OMETIMES, at night, as you drift along the shore in your
canoe, sifting the night sounds and smells of the
wilderness, when all harsher cries are hushed and the
silence grows tense and musical, like a great stretched
chord over which the wind is thrumming low suggestive
melodies, a sudden rush and flapping in the grasses beside
you breaks noisily into the gamut of
To many, indeed, even to some Indians, he has no other name
and no definite presence. He rarely utters the cry by
day—his voice then is a harsh croak—and you never see him
as he utters it out of the solemn upper darkness; so that
there is often a mystery about this voice of the night,
which one never thinks of associating with the quiet,
Quoskh has other names, however, which describe his
attributes and doings. Sometimes, when fishing alongshore
with my Indian at the paddle, the canoe would push its nose
silently around a point, and I would see the heron's heavy
slanting flight, already halfway up to the
Of all his names—and there were many more that I picked up from watching him in a summer's outing—"Old Father Longlegs" seemed always the most appropriate. There is a suggestion of hoary antiquity about this solemn wader of our lakes and streams. Indeed, of all birds he is the nearest to those ancient, uncouth monsters which Nature made to people our earth in its uncouth infancy. Other herons and bitterns have grown smaller and more graceful, with shorter legs and necks, to suit our diminishing rivers and our changed landscape. Quoskh is also, undoubtedly, much smaller than he once was; but still his legs and neck are disproportionately long, when one thinks of the waters he wades and the nest he builds and the tracks he leaves in the mud are startlingly like those fossilized footprints of giant birds that one finds in the rocks of the Pliocene era, deep under the earth's surface, to tell what sort of creatures lived in the vast solitudes before man came to replenish the earth and subdue it.
Closely associated with this suggestion of antiquity in Quoskh's demeanor is the opposite suggestion of perpetual youth which he carries with him. Age has no apparent effect on him whatsoever. He is as old and young as the earth itself is; he is a March day, with winter and spring in its sunset and sunrise. Who ever saw a blue heron with his jewel eye dimmed or his natural force abated? Who ever caught one sleeping, or saw him tottering weakly on his long legs, as one so often sees our common wild birds clinging feebly to a branch with their last grip? A Cape Cod sailor once told me that, far out from land, his schooner had passed a blue heron lying dead on the sea with outstretched wings. That is the only heron that I have ever heard of who was found without all his wits about him. Possibly, if Quoskh ever dies, it may suggest a solution to the question of what becomes of him. With his last strength he may fly boldly out to explore that great ocean mystery, along the borders of which his ancestors for untold centuries lived and moved, back and forth, back and forth, on their endless, unnecessary migrations, restless, unsatisfied, wandering, as if the voice of the sea were calling them whither they dared not follow.
Just behind my tent on the big lake, one summer, a faint, woodsy little trail wandered away into the woods, with endless turnings and twistings, and without the faintest indication anywhere, till you reached the very end, whither it intended going. This little trail was always full of interesting surprises. Red squirrels peeked down at you over the edge of a limb, chattering volubly and getting into endless mischief along its borders. Moose birds flitted silently over it on their mysterious errands. Now a jumping, smashing, crackling rush through the underbrush halts you suddenly, with quick beating heart, as you climb over one of the many windfalls across your path. A white flag followed by another little one, flashing, rising, sinking and rising again over the fallen timber, tells you that a doe and her fawn were lying behind the windfall, all unconscious of your quiet approach. Again, at a turn of the trail, something dark, gray, massive looms before you, blocking the faint path; and as you stop short and shrink behind the nearest tree, a huge head and antlers swing toward you, with widespread nostrils and keen, dilating eyes, and ears like two trumpets pointing straight at your head—a bull moose, sh!
For a long two minutes he stands there motionless, watching the new creature that he has never seen before; and it will be well for you to keep perfectly quiet and let him surrender the path when he is so disposed. Motion on your part may bring him nearer to investigate; and you can never know at what slight provocation the red danger light will blaze into his eyes. At last he moves away, quietly at first, turning often to look and to make trumpets of his ears at you. Then he lays his great antlers back on his shoulders, sticks his nose far up ahead of him, and with long, smooth strides lunges away over the windfalls and is gone.
