Mr. Leander S. Keyser, author of "Birds of the Rockies," relates in "Forest and Stream" the results of his experiments with a variety of birds taken from the nest while very young and reared in captivity; among them meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, brown thrashers, blue jays, wood thrushes, catbirds, flickers, woodpeckers, and several others. Did they receive any parental instruction? Not a bit of it, and yet at the proper age they flew, perched, called, and sang like their wild fellows—all except the robins and the red-winged blackbirds: these did not sing the songs of their species, but sang a medley made up of curious imitations of human and other sounds. And the blue jay never learned to sing "the sweet gurgling roulade of the wild jays," though it gave the blue jay call correctly. Mr. Keyser's experiment was interesting and valuable, but his sagacity fails him when interpreting the action of the jay in roosting in an exposed place after it had been given its liberty. He thinks this showed how little instinct can be relied on, and how much the bird needed parental instruction. Could he not see that the artificial life of the bird in the cage had demoralized its instincts, and that acquired habits had supplanted native tendencies? The bird had learned to be unafraid in the cage, and why should it be afraid out of the cage? This reminds me of a letter from a correspondent: he had a tame crow that was not afraid of a gun; therefore he concluded that the old crows must instill the fear of guns into their young! Why should the crow be afraid of a gun, if it had learned not to be afraid of the gunner?
I have seen a young chickadee fly late in the day from the nest in the cavity of a tree straight to a pear-tree, where it perched close to the trunk and remained unregarded by its parents till next morning. But no doubt its parents had given it minute directions before it left the nest how to fly and where to perch!
That animals learn by experience in a limited way is very certain. Yet that old birds build better nests or sing better than young ones it would be hard to prove, though it seems reasonable that it should be so.
Rarely does one see nests of the same species of varying degrees of excellence—that is, first nests in the spring. The second nest of any species is likely to be a more hurried and incomplete affair. Some species are at all times poor nest-builders, as the cuckoos and the pigeons. Other birds are good nest-builders, as the orioles, the thrushes, the finches, the warblers, the hummingbirds, and one never finds an inferior specimen of the nests of any of these birds. There is probably no more improvement in this respect among birds than there is among insects.
I have no proof that wild birds improve in singing. One does not hear a vireo, or a finch, or a thrush, or a warbler that is noticeably inferior as a songster to its fellows; their songs are all alike, except in the few rare cases when one hears a master songster among its kind; but whether this mastery is natural or acquired, who shall tell?
What birds learn about migration, if anything, I do not see that we have any means of finding out.
It has been observed of birds reared under artificial conditions that the young males practice a long time before they sing well. That this is true of wild birds, there is no proof. What birds and animals learn by experience is greater cunning. Does not even an old trout know more about hooks than a young one? Birds of any kind that are much hunted become wilder, even though they have not had the experience of being shot. Ask any duck or grouse or quail hunter if this is not so. Our ruffed grouse learns to fly with a corkscrew motion where it is much fired at on the wing. How wary and cautious the fox becomes in regions where it is much trapped and hunted! Even the woodchuck becomes very wild on the farms where it is much shot at, and this wildness extends to its young. In his "Wilderness Hunter" President Roosevelt says the same thing of the big game of the Rockies. Antelope and deer can be lured near the concealed hunter by the waving of a small flag till they are shot at a few times. Then they see through the trick. "The burnt child fears the fire." Animals profit by experience in this way; they learn what not to do. In the accumulation of positive knowledge, so far as we know, they make little or no progress. Birds and beasts will adapt themselves more or less to their environment, but plants and trees will do that, too. The rats in Jamaica have learned to nest in trees to escape the mongoose, but this is only the triumph of the instinct of self-preservation. The mongoose has not yet learned to climb trees; the pressure of need is not yet great enough. It is said that in districts subject to floods moor-hens often build in trees. All animals will change their habits under pressure of necessity; man changes his without this pressure. The Duke of Argyll saw a bald eagle seize a fish in the stream—an unusual proceeding; but the eagle was doubtless very hungry, and there was no osprey near upon whom to levy tribute.
Romanes found that rats would get certain semi-liquid foods out of a bottle with their tails, as a cat will get milk out of a jar with her paw, but neither ever progresses so far as to use any sort of tool for the purpose, or to tip the vessel over. Animals practice concealment to secure their prey, but not deception, as man does. They do not use lures or disguises, or traps or poison.
