John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

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His endur-

The "cotton-






The desert

Sis eyes.

can hardly count them all squirrels with long
tails and short tails and no tails ; squirrels
yellow, brown, gray, blue, and slate-colored.
They live in the rocks about the bases of the
desert mountains; and eventually they fall a
prey to the wild-cat who watches for them just
as the domestic cat watches for the house rat.
Their only safeguard is their energetic way of
darting into a hole. For all their sharp noses
and ears they are foolish little folk and will
keep poking their heads out to see what is go-
ing on.

But for acute senses, swift legs, and powerful
endurance nothing can surpass the antelope.
He is rarely seen to-day (more's the pity !) ; but
only a few years ago there were quite a number
of them on the Sonora edge of the Colorado
Desert. Usually they prefer the higher mesas
where the land is grass-grown and the view is
unobstructed ; but they have been known to
come far down into the desert. And the ante-
lope is very well fitted for the sandy waste. The
lack of water does not bother him, he can eat
anything that grows in grass or bush ; and he
can keep from being eaten about as cleverly as
any of the deer tribe. His eye alone is a marvel
of development. It protrudes from the socket



bulges out almost like the end of an egg
and if there were corners on the desert mesas
I believe that eye could see around them. He
cannot be approached in any direction without
seeing what is going on ; but he may be still-
hunted and shot from behind crag or cover.

His curiosity is usually the death of him, be-
cause he will persist in standing still and look-
ing at things ; but his senses almost always give
him fair warning. His nose and ears are just
as acute as his eyes. And how he can run !
His legs seem to open and shut like the blades
of a pocket-knife, so leisurely, so apparently
effortless. But how they do take him over the
ground ! With one leg shot from under him
he runs pretty nearly as fast as before. A
tougher, more wiry, more beautiful animal was
never created. Perhaps that is the reason why
every man's hand has been raised against him
until now his breed is almost extinct. He was
well fitted to survive on the desert mesas and
the upland plains a fine type of swiftness and
endurance but Nature in her economy never
reckoned with the magazine rifle nor the greed
of the individual who calls himself a sports-

The mule-deer with his large ears, long muz-

His nose
and ears.






zle and keen eyes, is almost as well provided for
as the antelope. He has survived the antelope
possibly because he does not live in the open
country. He haunts the brush and the rock
cover of the gorge and the mountain side.
There in the heavy chaparral he will skulk
and hide while you may pass within a few feet
of him. If he sees that he is discovered he
can make a dash up or down the mountain in
a way that astonishes. Stones, sticks, and brush
have no terror for him. He jumps over them
or smashes through them. He will bound
across a talus of broken porphyry that will cut
the toughest boots to pieces, striking all four
feet with every bound, and yet not ruffle the
hair around his dew claws ; or he will dash
through a tough dry chaparral at full speed
without receiving a scrape or a cut of any kind.
The speed he attains on such ground aston-
ishes again. His feet seem to strike rubber in-
stead of stone ; for he bounds like a ball, de-
scribes a quarter circle, and bounds again. The
magazine of your rifle may be emptied at him ;
and still he may go on, gayly cutting quarter
circles, until he disappears over the ridge. He
is one of the hardiest of the desert progeny.
The lack of water affects him little. He browses



and gets fat on twigs and leaves that seem to
have as little nutriment about them as a tele-
graph-pole ; and he lies down on a bed of stones
as upon a bed of roses. He is as tough as
the goats and sheep that keep well up on the
high mountain ridges ; and in cleverness is per-
haps superior to the antelope. But oftentimes
he will turn around to have a last look, and
therein lies his undoing. In Sonora there is
found a dwarf deer a foolish if pretty little
creature and along river-beds the white-tailed
deer is occasionally seen ; but these deer with
the goats and the sheep hardly belong to the
desert, though living upon its confines.

