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The Log of the Sun
A fiery mist and a
A crystal and a cell;
A jelly fish and a saurian,
And the caves where the cave men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty
And a face turned from the clod,
Some call it evolution,
And others call it God.
W. H. CARRUTH.
BIRDS OF THE SNOW
NO fact of natural history is more interesting, or more significant of the poetry of evolution, than the distribution of birds over the entire surface of the world. They have overcome countless obstacles, and adapted themselves to all conditions. The last faltering glance which the Arctic explorer sends toward his coveted goal, ere he admits defeat, shows flocks of snow buntings active with warm life; the storm-tossed mariner in the midst of the sea, is followed, encircled, by the steady, tireless flight of the albatross; the fever-stricken wanderer in tropical jungles listens to the sweet notes of birds amid the stagnant pools; while the thirsty traveller in the desert is ever watched by the distant buzzards. Finally when the intrepid climber, at the risk of life and limb, has painfully made his way to the summit of the most lofty peak, far, far above him, in the blue expanse of thin air, he can distinguish the form of a majestic eagle or condor.
At the approach of winter the flowers and insects about us die, but most of the birds take wing and fly to a more temperate climate, while their place is filled with others which have spent the summer farther to the north. Thus without stirring from our doorway we may become acquainted with many species whose summer homes are hundreds of miles away.
No time is more propitious or advisable for the amateur bird lover to begin his studies than the first of the year. Bird life is now reduced to its simplest terms in numbers and species, and the absence of concealing foliage, together with the usual tameness of winter birds, makes identification an easy matter.
In January and the succeeding month we have with us birds which are called permanent residents, which do not leave us throughout the entire year; and, in addition, the winter visitors which have come to us from the far north.
In the uplands we may flush ruffed grouse from their snug retreats in the snow; while in the weedy fields, many a fairy trail shows where bob-white has passed, and often he will announce his own name from the top of a rail fence. The grouse at this season have a curious outgrowth of horny scales along each side of the toes, which, acting as a tiny snowshoe, enables them to walk on soft snow with little danger of sinking through.
Few of our winter birds can boast of bright colours; their garbs are chiefly grays and browns, but all have some mark or habit or note by which they can be at once named. For example, if you see a mouse hitching spirally up a tree-trunk, a closer look will show that it is a brown creeper, seeking tiny insects and their eggs in the crevices of the trunk. He looks like a small piece of the roughened bark which has suddenly become animated. His long tail props him up and his tiny feet never fail to find a foothold. Our winter birds go in flocks, and where we see a brown creeper we are almost sure to find other birds.
Nuthatches are those blue-backed, white or rufous breasted little climbers who spend their lives defying the law of gravity. They need no supporting tail, and have only the usual number of eight toes, but they traverse the bark, up or down, head often pointing toward the ground, as if their feet were small vacuum cups. Their note is an odd nasal nyeh! nyeh!
In winter some one species of bird usually predominates, most often, perhaps, it is the black-capped chickadee. They seem to fill every grove, and, if you take your stand in the woods, flock after flock will pass in succession. What good luck must have come to the chickadee race during the preceding summer? Was some one of their enemies stricken with a plague, or did they show more than usual care in the selecting of their nesting holes? Whatever it was, during such a year, it seems certain that scores more of chickadee babies manage to live to grow up than is usually the case. These little fluffs are, in their way, as remarkable acrobats as are the nuthatches, and it is a marvel how the very thin legs, with their tiny sliver of bone and thread of tendon, can hold the body of the bird in almost any position, while the vainly hidden clusters of insect eggs are pried into. Without ceasing a moment in their busy search for food, the fluffy feathered members of the flock call to each other, "Chick-a-chick-a-dee-dee!" but now and then the heart of some little fellow bubbles over, and he rests an instant, sending out a sweet, tender, high call, a "no-be!" love note, which warms our ears in the frosty air and makes us feel a real affection for the brave little mites.
