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Wilderness Ways By William J. Long Characters: 20159

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Kookooskoos is the big brown owl, the Bubo Virginianus, or Great Horned Owl of the books. But his Indian name is best. Almost any night in autumn, if you leave the town and go out towards the big woods, you can hear him calling it, Koo-koo-skoos, koooo, kooo, down in the swamp.

Kookooskoos is always catching the wrong rat. The reason is that he is a great hunter, and thinks that every furry thing which moves must be game; and so he is like the fool sportsman who shoots at a sound, or a motion in the bushes, before finding out what makes it. Sometimes the rat turns out to be a skunk, or a weasel; sometimes your pet cat; and, once in a lifetime, it is your own fur cap, or even your head; and then you feel the weight and the edge of Kookooskoos' claws. But he never learns wisdom by mistakes; for, spite of his grave appearance, he is excitable as a Frenchman; and so, whenever anything stirs in the bushes and a bit of fur appears, he cries out to himself, A rat, Kookoo! a rabbit! and swoops on the instant.

Rats and rabbits are his favorite food, by the way, and he never lets a chance go by of taking them into camp. I think I never climbed to his nest without finding plenty of the fur of both animals to tell of his skill in hunting.

One evening in the twilight, as I came home from hunting in the big woods, I heard the sound of deer feeding just ahead. I stole forward to the edge of a thicket and stood there motionless, looking and listening intently. My cap was in my pocket, and only my head appeared above the low firs that sheltered me. Suddenly, without noise or warning of any kind, I received a sharp blow on the head from behind, as if some one had struck me with a thorny stick. I turned quickly, surprised and a good bit startled; for I thought myself utterly alone in the woods-and I was. There was nobody there. Not a sound, not a motion broke the twilight stillness. Something trickled on my neck; I put up my hand, to find my hair already wet with blood. More startled than ever, I sprang through the thicket, looking, listening everywhere for sight or sound of my enemy. Still no creature bigger than a wood mouse; no movement save that of nodding fir tips; no sound but the thumping of my own heart, and, far behind me, a sudden rush and a bump or two as the frightened deer broke away; then perfect stillness again, as if nothing had ever lived in the thickets.

I was little more than a boy; and I went home that night more puzzled and more frightened than I have ever been, before or since, in the woods. I ran into the doctor's office on my way. He found three cuts in my scalp, and below them two shorter ones, where pointed things seemed to have been driven through to the bone. He looked at me queerly when I told my story. Of course he did not believe me, and I made no effort to persuade him. Indeed, I scarcely believed myself. But for the blood which stained my handkerchief, and the throbbing pain in my head, I should have doubted the reality of the whole experience.

That night I started up out of sleep, some time towards morning, and said before I was half awake: "It was an owl that hit you on the head-of course it was an owl!" Then I remembered that, years before, an older boy had a horned owl, which he had taken from a nest, and which he kept loose in a dark garret over the shed. None of us younger boys dared go up to the garret, for the owl was always hungry, and the moment a boy's head appeared through the scuttle the owl said Hoooo! and swooped for it. So we used to get acquainted with the big pet by pushing in a dead rat, or a squirrel, or a chicken, on the end of a stick, and climbing in ourselves afterwards.

As I write, the whole picture comes back to me again vividly; the dark, cobwebby old garret, pierced here and there by a pencil of light, in which the motes were dancing; the fierce bird down on the floor in the darkest corner, horns up, eyes gleaming, feathers all a-bristle till he looked big as a bushel basket in the dim light, standing on his game with one foot and tearing it savagely to pieces with the other, snapping his beak and gobbling up feathers, bones and all, in great hungry mouthfuls; and, over the scuttle, two or three small boys staring in eager curiosity, but clinging to each other's coats fearfully, ready to tumble down the ladder with a yell at the first hostile demonstration.

The next afternoon I was back in the big woods to investigate. Fifty feet behind the thicket where I had been struck was a tall dead stub overlooking a little clearing. "That's his watch tower," I thought. "While I was watching the deer, he was up there watching my head, and when it moved he swooped."

