Volume VII 

Through the Cabin Window

Volume VII: January—December, 1940

As faithful subscribers of NATURE NOTES know, our office is in a small building located on the edge of the woods, very close to nature. This, we believe, keeps us in constant touch with things outdoors.

We can watch the chickadees and nuthatches at our feeding stations; we can see the squirrels scampering along the limbs of the great oaks; we can follow the hawk as he soars above the hills; and we can even occasionally catch a glimpse of “brer fox” as he investigates the possibilities of making a meal of some fat hen.

Is this not an appropriate setting for the offices of a magazine that endeavors to bring you first-hand knowledge of nature? We think it is.

Of course, when the temperature drops to fifteen or more degrees below zero, as it has of late, we are all but put out of commission. And when the snow piles up across our lane in knee-deep windrows we have more difficulties to overcome.

But such troubles as these are minute in comparison to the troubles of the birds which must stay outside all day and all night.

Are you feeding them? Even the hardy winter birds can’t help but suffer, especially when snow and ice covers their natural foods.

Their suffering is not so much due to the low temperatures, as to the difficulty of finding food. Put out chunks of suet and scatter baby chick feed or canary seed mixtures on the ground. The birds will reward you by coming around in large numbers. This may even attract some rare bird that you would not otherwise see about the place.

Thus there is a mutual benefit. The birds find readily available provisions; you learn to know them better.

Don’t, though, do as some do. Some fail to go outside and replenish supplies when the weather is bad. If you do this, you will be failing your friends when they most need your help.

Our series of snows and cold snaps seems to have greatly reduced the attendance at our feeding stations around the Cabin. Earlier in the winter we had dozens of birds about at all times. Chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, juncos, hairy and downy woodpeckers, white breasted nuthatches, blue jays seemed to be lining up awaiting their turns. Sometimes, too, we saw a Carolina wren near-by.

But now we have fewer visitors. We can only hope that our “customers” have not perished, but have gone farther south.

There is another possibility which may account for our decreased patronage. Perhaps our human neighbors have gone into competition with us and have set up feeding stations just as we have.

In that case we shall rejoice. We lay no claim to a monopoly on this winter beauty, but are glad to share it with all who are interested enough to help.

* * * * *

Tracks in the snow! Isn’t that something to make your heart beat faster? It suggests the nice fresh air of a winter’s day; sun reflecting from a white blanket that covers field and dell; a tramp through the copses in breeches and boots; the exhilarating freedom of the open country.

The other evening it snowed at dusk. It was not a very heavy snow—just enough to cover everything with a clean, white sheet upon which things that were written could be easily read.

Next morning before me lay an open record of the doings of the night. No wild thing, no matter how timid, could have so much as set foot outside its lair without leaving a record in the snow. To the person who will take a few minutes at such a time to see and to learn, many things that happened in the night will be as plain as day.

I did not have to search for cottontail tracks. They were everywhere. They were collected in runways; they were scattered broadcast across the orchard.

Wherever several bushes grew close enough together to impede the swoop of owls were multitudes of rabbit tracks. I could see here where a bunny had hopped leisurely along, putting his tracks so close together that they almost touched each other. There he had run madly toward the woods, startled perhaps by a shadow darker than the sky. For his leaps were long, and his landings few and far between.

There were dog tracks, too; great hungry hounds whose feet pressed deep. Anyone who has ever been familiar with a dog and has observed the rough, thick pads of the feet will know a dog’s track at a glance. It cannot be mistaken for the track of anything else, except perhaps for that of a wolf. There are four toes on each foot and on each toe a claw, that leaves its imprint in the snow.

Past the Cabin had prowled a cat. What was pussy after? A hiding junco possibly, or a white-footed mouse. She had walked evenly and carefully, placing the hind feet neatly in the tracks of the forepaws. Claws she must have had, as I know from experience with cats, yet she kept them so well sheathed that not a ghost of a mark did they make in the snow!

Another track came out of the woods and crossed the orchard—it was the unmistakable trail of a skunk. Now, I have not seen a skunk about the place in years. In fact, I didn’t know any were left in the vicinity. But there it was—the telltale record written in plain language across the page of night.

