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Maurice Thompson’s The Witchery of Archery is America's classic treatise on the subject of archery. Topics covered include: Archery Weapons, The Bow, To Make A Bow, Stringing the Bow, The Bowstring, The Arrow, The Shooting Glove, The Quiver and Belt, The Bracer, The Target, The Ascham, The Care of Tackle, How to Shoot and more.
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The Witchery of Archery
Published by Hunter Classics, 2017.
The Witchery of Archery: A Complete Manual of Archery by Maurice Thompson. First published in 1878.
Cover, interior design and editing © Copyright 2017 Hunter Classics. All rights reserved.
FIRST E-BOOK EDITION 2017.
Chapter I | Prefatory remarks
Chapter II | Outline sketch of the practice of archery in hunting
Chapter III | Some notes on woodpecker shooting
Chapter IV | Bow-shooting on the St. John's
Chapter V | Hare, or rabbit shootings
Chapter VI | Bow-shooting with a hermit
Chapter VII | Bold Robin Hood and his Merry Clan
Chapter VIII | The Mysterious Lake
Chapter IX | Shooting the wood-duck and his companions
Chapter X | The Death of the White Heron
Chapter XI | The Game of Archery; Lawn Shooting and Roving
Chapter XII | The Battles of the Birds
Chapter XIII | Some wing shots, and other fancy work
Chapter XIV | Three weeks of savage life
Chapter XV | Lady Toxophilites
Chapter XVI | Shooting woodcock and plover
Chapter XVII | The English theory and practice of target
Appendix | Archery Weapons
To Make A Bow
Stringing the Bow
The Shooting Glove
The Quiver and Belt
The Care of Tackle
How to Shoot
Manual of Arms
Further Reading: The Adventures of Robin Hood
I HAVE NOT PURPOSED writing a history of archery. My object has been to present, in the simplest way, some of my own adventures by field and flood, from which the reader might easily gather a comprehensive knowledge of the theory and practice of a sport which is as harmless and fascinating as it is old and honorable. It may not be amiss, however, to here sketch an outline of the rise of archery in England, the great mother of archers.
It is a well-worn saying that experience is the perfect school. In this school, at the hands of William the Norman, on the field of Hastings, the English took their first great lesson in archery, which resulted in establishing in their hearts a profound admiration, almost amounting to veneration, for the longbows and resistless arrows of their conquerors. With a wise foresight the victorious invader gave into the hands of his subjugated enemies these simple but powerful weapons, and, by a shrewd stroke of policy, made the very carrying of a bow and shafts the badge of a freeman. He well knew that upon missile weapons of superior range and penetration he must depend for all future success in war, and that nothing could cement a people like a sort of democracy in the military idea. Therefore he adroitly managed to make the longbow and arrows the weapons alike of rich and poor, noble and peasant, the miserable serf being the only person denied their use. From this time forward the longbow rapidly grew in public favor, until by years of loving practice the English yeomen made it the terror of the world in battle; and it became the one instrument of forest and field sports common to patrician and plebeian, king and esquire.
It may well be said that the powerful government of Great Britain rests upon a foundation of iron arrowheads; that its greatest glory has been achieved by the hard shooting of its archers; that its history's most brilliant pages have been graven on imperishable tablets with the bodkin-pointed shafts of the yeomen who drew bows at Crecy and Agincourt, and all those fights where its supremacy over Europe was enforced by the "whistling grey-goose wing."
Nothing but the most costly and elaborate Spanish coats of mail could withstand a cloth yard arrow from a ninety pound English longbow. The French rulers tried in vain for many years to educate their subjects in archery so as to return their Norman-Saxon enemies missile for missile. The clumsy cross-bow, however, was their only efficient projectile weapon, and its inferiority to the six-foot yew was made patent on many a bloody field.
In a word, the history of England, from the Norman conquest down to the day when firearms supplanted the long-bow and arrows as military and hunting weapons, is the history of archery, and may be read elsewhere.
But the "six-foot yew" would not wholly flee before the rifle and fowling-piece. It was not so easily cast out from the hands of a people whose fathers had made it famous forevermore.
The old toxophilite societies kept up their organizations, and from time to time new ones were firmed, until archery, about the last of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, took shape as par excellence the sport of the nobility and gentry of England, Scotland, and Wales.
