W HITOOWEEK, the woodcock, the strangest hermit in all the woods, is a bird of mystery. Only the hunters know anything about him, and they know him chiefly as a glorious bird that flashes up to the alder tops with a surprised twitter before their dogs, and poises there a moment on whirring wings to get his bearings, and then from his vantage-point at the moment of his exultation he either falls down dead at the bang of their guns and the rip of shot through the screen of leaves, or else happily he slants swiftly down to another hiding-place among the alders. To the hunters, who are practically his only human acquaintances, he is a game bird pure and simple, and their interest is chiefly in his death. The details of his daily life he hides from them, and from all others, in the dark woods, where he spends all the sunny hours, and in the soft twilight when he stirs abroad, like an owl, after his long day's rest. Of a hundred farmers on whose lands I have found Whitooweek or the signs of his recent feeding, scarcely five knew from observation that such a bird existed, so well does he play the hermit under our very noses.
The reasons for this are many. By day he rests on the ground in some dark bit of cover, by a brown stump that exactly matches his feathers, or in a tangle of dead leaves and brakes where it is almost impossible to see him. At such times his strange fearlessness of man helps to hide him, for he will let you pass within a few feet of him without stirring. That is partly because he sees poorly by day and perhaps does not realize how near you are, and partly because he knows that his soft colors hide him so well amidst his surroundings that you cannot see him, however near you come. This confidence of his is well placed, for once I saw a man step over a brooding woodcock on her nest in the roots of an old stump without seeing her, and she never moved so much as the tip of her long bill as he passed. In the late twilight when woodcock first stir abroad you see only a shadow passing swiftly across a bit of clear sky as Whitooweek goes off to the meadow brook to feed, or hear a rustle in the alders as he turns the dead leaves over, and a faint peeunk, like the voice of a distant night-hawk, and then you catch a glimpse of a shadow that flits along the ground, or a weaving, batlike flutter of wings as you draw near to investigate. No wonder, under such circumstances, that Whitooweek passes all his summers and raises brood upon brood of downy invisible chicks in a farmer's wood lot without ever being found out or recognized.
My own acquaintance with Whitooweek began when I was a child, when I had no name to give the strange bird that I watched day after day, and when those whom I asked for information laughed at my description and said no such bird existed. It was just beyond the upland pasture where the famous Old Beech Partridge lived. On the northern slopes were some dark, wet maple woods, and beyond that the ground slanted away through scrub and alders to a little wild meadow where cowslips grew beside the brook. One April day, in stealing through the maple woods, I stopped suddenly at seeing something shining like a jewel almost at my feet. It was an eye, a bird's eye; but it was some moments before I could realize that it was really a bird sitting there on her nest between the broken ends of an old stub that had fallen years ago.
I backed away quietly and knelt down to watch the queer find. Her bill was enormously long and straight, and her eyes were 'way up at the back of her head—that was the first observation. Some wandering horse had put his hoof down and made a hollow in the dry rotten wood of the fallen stub. Into this hollow a few leaves and brown grass stems had been gathered,—a careless kind of nest, yet serving its purpose wonderfully, for it hid the brooding mother so well that one might step on her without ever knowing that bird or nest was near. This was the second wondering observation, as I made out the soft outlines of the bird sitting there, apparently without a thought of fear, within ten feet of my face.
I went away quietly that day and left her undisturbed; and I remember perfectly that I took with me something of the wonder, and something too of the fear, with which a child naturally meets the wild things for the first time. That she should be so still and fearless before me was a perfect argument to a child that she had some hidden means of defense—the long bill, perhaps, or a hidden sting—with which it was not well to trifle. All that seems very strange and far away to me now; but it was real enough then to a very small boy, alone in the dark woods, who met for the first time a large bird with an enormously long bill and eyes 'way up on the back of her head where they plainly did not belong, a bird moreover that had no fear and seemed perfectly well able to take care of herself. So I went away softly and wondered about it.
