KOSKOMENOS the kingfisher is a kind of outcast among the birds. I think they regard him as a half reptile, who has not yet climbed high enough in the bird scale to deserve recognition; so they let him severely alone. Even the goshawk hesitates before taking a swoop at him, not knowing quite whether the gaudy creature is dangerous or only uncanny. I saw a great hawk once drop like a bolt upon a kingfisher that hung on quivering wings, rattling softly, before his hole in the bank. But the robber lost his nerve at the instant when he should have dropped his claws to strike. He swerved aside and shot upward in a great slant to a dead spruce top, where he stood watching intently till the dark beak of a brooding kingfisher reached out of the hole to receive the fish that her mate had brought her. Whereupon Koskomenos swept away to his watchtower above the minnow pool, and the hawk set his wings toward the outlet, where a brood of young sheldrakes were taking their first lessons in the open water.
No wonder the birds look askance at Kingfisher. His head is
ridiculously large; his feet ridiculously small. He is a poem of
grace in the air; but he creeps like a lizard, or waddles so that
a duck would be ashamed of him, in the rare moments when he is
afoot. His mouth is big enough to take in a minnow whole; his
tongue so small that he has no voice, but only a harsh
As a fisherman he has no equal. His fishy, expressionless eye is
yet the keenest that sweeps the water, and his swoop puts even
Besides all these contradictions, he is solitary, unknown,
inapproachable. He has no youth, no play, no joy except to eat;
he associates with nobody, not even with his own kind; and when
he catches a fish, and beats its head against a limb till it is
dead, and sits with head
It is this unknown, this uncanny mixture of bird and reptile that has made the kingfisher an object of superstition among all savage peoples. The legends about him are legion; his crested head is prized by savages above all others as a charm or fetish; and even among civilized peoples his dried body may still sometimes be seen hanging to a pole, in the hope that his bill will point out the quarter from which the next wind will blow.
But Koskomenos has another side, though the world as yet has
found out little about it. One day
in the wilderness I cheered
him quite involuntarily. It was late afternoon; the fishing was
over, and I sat in my canoe watching by a grassy point to see
what would happen next. Across the stream was a clay bank, near
the top of which a hole as wide as a
A movement under the shore stopped my wondering, and the long lithe form of a hunting mink shot swiftly up stream. Under the hole he stopped, raised himself with his fore paws against the bank, twisting his head from side to side and sniffing nervously. "Something good up there," he thought, and began to climb. But the bank was sheer and soft; he slipped back half a dozen times without rising two feet. Then he went down stream to a point where some roots gave him a foothold, and ran lightly up till under the dark eaves that threw their shadowy roots over the clay bank. There he crept cautiously along till his nose found the nest, and slipped down till his fore paws rested on the threshold. A long hungry sniff of the rank fishy odor that pours out of a kingfisher's den, a keen look all around to be sure the old birds were not returning, and he vanished like a shadow.
"There is one brood of kingfishers the less," I thought, with my glasses focused on the hole. But scarcely was the thought formed, when a fierce rumbling clatter sounded in the bank. The mink shot out, a streak of red showing plainly across his brown face. After him came a kingfisher clattering out a storm of invective and aiding his progress by vicious jabs at his rear. He had made a miscalculation that time; the old mother bird was at home waiting for him, and drove her powerful beak at his evil eye the moment it appeared at the inner end of the tunnel. That took the longing for young kingfisher all out of Cheokhes. He plunged headlong down the bank, the bird swooping after him with a rattling alarm that brought another kingfisher in a twinkling. The mink dived, but it was useless to attempt escape in that way; the keen eyes above followed his flight perfectly. When he came to the surface, twenty feet away, both birds were over him and dropped like plummets on his head. So they drove him down stream and out of sight.
Years afterward I solved the second problem suggested by the kingfisher's den, when I had the good fortune, one day, to watch a pair beginning their tunneling. All who have ever watched the bird have, no doubt, noticed his wonderful ability to stop short in swift flight and hold himself poised in midair for an indefinite time, while watching the movements of a minnow beneath. They make use of this ability in beginning their nest on a bank so steep as to afford no foothold.
As I watched the pair referred to, first one then the other would
hover before the point selected, as a hummingbird balances for a
moment at the door of a trumpet flower to be sure that no one is
watching ere he goes in, then drive his beak with rapid plunges
into the bank, sending down a continuous shower of clay to the
river below. When tired he rested on a
Kingfisher's tunnel is so narrow that he cannot turn around in it. His straight, strong bill loosens the earth; his tiny feet throw it out behind. I would see a shower of dirt, and perchance the tail of Koskomenos for a brief instant, then a period of waiting, and another shower. This kept up till the tunnel was bored perhaps two feet, when they undoubtedly made a sharp turn, as is their custom. After that they brought most of the earth out in their beaks. While one worked, the other watched or fished at the minnow pool, so that there was steady progress as long as I observed them.
