Upland Game Birds
ALL the fall the gunners were at it. The weather was mostly fine, and the guns seemed to be barking in all directions nearly every day. Birds were plenty, tempting some hunters to kill more than the law allowed, and the game warden caught some of them redhanded. It certainly seemed as if there would be no birds left by the time that the law went on again, the first of December.
So I was pleased enough, during my winter rambles, to flush good numbers of the Ruffed Grouse on the woody hillsides and in the swampy woods, and, when the first mild days of early March arrived, to find that there had returned to their old haunts in the alder swamps quite a number of the Woodcock, generally recognized as the king of the game birds. With the coming of freezing weather the Woodcock had left us for a milder climate, where things were made warm for them by gunners all winter long. It was a wonder that any of them had lived to come back.
Game birds are ranked by sportsmen not so much by their size as by the degree in which they “lie to the dog.” The Ruffed Grouse is all too apt to run away as the hunting dog approaches, and flush from a distance. The Wilson’s Snipe of the meadows lies closely enough some days, but on others sneaks off, and flies wildly to safety. The Bob-white, or Quail, is a fine bird to hunt with the dog. Sometimes I have had almost to kick them up before they would fly. But the closest squatter of them all is Sir Woodcock, and he its king without a rival, with our friend Bob White, Es-quire, as a close second. These are the four real game birds of eastern districts and the subjects of this chapter. We shall see what sort of game they make for hunting with the camera.
In this hunting, as well as in the other, Woodcock is king. Though he does not seem to be particularly a proud bird, yet he does have great confidence in himself, in his ability to escape the prying eyes of enemies, and rightly so, for his colors and markings are so closely like those of his surroundings in the woods and swamps that he can defy most eyes to detect him. Naturalists call this “protective coloration,” and a splendid protection it is. So the Woodcock learns that all he has to do, ordinarily, to be safe, is just to keep still, and well has he learned the lesson.
One April day Ned and I were following along a brook which flows through a pasture and is fringed with alders. “Hullo,” said I, “I wonder what sort of a last year’s nest that is on that low bush over there!” So I went over to see, and stooping over to examine it, with my face not more than a yard from the ground, something happened so suddenly that I almost fell over backwards. A Woodcock flushed from right underneath my nose and almost hit me in the face. I gave an exclamation of surprise, and of joy too, for surely this must be the nest. Ned saw the bird go off twittering and alight in the swamp beyond. He hurried up to see the eggs, for it was nesting time, and we were hunting for Woodcocks’ nests. No! I could hardly credit my senses. No nest there, and the bird so tame? But it was even so. More disappointed hunters it would be hard to find. The other bird of the pair, meanwhile, had been lying close, not ten yards away, and in our search for the nest we finally flushed it too, though we did not get quite so near.
There were various other alder swamps in the neighborhood, where Woodcock had been seen, and one day I induced a resident hunter, who was Woodcock-wise, to bring his dog for a tramp with me, to try to find a nest. The dog did not lead us to anything, but his owner happened to see some eggshells lying on the ground, the remains of three Woodcock’s eggs which had been eaten by some animal, for the prints of sharp teeth were in the shells. The place was a bushy tract at the edge of a meadow, and the nest was a small hollow on a grassy hummock beside a low alder.
But back along the same brook where we flushed the birds someone else had better luck. A young man came in to cut alders for bean poles. After chopping nearly an hour near one place, all of a sudden a brown bird darted up from almost beneath his feet, and there lay four handsome drab eggs, spotted with lilac. I had advertised a reward for a Woodcock’s nest, so early the next morning the youth came and told me, and I went with him immediately in a fever of excitement, for in all my travels I had never yet found a Woodcock’s nest.
The alders grew in clumps about twenty feet high in the part of the swamp to which my guide took me. Presently he stopped to look. “She’s on the nest,” he said. “Don’t show me,” I exclaimed, “let me make her out.” I had to look very sharply, but quite soon I spied her, about fifteen yards away. It was a wonderful protective blending of colors. The varying shades of rather bright browns and yellows of the dead leaves almost perfectly corresponded with the browns in the plumage of the bird.