Next day I came back again. The strange bird was there on her nest as before, her long bill resting over the edge of the hollow and looking like a twig at the first glance. She showed no fear whatever, and encouraged at her quietness and assurance I crept nearer and nearer till I touched her bill with my finger and turned it gently aside. At this she wiggled it impatiently, and my first child's observation was one that has only recently been noticed by naturalists, namely, that the tip of the upper bill is flexible and can be moved about almost like the tip of a finger in order to find the food that lies deep in the mud, and seize it and drag it out of its hiding. At the same time she uttered a curious hissing sound that frightened me again and made me think of snakes and hidden stings; so I drew back and watched her from a safe distance. She sat for the most part perfectly motionless, the only movement being an occasional turning of the long bill; and once when she had been still a very long time, I turned her head aside again, and to my astonishment and delight she made no objection, but left her head as I had turned it, and presently she let me twist it back again. After her first warning she seemed to understand the situation perfectly, and had no concern for the wondering child that watched her and that had no intention whatever of harming her on her nest.
Others had laughed at my description of a brown bird with a long bill and eyes at the back of her head that let you touch her on her nest, so I said no more to them; but at the first opportunity I hunted up Natty Dingle and told him all about it. Natty was a gentle, harmless, improvident little man, who would never do any hard word for pay,—it gave him cricks in his back, he said,—but would cheerfully half kill himself to go fishing through the ice, or to oblige a neighbor. So far as he earned a living he did it by shooting and fishing and trapping and picking berries in their several seasons, and by gathering dandelions and cowslips (kewslops he called them) in the spring and peddling them good-naturedly from door to door. Most of his time in pleasant weather he spent in roaming about the woods, or lying on his back by the pond shore where the woods were thickest, fishing lazily and catching fish where no one else could ever get them, or watching an otter's den on a stream where no one else had seen an otter for forty years. He knew all about the woods, knew every bird and beast and plant, and one boy at least, to my knowledge, would rather go with him for a day's fishing than see the president's train or go to a circus.
Unlike the others, Natty did not laugh at my description, but listened patiently and told me I had found a woodcock's nest,—a rare thing, he said, for though he had roamed the woods so much, and shot hundreds of the birds in season, he had never yet chanced upon a nest. Next day he went with me, to see the eggs, he said; but, as I think of it now, it was probably with a view of locating the brood accurately for the August shooting. As we rounded the end of the fallen stub the woodcock's confidence deserted her at sight of the stranger, and she slipped away noiselessly into the leafy shadows. Then we saw her four eggs, very big at one end, very little at the other, and beautifully colored and spotted.
Natty, who was wise in his way, merely glanced at the nest and then drew me aside into hiding, and before we knew it, or had even seen her approach, Mother Woodcock was brooding her eggs again. Then Natty, who had doubted one part of my story, whispered to me to go out; and the bird never stirred as I crept near on hands and knees and touched her as before.
A few minutes later we crept away softly, and Natty took me to the swamp to show me the borings, telling me on the way of the woodcock's habits as he had seen them in the fall hunting. The borings we found in plenty wherever the earth was soft,—numerous holes, as if made with a pencil, where the woodcock had probed the earth with her long bill. She was hunting for earthworms, Natty told me,—a queer mistake of his, and of all the bird books as well, for in the primitive alder woods and swamps where the borings are so often seen, there are no earthworms, but only slugs and soft beetles and delicate white grubs. Woodcock hunt by scent and feeling, and also by listening for the slight sounds made by the worms underground, he told me, and that is why the eyes are far back on the head, to be out of the way, and also to watch for danger above and behind while the bird's bill is deep in the mud. And that also explains why the tip of the bill is flexible, so that when the bird bores in the earth and has failed to locate the game accurately by hearing, the sensitive tip of the bill feels around, like a finger, until it finds and seizes the morsel. All this and many things more he told me as we searched through the swamp for the signs of Mother Woodcock's hunting and made our way home together in the twilight. Some things were true, some erroneous; and some were a curious blending of accurate traditions and imaginative folk-lore from some unknown source, such as is still held as knowledge of birds and beasts in all country places; and these were the most interesting of all to a child. And the boy listened, as a devotee listens to a great sacred concert, and remembered all these things and afterwards sifted them and found out for himself what things were true.
