“Now we come to the largest family of the Rodent order, the Rat family, which of course includes the Mice,” said Mother Nature, after calling the next learning session to order at the old meeting-place. “And the largest member of the family reminds me very much of the one we learned about yesterday.”
“I know!” cried Peter Rabbit. “You mean Jerry Muskrat.”
“Yes, Peter,” said Mother Nature smiling. “Jerry is the very one, the largest member of the Rat family. Sometimes he is spoken of as a little cousin of Paddy the Beaver. Probably this is because he looks something like a small Beaver, builds a house in the water as Paddy does, and lives in very much the same way. The truth is, he is no more closely related to Paddy than he is to the rest of you. He is a true Rat. He is called Muskrat because he carries with him a scent called musk. It is not an unpleasant scent, like that of Jimmy Skunk, and isn’t used for the same purpose. Jerry uses his to tell his friends where he has been. He leaves a little of it at the places he visits.”
“Jerry is seldom found far from the water and then only when he is seeking a new home. He is rather slow and uneasy on land; however in the water he is quite at home, as all of you know who have visited the Smiling Pool. He can dive and swim under water a long distance, though not as far as Paddy the Beaver.”
“Has he webbed hind feet like Paddy?” piped up Jumper the Hare.
“Well, yes and no,” replied Mother Nature. “They are not fully webbed as Paddy’s are, and yet there is a little webbing between some of the toes, enough to be of great help in swimming. His tail is of greater use in swimming than is Paddy’s. It is bare and scaly, and instead of being flat on the top and bottom it is flattened on the sides, and he uses it as a propeller, moving it rapidly from side to side.”
“Like Paddy he has a dark brown outer coat, lighter underneath than on his back and sides, and like Paddy he has a very warm soft under coat, through which the water cannot get and which keeps him comfortable, no matter how cold the water is. You have all seen his house in the Smiling Pool. He builds it in much the same way that Paddy builds his, and cuts and uses rushes instead of sticks. Of course it is not nearly as large as Paddy’s house, because Jerry is himself so much smaller. It is arranged much the same, with a comfortable bedroom and one or more passages down to deep water. In winter Jerry spends much of his time in this house, going out only for food. Then he lives chiefly on lily roots and roots of other water plants, digging them up and taking them back to his house to eat. When the ice is clear you can sometimes see him swimming below.”
“I know,” spoke up Peter Rabbit. “Once I was crossing the Smiling Pool on the ice and saw him right under me.”
“Jerry doesn’t build dams however he does sometimes dig little canals along the bottom where the water isn’t deep enough to suit him,” continued Mother Nature. “Sometimes in the winter Jerry and Mrs. Jerry share their home with two or three friends. If there is a good bank Jerry usually has another home in that too. He makes the entrance under water and then tunnels back and up for some distance, where he builds a snug little bedroom just below the surface of the ground where it is dry. Usually he has more than one tunnel leading to this, and sometimes an opening from above. This is covered with sticks and grass to hide it, and provides an entrance for fresh air.”
“Jerry lives mostly on roots and plants. He is also fond of mussels or fresh-water clams, fish, some insects and young birds when he can catch them whereas Paddy the Beaver doesn’t eat flesh at all.”
“Jerry and Mrs. Muskrat have several families in a year, and Jerry is a very good father, doing his share in caring for the babies. He and Mrs. Muskrat are rather social and enjoy visiting neighbors of their own kind. Their voices are a sort of squeak, and you can often hear them talking among the rushes in the early evening. That is the hour they like best, though they are abroad during the day when undisturbed. They do have to watch out for Hooty the Owl at night and for Reddy Fox and Old Man Coyote whenever they are on land. Billy Mink also is an enemy at times, perhaps the most to be dreaded because he can follow Jerry anywhere.”
“Jerry makes little landings of mud and rushes along the edge of the shore. On these he delights to sit to eat his meals. He likes apples and vegetables and sometimes will travel quite a distance to get them. Late in the summer he begins to prepare for winter by starting work on his house, if he is to have a new one. He is a good worker.”
“Another member of this family is the Brown Rat,” said Mother Nature. “He is sometimes called the Norway Rat and sometimes the Wharf Rat and House Rat. He is big, being next in size to Jerry Muskrat.”
