Its roots are white and succulent, and bear some resemblance to celery hence the plant is known among the duck-hunters as `wild celery. It is upon these roots the canvass-back almost exclusively feeds, and they give to the flesh of these birds its peculiar and pleasant flavour.
A species of mongrel water-dog, or often any common cur, is taught to run backwards and forwards after stones, sticks, or other missiles thrown from one side to the other. In his activity and industry in this simple branch of education, within the comprehension of any dog, consists the almost incredible art of toling the canvass-back.
These valuable birds are objects of great interest to the people of the fur countries for months in the year. Whole tribes of Indians look to them as a means of support. With regard to ducks, there was one species which our travellers had not yet met with, and for which they were every day upon the look-out. This was the far-famed "canvass-back," so justly celebrated among the epicures of America.
It can tell where the other is at work, as the blades of the plant at which it is tugging are seen to move above the water. These at length disappear, pulled down as the plant is dragged from its root, and almost at the same instant the canvass-back comes up holding the root between his mandibles. But the widgeon is ready for him.
"The canvass-back," began he, "is perhaps the most celebrated and highly-prized of all the ducks, on account of the exquisite flavour of its flesh which is thought by some epicures to be superior to that of all other birds. It is not a large duck rarely weighing over three pounds and its plumage is far from equalling in beauty that of many other species.
We stayed near these reefs only long enough to satisfy ourselves that we could easily load a dozen vessels with the animal if necessary, when we were taken alongside the schooner, and parted with Too-wit, after obtaining from him a promise that he would bring us, in the course of twenty-four hours, as many of the canvass-back ducks and Gallipago tortoises as his canoes would hold.
Here the men on duty take post; and, chewing the quid of "sweet and bitter fancies" patiently abide the moment when it may please the canvass-back to give his bosom to the breeze, and quit one river for the other. Half a dozen Retrievers, of a mixed breed, lay lounging on the grass in front of this line of watch-boxes, awaiting the moment when work should be cut out for their Sagacities.
These ducks, though they come in with the canvass-back when toled, do not seem to take any notice whatever of the dog, but continue to swim along, carelessly feeding, as if entrusting themselves entirely to the guidance of the other ducks.
Conflicts sometimes ensue; but the widgeon, knowing himself to be the lesser and weaker bird, never stands to give battle, but secures his prize through his superior agility. On the other hand, the canvass-back rarely attempts to follow him, as he knows that the other is swifter upon the water than he.
The very fruits and natural productions of the country were esteemed, doubtingly; and he was a bold man who dared to extol even canvass-back ducks, in the year 1800! At the present day, the feeling is fast undergoing an organic change.