A School for Little Fishermen
HERE came a day when, as I sat fishing among the rocks, the
cry of the mother osprey changed as she came sweeping up to
my fishing grounds,—Chip, ch'wee! Chip, chip,
ch'weeeee? That was the fisherman's hail plainly enough;
but there was another note in it, a
The mother bird—one can tell her instantly by her greater size and darker breast markings—veered in as I turned to greet the newcomers, and came directly over my head, her two little ones flapping lustily behind her. Two days before, when I went down to another lake on an excursion after bigger trout, the young fishhawks were still standing on the nest, turning a deaf ear to all the old birds' assurances that the time had come to use their big wings. The last glimpse I had of them through my glass showed me the mother bird in one tree, the father in another, each holding a fish, which they were showing the young across a tantalizing short stretch of empty air, telling the young, in fishhawk language, to come across and get it; while the young birds, on their part, stretched wings and necks hungrily and tried to whistle the fish over to them, as one would call a dog across the street. In the short interval that I was absent, mother wiles and mother patience had done their good work. The young were already flying well. Now they were out for their first lesson in fishing, evidently; and I stopped fishing myself, letting my bait sink into the mud—where an eel presently tangled my hooks into an old root—to see how it was done. For fishing is not an instinct with Ismaques, but a simple matter of training. As with young otters, they know only from daily experience that fish, and not grouse and rabbits, are their legitimate food. Left to themselves, especially if one should bring them up on flesh and then turn them loose, they would go straight back to the old hawk habit of hunting the woods, which is much easier. To catch fish, therefore, they must be taught from the first day they leave the nest. And it is a fascinating experience for any man to watch the way they go about it.
The young ospreys flew heavily in short irregular circles,
scanning the water with their inexperienced eyes for their
first strike. Over them wheeled the mother bird on broad,
even wings, whistling directions to the young neophytes, who
would presently be initiated
into the old sweet mysteries of
As they wheeled in over me on their way down the lake, one of the youngsters caught the gleam of my pile of chub among the rocks. Pip, ch'weee! he whistled, and down they came, both of them, like rockets. They were hungry; here were fish galore; and they had not noticed me at all, sitting very still among the rocks. Pip, pip, pip, hurrah! they piped as they came down.
But the mother bird, who had noted me and my pile of fish
the first thing as she rounded the point, swept in swiftly
with a curious,
And now as they sweep round and round over the edge of a
shoal, one of the little fellows sees a fish and drops lower
to follow it. The mother sees it too; notes that the fish
is slanting up to the surface, and wisely lets the young
fisherman alone. He is too
near the water now; the glare
and the dancing waves bother him; he loses his gleam of
silver in the flash of a whitecap. Mother bird mounts
higher, and whistles him up where he can see better. But
there is the fish again, and the youngster, hungry and
heedless, sets his wings for a swoop. Chip, chip!
"wait, he's going down," cautions the mother; but the little
fellow, too hungry to wait, shoots down like an arrow. He
is a yard above the surface when a big whitecap jumps up at
him and frightens him. He hesitates, swerves, flaps lustily
to save himself. Then under the whitecap is a gleam of
silver again. Down he goes on the instant,—ugh!
boo! —like a boy taking his first dive. He is out of sight
for a full moment, while two waves race over him, and I hold
my breath waiting for him to come up. Then he bursts out,
sputtering and shaking himself, and of course without his
fish. As he rises heavily the mother, who has been circling
over him whistling
advice and comfort, stops short, with a
single blow of her pinions against the air. She has seen
the same fish, watched him shoot away under the plunge of
her little one, and now sees him glancing up to the edge of
the shoal where the minnows are playing. She knows that the
young pupils are growing discouraged, and that the time has
come to hearten them. Chip, Chip! —"watch, I'll show
you," she whistles—Cheeeep! with a sharp
The mother, however, has other thoughts in her wise head. She knows that the little ones are not yet tired, only hungry; and that there is much to teach them before the chub stop shoaling and they must all be off to the coast. She knows also that they have thus far missed the two things she brought them out to learn: to take a fish always as he comes up; and to hit a wave always on the front side, under the crest. Gripping her fish tightly, she bends in her slow flight and paralyzes it by a single blow in the spine from her hooked beak. Then she drops it back into the whitecaps, where, jumping to the top of my rock, I can see it occasionally struggling near the surface. Cheeeep! "try it now," she whistles. Pip, pip! "here goes!" cries the little one who failed before; and down he drops, souse! going clear under in his impatient hunger, forgetting precept and example and past experience.
Again the waves race over him; but there is a satisfied note
in the mother's whistle which tells me that she sees him,
he is doing well. In a moment he is out again,
with a great rush and sputter, gripping his fish and
It is clear now to even my eyes that there is a vast
difference in the characters of young fishhawks. The first
was eager, headstrong, impatient; the second is calmer,
stronger, more obedient. He watches the mother; he heeds
her signals. Five minutes later he makes a clean, beautiful
swoop and comes up with his fish. The mother whistles her
praise as she drops beside him. My eyes follow them as,
gossiping like two old cronies, they wing their slow way
over the dancing whitecaps and climb the slanting
The day's lessons are over now, and I go back to my bait catching with a new admiration for these winged members of the brotherhood. Perhaps there is also a bit of envy or regret in my meditation as I tie on a new hook to replace the one that an uneasy eel is trying to rid himself of, down in the mud. If I had only had some one to teach me like that, I should certainly now be a better fisherman.
Next day, when the mother came up the lake to the shoal with her two little ones, there was a surprise awaiting them. For half an hour I had been watching from the point to anticipate their coming. There were some things that puzzled me, and that puzzle me still, in Ismaques' fishing. If he caught his fish in his beak, after the methods of mink and otter, I could understand it better. But to catch a fish—whose dart is like lightning—under the water with his feet, when, after his plunge, he can see neither his fish nor his feet, must require some puzzling calculation. And I had set a trap in my head to find out how it is done.
When the fishermen hove into sight, and their eager pipings
came faintly up the lake
ahead of them, I paddled hastily
out and turned loose a
Next day I set the trap again in the same way. But the mother, with her lesson well laid out before her, remembered yesterday's unearned success and came over to investigate, leaving her young ones circling along the farther shore. There were the fish again, in shallow water; and there—too easy altogether!—were two dead ones floating among the whitecaps. She wheeled away in a sharp turn, as if she had not seen anything, whistled her pupils up to her, and went on to other fishing grounds.
Presently, above the next point, I heard their pipings and
The mother followed them at a distance, veering in when near my shoal to take another look at the fish there. Three were floating now instead of two; the others—what were left of them—struggled feebly at the surface. Chip, ch'weee! she whistled disdainfully; "plenty fish here, but mighty poor fishing." Then she swooped, passed under, came out with a big chub and was gone, leaving me only a blinding splash and a widening circle of laughing, dancing, tantalizing wavelets to tell me how she catches them.