“He lives chiefly around the homes of humans and likes to gnaw into grain bins and steal the grain. He gets into hen-houses and helps himself to eggs and young chickens.”
“Often in summer he moves out into fields, digging burrows there and damaging crops and also eating any of the furred and feathered folk he can catch,” said Mother Nature in a matter-of-fact tone. He is not fond of the light of day and prefers the darkness. He has very large families, sometimes ten or more babies at a time, and several families in a year.”
“Is the Brown Rat afraid of any one?” asked Peter.
“He certainly is,” replied Mother Nature. “He fears one whom every one of you fears–Shadow the Weasel.”
“When food becomes scarce, Brown Rat and his family move on to where it is more plentiful. Often they make long journeys, a great number of them together, and do not hesitate to swim a stream that may be in their path.”
“I’ve never seen Brown Rat,” said Peter. “What kind of a tail does he have?”
“I might have known you would ask that,” laughed Mother Nature as she recalled how Peter Rabbit longs for a bigger tail. “The Brown Rat has a long and slim tail and it has no hair. His fur is very coarse and it is brown and gray. He has a close relative called the Black Rat, however he is smaller and has been largely driven out of the country by his bigger cousin.”
Paddy the Beaver has a flat tail top-to-bottom and Jerry Muskrat has a flat tail side-to-side. They both use them in the water for propelling and they have other uses. What other four-legged animals come to mind when thinking about tails and their special uses? Can you make a list with descriptions of what they look like and what they are used for? Furry? Long? Flat? Puffy? Digging? Balance?
Do you know where rats originally came from? Are they native to the United States where you live? How do they behave when living in cities vs. out in the wild?
BONUS: If you like stories with rats as characters be sure not to miss this classic: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White in which Templeton the rat keeps busy fussing about in the barn while Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig have many adventures.
If you find the work and vision of P.L.A.Y. supports you and your family on the life learning path, please pass it forward to friends and neighbors as a Simple Gift that keeps on giving.
Johnny Chuck and Striped Chipmunk were the only ones who were not on hand at the pond of Paddy the Beaver deep in the Green Forest at sun-up the next morning. Johnny and Striped Chipmunk were afraid to go so far from home. However, to the surprise of everybody, Prickly Porky was there.
“He must have traveled all night to get here as he goes at a very slow pace,” said Peter Rabbit to his cousin, Jumper the Hare.
Just then Prickly Porky was reaching for lily pads from an old log which lay half in the water and appearing very well satisfied with life. You know there is nothing like a good meal of things you like to make everything seem just as it should.
Mother Nature seated herself on one end of Paddy’s dam and called the session to order. Just as she did so a brown head popped out of the water close by and a pair of anxious eyes looked up at Mother Nature.
“It is quite all right, Paddy,” she said softly. “These little four-legged folks are trying to gain some knowledge of themselves and others, and we are going to have this morning’s session right here because it is all about you.”
Paddy the Beaver no longer looked anxious. There was a sparkle in his eyes. “Then I’d like to stay,” he said eagerly. “If there is a chance to learn anything new I don’t want to miss it.”
Paddy the Beaver climbed out on his dam. It was the first time Happy Jack Squirrel ever had seen him out of water, and Happy Jack gave a little gasp of surprise. “I had no idea he is so big!” he exclaimed.
“He is the biggest of all the Rodents in this country, and one of the biggest in all the Great World. He is quite clever as he is a lumberman, builder, and engineer,” said Mother Nature.
“As a lumberman he cuts trees, as a builder he constructs houses and dams, and as an engineer he digs canals,” Mother Nature continued as Peter, Chatterer, and Jumper sat with their mouths opened in astonishment at all Paddy does.
“Paddy begins by cutting down the trees so that he may live, for the bark of those trees is his food. Like Prickly Porky he lives chiefly on bark. However, he wastes nothing. He makes use of every bit of that tree. He also does something for the Green Forest in return for the trees he takes by building a dam that creates a pond for you all to visit.”
“Now I want you all to take a good look at Paddy,” said Mother Nature.
As Paddy sat there on his dam, he looked rather like a giant member of the Rat family, though his head was more like that of a Squirrel than a Rat. His body was very thick and heavy, and in color he was dark brown, lighter underneath than above. Squatting there on the dam his back was rounded.
