Secrets of the Woods  by William J. Long

The Ol' Beech Pa'tridge

Part 2 of 2

Earlier in the season I found another of his families near the same spot. I was stealing along a wood road when I ran plump upon them, scratching away at an ant hill in a sunny open spot. There was a wild flurry, as if a whirlwind had struck the ant hill; but it was only the wind of the mother bird's wings, whirling up the dust to blind my eyes and to hide the scampering retreat of her downy brood. Again her wings beat the ground, sending up a flurry of dead leaves, in the midst of which the little partridges jumped and scurried away, so much like the leaves that no eye could separate them. Then the leaves settled slowly and the brood was gone, as if the ground had swallowed them up; while Mother Grouse went fluttering along just out of my reach, trailing a wing as if broken, falling prone on the ground, clucking and kwitting  and whirling the leaves to draw my attention and bring me away from where the little ones were hiding.

I knelt down just within the edge of woods, whither I had seen the last laggard of the brood vanish like a brown streak, and began to look for them carefully. After a time I found one. He was crouched flat on a dead oak leaf, just under my nose, his color hiding him wonderfully. Something glistened in a tangle of dark roots. It was an eye, and presently I could make out a little head there. That was all I could find of the family, though a dozen more were close beside me, under the leaves mostly. As I backed away I put my hand on another before seeing him, and barely saved myself from hurting the little sly-boots, who never stirred a muscle, not even when I took away the leaf that covered him and put it back again softly.

Across the pathway was a thick scrub oak, under which I sat down to watch. Ten long minutes passed, with nothing stirring, before Mother Grouse came stealing back. She clucked once—"Careful!" it seemed to say; and not a leaf stirred. She clucked again—did the ground open? There they were, a dozen or more of them, springing up from nowhere and scurrying with a thousand cheepings to tell her all about it. So she gathered them all close about her, and they vanished into the friendly shadows.

It was curious how jealously the old beech partridge watched over the solitudes where these interesting little families roamed. Though he seemed to care nothing about them, and was never seen near one of his families, he suffered no other cock partridge to come into his woods, or even to drum within hearing. In the winter he shared the southern pasture peaceably with twenty other grouse; and on certain days you might, by much creeping, surprise a whole company of them on a sunny southern slope, strutting and gliding, in and out and round about, with spread tails and drooping wings, going through all the movements of a grouse minuet. Once, in Indian summer, I crept up to twelve or fifteen of the splendid birds, who were going through their curious performance in a little opening among the berry bushes; and in the midst of them—more vain, more resplendent, strutting more proudly and clucking more arrogantly than any other—was the old beech partridge.

But when the spring came, and the long rolling drum-calls began to throb through the budding woods, he retired to his middle range on the ridge, and marched from one end to the other, driving every other cock grouse out of hearing, and drubbing him soundly if he dared resist. Then, after a triumph, you would hear his loud drum-call rolling through the May splendor, calling as many wives as possible to share his rich living.

He had two drumming logs on this range, as I soon discovered; and once, while he was drumming on one log, I hid near the other and imitated his call fairly well by beating my hands on a blown bladder that I had buttoned under my jacket. The roll of a grouse drum is a curiously muffled sound; it is often hard to determine the spot or even the direction whence it comes; and it always sounds much farther away than it really is. This may have deceived the old beech partridge at first into thinking that he heard some other bird far away, on a ridge across the valley where he had no concern; for presently he drummed again on his own log. I answered it promptly, rolling back a defiance, and also telling any hen grouse on the range that here was another candidate willing to strut and spread his tail and lift the resplendent ruff about his neck to win his way into her good graces, if she would but come to his drumming log and see him.

Some suspicion that a rival had come to his range must have entered the old beech partridge's head, for there was a long silence in which I could fancy him standing up straight and stiff on his drumming log, listening intently to locate the daring intruder, and holding down his bubbling wrath with difficulty.

Without waiting for him to drum again, I beat out a challenge. The roll had barely ceased when he came darting up the ridge, glancing like a bolt among the thick branches, and plunged down by his own log, where he drew himself up with marvelous suddenness to listen and watch for the intruder.

