Vernon L. (Vernon Lyman) Kellogg.

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American Nature Series

Group V. Diversions from Nature




_With Illustrations_




Published June, 1908




In these days many strange, true stories about animals are being
written and read, but it seems to me that some of our most intimate
and interesting animal companions are being overlooked. So I have
tried to write about a few of them. These stories are true. I know
this, for Mary and I have really seen almost everything I have told;
and they seem to us strange. If there have slipped into the stories
occasional slight attempts to show some reason for the strange things
or to point an unobtrusive moral, it is because the teacher's habit
has overcome the story-teller's intention. So the slips may be

Of course I recognize that it is taking great chances nowadays with
one's reputation for honesty and truth-telling to write or tell
stories about animal behavior. Nature writers seem to be held, as a
class, not to be above suspicion. But is a truthful man to be kept
silent by criticism or abuse, or, on the other hand, is he to
surrender, even for cash, to bad examples? I call out, "No!" and beat
on the table as I say this until the pens and paper hop, and Mary
asks, "No what?" Which reminds me that I must make some exception to
my sweeping declaration of the truth of the whole of this little book.
I am not responsible for Mary! She is, bless her, a child of dreams,
and sometimes her dreams get into her talk. So some of Mary in this
book is fancy; but the beasties and their doings are - I say it
again - true, quite true.

V. L. K.





I first got acquainted with Mary when she was collecting tarantula
holes. This appealed to me strongly. It was so much more interesting
than collecting postmarks or even postage-stamps.

It is part of my work, the part which is really my play - to go out and
look at things. To do the same, I found out, is Mary's play - which is,
of course, her most serious employment. We easily got acquainted when
we first met, and made an arrangement to go out and look at things,
and collect some of them, together. So after Mary had shown me that
collecting tarantula holes is really quite simple - although at first
thought of it you may not think so - I proposed to her to come along
and help me collect a few wasp holes. They are smaller of course than
tarantula holes and do not make quite such a fine showing when you get
them home, but they have several real advantages over the spider
burrows, only one of which I need tell you now. This one is, that you
can watch the wasps make their holes because they do it in the
daytime, while you can't watch the tarantula make its hole because it
does it at night. So Mary and I went together to the place of the

I ought to tell you right away that Mary and I live in California.
This explains to you partly why we are so happy in our rambles,
because for any one whose work or whose play it is to go out and look
at things, California is a wonderfully good place to live in. In fact,
I know of none better. But I should tell you more of where we live,
because California is so many places at once, that is, so many
different kinds of places, such as high mountains, burning deserts,
great forests, fertile plains, salt lakes, blue ocean, low soft hills,
wide level marshes, fragrant orchards, brilliant flower gardens, hot
springs and volcanic cones, deep cañons and rushing rivers, - O,
indeed, almost all the kinds of places that the physical geography
tells about.

Mary and I live in a beautiful valley between two ranges of mountains
and very near the marsh-lined shores of a great ocean bay. Over beyond
one range of mountains is the ocean itself stretching blue and ripply
all the way to China, while beyond the other range of mountains is a
desert with jackrabbits and burrowing owls and cactuses. Not the
worst - or best - sort of desert like that far south toward Mexico, but
one that gets a little rain, and hence is called a "Land of Great
Possibilities" by men who sell pieces of it now and then to people
from Maine.

It is easy for us to get from the little town in which we live to
several very good places for looking at things. The foothills and
mountain sides with their forests and coverts and swift little brooks;
the orchards and flower gardens and grain and grass fields; the wide
flat marshes with their salt-grass and pickle-weed, their wide
channels and pools, and finally the bay itself; all are near by and
all are fine places for observing and collecting things.

When I met Mary first - the time she was collecting tarantula holes - we
were on the gentle slopes of the lower foothills of the mountains. The
big hairy tarantulas are very numerous there, although one rarely sees
them because they mostly stay in their holes in daytime. There are
tarantula hawks there too, enormous black and rusty-red wasps with
wings stretching three inches from tip to tip. Mary and I saw one of
these giant wasps swoop down on a big tarantula just as he came out of
his hole one evening after sundown, and that was a battle to remember,
and it had a very strange ending. The tarantula - but I must save that
battle for another chapter all to itself. I must try and stick to the
wasp holes in this one.

It was a day in September. This month in California is the last one of
the long, rainless, sun-filled summer, and everywhere it is very dry
and brown. The valley floors and foothill slopes lie thirsty and
cracking under the ardent sun, and a thin cover of fine dust lies on
all the leaves of the live-oak and eucalyptus trees. Everything out of
doors is waiting for the first rain. The birds are still and the frogs
all hidden away. The insects buzz about rather heavily and keep pretty
well under cover. If one wants to see much lowly life it is necessary
to go to the banks of the few persisting streams or lakes or to the
shores of bay or ocean. So Mary and I left the dry foothill slopes and
their many silk-lined holes with a big black hairy tarantula sitting
quietly at the bottom of each, and took the gently dropping dusty
road to the marshes.