I had no intention of giving him another flight at the same game, but hid my fur cap some distance out in the clearing, tied a long string to it, went back into the thicket with the other end of the string, and sat down to wait. A low Whooo-hoo-hoo! came from across the valley to tell me I was not the only watcher in the woods.

Towards dusk I noticed suddenly that the top of the old stub looked a bit peculiar, but it was some time before I made out a big owl sitting up there. I had no idea how long he had been there, nor whence he came. His back was towards me; he sat up very straight and still, so as to make himself just a piece, the tip end, of the stub. As I watched, he hooted once and bent forward to listen. Then I pulled on my string.

With the first rustle of a leaf he whirled and poised forward, in the intense attitude an eagle takes when he sights the prey. On the instant he had sighted the cap, wriggling in and out among the low bushes, and swooped for it like an arrow. Just as he dropped his legs to strike, I gave a sharp pull, and the cap jumped from under him. He missed his strike, but wheeled like a fury and struck again. Another jerk, and again he missed. Then he was at the thicket where I stood; his fierce yellow eyes glared straight into mine for a startled instant, and he brushed me with his wings as he sailed away into the shadow of the spruces.

Small doubt now that I had seen my assailant of the night before; for an owl has regular hunting grounds, and uses the same watch towers night after night. He had seen my head in the thicket, and struck at the first movement. Perceiving his mistake, he kept straight on over my head; so of course there was nothing in sight when I turned. As an owl's flight is perfectly noiseless (the wing feathers are wonderfully soft, and all the lamin? are drawn out into hair points, so that the wings never whirr nor rustle like other birds') I had heard nothing, though he passed close enough to strike, and I was listening intently. And so another mystery of the woods was made plain by a little watching.

Years afterwards, the knowledge gained stood me in good stead in clearing up another mystery. It was in a lumber camp-always a superstitious place-in the heart of a Canada forest. I had followed a wandering herd of caribou too far one day, and late in the afternoon found myself alone at a river, some twenty miles from my camp, on the edge of the barren grounds. Somewhere above me I knew that a crew of lumbermen were at work; so I headed up river to find their camp, if possible, and avoid sleeping out in the snow and bitter cold. It was long after dark, and the moon was flooding forest and river with a wonderful light, when I at last caught sight of the camp. The click of my snowshoes brought a dozen big men to the door. At that moment I felt rather than saw that they seemed troubled and alarmed at seeing me alone; but I was too tired to notice, and no words save those of welcome were spoken until I had eaten heartily. Then, as I started out for another look at the wild beauty of the place under the moonlight, a lumberman followed and touched me on the shoulder.

"Best not go far from camp alone, sir. 'T isn't above safe hereabouts," he said in a low voice. I noticed that he glanced back over his shoulder as he spoke.

"But why?" I objected. "There's nothing in these woods to be afraid of."

"Come back to camp and I'll tell you. It's warmer there," he said. And I followed to hear a strange story,-how "Andy there" was sitting on a stump, smoking his pipe in the twilight, when he was struck and cut on the head from behind; and when he sprang up to look, there was nothing there, nor any track save his own in the snow. The next night Gillie's fur cap had been snatched from his head, and when he turned there was nobody in sight; and when he burst into camp, with all his wits frightened out of him, he could scarcely speak, and his face was deathly white. Other uncanny things had happened since, in the same way, and coupled with a bad accident on the river, which the men thought was an omen, they had put the camp into such a state of superstitious fear that no one ventured alone out of doors after nightfall.

I thought of Kookooskoos and my own head, but said nothing. They would only have resented the suggestion.

Next day I found my caribou, and returned to the lumber camp before sunset. At twilight there was Kookooskoos, an enormous fellow, looking like the end of a big spruce stub, keeping sharp watch over the clearing, and fortunately behind the camp where he could not see the door. I called the men and set them crouching in the snow under the low eaves.-"Stay there a minute and I'll show you the ghost." That was all I told them.

Taking the skin of a hare which I had shot that day, I hoisted it cautiously on a stick, the lumbermen watching curiously. A slight scratch of the stick, a movement of the fur along the splits, then a great dark shadow shot over our heads. It struck the stick sharply and swept on and up into the spruces across the clearing, taking Bunny's skin with it.

