretty performance, the surprising thing about it being the ease and grace with which the acrobat manages to take an upward turn toward the end of his course, so as always to alight head uppermost against the bole.
It would be fun to see such a carnival as Audubon describes, when two hundred or more of the squirrels were at play in the evening, near Philadelphia, running up the trees and sailing away, like boys at the old game of “swinging off birches.” “Scores of them,” he says, “would leave each tree at the same moment, and cross each other, gliding like spirits through the air, seeming to have no other object in view than to indulge a playful propensity.”
Compared with that, mine was a small show; but it was so much better than nothing.
Two mornings later (April 30) I was walking up the main street of our village, lounging along, waiting for an electric car to overtake me, when I heard loud batrachian voices from a field on my left hand. “Aha!” said I, “the spade-foots are out again.” It had occurred to me within a day or two that this should be their season, if, as is believed, their appearance above ground is conditioned upon an unusual rainfall.
Some years ago, when I was amusing myself for a little with the study of toads and frogs, checking Dr. J. A. Allen's annotated list of the Massachusetts batrachia, I became very curious about this peculiar and little understood species, known scientifically as Scaphiopus holbrookii, or the solitary spade-foot. It was originally described from South Carolina, I read, and was first found in Massachusetts, near Salem, about 1810. Its cries were said to have been heard at a distance of half a mile, and were mistaken for those of young crows. For more than thirty years afterward the frogs were noticed at this place only three times. They were described as burrowing in the ground, coming forth only to spawn, and that, as far as could be ascertained, at very irregular intervals, sometimes many years in length.
This, as I say, I read in Dr. Allen's catalogue, to the great sharpening of my curiosity. If I ever heard such noises, I should be prepared to guess at the author of them. Well, some years afterward (it was almost exactly eight years ago), fresh from a first visit to Florida, where my ears had grown expectant of strange sounds (a great use of travel), I stepped out of my door one evening in late April, and was hardly in the street before I heard somewhere ahead of me a chorus of stentorian frog-notes. “That should be the spade-foot's voice,” I said to myself, with full conviction. I hastened forward, traced the tumult to a transient pool in a field, and as I neared the place picked up a board that lay in the grass, and with it, by good fortune, turned the first frog I carne in sight of into a specimen. This I sent to the batrachian specialist at Cambridge, who answered me, as I knew he would, that it was Scaphiopus.
My spade-foots of yesterday morning were in the same spot. I could not stay then to look at them, for at that moment the car came along. I left it at a favorite place in the next township, and had gone a mile or so on foot when from another transient roadside pool I heard the spade-foot's voice again. This was most interesting. I skirted the water, trying to get within reach of one of the performers. The attempt was unsuccessful; but in the course of it I saw for the first time the creature in the act of calling. And every time I saw him I laughed. He lay stretched out at full length upon the surface of the pool, floating high, as if he were somehow peculiarly buoyant. Then suddenly his hind parts dropped, his head flew up, his enormous white, or pinkish-white, vocal sac was instantaneously inflated (like a white ball on the water), and the grating call was given out; after which the creature's head dropped, his hinder parts bobbed up into place (sometimes he was nearly overset by the violence of the action), and again he lay silent.
This same ludicrous performance — which by the watch was repeated every three or four seconds — I observed more at length in the other pool after my return. It seems to be indulged in only so long as the frogs are unmated. I took it for the call of the male, the “lusty bachelor.” At the same moment couples lay here and there upon the water, all silent as dead men.
That was yesterday afternoon. At night, as had been true the evening previous (the neighbors in at least four of the nearer houses having noticed the uproar), the chorus was loud. I could hear it from my window, perhaps a quarter of a mile distant. This morning there is no sign of batrachian life about the place. Within a very short time — long before the tadpoles, which will be hatched in two or three days, can possibly have matured — the pool will in the ordinary course of nature have dried up, and all those eggs will have gone to waste.
A strange life it seems. What do the frogs live on underground? Why do they omit, year after year, to come forth and lay their eggs? Do they wait to be drowned out, and then (like thrifty farmers, who improve a wet season in which to marry) proceed to perpetuate the species?
These and many other questions it would be easy to ask. Especially one would like to read from the inside the story of the life and adventures of the young, which grow from the egg to maturity — through tadpole to frog — without seeing father or mother. What a little we know! And how few are the things we see!