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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XX. The Ducks of America

Lucien now continued his “monograph” of the American ducks.

“There are,” said he, “more than two dozen species of ducks on the waters of North America. These the systematists have divided into no less thaneighteen genera! Why it would be more easy to learn all that ever was known about all the ducks in creation, than to remember the eighteen generic names which these gentlemen have invented and put forward. Moreover, the habits of any two species of these ducks are more similar than those of any two kinds of dogs. Why then, I should ask—why this complication? It is true that the ducks do not resemble each other in every thing. Some species are fonder of water than others. Some feed entirely upon vegetable substances; others upon small fish, insects, crustacea, etcetera. Some live entirely in the sea; others make their home in the freshwater lakes and rivers, while many species dwell indifferently, either in salt or fresh waters. Some love the open wave; others the sedgy marsh; while one or two species roost upon trees, and build their nests in the hollow trunks. Notwithstanding all this, there is such a similarity in the appearance and habits of the different species, that I think the systematists have improved but little, if anything, upon the simple arrangement of the true naturalist Wilson, who—poor Scotch émigré as he was, with an empty purse and a loaded gun—has collected more original information about the birds of America than all that have followed him. He described the ducks of America under the single genus Anas; and, in my opinion, described them in a more intelligent and intelligible manner than any one has done since his time—not even excepting another great and true naturalist, whose career has been longer, more successful, and happier; and whose fame, in consequence of his better fortune, has become, perhaps, higher and more extended.

“The water-fowl of America,” continued Lucien—“I mean the swans, geese, and ducks, are of great importance in the fur countries where we are now travelling. At certain seasons of the year, in many parts, they furnish almost the only article of food that can be procured. They are all migratory—that is, when the lakes and rivers of these regions become frozen over in the winter they all migrate southward, but return again to breed and spend the summer. They do this, perhaps, because these wild territories afford them a better security during the season of incubation, and afterwards of moulting. It is not very certain, however, that this is the reason, and for my part I am inclined to think not, for there are also wild, uninhabited territories enough in southern latitudes, and yet they forsake these and migrate north in the spring. ‘Their arrival in the fur countries,’ writes a distinguished naturalist, ‘marks the commencement of spring, and diffuses as much joy among the wandering hunters of the Arctic regions, as the harvest or vintage excites in more genial climes.’ Both by the Indians and hunters in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company swans, geese, and ducks, are slaughtered by thousands, and are eaten not only when fresh killed, but they are salted in large quantities, and so preserved for winter use, when fresh ones can no longer be procured. Of course, both Indian and white hunters use all their art in killing or capturing them; and to effect this they employ many different methods, as decoying, snaring, netting, and shooting them: but Cousin Norman here could give a better description of all these things than I. Perhaps he will favour us with some account of them.”

“The Indians,” said the young trader, taking up the subject without hesitation, “usually snare them. Their most common way is to make a number of hedges or wattle fences projecting into the water at right angles to the edge of the lake, or, it may be, river. These fences are two or three yards apart, and between each two there is, of course, an opening, into which the birds swim, as they make towards the shore for their food. In these openings, then, the snares are set and tied so firmly to a post stuck in the bottom, that the birds, whether ducks, geese, or swans, when caught, may not be able to drag it away. To keep the snare in its place, it is secured to the wattles of the fence with tender strands of grass, that of course give way the moment the fowl becomes entangled. The snares are made out of deer sinews, twisted like packthread, and sometimes of thongs cut from a ‘parchment’ deerskin, which, as you know, is a deerskin simply dried, and not tanned or dressed. The making of the fences is the part that gives most trouble. Sometimes the timber for the stakes is not easily had; and even when it is plenty, it is no easy matter to drive the stakes into the bottom and wattle them, while seated in a vessel so crank as a birch canoe. Sometimes, in the rivers where the water-fowl most frequent, the current is swift, and adds to this trouble. Where the lakes and rivers are shallow, the thing becomes easier; and I have seen small lakes and rivers fenced in this way from shore to shore. In large lakes this would not be necessary, as most of the water-birds—such as the swans and geese—and all the ducks that are not of the diving kinds, are sure to come to the shore to feed, and are more likely to be taken close in to land than out in the open water.

“The Indians often snare these birds upon the nest, and they always wash their hands before setting the snare. They have a notion—I don’t know whether true or not—that if their hands are not clean, the birds can smell the snare, and will be shy of going into it. They say that all these birds—and I believe it’s true of all fowls that make their nests upon the ground—go into the nest at one side, and out at the opposite. The Indians knowing this, always set their snares at the side where the bird enters, and by this they are more sure of catching them, and also of getting them some hours sooner.

“Besides snaring the water-fowl,” continued Norman, “the Indians sometimes catch them in nets, and sometimes on hooks baited with whatever the birds are known to eat. They also shoot them as the white hunters do, and to get near enough use every sort of cunning that can be thought of. Sometimes they decoy them within shot, by putting wooden ducks on the water near their cover, where they themselves are stationed. Sometimes they disguise their canoes under brushwood, and paddle to the edge of the flock; and when the moulting season comes round, they pursue them through the water, and kill them with sticks. The swans, when followed in this way, often escape. With their strong wings and great webbed feet, they can flap faster over the surface than a canoe can follow them. I have heard of many other tricks which the Indians of different tribes make use of, but I have only seen these ways I have described, besides the one we have just witnessed.”