Then one big lumberman, who saw the point, jumped up with a yell and danced a jig in the snow, like a schoolboy. There was no need of further demonstration with a cap; and nobody volunteered his head for a final experiment; but all r

emembered seeing the owl on his nightly watch, and knew something of his swooping habits. Of course some were incredulous at first, and had a dozen questions and objections when we were in camp. No one likes to have a good ghost story spoiled; and, besides, where superstition is, there the marvelous is most easily believed. It is only the simple truth that is doubted. So I spent half the night in convincing them that they had been brought up in the woods to be scared by an owl.

Poor Kookooskoos! they shot him next night on his watch tower, and nailed him to the camp door as a warning.

I discovered another curious thing about Kookooskoos that night when I watched to find out what had struck me. I found out why he hoots. Sometimes, if he is a young owl, he hoots for practice, or to learn how; and then he makes an awful noise of it, a rasping screech, before his voice deepens. And if you are camping near and are new to the woods, the chances are that you lie awake and shiver; for there is no other sound like it in the wilderness. Sometimes, when you climb to his nest, he has a terrifying hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, running up and down a deep guttural scale, like a fiendish laugh, accompanied by a vicious snapping of the beak. And if you are a small boy, and it is towards twilight, you climb down the tree quick and let his nest alone. But the regular whooo-hoo-hoo, whooo-hoo, always five notes, with the second two very short, is a hunting call, and he uses it to alarm the game. That is queer hunting; but his ears account for it.

If you separate the feathers on Kookooskoos' head, you will find an enormous ear-opening running from above his eye halfway round his face. And the ear within is so marvelously sensitive that it can hear the rustle of a rat in the grass, or the scrape of a sparrow's toes on a branch fifty feet away. So he sits on his watch tower, so still that he is never noticed, and as twilight comes on, when he can see best, he hoots suddenly and listens. The sound has a muffled quality which makes it hard to locate, and it frightens every bird and small animal within hearing; for all know Kookooskoos, and how fierce he is. As the terrifying sound rolls out of the air so near them, fur and feathers shiver with fright. A rabbit stirs in his form; a partridge shakes on his branch; the mink stops hunting frogs at the brook; the skunk takes his nose out of the hole where he is eating sarsaparilla roots. A leaf stirs, a toe scrapes, and instantly Kookooskoos is there. His fierce eyes glare in; his great claws drop; one grip, and it's all over. For the very sight of him scares the little creatures so, that there is no life left in them to cry out or to run away.

A nest which I found a few years ago shows how well this kind of hunting succeeds. It was in a gloomy evergreen swamp, in a big tree, some eighty feet from the ground. I found it by a pile of pellets of hair and feathers at the foot of the tree; for the owl devours every part of his game, and after digestion is complete, feathers, bones, and hair are disgorged in small balls, like so many sparrow heads. When I looked up, there at the top was a huge mass of sticks, which had been added to year after year till it was nearly three feet across, and half as thick. Kookooskoos was not there. He had heard me coming and slipped away silently.

Wishing to be sure the nest was occupied before trying the hard climb, I went away as far as I could see the nest and hid in a thicket. Presently a very large owl came back and stood by the nest. Soon after, a smaller bird, the male, glided up beside her. Then I came on cautiously, watching to see what they would do.

At the first crack of a twig both birds started forward the male slipped away; the female dropped below the nest, and stood behind a limb, just her face peering through a crotch in my direction. Had I not known she was there, I might have looked the tree over twenty times without finding her. And there she stayed hidden till I was halfway up the tree.

When I peered at last over the edge of the big nest, after a desperately hard climb, there was a bundle of dark gray down in a little hollow in the middle. It touched me at the time that the little ones rested on a feather bed pulled from the mother bird's own breast. I brushed the down with my fingers. Instantly two heads came up, fuzzy gray heads, with black pointed beaks, and beautiful hazel eyes, and a funny long pin-feather over each ear, which made them look like little wise old clerks just waked up. When I touched them again they staggered up and opened their mouths,-enormous mouths for such little fellows; then, seeing that I was an intruder, they tried to bristle their few pin-feathers and snap their beaks.

