Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
William J. Long


dropcap image HELLDRAKE, or shellbird, is the name by which this duck is generally known, though how he came to be called so would be hard to tell. Probably the name was given by gunners, who see him only in winter when hunger drives him to eat mussels—but even then he likes mud-snails much better. The name fish-duck, which one hears occasionally, is much more appropriate. The long slender bill, with its serrated edges fitting into each other like the teeth of a bear trap, just calculated to seize and hold a slimy wriggling fish, is quite enough evidence as to the nature of the bird's food, even if one had not seen him fishing on the lakes and rivers which are his summer home.

That same bill, by the way, is sometimes a source of danger. Once, on the coast, I saw a shelldrake trying in vain to fly against the wind, which flung him rudely among some tall reeds near me. The next moment Don, my old dog, had him. In a hungry moment he had driven his bill through both shells of a scallop, which slipped or worked its way up to his nostrils, muzzling the bird perfectly with a hard shell ring. The poor fellow by desperate trying could open his mouth barely wide enough to drink or to swallow the tiniest morsel. He must have been in this condition a long time, for the bill was half worn through, and he was so light that the wind blew him about like a great feather when he attempted to fly.

Fortunately Don was a good retriever and had brought the duck in with scarcely a quill ruffled; so I had the satisfaction of breaking his bands and letting him go free with a splendid rush. But the wind was too much for him; he dropped back into the water and went skittering down the harbor like a lady with too much skirt and too big a hat in boisterous weather. Meanwhile Don lay on the sand, head up, ears up, whining eagerly for the word to fetch. Then he dropped his head, and drew a long breath, and tried to puzzle it out why a man should go out on a freezing day in February, and tramp, and row, and get wet to find a bird, only to let him go after he had been fairly caught.

Kwaseekho the shelldrake leads a double life. In winter he may be found almost anywhere along the Massachusetts coast and southward, where he leads a dog's life of it, notwithstanding his gay appearance. An hundred guns are roaring at him wherever he goes. From daylight to dark he has never a minute to eat his bit of fish, or to take a wink of sleep in peace. He flies to the ocean, and beds with his fellows on the broad open shoals for safety. But the east winds blow; and the shoals are a yeasty mass of tumbling breakers. They buffet him about; they twist his gay feathers; they dampen his pinions, spite of his skill in swimming. Then he goes to the creeks and harbors.

Along the shore a flock of his own kind, apparently, are feeding in quiet water. Straight in he comes with unsuspecting soul, the morning light shining full on his white breast and bright red feet as he steadies himself to take the water. But bang, bang!  go the guns; and splash, splash!  fall his companions; and out of a heap of seaweed come a man and a dog; and away he goes, sadly puzzled at the painted things in the water, to think it all over in hunger and sorrow.

Then the weather grows cold, and a freeze-up covers all his feeding grounds. Under his beautiful feathers the bones project to spoil the contour of his round plump body. He is famished now; he watches the gulls to see what they eat. When he finds out, he forgets his caution, and roams about after stray mussels on the beach. In the spring hunger drives him into the ponds where food is plenty—but such food! In a week his flesh is so strong that a crow would hardly eat it. Altogether, it is small wonder that as soon as his instinct tells him the streams of the North are open and the trout running up, he is off to a land of happier memories.

In summer he forgets his hardships. His life is peaceful as a meadow brook. His home is the wilderness—on a lonely lake, it may be, shimmering under the summer sun, or kissed into a thousand smiling ripples by the south wind. Or perhaps it is a forest river, winding on by wooded hills and grassy points and lonely cedar swamps. In secret shallow bays the young broods are plashing about, learning to swim and dive and hide in safety. The plunge of the fish-hawk comes up from the pools. A noisy kingfisher rattles about from tree to stump, like a restless busy-body. The hum of insects fills the air with a drowsy murmur. Now a deer steps daintily down the point, and looks, and listens, and drinks. A great moose wades awkwardly out to plunge his head under and pull away at the lily roots. But the young brood mind not these harmless things. Sometimes indeed, as the afternoon wears away, they turn their little heads apprehensively as the alders crash and sway on the bank above; a low cluck from the mother bird sends them all off into the grass to hide. How quickly they have disappeared, leaving never a trace! But it is only a bear come down from the ridge where he has been sleeping, to find a dead fish perchance for his supper; and the little brood seem to laugh as another low cluck brings them scurrying back from their hiding places.