When I went back to the spot, a few days later, the nest was deserted. A few bits of shell scattered about told me the story, and that I must now hunt for the little woodcocks, which are almost impossible to find unless the mother herself show you where they are. A week later, as I prowled along the edge of the swamp, a sudden little brown whirlwind seemed to roll up the leaves at my feet. In the midst of it I made out the woodcock fluttering away, clucking, and trailing now a wing and now a leg, as if desperately hurt. Of course I followed her to see what was the matter, forgetting the partridge that had once played me the same pretty trick to decoy me away from her chicks. When she had led me to a safe distance all her injuries vanished as at the touch of magic. She sprang up on strong wings, whirled across the swamp and circled swiftly back to where I had first started her. But I did not find one of the little woodcocks, though I hunted for them half an hour, and there were four of them, probably, hiding among the leaves and grass stems under my very eyes.
The wonderful knowledge gleaned from Natty Dingle's store and from the borings in the swamp brought me into trouble and conflict a few weeks later. Not far from me lived a neighbor's boy, a budding naturalist, who had a big yellow cat named Blink at his house. A queer old cat was Blink, and the greatest hunter I ever saw. He knew, for instance, where a mole could be found in his long tunnel,—and that is something that still puzzles me,—and caught scores of them; but, like most cats, he could never be induced to taste one. When he caught a mole and was hungry, he would hide it and go off to catch a mouse or a bird; and these he would eat, leaving the mole to be brought home as game. He would hunt by himself for hours at a time, and came meowing home, bringing everything he caught,—rats, squirrels, rabbits, quail, grouse, and even grasshoppers when no bigger game was afoot. At a distance we would hear his call, a peculiar yeow-yow that he gave only when he had caught something, and the boy would run out to meet him and take his game, while Blink purred and rubbed against his legs to show his pride and satisfaction. When no one met him he would go meowing round the house once or twice and then put his game under the door-step, where our noses must speedily call it to our attention, for Blink would never touch it again.
One day the boy found a strange bird under the door-step, a beautiful brown creature, as large as a pigeon, with a long, straight bill, and eyes at the top of its head. He took it to his father, a dogmatic man, who gave him a queer mixture of truth and nonsense as his portion of natural history. It was a blind snipe, he said; and there was some truth in that. It couldn't see because its eyes were out of place; it was a very scarce bird that appeared occasionally in the fall, and that burrowed in the mud for the winter instead of migrating,—and all this was chiefly nonsense.
When the boy took me to see his queer find I called it a woodcock and began to tell about it eagerly, but was stopped short and called a liar for my pains. A wordy war followed, in which Natty Dingle's authority was invoked in vain; and the boy, being bigger than I and in his own yard, drove me away at last for daring to tell him about a bird that his own cat had caught and that his own father had called a blind snipe. He pegged one extra stone after me for saying that there were plenty of them about, only they fed by night like owls, and another stone for shouting back that they did not burrow in the mud like turtles in dry weather, as his oracle had declared. And this untempered zeal is very much like what one generally encounters when he runs up against the prejudices of naturalists anywhere. Hear all they say,—that the earth is flat, that swallows spend the winter in the mud, that animals are governed wholly by instinct,—but don't quote any facts you may have seen until the world is ready for them. For it is better to call a thing a blind snipe, and know better, than to raise a family row and be his on the head with a stone for calling it a woodcock.
The little woodcocks, though scarcely bigger than bumblebees, run about hardily, like young partridges, the moment they chip the shell, and begin at once to learn from the mother where to look for food. In the early twilight, when they are less wild and the mother is not so quick to flutter away and draw you after her, I have sometimes surprised a brood of them,—wee, downy, invisible things, each with a comically long bill and a stripe down his back that seems to divide the little fellow and hide one half of him even after you have discovered the other. The mother is with them, and leads them swiftly among the bogs and ferns and alder stems, where they go about turning over the dead leaves and twigs and shreds of wet bark with their bills for the grubs that hide beneath, like a family of rag-pickers each with a little stick to turn things over. Mother and chicks have a contented little twitter at such times that I have never heard under any other circumstances, which is probably intended to encourage each other and keep all the family within hearing as they run about in the twilight.
When the feeding-grounds are far away from the nest, as is often the case, Whitooweek has two habits that are not found, I think, in any other game birds—except perhaps the plover; and I have never been able to watch the young of these birds, though every new observation of the old ones serves to convince me that they are the most remarkable birds that visit us, and the least understood. When food must be hunted for at a long distance, the mother will leave her brood in hiding and go herself to fetch it. When she returns she feeds the chicks, like a mother dove, by putting her bill in their throats and giving each his portion, going and coming until they are satisfied, when she leaves them in hiding again and feeds for herself during the rest of the night. Like most other young birds and animals when left thus by their mothers, they never leave the spot where they have been told to stay, and can hardly be driven away from it until the mother returns. And generally, when you find a brood of young woodcock without the mother, they will let you pick them up and will lie as if dead in your hand, playing possum, until you put them down again.