They were fat as two aldermen; and no wonder. Placed around the edge of the big nest were a red squirrel, a rat, a chicken, a few frogs' legs, and a rabbit. Fine fare that, at eighty feet from the ground. Kookooskoos had had good hunting. All the game was partly eaten, showing I had disturbed their dinner; and only the hinder parts were left, showing that owls like the head and brains best. I left them undisturbed and came away; for I wanted to watch the young grow-which they did marvelously, and were presently learning to hoot. But I have been less merciful to the great owls ever since, thinking of the enormous destruction of game represented in raising two or three such young savages, year after year, in the same swamp.

Once, at twilight, I shot a big owl that was sitting on a limb facing me, with what appeared to be an enormously long tail hanging below the limb. The tail turned out to be a large mink, just killed, with a beautiful skin that put five dollars into a boy's locker. Another time I shot one that sailed over me; when he came down, there was a ruffed grouse, still living, in his claws. Another time I could not touch one that I had killed for the overpowering odor which was in his feathers, showing that Mephitis, the skunk, never loses his head when attacked. But Kookooskoos, like the fox, cares little for such weapons, and in the spring, when game is scarce, swoops for and kills a skunk wherever he finds him prowling away from his den in the twilight.

The most savage bit of his hunting that I ever saw was one dark winter afternoon, on the edge of some thick woods. I was watching a cat, a half-wild creature, that was watching a red squirrel making a great fuss over some nuts which he had hidden, and which he claimed somebody had stolen. Somewhere behind us, Kookooskoos was watching from a pine tree. The squirrel was chattering in the midst of a whirlwind of leaves and empty shells which he had thrown out on the snow from under the wall; behind him the cat, creeping nearer and nearer, had crouched with blazing eyes and quivering muscles, her whole attention fixed on the spring, when broad wings shot silently over my hiding place and fell like a shadow on the cat. One set of strong claws gripped her behind the ears; the others were fastened like a vise in the spine. Generally one such grip is enough; but the cat was strong, and at the first touch sprang away. In a moment the owl was after her, floating, hovering above, till the right moment came, when he dropped and struck again. Then the cat whirled and fought like a fury. For a few moments there was a desperate battle, fur and feathers flying, the cat screeching like mad, the owl silent as death. Then the great claws did their work. When I straightened up from my thicket, Kookooskoos was standing on his game, tearing off the flesh with his feet, and carrying it up to his mouth with the same movement, swallowing everything alike, as if famished.

Over them the squirrel, which had whisked up a tree at the first alarm, was peeking with evil eyes over the edge of a limb, snickering at the blood-stained snow and the dead cat, scolding, barking, threatening the owl for having disturbed the search for his stolen walnuts.

I caught that same owl soon after in a peculiar way. A farmer near by told me that an owl was taking his chickens regularly. Undoubtedly the bird had been driven southward by the severe winter, and had not taken up regular hunting grounds until he caught the cat. Then came the chickens. I set up a pole, on the top of which was nailed a bit of board for a platform. On the platform was fastened a small steel trap, and under it hung a dead chicken. The next morning there was Kookooskoos on the platform, one foot in the trap, at which he was pulling awkwardly. Owls, from their peculiar ways of hunting, are prone to light on stubs and exposed branches; and so Kookooskoos had used my pole as a watch tower before carrying off his game.

There is another way in which he is easily fooled. In the early spring, when he is mating, and again in the autumn, when the young birds are well fed and before they have learned much, you can bring him close up to you by imitating his hunting call. In the wilderness, where these birds are plenty, I have often had five or six about me at once. You have only to go well out beyond your tent, and sit down quietly, making yourself part of the place. Give the call a few times, and if there is a young bird near with a full stomach, he will answer, and presently come nearer. Soon he is in the tree over your head, and if you keep perfectly still he will set up a great hooting that you have called him and now do not answer. Others are attracted by his calling; they come in silently from all directions; the outcry is startling. The call is more nervous, more eerie, much more terrifying close at hand than when heard in the distance. They sweep about like great dark shadows, hoo-hoo-hooing and frolicking in their own uncanny way; then go off to their separate watch towers and their hunting. But the chances are that you will be awakened with a start more than once in the night, as some inquisitive young owl comes back and gives the hunting call in the hope of finding out what the first summons was all about.

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