List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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receives under her maternal wings a dozen newly hatched chickens, and
with much pride and satisfaction feels them all safely tucked away in
her feathers. In the morning she is walking about disconsolately,
attended by only two or three of all that pretty brood. What has
happened?  Where are they gone?  That pickpocket, Sir Mephitis, could
solve the mystery. Quietly has he approached, under cover of darkness,
and one by one relieved her of her precious charge. Look closely and
you will see their little yellow legs and beaks, or part of a mangled
form, lying about on the ground. Or, before the hen has hatched, he may
find her out, and, by the same sleight of hand, remove every egg,
leaving only the empty blood-stained shells to witness against him. The
birds, especially the ground-builders, suffer in like manner from his
plundering propensities.

The secretion upon which he relies for defense, and which is the chief
source of his unpopularity, while it affords good reasons against
cultivating him as a pet, and mars his attractiveness as game, is by no
means the greatest indignity that can be offered to a nose. It is a
rank, living smell, and has none of the sickening qualities of disease
or putrefaction. Indeed, I think a good smeller will enjoy its most
refined intensity. It approaches the sublime, and makes the nose
tingle. It is tonic and bracing, and, I can readily believe, has rare
medicinal qualities. I do not recommend its use as eyewater, though an
old farmer assures me it has undoubted virtues when thus applied.
Hearing, one night, a disturbance among his hens, he rushed suddenly
out to catch the thief, when Sir Mephitis, taken by surprise, and no
doubt much annoyed at being interrupted, discharged the vials of his
wrath full in the farmers face, and with such admirable effect that,
for a few minutes, he was completely blinded, and powerless to revenge
himself upon the rogue, who embraced the opportunity to make good his
escape; but he declared that afterwards his eyes felt as if purged by
fire, and his sight was much clearer.

In March that brief summary of a bear, the raccoon, comes out of his
den in the ledges, and leaves his sharp digitigrade track upon the
snow,--traveling not unfrequently in pairs,--a lean, hungry couple,
bent on pillage and plunder. They have an unenviable time of
it,--feasting in the summer and fall, hibernating in winter, and
starving in spring. In April I have found the young of the previous
year creeping around the fields, so reduced by starvation as to be
quite helpless, and offering no resistance to my taking them up by the
tail and carrying them home.

The old ones also become very much emaciated, and come boldly up to the
barn or other outbuildings in quest of food. I remember, one morning in
early spring, of hearing old Cuff, the farm-dog, barking vociferously
before it was yet light. When we got up we discovered him, at the foot
of an ash-tree standing about thirty rods from the house, looking up at
some gray objects in the leafless branches, and by his manners and his
voice evincing great impatience that we were so tardy in coming to his
assistance. Arrived on the spot, we saw in the tree a coon of unusual
size. One bold climber proposed to go up and shake him down. This was
what old Cuff wanted, and he fairly bounded with delight as he saw his
young master shinning up the tree. Approaching within eight or ten feet
of the coon, he seized the branch to which it clung and shook long and
fiercely. But the coon was in no danger of losing its hold, and, when
the climber paused to renew his hold, it turned toward him with a
growl, and showed very clearly a purpose to advance to the attack. This
caused his pursuer to descend to the ground with all speed. When the
coon was finally brought down with a gun, he fought the dog, which was
a large, powerful animal, with great fury, returning bite for bite for
some moments; and after a quarter of an hour had elapsed and his
unequal antagonist had shaken him as a terrier does a rat, making his
teeth meet through the small of his back, the coon still showed fight.

They are very tenacious of life, and like the badger will always whip a
dog of their own size and weight. A woodchuck can bite severely, having
teeth that cut like chisels, but a coon has agility and power of limb
as well.

