9. DESERT ANIMALS


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CHAPTER IX

DESERT ANIMALS


   

[page 150] THE life of the desert lives only by virtue of adapting itself to the conditions of the desert. Nature does not bend the elements to favor the plants and the animals; she makes the plants and the animals do the bending. The torote

 Meeting desert requirements.  

and the evening primrose must get used to heat, drouth, and a rocky bed; the coyote must learn to go without food and water for long periods. Even man, whose magnificent complacency leads him to think himself one of Nature's favorites, fares no better than a wild cat or an angle of cholla. He must endure the same heat, thirst, and hunger or perish. There is no other alternative.

And so it happens that those things that can live in the desert become stamped after a time with a peculiar desert character. The struggle

 The peculiar desert character.  

seems to develop in them special characteristics and make them, not different from their kind; but more positive, more insistent. The yucca [page 151] of the Mojave is the yucca of New Mexico and Old Mexico but hardier; the wild cat of the Colorado is the wild cat of California but swifter, more ferocious; the Yuma Indian is like the Zuni or the Navajo but lanker, more sinewy, more enduring. Father Garces, who passed through here one hundred and twenty-five years ago, records in his Memoirs more than once the wonderful endurance of the desert Indians. "The Jamajabs (a branch of the Yumas) endure hunger and thirst for four days," he writes

 Desert Indians.  

in one place. The tale is told that the Indians in the Coahuila Valley at the present day can do substantially the same thing. And, too, it is said that the Yumas have traveled from the Colorado to the Pacific, across the desert on foot, without any sustenance whatever. No one, not to the desert born, could do such a thing. Years of training in starvation, thirst and exposure have produced a man almost as hardy as the cactus, and just as distinctly a type of the desert as the coyote.

But the Indian and the plant must have some water. They cannot go without it indefinitely.

 The animals.  

And just there the desert animals seem to fit their environment a little snugger than either plant or human. For, strange as it may appear, [page 152] many of them get no water at all. There are sections of the desert, fifty or more miles square, where there is not a trace of water in river, creek, arroyo or pocket, where there is never a drop of dew falling; and where the two or three showers of rain each year sink into the

 Life without water.  

sand and are lost in half an hour after they have fallen. Yet that fifty-mile tract of sand and rock supports its animal, reptile and insect life just the same as a similar tract in Illinois or Florida. How the animals endure, how—even on the theory of getting used to it—the jack-rabbit, the ground squirrel, the rat, and the gopher can live for months without even the moisture from green vegetation, is one of the mysteries. A mirror held to the nose of a desert rabbit will show a moist breath-mark on the glass. The moisture came out of the rabbit, is coming out of him every few seconds of the day; and there is not a drop of moisture going into him. Evidently the ancient axiom: ‘‘Out of nothing, nothing comes’’ is all wrong.


 Endurance of the jack-rabbit.  

It is said in answer that the jack-rabbit gets moisture from roots, cactus-lobes and the like. And the reply is that you find him where there are no roots but grease-wood and no cactus at [page 153] all. Besides there is no evidence from an examination of his stomach that he ever eats anything but dried grass, bark, and sage leaves. But if the matter is a trifle doubtful about the rabbit on account of his traveling capacities, there is no doubt whatever about the ground

 Rock squirrels.  

squirrels, the rock squirrels, and the prairie dogs. None of them ever gets more than a hundred yards from his hole in his life, except possibly when migrating. And the circuit about each hole is usually bare of everything except dried grass. There is no moisture to be had. The prairie dog is not found on the desert, but in Wyoming and Montana there are villages of them on the grass prairies, with no water, root, lobe, or leaf within miles of them. The old

 Prairie dogs and water.  

theory of the prairie dog digging his hole down to water has no basis in fact. Patience, a strong arm and a spade will get to the bottom of his burrow in half an hour.