The spot she had chosen was on the mound around the base of one of the innumerable clumps of alders. There lay the bird among the dead leaves, without any protection of undergrowth, right out boldly in the open, relying solely upon the blending of her color and form with the surroundings. Then I approached nearer, more cautiously than I needed to have done, for I could hardly bring myself to believe that she would sit there if a man came striding up close to her, so plainly was she now visible to me. Yet she stirred not, her large, soft, brown eyes, the most conspicuous part of her, did not move or wink.
Taking from my pocket a crisp two-dollar bill, I bestowed it upon the modest youth, who hardly thought that he could rightfully earn so easily a day’s wages. Then he departed, leaving me alone with the bird. The day was April 18th, one of the last cold days of a vigorous and hard-dying winter. With the mercury below forty degrees, dark and cloudy, a cold wind raging, and occasional snow squalls, it might not seem a very favorable time for photographing birds. But I dared not wait. By to-morrow she might easily have hatched and led away her nimble young. Tonight a wildcat, fox, raccoon, or skunk might discover her and end my hopes and plans. So I went right to work. Dark as it was, there was time enough for exposures, for this bird would keep as still as the towering hills before me.
Setting up the camera on the tripod, I went to work taking pictures of her, at first from a little distance, so as to make sure of some result, in case she should fly, but presently as near as anyone could wish, the lens being within a yard of her. During the two hours I was at it, the only motion she made was to wink once when a pellet of sleet struck her on her unprotected eyeball.
By this time I had taken nine pictures, from different positions, and I might have continued all day, had not my foot cracked a dry twig close to her head. This was too much even for her steady nerves, and away she darted, not fluttering off as though wounded, like the Wilson’s Snipe when flushed from the nest, but with quick, direct flight.
This gave me a chance to examine and photograph the eggs which lay in a simple hollow in the dead leaves. Then I withdrew to a distance and hid behind a bush to watch for her return. Just then it began to snow hard, and soon the ground was white, though the crystals melted on the warm eggs. Fearing that my presence might be keeping her away, I went off and explored a neighboring wooded hill, where I found a hawk’s nest. The Woodcock had not returned in one hour, nor in two, but at the end of four hours she was brooding again, as tame as ever.
Of course at an early opportunity I had to bring Ned to see the wonderful sight. After taking some more pictures, we sat on a rock only six feet away to eat our lunch, watching with keen interest the fearless and motionless little mother. Never had we seen a bird lie so splendidly to dog, man, camera, or anything else. To our minds the title royal was fairly earned, and Woodcock was certainly king.
We had, however, one final and severe test for her to try to make her stand up to be photographed. After getting the camera aimed and focused, and being all ready, with one hand I presented to her the end of a short stick. She did not move when it touched her, nor even when I pried her up off the eggs and finally pushed her over on to one side. She would not stand up for me, but at last, crouching as, low as possible, she gave a sudden spring and went up like a glass ball from a trap. Even if I had tried to make the exposure, I know that I should have been far too slow. I have no doubt but that we could have handled her, had we tried to do so. Then I set the camera, attached a thread to the shutter, and hid behind a bush at a distance, to get a picture of her as she came back, meanwhile letting Ned go home. There I sat with eyes glued to that spot in the leaves for four mortal hours. The bird did not appear, the sun went down, and I had to give it up.
Of course the eggs would be chilled and spoiled, and I wondered how long she would sit on them. I made a few more calls on Madam, and then neglected her until the second day of May. Four neatly split shells lay in the nest. The hardy eggs had hatched after all, and four little Woodcocks were somewhere following their devoted mother and learning to bore for worms along the soft margin of the brook.
That same year, late in July, one of my other boy friends caught a young Woodcock as he returned from fishing and was walking along the railroad track. The bird flew up from the road-bed and alighted in the grass, where it hid and allowed him to catch it. It was fully fledged, but not yet very strong on the wing. Ned and I kept it for a month, and had very interesting times with it. We kept it in a wire chicken run, and fed to it as many as 175 earth worms a day. It soon got so that it would run up and take worms from our hands, and sometimes it would even try to swallow my finger, mistaking it for a nice fat worm. It would grasp a worm with the end of its long bill, using the tip of the upper mandible independently of the rest of the bill, like a thumb, and then gulp the worm down. Most of the worms were put in a pan of moist earth, through which they burrowed to the bottom. This was at night, and in the morning we would find the earth completely perforated with round holes where the bird had bored for its game. It was seldom that a single worm could long escape.
