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FEBRUARY holes are most interesting places and one never knows what will be found in the next one investigated. It is a good plan, in one's walks in the early fall, to make a mental map of all the auspicious looking trees and holes, and then go the rounds of these in winter — as a hunter follows his line of traps. An old, neglected orchard may seem perfectly barren of life; insects dead, leaves fallen, and sap frozen; but the warm hearts of these venerable trees may shelter much beside the larvć of boring beetles, and we may reap a winter harvest of which the farmer knows nothing.
Poke a stick into a knot-hole and stir up the leaves at the bottom of the cavity, and then look in. Two great yellow eyes may greet you, glaring intermittently, and sharp clicks may assail your ears. Reach in with your gloved hand and bring the screech owl out. He will blink in the sunshine, ruffling up his feathers until he is twice his real size. The light partly blinds him, but toss him into the air and he will fly without difficulty and select with ease a secluded perch. The instant he alights a wonderful transformation comes over him. He stiffens, draws himself as high as possible, and compresses his feathers until he seems naught but the slender, broken stump of some bough, — ragged topped (thanks to his "horns"), gray and lichened. It is little short of a miracle how this spluttering, saucer-eyed, feathered cat can melt away into woody fibre before our very eyes.
We quickly understand why in the daytime the little owl is so anxious to hide his form from public view. Although he can see well enough to fly and to perch, yet the bright sunlight on the snow is too dazzling to permit of swift and sure action. All the birds of the winter woods seem to know this and instantly take advantage of it. Sparrows, chickadees, and woodpeckers go nearly wild with excitement when they discover the little owl, hovering about him and occasionally making darts almost in his very face. We can well believe that as the sun sets, after an afternoon of such excitement, they flee in terror, selecting for that night's perch the densest tangle of sweetbrier to be found.
One hollow tree may yield a little gray owl, while from the next we may draw a red one; and the odd thing about this is that this difference in colour does not depend upon age, sex, or season, and no ornithologist can say why it occurs. What can these little fellows find to feed upon these cold nights, when the birds seek the most hidden and sheltered retreats? We might murder the next owl we come across; but would any fact we might discover in his poor stomach repay us for the thought of having needlessly cut short his life, with its pleasures and spring courtships, and the delight he will take in the half a dozen pearls over which he will soon watch?
A much better way is to examine the ground around his favourite roosting place, where we will find many pellets of fur and bones, with now and then a tiny skull. These tell the tale, and if at dusk we watch closely, we may see the screech owl look out of his door, stretch every limb, purr his shivering song, and silently launch out over the fields, a feathery, shadowy death to all small mice who scamper too far from their snow tunnels.
When you feel like making a new and charming acquaintance, take your way to a dense clump of snow-laden cedars, and look carefully over their trunks. If you are lucky you will spy a tiny gray form huddled close to the sheltered side of the bark, and if you are careful you may approach and catch in your hand the smallest of all our owls, for the saw-whet is a dreadfully sleepy fellow in the daytime. I knew of eleven of these little gray gnomes dozing in a clump of five small cedars.
The cedars are treasure-houses in winter, and many birds find shelter among the thick foliage, and feast upon the plentiful supply of berries, when elsewhere there seems little that could keep a bird's life in its body. When the tinkling of breaking icicles is taken up by the wind and re-echoed from the tops of the cedars, you may know that a flock of purple finches is near, and so greedy and busy are they that you may approach within a few feet. These birds are unfortunately named, as there is nothing purple about their plumage. The males are a delicate rose-red, while the females look like commonplace sparrows, streaked all over with black and brown.
There are other winter birds, whose home is in the North, with a similar type of coloration. Among the pines you may see a flock of birds, as large as a sparrow, with strange-looking beaks. The tips of the two mandibles are long, curved, and pointed, crossing each other at their ends. This looks like a deformity, but is in reality a splendid cone-opener and seed-extractor. These birds are the crossbills.