Peter Rabbit appeared to be interested in just one thing, Paddy’s tail. He couldn’t keep his eyes off it.
Mother Nature noticed this. “Well, Peter,” she said, “what is on your mind now?”
“That tail,” replied Peter. “That’s the oddest tail I’ve ever seen. I should think it would be heavy and dreadfully in the way.”
Mother Nature laughed. “If you ask him Paddy will tell you that his tail is the handiest tail in the Green Forest,” she said. “There isn’t another like it in all the Great World, and if you’ll be patient you will see just how handy it is.”
It was broad and thick and flat, oval in shape, and covered with scales instead of hair. Just then Jumper the Hare made a discovery. “Why!” he exclaimed, “Paddy has feet like Honker the Goose!”
“Only my hind feet,” said Paddy. “They have webs between the toes just as Honker’s have. That is for swimming. There are no webs between my fingers.” He held up a hand for all to see. Sure enough, the fingers were free.
“Now that everybody has had a good look at you, Paddy,” said Mother Nature, “suppose you swim over to where you have been cutting trees. We will join you there, and then you can show us just how you work.”
Paddy slipped into the water, where for a second or two he floated with just his head above the surface. Then he quickly raised his broad, heavy tail and brought it down on the water with a slap that sounded like a loud crack. It was so loud and unexpected that every one save Mother Nature and Prickly Porky jumped with fright. Peter Rabbit happened to be right on the edge of the dam and, because he jumped before he had time to think, he jumped right into the water with a splash. Now Peter doesn’t like the water, as you know, and he scrambled out just as fast as ever he could.
“What did he do that for?” Peter asked while shaking out his soaked fur.
“To show you one use he has for that handy tail,” replied Mother Nature. “That is the way he gives warning to his friends whenever he discovers danger. Did you notice how he used his tail to aid him in swimming? He turns it almost on edge and uses it as a rudder. Those big, webbed hind feet are the paddles which drive him through the water. He can stay under water a long time, for as much as five minutes. See, he has just come up now.”
Sure enough, Paddy’s head had just appeared clear across the pond almost to the opposite shore, and he was now swimming on the surface. Mother Nature at once led the way around the pond to a small grove of poplar trees which stood a little way back from the water. Paddy was already there. “Now,” said Mother Nature “show us what kind of a lumberman you are.”
Paddy picked out a small tree, sat up much as Happy Jack Squirrel does, while using his big flat tail on the ground to brace him, seized the trunk of the tree in both hands, and went to work with his great orange-colored cutting teeth. He bit out a big chip. Then another and another. Gradually he worked around the tree. After a while the tree began to sway and crack. Paddy bit out two or three more chips, then suddenly slapped the ground with his tail as a warning and scampered back to a safe distance. He was taking no chances of being caught under that falling tree.
The tree fell and at once Paddy returned to work. The smaller branches he cut off with a single bite at the base of each. The larger ones required a number of bites. Then he set to work to cut the trunk up in short logs. At this point Mother Nature spoke up.
“Now show us,” she said, “what you can do with the logs.”
Paddy at once got behind a log, and by pushing, rolled it ahead of him until at last it fell with a splash in the water of a canal which led from near that grove of trees to the pond. Paddy followed into the water and began to push it ahead of him towards the pond.
“That will do,” Mother Nature called out. “Come and show us how you take the branches.”
Paddy climbed out and returned to the fallen tree. There he picked up one of the long branches in his mouth, grasping it near the base, twisted it over his shoulder and started to drag it to the canal. When he reached the latter he entered the water and began swimming, still dragging the branch in the same way. Once more Mother Nature stopped him. “You’ve shown us how you cut trees and move them, so now I would ask you to answer a few questions if you would please,” she said.
“Certainly,” Paddy said as he climbed out and squatted on the bank.
“How did this canal happen to be here in such a handy location?” asked Mother Nature.
“Why, I dug it out,” replied Paddy. “You see, I’m rather slow on land and I don’t like to be far from water. Those trees are pretty well back from the pond, so I dug this canal, which brings the water almost to them. It makes it safer for me in case Old Man Coyote or Buster Bear or Yowler the Bobcat happens to be looking for a Beaver dinner. Also it makes it very much easier to get my logs and branches to the pond.”
