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School of the Woods by  William J. Long
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ISMAQUES THE FISHHAWK

[73] Whit, whit, ch'wee? Whit, whit, whit, ch'weeeeee!  over my head went the shrill whistling, the hunting cry of Ismaques. Looking up from my fishing, I could see the broad wings sweeping over me, and catch the bright gleam of his eye as he looked down into my canoe, or behind me at the cold place among the rocks, to see if I were catching anything. Then, as he noted the pile of fish,—a blanket of silver on the black rocks, where I was stowing away chub for bear bait,—he would drop lower in amazement to see how I did it. When the trout were not rising, and his keen glance saw no gleam of red and gold in my canoe, he would circle off with a cheery K'weee!  the good-luck call of a brother fisherman. For there is [74] no envy nor malice nor any uncharitableness in Ismaques. He lives in harmony with the world, and seems glad when you land a big one, though he is hungry himself, and the clamor from his nest, where his little ones are crying, is too keen for his heart's content.

What is there in going a-fishing, I wonder, that seems to change even the leopard's spots, and that puts a new heart into the man who hies him away to the brook when buds are swelling? There is Keeonekh the otter. Before he turned fisherman he was fierce, cruel, bloodthirsty, with a vile smell about him, like all the other weasels. Now he lives at peace with all the world and is clean, gentle, playful as a kitten and faithful as a dog when you make a pet of him. And there is Ismaques the fishhawk. Before he turned fisherman he was hated, like every other hawk, for his fierceness and his bandit ways. The shadow of his wings was the signal for hiding to all the timid ones. Jay and crow cried Thief! thief!  and kingbird sounded his war cry and rushed out to [75] battle. Now the little birds build their nests among the sticks of his great house, and the shadow of his wings is a sure protection. For owl and hawk and wild-cat have learned long since the wisdom of keeping well away from Ismaques' dwelling.

Not only the birds, but men also, feel the change in Ismaques' disposition. I hardly know a hunter who will not go out of his way for a shot at a hawk; but they send a hearty good-luck after this winged fisherman of the same fierce family, even though they see him rising heavily out of the very pool where the big trout live, and where they expect to cast their flies at sundown. Along the southern New England shores his coming—regular as the calendar itself—is hailed with delight by the fishermen. One state, at least, where he is most abundant, protects him by law; and even our Puritan forefathers, who seem to have neither made nor obeyed any game laws, looked upon him with a kindly eye, and made him an exception to the general license for killing. To their [76] credit, be it known, they once "publikly reeprimanded" one Master Eliphalet Bodman, a son of Belial evidently, for violently, with powder and shot, doing away with one fishhawk, and wickedly destroying the nest and eggs of another.

Whether this last were also done violently, with powder and shot, by blowing the nest to pieces with an old gun, or in simple boy-fashion by shinning up the tree, the quaint old town record does not tell. But all this goes to show that our ancestors of the coast were kindly people at heart; that they looked upon this brave, simple fisherman, who built his nest by their doors, much as the German village people look upon the stork that builds upon their chimneys, and regarded his coming as an omen of good luck and plenty to the fisher folk.

Far back in the wilderness, where Ismaques builds his nest and goes a-fishing just as his ancestors did a thousand years ago, one finds the same honest bird, unspoiled alike by plenty or poverty, that excited our boyish [77] imagination and won the friendly regard of our ancestors of the coast. Opposite my camp on the lake, where I tarried long one summer, charmed by the beauty of the place and the good fishing, a pair of fishhawks had built their nest in the top of a great spruce on the mountain side. It was this pair of birds that came daily to circle over my canoe, or over the rocks where I fished for chub, to see how I fared, and to send back a cheery Ch'wee! chip, ch'weeee!  "good luck and good fishing," as they wheeled away. It would take a good deal of argument now to convince me that they did not at last recognize me as a fellow-fisherman, and were not honestly interested in my methods and success.

At first I went to the nest, not so much to study the fishhawks as to catch fleeting glimpses of a shy, wild life of the woods, which is hidden from most eyes. The fishing was good, and both birds were expert fishermen. While the young were growing, there was always an abundance in the big nest on the spruce top. The overflow of this abundance, [78] in the shape of heads, bones, and unwanted remnants, was cast over the sides of the nest and furnished savory pickings for a score of hungry prowlers. Mink came over from frog hunting in the brook, drawn by the good smell in the air. Skunks lumbered down from the hill, with a curious, hollow, bumping sound to announce their coming. Weasels, and one grizzly old pine marten, too slow or rheumatic for successful tree hunting, glided out of the underbrush and helped themselves without asking leave. Wild-cats quarreled like fiends over the pickings; more than once I heard them there screeching in the night. And one late afternoon, as I lingered in my hiding among the rocks while the shadows deepened, a big lucivee stole out of the bushes, as if ashamed of himself, and took to nosing daintily among the fish bones.

