PETER RABBIT'S intentions were of the best. Once safely away from that lonesome part of the Green Forest where was the home of Redtail the Hawk, he intended to go straight back to the dear Old Briar-patch. But he was not halfway there when from another direction in the Green Forest there came a sound that caused him to stop short and quite forget all about home. It was a sound very like distant thunder. It began slowly at first and then went faster and faster. Boom—Boom—Boom—Boom-Boom-Boom Boo-Boo-B-B-B-B-b-b-b-b-boom! It was like the long roll on a bass drum.
Peter laughed right out. "That's Strutter the Ruffed Grouse!" he cried joyously. "I had forgotten all about him. I certainly must go over and pay him a call and find out where Mrs. Grouse is. My, how Strutter can drum!"
Peter promptly headed towards that distant thunder. As he drew nearer to it, it sounded louder and louder. Presently Peter stopped to try to locate exactly the place where that sound, which now was more than ever like thunder, was coming from. Suddenly Peter remembered something. "I know just where he is," said he to himself. "There's a big, mossy, hollow log over yonder, and I remember that Mrs. Grouse once told me that that is Strutter's thunder log."
Very, very carefully Peter stole forward, making no sound at all. At last he reached a place where he could peep out and see that big, mossy, hollow log. Sure enough, there was Strutter the Ruffed Grouse. When Peter first saw him he was crouched on one end of the log, a fluffy ball of reddish-brown, black and gray feathers. He was resting. Suddenly he straightened up to his full height, raised his tail and spread it until it was like an open fan above his back. The outer edge was gray, then came a broad band of black, followed by bands of gray, brown and black. Around his neck was a wonderful ruff of black. His reddish-brown wings were dropped until the tips nearly touched the log. His full breast rounded out and was buff color with black markings. He was of about the size of the little Bantam hens Peter had seen in Farmer Brown's henyard.
STRUTTER THE RUFFED GROUSE
The black ruff around his neck gives him his name.
In the most stately way you can imagine Strutter walked the length of that mossy log. He was a perfect picture of pride as he strutted very much like Tom Gobbler the big Turkey cock. When he reached the end of the log he suddenly dropped his tail, stretched himself to his full height and his wings began to beat, first slowly then faster and faster, until they were just a blur. They seemed to touch above his back but when they came down they didn't quite strike his sides. It was those fast moving wings that made the thunder. It was so loud that Peter almost wanted to stop his ears. When it ended Strutter settled down to rest and once more appeared like a ball of fluffy feathers. His ruff was laid flat.
Peter watched him thunder several times and then ventured to show himself. "Strutter, you are wonderful! simply wonderful!" cried Peter, and he meant just what he said.
Strutter threw out his chest proudly. "That is just what Mrs. Grouse says," he replied. "I don't know of any better thunderer if I do say it myself."
"Speaking of Mrs. Grouse, where is she?" asked Peter eagerly.
"Attending to her household affairs, as a good housewife should," retorted Strutter promptly.
"Do you mean she has a nest and eggs?" asked Peter.
Strutter nodded. "She has twelve eggs," he added proudly.
"I suppose," said Peter artfully, "her nest is somewhere near here on the ground."
"It's on the ground, Peter, but as to where it is I am not saying a word. It may or it may not be near here. Do you want to hear me thunder again?"
Of course Peter said he did, and that was sufficient excuse for Strutter to show off. Peter stayed a while longer to gossip, but finding Strutter more interested in thundering than in talking, he once more started for home.
"I really would like to know where that nest is," said he to himself as he scampered along. "I suppose Mrs. Grouse has hidden it so cleverly that it is quite useless to look for it."
On his way he passed a certain big tree. All around the ground was carpeted with brown, dead leaves. There were no bushes or young trees there. Peter never once thought of looking for a nest. It was the last place in the world he would expect to find one. When he was well past the big tree there was a soft chuckle and from among the brown leaves right at the foot of that big tree a head with a pair of the brightest eyes was raised a little. Those eyes twinkled as they watched Peter out of sight.
"He didn't see me at all," chuckled Mrs. Grouse, as she settled down once more. "That is what comes of having a cloak so like the color of these nice brown leaves. He isn't the first one who has passed me without seeing me at all. It is better than trying to hide a nest, and I certainly am thankful to Old Mother Nature for the cloak she gave me. I wonder if every one of these twelve eggs will hatch. If they do, I certainly will have a family to be proud of."
Meanwhile Peter hurried on in his usual happy-go-lucky fashion until he came to the edge of the Green Forest. Out on the Green Meadows just beyond he caught sight of a black form walking about in a stately way and now and then picking up something. It reminded him of Blacky the Crow, but he knew right away that it wasn't Blacky, because it was so much smaller, being not more than half as big.
"It's Creaker the Grackle. He was one of the first to arrive this spring and I'm ashamed of myself for not having called on him," thought Peter, as he hopped out and started across the Green Meadows towards Creaker. "What a splendid long tail he has. I believe Jenny Wren told me that he belongs to the Blackbird family. He looks so much like Blacky the Crow that I suppose this is why they call him Crow Blackbird."
Just then Creaker turned in such a way that the sun fell full on his head and back. "Why! Why-ee!" exclaimed Peter, rubbing his eyes with astonishment. "He isn't just black! He's beautiful, simply beautiful, and I've always supposed he was just plain, homely black."
It was true. Creaker the Grackle with the sun shining on him was truly beautiful. His head and neck, his throat and upper breast, were a shining blue-black, while his back was a rich, shining brassy-green. His wings and tail were much like his head and neck. As Peter watched it seemed as if the colors were constantly changing. This changing of colors is called iridescence. One other thing Peter noticed and this was that Creaker's eyes were yellow. Just at the moment Peter couldn't remember any other bird with yellow eyes.
"Creaker," cried Peter, "I wonder if you know how handsome you are!"
"I'm glad you think so," replied Creaker. "I'm not at all vain, but there are mighty few birds I would change coats with."
"Is—is—Mrs. Creaker dressed as handsomely as you are?" asked Peter rather timidly.
Creaker shook his head. "Not quite," said he. "She likes plain black better. Some of the feathers on her back shine like mine, but she says that she has no time to show off in the sun and to take care of fine feathers."
"Where is she now?" asked Peter.
"Over home," replied Creaker, pulling a white grub out of the roots of the grass. "We've got a nest over there in one of those pine-trees on the edge of the Green Forest and I expect any day now we will have four hungry babies to feed. I shall have to get busy then. You know I am one of those who believe that every father should do his full share in taking care of his family."
"I'm glad to hear you say it," declared Peter, nodding his head with approval quite as if he was himself the best of fathers, which he isn't at all. "May I ask you a very personal question, Creaker?"
"Ask as many questions as you like. I don't have to answer them unless I want to," retorted Creaker.
"Is it true that you steal the eggs of other birds?" Peter blurted the question out rather hurriedly.
Creaker's yellow eyes began to twinkle. "That is a very personal question," said he. "I won't go so far as to say I steal eggs, but I've found that eggs are very good for my constitution and if I find a nest with nobody around I sometimes help myself to the eggs. You see the owner might not come back and then those eggs would spoil, and that would be a pity."
"That's no excuse at all," declared Peter. "I believe you're no better than Sammy Jay and Blacky the Crow."
Creaker chuckled, but he did not seem to be at all offended. Just then he heard Mrs. Creaker calling him and with a hasty farewell he spread his wings and headed for the Green Forest. Once in the air he seemed just plain black. Peter watched him out of sight and then once more headed for the dear Old Briar-patch.