Mother Nature nodded. “Just so,” she said. “I want the rest of you to notice how well this canal has been dug. At the other end it is carried along the bottom of the pond where the water is shallow so as to give greater depth. Now you will understand why I called Paddy an engineer. What do you do with your logs and branches, Paddy?”
“I put them in my food-pile, out there where the water is deep near my house,” replied Paddy. “The bark I eat and the bare sticks I use to keep my house and dam in repair. In the late fall I cut enough trees to keep me in food all winter. When my pond is covered with ice I have nothing to worry about; my food supply is below the ice. When I am hungry I swim out under the ice, get a stick, take it back into my house and eat the bark. Then I take the bare stick outside to use when needed on my dam or house.”
“How did you come to make this fine pond?” asked Mother Nature.
“Oh, I just happened to come exploring up the Laughing Brook and found there was plenty of food here and a good place for a pond,” replied Paddy. “I thought I would like to live here. Down where my dam is, the Laughing Brook was shallow–just the place for a dam.”
“Could you tell us why you wanted a pond and how you built that dam,” Mother Nature requested.
“Why, I had to have a pond, if I was to stay here,” replied Paddy. “The Laughing Brook wasn’t deep or big enough for me to live here safely. If it had been, I would have made my home in the bank and not bothered with a house or dam. It wasn’t though so I had to make a pond. It required a lot of hard work and it is worth all the time and energy.”
“First, I cut a lot of brush and young trees and placed them in the Laughing Brook in that shallow place, with the base of each pointing up-stream. I kept them in place by piling mud and stones on them. Then I kept piling on more sticks and brush and mud. The water brought down leaves and floating stuff, and this caught in the dam and helped fill it in. I dug a lot of mud in front of it and used this to fill in the spaces between the sticks. This made the water deeper in front of the dam and at the same time kept it from getting through. As the water backed up, of course it made a pond. I kept making my dam longer and higher, and the longer and higher it became the bigger the pond grew. When it was big enough and deep enough to suit me, I stopped work on the dam and built my house out there.”
Everybody turned to look at Paddy’s house, the roof of which stood high out of water a little way from the dam. “Tell us how you built that,” said Mother Nature quietly.
“Oh, I just made a big platform of sticks and mud out there where it was deep enough for me to be sure that the water could not freeze clear to the bottom, even in the coldest weather,” replied Paddy, in a matter-of-fact tone. “I built it up until it was above water. Then I built the walls and roof of sticks and mud, just as you see them there. Inside I have a fine big room with a comfortable bed of shredded wood. I have two openings in the floor with a long passage leading from each down through the foundations and opening at the bottom of the pond. Of course, these are filled with water. Some houses have only one passage, however I like two. These are the only entrances to my house.”
“Every fall I repair my walls and roof, adding sticks and mud and turf, so that now they are very thick. Late in the fall I sometimes plaster the outside with mud. This freezes hard, and no predator who may reach my house on the ice can tear it open.”
Peter Rabbit drew a long breath. “What a lot of work,” he said. “Do you work all the time?”
“No Peter,” Paddy said with a chuckle. Mother Nature nodded and asked “Are there any more questions?”
“Do you eat anything else besides bark?” asked Happy Jack Squirrel.
“Yes actually,” replied Paddy. “In the summer I eat berries, mushrooms, grass and the leaves and stems of a number of plants. In winter I vary my fare with lily roots and the roots of alder and willow. Bark is my principal food though.”
Mother Nature waited a few minutes and seeing there were no more questions she added a few words. “Now I hope you understand why I told you that Paddy is a lumberman, builder, and engineer,” she said. “For the next session we will take up the Rat family.”
“There,” said Mother Nature, pointing to Prickly Porky the Porcupine, “is the next to largest member of your order, which is?”
“Order of Rodents,” piped up Striped Chipmunk.
“He is the next to largest and very good at escaping predators,” continued Mother Nature.
“Actually, escaping his predators is no real credit to him. They are only too glad to keep out of his way; he doesn’t have to fear anybody,” said Chatterer the Red Squirrel to his cousin, Happy Jack.
