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JUST OUT OF THE NEST – YOUNG RED SQUIRRELS
For a long time we studied the flock through our field-glasses, until every last one of the Band had learned this new bird. As we watched them, a white-throated sparrow lisped from a nearby bush, and a little later we met a flock of tree sparrows, a bird which is never by any chance found in a tree. In the distance a woodpecker flew through the air in a labored up-and-down flight, and, as he disappeared, he gave the wild cry of the hairy woodpecker, a bird nearly twice the size of his smaller brother, the downy. Close by the side of the creek, we heard a tiny note like “pheep, pheep, pheep,” and, even as we looked for the bird, it flew past and lit on a tree on the other side of the path, not two feet away. We all stood stony still, and in a minute a brown creeper circled the tree, climbing it in tiny hops in a wide spiral. He was so close that we could see his stiff, spiny tail with a little row of spots at its base, and the brown and gray speckles on his back, and his long curiously curved bill.
We pressed on into the very heart of the great, treacherous marsh, to-day frozen hard and safe, and explored all of its secret places. In a tangle of wild-grape vine, we found the round nest, rimmed with grape-vine bark, of the cardinal grosbeak; while over in a thicket of elderberry bushes, all rusty-gold with the clinging stems of that parasite, the dodder, showed the close sheath of the fine branches of a swamp maple. In a fork at the end of one of the branches, all silver-gray, was the empty nest of a goldfinch, the last of all the birds to nest. It was made of twisted strands of the silk of the milkweed pods hackled by the bird’s beak. In the snow, we came across a strange track almost like the trail of a snake. It was a wide trough, with little close-set, zigzag paw-marks running all through it. The Captain told the Band that this was the trail of the fierce blarina shrew, one of the killers. Without eyes or ears, this strange little blind death eats its weight in flesh every twenty-four hours, and slays under ground, above ground, and even under the water. The Band regarded the strange tracks with enormous interest.
“How big do they grow?” anxiously inquired Henny-Penny, the littlest but one of the Band.
“Just a little longer than my middle finger,” the Captain reassured him.
Suddenly, in the very midst of this zo?logical bric-a-brac, a great thought came to each and every of the Band simultaneously.
“Lunch-time!” they shouted with one accord.
Then occurred the tragedy of the trip. In a pocket of his shooting-jacket the Captain had a package of sandwiches containing just one apiece, no more, no less. The rest of the lunch, thick scones, raisins, chocolate, saveloy sausage, bacon, and other necessaries and luxuries, had been wrapped up in another package and intrusted to Honey as head of the commissary department for the day – and Honey had left the package on the hall table! It was a grief almost too great to be borne.The Band regarded their guilty comrade reproachfully. Two large tears ran down Honey’s cheeks. Alice-Palace, the littlest of them all, gave way to unrestrained emotions which bade fair to frighten away the most blood-thirsty of blarinas within the radius of a mile.
Then it was that the Captain rose to the emergency. “Comrades,” said he, placing one hand over Alice-Palace’s widely-opened mouth, “all is not lost. Old woodsmen like ourselves can find food anywhere. Follow me. Hist!”
Like Hawk-Eye and Chingachgook and other well-known scouts, the Captain was apt to employ that mysterious word when beginning a desperate adventure. The Band followed him with entire confidence, albeit with certain snifflings on the part of Corporal Alice-Palace. They crossed a tiny brook, and found themselves in a little grove of swamp maples which had grown up around the fallen trunk of the parent tree. The Captain scanned the trees carefully. Everywhere were trails in the snow which he told them were the tracks of gray squirrels. Suddenly he reached up and picked out from between a little twig and the smooth trunk of a swamp-maple sapling, a big, dry, beautifully-seasoned black walnut. That started the Band to looking, and they found that the little trees were filled with walnuts, each one wedged in between twigs or branches so that it would not blow down. Up and down and about the low trees climbed and scrambled the Band. Some of the nuts were hidden and some were in plain sight, but altogether there was nearly half a peck of them, each one containing a dry, crisp, golden kernel which tasted as rich and delicious as it looked. They had come upon the winter storehouse of a gray-squirrel family.
Piling the nuts in the lee of a big oak tree where the camp-fire was to be made, they followed the Captain to a broken-down rail fence, where grew a thicket of tiny trees with smooth trunks, whose gray twigs were laden down with bunches of what looked like tiny purple plums. Each one had a layer of pulp over a flat stone, and this pulp, what there was of it, had a curious attractive spicy sugary taste. The Captain told the Band that these were nanny-plums, sometimes known as sweet viburnum. Further on, they found clusters of little purple fox-grapes, fiercely sour in the fall, but now sweetened enough, under the bite of the frost, to be swallowed.
Still the Captain was not ready to stop. Up the hillside he led them, by a winding path through tangled thickets, until in a level place he brought them to a group of curious trees. The bark of these was deeply grooved and in places nearly three inches thick, while the branches were covered with scores and scores of golden-red globes. Some were wrinkled and frost-bitten until they had turned brown, but others still hung plump and bright in the winter air. It was a grove of persimmon trees. Before he could be stopped, Henny-Penny had picked one of the best-looking of the lot and took a deep bite out of the soft pulp. Immediately thereafter he spat out his first taste of persimmon with great emphasis, his mouth so puckered that it was with difficulty that he could express his unfavorable opinion of the new fruit.
