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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XVIII. The Blaireau, Tawnies, and Leopards

Perhaps Lucien would have carried his account of the marmots still farther—for he had not told half what he knew of their habits—but he was at that moment interrupted by the marmots themselves. Several of them appeared at the mouths of their holes; and, after looking out and reconnoitring for some moments, became bolder, and ran up to the tops of their mounds, and began to scatter along the little beaten paths that led from one to the other. In a short while as many as a dozen could be seen moving about, jerking their tails, and at intervals uttering their “seek-seek.”

Our voyageurs saw that there were two kinds of them, entirely different in colour, size, and other respects. The larger ones were of a greyish yellow above, with an orange tint upon the throat and belly. These were the “tawny marmots,” called sometimes “ground-squirrels,” and by the voyageurs, “siffleurs,” or “whistlers.” The other species seen were the most beautiful of all the marmots. They were very little smaller than the tawny marmots; but their tails were larger and more slender, which rendered their appearance more graceful. Their chief beauty, however, lay in their colours and markings. They were striped from the nose to the rump with bands of yellow and chocolate colour, which alternated with each other, while the chocolate bands were themselves variegated by rows of yellow spots regularly placed. These markings gave the animals that peculiar appearance so well-known as characterising the skin of the leopard, hence the name of these little creatures was “leopard-marmots.”

It was plain from their actions that both kinds were “at home” among the mounds, and that both had their burrows there. This was the fact, and Norman told his companion that the two kinds are always found together, not living in the same houses, but only as neighbours in the same “settlement.” The burrows of the “leopard” have much smaller entrances than those of their “tawny kin,” and run down perpendicularly to a greater depth before branching off in a horizontal direction. A straight stick may be thrust down one of these full five feet before reaching an “elbow.” The holes of the tawny marmots, on the contrary, branch off near the surface, and are not so deep under ground. This guides us to the explanation of a singular fact—which is, that the “tawnies” make their appearance three weeks earlier in spring than the “leopards,” in consequence of the heat of the sun reaching them sooner, and waking them out of their torpid sleep.

While these explanations were passing among the boys, the marmots had come out, to the number of a score, and were carrying on their gambols along the declivity of the hill. They were at too great a distance to heed the movements of the travellers by the camp-fire. Besides, a considerable valley lay between them and the camp, which, as they believed, rendered their position secure. They were not at such a distance but that many of their movements could be clearly made out by the boys, who after a while noticed that several furious battles were being fought among them. It was not the “tawnies” against the others, but the males of each kind in single combats with one another. They fought like little cats, exhibiting the highest degree of boldness and fury; but it was noticed that in these conflicts the leopards were far more active and spiteful than their kinsmen. In observing them through his glass Lucien noticed that they frequently seized each other by the tails, and he further noticed that several of them had their tails much shorter than the rest. Norman said that these had been bitten off in their battles; and, moreover, that it was a rare thing to find among the males, or “bucks,” as he called them, one that had a perfect tail!

While these observations were being made, the attention of our party was attracted to a strange animal that was seen slowly crawling around the hill. It was a creature about as big as an ordinary setter dog, but much thicker in the body, shorter in the legs, and shaggier in the coat. Its head was flat, and its ears short and rounded. Its hair was long, rough, and of a mottled hoary grey colour, but dark-brown upon the legs and tail. The latter, though covered with long hair, was short, and carried upright; and upon the broad feet of the animal could be seen long and strong curving claws. Its snout was sharp as that of a greyhound—though not so prettily formed—and a white stripe, passing from its very tip over the crown, and bordered by two darker bands, gave a singular expression to the animal’s countenance. It was altogether, both in form and feature, a strange and vicious-looking creature. Norman recognised it at once as the “blaireau,” or American badger. The others had never seen such a creature before—as it is not an inhabitant of the South, nor of any part of the settled portion of the United States, for the animal there sometimes called a badger is the ground-hog, or Maryland marmot (Arctomys monax). Indeed, it was for a long time believed that no true badger inhabited the Continent of America. Now, however, it is known that such exists, although it is of a species distinct from the badger of Europe. It is less in size than the latter, and its fur is longer, finer, and lighter in colour; but it is also more voracious in its habits, preying constantly upon mice, marmots, and other small animals, and feeding upon carcasses, whenever it chances to meet with such. It is an inhabitant of the sandy and barren districts, where it burrows the earth in such a manner that horses frequently sink and snap their legs in the hollow ground made by it. These are not always the holes scraped out for its own residence, but the burrows of the marmots, which the blaireau has enlarged, so that it may enter and prey upon them. In this way the creature obtains most of its food, but as the marmots lie torpid during the winter months, and the ground above them is frozen as hard as a rock, it is then impossible for the blaireau to effect an entrance. At this season it would undoubtedly starve had not Nature provided against such a result, by giving it the power of sleeping throughout the winter months as well as the marmots themselves, which it does. As soon as it wakes up and comes abroad, it begins its campaign against these little creatures; and it prefers, above all others, the “tawnies,” and the beautiful “leopards,” both of which it persecutes incessantly.

