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Under The Apple-Trees
UNDER THE APPLE-TREES
THERE are few places on the farm where there is so much live natural history to be gathered as in the orchard. All the wild creatures seem to feel the friendly and congenial atmosphere of the orchard. The trees bear a crop of birds, if not of apples, every season. Few are the winged visitors from distant climes that do not, sooner or later, tarry a bit in the orchard. Many birds, such as the robin, the chippy, the hummingbird, the cedar-bird, the goldfinch, and some of the flycatchers, nest there. The great crested flycatcher loves the old hollow limbs, and the little red owl often lives in a cavity in the trunk. The jays visit the orchard on their piratical excursions in quest of birds' eggs, and now and then they discover the owl in his retreat and set up a great hue and cry over their discovery. On such occasions they will take turns in looking into the dim cavity and crying, "Thief, thief!" most vociferously, the culprit meanwhile, apparently, sitting wrapped in utter oblivion.
In May and June the cuckoo comes to the orchard for tent caterpillars, and the woodpeckers come at all seasons – the downy and the hairy to the good of the trees, the yellow-bellied often to their injury. The two former search for the eggs and the larvae of the insects that infest the trees, as do the nuthatches and the chickadees, which come quite as regularly; but the yellow-bellied comes for the lifeblood of the trees themselves. He is popularly known as the "sapsucker," and a sapsucker he is. Many apple-trees in every orchard are pock-marked by his bill, and occasionally a branch is evidently killed by his many and broad drillings. As I write these lines, on September the 26th, in my bush tent in one of the home orchards, a sapsucker is busy on a veteran apple-tree whose fruit has often gone to school with me in my pockets during my boyhood days on the farm. He goes about his work systematically, visiting now one of the large branches and then a portion of the trunk, and drilling his holes in rows about a quarter of an inch apart. Every square foot of the trunk contains from three hundred to four hundred holes, new and old, cut through into the inner, vital cambium layer. The holes are about the size of the end of a rye-straw, and run in rings around the tree, the rings being about a half an inch apart. The newly cut ones quickly fill with sap, which, to my tongue, has a rather insipid taste, but which is evidently relished by the woodpecker. He drills two or three holes, then pauses a moment, and when they are filled sips his apple-tree tipple leisurely. The drain upon the vitality of the tree at any one time, by this tapping, cannot be very serious, but in the course of years must certainly affect its vigor considerably. I have seen it stated in print, by a writer who evidently draws upon his fancy for his facts, that in making these holes the bird is setting a trap for insects, and that these are what it feeds upon. But the bird is a sapsucker; there are no insects at his wells to-day; he visits them very regularly, and is constantly drilling new ones.
His mate, or at least a female, comes, and I overhear the two in soft, gentle conversation. When I appear upon the scene, the female scurries away in alarm, calling as she retreats, as if for the male to follow; but he does not. He eyes me for a moment, and then sidles round behind the trunk of the tree, and as I go back to my table I hear his hammer again. Very soon the female is back and I hear their conversation going on as before. Day after day the male is here tapping the trees. His blows are soft and can be heard only a few yards away. He evidently has his favorites. In this orchard of twenty or more trees, only two are worked now, and only three have ever been worked much. The two favorites bear hard, sour fruit. The bark of a sweet apple-tree does not show a single hole. A grafted tree shows no holes on the original stock, but many punctures on the graft. One day I saw the bird frequently leave his drilling on one tree and go to another, drilling into a small red apple which had lodged among some twigs on a horizontal branch; he ate the pulp, and had made quite a large hole in the apple, when it became dislodged and fell to the ground. It is plain, therefore, that the sapsucker likes the juice of the apple, and of the tree that bears the apple. He is the only orchard bird who is a tippler. Among the forest trees, he sucks the sap of the sugar maples in spring, and I have seen evidence of his having drilled into small white pines, cutting out an oblong section from the bark, apparently to get at the soft cambium layer.
It is a pleasant experience to sit in my orchard camp of a still morning and hear an apple drop here and there – "indolent ripe," as Whitman says, in the fullness of time, or prematurely ripe from a worm at its heart. The worm finds its account in getting down to the ground where it can pupate, and in both cases the tree has finished a bit of its work and is getting ready for its winter sleep; and in both cases the squirrels and the woodchucks profit by the fall. But September woodchucks are few; most of them retire to their holes for the long winter sleep during this month; the harvest apples that fall in August hit them at the right moment; but the red squirrels are alert for the apple-seeds during both months, and they chip up many apples for these delicate morsels. They also love the hollow branches and trunks of the trees, in which they make their homes.
Little currents of wild life hourly flow about me. Yesterday, amid the slow rain and mist and general obscurity, there was suddenly an influx of birds in all the old apple-trees about me. Robins appeared by twos and threes in some choke-cherry bushes a few yards below me, and with much cackling and fluttering helped themselves to the fruit. A hermit thrush perched on a dry limb in front of my tent and in many different postures surveyed me in my canvas cavern, uttering a low note which I took to be his comments upon me. You may always know the hermit thrush from the other thrushes by that peculiar, soft, breathing motion of its tail. A male redstart came and flitted and flashed about the apple-branches without heeding me at all. Whitman asks: –
"Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?"
The redstart, with his black-and-orange suit, and his quick, lively motions, does not astonish, but few birds give the eye more pleasure. How gay and festive he looks, darting and flashing amid the gnarled and scaly branches of the decaying apple-trees! It seems as if all his motions were designed to show off his plumage to the best advantage.
