John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) online

. (page 12 of 56)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 12 of 56)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

such localities as are suited to it, namely, low damp meadows, swamps,
and shady woods.


The men who are employed in cutting down the trees, and conveying the
logs to the saw-mills or the places for shipping, are, in the State of
Maine, called "Lumberers." Their labours may be said to be continual.
Before winter has commenced, and while the ground is yet uncovered
with a great depth of snow, they leave their homes to proceed to the
interior of the pine forests, which in that part of the country are truly
magnificent, and betake themselves to certain places already well known
to them. Their provisions, axes, saws, and other necessary articles,
together with provender for their cattle, are conveyed by oxen in heavy
sledges. Almost at the commencement of their march, they are obliged to
enter the woods, and they have frequently to cut a way for themselves,
for considerable spaces, as the ground is often covered with the decaying
trunks of immense trees, which have fallen either from age, or in
consequence of accidental burnings. These trunks, and the undergrowth
which lies entangled in their tops, render many places almost impassable
even to men on foot. Over miry ponds they are sometimes forced to form
causeways, this being, under all circumstances, the easiest mode of
reaching the opposite side. Then, reader, is the time for witnessing the
exertions of their fine large cattle. No rods do their drivers use to
pain their flanks; no oaths or imprecations are ever heard to fall from
the lips of these most industrious and temperate men, for in them, as
indeed in most of the inhabitants of our Eastern States, education and
habit have tempered the passions and reduced the moral constitution to a
state of harmony. Nay, the sobriety that exists in many of the villages
of Maine, I acknowledge I have often considered as carried to excess,
for on asking for brandy, rum or whisky, not a drop could I obtain, and
it is probable there was an equal lack of spirituous liquors of every
other kind. Now and then I saw some good old wines, but they were always
drunk in careful moderation. But to return to the management of the
oxen. Why, reader, the lumberers speak to them as if they were rational
beings. Few words seem to suffice, and their whole strength is applied
to the labour, as if in gratitude to those who treat them with so much
gentleness and humanity.

While present on more than one occasion at what Americans call "ploughing
matches," which they have annually in many of the States, I have been
highly gratified, and in particular at one, of which I still have a
strong recollection, and which took place a few miles from the fair and
hospitable city of Boston. There I saw fifty or more ploughs drawn by
as many pairs of oxen, which performed their work with so much accuracy
and regularity, without the infliction of whip or rod, but merely guided
by the verbal mandates of the ploughmen, that I was perfectly astonished.

After surmounting all obstacles, the lumberers with their stock arrive
at the spot which they have had in view, and immediately commence
building a camp. The trees around soon fall under the blows of their
axes, and before many days have elapsed, a low habitation is reared
and fitted within for the accommodation of their cattle, while their
provender is secured on a kind of loft covered with broad shingles or
boards. Then their own cabin is put up; rough bedsteads, manufactured on
the spot, are fixed in the corners; a chimney, composed of a frame of
sticks plastered with mud, leads away the smoke; the skins of bears or
deer, with some blankets, form their bedding, and around the walls are
hung their changes of home-spun clothing, guns, and various necessaries
of life. Many prefer spending the night on the sweet-scented hay and
corn-blades of their cattle, which are laid on the ground. All arranged
within, the lumberers set their "dead-falls," large "steel-traps," and
"spring-guns," in suitable places around their camp, to procure some of
the bears that ever prowl around such establishments.

Now the heavy clouds of November, driven by the northern blasts, pour
down the snow in feathery flakes. The winter has fairly set in, and
seldom do the sun's gladdening rays fall on the wood-cutter's hut. In
warm flannels his body is enveloped, the skin of a racoon covers his
head and brow, his moose-skin leggins reach the girdle that secures them
around his waist, while on broad moccasins, or snow-shoes, he stands
from the earliest dawn until night, hacking away at the majestic pines
that for a century past have embellished the forest. The fall of these
valuable trees no longer resounds on the ground; and, as they tumble
here and there, nothing is heard but the rustling and crackling of their
branches, their heavy trunks sinking into the deep snows. Thousands of
large pines thus cut down every winter afford room for the younger trees,
which spring up profusely to supply the wants of man.

