Gateway to the Classics: Secrets of the Woods by William J. Long
Secrets of the Woods by  William J. Long


OF all the wild birds that still haunt our remaining solitudes, the ruffed grouse—the pa'tridge of our younger days—is perhaps the wildest, the most alert, the most suggestive of the primeval wilderness that we have lost. You enter the woods from the hillside pasture, lounging a moment on the old gray fence to note the play of light and shadow on the birch bolls. Your eye lingers restfully on the wonderful mixture of soft colors that no brush has ever yet imitated, the rich old gold of autumn tapestries, the glimmering gray-green of the mouldering stump that the fungi have painted. What a giant that tree must have been, generations ago, in its days of strength; how puny the birches that now grow out of its roots! You remember the great canoe birches by the wilderness river, whiter than the little tent that nestled beneath them, their wide bark banners waving in the wind, soft as the flutter of owls' wings that swept among them, shadow-like, in the twilight. A vague regret steals over you that our own wilderness is gone, and with it most of the shy folk that loved its solitudes.

Suddenly there is a rustle in the leaves. Something stirs by the old stump. A moment ago you thought it was only a brown root; now it runs, hides, draws itself erect—Kwit, kwit, kwit!  and with a whirring rush of wings and a whirling eddy of dead leaves a grouse bursts up, and darts away like a blunt arrow, flint-tipped, gray-feathered, among the startled birch stems. As you follow softly to rout him out again, and to thrill and be startled by his unexpected rush, something of the Indian has come unbidden into your cautious tread. All regret for the wilderness is vanished; you are simply glad that so much wildness still remains to speak eloquently of the good old days.

It is this element of unconquerable wildness in the grouse, coupled with a host of early, half-fearful impressions, that always sets my heart to beating, as to an old tune, whenever a partridge bursts away at my feet. I remember well a little child that used to steal away into the still woods, which drew him by an irresistible attraction while as yet their dim arches and quiet paths were full of mysteries and haunting terrors. Step by step the child would advance into the shadows, cautious as a wood mouse, timid as a rabbit. Suddenly a swift rustle and a thunderous rush of something from the ground that first set the child's heart to beating wildly, and then reached his heels in a fearful impulse which sent him rushing out of the woods, tumbling headlong over the old gray wall, and scampering halfway across the pasture before he dared halt from the terror behind. And then, at last, another impulse which always sent the child stealing back into the woods again, shy, alert, tense as a watching fox, to find out what the fearful thing was that could make such a commotion in the quiet woods.

And when he found out at last—ah, that was a discovery beside which the panther's kittens are as nothing as I think of them. One day in the woods, near the spot where the awful thunder used to burst away, the child heard a cluck and a kwit-kwit,  and saw a beautiful bird dodging, gliding, halting, hiding in the underbrush, watching the child's every motion. And when he ran forward to put his cap over the bird, it burst away, and then—whirr! whirr! whirr!  a whole covey of grouse roared up all about him. The terror of it weakened his legs so that he fell down in the eddying leaves and covered his ears. But this time he knew what it was at last, and in a moment he was up and running, not away, but fast as his little legs could carry him after the last bird that he saw hurtling away among the trees, with a birch branch that he had touched with his wings nodding good-by behind him.

There is another association with this same bird that always gives an added thrill to the rush of his wings through the startled woods. It was in the old school by the cross-roads, one sleepy September afternoon. A class in spelling, big boys and little girls, toed a crack in front of the master's desk. The rest of the school droned away on appointed tasks in the drowsy interlude. The fat boy slept openly on his arms; even the mischief-maker was quiet, thinking dreamily of summer days that were gone. Suddenly there was a terrific crash, a clattering tinkle of broken glass, a howl from a boy near the window. Twenty knees banged the desks beneath as twenty boys jumped. Then, before any of us had found his wits, Jimmy Jenkins, a red-headed boy whom no calamity could throw off his balance and from whom no opportunity ever got away free, had jumped over two forms and was down on the floor in the girls' aisle, gripping something between his knees—

"I've got him," he announced, with the air of a general.

"Got what?" thundered the master.