Norman was one of your practical philosophers, who did not choose to talk much of things with which he was not thoroughly acquainted.

Lucien now took up the thread of the conversation, and gave some further information about the different species of American ducks.

“One of the most celebrated,” said he, “is the ‘eider-duck’ (Anas mollissima). This is prized for its down, which is exceedingly soft and fine, and esteemed of great value for lining quilts and making beds for the over-luxurious. It is said that three pounds’ weight of ‘eider down’ can be compressed to the size of a man’s fist, and yet is afterwards so dilatable as to fill a quilt of five feet square. The down is generally obtained without killing the bird, for that which is plucked from dead birds is far inferior, and has lost much of its elasticity. The mode of procuring it is to steal it from the nest, in the absence of the birds. The female lines the nest with down plucked from her own breast. When this is stolen from her, by those who gather the commodity, she plucks out a second crop of it, and arranges it as before. This being also removed, it is said that the male bird then makes a sacrifice of his downy waistcoat, and the nest is once more put in order; but should this too be taken, the birds forsake their nest never to return to it again. The quantity of ‘eider down’ found in a single nest is sufficient to fill a man’s hat, and yet it will weigh only about three ounces.

“The eider-duck is about the size of the common mallard, or wild duck proper. Its colour is black below, and buff-white on the back, neck, and shoulders, while the forehead is bluish black. It is one of the ‘sea-ducks,’ or fuligulae, as the naturalists term them, and it is rarely seen in fresh water. Its food is principally the soft mollusca common in the Arctic seas, and its flesh is not esteemed except by the Greenlanders. It is at home only in the higher latitudes of both Continents, and loves to dwell upon the rocky shores of the sea; but in very severe winters, it makes its appearance along the Atlantic coast of the United States, where it receives different names from the gunners—such as ‘black-and-white coot,’ ‘big sea-duck,’ ‘shoal-duck,’ and ‘squaw-duck;’ and under these titles it is often sold in the markets of American cities. Some suppose that the eider-duck could be easily domesticated. If so, it would, no doubt, prove a profitable as well as an interesting experiment; but I believe it has already been attempted without success. It is in the countries of Northern Europe where the gathering of the eider down has been made an object of industry. On the American Continent the pursuit is not followed, either by the native or white settler.

“Another species common to the higher latitudes of both Continents is the ‘king-duck,’ so called from its very showy appearance. Its habits are very similar to the ‘eider,’ and its down is equally soft and valuable, but it is a smaller bird.

“A still smaller species, also noted for its brilliant plumage, inhabits the extreme north of both continents. This is the ‘harlequin-duck;’ or, as the early colonists term it, the ‘lord.’

“But the ‘wood-duck’ (Anas sponsa) is perhaps the most beautiful of all the American species, or indeed of all ducks whatever—although it has a rival in the mandarin duck of China, which indeed it very much resembles both in size and markings. The wood-duck is so called from the fact of its making its nest in hollow trees, and roosting occasionally on the branches. It is a freshwater duck, and a Southern species—never being seen in very high latitudes; nor is it known in Europe in a wild state, but is peculiar to the Continent of America. It is one of the easiest species to domesticate, and no zoological garden is now without it; in all of which its small size—being about that of a widgeon—its active movements and innocent look, its musical peet-peet, and, above all, its beautiful plumage, make it a general favourite.

“Besides these, there are many others of the American ducks, whose description would interest you, but you would grow tired were I to give a detailed account of them all; so I shall only mention a few that are distinguished by well-known peculiarities. There is the ‘whistler’ (Anas clangula), which takes its trivial name from the whistling sound of its wings while in flight; and the ‘shoveller,’ so called from the form of its bill; and the ‘conjuring,’ or ‘spirit’ ducks of the Indians (Anas vulgaris and albeola), because they dive so quickly and dexterously, that it is almost impossible to shoot them either with bow or gun. There is the ‘old wife,’ or ‘old squaw’ (Anas glacialis), so called from its incessant cackle, which the hunters liken to the scolding of an ill-tempered old wife. This species is the most noisy of all the duck tribe, and is called by the voyageurs ‘caccawee,’ from its fancied utterance of these syllables; and the sound, so often heard in the long nights of the fur countries, has been woven into and forms the burden of many a voyageur’s song. In some parts of the United States the caccawee is called ‘south-southerly,’ as its voice is there thought to resemble this phrase, while at the time when most heard—the autumn—these ducks are observed flying in a southerly direction.

“Besides these,” continued Lucien, “there are the teals—blue and green-winged—and the coots, and the widgeon—slightly differing from the widgeon of Europe—and there is the rare and beautiful little ruddy duck (Anas rubida), with its bright mahogany colour—its long upright tail and short neck—that at a distance give it the appearance of a duck with two heads. And there is the well-known ‘pintail,’ and the ‘pochard’ or ‘red-head;’ and the ‘mallard,’ from which comes the common domestic variety, and the ‘scoter,’ and ‘surf,’ and ‘velvet,’ and ‘dusky,’ ducks—these last four being all, more or less, of a dark colour. And there are the ‘shell-drakes,’ or ‘fishers,’ that swim low in the water, dive and fly well, but walk badly, and feed altogether on fish. These, on account of their toothed bills, form a genus of themselves—the ‘mergansers,’—and four distinct species of them are known in America.”

The approach of night, and the necessity of landing, to make their night camp, brought Lucien’s lecture to a close. Indeed François was glad when it ended, for he was beginning to think it somewhat tedious.

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