Even in the cold of a February day, we may, on very rare occasions, be fortunate enough to hear unexpected sounds, such as the rattle of a belted kingfisher, or the croak of a night heron; for these birds linger until every bit of pond or lake is sealed with ice; and when a thaw comes, a lonely bat may surprise us with a short flight through the frosty air, before it returns to its winter's trance.
Of course, in the vicinity of our towns and cities, the most noticeable birds at this season of the year (as indeed at all seasons) are the English sparrows and (at least near New York City) the starlings, those two foreigners which have wrought such havoc among our native birds. Their mingled flocks fly up, not only from garbage piles and gutters, but from the thickets and fields which should be filled with our sweet-voiced American birds. It is no small matter for man heedlessly to interfere with Nature. What may be a harmless, or even useful, bird in its native land may prove a terrible scourge when introduced where there are no enemies to keep it in check. Nature is doing her best to even matters by letting albinism run riot among the sparrows, and best of all by teaching sparrow hawks to nest under our eaves and thus be on equal terms with their sparrow prey. The starlings are turning out to be worse than the sparrows. Already they are invading the haunts of our grackles and redwings.
On some cold day, when the sun is shining, visit all the orchards of which you know, and see if in one or more you cannot find a good-sized, gray, black, and white bird, which keeps to the topmost branch of a certain tree. Look at him carefully through your glasses, and if his beak is hooked, like that of a hawk, you may know that you are watching a northern shrike, or butcher bird. His manner is that of a hawk, and his appearance causes instant panic among small birds. If you watch long enough you may see him pursue and kill a goldfinch, or sparrow, and devour it. These birds are not even distantly related to the hawks, but have added a hawk's characteristics and appetite to the insect diet of their nearest relations. If ever shrikes will learn to confine their attacks to English sparrows, we should offer them every encouragement.
All winter long the ebony forms of crows vibrate back and forth across the cold sky. If we watch them when very high up, we sometimes see them sail a short distance, and without fail, a second later, the clear "Caw! caw!" comes down to us, the sound-waves unable to keep pace with those of light, as the thunder of the storm lags behind the flash. These sturdy birds seem able to stand any severity of the weather, but, like Achilles, they have one vulnerable point, the eyes, — which, during the long winter nights, must be kept deep buried among the warm feathers.
WE have all looked down through the clear water of brook or pond and watched the gracefully poised trout or pickerel; but have we ever tried to imagine what the life of one of these aquatic beings is really like? "Water Babies" perhaps gives us the best idea of existence below the water, but if we spend one day each month for a year in trying to imagine ourselves in the place of the fish, we will see that a fish-eye view of life holds much of interest.
What a delightful sensation must it be to all but escape the eternal downpull of gravity, to float and turn and rise and fall at will, and all by the least twitch of tail or limb, — for fish have limbs, four of them, as truly as has a dog or horse, only instead of fingers or toes there are many delicate rays extending through the fin. These four limb-fins are useful chiefly as balancers, while the tail-fin is what sends the fish darting through the water, or turns it to right or left, with incredible swiftness.
If we were able to examine some inhabitant of the planet Mars our first interest would be to know with what senses they were endowed, and these finny creatures living in their denser medium, which after a few seconds would mean death to us, excite the same interest. They see, of course, having eyes, but do they feel, hear, and smell?
Probably the sense of taste is least developed. When a trout leaps at and catches a fly he does not stop to taste, otherwise the pheasant feather concealing the cruel hook would be of little use. When an animal catches its food in the water and swallows it whole, taste plays but a small part. Thus the tongue of a pelican is a tiny flap all but lost to view in its great bill.
Water is an excellent medium for carrying minute particles of matter and so the sense of smell is well developed. A bit of meat dropped into the sea will draw the fish from far and wide, and a slice of liver will sometimes bring a score of sharks and throw them into the greatest excitement.