Our song sparrow is, like the poor, always with us, at least near the coast, but we think none the less of him for that, and besides, that fact is true in only one sense. A ripple in a stream may be seen day after day, and yet the water forming it is never the same, it is continually flowing onward. This is usually the case with song sparrows and with most other birds which are present summer and winter. The individual sparrows which flit from bush to bush, or slip in and out of the brush piles in January, have doubtless come from some point north of us, while the song sparrows of our summer walks are now miles to the southward. Few birds remain the entire year in the locality in which they breed, although the southward movement may be a very limited one. When birds migrate so short a distance, they are liable to be affected in colour and size by the temperature and dampness of their respective areas; and so we find that in North America there are as many as twenty-two races of song sparrows, to each of which has been given a scientific name. When you wish to speak of our northeastern song sparrow in the latest scientific way, you must say Melospiza cinerea melodia, which tells us that it is a melodious song finch, ashy or brown in colour.
Our winter sparrows are easy to identify. The song sparrow may, of course, be known by the streaks of black and brown upon his breast and sides, and by the blotch which these form in the centre of the breast. The tree sparrow, which comes to us from Hudson Bay and Labrador, lacks the stripes, but has the centre spot. This is one of our commonest field birds in winter, notwithstanding his name.
The most omnipresent and abundant of all our winter visitors from the north are the juncos, or snowbirds. Slate coloured above and white below, perfectly describes these birds, although their distinguishing mark, visible a long way off, is the white V in their tails, formed by several white outer feathers on each side. The sharp chirps of juncos are heard before the ice begins to form, and they stay with us all winter.
We have called the junco a snowbird, but this name should really be confined to a black and white bunting which comes south only with a midwinter's rush of snowflakes. Their warm little bodies nestle close to the white crystals, and they seek cheerfully for the seeds which nature has provided for them. Then a thaw comes, and they disappear as silently and mysteriously as if they had melted with the flakes; but doubtless they are far to the northward, hanging on the outskirts of the Arctic storms, and giving way only when every particle of food is frozen tight, the ground covered deep with snow, and the panicled seed clusters locked in crystal frames of ice.
The feathers of these Arctic wanderers are perfect non-conductors of heat and of cold, and never a chill reaches their little frames until hunger presses. Then they must find food and quickly, or they die. When these snowflakes first come to us they are tinged with gray and brown, but gradually through the winter their colours become more clear-cut and brilliant, until, when spring comes, they are garbed in contrasting black and white. With all this change, however, they leave never a feather with us, but only the minute brown tips of the feather vanes, which, by wearing away, leave exposed the clean new colours beneath.
Thus we find that there are problems innumerable to verify and to solve, even when the tide of the year's life is at its lowest ebb.
From out the white and pulsing storm
I hear the snowbirds calling;
The sheeted winds stalk o'er the hills,
And fast the snow is falling.
On twinkling wings they eddy past,
At home amid the drifting,
Or seek the hills and weedy fields
Where fast the snow is sifting.
Their coats are dappled white and brown
Like fields in winter weather,
But on the azure sky they float
Like snowflakes knit together.
I've heard them on the spotless hills
Where fox and hound were playing,
The while I stood with eager ear
Bent on the distant baying.
The unmown fields are their preserves,
Where weeds and grass are seeding;
They know the lure of distant stacks
Where houseless herds are feeding.
LET us suppose that a heavy snow has fallen and that we have been a-birding in vain. For once it seems as if all the birds had gone the way of the butterflies. But we are not true bird-lovers unless we can substitute nature for bird whenever the occasion demands; specialisation is only for the ultra-scientist.
There is more to be learned in a snowy field than volumes could tell. There is the tangle of footprints to unravel, the history of the pastimes and foragings and tragedies of the past night writ large and unmistakable. Though the sun now shines brightly, we can well imagine the cold darkness of six hours ago; we can reconstruct the whole scene from those tiny tracks, showing frantic leaps, the indentation of two wing-tips, — a speck of blood. But let us take a bird's-eye view of things, from a bird's-head height; that is, lie flat upon a board or upon the clean, dry crystals and see what wonders we have passed by all our lives.