In 1840, Mr. George Agar Hansard published at London a large volume entitled The Book of Archery, in which was brought together everything of interest connected with its subject which years of careful labor had enabled him to discover. This gave a new impulse to the "royal sport," which obtains to this day.
In the United States there existed no archery organizations prior to the publication, in some of our literary magazines, of a number of my own papers descriptive of long-bow shooting on the lawn and "by field and flood." At present there are hundreds of clubs from Maine to Texas. The spread of the "Toxophilite mania," as someone has named it, has been so sudden and wide that our dealers have been unable to supply the demand for archery tackle, and in most of our towns and villages the manufacture of rather clumsy, but by no means worthless, long-bows and arrows has been quite a paying business. In the following pages I have attempted to afford the newly initiated archer such entertainment as the stories of a veteran, however poorly told, are pretty sure to possess for the tyro. If, on the other hand, this book happens to fall into the hands of an old and experienced archer, let him not cast it aside unread, for many things in it will be new, even to him.
Of archery as a lawn game everything is told in the Appendix. I have there drawn together the fullest information possible on all that pertains to practical bow-shooting and the use and manufacture of all the implements of the archer craft. All is taken from my own experience; not a rule is laid down which I have not practically tested. During the fifteen years that, as an archer, I have roamed the woods, I have tried every kind of bow I could procure, from a plain mulberry stick made with my own hands to a bow of snake-wood wrought in the far East by Indian cunning, and every sort of arrow, from a rudely feathered reed to the finest Highfield ever made. I have shot in all kinds of weather, by day and by night, and do not feel that egotism ought to be counted against me when I offer to describe some of my adventures, even if the offending pronoun does dance pretty freely along my pages. Furthermore, I have keenly enjoyed writing these chapters, as a lazy way of living over again some charming days of excitement and novel sport, and as a tentative venture into a field of book-making as inviting as it is narrow and difficult of access.
The manual of archery given in the Appendix contains everything my experience has suggested, as well as the practical part of Mr. Hansard's work. I have spared no pains in reducing to the simplest and directest rules and maxims all that is necessary to a perfect practice of bow-shooting for either hunting or target purposes.
It was thought advisable, in the good old days of prefaces, to forestall or disarm criticism by some special plea or another; but, although I have indulged in something akin to the ancient preface, I shall not deny the critic what comfort he may find in making literary faces at my book. Let him say whatever his sense of duty compels. I know and you know, reader, that these tales of a careless archer have made him, for the time, an honest fellow, as, reading them, he listened to the twang of the bow-cord and the keen hiss of the arrow by the reedy lakes, or in the dark, lone woods of the South and West! If he give me due credit for this brief effect, he may leave the rest to the archers and all the sport-loving folk for whom this book is written.
Of one thing I am sure: no amount of criticism, just or unjust, can turn from me my staunch, sympathetic, and enthusiastic friends, the Boys and Girls of America. I know too well how the rosy-cheeked misses will enjoy the lawn practice with their associates, and the boys, how they will dream of all sorts of adventures in the wild, green woods of summer!
The chapters following are arranged with a view to contrast, as they have nothing in them by which they can be linked together so as to form even the semblance of a continuous narrative. They are the pleasantest and cheeriest fragments of my wildwood days with bow and quiver, put together, without any attempt at high art, for those who love outdoor sports and the merry life of a hunter and naturalist. Whilst it has often been necessary, in order to avoid too much skipping about, to dove-tail into certain parts of my sketches incidents and adventures not properly belonging to the time and locality, I aver that nowhere have I departed from truth in the descriptions of places and things. That I have, in a few instances, drawn upon my fancy for some local coloring when the outlines of landscapes could not be recollected, I cannot admit or deny, and if I have occasionally "dropped into poetry," I assure the reader that it does not "come higher."
After all, this book is for the archer, and everything in it pertaining to the sport may be relied upon as having come of the very best practice of the "noble exercise of archery."
"Cheerily blow the bugle horn
In the cool green woods of morn;
Loose the hounds and let them go,
Wax the cord and bend the bow."