With tail slightly raised and spread, and wings a little drooping, he springs and swoops here and there in the trees – a bit of black holding and momentarily revealing a flame of orange. Redstart is a good name for him, as we see his colors only when he is in motion. Note our other black-and-orange bird, the Baltimore oriole; its color is conspicuous while the bird is at rest. Another brilliantly colored bird, the scarlet tanager, is seen from afar when quietly perched. He shows amid the green leaves like a burning coal; and his motions are all slow and deliberate when contrasted with those of the redstart. The latter is a fly-catcher, or insect-catcher, and his movements are necessarily sudden and rapid.
The birds are quite likely to go in troops in late summer or early fall, different species apparently being drawn along by a common impulse.
While the robins and the hermit thrush are among the choke-cherries, a family of indigo-birds, five or six of them, all of the brown color of the mother bird, are grouped around the mother on a flat stone for half a minute, being fed. It is a pretty little tableau. The father bird with his bright plumage is not in evidence. In one of the trees another warbler which I cannot identify, with an olive back and a yellow front, is in a great hurry about its own business. One little olive-green warbler, doubtless a young bird, comes and perches on the edge of my table, and, quite oblivious of my presence, looks my papers and books over for the insect tidbit which he does not find. How round and brilliant and eager are his eyes! If he is looking for a bookworm, he fails to find it.
A phœbe-bird perches here and there and makes sudden swoops to the ground for the insects which she cannot find on the wing. Phœbe hunts by sight at long range. Her eye seems telescopic, rather than microscopic like the warbler's. She explores the air and the ground and sees her game from afar. At all hours of the day she perches on the brown dead branches of the apple-trees, and waits for her prey to appear, her straight, stiff tail hingeing up and down at her rump.
At present my favorite denizen of the orchard is the chipmunk. He, too, likes the apple-seeds, but he is not given to chipping up the apples as much as is the red squirrel. He waits till the apples are ripe and then nibbles the pulp. He also likes the orchard because it veils his movements; when making his trips to and fro, if danger threatens, the trunk of every tree is a house of refuge.
As I write these lines in my leafy tent, a chipmunk comes in, foraging for his winter supplies. I have brought him cherry-pits and peach-pits and cracked wheat, from time to time, and now he calls on me several times a day. His den is in the orchard but a few yards from me, and I enjoy having him for so near a neighbor. He has at last become so familiar that he climbs to my lap, then to the table, then to my shoulder and head, looking for the kernels of popcorn that he is convinced have some perennial source of supply near me or about me. He clears up every kernel, and then on his return, in a few minutes, there they are again! I might think him a good deal puzzled by the prompt renewal of the supply if I were to read my own thoughts into his little noddle, but I see he is only eager to gather his harvest while it is plentiful and so near at hand. No, he is not influenced even by that consideration; he does not consider at all, in fact, but just goes for the corn in nervous eagerness and haste. Yet, if he does not reflect, he certainly has a wisdom and foresight of his own. This morning I mixed kernels of fresh-cut green corn with a handful of the dry, hard popcorn upon the floor. At first he began to eat the soft sweet corn, but, finding the small, dry kernels of the popcorn, he at once began to stuff his cheek pockets with them, and when they were full he hastened off to his den. Back he came in about three minutes and he kept on doing this till the popcorn was all gone; then he proceeded to make his breakfast off the green corn. When this was exhausted, he began to strip some choke-cherries (which I had also placed among the corn) of their skins and pulp, and to fill his pockets with the pits, thus carrying no perishable food to his den. He acted exactly as if he knew that the green corn and the choke-cherries would spoil in his underground retreat, and that the hard, dry kind, and the cherry-pits, would keep. He did know it, but not as you and I know it, by experience; he knew it, as all the wild creatures know how to get on in the world, by the wisdom that pervades nature, and is much older than we or they are.
My chipmunk knows corn, cherry-pits, buckwheat, beech-nuts, apple-seeds, and probably several other foods, at sight; but peach-pits, hickory-nuts x dried sweet corn, he at first passed by, and peanuts I could not tempt him to touch at all. He was at first indifferent to the rice, but, on nibbling at it and finding it toothsome, he began to fill his pockets with it. Amid the rice I scattered -puffed wheat. This he repeatedly took up and chipped into, attracted probably by the odor, but, finding it hollow, or at least very spongy and unsubstantial in its interior, he quickly dropped it. It was not solid enough to get into his winter stores. After I had cracked a few hickory-nuts he became very eager for them, and it was amusing to see him, as he sat on my table, struggle to force the larger ones into his pockets, supplementing the contractile power of his cheek muscles with his paws. When he failed to pocket one, he would take it in his teeth and make off. I offered him some peach-pits also, but he only carried one of them up on the stone wall and handled it awhile, then looked it over and left it. But after I had cracked a few of them and had thus given him a taste of what was in them, he began to carry them to his den.
It is interesting to see how well these wild creatures are groomed – every hair in its place and shining as if it had just been polished. The tail of my chipmunk is simply perfect – not a hair missing or soiled or worn. In fact, the whole animal looks as new and fresh as a coin just minted, or a flower just opened. His underground habits leave no mark or stain upon him, and his daily labors do not ruffle a hair. This is true of nearly all the wild creatures. Domestication changes all this; domestic animals become dirty and unkempt. The half-tame gray squirrels in the parks have little of the wild grace and beauty of the squirrels in the woods. Especially do their tails deteriorate, and their sylvan airiness and delicacy disappear.