Take twenty square feet of snow with a stream-let through the centre, and we have an epitome of geological processes and conditions. With chin upon mittens and mittens upon the crust, the eye opens upon a new world. The half-covered rivulet becomes a monster glacier-fed stream, rushing down through grand canyons and caves, hung with icy stalactites. Bit by bit the walls are undermined and massive icebergs become detached and are whirled away. As for moraines, we have them in plenty; only the windrows of thousands upon thousands of tiny seeds of which they are composed, are not permanent, but change their form and position with every strong gust of wind. And with every gust too their numbers increase, the harvest of the weeds being garnered here, upon barren ground. No wonder the stream will be hidden from view next summer, when the myriad seeds sprout and begin to fight upward for light and air.
If we cannot hope for polar bears to complete our Arctic scene, we may thrill at the sight of a sinuous weasel, winding his way among the weeds; and if we look in vain for swans, we at least may rejoice in a whirling, white flock of snow buntings.
A few flakes fall gently upon our sleeve and another world opens before us. A small hand-lens will be of service, although sharp eyes may dispense with it. Gather a few recently fallen flakes upon a piece of black cloth, and the lens will reveal jewels more beautiful than any ever fashioned by the hand of man. Six-pointed crystals, always hexagonal, of a myriad patterns, leave us lost in wonderment when we look out over the white landscape and think of the hidden beauty of it all. The largest glacier of Greenland or Alaska is composed wholly of just such crystals whose points have melted and which have become ice.
We may draw or photograph scores of these beautiful crystals and never duplicate a figure. Some are almost solid and tabular, others are simple stars or fern-branched. Then we may detect compound forms, crystals within crystals, and, rarest of all, doubles, where two different forms appear as joined together by a tiny pillar. In all of these we have an epitome of the crystals of the rocks beneath our feet, only in their case the pressure has moulded them into straight columns, while the snow, forming unhindered in midair, resolves itself into these exquisite forms and floral designs. Flowers and rocks are not so very unlike after all.
Few of us can observe these wonderful forma without feeling the poetry of it all. Thoreau on the fifth day of January, 1856, writes as follows:..."The thin snow now driving from the north and lodging on my coat consists of those beautiful star crystals, not cottony and chubby spokes as on the 13th of December, but thin and partly transparent crystals. They are about one tenth of an inch in diameter, perfect little wheels with six spokes, without a tire, or rather with six perfect little leaflets, fern-like, with a distinct, straight, slender midrib raying from the centre. On each side of each midrib there is a transparent, thin blade with a crenate edge. How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat. Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity, so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand. Nothing is cheap and coarse, neither dewdrops nor snowflakes. Soon the storm increases (it was already very severe to face), and the snow becomes finer, more white and powdery.
"Who knows but this is the original form of all snowflakes, but that, when I observe these crystal stars falling around me, they are only just generated in the low mist next the earth. I am nearer to the source of the snow, its primal auroral, and golden hour of infancy; commonly the flakes reach us travel-worn and agglomerated, comparatively, without order or beauty, far down in their fall, like men in their advanced age. As for the circumstances under which this occurs, it is quite cold, and the driving storm is bitter to face, though very little snow is falling. It comes almost horizontally from the north.... A divinity must have stirred within them, before the crystals did thus shoot and set: wheels of the storm chariots. The same law that shapes the earth and the stars shapes the snowflake. Call it rather snow star.
