OF all the wild birds that still haunt our remaining solitudes, the ruffed grouse—the pa'tridge of our younger days—is perhaps the wildest, the most alert, the most suggestive of the primeval wilderness that we have lost. You enter the woods from the hillside pasture, lounging a moment on the old gray fence to note the play of light and shadow on the birch bolls. Your eye lingers restfully on the wonderful mixture of soft colors that no brush has ever yet imitated, the rich old gold of autumn tapestries, the glimmering gray-green of the mouldering stump that the fungi have painted. What a giant that tree must have been, generations ago, in its days of strength; how puny the birches that now grow out of its roots! You remember the great canoe birches by the wilderness river, whiter than the little tent that nestled beneath them, their wide bark banners waving in the wind, soft as the flutter of owls' wings that swept among them, shadow-like, in the twilight. A vague regret steals over you that our own wilderness is gone, and with it most of the shy folk that loved its solitudes.
Suddenly there is a rustle in the leaves. Something stirs by the old stump. A moment ago you thought it was only a brown root; now it runs, hides, draws itself erect—Kwit, kwit, kwit! and with a whirring rush of wings and a whirling eddy of dead leaves a grouse bursts up, and darts away like a blunt arrow, flint-tipped, gray-feathered, among the startled birch stems. As you follow softly to rout him out again, and to thrill and be startled by his unexpected rush, something of the Indian has come unbidden into your cautious tread. All regret for the wilderness is vanished; you are simply glad that so much wildness still remains to speak eloquently of the good old days.
It is this element of unconquerable wildness in the grouse, coupled with a host of early, half-fearful impressions, that always sets my heart to beating, as to an old tune, whenever a partridge bursts away at my feet. I remember well a little child that used to steal away into the still woods, which drew him by an irresistible attraction while as yet their dim arches and quiet paths were full of mysteries and haunting terrors. Step by step the child would advance into the shadows, cautious as a wood mouse, timid as a rabbit. Suddenly a swift rustle and a thunderous rush of something from the ground that first set the child's heart to beating wildly, and then reached his heels in a fearful impulse which sent him rushing out of the woods, tumbling headlong over the old gray wall, and scampering halfway across the pasture before he dared halt from the terror behind. And then, at last, another impulse which always sent the child stealing back into the woods again, shy, alert, tense as a watching fox, to find out what the fearful thing was that could make such a commotion in the quiet woods.
And when he found out at last—ah, that was a discovery beside which the panther's kittens are as nothing as I think of them. One day in the woods, near the spot where the awful thunder used to burst away, the child heard a cluck and a kwit-kwit, and saw a beautiful bird dodging, gliding, halting, hiding in the underbrush, watching the child's every motion. And when he ran forward to put his cap over the bird, it burst away, and then—whirr! whirr! whirr! a whole covey of grouse roared up all about him. The terror of it weakened his legs so that he fell down in the eddying leaves and covered his ears. But this time he knew what it was at last, and in a moment he was up and running, not away, but fast as his little legs could carry him after the last bird that he saw hurtling away among the trees, with a birch branch that he had touched with his wings nodding good-by behind him.
There is another association with this same bird that always gives an added thrill to the rush of his wings through the startled woods. It was in the old school by the cross-roads, one sleepy September afternoon. A class in spelling, big boys and little girls, toed a crack in front of the master's desk. The rest of the school droned away on appointed tasks in the drowsy interlude. The fat boy slept openly on his arms; even the mischief-maker was quiet, thinking dreamily of summer days that were gone. Suddenly there was a terrific crash, a clattering tinkle of broken glass, a howl from a boy near the window. Twenty knees banged the desks beneath as twenty boys jumped. Then, before any of us had found his wits, Jimmy Jenkins, a red-headed boy whom no calamity could throw off his balance and from whom no opportunity ever got away free, had jumped over two forms and was down on the floor in the girls' aisle, gripping something between his knees—
"I've got him," he announced, with the air of a general.
"Got what?" thundered the master.
"Got a pa'tridge; he's an old buster," said Jimmy. And he straightened up, holding by the legs a fine cock partridge whose stiffening wings still beat his sides spasmodically. He had been scared-up in the neighboring woods, frightened by some hunter out of his native coverts. When he reached the unknown open places he was more frightened still and, as a frightened grouse always flies straight, he had driven like a bolt through the schoolhouse window, killing himself by the impact.
Rule-of-three and cube root and the unmapped wilderness of partial payments have left but scant impression on one of those pupils, at least; but a bird that could wake up a drowsy schoolroom and bring out a living lesson, full of life and interest and the subtile call of the woods, from a drowsy teacher who studied law by night, but never his boys by day,—that was a bird to be respected. I have studied him with keener interest ever since.