I like the salt marshes of California. They are a change and relief,
in their soothing monotony and simple plant life, from the lush and
variegated flower fields, the dense and hostile chaparral thickets,
the dark forests of great trees, and the miles of artificial
plantations of orchards and vines. On the marshes you are greater and
more important than the plants. In an orchard or a giant-tree forest,
you feel second-rate someway. The fruit-trees have men for servants,
while to the giant trees with their outlook from a height of three
hundred feet and their memories of two thousand years, a man is no
more than an ant. But in the marshes you feel that you are much more
important a kind of creature than the pickle-weed, and that is almost
the only plant that grows there.

There are many curious little bare dry spots in the marshes where we
know it. Flat, smooth, salt-encrusted, clean white spots rather
circular in outline, and perhaps twenty feet in diameter. All around
is the low thick growth of fat-leaved pickle-weed, but for some reason
it doesn't invade these pretty little empty rooms. Mary and I like to
lie on the clean dry floor of one of these unroofed rooms and look up
at the blue sky and out beyond the low side walls of pickle-weed far
across the flat marsh stretches, over the shining bay, and on through
the quivering blue to the beautiful mountains that bound our views on
both sides. On clear afternoons we can see a gleaming white speck on
the top of the highest mountain in the eastern range. That is the
famous Lick Observatory, where the astronomers are looking always into
the sky to read the riddle of the stars and planets and comets. We
feel rather small, Mary and I, when we realize that we are only
loafing or at best watching insignificant little insects and
collecting wasp holes that lie at our noses' ends, while those men up
there are looking at wonders millions of miles away. But we are so
interested and contented with our small doings and small wonders that
we do not at all envy the astronomers on the mountain top. While they
watch the conflagrations of the stars and the mighty sailing of the
planets through the blackness of space, we watch the work and play and
living of our lowly companions on the sun-flooded marshes. They like
the cold glittering sky; we like the warm brown earth.

We had been lying quietly on the white salt sand in one of the
unroofed marsh rooms for some time this September day before we saw
the first wasp begin to work. She was standing on her head,
apparently, and biting most energetically with her jaws, cutting a
little circle in the salt crust. When she got the circle all cut, she
tugged and buzzed until she dug up, unbroken, the little circular
piece (perhaps one-third of an inch across) of crust. She dragged
this about three inches away. Then she returned to the spot thus
cleaned and dug out with her sharp jaws a bit or pellet of soil.
Holding this in her mouth, she flew away about a foot and dropped it.
Then came back. Then dug out another pellet of soil and carried and
dropped it a foot or so away. Then back again and so on until it was
plain that she was digging out a little cylindrical vertical hole or
burrow. As the hole got deeper, the wasp had to crawl down into it,
first with head and fore legs, then with head and half her body;
finally her whole body, long legs, wings and all, was hidden as she
dug deeper and deeper. She had to come out of the hole of course to
carry away each bit of dug up soil. She always backed upward out of
the burrow, and all the while she was digging she kept up a low
humming sound. It was this humming sound that attracted our attention
to other narrow-waisted wasps like the first one. By moving about
cautiously and listening and looking carefully, we found more than a
dozen others digging holes, each one going about the work just like
every other one.

When our first wasp had made its hole deep enough - this took a pretty
long time; we found out later that it was about three inches deep - she
brought back the first little circular piece of salt crust and
carefully put it over the top of the burrow, thus covering it up
entirely and making it look as if no hole were there. Then she flew
away, out of the little bare room and off into the pickle-weed
somewhere. We waited several minutes but she didn't come back, so we
turned our eyes to another wasp near by which had its hole only just
begun. It was interesting to see how closely like the first wasp this
second one worked. Prying and pulling with the jaws, the same
fluttering of the wings and humming, the same backing out of the hole
and the swift little flight for a foot or two feet away from the hole
to drop the pellet of soil.

I tried to point out to Mary that this was the way animals do which
work by instinct and not by reason. That all the animals of the same
kind do things in the same way, and that they do them without any
teaching or imitating or reasoning out. They are born with the
knowledge and skill and the impulse to do the things in the particular
way they do. But Mary found this very tiresome and let her eyes rove,
and it is well she did or we might not have made our great discovery:
a really thrilling discovery it was for us, too.

The first wasp had come back! But not empty handed, or rather not
empty mouthed, for in her pointed jaws she held a limp measuring-worm
about an inch and a quarter long. A measuring-worm or looper is the
caterpillar of a certain kind of moth, and it loops or measures when
it walks because it has no feet on the middle of the under side of
the body as other caterpillars have, and so has to draw its tail
pretty nearly up its head to take a step forward. This naturally makes
its body rise up in a fold or loop. "See," cried Mary, "the wasp is
going to put the measuring-worm into the hole."