Fishes are probably very near-sighted, but that they can distinguish details is apparent in the choice which a trout exhibits in taking certain coloured artificial flies. We may suppose from what we know of physics that when we lean over and look down into a pool, the fishy eyes which peer up at us discern only a dark, irregular mass. I have seen a pickerel dodge as quickly at a sudden cloud-shadow as at the motion of a man wielding a fish pole.
We can be less certain about the hearing of fishes. They have, however, very respectable inner ears, built on much the same plan as in higher animals. Indeed many fish, such as the grunts, make various sounds which are plainly audible even to our ears high above the water, and we cannot suppose that this is a useless accomplishment. But the ears of fishes and the line of tiny tubes which extends along the side may be more effective in recording the tremors of the water transmitted by moving objects than actual sound.
Watch a lazy catfish winding its way along near the bottom, with its barbels extended, and you will at once realise that fishes can feel, this function being very useful to those kinds which search for their food in the mud at the bottom.
Not a breath of air stirs the surface of the woodland pond, and the trees about the margin are reflected unbroken in its surface. The lilies and their pads lie motionless, and in and out through the shadowy depths, around the long stems, float a school of half a dozen little sunfish. They move slowly, turning from side to side all at once as if impelled by one idea. Now and then one will dart aside and snap up a beetle or mosquito larva, then swing back to its place among its fellows. Their beautiful scales flash scarlet, blue, and gold, and their little hand-and-foot fins are ever trembling and waving. They drift upward nearer the surface, the wide round eyes turning and twisting in their sockets, ever watchful for food and danger. Without warning a terrific splash scatters them, and when the ripples and bubbles cease, five frightened sunfish cringe in terror among the water plants of the bottom mud. Off to her nest goes the kingfisher, bearing to her brood the struggling sixth.
Later in the day, when danger seemed far off, a double-pointed vise shot toward the little group of "pumpkin seeds" and a great blue heron swallowed one of their number. Another, venturing too far beyond the protection of the lily stems and grass tangle of the shallows, fell victim to a voracious pickerel. But the most terrible fate befell when one day a black sinuous body came swiftly through the water. The fish had never seen its like before and yet some instinct told them that here was death indeed and they fled as fast as their fins could send them. The young otter had marked the trio and after it he sped, turning, twisting, following every movement with never a stop for breath until he had caught his prey.
But the life of a fish is not all tragedy, and the two remaining sunfish may live in peace. In spawning time they clear a little space close to the water of the inlet, pulling up the young weeds and pushing up the sandy bottom until a hollow, bowl-like nest is prepared. Thoreau tells us that here the fish "may be seen early in summer assiduously brooding, and driving away minnows and larger fishes, even its own species, which would disturb its ova, pursuing them a few feet, and circling round swiftly to its nest again; the minnows, like young sharks, instantly entering the. empty nests, meanwhile, and swallowing the spawn, which is attached to the weeds and to the bottom, on the sunny side. The spawn is exposed to so many dangers that a very small proportion can ever become fishes, for beside being the constant prey of birds and fishes, a great many nests are made so near the shore, in shallow water, that they are left dry in a few days, as the river goes down. These and the lampreys are the only fishes' nests that I have observed, though the ova of some species may be seen floating on the surface. The sunfish are so careful of their charge that you may stand close by in the water and examine them at your leisure. I have thus stood over them half an hour at a time, and stroked them familiarly without frightening them, suffering them to nibble my fingers harmlessly, and seen them erect their dorsal fins in anger when my hand approached their ova, and have even taken them gently out of the water with my hand; though this cannot be accomplished by a sudden movement, however dexterous, for instant warning is conveyed to them through their denser element, but only by letting the fingers gradually close about them as they are poised over the palm, and with the utmost gentleness raising them slowly to the surface. Though stationary, they kept up a constant sculling or waving motion with their fins, which is exceedingly graceful, and expressive of their humble happiness; for unlike ours, the element in which they live is a stream which must be constantly resisted From time to time they nibble the weeds at the bottom or overhanging their nests, or dart after a fly or worm. The dorsal fin, besides answering the purpose of a keel, with the anal, serves to keep the fish upright, for in shallow water, where this is not covered, they fall on their sides. As you stand thus stooping over the sunfish in its nest, the edges of the dorsal and caudal fins have a singular dusty golden reflection, and its eyes, which stand out from the head, are transparent and colourless. Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint. It is a perfect jewel of the river, the green, red, coppery, and golden reflections of its mottled sides being the concentration of such rays as struggle through the floating pads and flowers to the sandy bottom, and in harmony with the sunlit brown and yellow pebbles."