The badger when first seen was creeping along with its belly almost dragging the ground, and its long snout projected horizontally in the direction of the marmot “village.” It was evidently meditating a surprise of the inhabitants. Now and then it would stop, like a pointer dog when close to a  partridge, reconnoitre a moment, and then go on again. Its design appeared to be to get between the marmots and their burrows, intercept some of them, and get a hold of them without the trouble of digging them up—although that would be no great affair to it, for so strong are its fore-arms and claws that in loose soil it can make its way under the ground as fast as a mole.

Slowly and cautiously it stole along, its hind-feet resting all their length upon the ground, its hideous snout thrown forward, and its eyes glaring with a voracious and hungry expression. It had got within fifty paces of the marmots, and would, no doubt, have succeeded in cutting off the retreat of some of them, but at that moment a burrowing owl (Strix cunicularia), that had been perched upon one of the mounds, rose up, and commenced hovering in circles above the intruder. This drew the attention of the marmot sentries to their well-known enemy, and their warning cry was followed by a general scamper of both tawnies and leopards towards their respective burrows.

The blaireau, seeing that further concealment was no longer of any use, raised himself higher upon his limbs, and sprang forward in pursuit. He was too late, however, as the marmots had all got into their holes, and their angry “seek-seek,” was heard proceeding from various quarters out of the bowels of the earth. The blaireau only hesitated long enough to select one of the burrows into which he was sure a marmot had entered; and then, setting himself to his work, he commenced throwing out the mould like a terrier. In a few seconds he was half buried, and his hindquarters and tail alone remained above ground. He would soon have disappeared entirely, but at that moment the boys, directed and headed by Norman, ran up the hill, and seizing him by the tail, endeavoured to jerk him back. That, however, was a task which they could not accomplish, for first one and then another, and then Basil and Norman—who were both strong boys—pulled with all their might, and could not move him. Norman cautioned them against letting him go, as in a moment’s time he would burrow beyond their reach. So they held on until François had got his gun ready. This the latter soon did, and a load of small shot was fired into the blaireau’s hips, which, although it did not quite kill him, caused him to back out of the hole, and brought him into the clutches of Marengo. A desperate struggle ensued, which ended by the bloodhound doubling his vast black muzzle upon the throat of the blaireau, and choking him to death in less than a dozen seconds; and then his hide—the only part which was deemed of any value—was taken off and carried to the camp. The carcass was left upon the face of the hill, and the red shining object was soon espied by the buzzards and turkey vultures, so that in a few minutes’ time several of these filthy birds were seen hovering around, and alighting upon the hill.

But this was no new sight to our young voyageurs, and soon ceased to be noticed by them. Another bird, of a different kind, for a short time engaged their attention. It was a large hawk, which Lucien, as soon as he saw it, pronounced to be one of the kind known as buzzards (Buteo). Of these there are several species in North America, but it is not to be supposed that there is any resemblance between them and the buzzards just mentioned as having alighted by the carcass of the blaireau. The latter, commonly called “turkey buzzards,” are true vultures, and feed mostly, though not exclusively, on carrion; while the “hawk buzzards” have all the appearance and general habits of the rest of the falcon tribe.

The one in question, Lucien said, was the “marsh-hawk,” sometimes also called the “hen-harrier” (Falco uliginosus). Norman stated that it was known among the Indians of these parts as the “snake-bird,” because it preys upon a species of small green snake that is common on the plains of the Saskatchewan, and of which it is fonder than of any other food.

The voyageurs were not long in having evidence of the appropriateness of the Indian appellation; for these people, like other savages, have the good habit of giving names that express some quality or characteristic of the thing itself. The bird in question was on the wing, and from its movements evidently searching for game. It sailed in easy circlings near the surface, quartering the ground like a pointer dog. It flew so lightly that its wings were not seen to move, and throughout all its wheelings and turnings it appeared to be carried onwards or upwards by the power of mere volition. Once or twice its course brought it directly over the camp, and François had got hold of his gun, with the intention of bringing it down, but on each occasion it perceived his motions; and, soaring up like a paper-kite until out of reach, it passed over the camp, and then sank down again upon the other side, and continued its “quarterings” as before. For nearly half-an-hour it went on manoeuvring in this way, when all at once it was seen to make a sudden turning in the air as it fixed its eyes upon some object in the grass. The next moment it glided diagonally towards the earth, and poising itself for a moment above the surface, rose again with a small green-coloured snake struggling in its talons. After ascending to some height, it directed its flight towards a clump of trees, and was soon lost to the view of our travellers.

Lucien now pointed out to his companions a characteristic of the hawk and buzzard tribe, by which these birds can always be distinguished from the true falcon. That peculiarity lay in the manner of seizing their prey. The former skim forward upon it sideways—that is, in a horizontal or diagonal direction, and pick it up in passing; while the true falcons—as the merlin, the peregrine, the gerfalcon, and the great eagle-falcons—shoot down upon their prey perpendicularly like an arrow, or a piece of falling lead.

He pointed out, moreover, how the structure of the different kinds of preying birds, such as the size and form of the wings and tail, as well as other parts, were in each kind adapted to its peculiar mode of pursuing its prey; and then there arose a discussion as to whether this adaptation should be considered a cause or an effect. Lucien succeeded in convincing his companions that the structure was the effect and not the cause of the habit, for the young naturalist was a firm believer in the changing and progressive system of nature.

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