The whole character of the squirrel culminates and finds expression in its tail – all its nervous restlessness and wild beauty, all its jauntiness, archness, and suspicion, and every change of emotion, seem to ripple out along this appendage.
furtive and nervous my chipmunk is, rushing about by little jerks
incessantly, not stopping for anything! His bright, unwinking eyes,
his palpitating body, his sudden spasmodic movements, his eagerness,
his industry, his sleekness and cleanliness – what a picture he makes!
Apparently he does not know me from a stump or a clothes-horse. His
cold paws on my warm hand, on my arm, or on my head give him no hint
of danger; no odors from my body, or look from my eyes, disturb him;
the sound of my voice does not alarm him; but any movement on my
part, and he is off. It is moving things
that mean danger to
him. In the little circuit of his life – gathering
his winter stores and his daily subsistence, spinning along the
fences, threading the woods and bushes, his eye and his ear are
evidently his main dependence; odors and still objects concern him
little, but moving things very much. I once saw a chipmunk rush to
his den in the side of a bank with great precipitation, and in a
moment, like a flash, a shrike darted down and hovered over the
I can talk to my chipmunk in low, slow tones and he heeds me not, but any unusual sound outside the camp, and he is alertness itself. One day when he was on my table a crow flew over and called sharply and loudly; the squirrel sat up and took notice instantly; with his paws upon his breast he listened and looked intently for a few seconds, and then resumed his foraging. At another time the sharp call of a red squirrel in a tree near by made him still more nervous. With one raised paw he looked and listened for two or three minutes. The red squirrel hazes him on all occasions, and, I think, often robs him of his stores.
No doubt the chipmunk has many narrow escapes from hawks. A hunter told me recently of a hawk-and-chipmunk incident that he had witnessed the day before in the woods on the mountain. He was standing still listening to the baying of his hound on the trail of a fox. Suddenly there was a rush and clatter of wings in the maple-trees near him, and he saw a large hawk in pursuit of a chipmunk coming down, close to the trunk of a tree, like a thunderbolt. As the hawk struck the ground, the hunter shot him dead. He had the squirrel in his claw as in a trap, and the hunter had to pry the talon open to free the victim, which was alive and able to run away. From the description I guessed the hawk to be a goshawk. What the chipmunk was doing up that tree is a mystery to me, since he seldom ventures far from the ground; but the truth of the incident is unquestioned.
When the chipmunk is in the open, the sense of danger is never absent from him. He is always on the alert. In his excursions along the fences to collect wild buckwheat, wild cherries, and various grains, he is watchfulness itself. In every trip to his den with his supplies, his manner is like that of the baseball-player in running the bases – he makes a dash from my study, leaping high over the grass and weeds, to an apple-tree ten yards away; here he pauses a few seconds and nervously surveys his course ahead; then he makes another sprint to a second apple-tree, and pauses as before, quickly glancing round; then in a few leaps he is at home, and in his den. Returning, he usually pursues the same course. He leaves no trail, and is never off his guard. No baseball runner was ever more watchful. Apparently while in the open he does not draw one breath free from a keen sense of danger. I have tempted him to search my coat pockets for the nuts or cherry-pits that I have placed there, and, when he does so, he seems to appreciate at what a disadvantage his enemy might find him – his eyes are for the moment covered, his rear is exposed, his whole situation is very insecure; hence he seizes a nut and reverses his position in a twinkling; his body palpitates; his eyes bulge; then he dives in again and seizes another nut as before, acting as if he thought each moment might be his last. When he goes into the tin cocoa-box for the cherry-pits, he does it with the hurry of fear; his eyes are above the rim every second or two; he does not stop to clean the pits as he does when on my table, but scoops them up with the greatest precipitation, as if he feared I might clap on the lid at any moment and make him prisoner. In all the hundred and one trips he has made from my camp to his den he has not for one moment forgotten himself; he runs all the bases with the same alertness and precaution. Coming back, he emerges from his hole, sits up, washes his face, then looks swiftly about, and is off for the base of supplies.
One day I went by a roundabout course and stood three paces from his hole. In the mean time he had loaded up, and he came running over the course in his usual style, but before he left the second base he saw me, or an apparition that was not there before, and became very nervous. He jumped about; he sat up on his haunches and looked; crouched by a woodchuck's hole and eyed me, his cheeks protruding; changed his attitude a dozen times; then, as the apparition changed not, he started and came one third of the way; then his heart failed him and he rushed back. More posing and scrutinizing, when he made a second dash that brought him two thirds of the way; then his fears overcame him again, and he again rushed to cover. Repeating his former behavior for a few moments, he made a third dash and reached the home base in safety. How carefully he seems to carry his tail on entering his hole, so as not to let it touch the sides! He is out again in less than a minute, and, erect upon his haunches, looks me squarely in the eye. He is greatly agitated; he has not had that experience before. What does it mean? Erect on his hind legs, he stands almost motionless and eyes me. I stand motionless, too, with a half-eaten apple in my hand. I wink and breathe; so does he. For ten minutes we confront each other in this fashion, then he turns his back upon me and drops down. He looks toward the camp; he remembers the nuts and corn awaiting him there; he stirs uneasily; he changes his position; he looks at my motionless figure again, then toward the source of supplies, and is off, leaving me at his threshold. In two minutes he is back again with protruding pockets, and now makes the home run without a pause. He emerges again from his den, washes his face three times, his mouth first, then his nose and cheeks, then is off for another load. I return to my chair and soon he is again on my lap and table, or sitting in the hollow of my hand, loading up as before. The apparition in the chair has no terrors for him.
