As our canoeglided down the lazy-winding Toledi one evening, with my Indian guide Simmo atthe paddle, the arrowy wake of a Musquash, or a muskrat, broke the reflectedsplendor of heaven into rainbow-colored wavelets. Hoping to increase my scantknowledge of the Malecite tongue I asked, over a pointing finger, "What doyou call him, Simmo?"
"Bes' callummitcheegosis, I t'ink," said Simmo, very quickly, his softly spoken wordsfading into the silence of woods and waters like the half-heard whisper ofripples that told the shore of a passing canoe.
Still looking atMusquash while I scrawled the surprising new name in a notebook that Simmocould not see (for he would tell me nothing of animal ways or of his ownbeliefs if he saw me writing it down), I asked again, as if reviewing anearlier lesson, "Mitcheego, that means bad spirit, and sis means little;why you call him little bad spirit?"
"CauseMusquash all time cross with everybody," said Simmo. "He got fightin'face. First t'ing he do is bite somebody if he can. Make hees wife do all workbuildin' winter house. W'en babies come she don' let hem in, 'fraid heeatum."
January 23, 1956
The charm ofSimmo's animal lore is that he gives every wild creature a distinctindividuality by pointing out some oddity of appearance or habit which ordinaryeyes never notice. As he spoke now, it occurred to me that Musquash certainlyhas a fighting face, as anyone may see at a glance, while a scar on my handreminded me that he is quick to use his chisel teeth when one tries to pet oreven to feed him. It may be either a characteristic trait or a mere coincidencethat I have never seen more than one muskrat, presumably a female, doing allthe work at housebuilding time. If it be true, as Simmo thinks, that Musquashis shut out of the lodge because he is not above eating his offspring, it isthe more surprising how fast they multiply, for they have many otherenemies—mink, fish, fox, bobcat, lynx, wolf, goshawk, barred owl, hornedowl—all with a liking for their dark-colored but richly flavored flesh.
Happily they knownothing of enemies—not yet, being warm and sheltered and well fed. If you putan ear down to the lodge their squeaky little voices and the low mumble of onevoice sound like an echo of the general heyday outside, where blackbirds aregurgling in the water maples and kingfishers spring their rattles over shoalingminnows and a solitary song sparrow trills his hallelujah from the upmost twigof a button bush, all telling the glad news that spring has come again. Whentwilight falls on the lonely marshland and bird voices are hushed, whilepeepers chime their wakeup chorus and a stake-driver or thunder-pumper seems tobe digging a hole in the bog, then every grown muskrat goes adventuring up anddown the newly opened waterways. If you puff your cheeks now to blow a whiningchallenge at any of these voyageurs he will come quickly to your call.
Because he dwellsby choice in marshlands that offer him plenty of food but are of little or nouse to the farmer, Musquash still thrives in localities from which his greatcousin, the beaver, has long since departed. Near my boyhood home in NewEngland a mile-long marsh, with its deep, dark, winding stream, was still thehabitation of many muskrats, as it had been in pioneer days; but now, as then,boys seldom ventured far into it even in broad daylight. By night, when bigfrogs bellowed like the bulls of Bashan and bitterns made gaspy choking noisesand a will-o'-the-wisp sometimes flickered in a ghostly dance—well, any boy whohad to pass that marsh never loitered on his way or meditated any mischief.
Along one side ofthis treacherous marsh ran a willow-bordered road, built on a low embankment.Every springtime the bottom of it dropped out in places where Musquash dug hisburrows or drove his tunnels, and the wrathy town fathers had anotherroad-repair job on their hands. Naturally, they had no love for Musquash. Onhigher ground beyond the marsh lived a dozen or more families whose backyardsslanted down to where saw-edged tussock grass proclaimed, "Thus far, but nofarther," and every family had a yen for raising ducks or chickens.Frequently a mother duck would steal off to nest by the streamside, but most ofher eggs or ducklings came to grief when Musquash ate them. He is a vegetarianby the book, living mostly on water plants; but he not only likes fish, flesh,fowl and frogs but prefers them, I think, when a chance comes to catchthem.