Sometimes I would take the bird out for exercise and picture-making, tying a thread to its leg to prevent it from flying away. It would run about the lawn erecting its pretty tail, which it spread out pompously after the manner of a turkey cock. In like manner it would drink or dabble along the margin of the river, and it was a sight to watch it bore for worms in the soft mud of the sink drain. Finally after a month’s captivity, I let it go, and the last I saw of it, it was trotting off under the bushes on the river’s brink. We all thought everything of ” Woodie,” whose only fault, according to Ned, was its enormous appetite, that fairly tired him out digging worms to appease it.
But he had a harder task yet in store. Time flew along, like the birds, and it was April again. One day a young man brought me an adult Woodcock, which he had caught by the roadside. It had hurt its wing against a telegraph wire and could no longer fly. It could eat, however, and we soon found that it was no play to dig worms for it so early in the seasona cold, backward spring, too. Ned had not much time after school, and I was busy. One day I dug for over an hour and did not find worms enough for half a day’s rations. Later in the day, as I passed a store in the town, I saw a boy standing idle, and an idea came to me. “Don’t you want to earn some money?” I asked him. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “All right,” said I, “if you will dig me some worms for my pet Woodcock I’ll give you ten cents a pound for them. That night he brought a tomato can full and said he would get more. The news spread rapidly among the boys that a sort of gold mine had been discovered. There was a regular procession of boys with worms, and I was kept busy weighing worms aid finding change for my “worm brigade,” as I called them.
None were wasted, for the Woodcock was a marvelous eater. When it first came it weighed five ounces. Hearty eating soon brought it up to six and one-half, and then it dropped to a good full six, where it remained for months, until it was drowned one night in a terrific thunder shower. I weighed the food carefully, and found that it averaged about ten ounces of worms every twenty-four hours. Seldom did it eat less than eight ounces, often eleven, and once, when I weighed the food, it disposed of an even twelve, twice its own weight. “Ned,” I said, “how much do you weigh?” “A hundred and ten,” he replied.
“Well, if you were as big an eater as the Woodcock, it would take about two hundred pounds of meat a day to keep you. Do you suppose your father would support you and send you to college if you ate forty dollars’ worth of meat a day?” Ned thought that his fond Papa would have to send him to work instead of to college, so it is well that his appetite is not quite so tremendous.
The game bird which is the nearest relative of the Woodcock is the Wilson’s Snipe. Not many people except sportsmen know it at all, but the trouble is that a good many are as afraid as cats of getting their feet wet. But it never in the world will hurt a healthy person, if one only keeps warm by exercising and takes off the wet things before sitting down. Often I have walked home through the town with the water squeaking in my boots like a suction pump, but I never caught cold that way. But with long rubber boots, unless we fall into some bog hole, we can probably keep dry, and vigorous tramping in boggy meadows in April or early May, or in September or October, can probably add the Snipe to our acquaintance and our bird list. We shall see its rapid, irregular flight, and hear its curious note”escape,” it seems to say, which it proceeds to do admirably, unless the intruder be a gunner and a good shot besides! Often have I chuckled to see the would-be snipe shooter’s bang-bang, miss-miss!
The bird goes mostly north of the United States to breed, though a few do so along the northern border. I have found just one nest in my life thus far, up in the Magdalen Islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The male seems to give warning to his brooding mate when an intruder approaches the nest, and the pair dart around very swiftly up in the air, making a humming with their wings and sharp scolding notes. One of my bright-eyed young friends hid and watched a female until she alighted near her nest, which he then found, and we all had chances to see her go fluttering up as though desperately wounded. She was very tame in returning, and by setting the camera on the ground, focused on the nest, and pulling the thread, I secured several good pictures of her in the act of brooding her four dark mottled eggs.