When there is a good feeding-ground near at hand, yet too far for the little chicks to travel, the mother will take them there, one by one, and hide them in a secret spot until she has brought the whole family. Two or three times I have seen woodcock fly away with their young; and once I saw a mother return to the spot from which, a few moments before, she had flown away with a chick and take another from under a leaf where I had not seen him. This curious method is used by the mothers not only to take the young to favorable feeding-grounds, but also to get them quickly out of the way when sudden danger threatens, like fire or flood, from which it is impossible to hide.
So far as I can judge the process, which is always quickly done and extremely difficult to follow, the mother lights or walks directly over the chick and holds him between her knees as she flies. This is the way it seems to me after seeing it several times. There are those—and they are hunters and keen observers—who claim that the mother carries them in her bill, as a cat carries a kitten; but how that is possible without choking the little fellows is to me incomprehensible. The bill is not strong enough at the tip, I think, to hold them by a wing; and to grasp them by the neck, as in a pair of shears, and so to carry them, would, it seems to me, most certainly suffocate or injure them in any prolonged flight; and that is not the way in which wild mothers generally handle their little ones.
There is another possible way in which Whitooweek may carry her young, though I have never seen it. An old hunter and keen observer of wild life, with whom I sometimes roam the woods, once stumbled upon a mother woodcock and her brood by a little brook at the foot of a wild hillside. One of the chicks was resting upon the mother's back, just as one often sees a domestic chicken. At my friend's sudden approach the mother rose, taking the chick with her on her back, and vanished among the thick leaves. The rest of the brood, three of them disappeared instantly; and the man, after finding one of them, went on his way without waiting to see whether the mother returned for the rest. I give the incident for what it is worth as a possible suggestion as to the way in which young woodcock are carried to and fro; but I am quite sure that those that have come under my own observation were carried by an entirely different method.
The young woodcock begin to use their tiny wings within a few days of leaving the eggs, earlier even than young quail, and fly in a remarkably short time. They grow with astonishing rapidity, thanks to their good feeding, so that often by early summer the family scatters, each one to take care of himself, leaving the mother free to raise another brood. At such times they travel widely in search of favorite food and come often into the farm-yards, spending half the night about the drains and stables while the house is still, and vanishing quickly at the first alarm; so that Whitooweek is frequently a regular visitor in places where he is never seen or suspected.
In his fondness for earthworms Whitooweek long ago learned some things that a man goes all his life without discovering, namely, that it is much easier and simpler to pick up worms than to dig for them. When a boy has to dig bait, as the price of going fishing with his elders, he will often spend half a day, in dry weather, working hard with very small results; for the worms are deep in the earth at such times and can be found only in favored places. Meanwhile the father, who has sent his boy out to dig, will spend a pleasant hour after supper in watering his green lawn. The worms begin to work their way up to the surface at the first patter of water-drops, and by midnight are crawling about the lawn by hundreds, big, firm-bodied fellows, just right for trout fishing. They stay on the surface most of the night; and that is why the early bird catches the worm, instead of digging him out, as the sleepy fellows must do. Midnight is the best time to go out with your lantern and get all the bait you want without trouble or worry. That is also the time when you are most likely to find Whitooweek at the same occupation. Last summer I flushed two woodcock from my neighbor's lawn in the late evening; and hardly a summer goes by that you do not read with wonder of their being found within the limits of a great city like New York, whither they have come from a distance by night to hunt the rich lawns over. For the same fare of earthworms they visit the gardens as well; and often in a locality where no woodcock are supposed to exist you will find, under the cabbage leaves, or in the cool shade of the thick corn-field, the round holes where Whitooweek has been probing the soft earth for grubs and worms while you slept.