Wherever achicken yard might be on that higher ground, you might find a tiny path leadingup to it from the marsh. So it happened that my chum Johnnie, who had charge ofhis mother's flock of chickens, came to me with three problems that puzzledhim. He had three or four setting hens, each with a clutch of 14 eggs; almostevery morning some of the eggs were missing, and tracks told that Musquash wasstealing them. His questions were: Why did Musquash spare the hen every time?How could he take the eggs without frightening her into a squawking protestthat would rouse the household? And how could he eat them without leaving atelltale mess of broken shells and yolks?
Two nights wewatched till sleep overcame us, and in the morning more eggs were gone, leavingour scientific questions unanswered. Or were they only academic questions of noconsequence? The time being early spring, when furs are prime, we decided tocatch the thief by setting a trap in his path, and to profit by selling hispelt. Thus a week of nights passed without the loss of a single egg, and wecaught four little thieves whose pelts we sold for 65¢, a fortune in thosedays. With it one could buy many eggs, three or four dozen, but a boy hadbetter use for his money. Then came a night of full moon when, as we watchedthe set, a big muskrat came silently out of the marsh.
"Gee, he's awhopper!" whispered Johnnie, as a dark bulk emerged like a tiny boat out ofa silver sea. Up the path he came, and went carefully around the trap, andfollowed his nose to the setting hen we had left as bait. Quietly heapproached, like a harmless shadow, and the hen never moved, not even to lifther head. Any broody domestic fowl is like that, half bemused or whollybemused. A brooding wild fowl is different; she keeps her wild wits and isalways on guard.
How Musquash gotan egg could not be seen in the deceptive light—probably by slipping a pawunder the hen and coaxing it out. The next moment he was walking down the pathon his hind legs, like a little bear, with the egg held by both forepawsagainst his chest. Around the trap he hop-hopped and into the marsh where,hidden by high grass, he ate his stolen egg.
So one learnedfor the first time that Musquash seldom eats his food where he finds it.
Thisdining-at-table habit is more plainly evident when Musquash finds a bed offresh-water clams, for which tasteless food he has a liking. Invariably, Ithink, his first concern is to select a rock or log or stump to serve as atable. If the table happens to be a tussock of grass rising above the marshlevel, he flattens off the top after cutting the grass to give him an outlookon all sides. Then he dives to the bottom of the lake or river for a singleclam, which he carries to the tussock and goes back for another. Not until hehas gathered enough for a meal does he crack open the clams to eat the blobbyflesh, and usually to drop the shells into the water beside his table. These"unio" shells—on the outside they are rough and bronze-green in color,on the inside smoother than satin and glowing like a rainbow withmother-of-pearl—are fragile as dainty china, and how Musquash opens withoutbreaking them or even nicking the thin edge is his own secret.
The muskrat, youknow, is a coastwise voyageur, rarely venturing out in the middle of lake orriver but holding close to the shoreline on his nightly voyaging, which beginsat sundown as a rule. Almost every season it happens, as from my canoe I watcha runway or a feeding ground—while twilight deepens into darkness and thesilence is like the ringing of fairy bells—that Musquash sees a strange objectblocking his path and swims up silently to find out about it, getting nearerand nearer till he halts close beside or behind me. And there, unseen, hewatches through unblinking little eyes until some unconscious motion of minetells him that the strange thing is alive. That is not much to learn, butenough for Musquash, whose courage, like that of all wild creatures, is set ona hair trigger. Down he goes on that instant with a mighty k'pouse!, like arock falling into quiet water.
Though thiscoastwise voyageur is seldom found on a highland river, with its swirling darkcurrent and white rapids, he somehow knows (either by inheritance from someremote ancestor or, more likely, by his own intelligent senses) how best tonavigate in rough water. One summer, for example, the St. John River of NewBrunswick fell so low that salmon failed to rise in what had been my lucky spotin a pool that was over a half mile long from lip to tail. Here, in otheryears, the current broke over a gravel bar to go jumping, swirling down; nowthe bar was partly exposed, and below it the current, though still deep enoughto hold salmon, was slow as a marshland brook. To remedy the defect and to putmore dissolved oxygen in the water (which is needful in warm weather) I built awing dam of rocks which backed up the current till it rose high enough to breakover the obstructions. Once more the current went foaming down, and again arefreshed salmon might rise to the fly.