That is exactly what happened. How the wasp could tell where the hole
was, was surprising, for it had so carefully put the bit of salt crust
in place that you couldn't tell the top of the hole from the rest of
the crust-covered ground. But our wasp came straight to the right
place. Perhaps as a carrier-pigeon comes to its loft from a hundred
miles away, or a cat carried away in a bag to a strange place finds
its way quickly back home.

Some of the other wasps that we watched later weren't so sure of their
holes, though, and other people who have watched digger-wasps in other
places have found them showing varying degrees of uncertainty about
locating their nests. Mr. and Mrs. Peckham, who have studied the
behavior of the various kinds of digger-wasps more than anybody else
in this country, have concluded that the wasps "are guided in their
movements by their memory of localities. They go from place to place
quite readily because they are familiar with the details of the
landscape in the district they inhabit. Fair eyesight and a moderately
good memory on their part are all that need be assumed in this simple
explanation of the problem."

But quite different from this conclusion is that of Fabre, the
wonderful French observer of wasps, who experimented on them in regard
to this matter of finding and knowing their holes, by carrying them
away shut up in a dark box to the center of a village three kilometers
from the nesting ground, and releasing them after being kept all night
in the dark boxes. These wasps when released in the busy town,
certainly a place never visited by them before, immediately mounted
vertically to above the roofs and then instantly and energetically
flew south, which was the direction of their holes. Nine separate
wasps released one at a time did this without a moment's hesitation,
and the next day Fabre found them all at work again at their
hole-digging. He knew them by two spots of white paint he had put on
each one.

"Are the wasps guided by memory when placed by man beyond their
bearings and carried to great distances into regions with which they
are unacquainted and in unknown directions?" asks Fabre. "By memory so
quick that when, having reached a certain height at which they can in
some sort take their bearings, they launch themselves with all their
power of wing towards that part of the horizon where their nests are?
Is it memory which traces their aerial way across regions seen for the
first time? Evidently not," emphatically declares Fabre. So there you
are. Where doctors (of science) fall out it is not for you or me to

But Mary was growing excited. "See, she has put the worm down and is
prying up the top of the hole. She has got it off. She is - "

"Ss-h," say I, for wasps can hear. Or, wait; that's quite dogmatic.
Wasps fly away when you talk too loud. That's better. That's not
judging wasp doing by what we can do. That is just telling an observed

Mary "ssh"-ed, but she pointed a plump little finger; a finger
trembling with excitement. The wasp had gone down into the uncovered
hole with the worm. Then she backed out, found the lid, covered up the
hole and flew away into the pickle-weed again!

In twenty minutes she came back, _with another limp measuring-worm_,
straight to the covered hole; worm dropped on the ground; lid taken
off; worm dragged in; wasp backed out; lid carefully replaced; flight
to the distant jungle of pickle-weed again!

O, this was exciting. Mary fairly exploded into exclamations and
questions after the wasp was well away. What are the worms for? Are
they dead? The second one seemed to wriggle feebly a little on the
ground by the nest while the wasp was getting off the lid. Will she
bring more? Will she fill the hole full of worms? Now I knew the
answers to some of these questions, for I had been in this happy place
before, but I wanted Mary to find out, to discover - exquisite and
prideful pleasure - for herself. So I remained dumb.

Three more times the wasp brought worms. Three more times went through
all the performance. But the last time she didn't come up for a long
time; that is, for several minutes, and when she did come, instead of
putting the salt crust on the hole, she got a little pellet of soil
and dropped it in; and then another, and many others. Sometimes she
scraped them in with her front feet, but there weren't many bits of
soil close enough for that, for she had carried them all a foot or so
away as she brought them out of the hole. She worked very
industriously: jumping and running about, making little buzzing leaps
and flights, until she had quite filled up the hole with the five dead
worms in the bottom.

Then she did the most wonderful thing. With her fore feet she pawed
and raked the surface until it was quite smooth, and with her jaws and
horny head she pressed down and tamped the fine bits of soil until
they were a little below the surface of the salt crust around the
hole, and then she brought again the little circular lid or top of
salt crust and carefully put it in the little depression on the top
of the filled-in burrow, so that it fitted perfectly with the hard
uncut salt crust around the hole's edge!