It was his first appearance, evidently. He did not know that the feast was free, but thought all the while that he was stealing somebody's catch. One could see it all in [79] his attitudes, his starts and listenings, his low growlings to himself. He was bigger than anybody else there, and had no cause to be afraid; but there is a tremendous respect among all animals for the chase law and the rights of others; and the big cat felt it. He was hungry for fish; but, big as he was, his every movement showed that he was ready to take to his heels before the first little creature that should rise up and screech in his face: "This is mine!" Later, when he grew accustomed to things and the fishhawks' generosity in providing a feast for all who might come in from the wilderness byways and hedges, he would come in boldly enough and claim his own; but now, moving stealthily about, halting and listening timidly, he furnished a study in animal rights that repaid in itself all the long hours of watching.

But the hawks themselves were more interesting than their unbidden guests. Ismaques, honest fellow that he is, mates for life, and comes back to the same nest year after year. The only exception to this rule that I [80] know, is in the case of a fishhawk, whom I knew well as a boy, and who lost his mate one summer by an accident. The accident came from a gun in the hands of an unthinking sportsman. The grief of Ismaques was evident, even to the unthinking. One could hear it in the lonely, questioning cry that he sent out over the still summer woods; and see it in the sweep of his wings as he went far afield to other ponds—not to fish, for Ismaques never fishes on his neighbor's preserves, but to search for his lost mate. For weeks he lingered in the old haunts, calling and searching everywhere; but at last the loneliness and the memories were too much for him. He left the place long before the time of migration had come; and the next spring a strange couple came to the spot, repaired the old nest, and went fishing in the pond. Ordinarily, the birds respect each other's fishing grounds, and especially the old nests; but this pair came and took possession without hesitation, as if they had some understanding with the former owner, who never came back again.

[81] The old spruce on the mountain side had been occupied many years by my fishing friends. As is usually the case, it had given up its life to its bird masters. The oil from their frequent feastings had soaked into the bark, following down and down, checking the sap's rising, till at last it grew discouraged and ceased to climb. Then the tree died and gave up its branches, one by one, to repair the nest above. The jagged, broken ends showed everywhere how they had been broken off to supply the hawks' necessities.

There is a curious bit of building lore suggested by these broken branches, that one may learn for himself any springtime by watching the birds at their nest building. Large sticks are required for a foundation. The ground is strewed with such; but Ismaques never comes down to the ground if he can avoid it. Even when he drops an unusually heavy fish, in his flight above the trees, he looks after it regretfully, but never follows. He may be hungry, but he will not set his huge hooked talons on the earth. [82] He cannot walk, and loses all his power there. So he goes off and fishes patiently, hours long, to replace his lost catch.

When he needs sticks for his nest, he searches out a tree and breaks off the dead branches by his weight. If the stick be stubborn, he rises far above it and drops like a cannon ball, gripping it in his claws and snapping it short off at the same instant by the force of his blow. Twice I have been guided to where Ismaques and his mate were collecting material by reports like pistol shots ringing through the wood, as the great birds fell upon the dead branches and snapped them off. Once, when he came down too hard, I saw him fall almost to the ground, flapping lustily, before he found his wings and sailed away with his four-foot stick triumphantly.

There is another curious bit of bird lore that I discovered here in the autumn, when, much later than usual, I came back through the lake. Ismaques, when he goes away for the long winter at the South, does not leave [83] his house to the mercy of the winter storms until he has first repaired it. Large fresh sticks are wedged in firmly across the top of the nest; doubtful ones are pulled out and carefully replaced, and the whole structure made shipshape for stormy weather. This careful repair, together with the fact that the nest is always well soaked in oil, which preserves it from the rain, saves a deal of trouble for Ismaques. He builds for life, and knows, when he goes away in the fall, that, barring untoward accidents, his house will be waiting for him with the quiet welcome of old associations when he comes back in the spring. Whether this is a habit of all ospreys, or only of the two on Big Squatuk Lake—who were very wise birds in other ways—I am unable to say.