There is, of course, no limit to the variety and adaptiveness of nature taken as a whole, but each species is hedged about by impassable limitations. The ouzel is akin to the thrushes, and yet it lives along and in the water. Does it ever take to the fields and woods, and live on fruit and land-insects, and nest in trees like other thrushes? So with all birds and beasts. They vary constantly, but not in one lifetime, and the sum of these variations, accumulated through natural selection, as Darwin has shown, gives rise, in the course of long periods of time, to new species.
As I have already said, domestic animals vary more than wild ones. Every farmer and poultry-grower knows that some hens are better with chickens than others—more motherly, more careful—and rear a greater number of their brood. The same is true of sows with pigs. Some sows will eat their pigs, and wild animals in cages often destroy their young. Some ewes will not own their lambs, and occasionally a cow will not own her calf. (Such cases show perverted or demoralized instinct.) Similar to these are the strange friendships that sometimes occur among the domestic animals, as that of a sheep with a cow, a goose with a horse, or a hen adopting kittens. In a state of nature these curious attachments probably never spring up. Instinct is likely to be more or less demoralized when animal life touches human life.
With the wild creatures we sometimes see one instinct overcoming another, as when fear drives a bird to desert its nest, or when the instinct of migration leads a pair of swallows to desert their unfledged young.
A great many young birds come to grief by leaving the nest before they can fly. In such cases, I suppose, they disobey the parental instructions! I find it easier to believe that instinct is at fault, or that one instinct has overcome another; something has disturbed or alarmed the young birds, and the fear of danger has led them to attempt flight before their wings were strong enough. Once, when I was climbing up to the nest of a broad-winged hawk, the young took fright and launched out in the air, coming to the ground only a few rods away.
Instinct, natural prompting, is the main matter, after all. It makes up at least nine tenths of the lives of all our wild neighbors. How much has fear had to do in shaping their lives and in perpetuating them! And "fear of any particular enemy," says Darwin, "is certainly an instinctive quality." It has been said that kittens confined in a box, and which have never known a dog, will spit and put up their backs at a hand that has just stroked a dog,—even before their eyes are opened, one authority says, but this I doubt. My son's tame gray squirrel had never seen chestnuts, nor learned about them in the school of the woods, and yet when he was offered some, he fairly danced with excitement; he put his paws eagerly around them and drew them to him, and chattered, and looked threateningly at all about him. Does man know his proper food in the same way? The child has only the instinct to eat, and will put anything into its mouth.
How the instinctive wildness of the turkey crops out in the young! Let the mother turkey while hovering her brood give the danger-signal, and the young will run from under her and hide in the grass. Why? To give her a chance to fly and decoy away the enemy. I think young chickens will do the same. Young partridges hatched under a hen run away at once. Pheasants in England reared under a domestic fowl are as wild as in a state of nature. Some California quail hatched under a bantam hen in the Zoo in New York did not heed the calls of their foster-mother at all the first week, but at her alarm-note they instantly squatted, showing that the danger-cry of a fowl is a kind of universal language that all species understand. One may prove this at any time by arousing the fears of any wild bird: how all the other birds catch the alarm! Charles St. John says that in Scotland the stag you are stalking is sure to be put to flight if it hears the alarm-cry of the cock-grouse. You see it is more important that the wild creatures should understand the danger-signals of one another than that they should understand the rest of their language.
To what extent animals reason, or show any glimmering of what we call reason, is a much-debated question among animal psychologists, and I shall have more to say upon the subject later on. Dogs undoubtedly show gleams of reason, and other animals in domestication, such as the elephant and the monkey. One does not often feel like questioning Darwin's conclusions, yet the incident of the caged bear which he quotes, that pawed the water in front of its cage to create a current that should float within its reach a piece of bread that had been placed there, does not, in my judgment, show any reasoning about the laws of hydrostatics. The bear would doubtless have pawed a cloth in the same way, vaguely seeking to draw the bread within reach. But when an elephant blows through his trunk upon the ground beyond an object which he wants, but which is beyond his reach, so that the rebounding air will drive it toward him, he shows something very much like reason.
Instinct is a kind of natural reason,—reason that acts without proof or experience. The principle of life in organic nature seeks in all ways to express and to perpetuate itself. It finds many degrees of expression and fulfillment in the vegetable world; it finds higher degrees of expression and fulfillment in the animal world, reaching its highest development in man.
