Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
NOVEMBER'S BIRDS OF THE HEAVENS
AS the whirling winds of winter's edge strip the trees bare of their last leaves, the leaden sky of the eleventh month seems to push its cold face closer to earth. Who can tell when the northern sparrows first arrive? A whirl of brown leaves scatters in front of us; some fall back to earth; others rise and perch in the thick briers, sombre little white-throated and tree sparrows! These brown-coated, low-voiced birds easily attract our attention, the more now that the great host of brilliant warblers has passed, just as our hearts warm toward the humble poly-pody fronds (passing them by unnoticed when flowers are abundant) which now hold up their bright greenness amid all the cold.
But all the migrants have not left us yet by any means, and we had better leave our boreal visitors until midwinter 's blasts show us these hardiest of the hardy at their best.
We know little of the ways of the gaunt herons on their southward journey, but day after day, in the marshes and along the streams, we may see the great blues as they stop in their flight to rest for a time.
The cold draws all the birds of a species together. Dark hordes of clacking grackles pass by, scores of red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds mingle amicably together, both of dark hue but of such unlike matrimonial habits. A single male red-wing, as we have seen, may assume the cares of a harem of three, four, or five females, each of which rears her brown-streaked offspring in her own particular nest, while the valiant guardian keeps faithful watch over his small colony among the reeds and cat-tails. But little thought or care does mother cowbird waste upon her offspring. No home life is hers merely a stealthy approach to the nest of some unsuspecting yellow warbler, or other small bird, a hastily deposited egg, and the unnatural parent goes on her way, having shouldered all her household cares on another. Her young may be hatched and carefully reared by the patient little warbler mother, or the egg may spoil in the deserted nest, or be left in the cold beneath another nest bottom built over it; little cares the cowbird.
The ospreys or fish hawks seem to circle southward in pairs or trios, but some clear, cold day the sky will be alive with hawks of other kinds. It is a strange fact that these birds which have the power to rise so high that they fairly disappear from our sight choose the trend of terrestrial valleys whenever possible, in directing their aerial routes. Even the series of New Jersey hills, flattered by the name of the Orange Mountains, seem to balk many hawks which elect to change their direction and fly to the right or left toward certain gaps or passes. Through these a raptorial stream pours in such numbers during the period of migration that a person with a foreknowledge of their path in former years may lie in wait and watch scores upon scores of these birds pass close overhead within a few hours, while a short distance to the right or left one may watch all day without seeing a single raptor. The whims of migrating birds are beyond our ken.
Sometimes, out in the broad fields, one's eyes will be drawn accidentally upward, and a great flight of hawks will be seen a compact flock of intercircling forms, perhaps two or three hundred in all, the whole number gradually passing from view in a southerly direction, now and then sending down a shrill cry. It is a beautiful sight, not very often to be seen near a city unless watched for.
To a dweller in a city or its suburbs I heartily commend at this season the forming of this habit, to look upward as often as possible on your walks. An instant suffices to sweep the whole heavens with your eye, and if the distant circling forms, moving in so stately a manner, yet so swiftly, and in their every movement personifying the essence of wild and glorious freedom, if this sight does not send a thrill through the onlooker, then he may at once pull his hat lower over his eyes and concern himself only with his immediate business. The joys of Nature are not for such as he; the love of the wild which exists in every one of us is, in him, too thickly "sickbed o'er" with the veneer of convention and civilisation.
Even as late as November, when the water begins to freeze in the tiny cups of the pitcher plants, and the frost brings into being a new kind of foliage on glass and stone, a few insect-eaters of the summer woods still linger on. A belated red-eyed vireo may be chased by a snowbird, and when we approach a flock of birds, mistaking them at a distance for purple finches, we may discover they are myrtle warblers, clad in the faded yellow of their winter plumage. In favoured localities these brave little birds may even spend the entire winter with us.
One of the best of November's surprises may come when all hope of late migrants has been given up. Walking near the river, our glance falls on what might be a painter's palate with blended colours of all shades resting on the smooth surface of the water. We look again and again, hardly believing our eyes, until at last the gorgeous creature takes to wing, and goes humming down the stream, a bit of colour tropical in its extravagance and we know that we have seen a male wood, or summer, duck in the full grandeur of his white, purple, chestnut, black, blue, and brown. Many other ducks have departed, but this one still swims among the floating leaves on secluded waterways.