So every day the little trail had some new surprise for
you,—owl, or hare, or prickly porcupine rattling his quills
like a quiver of arrows and proclaiming his Indian name,
The first time I came down the trail and peeked through the oval frame of bushes, I saw him; and the very first glimpse made me jump at the thought of what a wonderful discovery I had made, namely, that little herons play with dolls, as children do. But I was mistaken. Quoskh had been catching frogs and hiding them, one by one, as I came along. He heard me before I knew he was there, and jumped for his last frog, a big fat one, with which he slanted up heavily on broad vans—with a hump on his back and a crook in his neck and his long legs trailing below and behind—towards his nest in the hemlock, beyond the beaver pond. When I saw him plainly he was just crossing the oval frame through which I looked. He had gripped the frog across the middle in his long beak, much as one would hold it with a pair of blunt shears, swelling it out at either side, like a string tied tight about a pillow. The head and short arms were forced up at one side, the limp legs dangled down on the other, looking for all the world like a stuffed rag doll that Quoskh was carrying home for his babies to play with.
Undoubtedly they liked the frog much better; but my curious thought about them, in that brief romantic instant, gave me an interest in the little fellows which was not satisfied till I climbed to the nest, long afterwards, and saw them, and how they lived.
When I took to studying Quoskh, so as to know him more intimately, I found a fascinating subject; not simply because of his queer ways, but also because of his extreme wariness and the difficulties I met in catching him doing things. Quoskh K'sobeqh was the name that at first seemed most appropriate, till I had learned his habits and how best to get the weather of him—which happened only two or three times in the course of a whole summer.
One morning I went early to the beaver pond and sat down against a gray stump on the shore, with berry bushes growing to my shoulders all about me. "Now I shall keep still and see everything that comes," I thought, "and nothing, not even a blue jay, will see me."
That was almost true. Little birds, that had never seen a man in the woods before, came for the berries, and billed them off within six feet of my face before they noticed anything unusual. When they did see me they would turn their heads so as to look at me, first with one eye, then with the other, and shoot up at last, with a sharp burr! of their tiny wings, to a branch over my head. There they would watch me keenly, for a wink or a minute, according to their curiosity, then swoop down and whirr their wings loudly in my face, so as to make me move and show what I was.
Across a little arm of the pond, a stone's throw away, a fine buck came to the water, put his muzzle into it, then began to fidget uneasily. Some vague, subtle flavor of me floated across and made him uneasy, though he knew not what I was. He kept tonguing his nostrils, as a cow does, so as to moisten them and catch the scent of me better. On my right, and nearer, a doe was feeding unconcernedly among the lily pads. A mink ran, hopping and halting, along the shore at my feet, dodging in and out among roots and rocks. Cheokhes always runs that way. He knows how glistening black his coat is, how shining a mark he makes for owl and hawk against the sandy shore; and so he never runs more than five feet without dodging out of sight; and he always prefers the roots and rocks that are blackest to travel on.
A kingfisher dropped with his musical k'plop! into the
shoal of minnows that were rippling the water in their play,
just in front of me. Farther out, a fishhawk came down
heavily, souse! and rose with a big chub. And none of
Opposite me, just where the buck had stood, he folded his
great wings; his neck crooked sharply; his long legs, which
had been trailed gracefully, straight out behind him in his
swift flight, swung under him like two pendulums as he
landed lightly on the muddy shore. He knew his ground
perfectly; knew every stream and
Far from disappointing me, this keenness of Quoskh only whetted my appetite to know more about him, and especially to watch him, close at hand, at his fishing. Near the head of the little bay, where frogs were plenty, I built a screen of boughs under the low thick branches of a spruce tree, and went away to watch other wood folk.