Once, perhaps, comes a real fright, when all their summer's practice is put to the test. An unusual noise is heard; and round the bend glides a bark canoe with sound of human voices. Away go the brood together, the river behind them foaming like the wake of a tiny steamer as the swift-moving feet lift them almost out of water. Visions of ocean, the guns, falling birds, and the hard winter distract the poor mother. She flutters wildly about the brood, now leading, now bravely facing the monster; now pushing along some weak little loiterer, now floundering near the canoe as if wounded, to attract attention from the young. But they double the point at last, and hide away under the alders. The canoe glides by and makes no effort to find them. Silence is again over the forest. The little brood come back to the shallows, with mother bird fluttering round them to count again and again lest any be missing. The kingfisher comes out of his hole in the bank. The river flows on as before, and peace returns; and over all is the mystic charm of the wilderness and the quiet of a summer day.

This is the way it all looks and seems to me, sitting over under the big hemlock, out of sight, and watching the birds through my field-glass.

Day after day I have attended such little schools, unseen and unsuspected by the mother bird. Sometimes it was the a-b-c class, wee little downy fellows, learning to hide on a lily pad, and never getting a reward of merit in the shape of a young trout till they hid so well that the teacher (somewhat over-critical, I thought) was satisfied. Sometimes it was the baccalaureates that displayed their talents to the unbidden visitor, flashing out of sight, cutting through the water like a ray of light, striking a young trout on the bottom with the rapidity and certainty almost of the teacher. It was marvelous, the diving and swimming; and mother bird looked on and quacked her approval of the young graduates. That is another peculiarity: the birds are dumb in winter; they find their voice only for the young.

While all this careful training is going on at home, the drake is off on the lakes somewhere with his boon companions, having a good time, and utterly neglectful of parental responsibility. Sometimes I have found clubs of five or six, gay fellows all, living by themselves at one end of a big lake where the fishing was good. All summer long they roam and gad about, free from care, and happy as summer campers, leaving mother birds meanwhile to feed and educate their offspring. Once only have I seen a drake sharing in the responsibilities of his family. I watched three days to find the cause of his devotion; but he disappeared the third evening, and I never saw him again. Whether the drakes are lazy and run away, or whether they have the atrocious habit of many male birds and animals of destroying their young, and so are driven away by the females, I have not been able to find out.

These birds are very destructive on the trout streams; if a summer camper spare them, it is because of his interest in the young, and especially because of the mother bird's devotion. When the recreant drake is met with, however, he goes promptly onto the bill of fare, with other good things.

Occasionally one overtakes a brood on a rapid river. Then the poor birds are distressed indeed. At the first glimpse of the canoe they are off, churning the water into foam in their flight. Not till they are out of sight round the bend do they hear the cluck that tells them to hide. Some are slow in finding a hiding place on the strange waters. The mother bird hurries them. They are hunting in frantic haste when round the bend comes the swift-gliding canoe. With a note of alarm they are all off again, for she will not leave even the weakest alone. Again they double the bend and try to hide; again the canoe overtakes them; and so on, mile after mile, till a stream or bogan flowing into the river offers a road to escape. Then, like a flash, the little ones run in under shelter of the banks, and glide up stream noiselessly, while mother bird flutters on down the river just ahead of the canoe. Having lured it away to a safe distance, as she thinks, she takes wing and returns to the young.

Their powers of endurance are remarkable. Once, on the Restigouche, we started a brood of little ones late in the afternoon. We were moving along in a good current, looking for a camping ground, and had little thought for the birds, which could never get far enough ahead to hide securely. For five miles they kept ahead of us, rushing out at each successive stretch of water, and fairly distancing us in a straight run. When we camped they were still below us. At dusk I was sitting motionless near the river when a slight movement over near the opposite bank attracted me. There was the mother bird, stealing along up stream under the fringe of bushes. The young followed in single file. There was no splashing of water now. Shadows were not more noiseless.

Twice since then I have seen them do the same thing. I have no doubt they returned that evening all the way up to the feeding grounds where we first started them; for like the kingfishers every bird seems to have his own piece of the stream. He never fishes in his neighbor's pools, nor will he suffer any poaching in his own. On the Restigouche we found a brood every few miles; on other rivers less plentifully stocked with trout they are less numerous. On lakes there is often a brood at either end; but though I have watched them carefully, I have never seen them cross to each other's fishing grounds.

Once, up on the Big Toledi, I saw a curious bit of their education. I was paddling across the lake one day, when I saw a shellbird lead her brood into a little bay where I knew the water was shallow; and immediately they began dipping, though very awkwardly. They were evidently taking their first lessons in diving. The next afternoon I was near the same place. I had done fishing—or rather, frogging—and had pushed the canoe into some tall grass out of sight, and was sitting there just doing nothing.

