Charles C[onrad] Abbott.

A naturalist's rambles about home online

. (page 22 of 36)
Online LibraryCharles C[onrad] AbbottA naturalist's rambles about home → online text (page 22 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


302 B AMBLES ABOUT HOMR

and the pupae of tlie large black ants that have their
nests in rotten wood.

"When captured they offer no resistance, and become
apparently reconciled at once to their loss of freedom.
They are not of a mild disposition, but quite the contrary,
when placed in limited quarters with other snakes. Weak
and timid as they are, their distaste for such company
rouses in them all the energy they possess, and without
hesitation they try to drive off the intruders, even if
twice their size and strength. At such times, too, the
peculiar, pungent odor belonging to them is particularly
noticeable, and I have thought that probably this dis-
agreeable scent was exceedingly offensive to other snakes,
and was therefore one of the means of defense that they
possess.

The actions of the ring-snake, when placed with other
species, has further led me to believe that, notwithstand-
ing their offensive smell, the larger snakes occasionally
attack and devour these little fellows ; but I have never
been fortunate enough to prove this by witnessing an at-
tack on the part of a large snake, nor have I ever found
the remains of this snake in the stomach of another.

Another one of our snakes which, from its large size
and brilliant markings, is a most attractive feature of dry,
upland woods, is the spotted adder, which has been given,
strangely enough, the unusual name of " thunder-and-
lightning snake." Beyond darting its forked tongue, it
never even offers to resent molestation, except under cer-
tain circumstances to which reference will shortly be
made.

A few words in regard to serpents' tongues. They
are narrow, cylindrical, and forked. "When the snake is
at all disturbed, the tongue is darted out with great rapid-
ity, and this gives the animal a threatening appearance.



Digitized



byGoogk



8E0RT STUDIES OF SI^AKES. 303

There the matter ends. The tongue, of itseM, is as harm-
less as 80 much thistle-down, and the creature uses it
principally, if not wholly, in feeling its way along ; for a
snake's eyes are so placed that it can not see directly in
front of it. Notwithstanding this fact, I find the impres-
sion common, even among educated people, that the tongue
of a snake is a veritable sting, and as certain to produce a
woxmd as that of a hornet or bee. And recently a natu-
ral history society listened without protest to an effort of
a herpetologist (?) to show that the tongue of a snake was
used for charming its prey.

To return to the spotted adder. This snake, when
found in the woods coiled upon a heap of dead leaves,
will often closely imitate the peculiar rattle of the rattle-
snake, by vibrating the tail with great rapidity, and in
such a manner as to strike the leaves beneath it. I have
already called attention to this mimicry of the rattlesnake
on the part of the hog-nose snake. There it was, I
thought, a case of accidental imitation, the leaves beneath
the snake being unintentionally struck by the vibrating
tail. However this may be, my impression of this act
on the part of the spotted adder is that the noise is pro-
duced intentionally. Of course, I do not mean to say
that it is so far intentional as to be a studied imitation of
the sound made by the rattlesnake, that being a point
that can not be ascertained, and it would be crediting
them with too great a degree of intelligence to assume
that they studied the habits of their fellow-serpents and
profited by them.

The last spotted adder that I had the pleasure of find-
ing vibrated the tail in a very marked manner. When
first seen, the snake was lying on a thick bed of dead oak-
leaves in the woods. It was closely coiled, and, when
disturbed, raised its head, hissed, darted its tongue, and

20

Digitized by VjOOQIC



304 RAMBLES ABOUT HOME.

at tlie same time vibrated the tail very rapidly and in
such a manner that it gently struck the dead leaves as it
moved up and down. The motion was distinctly up and
down, and not sideways, as in the case of the hog-nose
snake. The sound produced was exactly like that of a
medium-sized rattlesnake. On removing the snake to a
spot near by, where there was only grass, I found that
the movement of the tail was not repeated, although
some time elapsed before I teased it. After several ef-
forts I replaced the snake among the leaves and allowed
it to remain for more than an hour. It made no effort to
escape, and, when I returned suddenly, it quickly coiled
itself as before, repeated the vibratory movement of the
tail, and produced the same rattling sound as before.
This can scarcely be considered as positive evidence ; but
my impression then was, and still is, that the snake de-
pended upon the dead leaves to produce the rattling
sound, and trusted to the sound to frighten its tormentor.
As we naturally associate this sound with the similar but
very significant rattle of the rattlesnake, are the two spe-
cies in any manner connected ?

