Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/August 1884/Some Rambles of a Naturalist
By CHARLES C. ABBOTT, M. D.
WHEN I happen out for a stroll, the difficulty that besets me is not what to seek—for to ramble without an object is an abomination—but what to choose of the endless variety of objects worthy of attention. I do not like to determine this after I have started, but prefer saying to myself, "I will watch the birds to-day," or, "I will hunt up the meadow-mice." To do this at once gives an additional interest to a contemplated ramble; and, in all my experience, I have never yet failed to find some trace, at least, of that object to observe which I took the walk.
Whenever I have seen a mink in my meadow-rambles, I have been impressed with the fact that all animals that fear man are as much on the lookout for him, and try as sedulously to avoid him, as they do any of their natural enemies. If they do so, is it at all strange that we so seldom see them when we go bungling about their haunts? We probably never take a walk in the woods that we are not watched by many creatures which we do not see; and many a squeak or whistle which, if heard at all, is attributed to some bird, is a signal-cry of danger made by some one animal which, having seen us, takes this method of warning its fellows. I have more than once tested this in the case of the mink. Mooring my boat near where I had reason to believe these animals had their nests, and remaining perfectly quiet and in hiding, I have usually been rewarded by seeing the minks moving about as soon as their confidence was restored by the absence of all signs of life in or about the boat. They would come out of their burrows, or from under large roots, and dive into the water, or it might be that they carried a mussel from the shore to their retreat.
Any act of this kind, free from the restraint of fear, is in the case of all animals the most interesting and instructive, and, were our opportunities of this kind more frequent, our knowledge of animal life would soon be largely increased.
During the spring and summer of 1874 especially, and at all favorable opportunities since, my out-door studies were largely confined to particular phases of bird-life, rather than to their habits generally. Most prominent among these was that of singing, and its relation to the other utterances of birds, for I had been long under the impression, and since am fully convinced, that a bird's song bears just the same relationship to its various chirps, twitters, and calls, that singing with mankind bears to ordinary conversation. Careful observation will enable any one to see clearly that every bird has a considerable range of utterance. Observe two birds immediately after mating, and what a laughable caricature of a newly-married couple—say on their wedding-journey—are their actions and their low, ceaseless twittering! They also have their petty vexations and their little quarrels, in which the feminine voice is ever the louder and more rapid in its utterance, and its owner enjoys the precious privilege of the last word.
But it may be urged that to constitute language, or something akin to it, these chirps and twitters must be shown to convey ideas. Can one bird tell another anything? it will be asked. To this I answer that, if any one has watched a colony of brooding krakles, or paid close attention to a flock of crows, he has probably satisfied himself upon this point. Crows have twenty-seven distinct cries, calls, or utterances, each readily distinguishable from the other, and each having an unmistakable connection with a certain class of actions; some of which, as, for instance, the many different notes of the brooding-birds, are only heard at certain seasons. In this connection, it may be added that the intelligence of crows is fully one half greater than that of any other bird in our fauna. Instances of the exercise of much cunning and forethought on their part are almost innumerable.
Let us see, however, if among our singing-birds there is not to be found evidence of an ability to communicate ideas, presumably by the aid of vocal sounds. Here is an occurrence that took place in my presence in the spring of 1872. A pair of cat-birds were noticed carrying materials for a nest to a patch of blackberry-briers hard by. To test their ingenuity, I took a long, narrow strip of muslin, too long for one bird to carry conveniently, and placed it on the ground in a position to be seen by the birds when searching for suitable materials for their nests. In a few moments one of the cat-birds spied the strip and endeavored to carry it off, but its length and weight, in whichever way the bird took hold of it, and he tried many, impeded its flight. After worrying over it for some time the bird flew off, not, as I supposed, to seek other materials, but, as it proved, to obtain assistance in transporting the strip of muslin in question. In a few moments it returned with its mate, and then, standing near the strip, they held what I consider to have been a consultation. The chirping, twittering, murmuring, and occasional ejaculations were all unmistakable. In a few moments this chattering, if you will, ceased, and the work commenced. Each took hold of the strip of muslin at about the same distance from the ends, and, starting exactly together, they flew toward their unfinished nest, bearing the prize successfully away.
