Marsh Cradles

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )

Dear marshes ! Vain to him the gift of sight
Who cannot in their various incomes shares,
From every season drawn, of shade and light,
Who sees in them but levels brown and bare.
Each change of storm or sunshine scatters free
On them its largess of variety,
For Nature with cheap means still works her wonders rare.


A TRAMP through the marshes at four A. M., waist-A deep in the lush wild grass, the mists veiling the wonderful unseen beyond, and, in the near distance, the pink of the mallows, the purple of the iris, and the yellow of the marigold still heavy with the dew, reflecting the glories of the sunrise sky; to hear the bird chorus as you never hear it at any other hour of the day ; to see the birds waken, stretch their little wings, and en-joy a morning bath, splashing and dashing as if they could never have enough of the cool fresh water; to watch them shake and preen their little wet feathers as they sit swinging on the cat-tails; to follow their flight over the listening green, dipping, rising, circling in matchless curves,— is not all this well worth the sacrifice of a morning nap ?

But the marsh is a faithful keeper and guards its secrets well. Much hard work, many discomforts, some danger, and small success will often be the sum total of a day spent there. The little marsh people are shy and very, very wily. Of twenty-nine marsh wren's nests examined in one day only one had eggs in it, the rest being either dummy or last year's nests. Afterwards the same proportion was encountered in another marsh.

The nest we had chosen to watch was in the centre of a little island of rushes separated from the main marsh by a passage just wide enough to punt a duckboat through. Here we lay, partly concealed, while the anxious little father scolded and sang by turns, and then with deliberate intention to deceive, commenced to build a dummy nest in full view of us. Evidently his heart was not in his work, or our presence made him nervous, for it was not well done and he left it one-third completed to commence another a few feet farther away. This was repeated day after day, until four had been started and two finished in a radius of ten feet by the same industrious builder. All the material brought was wet, having just been picked from the water.

He was a handsome happy little chap, in a coat of brightest brown and cream buff, much more attractive than his relative, the short-billed marsh wren, and more musical. The song of the short-billed is like a shrill childish chatter, only ceasing from lack of breath, while the long-billed is a clear, silvery tinkle like a chime of silver bells. The nests can scarcely be distinguished, but I think those of the long-billed are more carefully concealed and less likely to be " dummy."

Not once did he go near his real treasure. The four beautiful tiny brown eggs were housed in the oldest, most tumble-down house of them all. One would never suspect it of being selected for a home among so many fresh green new ones. The doorway also was on the inland side, so that it looked to be only a ball of dried water-grass among the rushes. The doors of the dummy nests, on the contrary, were usually in plain view from the lake and invited inspection. The exposed position allowed the fierce sun to beat upon the little dwelling in full force, and I wondered whether the thick walls and roof were for the purpose of shelter from the heat or to protect from chill. They are so damp one would suppose the eggs might all be addled, but I have never found this to be the case. Marsh hawks and musk-rats cannot reach the eggs through the tiny doorway, so the enemies most to be feared are the numerous varieties of water-snakes. These twist around the reeds which support the nest, and by their weight break it from its fastenings, and overturn it after they have gorged themselves upon its contents. The brave wrens have a serious time guarding their homes from these marauders, and a dread seized us each morning lest the treasure in this one be gone. But so well surrounded and concealed was it that the brood was reared without mishaps, and five little marsh wrens were safely launched into a world of waving green.

It took fifteen days for the eggs to hatch, and after-wards such a long, long time before the first downy head peeped through the doorway. The mother was not a close sitter, whether because of our presence or because she knew the warm sun would help in her task. It was certainly steaming inside that round ball, and the tiny eggs felt like hot pebbles to my prying fingers. She left for two hours at a time, and this, with an open nest in a tree, would certainly prove fatal to the eggs after incubation has begun. Often and often I feared that she had deserted it entirely, and began to reproach myself as being the cause, but always, just as my conscience became seriously alarmed, she slipped back, noiselessly as a wee brown mouse. I never saw the father bring her food or notice her at all, yet no move of hers escaped his watchful eyes.

On the morning the first egg hatched there was a change in the vicinity of that small homestead. The father, no longer at his post scolding, was either silently flitting to the nest with small bugs in his beak or singing his merriest several feet farther away than usual, trying by every art to attract attention to himself. But we cautiously pushed up to the doorway, and on finding there were young, cut a slit in the top of the nest to look at them. Four naked pinky nestlings, with wee heads, mere nobs for eyes, and buds for wings, lay cuddled down within. After satisfying our curiosity we tied the slit up with rushes and left them. Before we could push the boat away the little mother had entered the nest not two feet away from us.

Four days later we went again. Their eyes had begun to open, and a light brown down covered their bodies. The funny holes for ears, so apparent in all naked young birds, were even more conspicuous in them, and the little slits between the eyelids, only half open, gave them a very sleepy look. Bill and legs were a soft, burnt-orange color, shading to light. Fearing to disturb them too much by photographing them in their immature state, we gently replaced them in the nest and left them for an-other week.