Another four-footed visitor came almost to our door, then veered aside and walked in straight lines down the lane. I have had dealings with him of late. But for him my hens would not be bereaved of sisters who by now would be laying eggs, or of brothers whose honorable destiny would have been the kettle. Thís fifth visitor was The Fox—The Fox of Spooky Hollow. His tracks I know, for they show claws like a dog’s but the pads are not as thick and heavy. Like a cat, The Fox places his hind feet exactly in the tracks of the fore ones. Could any signature be plainer? To me his trail reads “The Fox, The Fox, The Fox,” wherever he has passed. I’ll outwit him yet, the blackguard!

Those were the tracks of the night... .The tracks of the morning were there too. Squirrels had come down from trees and had dashed for devious destinations. Juncos had hopped about the weed stalks, keeping their feet side by side, as if they were little mechanical toys. A bevy of quail had dotted the snow all around my ground feeding station.

Thus the record was written. It ran on and on throughout the day. By nightfall the trail of a nature lover wound all about the place and filled in most of the blank spaces.

* * * * *

Spring is not spring without at least one robin scolding about the place. One does not really get into the spirit of the thing until this good old American bird is back again.

This year our robins were unusually late. A scattered few had remained in the region until the cold of mid-January then they dropped completely out of sight.

As March approached, we looked for them again, but in vain. We saw a meadowlark, and heard a killdeer or two. A bluebird dropped out of the sky and went through the apartments we have prepared for its kind. But there were no robins.

Then it became a matter of serious concern. I began to take field trips especially to find robins. I looked ín dozens of likely places. There were no robins—I would swear it—within ten miles of the Cabin.

Not until the middle of March did we see one. Then it remained only a few minutes and was gone. But the next day another came, and the day following there were two.

Spring may now officially begin. Hepaticas may open in the woods. Fox sparrows and other migrants may pass through our country on their way northward. The rains may come. Life may begin to surge. The robins are with us once more!

* * * * *

Thoughts while sitting on a white oak log:

When you are returning from a long hike a log is a convenient thing. Perhaps that is why they are put in the woods—to rest on for a spell. How soothing it is to relax and let your thoughts ramble. They do not have to be photographed. At any rate they cannot be ... Look through the silent trees. How calm they seem. God made them that way. What is the use of all this modern hustle, anyway? ... I am half way up a hillside. The hills are not everlasting. Little gullies are forming. The water is taking them away ... In the distance is the  tinkle of a cow bell. The brook makes sweet music below me, to the right and to the left. Through the feathery branches of a clump of second-growth, which is just getting tiny leaves, I see the beautifully scaled trunk of a living white oak. To the right of me a woodpecker has made a hole in a dead stump. Overhead, I hear the watery notes of a cowbird. I feel the electricity of nature going through me, being in contact with this great oak log, which is in contact with the earth ... Suddenly, from a distant highway can be heard the angry bark of an auto horn as some impatient motorist honks and honks for the right-of-way. What a discordant note! In contrast, there is the bubbling song of a ruby-throated kinglet close by ... The trees appear to be idle but they are not. They are really working for man’s good. The season’s growth is starting and by autumn there will be thousands more board-feet of timber in the woods. I hear the cheerful trill of a field sparrow. Just beyond the living white oak there is a healthy, youthful black oak. Their trunks make a beautiful contrast ... My dog lies on the log beside me, looks into my eyes and whines to be off. Strange how well man and dog can come to understand  each other. I show no signs of going and he lies down in the leaves at the side of the log. I stand up and he is all eagerness. But I am not quite ready to go, and he whines again. It’s a good-natured whine, not a whiny one ... A flicker pipes up almost overhead. A nuthatch flushes an insect from a tree limb. He goes after it flycatcher fashion—and gets it. That’s something I’ve never seen before. Some woodpecker has discovered that a broken-off tree on the opposite slope makes a wonderful sounding board. He is making the valley ring. Music of the sweetest kind to a female of his species ... Little plants have found footholds on this old log on which I sit. It is beginning to crumble. In a few years it will be soil again, like everything in nature. It is the whole tree lying there. It seems to have lived its hundreds of years in vain. But has it? At least its body is now host to many kinds of living things and it will make soil for future flowers. Good soil, and perhaps a rare blossom that will grow there will be a valuable inspiration to some man or woman. An inspired leader of men is worth a thousand white oaks. A man who could show the world the peacefulness of the woods would be worth a million ... And just below me is one of my secrets of the woods—a clump of lady-slippers. They are not in bloom yet. They are hurrying to make growth before the trees shall shade them with their leaves ... It is time to go home. My dog is on the way. From far over the ridge, I hear the call to dinner. The body must now be fed, the soul having already eaten.