When midsummer arrives a curious change comes over Whitooweek; the slight family ties are broken, and the bird becomes a hermit indeed for the rest of the year. He lives entirely alone, and not even in the migrating season does he join with his fellows in any large numbers, as most other birds do; and no one, so far as I know, has ever seen anything that might be appropriately called a flock of woodcock. The only exception to this rule that I know is when, on rare occasions, you surprise a male woodcock strutting on a log, like a grouse, spreading wings and tail, and hissing and sputtering queerly as he moves up and down. Then, if you creep near, you will flush two or three other birds that are watching beside the log, or in the underbrush close at hand. One hunter told me recently that his setter once pointed a bird on a fallen log, that ceased his strutting as soon as he was discovered and slipped down into the ferns. When the dog drew nearer, five woodcock flushed at the same moment, the greatest number that I have ever known being found together.
When I asked the unlearned hunter—who was yet wise in the ways of the woods—the reason for Whitooweek's strutting at this season, after the families have scattered, he had no theory or explanation. "Just a queer streak, same's most birds have, on'y queerer," he said, and let it go at that. I have seen the habit but once, and then imperfectly, for I blundered upon two or three birds and flushed them before I could watch the performance. It is certainly not to win his mate, for the season for that is long past; and unless it be a suggestion of the grouse habit of gathering in small bands for a kind of rude dance, I am at a loss to account for it. Possibly play may appeal even to Whitooweek, as it certainly appeals to all other birds; and it is play alone that can make him forget he is a hermit.
With the beginning of the molt the birds desert the
woods and swamps where they were reared and disappear
Whither they go at this time is a profound mystery. In
places where there were a dozen birds yesterday there
Occasionally at this season you may find a solitary bird on a dry southern hillside, or on the sunny edge of the big woods. He is pitiful now to behold, having scarcely any feathers left to cover him, and can only flutter or run away at your approach. If you have the rare fortune to surprise him now when he does not see you, you will note a curious thing. He stands beside a stump or brake where the sun can strike his bare back fairly, as if he were warming himself at nature's fireplace. His long bill rests its tip on the ground, as if it were a prop supporting his head. He is asleep; but if you crawl near and bring your glasses to bear, you will find that he sleeps with half an eye open. The lower lid seems to be raised till it covers half the eye; but the upper half is clear, so that as he sleeps he can watch above and behind for his enemies. He gives out very little scent at such times, and you keen-nosed dog, that would wind him at a stone's throw in the autumn, will now pass close by without noticing him, and must almost run over the bird before he draws to a point or shows any signs that game is near.
Hunters say that these scattered birds are those that have lost the most feathers, and that they keep to the sunny open spots for the sake of getting warm. Perhaps they are right; but one must still ask the question, what do these same birds do at night when the air is colder than by day? And, as if to contradict the theory, when you have found one bird on a sunny open hillside, you will find the next one a mile away asleep in the heart of a big corn-field, where the sun barely touches him the whole day long.
Whatever the reason for their action, these birds that you discover in July are rare, incomprehensible individuals. The bulk of the birds disappear, and you cannot find them. Whether they scatter widely to dense hiding-places and by sitting close escape discovery, or whether, like some of the snipe, they make a short northern migration in the molting season in search of solitude and a change of food, is yet to be discovered. For it is astonishing how very little we know of a bird that nests in our cow pasture and that often visits our yards and lawns nightly, but whose acquaintance we make only when he is dead and served as a delicious morsel, hot on toast, on our dining-tables.
In the spring, while winning his mate, Whitooweek has one habit which, when seen at the edge of the alder patch, reminds you instantly of the grass-plovers of the open moors and uplands, and of their wilder namesakes of the Labrador barrens. Indeed, in his fondness for burned plains, where he can hide in plain sight and catch no end of grasshoppers and crickets without trouble to vary his diet, and in a swift changeableness and fearlessness of man, Whitooweek has many points in common with the almost unknown plovers. In the dusk of the evening, as you steal along the edge of the woods, you will hear a faint peenk, peenk close beside you, and as you turn to listen and locate the sound a woodcock slants swiftly up over your head and begins to whirl in a spiral towards the heavens, clucking and twittering ecstatically. It is a poor kind of song, not to be compared with that of the oven-bird or grass-plover, who do the same thing at twilight, and Whitooweek must help his voice by the clicking of his wings and by the humming of air through them, like the sharp voice of a reed in windy weather; but it sounds sweet enough, no doubt, to the little brown mate who is standing perfectly still near you, watching and listening to the performance. At an enormous height, for him, Whitooweek whirls about madly for a few moments and then retraces his spiral downwards, clucking and twittering the while, until he reaches the tree-tops, where he folds his wings directly over his mate and drops like a plummet at her head. Still she does not move, knowing well what is coming, and when within a few feet of the ground Whitooweek spreads his wings wide to break his fall and drops quietly close beside her. There he remains quite still for a moment, as if exhausted; but the next moment he is strutting about her, spreading wings and tail like a wild turkey-gobbler, showing all his good points to the best advantage, and vain of all his performances as a peacock in the spring sunshine. Again he is quiet; a faint peent, peent sounds, as if it were a mile away; and again Whitooweek slants up on swift wings to repeat his ecstatic evolutions.