That the animals, except those that have been long associated with man, and they only in occasional gleams and hints, are capable of any of our complex mental processes, that they are capable of an act of reflection, of connecting cause and effect, of putting this and that together, is to me void of proof. Why, there are yet savage tribes in which the woman is regarded as the sole parent of the child. When the mother is sick at childbirth, the father takes to his bed and feigns the illness he does not feel, in order to establish his relationship to the child. It is not at all probable that the males of any species of animals, or the females either, are guided or influenced in their actions by the desire for offspring, or that they possess anything like knowledge of the connection between their love-making and their offspring. This knowledge comes of reflection, and reflection the lower animals are not capable of. But I shall have more to say upon this point in another chapter, entitled "What do Animals Know?" I will only say here that animals are almost as much under the dominion of absolute nature, or what we call instinct, innate tendency, habit of growth, as are the plants and trees. Their lives revolve around three wants or needs—the want of food, of safety, and of offspring. It is in securing these ends that all their wit is developed. They have no wants outside of these spheres, as man has. Their social wants and their love of beauty, as in some of the birds, are secondary. It is quite certain that the animals that store up food for the winter do not take any thought of the future. Nature takes thought for them and gives them their provident instinct. The jay, by his propensity to carry away and hide things, plants many of our oak and chestnut trees, but who dares say that he does this on purpose, any more than that the insects cross-fertilize the flowers on purpose? Sheep do not take thought of the wool upon their backs that is to protect them from the cold of winter, nor does the fox of his fur. In the tropics sheep cease to grow wool in three or four years.
All the lower animals, so far as I know, swim the first time they find themselves in the water. They do not have to be taught: it is a matter of instinct. It is what we should expect from our knowledge of their lives. Not so with man; he must learn to swim as he learns so many other things. The stimulus of the water does not at once set in motion his legs and arms in the right way, as it does the animal's legs; his powers of reason and reflection paralyze him—his brain carries him down. Not until he has learned to resign himself to the water as the animal does, and to go on all fours, can he swim. As soon as the boy ceases to struggle against his tendency to sink, assumes the horizontal position, and strikes out as the animal does, with but one thought, and that to apply his powers of locomotion to the medium about him, he swims as a matter of course. It is said that children have sometimes been known to swim when thrown into the water. Their animal instincts were not thwarted by their powers of reflection. Doubtless this never happened to a grown person. Moreover, is it not probable that the specific gravity of the hairless human body is greater than that of the hair-covered animal, and that it sinks, while that of the cat or dog floats? This, with the erect position of man, makes swimming with him an art that must be acquired.
There is no better illustration of the action of instinct as opposed to conscious intelligence than is afforded by the parasitic birds,—the cuckoo in Europe and the cowbird in this country,—birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Darwin speculates as to how this instinct came about, but whatever may have been its genesis, it is now a fixed habit among these birds. Moreover, the instinct of the blind young alien, a day or two after it is hatched, to throw or crowd its foster-brothers out of the nest is a strange and anomalous act, and is as untaught and unreasoned as anything in vegetable life. But when our yellow warbler, finding this strange egg of the cowbird in her nest, proceeds to bury it by putting another bottom in the nest and carrying up the sides to correspond, she shows something very much like sense and judgment, though of a clumsy kind. How much simpler and easier it would be to throw out the strange egg! I have known the cowbird herself to carry an egg from a nest in which she wished to deposit one of her own. Again, how stupid and ludicrous it seems on the part of the mother sparrow, or warbler, or vireo, when she goes about toiling desperately to satisfy the hunger of her big clamorous bantling of a cowbird, never suspecting that she has been imposed upon!
Of course the line that divides man from the lower orders is not a straight line. It has many breaks and curves and deep indentations. The man-like apes, as it were, mark where the line rises up into the domain of man. Furthermore, the elephant and the dog, especially as we know them in domestication, encroach upon man's territory.