A similar occurrence to that mentioned above has been
described in the " American Naturalist," September, 1879,
and the writer asks : " Is this to be called an example of
* mimicry ' ? May it be said that, far back in the past, some
sagacious ancestor, witnessing that act of intimidation on
the part of a rattlesnake, and observing how successful
it was, resolved to adopt the practice itself, and thus,
through inheritance, the practice became ingrafted npon
this species ? "

It has not, so far as I am aware, been shown that the
sound produced by the vibration of the tail does produce
a feeling of terror in the breast of any creature, whether
it is attacking the snake or attacked by it. If it be true



Digitized



byGoogk



SHORT STUDIES OF SNAKES. 305

that snakes overcome their prey by rendering them
powerless through fear, then any sound that is peculiar
to snakes would, when heard, frighten the animal, but
only to such a degree as to put it on guard ; and such a
sound would prove detrimental to the snake's welfare*
Even in the case of the rattlesnake, it does not add to the
horror that its appearance produces. We are quite in
the dark as to the reason why these sounds are made ; but
that reason, be it what it may, is quite probably the same,
whether made by the rattlesnakes with their peculiar ap-
paratus, or by the simpler method adopted by the spotted
adder. Certainly, so far as man is concerned, this sound
is an almost certain means of causing the snake's death.
Had it kept quiet it nught have escaped observation ; but
in thus giving notice of its whereabouts it signed its own
death-warrant. This has so long been the case, that if
the harmless spotted adder had possessed suflScient intel-
ligence to see the advantage of the rattle to the rattle-
snake, and had been determined to imitate it, as well as
it could, it should also have learned that this same sound,
when made within the hearing of some of its enemies,
would endanger its safety, if not work its destruction.

One other thought arises in this connection. In the
case of the rattlesnake, admitting that the rattles have
been evolved when the environment was wholly different,
may it not be that the peculiarity is now retained, albeit
no longer useful; while with such harmless species as
the hog-nose snake and spotted adder, it is quite probable
that the element of fear on the part of the snake plays an
important part, and that this " rattling " is a result of
fright on their part, rather than a desire to excite a simi-
lar feeling in their enemies ?

There is yet another snake, occasionally met with in

Digitized by VjOOQIC



306 RAMBLES ABOUT HOME.

this neighborhood, known by a score of nnmeaning names,
not one of which is characteristic. De Kay, in the " Nat-
ural History of New York," caUs it the " red-snake," and
Jordan, in his "Mannal of Vertebrates," "ground-snake."

It is not, strictly speaking, a red snake, neither is it
even always of a reddish color, nor does it cling more
closely to the ground than most of those other serpents
that have been mentioned. By many it is called the
" blind snake," because of the small size of its head, and,
in fact, the head and tail are so similar in size and shape
that this name is fully as descriptive as either of the
others.

The few specimens that I have seen have varied in
color from a blue-gray to a reddish brown ; but whatever
may be the color, it is uniform, and this, together with its
small size and the absence of everything like stripes or
spots, at once decides the identity of the species.

I have been accustomed, in my field-notes, to call this
little serpent the "cricket-snake," from the fact that I
have twice found specimens with crickets in their mpuths.
One of these specimens was of a decided blue color, and
the other a very pale brown, or clay color. I associated
the color with the surroundings, and have since won-
dered whether or not, like the tree-toad, it might not vary
in this respect with the character of the locality it chanced
to occupy. It is scarcely necessary to add that it is quite
harmless, and offers no resistance when handled. In its
general habits it presents no striking peculiarities.

So much for the eleven species of snakes that I have
mentioned. Twenty years of familiarity should have
yielded better results, but it has not.



Digitized



byGoogk



CHAPTER XXXn.

uz gaunt's snake-stoey.

" Well, as a sort of a text to my discourse, let me say,
when a snake's runnin' away from you, you can measure
it by inches ; but when it's comin' after you, every inch
is a foot long. That's how one feels about it.

" Now, when the June fresh' was over the meadows,
and everything that wasn't a fish was afloat, I was busy
after ducks and anything else worth shootin'. Well, one
morning, as I was floatin' about, seein' more curious ob-
jects at a glance than I ever did before or since, my eyes
rested on a big water-snake lyin' full stretch on a fence-
rail. He was a whopper, now, I tell you. The rail was
eleven foot long — I measured it — ^and the head of the
siiake was at one end, and the tail mighty close to the
other."