When the cold days of
winter come and the ice begins to close over the pond, the sunfish
become sluggish and keep near the bottom, half-hibernating but not
unwilling to snap at any bit of food which may drift near them. Lying
prone on the ice we may see them poising with slowly undulating fins,
waiting, in their strange wide-eyed sleep, for the warmth which will
bring food and active life again.
3rd. Fish. Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
1st. Fish. Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up
the little ones.
WHEN we realise how our lives are hedged about by butchers, bakers, and luxury-makers, we often envy the wild creatures their independence. And yet, although each animal is capable of finding its own food and shelter and of avoiding all ordinary danger, there is much dependence, one upon another, among the little creatures of fur and feathers.
The first instinct of a gray squirrel, at the approach of winter, is to seek out a deep, warm, hollow limb, or trunk. Nowadays, however, these are not to be found in every grove. The precepts of modern forestry decree that all such unsightly places must be filled with cement and creosote and well sealed against the entrance of rain and snow. When hollows are not available, these hardy squirrels prepare their winter home in another way. Before the leaves have begun to loosen on their stalks, the little creatures set to work. The crows have long since deserted their rough nest of sticks in the top of some tall tree, and now the squirrels come, investigate, and adopt the forsaken bird's-nest as the foundation of their home. The sticks are pressed more tightly together, all interstices filled up, and then a superstructure of leafy twigs is woven overhead and all around. The leaves on these twigs, killed before their time, do not fall; and. when the branches of the tree become bare, there remains in one of the uppermost crotches a big ball of leaves, — rain and snow proof, with a tiny entrance at one side.
On a stormy mid-winter afternoon we stand beneath the tree and, through the snowflakes driven past by the howling gale, we catch glimpses of the nest swaying high in air. Far over it leans, as the branches are whipped and bent by the wind, and yet so cunningly is it wrought that never a twig or leaf loosens. We can imagine the pair of little shadow-tails within, sleeping fearlessly throughout all the coming night.
But the sleep of the gray squirrel is a healthy and a natural one, not the half-dead trance of hibernation; and early next morning their sharp eyes appear at the entrance of their home and they are out and off through the tree-top path which only their feet can traverse. Down the snowy trunks they come with a rush, and with strong, clean bounds they head unerringly for their little caches of nuts. Their provender is hidden away among the dried leaves, and when they want a nibble of nut or acorn they make their way, by some mysterious sense, even through three feet of snow, down to the bit of food which, months before, they patted out of sight among the moss and leaves.
It would seem that some exact sub-conscious sense of locality would be a more probable solution of this feat than the sense of smell, however keenly developed, when we consider that dozens of nuts may be hidden or buried in close proximity to the one sought by the squirrel.
Even though the birds seem to have vanished from the earth, and every mammal be deeply buried in its long sleep, no winter's walk need be barren of interest. A suggestion worth trying would be to choose a certain area of saplings and underbrush and proceed systematically to fathom every cause which has prevented the few stray leaves still upon their stalks from falling with their many brethren now buried beneath the snow.
The encircling silken bonds of Promethea and Cynthia cocoons will account for some; others will puzzle us until we have found the traces of some insect foe, whose girdling has killed the twig and thus prevented the leaf from falling at the usual time; some may be simply mechanical causes, where a broken twig crotch has fallen athwart another stem in the course of its downward fall. Then there is the pitiful remnant of a last summer's bird's-neat, with a mere skeleton of a floor all but disintegrated.