Previous to the severe winter of 1903-4, Bob-white was an abundant bird in our locality. Sitting on my piazza, I could hear ringing calls issuing from the outlying clover fields, as the proud little roosters challenged one another from their observatories on stone wall or rail fence. Sometimes, especially when driving, I have passed quite close to our noisy little friend on the fence, but he is off in a hurry, if one stops to look at him. In the autumn I have followed up coveys to see what they would do. Once, in September, I saw a number of them on a stone wall. They flew down as I drove by, into some bushes close at hand, and I hitched the horse and went after them. Standing on the wall, I studied over the ground under the bushes very carefully, but could not make out a single bird. But when I tossed in a big stone, up they all went like rockets, nearly twenty of them, right from the very place I had so carefully examined.
How well protected they are by their colors I once had a fine chance to see. A single bird flushed before the hunting dogs, and took to a patch of scrub pines. I went in to look for it, and, as I was standing where the shade was dense, but the ground clear of undergrowth I happened to see it lying flat on the ground on the smooth carpet of pine needles only two or three steps from me. Before I had time to get my camera ready it realized that it was discovered and flew off. So I got no picture, and, indeed, had never shot quail with the camera. But opportunities came, at length. Mrs. Robert White, like the old woman of shoe-residence fame, usually has a great many children. She raises a big batch of them in June, and then often tries it again in July and August. She is apt to nest in hay fields, and the mowing-machine discovers this second nesting. So one day, late in July, a farmer told me that he had found a nest. Sure enough, in the corner of his field by the stone wall was a nest with sixteen eggs, in a clump of grass which the kind man had left to protect them. It was easy enough to photograph the eggs, but the mother bird was afraid of the camera, so I had to take it away without getting her picture. l made another visit very soon with Ned, and was just in the nick of time, for fourteen of the sixteen eggs had hatched, and the cunning little things which looked for all the world like little brown-Leghorn chickens, only about half their size, were all in the nest, just dried off ready to leave, as they always do very shortly after hatching. The mother was brooding them, and she fluttered off, while the young scrambled out of the nest in an instant and hid in the grass. Between us both we managed to find ten, which we put back in the nest, where I photographed them and the egg shells. Each one of the eggs had the larger end neatly split off to let out the chick. The membrane held the piece like a lid, and in most cases it had shut down again so neatly that one would hardly notice but that the eggs were round and full as ever of young quail. As soon as I went away the anxious mother, who had been whining at us from the wall, sneaked back to her chicks and doubtless led them away at once. It was disappointing that it was a dark showery day, so that I could not try for a snapshot at the family as they left their happy home for the wide, wide world.
“My, but wasn’t it great luck!” About a week later another farmer mowed by a nest and found it. This one was not half a mile from the other, right beside a much-traveled road, under the end of a pile of fence rails. This bird was very different in disposition from the other. She was so tame that Ned and I could stroke her on the back without making her leave her eggs, so accustomed had she become to seeing people, who were constantly passing so near that they surely would have stepped on her, had it not been for the protecting rails. She was in plain sight now, without the long grass, and yet no one else discovered her. I set up the camera as near as I could wish, and photo-graphed her without the least trouble. Then Ned poked her off the nest. I got her picture as she was leaving, out in the grass, where he “shooed” her to make her stand still, before she flew. Having to drive past on the following day in the evening, I stopped my buggy within a yard of her and watched her awhile. As usual, she never moved or winked. The next day eleven split shells told the story of the birth of eleven little Bobby-whites to roam the grain fields and pastures of their beautiful valley.
I had now secured photographs from wild life of three of the four important game birds, and was eager now to conquer the remaining one, the Ruffed Grouse. In past years I had often found their nests. A favorite location is in a pine grove, under some little bush or sprout. One day, some ten years before this, I had found two in one tract of pines, within half an hour. Another favorable place is swampy woods, beside a fallen log or underbrush, as well as in drier woodland. Confident of success, through past experience, the following spring, in May, I began the hunt for a nest in woods where the birds were common. It is largely a matter of chancethough of persistence, tooto walk close to the brooding bird, practically invisible by her protective coloration, and flush her from her eggs. What a tremendous whirring she makes as she leaves !