"Got a pa'tridge; he's an old buster," said Jimmy. And he straightened up, holding by the legs a fine cock partridge whose stiffening wings still beat his sides spasmodically. He had been scared-up in the neighboring woods, frightened by some hunter out of his native coverts. When he reached the unknown open places he was more frightened still and, as a frightened grouse always flies straight, he had driven like a bolt through the schoolhouse window, killing himself by the impact.

Rule-of-three and cube root and the unmapped wilderness of partial payments have left but scant impression on one of those pupils, at least; but a bird that could wake up a drowsy schoolroom and bring out a living lesson, full of life and interest and the subtile call of the woods, from a drowsy teacher who studied law by night, but never his boys by day,—that was a bird to be respected. I have studied him with keener interest ever since.

Yet however much you study the grouse, you learn little except how wild he is. Occasionally, when you are still in the woods and a grouse walks up to your hiding place, you get a fair glimpse and an idea or two; but he soon discovers you, and draws himself up straight as a string and watches you for five minutes without stirring or even winking. Then, outdone at his own game, he glides away. A rustle of little feet on leaves, a faint kwit-kwit  with a question in it, and he is gone. Nor will he come back, like the fox, to watch from the other side and find out what you are.

Civilization, in its first advances, is good to the grouse, providing him with an abundance of food and driving away his enemies. Grouse are always more numerous about settlements than in the wilderness. Unlike other birds, however, he grows wilder and wilder by nearness to men's dwellings. I suppose that is because the presence of man is so often accompanied by the rush of a dog and the report of a gun, and perhaps by the rip and sting of shot in his feathers as he darts away. Once, in the wilderness, when very hungry, I caught two partridges by slipping over their heads a string noose at the end of a pole. Here one might as well try to catch a bat in the twilight as to hope to snare one of our upland partridges by any such invention, or even to get near enough to meditate the attempt.

But there was one grouse—and he the very wildest of all that I have ever met in the woods—who showed me unwittingly many bits of his life, and with whom I grew to be very well acquainted after a few seasons' watching. All the hunters of the village knew him well; and a half-dozen boys, who owned guns and were eager to join the hunters' ranks, had a shooting acquaintance with him. He was known far and wide as "the ol' beech pa'tridge." That he was old no one could deny who knew his ways and his devices; and he was frequently scared-up in a beech wood by a brook, a couple of miles out of the village.

Spite of much learned discussion as to different varieties of grouse, due to marked variations in coloring, I think personally that we have but one variety, and that differences in color are due largely to the different surroundings in which they live. Of all birds the grouse is most invisible when quiet, his coloring blends so perfectly with the roots and leaves and tree stems among which he hides. This wonderful invisibility is increased by the fact that he changes color easily. He is darker in summer, lighter in winter, like the rabbit. When he lives in dark woods he becomes a glossy red-brown; and when his haunt is among the birches he is often a decided gray.

This was certainly true of the old beech partridge. When he spread his tail wide and darted away among the beeches, his color blended so perfectly with the gray tree trunks that only a keen eye could separate him. And he knew every art of the dodger perfectly. When he rose there was scarcely a second of time before he had put a big tree between you and him, so as to cover his line of flight. I don't know how many times he had been shot at on the wing. Every hunter I knew had tried it many times; and every boy who roamed the woods in autumn had sought to pot him on the ground. But he never lost a feather; and he would never stand to a dog long enough for the most cunning of our craft to take his position.

When a brood of young partridges hear a dog running in the woods, they generally flit to the lower branches of a tree and kwit-kwit  at him curiously. They have not yet learned the difference between him and the fox, who is the ancient enemy of their kind, and whom their ancestors of the wilderness escaped and tantalized in the same way. But when it is an old bird that your setter is trailing, his actions are a curious mixture of cunning and fascination. As old Don draws to a point, the grouse pulls himself up rigidly by a stump and watches the dog. So both stand like statues; the dog held by the strange instinct which makes him point, lost to sight, sound and all things else save the smell in his nose, the grouse tense as a fiddlestring, every sense alert, watching the enemy whom he thinks to be fooled by his good hiding. For a few moments they are motionless; then the grouse skulks and glides to a better cover. As the strong scent fades from Don's nose, he breaks his point and follows. The grouse hears him and again hides by drawing himself up against a stump, where he is invisible; again Don stiffens into his point, one foot lifted, nose and tail in a straight line, as if he were frozen and could not move.