As surely as the petals of a flower are numbered, each of these countless snow stars comes whirling to earth, pronouncing thus with emphasis the number six, order, xoδμos. This was the beginning of a storm which reached far and wide, and elsewhere was more severe than here. On the Saskatchewan, where no man of science is present to behold, still down they come, and not the less fulfil their destiny, perchance melt at once on the Indian's face. What a world we live in, where myriads of these little discs, so beautiful to the most prying eye, are whirled down on every traveller's coat, the observant and the unobservant, on the restless squirrel's fur, on the far-stretching fields and forests, the wooded dells and the mountain tops. Far, far away from the haunts of men, they roll down some little slope, fall over and come to their bearings, and melt or lose their beauty in the mass, ready anon to swell some little rill with their contribution, and so, at last, the universal ocean from which they came. There they lie, like the wreck of chariot wheels after a battle in the skies. Meanwhile the meadow mouse shoves them aside in his gallery, the schoolboy casts them in his ball, or the woodman's sled glides smoothly over them, these glorious spangles, the sweepings of heaven's floor. And they all sing, melting as they sing, of the mysteries of the number six; six, six, six. He takes up the waters of the sea in his hand, leaving the salt; he disperses it in mist through the skies; he re-collects and sprinkles it like grain in six-rayed snowy stars over the earth, there to lie till he dissolves its bonds again."
But here is a bit of snow which seems less pure, with grayish patches here and there. Down again to sparrow-level and bring the glass to bear. Your farmer friend will tell you that they are snow-fleas which are snowed down with the flakes; the entomologist will call them Achorutes nivicola and he knows that they have prosaically wiggled their way from the crevices of bark on the nearest tree-trunk. One's thrill of pleasure at this unexpected discovery will lead one to adopt sparrow-views whenever larger game is lacking.
I walked erstwhile upon thy frozen waves,
And heard the streams amid thy lee-locked caves;
I peered down thy crevasses blue and dim,
Standing in awe upon the dizzy rim.
Beyond me lay the inlet still and blue,
Behind, the mountains loomed upon the view
Like storm-wraiths gathered from the low-hung sky.
A gust of wind swept pest with heavy sigh,
And lo! I listened to the ice-stream's song
Of winter when the nights grow dark and long,
And bright stars flash above thy fields of snow,
The sold waste sparkling in the pallid glow.
CEDAR BIRDS AND BERRIES
KEEP sharp eyes upon the cedar groves in mid-winter, and sooner or later you will see the waxwings come, not singly or in pairs, but by dozens, and sometimes in great flocks. They will well repay all the watching one gives them. The cedar waxwing is a strange bird, with a very pronounced species-individuality, totally unlike any other bird of our country. When feeding on their favourite winter berries, these birds show to great advantage; the warm rich brown of the upper parts and of the crest contrasting with the black, scarlet, and yellow, and these, in turn, with the dark green of the cedar and the white of the snow.
The name waxwing is due to the scarlet ornaments at the tips of the lesser flight feathers and some of the tail feathers, which resemble bits of red sealing wax, but which are really the bare, flattened ends of the feather shafts. Cherry-bird is another name which is appropriately applied to the cedar waxwing.
These birds are never regular in their movements, and they come and go without heed to weather or date. They should never be lightly passed by, but their flocks carefully examined, lest among their ranks may be hidden a Bohemian chatterer — a stately waxwing larger than common and even more beautiful in hue, whose large size and splashes of white upon its wings will always mark it out.
This bird is one of our rarest of rare visitors, breeding in the far north; and even in its nest and eggs mystery enshrouds it. Up to fifty years ago, absolutely nothing was known of its nesting habits, although during migration Bohemian chatterers are common all over Europe. At last Lapland was found to be their home, and a nest has been found in Alaska and several others in Labrador. My only sight of these birds was of a pair perched in an elm tree in East Orange, New Jersey; but I will never forget it, and will never cease to hope for another such red-letter day.
The movements of the cedar waxwings are as uncertain in summer as they are in winter; they may be common in one locality for a year or two, and then, apparently without reason, desert it. At this season they feed on insects instead of berries, and may be looked for in small flocks in orchard or wood. The period of nesting is usually late, and, in company with the goldfinches, they do not begin their house-keeping until July and August. Unlike other birds, waxwings will build their nests of almost anything near at hand, and apparently in any growth which takes their fancy, — apple, oak, or cedar. The nests are well constructed, however, and often, with their contents, add another background of a most pleasing harmony of colours. A nest composed entirely of pale green hanging moss, with eggs of bluish gray, spotted and splashed with brown and black, guarded by a pair of these exquisite birds, is a sight to delight the eye.
