HE title will suggest to most boys a line across the autumn sky at sunset, with a bit of mystery about it; or else a dark triangle moving southward, high and swift, at Thanksgiving time. To a few, who know well the woods and fields about their homes, it may suggest a lonely little pond, with a dark bird rising swiftly, far out of reach, leaving the ripples playing among the sedges. To those accustomed to look sharply it will suggest five or six more birds, downy little fellows, hiding safe among roots and grasses, so still that one seldom suspects their presence. But the duck, like most game birds, loves solitude; the details of his life he keeps very closely to himself; and boys must be content with occasional glimpses.
This is especially true of the dusky duck, more generally known by the name black duck among hunters. He is indeed a wild duck, so wild that one must study him with a gun, and study him long before he knows much about him. An ordinary tramp with a field-glass and eyes wide open may give a rare, distant view of him; but only as one follows him as a sportsman winter after winter, meeting with much less of success than of discouragement, does he pick up many details of his personal life; for wildness is born in him, and no experience with man is needed to develop it. On the lonely lakes in the midst of a Canada forest, where he meets man perhaps for the first time, he is the same as when he builds at the head of some mill pond within sight of a busy New England town. Other ducks may in time be tamed and used as decoys; but not so he. Several times I have tried it with wing-tipped birds; but the result was always the same. They worked night and day to escape, refusing all food and even water till they broke through their pen, or were dying of hunger, when I let them go.
One spring a farmer, with whom I sometimes go shooting, determined to try with young birds. He found a black duck's nest in a dense swamp near a salt creek, and hatched the eggs with some others under a tame duck. Every time he approached the pen the little things skulked away and hid; nor could they be induced to show themselves, although their tame companions were feeding and running about, quite contented. After two weeks, when he thought them somewhat accustomed to their surroundings, he let the whole brood go down to the shore just below his house. The moment they were free the wild birds scurried away into the water-grass out of sight, and no amount of anxious quacking on the part of the mother duck could bring them back into captivity. He never saw them again.
This habit which the young birds have of skulking away out of sight is a measure of protection that they constantly practise. A brood may be seen on almost any secluded pond or lake in New England, where the birds come in the early spring to build their nests. Watching from some hidden spot on the shore, one sees them diving and swimming about, hunting for food everywhere in the greatest freedom. The next moment they scatter and disappear so suddenly that one almost rubs his eyes to make sure that the birds are really gone. If he is near enough, which is not likely unless he is very careful, he has heard a low cluck from the old bird, which now sits with neck standing straight up out of the water, so still as to be easily mistaken for one of the old stumps or bogs among which they are feeding. She is looking about to see if the ducklings are all well hidden. After a moment there is another cluck, very much like the other, and downy little fellows come bobbing out of the grass, or from close beside the stumps where you looked a moment before and saw nothing. This is repeated at frequent intervals, the object being, apparently, to accustom the young birds to hide instantly when danger approaches.
So watchful is the old bird, however, that trouble rarely threatens without her knowledge. When the young are well hidden at the first sign of the enemy, she takes wing and leaves them, returning when danger is over to find them still crouching motionless in their hiding places. When surprised she acts like other game birds,—flutters along with a great splashing, trailing one wing as if wounded, till she has led you away from the young, or occupied your attention long enough for them to be safely hidden; then she takes wing and leaves you.
The habit of hiding becomes so fixed with the young birds that they trust to it long after the wings have grown and they are able to escape by flight. Sometimes in the early autumn I have run the bow of my canoe almost over a full-grown bird, lying hidden in a clump of grass, before he sprang into the air and away. A month later, in the same place, the canoe could hardly approach within a quarter of a mile without his taking alarm.
Once they have learned to trust their wings, they give up hiding for swift flight. But they never forget their early training, and when wounded hide with a cunning that is remarkable. Unless one has a good dog it is almost useless to look for a wounded duck, if there is any cover to be reached. Hiding under a bank, crawling into a muskrat hole, worming a way under a bunch of dead grass or pile of leaves, swimming around and around a clump of bushes just out of sight of his pursuer, diving and coming up behind a tuft of grass,—these are some of the ways by which I have known a black duck try to escape. Twice I have heard from old hunters of their finding a bird clinging to a bunch of grass under water, though I have never seen it. Once, from a blind, I saw a black duck swim ashore and disappear into a small clump of berry bushes. Karl, who was with me, ran over to get him, but after a half-hour's search gave it up. Then I tried, and gave it up also. An hour later we saw the bird come out of the very place where we had been searching, and enter the water. Karl ran out, shouting, and the bird hid in the bushes again. Again we hunted the clump over and over, but no duck could be seen. We were turning away a second time when Karl cried: "Look!"—and there, in plain sight, by the very white stone where I had seen him disappear, was the duck, or rather the red leg of a duck, sticking out of a tangle of black roots.