" Are you sure of that, Uz ? " I asked doubtingly.

" Don't interrupt, boy ; that's the easiest part of it,"
Uz continued. " Well, I wanted the skin of that snake,
just to show folks ; so I blazed away. I aimed at the mid-
dle of the snake, and no sooner than I'd pulled trigger,
when all of a sudden about a hundred snakes raised up on
that rail and seemed to make for me. 1 came near upset-
tin' the boat, I was so taken aback. What I'd seen wasn't
one big snake at all, but a whole swad of 'em, and they
had just twisted 'round each other like strands of a rope,



Digitized



byGoogk



808 E AMBLES ABOUT HOME.

and lay there, basMn' in the sun, on that fence-rail. So
Boon as I had taken it all in, I laughed right out, and
wasn't scared a bit then ; but, boy, I wasn't out of the
woods by a long shot. Now here comes the toughest
yam you ever heard from me, at least you'll think it a
yam."

"Indeed, I will not," I said very earnestly.

" You say so now ; but never mind, and let me have
all the say for a while," Uz continued, and I acquiesced
by a nod of the head.

" Well, I was gazin' 'round at the snakes that were
swimming all about, and some of 'em were climbin' back
on the fence-rail. There were lots of 'em, big and little,
and every sort I ever saw about here, I believe. Not want-
in' any, I turned off, and sculled toward Swan Island flood-
gates. I found there was a big hollow buttonwood
lodged right across the gates. I sculled up close to it,
expectin' to see somethin' in or about it, for everything
afloat then, you know, had its living freight. I held my
gun ready, thinkin' there might be a mink or otter
around : when, just as I was scrapin' against the tree,
down rattled a whoppin' big snake into the boat, and
another followin', and another and another after them,
for all I know. I pushed off, quick as I could, but was
kind o' tangled in among the branches at the time, and,
before I got clear, there were three thunderin' big snakes
coiled up in the bottom of my canoe. I eyed 'em pretty
close, and didn't recognize 'em. They had the look of
the common puff-adder, or " hog-nose," as you call 'em,
but didn't look the same. They were most too big, and
seemed to be spotted in a different way. Perhaps they
were all right and harmless, but I didn't like their looks.
In a minute I made up my mind to get rid of 'em if I
could, and lifted my scull out of the water. One of 'em,



Digitized



byGoogk



JJZ GAUNT' S 8NAEE-8T0R7, 309

coiled up nearest to me, raised his head, as I did this,
and set his tail a-buzzin' like mad. I heard the sound,
clear and clean, and saw that the critter was a rattle-
snake. I gave one look at the other two, and they was
the same. There I sat, in the stem of the little boat, with
three rattlesnakes eyin' me, and not one of 'em six feet
' off. I don't quite remember just what I did, but some-
how without accident I got the scull back, and started on.
Either the near snake by his looks told me, or some-
thing else did, that if I put for dry land they wouldn't
make trouble. Now it's a good half mile to the hill-side
from the Swan Island gates, and I took a straight course,
I tell you. Big fool that I was for bein' so frightened ;
I didn't keep much of a look ahead, and, 'fore I knew it,
I went bump into a big saw-log that had come down the
river. The boat came to with a jerk, and up raised every
one of them snakes fully a foot or more, and didn't say
anything, but looked at me, as much as to say, ^ Do that
again, IJz Gaunt, and your goose is cooked.' I hadn't
control of my scull as I generally have, but somehow I
made out to get movin' again. Luck was against me
somehow, and I got*into a tangle of grass and brush, but
didn't come to a stand-still. One of the snakes, though,
didn't like the sound of the boat's bottom gratin' over
the brush, so it raised up, and coiled on a box that
was lyin' at my feet. He settled on that box, with one
lap of his coils restin' on the toe of my boot. I didn't
dare to stir. All of a sudden that foot began to tickle
like, and I wanted to wiggle my toes, but I didn't dare
to. Then that leg got to sleep, and I couldn't shift it.
It hadn't any f eelin' in it, and I felt as though I'd tum-
ble over on one side. It was no use. There was that one
snake, on guard like, and it was evident to stir was cer-
tain death. The boat didn't seem to move ahead worth