They are considered game only in the fall, or towards the close of
summer, when they become fat. and their flesh sweet. At this time,
cooning in the remote interior is a famous pastime. As this animal is
entirely nocturnal in its habits, it is hunted only at night. A piece
of corn on some remote side-hill near the mountain, or between two
pieces of woods, is most apt to be frequented by them. While the corn
is yet green they pull the ears down like hogs, and, tearing open the
sheathing of husks, eat the tender, succulent kernels, bruising and
destroying much more than they devour. Sometimes their ravages are a
matter of serious concern to the farmer. But every such neighborhood
has its coon-dog, and the boys and young men dearly love the sport. The
party sets out about eight or nine o'clock of a dark, moonless night,
and stealthily approaches the cornfield. The dog knows his business,
and when he is put into a patch of corn and told to "hunt them up" he
makes a thorough search, and will not be misled by any other scent. You
hear him rattling through the corn, hither and yon, with great speed.
The coons prick up their ears, and leave on the opposite side of the
field. In the stillness you may sometimes hear a single stone rattle on
the wall as they hurry toward the woods. If the dog finds nothing, he
comes back to his master in a short time, and says in his dumb way, "No
coon there." But if he strikes a trail, you presently hear a louder
rattling on the stone wall, and then a hurried bark as he enters the
woods, followed in a few minutes by loud and repeated barking as he
reaches the foot of the tree in which the coon has taken refuge. Then
follows a pellmell rush of the cooning party up the hill, into the
woods, through the brush and the darkness, falling over prostrate
trees, pitching into gullies and hollows, losing hats and tearing
clothes, till finally, guided by the baying of the faithful dog, the
tree is reached. The first thing now in order is to kindle a fire, and,
if its light reveals the coon, to shoot him; if not, to fell the tree
with an axe. If this happens to be too great a sacrifice of timber and
of strength, to sit down at the foot of the tree till morning.

But with March our interest in these phases of animal life, which
winter has so emphasized and brought out, begins to decline. Vague
rumors are afloat in the air of a great and coming change. We are eager
for Winter to be gone, since he, too, is fugitive and cannot keep his
place. Invisible hands deface his icy statuary; his chisel has lost its
cunning. The drifts, so pure and exquisite, are now earth-stained and
weather-worn,--the flutes and scallops, and fine, firm lines, all gone;
and what was a grace and an ornament to the hills is now a
disfiguration. Like worn and unwashed linen appear the remains of that
spotless robe with which he clothed the world as his bride.

But he will not abdicate without a struggle.  Day after day he rallies
his scattered forces, and night after night pitches his white tents on
the hills, and would fain regain his lost ground; but the young prince
in every encounter prevails. Slowly and reluctantly the gray old hero
retreats up the mountain, till finally the south rain comes in earnest,
and in a night he is dead.


I have already spoken of the fox at some length, but it will take a
chapter by itself to do half justice to his portrait.

He furnishes, perhaps, the only instance that can be cited of a
fur-bearing animal that not only holds its own, but that actually
increases in the face of the means that are used for its extermination.
The beaver, for instance, was gone before the earliest settlers could
get a sight of him; and even the mink and marten are now only rarely
seen, or not seen at all, in places where they were once abundant.

But the fox has survived civilization, and in some localities is no
doubt more abundant now than in the time of the Revolution. For half a
century at least he has been almost the only prize, in the way of fur,
that was to be found on our mountains, and he has been hunted and
trapped and waylaid, sought for as game and pursued in enmity, taken by
fair means and by foul, and yet there seems not the slightest danger of
the species becoming extinct.

One would think that a single hound in a neighborhood, filling the
mountains with his bayings, and leaving no nook or byway of them
unexplored, was enough to drive and scare every fox from the country.
But not so. Indeed, I am almost tempted to say, the more hounds, the
more foxes.

I recently spent a summer month in a mountainous district in the State
of New York, where, from its earliest settlement, the red fox has been
the standing prize for skill in the use of the trap and gun. At the
house where I was staying were two foxhounds, and a neighbor half a
mile distant had a third. There were many others in the township, and
in season they were well employed, too; but the three spoken of,
attended by their owners, held high carnival on the mountains in the
immediate vicinity. And many were the foxes that, winter after winter,
fell before them, twenty-five having been shot, the season before my
visit, on one small range alone. And yet the foxes were apparently
never more abundant than they were that summer, and never bolder,
coming at night within a few rods of the house, and of the unchained
alert hounds, and making havoc among the poultry.

One morning a large, fat goose was found minus her head and otherwise
mangled. Both hounds had disappeared, and, as they did not come back
till near night, it was inferred that they had cut short Reynard's
repast, and given him a good chase into the bargain. But next night he
was back again, and this time got safely off with the goose. A couple
of nights after he must have come with recruits, for next morning three
large goslings were reported missing. The silly geese now got it
through their noddles that there was danger about, and every night
thereafter came close up to the house to roost.