One day, as Ifished this lucky part of the pool, a muskrat came upriver, holding close toshore; behind him, at intervals of a dozen yards, little arrowy wakes told ofseveral others, all following the same course, like two or three otterfamilies, in a snakelike procession. When the first muskrat, a small one, cameto the jumpy water he dove under it and vanished; a few moments later he roseat the foot of my wing dam, climbed over it and went his way on the surface ofthe quiet water above. There another fisherman was surprised to see a youngmuskrat in such water, and came down to ask, "How did that little fellowget around your wing dam?" Together we watched as every muskrat in theprocession, young and old, did the same thing—dove under the turmoil and creptover the dam as if there were no other way.
When we seeKeeonekh the otter—who is a powerful swimmer, a far-going traveler and the mostplayful of all wild animals—come to a white rapid we expect him to dive underthe turmoil and make his way up in the quiet water near bottom, and then shootmerrily down the pitch for the fun of it; which he does because he is born andtrained that way. One can only wonder at seeing a marsh-bred muskrat expertlynavigate the first pitch of rough water he has ever seen. Plainly he knows how,but still we ask, How does he know?
In late summer orearly autumn, when northern streams are usually at low ebb, Musquash begins tobuild a winter lodge, which is finished in a leisurely way of no hurry, noworry, growing higher and higher with rising water as if the builder weretrying to make sure of having the upper part of his dwelling above the floodlevel. A typical winter lodge is from four to five feet in diameter at thebase, from two to five feet high, varying with the height of the floods in thelocality, and when finished has the dome shape of an old-fashioned bee skep orhive. Unlike the beaver, whose lodge is built of sticks, stones and grassliberally mixed with mud which the frost will make iron-hard, Musquash buildshis house of water weeds, mostly, and uses but little mud, depending onfreezing rain and sleet for his "cement." The only entrance is a darktunnel leading from the bottom of lake or river up through the bank and throughthe middle of the lodge to a single living room under the domed top. Though theroom serves as a dining hall and sleeping chamber for three or four months, itis always neat and clean, pervaded by a strong odor of musk, which in itsnatural state probably has an antiseptic quality, as oldtime doctorsbelieved.
The doublepurpose of a lodge is to provide a dry nest where Musquash, the night rover,can sleep by day and where the young may be born in safety. Unlike the solidstructure of a beaver family, a Musquash lodge is a temporary affair, built fora single season; if broken open by trappers or washed away by a winter flood,the inmates escape to one of the many burrows which serve as refuges or restingplaces all the year round.
Whether a matedpair occupies the lodge for a time after the freezeup I have not been able todetermine; but Simmo is probably right in saying that no male is permitted toenter a lodge after the young are born. The only wild enemy then to be fearedis Cheokhes the mink. In the dark tunnel of a lodge Cheokhes would not dareface the bared teeth of a mother muskrat twice his weight; but when his nosetells him that she is not at home, he will slip in at risk of his neck to getone of the young.
Every animal, weare now told, has an inborn behavior pattern (only a different name for"instinct") which not only impels but compels him to act like everyother of his kind under similar circumstances. That is doubtless true, as arule, but its exceptions are quite as significant and much more difficult tounderstand. Thus, any muskrat of the marshland instinctively builds a winterhouse of water weeds; but when he migrates to a higher locality, as often hedoes, he provides a winter dwelling by digging a burrow from the bottom of alake or river up into a high bank and there makes a nest which is warmer, dryerand much safer than an exposed lodge on the storm-swept lowland. This seems toimply that he has at least two behavior patterns to work on, and that he usesone or the other by an exercise of his individual will or intelligence.
It was once mygood luck to see him rob a loon's nest, and here he handled a larger egg in adifferent way.