But occasionally a substantial ball of dead leaves will be noticed, swung amid a tangle of brier. No accident lodged these, nor did any insect have aught to do with their position. Examine carefully the mass of leaves and you will find a replica of the gray squirrel's nest, only, of course, much smaller. This handiwork of the white-footed or deer mouse can be found in almost every field or tangle of undergrowth; the nest of a field sparrow or catbird being used as a foundation and thickly covered over and tightly thatched with leaves. Now and then, even in mid-winter, we may find the owner at home, and as the weasel is the most bloodthirsty, so the deer mouse is the most beautiful and gentle of all the fur-coated folk of our woods. With his coat of white and pale golden brown and his great black, lustrous eyes, and his timid, trusting ways, he is altogether lovable.
He spends the late summer and early autumn in his tangle-hung home, but in winter he generally selects a snug hollow log, or some cavity in the earth. Here he makes a round nest of fine grass and upon a couch of thistledown he sleeps in peace, now and then waking to partake of the little hoard of nuts which he has gathered, or he may even dare to frolic about upon the snow in the cold winter moonlight, leaving behind him no trace, save the fairy tracery of his tiny footprints.
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beadle,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
I wad be faith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring prattle!
THE decayed hollows which we have mentioned as so often productive of little owls have their possibilities by no means exhausted by one visit. The disturbed owl may take himself elsewhere, after being so unceremoniously disturbed; but there are roving, tramp-like characters, with dispositions taking them here and there through the winter nights, to whom, at break of day, a hole is ever a sought-for haven.
So do not put your hand too recklessly into an owl hole, for a hiss and a sudden nip may show that an opossum has taken up his quarters there. If you must, pull him out by his squirming, naked tail, but do not carry him home, as he makes a poor pet, and between hen-house traps and irate farmers, he has good reason, in this part of the country at least, to be short tempered.
Of course the birds'-nests are all deserted now, but do not be too sure of the woodpeckers' holes. The little downy and his larger cousin, the hairy woodpecker, often spend the winter nights snug within deep cavities which they have hollowed out, each bird for itself. I have never known a pair to share one of these shelters.
Sometimes, in pulling off the loose bark from a decayed stump, several dry, flattened scales will fall out upon the snow among the débris of wood and dead leaves. Hold them close in the warm palm of your hand for a time and the dried bits will quiver, the sides partly separate, and behold! you have brought back to life a beautiful Euvanessa, or mourning-cloak butterfly. Lay it upon the snow and soon the awakened life will ebb away and it will again be stiff, as in death. If you wish, take it home, and you may warm it into activity, feed it upon a drop of syrup and freeze it again at will. Sometimes six or eight of these insects may be found sheltered under the bark of a single stump, or in a hollow beneath a stone. Several species share this habit of hibernating throughout the winter.
Look carefully in old, deserted sheds, in half-sheltered hollows of trees, or in deep crevice-caverns in rocks, and you may some day spy one of the strangest of our woodfolk. A poor little shrivelled bundle of fur, tight-clasped in its own skinny fingers, with no more appearance of life in its frozen body than if it were a mummy from an Egyptian tomb; such is the figure that will meet your eye when you chance upon a bat in the deep trance of its winter's hibernation. Often you will find six or a dozen of these stiffened forms clinging close together, head downward.
As in the case of the sleeping butterfly, carry one of the bats to your warm room and place him in a bird-cage, hanging him up on the top wires by his toes, with his head downward. The inverted position of these strange little beings always brings to mind some of the experiences of Gulliver, and indeed the life of a bat is more wonderful than any fairy tale.