He seemed relieved that the log was not occupied, but he was still full of wrath and suspicion. He glided and dodged all about the place, looking and listening; then he sprang to his log and, without waiting to strut and spread his gorgeous feathers as usual, he rolled out the long call, drawing himself up straight the instant it was done, turning his head from side to side to catch the first beat of his rival's answer—"Come out, if you dare; drum, if you dare. Oh, you coward!" And he hopped, five or six high, excited hops, like a rooster before a storm, to the other end of the log, and again his quick throbbing drum-call rolled through the woods.

Though I was near enough to see him clearly without my field glasses, I could not even then, nor at any other time when I have watched grouse drumming, determine just how the call is given. After a little while the excitement of a suspected rival's presence wore away, and he grew exultant, thinking that he had driven the rascal out of his woods. He strutted back and forth on the log, trailing his wings, spreading wide his beautiful tail, lifting his crest and his resplendent ruff. Suddenly he would draw himself up; there would be a flash of his wings up and down that no eye could follow, and I would hear a single throb of his drum. Another flash and another throb; then faster and faster, till he seemed to have two or three pairs of wings, whirring and running together like the spokes of a swift-moving wheel, and the drumbeats rolled together into a long call and died away in the woods.

Generally he stood up on his toes, as a rooster does when he flaps his wings before crowing; rarely he crouched down close to the log; but I doubt if he beat the wood with his wings, as is often claimed. Yet the two logs were different; one was dry and hard, the other mouldy and moss-grown; and the drum-calls were as different as the two logs. After a time I could tell by the sound which log he was using at the first beat of his wings; but that, I think, was a matter of resonance, a kind of sounding-board effect, and not because the two sounded differently as he beat them. The call is undoubtedly made either by striking the wings together over his back or, as I am inclined to believe, by striking them on the down beat against his own sides.

Once I heard a wounded bird give three or four beats of his drum-call, and when I went into the grapevine thicket, where he had fallen, I found him lying flat on his back, beating his sides with his wings.

Whenever he drums he first struts, because he knows not how many pairs of bright eyes are watching him shyly out of the coverts. Once, when I had watched him strut and drum a few times, the leaves rustled, and two hen grouse emerged from opposite sides into the little opening where his log was. Then he strutted with greater vanity than before, while the two hen grouse went gliding about the place, searching for seeds apparently, but in reality watching his every movement out of their eye corners, and admiring him to his heart's content.

In winter I used to follow his trail through the snow to find what he had been doing, and what he had found to eat in nature's scarce time. His worst enemies, the man and his dog, were no longer to be feared, being restrained by law, and he roamed the woods with greater freedom than ever. He seemed to know that he was safe at this time, and more than once I trailed him up to his hiding and saw him whirr away through the open woods, sending down a shower of snow behind him, as if in that curious way to hide his line of flight from my eyes.

There were other enemies, however, whom no law restrained, save the universal wood-laws of fear and hunger. Often I found the trail of a fox crossing his in the snow; and once I followed a double trail, fox over grouse, for nearly half a mile. The fox had struck the trail late the previous afternoon, and followed it to a bullbrier thicket, in the midst of which was a great cedar in which the old beech partridge roosted. The fox went twice around the tree, halting and looking up, then went straight away to the swamp, as if he knew it was of no use to watch longer.

Rarely, when the snow was deep, I found the place where he, or some other grouse, went to sleep on the ground. He would plunge down from a tree into the soft snow, driving into it head-first for three or four feet, then turn around and settle down in his white warm chamber for the night. I would find the small hole where he plunged in at evening, and near it the great hole where he burst out when the light waked him. Taking my direction from his wing prints in the snow, I would follow to find where he lit, and then trace him on his morning wanderings.