Digitized



byGoogk



310 RAMBLES ABOUT HOME.

a cent ; I kept my scull goin', but it didn't send the boat
spinnin' along as I've often done when chasin' a wound-
ed duck. But I did come up to the shore in time, right
close by the Pearson house on the hill-top, and somehow
everything came to me all of a sudden as the boat grated
on the sand. I gave a jump, clearin' the length of the
boat, and made for the hiU-top. ^ Uz, you're a fool,' I
said to myself before I'd taken many steps, and came to
a stop. There I was, free as air, yet runnin' as though
the snakes was after me. Soberin' down a bit, I walked
back toward the boat, and peered 'round very careful,
I tell you. There was no sign of the snakes on land,
and I went close up to the boat. There the three ver-
min were, sure enough, I didn't know just what to do.
I'd left my gun in the boat, besides, f orgettin' all about
it in my hurry ; besides, I couldn't have shot anyhow
without hurtin' the boat, and it was my new cedar skiff.
Thinkin' a minute, I cut a stout saplin', and, getting
near enough, I gave one of 'em a pat on the head, and
straightened him out, and then tackled t'other two. They
didn't show any fight, and I got through all right, and,
gettin' in my boat again, I pitched ^m out on the sand.
Somehow they'd a sort of natural look, now they were
dead, and, lookin' closer, hang me if every snake's tail
wasn't as smooth as a whip-lash I Oh I but I was mad.
To think of bein' scared out of my wits by next to noth-
in', for every one was a harmless adder. From then till
now I've hated snakes, and always shall."

I laughed at his story, and he joined me, so far as to
smile, for Uz never laughed aloud, I believe.

" I never supposed you saw anything that far wrong,
Uz," I remarked, after a pause.

" I don't often, I believe ; but when it comes to snakes,
Fm sure of noihin'. It's with me, when I see snakes, as



Digitized



byGoogk



UZ QAUNT'S 8NAKE-8T0RT. 311

witli many people who see commoner sights. I jumped
at a conclusion, and conceited I never could jump in a
wrong direction. Fact is, you've got to stop a bit and
consider, whatever you do. With most of us it's a good
deal like walkin' over Watson's meadows. Often greener
grass grows on quicksand than the stiff dirt ; but it don't
do to walk on it, nevertheless/'



Digitized



byGoogk



CHAPTER XXXin.

BHOET STUDIES OF BATEACHIANS.

It is witli some hesitation that I venture to utilize
the few notes that I have made upon the habits of the
many batrachians common to central New Jersey. So
promising a field is here offered, that I feel ashamed at
not having long since availed myself of the opportunity
of studying this class of animals, in spite of the difficulty
which is often experienced of observing them to advan-
tage when in their chosen haunts. A salamander, for
instance, will remain absolutely motionless for an hour
on or under some dead leaf, in the trickling waters that
wend their way riverward from a mossy spring. To sit
or stand for an hour, and watch this immovable creature,
is both painful and monotonous, and When, at last, you
disturb it, perhaps accidentally, away it goes to some
similar spot near by, and resumes its motionless attitude.
To spend more time, perhaps plagued the while with
suspicions of possible rheumatism, and serenaded by mos-
quitoes, is scarcely practicable, and studies of salamander
life soon become a bore. That their whole time is not
spent in lying still, or in creeping in the mud, is the one
fact about which I am certain; and however discour-
aging this result may be, it is possible that some future
observer may have better luck.

The toads and frogs are more easily observed, and
their habits have been so closely studied that there are



Digitized



byGoogk



SHORT STUDIES OF BATRACHIANS, 813

few people who are not familial' with the prominent
points of their life-histories. This, however, need not
deter us from studying them, as probably not one half
the whole truth is yet known ; and, besides, there are
many prevalent errors to be corrected.

Keferring to frogs, I recall the words of Peter Kalm,
when he visited this neighborhood. One hundred and
thirty-two years ago, yesterday (May 81st), he records
that " toward night, after the tide had begun to ebb, and
the wind was quite subsided, we could not proceed, but
dropped our anchor about seven miles from Trenton, and
passed the night there. The woods were full of fire-flies
(Lamjpyvii)^ which flew like sparks of fire between the
trees, and sometimes across the river. In the marshes
the bullfrogs now and then began their hideous roaring,
and more than a hundred of them roared together. The
whip-poor-will was likewise heard everywhere." While
I am writing I glance from my paper, through the study-
window, and I see the very spot where Kalm tarried on
that summer night. The same marshes are there, and
remains of the forest ; and on any pleasant summer night
we may still see myriads of fire-flies, and hear the '•'hide-
ous roaring " of the frogs, and scarcely less monotonous
call of the whippoorwiU.