SO LONG AS THE NEW moon returns in heaven a bent, beautiful bow, so long will the fascination of archery keep hold of the hearts of men. You have but to mention an archer or archery to your friend, and immediately his interest is aroused. He may scoff at the bow and sneer at the arrow; but he will inquire and show curiosity. Hang a long bow and a quiver of arrows conspicuously in your hall or library, and you will soon discover that no exquisite painting or bit of statuary will receive from guests more attention than will be accorded to these ancient weapons.
No doubt if one could procure a shell strung with gold and silver cords, after the fashion of the old-time instrument with which the gods made music, the same fascination would attach. Indeed, the lyre was suggested by the bow. Music and poetry sprang from our weapon. The bow is the old first lyre, the monochord, the initial rune of fine art, and is as inseparably connected with the history of culture as are the alphabets of the learned languages. The humanities grew out from archery as a flower from a seed. No sooner did the soft, sweet note of the bow-string charm the ear of genius than music was born, and from music came poetry and painting and sculpture.
What the fragments of Sapphic song and the Homeric epics are to the literature of today, the bow is to the weapons of today. The Sapphic songs were the natural music of love; the Homeric epics were the natural outpourings of a great self-sufficient soul surcharged with the inspiration of heroism. So the bow was the natural weapon of the simple, perfect physical manhood represented in the idea of Apollo, who, with drawn bow, was the symbol of such manhood displayed in its highest powers and graces.
When a man shoots with a bow it is his own vigor of body that drives the arrow, and his own mind controls the missile's flight. When the archer hears his shaft hiss through the air with a force not to be equaled by those of his competitors, he feels justly proud of his superior manhood. His trained muscles and toughened thews have done the work.
Not so with gun-shooting. The rifle or fowling-piece is charged with a power acting independently of muscular operations, and will shoot just as powerfully for the schoolboy or the weakling as it will for the athlete. It was the hand of a babe which discharged the dynamite at Hellgate. So the pressure of an invalid's finger will send a rifle-ball as far and as true as if the gun had been fired by a Hercules steadiness of aim alone being required. The bow and arrows are as old as man. If the origin of any implements of human invention can be accepted as of prehistoric date even in hieroglyphic history the archer's curved stick and feathered missiles are entitled to the honor of being placed first on the list. Of the venerable monuments of ingenuity, discovered by our remotest ancestors or preserved in their records, not one is so surely traceable through the shadows of doubtful history to an existence beyond the limits of tradition. The gods were mostly archers, and the goddesses, too, making the bow a classical figure, indispensable with the poets of both ancient and modern times. "Sharp as an arrow," "Swift as an arrow," "Straight as an arrow," "The shafts of envy, love, hatred, or revenge," etc., are expressions as common to the verse-makers of our own time as to those of Pindar and Homer, and using them subjects no one to a charge of bad taste, whilst "Straight as a ramrod," "Swift as bird-shot," "The buck-shot of envy," or "The cartridges of malice" would be thought expressions or phrases of very questionable propriety in a grave essay, or in a brilliant poem. In fact, as I have said, the bow is one of the primitive humanities—one of the original elements of culture. It is a classic. On the other hand, however, it is curious to note how surely the bow and arrows have found their way into the hands of all wild peoples whose mode of life has made physical culture a necessity with them, and it is equally interesting and significant to discover that, among these wild peoples, a chieftain is invariably chosen on account of his ability to draw a mighty bow.
We are nothing better than refined and enlightened savages. The fiber of our nature is not changed in substance; it is polished and oiled. The wild side of the prism of humanity still offers its pleasures to us, and it is healthful and essentially necessary to broad culture that we accept them in moderation.
Sport, by which is meant pleasant physical and mental exercise combined—play in the best sense—is a requirement of this wild element, this glossed-over heathen side of our being, and the bow is its natural implement.
One day, not long ago, my brother (the Will often mentioned hereafter) and I were practicing at a target on a green lawn, when a miserably clad and hunger-pinched tramp approached us. Rags and dirt could not hide, nor could hunger and humiliation blunt the edge of a certain manliness of bearing as he touched his torn hat and paused near us. Could we give him a bite to eat or a few pence to buy him a cheap dinner? He was very hungry. The old story. We sent a lad who was scoring for us to my house to inquire if any cooked victuals were in the pantry, and then resumed our shooting. The tramp stood by watching us. Finally, as if impelled by an irresistible interest, he said:
"Archery is a noble sport."
