Gateway to the Classics: The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton W. Burgess
The Burgess Bird Book for Children by  Thornton W. Burgess

Honker and Dippy Arrive

T HE leaves of the trees turned yellow and red and brown and then began to drop, a few at first, then more and more every day until all but the spruce-trees and the pine-trees and the hemlock-trees and the fir-trees and the cedar-trees were bare. By this time most of Peter's feathered friends of the summer had departed, and there were days when Peter had oh, such a lonely feeling. The fur of his coat was growing thicker. The grass of the Green Meadows had turned brown. All these things were signs which Peter knew well. He knew that rough Brother North Wind and Jack Frost were on their way down from the Far North.

Peter had few friends to visit now. Johnny Chuck had gone to sleep for the winter 'way down in his little bedroom under ground. Grandfather Frog had also gone to sleep. So had Old Mr. Toad. Peter spent a great deal of time in the dear Old Briar-patch just sitting still and listening. What he was listening for he didn't know. It just seemed to him that there was something he ought to hear at this time of year, and so he sat listening and listening and wondering what he was listening for. Then, late one afternoon, there came floating down to him from high up in the sky, faintly at first but growing louder, a sound unlike any Peter had heard all the long summer through. The sound was a voice. Rather it was many voices mingled "Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk!" Peter gave a little jump.

"That's what I've been listening for!" he cried. "Honker the Goose and his friends are coming. Oh, I do hope they will stop where I can pay them a call."

He hopped out to the edge of the dear Old Briar-patch that he might see better, and looked up in the sky. High up, flying in the shape of a letter V, he saw a flock of great birds flying steadily from the direction of the Far North. By the sound of their voices he knew that they had flown far that day and were tired. One bird was in the lead and this he knew to be his old friend, Honker. Straight over his head they passed and as Peter listened to their voices he felt within him the very spirit of the Far North, that great, wild, lonely land which he had never seen but of which he had so often heard.

As Peter watched, Honker suddenly turned and headed in the direction of the Big River. Then he began to slant down, his flock following him. And presently they disappeared behind the trees along the bank of the Great River. Peter gave a happy little sigh. "They are going to spend the night there," thought he. "When the moon comes up, I will run over there, for they will come ashore and I know just where. Now that they have arrived I know that winter is not far away. Honker's voice is as sure a sign of the coming of winter as is Winsome Bluebird's that spring will soon be here."

Peter could hardly wait for the coming of the Black Shadows, and just as soon as they had crept out over the Green Meadows he started for the Big River. He knew just where to go, because he knew that Honker and his friends would rest and spend the night in the same place they had stopped at the year before. He knew that they would remain out in the middle of the Big River until the Black Shadows had made it quite safe for them to swim in. He reached the bank of the Big River just as sweet Mistress Moon was beginning to throw her silvery light over the Great World. There was a sandy bar in the Great River at this point, and Peter squatted on the bank just where this sandy bar began.

It seemed to Peter that he had sat there half the night, but really it was only a short time, before he heard a low signal out in the Black Shadows which covered the middle of the Big River. It was the voice of Honker. Then Peter saw little silvery lines moving on the water and presently a dozen great shapes appeared in the moonlight. Honker and his friends were swimming in. The long neck of each of those great birds was stretched to its full height, and Peter knew that each bird was listening for the slightest suspicious sound. Slowly they drew near, Honker in the lead. They were a picture of perfect caution. When they reached the sandy bar they remained quiet, looking and listening for some time. Then, sure that all was safe, Honker gave a low signal and at once a low gabbling began as the big birds relaxed their watchfulness and came out on the sandy bar, all save one. That one was the guard, and he remained with neck erect on watch. Some swam in among the rushes growing in the water very near to where Peter was sitting and began to feed. Others sat on the sandy bar and dressed their feathers. Honker himself came ashore close to where Peter was sitting.

"Oh, Honker," cried Peter, "I'm so glad you're back here safe and sound."

Honker gave a little start, but instantly recognizing Peter, came over close to him. As he stood there in the moonlight he was truly handsome. His throat and a large patch on each side of his head were white. The rest of his head and long, slim neck were black. His short tail was also black. His back, wings, breast and sides were a soft grayish-brown. He was white around the base of his tail and he wore a white collar.