Now is the time when the woodcock rises from his swampy summer home and zigzags his way to a land where earthworms are still active. Sometimes in our walks we may find the fresh body of one of these birds, and au upward glance at the roadside will show the cause the cruel telegraph wires against which the flight of the bird has carried it with fatal velocity.
One of the greatest pleasures which November has to give us is the joy of watching for the long lines of wild geese from the Canada lakes. Who can help being thrilled at the sight of these strong-winged birds, as the V-shaped flock throbs into view high in air, beating over land and water, forest and city, as surely and steadily as the passing of the day behind them. One of the finest of November sounds is the "Honk! honk!" which comes to our ears from such a company of geese, musical tones "like a clanking chain drawn through the heavy air."
At the stroke of midnight I have been halted in my hurried walk by these notes. They are a bit of the wild north which may even enter within a city, and three years ago I trapped a fine gander and a half a dozen of his flock in the New York Zoological Park, where they have lived ever since and reared their golden-hued goslings, which otherwise would have broken their shells on some Arctic waste, with only the snowbirds to admire, and to be watched with greedy eyes by the Arctic owls.
A haze on the far horizon,
The infinite tender sky,
The ripe, rich tints of the cornfields,
And the wild geese sailing high;
And ever on upland and lowland,
The charm of the golden-rod
Some of us call it Autumn,
And others call it God.
W. H. CARRUTH.
A PLEA FOR THE SKUNK
IN spite of constant persecution the skunk is without doubt the tamest of all of our wild animals, and shares with the weasel and mink the honour of being one of the most abundant of the carnivores, or flesh-eaters, near our homes. This is a great achievement for the skunk, to have thus held its own in the face of ever advancing and destroying civilisation. But the same characteristics which enable it to hold its ground are also those which emancipate it from its wild kindred and give it a unique position among animals. Its first cousins, the minks and weasels, all secrete pungent odours, which are unpleasant enough at close range, but in the skunk the great development of these glands has caused a radical change in its habits of life and even in its physical make-up.
Watch a mink creeping on its sinuous way, every action and glance full of fierce wildness, each step telling of insatiable seeking after living, active prey. The boldest rat flees in frantic terror at the hint of this animal's presence; but let man show himself, and with a demoniacal grin of hatred the mink slinks into covert.
Now follow a skunk in its wanderings as it comes out of its hole in early evening, slowly stretches and yawns, and with hesitating, rolling gait ambles along, now and then sniffing in the grass and seizing some sluggish grasshopper or cricket. Fearlessness and confidence are what its gait and manner spell. The world is its debtor, and all creatures in its path are left unmolested, only on evidence of good behaviour. Far from need of concealment, its furry coat is striped with a broad band of white, signalling in the dusk or the moonlight, "Give me room to pass and go in peace! Trouble me and beware!"
Degenerate in muscles and vitality, the skunk must forego all strenuous hunts and trust to craft and sudden springs, or else content himself with the humble fare of insects, helpless young birds, and poor, easily confused mice. The flesh of the skunk is said to be sweet and toothsome, but few creatures there are who dare attempt to add it to their bill of fare! A great horned owl or a puma in the extremity of starvation, or a vulture in dire stress of hunger, probably no others.
Far from wilfully provoking an attack, the skunk is usually content to go on his way peacefully, and when one of these creatures becomes accustomed to the sight of an observer, no more interesting and, indeed, safer object of study can be found.
Depart once from the conventional mode of greeting a skunk, and instead of hurling a stone in its direction and fleeing, place, if the opportunity present itself, bits of meat in its way evening after evening, and you will soon learn that there is nothing vicious in the heart of the skunk. The evening that the gentle animal appears leading in her train a file of tiny infant skunks, you will feel well repaid for the trouble you have taken. Baby skunks, like their elders, soon learn to know their friends, and are far from being at hair-trigger poise, as is generally supposed.
