A Life Of Fear
As I sat looking from my window the other morning upon a red squirrel
gathering nuts from a small hickory, and storing them up in his den in
the bank, I was forcibly reminded of the state of constant fear and
apprehension in which the wild creatures live, and I tried to picture to
myself what life would be to me, or to any of us, hedged about by so
many dangers, real or imaginary.
The squirrel would shoot
up the tree, making only a brown streak from
the bottom to the top; would seize his nut and rush down again in the
most hurried manner. Half way to his den, which was not over three rods
distant, he would rush up the trunk of another tree for a few yards to
make an observation. No danger being near, he would dive into his den
and reappear again in a twinkling.
Returning for another nut, he would mount the second tree again for
another observation. Satisfied that the coast was clear, he would spin
along the top of the ground to the tree that bore the nuts, shoot up it
as before, seize the fruit, and then back again to his retreat.
Never did he fail during the half hour or more that I watched him to
take an observation on his way both to and from his nest. It was "snatch
and run" with him. Something seemed to say to him all the time: "Look
out! look out!" "The cat!" "The hawk!" "The owl!" "The boy with the
It was a bleak December morning; the first fine flakes of a cold,
driving snowstorm were just beginning to sift down, and the squirrel was
eager to finish harvesting his nuts in time. It was quite touching to
see how hurried and anxious and nervous he was. I felt like going out
and lending a hand. The nuts were small, poor pig-nuts, and I thought of
all the gnawing he would have to do to get at the scanty meat they held.
My little boy once took pity on a squirrel that lived in the wall near
the gate, and cracked the nuts for him, and put them upon a small board
shelf in the tree where he could sit and eat them at his ease.
The red squirrel is not so provident as the chipmunk. He lays up stores
irregularly, by fits and starts; he never has enough put up to carry him
over the winter; hence he is more or less active all the season. Long
before the December snow, the chipmunk has for days been making hourly
trips to his den with full pockets of nuts or corn or buckwheat, till
his bin holds enough to carry him through to April. He need not, and I
believe does not, set foot out of doors during the whole winter. But the
red squirrel trusts more to luck.
As alert and watchful as the red squirrel is, he is frequently caught by
the cat. My Nig, as black as ebony, knows well the taste of his flesh. I
have known him to be caught by the black snake and successfully
swallowed. The snake, no doubt, lay in ambush for him.
This fear, this ever-present source of danger of the wild creatures, we
know little about. Probably the only person in the civilized countries
who is no better off than the animals in this respect is the Czar of
Russia. He would not even dare gather nuts as openly as my squirrel. A
blacker and more terrible cat than Nig would be lying in wait for him
and would make a meal of him. The early settlers in this country must
have experienced something of this dread of apprehension from the
Indians. Many African tribes now live in the same state of constant fear
of the slave-catchers or of other hostile tribes. Our ancestors, back in
prehistoric times, must have known fear as a constant feeling. Hence
the prominence of fear in infants and children when compared with the
youth or the grown person. Babies are nearly always afraid of strangers.
In the domestic animals also, fear is much more active in the young than
in the old. Nearly every farm boy has seen a calf but a day or two old,
which its mother has secreted in the woods or in a remote field, charge
upon him furiously with a wild bleat, when first discovered. After this
first ebullition of fear, it usually settles down into the tame humdrum
of its bovine elders.
Eternal vigilance is the price of life with most of the wild creatures.
There is only one among them whose wildness I cannot understand, and
that is the common water turtle. Why is this creature so fearful? What
are its enemies? I know of nothing that preys upon it. Yet see how
watchful and suspicious these turtles are as they sun themselves upon a
log or a rock. While you are yet many yards away from them, they slide
down into the water and are gone.
The land turtle, on the other hand, shows scarcely a trace of fear. He
will indeed pause in his walk when you are very near him, but he will
not retreat into his shell till you have poked him with your foot or
your cane. He appears to have no enemies; but the little spotted water
turtle is as shy as if he were the delicate tidbit that every creature
was searching for. I did once find one which a fox had dug out of the
mud in winter, and carried a few rods and dropped on the snow, as if he
had found he had no use for it.
One can understand the fearlessness of the skunk. Nearly every creature
but the farm-dog yields to him the right of way. All dread his terrible
weapon. If you meet one in your walk in the twilight fields, the chances
are that you will turn out for him, not he for you. He may even pursue
you, just for the fun of seeing you run. He comes waltzing toward you,
apparently in the most hilarious spirits.
The coon is probably the most courageous creature among our familiar
wild animals. Who ever saw a coon show the white feather? He will face
any odds with perfect composure. I have seen a coon upon the ground,
beset by four men and two dogs, and never for a moment losing his
presence of mind, or showing a sign of fear. The raccoon is clear grit.