* * * * *

Senator Scott Lucas of Illinois, has introduced into Congress bill No. S3611 which, if made into a law, would legalize the baiting of waterfowl.

By baiting of waterfowl is meant the scattering of corn or other attractive food over the waters where hunting is permitted. This attracts ducks in large numbers and they may then easily be slaughtered by hunters, who remain in ambush on the shore. Baiting is, at present, outlawed by Federal statute and many arrests for violation have been made in the past. This federal law is one of the factors which is helping the wild ducks to re-establish themselves on our waterways.

Senator Lucas lives at Havana, which is located on the Illinois River in splendid duck-hunting country. In the river bottoms are marshes and small lakes, which are frequented by hundreds of thousands of ducks of many species during the spring and fall migrations.

No doubt, Senator Lucas has many constituents who are ardent duck hunters and who have pressed him to do what he can to legalize baiting. Hunting has been somewhat hampered of late years owing to a recent discovery that was made by the ducks themselves. Corn fields along the river furnish oftentimes better food and more of it than the river itself.

Each day in the fall, the ducks leave the water and repair to the corn fields, often at a considerable distance from the river. Owing to the introduction of the mechanical corn picker, much corn is dropped on the ground. Many hunters, therefore, feel that they should be allowed to bait in order to be able to compete with the corn picker.

It is the opinion of your Editor that even Mr. Lucas, himself, hasn’t much hope for the passage of bill S3611. Certainly both Federal and State game management agents are dead set against it. Moreover, it would be necessary to win a majority of the forty-eight states before this bill could be passed. Audubon societies, nature groups, and other organizations of conservationists are crusading against it. We venture to forecast, therefore, that S3611 is doomed to defeat.

I have just returned from a trip to Havana, Senator Lucas’ bailiwick, where I have talked to Federal and State men. I have observed the ducks themselves in great numbers and I have seen some of the results of these men’s earnest efforts to allow them to increase so that no species of duck shall become extinct.

A short distance north of Havana is located the new Federal Chautauqua Game Refuge, on which thousands of ducks and other migratory waterfowl are now resting, as they pass northward to their breeding grounds.

I have talked also to duck hunters; both the kind who believe in taking all the game they can get now, regardless of what the future may hold; and the kind who are willing to stop with only their share, allowing future generations to harvest abundant crops of ducks. It is my firm belief that sentiment, even in such rock-ribbed duck hunting centers as the Illinois River country, is overwhelmingly against the baiting of ducks.

This, of course, is a splendid showing that conservation societies, the Government men, the State men all who are helping the ducks, are winning a fair fought battle.

* * * * *

Is the woodcock tribe once more increasing in Illinois? For many years, I have been trying to find a nest. Then, this spring I have seen and photographed two nests with eggs and have heard the mysterious nuptial song of the bird as it soared in the air several evenings in April.

Now comes a letter from Marie Raecke, Nues Center, Illinois (near Chicago). She writes, under date of April 25, 1940:

I want to tell you about a strange bird that’s nesting on the grounds of our high school, not far from the baseball diamond, with men working all around her. She has all the earmarks of the Woodcock, a long bill, short neck and tail, large eyes, the coloring blends with the dry leaves and grass of her crude nest—the lower part of her body is light as far as I could see—she did not get off her nest, though three of us stood within five feet of her and we did not want to disturb her.

I was told there were four eggs the size of bantam eggs, one of these eggs is pushed somewhat out of the nest. One of the workmen put the egg back into the nest while the hen was gone, but she pushed it out again when she returned. She doesn’t seem to leave the nest except when the men have to work very close—and they try not to disturb her.

