T HERE is one astonishing thing about Whitooweek which can scarcely be called a habit, but which is probably the discovery of one or two rare individuals here and there more original than their fellows. Like the eider-ducks and the bear and the beaver, Whitooweek sometimes uses a rude kind of surgery for binding up his wounds. Twenty years ago, while sitting quietly by a brook at the edge of the woods in Bridgewater, a woodcock suddenly fluttered out into the open and made his way to a spot on the bank where a light streak of sticky mud and clay showed clearly from where I was watching. It was the early hunting season and gunners were abroad in the land, and my first impression was that this was a wounded bird that had made a long flight after being shot, and that had now come out to the stream to drink or to bathe his wound. Whether this were so or not is a matter of guess-work; but the bird was acting strangely in broad daylight, and I crept nearer till I could see him plainly on the other side of the little stream, though he was still too far away for me to be absolutely sure of what all his motions meant.
At first he took soft clay in his bill from the edge of the water and seemed to be smearing it on one leg near the knee. Then he fluttered away on one foot for a short distance and seemed to be pulling tiny roots and fibers of grass, which he worked into the clay that he had already smeared on his leg. Again he took more clay and plastered it over the fibers, putting on more and more till I could plainly see the enlargement, working away with strange, silent intentness for fully fifteen minutes, while I watched and wondered, scarce believing my eyes. Then he stood perfectly still for a full hour under an overhanging sod, where the eye could with difficulty find him, his only motion meanwhile being an occasional rubbing and smoothing of the clay bandage with his bill, until it hardened enough to suit him, whereupon he fluttered away from the brook and disappeared in the thick woods.
I had my own explanation of the incredible action, namely, that the woodcock had a broken leg, and had deliberately put it into a clay cast to hold the broken bones in place until they should knit together again; but naturally I kept my own counsel, knowing that no one would believe in the theory. For years I questioned gunners closely, and found two who said that they had killed woodcock whose legs had at one time been broken and had healed again. As far as they could remember, the leg had in each case healed perfectly straight instead of twisting out to one side, as a chicken's leg does when broken and allowed to knit of itself. I examined hundreds of woodcock in the markets in different localities, and found one whose leg had at one time been broken by a shot and then had healed perfectly. There were plain signs of dried mud at the break; but that was also true of the other leg near the foot, which only indicated that the bird had been feeding in soft places. All this proved nothing to an outsider, and I kept silence as to what I had seen until last winter, twenty years afterwards, when the confirmation came unexpectedly. I had been speaking of animals before the Contemporary Club of Bridgeport when a gentleman, a lawyer well known all over the state, came to me and told me eagerly of a curious find he had made the previous autumn. He was gunning one day with a friend, when they shot a woodcock, which on being brought in by the dog was found to have a lump of hard clay on one of its legs. Curious to know what it meant he chipped the clay off with his penknife and found a broken bone, which was then almost healed and as straight as ever. A few weeks later the bird, had he lived, would undoubtedly have taken off the cast himself and there would have been nothing to indicate anything unusual about him.
So I give the observation now, at last, since proof is at hand, not to indicate a new or old habit of Whitooweek,—for how far the strange knowledge is spread among the woodcock and the wading birds no man can say,—but simply to indicate how little we know of the inner life of the hermit, and indeed of all wild birds, and how much there is yet to be discovered when we shall lay aside the gun for the field-glass and learn to interpret the wonderful life which goes on unseen all about us.