"Hello, Peter," said he. "It is good to have an old friend greet me. I certainly am glad to be back safe and sound, for the hunters with terrible guns have been at almost every one of our resting places, and it has been hard work to get enough to eat. It is a relief to find one place where there are no terrible guns."

"Have you come far?" asked Peter.

"Very far, Peter; very far," replied Honker. "And we still have very far to go. I shall be thankful when the journey is over, for on me depends the safety of all those with me, and it is a great responsibility."

"Will winter soon be here?" asked Peter eagerly.

"Rough Brother North Wind and Jack Frost were right behind us," replied Honker. "You know we stay in the Far North just as long as we can. Already the place where we nested is frozen and covered with snow. For the first part of the journey we kept only just ahead of the snow and ice, but as we drew near to where men make their homes we were forced to make longer journeys each day, for the places where it is safe to feed and rest are few and far between. Now we shall hurry on until we reach the place in the far-away South where we will make our winter home."

Just then Honker was interrupted by wild, strange sounds from the middle of the Great River. It sounded like crazy laughter. Peter jumped at the sound, but Honker merely chuckled. "It's Dippy the Loon," said he. "He spent the summer in the Far North not far from us. He started south just before we did."

"I wish he would come in here so that I can get a good look at him and make his acquaintance," said Peter.

"He may, but I doubt it," replied Honker. "He and his mate are great people to keep by themselves. Then, too, they don't have to come ashore for food. You know Dippy feeds altogether on fish. He really has an easier time on the long journey than we do, because he can get his food without running so much risk of being shot by the terrible hunters. He practically lives on the water. He's about the most awkward fellow on land of any one I know."

"Why should he be any more awkward on land then you?" asked Peter, his curiosity aroused at once.

"Because," replied Honker, "Old Mother Nature has given him very short legs and has placed them so far back on his body that he can't keep his balance to walk, and has to use his wings and bill to help him over the ground. On shore he is about the most helpless thing you can imagine. But on water he is another fellow altogether. He's just as much at home under water as on top. My, how that fellow can dive! When he sees the flash of a gun he will get under water before the shot can reach him. That's where he has the advantage of us Geese. You know we can't dive. He could swim clear across this river under water if he wanted to, and he can go so fast under water that he can catch a fish. It is because his legs have been placed so far back that he can swim so fast. You know his feet are nothing but big paddles. Another funny thing is that he can sink right down in the water when he wants to, with nothing but his head out. I envy him that. It would be a lot easier for us Geese to escape the dreadful hunters if we could sink down that way."

"Has he a bill like yours?" asked Peter innocently.

"Of course not," replied Honker. "Didn't I tell you that he lives on fish? How do you suppose he would hold on to his slippery fish if he had a broad bill like mine? His bill is stout, straight and sharp pointed. He is rather a handsome fellow. He is pretty nearly as big as I am, and his back, wings, tail and neck are black with bluish or greenish appearance in the sun. His back and wings are spotted with white, and there are streaks of white on his throat and the sides of his neck. On his breast and below he is all white. You certainly ought to get acquainted with Dippy, Peter, for there isn't anybody quite like him."

"I'd like to," replied Peter. "But if he never comes to shore, how can I? I guess I will have to be content to know him just by his voice. I certainly never will forget that. It's about as crazy sounding as the voice of Old Man Coyote, and that is saying a great deal."

"There's one thing I forgot to tell you," said Honker. "Dippy can't fly from the land; he must be on the water in order to get up in the air."

"You can, can't you?" asked Peter.

"Of course I can," replied Honker. "Why, we Geese get a lot of our food on land. When it is safe to do so we visit the grain fields and pick up the grain that has been shaken out during harvest. Of course we couldn't do that if we couldn't fly from the land. We can rise from either land or water equally well. Now if you'll excuse me, Peter, I'll take a nap. My, but I'm tired! And I've got a long journey to-morrow."

So Peter politely bade Honker and his relatives good-night and left them in peace on the sandy bar in the Big River.

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