Weeks and weeks have elapsed; the earth's pure white covering has become
thickly and firmly crusted by the increasing intensity of the cold, the
fallen trees have all been sawn into measured logs, and the long repose
of the oxen has fitted them for hauling them to the nearest frozen
streams. The ice gradually becomes covered with the accumulating mass
of timber, and, their task completed, the lumberers wait impatiently
for the breaking up of the winter.

At this period, they pass the time in hunting the moose, the deer, and
the bear, for the benefit of their wives and children; and as these men
are most excellent woodsmen, great havoc is made among the game. Many
skins of sables, martins, and musk-rats they have procured during the
intervals of their labour, or under night. The snows are now giving
way, as the rains descend in torrents, and the lumberers collect their
utensils, harness their cattle, and prepare for their return. This they
accomplish in safety.

From being lumberers they now become millers, and with pleasure each
applies the grating file to his saws. Many logs have already reached
the dams on the swollen waters of the rushing streams, and the task
commences, which is carried on through the summer, of cutting them up
into boards.

The great heats of the dog-days have parched the ground; every creek has
become a shallow, except here and there, where in a deep hole the salmon
and the trout have found a retreat; the sharp slimy angles of multitudes
of rocks project, as if to afford resting places to the wood-ducks and
herons that breed on the borders of these streams. Thousands of "saw
logs" remain in every pool, beneath and above each rapid or fall. The
miller's dam has been emptied of its timber, and he must now resort to
some expedient to procure a fresh supply.

It was my good fortune to witness the method employed for the purpose of
collecting the logs that had not reached their destination, and I had
the more pleasure that it was seen in company with my little family. I
wish for your sake, reader, that I could describe in an adequate manner
the scene which I viewed; but, although not so well qualified as I could
wish, rely upon it, that the desire which I feel to gratify you, will
induce me to use all my endeavours to give you an _idea_ of it.

It was the month of September. At the upper extremity of Dennisville,
which is itself a pretty village, are the saw-mills and ponds of the
hospitable Judge Lincoln and other persons. The creek that conveys
the logs to these ponds, and which bears the name of the village, is
interrupted in its course by many rapids and narrow embanked gorges. One
of the latter is situated about half a mile above the mill-dams, and is so
rocky and rugged in its bottom and sides, as to preclude the possibility
of the trees passing along it at low water, while, as I conceived, it
would have given no slight labour to an army of woodsmen or millers, to
move the thousands of large logs that had accumulated in it. They lay
piled in confused heaps to a great height along an extent of several
hundred yards, and were in some places so close as to have formed a kind
of dam. Above the gorge there is a large natural reservoir, in which
the head waters of the creek settle, while only a small portion of them
ripples through the gorge below, during the latter weeks of summer and
in early autumn, when the streams are at their lowest.

At the _neck_ of this basin, the lumberers raised a temporary barrier with
the refuse of their sawn logs. The boards were planted nearly upright
and supported at their tops by a strong tree extended from side to side
of the creek, which might there be about forty feet in breadth. It was
prevented from giving way under the pressure of the rising waters, by
having strong abutments of wood laid against its centre, while the ends
of these abutments were secured by wedges, which could be knocked off
when necessary.

The temporary dam was now finished. Little or no water escaped through
the barrier, and that in the creek above it rose in the course of three
weeks to its top, which was about ten feet high, forming a sheet that
extended upwards fully a mile from the dam. My family was invited early
one morning, to go and witness the extraordinary effect which would be
produced by the breaking down of the barrier, and we all accompanied the
lumberers to the place. Two of the men, on reaching it, threw off their
jackets, tied handkerchiefs round their heads, and fastened to their
bodies a long rope, the end of which was held by three or four others,
who stood ready to drag their companions ashore, in case of danger
or accident. The two operators, each bearing an axe, walked along the
abutments, and at a given signal, knocked out the wedges. A second blow
from each sent off the abutments themselves, and the men, leaping with
extreme dexterity from one cross log to another, sprung to the shore
with almost the quickness of thought.