The fox is a very wild and suspicious creature, but curiously enough,
when you suddenly come face to face with him, when he is held by a trap,
or driven by the hound, his expression is not that of fear, but of
shame and guilt. He seems to diminish in size and to be overwhelmed with
humiliation. Does he know himself to be an old thief, and is that the
reason of his embarrassment? The fox has no enemies but man, and when he
is fairly outwitted he looks the shame he evidently feels.
In the heart of the rabbit fear constantly abides. How her eyes
protrude! She can see back and forward and on all sides as well as a
bird. The fox is after her, the owls are after her, the gunners are
after her, and she has no defense but her speed. She always keeps well
to cover. The northern hare keeps in the thickest brush. If the hare or
rabbit crosses a broad open exposure it does so hurriedly, like a mouse
when it crosses the road. The mouse is in danger of being pounced upon
by a hawk, and the hare or rabbit by the snowy owl, or else the great
A friend of mine was following one morning a fresh rabbit track through
an open field. Suddenly the track came to an end, as if the creature had
taken wings,--as it had after an unpleasant fashion. There, on either
side of its last foot imprint, were several parallel lines in the snow,
made by the wings of the great owl that had swooped down and carried it
off. What a little tragedy was seen written there upon the white, even
surface of the field!
The rabbit has not much wit. Once, when a boy, I saw one that had been
recently caught, liberated in an open field in the presence of a dog
that was being held a few yards away. The poor thing lost all presence
of mind, and was quickly caught by the clumsy dog.
A hunter once saw a hare running upon the ice along the shore of one of
the Rangeley lakes. Presently a lynx appeared in hot pursuit; as soon as
the hare found it was being pursued, it began to circle, foolish thing.
This gave the lynx greatly the advantage, as it could follow in a much
smaller circle. Soon the hare was run down and seized.
I saw a similar experiment tried with a red squirrel with quite opposite
results. The boy who had caught the squirrel in his wire trap had a very
bright and nimble dog about the size of a fox, that seemed to be very
sure he could catch a red squirrel under any circumstances if only the
trees were out of the way. So the boy went to the middle of an open
field with his caged squirrel, the dog, who seemed to know what was up,
dancing and jumping about him. It was in midwinter; the snow had a firm
crust that held boy and dog alike. The dog was drawn back a few yards
and the squirrel liberated.
Then began one of the most exciting races I have witnessed for a long
time. It was impossible for the lookers-on not to be convulsed with
laughter, though neither dog nor squirrel seemed to regard the matter as
much of a joke. The squirrel had all his wits about him, and kept them
ready for instant use. He did not show the slightest confusion. He was
no match for the dog in fair running, and he discovered this fact in
less than three seconds; he must win, if at all, by strategy. Not a
straight course for the nearest tree, but a zigzag course, yea, a double
or treble zigzag course. Every instant the dog was sure the squirrel was
his, and every instant he was disappointed. It was incredible and
bewildering to him. The squirrel dodged this way and that. The dog
looked astonished and vexed. Then the squirrel issued from between his
enemy's hind legs and made three jumps towards the woods before he was
discovered. Our sides ached with laughter, cruel as it may seem.
It was evident the squirrel would win. The dog seemed to redouble his
efforts. He would overshoot the game, or shoot by it to the right or
left. The squirrel was the smaller craft, and could out-tack him
easily. One more leap and the squirrel was up a tree, and the dog was
overwhelmed with confusion and disgust. He could not believe his senses.
"Not catch a squirrel in such a field as that? Go to, I will have him
yet!" and he bounded up the tree as high as one's head, and then bit the
bark of it in his anger and chagrin.
The boy says his dog has never bragged since about catching red
squirrels "if only the trees were out of reach!"
When any of the winged creatures are engaged in a life and death race in
that way, or in any other race, the tactics of the squirrel do not work;
the pursuer never overshoots nor shoots by his mark. The flight of the
two is timed as if they were parts of one whole. A hawk will pursue a
sparrow or a robin through a zigzag course and not lose a stroke or half
a stroke of the wing by reason of any darting to the right or left. The
clue is held with fatal precision. No matter how quickly nor how often
the sparrow or the finch changes its course, its enemy changes,
simultaneously, as if every move was known to it from the first.
The same thing may be noticed among the birds in their love chasings;
the pursuer seems to know perfectly the mind of the pursued. This
concert of action among birds is very curious. When they are on the
alert, a flock of sparrows, or pigeons, or cedar-birds, or snow
buntings, or blackbirds, will all take flight as if there were but one
bird, instead of a hundred. The same impulse seizes every individual
bird at the same instant, as if they were sprung by electricity.
Or when a flock of birds is in flight, it is still one body, one will;
it will rise, or circle, or swoop with a unity that is truly
A flock of snow buntings will perform their aerial evolutions with a
precision that the best-trained soldiery cannot equal. Have the birds an
extra sense which we have not? A brood of young partridges in the woods
will start up like an explosion, every brown particle and fragment
hurled into the air at the same instant. Without word or signal, how is