His remark didn’t escape the keen ears of Mother Nature. “Are you sure about that?” she asked. “Well there is Pekan the Fisher”
She was interrupted by a great rattling on the old stump. Everybody turned to look. There was Prickly Porky backing down as fast as he could, which wasn’t fast at all, and rattling his thousand little spears as he did so. It was really very funny. Everybody had to laugh, even Mother Nature. You see, it was plain that he was in a great hurry, yet every movement was slow and clackety.
“Well, Prickly Porky, what does this mean? Where are you going?” asked Mother Nature.
Prickly Porky turned his eyes towards her, and in them was a troubled, worried look. “Where’s Pekan the Fisher?” he asked, and his voice shook a little with something very much like fear.
Mother Nature understood instantly. When she had said, “Well there is Pekan the Fisher,” Prickly Porky had waited to hear no more. He had instantly thought that she meant that Pekan was right there somewhere. “It’s all right, Prickly Porky,” she said. “Pekan isn’t anywhere around here, so climb back on that stump and no need to worry. Chatterer had just said that you didn’t have to fear anybody and I was starting to explain that actually you do, that despite your thousand little spears you have reason to fear Pekan the Fisher.”
Prickly Porky shivered and this made the thousand little spears in his coat rattle. It was such a surprising thing to see Prickly Porky actually afraid that the other little folks almost doubted their own eyes. “Are you quite sure that Pekan isn’t anywhere around?” asked Prickly Porky, and his voice still shook.
“Quite sure,” replied Mother Nature. “If he were I wouldn’t allow him to hurt you. You ought to know that. Now sit up so that every one can get a good look at you.”
Prickly Porky sat up, and the others gathered around the foot of the stump to look at him.
He was a little bigger than Bobby Coon and his body was thick and heavy-looking. His back humped up like an arch. His head was rather small for the size of his body, short and rather round. His neck was even shorter. His eyes were small and it was plain that he couldn’t see far, or clearly unless what he was looking at was close at hand. His ears were small and nearly hidden in hair. His front teeth, the gnawing teeth which showed him to be a Rodent, were very large and bright orange. His legs were short and stout. He had four toes on each front foot and five on each hind foot, and these were armed with quite long, stout claws.
The oddest thing and the most interesting thing about Prickly Porky was his coat. Not one among the other four-legged folk of the Green Forest has a coat anything like his. Most of them have soft, short under fur protected and more or less hidden by longer, coarser hair. Prickly Porky had the long coarse hair and on his back it was very long and coarse, brownish-black in color up to the tips, which were white. Under this long hair was some soft woolly fur, and what long hair he had hid chiefly was an array of little spears called quills. They were white to the tips, which were dark and very, very sharply pointed. All down the sides were tiny barbs, so small as hardly to be seen. On his head the quills were about an inch long and on his back they were four inches long, becoming shorter towards the tail. His tail was rather short, stout, and covered with short quills.
As he sat there on that old stump some of Prickly Porky’s little spears could be seen peeping out from the long hair on his back, although they didn’t look particularly dangerous. Peter Rabbit suddenly made a discovery. “Why!” he exclaimed. “He hasn’t any little spears on the under side of him!”
“I wondered who would be the first to notice that,” said Mother Nature. “No, Prickly Porky hasn’t any little spears underneath, and Pekan the Fisher has found that out. He knows that if he can turn Prickly Porky on his back he can attack him without much danger from those little spears, and he has learned how to do that very thing. That is why Prickly Porky is afraid of him. Now, Prickly Porky, climb down off that stump and show these little four-legged folks what you do when a predator comes near.”
Grumbling and growling, Prickly Porky climbed down to the ground. Then he tucked his head down between his front paws and suddenly the thousand little spears appeared all over him, pointing in every direction until he looked like a giant chestnut burr. Then he began to thrash his tail from side to side.
“What is he doing that for?” asked Johnny Chuck, looking rather puzzled.
“Go near enough to be hit by it, and you’ll understand,” said Mother Nature. “That is his one weapon. Whoever is hit by that tail will find himself full of those little spears and will take care never to go near Prickly Porky again. Once those little spears have entered the skin, they keep working in deeper and deeper, and more than one of his predators has been killed by them. On account of those tiny barbs they are hard to pull out, and pulling them out hurts dreadfully. Just try one and see.”