Yet however much you study the grouse, you learn little except how wild he is. Occasionally, when you are still in the woods and a grouse walks up to your hiding place, you get a fair glimpse and an idea or two; but he soon discovers you, and draws himself up straight as a string and watches you for five minutes without stirring or even winking. Then, outdone at his own game, he glides away. A rustle of little feet on leaves, a faint kwit-kwit with a question in it, and he is gone. Nor will he come back, like the fox, to watch from the other side and find out what you are.
Civilization, in its first advances, is good to the grouse, providing him with an abundance of food and driving away his enemies. Grouse are always more numerous about settlements than in the wilderness. Unlike other birds, however, he grows wilder and wilder by nearness to men's dwellings. I suppose that is because the presence of man is so often accompanied by the rush of a dog and the report of a gun, and perhaps by the rip and sting of shot in his feathers as he darts away. Once, in the wilderness, when very hungry, I caught two partridges by slipping over their heads a string noose at the end of a pole. Here one might as well try to catch a bat in the twilight as to hope to snare one of our upland partridges by any such invention, or even to get near enough to meditate the attempt.
But there was one grouse—and he the very wildest of all that I have ever met in the woods—who showed me unwittingly many bits of his life, and with whom I grew to be very well acquainted after a few seasons' watching. All the hunters of the village knew him well; and a half-dozen boys, who owned guns and were eager to join the hunters' ranks, had a shooting acquaintance with him. He was known far and wide as "the ol' beech pa'tridge." That he was old no one could deny who knew his ways and his devices; and he was frequently scared-up in a beech wood by a brook, a couple of miles out of the village.
Spite of much learned discussion as to different varieties of grouse, due to marked variations in coloring, I think personally that we have but one variety, and that differences in color are due largely to the different surroundings in which they live. Of all birds the grouse is most invisible when quiet, his coloring blends so perfectly with the roots and leaves and tree stems among which he hides. This wonderful invisibility is increased by the fact that he changes color easily. He is darker in summer, lighter in winter, like the rabbit. When he lives in dark woods he becomes a glossy red-brown; and when his haunt is among the birches he is often a decided gray.
This was certainly true of the old beech partridge. When he spread his tail wide and darted away among the beeches, his color blended so perfectly with the gray tree trunks that only a keen eye could separate him. And he knew every art of the dodger perfectly. When he rose there was scarcely a second of time before he had put a big tree between you and him, so as to cover his line of flight. I don't know how many times he had been shot at on the wing. Every hunter I knew had tried it many times; and every boy who roamed the woods in autumn had sought to pot him on the ground. But he never lost a feather; and he would never stand to a dog long enough for the most cunning of our craft to take his position.
When a brood of young partridges hear a dog running in the woods, they generally flit to the lower branches of a tree and kwit-kwit at him curiously. They have not yet learned the difference between him and the fox, who is the ancient enemy of their kind, and whom their ancestors of the wilderness escaped and tantalized in the same way. But when it is an old bird that your setter is trailing, his actions are a curious mixture of cunning and fascination. As old Don draws to a point, the grouse pulls himself up rigidly by a stump and watches the dog. So both stand like statues; the dog held by the strange instinct which makes him point, lost to sight, sound and all things else save the smell in his nose, the grouse tense as a fiddlestring, every sense alert, watching the enemy whom he thinks to be fooled by his good hiding. For a few moments they are motionless; then the grouse skulks and glides to a better cover. As the strong scent fades from Don's nose, he breaks his point and follows. The grouse hears him and again hides by drawing himself up against a stump, where he is invisible; again Don stiffens into his point, one foot lifted, nose and tail in a straight line, as if he were frozen and could not move.
So it goes on, now gliding through the coverts, now still as a stone, till the grouse discovers that so long as he is still the dog seems paralyzed, unable to move or feel. Then he draws himself up, braced against a root or a tree boll; and there they stand, within twenty feet of each other, never stirring, never winking, till the dog falls from exhaustion at the strain, or breaks it by leaping forward, or till the hunter's step on the leaves fills the grouse with a new terror that sends him rushing away through the October woods to deeper solitudes.