Both birds are strangely fearless of men at such times; and if you keep still, or move very softly if you move at all, they pay no more attention to you than if you were one of the cattle cropping the first bits of grass close at hand. Like the golden plover, whose life is spent mostly in the vast solitudes of Labrador and Patagonia, and whose nature is a curious mixture of extreme wildness and dense stupidity, they seem to have no instinctive fear of any large animal; and whatever fear Whitooweek has learned is the result of persistent hunting. Even in this he is slower to learn than any other game bird, and when let alone for a little season promptly returns to his native confidence.
When the autumn comes you will notice another suggestion of the unknown plover in Whitooweek. Just as you look confidently for the plover's arrival in the first heavy northeaster after August 20, so the first autumn moon that is obscured by heavy fog will surely bring the woodcock back to his accustomed haunts again. But why he should wait for a full moon, and then for a chill mist to cover it, before beginning his southern flight is one of the mysteries. Unlike the plovers that come by hundreds, and whose eerie cry, shrilling above the roar of the storm and the rush of rain, brings you out of your bed at midnight to thrill and listen and thrill again, Whitooweek slips in silent and solitary; and you go out in the morning, as to an appointment, and find him sleeping quietly just where you expected him to be.
With the first autumn flight another curious habit comes out, namely, that Whitooweek has a fondness for certain spots, not for any food or protection they give him, but evidently from long association, as a child loves certain unkempt corners of an upland pasture above twenty other more beautiful spots that one would expect him to like better. Moreover, the scattered birds, in some unknown way, seem to keep account of the place, as if it were an inn, and so long as they remain in the neighborhood will often keep this one particular spot filled to its full complement.
Some three miles north of where I write there is a
certain small patch of tall open woods that a few
hunters have known and tended for years, while others
passed by carelessly, for it is the least likely
looking spot for game in the whole region. Yet if
there is but a single woodcock in all Fairfield County,
in these days of many hunters and few birds, the
chances are that he will be there; and if you do not
find one there on the first morning after a promising
spell of weather, you may be almost certain that the
flight is not yet on, or has passed you by. Several
times after flushing a solitary woodcock in
this spot I have gone over the whole place to find some
reason for Whitooweek's strange fancy; but all in vain.
The ground is open and stony, with hardly a fern or
root or grass tuft to shelter even a woodcock; and look
as closely as you will you can find no boring or sign
of Whitooweek's feeding. From all external appearances
it is the last spot where you would expect to find such
a bird, and there are excellent covers close at hand;
yet here is where Whitooweek loves to lie during the
day, and to this spot he will return as long as there
are any woodcock left. Hunters may harry the spot
today and kill the few rare birds that still visit it;
I have questioned old gunners about this spot,—which I discovered by flushing two woodcock at a time when none were to be found, though they were searched for by a score of young hunters and dogs,—and find that it has been just so as long as they can remember. Years ago, when the birds were plenty and little known, five or six might be found here on a half-acre at any time during the flight. If these were killed off, others took their places, and the supply seemed to be almost a constant quantity as long as there were birds enough in the surrounding coverts to draw upon; but why they haunt this spot more than others, and why the vacant places are so quickly filled, are two questions that no man can answer.
