Animals That Live By The Brookside
( Originally Published 1891 )
"IF you were a bird, Chip, would you rather have toes like a duck's or a woodpecker's ? " asked the brooklet, with a sly twinkle.
"Like a woodpecker's, of course, with two sharp toes in front, and two curved back, so that I could cling to the bark of nut-trees."
" And what kind of bill would you choose, pretty chipmonk ? "
" I should like to have a duck's ; for I could carry nuts and acorns in it."
" But how would you crack the nuts ? " bubbled the roguish brook.
Little Chip was in a trap, but his bead-eyes fairly sparkled, as he chirped, " I should not wish to eat hard nuts if I were a bird. I should swim in the pond, dip my head among the bugs and weeds, and strain all the food I needed in my queer bill," and he perched his little head on one side, as if to say, "Now I am out of your trap, Master Brooklet."
"You would not paddle about very fast," laughed the silver waves. " Just look at the duck's broad webs, and then at the woodpecker's slender toes.
We fear that you would come from the pond quite hungry."
"But I could use my sharp toes to climb on the bark of the old apple-tree, where I could dig out bugs and worms, as the woodpeckers do," said Chip.
" You would have hard work pecking the bark with your blunt duck's bill, my merry friend," replied the brook.
" So I should. If I had a woodpecker's bill, I ought to have every other part of its body. I should need its stiff tail-feathers to brace against the trunks; its sharp, strong bill to peck the bark; its long, barbed tongue to drag the worms from their deep hiding-places ; and, above all, its appetite for such food.
" And if I had a duck's bill, I should need its short, strong legs, its web-feet, and broad, oily body."
" That is just what I wished you to know," chuckled the little stream. " It would be a strange sight if cats had hoofs, mice carried long horns, horses wore sharp beaks, and dogs used wings instead of fore-legs.
" But every creature is just fitted to its home and habits of life. Birds and beasts that feed on flesh have sharp, tearing bills, beaks or teeth, and their claws are made keen and strong for holding their prey. Large animals that graze in pastures or meadows have hoofs that will not easily sink into the soft ground or cling to the thick grass-roots ; and their teeth are formed to grind the grasses which they bite or tear off.
" There are many queer bills, legs, feet, tongues, noses and teeth, and each has special uses.
" Only look about you as the seasons pass, and see the strange creatures in our valley. There are humming-birds, with long, slender bills, which they thrust deep into sweet blossoms to draw out nectar and insects ; mosquitoes, with hollow stings, through which they get their food ; ground-moles, with long snouts, which they use as spades ; fire-flies and worms that flash and glow like sparks from the starry workshop of the sky; blue-herons, with long legs for wading, and necks to match ; spiders that weave winding webs for unwary flies ; bright-colored crossbills that peck the seeds from the scales of spruce and pine cones.
" Then there are animals with different kinds of covering, — turtles, with strong, arching shells ; fish, with thin, horny scales ; birds, with light, /warm feathers ; frogs, with smooth, slippery skin ; sheep, with thick, curling wool ; and squirrels, with soft, sleek furs.
" How would you like to exchange your fur, Dick, for a coat of turtle-shell ? " queried the brooklet.
"Not I!" cried the squirrel, quickly. "How could I crawl among the stones, and squeeze through narrow holes ? And how should I keep warm in winter ? "
"Perhaps you would like to be covered with scales, pretty Redbreast, like our brook-trout," added the brooklet.
"0, no ! for then I could not fly. If there were no feathers on my wings, I should fall to earth. Besides, I should freeze when the cold winds blow, and I could not keep my eggs warm at night. I fear that the hard scales would crush the pretty blue shells. 0, no! I will keep my soft feathers."
" That is a wise choice, Redbreast ; for no other covering in the wide world is so well suited to your cheerful life of flight," rippled the brook, softly.
" But why are some birds given such bright-colored plumage, when others wear only dingy colors ? " asked Chip. "I have always felt very sorry for the wrens and sparrows who wear dusty brown and gray coats, while the humming-birds look like pretty winged flowers."
" All around us," began the brooklet, " there is a never-ending struggle for food— for life itself. The pathway of every creature is beset with enemies ready to pounce upon and devour it. The timid earthworm crawls from its lonely cave only to make a dainty meal for some sharp-eyed robin.
" Scarcely has the little bundle of sunshine burst from its cocoon into a fluttering butterfly ere a hungry bird swoops down and puts out its faint light.
"A long time ago, so the story runs, a lamb came to drink at the brookside. So soft and white its coat, it looked as if it had just dropped from the fleecy clouds.
"A hungry wolf had hidden behind a rock a little higher up the stream. Just as the lamb's pretty pink lips touched the water, the old gray wolf called out :
How dare you muddle the brook where I am drinking ! '
"'I only touched the tips of my lips,' said the lamb, meekly ; 'and how can I muddle the water where you are? You are higher up the stream than I.'
"'But you called my father names last year,' snarled the wolf.
"'That cannot be, for I am not a year old,' replied the lamb.
"'You need not make excuses,' growled the wolf ; 'I shall make a meal of you all the same.'
