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He goes but to see a noise that he heard. — SHAKESPEARE.
AT the back of my father's house were woods, to my childish imagination a boundless wilderness. Little by little I ventured into them, and among my earliest recollections of their sombre and lonesome depths was a long, thunderous, far-away drumming noise, beginning slowly and increasing in speed till the blows became almost continuous. This, somebody told me, was the drumming of the partridge. Now and then, in open spaces in the path, I came upon shallow circular depressions where the bird had been dusting, an operation in which I had often seen our barnyard fowls complacently engaged. At other times I was startled by the sudden whir of the bird's wings as he sprang up at my feet, and went dashing away through the underbrush. I heard with open-mouthed wonder of men who had been known to shoot a bird thus flying! All in all, the partridge made a great impression upon my boyish mind.
By and by some older companion initiated me into the mystery of setting snares. My attempts were primitive enough, no doubt; but they answered their purpose, taking me into the woods morning and night, in all kinds of weather, and affording me no end of pleasurable excitement. Once in a great while the noose would be displaced (the “slip-noose,” we called it, with unsuspected pleonasm), and the barberries gone. At last, after numberless disappointments, I actually found a bird in the snare. The poor captive was still alive, and, as I came up, was making frantic efforts to escape; but I managed to secure him, in spite of my trembling fingers, and then, though the deed looked horribly like murder, I killed him (I would rather not mention how), and carried him home in triumph.
Many years passed, and I became in my own way an ornithologist. One by one I scraped acquaintance with all the common birds of our woods and fields; but the drumming of the partridge (or of the ruffed grouse, as I now learned to call him) remained a mystery. I read Emerson's description of the “forest-seer:” —
“He saw the partridge drum in the woods;
He heard the woodcock's evening hymn;
He found the tawny thrushes' broods;
And the shy hawk did wait for him;”
and I thought: “Well, now, I have seen and heard the woodcock at his vespers; I have found the nest of the tawny thrush; the shy hawk has sat still on the branch just over my head; but I have not seen the partridge drum in the woods. Why shouldn’t I do that, also?” I made numerous attempts. A bird often drummed in a small wood where I was in the habit of rambling before breakfast. The sound came always from a particular quarter, and probably from a certain stone wall, running over a slight rise of ground near a swamp. The crafty fellow evidently did not mean to be surprised; but I made a careful reconnoissance, and finally hit upon what seemed a feasible point of approach. A rather large boulder offered a little cover, and, after several failures, I one day spied the bird on the wall. He had drummed only a few minutes before; but his lookout was most likely sharper than mine. At all events, he dropped off the wall on the further side, and for that time I saw nothing more of him. Nor was I more successful the next time, nor the next. Be as noiseless as I could, the wary creature inevitably took the alarm. To make matters worse, mornings were short and birds were many. One day there were rare visiting warblers to be looked after; another day the gray-cheeked thrushes had dropped in upon us on their way northward, and, if possible, I must hear them sing. Then the pretty blue golden-winged warbler was building her nest, and by some means or other I must find it.
Thus season after season slipped by. Then, in another place, I accidentally passed quite round a drummer. I heard him on the right, and after traveling only a few rods, I heard him on the left. He must be very near me, and not far from the crest of a low hill, over which, as in the former instance, a stone wall ran. He drummed at long intervals, and meanwhile I was straining my eyes and advancing at a snail's pace up the slope. Happily, the ground was carpeted with pine needles, and comparatively free from brush and dead twigs, those snapping nuisances that so often bring all our patience and ingenuity to nought. A section of the wall came into sight, but I got no glimpse of the bird. Presently I went down upon all fours; then lower yet, crawling instead of creeping, till I could look over the brow of the hill. Here I waited, and had begun to fear that I was once more to have my labor for my pains, when all at once I saw the grouse step from one stone to another. “Now for it!” I said to myself. But the drumming did not follow, and anon I lost sight of the drummer. Again I waited, and finally the fellow jumped suddenly upon a top stone, lifted his wings, and commenced the familiar roll-call. I could see his wings beating against his sides with quicker and quicker strokes; but an unlucky bush was between us, and hoping to better my position, I moved a little to one side. Upon this, the bird became aware of my presence, I think. At least I could see him staring straight at me, and a moment later he dropped behind the wall; and though I remained motionless till a cramp took me, I heard nothing more. “If it had not been for that miserable bush!” I muttered. But I need not have quarreled with an innocent bush, as if it, any more than myself, had been given a choice where it should grow. A wiser man would have called to mind the old saw, and made the most of “half a loaf.”
Another year passed, and another spring came round. Then, on the same hillside, a bird (probably the same individual) was drumming one April morning, and, as my note-book has it, “I came within one “of taking him in the act. I miscalculated his position, however, which, as it turned out, was not upon the wall, but on a boulder surrounded by a few small pine-trees. The rock proved to be well littered, and clearly was the bird's regular resort. “Very good,” said I, “I will catch you yet.”
Five days later I returned to the charge, and was rewarded by seeing the fellow drum once; but, as before, intervening brush obscured my view. I crept forward, inch by inch, till the top of the boulder came into sight, and waited, and waited, and waited. At last I pushed on, and lo, the place was deserted. There is a familiar Scripture text that might have been written on purpose for ornithologists: “Let patience have her perfect work.”
This was April 14th. On the 19th I made the experiment again. The drummer was at it as I drew near, and fortune favored me at last. I witnessed the performance three times over. Even now, to be sure, the prospect was not entirely clear, but it was better than ever before, and by this time I had learned to be thankful for small mercies. The grouse kept his place between the acts, moving his head a little one way and another, but apparently doing nothing else.
Of course I had in mind the disputed question as to the method by which the drumming noise is produced. It had seemed to me that whoever would settle this point must do it by attending carefully to the first slow beats. This I now attempted, and after one trial was ready, offhand, to accept a theory which heretofore I had scouted; namely, that the bird makes the sound by striking his wings together over his back. He brought them up, even for the first two or three times, with a quick convulsive movement, and I could almost have made oath that I heard the beat before the wings fell. But fortunately, or unfortunately, I waited till he drummed again; and now I was by no means so positive in my conviction. If an observer wishes to be absolutely sure of a thing, — I have learned this by long experience, — let him look at it once, and forever after shut his eyes! On the whole, I return to my previous opinion, that the sound is made by the downward stroke, though whether against the body or against the air, I will not presume to say.
A man who is a far better ornithologist than I, and who has witnessed this performance under altogether more favorable conditions than I was ever afforded, assures me that his performer sat down! My bird took no such ridiculous position. So much, at least, I am sure of.
When he had drummed three times, my partridge quit his boulder (I was near enough to hear him strike the dry leaves), and after a little walked suddenly into plain sight. We discovered each other at the same instant. I kept motionless, my field-glass up. He made sundry nervous movements, especially of his ruff, and then silently stalked away.
I could not blame him for his lack of neighborliness. If I had been shot at and hunted with dogs as many times as he probably had been, I too might have become a little shy of strangers. To my thinking, indeed, the grouse is one of our most estimable citizens. A liking for the buds of fruit-trees is his only fault (not many of my townsmen have a smaller number, I fancy), and that is one easily overlooked, especially by a man who owns no orchard. Every sportsman tries to shoot him, and every winter does its worst to freeze or starve him; but he continues to flourish. Others may migrate to sunnier climes, or seek safety in the backwoods, but not so the partridge. He was born here, and here he means to stay. What else could be expected of a bird whose notion of a lover's serenade is the beating of a drum?