I followed them as quickly as possible, and, reaching the brier-patch, never before or since heard such an interminable wrangling and jabbering. Had I not seen the birds, I doubt if I should have recognized them from their voices. The poor birds simply could not agree how to use so long a piece of material to the best advantage. If it had been shorter, they might have made it serviceable; but as it was, being neither willing to discard it nor able to agree as to its proper use, they finally abandoned it altogether, and so too they did the unfinished nest and the neighborhood.
In one corner of a low-lying tract near my house, called the "mucky meadow," there remains a clump of large maples, pin-oaks, and birches which have somehow been spared by the former owners of the land. They are mine now and are safe. At the first white frost, the hollow maple, that throughout the summer has securely housed a family of short-eared owls, now gives us evidence of the fact, by dropping the leafy screen that hid them well from view. While the young were yet babies the old tree shielded them well—now they are able to shift for themselves, and the tree offers them shelter, but nothing more. With the departure of the sunlight the owls are all astir, and it is funny enough to see them. Of a single owl but little can be said; but before the family separates, and while the young are receiving their lessons in mouse-hunting, it becomes very evident, first, that owls are great talkers; and, secondly, that they are decidedly intelligent. I was impressed with these facts during a pleasant moonlight evening last October, when, having taken my stand to watch the owls, I saw the whole family of six as they came from their nest in the tree. The old birds first appeared, flew directly toward the meadow, and disappeared in the long grass. Soon the four young birds made their appearance, but only to creep cautiously along the limbs of the tree, and then settle themselves, in a lazy, muffled-up manner, as though nothing remained to be done. All the while the old birds kept up a peculiar call—more like a scream than a hoot—not altogether unpleasant to the ear. I am in doubt whether the young owls made any reply, though I took a faint clicking noise to be such. In a little while, however, they began to get hungry, and then they uttered unmistakable cries, to which the parent owls replied by returning to the tree. In the beak of each owl was a mouse, or what I took to be such, and when they alighted on the maple I could detect, in the uncertain light, that they did not approach closely to the young birds, but, having removed the mice, which they now held in their claws, they chattered and screamed to their young, in a manner that could only be interpreted as, "Come over here and get your mouse." It was evident that the young owls were to be taught to help themselves, and to practice their power of flight. As an inducement to do the latter, the mice were held temptingly before them, but quite out of reach. Finally, one young owl, more venturesome than his fellows, essayed to fly; but it was a miserable failure, for, instead of reaching the desired branch, it fell short a foot or more, and tumbled to the ground. I can not prove that owls laugh, but I think any one who heard the old birds just then would never doubt the fact that they do. The funniest feature, however, was that the three remaining young birds were disgusted with what they saw, or were frightened by it—at all events, they hastened back to the nest, and I saw them no more that evening.
Of the poor fellow that fell to the ground there is much to be said, as it was with it that the old birds were now wholly concerned, and their actions were highly entertaining. Leaving the tree, they flew down to the hapless bird, and muttered in low tones to it, in a most sympathizing manner. Their utterances now, which I could hear notwithstanding the racket made by the frogs, were very varied, and gave the impression that they were holding a conversation. After the lapse of a minute or more the old birds together took a short, low flight, and then returned to the young owl. Was it not to show it how easy flight was? Then again they flew away, in the same manner, and the young owl endeavored to follow. It was with evident difficulty that it left the ground, but when once its feet were clear of the grass it progressed satisfactorily, though only for a short distance. This pleased the old birds, for one of them came to the plucky little fellow, and, with one wing extended, patted the young bird on the head and back most tenderly. At this I laughed aloud, most unfortunately, and immediately the old birds flew to the nesting-tree, and then discovered my hiding-place. Of all the scoldings I ever got, that from the owls, this evening, was the severest. As I moved away I recalled the oft-witnessed scene of the king-birds worrying crows. It was the same thing in my case. Keeping just out of reach of my cane, they swooped about my head and snapped their bills viciously. They did not dare to strike me, but they came unpleasantly near, and it was with a feeling of comfort that I finally reached safer quarters.