With the first sharp frost that threatens to ice over the ponds in which they have passed the summer, the inland birds betake themselves to the seacoast, where there is more or less migration all winter. The great body of ducks moves slowly southward as the winter grows severe; but if food is plenty they winter all along the coast. It is then that they may be studied to the best advantage.
During the daytime they are stowed away in quiet little ponds and hiding places, or resting in large flocks on the shoals well out of reach of land and danger. When possible, they choose the former, because it gives them an abundance of fresh water, which is a daily necessity; and because, unlike the coots which are often found in great numbers on the same shoals, they dislike tossing about on the waves for any length of time. But late in the autumn they desert the ponds and are seldom seen there again until spring, even though the ponds are open. They are very shy about being frozen in or getting ice on their feathers, and prefer to get their fresh water at the mouths of creeks and springs.
With all their caution,—and they are very good weather prophets, knowing the times of tides and the approach of storms, as well as the days when fresh water freezes,—they sometimes get caught. Once I found a flock of five in great distress, frozen into the thin ice while sleeping, no doubt, with heads tucked under their wings. At another time I found a single bird floundering about with a big lump of ice and mud attached to his tail. He had probably found the insects plentiful in some bit of soft mud at low tide, and stayed there too long with the thermometer at zero.
Night is their feeding time; on the seacoast they fly in to the feeding grounds just at dusk. Fog bewilders them, and no bird likes to fly in rain, because it makes the feathers heavy; so on foggy or rainy afternoons they come in early, or not at all. The favorite feeding ground is a salt marsh, with springs and creeks of brackish water. Seeds, roots, tender grasses, and snails and insects in the mud left by the low tide are their usual winter food. When these grow scarce they betake themselves to the mussel beds with the coots; their flesh in consequence becomes strong and fishy.
When the first birds come in to the feeding grounds before dark, they do it with the greatest caution, examining not only the little pond or creek, but the whole neighborhood before lighting. The birds that follow trust to the inspection of these first comers, and generally fly straight in. For this reason it is well for one who attempts to see them at this time to have live decoys and, if possible, to have his blind built several days in advance, in order that the birds which may have been feeding in the place shall see no unusual object when they come in. If the blind be newly built, only the stranger birds will fly straight in to his decoys. Those that have been there before will either turn away in alarm, or else examine the blind very cautiously on all sides. If you know now how to wait and sit perfectly still, the birds will at last fly directly over the stand to look in. That is your only chance; and you must take it quickly if you expect to eat duck for dinner.
By moonlight one may sit on the bank in plain sight of his decoys, and watch the wild birds as long as he will. It is necessary only to sit perfectly still. But this is unsatisfactory; you can never see just what they are doing. Once I had thirty or forty close about me in this way. A sudden turn of my head, when a bat struck my cheek, sent them all off in a panic to the open ocean.
A curious thing frequently noticed about these birds as they come in at night is their power to make their wings noisy or almost silent at will. Sometimes the rustle is so slight that, unless the air is perfectly still, it is scarcely audible; at other times it is a strong wish-wish that can be heard two hundred yards away. The only theory I can suggest is that it is done as a kind of signal. In the daytime and on bright evenings one seldom hears it; on dark nights it is very frequent, and is always answered by the quacking of birds already on the feeding grounds, probably to guide the incomers. How they do it is uncertain; it is probably in some such way as the night-hawk makes his curious booming sound,—not by means of his open mouth, as is generally supposed, but by slightly turning the wing quills so that the air sets them vibrating. One can test this, if he will, by blowing on any stiff feather.
On stormy days the birds, instead of resting on the shoals, light near some lonely part of the beach and, after watching carefully for an hour or two, to be sure that no danger is near, swim ashore and collect in great bunches in some sheltered spot under a bank. It is indeed a tempting sight to see perhaps a hundred of the splendid birds gathered close together on the shore, the greater part with heads tucked under their wings, fast asleep; but if you are to surprise them, you must turn snake and crawl, and learn patience. Scattered along the beach on either side are single birds or small bunches evidently acting as sentinels. The crows and gulls are flying continually along the tide line after food; and invariably as they pass over one of these bunches of ducks they rise in the air to look around over all the bank. You must be well hidden to escape those bright eyes. The ducks understand crow and gull talk perfectly, and trust largely to these friendly sentinels. The gulls scream and the crows caw all day long, and not a duck takes his head from under his wing; but the instant either crow or gull utters his danger note every duck is in the air and headed straight off shore.
