List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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trapper who, on finding himself outwitted in this manner, tied a bit of
cheese to the pan, and next morning had poor Reynard by the jaw. The
trap is not fastened, but only encumbered with a clog, and is all the
more sure in its hold by yielding to every effort of the animal to
extricate himself.

When Reynard sees his captor approaching, he would fain drop into a
mouse-hole to render himself invisible. He crouches to the ground and
remains perfectly motionless until he perceives himself discovered,
when he makes one desperate and final effort to escape, but ceases all
struggling as you come up, and behaves in a manner that stamps him a
very timid warrior,--cowering to the earth with a mingled look of
shame, guilt, and abject fear. A young farmer told me of tracing one
with his trap to the border of a wood, where he discovered the cunning
rogue trying to hide by embracing a small tree. Most animals, when
taken in a trap, show fight; but Reynard has more faith in the
nimbleness of his feet than in the terror of his teeth.

Entering the woods, the number and variety of the tracks contrast
strongly with the rigid, frozen aspect of things. Warm jets of life
still shoot and I play amid this snowy desolation. Fox-tracks are far
less numerous than in the fields; but those of hares, skunks,
partridges, squirrels, and mice abound. The mice tracks are very
pretty, and look like a sort of fantastic stitching on the coverlid of
the snow. One is curious to know what brings these tiny creatures from
their retreats; they do not seem to be in quest of food, but rather to
be traveling about for pleasure or sociability, though always going
post-haste, and linking stump with stump and tree with tree by fine,
hurried strides. That is when they travel openly; but they have hidden
passages and winding galleries under the snow, which undoubtedly are
their main avenues of communication. Here and there these passages rise
so near the surface as to be covered by only a frail arch of snow, and
a slight ridge betrays their course to the eye. I know him well. He is
known to the farmer as the "deer mouse," to the naturalist as the
white-footed mouse,--a very beautiful creature, nocturnal in his
habits, with large ears, and large, fine eyes full of a wild, harmless
look. He is daintily marked, with white feet and a white belly. When
disturbed by day he is very easily captured, having none of the cunning
or viciousness of the common Old World mouse.

It is he who, high in the hollow trunk of some tree, lays by a store of
beechnuts for winter use. Every nut is carefully shelled, and the
cavity that serves as storehouse lined with grass and leaves. The
wood-chopper frequently squanders this precious store. I have seen half
a peck taken from one tree, as clean and white as if put up by the most
delicate hands,--as they were. How long it must have taken the little
creature to collect this quantity, to hull them one by one, and convey
them up to his fifth-story chamber! He is not confined to the woods,
but is quite as common in the fields, particularly in the fall, amid
the corn and potatoes. When routed by the plow, I have seen the old one
take flight with half a dozen young hanging to her teats, and with such
reckless speed that some of the young would lose their hold and fly off
amid the weeds. Taking refuge in a stump with the rest of her family,
the anxious mother would presently come back and hunt up the missing

The snow-walkers are mostly night-walkers also, and the record they
leave upon the snow is the main clew one has to their life and doings.
The hare is nocturnal in its habits, and though a very lively creature
at night, with regular courses and run-ways through the wood, is
entirely quiet by day. Timid as he is, he makes little effort to
conceal himself, usually squatting beside a log, stump, or tree, and
seeming to avoid rocks and ledges, where he might be partially housed
from the cold and the snow, but where also--and this consideration
undoubtedly determines his choice--he would be more apt fall a prey to
his enemies. In this, as well as in many other respects, he differs
from the rabbit proper: he never burrows in the ground, or takes refuge
in a den or hole, when pursued. If caught in the open fields, he is
much confused and easily overtaken by the dog; but in the woods, he
leaves him at a bound. In summer, when first disturbed, he beats the
ground violently with his feet, by which means he would express to you
his surprise or displeasure; it is a dumb way he has of scolding. After
leaping a few yards, he pauses an instant, as if to determine the
degree of danger, and then hurries away with a much lighter tread.

His feet are like great pads, and his track has little of the sharp,
articulated expression of Reynard's, or of animals that climb or dig.
Yet it is very pretty like all the rest, and tells its own tale. There
is nothing bold or vicious or vulpine in it, and his timid, harmless
character is published at every leap. He abounds in dense woods,
preferring localities filled with a small undergrowth of beech and
birch, upon the bark of which he feeds. Nature is rather partial to
him, and matches his extreme local habits and character with a suit
that corresponds with his surroundings,--reddish gray in summer and
white in winter.