All the desert animals know the meaning of a water famine, and even those that are pronounced water drinkers know how to get on with the minimum supply. The mule-deer

 Water famine.  

whose cousin in the Adirondacks goes down to water every night, lives in the desert mountains, month in and month out with nothing more [page 154] watery to quench thirst than a lobe of the prickly pear or a joint of cholla. But he is naturally fond of green vegetation, and in the early morning he usually leaves the valley and climbs the mountains where with goats and mountain

 Mule-deer browsing.  

sheep he browses on the twigs of shrub and tree. The coyote likes water, too, but he puts up with a liquid meal of quail eggs, eating some mesquite beans, or at best absorbing the blood from some rabbit. The wild cat will go for weeks without more moisture than the blood of birds or lizards, and then perhaps, after long thirst, he will come to a water pocket in the rocks to lap only a handful, doing it with an angry

 Coyotes and wild cats living without water.  

snarling snap as though he disliked it and was drinking under compulsion. The gray wolf is too much of a traveller to depend upon any one locality. He will run fifty miles in a night and be back before morning. Whether he gets water or not is not possible to ascertain. The badger, the coon, and the bear are very seldom seen in the more arid legions. They are not strictly speaking desert animals because unfitted to endure desert hardships. They are naturally great eaters and sleepers, loving cool weather and their own fatness; and to that the desert is sharply opposed. There is nothing [page 155] fat in the land of sand and cactus. Animal

 Lean, gaunt life.  

life is lean and gaunt; if it sleeps at all it is with one eye open; and as for heat it cares very little about it. For the first law of the desert to which animal life of every kind pays allegiance is the law of endurance and abstinence. After that requirement is fulfilled special needs produce the peculiar qualities and habits of the individual.

Yet there is one quality more general than special since almost everything possesses it, and that is ferocity—fierceness. The strife is desperate; the supply of food and moisture is small, the animal is very hungry and thirsty.

 Fierceness of the animals.  

What wonder then that there is the determination of the starving in all desert life! Everything pursues or is pursued. Every muscle is strung to the highest tension. The bounding deer must get away; the swift-following wolf must not let him. The gray lizard dashes for a ledge of rock like a flash of light; but the bayonet bill of the road-runner must catch him before he gets there. Neither can afford to miss his mark. And that is perhaps the reason why there is so much development in special directions, so much fitness for a particular purpose, so much equipment for the

 Fitness for attack and escape.  

[page 156] doing or the avoiding of death. Because the wild cat cannot afford to miss his quarry, therefore is he made a something that seldom does miss.


 The wild cat.  

The description of the lion as "a jaw on four paws" will fit the wild cat very well—only he is a jaw on two paws. The hind legs are insignificant compared with the front ones, and the body back of the shoulders is lean, lank, slight, but withal muscular and sinewy. The head is bushy, heavy, and square, the neck and shoulders are massive, the forelegs and paws so large that they look to belong to some other animal. The ears are small yet sensitive enough to catch the least noise, the nose is acute, the eyes are like great mirrors, the teeth like points of steel. In fact the whole animal is little more than a machine for dragging down and devouring prey. That and the protection of his breed are his only missions on earth. He is the same creeping, snarling beast that one finds in the mountains of California, but the desert animal is larger and stronger. He sneaks upon a band of quail or a rabbit with greater caution, and

 The spring of the cat.  

when he springs and strikes it is with greater certainty. The enormous paws pin the game to the earth, and the sharp teeth cut through like [page 157] knives. It is not more than once in two or three days that a meal comes within reach and he has no notion of allowing it to get away.


 The mountain lion.  

The panther, or as he is more commonly called, the mountain lion, is no such square-built mass of muscle, no such bundle of energy as the wild cat, though much longer and larger. The figure is wiry and serpentine, and has all the action and grace of the tiger. It is pre-eminently a figure for crouching, sneaking, springing, and dragging down. His struggle-for-life is perhaps not so desperate as that of the cat because he lives high up in the desert mountains where game is more plentiful; but he is a very good struggler for all that. Occasionally one hears his cry in the night (a cry that stops the yelp of the coyote very quickly and sets the ears of the jack-rabbit a-trembling) but he is seldom seen unless sought

 Habits of the mountain lion.  

for. Even then the seeker does not usually care to look for him, or at him too long. He has the tiger eye, and his jaw and claw are too powerful to be trifled with. He will not attack one unless at bay or wounded; but as a mountain prowler he is the terror of the young deer, the mountain sheep, and the rabbit family.


 The gray wolf.  