We turned and looked at him in surprise. He waved his hand in a peculiarly graceful way, and in a sad voice said:
"On Brighton sands I have seen good shooting. I have shot there myself."
"In England?" asked Will.
"Yes," he replied; "I am a gentleman."
Will smiled doubtingly.
"Would you let me shoot once?" he said. There was sincerity in his voice.
Will handed him his bow and arrow. He took them eagerly, almost snatching them. For a moment he stood as if irresolute, then quickly fixing the arrow on the string, drew and let fly. The movements were those of a trained archer. The distance was forty yards, and he hit the gold in its very center.
Will and I looked at each other and at the tramp. We were overpowered. Will posted off to my house at once, and returned with a bottle of wine and a tray of biscuits and tongue, with which that archer tramp did most ravenously regale himself. I mention this to clinch my theory, viz.: That neither poverty, nor shame, nor hunger, nor dissipation, nor anything but death can ever quite destroy the merry, innocent, Arcadian, heathen part of our nature, that takes to a bow and arrows as naturally as a butterfly takes to a flower.
Taking wild game has nearly ceased to be reckoned among the means of gaining a livelihood, and has fallen, or risen, as one may view it, to the level of a sport or means of recreation from the exhaustion and depression consequent to the civilized methods of self-destruction called business. Formerly, table comforts of the most necessary sort had to be procured by the skill or luck of the huntsman, and as the game yearly grew more wary and difficult of approach, as well as more scarce, while the demand for it steadily increased, necessity invented firearms—that terrible source of slaughter which has at last reduced shooting to less than a sport. The limits of this chapter will not admit of even the most condensed statement of the combination of causes which has so revolutionized hunting with a gun, that, as it is the fashion to follow it now, it cannot be recommended as either healthful or pleasant. It is not sport to sling a handful, say from three hundred to seven hundred, pellets at a bird. The true sportsman finds his chief delight, not in the number of birds or other game brought to bag, but in the "brilliancy" of his shooting. As regards skill, no man ought to brag of knocking down two quails, left and right, under the ordinary circumstances of field-shooting. Let us look at the thing for a moment. Say you have four hundred pellets in each barrel of your gun, either of which barrels will, at forty yards, spread that number pretty evenly over nine square feet of space. Say at twenty-five yards, the ordinary limit of quail-shooting range, your gun will cover two feet square thickly with shot. See what a margin for successful inaccuracy. In one case you may aim eighteen inches, and in the other one foot off your bird and yet kill it! With a good choke-bored shot-gun you may hit a duck one hundred yards in the same way. A moment's reflection cannot fail to suggest to sportsmen the calamity which these absolutely murderous weapons are hastening forward.
The shot-gun will soon exterminate game. It already has exterminated it in many large regions. The very sound of a gun is terrible to all wild things. A few more years, and hunting will be a thing of the past, unless some change takes place in our methods of destroying game.
I would not be understood as decrying the shot-gun when it is kept to its place and used only for that sort of game which cannot, from the nature of its habits, be shot except when flying, as the wood-cock and marsh-hen, the snipe and most water-fowl, quails and grouse. It is the abuse of gun-shooting, the terrible slaughter committed by pot-hunters, that I deplore.
I was yet in my teens when I was taught the use of the long-bow by Thomas Williams, an old hermit of a fellow, whose cabin stood in the midst of a vast pine forest that bordered my father's plantation in the beautiful hill country of North Georgia. My brother Will and I had been practicing archery, in a boyish way, for some years before Williams gave us lessons; but though we had of our own efforts become expert in the making and use of our weapons, we found, to our chagrin, that, before we could dare call ourselves bowmen, all we had learned must be thrown away and an art mastered whose difficulties seemed insurmountable. Williams was an incomparable archer, and delighted in practicing with his favorite weapons; but a strange timidity so mastered him that no amount of pleading on our part could prevail on him to make any public exhibition of his skill. We never could get him to come forth boldly and join us in the delightful excursions we undertook to various shooting-grounds after his careful training had made accurate and enthusiastic bowmen of us. The woodpeckers, thrushes, and grosbeaks in the woods immediately surrounding his cabin were the only live marks he ever sought, excepting that occasionally he shot hares by moonlight in an open glade situated a half-mile deeper in the forest.