The constant watchfulness of black ducks is perhaps the most remarkable thing about them. When feeding at night in some lonely marsh, or hidden away by day deep in the heart of the swamps, they never for a moment seem to lay aside their alertness, nor trust to their hiding places alone for protection. Even when lying fast asleep among the grasses with heads tucked under their wings, there is a nervous vigilance in their very attitudes which suggests a sense of danger. Generally one has to content himself with studying them through a glass; but once I had a very good opportunity of watching them close at hand, of out-witting them, as it were, at their own game of hide-and-seek. It was in a grassy little pond, shut in by high hills, on the open moors of Nantucket. The pond was in the middle of a plain, perhaps a hundred yards from the nearest hill. No tree or rock or bush offered any concealment to an enemy; the ducks could sleep there as sure of detecting the approach of danger as if on the open ocean.
One autumn day I passed the place and, looking cautiously over the top of a hill, saw a single black duck swim out of the water-grass at the edge of the pond. The fresh breeze in my face induced me to try to creep down close to the edge of the pond, to see if it were possible to surprise birds there, should I find any on my next hunting trip. Just below me, at the foot of the hill, was a swampy run leading toward the pond, with grass nearly a foot high growing along its edge. I must reach that if possible.
After a few minutes of watching, the duck went into the grass again, and I started to creep down the hill, keeping my eyes intently on the pond. Halfway down, another duck appeared, and I dropped flat on the hillside in plain sight. Of course the duck noticed the unusual object. There was a commotion in the grass; heads came up here and there. The next moment, to my great astonishment, fully fifty black ducks were swimming about in the greatest uneasiness.
I lay very still and watched. Five minutes passed; then quite suddenly all motion ceased in the pond; every duck sat with neck standing straight up from the water, looking directly at me. So still were they that one could easily have mistaken them for stumps or peat bogs. After a few minutes of this kind of watching they seemed satisfied, and glided back, a few at a time, into the grass.
When all were gone I rolled down the hill and gained the run, getting soaking wet as I splashed into it. Then it was easier to advance without being discovered; for whenever a duck came out to look round—which happened almost every minute at first—I could drop into the grass and be out of sight.
In half an hour I had gained the edge of a low bank, well covered by coarse water-grass. Carefully pushing this aside, I looked through, and almost held my breath, they were so near. Just below me, within six feet, was a big drake, with head drawn down so close to his body that I wondered what he had done with his neck. His eyes were closed; he was fast asleep. In front of him were eight or ten more ducks close together, all with heads under their wings. Scattered about in the grass everywhere were small groups sleeping, or pluming their glossy dark feathers.
Beside the pleasure of watching them, the first black ducks that I had ever seen unconscious, there was the satisfaction of thinking how completely they had been outwitted at their own game of sharp watching. How they would have jumped had they only known what was lying there in the grass so near their hiding place! At first, every time I saw a pair of little black eyes wink, or a head come from under a wing, I felt myself shrinking close together in the thought that I was discovered; but that wore off after a time, when I found that the eyes winked rather sleepily, and the necks were taken out just to stretch them, much as one would take a comfortable yawn.
Once I was caught squarely, but the grass and my being so near saved me. I had raised my head and lay with chin in my hands, deeply interested in watching a young duck making a most elaborate toilet, when from the other side an old bird shot suddenly into the open water and saw me as I dropped out of sight. There was a low, sharp quack which brought every duck out of his hiding, wide awake on the instant. At first they all bunched together at the farther side, looking straight at the bank where I lay. Probably they saw my feet, which were outside the covert as I lay full length. Then they drew gradually nearer till they were again within the fringe of water-grass. Some of them sat quite up on their tails by a vigorous use of their wings, and stretched their necks to look over the low bank. Just keeping still saved me. In five minutes they were quiet again; even the young duck seemed to have forgotten her vanity and gone to sleep with the others.
Two or three hours I lay thus and watched them through the grass, spying very rudely, no doubt, into the seclusion of their home life. As the long shadow of the western hill stretched across the pool till it darkened the eastern bank, the ducks awoke one by one from their nap, and began to stir about in preparation for departure. Soon they were collected at the center of the open water, where they sat for a moment very still, heads up, and ready. If there was any signal given I did not hear it. At the same moment each pair of wings struck the water with a sharp splash, and they shot straight up in that remarkable way of theirs, as if thrown by a strong spring. An instant they seemed to hang motionless in the air high above the water, then they turned and disappeared swiftly over the eastern hill toward the marshes.