One sees the gray wolf but little oftener than the mountain lion. Sometimes in the very [page 158] early morning you may catch a glimpse of him sneaking up a mountain canyon, but he usually keeps out of sight. His size is great for a wolf—sometimes over six feet from nose to tail tip—but it lies mostly in length and bulk. He does not stand high on his feet and yet is a swift and long-winded runner. In this and in his strength of jaw lies his special equipment. He is not very cunning but he takes up and follows a trail, and runs the game to earth with considerable perseverance. I have never seen anything but his footprints on the desert. Usually he keeps well up in the mountains and comes down on the plains only at night. He prefers prairie or table-land country, with adjacent stock

 Home of the wolf.  

ranges, to the desert, because there the hunting is not difficult. Sheep, calves, and pigs he will eat with some relish, but his favorite game is the young colt. He runs all his game and catches it as it runs like the true wolf that he is. Sometimes he hunts in packs of half a dozen, but if there is no companionship he does not hesitate to hunt alone.


 The coyote.  

he prairie wolf or coyote is not at all like the gray wolf. He seldom runs after things, though he does a good deal of running away from them. And he is a fairly good runner too. [page 159] But he does not win his living by his courage. His special gift is not the muscular energy that crushes at a blow; nor the great strength that follows and tires and finally drags down. Nature designed him with the wolf form and instinct,

 Cleverness of the coyote.  

but gave him something of the cleverness of the fox. It is by cunning and an obliging stomach that the coyote is enabled to eke out a living. He is cunning enough to know, for instance, that you cannot see him on a desert background as long as he does not move; so he sits still at times for many minutes, watching you from some little knoll. As long as he is motionless your eyes pass over him as a patch of sand or a weathered rock. When he starts to move, it is with some deliberation. He prefers a dog-trot and often several shots from your rifle will not stir him into a run. He slips along easily and gracefully—a lean, hungry-looking wretch with all the insolence of a hoodlum and all the shrewdness of a thief. He requires just such qualities together with a keen nose, good eyes and ears, and some swiftness of dash to make a living. The desert bill of fare is not all that a wolf could desire; but the coyote is not very particular. Everything is food that comes to his jaws. He likes rabbit meat, but [page 160] does not often get it. For desert rabbits do not go to sleep with both eyes shut. Failing the rabbit he snuffs out birds and their nests,

 His subsistence.  

trails up anything sick or wounded, and in emergencies runs down and devours a lizard. If animal food is scarce he turns his attention to vegetation, eats prickly pears and mesquite beans; and up in the mountains he stands on his hind legs and gathers choke cherries and manzanitas. With such precarious living he becomes gaunt, leathery, muscled with whip-cord. There is a meagreness and a scantiness about him; his coarse coat of hair is sun-scorched, his whole appearance is arid, dusty, sandy. There is no other animal so thoroughly typical of the desert.

 His background.  

He belongs there, skulking along the arroyos and washes just as a horned toad belongs under a granite bowlder. That he can live there at all is due to Nature's gift to him of all-around cleverness.


 The fox  

The fox is usually accounted the epitome of animal cunning, but here in the desert he is not frequently seen and is usually thought less clever than the coyote. He prefers the foothills and the cover of dense chaparral where he preys upon birds, smells out the nest of the valley-quail, catches a wood-rat; or, if hard [page 161] pushed to it, makes a meal of crickets and grasshoppers. But even at this he is not more facile than the coyote. Nor can he surpass the coyote in robbing a hen-roost and keeping out of a trap while doing it. He cuts no important figure on the desert and, indeed, he is hardly a desert animal though sometimes found there. The conditions of existence are too severe for him. The strength of the cat, the legs of the wolf, and the stomach of the coyote are not his; and so he prowls nearer civilization and takes more risk for an easier life.


 The prey.  