Six days later we visited the nest again, and found them so far grown that one was being crowded through the doorway tail first. Again we untied the slit and took them out one by one. They were beautiful babies ! Exactly like their handsome little father. Cream-buff downy feathers covered the breast and sides, merging into pure white on the belly. The head, wings, and tiny stub of a tail were cinnamon-brown. Bills and legs were still verging on the burnt-orange color, but shading to darker rather than light.

I said " tails," but really they had only ` promises " or none at all, and the rump was alarmingly bald through the thin down. The little oil sack could plainly be seen, and was much more conspicuous than in the case of birds who nest away from the water. Yet I have never known the marsh wrens to bathe with unusual frequency, or to like the water any better than their land cousins.

As in the case of most young birds, we had to teach them to perch ; and a comical task it was. The tiny claws had never learned to clasp, and yet by instinct they fastened to the rushes, and the little ball of down tried to balance itself on its uncertain little legs. I stood al-ways with a hand ready to catch one in case of an unlucky tumble. They liked to cuddle down on our fingers or hop up my arm to the shoulder, and took especial delight in hiding inside my shirtwaist sleeve, entering at the wrist, which the heat had compelled me to unfasten.

They were certainly the very prettiest of all our bird babies, unless we except the young chickadee,—when the question becomes a choice between soft grays or browns and white. Being so much more helpless than the chickadees, they appealed to my heart as no other feathered babies ever have done.

As soon as we had placed them nicely within focus of the camera on the rushes, one would decide to snuggle up a bit closer to his neighbor, and the next moment the four would perform feats of tumbling not seen in any vaudeville. Some of the feathers were not entirely out, and this seemed to bother them, for their little heads were constantly turning back in frantic efforts to preen their funny apologies for wings, thereby upsetting them-selves a dozen times.

After photographing we followed our usual rule and returned them to the nest. Immediately a little head popped out of the doorway, followed by a ball of fluffy brown and white, which scrambled at once up onto the roof of the little house and sat there. It was followed by another, who did exactly the same thing, except that he tumbled and caught hold of one of the bulrushes, and after some struggling regained his balance and reached a place beside his brother.

This was their first taste of freedom, and how they revelled in it ! Looking about over the wide stretch of waving green marsh-grass, they chirped a startling imitation of their father's tinkling song and quivered with delight. Not once had one of the four opened his mouth as if hungry, even when left alone. After a reasonable length of time we tucked them back in the nest again and, tired out, they were glad to stay there.

During the hour or two we were playing with the babies the father and mother remained within a few feet, calling somewhat anxiously but not greatly alarmed. I held a little one out on my hand and went almost up to the mother before she took wing. Had not the great heat (106 degrees) driven us out of the marsh, I am sure more patience in waiting would have conquered her fear of me, and she would have fed him on my hand. Before we were four feet away, she had returned to them with a fat June bug in her beak, and all was serene again in the little home.

To see the first flight of those babies required no small effort, but we felt well repaid. Just as the sun came out from behind the hills and peeped into the small round doorway, a tiny brown head appeared, then out came the wee bird, evidently assisted from behind by a too eager brother or sister. He made his way on to a rush and clung there until out came a second, and aiming for the same perch, sent him tumbling to another; a third flew from the door to a cat-tail without mishap.

The father came near with food, and called; with confidence of ignorance the first baby let go his hold, and managed, half fluttering, half scrambling over the marsh-grass, to reach the proffered breakfast. The second and third were not long in following suit, and both received well-earned reward. Then, with appetites surfeited, they blinked sleepily and dozed, while the parents, distracted between guarding them and watching me, were busy and unhappy. But where were the others? No more heads appeared in the doorway. A gentle shaking failed to start any. A finger put cautiously in found it empty. The other two had either been stolen or had flown the day before and were hidden in the grass. We searched as best we might and could find no trace of them, nor did we see them with the old birds afterwards, although we kept watch for days. Then we remembered having passed a large water-snake coiled up on the bank not far from the nest with a half-swallowed bird sticking out of his mouth. So disgusting was the sight that I had hurried by without investigating, never dreaming it might be one of my baby wrens.

To be lost in the maze of a wild-rice marsh, although an unpleasant experience, is not without its compensation. Usually the latter is more apparent afterward than during the anxiety of the moment, but this was not the ease on the day I heard and saw my first sera rail. It was a warm day in early June when, punting our boat through a narrow channel, we made a wrong turn and immediately lost our bearings. In and out among the rushes we pushed our way only to become more and more bewildered. Not one familiar spot could we see; not a single bulrush that we had ever passed before. Tired out at length, we concluded to lie still and, Micawber-like, wait for something to turn up. A hush was over every-thing, the yellow-headed blackbird had long forgotten to sing, when suddenly from the water under our boat or from the rushes on this side and on that came weird cries, not of earth and certainly not of heaven. The Man with the Camera looked at me and raised a warning finger for silence. Breathlessly I waited, expecting to see nothing less than old god Pan emerge from the rushes. Nothing like this had I ever heard before, and the possibilities were almost overpowering.