Next morning he did not come back; nor were there any fresh
tracks of his on the shore. This was my first intimation
that Quoskh knows well the rule of good fishermen, and does
not harry a pool or a place too frequently, however good the
fishing. The third morning he came back; and again the
sixth evening; and then the ninth morning, alternating with
great regularity as long as I kept tabs on him. At other
times I would stumble upon him, far afield, fishing in
other lakes and streams; or see him
winging homeward, high
over the woods, from waters far beyond my ken; but these
appearances were too irregular to count in a theory. I have
no doubt, however, that he fished the
It was on the sixth afternoon that I had the best chance of
studying his queer ways of fishing. I was sitting in my
little blind at the beaver pond, waiting for a deer, when
Quoskh came striding along the shore. He would swing his
If the swirl of a fish among the sedges caught his keen eye, he would change his tactics, letting his game come to him instead of stalking it, as he did with the frogs. Whatever his position was, both feet down or one foot raised for a stride, when the fish appeared, he never changed it, knowing well that motion would only send his game hurriedly into deeper water. He would stand, sometimes for a half hour, on one leg, letting his head sink slowly down on his shoulders, his neck curled back, his long sharp bill pointing always straight at the quivering line which marked the playing fish, his eyes half closed till the right moment came. Then you would see his long neck shoot down, hear the splash and, later, the whack of his catch against the nearest root, to kill it; and watch with curious feelings of sympathy as he hid it in the grass and covered it over, lest Hawahak should see, or Cheokhes smell it, and rob him while he fished.
If he were near his last catch, he would stride back and hide the two together; if not, he covered it over in the nearest good place and went on. No danger of his ever forgetting, however numerous the catch! Whether he counts his frogs and fish, or simply remembers the different hiding places, I have no means of knowing.
Sometimes, when I surprised him on a muddy shore and he flew away without taking even one of his tidbits, I would follow his back track and uncover his hiding places to see what he had caught. Frogs, fish, pollywogs, mussels, a baby muskrat,—they were all there, each hidden cunningly under a bit of dried grass and mud. And once I went away and hid on the opposite shore to see if he would come back. After an hour or more he appeared, looking first at my tracks, then at all the shore with greater keenness than usual; then he went straight to three different hiding places that I had found, and two more that I had not seen, and flew away to his nest, a fringe of frogs and fish hanging at either side of his long bill as he went.
He had arranged them on the ground like the spokes of a wheel, as a fox does, heads all out on either side, and one leg or the tail of each crossed in a common pile in the middle; so that he could bite down over the crossed members and carry the greatest number of little frogs and fish with the least likelihood of dropping any in his flight.
The mussels which he found were invariably, I think, eaten as his own particular tidbits; for I never saw him attempt to carry them away, though once I found two or three where he had hidden them. Generally he could crack their shells easily by blows of his powerful beak, or by whacking them against a root; and so he had no need (and probably no knowledge) of the trick, which every gull knows, of mounting up to a height with some obstinate hardshell and dropping it on a rock to crack it.
If Quoskh were fishing for his own dinner, instead of for
his hungry nestlings, he adopted different tactics. For
them he was a hunter, sly, silent, crafty, stalking his game
Once I saw him fishing in a peculiar way, which reminded me
instantly of the chumming process with which every mackerel
fisherman on the coast is familiar. He caught a pollywog
for bait, with which he waded to a deep, cool place under a
shady bank. There he whacked his pollywog into small bits
and tossed them into the water, where the chum speedily
brought a shoal of little fish to feed. Quoskh meanwhile
stood in the shadow, where he would not be noticed,
When I went to the nest and hid myself in the underbrush to watch day after day, I learned more of Quoskh's fishing and hunting. The nest was in a great evergreen, in a gloomy swamp,—a villainous place of bogs and treacherous footing, with here and there a little island of large trees. On one of these islands a small colony of herons were nesting. During the day they trailed far afield, scattering widely, each pair to its own particular fishing grounds; but when the shadows grew long, and night prowlers stirred abroad, the herons came trailing back again, making curious, wavy, graceful lines athwart the sunset glow, to croak and be sociable together, and help each other watch the long night out.
Quoskh the Watchful—I could tell my great bird's mate by
sight or hearing from all others, either by her greater size
or a peculiar double croak she had—had hidden her nest in
the top of a great green hemlock. Near by, in the high
crotch of a dead tree, was another nest, which she had
built, evidently, years before and added to each successive
spring, only to abandon it at last for the
birds used to go to the old nest freely; and I have wondered
since if it were not a bit of great shrewdness on their part
to leave it there in plain sight, where any prowler might
see and climb to it; while the young were securely hidden,
meanwhile, in the top of the
Such wisdom, if wisdom it were and not chance, is gained only by experience. It took at least one brood of young herons, sacrificed to the appetite of lucivee or fisher, to teach Quoskh the advantage of that decoy nest to tempt hungry prowlers upon the bare tree bole, where she could have a clear field to spear them with her powerful bill and beat them down with her great wings before they should discover their mistake.