The sharp-rayed track of the partridge adds another figure to this
fantastic embroidery upon the winter snow. Her course is a clear,
strong line, sometimes quite wayward, but generally very direct,
steering for the densest, most impenetrable places,--leading you over
logs and through brush, alert and expectant, till, suddenly, she bursts
up a few yards from you, and goes humming through the trees,--the
complete triumph of endurance and vigor. Hardy native bird, may your
tracks never be fewer, or your visits to the birch-tree less frequent!

The squirrel tracks--sharp, nervous, and wiry--have their histories
also. But how rarely we see squirrels in winter! The naturalists say
they are mostly torpid; yet evidently that little pocket-faced
depredator, the chipmunk, was not carrying buckwheat for so many days
to his hole for nothing: was he anticipating a state of torpidity, or
providing against the demands of a very active appetite? Red and gray
squirrels are more or less active all winter, though very shy, and, I
am inclined to think, partially nocturnal in their habits. Here a gray
one has just passed,--came down that tree and went up this; there he
dug for a beechnut, and left the burr on the snow. How did he know
where to dig? During an unusually severe winter I have known him to
make long journeys to a barn, in a remote field, where wheat was
stored. How did he know there was wheat there? In attempting to return,
the adventurous creature was frequently run down and caught in the deep

His home is in the trunk of some old birch or maple, with an entrance
far up amid the branches. In the spring he builds himself a
summer-house of small leafy twigs in the top of a neighboring beech,
where the young are reared and much of the time is passed. But the
safer retreat in the maple is not abandoned, and both old and young
resort thither in the fall, or when danger threatens. Whether this
temporary residence amid the branches is for elegance or pleasure, or
for sanitary reasons or domestic convenience, the naturalist has
forgotten to mention.

The elegant creature, so cleanly in its habits, so graceful in its
carriage, so nimble and daring in its movements, excites feelings of
admiration akin to those awakened by the birds and the fairer forms of
nature. His passage through the trees is almost a flight. Indeed, the
flying squirrel has little or no advantage over him, and in speed and
nimbleness cannot compare with him at all. If he miss his footing and
fall, he is sure to catch on the next branch; if the connection be
broken, he leaps recklessly for the nearest spray or limb, and secures
his hold, even if it be by the aid of his teeth.

His career of frolic and festivity begins in the fall, after the birds
have left us and the holiday spirit of nature has commenced to subside.
How absorbing the pastime of the sportsman who goes to the woods in the
still October morning in quest of him! You step lightly across the
threshold of the forest, and sit down upon the first log or rock to
await the signals. It is so still that the ear suddenly seems to have
acquired new powers, and there is no movement to confuse the eye.
Presently you hear the rustling of a branch, and see it sway or spring
as the squirrel leaps from or to it; or else you hear a disturbance in
the dry leaves, and mark one running upon the ground. He has probably
seen the intruder, and, not liking his stealthy movements, desires to
avoid a nearer acquaintance. Now he mounts a stump to see if the way is
clear, then pauses a moment at the foot of a tree to take his bearings,
his tail, as he skims along, undulating behind him, and adding to the
easy grace and dignity of his movements. Or else you are first advised
of his proximity by the dropping of a false nut, or the fragments of
the shucks rattling upon the leaves. Or, again, after contemplating you
awhile unobserved, and making up his mind that you are not dangerous,
he strikes an attitude on a branch, and commences to quack and bark,
with an accompanying movement of his tail. Late in the afternoon, when
the same stillness reigns, the same scenes are repeated. There is a
black variety, quite rare, but mating freely with the gray, from which
he seems to be distinguished only in color.