One would think that this might be a dangerous proceeding, sleeping on the ground with no protection but the snow, and a score of hungry enemies prowling about the woods; but the grouse knows well that when the storms are out his enemies stay close at home, not being able to see or smell, and therefore afraid each one of his own enemies. There is always a truce in the woods during a snowstorm; and that is the reason why a grouse goes to sleep in the snow only while the flakes are still falling. When the storm is over and the snow has settled a bit, the fox will be abroad again; and then the grouse sleeps in the evergreens.

Once, however, the old beech partridge miscalculated. The storm ceased early in the evening, and hunger drove the fox out on a night when, ordinarily, he would have stayed under cover. Sometime about daybreak, before yet the light had penetrated to where the old beech partridge was sleeping, the fox found a hole in the snow, which told him that just in front of his hungry nose a grouse was hidden, all unconscious of danger. I found the spot, trailing the fox, a few hours later. How cautious he was! The sly trail was eloquent with hunger and anticipation. A few feet away from the promising hole he had stopped, looking keenly over the snow to find some suspicious roundness on the smooth surface. Ah! there it was, just by the edge of a juniper thicket. He crouched down, stole forward, pushing a deep trail with his body, settled himself firmly and sprang. And there, just beside the hole his paws had made in the snow, was another hole where the grouse had burst out, scattering snow all over his enemy, who had miscalculated by a foot, and thundered away to the safety and shelter of the pines.


Thundered away to the safety and shelter of the pines

There was another enemy, who ought to have known better, following the old beech partridge all one early spring when snow was deep and food scarce. One day, in crossing the partridge's southern range, I met a small boy,—a keen little fellow, with the instincts of a fox for hunting. He had always something interesting afoot,—minks, or muskrats, or a skunk, or a big owl,—so I hailed him with joy.

"Hello, Johnnie! what you after to-day—bears?"

But he only shook his head—a bit sheepishly, I thought—and talked of all things except the one that he was thinking about; and presently he vanished down the old road. One of his jacket pockets bulged more than the other, and I knew there was a trap in it.

Late that afternoon I crossed his trail and, having nothing more interesting to do, followed it. It led straight to the bullbrier thicket where the old beech partridge roosted. I had searched for it many times in vain before the fox led me to it; but Johnnie, in some of his prowlings, had found tracks and a feather or two under a cedar branch, and knew just what it meant. His trap was there, in the very spot where, the night before, the old beech partridge had stood when he jumped for the lowest limb. Corn was scattered liberally about, and a bluejay that had followed Johnnie was already fast in the trap, caught at the base of his bill just under the eyes. He had sprung the trap in pecking at some corn that was fastened cunningly to the pan by fine wire.

When I took the jay carefully from the trap he played possum, lying limp in my hand till my grip relaxed, when he flew to a branch over my head, squalling and upbraiding me for having anything to do with such abominable inventions.

I hung the trap to a low limb of the cedar, with a note in its jaws telling Johnnie to come and see me next day. He came at dusk, shamefaced, and I read him a lecture on fair play and the difference between a thieving mink and an honest partridge. But he chuckled over the bluejay, and I doubted the withholding power of a mere lecture; so, to even matters, I hinted of an otter slide I had discovered, and of a Saturday-afternoon tramp together. Twenty times, he told me, he had tried to snare the old beech partridge. When he saw the otter slide he forswore traps and snares for birds; and I left the place, soon after, with good hopes for the grouse, knowing that I had spiked the guns of his most dangerous enemy.

Years later I crossed the old pasture and went straight to the bullbrier tangle. There were tracks of a grouse in the snow,—blunt tracks that rested lightly on the soft whiteness, showing that Nature remembered his necessity and had caused his new snowshoes to grow famously. I hurried to the brook, a hundred memories thronging over me of happy days and rare sights when the wood folk revealed their little secrets. In the midst of them—kwit! kwit!  and with a thunder of wings a grouse whirred away, wild and gray as the rare bird that lived there years before. And when I questioned a hunter, he said: "That ol' beech pa'tridge? Oh, yes, he's there. He'll stay there, too, till he dies of old age; 'cause you see, Mister, there ain't nobody in these parts spry enough to ketch 'im."