And the prey, what of the prey! The animals of the desert that furnish food for the meat eaters like the wolf and the cat—the animals that cannot fight back or at least wage unequal warfare—are they left hopelessly and helplessly at the mercy of the destroyers? Not so. Nature endows them and protects them as best she can. Every one of them has some device to baffle or trick the enemy. Even the poor little horned toad, that has only his not too thick skin to save him, can slightly change the color

 Devices for escape.  

of that skin to suit the bowlder he is flattened upon so that the keenest eye would pass him over unnoticed. The jack-rabbit cannot change his skin, but he knows many devices whereby he [page 162] contrives to save it. Lying in his form at the root of some bush or cactus he is not easily seen He crouches low and the gray of his fur fits into the sand imperceptibly. You do not see him but he sees you. His eyes never close;

 Senses of the rabbit.  

they are always watching. Look at them closely as he lies dead before you and how large and protruding they are! In the life they see everything that moves. And if his eyes fail him, perhaps his ears will not. He was named the jackass-rabbit because of his long ears; and the length of them is in exact proportion to their acuteness of hearing. No footstep escapes them. They are natural megaphones for the reception of sound. It can hardly be doubted that his nose is just as acute as his eyes and his ears. So that all told he is not an animal easily caught napping.

And if the jack-rabbit's senses fail him, has he no other resource? Certainly, yes; that is if he is not captured. In proportion to his size he has the strongest hind legs of anything on

 Speed of the jack-rabbit.  

the desert. In this respect he is almost like a kangaroo. When he starts running and begins with his long bound, there is nothing that can overtake him except a trained greyhound. He ricochets from knoll to knoll like a bounding [page 163] ball, and as he crosses ahead of you perhaps you think he is not moving very fast. But shoot at him and see how far behind him your rifle ball strikes the dust. No coyote or wolf is foolish enough to chase him or ever try to run him

 His endurance.  

down. His endurance is quite as good as his speed. It makes no difference about his not drinking water and that all his energy comes from bark and dry grass. He keeps right on running; over stones, through cactus, down a canyon, up a mountain. For keen senses and swift legs he is the desert type as emphatically as the coyote that is forever prowling on his track.


 The "cotton-tail."  

The little "cotton-tail" rabbit is not perhaps so well provided for as the jack-rabbit; but then he does not live in the open and is not so exposed to attack. He hides in brush, weeds, or grass; and when startled makes a quick dash for a hole in the ground or a ledge of rock. His legs are good for a short distance, and his senses are acute; but the wild cat or the coyote catches him at last. The continuance of his species lies in prolific breeding. The wild cat, too, catches a good many gophers, rats, mice, and squirrels. The squirrels are many in kind and beautiful in their forms and colorings. One [page 164] can hardly count them all—squirrels with long tails and short tails and no tails; squirrels yellow, brown, gray, blue, and slate-colored.

 Squirrels and gophers.  

They live in the rocks about the bases of the desert mountains; and eventually they fall a prey to the wild cat who watches for them just as the domestic cat watches for the house rat. Their only safeguard is their energetic way of darting into a hole. For all their sharp noses and ears they are foolish little folk and will keep poking their heads out to see what is going on.


 The desert antelope.  

But for acute senses, swift legs, and powerful endurance nothing can surpass the antelope. He is rarely seen to-day (more's the pity!); but only a few years ago there were quite a number of them on the Sonora edge of the Colorado Desert. Usually they prefer the higher mesas where the land is grass-grown and the view is unobstructed; but they have been known to come far down into the desert. And the antelope is very well fitted for the sandy waste. The lack of water does not bother him, he can eat anything that grows in grass or bush; and he can keep from being eaten about as cleverly as

 His eyes.  

any of the deer tribe. His eye alone is a marvel of development. It protrudes from the socket [page 165] —bulges out almost like the end of an egg—and if there were corners on the desert mesas I believe that eye could see around them. He cannot be approached in any direction without seeing what is going on; but he may be still-hunted and shot from behind crag or cover.

His curiosity is usually the death of him, because he will persist in standing still and looking at things; but his senses almost always give

 His nose and ears.  

him fair warning. His nose and ears are just as acute as his eyes. And how he can run! His legs seem to open and shut like the blades of a pocket-knife, so leisurely, so apparently effortless. But how they do take him over the ground! With one leg shot from under him he runs pretty nearly as fast as before. A tougher, more wiry, more beautiful animal was never created. Perhaps that is the reason why every man's hand has been raised against him until now his breed is almost extinct. He was well fitted to survive on the desert mesas and

 His swiftness.  

the upland plains—a fine type of swiftness and endurance—but Nature in her economy never reckoned with the magazine rifle nor the greed of the individual who calls himself a sportsman.