Men are born with aptitudes for different things, but the art and the science of them all they have to learn; proficiency comes with practice. Man must learn to spin his web, to build his house, to sing his song, to know his food, to sail his craft, to find his way—things that the animals know "from the jump." The animal inherits its knowledge and its skill: man must acquire his by individual effort; all he inherits is capacity in varying degrees for these things. The animal does rational things without an exercise of reason. It is intelligent as nature is intelligent. It does not know that it knows, or how it knows, while man does. Man's knowledge is the light of his mind that shines on many and widely different objects, while the knowledge of animals cannot be symbolized by the term "light" at all. The animal acts blindly so far as any conscious individual illumination or act of judgment is concerned. It does the thing unwittingly, because it must. Confront it with a new condition, and it has no resources to meet that condition. The animal knows what necessity taught its progenitors, and it knows that only as a spontaneous impulse to do certain things.
Instinct, I say, is a great matter, and often shames reason. It adapts means to an end, it makes few or no mistakes, it takes note of times and seasons, it delves, it bores, it spins, it weaves, it sews, it builds, it makes paper, it constructs a shelter, it navigates the air and the water, it is provident and thrifty, it knows its enemies, it outwits its foes, it crosses oceans and continents without compass, it foreshadows nearly all the arts and trades and occupations of mankind, it is skilled without practice, and wise without experience. How it arose, what its genesis was, who can tell? Probably natural selection has been the chief agent in its development. If natural selection has developed and sharpened the claws of the cat and the scent of the fox, why should it not develop and sharpen their wits also? The remote ancestors of the fox or of the crow were doubtless less shrewd and cunning than the crows and the foxes of to-day. The instinctive intelligence of an animal of our time is the sum of the variations toward greater intelligence of all its ancestors. What man stores in language and in books—the accumulated results of experience—the animals seem to have stored in instinct. As Darwin says, a man cannot, on his first trial, make a stone hatchet or a canoe through his power of imitation. "He has to learn his work by practice; a beaver, on the other hand, can make its dam or canal, and a bird its nest, as well or nearly as well, and a spider its wonderful web quite as well, the first time it tries as when old and experienced."
An animal shows intelligence, as distinct from instinct, when it takes advantage of any circumstance that arises at the moment, when it finds new ways, whether better or not, as when certain birds desert their old nesting-sites, and take up with new ones afforded by man. This act, at least, shows power of choice. The birds and beasts all quickly avail themselves of any new source of food supply. Their wits are probably more keen and active here than in any other direction. It is said that in Oklahoma the coyotes have learned to tell ripe watermelons from unripe ones by scratching upon them. If they have not, they probably will. Eating is the one thing that engrosses the attention of all creatures, and the procuring of food has been a great means of education to all.
I notice that certain of the wood-folk—mice and squirrels and birds—eat mushrooms. If I would eat them, I must learn how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous ones. I have no special sense to guide me in the matter, as doubtless the squirrels have. Their instinct is sure where my reason fails. It would be very interesting to know if they ever make a mistake in this matter. Domestic animals sometimes make mistakes as to their food because their instinct has been tampered with and is by no means as sure as that of the wild creatures. It is said that sheep will occasionally eat laurel and St. John's-wort, which are poisonous to them. In the far West I was told that the horses sometimes eat a weed called the loco-weed that makes them crazy. I have since learned that the buffaloes and cattle with a strain of the buffalo blood never eat this weed.
The imitation among the lower animals to which I have referred is in no sense akin to teaching. The boy does not learn arithmetic by imitation. To teach is to bring one mind to act upon another mind; it is the result of a conscious effort on the part of both teacher and pupil. The child, says Darwin, has an instinctive tendency to speak, but not to brew, or bake, or write. The child comes to speak by imitation, as does the parrot, and then learns the meaning of words, as the parrot does not.
I am convinced there is nothing in the notion that animals consciously teach their young. Is it probable that a mere animal reflects upon the future any more than it does upon the past? Is it solicitous about the future well-being of its offspring any more than it is curious about its ancestry? Persons who think they see the lower animals training their young consciously or unconsciously supply something to their observations; they read their own thoughts or preconceptions into what they see. Yet so trained a naturalist and experienced a hunter as President Roosevelt differs with me in this matter. In a letter which I am permitted to quote, he says:—
"I have not the slightest doubt that there is a large amount of unconscious teaching by wood-folk of their offspring. In unfrequented places I have had the deer watch me with almost as much indifference as they do now in the Yellowstone Park. In frequented places, where they are hunted, young deer and young mountain sheep, on the other hand,—and of course young wolves, bobcats, and the like,—are exceedingly wary and shy when the sight or smell of man is concerned. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that from their earliest moments of going about they learn to imitate the unflagging watchfulness of their parents, and by the exercise of some associative or imitative quality they grow to imitate and then to share the alarm displayed by the older ones at the smell or presence of man. A young deer that has never seen a man feels no instinctive alarm at his presence, or at least very little; but it will undoubtedly learn to associate extreme alarm with his presence from merely accompanying its mother, if the latter feels such alarm. I should not regard this as schooling by the parent any more than I should so regard the instant flight of twenty antelope who had not seen a hunter, because the twenty-first has seen him and has instantly run. Sometimes a deer or an antelope will deliberately give an alarm-cry at sight of something strange. This cry at once puts every deer or antelope on the alert; but they will be just as much on the alert if they witness nothing but an exhibition of fright and flight on the part of the first deer or antelope, without there being any conscious effort on its part to express alarm.