"So saying, he sprang upon the helpless lamb, and killed it."
How cruel ! " cried Dick.
" Was it cruel?" asked the brooklet. "The wolf was hungry, and killed the lamb for food, just as men do. But once some boys came here to stone my little singing frogs for fun. They broke their legs and left them to suffer for days and days before they died. Yes, and they shot at my pretty squirrels, and called it ' sport.'
" Which is more cruel, a wolf that kills a lamb for food, or a boy who shoots a little squirrel for fun?
But I must go back to my story.
"The large and strong battle with the small and weak. The hawk is ever turning its sharp eyes downward to spy a meal among the feebler birds or fishes. The stealthy cat crouches behind the tuft of coarse grass, watching for a field-mouse, or. even a bright songster, to come within reach of its sharp claws.
" But every creature has some means of defence or escape. The fly with its many eyes and its wings often saves itself by rapid flight ; the turtle draws itself within its hard shell ; the bee thrusts out its poison sting ; the squirrel darts through the wall or among the branches ; the horse kicks ; the cow tosses; the dog bites; and the mouse runs into its slender hole.
" But in order that their enemies may not find them, and doubtless for many other reasons also, some animals seem to take on the coloring of the places where they live. Thus the wee humming-bird seems to borrow its colors from the flowers where it sips, and its enemies often pass it by unseen. The sparrows, but for their motion, would look like a part of the ground and bushes on which they live. The brown-and-gray wrens can easily hide in the thickets of the same dusty shade.
Color, then, like horns, hoofs, shells, claws and eyes, is a means by which animals often avoid being seen by their enemies.
" Nature has given to every creature just the structure and covering that will best enable it to live in its native haunts. Its whole body is formed to take and devour its proper food. Its covering prepares it to bear heat or cold, drought or rain, sunshine or darkness, and to live in or on the land, in the air, in the water, or in both air and water.
" In its home it is able to defend itself against some enemies, although it may fall a prey to others.
"Animals, like plants, are ever seeking new homes, new places to supply them with food. But as they roam about, they find lines in nature which they cannot cross and live.
" How interesting to watch the many ways in which the various creatures move from place to place. Now a bird passes far overhead, its sails gently swaying in the air. Yonder is a butterfly, feebly fluttering from flower to flower, or wafted away at the will of the gentlest breeze.
"Across the meadow, the pretty leopard-frogs make long leaps, then seem to push their way to the bottom of the pond. Shining fish steady themselves with their tiny paddles, and then dart through the water with lightning speed. The happy squirrels race and chase like dry leaves in an October wind.
" Yet swift and strong, as many of these creatures are, they cannot live beyond the places that. produce their food. The wild-horse must stop at the border of the grass-land. The strong-winged bird must return to the places that feed it. The, bee cannot long remain away from flowers and fruits, unless it has a store of honey.
" Animals whose food is in the sea cannot wander far from its shores. If the forest fruits alone nourish them, they cannot cross wide grass-lands. Grazing animals will follow the meadows or higher grassy plains, but cannot cross broad, rocky heights or sandy tracts, or pass through vast forests.
" Thus we find that animals, like plants, choose different parts of our valley for their homes. Squirrels live near the nut-trees and grain-fields ; rabbits burrow not far from the clover-patches and gardens ; caterpillars swarm on the branches whose leaves they like to gnaw ; water-scorpions abound in the pond where they can catch mosquito-wrigglers and tadpoles ; while near them the larva of the dragon-fly feeds ; in short, both plants and animals live only where they can find food.
" You will see them in the meadows, brooks, trees, on the hilltops, in the ground, and wherever their food grows. Thus it is all over our beautiful earth.
"Now I see by the shadows that I have only time to tell you about a queer animal that lives in the desert by the river Nile, and then you must scamper to your nesting-places.
" I shall tell you this story of the camel to show you how an animal may be fitted even for a home in a desert place.
" This wonderful creature is larger than the horse in our pasture. Its neck and legs are long, and its head quite small.
" There are pads of hair on its knees and feet, and over its eyes hangs a thick hair veil. On its back there is a large hump, and it has a great pouch in which it can carry water.
" For days and days, it can travel without being fed or led to drink. The fine sand that blows about would blind Dick or Bunny, but the camel does not fear it.
" Chip's little feet would blister and burn on the hot sand, but this wonderful beast travels during the hottest days, and even kneels on the burning desert to allow its master to get on and off its back.
" Shall I tell you how it lives in this drear waste ?
" Its great rounded back is made of fatty flesh, and when it has not been fed for a long time, this homely hump supplies the body with food. When the noble creature is thirsty, its pouch supplies the body with water.
" The long lashes protect its eyes from the hot sands that blow about ; and the thick pads pre-vent the parched ground from burning its knees and feet.
"Here again, we see how Nature cares for her children, and fits them to their homes.
" For miles and miles, the desert stretches away like an ocean ; and as the camel bears heavy car-goes of oil, gums and salt across this sea of sand, it is called the ' Ship of the Desert.' Do you not think that it is an apt name ?
" Now, my little friends, hie away to your nests to rest for another day."