 The mule-deer.  

The mule-deer with his large ears, long muzzle [page 166] and keen eyes, is almost as well provided for as the antelope. He has survived the antelope possibly because he does not live in the open country. He haunts the brush and the rock cover of the gorge and the mountain side. There in the heavy chaparral he will skulk and hide while you may pass within a few feet of him. If he sees that he is discovered he can make a dash up or down the mountain in a way that astonishes. Stones, sticks, and brush have no terror for him. He jumps over them or smashes through them. He will bound across a talus of broken porphyry that will cut the toughest boots to pieces, striking all four feet with every bound, and yet not ruffle the hair around his dew claws; or he will dash through a tough dry chaparral at full speed without receiving a scrape or a cut of any kind.

 Deer in flight.  

The speed he attains on such ground astonishes again. His feet seem to strike rubber instead of stone; for he bounds like a ball, describes a quarter circle, and bounds again. The magazine of your rifle may be emptied at him; and still he may go on, gayly cutting quarter circles, until he disappears over the ridge. He is one of the hardiest of the desert progeny. The lack of water affects him little. He browses

 Habits of the desert deer.  

[page 167] and gets fat on twigs and leaves that seem to have as little nutriment about them as a telegraph-pole; and he lies down on a bed of stones as upon a bed of roses. He is as tough as the goats and sheep that keep well up on the high mountain ridges; and in cleverness is perhaps superior to the antelope. But oftentimes he will turn around to have a last look, and therein lies his undoing. In Sonora there is found a dwarf deer—a foolish if pretty little

 The white-tail.  

creature—and along river-beds the white-tailed deer is occasionally seen; but these deer with the goats and the sheep hardly belong to the desert, though living upon its confines.

In fact, none of the far-travelling animals lives right down in the desert gravel-beds continuously. They go there at night or in the early morning, but in the daytime they are usually found in the neighboring hills. The rabbits, rats, and squirrels, if undisturbed, will usually stay upon the flat ground; and there is also another variety of desert life that does not wander far from the sand and the rocks. I mean the

 The reptiles.  

reptiles. They are not as a class swift in flight, nor over-clever in sense, nor cunning in devices. Nor have they sufficient strength to grapple and fight with the larger animals. It [page 168] would seem as though Nature had brought them into the desert only half made-up—a prey to every beast and bird. But no; they are given the most deadly weapon of defence of

 Poison of reptiles.  

all—poison. Almost all of the reptiles have poison about them in fang or sting. We are accustomed to label them "poisonous" or "not poisonous," as they kill or do not kill a human being; but that is not the proper criterion by which to judge. The bite of the trap-door spider will not seriously affect a man, but it will kill a lizard in a few minutes. In proportion to his size the common red ant of the desert is more poisonous than the rattlesnake. It is reiterated with much positiveness that a swarm of these ants have been known to kill men. There is, however, only one reptile on the

 The fang and sting.  

desert that humanity need greatly fear on account of his poison and that is the rattlesnake. There are several varieties called in local parlance "side-winders," "ground rattlers," and the like; but the ordinary spotted, brown, or yellow rattlesnake is the type. He is not a pleasant creature, but then he is not often met with. In travelling many hundreds of miles on the desert I never encountered more than half a dozen.

[page 169] The rattle is indescribable, but a person will know it the first time he hears it. It is something between a buzz and a burr, and can

 The rattle-snake.  

cause a cold perspiration in a minute fraction of time. The snake is very slow in getting ready to strike, in fact sluggish; but once the head shoots out, it does so with the swiftness of an arrow. Nothing except the road-runner can dodge it. The poison is deadly if the fang has entered a vein or a fleshy portion of the body where the flow of blood to the heart is free. If struck on the hand or foot, the man may recover, because the circulation there is slow and the heart has time to repel the attack. Every

 Effect of the poison.  

animal on the desert knows just how venomous is that poison. Even your dog knows it by instinct. He may shake and kill garter-snakes, but he will not touch the rattlesnake.