Let us now consider these various frogs and salaman-
ders seriatim.

Perhaps the most common of all our frogs is that of
which Kalm has given a very good description in his
" Travels in North America." Speaking of it, he says :
'^Bana ocellata are a kind of frogs here (New Jersey),
which the Swedes call sill-hoppe tosser, i. e., herring-hop-
pers, and which now (March) began to quack in the
evening and at night, in swamps, pools, and ponds. The
name which the Swedes give tiem is derived from their



Digitized



byGoogk



314 RAMBLES ABOUT HOME.

beginning to make their noise in spring, at the same
time when the people here go catching what are called
herrings, which, however, differ greatly from the true
European herrings. These frogs have a peculiar note,
which is not like that of our European frogs, but rather
corresponds with the chirping of some large birds, and
can nearly be expressed by pi-cet (peense^t). "With this
noise they continue throughout a great part of spring,
beginning their noise soon after sun-setting and finishing
it just before sun-rising. The sound was sharp, but yet
so loud that it could be heard at a great distance. When
they expected rain they cried much worse than commonly,
and began in the middle of the day or when it grew
cloudy, and the rain came usually six hours after. As it
snowed on the 16th of the next month (April), and blew
very violently all day, there was not the least sign of
them at night, and during the whole time that it was cold,
and while the snow was on the fields, the frost had so
silenced them, that we could not hear one ; but, as soon as
the mild weather returned, they began their noise again.
They were very timorous, and it was difficult to catch
them, for as soon as a person approached the place where
they lived, they are quite silent, and none of them ap-
peared. It seems that they hide themselves entirely
under water, except the tip of the snout, when they cry ;
for, when I stepped to the pond where they were in, I
could not observe a single one hopping into the water.
I could not see any of them before I had emptied a whole
pool where they lodged in. Their color is a dirty green,
variegated with spots of brown. When they are touched,
they make a noise and moan ; they then sometimes as-
sume a form as if they had blown up the hind part of the
back, so that it makes a high elevation; and then they do
not stir, though touched."



Digitized



byGoogk



SHORT STUDIES OF BATBACEIANS. 815

This " herring-frog," as it is usually called, is, I be-
lieve, the first to "give tongue'' on the return of spring.
Hibernation with them is, at best, an uncertain and impa-
tient sleep ; and even as early as the middle of February,
if there be a few consecutive warm days, they will com-
mence what is complimentarily called, nowadays, their
song.

There is a saying common among my neighbors that
these herring-frogs must be " shut up " three times by
frost before spring fairly opens. I made a note of th^
years ago, and subsequent observation has shown that
it would be nearer right to say "three times three"
times.

The e^s of this frog are deposited on the margins of
quiet waters, and adhere loosely to twigs and dead grass.
In a short time (I am not sure just how many days, but
think it varies with the temperature considerably) the
eggs are hatched, and then the waters become fairly alive
with diminutive tadpoles.

By this time these herring-frogs have become com-
paratively silent, and are careless of the weKare of their
young. They leave the water for much of the time,
though they never wander far from it. In the tall grass
that grows along the banks of every pool they forage for
flies ; and they seem to live without any ambition, save
that of supplying their daily wants and guarding against
the approach of snakes, by whom they are often sur-
prised. A chapter on this subject remains to be written.
That there is a homoeopathic dose of mind in a frog's
cranium, I doubt not ; but I am free to admit, so far as
th^e dUrhoppe toasers of the Swedes are concerned, that
I have never found much evidence of the fact. They
approach as near to being mere automata as any creatures
I know.



Digitized



byGoogk



816 RAMBLES ABOUT HOME.

The pickerel-frog may be said to differ from the pre-
ceding in the number and position of a few spots on the
back : the herring-frog has the spots in two rows, while
in the pickerel-frog they are in four. This is the one
apparent difference, though there may be others not as
marked. This slight variation in color and markings is
constant and uniform, and it must have been brought
about by some potent cause, supposing that these and
our other frogs are derived from some ancestral type
which is at once like, yet unlike, the five species that now
frequent our meadows ; and no other supposition is ten-
able.

I have tried in vain to detect some difference in habit,
or variation in date of appearance, or preference for dif-



Online LibraryCharles C[onrad] AbbottA naturalist's rambles about home → online text (page 22 of 36)