“Handsome is as handsome does,” warned the Captain. “Try some of the frost-bitten ones.”
The Band accordingly did so, and found that the worst-looking and most wrinkled specimens were sweet as honey and without a trace of pucker. On their way back, they passed through a thicket of tangled bushes, whose branches were all matted together in bunches which looked like birds’ nests. The twigs were laden down with round, purple berries about the size of a wild cherry, and the Captain told the Band that these were hackberries, otherwise known as sugar-berries. They picked handfuls of them, and found that the berry had a sweet spicy pulp over a fragile stone that could be crushed like the stones of a raisin, while the fruit when eaten resembled a raisin in taste.
Hurrying back to the camp-fire tree, the Captain dug a round circle a couple of feet in diameter in the snow, and spread down a layer of dry leaves. Over these he built a little tepee of tiny, dry, black-oak twigs. Underneath this he placed a fragment of birch-bark which he had peeled off one of the aspen birches which grew on the fringe of the swamp. This burned like paper, and in a minute the little ball of dry twigs was crackling away with a steady flame. Over this he piled dry sassafras and hickory boughs, and in a few moments the Band was seated around a column of flame which roared up fully four feet high. With their backs against the great oak tree, they cracked and cracked and cracked black walnuts and crunched sugar-berries and nibbled nanny-plums and tasted frost-grapes – saving the single sandwich until next to the last; while for desert they had handfuls and handfuls of honey-sweet, wrinkled persimmons.
THE DEAR DEER MICE
Near the fire Lieutenant Trottie found an old box-cover bedded in the snow. As he lifted it up, there was a rush and a scurry, and from a round, warm nest underneath the cover, made of thistle-down, fur, feathers, and tiny bits of woodfibre all matted together into a sort of felt, dashed six reddish-brown, pink-pawed mice. They burrowed in the snow, crept under the leaves, and in a minute were out of sight, all except one, which tried to climb the box-cover and which Trottie caught before he could scurry over the top of it. His fur was like plush, with the hair a warm reddish-brown at the ends and gray at the roots. Underneath he was snowy-white, although there, too, the fur showed mouse-gray under the surface. He had little brown claws and six tiny pink disks on each paw, which enabled him to run up and down perpendicular surfaces. His eyes were big and brown and lustrous, and he had flappy, pinky-gray, velvet ears, each one of which was half the size of his funny little face and thin as gossamer. His paws were pink and his long tail was covered with the finest of hairs. When he found he was fairly caught, he snuggled down into Trottie’s hand, making a queer little whimpering noise, while his nose wrinkled and quivered. When Trottie brought him to the fire, Henny-Penny offered him a half-kernel of one of his walnuts. Instantly the little nose stopped quivering, and Mousy sat up like a squirrel on the back of Trottie’s hand and nibbled away until the piece was all gone. Each one of the Band took turns in feeding him until he could eat no more. Then Trottie put him back in the deserted nest and replaced the box-cover.
The last adventure of all was on the way home. We were walking along an abandoned railroad track, when suddenly a flock of light grayish birds flew up all together out of the dry grass and lighted in a small elm tree nearby. As we watched them, they turned and all flew down together. Instantly it was as if a mass of peach-blossoms had been spilled on the withered grass and white snow. Fully a third of the flock had crimson crowns and rose-colored breasts, while at the base of the streaked gray-and-brown backs showed a tinge of pink. It was our first flock of the lesser redpolls all the way down from the Arctic Circle. They were restless but not shy, and sometimes we were able to get within six feet of them. They would continually fly back and forth from the tree to the ground, keeping up a soft chattering interspersed with little tinkling notes, somewhat resembling the goldfinch or the siskin which we had left behind us in the swamp. Always, when they flew, they gave a little piping call, and their field-mark was a black patch under the throat which could be seen even farther than their red polls or their rosy breasts. Their beaks were light and very pointed, and they had forked tails like the siskin.
It was nearly twilight when we left them and at last started home. As we followed a fox-trail in and out through the thickets of Fern Valley, we caught a glimpse of a large brown bird on the ground. At first I thought that it was some belated fox sparrow; but when it hopped to a low twig and then raised its tail stiffly as I watched, I recognized the hermit thrush, which always betrays itself by this curious mannerism. The last one I had seen was singing like Israfel, in the twilight of a Canadian forest. To-day the little singer was silent, and I wondered what had kept him back from the southland, and hoped that he would be able to win through the bitter days still ahead of him. I have no doubt that he did, for the hermit thrush is a brave-hearted, hardy, self-reliant bird.
The sun had gone down before we finally reached the road. Above the after-glow showed a patch of apple-green sky against which was etched the faintest, finest, and newest of crescent moons. It almost seemed as if a puff of wind would blow her like a cobweb out of the sky. Above gleamed Venus, the evening star, all silver-gold; while over toward the other side of the sky, great golden Jupiter echoed back her rays. Below the green, the sky was a mass of dusky gold which deepened into amber and then slowly faded. As we walked home through the twilight, we heard the last, sweetest, and saddest singer of that winter day. Through the air shuddered a soft tremolo call, like the whistling of swift, unseen wings or the wail of a little lost child. It was the eerie call of the little screech-owl – and never was a bird worse named. Answering, I brought him so close to us that we could see his ear-tufts showing in the half-light. All the way home he followed us, calling and calling for some one who will never come.