"Moreover, I am inclined to think that on certain occasions, rare though they may be, there is a conscious effort at teaching. I have myself known of one setter dog which would thrash its puppy soundly if the latter carelessly or stupidly flushed a bird. Something similar may occur in the wild state among such intelligent beasts as wolves and foxes. Indeed, I have some reason to believe that with both of these animals it does occur—that is, that there is conscious as well as unconscious teaching of the young in such matters as traps."
Probably the President and I differ more in the meaning we attach to the same words than in anything else. In a subsequent letter he says: "I think the chief difference between you and me in the matter is one of terminology. When I speak of unconscious teaching, I really mean simply acting in a manner which arouses imitation."
Imitation is no doubt the key to the whole matter. The animals unconsciously teach their young by their example, and in no other way. But I must leave the discussion of this subject for another chapter.
The notion that animals consciously train and educate their young has been held only tentatively by European writers on natural history. Darwin does not seem to have been of this opinion at all. Wallace shared it at one time in regard to the birds,—their songs and nest-building,—but abandoned it later, and fell back upon instinct or inherited habit. Some of the German writers, such as Brehm, Buechner, and the Muellers, seem to have held to the notion more decidedly. But Professor Groos had not yet opened their eyes to the significance of the play of animals. The writers mentioned undoubtedly read the instinctive play of animals as an attempt on the part of the parents to teach their young.
That the examples of the parents in many ways stimulate the imitative instincts of the young is quite certain, but that the parents in any sense aim at instruction is an idea no longer held by writers on animal psychology.
Of course it all depends upon what we mean by teaching. Do we mean the communication of knowledge, or the communication of emotion? It seems to me that by teaching we mean the former. Man alone communicates knowledge; the lower animals communicate feeling or emotion. Hence their communications always refer to the present, never to the past or to the future.
That birds and beasts do communicate with each other, who can doubt? But that they impart knowledge, that they have any knowledge to impart, in the strict meaning of the word, any store of ideas or mental concepts—that is quite another matter. Teaching implies such store of ideas and power to impart them. The subconscious self rules in the animal; the conscious self rules in man, and the conscious self alone can teach or communicate knowledge. It seems to me that the cases of the deer and the antelope, referred to by President Roosevelt in the letter to me quoted in the last chapter, show the communication of emotion only.
Teaching implies reflection and judgment; it implies a thought of, and solicitude for, the future. "The young will need this knowledge," says the human parent, "and so we will impart it to them now." But the animal parent has consciously no knowledge to impart, only fear or suspicion. One may affirm almost anything of trained dogs and of dogs generally. I can well believe that the setter bitch spoken of by the President punished her pup when it flushed a bird,—she had been punished herself for the same offense,—but that the act was expressive of anything more than her present anger, that she was in any sense trying to train and instruct her pup, there is no proof.
But with animals that have not been to school to man, all ideas of teaching must be rudimentary indeed. How could a fox or a wolf instruct its young in such matters as traps? Only in the presence of the trap, certainly; and then the fear of the trap would be communicated to the young through natural instinct. Fear, like joy or curiosity, is contagious among beasts and birds, as it is among men; the young fox or wolf would instantly share the emotion of its parent in the presence of a trap. It is very important to the wild creatures that they have a quick apprehension of danger, and as a matter of fact they have. One wild and suspicious duck in a flock will often defeat the best laid plans of the duck-hunter. Its suspicions are quickly communicated to all its fellows: not through any conscious effort on its part to do so, but through the law of natural contagion above referred to. Where any bird or beast is much hunted, fear seems to be in the air, and their fellows come to be conscious of the danger which they have not experienced.