Probably the knowledge of bats which most of us possess is chiefly derived from the imaginations of artists and poets, who, unlike the Chinese, do not look upon these creatures with much favour, generally symbolising them in connection with passages and pictures which relate to the infernal regions. All of which is entirely unjust. Their nocturnal habits and our consequent ignorance of their characteristics are the only causes which can account for their being associated with the realm of Satan. In some places bats are called flittermice, but they are more nearly related to moles, shrews, and other insect-eaters than they are to mice. If we look at the skeleton of an animal which walks or hops we will notice that its hind limbs are much the stronger, and that the girdle which connects these with the backbone is composed of strong and heavy bones. In bats a reverse condition is found; the breast girdle, or bones corresponding to our collar bones and shoulder blades, are greatly developed. This, as in birds, is, of course, an adaptation to give surface for the attachment of the great propelling muscles of the wings.
Although the hand of a bat is so strangely altered, yet, as we shall see if we look at our captive specimen, it has five fingers, as we have, four of which are very long and thin, and the webs, of which we have a very noticeable trace in our own hands, stretch from finger-tip to finger-tip, and to the body and even down each leg, ending squarely near the ankle, thus giving the creature the absurd appearance of having on a very broad, baggy pair of trousers.
When thoroughly warmed up, our bat will soon start on a tour of inspection of his cage. He steps rapidly from one wire to another, sometimes hooking on with all five toes, but generally with four or three. There seems to be little power in these toes, except of remaining bent in a hooked position; for when our bat stops and draws up one foot to scratch the head, the claws are merely jerked through the fur by motions of the whole leg, not by individual movements of the separate toes. In this motion we notice, for the first time, that the legs and feet grow in a kind of "spread eagle" position, making the knees point backward, in the same direction as the elbows.
We must stop a moment to admire the beautiful soft fur, a golden brown in colour, with part of the back nearly black. The tiny inverted face is full of expression, the bead-like eyes gleaming brightly from out of their furry bed. The small moist nostrils are constantly wrinkling and sniffling, and the large size of the alert ears shows how much their owner depends upon them for information. If we suddenly move up closer to the wires, the bat opens both wings owl-like, in a most threatening manner; but if we make still more hostile motions the creature retreats as hastily as it can, changing its method of progress to an all-fours, sloth-like gait, the long free thumb of each hand grasping wire after wire and doing most of the leverage, the hind legs following passively.
When at what he judges a safe distance he again hangs pendent, bending his head back to look earnestly at us. Soon the half-opened wings are closed and brought close to the shoulders, and in this, the usual resting position, the large claws of the thumbs rest on the breast in little furrows which they have worn in the fur.
Soon drowsiness comes on and a long elaborate yawn is given, showing the many small needle-like teeth and the broad red tongue, which curls outward to a surprising length. Then comes the most curious process of all. Drawing up one leg, the little creature deliberately wraps one hand with its clinging web around the leg and under the arms, and then draws the other wing straight across the body, holds it there a moment, while it takes a last look in all directions. Then lifting its fingers slightly, it bends its head and wraps all in the full-spread web. It is most ludicrously like a tragedian, acting the death scene in "Julius Cćsar," and it loses nothing in repetition; for each time the little animal thus draws its winding sheet about its body, one is forced to smile as he thinks of the absurd resemblance.
But all this and much more you will see for yourself, if you are so fortunate as to discover the hiding-place of the hibernating bat.
Our little brown bat is a most excellent mother, and when in summer she starts out on her nocturnal hunts she takes her tiny baby bat with her. The weird little creature wraps his long fingers about his mother's neck and off they go. When two young are born, the father bat is said sometimes to assume entire control of one.
After we come to know more of the admirable family traits of the fledermaus — its musical German name — we shall willingly defend it from the calumny which for thousands of years has been heaped upon it.
Hibernation is a strange phenomenon, and one which is but little understood. If we break into the death-like trance for too long a time, or if we do not supply the right kind of food, our captive butterflies and bats will perish. So let us soon freeze them up again and place them back in the care of old Nature. Thus the pleasure is ours of having made them yield up their secrets, without any harm to them. Let us fancy that in the spring they may remember us only as a strange dream which has come to them during their long sleep.