From a distance Ihad for hours been watching the brooding loon through my field glass, trying tomake sure whether she sat on the eggs with her flat heavy underbody or, as itappeared, sat beside them and hugged them close to her side with her wing. Itwas noontide when at last she left the eggs and went far out on the lake tocatch a fish or two by diving and chasing in deep water, for she cannot catch afish in the shallows and will not even try. She was somewhere out of sight whenmy eye caught a bulging roll, like the wake of a big salmon, sweeping in towardthe shore. Out of it rose, first, a little wedge-shaped head that glistened inthe sunlight, then a rounded body with its fur sleeked down by a fastunderwater passage.
Here, plainly tobe seen, was Musquash again, heading straight for the loon's nest. He probablyknew where it was and had been waiting for a safe chance to steal the eggs; orso one judged by his action, as stealthy as that of any other thief. It wouldcertainly be dangerous for him or any of his kind to rob a loon's nest when themother bird was on guard; a single thrust of her long, heavy, sharp-pointedbill would be enough to blind or cripple him. One summer day, long before this,I had seen a mother loon deal with a muskrat that tried to catch one of herdowny chicks; within the minute she killed him, flung the limp body aside andheaded her chicks quickly away from there, as from a place that was no longerclean.
I was thinking ofhim and, I confess, hoping that this other thieving muskrat would be caught inthe act when he slipped into the marsh to be lost from sight as he wound hisway amid dim channels arched over by bending grass. In a minute or two he cameinto view again, sliding up as if oiled to the loon's nest and acting as if hehad not a moment to spare. With one of the eggs clasped to his belly, for itwas apparently too big for him to lift in his paws, he lay on his back andkicked himself off the tussock into the mud below. For a few moments he wasinvisible, only a tremor of grass telling where he twisted through the windingchannels; then out from under the green cover he came, carefully pushing orcoaxing the egg along the oozy bottom. In evident haste, now that he was almostsafe, he turned down the shore, away from the loon's nest, still rolling thebig egg ahead of him.
What may havebeen another variation of the behavior pattern appeared one evening as Iwatched a narrow bay at the inlet of a wilderness lake, a favorite feedingground for deer and moose. Against the low shore my canoe held motionless, itsgray canvas merging into the gray-green of tall water grass that bent over asif to hide it. On this side of the bay spread a marshland, a living sea ofbronze and gold, whereon every blade of rush or sedge, which had all day longrippled into silver at the wind's touch, now stood with bent head as if tosleep. On the other side the reflected glory of sunset was caught and held bystilled water. Somewhere beyond the marsh a solitary woodthrush was singing theAngelus in four blended notes, like the chiming of four little golden bells inperfect harmony.
With a shock tohuman nerves attuned to the silence came a rushing sound, a harsh whisper ofsaw grass, a loud splash of smitten water. At the bow of my canoe a littlemuskrat, not half-grown, burst into sight and hurled himself into the waitinglake. For a brief moment he swam on the surface, only his head and the arch ofa tail visible; then down he went to be hidden in a cloud of mud stirred upfrom the bottom. Out of the cloud a wiggly brown streak reached out toward theother side of the bay. From the far end of it the muskrat slanted up till hisnose broke the surface, barely long enough for him to catch a breath of airbefore turning down again at a broad angle to his straightaway course andcircling back toward his starting point. Watching his erratic flight, for so itlooked at the time, one remembered that frogs and other of the lower ordershabitually escape an enemy by stirring up a mud cloud; but how did a littlemuskrat learn that hiding trick, why did he not stay hidden and who was theenemy on his trail?
The last questionwas hardly asked before a hunting mink glided out of the grass—a full-grownmale, to judge by his size and the luster of his coat. Like all his weaselkind, Cheokhes is a slow trailer but deadly sure. As he stood a moment at thewater's edge he was near enough for me to note the raised snake-like head, thered blaze of an eye, the pointed nose that swung like a weather vane to catchthe first scent of vanished game.