What an animal lacks in wit it makes up in caution. Fear is a good thing for the wild creatures to have in superabundance. It often saves them from real danger. But how undiscriminating it is! It is said that an iron hoop or wagon-tire placed around a setting hen in the woods will protect her from the foxes.
Animals are afraid on general principles. Anything new and strange excites their suspicions. In a herd of animals, cattle, or horses, fear quickly becomes a panic and rages like a conflagration. Cattlemen in the West found that any little thing at night might kindle the spark in their herds and sweep the whole mass away in a furious stampede. Each animal excites every other, and the multiplied fear of the herd is something terrible. Panics among men are not much different.
In a discussion like the present one, let us use words in their strict logical sense, if possible. Most of the current misconceptions in natural history, as in other matters, arise from a loose and careless use of words. One says teach and train and instruct, when the facts point to instinctive imitation or unconscious communication.
That the young of all kinds thrive better and develop more rapidly under the care of their parents than when deprived of that care is obvious enough. It would be strange if it were not so. Nothing can quite fill the place of the mother with either man or bird or beast. The mother provides and protects. The young quickly learn of her through the natural instinct of imitation. They share her fears, they follow in her footsteps, they look to her for protection; it is the order of nature. They are not trained in the way they should go, as a child is by its human parents—they are not trained at all; but their natural instincts doubtless act more promptly and surely with the mother than without her. That a young kingfisher or a young osprey would, in due time, dive for fish, or a young marsh hawk catch mice and birds, or a young fox or wolf or coon hunt for its proper prey without the parental example, admits of no doubt at all; but they would each probably do this thing earlier and better in the order of nature than if that order were interfered with.
The other day I saw a yellow-bellied woodpecker alight upon a decaying beech and proceed to drill for a grub. Two of its fully grown young followed it and, alighting near, sidled up to where the parent was drilling. A hasty observer would say that the parent was giving its young a lesson in grub-hunting, but I read the incident differently. The parent bird had no thought of its young. It made passes at them when they came too near, and drove them away. Presently it left the tree, whereupon one of the young examined the hole its parent had made and drilled a little on its own account. A parental example like this may stimulate the young to hunt for grubs earlier than they would otherwise do, but this is merely conjecture. There is no proof of it, nor can there be any.
The mother bird or beast does not have to be instructed in her maternal duties: they are instinctive with her; it is of vital importance to the continuance of the species that they should be. If it were a matter of instruction or acquired knowledge, how precarious it would be!
The idea of teaching is an advanced idea, and can come only to a being that is capable of returning upon itself in thought, and that can form abstract conceptions—conceptions that float free, so to speak, dissociated from particular concrete objects.
If a fox, or a wolf, for instance, were capable of reflection and of dwelling upon the future and upon the past, it might feel the need of instructing its young in the matter of traps and hounds, if such a thing were possible without language. When the cat brings her kitten a live mouse, she is not thinking about instructing it in the art of dealing with mice, but is intent solely upon feeding her young. The kitten already knows, through inheritance, about mice. So when the hen leads her brood forth and scratches for them, she has but one purpose—to provide them with food. If she is confined to the coop, the chickens go forth and soon scratch for themselves and snap up the proper insect food.
The mother's care and protection count for much, but they do not take the place of inherited instinct. It has been found that newly hatched chickens, when left to themselves, do not know the difference between edible and non-edible insects, but that they soon learn. In such matters the mother hen, no doubt, guides them.
A writer in "Forest and Stream," who has since published a book about his "wild friends," pushes this notion that animals train their young so far that it becomes grotesque. Here are some of the things that this keen observer and exposer of "false natural history" reports that he has seen about his cabin in the woods: He has seen an old crow that hurriedly flew away from his cabin door on his sudden appearance, return and beat its young because they did not follow quickly enough. He has seen a male chewink, while its mate was rearing a second brood, take the first brood and lead them away to a bird-resort (he probably meant to say to a bird-nursery or kindergarten); and when one of the birds wandered back to take one more view of the scenes of its infancy, he has seen the father bird pounce upon it and give it a "severe whipping and take it to the resort again."