In fact, none of the far-travelling animals lives
right down in the desert gravel-beds continu-
ously. They go there at night or in the early
morning, but in the daytime they are usually
found in the neighboring hills. The rabbits,
rats, and squirrels, if undisturbed, will usually
stay upon the flat ground ; and there is also an-
other variety of desert life that does not wander
far from the sand and the rocks. I mean the
reptiles. They are not as a class swift in
flight, nor over-clever in sense, nor cunning in
devices. Nor have they sufficient strength to
grapple and fight with the larger animals. It

Habits of
the desert-

The white-




Poison of

and sting.

would seem as though Nature had brought
them into the desert only half made-up a prey
to every beast and bird. But no ; they are
given the most deadly weapon of defence of all
poison. Almost all of the reptiles have poison
about them in fang or sting. We are accus-
tomed to label them " poisonous " or "not poi-
sonous," as they kill or do not kill a human
being ; but that is not the proper criterion by
which to judge. The bite of the trap-door
spider will not seriously affect a man, but it
will kill a lizard in a few minutes. In propor-
tion to his size the common red ant of the
desert is more poisonous than the rattlesnake.
It is reiterated with much positiveness that a
swarm of these ants have been known to kill
men. There is, however, only one reptile on the
desert that humanity need greatly fear on ac-
count of his poison and that is the rattlesnake.
There are several varieties called in local par-
lance "side-winders," "ground rattlers," and
the like ; but the ordinary spotted, brown, or
yellow rattlesnake is the type. He is not a
pleasant creature, but then he is not often met
with. In travelling many hundreds of miles on
the desert I never encountered more than half a



The rattle is indescribable, but a person will
know it the first time he hears it. It is some-
thing between a buzz and a burr, and can
cause a cold perspiration in a minute fraction
of time. The snake is very slow in getting
ready to strike, in fact sluggish ; but once the
head shoots out, it does so with the swiftness of
an arrow. Nothing except the road-runner can
dodge it. The poison is deadly if the fang has
entered a vein or a fleshy portion of the body
where the flow of blood to the heart is free. If
struck on the hand or foot, the man may re-
cover, because the circulation there is slow and
the heart has time to repel the attack. Every
animal on the desert knows just how venomous
is that poison. Even your dog knows it by in-
stinct. He may shake and kill garter-snakes,
but he will not touch the rattlesnake.

All of the spider family are poisonous and
you can find almost every one of them on the
desert. The most sharp-witted of the family is
the trap-door spider the name coming from
the door which he hinges and fastens over the
entrance of his hole in the ground. The taran-
tula is simply an overgrown spider, very heavy
in weight, and inclined to be slow and stupid
in action. He is a ferocious-looking wretch

The rattle-

Effect of the

Spiders and






and swifts.

The hydro-

and has a ferocious bite. It makes an ugly
wound and is deadly enough to small animals.
The scorpion has the reputation of being very
venomous ; but his sting on the hand amounts
to little more than that of an ordinary wasp.
Nor is the long-bodied, many-legged, rather
graceful centipede so great a poison-carrier as
has been alleged. They are all of them poi-
sonous, but in varying degrees. Doubtless the
(to us) harmless horned toads and the swifts
have for their enemies some venom in store.

The lizards are many in variety, and their
colors are often very beautiful in grays, yellows,
reds, blues, and indigoes. The Gila monster
belongs to their family, though he is much
larger. The look of him is very forbidding and
he has an ugly way of hissing at you ; but just
how venomous he is I do not know. Very
likely there is some poison about him, though
this has been denied. It would seem that every-
thing that cannot stand or run or hide must
be defended somehow. Even the poor little
skunk when he comes to live on the desert de-
velops poisoned teeth and his bite produces
what is called hydrophobia. The truth about
the hydrophobia skunk is, I imagine, that he is
an eater of carrion ; and when he bites a per-



son he is likely to produce blood-poisoning,
which is miscalled hydrophobia.