Scarcely had they effected their escape from the frightful peril that
threatened them, when the mass of waters burst forth with a horrible
uproar. All eyes were bent towards the huge heaps of logs in the gorge
below. The tumultuous burst of the waters instantly swept away every
object that opposed their progress, and rushed in foaming waves among the
timber that every where blocked up the passage. Presently a slow, heavy
motion was perceived in the mass of logs; one might have imagined that
some mighty monster lay convulsively writhing beneath them, struggling
with a fearful energy to extricate himself from the crushing weight. As
the waters rose, this movement increased; the mass of timber extended in
all directions, appearing to become more and more entangled each moment;
the logs bounced against each other, thrusting aside, demersing, or
raising into the air those with which they came in contact:—it seemed
as if they were waging a war of destruction, such as ancient authors
describe the efforts of the Titans, the foamings of whose wrath might
to the eye of the painter have been represented by the angry curlings of
the waters, while the tremulous and rapid motions of the logs, which at
times reared themselves almost perpendicularly, might by the poet have
been taken for the shakings of the confounded and discomfited giants.

Now the rushing element filled up the gorge to its brim. The logs, once
under way, rolled, reared, tossed and tumbled amid the foam, as they
were carried along. Many of the smaller trees broke across, from others
great splinters were sent up, and all were in some degree seamed and
scarred. Then in tumultuous majesty swept along the mingled wreck, the
current being now increased to such a pitch, that the logs as they were
dashed against the rocky shores, resounded like the report of distant
artillery, or the angry rumblings of the thunder. Onward it rolls, the
emblem of wreck and ruin, destruction and chaotic strife. It seemed to
me as if I witnessed the rout of a vast army, surprised, overwhelmed,
and overthrown. The roar of the cannon, the groans of the dying, and the
shouts of the avengers, were thundering through my brain; and amid the
frightful confusion of the scene, there came over my spirit a melancholy
feeling, which had not entirely vanished at the end of many days.

In a few hours, almost all the timber that had lain heaped in the rocky
gorge, was floating in the great pond of the millers; and as we walked
homewards, we talked of the _Force of the Waters_.




Reader, look attentively at the plate before you, and say if such a scene
as that which I have attempted to portray, is not calculated to excite
the compassion of any one who is an admirer of woodland melody, or who
sympathizes with the courageous spirit which the male bird shews, as
he defends his nest, and exerts all his powers to extricate his beloved
mate from the coils of the vile snake which has already nearly deprived
her of life. Another male of the same species, answering the call of
despair from his "fellow creature," comes swiftly downwards to rescue the
sufferers. With open bill he is already prepared to strike a vengeful
blow at the reptile, his bright eye glancing hatred at his foe. See a
third grappling with the snake, and with all its might tearing the skin
from its body! Should this alliance of noble spirits prove victorious,
will it not remind you that innocence, although beset with difficulties,
may, with the aid of friendship, extricate herself with honour?

The birds in the case represented were greatly the sufferers: their nest
was upset, their eggs lost, and the life of the female in imminent danger.
But the snake was finally conquered, and a jubilee held over its carcass
by a crowd of thrushes and other birds, until the woods resounded with
their notes of exultation. I was happy in contributing my share to the
general joy, for, on taking the almost expiring bird into my hand for
a few minutes, she recovered in some degree, and I restored her to her
anxious mate.

The Brown Thrush, or Thrasher, by which names the bird is generally
known, may be said to be a constant resident in the United States, as
immense numbers are found all the year round in Louisiana, the Floridas,
Georgia, and the Carolinas. Indeed some spend the winter in Virginia
and Maryland. During spring and summer they are met with in all our
Eastern States. They also enter the British provinces, and are sometimes
seen in Nova Scotia; but I observed none farther north. It is the most
numerous species found in the Union, excepting the Robin or Migratory
Thrush. Those which breed in the Middle and Eastern Districts return
to the south about the beginning of October, having been absent fully
six months from that genial region, where more than half of the whole
number remain at all seasons. They migrate by day, and singly, never
congregating, notwithstanding their abundance. They fly low, or skip from
one bush to another, their longest flight seldom exceeding the breadth
of a field or river. They seem to move rather heavily, on account of
the shortness of their wings, the concavity of which usually produces
a rustling sound, and they travel very silently.

