Shooting the wood-duck and his companions
DUCK-SHOOTING is, in its way, quite as delightful as duck-eating. But when I speak of duck-shooting, I by no means refer to those long beaches on the Chesapeake where the professional fowler crouches behind his screen and sends out his de-coy; nor do I hint of those wild, sunny, rush-lined reaches of water on the Florida coast where the sport in his skiff, and the negro gunner in his pirogue, slaughter their thousands of birds every season. I would now bring forth some of my reminiscences of the interior of the Western and Southern States; reminiscences that have in them something of the freshness of those cool, sweet currents of air which follow the ways of the brooks and rivulets, and of those damp, delicious spots of shade under the swamp-elms where the wood-duck (Aix sponsa) builds her nest in the hollows. Recalling a hundred days of exquisite sport spent in chasing the teal, wood-duck, and widgeon, one hears the "quack, quack " of the startled birds and the silken rustling" or the keen whistling of their rapidly-moving wings, and mingling with these sounds-clear, distinct, characteristic of itself--the sharp hiss of a feathered arrow. Perhaps, after all, it is the bow and arrows that furnish the peculiar flavoring of this sport, and serve to render the narrow rivers, brooks, and ponds of the \Vest and South so attractive to the enthusiastic archer. Another thing is worth noting just here. The bowman, to be successful as a hunter, must learn to perfection the habits of his game. This necessity gives him opportunities to see many things, and note many habits peculiar to certain kinds of small game, overlooked by other sportsmen and naturalists. The golden-eyed duck or whistler (Clangula Americana), though not often found far in the interior, is a favorite bird, and an incident involving the killing of one may well serve to describe a singular habit (common to several species of American ducks), which I have never seen mentioned by writers on ornithology, or in the books on field sports.
I had been, for an hour or two, following a dozen or more blue-winged teal (Querquedula discors) down a small stream, without so much as getting a shot. While creeping slyly along close to the brook's edge, under cover of a clump of papaw bushes, my eyes chanced to fall on a whistler-duck sitting quite still on the surface of a shallow miniature inlet just across the stream from me, a distance of perhaps a hundred feet. I happened to be carrying a heavy bow. I knew the teal were considerably farther down the stream, and, considering their wildness and the ill-luck I had had with them, I was glad to take a shot at this lone golden-eye. I let go an arrow with eighty pounds of force, without uncovering myself, and watch it through its almost instantaneous flight with satisfaction, for it started full for the mark; but just as it was on the point of piercing the beautiful statue-like bird, the misadjustment of one of its vanes caused the feather end to "flip" up, sending the point downward into the sand at the bottom of the shallow water directly under the game, leaving the arrow standing at an angle of about fifty degrees with the surface of the water. The duck took to wing promptly and swiftly, darting away through the wood that lined the banks of the little stream. I stood for a while silently anathematizing the action of my shaft, and was on the point of wading across the brook to secure it, when my golden-eye came down with a whir and alit with a splash near my arrow, beginning at once to rapidly describe small circles around it on the water, eyeing it curiously, and all the time uttering a fine piping cry, not unlike that of a gosling. I was not expecting this act of accommodation on the part of my game in thus offering it-self to me again, and so was not in just the frame of mind best suited to making a good shot, I sent a shaft straight across, an inch above his back, and into the water with a low "chug" that startled the bird again into a convulsion of flight. I now stood quite still, composing myself for a careful effort if he should return again. I had not long to wait. With a whirring sound, peculiar to the wings of this bird when flying, he came down like a bolt from a catapult, making the water foam where he struck, and again commenced his circular movements, and his close and evidently terror-inspired examination of my first arrow, his crest bristling, his neck-feathers ruffled, and his wings quivering. I let go another shaft, hitting him through the butts of his wings, and killing him on the spot. Since that I have seen a green-winged teal (Nithon Carolinensis) and a wood-duck go through the same sort of manoeuvres, under similar circumstances. Every sportsman is well aware of the habit of ducks and geese returning to a pond or other place whence they have been driven, and flying in circles for a time, as if to make a survey of the spot before settling; but a duck in returning to an arrow invariably does it by a direct and very rapid flight. I have had opportunity to observe this habit, or action, but three or four times, and have no explanation of it to offer.