So it goes on, now gliding through the coverts, now still as a stone, till the grouse discovers that so long as he is still the dog seems paralyzed, unable to move or feel. Then he draws himself up, braced against a root or a tree boll; and there they stand, within twenty feet of each other, never stirring, never winking, till the dog falls from exhaustion at the strain, or breaks it by leaping forward, or till the hunter's step on the leaves fills the grouse with a new terror that sends him rushing away through the October woods to deeper solitudes.

Once, at noon, I saw Old Ben, a famous dog, draw to a perfect point. Just ahead, in a tangle of brown brakes, I could see the head and neck of a grouse watching the dog keenly. Old Ben's master, to test the splendid training of his dog, proposed lunch on the spot. We withdrew a little space and ate deliberately, watching the bird and the dog with an interest that grew keener and keener as the meal progressed, while Old Ben stood like a rock, and the grouse's eye shone steadily out of the tangle of brakes. Nor did either move so much as an eyelid while we ate, and Ben's master smoked his pipe with quiet confidence. At last, after a full hour, he whacked his pipe on his boot heel and rose to reach for his gun. That meant death for the grouse; but I owed him too much of keen enjoyment to see him cut down in swift flight. In the moment that the master's back was turned I hurled a knot at the tangle of brakes. The grouse burst away, and Old Ben, shaken out of his trance by the whirr of wings, dropped obediently to the charge and turned his head to say reproachfully with his eyes: "What in the world is the matter with you back there—didn't I hold him long enough?"

The noble old fellow was trembling like a leaf after the long strain when I went up to him to pat his head and praise his steadiness, and share with him the better half of my lunch. But to this day Ben's master does not know what started the grouse so suddenly; and as he tells you about the incident will still say regretfully: "I ought to a-started jest a minute sooner, 'fore he got tired. Then I'd a had 'im."

The old beech partridge, however, was a bird of a different mind. No dog ever stood him for more than a second; he had learned too well what the thing meant. The moment he heard the patter of a dog's feet on leaves he would run rapidly, and skulk and hide and run again, keeping dog and hunter on the move till he found the cover he wanted,—thick trees, or a tangle of wild grapevines,—when he would burst out on the farther side. And no eye, however keen, could catch more than a glimpse of a gray tail before he was gone. Other grouse make short straight flights, and can be followed and found again; but he always drove away on strong wings for an incredible distance, and swerved far to right or left; so that it was a waste of time to follow him up. Before you found him he had rested his wings and was ready for another flight; and when you did find him he would shoot away like an arrow out of the top of a pine tree and give you never a glimpse of himself.

He lived most of the time on a ridge behind the 'Fales place,' an abandoned farm on the east of the old post road. This was his middle range, a place of dense coverts, bullbrier thickets and sunny open spots among the ledges, where you might, with good-luck, find him on special days at any season. But he had all the migratory instincts of a Newfoundland caribou. In winter he moved south, with twenty other grouse, to the foot of the ridge, which dropped away into a succession of knolls and ravines and sunny, well-protected little valleys, where food was plenty. Here, fifty years ago, was the farm pasture; but now it had grown up everywhere with thickets and berry patches, and wild apple trees of the birds' planting. All the birds loved it in their season; quail nested on its edges; and you could kick a brown rabbit out of almost any of its decaying brush piles or hollow moss-grown logs.

In the spring he crossed the ridge northward again, moving into the still dark woods, where he had two or three wives with as many broods of young partridges; all of whom, by the way, he regarded with astonishing indifference.

Across the whole range—stealing silently out of the big woods, brawling along the foot of the ridge and singing through the old pasture—ran a brook that the old beech partridge seemed to love. A hundred times I started him from its banks. You had only to follow it any November morning before eight o'clock, and you would be sure to find him. But why he haunted it at this particular time and season I never found out.

I used to wonder sometimes why I never saw him drink. Other birds had their regular drinking places and bathing pools there, and I frequently watched them from my hiding; but though I saw him many times, after I learned his haunts, he never touched the water.