Taking them for all in all, they seem like a
precious pack of cutthroats, these beasts and
reptiles of the desert. Perhaps there never was
a life so nurtured in violence, so tutored in at-
tack and defence as this. The warfare is con-
tinuous from the birth to the death. Every-
thing must fight, fly, feint, or use poison ; and
every slayer eventually becomes a victim. What
a murderous brood for Nature to bring forth !
And what a place she has chosen in which to
breed them ! Not only the struggle among
themselves, but the struggle with the land,
the elements the eternal fighting with heat,
drouth, and famine. What else but fierceness
and savagery could come out of such condi-
tions ?

But, after all, is there not something in the
sheer brute courage that endures, worthy of our
admiration ? These animals have made the best
out of the worst, and their struggle has given
them a physical character which is, shall we
not say, beautiful ? Perhaps you shudder at the
thought of a panther dragging down a deer
one enormous paw over the deer's muzzle, one
on his neck, and the strain of all the back mus-











Beauty in

forms of

cles coming into play. But was not that the
purpose for which the panther was designed ?
As a living machine how wonderfully he works!
Look at the same subject done in bronze by
Barye and you will see what a revelation of
character the great statuary thought it. Look,
too, at Barye's wolf and fox, look at the lions of
Gericault, and the tigers and serpents of Dela-
croix ; and with all the jaw and poison of them
how beautiful they are !

You will say they are made beautiful through
the art of the artists, and that is partly true ;
but we are seeing only what the artists saw.
And how did they come to choose such sub-
jects ? Why, simply because they recognized
that for art there is no such thing as nobility or
vulgarity of subject. Everything may be fit if
it possesses character. The beautiful is the
characteristic the large, full-bodied, well-ex-
pressed truth of character. At least that is one
very positive phase of beauty.

Even the classic idea of beauty, which re-
gards only the graceful in form or movement
or the sensuous in color, finds types among
these desert inhabitants. The dullest person
in the arts could not but see fine form and pro-
portion in the panther, graceful movement in



the antelope, and charm of color in all the
pretty rock squirrels. For myself, being some-
what prejudiced in favor of this drear waste
and its savage progeny, I may confess to hav-
ing watched the flowing movements of snakes,
their coil and rattle and strike, many times and
with great pleasure ; to having stretched my-
self for hours upon granite bowlders while fol-
lowing the play of indigo lizards in the sand ;
to having traced with surprise the slightly
changing skin of the horned toad produced by
the reflection of different colors held near him.
I may also confess that common as is the jack-
rabbit he never bursts away in speed before me
without being followed by my wonder at his
graceful mystery of motion ; that the crawl of
a wild-cat upon game is something that arrests
and fascinates by its masterful skill ; and that
even that desert tramp, the coyote, is entitled
to admiration for the graceful way he can slip
through patches of cactus. The fault is not in
the subject. It is not vulgar or ugly. The
trouble is that we perhaps have not the prop-
er angle of vision. If we understood all, we
should admire all.

Colors of

Mystery of

The first
day s walk.

Tracks in
the sand.


THE desert' s secrets of life and growth and
death are not to be read at a glance. The first
day's walk is usually a disappointment. You
see little more than a desolate waste. The
light of the blue sky, the subtle color of the air,
the roll of the valleys, the heave of the moun-
tains do not reveal themselves at once. The
vegetation you think looks like a thin covering
of dry sticks. And as for the animals, the birds
the living things on the desert they are not
apparent at all.

But the casual stroll does not bring you to
the end of the desert's resources. You may
perhaps walk for a whole day and see not a beast
or a bird of any description. Yet they are here.
Even in the lava-beds where not even cactus
will grow, and where to all appearance there is
no life whatever, you may see tracks in the sand
where quail and road-runners and linnets have
been running about in search of food. There



are tracks, too, of the coyote and the wild-cat
tracks following tracks. The animals and the
birds belong to the desert or the neighboring
mountains ; but they are not always on view.
You meet with them only in the early morning
and evening when they are moving about. In
the middle of the day they are in the shadow of
bush or rock or lying in some cut bank or cave
keeping out of the direct rays of the sun.
The birds are not very numerous even when
they come forth. They prefer places that afford
better cover. And yet as you make a memo-
randum of each new bird you see you are sur-
prised after a time to find how many are the

