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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXXV. The Jerfalcon and the White Grouse

“Mine,” began François, “was a bird-adventure, as you all see—though what kind of birds I’ve shot I can’t tell. One of them’s a hawk, I’m sure; but it’s a white hawk, and that I never saw before. The rest, I suppose, are white partridges. Everything appears to be white here. What are they, Luce?”

“You are right about this first,” answered Lucien, taking up one of the birds which François had brought back with him, and which was white all but a few spots of clove-brown upon its back. “This is a hawk, as you may tell, by its appearance, or rather I should say a ‘falcon,’ for you must know there is a difference.”

“What difference?” demanded François, with some eagerness of manner.

“Why the principal difference is the formation of their beaks or bills. The bills of the true falcons are stronger, and have a notch in the lower mandible answering to a tooth in the upper one. Their nostrils, too, are differently formed. But another point of distinction is found in their habits. Both feed on warm-blooded animals, and neither will eat carrion. In this respect the hawks and falcons are alike. Both take their prey upon the wing; but herein lies the difference. The hawks capture it by skimming along horizontally or obliquely, and picking it up as they pass; whereas the true falcons ‘pounce’ down upon it from above, and in a line nearly vertical.”

“Then this must be a true falcon,” interrupted François, “for I saw the gentleman do that very thing; and beautifully he did it, too.”

“It is a falcon,” continued Lucien; “and of the many species of hawks which inhabit North America—over twenty in all—it is one of the boldest and handsomest. I don’t wonder you never saw it before; for it is truly a bird of the Northern regions, and does not come so far south as the territory of the United States, much less into Louisiana. It is found in North Europe, Greenland, and Iceland, and has been seen as far north on both continents as human beings have travelled. It is known by the name of ‘jerfalcon,’ or ‘gyrfalcon,’ but its zoological name is Falco Islandicus.”

“The Indians here,” interposed Norman, “call it by a name that means ‘winter bird,’ or ‘winterer’—I suppose, because it is one of the few that stay in these parts all the year round, and is therefore often noticed by them in winter time. The traders sometimes call it the ‘speckled partridge-hawk,’ for there are some of them more spotted than this one is.”

“True,” said Lucien; “the young ones are nearly of a brown colour, and they first become spotted or mottled after a year or two. They are several years old before they get the white plumage, and very few individuals are seen of a pure white all over, though there are some without a spot.

“Yes,” continued the naturalist, “it is the jerfalcon; and those other birds which you call ‘white partridges,’ are the very creatures upon which it preys. So you have killed both the tyrant and his victims. They are not partridges though, but grouse—that species known as ‘willow-grouse’ (Tetrao saliceti).”

And as Lucien said this, he began to handle the birds, which were of a beautiful white all over, with the exception of the tail-feathers. These last were pitch-black.

“Ho!” exclaimed Lucien, in some surprise, “you have two kinds here! Were they all together when you shot them?”

“No,” answered François; “one I shot along with the hawk out in the open ground. All the others I killed upon a tree in a piece of woods that I fell in with. There’s no difference between them that I can see.”

“But I can,” said Lucien, “although I acknowledge they all look very much alike. Both are feathered to the toes—both have the black feathers in the tail—and the bills of both are black; but if you observe closely, this kind—the willow-grouse—has the bill much stronger and less flattened. Besides, it is a larger bird than the other, which is the ‘rock-grouse’ (Tetrao rupestris). Both are sometimes, though erroneously, called ‘ptarmigan;’ but they are not the true ptarmigan (Tetrao mutus)—such as exist in North Europe—though these last are also to be met with in the Northern parts of America. The ptarmigan are somewhat larger than either of these kinds, but in other respects differ but little from them.

“The habits of the ‘rock’ and ‘willow’ grouse are very similar. They are both birds of the snowy regions, and are found as far north as has been explored. The willow-grouse in winter keep more among the trees, and are oftener met with in wooded countries; whereas the others like best to live in the open ground, and, from your statement, it appears you found each kind in its favourite haunt.”

“Just so,” said François. “After leaving here, I kept down the valley, and was just crossing an open piece of high ground, when I espied the white hawk, or falcon as you call it, hovering in the air as I’d often seen hawks do. Well, I stopped and hid behind a rock, thinking I might have a chance to put a few drops into him. All at once he appeared to stand still in the air, and, then closing his wings, shot down like an arrow. Just then I heard a loud ‘whur-r-r,’ and up started a whole covey of white partridges—grouse, I should say—the same as this you call the ‘rock-grouse.’ I saw that the hawk had missed the whole of them, and I marked them as they flew off. They pitched about a hundred yards or so, and then went plunge under the snow—every one of them making a hole for itself just like where one had poked their foot in! I guess, boys, this looked funny enough. I thought I would be sure to get a shot at some of these grouse as they came out again; so I walked straight up to the holes they had made, and stood waiting. I still saw the hawk hovering in the air, about an hundred yards ahead of me.

“I was considering whether I ought to go farther on, and tramp the birds out of the snow; for I believed, of course, they were still under the place where the holes were. All at once I noticed a movement on the crust of the snow right under where the hawk was flying, and then that individual shot down to the spot, and disappeared under the snow! At the same instant, the crust broke in several places, and up came the grouse one after another, and whirred off out of sight, without giving me any sort of a chance. The hawk, however, had not come up yet; and I ran forward, determined to take him as soon as he should make his appearance. When I had got within shooting distance, up he fluttered to the surface, and—what do you think?—he had one of the grouse struggling in his claws! I let him have the right barrel, and both he and grousy were knocked dead as a couple of door-nails!

“I thought I might fall in with the others again; and kept on in the direction they had taken, which brought me at last to a piece of woodland consisting of birches and willow-trees. As I was walking along the edge of this, I noticed one of the willows, at some distance off, covered with great white things, that at first I took for flakes of snow; but then I thought it curious that none of the other trees had the same upon them. As I came a little nearer, I noticed one of the things moving, and then I saw they were birds, and very like the same I had just seen, and was then in search of. So I crept in among the trees; and, after some dodging, got within beautiful shooting distance, and gave them both barrels. There, you see the result!”

Here François triumphantly pointed to the pile of birds, which in all, with the jerfalcon, counted four brace and a half.

One was the rock-grouse, which the falcon had itself killed, and the others were willow-grouse, as Lucien had stated. François now remained silent, while Basil related his day’s adventure.

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