No sooner has the bird reached its destined abode, than whenever a fair
morning occurs, it mounts the topmost twig of a detached tree, and pours
forth its loud, richly varied, and highly melodious song. It scarcely
possesses the faculty of imitation, but is a steady performer; and,
although it sings for hours at a time, seldom, if ever, commits errors
while repeating the beautiful lessons set to it by Nature, all of which
it studies for months during spring and summer. Ah! reader, that I could
repeat to you its several cadences, all so full of sweetness and melody,
that one might imagine each last trill, as it dies on the ear, the careful
lullaby of some blessed mother chanting her babe to repose;—that I could
imitate its loudest notes, surpassed only by those of that unrivalled
vocalist, the Mocking Bird! But, alas! it is impossible for me to convey
to you the charms of the full song of the Brown Thrush; you must go
to its own woods and there listen to it. In the southern districts, it
now and then enlivens the calm of autumnal days by its song, but it is
generally silent after the breeding season.

The actions of this species during the period of courtship are very
curious, the male often strutting before the female with his tail trailing
on the ground, moving gracefully round her, in the manner of some pigeons,
and while perched and singing in her presence, vibrating his body with
vehemence. In Louisiana, the Brown Thrush builds its nest as early as the
beginning of March; in the Middle Districts rarely before the middle of
May; while in Maine, it seldom has it finished before June. It is placed
without much care in a briar bush, a sumach, or the thickest parts of a
low tree, never in the interior of the forest, but most commonly in the
bramble patches which are every where to be met with along the fences
or the abandoned old fields. Sometimes it is laid flat on the ground.
Although the bird is abundant in the barrens of Kentucky, in which and
in similar places it seems to delight, it has seldom been known to breed
there. In the Southern States the nest is frequently found close to
the house of the planter, along with that of the Mocking Bird. To the
eastward, where the denseness of the population renders the bird more
shy, the nest is placed with more care. But wherever it is situated,
you find it large, composed externally of dry twigs, briars, or other
small sticks, imbedded in and mixed with dried leaves, coarse grass, and
other such materials, thickly lined with fibrous roots, horse hair, and
sometimes rags and feathers. The eggs are from four to six, of a pale
dull buff colour, thickly sprinkled with dots of brown. Two broods are
usually raised in the Southern States, but rarely more than one in the
Middle and Northern Districts.

They breed well in aviaries, and are quite tractable in a closer state of
confinement. The young are raised in the same manner, and with the same
food, as those of the Mocking Bird. In cages it sings well, and has much
of the movements of the latter bird, being full of activity, petulant,
and occasionally apt to peck in resentment at the hand which happens to
approach it. The young begin their musical studies in autumn, repeating
passages with as much zeal as ever did Paganini. By the following spring
their full powers of song are developed.

My friend BACHMAN, who has raised many of these birds, has favoured me
with the following particulars respecting them:—"Though good-humoured
towards the person who feeds them, they are always savage towards all
other kinds of birds. I placed three sparrows in the cage of a Thrush
one evening, and found them killed, as well as nearly stripped of their
feathers, the next morning. So perfectly gentle did this bird become,
that when I opened its cage, it would follow me about the yard and the
garden. The instant it saw me take a spade or a hoe, it would follow
at my heels, and, as I turned up the earth, would pick up every insect
or worm thus exposed to its view. I kept it for three years, and its
affection for me at last cost it its life. It usually slept on the back
of my chair, in my study, and one night the door being accidentally left
open, it was killed by a cat. I once knew a few of these birds remain
the whole of a mild winter in the State of New York, in a wild state."

