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MY BRUTE NEIGHBORS
The mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which are said to have been introduced into the country, but a wild native kind not found in the village. When I was building, one of these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid the second floor and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly at lunch time and pick up the crumbs at my feet. It probably had never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar and would run over my shoes and up my clothes. It could readily ascend the sides of the room by short impulses, like the squirrel, which it resembled in its motions.
At length, as I leaned with my elbow on the bench one day, it ran up my clothes and along my sleeve and round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the latter closed, and dodged and played at bopeep with it; and when at last I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterwards cleaned its face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.
A phoebe soon built in my shed, and a robin for protection in a pine which grew against the house. In June the partridge, which is so shy a bird, led her brood past my windows, from the woods in the rear to the front of my house, clucking and calling to them like a hen, and in all her behavior proving herself the hen of the woods. The young suddenly disperse on your approach, at a signal from the mother, as if a whirlwind had swept them away,
and they so exactly resemble the dried leaves and twigs, that many a traveler has placed his foot in the midst of a brood and heard the whir of the old bird as she flew off and her anxious calls and mewing, or seen her trail her wings to attract his attention, without suspecting their neighborhood.
The parent will sometimes roll and spin around before you in such a deshabille that you cannot, for a few moments, detect what kind of creature it is. The young squat still and flat, often running their heads under a leaf, and mind only their mother's directions given from a distance, nor will your approach make them run again and betray themselves. You may even tread on them, or have your eyes on them for a minute, without discovering them. I have held them in my open hand at such a time, and still their only care, obedient to their mother and their instinct, was to squat there without fear or trembling.
So perfect is this instinct, that once, when I laid them on the leaves again, and one accidentally fell on its side, it was found with the rest in exactly the same position ten minutes afterwards. They are not callow like the young of most birds, but more perfectly developed and precocious even than chickens. The remarkably adult yet innocent expression of their open and serene eyes is very memorable. All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects. The woods do not yield another such a gem.
The traveler does not often look into such a limpid well.
The ignorant or reckless sportsman often shoots the parent at such a time, and leaves these innocents to fall a prey to some prowling beast or bird, or gradually mingle with the decaying leaves which they so much resemble. It is said that when hatched by a hen they will directly disperse on some alarm, and so are lost, for they never hear the mother's call which gathers them again. These were my hens and chickens.
It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free though secret in the woods and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only. How retired the otter manages to live here ! He grows to be four feet long, as big as a small boy, perhaps without any human being getting a glimpse of him.
I formerly saw the raccoon in the woods behind where my house is built, and probably still hear their whinnering at night.
Commonly I rested an hour or two in the shade at noon, after planting, and ate my lunch and read a little by a spring, which was the source of a swamp and of a brook. The approach to this was through a succession of descending grassy hollows, full of young pitch pines, into a larger wood about the swamp. There, in a very secluded and shaded spot, under a spreading white pine, was yet a clean, firm sward to sit on. I had dug out the spring and made a well of clear, gray water, where I could dip up a pailful without roiling it, and thither I went for this purpose almost every day in midsummer, when the pond was warmest.
Thither, too, the woodcock led her brood, to probe the mud for worms, flying but a foot above them down the bank, while they ran in a troop beneath ; but at last, spying me, she would leave her young and circle round and round me, nearer and nearer, till within four or five feet, pretending broken wings and legs, to attract my attention and get off her young, who would have already taken up
their march, with faint, wiry peep, single file through the swamp as she directed.
Or I heard the peep of the young when I could not see the parent bird.
There, too, the turtle doves sat over the spring, fluttered from bough to bough of the soft white pines over my head; or the red squirrel, coursing down the nearest bough, was particularly familiar and inquisitive. You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods, that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.
I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my woodpile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, and the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with each other. Having once got hold, they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such com