Somehow luck was plainly against me at the first.
Day after day I had ranged the woods for miles and miles, but I did not happen upon just the right spot. But at length, while I was thus hunting, I met a man burning brush, who told me of an Indian hunter who recently, while guiding a surveying party, had found two ” Partridge” nests. That evening I saw the Indian, and arranged to have him show me his finds.
Two days later, in the morning, we started up a trail over a very mountainous tract. For nearly two miles it followed a rocky ravine by a roaring brook. A rattlesnake sprung his wavering alarm, but I was too eager in the quest to care that day for snake trophies. Three miles back from the road we reached the neighborhood of the nests. One was in a swampy hollow along the line of the surveyors’ blazings, beside a stump. We finally found it, after quite a search, but some wild animal had eaten the eggs and the shells were scattered about. The other was a little further on, beside the trail we had been following. The bird was on the nest, directly at the base of a clump of chestnut sprouts. Despite her solitude, or else because of it, she was one of the wary sort and ran off, trailing her wings, before I could get with the camera within fifteen feet of her. She had twelve eggs.
Leaving the vicinity for a time, when I returned she was not on, though the eggs were warm. Then I hid and watched. In half an hour she came walking back, with head erect, jerking her tail. After waiting a quarter of an hour for her to get composed, again I tried to approach, but she ran the instant she saw me coming. Evidently this method was hopeless, so I rigged the camera up in some bushes in front of the nest, covering it with leaves. Then came a tedious wait in hiding, with thread attached to the shutter, but no sign of the bird. So I extended my line of thread away off in the woods, went off for an hour, and then pulled at a venture. This time the bird was at home, having become used to the camera. It was now late afternoon, so I had to return home, after fixing an imitation of the camera to keep the bird accustomed to the instrument. The plate proved to be hopelessly underexposed, though the exposure was for one second, with full aperture, but with a single lens of the doublet.
The next two days brought pouring rain, but I tried it again on Memorial Day, arising at 4 A. M., as I had to be back at noon for public exercises. The bird skulked off again, so I set the camera as before, but she had not returned in over three hours. It was then eleven o’clock. I left the camera set, ran the three miles down the trail in twenty-eight minutes, jumped into the buggy, and barely was in time for my appointment. The exercises were over by the middle of the afternoon, and I hustled back up the mountain, reaching the nest at 4.15. The bird was on, and I pulled the thread, the shutter set for its longest movement, about a second and a half, and with the doublet lens, giving four times the illumination of the single lens.
By 4.30 I had the plate changed and was in hiding. At 5.05 the hen returned to her eggs. When she was still I was about to pull the thread when a wonderful thing happened. Just in the rear of the sprouts under which she was sitting I caught sight of some large creature, apparently sneaking up to kill her. At first, through the foliage, I took it to be a hog or dog. When it got almost to her, I saw it was a big bird, all bristled up, a turkey gobbler, I thought. Suddenly it made a rush right into the nest. Involuntarily I almost shouted and leaped to my feet to rush out and save the eggs from vandalism, when it suddenly dawned upon me that it was the male bird making love in his own way. The hen was too quick for him. She flushed like a projectile from a gun and was gone, leaving her admirer beside the nest. For fully a minute he stood there, perfectly still, the very picture of pomposity. His tail was erected and spread to its widest extent, as was the glorious black ruff on his neck. The head was raised and the wings drooped. After thus duly surveying the situation he finally strutted proudly off into the bushes. Meanwhile I was undergoing counter-blasts of excitement, delighted with the scene, and chagrined that he was just out of the field and focus for which the camera was set. What a picture that would have been!
The hen returned to her brooding within five minutes, and I made the exposure. But somewhere in the bushes the old rooster was watching, and again, in about three minutes, he tried to rush her. She darted off when he was six feet away and again he struck his pose, proud even in defeat.