One early summer morning a possible explanation suggested itself. I was sitting quietly by the brook, on the edge of the big woods, waiting for a pool to grow quiet, out of which I had just taken a trout and in which I suspected there was a larger one hiding. As I waited a mother-grouse and her brood—one of the old beech partridge's numerous families for whom he provided nothing—came gliding along the edge of the woods. They had come to drink, evidently, but not from the brook. A sweeter draught than that was waiting for their coming. The dew was still clinging to the grass blades; here and there a drop hung from a leaf point, flashing like a diamond in the early light. And the little partridges, cheeping, gliding, whistling among the drooping stems, would raise their little bills for each shining dewdrop that attracted them, and drink it down and run with glad little pipings and gurglings to the next drop that flashed an invitation from its bending grass blade. The old mother walked sedately in the midst of them, now fussing over a laggard, now clucking them all together in an eager, chirping, jumping little crowd, each one struggling to be first in at the death of a fat slug she had discovered on the underside of a leaf; and anon reaching herself for a dewdrop that hung too high for their drinking. So they passed by within a few yards, a shy, wild, happy little family, and disappeared into the shadow of the big woods.

Perhaps that is why I never saw the old beech partridge drink from the brook. Nature has a fresher draught, of her own distilling, that is more to his tasting.

Earlier in the season I found another of his families near the same spot. I was stealing along a wood road when I ran plump upon them, scratching away at an ant hill in a sunny open spot. There was a wild flurry, as if a whirlwind had struck the ant hill; but it was only the wind of the mother bird's wings, whirling up the dust to blind my eyes and to hide the scampering retreat of her downy brood. Again her wings beat the ground, sending up a flurry of dead leaves, in the midst of which the little partridges jumped and scurried away, so much like the leaves that no eye could separate them. Then the leaves settled slowly and the brood was gone, as if the ground had swallowed them up; while Mother Grouse went fluttering along just out of my reach, trailing a wing as if broken, falling prone on the ground, clucking and kwitting  and whirling the leaves to draw my attention and bring me away from where the little ones were hiding.

I knelt down just within the edge of woods, whither I had seen the last laggard of the brood vanish like a brown streak, and began to look for them carefully. After a time I found one. He was crouched flat on a dead oak leaf, just under my nose, his color hiding him wonderfully. Something glistened in a tangle of dark roots. It was an eye, and presently I could make out a little head there. That was all I could find of the family, though a dozen more were close beside me, under the leaves mostly. As I backed away I put my hand on another before seeing him, and barely saved myself from hurting the little sly-boots, who never stirred a muscle, not even when I took away the leaf that covered him and put it back again softly.

Across the pathway was a thick scrub oak, under which I sat down to watch. Ten long minutes passed, with nothing stirring, before Mother Grouse came stealing back. She clucked once—"Careful!" it seemed to say; and not a leaf stirred. She clucked again—did the ground open? There they were, a dozen or more of them, springing up from nowhere and scurrying with a thousand cheepings to tell her all about it. So she gathered them all close about her, and they vanished into the friendly shadows.

It was curious how jealously the old beech partridge watched over the solitudes where these interesting little families roamed. Though he seemed to care nothing about them, and was never seen near one of his families, he suffered no other cock partridge to come into his woods, or even to drum within hearing. In the winter he shared the southern pasture peaceably with twenty other grouse; and on certain days you might, by much creeping, surprise a whole company of them on a sunny southern slope, strutting and gliding, in and out and round about, with spread tails and drooping wings, going through all the movements of a grouse minuet. Once, in Indian summer, I crept up to twelve or fifteen of the splendid birds, who were going through their curious performance in a little opening among the berry bushes; and in the midst of them—more vain, more resplendent, strutting more proudly and clucking more arrogantly than any other—was the old beech partridge.

But when the spring came, and the long rolling drum-calls began to throb through the budding woods, he retired to his middle range on the ridge, and marched from one end to the other, driving every other cock grouse out of hearing, and drubbing him soundly if he dared resist. Then, after a triumph, you would hear his loud drum-call rolling through the May splendor, calling as many wives as possible to share his rich living.

He had two drumming logs on this range, as I soon discovered; and once, while he was drumming on one log, I hid near the other and imitated his call fairly well by beating my hands on a blown bladder that I had buttoned under my jacket. The roll of a grouse drum is a curiously muffled sound; it is often hard to determine the spot or even the direction whence it comes; and it always sounds much farther away than it really is. This may have deceived the old beech partridge at first into thinking that he heard some other bird far away, on a ridge across the valley where he had no concern; for presently he drummed again on his own log. I answered it promptly, rolling back a defiance, and also telling any hen grouse on the range that here was another candidate willing to strut and spread his tail and lift the resplendent ruff about his neck to win his way into her good graces, if she would but come to his drumming log and see him.