I would not say that he is burdened with a conscious sense of danger; rather is his fear instinctive and unconscious. It is in his blood – born with him and a part of his life. His race has been the prey of various animals and birds for untold ages, and it has survived by reason of an instinctive watchfulness that has been pushed to the highest degree of development. He is on the lookout for danger as constantly as he is on the lookout for food, and he takes no more thought about the one than about the other. His life is keyed to the fear pitch all the time. His heart beats as fast as the ticking of a watch, and all his movements are as abrupt and spasmodic as if they were born of alarm. His behavior is an excellent illustration of the unconscious fear that pervades a large part of the animal kingdom.
All creatures that are preyed upon by others lead this life of fear. I don't know that the crow is ever preyed upon by any other creature, so he apparently has a pretty good time. He is social and noisy and in the picnicking mood all the day long. Hawks apparently are afraid of man only. Hence their lives must be comparatively free from harassing fear. Even fish in the streams are not exempt from fear. They are preyed upon by large fish, and by minks and otters, and by the fish hawk. If the weasel has a natural enemy, I don't know what it is. He is the boldest of the bold. He might be captured by a hawk or an eagle, but such occurrences are probably very rare, as a weasel can dodge almost anything but a gun.
Of all our wild creatures the rabbit has the most enemies; weasels, minks, foxes, wildcats, and owls are hovering about poor Bunnie at all times. No wonder she never closes her eyes, even in sleep. To compensate in a measure for all this, nature has made her very fleet of foot and very prolific, so that the race of rabbits is in full tide, notwithstanding its many enemies.
Such animals as the skunk and the porcupine show little fear, because their natural enemies, if they have any, would go by on the other side. There is evidence that the skunk is sometimes preyed upon by the fox and the eagle and the horned owl, and the porcupine by the lynx and the wolf, but these must be exceptional occurrences. The lion probably fears nothing but man. Little wonder that he looks calm and majestic and always at his ease! But I am getting away from my apple-trees.
The arch-enemy of the chipmunk is the small red weasel, and I wonder if it is to hide from him that he usually digs his den away from the fences and other cover, in clean open ground, leaving no clue whatever as to its whereabouts. He carries away all the soil, and either makes a pile of it some feet away, or else hides it completely. The den of my little neighbor is in the open grassy space between the rows of apple-trees, thirty or more yards from either fence. All that is visible of it is a small round hole in the ground nearly concealed by the overhanging grass. I had to watch him in order to find it.
His chamber is about three feet below the surface of the ground, and has but one entrance, through a long crooked passage eight or ten feet long. If his arch-enemy were to find it, there would be no escape. There is no back door, and there are no secret passages. Probably many a tragedy is enacted in those little earth-chambers. The weasel himself fears nothing; he is the incarnation of bloodthirstiness, and his victims seem so horrified at the discovery that he is pursuing them that they become paralyzed. Even the fleet-footed rabbit in the open woods or fields falls an easy prey.
One day last summer as I sat at the table in my hay-barn study, there boldly entered through the open door this arch-enemy of our small rodents – brown of back and white of belly. He rushed in as if on very hurrying business, and all my efforts to detain him, by squeaking like a mouse, and chirping like a bird, proved unavailing. He thrust out his impudent snake-like head and neck from an opening in the wall, and fixed his intense, beady eyes upon me for a moment, and was gone. I feared he was on the trail of the chipmunk that had just carried away the cherry-pits I had placed for him on a stone near by; but the little rodent appeared a half -hour later, as sleek as ever, but with a touch of something suspicious and anxious in his manner, as if he had at least had tidings that his deadly enemy was in the neighborhood.
After I had cracked some hickory-nuts for my little friend this morning, and he had got a taste of the sweet morsel inside, he quickly began to stuff the whole nuts into his pockets and carry them to his storehouse. It was amusing to see him struggle with the larger nuts, first moistening them with his tongue, to force them into those secret and apparently inadequate pockets. The smooth, trim cheeks would suddenly assume the appearance of enormous wens, extending well down on the sides of the neck. The pouches are not merely passive receptacles; they evidently possess some power of muscular action, like the throat muscles, which enables them to force the grain and nuts along their whole course.
As the little squirrel picks the corn from the floor you can see the pouches swell, first on the one side, then on the other. He seems to pick up the kernels and swallow them. What part the tongue plays in the process, one cannot see. In forcing a whole or a hah hickory-nut into them, the chipmunk uses his paws. The pouches are doubtless emptied by muscular movements similar to those by which they were filled – a self-acting piece of machinery, a pocket that can fill and empty itself.
I see my little hermit making frequent visits to my study in the morning before I am seated there, exploring the floor, the chair, the table, to see if the miracle of the corn manna has not again happened. He is anxious to be on hand as soon as it occurs. He is no discriminator of persons. One morning a woman friend took her seat in my chair with corn in her lap and under her arched hand on the table, and waited. Presently the little forager appeared and climbed to her lap, and pushed under her hand, as he had under mine. Another woman sat on the cot a few feet away, and the two conversed in low tones. The squirrel gave little heed to them, but any movement of their hands or feet startled him. One day I shifted my position from the table to near the cot, with my extended feet near the entrance. The squirrel was in the act of coming in when I made some slight movement. With that characteristic chippering of his, he retreated hastily to the first apple-tree twenty feet away, and, perched upon its leaning trunk, sounded his little alarm, "Chuck, chuck," for fifteen minutes or more. Apparently he had but just discovered me. After a time he came slyly back and resumed his foraging.