I was told that one of the men expressed a desire to keep one of the chicks when they are hatched, which would be too bad as he surely wouldn’t know how to care for it. I have a small colored picture in one of my bird books of the Woodcock which fits this bird exactly.

Another thing—there is no water near where this hen is nesting.

I wonder why she picked this site for her nest? I just hope she’ll be able to raise her family and will hie herself to safer hunting grounds.

Notice that the workmen “try not to disturb her,” a most encouraging sign.

I would be very glad to hear from others who have had recent experiences with this odd and interesting bird.

Another interesting letter has just come in from Dagny Banker of Walker, Minnesota—

Well, nature lovers are queer people, aren’t they? They do the silliest things: They go tramping in mud through pouring rain, wearing disreputable old hats and mud covered shoes. Then they scramble into ditches full of water in order to make snapshots of some fool thing that takes their fancy. All of them waste time. A woman nature lover is apt to leave off dishwashing in the middle and rush out of doors. There she stands gazing, as if enraptured, at—of all things—nothing but an old sparrow!

Other people know that birds fly and that fishes swim, but see no reason for making such a to-do about it. Why not take nature for granted and let it go at that? They do not know what an infinite fellowship she has to offer those who will enter into it. They have no idea of what a source of delight and inspiration she is to those who have the eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds to grasp some of her beauty, her power, her wisdom.

Let us “queer people,” therefore, be thankful that there are places where we may foregather to find understanding and the warmth of human companionship. NATURE NOTES provides such a place. Long may it live!

Yes, it may be queer to do the above things. On the other hand, it may be queer to dull the senses with alcohol and struggle around on a waxed floor until dawn. After all, who shall decide?

* * * * *

The last several years have been apparently good years for bluebirds, but 1940 seems to be a bad one. Reports received by us, indicate that bluebirds in this section of the country are reduced in numbers or entirely missing in their accustomed haunts. We hope that this is the low point in the bluebird cycle and that they will begin to show an increase again.

We would like to have reports from our readers, wherever they may be, in regard to their first-hand experiences with wild life. You may not think your observations amount to much, but if they are first-hand and accurately recorded, they may supply just the information needed for a more complete understanding of the habits of some species. We use wild life in its broadest sense, meaning any kind of wild creature or plant. Those who are interested in geology, mineralogy, astronomy and other forms of inanimate nature, should not neglect to send in reports also. We feel that we have had too little material in NATURE NOTES of an inanimate nature.

The warbler season this past spring, has been especially productive of new records. About the Cabin have flitted and sung, many thousands of these brightly colored birds on their way northward. In fact, we were kept busy running out of doors when we heard some song with which we were not familiar. We fear that our inside office work suffered to some extent, but our knowledge of the warblers and their songs has been greatly enriched.

The usual number of new species of moths, beetles, bugs and other insects have come to the Cabin asking to be collected. In truth, there are many advantages of having the offices of a nature publication almost in the woods.

* * * * *

Tons of rocks and minerals will be picked up in small piecés by tourists, put on the car floor, and taken home because they are attractive or unusual specimens. Insects will be collected. Plants will be pressed. Wonderful shells will be picked up on the seashore. Odd bits of this and scraps of that will be taken home as souvenirs of nature and the trip, this summer. But how many of all these thousands of specimens, that the touring public will collect, will ever have any kind of label attached to them? My answer is: “Very, very few.”

Recently, I have been going over hundreds of specimens of rocks and minerals which have been collected as described above. On one piece only can I find any semblance of a locality or a date. On a piece of agatized wood there has been written in characters which are now scarcely legible, “Sioux Falls, July, 1898.” How much more interesting, how much more instructive this collection would be if it were known where and when each piece was collected.

Specialists, at any time, can determine the kind of specimen it is, especially if they know the locality; but no one but the collector can tell certainly where it came from, or when, and that information is soon forgotten.

So I implore you, whatever you collect this summer and take home, put a durable label on it in some way.

Maybe you don’t know just what the thing is. That can be figured out later. Whatever you do, put the date and the locality in indelible characters upon it!

* * * * *

Mary Livingston Sedgwick

Perhaps a man is not really grown up until he has lost his Mother. On June twenty-ninth, the Editor suffered such a loss.

