VER my table, as I write, is a big snowy owl whose yellow eyes seem to be always watching me, whatever I do. Perhaps he is still wondering at the curious way in which I shot him.
One stormy afternoon, a few winters ago, I was black-duck shooting at sundown, by a lonely salt creek that doubled across the marshes from Maddaket Harbor. In the shadow of a low ridge I had built my blind among some bushes, near the freshest water. In front of me a solitary decoy was splashing about in joyous freedom after having been confined all day, quacking loudly at the loneliness of the place and at being separated from her mate. Beside me, crouched in the blind, my old dog Don was trying his best to shiver himself warm without disturbing the bushes too much. That would have frightened the incoming ducks, as Don knew very well.
It grew dark and bitterly cold. No birds were flying, and I had stood up a moment to let the blood down into half-frozen toes, when a shadow seemed to pass over my head. The next moment there was a splash, followed by loud quacks of alarm from the decoy. All I could make out, in the obscurity under the ridge, was a flutter of wings that rose heavily from the water, taking my duck with them. Only the anchor string prevented the marauder from getting away with his booty. Not wishing to shoot, for the decoy was a valuable one, I shouted vigorously, and sent out the dog. The decoy dropped with a splash, and in the darkness the thief got away—just vanished, like a shadow, without a sound.
Poor ducky died in my hands a few moments later, the marks of sharp claws telling me plainly that the thief was an owl, though I had no suspicion then that it was the rare winter visitor from the north. I supposed, of course, that it was only a great-horned-owl, and so laid plans to get him.
Next night I was at the same spot with a good duck call, and some wooden decoys, over which the skins of wild ducks had been carefully stretched. An hour after dark he came again, attracted, no doubt, by the continued quacking. I had another swift glimpse of what seemed only a shadow; saw it poise and shoot downward before I could find it with my gun sight, striking the decoys with a great splash and clatter. Before he discovered his mistake or could get started again, I had him. The next moment Don came ashore, proud as a peacock, bringing a great snowy owl with him—a rare prize, worth ten times the trouble we had taken to get it.
Owls are generally very lean and muscular; so much so, in severe winters, that they are often unable to fly straight when the wind blows; and a twenty-knot breeze catches their broad wings and tosses them about helplessly. This one, however, was fat as a plover. When I stuffed him, I found that he had just eaten a big rat and a meadow-lark, hair, bones, feathers and all. It would be interesting to know what he intended to do with the duck. Perhaps, like the crow, he has snug hiding places here and there, where he keeps things against a time of need.
Every severe winter a few of these beautiful owls find their way to the lonely places of the New England coast, driven southward, no doubt, by lack of food in the frozen north. Here in Massachusetts they seem to prefer the southern shores of Cape Cod, and especially the island of Nantucket, where besides the food cast up by the tides, there are larks and blackbirds and robins, which linger more or less all winter. At home in the far north, the owls feed largely upon hares and grouse; here nothing comes amiss, from a stray cat, roving too far from the house, to stray mussels on the beach that have escaped the sharp eyes of sea-gulls.
Some of his hunting ways are most curious. One winter day, in prowling along the beach, I approached the spot where a day or two before I had been shooting whistlers (golden-eye ducks) over decoys. The blind had been made by digging a hole in the sand. In the bottom was an armful of dry seaweed, to keep one's toes warm, and just behind the stand was the stump of a ship's mainmast, the relic of some old storm and shipwreck, cast up by the tide.
A commotion of some kind was going on in the blind as I drew near. Sand and bunches of seaweed were hurled up at intervals to be swept aside by the wind. Instantly I dropped out of sight into the dead beach grass to watch and listen. Soon a white head and neck bristled up from behind the old mast, every feather standing straight out ferociously. The head was perfectly silent a moment, listening; then it twisted completely round twice so as to look in every direction. A moment later it had disappeared, and the seaweed was flying again.
There was a prize in the old blind evidently. But what was he doing there? Till then I had supposed that the owl always takes his game from the wing. Farther along the beach was a sand bluff overlooking the proceedings. I gained it after a careful stalk, crept to the edge, and looked over. Down in the blind a big snowy owl was digging away like a Trojan, tearing out sand and seaweed with his great claws, first one foot, then the other, like a hungry hen, and sending it up in showers behind him over the old mast. Every few moments he would stop suddenly, bristle up all his feathers till he looked comically big and fierce, take a look out over the log and along the beach, then fall to digging again furiously.
I suppose that the object of this bristling up before each observation was to strike terror into the heart of any enemy that might be approaching to surprise him at his unusual work. It is an owl trick. Wounded birds always use it when approached.
