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


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 klr-r-r-r-ik-ik-ik,  like a watchman's rattle. He builds no nest, but rather a den in the bank, in which he lives most filthily half the day; yet the other half he is a clean, beautiful creature, with never a suggestion of earth, but only of the blue heavens above and the color-steeped water below, in his bright garments. Water will not wet him, though he plunge a dozen times out of sight beneath the surface. His clatter is harsh, noisy, diabolical; yet his plunge into the stream, with its flash of color, its silver spray, and its tinkle of smitten water, is the most musical thing in the wilderness.

As a fisherman he has no equal. His fishy, expressionless eye is yet the keenest that sweeps the water, and his swoop puts even the fish-hawk to shame for its certainty and its lightning quickness.

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 back-tilted, swallowing his prey, with a clattering chuckle deep down in his throat, he affects you as a parrot does that swears diabolically under his breath as he scratches his head, and that you would gladly shy a stone at, if the owner's back were turned for a sufficient moment.

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 tea-cup showed where a pair of kingfishers had dug their long tunnel. "There is nothing for them to stand on there; how did they begin that hole?" I wondered lazily; "and how can they ever raise a brood, with an open door like that for mink and weasel to enter?" Here were two new problems to add to the many unsolved ones which meet you at every turn on the woodland byways.

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.


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 watch-stub, while his mate made a battering-ram of herself and kept up the work. In a remarkably short time they had a foothold and proceeded to dig themselves in out of sight.

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, half-diabolical creature, between bird and lizard, whom one must pass by with suspicion. But that affair with the mink changed my feelings a bit. Koskomenos' mate might lay her eggs like a reptile, but she could defend them like any bird hero. So I took to watching more carefully; which is the only way to get acquainted.

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 cat's-paw breeze across a sleeping lake, and the clear blue of his crest against the deeper blue of summer sky. Under him his reflection rippled along, like the rush of a gorgeous fish through the glassy water. Opposite my canoe he checked himself, poised an instant in mid-air, watching the minnows that my paddle had disturbed, and dropped bill first—plash!  with a silvery tinkle in the sound, as if hidden bells down among the green water weeds had been set to ringing by this sprite of the air. A shower of spray caught the rainbow for a brief instant; the ripples gathered and began to dance over the spot where Koskomenos had gone down, when they were scattered rudely again as he burst out among them with his fish. He swept back to the stub whence he had come, chuckling on the way. There he whacked his fish soundly on the wood, threw his head back, and through the glass I saw the tail of a minnow wriggling slowly down the road that has for him no turning. Then I took up the caribou trail.

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, klrrr-ik-ik-ik!  On the instant there was a heavy plunge and splash just ahead, and the swift rush of some large animal up the hillside. Over me poised the kingfisher, looking down first at me, then ahead at the unknown beast, till the crashing ceased in a faint rustle far away, when he swept back to his fishing-stub, clacking and chuckling immoderately.

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.—"To-morrow, about this time, I shall be coming back; then look out, Mooween," I thought as I marked the place and stole away to my canoe.

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 fish-hawk, or the groaning of a burdened elm bough. A score of fat woodcock lay unheeding in that bit of alder tangle yonder, the ground bored like a colander after their night's feeding. Up on the burned hillside the partridges said, quit, quit!  when I appeared, and jumped to a tree and craned their necks to see what I was. The black ducks skulked in the reeds. They were full-grown now and strong of wing, but the early hiding habit was not yet broken up by shooting. They would glide through the sedges, and double the bogs, and crouch in a tangle till the canoe was almost upon them, when with a rush and a frightened hark-ark!  they shot into the air and away to the river. The mink, changing from brown to black, gave up his nest-robbing for honest hunting, undismayed by trap or deadfall; and up in the inlet I could see grassy domes rising above the bronze and gold of the marsh, where Musquash was building thick and high for winter cold and spring floods. Truly it was good to be here, and to enter for a brief hour into the shy, wild but unharried life of the wood folk.

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 along-shore till something—a dead fish or a mussel bed—touched his appetite, when he stopped and began feeding, scarcely two hundred yards away. I reached first for my heavy rifle, then for the paddle, and cautiously "fanned" the canoe towards shore till an old stump on the point covered my approach. Then the little bark jumped forward as if alive. But I had scarcely started when—klrrrr! klrrr! ik-ik-ik!  Over my head swept Koskomenos with a rush of wings and an alarm cry that spoke only of haste and danger. I had a glimpse of the bear as he shot into the alders, as if thrown by a catapult; the kingfisher wheeled in a great rattling circle about the canoe before he pitched upon the old stump, jerking his tail and clattering in great excitement.

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—klrrr-ik, clear out! klrrr-ik, clear out!  There was a heavy rush, such as a bear always makes when alarmed; Koskomenos swept back to his perch; and I sought the shore, half inclined to make my next hunting more even-chanced by disposing of one meddlesome factor. "You wretched, noisy, clattering meddler!" I muttered, the front sight of my rifle resting fair on the blue back of Koskomenos, "that is the third time you have spoiled my shot, and you won't have another chance.—But wait; who is the meddler here?"

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, breeze-borne in wide circles, looking down on his own wide domain, unheeding the man's intrusion. Nearer, a red squirrel barked down his resentment from a giant spruce trunk. Down on my left a heavy splash and a wild, free tumult of quacking told where the black ducks were coming in, as they had done, undisturbed, for generations. Behind me a long roll echoed through the woods—some young cock partridge, whom the warm sun had beguiled into drumming his spring love-call. From the mountain side a cow moose rolled back a startling answer. Close at hand, yet seeming miles away, a chipmunk was chunking  sleepily in the sunshine, while a nest of young wood mice were calling their mother in the grass at my feet. And every wild sound did but deepen the vast, wondrous silence of the wilderness.

"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 catch-um, Koskomenos." And there, twenty feet above the lake, a young kingfisher—one of Koskomenos' frowzy-headed, wild-eyed youngsters—was whirling wildly at the end of my line. He had seen the minnow trailing a hundred feet astern and, with more hunger than discretion, had swooped for it promptly. Simmo, feeling the tug but seeing nothing behind him, had struck promptly, and the hook went home.

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 young chuckle-head, and teach him better wisdom. Next time you see me stalking a bear, please go on with your fishing."

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.

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