For years I had regarded Koskomenos, as the birds and the rest of
the world regard him, as a noisy,
The first thing I noticed about the birds—an observation confirmed later on many waters—was that each pair of kingfishers have their own particular pools, over which they exercise unquestioned lordship. There may be a dozen pairs of birds on a single stream; but, so far as I have been able to observe, each family has a certain stretch of water on which no other kingfishers are allowed to fish. They may pass up and down freely, but they never stop at the minnow pools; or, if they are caught watching near them, they are promptly driven out by the rightful owners.
The same thing is true on the lake shores. Whether there is some secret understanding and partition among them, or whether (which is more likely) their right consists in discovery or first arrival, there is no means of knowing.
A curious thing, in this connection, is that while a kingfisher will allow none of his kind to poach on his preserves, he lives at peace with the brood of sheldrakes that occupy the same stretch of river. And the sheldrake eats a dozen fish to his one. The same thing is noticeable among the sheldrakes also, namely, that each pair, or rather each mother and her brood, have their own piece of lake or river on which no others are allowed to fish. The male sheldrakes meanwhile are far away, fishing on their own waters.
I had not half settled this matter of the division of trout streams when another observation came, which was utterly unexpected. Koskomenos, half reptile though he seem, not only recognizes riparian rights, but he is also capable of friendship—and that, too, for a moody prowler of the wilderness whom no one else cares anything about. Here is the proof.
I was out in my canoe alone looking for a loon's nest, one midsummer day, when the fresh trail of a bull caribou drew me to shore. The trail led straight from the water to a broad alder belt, beyond which, on the hillside, I might find the big brute loafing his time away till evening should come, and watch him to see what he would do with himself.
As I turned shoreward a kingfisher sounded his rattle and came
darting across the mouth of the bay where Hukweem the loon had
hidden her two eggs. I watched him, admiring the rippling sweep
of his flight, like the run of a
I had gone nearly through the alders, following the course of a
little brook and stealing along without a sound, when behind me I
heard the kingfisher coming above the alders, rattling as if
possessed, klrrr, klrrr,
I pushed cautiously ahead and came presently to a beautiful pool below a rock, where the hillside shelved gently towards the alders. From the numerous tracks and the look of the place, I knew instantly that I had stumbled upon a bear's bathing pool. The water was still troubled and muddy; huge tracks, all soppy and broken, led up the hillside in big jumps; the moss was torn, the underbrush spattered with shining water drops. "No room for doubt here," I thought; "Mooween was asleep in this pool, and the kingfisher woke him up—but why? and did he do it on purpose?"
I remembered suddenly a record in an old notebook, which reads: "Sugarloaf Lake, 26 July.—Tried to stalk a bear this noon. No luck. He was nosing alongshore and I had a perfect chance; but a kingfisher scared him." I began to wonder how the rattle of a kingfisher, which is one of the commonest sounds on wilderness waters, could scare a bear, who knows all the sounds of the wilderness perfectly. Perhaps Koskomenos has an alarm note and uses it for a friend in time of need, as gulls go out of their way to alarm a flock of sleeping ducks when danger is approaching.
Here was a new trait, a touch of the human in this unknown, clattering suspect of the fishing streams. I resolved to watch him with keener interest.
Somewhere above me, deep in the tangle of the summer wilderness,
Mooween stood watching his back track, eyes, ears, and nose alert
to discover what the creature was who dared frighten him out of
his noonday bath. It would be senseless to attempt to surprise
him now; besides, I had no weapon of any kind.—
But the next day when I came to the place, creeping along the upper edge of the alders so as to make no noise, the pool was clear and quiet, as if nothing but the little trout that hid under the foam bubbles had ever disturbed its peace. Koskomenos was clattering about the bay below as usual. Spite of my precaution he had seen me enter the alders; but he gave me no attention whatever. He went on with his fishing as if he knew perfectly that the bear had deserted his bathing pool.
It was nearly a month before I again camped on the beautiful lake. Summer was gone. All her warmth and more than her fragrant beauty still lingered on forest and river; but the drowsiness had gone from the atmosphere, and the haze had crept into it. Here and there birches and maples flung out their gorgeous banners of autumn over the silent water. A tingle came into the evening air; the lake's breath lay heavy and white in the twilight stillness; birds and beasts became suddenly changed as they entered the brief period of sport and of full feeding.