This is true. Does it seem wonderful to you? Why? Because we think
that other animals cannot do what would be a very simple thing indeed
for us? Our wasp was evidently concealing the whereabouts of her
worm-stored burrow. I don't say that she _wanted_ to conceal it; or
_decided_ to conceal it; or even _intended_ to conceal it. She was
simply, I say, concealing it. That seems quite certain, doesn't it?
Well, this action of cutting out and replacing the bit of salt crust
over the burrow was about the simplest and most effective way of
concealing the hole that could be reasoned out, if we ourselves were
to undertake it. The wasp, and all the other wasps of the same kind in
our marshes, concealed their holes in the way that our reason would
suggest to us as the best way. But I do not say anything about the
wasp's mental processes toward getting at this behavior. One thing is
pretty sure. Among a score or hundred of us doing this work, there
would be pretty sure to be some to do it in a different sort of way
from the others. The wasps of the same kind all do it alike. Perhaps
that is the chief difference between reason and instinct.

But if our digger-wasp - whose name is Ammophila, the sand-lover - made
Mary's and my eyes bulge out by her cleverness, what shall we think of
that other Ammophila that Dr. Williston watched on the plains of
Kansas, or that other one still which the Peckhams studied in
Wisconsin? These other Ammophilas, instead of using their hard heads
to tamp down the soil in the hole, hunted about until they found a
suitable little stone which, held tightly in the jaws, was used as a
tool to pack and smooth the dirt! And the Kansas wasp did another odd
thing. Instead of making its hole of the same caliber or width all
the way down, the upper half-inch or so was made of greater diameter
than the rest of the burrow so that a little circular shelf ran around
the inside of the hole half an inch below the top. Now when the clever
Kansas wasp closed the burrow each time it went away to hunt for
measuring-worms, it did it in a curious way. I quote the exact words
of Professor Williston, the observer: "When the excavation had been
carried to the required depth" - this is our professional way of
saying, when the hole had been dug deep enough - "the wasp, after
surveying the premises, flying away, soon returned with a large pebble
in its mandibles, which it carefully deposited within the opening;
then, standing over the entrance upon her four posterior feet, she
rapidly and most amusingly scraped the dust, 'hand over hand' back
beneath her till she had filled the hole above the stone to the top.
[The stone of course was resting on the little circular shelf half an
inch down in the hole.] ... When she had heaped up the dirt to her
satisfaction, she again flew away and immediately returned with a
smaller pebble, perhaps an eighth of an inch in diameter, and then
standing more nearly erect, with the front feet folded beneath her,
she pressed down the dust all over and about the opening, smoothing
off the surface and accompanying the action with a peculiar rasping

Is this not a creature of wits, this Kansas wasp? And an undaunted
worker? For each time she went away to get a nice fat looper, she
covered up her hole in this elaborate way, and each time she came
back, she had to remove the half-inch of tamped-down soil and the
little covering stone resting on the shelf in the hole.

The Peckhams, too, saw an Ammophila in Wisconsin use a pebble as a
tool, and what is especially interesting and important, this wasp was
only a single individual of several others watched by the observers,
all these wasps being of one kind, that is, belonging to the same
species. The tool-user thus revealed an individuality that made its
actions seem to be dictated by something else than rigid instinct;
certainly so if instinct is to be defined as untaught and unreasoned
behavior common to all the individuals of a kind. In fact the Peckhams
(most persistent, practised and intelligent observers) insist that "in
all the processes of Ammophila the character of the work differs with
the individual."

But where is Mary in all this digression of mine? Never fear for Mary.
While I was mumbling about instinct and reason and automatism and
individual idiosyncrasy, Mary was crawling slowly and cautiously about
over the salt-crust floor of our room, counting the wasp holes in
course of making, and she was making a second discovery. The
measuring-worms, limp and lifeless as they appeared, were really not
dead! She had seen at least two, left lying on the ground by the hole
while the wasp prized off the cover, give feeble wriggles, and one
that she poked with a pin squirmed rather energetically. That is, it
did if she poked it at one end, but not if she poked it in the middle,
which is such a great discovery that it really gets to be science!

Now as one is entitled to take violent measures for the sake of
science, Mary and I decided after considerable serious discussion to
"collect" the hole which our wasp had finished and apparently left for
good. So we dug it up, and on the spot we examined it and all of its
insides. And we found it quite true that the loopers were not dead,
but they were _paralyzed_! When we poked a head or tail, each worm
could squirm just a little, but if we touched them in the middle, they
didn't know it, and on one of them, the top one, we found a little
shining white speck.

Mary's excitement became merged into an intense thoughtfulness. Then
she cried aloud with eyes shining: "My, it's the egg! the egg of the
wasp! and the worms are for food for the young wasp when it hatches!"

Ah, Mary, you have wits! Have you ever heard any one tell about this?
Did you really guess it, or not guess it, but actually reason it out
for yourself? Mary, I have great hopes of you.

For it is quite true what Mary says. The little white seed-like thing
glued on to the last looper's body is the egg of the wasp, and the
stung and paralyzed but not killed measuring-worms are the food stored
up by this extremely clever narrow-waisted mother for the wingless,
footless, blind, almost helpless wasp grub, when it shall hatch from
the egg. Down in the darkness of the cell, there will be a horrible

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