And the surprise grows when you think of
the dangers and hardships that continually har-
ass bird-life here in the desert. It may be
fancied perhaps that the bird is exempt from
danger because he has wings to carry him out
of the reach of the animals ; but we forget that
he has enemies of his own kind in the air. And
if he avoids the hawks by day, how shall he
avoid the owls by night ? Where at night shall
he go for protection ? There are no broad-
leaved trees to offer a refuge in fact few trees
of any sort. The bushes are not so high that

Scarcity of

Dangers of

No cover for



The food

The heat
and drouth

a coyote cannot reach to their top at a jump ;
nor are the spines and ledges of rock in the
mountains so steep that a wild-cat cannot climb
np them.

No ; the bird is subject to the same dangers
as the animals and the plants. Something is
forever on his trail. He must always be on
guard. And the food problem, ever of vital
interest to bird-life, bothers him just as much
as it does the coyote. There is little for him
to eat and nothing for him to drink ; and hard-
ly a resting-place for the sole of his foot. Be-
sides, it would seem as though he should be af-
fected by the intense heat more than he is in
reality. Humanity at times has difficulty in
withstanding this heat, for though it is not
suffocating, it parches the mouth and dries up
the blood so rapidly that if water is not attain-
able the effect is soon apparent. The animals

that is, the wild ones are never fazed by it ;
but the domestic horse, dog, and cow yield to
it almost as readily as a man. And men and
animals are all of low-blood temperature a
man's normal temperature being about 98 F.
But what of the bird in his coat of feathers
which may add to or detract from his warmth ?
What is his normal temperature ? It varies



with the species, so far as I can ascertain by ex-
periment, from 112 to 120 F. Consider that
blood temperature in connection with a sur-
rounding air varying from 100 to 125 F. ! It
would seem impossible for any life to support
it. One may well wonder what strange wings
beat this glowing air, what bird-life lives in this
fiery waste !

Yet the desert-birds look not very different
from their cousins of the woods and streams
except that they are thinner, more subdued in
color, somewhat more alert. They are very
pretty, very innocent-looking birds. But we
may be sure that living here in the desert, en-
during its hardships and participating in its in-
cessant struggle for life and for the species, they
have just the same savage instincts as the plants
and the animals. The sprightliness and the
color may suggest harmlessness ; but the eye,
the beak, the claw are designed for destruction.
The road-runner is one of the mildest-looking
and most graceful birds of the desert, but the
spring of the wild-cat to crush down a rabbit is
not more fierce than the snap of the bird's beak
as he tosses a luckless lizard. He is the only
thing on the desert that has the temerity to
fight a rattlesnake. It is said that he kills the

A Urd's

birds with


The road-



Wrens and

ment of


snake, but as to that I am not able to give evi-

And it is not alone the bird of prey not
alone the road-runners, the eagles, the vult-
ures, the hawks, and the owls that are savage
of mood. Every little wisp of energy that
carries a bunch of feathers is endowed with the
same spirit. The downward swoop of the cac-
tus wren upon a butterfly and the snip of his
little scissors bill, the dash after insects of the
fly-catchers, vireos, swallows, bats, and whip-
poor-wills are just as murderous in kind as the
blow of the condor and the vice-like clutch of
his talons as they sink into the back of a rab-
bit. Skill and strength in the chase are abso-
lutely necessary in a desert where food is so
scarce, and in proportion the little birds have
these qualities in common with the great.