By watching the birds through my glass as they came to the young, I could generally tell what kind of game was afoot for their following. Once a long snake hung from the mother bird's bill; once it was a bird of some kind; twice she brought small animals, whose species I could not make out in the brief moment of alighting on the nest's edge,—all these besides the regular fare of fish and frogs, of which I took no account. And then, one day while I lay in my hiding, I saw the mother heron slide swiftly down from the nest, make a sharp wheel over the lake, and plunge into the fringe of berry bushes on the shore after some animal that her keen eyes had caught moving. There was a swift rustling in the bushes, a blow of her wing to head off a runaway, two or three lightning thrusts of her javelin beak; then she rose heavily, taking a leveret with her; and I saw her pulling it to pieces awkwardly on the nest to feed her hungry little ones.
It was partly to see these little herons, the thought of which had fascinated me ever since I had seen Quoskh taking home what I thought, at first glance, was a rag doll for them to play with, and partly to find out more of Quoskh's hunting habits by seeing what he brought home, that led me at last to undertake the difficult task of climbing the huge tree to the nest. One day, when the mother had brought home some unknown small animal—a mink, I thought—I came suddenly out of my hiding and crossed over to the nest. It had always fascinated me. Under it, at twilight, I had heard the mother heron croaking softly to her little ones—a husky lullaby, but sweet enough to them—and then, as I paddled away, I would see the nest dark against the sunset, with Mother Quoskh standing over it, a tall, graceful silhouette against the glory of twilight, keeping sentinel watch over her little ones. Now I would solve the mystery of the high nest by looking into it.
The mother, alarmed by my sudden appearance,—she had no
idea that she had been watched,—shot silently away, hoping
not notice her home through the dense screen of
branches. I climbed up with difficulty; but not till I was
within ten feet could I make out the mass of sticks above
me. The surroundings were getting filthy and
As I hesitated about pushing through the
I never saw the inside of that home. At the moment I was in too much of a hurry to get down and wash in the lake; and after that, so large were the young birds, so keen and powerful the beaks, that no man or beast might expect to look over the edge of the nest, with hands or paws engaged in holding on, and keep his eyes for a single instant. It is more dangerous to climb for young herons than for young eagles. A heron always strikes for the eye, and his blow means blindness, or death, unless you watch like a cat and ward it off.
When I saw the young again they were taking their first
lessons. A dismal croaking
It was intensely interesting for a man who, as a small boy,
had often gone
A frog is like an ostrich. When he sees nothing, because his head is hidden, he thinks nothing can see him. At the sudden alarm Mother Quoskh would stretch her neck, watching the frog's flight; then turn her head so that her long bill pointed directly at the bump on the smooth muddy bottom, which marked the hiding place of Chigwooltz, and croak softly once. At the sound one of the young herons would hurry forward eagerly; follow his mother's bill, which remained motionless, pointing all the while; twist his head till he saw the frog's back in the mud, and then lunge at it like lightning. Generally he got his frog, and through your glass you would see the unfortunate creature wriggling and kicking his way into Quoskh's yellow beak. If the lunge missed, the mother's keen eye followed the frog's frantic rush through the mud, with a longer trail this time behind him, till he hid again; whereupon she croaked the same youngster up for another try, and then the whole family moved jerkily along, like a row of boys on stilts, to the next clump of lily pads.
As the young grew older, and stronger on their legs, I
noticed the rudiments, at least, of a curious habit of
dancing, which seems to belong to most of our
Watching them one evening, I remembered suddenly a curious scene that I had stumbled upon when a boy. I had seen a great blue heron sail croaking, croaking, into an arm of the big pond where I was catching bullpouts, and crept down through dense woods to find out what he was croaking about. Instead of one, I found eight or ten of the great birds on an open shore, hopping ecstatically through some kind of a crazy dance. A twig snapped as I crept nearer, and they scattered in instant flight. It was September, and the instinct to flock and to migrate was at work among them. When they came together for the first time some dim old remembrance of generations long gone by—the shreds of an ancient instinct, whose meaning we can only guess at—had set them to dancing wildly; though I doubted at the time whether they understood much what they were doing.