Some suspicion that a rival had come to his range must have entered the old beech partridge's head, for there was a long silence in which I could fancy him standing up straight and stiff on his drumming log, listening intently to locate the daring intruder, and holding down his bubbling wrath with difficulty.

Without waiting for him to drum again, I beat out a challenge. The roll had barely ceased when he came darting up the ridge, glancing like a bolt among the thick branches, and plunged down by his own log, where he drew himself up with marvelous suddenness to listen and watch for the intruder.

He seemed relieved that the log was not occupied, but he was still full of wrath and suspicion. He glided and dodged all about the place, looking and listening; then he sprang to his log and, without waiting to strut and spread his gorgeous feathers as usual, he rolled out the long call, drawing himself up straight the instant it was done, turning his head from side to side to catch the first beat of his rival's answer—"Come out, if you dare; drum, if you dare. Oh, you coward!" And he hopped, five or six high, excited hops, like a rooster before a storm, to the other end of the log, and again his quick throbbing drum-call rolled through the woods.

Though I was near enough to see him clearly without my field glasses, I could not even then, nor at any other time when I have watched grouse drumming, determine just how the call is given. After a little while the excitement of a suspected rival's presence wore away, and he grew exultant, thinking that he had driven the rascal out of his woods. He strutted back and forth on the log, trailing his wings, spreading wide his beautiful tail, lifting his crest and his resplendent ruff. Suddenly he would draw himself up; there would be a flash of his wings up and down that no eye could follow, and I would hear a single throb of his drum. Another flash and another throb; then faster and faster, till he seemed to have two or three pairs of wings, whirring and running together like the spokes of a swift-moving wheel, and the drumbeats rolled together into a long call and died away in the woods.

Generally he stood up on his toes, as a rooster does when he flaps his wings before crowing; rarely he crouched down close to the log; but I doubt if he beat the wood with his wings, as is often claimed. Yet the two logs were different; one was dry and hard, the other mouldy and moss-grown; and the drum-calls were as different as the two logs. After a time I could tell by the sound which log he was using at the first beat of his wings; but that, I think, was a matter of resonance, a kind of sounding-board effect, and not because the two sounded differently as he beat them. The call is undoubtedly made either by striking the wings together over his back or, as I am inclined to believe, by striking them on the down beat against his own sides.

Once I heard a wounded bird give three or four beats of his drum-call, and when I went into the grapevine thicket, where he had fallen, I found him lying flat on his back, beating his sides with his wings.

Whenever he drums he first struts, because he knows not how many pairs of bright eyes are watching him shyly out of the coverts. Once, when I had watched him strut and drum a few times, the leaves rustled, and two hen grouse emerged from opposite sides into the little opening where his log was. Then he strutted with greater vanity than before, while the two hen grouse went gliding about the place, searching for seeds apparently, but in reality watching his every movement out of their eye corners, and admiring him to his heart's content.

In winter I used to follow his trail through the snow to find what he had been doing, and what he had found to eat in nature's scarce time. His worst enemies, the man and his dog, were no longer to be feared, being restrained by law, and he roamed the woods with greater freedom than ever. He seemed to know that he was safe at this time, and more than once I trailed him up to his hiding and saw him whirr away through the open woods, sending down a shower of snow behind him, as if in that curious way to hide his line of flight from my eyes.

There were other enemies, however, whom no law restrained, save the universal wood-laws of fear and hunger. Often I found the trail of a fox crossing his in the snow; and once I followed a double trail, fox over grouse, for nearly half a mile. The fox had struck the trail late the previous afternoon, and followed it to a bullbrier thicket, in the midst of which was a great cedar in which the old beech partridge roosted. The fox went twice around the tree, halting and looking up, then went straight away to the swamp, as if he knew it was of no use to watch longer.

Rarely, when the snow was deep, I found the place where he, or some other grouse, went to sleep on the ground. He would plunge down from a tree into the soft snow, driving into it head-first for three or four feet, then turn around and settle down in his white warm chamber for the night. I would find the small hole where he plunged in at evening, and near it the great hole where he burst out when the light waked him. Taking my direction from his wing prints in the snow, I would follow to find where he lit, and then trace him on his morning wanderings.