The track of the red squirrel may be known by its smaller size.  He is
more common and less dignified than the gray, and oftener guilty of
petty larceny about the barns and grain-fields. He is most abundant in
old barkpeelings, and low, dilapidated hemlocks, from which he makes
excursions to the fields and orchards, spinning along the tops of the
fences, which afford not only convenient lines of communication, but a
safe retreat if danger threatens. He loves to linger about the orchard;
and, sitting upright on the topmost stone in the wall, or on the
tallest stake in the fence, chipping up an apple for the seeds, his
tail conforming to the curve of his back, his paws shifting and turning
the apple, he is a pretty sight, and his bright, pert appearance atones
for all the mischief he does. At home, in the woods, he is the most
frolicsome and loquacious. The appearance of anything unusual, if,
after contemplating it a moment, he concludes it not dangerous, excites
his unbounded mirth and ridicule, and he snickers and chatters, hardly
able to contain himself; now darting up the trunk of a tree and
squealing in derision, then hopping into position on a limb and dancing
to the music of his own cackle, and all for your special benefit.

There is something very human in this apparent mirth and mockery of the
squirrels. It seems to be a sort of ironical laughter, and implies
self-conscious pride and exultation in the laugher. "What a ridiculous
thing you are, to be sure!" he seems to say; "how clumsy and awkward,
and what a poor show for a tail! Look at me, look at me!"--and he
capers about in his best style. Again, he would seem to tease you and
provoke your attention; then suddenly assumes a tone of good-natured,
childlike defiance and derision. That pretty little imp, the chipmunk,
will sit on the stone above his den and defy you, as plainly as if he
said so, to catch him before he can get into his hole if you can. You
hurl a stone at him, and "No you didn't!" comes up from the depth of
his retreat.

In February another track appears upon the snow, slender and delicate,
about a third larger than that of the gray squirrel, indicating no
haste or speed, but, on the contrary, denoting the most imperturbable
ease and leisure, the footprints so close together that the trail
appears like a chain of curiously carved links. Sir Mephitis mephitica,
or, in plain English, the skunk, has awakened from his six weeks' nap,
and come out into society again. He is a nocturnal traveler, very bold
and impudent, coming quite up to the barn and outbuildings, and
sometimes taking up his quarters for the season under the haymow. There
is no such word as hurry in his dictionary, as you may see by his path
upon the snow. He has a very sneaking, insinuating way, and goes
creeping about the fields and woods, never once in a perceptible degree
altering his gait, and, if a fence crosses his course, steers for a
break or opening to avoid climbing. He is too indolent even to dig his
own hole, but appropriates that of a woodchuck, or hunts out a crevice
in the rocks, from which he extends his rambling in all directions,
preferring damp, thawy weather. He has very little discretion or
cunning, and holds a trap in utter contempt, stepping into it as soon
as beside it, relying implicitly for defense against all forms of
danger upon the unsavory punishment he is capable of inflicting. He is
quite indifferent to both man and beast, and will not hurry himself to
get out of the way of either. Walking through the summer fields at
twilight, I have come near stepping upon him, and was much the more
disturbed of the two. When attacked in the open field he confounds the
plans of his enemies by the unheard-of tactics of exposing his rear
rather than his front. "Come if you dare," he says, and his attitude
makes even the farm-dog pause. After a few encounters of this kind, and
if you entertain the usual hostility towards him, your mode of attack
will speedily resolve itself into moving about him in a circle, the
radius of which will be the exact distance at which you can hurl a
stone with accuracy and effect.

He has a secret to keep and knows it, and is careful not to betray
himself until he can do so with the most telling effect. I have known
him to preserve his serenity even when caught in a steel trap, and look
the very picture of injured innocence, manoeuvring carefully and
deliberately to extricate his foot from the grasp of the naughty jaws.
Do not by any means take pity on him, and lend a helping hand!

How pretty his face and head!  How fine and delicate his teeth, like a
weasel's or a cat's! When about a third grown, he looks so well that
one covets him for a pet. He is quite precocious, however, and capable,
even at this tender age, of making a very strong appeal to your sense
of smell.

No animal is more cleanly in his habits than he.  He is not an awkward
boy who cuts his own face with his whip; and neither his flesh nor his
fur hints the weapon with which he is armed. The most silent creature
known to me, he makes no sound, so far as I have observed, save a
diffuse, impatient noise, like that produced by beating your hand with
a whisk-broom, when the farm-dog has discovered his retreat in the
stone fence. He renders himself obnoxious to the farmer by his
partiality for hens' eggs and young poultry. He is a confirmed epicure,
and at plundering hen-roosts an expert. Not the full-grown fowls are
his victims, but the youngest and most tender. At night Mother Hen

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