When the young have left the nest, if alarmed by an intruder, they will frequently, trusting to their protective dress of streaky brown, freeze into most unbird-like attitudes, drawing the feathers close to the body and stretching the neck stiffly upward, — almost bittern-like. Undoubtedly other interesting habits which these strangely picturesque birds may possess are still awaiting discovery by some enthusiastic observer with a pair of opera-glasses and a stock of that ever important characteristic — patience.
Although, during the summer months, myriads of insects are killed and eaten by the cedar waxwings, yet these birds are pre-eminently berry eaters, — choke-cherries, cedar berries, blueberries, and raspberries being preferred. Watch a flock of these birds in a cherry tree, and you will see the pits fairly rain down. We need not place our heads, à la Newton, in the path of these falling stones to deduce some interesting facts, — indeed to solve the very destiny of the fruit. Many whole cherries are carried away by the birds to be devoured elsewhere, or we may see parent waxwings filling their gullets with ten or a dozen berries and carrying them to the eager nestlings.
Thus is made plain the why and the wherefore of the coloured skin, the edible flesh, and the hidden stone of the fruit. The conspicuous racemes of the choke-cherries, or the shining scarlet globes of the cultivated fruit, fairly shout aloud to the birds — " Come and eat us, we're as good as we look!" But Mother Nature looks on and laughs to herself. Thistle seeds are blown to the land's end by the wind; the heavier ticks and burrs are carried far and wide upon the furry coats of passing creatures; but the cherry could not spread its progeny beyond a branch's length, were it not for the ministrations of birds. With birds, as with some other bipeds, the shortest way to the heart is through the stomach, and a choke-cherry tree in full blaze of fruit is always a natural aviary. Where a cedar bird has built its nest, there look some day to see a group of cherry trees; where convenient fence-perches along the roadside lead past cedar groves, there hope before long to see a bird-planted avenue of cedars. And so the marvels of Nature go on evolving, — wheels within wheels.
THE DARK DAYS OF INSECT LIFE
SOMETIMES by too close and confining study of things pertaining to the genus Homo, we perchance find ourselves complacently wondering if we have not solved almost all the problems of this little whirling sphere of water and earth. Our minds turn to the ultra questions of atoms and ions and rays and our eyes strain restlessly upward toward our nearest planet neighbour, in half admission that we must soon take up the study of Mars from sheer lack of earthly conquest.
If so minded, hie you to the nearest grove and, digging down through the mid-winter's snow, bring home a spadeful of leaf-mould. Examine it carefully with hand-lens and microscope, and then prophesy what warmth and light will bring forth. Watch the unfolding life of plant and animal, and then come from your planet-yearning back to earth, with a humbleness born of a realisation of our vast ignorance of the commonest things about us.
Though the immediate mysteries of the seed and the egg baffle us, yet the most casual lover of God's out-of-doors may hopefully attempt to solve the question of some of the winter homes of insects. Think of the thousands upon thousands of eggs and pups which are hidden in every grove; what catacombs of bug mummies yonder log conceals, — mummies whose resurrection will be brought about by the alchemy of thawing sunbeams. Follow out the suggestion hinted at above and place a handkerchief full of frozen mould or decayed wood in a white dish, and the tiny universe which will gradually unfold before you will provide many hours of interest But remember your responsibilities in so doing, and do not let the tiny plant germs languish and die for want of water, or the feeble, newly-hatched insects perish from cold or lack a bit of scraped meat.
Cocoons are another never-ending source of delight. If you think that there are no unsolved problems of the commonest insect life around us, say why it is that the moths and millers pass the winter wrapped in swaddling clothes of densest textures, roll upon roll of silken coverlets; while our delicate butterflies hang uncovered, suspended only by a single loop of silk, exposed to the cold blast of every northern gale? 'Why do the caterpillars of our giant moths — the mythologically named Cecropia, Polyphemus, Luna, and Prometheus — show such individuality in the position which they choose for their temporary shrouds? Protection and concealment are the watchwords held to in each case, but how differently they are achieved!