OF THE WAVE
THE sea and the sky and the shore were at perfect peace on the day when the young gull first launched into the air, and flew outward over the green, smooth ocean. Day after day his parents had brought him fish and squid, until his baby plumage fell from him and his beautiful wing-feathers shot forth, clean-webbed and elastic. His strong feet had carried him for days over the expanse of sand dunes and pebbles, and now and then he had paddled into deep pools and bathed in the cold salt water. Most creatures of the earth are limited to one or the other of these two elements, but now the gull was proving his mastery over a third. The land, the sea, were left below, and up into the air drifted the beautiful bird, every motion confident with the instinct of ages.
The usefulness of his mother's immaculate breast now becomes apparent. A school of small fish basking near the surface rise and fall with the gentle undulating swell, seeing dimly overhead the blue sky, flecked with hosts of fleecy white clouds. A nearer, swifter cloud approaches, hesitates, splashes into their midst, and the parent gull has caught her first fish of the day. Instinctively the young bird dives; in his joy of very life he cries aloud, the gull-cry which his ancestors of long ago have handed down to him. At night he seeks the shore and tucks his bill into his plumage; and all because of something within him, compelling him to do these things.
But far from being an automaton, his bright eye and full-rounded head presage higher things. Occasionally his mind breaks through the mist of instinct and reaches upward to higher activity.
As with the other wild kindred of the ocean, food was the chief object of the day's search. Fish were delicious, but were not always to be had; crabs were a treat indeed, when caught unawares, but for mile after mile along the coast were hosts of mussels and clams, sweet and luscious, but incased in an armour of shell, through which there was no penetrating. However swift a dash was made upon one of these, always the clam closed a little quicker, sending a derisive shower of drops over the head of the gull.
Once, after a week of rough weather, the storm gods brought their battling to a climax. Great green walls of foaming water crashed upon the rocks, rending huge boulders and sucking them down into the black depths. Over and through the spray dashed the gull, answering the wind 's howl shriek for shriek, poising over the fearful battlefield of sea and shore.
A wave mightier than all hung and curved, and a myriad shell-fish were torn from their sheltered nooks and hurled high in air, to fall broken and helpless among the boulders. The quick eye of the gull saw it all, and at that instant of intensest chaos of the elements, the brain of the bird found itself.
Shortly afterward came night and sleep, but the new-found flash of knowledge was not lost.
The next day the bird walked at low tide into the stronghold of the shell-fish, roughly tore one from the silky strands of its moorings, and carrying it far upward let it fall at random among the rocks. The toothsome morsel was snatched from its crushed shell and a triumphant scream told of success, a scream which, could it have been interpreted, should have made a myriad, myriad mussels shrink within their shells!
From gull to gull, and from flock to flock, the new habit spread, imitation taking instant advantage of this new source of food. When to-day we walk along the shore and see flocks of gulls playing ducks and drakes with the unfortunate shell-fish, give them not too much credit, but think of some bird which in the long ago first learned the lesson, whether by chance or, as I have suggested, by observing the victims of the waves.
No scientific facts are these, but merely a logical reasoning deduced from the habits and traits of the birds as we know them to-day; a theory to hold in mind while we watch for its confirmation in the beginning of other new and analogous habits.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathιd horn.
WE GO A-SPONGING
WHEN a good compound microscope becomes as common an object in our homes as is a clock or a piano, we may be certain that the succeeding generation will grow up with a much broader view of life and a far greater realisation of the beauties of the natural world. To most of us a glance through a microscope is almost as unusual a sight as the panorama from a balloon. While many of the implements of a scientist arouse enthusiasm only in himself, in the case of the revelations of this instrument, the average person, whatever his profession, cannot fail to be interested.
Many volumes have been written on the microscopic life of ponds and fields, and in a short essay only a hint of the delights of this fascinating study can be given.
Any primer of Natural History will tell us that our bath sponges are the fibrous skeletons of aquatic animals which inhabit tropical seas, but few people know that in the nearest pond there are real sponges, growing sometimes as large as one's head and which are not very dissimilar to those taken from among the corals of the Bahamas. We may bring home a twig covered with a thick growth of this sponge; and by dropping a few grains of carmine into the water, the currents which the little sponge animals set up are plainly visible. In winter these all die, and leave within their meshes numbers of tiny winter buds, which survive the cold weather and in the spring begin to found new colonies. If we examine the sponges in the late fall we may find innumerable of these statoblasts, as they are called.