The wood-duck (Aix sponsa) is also called summer-duck. It is the most beautiful of all our ducks. It is known all over the eastern part of the United States to as far west, perhaps, as the Rocky Mountains. I have killed it in Florida, Georgia, and Indiana, hunting it most successfully along the small brooks and lesser mill-streams of the interior. It is easily recognized by its heavy purplish green crest, the white crescent in front of each wing, and the bars over its eyes meeting under the chin. Its lower neck, sides, and tail are purple; its back uniform with delicate pencillings of green and bronze; its primaries silver white; top of head black. It builds in hollow trees or in the largest cavities made by the flicker and great black woodpecker. Its young, as soon as hatched, clamber out and tumble to the ground unharmed. Water is generally near, and to it they follow their parents, darting about in a lively way, seeking and finding their own food from the first. Large numbers of these young are destroyed by water-snakes, turtles, musk-rats, minks, and raccoons. I once found a fine full-grown drake struggling to keep above water with a snapping-turtle of a pound in weight hanging to his foot. An arrow secured the bird, and a stone served to smash the turtle. So thick are these pests of turtles in some of the Southern streams and lagoons, that you must hurry to take your game after knocking it over on the water, or the chances are it is dragged under the surface and lost.
From the first of September till the middle of November the wood-ducks may be found in considerable flocks on most of the brooks and rivers of the Middle and Western States, and when not more than two years old, are fine for the table. I know of no sport which can compare with shooting this bird with the long-bow. It seems to have been made especially for the toxophilite. It sits steadily on the water, is less shy and frisky than the teals and the mallard, and though a rapid flier, it does not take to wing so readily as most river ducks. But it is their short flight which especially recommends the wood-ducks to the archer. You may get a half dozen shots at one while you are vainly trying to creep within long range of a teal.
The most exciting time we ever had with these favorite birds was in a small inclosure, near a little mill-stream, where stood a few large wheat-shocks. The ducks had lit on these shocks, and were busily at work eating the grain and wrangling over the best spots.
We slipped up, under cover of a worm-fence, whose corners were grown full of tall elder bushes, and let drive, pinning a brace of them to the straw. The flock was startled, and instantly took to wing, but, so completely were we hidden by the bushes, they soon came circling round and settled down on the shocks again. We killed seven, before they finally found us out and fled for good. We would have taken more, but Will, in his eagerness to shoot two arrows before they could take to flight, discovered himself.
When a flock of wood-duck, hatched early in June, are found on a small brooklet in September, if you can get them scattered into twos and threes or single birds, it is the very acme of sport to creep warily along the stream's bank and take shot after shot at them. They are not yet old enough to fly clear off and leave the stream, and so, when disturbed, they only spin away to a short distance and drop down again. All you have to do is to exercise some wood-craft in approaching them, and you can get all the shooting you desire.
Broad-headed, very sharp and deeply barbed arrows are necessary for shooting all kinds of wild-fowl, their feathers being exceedingly tough, and the birds themselves quite tenacious of life, some-times flying clean off with a shaft.
Many of your shots must necessarily be at long range, wherefore, a ducking-bow should be as strong as you can manage to shoot with accuracy.
What a happy fortnight a party of two or three archers can spend with their tent pitched on the bank of a well-stocked bass-brook, where the wood-duck are also numerous, can only be under-stood by trying it. You can carry your bow and rod at the same time, and if, while you are waiting for a bass to strike your spoon, a duck drops down near you, all you have to do is to secure your rod to the bank, string your bow and have a shot. Unlike the gun, the long-bow will not frighten your fish. It is almost noiseless in its shooting, and there is nothing startling in the little sound it does make. Take your long-bow with you on your next fishing tour, and I warrant you will never thereafter leave it behind. . . .
I once saw a tall, lean red fox in the woods with a wood-duck in his mouth. I started a dog after him, but-forgive the comparison-it was like starting a snail after lightning. The fox and the bird slipped from my sight like a shadow in a dream, one to its lair, to sleep on a good supper, the other to the hereafter of birds.