Cecropia — that beauty whose wings, fully six inches across, will flap gracefully through the summer twilight — weaves about himself a half oval mound, along some stem or tree-trunk, and becomes a mere excrescence — the veriest un-edible thing a bird may spy. Polyphemus wraps miles of finest silk about his green worm-form (how, even though we watch him do it, we can only guess); weaving in all the surrounding leaves he can reach. This, of course, before the frosts come, but when the leaves at last shrivel, loosen, and their petioles break, it is merely a larger brown nut than usual that falls to the ground, the kernel of which will sprout next June and blossom into the big moth of delicate fawn tints, feathery horned, with those strange isinglass windows in his hind wings.
Luna — the weird, beautiful moon-moth, whose pale green hues and long graceful streamers make us realise how much beauty we miss if we neglect the night life of summer — when clad in her temporary shroud of silk, sometimes falls to the ground, or again the cocoon remains in the tree or bush where it was spun.
But Prometheus, the smallest of the quartet, has a way all his own. The elongated cocoon, looking like a silken finger, is woven about a leaf of sassafras. Even the long stem of the leaf is silk-girdled, and a strong band is looped about the twig to which the leaf is attached. Here, when all the leaves fall, he hangs, the plaything of every breeze, attracting the attention of all the hungry birds. But little does Prometheus care. Sparrows may hover about him and peck in vain; chickadees may clutch the dangling finger and pound with all their tiny might. Prometheus is "bound," indeed, and merely swings the faster, up and down, from side to side.
It is interesting to note that when two Prometheus cocoons, fastened upon their twigs, were suspended in a large capful of native birds, it took a healthy chickadee just three days of hard pounding and unravelling to force a way through the silken envelopes to the chrysalids within. Such long continued and persistent labour for so comparatively small a morsel of food would not be profitable or even possible out-of-doors in winter. The bird would starve to death while forcing its way through the protecting silk.
These are only four of the many hundreds of cocoons, from the silken shrouds on the topmost branches to the jug-necked chrysalis of a sphinx moth — offering us the riddle of a winter's shelter buried in the cold, dark earth.
Is everything frozen tight? Has Nature's frost mortar cemented every stone in its bed? Then cut off the solid cups of the pitcher plants, and see what insects formed the last meal of these strange growths, — ants, flies, bugs, encased in ice like the fossil insects caught in the amber sap which flowed so many thousands of years ago.
When the fierce northwestern blast
Cools sea and land so far and fast,
Thou already slumberest deep;
Woe and want thou canst outsleep.
THE colour of things in nature has been the subject of many volumes and yet it may be truthfully said that no two naturalists are wholly agreed on the interpretation of the countless hues of plants and animals. Some assert that all alleged instances of protective colouring and mimicry are merely the result of accident; while at the opposite swing of the pendulum we find theories, protective and mimetic, for the colours of even the tiny one-celled green plants which cover the bark of trees! Here is abundant opportunity for any observer of living nature to help toward the solution of these problems.
In a battle there are always two sides and at its finish one side always runs away while the other pursues. Thus it is in the wars of nature, only there the timid ones are always ready to flee, while the strong are equally prepared to pursue. It is only by constant vigilance that the little mice can save themselves from disappearing down the throats of their enemies, as under cover of darkness they snatch nervous mouthfuls of grain in the fields, — and hence their gray colour and their large, watchful eyes; but on the other hand, the baby owls in their hollow tree would starve if the parents were never able to swoop down in the darkness and surprise a mouse now and then, — hence the gray plumage and great eyes of the parent owls.