A chance conversation discovered to me one companion of many of my walks. When a mere boy, Uz Gaunt lived in this neighborhood, having a little cottage adjoining my grandfather's woods, and he, above all others, gave me my first lesson in practical zoölogy. Of the stories which he would tell when he was in the humor, the following talk about turtles is a specimen:
"Christmas of '77 was a green one, you may remember," remarked Uz, as he shook the ashes from his pipe. "It didn't need any hickory logs blazin' on the hearth, such as these," and he stirred the ashes and rearranged the wood on the andirons as he spoke of them. "The weather had been mild for a long time, and once I heard frogs singin'. Well, this kind of thing sort of came to a focus on Christmas-day, which was warm even in the shade. The river was low, the meadows dry, and the crows as noisy as in April. I felt sort of restless-like, and took a walk in the meadows. I left my gun home, and thought I'd just look 'round. Without thinking of them when I started out, I wandered over to your marshy meadow, and began pokin' about with my cane for snappers. You know I take kindly to a bowl of snapper-soup of my own fixin'."
"Yes, I do that, and can run along neck-and-neck with you, when you're the cook."
"Well, I followed the main ditch down, jumpin' from hassock to hassock, and kept probin' in the mud with my cane, when, after a bit I felt something hard at the end of my stick. It wasn't a stone or a stump, I knew at once. There was a little tremble run up the stick to my hand that told me that much—a sort of shake, as though you hit an empty barrel, as near as I can tell you. I'd a turtle down in the mud, and concluded to bring it out into the daylight. There's more than one way to do this, but none of 'em is an easy job to get through with. I kept probin' 'round him, to try and make out where his head was, and then I could feel for his tail, and pull him out. Now this does very well for one of your common snappers, but didn't work so easy in this case. I could sort of feel that turtle all over the meadow. Wherever I put my cane down, I seemed to come to his back shell; but after edgin' out a bit for some time I could make out the rim of it, and I tell you he was a whopper, accordin' to my probin'. That turtle seemed about as big 'round as a wash-tub, and I got regularly worked up about him. I wasn't in trim for huntin', but didn't care. I'd found a turtle that was worth havin', and I meant to have him. Probin' showed that he was about three feet deep in the mud, but I made up my mind to locate his tail and then reach down for him. So I did, but it was no use. I felt about, and got one ugly scratch from a hind-foot, but he kept his tail out of reach, or hadn't any; I didn't know which, then. After thinkin' a spell, I concluded I'd try to get a pry under him, and went for a fence-rail. It took me some time to get what I wanted, and when I got back that turtle had got out. I probed all 'round, but he'd moved. This rather took me down, but I kept up my hunt, and after a bit found he'd moved straight for the main ditch, and was tearin' up the mud on the bottom as he went. This was all that saved him for me, and I no sooner learned his whereabouts than I went for him in earnest. I ran the rail I had right under him, and tried to lift him up. Thunder and lightnin', boy, you might as well try to lift a steer! I disturbed him, though, and checked his course a bit. Jammin' the rail down again, I guess I hit his head, for it riled him, evidently, and he raised right up. His head and neck came out of the sand, and I was for standin' back just then. If ever you saw a wicked eye, that turtle had one, and his head was as big as my fist. Stickin' his head out, though, gave me the knowledge I wanted. I knew how he laid in the mud, and I ran my rail down under him as far as I could. It kept him from divin' down, and I went right into the ditch to try and get a hold on his tail if I could. This I did, after feelin' for it a bit, and no sooner had I got a good grip on it than the old fellow got free of the rail and commenced goin' deep into the mud. I tugged and he dug, and it was a clear case of 'pull Dick, pull devil,' between us. He was gettin' the better of me, though, for I was gettin' chilled in that water, and had nearly lost my hold, when the turtle gave an extra jerk, and if it hadn't been for the fence-rail I'd a lost him. I was pulled for'ard, but the rail was right in front, so I put one foot on it, to keep from sinkin' any deeper in the mire. This bracin' gave