Of course, before you try to shoot game you must practice shooting at some kind of mark. For this purpose a target is not recommended, since one who is trained to aim at a large graduated disc, like that of a lawn target, either with gun or bow, can rarely shoot well at birds or other small game. The reason is that in target-shooting at a fixed distance one gets used to a certain size, color, and condition of backgrounds, and when he gets into the woods and lifts his bow to draw on a bird or a hare, his accustomed rings and gay background are not there. His vision is blurred consequently, and he draws waveringly and shoots indifferently.
A black rubber ball four inches in diameter, suspended in mid-air by a string fastened to a low bough of an apple-tree, makes a first-rate substitute for a bird, and a small bag of straw placed on the ground and shot at, at about twenty yards, gives good hare practice. You will soon discover the great advantage gained by not using the same distance all the time. For, after all, a bowman's skill is scarcely worthy of admiration if it is confined to one range. It is when you have learned to shoot well at all distances between ten and fifty yards, and betake yourself to the woods and fields, that archery becomes a truly royal sport; and not till then do you begin fairly to draw upon the varied resources compassed by the art.
Your first shooting at wild things should be carefully done, choosing the tamest and least wary of birds, in order that your shots may be at very short range and their results accurately noted. See if you shoot too high or too low, too far to the left or the right, and try to cure the fault. You must not think of game till you have killed a number of woodpeckers, meadow-larks, and field-sparrows.
Three things are requisite to bird-shooting with the bow. First, you must know how, under all circumstances and over all kinds of ground surface, to quickly and accurately measure distance with the eye; secondly, you must be quick and noiseless as a cat in your movements; thirdly, you must draw uniformly, that is, put the same power on every shot, no matter how near or far the bird may be. In other words, draw to the head of your arrow every time you draw.
When, after considerable experience and success at mark-practice, you begin to shoot in the woods, you will discover that to be a good shot is not the half of what it takes to make you a tolerable bird-slayer. Some of the finest shots you will ever make will be misses, and some of the poorest will be center hits. Such is luck. But in starting out you need not fear that woodpecker shooting will be poor sport. Some of my happiest bouts in the woods have owed all their charm to the excitement of chasing an ivory-bill, a red-head, or a "sap-sucker" from tree to tree, whacking away at him whenever he got still, watching the flight of my arrow as it whisked past him, or struck close to him with a ringing rap like the blow of a hammer, till at last I plumped him over, stringing him half way down my shaft. In a succeeding chapter we will shoot woodpeckers together.
To do regular, even shooting requires a great deal of preparatory practice at unequal distances and under a large variety of influences, with every difference of surroundings and in all sorts of weather. In fact, you will never be a good shot till all the operations of archery are performed as naturally and almost as involuntarily as your breathing. For instance: a meadow-lark shows his yellow breast in a hunch of clover blossoms, or in a tuft of timothy stubble, thirty yards distant from you; you halt instantly, throw up your bow quickly and gracefully, draw an arrow to the head and let it go sharply, all with as little effort and precisely with the same half-involuntary, half-mechanical accuracy with which you take so many steps in walking. Your arrow flies with a keen hiss straight to the mark and knocks the bird over and over amid a cloud of gold feathers and clover or grass leaves. When you can do this one time out of ten, at even twenty paces, you may begin to call yourself an archer; but do not grow discouraged if it takes a long while to get such ordinary proficiency. "There is no excellence" in archery "without great labor."
The pewter-headed arrows described in the Appendix to this book should be used for all kinds of small birds. For shooting hare and wild-fowl and large game the broad-headed and barbed shafts are necessary.
When you have reached a reasonable proficiency in the use of your weapons at a fixed mark, the next thing to think of is shooting "on the wing," as killing birds while they are flying is called. For this sort of practice make a spring-board controlled by a trigger so that when a string is pulled a ball of rubber, or, for that matter, any soft material, is thrown from it into the air, after the manner of glass balls from a Bogardus trap. You can begin shooting at a very large ball first, and decrease its size to three inches in diameter as you progress. You will be surprised to find how soon you will learn to hit a six-inch ball, at ten or fifteen paces, when thrown with considerable force into the air. This accomplished, you may begin shooting at tame pigeons let go from a trap, or at meadow-larks as they rise from the clover. Daily practice and great care will soon work wonders.* Two years of sincere, systematic attention to the tried rules of archery will render you an expert, ready to knock down a flying grouse or wood-duck, and able to pierce a deer through the shoulders at one hundred yards. You will then be found in the jungles of Florida, following the hounds after a deer, a bear, or a panther, and handling a ninety pound snake-wood bow and three ounce broad-headed hunting shafts with all the ease and power of a Tartar chieftain. Or mayhap your tent will be beside some far northern brook, where the speckled trout leap out after the flies, and where the dappled fawns come out of the "bush" to wade in the cold water.