One hunter suggests to me, doubtfully, that possibly this may be accounted for by the migrating birds that are moving southward during the flight, and that drop into the best unoccupied places; and the same explanation will occur to others. The objection to this is that the birds migrate by night, and by night this spot is always unoccupied. The woodcock use it for a resting-place only by day, and by night they scatter widely to the feeding-grounds, whither also the migrating birds first make their way; for Whitooweek must feed often, his food being easily digested, and can probably make no sustained flights. He seems to move southward by easy stages, feeding as he goes; and so the new-comers would meet the birds that lately occupied the spot on the feeding-grounds, if indeed they met them at all, and from there would come with them at daylight to the resting-places they had selected. But how do the new-comers, who come by night, learn that the favored spots are already engaged by day, or that some of the birds that occupied them yesterday are now dead and their places vacant?
The only possible explanation is either to say that it is a matter of chance—which is no explanation at all, and foolish also; for chance, if indeed there be any such blind unreasonable thing in a reasonable world, does not repeat itself regularly—or to say frankly that there is some definite understanding and communication among the birds as they flit to and fro in the night; which is probably true, but obviously impossible to prove with our present limited knowledge.
This fondness for certain spots shows itself in another way when you are on the trail of the hermit. When flushed from a favorite resting-place and not shot at, he makes but a short flight, up to the brush tops and back again, and then goes quietly back to the spot from which he rose as soon as you are gone away. He has also the hare trick of returning in a circle to his starting-point; and occasionally, when you flush a bird and watch sharply, you may see him slant down on silent wings behind you and light almost at your heels. Once my old dog Don started a woodcock and remained stanchly pointing at the spot where he had been. I remained where I was, a few yards in the rear, and in a moment Whitooweek whirled in from behind and dropped silently into some brakes between me and the dog and not ten feet from the old setter's tail. The ruse succeeded perfectly, for as the scent faded away from Don's nose he went forward, and so missed the bird that was watching him close behind. This curious habit may be simply the result of Whitooweek's fondness for certain places, or it may be that by night he carefully selects the spot where he can rest and hide during the day, and returns to it because he cannot find another so good while the sun dazzles his eyes; or it may be a trick pure and simple to deceive the animal that disturbs him, by lighting close behind where neither dog nor man will ever think of looking for him.
By night, when he sees perfectly and moves about rapidly from one feeding-ground to another, Whitooweek is easily dazzled by a light of any kind, and he is one of the many creatures that come and go within the circle of your jack. Because he is silent at such times, and moves swiftly, he is generally unnamed—just a night bird, you think, and let him pass without another thought. Several times when jacking, to see what birds and animals I might surprise and watch by night, I have recognized Whitooweek whirling wildly about my circle of light. Once, deep in the New Brunswick wilderness, I surprised two poachers spearing salmon at midnight with a fire-basket hung over the bow of their canoe. Spite of its bad name it is a magnificent performance, skillful and daring beyond measure; so instead of driving them off I asked for a seat in their long dugout to see how it was done. As we swept up and down the dangerous river, with pitch-pine blazing and cracking and the black shadows jumping about us, two woodcock sprang up from the shore and whirled madly around the pirogue. One brushed my face with his wings, and was driven away only when Sandy in the bow gave a mighty lunge of his spear and with a howl of exultation flung a twenty-pound, kicking salmon back into my lap. But several times that night I saw the flash of their wings, or heard their low surprised twitter above the crackle of the fire and the rush and roar of the rapids.
When he finds good feeding grounds on his southern migrations Whitooweek will stay with us, if undisturbed, until a sharp frost seals up his store-house by making the ground too hard for his sensitive bill to penetrate. Then he slips away southward to the next open spring or alder run. Not far away, on Shippan Point, is a little spring that rarely freezes and whose waters overflow and make a green spot even in midwinter. The point is well covered with houses now, but formerly it was good woodcock ground, and the little spring always welcomed a few of the birds with the welcome that only a spring can give. Last year, at Christmas time, I found a woodcock there quite at home, within a stone's throw of two or three houses and with snow lying deep all around him. He had lingered there weeks after all other birds had gone, either held by old associations and memories of a time when only the woodcock knew the place; or else, wounded and unable to fly, he had sought out the one spot in all the region where he might live and be fed until his wing should heal. Nature, whom men call cruel, had cared for him tenderly, healing his wounds that man had given, and giving him food and a safe refuge at a time when all other feeding-grounds were held fast in the grip of winter; but men, who can be kind and reasonable, saw no deep meaning in it all. The day after I found him a hunter passed that way, and was proud of having killed the very last woodcock of the season.