The activity of the chipmunk when he is out of his den is almost incessant. Like the honey-bee, he seems filled with a raging impulse to lay up his winter stores. When he finds an ever-renewed supply, as in my orchard camp, his eagerness and industry are delightful to see. The more nuts I place for him, the more eager he becomes, as most of us do when we strike a rich lead of the things we are in quest of. Will his greed carry him to the point of filling his den so full that there remains no room for himself in it? Will he let the god of plenty turn him out of doors? Last summer I had seen a chipmunk's hole filled up with choke-cherries to within three inches of the top. ("Naturally, being choke-cherries," says a friend, looking over my shoulder.)
From previous experience I calculated the capacity of his chamber to be not more than four or five quarts. One day I gave him all I thought he could manage, – enough, I fancied, to fill his chamber full, – two quarts of hickory-nuts and some corn. How he responded to the invitation! How he flew over the course from my den to his! He fairly panted. The day might prove too short for him, or some other chipmunk might discover the pile of treasures. Three, and often four, nuts at a time, went into his pockets. If one of them was too large to go in readily, he would take it between his teeth. He would first bite off the sharp point from the nut to keep it from pricking or irritating his pouches. I do not think he feared a puncture. I renewed the pile of nuts from time to time, and looked on with interest. The day was cloudy and wet, but he ran his express train all day. His feet soon became muddy, and it was amusing to see him wash his face with those soiled paws every time he emerged from his hole. It was striking to see how much like a machine he behaved, going through the same motions at the same points, as regularly as a clock. He disappeared into his hole each time with a peculiarly graceful movement which seemed to find expression in the sweep of his tail. It was to the eye what melodious sounds are to the ear, and contrasted strangely with the sudden impulsive movements of his usual behavior. When he emerged, the top of his head and eyes first appeared, then a moment's pause, then the head and neck arose, then the whole body shot up in the erect posture with the paws folded and hanging down on the white breast. The face-washing was the next move, first the mouth, then the nose and cheeks. Then, after a swift glance around, off he goes, with tail well up in the air, for another load.
As the day declined, and the pile of nuts was ever renewed, I thought I saw signs that he was either getting discouraged or else that his den was getting too full. At five o'clock he began to carry the nuts out from my camp and conceal them here and there under the leaves and dry grass. His manner seemed undecided. He did not return to his den again while I waited near it. After some delay I saw him go to the stone wall and follow it till he was lost from sight under the hill. I concluded that his greed had at last really turned him out of doors and that he had gone off to spend the night with a neighbor. But my inference was wrong. The next day he was back again, carrying away a fresh supply of nuts as eagerly as ever. Two more quarts disappeared before night. The next day was rainy, and though other chipmunks were hurrying about, my little miser rested from his labors. A day later a fresh supply of nuts arrived – two quarts of chestnuts and one of hickory-nuts, and the greed of the little squirrel rose to the occasion. He made his trips as frequently as ever.
My enforced absence for a few days prevented me from witnessing all that happened, but a friend took notes for me. He tried to fool the chipmunk with a light-colored marble placed among the nuts. The squirrel picked it up, but quickly dropped it. Watching his opportunity, my friend rubbed the marble with the meat of a hickory-nut. The chipmunk smelled it; then put it in his pocket; then took it out, held it in his paws a moment and looked at it, and returned it to his pocket. Three times he did this before rejecting it. Evidently his sense of taste discredited his sense of smell.
On my return at the end of the week, the enthusiasm of the chipmunk had greatly abated. He was seldom out of his den. A nut or two placed at its entrance disappeared, but he visited me no more in my camp. Other chipmunks were active on all sides, but his solicitude about the winter had passed, or rather his hoarding instinct had been sated. His cellar was full. The rumor that right here was a land of plenty seemed to have gone abroad upon the air, and other chipmunks appeared upon the scene. Red squirrels and gray squirrels came, but we wasted no nuts upon them. A female chipmunk that came and occupied an old den at my doorstep was encouraged, however. She soon became as familiar as my first acquaintance, climbing to my table, taking nuts from my hand, and nipping my fingers spitefully when I held on to the nuts. Her behavior was as nearly like that of the other as two peas are alike. I gave her a fair supply of winter stores, but did not put her greed to the test.
So far as I have observed, the two sexes do not winter together, and there seems to be no sort of camaraderie between them. One day, earlier in this history, I saw my male neighbor chase a smaller chipmunk, which I have little doubt was this female, out of the camp and off into the stone wall, with great spitefulness. All-the-year-round love among the wild creatures is very rare, if it occurs at all. Love is seasonal and brief among most of them. My little recluse has ample supplies for quite a family, but I am certain he will spend the winter alone there in the darkness of his subterranean dwelling. He must have at least a peck of nuts that we gave him, besides all the supplies that he carried in from his foraging about the orchard and the fields earlier in the season. The temptation to dig down and uncover his treasures is very great, but my curiosity might lead to his undoing, at least to his serious discomfort, so I shall forbear, resting content in the thought that at least one fellow mortal has got all that his heart desires.