One would think that this might be a dangerous proceeding, sleeping on the ground with no protection but the snow, and a score of hungry enemies prowling about the woods; but the grouse knows well that when the storms are out his enemies stay close at home, not being able to see or smell, and therefore afraid each one of his own enemies. There is always a truce in the woods during a snowstorm; and that is the reason why a grouse goes to sleep in the snow only while the flakes are still falling. When the storm is over and the snow has settled a bit, the fox will be abroad again; and then the grouse sleeps in the evergreens.

Once, however, the old beech partridge miscalculated. The storm ceased early in the evening, and hunger drove the fox out on a night when, ordinarily, he would have stayed under cover. Sometime about daybreak, before yet the light had penetrated to where the old beech partridge was sleeping, the fox found a hole in the snow, which told him that just in front of his hungry nose a grouse was hidden, all unconscious of danger. I found the spot, trailing the fox, a few hours later. How cautious he was! The sly trail was eloquent with hunger and anticipation. A few feet away from the promising hole he had stopped, looking keenly over the snow to find some suspicious roundness on the smooth surface. Ah! there it was, just by the edge of a juniper thicket. He crouched down, stole forward, pushing a deep trail with his body, settled himself firmly and sprang. And there, just beside the hole his paws had made in the snow, was another hole where the grouse had burst out, scattering snow all over his enemy, who had miscalculated by a foot, and thundered away to the safety and shelter of the pines.


Thundered away to the safety and shelter of the pines.

There was another enemy, who ought to have known better, following the old beech partridge all one early spring when snow was deep and food scarce. One day, in crossing the partridge's southern range, I met a small boy,—a keen little fellow, with the instincts of a fox for hunting. He had always something interesting afoot,—minks, or muskrats, or a skunk, or a big owl,—so I hailed him with joy.

"Hello, Johnnie! what you after to-day—bears?"

But he only shook his head—a bit sheepishly, I thought—and talked of all things except the one that he was thinking about; and presently he vanished down the old road. One of his jacket pockets bulged more than the other, and I knew there was a trap in it.

Late that afternoon I crossed his trail and, having nothing more interesting to do, followed it. It led straight to the bullbrier thicket where the old beech partridge roosted. I had searched for it many times in vain before the fox led me to it; but Johnnie, in some of his prowlings, had found tracks and a feather or two under a cedar branch, and knew just what it meant. His trap was there, in the very spot where, the night before, the old beech partridge had stood when he jumped for the lowest limb. Corn was scattered liberally about, and a bluejay that had followed Johnnie was already fast in the trap, caught at the base of his bill just under the eyes. He had sprung the trap in pecking at some corn that was fastened cunningly to the pan by fine wire.

When I took the jay carefully from the trap he played possum, lying limp in my hand till my grip relaxed, when he flew to a branch over my head, squalling and upbraiding me for having anything to do with such abominable inventions.

I hung the trap to a low limb of the cedar, with a note in its jaws telling Johnnie to come and see me next day. He came at dusk, shamefaced, and I read him a lecture on fair play and the difference between a thieving mink and an honest partridge. But he chuckled over the bluejay, and I doubted the withholding power of a mere lecture; so, to even matters, I hinted of an otter slide I had discovered, and of a Saturday-afternoon tramp together. Twenty times, he told me, he had tried to snare the old beech partridge. When he saw the otter slide he forswore traps and snares for birds; and I left the place, soon after, with good hopes for the grouse, knowing that I had spiked the guns of his most dangerous enemy.

Years later I crossed the old pasture and went straight to the bullbrier tangle. There were tracks of a grouse in the snow,—blunt tracks that rested lightly on the soft whiteness, showing that Nature remembered his necessity and had caused his new snowshoes to grow famously. I hurried to the brook, a hundred memories thronging over me of happy days and rare sights when the wood folk revealed their little secrets. In the midst of them—kwit! kwit!  and with a thunder of wings a grouse whirred away, wild and gray as the rare bird that lived there years before. And when I questioned a hunter, he said: "That ol' beech pa'tridge? Oh, yes, he's there. He'll stay there, too, till he dies of old age; 'cause you see, Mister, there ain't nobody in these parts spry enough to ketch 'im."

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