That enough scentfor guidance still remained in or near the water was made evident when Cheokhesglided into the lake, silent as a shadow, heading straight on the courseMusquash had taken. As fox hunters say, he was holding the line. Along it hefollowed, only his head showing, until his eye or his nose caught sight orscent of the mud cloud, with its long outgoing streak. Over that streak hewent, moving more confidently as he neared the far end, where, as if sure ofhimself, he held straight across the other side of the bay. The last seen ofhim was an arrowy wake speeding along the shoreline; from it rose now and thena pointed nose swinging to left or right as Cheokhes sought the first whiff ofscent to tell him where his game had gone.
Just beyond thebow of my canoe, meanwhile, only a few yards from where he had entered thewater, Musquash was sitting under bending marsh grass, nervously washing hisface with his paws, as all his kind do, and combing his fur to get the lasttangle of mud or wire grass out of it. A hunted bull moose often circles back,perhaps instinctively, to watch beside his trail and find out who is followinghim, or a hunted man will sometimes reason it out that his safest place iswhere the hunt began because nobody would expect to find him there. One canonly wonder by what instinct or intelligence a hunted muskrat, after throwingan enemy off his trail, turned back to the last place where Cheokhes would comelooking for him.
LEARNING FROM THE FOX
In the Dec. 19th issue of SI the editors announcedwith pride the publication of the first in a series of newly discoveredarticles by a great naturalist and author of two generations ago, Dr. WilliamJ. Long. SI came into possession of these articles after their discovery, in anold safe in Dr. Long's former home, by his daughter, the writer Lois Long. Itwas immediately apparent that they constituted a find of great importance.Some, among the many articles found, had been published many years before.Others, after exhaustive checking, were at last considered to be unpublishedand thus a literary discovery in the true sense of the phrase. SI's firstarticle, Learning from the Fox, was chosen to launch the series. It was onlysome 10 days after its publication that Miss Long and her agents learned,through a letter from an old friend of Dr. Long's, that this article (alone ofthe group purchased) had been published previously in Sports A field.
As the following letters attest, Learning from theFox, as well as all the other articles purchased by SI from the estate of Dr.Long, were sold as unpublished in perfect good faith by Miss Long and heragents, and purchased in perfect good faith as unpublished by SI. The positionof Sports A field, as victims of an unfortunate misunderstanding, is bestoutlined by the letter published below from the magazine's editor, Ted Resting.As for the editors of SI, we fully share Mr. Kesting's feelings about the meritand beauty of Dr. Long's writing, and we are continuing our series of his newlydiscovered works with the article presented on these pages, Muskrat: Rogue ofthe Marshes.
The letters from Miss Long and her agent and from Mr.Resting follow:
9 Rockefeller Plaza
New York 20, N.Y.
As you know, we submitted this material (Learning from the Fox) in good faithand without knowledge that it had been previously published.
(Signed) Lois Long
(for Ingersoll & Brennan)
Mr. Sidney L. James
9 Rockefeller Plaza
New York 20, N.Y.
Dear Mr. James:
Back in 1947 we carried some articles on ErnestThompson Seton. In one of them, the author repeated the now-famous tale of awoodcock that had put a bandage of clay and grass fibers around a shot-brokenleg—the observation of Dr. William J. Long's that set off the "naturefaker" controversy back in 1904. Dr. Long wrote me, explaining the wholething, and I asked him if he wouldn't write an article for us—setting therecord straight once and for all. He did so—and his piece, That Woodcock Again,ran in our July 1947 issue. A fine relationship with Dr. Long grew out of thisincident, and he contributed 12 more articles to Sports Afield before hisdeath.
In addition to Learning from the Fox, there werearticles on learning from the fish, deer, grouse, wolf, moose, caribou, salmon,pheasant, mountain lion and woodcock, the last of which appeared in our June1953 issue.
I personally feel that there has never been betternatural-history stuff written than that of Dr. Long's. I am pleased that youare introducing him to Sports Illustrated readers and know that you will get agood response—but we would be most appreciative of your acknowledgment as towhere his Learning from the Fox and other "learning" articlesoriginally appeared.
(Signed) Ted Kesting