As our lives have touched here at my writing-table, each working out his life-problems, I have thought of what a gulf divides my little friend and me; yet he is as earnestly solving his problems as I am mine; though, of course, he does not worry over them, or take thought of them, as I do. I cannot even say that something not himself takes thought for him; there is no thought in the matter; there is what we have to call impulse, instinct, inherited habit, and the like, though these are only terms for mysteries. He, too, shares in this wonderful something we call life. The evolutionary struggle and unfolding was for him as well as for me. He, too, is a tiny bubble on the vast current of animate nature, whose beginning is beyond our ken in the dim past, and whose ending is equally beyond our ken in the dim future. He goes his pretty ways, gathers his precarious harvest, has his adventures, his hairbreadth escapes, his summer activity, his autumn plenty, his winter solitude and gloom, and his spring awakening and gladness. He has made himself a home here in the old orchard; he knows how deep to go into the ground to get beyond the frost-line; he is a pensioner upon the great bounty upon which we all draw, and probably lives up to the standard of the chipmunk life more nearly than most of us live up to the best standards of human life. May he so continue to live, and may we yet meet for many summers under the apple-boughs.
When the spring came I was seized with a curiosity to know how much of his stores my little friend had disposed of, and which of his various assortment of nuts and grain had proved his favorites. To settle these points there was only one course to pursue: we must dig him out. So one April day we proceeded to do so. We at once discovered a new hole or entrance, only a few inches from the other, and apparently more in use than it was. We found his chamber about three feet below the surface with its usual nest of dry leaves and grass, and a few shells of hickory-nuts and cherry-pits, but, dig as we would, we could not find any recess or granary large enough to hold the peck or more of nuts that I had seen him carry in. We searched carefully for side chambers into which he might have stored the surplus of his unexpected harvest, but we found none. He would not have prepared in advance for such a contingency, as he could have had no hint of the bounty which a designing and near-by Providence was to bestow upon him.
The shells we found accounted for only a small fraction of those with which we had supplied him. Not a chestnut or a peach-pit or a hickory-nut did we find, nor any corn, nor wild seeds of any sort. I was much puzzled, and am still, as to just what had happened. The chipmunk either had been plundered by his neighbors, or else had freely distributed his supplies among them. What did the new hole signify? The old one was ample, and led to the same chamber. We did not find the chipmunk in his den, nor any convincing evidence that he had recently been there. Although I spent the following summer in the same bush camp, I am not certain that I ever saw my little neighbor that season. But the next following season, he or another was again my neighbor under the apple-trees, and disclosed to me a refreshing bit of natural history – that of a chipmunk digging his hole. He came and dug it in broad daylight within a few yards of my bush camp under the apple-trees, and gave me daily opportunities to watch the proceedings.
I have never known any one who has been so fortunate in this respect, nor have I ever seen in print any account of the little rodent's proceedings on such an occasion. For several years I have been an observer and an investigator of their little mounds of freshly dug earth along the margin of the highways or the woody borders of the fields, but until now have never caught one of the little miners at work. I had fancied that the digging was done at night, and that the earth was carried out to the dumping-place in the cheek pouches. But such is not the case. My little neighbor worked by day, and his cheek pockets were never used in transporting the earth from his hole to the dumping-place. I had often found the pile of fresh earth two or three yards from the hole out of which it came, with never a grain of soil littering the grass between the two, and no sign of a trail. I had also been fairly bewildered by finding stones in the pile of fresh soil so large that they could not be forced back into the hole out of which I was sure they had come. On three occasions I had found such freshly dug stones, and they were all too big for the opening that led to the chipmunk's den. By what magic had he got them out? From what I had seen one November, after the earth had been frozen and then thawed once or twice, I concluded that the little engineer had made a niche in the side of his hole just deep enough to make room for the passage of these broad, flat stones, and then had packed it full of earth again. In one case where a red squirrel had apparently been trying to force an entrance, such a niche was disclosed, as if the softer earth there had dropped out. Yet, as I had found other holes the rims of which had evidently never been tampered with, and the dump of which held one or more stones larger than its diameter, I was hopelessly puzzled. I had found still other holes that had no dump at all – not a grain of fresh earth anywhere in their neighborhood. There is one by the roadside in front of Woodchuck Lodge now, eight feet from the stone fence, into which the chipmunk is daily carrying his winter stores, but which has not the slightest vestige of an earth-mound anywhere in its vicinity. If the squirrel ever carried the dirt away in his cheek pockets, I might conclude that he had scattered it along the roadway. This mystery of the holes that have no visible dumping-place I have not yet cleared up. Were there a woodchuck-hole near any of them I might think that the loosened soil had been shot into that. As the problem stands with me now, it is an insoluble mystery. A friend suggests that, like the Irishman, he probably digs another hole to put the earth in, which reminds me of an old story about two countrymen who tried to "stump" each other with questions, it being stipulated that no question should be asked that could not be answered by the propounder.
"How is it," said one, "that a chipmunk digs a hole without throwing out any dirt?"
"You can't answer that yourself," said the other.
"I can; he begins at the other end of the hole," replied the first.
"How does he get to the other end?" asked the second.
"You mustn't ask any question that you can't answer yourself."
It is certainly true that in such cases the chipmunk did begin at the other end of his hole, but that end must be somewhere on the surface of the ground. In all cases, whether there is a pile of earth or not, the hole is cut up through the turf from beneath, and hence all the soil must have been removed back along the tunnel and out at the entrance. We often see the same thing in the procedure of the woodchucks – the large pile of earth at the mouth of the main entrance and another hole a few yards away which has been cut up through the turf from below. The woodchuck makes no effort at concealment as does the chipmunk, but apparently aims only at convenience and safety. But how the squirrel can dispose of a bushel of soil and leave no trace is a problem. The mystery of the large stones was soon made clear; they did not come out of the neat, round hole in the turf through which the squirrel enters or leaves his finished den, but out of the larger work-hole through which the soil was removed, and which is finally stopped up and obliterated.