Once, at noon, I saw Old Ben, a famous dog, draw to a perfect point. Just ahead, in a tangle of brown brakes, I could see the head and neck of a grouse watching the dog keenly. Old Ben's master, to test the splendid training of his dog, proposed lunch on the spot. We withdrew a little space and ate deliberately, watching the bird and the dog with an interest that grew keener and keener as the meal progressed, while Old Ben stood like a rock, and the grouse's eye shone steadily out of the tangle of brakes. Nor did either move so much as an eyelid while we ate, and Ben's master smoked his pipe with quiet confidence. At last, after a full hour, he whacked his pipe on his boot heel and rose to reach for his gun. That meant death for the grouse; but I owed him too much of keen enjoyment to see him cut down in swift flight. In the moment that the master's back was turned I hurled a knot at the tangle of brakes. The grouse burst away, and Old Ben, shaken out of his trance by the whirr of wings, dropped obediently to the charge and turned his head to say reproachfully with his eyes: "What in the world is the matter with you back there—didn't I hold him long enough?"
The noble old fellow was trembling like a leaf after the long strain when I went up to him to pat his head and praise his steadiness, and share with him the better half of my lunch. But to this day Ben's master does not know what started the grouse so suddenly; and as he tells you about the incident will still say regretfully: "I ought to a-started jest a minute sooner, 'fore he got tired. Then I'd a had 'im."
The old beech partridge, however, was a bird of a different mind. No dog ever stood him for more than a second; he had learned too well what the thing meant. The moment he heard the patter of a dog's feet on leaves he would run rapidly, and skulk and hide and run again, keeping dog and hunter on the move till he found the cover he wanted,—thick trees, or a tangle of wild grapevines,—when he would burst out on the farther side. And no eye, however keen, could catch more than a glimpse of a gray tail before he was gone. Other grouse make short straight flights, and can be followed and found again; but he always drove away on strong wings for an incredible distance, and swerved far to right or left; so that it was a waste of time to follow him up. Before you found him he had rested his wings and was ready for another flight; and when you did find him he would shoot away like an arrow out of the top of a pine tree and give you never a glimpse of himself.
He lived most of the time on a ridge behind the 'Fales place,' an abandoned farm on the east of the old post road. This was his middle range, a place of dense coverts, bullbrier thickets and sunny open spots among the ledges, where you might, with good-luck, find him on special days at any season. But he had all the migratory instincts of a Newfoundland caribou. In winter he moved south, with twenty other grouse, to the foot of the ridge, which dropped away into a succession of knolls and ravines and sunny, well-protected little valleys, where food was plenty. Here, fifty years ago, was the farm pasture; but now it had grown up everywhere with thickets and berry patches, and wild apple trees of the birds' planting. All the birds loved it in their season; quail nested on its edges; and you could kick a brown rabbit out of almost any of its decaying brush piles or hollow moss-grown logs.
In the spring he crossed the ridge northward again, moving into the still dark woods, where he had two or three wives with as many broods of young partridges; all of whom, by the way, he regarded with astonishing indifference.
Across the whole range—stealing silently out of the big woods, brawling along the foot of the ridge and singing through the old pasture—ran a brook that the old beech partridge seemed to love. A hundred times I started him from its banks. You had only to follow it any November morning before eight o'clock, and you would be sure to find him. But why he haunted it at this particular time and season I never found out.
I used to wonder sometimes why I never saw him drink. Other birds had their regular drinking places and bathing pools there, and I frequently watched them from my hiding; but though I saw him many times, after I learned his haunts, he never touched the water.
One early summer morning a possible explanation suggested itself. I was sitting quietly by the brook, on the edge of the big woods, waiting for a pool to grow quiet, out of which I had just taken a trout and in which I suspected there was a larger one hiding. As I waited a mother-grouse and her brood—one of the old beech partridge's numerous families for whom he provided nothing—came gliding along the edge of the woods. They had come to drink, evidently, but not from the brook. A sweeter draught than that was waiting for their coming. The dew was still clinging to the grass blades; here and there a drop hung from a leaf point, flashing like a diamond in the early light. And the little partridges, cheeping, gliding, whistling among the drooping stems, would raise their little bills for each shining dewdrop that attracted them, and drink it down and run with glad little pipings and gurglings to the next drop that flashed an invitation from its bending grass blade. The old mother walked sedately in the midst of them, now fussing over a laggard, now clucking them all together in an eager, chirping, jumping little crowd, each one struggling to be first in at the death of a fat slug she had discovered on the underside of a leaf; and anon reaching herself for a dewdrop that hung too high for their drinking. So they passed by within a few yards, a shy, wild, happy little family, and disappeared into the shadow of the big woods.
Perhaps that is why I never saw the old beech partridge drink from the brook. Nature has a fresher draught, of her own distilling, that is more to his tasting.