No one was anxious to try, so Mother Nature paused only a moment. “You will notice that he moves that tail quickly,” she continued. “It is the only thing about him which is quick. When he has a chance, in time of danger, he likes to get his head under a log or rock, instead of putting it between his paws as he is doing now. Then he plants his feet firmly and waits for a chance to use that tail.”
“Is it true that he can throw those little spears at folks?” asked Peter.
Mother Nature shook her head. “There isn’t a word of truth in it,” she declared. “That story probably was started by some one who was hit by his tail, and it was done so quickly that the victim didn’t see the tail move and so thought the little spears were thrown at him.”
“How does he make all those little spears stand up that way?” asked Jumper the Hare.
“He has a special set of muscles for just that purpose,” explained Mother Nature.
“When those quills stick into someone they must pull out of Prickly Porky’s own skin; I should think that would hurt him,” spoke up Striped Chipmunk.
“Not at all,” replied Mother Nature. “They are very loosely fastened in his skin and come out at the least little pull. New ones grow to take the place of those he loses.”
“Also notice that he puts his whole foot flat on the ground just as Buster Bear and Bobby Coon do. Very few animals do this, and those that do are said to be plantigrade. Now, Prickly Porky, tell us what you eat and where you make your home, and that will end today’s session.”
“I eat bark, twigs and leaves mostly,” said Prickly Porky. “I like hemlock best of all, and also eat poplar, pine and other trees for a change. Sometimes I stay in a tree for days until I have stripped it of all its bark and leaves. I don’t see any sense in moving about any more than is necessary.”
“Does that kill the tree?” exclaimed Peter Rabbit.
“Well, maybe, what of it?” replied Prickly Porky. “There are plenty of trees. In summer I like lily pads and always get them when I can.”
“Can you swim?” asked Peter eagerly.
“Of course,” grunted Prickly Porky.
“I never see you out on the Green Meadows,” said Peter.
“And you never will,” replied Prickly Porky. “The Green Forest is for me every time. Summer or winter, I’m at home there.”
“Don’t you sleep through the cold weather the way Buster Bear and I do?” asked Johnny Chuck.
“No, cold weather doesn’t bother me. I like it, ” said Prickly Porky. “I have the Green Forest pretty much to myself then. I like to be alone. And as long as there are trees, there is plenty to eat. I sleep a great deal in the daytime because I like night best.”
“What about your home?” asked Happy Jack.
“Home is wherever I happen to be, most of the time, and Mrs. Porky has a home in a hollow log or a cave or under the roots of a tree where the babies are born.”
“You might add that those babies are big for the size of their mother and have a full supply of quills when they are born,” said Mother Nature. “And you might like to mention how fond of salt you are. Your fear of Pekan the Fisher we all saw. I might add that Puma the Panther is to be feared at times, and when he is very hungry Buster Bear will take a chance on turning you on your back. By the way, don’t any of you call Prickly Porky a Hedgehog. He isn’t anything of the kind. He is sometimes called a Quill Pig, although his real name, Porcupine, is best. He has no near relatives.”
“Tomorrow morning, instead of meeting here, we’ll hold our session on the shore of the pond that Paddy the Beaver has made.”
What do people actually mean when they say ” that person was as prickly as a porcupine”?
What other animals eat bark, twigs, and leaves just like a porcupine? I’ll get you started by naming goats(!) as fantastic eaters of bark and leaves. How many more animals can you list?
*Start “branching out” into other topics mentioned by Prickly Porky such as the hemlock tree as his favorite food. What does a hemlock tree look like? What size cones does it have and who eats the seeds within them? How are the branches arranged to shed the snow or shelter birds? What is the color of the foliage? Does this change with the seasons?
Visit this LINKto the Mass Audubon Society for more information and photos of porcupines.
Prompts with a * are inspired by or found in the Handbook of Nature Study written by Anna Botsford Comstock, a professor at Cornell University, focusing on flora & fauna in the Northeast in 1911.
If you find the work and vision of P.L.A.Y. supports you and your family on the life learning path, please pass it forward to friends and neighbors as a Simple Gift that keeps on giving.
Johnny Chuck had now become as full of curiosity as Peter Rabbit. The discovery that he had a big cousin, Whistler the Marmot, living in the mountains of the Far West, had given Johnny something to think about. It seemed to Johnny such an odd place for a member of his family to live that he wanted to know more about it. So Johnny had a question all ready when Mother Nature began a new session the next morning.