All of the spider family are poisonous and you can find almost every one of them on the desert. The most sharp-witted of the family is the trap-door spider—the name coming from the door which he hinges and fastens over the

 Spiders and tarantulas.  

entrance of his hole in the ground. The tarantula is simply an overgrown spider, very heavy in weight, and inclined to be slow and stupid in action. He is a ferocious-looking wretch [page 170] and has a ferocious bite. It makes an ugly wound and is deadly enough to small animals. The scorpion has the reputation of being very venomous; but his sting on the hand amounts to little more than that of an ordinary wasp.

 Centipedes and scorpions.  

Nor is the long-bodied, many-legged, rather graceful centipede so great a poison-carrier as has been alleged. They are all of them poisonous, but in varying degrees. Doubtless the (to us) harmless horned toads and the swifts have for their enemies some venom in store.


 Lizards and swifts.  

The lizards are many in variety, and their colors are often very beautiful in grays, yellows, reds, blues, and indigoes. The Gila monster belongs to their family, though he is much larger. The look of him is very forbidding and he has an ugly way of hissing at you; but just how venomous he is I do not know. Very likely there is some poison about him, though this has been denied. It would seem that everything that cannot stand or run or hide must be defended somehow. Even the poor little

 The hydrophobia skunk.  

skunk when he comes to live on the desert develops poisoned teeth and his bite produces what is called hydrophobia. The truth about the hydrophobia skunk is, I imagine, that he is an eater of carrion; and when he bites a person [page 171] he is likely to produce blood-poisoning, which is miscalled hydrophobia.


 The cutthroat band.  

Taking them for all in all, they seem like a precious pack of cutthroats, these beasts and reptiles of the desert. Perhaps there never was a life so nurtured in violence, so tutored in attack and defence as this. The warfare is continuous from the birth to the death. Everything must fight, fly, feint, or use poison; and every slayer eventually becomes a victim. What a murderous brood for Nature to bring forth! And what a place she has chosen in which to breed them! Not only the struggle among themselves, but the struggle with the land,

 The eternal struggle.  

the elements—the eternal fighting with heat, drouth, and famine. What else but fierceness and savagery could come out of such conditions?


 Brute courage.  

But, after all, is there not something in the sheer brute courage that endures, worthy of our admiration? These animals have made the best out of the worst, and their struggle has given them a physical character which is, shall we not say, beautiful? Perhaps you shudder at the thought of a panther dragging down a deer—one enormous paw over the deer's muzzle, one on his neck, and the strain of all the back muscles [page 172] coming into play. But was not that the purpose for which the panther was designed? As a living machine how wonderfully he works! Look at the same subject done in bronze by Barye and you will see what a revelation of

 Brute character.  

character the great statuary thought it. Look, too, at Barye's wolf and fox, look at the lions of Géricault, and the tigers and serpents of Delacroix; and with all the jaw and poison of them how beautiful they are!

You will say they are made beautiful through the art of the artists, and that is partly true; but we are seeing only what the artists saw. And how did they come to choose such subjects? Why, simply because they recognized that for art there is no such thing as nobility or vulgarity of subject. Everything may be fit if

 Beauty in character.  

it possesses character. The beautiful is the characteristic—the large, full-bodied, well-expressed truth of character. At least that is one very positive phase of beauty.


 Graceful forms of animals.  

Even the classic idea of beauty, which regards only the graceful in form or movement or the sensuous in color, finds types among these desert inhabitants. The dullest person in the arts could not but see fine form and proportion in the panther, graceful movement in [page 173] the antelope, and charm of color in all the pretty rock squirrels. For myself, being somewhat prejudiced in favor of this drear waste and its savage progeny, I may confess to having watched the flowing movements of snakes, their coil and rattle and strike, many times and with great pleasure; to having stretched myself for hours upon granite bowlders while following the play of indigo lizards in the sand;

 Colors of lizards.  

to having traced with surprise the slightly changing skin of the horned toad produced by the reflection of different colors held near him. I may also confess that common as is the jack-rabbit he never bursts away in speed before me without being followed by my wonder at his graceful mystery of motion; that the crawl of a wild cat upon game is something that arrests and fascinates by its masterful skill; and that

 Mystery of motion.  

even that desert tramp, the coyote, is entitled to admiration for the graceful way he can slip through patches of cactus. The fault is not in the subject. It is not vulgar or ugly. The trouble is that we perhaps have not the proper angle of vision. If we understood all, we should admire all.

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