And naturally, as in the case of the animals,
the skill and the strength develop along the line
of the bird's needs, producing that quality of
character, that fitness for the work cut out for
him, to which we have so often referred. There
are birds that belong almost solely to the king-
dom of the air birds like the condor, the
vulture, and the eagle. Upon the ground they
move awkwardly, not having better feet to



walk with than ducks and geese. The talons
are too much developed for walking. When
they rise from the ground they do it heavily
and with quick flapping wings. Not until
they are fairly started in the upper air do
they show what wonderful wing-power they

The common brown-black vulture or turkey
buzzard is the type of all the wheelers and sail-
ers. The " soaring eagle " of poetry is some-
thing of a goose beside him. For the wings of
the vulture bear him through wind, sun, and
heat, hour after hour, without a pause. To
see him circling as he hunts down a mountain
range a hundred miles or more, one might
think that the abnormal breast-muscles never
grew weary. He goes over every foot of the
ground with his eyes and at the same time
watches every other vulture in the sky. Let
one of his fellows stop circling and drop earth-
ward on a long incline, and immediately he is
followed by all the black crew. They know
instantly that something has been discovered.
But often the hunt is in vain, and then for
whole days at a time those motionless wings
bear their burden apparently without fatigue.
With no food perhaps for a fortnight and

Birds of the



The vulture



The vulture




The crow.

never any water, that spare rack of muscles
sails the air with as little effort as floating
thistle-down. No one knows just how it is
done. In blow or calm, against the wind or
with it, high in the bine or low over the
ground, any place, anywhere, and under any
circumstances those wings cut through the air
almost like sunlight. You can hear a whizz
like the flight of arrows as the bird passes
close over your head ; but you cannot see the
slightest motion in the feathers.

The hot, thin air of the desert would seem a
less favorable air for sailing than the moister
atmosphere of the south ; but the vulture of
the tropics is not the equal of the desert-bird.
He is heavier, lazier, and more stupid possi-
bly because better fed. There are several vari-
eties in the family, the chief variants being the
one with white tipped wings and the one with
a white eagle-like head. Neither of them is as
good on the wing as the black species, though
none of them is to be despised. Even the or-
dinary carrion crow of the desert is an expert
sailer compared with any of the crow family to
be found elsewhere. The exigencies of the sit-
uation seem to require wings developed for long-
distance flights ; and the vultures, the crows,



the eagles, the hawks, all respond after their
individual fashions.

The condor is perhaps the vulture's peer
in the matter of sailing. He belongs to the
vulture family, though very much larger than
any of its members, sometimes measuring
fifteen feet across the wings and weighing forty
pounds. He is the largest bird on the conti-
nent. At the present time he is occasionally
seen wheeling high in air like a mere insect in
the great blue dome. It is said that he soars
as high as twentyfive thousand feet above the
earth. But to-day he sails alone and his tribe
has grown less year by year. With the eagles
he keeps well up in the high sierras and builds
a nest on the inaccessible peaks or along the
steep escarpments. He belongs to the desert
only because it is one of his hunting-grounds.

This may be said of the eagles and the hawks.
They hunt the desert by day, but go home to
the mountains at night. The owls are some-
what different, not being given to long flight.
The deep caves or wind-worn recesses under
mountain ledges furnish them abiding-places.
These caves also send forth at dusk a full com-
plement of bats that seem not different from
the ordinary Eastern bats. The burrowing

The great

The eagles
and hawks.



Hats and

The burrow-
ing owl.

owl is perhaps misnamed, though not misplaced.
There is no evidence whatever, that I have ever
seen or heard, to show that he burrows. What
happens is that he crawls into some hole that is
already burrowed instead of a cave or recess in
the rocks. A prairie-dog or badger hole is his
preference. That the place has inhabitants,
including the tarantula and (it is said) the rat-
tlesnake, does not bother the owl. He walks
in with his mate and speedily makes himself at
home. How the different families get on to-
gether can be imagined by one person as well as
by another. They do not seem to pay any at-
tention to each other so far as I have observed.
Ordinarily the desert animals, birds, and rep-
tiles agree to no such truce. They are at war
from the start. I do not know that the owls,
the bats, the night-hawks have any special
equipment for carrying on their part of the
war. Sometimes I have fancied they had larger
eyes than is usual with their kinds outside of
the desert ; but I have no proof of this. Per-
haps it is like the speculation as to whether the
buzzard sees or scents the carrion that he dis-
covers so readily hardly amenable to proof.

All of the air-birds are strikingly developed
in the wings and equally undeveloped in the



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Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 10 of 13)