me the advantage now, and I put all my strength to it. The turtle came a little, and I seemed to gain strength. I tugged and tugged with all my might, and presently his hind-feet showed. You see, he hadn't firm enough mud to hold on to. I backed slowly across the ditch when I got him in open water, and got a fair footin' on the ditch-bank at last. Still, I wasn't out of the woods by a long shot. That turtle weighed close onto seventy pounds, and I'd no means of handlin' him. Chilled through, with both hands needed to hold him, and in the middle of the mucky meadow, all that was left me was to try and drag him to the high, smooth meadows. It was a tough job, I tell you. I had to walk backward, and he pulled against me like a frightened horse. I gained a little, slowly, and after a bit got on the high ground. Then I felt more at ease and took a rest. I couldn't take him home, of course, in the same fashion, but I had a chance to let him loose, and rest my hands. How I looked 'round for a bit of rope to bridle him! It was no use, though, and after all I was likely to lose him altogether. After a minute's thinkin', it occurred to me I'd make a hobble out of my shirt and then slip home lively for the right sort of tackle. I wasn't long in gettin' the shirt off, and I twisted it into a sort of rope and hobbled him with it. It was a desperate, odd-lookin' turtle when I got through, and I laughed at him a bit as I turned toward the house. You see, I left him on his back, and his legs bound so he couldn't use 'em to turn over. I skipped pretty lively, I tell you, for that mile or so twixt me and home, and was in a good glow when I got in. Hettie looked kind o' scared when she saw me, but I put her mind to rest in two words, and soon was on my way back. A bit of rope and my sheath-knife was all I needed. I skipped over the fields pretty lively, and was soon again in sight. Now, I don't think it was an hour, by some minutes, before I was back on the high meadow, but, by gracious! it don't take long for scenes to change in natur' any more than it does in a theatre. Of all queer sights, that was the funniest I saw when I got back. The turtle had got half free of my old red shirt, and was pawin' the air like mad, tryin' to get on his feet again. I could see that much a long way off, and put on extra speed; but when I was about fifty yards off I stopped short. There was that turtle wrapped in my shirt, and a pesky skunk sort of standin' guard over him. Now, I hate skunks! They don't pay to trap, and they rob my hen-roost every winter. I was afraid to frighten him, too, for fear he'd spoil my snapper, and I wanted the value of a shirt out of the turtle, if nothin' more. I walked a bit nearer, to make sure of how matters stood, and it was clear as day, the skunk thought he had a good thing of it, if he could only kill that snapper. I thought the same way, and didn't want to be bettered by a pesky skunk. I made up my mind to jockey about it, a little; and so, first, heaved a stone at the critter. It gave me a look and started on a slow trot, but it was all up with me, sure enough. He shook that thunderin' old brush right at the turtle and—well! if he didn't sicken the snapper, he did me, that's certain. I stood the racket a bit, though, and tried to move the snapper, but it was no use; I couldn't keep at it long enough to do anything, and don't believe it would have amounted to much anyhow. I got a stick and put the snapper on his feet, as well as I could, without touchin' him, and he waddled off for the mucky meadow, with most of my shirt still stickin' to him, and plunged into the ditch as soon as he could."
"So you lost the turtle after all," I remarked in a low tone, not feeling sure I had heard the last of the story.
"No I didn't either," Uz replied quickly. "Don't set me down for such a fool as that. I knew well enough the turtle wouldn't wander far, so I kept him in mind, and the next April I went out in proper trim and hunted him up. I found him after two days' huntin', when I got a dozen big ones besides, but he was the king of the lot. He couldn't turn 'round in a wash-tub, and weighed somethin' over seventy pounds. I looked all over him for some sign of my shirt, but there wasn't a thread left."
"How old do you suppose he was?" I asked, when Uz had concluded his story.
"I'm not sure I can say, but he was no chicken, that's certain."
"According to Professor Agassiz, a turtle a foot long is close to fifty years old," I replied.
"Fifty years old! Then my big snapper came out of the ark, I guess," remarked Uz.