What becomes of the young birds is also, to me, a mystery. The home ties are very strong, and the little ones stay with the parents much longer than other birds do, as a rule; but when the spring comes you will see only the old birds at the home nest. The [84] young come back to the same general neighborhood, I think; but where the lake is small they never build nor trespass on the same waters. As with the kingfishers, each pair of birds seems to have their own pond or portion; but by what old law of the waters they find and stake their claim is yet to be discovered.

There were two little ones in the nest when I first found it; and I used to watch them in the intervals when nothing was stirring in the underbrush near my hiding place. They were happy, whistling little fellows, well fed and contented with the world. At times they would stand for hours on the edge of the nest, looking down over the slanting tree-tops to the lake, finding the great rustling green world, and the passing birds, and the glinting of light on the sparkling water, and the hazy blue of the distant mountains marvelously interesting, if one could judge from their attitude and their pipings. Then a pair of broad wings would sweep into sight, and they would stretch their wings wide [85] and break into eager whistlings,—Pip, pip, ch'wee? chip, ch'weeeeee?  "did you get him? is he a big one, mother?" And they would stand tiptoeing gingerly about the edge of the great nest, stretching their necks eagerly for a first glimpse of the catch.

At times only one of the old birds would go a-fishing, while the other watched the nest. But when luck was poor both birds would seek the lake. At such times the mother bird, larger and stronger than the male, would fish along the shore, within sight and hearing of her little ones. The male, meanwhile, would go sweeping down the lake to the trout pools at the outlet, where the big chub lived, in search of better fishing grounds. If the wind were strong, you would see a curious bit of sea lore as he came back with his fish. He would never fly straight against the wind, but tack back and forth, as if he had learned the trick from watching the sailor fishermen of the coast beating back into harbor. And, watching him through [86] your glass, you would see that he always carried his fish endwise and head first, so as to present the least possible resistance to the breeze.

While the young were being fed, you were certain to gain new respect for Ismaques by seeing how well he brought up his little ones. If the fish were large, it was torn into shreds and given piecemeal to the young, each of whom waited for his turn with exemplary patience. There was no crowding or pushing for the first and biggest bite, such as you see in a nest of robins. If the fish were small, it was given entire to one of the young, who worried it down as best he could, while the mother bird swept back to the lake for another. The second nestling stood on the edge of the nest meanwhile, whistling good luck and waiting his turn, without a thought, apparently, of seizing a share from his mate beside him.

Just under the hawks a pair of jays had built their nest among the sticks of Ismaques' dwelling, and raised their young on the [87] abundant crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. It was curious and intensely interesting to watch the change which seemed to be going on in the jays' disposition by reason of the unusual friendship. Deedeeaskh the jay has not a friend among the wood folk. They all know he is a thief and a meddler, and hunt him away without mercy if they find him near their nests. But the great fishhawks welcomed him, trusted him; and he responded nobly to the unusual confidence. He never tried to steal from the young, not even when the mother bird was away, but contented himself with picking up the stray bits that they had left. And he more than repaid Ismaques by the sharp watch which he kept over the nest, and indeed over all the mountain side. Nothing passes in the woods without the jay's knowledge; and here he seemed, for all the world, like a watchful terrier, knowing that he had only to bark to bring a power of wing and claw sufficient to repel any danger. When prowlers came down from the mountain to [88] feast on the heads and bones scattered about the foot of the tree, Deedeeaskh dropped down among them and went dodging about, whistling his insatiable curiosity. So long as they took only what was their own, he made no fuss about it; but he was there to watch, and he let them know sharply their mistake, if they showed any desire to cast evil eyes at the nest above.

Once, as my canoe was gliding along the shore, I heard the jays' unmistakable cry of danger. The fishhawks were wheeling in great circles over the lake, watching for the glint of fish near the surface, when the cry came, and they darted away for the nest. Pushing out into the lake, I saw them sweeping above the tree-tops in swift circles, uttering short, sharp cries of anger. Presently they began to swoop fiercely at some animal—a fisher, probably—that was climbing the tree below. I stole up to see what it was; but ere I reached the place they had driven the intruder away. I heard one of the jays far off in the woods, following the robber and [91] screaming to let the fishhawks know just where he was. The other jay sat close by her own little ones, cowering under the shadow of the great dark wings above. And presently Deedeeaskh came back, bubbling over with the excitement, whistling to them in his own way that he had followed the rascal clear to his den, and would keep a sharp watch over him in future.