I happened to discover my chipmunk probably the second day after he had begun to dig. Some people were calling on me at my bush camp when, as they turned to go, one of them said, "See that chipmunk!" I looked and saw him sitting up amid a little fresh earth, washing his face. His face certainly needed washing; it was so soiled it looked comical. Presently I investigated the spot and found a rude hole a few inches deep, with the loosened earth in front of it. "Evidently a greenhorn," I said; "a pretty dooryard he will have by the time he finishes, with a hole big enough to admit a red squirrel!"
Next morning there was more fresh earth in front of the hole; indeed, the grass was full of it a foot or more away, and a dump-pile had just been begun. From the hole to this pile there was a deep, wide groove in the loose soil, which I soon saw was made by the squirrel shoving the loosened earth from the hole to the dump, using his nose as a shovel. Day after day, for nearly a week thereafter, I saw him at work, digging and pushing the soil up to the mouth of his hole, and then pushing it along this groove or channel to the dump-heap. His movements were so quick and energetic that, at the final stroke, the soil, a half-teaspoonful or more, would shoot from his nose four or five inches. As he turned back along his roadway he would rapidly paw the earth behind him, and then, before entering his hole, would take a quick look all around. He was never for a moment off guard; the sense of danger was ever present with him. As he entered his hole, a succession of quick jets of earth, forming little parabolas in the air, would shoot up behind him. Then all would be still for from three to four minutes, when he would again emerge, shoving the soil before him and continuing to butt it, quickly glancing right and left the while, till he shot it upon his dump.
This was his invariable procedure. Every motion was repeated like clockwork, the forward shoving, the retreating pawing, and the flying spray of earth as he disappeared in his hole.
I fancied him there underground loosening the soil with his paws, for two or three minutes, then either kicking it up toward the exit or else shoving it in front of him. When at work he was intensely preoccupied; only one other feeling seemed to possess him – that of impending danger. One day while he was mining beneath the surface, I sprinkled some corn and pumpkin-seeds along his highway and in the mouth of his hole, but when he came to the surface with his burden of soil he heeded them not; he shoveled or pawed them along with his soil, and buried them beneath it. The incident reminded me of the hound I once intercepted, hot on the trail of a fox; I offered her my lunch and, holding her, even put it in her mouth, but she threw it disdainfully from her, and rushed on along that steaming trail. She had but one thought or sense at that moment: she was beside herself about that fox, and her attention could not be diverted from it. My chipmunk when at work was alike obsessed; he knew nothing but his work and the danger from his enemies.
Day by day the mound of fresh earth grew and spread back more and more toward the hole out of which it came, till it seemed about to cover it. At times the squirrel either worked at night or else very early in the morning before I was on the scene. But later he was not on his job till past mid-forenoon. For two or three days he promptly appeared at eleven o'clock. He would come leaping over the grass from some point behind my camp and quickly resume his excavating. Once he found some fresh peach-pits upon his mound; these arrested his attention; he seized them one by one, nibbled off the bits of pulp that were still clinging to them, then dropped them and took up his task. He usually knocked off work by or before two in the afternoon.
Evidently he has no partner and will spend the winter in his subterranean retreat alone. I think this is an established chipmunk custom, rendered necessary, it may be, by the scant supply of air in such close quarters, three feet underground, and maybe under three or more feet of snow in addition. At any rate, the chipmunk, male or female, is a hermit, and there is no cooperation or true sociability among them. They are wonderfully provident and industrious, beginning to store up their winter food in midsummer, or as early as the farmer does his. When the nut-crop fails them, as it has this present season, they scour about the neighborhood, gathering all sorts of wild seeds and grains, and wild-cherry pits, working almost as steadily as do the ants and the bees. In the mean time they feed on insects and berries and various green things, but only cured grains and nuts go into their winter stores.
The wild creatures rarely make an economic blunder. We are told on excellent authority that the coney, or least hare, in the Rocky Mountains spreads its newly cut grass and other green food on the rocks in the sun, and dries it as carefully as the farmer dries his hay before storing it up for winter use. I think we are safe in saying that it is not the coney's individual wisdom or experience that prompts him to do this, but the wisdom of something much older than he is. It is the wisdom of nature, inherent and active as instinct.
One day, when I paused before my little neighbor's mound of earth, I saw that the hole was nearly stopped up, and, while I was looking, the closure was completed from within. Loose earth was being shoved up from below and pressed into the opening; the movement of the soil could be seen. It flashed upon me at once that here was the key to the secret that had so puzzled me – he would obliterate that ugly and irregular work-hole and the littered dooryard, bury them beneath his mound of earth, and, working from within, would make a new and neater outlet somewhere through the turf near by. He was probably carrying out that scheme at that moment, and was disposing of the loose earth in the way I had observed. The next day the mound of earth had been extended over the place where the hole had been, and the chipmunk was still active beneath it, pushing up fresh earth like a ground-mole. At intervals of a few moments, the fresh soil would slowly heave or boil up, as it does when a hidden crayfish or mole is at work. Twice while I looked the head of the digger came through the thin screen of earth, as if by accident; he winked and blinked as the dirt slid off his head and over his eyes, then ducked beneath it and proceeded with his work. I began to look in the turf around me for the new entrance which I knew would soon be, if it were not already, made. I did not that day find it, but the next morning there it was, not more than four inches from the edge of the dump-heap – a little round shadow under the grass-blades and wild-strawberry leaves, about half the size of the work-hole, with no stain of the soil about it, and having such a look of neatness and privacy as could not have been given to it if it had been made from without. How furtive and secretive it looked! Still the little miner kept at work, still the fresh earth boiled up above the old entrance. He is excavating his chamber, I thought; he requires a den or vault down there, of several quarts' capacity, in which to build his nest and store his food. Whether or not he was then excavating his chamber and storeroom, the next day I found two more new holes in the turf, one a foot or more from the first one, and the other three or more feet away hi another direction – both of them having the same shy, elusive character. Why all these extra holes? I asked. I have never before known of a chipmunk's den with so many back or front doors. Are they only for means of escape if robbers or murderers gain an entrance? If so, they afford another proof of the provident cunning of our little striped friend. It happened in this case that the squirrel brought to the surface no stones too large for the new entrance, but his work-hole was so large and irregular that he might easily have done so.