A musquash came by, and rubbed his nose against the canoe, and nibbled a lily root before he noticed me. A shoal of minnows were playing among the grasses near by. A dragon-fly stood on his head against a reed—a most difficult feat, I should think. He was trying some contortion that I couldn't make out, when a deer stepped down the bank and never saw me. Doing nothing pays one under such circumstances, if only by the glimpses it gives of animal life. It is so rare to see a wild thing unconscious.

Then Kwaseekho came into the shallow bay again with her brood, and immediately they began dipping as before. I wondered how the mother made them dive, till I looked through the field-glass and saw that the little fellows occasionally brought up something to eat. But there certainly were no fish to be caught in that warm, shallow water. An idea struck me, and I pushed the canoe out of the grass, sending the brood across the lake in wild confusion. There on the black bottom were a dozen young trout, all freshly caught, and all with the air-bladder punctured by the mother bird's sharp bill. She had provided their dinner, but she brought it to a good place and made them dive to get it.

As I paddled back to camp, I thought of the way the Indians taught their boys to shoot. They hung their dinner from the trees, out of reach, and made them cut the cord that held it, with an arrow. Did the Indians originate this, I wonder, in their direct way of looking at things, almost as simple as the birds'? Or was the idea whispered to some Indian hunter long ago, as he watched Merganser teach her young to dive?

Of all the broods I have met in the wilderness, only one, I think, ever grew to recognize me and my canoe a bit, so as to fear me less than another. It was on a little lake in the heart of the woods, where we lingered long on our journey, influenced partly by the beauty of the place, and partly by the fact that two or three bears roamed about there, which I sometimes met at twilight on the lake shore. The brood were as wild as other broods; but I met them often, and they sometimes found the canoe lying motionless and harmless near them, without quite knowing how it came there. So after a few days they looked at me with curiosity and uneasiness only, unless I came too near.

There were six in the brood. Five were hardy little fellows that made the water boil behind them as they scurried across the lake. But the sixth was a weakling. He had been hurt, by a hawk perhaps, or a big trout, or a mink; or he had swallowed a bone; or maybe he was just a weak little fellow with no accounting for it. Whenever the brood were startled, he struggled bravely a little while to keep up; then he always fell behind. The mother would come back, and urge, and help him; but it was of little use. He was not strong enough; and the last glimpse I always had of them was a foamy wake disappearing round a distant point, while far in the rear was a ripple where the little fellow still paddled away, doing his best pathetically.


One afternoon the canoe glided round a point and ran almost up to the brood before they saw it, giving them a terrible fright. Away they went on the instant, putter, putter, putter,  lifting themselves almost out of water with the swift-moving feet and tiny wings. The mother bird took wing, returned and crossed the bow of the canoe, back and forth, with loud quackings. The weakling was behind as usual; and in a sudden spirit of curiosity or perversity—for I really had a good deal of sympathy for the little fellow—I shot the canoe forward, almost up to him. He tried to dive; got tangled in a lily stem in his fright; came up, flashed under again; and I saw him come up ten feet away in some grass, where he sat motionless and almost invisible amid the pads and yellow stems.

How frightened he was! Yet how still he sat! Whenever I took my eyes from him a moment I had to hunt again, sometimes two or three minutes, before I could see him there.

Meanwhile the brood went almost to the opposite shore before they stopped, and the mother, satisfied at last by my quietness, flew over and lit among them. She had not seen the little one. Through the glass I saw her flutter round and round them to be quite sure they were all there. Then she missed him. I could see it all in her movements. She must have clucked, I think, for the young suddenly disappeared, and she came swimming rapidly back over the way they had come, looking, looking everywhere. Round the canoe she went at a safe distance, searching among the grass and lily pads, calling him softly to come out. But he was very near the canoe, and very much frightened; the only effect of her calls was to make him crouch closer against the grass stems, while the bright little eyes, grown large with fear, were fastened on me.

Slowly I backed the canoe away till it was out of sight around the point, though I could still see the mother bird through the bushes. She swam rapidly about where the canoe had been, calling more loudly; but the little fellow had lost confidence in her, or was too frightened, and refused to show himself. At last she discovered him, and with quacks and flutters that looked to me a bit hysteric pulled him out of his hiding place. How she fussed over him! How she hurried and helped and praised and scolded him all the way over; and fluttered on ahead, and clucked the brood out of their hiding places to meet him! Then, with all her young about her, she swept round the point into the quiet bay that was their training school.

And I, drifting slowly up the lake into the sunset over the glassy water, was thinking how human it all was. "Doth he not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?"