“If you please, Mother Nature,” he said, “does my cousin, Whistler, have any neighbors up among those rocks where he lives?”
“He certainly does,” replied Mother Nature, nodding her head. “He has for a near neighbor one of the quaintest and most interesting little members of the big order to which you all belong. And do you all remember what that order is?” she asked.
“The order of Rodents,” Peter Rabbit piped up.
“Right you are, Peter,” replied Mother Nature, smiling at Peter. “ Now, this little neighbor of Whistler’s is called a Pika.”
Instantly Peter Rabbit and Jumper the Hare pricked up their long ears and became more interested. “If you please Mother Nature, who is this Pika? ” asked Jumper.
“He looks much like a small Rabbit, even though he is not, with short hind legs and rounded ears,” said Mother Nature. “Some folks call him Pika, some also call him a Cony or the Crying Hare. This is because he uses his voice a great deal, which is something no member of the Hare family really does. In size he is just about as big as one of your half-grown babies, Peter, so, you see, he really is a very little fellow. His coat is grayish-brown. His ears are of good size, although instead of being long they are round. He has small bright eyes. His legs are short, his hind legs being very little longer than his front ones. He has hair on the soles of his feet just like the members of the hare family.”
“What about his tail?” asked Peter Rabbit. You know Peter is very much interested in tails.
Mother Nature smiled. “Why he has less of one than you Peter,” she said. “That is, he hasn’t any that can be seen easily .”
“He lives way up among the rocks of the great mountains above where the trees grow and often is a very near neighbor to Whistler,” continued Mother Nature.
“I suppose that means that he makes his home down in under rocks, the same as Whistler does,” Johnny Chuck spoke up.
“Right,” replied Mother Nature. “He is such a little fellow that he can get through very narrow places, and he has his home and barns way down in among the rocks.”
“Barns!” exclaimed Happy Jack Squirrel. “Barns! What do you mean by barns?”
Mother Nature laughed. “I just call them barns,” she said, “because they are the places where he stores away his hay, just as Farmer Brown stores away his hay in his barn. I suppose you would call them storehouses.”
At the mention of hay, Peter Rabbit sat bolt upright and his eyes were wide open with astonishment. “Did you say hay?” he exclaimed. “Where under the sun does he get hay way up there, and what does he want of it?”
There was a twinkle in Mother Nature’s eyes as she replied, “He makes that hay just as you see Farmer Brown make hay every summer. It is what he lives on in the winter and in bad weather. Pika knows just as much about the proper way of making hay as Farmer Brown does. Even way up among the rocks there are places where grass and pea-vines and other green things grow. Pika lives on these in summer. And he is as wise and thrifty as any Squirrel, another way in which he differs from the Hare family. He cuts the vines when they are ready for cutting and spreads them out on the rocks to dry in the sun. He knows that if he should take them down into his barns while they are fresh and green they would sour and spoil; so he never stores them away until they are thoroughly dry. Then, of course, they are hay, for hay is nothing other than sun-dried grass cut before it has begun to die. When his hay is just as dry as it should be, he takes it down and stores it away in his barns, which are little caves down in among the rocks. There he has it for use in winter when there is no green food.”
“Pika is so nearly the color of the rocks that it takes sharp eyes to see him when he is sitting still. He has a funny little squeaking voice, and he uses it a great deal. It is a funny voice because it is hard to tell just where it comes from. It seems to come from nowhere in particular. Sometimes he can be heard squeaking way down in his home under the rocks. Like Johnny Chuck, he prefers to sleep at night and be abroad during the day. Because he is so small he must always be on the lookout for predators. At the first hint of danger he scampers to safety in among the rocks, and there he scolds whoever has frightened him. Pika really is the great little haymaker of the mountains of the Great West.”
“That haymaking is a pretty good idea of Pika’s,” remarked Peter Rabbit, scratching a long ear with a long hind foot.
“By the way,” said Mother Nature, “there is another haymaker out in those same great mountains of the Far West.”
“Who?” Peter, Johnny Chuck, and Happy Jack the Squirrel all said in the same breath.
“Stubtail the Mountain Beaver,” declared Mother Nature promptly.
“I know Paddy the Beaver,” Peter Rabbit responded, “and I suppose Stubtail is his cousin.”