Perhaps I was wrong in this. Watching the young birds at their ungainly hopping, the impulse to dance seemed uncontrollable; yet they were immensely dignified about it at times; and again they appeared to get some fun out of it—as much, perhaps, as we do out of some of our peculiar dances, of which a visiting Chinaman once asked innocently: "Why don't you let your servants do it for you?"
I have seen little green herons do the same thing in the
woods, at mating time; and once, in the Zoölogical Gardens
at Antwerp, I saw a magnificent hopping performance by some
giant cranes from Africa. Our own
Before the young were fully grown, and while yet they were following the mother to learn the ways of frogging and fishing, a startling thing occurred, which made me ever afterwards look up to Quoskh with honest admiration. I was still-fishing in the middle of the big lake, one late afternoon, when Quoskh and her little ones sailed over the trees from the beaver pond and lit on a grassy shore. A shallow little brook stole into the lake there, and Mother Quoskh left her young to frog for themselves, while she went fishing up the brook under the alders. I was watching the young herons through my glass when I saw a sudden rush in the tall grass near them. All three humped themselves, heron fashion, on the instant. Two got away safely; the other had barely spread his wings when a black animal leaped out of the grass for his neck and pulled him down flapping and croaking desperately.
I pulled up my killick on the instant and paddled over to
see what was going on, and what the creature was that had
leaped out of the grass. Before my paddle had swung a dozen
strokes I saw the alders
by the brook open swiftly, and
Mother Quoskh sailed out and drove like an arrow straight at
the struggling wing tips, which still flapped spasmodically
above the grass. Almost before her feet had dropped to a
solid landing she struck two fierce, blinding, downward
blows of her great wings. Her neck curved back and shot
straight out, driving the keen
The canoe shot up behind a point, where, looking over the
low bank, I had the arena directly under my eye. The animal
was a fisher—
A shiver ran over me as I remembered how nearly I had once
come myself to the
I did not know then—what I have since learned well—that you can always tell when the rush or spring or blow of any beast or bird—or of any man, for that matter—will surely come, by watching the eye closely. There is a fire that blazes in the eye before the blow comes, before ever a muscle has stirred to do the brain's quick bidding. As I bent over, fascinated by the keen, bright look of the wounded bird, and reached down my hand, there was a flash deep in the eye, like the glint of sunshine from a mirror; and I dodged instinctively. Well for me that I did so. Something shot by my face like lightning, opening up a long red gash across my left temple from eyebrow to ear. As I jumped I heard a careless laugh—"Look out, Sonny, he may bite you—Gosh! what a close call!" And with a white, scared face, as he saw the scar, he dragged me away, as if there had been a bear in the water grass.
The black-cat had not yet received punishment enough. He is one of the largest of the weasel family, and has a double measure of the weasel's savageness and tenacity. He darted about the heron in a quick, nervous, jumping circle, looking for an opening behind; while Quoskh lifted her great torn wings as a shield and turned slowly on the defensive, so as always to face the danger. A dozen times the fisher jumped, filling the air with feathers; a dozen times the stiffened wings struck down to intercept his spring, and every blow was followed by a swift javelin thrust. Then, as the fisher crouched snarling in the grass, I saw Mother Quoskh take a sudden step forward, her first offensive move—just as I had seen her twenty times at the finish of a frog stalk—and her bill shot down with the whole power of her long neck behind it. There was a harsh screech of pain; then the fisher wobbled away with blind, uncertain jumps towards the shelter of the woods.
By this time Quoskh had the fight well in hand. A fierce, hot anger seemed to flare within her, as her enemy staggered away, burning out all the previous cool, calculating defense. She started after the fisher, first on the run, then with heavy wing beats, till she headed him and with savage blows of wing and beak drove him back, seeing nothing, guided only by fear and instinct, towards the water. For five minutes more she chevied him hither and yon through the trampled grass, driving him from water to bush and back again, jabbing him at every turn; till a rustle of leaves invited him, and he dashed blindly into thick underbrush, where her broad wings could not follow. Then with marvelous watchfulness she saw me standing near in my canoe; and without a thought, apparently, for the young heron lying so still in the grass close beside her, she spread her torn wings and flapped away heavily in the path of her more fortunate younglings.
