Down Nature's Paths



IN THE Cumberland Mountains, near Gruetli, Tennessee, two friends and I once saw an instance of supreme obedience. A native of the woods directed us by means of blazed trees to a certain spot where we were to look ahead of us on the ground intently. At the first sign of motion we were to concentrate our gaze on the spot where the motion began. Without this pre-warning we might not have seen the sudden swift shadow that flitted off a rod under the bushes before it became vocal and visible.

A big bird—brown, gray, and white speckled like dead leaves—fell down upon the ground with broken wings, crying in great pain. We scarcely turned our heads to look at this mother whippoorwill but scanned the spot from which she started. As our eyes became accustomed to the sunshine flecked twilight, we found her nest, just a hollow in a heap of dead leaves, and in it two baby whippoorwills, not so long as my forefinger and covered with a yellowish down hard to distinguish from the leaves among which they lay. Their large eyes were closed, and they lay as inert as lifeless things.

The mother was in terrible distress. In a circle she dragged herself along the ground, flying up a foot or two and falling back, and striving by every gesture possible to entice us to follow; but we looked very little at her. We watched to see how long the babies would lie motionless. In an amazing manner the mother was able to intersperse her loud and constant outcries with very soft, tender-toned chirps and short calls that were intended for the babies' reassurance.

As we did not move away from the nest, she circled clear around us, finally flying up to a tree branch not much higher than our heads about a rod beyond the nest. There she sat facing us and the nest, continuing her piteous cries and tender baby talk. Her eyes were amazingly large and lustrous, and her feathers fluffed out softly, giving her almost a circular effect.

Meantime the babies were absolutely obedient. Seized by the impulse to touch a live wild thing, I bent down and put my finger on the head of one of the fluffballs. It evidently could see me through its translucent eyelids or perceive me by some other acute sense; for as my hand neared it, a heavy shudder passed once over it. Then it endured my touch without moving, and the other did not move at all.

But my motion had terrified the mother into such an excess of grieving cries that we took pity on her and moved away. She continued her protests until we were clear back on the roadway, from which we could not see her. We suppose she darted down to the nest and praised her precious ones for their perfect obedience and self-control under the attack of giants as terrifying as monsters from Mars.