A brood of turkeys, the old one tied to a tree a few rods to the rear
of the house, were the next objects of attack. The predaceous rascal
came, as usual, in the latter half of the night. I happened to be
awake, and heard the helpless turkey cry "quit," "quit," with great
emphasis. Another sleeper, on the floor above me, who, it seems, had
been sleeping with one ear awake for several nights in apprehension for
the safety of his turkeys, heard the sound also, and instantly divined
its cause. I heard the window open and a voice summon the dogs. A loud
bellow was the response, which caused Reynard to take himself off in a
hurry. A moment more, and the mother turkey would have shared the fate
of the geese. There she lay at the end of her tether, with extended
wings, bitten and rumpled. The young ones, roosting in a row on the
fence near by, had taken flight on the first alarm.

Turkeys, retaining many of their wild instincts, are less easily
captured by the fox than any other of our domestic fowls. On the
slightest show of danger they take to wing, and it is not unusual, in
the locality of which I speak, to find them in the morning perched in
the most unwonted places, as on the peak of the barn or hay-shed, or on
the tops of the apple-trees, their tails spread and their manners
showing much excitement. Perchance one turkey is minus her tail, the
fox having succeeded in getting only a mouthful of quills.

As the brood grows and their wings develop, they wander far from the
house in quest of grasshoppers. At such times they are all watchfulness
and suspicion. Crossing the fields one day, attended by a dog that much
resembled a fox, I came suddenly upon a brood about one third grown,
which were feeding in a pasture just beyond a wood. It so happened that
they caught sight of the dog without seeing me, when instantly, with
the celerity of wild game, they launched into the air, and, while the
old one perched upon a treetop, as if to keep an eye on the supposed
enemy, the young went sailing over the trees toward home.

The two hounds above referred to, accompanied by a cur-dog, whose
business it was to mind the farm, but who took as much delight in
running away from prosy duty as if he had been a schoolboy, would
frequently steal off and have a good hunt all by themselves, just for
the fun of the thing, I suppose. I more than half suspect that it was
as a kind of taunt or retaliation, that Reynard came and took the geese
from under their very noses. One morning they went off and stayed till
the afternoon of the next day; they ran the fox all day and all night,
the hounds baying at every jump, the cur-dog silent and tenacious. When
the trio returned, they came dragging themselves along, stiff,
footsore, gaunt, and hungry. For a day or two afterward they lay about
the kennels, seeming to dread nothing so much as the having to move.
The stolen hunt was their "spree," their "bender," and of course they
must take time to get over it.

Some old hunters think the fox enjoys the chase as much as the hound,
especially when the latter runs slow, as the best hounds do. The fox
will wait for the hound, will sit down and listen, or play about,
crossing and recrossing and doubling upon his track, as if enjoying a
mischievous consciousness of the perplexity he would presently cause
his pursuer. It is evident, however, that the fox does not always have
his share of the fun: before a swift dog, or in a deep snow, or on a
wet day, when his tail gets heavy, he must put his best foot forward.
As a last resort he "holes up." Sometimes he resorts to numerous
devices to mislead and escape the dog altogether. He will walk in the
bed of a small creek, or on a rail-fence. I heard of an instance of a
fox, hard and long pressed, that took to a rail-fence, and, after
walking some distance, made a leap to one side to a hollow stump, in
the cavity of which he snugly stowed himself. The ruse succeeded, and
the dogs lost the trail; but the hunter, coming up, passed by chance
near the stump, when out bounded the fox, his cunning availing him less
than he deserved. On another occasion the fox took to the public road,
and stepped with great care and precision into a sleigh-track. The
hard, polished snow took no imprint of the light foot, and the scent
was no doubt less than it would have been on a rougher surface. Maybe,
also, the rogue had considered the chances of another sleigh coming
along, before the hound, and obliterating the trail entirely.

Audubon tells us of a certain fox, which, when started by the hounds,
always managed to elude them at a certain point. Finally the hunter
concealed himself in the locality, to discover, if possible, the trick.
Presently along came the fox, and, making a leap to one side, ran up

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