But first, before you can blow the bugle horn, or follow the hounds, you must be content to chase the woodpecker.
* For the "School of Shooting," see Appendix.
THE joy is great of him who strays
In shady woods on summer days,
With eyes alert and muscles steady,
His long-bow strung, his arrows ready.
At morn he hears the wood-thrush sing,
He sees the wild rose blossoming,
And on his senses soft and low
He feels the brook song ebb and flow.
Life is a charm, and all is good
To him who lives like Robin Hood,
Hearing ever, far and thin,
Hints of the tunes of Gamelyn.
His greatest grief, his sharpest pain,
Is (when the days are dark with rain)
That for a season he must lie
Inert while deer go bounding by;
Lounge in his lodge, and long and long
For Allen a Dale's delightful song,
Or smack his lips at thought of one
Drink from the friar's demijohn.
But when the sky is clear again,
He sloughs his grief, forgets his pain,
Hearing on gusts of charming weather
The low laugh of his arrow feather
Flying from the spice wood brake,
Or from the maze the brambles make,
Well-sent to where is hammering
The scarlet-crowned woodpecker king.
OF OLD, SO RUNS A LEGEND of the poets, a beautiful young, king of Latium, named Picus, went forth into the forests to enjoy his favorite pastime, hunting. We are told that he was dressed in a wonderful sporting garb, consisting of a splendid purple cloak, bound at the throat with a zone of gold. Through the dusky, pleasant aisles of the woods the young king saw flitting numberless beasts and birds, at which, no doubt, he hurled his whizzing cornet shafts, as a lusty sport-loving lord should. Circe, a woman of doubtful honesty, was, on this very day, going about in the woods hunting for certain herbs, known to grow thereabout, possessing rare properties of great value to dealers in sorcery. Discovering a tuft of the desired weed (I know not whether it was snakeroot or ginseng), Circe stooped and was on the point of sawing it off with a case knife, when, just beyond a persimmon bush and munching a papaw, she beheld Picus standing up tall and beautiful, glorious in fine purple and sheeny with gold. It was, on the part of Circe, a case of love at first sight, and with her to love was to speak of it at once. It was leap year, too. So she stuck the case knife in the ground to mark the place where the ginseng grew (if it was not snake-root), and, stalking up to the king, proposed right off. He spurned her offered caresses indignantly, whereupon she slashed him across the head with a club she held in her hand, to such effect that forthwith he was transformed into a bird which to this day is called Picus—the woodpecker.
I have often wondered if the wand of Circe did not fetch the blood from the crown of the head of Picus, for how else can we explain the origin of the red spot, that ever-present and unmistakable mark of the real American woodpecker family? From the demure and quiet sap-sucker up through all the species to the great black woodpecker, this blotch of blood-red feathers is found. A mere dot in the case of the smallest species, it spreads all over the head of the white-tailed variety, and rises into a magnificent scarlet-plumed crown on that of the Hylotomits pilcatus.
To me the woodpeckers are the most interesting of all the American small birds. I never tire of studying them. Obtrusive, inquisitive, bellicose, knavish, self-important, dishonest, and noisy beyond compare, the white-tailed variety is, perhaps, the most versatile genius of the woods. He attempts everything with an air of the most presuming impertinence, and, in fact, the only thing he really cannot accomplish, in the way of attainments generally thought necessary to a well-educated and cultured bird, is, simply to sing a good song. Even his love-note is a sort of rasping squawk, sounding like "squeear, squeear, squeear," repeated indefinitely. I once saw a great horned owl perch itself on the stub of a broken limb of a decayed tree, just below a hole in which a woodpecker had its nest. It was after nightfall, and the moon was directly behind the owl from me, bringing into bold relief the huge bird's outlines. Occasionally the woodpecker, doubtlessly afraid for its young, darted out of the hole to give the owl a peck, and retreated instantly within.
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