The Brown or Ferruginous Thrush is the strongest of the genus in the
United States, neither the Mocking Bird, nor the Robin being able to
cope with it. Like the former, it will chase the cat or the dog, and
greatly tease the racoon or the fox. It follows the _Falco Cooperii_
and the Goshawk, bidding them defiance, and few snakes come off with
success when they attack its nest. It is remarkable also, that, although
these birds have frequent and severe conflicts among themselves, yet
when the least alarm is given by an individual, a whole party of them
instantly rush forth to assist in chasing off the common enemy. When
two nests happen to be placed near each other, the males are seen to
fight furiously, and are joined by the females. On such occasions, the
males approach each other with much caution, spreading out, and often
jerking up, down, or to either side, their long fan-like tail, generally
betaking themselves to the ground, and uttering a note of defiance, until
one of them, perceiving some advantage afforded by its position or some
other circumstance, rushes to the charge. The attack once fairly made,
the fight seldom ends until one has beaten the other, after which the
vanquished rarely attempts to retaliate, and peace is made between the
parties. They are fond of bathing and of dusting themselves in the sand
of the roads. They bathe in small puddles during the heat of the sun,
and then remove to the sandy paths, where they roll themselves, dry their
plumage, and free it of insects. When disturbed on these occasions, they
merely run off and hide themselves under the nearest bushes, to return
as soon as the intruder has retired.

During the period of incubation, the male is heard from the top of
a neighbouring tree, singing for hours at a time. It ascends to this
pinnacle by leaping from branch to branch, and selects several trees for
the purpose, none of them more than a hundred yards from the nest. Its
song over, it dives towards its favourite thicket, seldom descending
by the assistance of the branches. Both male and female sit on the
eggs. Their mutual attachment, and their courage in defending their
nest, are well known to children living in the country. They resent the
intrusion even of man, assaulting him, and emitting a strong guttural
note resembling _tchai, tchai_, accompanied by a plaintive _weō_, and
continued until the enemy retires. Should he carry off their treasure,
he is sure to be followed a great way, perhaps half a mile, both birds
continually crossing his path, and bestowing on him the reproaches he
so richly deserves.

The food of this Thrush, which is also known by the name of French
Mocking Bird, consists of insects, worms, berries, and fruits of all
sorts. It is fond of figs, and wherever ripe pears are, there also may
it be found. In winter, they resort to the berries of the dogwood, the
sumach, and holly, and ascend to the tops of the tallest trees in search
of grapes. At this season, they are easily caught in traps, and many
are exposed for sale in the southern markets, although few of the old
birds live long in captivity. Some planters complain of their propensity
to scratch the ground for the purpose of picking up the newly planted
corn; but I am of opinion that the scratching has reference exclusively
to worms or beetles, their strong legs and feet being well adapted for
this purpose; and, generally speaking, they are great favourites, as
they commit few depredations on the crops.

This species, as well as the Robin and some others of this genus, suffer
greatly during the autumnal moults, and when in cages at this season,
become almost naked of feathers. The young acquire the full beauty of
their plumage during the first winter.

TURDUS RUFUS, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 293.—_Lath._ Ind.
Ornith. vol. i. p. 338.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of
the United States, p. 75.

FERRUGINOUS THRUSH, TURDUS RUFUS, _Wils._ Amer. Ornith. vol. ii.
p. 83. pl. 14. fig. 1.—_Nuttall_, Manual, vol. i. p. 328.

Fauna Boreali-Amer. part ii. p. 189.

Adult Male. Plate CXVI. Fig. 1. 1.

Bill rather long and slender, slightly arched, compressed, acute; upper
mandible slightly arched in its dorsal line and acute edges, the tip
declinate; lower mandible nearly straight along the back. Nostrils basal,
oblong, half-closed by a membrane. The general form is rather slender
and elegant, like that of the Mocking Bird. Feet longish, rather strong;
tarsus compressed, anteriorly covered with a few long scutella, sharp
behind; toes scutellate above, free; claws compressed, arched, acute.

Plumage soft and blended. Wings of moderate length, rounded, the first
primary very short, the fourth and fifth longest. Tail very long, of
twelve straight rounded feathers.

Bill black, the base of the lower mandible light blue. Iris yellow.
Feet dusky-brown. The general colour of the plumage above is a bright

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 12 of 56)