Mother Nature shook her head. “No, actually” she said. “Stubtail and Paddy are no more closely related than the rest of you. Stubtail isn’t a Beaver at all. His proper name is Sewellel and sometimes he is called the Boomer, although most folks call him simply the Mountain Beaver.”
“Is it because he looks like Paddy the Beaver?” Striped Chipmunk asked.
“No,” replied Mother Nature. “He looks more like Jerry Muskrat than he does like Paddy. He is about Jerry’s size and looks very much as Jerry would if he had no tail.”
“Hasn’t he any tail at all?” asked Peter.
“Yes, he has a little tail, a little stub of a tail, however it is so small that to look at him you would think he hadn’t any,” replied Mother Nature. “He is found out in the same mountains of the Far West where Whistler and Pika live, although instead of living way up high among the rocks he is at home down in the valleys where the ground is soft and the trees grow thickly. Stubtail has no use for rocks. He wants soft, wet ground where he can tunnel to his heart’s content. In this way Stubtail is very much like Yap Yap the Prairie Dog.”
“What is that?” asked Johnny Chuck quickly, for, you know, Yap Yap is Johnny’s cousin.
“In his social habits,” replied Mother Nature. “Stubtail isn’t fond of living alone. He wants company of his own kind. So wherever you find Stubtail you are likely to find many of his family. They like to go visiting back and forth. They make little paths between their homes and all about through the thick ferns, and they keep these little paths free and clear, so that they may run along them easily. Some of these little paths lead into long tunnels. These are made for safety. Usually the ground is so wet that there will be water running in the bottoms of these little tunnels.”
“What kind of a house does Stubtail have?” inquired Johnny Chuck interestedly.
“A hole in the ground,” replied Mother Nature. “It is dug where the ground is drier than where the runways are made. Mrs. Stubtail makes a nest of dried ferns and close by they build two or three storehouses, for Stubtail and Mrs. Stubtail are thrifty people.”
“I suppose he fills them with hay, for you said he is a haymaker,” remarked Happy Jack Squirrel, who is always interested in storehouses.
“Yes,” replied Mother Nature, “he puts hay in them. He cuts grasses, ferns, pea-vines and other green plants and carries them in little bundles to the entrance to his tunnel. There he piles them on sticks so as to keep them off he damp ground and so that the air can help dry them out. When they are dry, he takes them inside and stores them away. He also stores other things. He likes the roots of ferns. He cuts tender, young twigs from bushes and stores away some of these. He is fond of bark. In winter he is quite as active as in summer and tunnels about under the snow. Then he sometimes has a habit like Peter Rabbit of gnawing tree bark all around as high up as he can reach.”
“Can he climb trees?” asked Chatterer the Red Squirrel.
“Just about as much as Johnny Chuck can,” replied Mother Nature. “Sometimes he climbs up in low bushes or in small, low-branching trees to cut off tender shoots, although he doesn’t do much of this sort of thing. His home is the ground. He is most active at night and also where undisturbed he is out more or less during the day. When he wants to cut off a twig he sits up like a Squirrel and holds the twig in his hands while he bites it off with his sharp teeth.”
“You didn’t tell us what color his coat is,” said Peter Rabbit.
“His coat is brown, much the color of Jerry Muskrat’s, although his fur is not nearly so soft and fine,” Mother Nature noted.
“I suppose he has predators just as the rest of us four-legged folks have,” said Peter.
“Yes, of course,” replied Mother Nature. “All the four-legged folks have predators, and most big ones too, for that matter. King Eagle is one and Yowler the Bob Cat is another. They are always watching for Stubtail. That is why he digs so many tunnels. He can travel under the ground then.”
“My goodness, how time flies! I have much to do and must be on my way. Scamper home, all of you, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
What do you know about farmers “making hay”? What is the difference between grass and hay? Do you know any other animals that eat hay besides the Pika and the Mountain Beaver?
Are there rocky areas near to where you live? If so, what animals do you know of that live in that area? Do they have traits like the Pika and Mountain Beaver? If yes, what are they? If no, how are they different?
If you find the work and vision of P.L.A.Y. supports you and your family on the life learning path, please pass it forward to friends and neighbors as a Simple Gift that keeps on giving.