I followed the fisher's trail into the woods and found him curled up in a hollow stump. He made slight resistance as I pulled him out. All his ferocity was lulled to sleep in the vague, dreamy numbness which Nature always sends to her stricken creatures. He suffered nothing, though he was fearfully wounded; he just wanted to be let alone. Both eyes were gone. There was nothing for me to do, except to finish mercifully what little Quoskh had left undone.
When September came, and family cares were over, the colony beyond the beaver pond scattered widely, returning each one to the shy, wild, solitary life that Quoskh likes best. Almost anywhere, in the loneliest places, I might come upon a solitary heron stalking frogs, or chumming little fish, or treading the soft mud expectantly, like a clam digger, to find where the mussels were hidden by means of his long toes; or just standing still to enjoy the sleepy sunshine till the late afternoon came, when he likes best to go abroad.
They slept no more on the big nest, standing like sentinels against the twilight glow and the setting moon; but each one picked out a good spot on the shore and slept as best he could on one leg, waiting for the early fishing. It was astonishing how carefully even the young birds picked out a safe position. By day they would stand like statues in the shade of a bank or among the tall grasses, where they were almost invisible by reason of their soft colors, and wait for hours for fish and frogs to come to them. By night each one picked out a spot on the clean open shore, off a point, generally, where he could see up and down, where there was no grass to hide an enemy, and where the bushes were far enough away so that he could hear the slight rustle of leaves before the creature that made it was within springing distance. And there he would sleep safe through the long night, unless disturbed by my canoe or by some other prowler. Herons see almost as well by night as by day; so I could never get near enough to surprise them, however silently I paddled. I would hear only a startled rush of wings, and then a questioning call as they sailed over me before winging away to quieter beaches.
If I were jacking, with a light blazing brightly before me
in my canoe, to see what night folk I might surprise on the
shore, Quoskh was the only one for whom my jack had no
fascination. Deer and moose, foxes and wild ducks, frogs
and fish,—all seemed equally charmed by the great wonder
of a light shining silently out of the vast darkness. I saw
them all, at different times, and glided almost up to them
before timidity drove them away from the strange bright
marvel. But Quoskh was not to be watched in that way, nor
to be caught by any such trick. I would see a vague form on
the far edge of the light's pathway; catch the bright flash
of either eye as he swung his
When the bright moonlit nights came, there was uneasiness in Quoskh's wild breast. The solitary life that he loves best claimed him by day; but at night the old gregarious instinct drew him again to his fellows. Once, when drifting over the beaver pond through the delicate witchery of the moonlight, I heard five or six of the great birds croaking excitedly at the heronry, which they had deserted weeks before. The lake, and especially the lonely little pond at the end of the trail, was lovelier than ever before; but something in the south was calling him away. I think that Quoskh was also moonstruck, as so many wild creatures are; for, instead of sleeping quietly on the shore, he spent his time circling aimlessly over the lake and woods, crying his name aloud, or calling wildly to his fellows.
At midnight of the day before I broke camp, I was out on the
lake for a last paddle in the moonlight. The night was
perfect,—clear, cool, intensely still. Not a ripple broke
the great burnished surface of the lake; a silver pathway
stretched away and away over the bow of my gliding canoe,
leading me on to where the great forest stood, silent,
awake, expectant, and flooded through all its dim,
mysterious arches with marvelous light. The wilderness
never sleeps. If it grow silent, it is to listen.
Quoskh was abroad too, bewitched by the moonlight. I heard him calling and paddled down. He knew me long before he was anything more to me than a voice of the night, and swept up to meet me. For the first time after darkness fell I saw him—just a vague, gray shadow with edges touched softly with silver light, which whirled once over my canoe and looked down into it. Then he vanished; and from far over on the edge of the waiting woods, where the mystery was deepest, came a cry, a challenge, a riddle, the night's wild question which no man had ever yet answered—Quoskh? quoskh?