Scattered among them will sometimes be crowds of little wheels, surrounded with double ended hooks. These have no motion and we shall probably pass them by as minute burrs or seeds of some water plant. But they, too, are winter buds of a strange group of tiny animals. These are known as Polyzoans or Bryozoans; and though to the eye a large colony of them appears only as a mass of thick jelly, yet when placed in water and left quiet, a wonderful transformation comes over the bit of gelatine.... "Perhaps while you gaze at the reddish jelly a pink little projection appears within the field of your lens, and slowly lengthens and broadens, retreating and reappearing, it may be, many times, but finally, after much hesitation, it suddenly seems to burst into bloom. A narrow body, so deeply red that it is often almost crimson, lifts above the jelly a crescentic disc ornamented with two rows of long tentacles that seem as fine as hairs, and they glisten and sparkle like lines of crystal as they wave and float and twist the delicate threads beneath your wondering gaze. Then, while you scarcely breathe, for fear the lovely vision will fade, another and another spreads its disc and waves its silvery tentacles, until the whole surface of that ugly jelly mass blooms like a garden in Paradise blooms not with motionless perianths, but with living animals, the most exquisite that God has allowed to develop in our sweet waters." At the slightest jar every animal-flower vanishes instantly.
A wonderful history is behind these little creatures and very different from that of most members of the animal kingdom. While crabs, butterflies, and birds have evolved through many and varied ancestral forms, the tiny Bryozoans, or, being interpreted, moss-animals, seem throughout all past ages to have found a niche for themselves where strenuous and active competition is absent. Year after year, century upon century, age upon age, they have lived and died, almost unchanged down to the present day. When you look at the tiny animal, troubling the water and drawing its inconceivably small bits of food toward it upon the current made by its tentacles, think of the earth changes which it has survived.
To the best of our knowledge the Age of Man is but a paltry fifty thousand years. Behind this the Age of Mammals may have numbered three millions; then back of these came the Age of Reptiles with more than seven millions of years, during all of which time the tentacles of unnumbered generations of Bryozoans waved in the sea. Back, back farther still we add another seven million years, or thereabouts, of the Age of the Amphibians, when the coal plants grew, and the Age of the Fishes. And finally, beyond all exact human calculation, but estimated at some five million, we reach the Age of Invertebrates in the Silurian, and in the lowest of these rocks we find beautifully preserved fossils of Bryozoans, to all appearances as perfect in. detail of structure as these which we have before us to-day in this twentieth century of man's brief reckoning.
These tiny bits of jelly are transfigured as well by the grandeur of their unchanged lineage as by the appearance of the little animals from within. What heraldry can commemorate the beginning of their race over twenty millions of years in the past!
The student of mythology will feel at home when identifying some of the commonest objects of the pond. And most are well named, too, as for instance the Hydra, a small tube-shaped creature with a row of active tentacles at one end. Death seems far from this organism, which is closely related to the sea-anemones and corals, for though a very brief drying will serve to kill it, yet it can be sliced and cut as finely as possible and each bit, true to its name, will at once proceed to grow a new head and tentacles complete, becoming a perfect animal.
Then we shall often come across a queer creature with two oar-like feelers near the head and a double tail tipped with long hairs, while in the centre of the head is a large, shining eye, Cyclops he is rightly called. Although so small that we can make out little of his structure without the aid of the lens, yet Cyclops is far from being related to the other still smaller beings which swim about him, many of which consist of but one cell and are popularly known as animalculζ, more correctly as Protozoans. Cyclops has a jointed body and in many other ways shows his relationship to crabs and lobsters, even though they are many times larger and live in salt water.
Another member of this group is Daphnia, although the appropriateness of this name yet remains to be discovered; Daphnia being a chunky-bodied little being, with a double-branched pair of oar-like appendages, with which he darts swiftly through the water. Although covered with a hard crust like a crab, this is so transparent that we can see right through his body. The dark mass of food in the stomach and the beating heart are perfectly distinct. Often, near the upper part of the body, several large eggs are seen in a sort of pouch, where they are kept until hatched.
So if the sea is far away and time hangs heavy, invite your friends to go sponging and crabbing in the nearest pond, and you may be certain of quieting their fears as to your sanity as well as drawing exclamations of delight from them when they see these beautiful creatures for the first time.