The most convincing proof of the reality of protective coloration is in the change of plumage or fur of some of the wild creatures to suit the season. In the far north, the grouse or ptarmigan, as they are called, do not keep feathers of the same colour the year round, as does our ruffed grouse; but change their dress no fewer than three times. When rocks and moss are buried deep beneath the snow, and a keen-eyed hawk appears, the white-feathered ptarmigan crouches and becomes an inanimate mound. Later in the year, with the increasing warmth, patches of gray and brown earth appear, and simultaneously, as if its feathers were really snowflakes, splashes of brown replace the pure white of the bird's plumage, and equally baffle the eye. Seeing one of these birds by itself, we could readily tell, from the colour of its plumage, the time of year and general aspect of the country from which it came. Its plumage is like a mirror which reflects the snow, the moss, or the lichens in turn. It is, indeed, a feathered chameleon, but with changes of colour taking place more slowly than is the case in the reptile.
We may discover changes somewhat similar, but furry instead of feathery, in the woods about our home. The fiercest of all the animals of our continent still evades the exterminating inroads of man; indeed it often puts his traps to shame, and wages destructive warfare in his very midst. I speak of the weasel, — the least of all his family, and yet, for his size, the most bloodthirsty and widely dreaded little demon of all the countryside. His is a name to conjure with among all the lesser wood-folk; the scent of his passing brings an almost helpless paralysis. And yet in some way he must be handicapped, for his slightly larger cousin, the mink, finds good hunting the year round, clad in a suit of rich brown; while the weasel, at the approach of winter, sheds his summer dress of chocolate hue and dons a pure white fur, a change which would seem to put the poor mice and rabbits at a hopeless disadvantage. Nevertheless the ermine, as he is now called (although wrongly so), seems just able to hold his own, with all his evil slinking motions and bloodthirsty desires; for foxes, owls, and hawks take, in their turn, heavy toll. Nature is ever a repetition of the "House that Jack built"; — this is the owl that ate the weasel that killed the mouse, and so on.
The little tail-tips of milady's ermine coat are black; and herein lies an interesting fact in the coloration of the weasel and one that, perhaps, gives a clue to some other hitherto inexplicable spots and markings on the fur, feathers, skin, and scales of wild creatures. Whatever the season, and whatever the colour of the weasel's coat, — brown or white, — the tip of the tail remains always black. This would seem, at first thought, a very bad thing for the little animal. Snowing so little of fear, he never tucks his tail between his legs, and, when shooting across an open expanse of snow, the black tip ever trailing after him would seem to mark him out for destruction by every observing hawk or fox.
But the very opposite is the case as Mr. Witmer Stone so well relates. "If you place a weasel in its winter white on new-fallen snow, in such a position that it casts no shadow, you will find that the black tip of the tail catches your eye and holds it in spite of yourself, so that at a little distance it is very difficult to follow the outline of the rest of the animal. Cover the tip of the tail with snow and you can see the rest of the weasel itself much more clearly; but as long as the black point is in sight, you see that, and that only.
"If a hawk or owl, or any other of the larger hunters of the woodland, were to give chase to a weasel and endeavour to pounce upon it, it would in all probability be the black tip of the tail it would see and strike at, while the weasel, darting ahead, would escape. It may, moreover, serve as a guide, enabling the young weasels to follow their parents more readily through grass and brambles.
"One would suppose that this beautiful white fur of winter, literally as white as the snow, might prove a disadvantage at times by making its owner conspicuous when the ground is bare in winter, as it frequently is even in the North; yet though weasels are about more or less by day, you will seldom catch so much as a glimpse of one at such times, though you may hear their sharp chirrup close at hand. Though bold and fearless, they have the power of vanishing instantly, and the slightest alarm sends them to cover. I have seen one standing within reach of my hand in the sunshine on the exposed root of a tree, and while I was staring at it, it vanished like the flame of a candle blown out, without leaving me the slightest clue as to the direction it had taken. All the weasels I have ever seen, either in the woods or open meadows, disappeared in a similar manner."
To add to the completeness of proof that the change from brown to white is for protection, — in the case of the weasel, both to enable it to escape from the fox and to circumvent the rabbit, — the weasels in Florida, where snow is unknown, do not change colour, but remain brown throughout the whole year.