I was drifting about a reedy bay (the same bay in which the
almost forgotten kingfisher had cheated me out of my bear, after
eating a minnow that my paddle had routed out for him) shooting
frogs for my table with a pocket rifle. How different it was
here, I reflected, from the woods about home. There the game was
already harried; the report of a gun set
every living creature
skulking. Here the crack of my little rifle was no more heeded
than the plunge of a
A big bullfrog showed his head among the lily pads, and the little rifle, unmindful of the joys of an unharried existence, rose slowly to its place. My eye was glancing along the sights when a sudden movement in the alders on the shore, above and beyond the unconscious head of Chigwooltz the frog, spared him for a little season to his lily pads and his minnow hunting. At the same moment a kingfisher went rattling by to his old perch over the minnow pool. The alders swayed again as if struck; a huge bear lumbered out of them to the shore, with a disgruntled woof! at some twig that had switched his ear too sharply.
I slid lower in the canoe till only my head and shoulders were
visible. Mooween went nosing
I swung noiselessly out into the lake, where I could watch the alders. They were all still for a space of ten minutes; but Mooween was there, I knew, sniffing and listening. Then a great snake seemed to be wriggling through the bushes, making no sound, but showing a wavy line of quivering tops as he went.
Down the shore a little way was a higher point, with a fallen tree that commanded a view of half the lake. I had stood there a few days before, while watching to determine the air paths and lines of flight that sheldrakes use in passing up and down the lake,—for birds have runways, or rather flyways, just as foxes do. Mooween evidently knew the spot; the alders showed that he was heading straight for it, to look out on the lake and see what the alarm was about. As yet he had no idea what peril had threatened him; though, like all wild creatures, he had obeyed the first clang of a danger note on the instant. Not a creature in the woods, from Mooween down to Tookhees the wood mouse, but has learned from experience that, in matters of this kind, it is well to jump to cover first and investigate afterwards.
I paddled swiftly to the point, landed and crept to a rock from
which I could just see the fallen tree. Mooween was coming. "My
bear this time," I thought, as a twig snapped faintly. Then
Koskomenos swept into the woods, hovering over the brush near the
butt of the old tree, looking down and rattling—
Slowly the bent finger relaxed on the trigger. A loon went
floating by the point, all unconscious of danger, with a rippling
wake that sent silver reflections glinting across the lake's deep
blue. Far overhead soared an eagle,
"After all, what place has the roar of a rifle or the smell of sulphurous powder in the midst of all this blessed peace?" I asked half sadly. As if in answer, the kingfisher dropped with his musical plash, and swept back with exultant rattle to his watchtower.—"Go on with your clatter and your fishing. 'The wilderness and the solitary place shall still be glad,' for you and Mooween, and the trout pools would be lonely without you. But I wish you knew that your life lay a moment ago in the bend of my finger, and that some one, besides the bear, appreciates your brave warning."
Then I went back to the point to measure the tracks, and to estimate how big the bear was, and to console myself with the thought of how I would certainly have had him, if something had not interfered—which is the philosophy of all hunters since Esau.
It was a few days later that the chance came of repaying
Koskomenos with coals of fire. The lake surface was still warm;
no storms nor frosts had cooled it. The big trout had risen from
the deep places, but were not yet quickened enough to take my
flies; so, trout hungry, I had gone trolling for them with a
minnow. I had taken two good fish, and was moving slowly by the
mouth of the bay, Simmo at the paddle, when a suspicious movement
on the shore attracted my attention. I passed the line to Simmo,
the better to use my glasses, and was scanning the alders
sharply, when a cry of wonder came from the Indian. "O bah cosh,
see! das second time I
I seized the line and began to pull in gently. The young
kingfisher came most unwillingly, with a
continuous clatter of
protest that speedily brought Koskomenos and his mate, and two or
three of the captive's brethren, in a wild, clamoring ring about the
canoe. They showed no lack of courage, but swooped again and
again at the line, and even at the man who held it. In a moment I
had the youngster in my hand, and had disengaged the hook. He was
not hurt at all, but terribly frightened; so I held him a little
while, enjoying the excitement of the others, whom the captive's
alarm rattle kept circling wildly about the canoe. It was
noteworthy that not another bird heeded the cry or came near.
Even in distress they refused to recognize the outcast. Then, as
Koskomenos hovered on quivering wings just over my head, I tossed
the captive close up beside him. "There, Koskomenos, take your
But there was no note of gratitude in the noisy babel that swept up the bay after the kingfishers. When I saw them again, they were sitting on a dead branch, five of them in a row, chuckling and clattering all at once, unmindful of the minnows that played beneath them. I have no doubt that, in their own way, they were telling each other all about it.