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Stories of New Jersey
Fins, Rattles, And Wings
The Wild Animals of Early Days

By Frank R. Stockton

Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

In order to protect one's self against these creatures, unless there are too many of them, it is only necessary to make noise enough to let the snake know that some one is approaching, and it gets out of the way as fast as possible; or, if it has not time to do this, it coils itself up and springs its rattle, thus giving notice that it is on hand, and ready to strike. It has often been said that the snake's rattle is for warning to birds and other animals; but this is now known to be a mistake, for when a snake rattles, it strikes its victim almost at the same time, if it has a chance.

It is now believed that the rattle is used to attract the attention of birds and other small creatures; and when they turn, and look into the eyes of the terrible serpent, they are so overcome with terror that they cannot fly away, and soon become its prey. This is commonly called snake charming; and a great many instances of it are related by people who are in the habit of telling the truth, and who have seen a snake charm a bird which could have flown away just as well as not, had it not been for the terrible attraction of those great eyes, which drew it nearer and nearer, until at last it found itself in the jaws of a snake.

The Indians did not give this significance to the rattle: they believed, as many people now do, that it was merely used as a warning. So, when an Indian met with a snake which rattled before he came up to it, he took it to be a snake of honest, straight-forward principles, who wished to deceive nobody, and therefore gave fair notice of its presence. Such a serpent was never molested. But if a snake rattled after an Indian had passed, the red man went back and killed the creature, on the ground that it was a sneak and a coward, which had neglected to give warning to the passer-by.

A farmer living in Cumberland County tells a story about having discovered an island in a swamp, which so abounded in snakes, that he and some of his neighbors conceived the idea that this was the place where they made their headquarters, and from which, in summer time, they wandered to forage upon the country. The farmers waited until winter before they made an attack upon this stronghold; and then they came and dug up the ground, knowing that these reptiles always pass the cold season in a torpid state underground.

It was not long before they came to what might be called in these days a cold-storage vault. This was a flat-bottomed cavity, filled to the depth of about three inches with clear spring water; and in this water were packed away a great number of snakes, evenly laid side by side, so as to take up as little room as possible. The majority of the creatures were rattlesnakes; but there were black snakes among them, and one large spotted snake. Besides these, there were, as the narrator expressed it, at least a peck of spring frogs; these having probably crawled in to fill up all corners and vacant places. All these reptiles were of course dormant and insensible, and were easily destroyed.

There is another story which gives even a better idea of the abundance of rattlesnakes in the new colony. In a quarry, from which the workmen were engaged in getting out stone for the foundations of Princeton College, a wide crack in the rocks was discovered, which led downward to a large cavity; and in this cave were found about twenty bushels of rattlesnake bones. There was no reason to believe that this was a snake cemetery, to which these creatures retired when they supposed they were approaching the end of their days; but it was, without doubt, a great rattlesnake trap. The winding narrow passage leading to it must have been very attractive to a snake seeking for retired quarters in which to take his long winter nap. Although the cave at the bottom of the great crack was easy enough to get into, it was so arranged that it was difficult, if not impossible, for a snake to get out of it, especially in the spring, when these creatures are very thin and weak, having been nourished all winter by their own fat. Thus year after year the rattlesnakes must have gone down into that cavity, without knowing that they could never get out again.

The great rivals, in point of numbers, to the herring and other fish in the rivers of New Jersey (and the snakes in their winter quarters underground), were the wild pigeons in the air. Several times in the year the settlers would be visited by vast flocks of these birds which tame in such numbers as to shut out the light of the sun, as if they had been clouds in the sky. They would remain in one place for a few days, and then pass on. As it was unnecessary to use hooks and lines to catch a few fish out of the multitudes which swarmed in the streams, so it was hardly worth while to waste powder and shot on the vast flocks of pigeons which visited New Jersey in those days. When they came to roost in the forests, they could be knocked down with poles and stones; and thousands and thousands of them were thus obtained by the men and boys, and very good eating they were.

There was a summer in which the settlers were very much astonished by the advent of a vast army of invaders to which they were not at all accustomed. These were locusts, probably of the kind we now call seventeen-year locusts ; and the people were amazed to see these creatures come up out of the ground, clad in their horny coats of mail, which they afterwards cast off, when they appeared as winged creatures.

They could not understand how insects. encumbered by such hard, unwieldy shells, could penetrate to such distance below the surface of the earth ; for they did not know that each one of these locusts came from a httle worm which had dropped into the ground many years before, and which had worked its way down to a great depth, and then, about a sixth of a century afterward, had reappeared on the surface as a hard-shell locust, ready to split its back, get out of its shell, spend a few days flying about in the summer air, lay its eggs in the twigs of trees, and then, having fulfilled all its duties on this earth, to die.

Although the farmers probably supposed that their crops would be eaten up by this vast horde of locusts, no great injury was done to them; for, as we now know, the seventeen-year locusts do not appear upon earth to destroy crops and vegetation, being far different from the grasshopper-like locusts which in our Western countries sometimes devastate large sections of farming lands. The twigs of the trees, which had been punctured in order that the eggs might be deposited, recovered their life, and put forth their leaves again when they had ceased to act as insect incubators.

"History of New Jersey." S. Smith.
"Historical Collections." Barber and Howe.
"The Burlington Smiths." R. M. Smith.


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