She who gave him life, who taught him honesty, who sacrificed for his well-being, who excused his failures and rejoiced in his little successes has gone to her great reward, which will be great.

To the birds and the trees and to all of God’s nature, the Editor has come with his sorrow. Here he finds again a haven, a comfort, and a joy.

* * * * *

About this time of year students everywhere are busily engaged in pulling apart picked grasshoppers and dissecting dead bull-frogs in order to gain credits in biology courses. Oh, I suppose these are harmless enough occupations—as far as the students are concerned—and once in a while somebody learns something.

The trouble with the whole procedure is that to most of the citizens who grow from these students bullfrog means formalin jar and not peaceful watery places where acres of floating lily-pads are bordered by marsh ferns and cardinal flowers. Grasshopper means femur and tibia and not sunny meadows dotted with Queen Ann’s lace.

Just here is where NATURE NOTES steps in. We aim to supplement the pulling apart of grasshoppers with articles and departments by people who actually spend much time afield and who know now to use all the senses with which they were endowed by nature.

To be consistent with this first-hand idea, we have located the office of NATURE NOTES in the Cabin on the very edge of the woods where we can keep in touch with our subject, to say the least. A gathering of hickory nuts which we had planned to enjoy on cold evenings before the Cabin fireplace were all carried off by the chipmunks which share the premises. I can see one of the rascals now, sunning himself beside his hole in the ground. He looks pleased with himself.

* * * * *

Nature with her gentle breezes and azure skies is forever enticing me outside. When the weather is sparkling, I feel I must be out a-learning. Life is short and time goes on; so hurry afield!

Pleasant days, whenever they come, are hard to resist. It is easy for me to persuade myself that, in order to advance my knowledge of my business I should be outdoors with eyes and ears wide open.

But now that the November rains have set in, I am not so easily persuaded. For the November rains are even more unattractive than those of March. At least in March one can sense the gestation of a new season. In November all hope has faded.

But let it not for one moment be supposed that all chances of field trips have gone with November. Good winter days will come and the student of nature will be permitted to learn many things. A catalog of the interesting things to be seen in Winter would be interminable. Let me just point out a few.

Rock outcrop. There is no question that the geologist’s field work is facilitated by winter. The deciduous leaves are gone. He can see farther and find his outcrops easier. Because many outcrops are laid bare by the action of streams, he must often get across the stream. In winter he simply walks across.

Birds. Maybe the birds do all move southward in wintertime. But wherever you are, the chances are excellent that you are south of somewhere. So you will have birds. If you are a beginning ornithologist, winter is a favorable season for you. You can learn the good old standbys without the danger of being thrown into a dither of excitement by the flash of a scarlet tanager.

Mammals. A few mammals hibernate, but even these may be caught outside in balmy weather. Certainly, after a fresh fall of snow, no animal can set foot outside without leaving a record for you to read.

Trees and Shrubs. The evergreens are there as big as life. The others are somewhat immodestly naked but you can come to know them better. In winter you can see the forest in spite of the trees. There are keys to the twigs and winter buds which will help you identify your friends, in case you don’t recognize them by the bark.

Insects. Oh yes, there are insects in winter too. Fortunately the flies and mosquitos are mostly gone, but you can find many others. Break the ice of ponds to find water insects. Look for certain lands in the snow. Cocoons show up and can be brought indoors and watched for what comes out. Pry into crannies to find out whether they spend the winter as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults.

Water Life. While you have a frozen pond opened up, make some passes around with a water net. What you’ll collect will be your own surprise. Besides tin cans you may get minnows, baby fishes, crustaceans, planarians, and other things too numerous to mention, Take a quart of the water home, let it stand in a warm room and then examine a drop of it under a microscope. You may be astounded at what you see.

Stars. Of course winter is good to the astronomer. It makes the air clearer (unless they burn soft coal in your town) and it seems to bring the constellations and planets right down to earth. It also brings to view a different assortment of stars. The heavens are never so close to us as on a cold night in Winter,

This list could be lengthened, but I am leaving that for you to do. Choose your subject this winter, then go after it for all you are worth.

* * * * *

On to Volume VIII
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