And the object of the digging? That was perfectly evident. A beach rat had jumped down into the blind, after some fragments of lunch, undoubtedly, and being unable to climb out, had started to tunnel up to the surface. The owl heard him at work, and started a stern chase. He won, too, for right in the midst of a fury of seaweed he shot up with the rat in his claws—so suddenly that he almost escaped me. Had it not been for the storm and his underground digging, he surely would have heard me long before I could get near enough to see what he was doing; for his eyes and ears are wonderfully keen.
In his southern visits, or perhaps on the ice fields of the Arctic ocean, he has discovered a more novel way of procuring his food than digging for it. He has turned fisherman and learned to fish. Once only have I seen him get his dinner in this way. It was on the north shore of Nantucket, one day in the winter of 1890-91, when the remarkable flight of white owls came down from the north. The chord of the bay was full of floating ice, and swimming about the shoals were thousands of coots. While watching the latter through my field-glass, I noticed a snowy owl standing up still and straight on the edge of a big ice cake. "Now what is that fellow doing there?" I thought.—"I know! He is trying to drift down close to that flock of coots before they see him."
That was interesting; so I sat down on a rock to watch. Whenever I took my eyes from him a moment, it was difficult to find him again, so perfectly did his plumage blend with the white ice upon which he stood motionless.
But he was not after the coots. I saw him lean forward suddenly and plunge a foot into the water. Then, when he hopped back from the edge, and appeared to be eating something, it dawned upon me that he was fishing—and fishing like a true sportsman, out on the ice alone, with only his own skill to depend upon. In a few minutes he struck again, and this time rose with a fine fish, which he carried to the shore to devour at leisure.
For a long time that fish was to me the most puzzling thing in the whole incident; for at that season no fish are to be found, except in deep water off shore. Some weeks later I learned that, just previous to the incident, several fishermen's dories, with full fares, had been upset on the east side of the island when trying to land through a heavy surf. The dead fish had been carried around by the tides, and the owl had been deceived into showing his method of fishing. Undoubtedly, in his northern home, when the ice breaks up and the salmon are running, he goes fishing from an ice cake as a regular occupation.
The owl lit upon a knoll, not two hundred yards from where I sat motionless, and gave me a good opportunity of watching him at his meal. He treated the fish exactly as he would have treated a rat or duck: stood on it with one foot, gripped the long claws of the other through it, and tore it to pieces savagely, as one would a bit of paper. The beak was not used, except to receive the pieces, which were conveyed up to it by his foot, as a parrot eats. He devoured everything—fins, tail, skin, head, and most of the bones, in great hungry mouthfuls. Then he hopped to the top of the knoll, sat up straight, puffed out his feathers to look big, and went to sleep. But with the first slight movement I made to creep nearer, he was wide awake and flew to a higher point. Such hearing is simply marvelous.
The stomach of an owl is peculiar, there being no intermediate crop, as in other birds. Every part of his prey small enough (and the mouth and throat of an owl are large out of all proportion) is greedily swallowed. Long after the flesh is digested, feathers, fur, and bones remain in the stomach, softened by acids, till everything is absorbed that can afford nourishment, even to the quill shafts, and the ends and marrow of bones. The dry remains are then rolled into large pellets by the stomach, and disgorged.
This, by the way, suggests the best method of finding an owl's haunts. It is to search, not overhead, but on the ground under large trees, till a pile of these little balls, of dry feathers and hair and bones, reveals the nest or roosting place above.
It seems rather remarkable that my fisherman-owl did not make a try at the coots that were so plenty about him. Rarely, I think, does he attempt to strike a bird of any kind in the daytime. His long training at the north, where the days are several months long, has adapted his eyes to seeing perfectly, both in sunshine and in darkness; and with us he spends the greater part of each day hunting along the beaches. The birds at such times are never molested. He seems to know that he is not good at dodging; that they are all quicker than he, and are not to be caught napping. And the birds, even the little birds, have no fear of him in the sunshine; though they shiver themselves to sleep when they think of him at night.
I have seen the snowbirds twittering contentedly near him. Once I saw him fly out to sea in the midst of a score of gulls, which paid no attention to him. At another time I saw him fly over a large flock of wild ducks that were preening themselves in the grass. He kept straight on; and the ducks, so far as I could see, merely stopped their toilet for an instant, and turned up one eye so as to see him better. Had it been dusk, the whole flock would have shot up into the air at the first startled quack—all but one, which would have stayed with the owl.
His favorite time for hunting is the hour after dusk, or just before daylight, when the birds are restless on the roost. No bird is safe from him then. The fierce eyes search through every tree and bush and bunch of grass. The keen ears detect every faintest chirp, or rustle, or scratching of tiny claws on the roost. Nothing that can be called a sound escapes them. The broad, soft wings tell no tale of his presence, and his swoop is swift and sure. He utters no sound. Like a good Nimrod he hunts silently.