After a long time, during which the strange noises continued, we caught sight of something skulking through the reeds at the edge of the open water. Our eyes interrogatively telegraphed the one word " Rail? " and then we watched more breathlessly than before. The little creature stood motionless for several minutes, its dull plumage rendering it safely inconspicuous, and only its queer whistling call proclaiming it kin to the birds rather than to the little marsh people, — the musk-rats, frogs, or turtles. Presently it walked out along the edge of the bog with a funny bobbing motion of its short tail, and stood revealed to us. Too small for a least bittern, it yet followed somewhat the same lines and coloring; but here the resemblance ended, for the method of locomotion was quite different. At every few strides it ducked its head into the slime, bringing out some invisible dainty, which it swallowed with great eagerness. A catch of what looked to be a crab caused me to move suddenly, and instantly the bird was skimming over the water, half flying, !half swimming, uttering a shrill alarm call until it disappeared. Not so the alarm call. For an indescribable medley of sounds arose on all sides, — whistles, squeals, squawks, — and then a silence as sudden as the alarm had been. Thinking there might be a nest near by, we at once punted to the spot where we had first seen the bird, and which seemed somewhat solid; then, wading out to a hump that would bear his weight, my companion looked eagerly about.

Must we confess that good fortune and not science had led him to the right place, and there, not two feet away, was the nest. Of the six eggs all were hatched but one, and the nest was yet warm, showing how recently it had been occupied. Diligent search failing to reveal any trace of the newly hatched " chicks," we pushed out into the open and lay down in the boat to await further developments. " All things come to those who wait," but in the study of wild life, whether of forest or marsh, the one essential seems to be patience in waiting,—long and silent waiting. The sun had long since passed the meridian, and the cool shadows gathering beneath the tall rice warned us that the day was waning, when suddenly the long silence was broken by the same peculiar noises as before. Confused as to the direction of their source, we knew not where to look, when on a point of rush-covered mud fiat that separated two channels, we saw five or six tiny downy chicks of a glossy black, with funny large feet and necks too long for their fat little bodies. Otherwise they looked exactly like bantam babies, and ran about in the same lively fashion as their farm-yard cousins, while a continual " peeping " noise confirmed the resemblance. Finally the mother emerged from the denser reeds, and strutted about with a queer mincing gait and self-satisfied air, very much as a motherly old hen might do. Once she forgot her dignity and ran post-haste for a bug, with her long neck stretched out and her legs propelling rather than supporting her body. Undoubtedly the male bird was the one who had uttered the strange cries, for the female was silent as long as we watched her.

To photograph this interesting family was obviously impossible, both on account of the swaying screen of rushes which hid us, and the fading light. Just as we had decided to attempt the capture of at least one of the five babies, we heard human voices approaching. The rails heard also, and vanished so utterly and so silently that I wondered whether they had really been there at all. Vexatious as this interruption was, it aroused us to a sense of our lost " condition, and, standing up to halloo, we saw the other boat pass within a few yards of us. No time was wasted in hesitation; we pushed out and followed them, joining heartily in the laugh at our own expense. It was, to be sure, a trifle humiliating to find that we really had not been lost at all, for we were in the main channel. When once out of the rushes and in the open water of the lake, we floated along the edge of the marsh until the scarlet and gold of the sunset changed to purple shadows which, in turn, became silvery mists beneath the moon. Weird sounds, made more ghostly by the hour and place, came ever from the waving wild rice, suppressed grunts, sighs, and moans. One thought of the lost souls of Dante's Inferno, or of Poe's hideous imagery,

" They are neither man nor woman,
They are neither brute nor human,
They are ghouls."

The unknown became the supernatural, too mysterious for comfort, and in spite of the beauty of the night a strange sense of fear made one long to get away.

Early the next morning we went again to the vicinity of our adventure, hoping to catch sight of the little brood; but although the same queer noises were heard on all sides, we saw nothing of the rails. Rowing around a floating bog, we came suddenly upon a least bittern, who instantly stiffened into statute-like imitation of his surroundings, and trusted to his protective coloring to es-cape notice. As we pushed toward him, and he knew he was discovered, he retreated through the rushes with the strangest gymnastics. Grasping a reed stalk in each foot, he strode rapidly from stalk to stalk, pausing once to look back over his shoulder, as it were. It was a most comical exit, and deserved the applause we dared not give.

Many times have we sought to solve the mystery of the marsh music, but always with small success, and our next adventure with the rails was in our own dooryard at Evanston. Looking out of my library window one September morning, I saw my small kitten driving a young rail before her by cuffing it gently, first with one paw and then with the other. The bird made no attempt to escape, but soon turned, faced the kitten, and, lying down on its back, fought with both feet and bill. The effect was as ridiculous as if a small boy should turn at bay and make faces at a tormenting bully, and surprised the kitten into a momentary cessation of the play, — for such it was, without any idea of catching the bird. The latter allowed me to pick it up, and appeared neither exhausted nor frightened. It was an immature specimen, and became tame at once. In order to have even a moderately clear day for photographing him, we were obliged to keep him in durance vile for three weeks, on a diet of snails, ants' eggs, and hens' eggs hard boiled. Several times he escaped, and was recaptured without difficulty. When the day of his final release came, we took him to the outskirts of a prairie, and he flew farther and more vigorously than he ever had flown before, thereby proving his good health under captivity.

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