Not certain of success, owing to the darkness of the woods, I left the camera set over night, well covered with a rubber cloth. It was well I did so, for the plates were still badly under-exposed. I was back the next morning soon after nine o’clock. The bird was on, and the light much better, shining from in front of the nest. I made the exposure and set the shutter for another trial, this time for prolonged time exposure. It took the bird over three hours to come back, but the weather was warm and the eggs would not suffer. This time the shutter went wrong and stayed open. Again I set it and late in the afternoon obtained another shot. The bird stayed perfectly still when I pulled the string which opened the shutter, so I let it remain open for ten seconds, and this time I had a well-exposed plate. The first one of the morning was also good. So at last I had my reward for three days’ labor, walking twenty-four miles and driving sixteen, to complete my series of game bird portraits.
That very day my next door neighbor found another nest, with eight eggs, within ten minutes walk of home. It was in a beautiful grove of white birches under the trunk of a fallen tree, which was prettily overgrown with vines. This bird also was shy and would not let me come within sight of her on the nest without whirring off, not skulking like the other. I had learned now how to work. In the morning I would hide the camera among the debris of the upturned tree near the nest. I would leave it out and return about noon to pull the thread, allowing ten or fifteen seconds’ exposure. In this way I secured the best of all my pictures of the Ruffed Grouse.
In early autumn the young of the year have a curious habit of flying blindly into all sorts of places. The theory has been advanced that these are the profligate young men of the tribe, off on drunken sprees; that they eat too freely of poke-berries, or other fruit, and thereby become intoxicated. Of this there is no certain proof. Perhaps they are trying to escape from hawks, or get bewildered in their wanderings. At any rate they do it and I have observed, or been told of, various instances. Once I found one in my church cellar, and recently one dashed against the window of a neighbor’s house and fell dazed to the piazza. It was brought to me and for a month I kept it in a hen-coop to study and photograph. It ate freely of berries and green corn, strutted about, saying “quit, quit,” like a turkey, now and then making a purring sound, like a sitting hen, and some whining noises. After a time -I sent it to Bronx Park, New York City, where afterward I saw it in one of the pheasant pens.
Ned was not on hand for the grouse shooting just described, but has seen enough to become enthusiastic over this sort of game hunting. As for myself, I have shot the game birds both with gun and camera and, while I would not despise the former sort of hunting, I like the other much better.
Had this book been written a century or so ago, there would have been several other species to enroll among the upland game-birds of the Eastern and Middle Districts. One of these, the Wild Turkey, has long since disappeared from the region, but is still found in some parts of the South. In a very wild part of central Florida, miles from any dwelling of man, in the year I902, I happened upon a nest of the Wild Turkey. It was a mere hollow, lined with a few feathers, under a small palmetto, just on the border of the prairie and a great cypress forest. The dozen or so of eggs had recently hatched and the shells, neatly split in halves, lay in the nest. Then there was the Heath Hen, similar to the Pinnated Grouse or Prairie Hen, abundant in those days, but now exterminated, save a ‘small remnant which hide in the tangled scrub-oak tracts on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The State and other agencies are trying to save them, but the result trembles in the balance. The Wild or Passenger Pigeon which visited the region in countless multitudes has likewise disappeared, with the possible exception of a few stragglers. Various persons report that they have seen them, but, as with supposed ghosts, they never show themselves to a competent witness, and certainly in most cases people have mistaken them for the common Mourning Dove.
This latter bird is still with us in small numbers, though in the West they are still abundant. One of the most pleasing sounds of spring is the “cooing” of these gentle creatures, “coo, coo, coo-o,” it comes, seemingly from afar, it is so soft and ventriloquial. Indeed it sounds to me quite like the distant hooting of the Great Horned Owl. The Mourning Dove used to be considered a game bird, and open seasons were allowed for, hunting it. But now, in most States, it is protected like a song-bird, as indeed it should be. It nests in scattered pairs in woods or pastures, building a frail loose nest of twigs, generally in some low crotch of a tree, in a thicket, or even on the ground, where I have now and then seen them. Several times also I have found their two white eggs in old Robins’ nests. In late summer and fall they gather into small flocks and resort to grain or stubble fields to feed. They do not hurt the grain, but merely glean the kernels which have fallen.