The flight of an owl, noiseless as the sweep of a cloud shadow, is the most remarkable thing about him. The wings are remarkably adapted to the silent movement that is essential to surprising birds at dusk. The feathers are long and soft. The laminæ extending from the wing quills, instead of ending in the sharp feather edge of other birds, are all drawn out to fine hair points, through which the air can make no sound as it rushes in the swift wing-beats. The whish of a duck's wings can be heard two or three hundred yards on a still night. The wings of an eagle rustle like silk in the wind as he mounts upward. A sparrow's wings flutter or whir as he changes his flight. Every one knows the startled rush of a quail or grouse. But no ear ever heard the passing of a great owl, spreading his five-foot wings in rapid flight.
He knows well, however, when to vary his program. Once I saw him hovering at dusk over some wild land covered with bushes and dead grass, a favorite winter haunt of meadow-larks. His manner showed that he knew his game was near. He kept hovering over a certain spot, swinging off noiselessly to right or left, only to return again. Suddenly he struck his wings twice over his head with a loud flap, and swooped instantly. It was a clever trick. The bird beneath had been waked by the sound, or startled into turning his head. With the first movement the owl had him.
All owls have the habit of sitting still upon some high point which harmonizes with the general color of their feathers, and swooping upon any sound or movement that indicates game. The long-eared, or eagle-owl invariably selects a dark colored stub, on top of which he appears as a part of the tree itself, and is seldom noticed; while the snowy owl, whose general color is soft gray, will search out a birch or a lightning-blasted stump, and sitting up still and straight, so hide himself in plain sight that it takes a good eye to find him.
The swooping habit leads them into queer mistakes sometimes. Two or three times, when sitting or lying still in the woods watching for birds, my head has been mistaken for a rat or squirrel, or some other furry quadruped, by owls, which swooped and brushed me with their wings, and once left the marks of their claws, before discovering their mistake.
Should any boy reader ever have the good fortune to discover one of these rare birds some winter day in tramping along the beaches, and wish to secure him as a specimen, let him not count on the old idea that an owl cannot see in the daytime. On the contrary, let him proceed exactly as he would in stalking a deer: get out of sight, and to leeward, if possible; then take every advantage of bush and rock and beach-grass to creep within range, taking care to advance only when his eyes are turned away, and remembering that his ears are keen enough to detect the passing of a mouse in the grass from an incredible distance.
Sometimes the crows find one of these snowy visitors on the beach, and make a great fuss and racket, as they always do when an owl is in sight. At such times he takes his stand under a bank, or in the lee of a rock, where the crows cannot trouble him from behind, and sits watching them fiercely. Woe be to the one that ventures too near. A plunge, a grip of his claw, a weak caw, and it's all over. That seems to double the crows' frenzy—and that is the one moment when you can approach rapidly from behind. But you must drop flat when the crows perceive you; for the owl is sure to take a look around for the cause of their sudden alarm. If he sees nothing suspicious he will return to his shelter to eat his crow, or just to rest his sensitive ears after all the pother. A quarter-mile away the crows sit silent, watching you and him.
And now a curious thing happens. The crows, that a moment ago were clamoring angrily about their enemy, watch with a kind of intense interest as you creep towards him. Half way to the rock behind which he is hiding, they guess your purpose, and a low rapid chatter begins among them. One would think that they would exult in seeing him surprised and killed; but that is not crow nature. They would gladly worry the owl to death if they could, but they will not stand by and see him slain by a common enemy. The chatter ceases suddenly. Two or three swift fliers leave the flock, circle around you, and speed over the rock, uttering short notes of alarm. With the first sharp note, which all birds seem to understand, the owl springs into the air, turns, sees you, and is off up the beach. The crows rush after him with crazy clamor, and speedily drive him to cover again. But spare yourself more trouble. It is useless to try stalking any game while the crows are watching.
Sometimes you can drive or ride quite near to one of these birds, the horse apparently removing all his suspicion. But if you are on foot, take plenty of time and care and patience, and shoot your prize on the first stalk if possible. Once alarmed, he will lead you a long chase, and most likely escape in the end.
I learned the wisdom of this advice in connection with the first snowy owl I had ever met outside a museum. I surprised him early one winter morning eating a brant, which he had caught asleep on the shore. He saw me, and kept making short flights from point to point in a great circle—five miles, perhaps, and always in the open—evidently loath to abandon his feast to the crows; while I followed with growing wonder and respect, trying every device of the still hunter to creep within range. That was the same owl which I last saw at dusk, flying straight out to sea among the gulls.