When a big hawk came near, or when, on dark afternoons, a young owl took to hunting in the neighborhood, the jays sounded the alarm, and the fishhawks swept up from the lake on the instant. Whether Deedeeaskh were more concerned for his own young than for the young fishhawks I have no means of knowing. The fishermen's actions at such times showed a curious mixture of fear and defiance. The mother would sit on the nest while Ismaques circled over it, both birds uttering a shrill, whistling challenge. But they never attacked the feathered robbers, as they had done with the fisher, and, so far as I could see, there was no need. Kookoos- [92] koos the owl and Hawahak the hawk might be very hungry; but the sight of those great wings circling over the nest and the shrill cry of defiance in their ears sent them hurriedly away to other hunting grounds.

There was only one enemy that ever seriously troubled the fishhawks; and he did it in as decent a sort of way as was possible under the circumstances. That was Cheplahgan the eagle. When he was hungry and had found nothing himself, and his two eaglets, far away in their nest on the mountain, needed a bite of fish to vary their diet, he would set his wings to the breeze and mount up till he could see both ospreys at their fishing. There, sailing in slow circles, he would watch for hours till he saw Ismaques catch a big fish, when he would drop like a bolt and hold him up at the point of his talons, like any other highwayman. It was of no use trying to escape. Sometimes Ismaques would attempt it, but the great dark wings would whirl around him and strike down a sharp and [93] unmistakable warning. It always ended the same way. Ismaques, being wise, would drop his fish, and the eagle would swoop down after it, often seizing it ere it reached the water. But he never injured the fishhawks, and he never disturbed the nest. So they got along well enough together. Cheplahgan had a bite of fish now and then in his own way; and honest Ismaques, who never went long hungry, made the best of a bad situation. Which shows that fishing has also taught him patience, and a wise philosophy of living.

The jays took no part in these struggles. Occasionally they cried out a sharp warning as Cheplahgan came plunging down out of the blue, over the head of Ismaques; but they seemed to know perfectly how the unequal contest must end, and they always had a deal of jabber among themselves over it, the meaning of which I could never make out.

As for myself, I am sure that Deedeeaskh could never make up his mind what to think of me. At first, when I came, he would cry out a danger note that brought the fishhawks [94] circling over their nest, looking down into the underbrush with wild yellow eyes to see what danger threatened. But after I had hidden myself away a few times, and made no motion to disturb either the nest or the hungry prowlers that came to feast on the fishhawks' bounty, Deedeeaskh set me down as an idle, harmless creature who would, nevertheless, bear watching. He never got over his curiosity to know what brought me there. Sometimes, when I thought him far away, I would find him suddenly on a branch just over my head, looking down at me intently. When I went away he would follow me, whistling, to my canoe; but he never called the fishhawks again, unless some unusual action of mine aroused his suspicion; and after one look they would circle away, as if they knew they had nothing to fear. They had seen me fishing so often that they thought they understood me, undoubtedly.

There was one curious habit of these birds that I had never noticed before. Occasionally, when the weather threatened a change, [95] or when the birds and their little ones had fed full, Ismaques would mount up to an enormous altitude, where he would sail about in slow circles, his broad vans steady to the breeze, as if he were an ordinary hen hawk, enjoying himself and contemplating the world from an indifferent distance. Suddenly, with one clear, sharp whistle to announce his intention, he would drop like a plummet for a thousand feet, catch himself in mid-air, and zigzag down to the nest in the spruce top, whirling, diving, tumbling, and crying aloud the while in wild, ecstatic exclamations,—just as a woodcock comes whirling, plunging, twittering down from a height to his brown mate in the alders below. Then Ismaques would mount up again and repeat his dizzy plunge, while his larger mate stood quiet in the spruce top, and the little fishhawks tiptoed about the edge of the nest, pip-pipping  their wonder and delight at their own papa's dazzling performance.

This is undoubtedly one of Ismaques' springtime habits, by which he tries to win [96] an admiring look from the keen yellow eyes of his mate; but I noticed him using it more frequently as the little fishhawks' wings spread to a wonderful length, and he was trying, with his mate, by every gentle means to induce them to leave the nest. And I have wondered—without being able at all to prove my theory—whether he were not trying in this remarkable way to make his little ones want to fly by showing them how wonderful a thing flying could be made to be.


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