My chipmunk was engaged for nearly three weeks in his excavations. I knew when he had finished by his boldly coming into my camp one morning, a minute or two after he had seen me enter it. Looking intently up in my face for a few seconds, he proceeded to stuff his mouth with the dry leaves most to his liking that my bushy walls afforded. He did not try to pack the leaves in his cheek pouches, but crammed four or five into his mouth and then made off to his den. He was furnishing his house. Many mouthfuls of dry leaves and fine grass doubtless went to the furnishing, though I chanced to witness only this one. His bedroom is his granary; his winter stores are packed all around and under his nest. Some of his neighbors have been carrying in their supplies since July, just what I could not find out; probably wild seeds of some kind. As there are no beech-nuts this season, and no buckwheat or oat-fields near by, I am wondering what my little neighbor is counting on to carry him over the winter. He may have some source of supply that I know not of. I gave him cherry-pits and plum-pits from time to time before his den was finished, and he seemed to have some place to store them. I hope he is not counting too confidently upon the continuance of this bounty.
In my walks I have many times come across chipmunk-holes with a pile of earth before them, and a general look of carelessness and disorder all about, and I have said, "That squirrel is a bungler; he is not equal to his task." The present season I have seen three such holes while walking less than a mile along the highway. They appeared to have been abandoned. Now I know they were only beginnings, and that had the owners finished their mansions, they would have presented a far different appearance. That ugly work-hole, with its belittered dooryard, would have been completely covered up, and the real entrance deftly concealed.
It is highly improbable that every individual chipmunk has a way peculiar to himself, as we humans so often have. Their dens and modes of procedure in digging them are as near alike as two peas, or as two chipmunks themselves. Yet there remains the mystery of an occasional hole without any pile of earth anywhere in sight. I find several such each season, and I can offer no plausible explanation of them.
I have found two weasels' dens on the margin of a muck swamp in the woods that presented the same insoluble problem – what had become of the bushel or more of earth that must have been brought to the surface? Both the weasel and the chipmunk have several galleries and one or more large chambers or dining-halls, and how each manages to hide or obliterate all the loose soil that must have been removed is a question which has long puzzled me. If we had an American Fabre, or a man who would give himself up to the study of the life-histories of our rodents, with the same patience and enthusiasm that the wonderful Frenchman has had for the life-histories of the insects, he would doubtless soon solve the mystery for me.
I used to think that the chipmunk carried away the soil in his cheek pockets, and have so stated in one of my books, but I am now very certain that he does not – only his food-stores are thus carried. In the present case I measured the excavated earth and found it a plump bushel.
From the point of view of modern scientific philosophy, namely, that the needs of the organism beget the organ, and a change of use modifies it, – it is interesting to note to what novel use the chipmunk puts his nose in digging his den, apparently without changing or impairing it as an organ of smell. If he has been doing this through biological ages, using it as a kind of scoop and pusher, is it not remarkable that it has not undergone some modification that would make it better suited for these purposes? Note the shovel-footed mole, with his huge, muscular fore paws with which he forces his way through the soil and heaves it up to the surface, or the pig with his nose so well adapted to rooting. The nose of the chipmunk does not perceptibly differ from that of the other squirrels, which do no underground work. Are we not forced to the conclusion that the life-habits of the chipmunk have been much changed since the country has been so largely denuded of its forests, thus forcing him to become a dweller in the open? In the primitive woods, with the thick coating of leaves and of snow upon the ground, he would not have needed to penetrate the earth so deeply. The wood frogs go barely a few inches under the leaves and leaf -mould, where they remain unfrozen all winter. Our beech-woods' to-day, when there is a crop of nuts, fairly swarm with chipmunks, and all of them have holes, but rarely is there any sign of freshly dug earth.
None of our wild creatures have as yet become much modified, either in form or color, as a result of the change in their environment by the disappearance of the forests. They have changed in habits, but the habits have not as yet set their stamp upon the organism. Is it not probable that if the chipmunk goes on scooping and packing soil with his nose for long ages, his anatomy will in time become better adapted to this new use?
I fancy that in time the woodchuck, which from a wood-dweller has now so commonly become a denizen of the fields, will change in color, at least. How his form now stands out on the smooth surface of the green fields! His enemies can see him from afar. Is this the reason that while feeding he momentarily rises up on his hind legs and takes an observation? He is instinctively uneasy under his give-away color. As a wood-dweller his colors were assimilative and therefore protective, but now they advertise him to every enemy in the landscape. In the course of ages he should become a much lighter brown or gray – that is, if our theories as to assimilative coloration are well founded. But there is no doubt but that use and wont as well as environment do in time leave their stamp upon every living creature.