He has seen swallows teach their young to fly by gathering them upon fences and telegraph wires and then, at intervals (and at the word of command, I suppose), launching out in the air with them, and swooping and circling about. He has seen a song sparrow, that came to his dooryard for fourteen years (he omitted to say that he had branded him and so knew his bird), teach his year-old boy to sing (the italics are mine). This hermit-inclined sparrow wanted to "desert the fields for a life in the woods," but his "wife would not consent." Many a featherless biped has had the same experience with his society-spoiled wife. The puzzle is, how did this masterly observer know that this state of affairs existed between this couple? Did the wife tell him, or the husband? "Hermit" often takes his visitors to a wood thrushes' singing-school, where, "as the birds forget their lesson, they drop out one by one."
He has seen an old rooster teaching a young rooster to crow! At first the old rooster crows mostly in the morning, but later in the season he crows throughout the day, at short intervals, to show the young "the proper thing." "Young birds removed out of hearing will not learn to crow." He hears the old grouse teaching the young to drum in the fall, though he neglects to tell us that he has seen the young in attendance upon these lessons. He has seen a mother song sparrow helping her two-year-old daughter build her nest. He has discovered that the cat talks to her kittens with her ears: when she points them forward, that means "yes;" when she points them backward, that means "no." Hence she can tell them whether the wagon they hear approaching is the butcher's cart or not, and thus save them the trouble of looking out.
And so on through a long list of wild and domestic creatures. At first I suspected this writer was covertly ridiculing a certain other extravagant "observer," but a careful reading of his letter shows him to be seriously engaged in the worthy task of exposing "false natural history."
Now the singing of birds, the crowing of cocks, the drumming of grouse, are secondary sexual characteristics. They are not necessary to the lives of the creatures, and are probably more influenced by imitation than are the more important instincts of self-preservation and reproduction. Yet the testimony is overwhelming that birds will sing and roosters crow and turkeys gobble, though they have never heard these sounds; and, no doubt, the grouse and the woodpeckers drum from promptings of the same sexual instinct.
I do not wish to accuse "Hermit" of willfully perverting the facts of natural history. He is one of those persons who read their own fancies into whatever they look upon. He is incapable of disinterested observation, which means he is incapable of observation at all in the true sense. There are no animals that signal to each other with their ears. The movements of the ears follow the movements of the eye. When an animal's attention is directed to any object or sound, its ears point forward; when its attention is relaxed, the ears fall. But with the cat tribe the ears are habitually erect, as those of the horse are usually relaxed. They depress them and revert them, as do many other animals, when angered or afraid.
Certain things in animal life lead me to suspect that animals have some means of communication with one another, especially the gregarious animals, that is quite independent of what we mean by language. It is like an interchange or blending of subconscious states, and may be analogous to telepathy among human beings. Observe what a unit a flock of birds becomes when performing their evolutions in the air. They are not many, but one, turning and flashing in the sun with a unity and a precision that it would be hard to imitate. One may see a flock of shore-birds that behave as one body: now they turn to the sun a sheet of silver; then, as their dark backs are presented to the beholder, they almost disappear against the shore or the clouds. It would seem as if they shared in a communal mind or spirit, and that what one felt they all felt at the same instant.
In Florida I many times saw large schools of mullets fretting and breaking the surface of the water with what seemed to be the tips of their tails. A large area would be agitated and rippled by the backs or tails of a host of fishes. Then suddenly, while I looked, there would be one splash and every fish would dive. It was a multitude, again, acting as one body. Hundreds, thousands of tails slapped the water at the same instant and were gone.
When the passenger pigeons were numbered by millions, the enormous clans used to migrate from one part of the continent to another. I saw the last flight of them up the Hudson River valley in the spring of 1875. All day they streamed across the sky. One purpose seemed to animate every flock and every bird. It was as if all had orders to move to the same point. The pigeons came only when there was beech-mast in the woods. How did they know we had had a beech-nut year? It is true that a few straggling bands were usually seen some days in advance of the blue myriads: were these the scouts, and did they return with the news of the beech-nuts? If so, how did they communicate the intelligence and set the whole mighty army in motion?
The migrations among the four-footed animals that sometimes occur over a large, part of the country—among the rats, the gray squirrels, the reindeer of the north—seem to be of a similar character. How does every individual come to share in the common purpose? An army of men attempting to move without leaders and without a written or spoken language becomes a disorganized mob. Not so the animals. There seems to be a community of mind among them in a sense that there is not among men. The pressure of great danger seems to develop in a degree this community of mind and feeling among men. Under strong excitement we revert more or less to the animal state, and are ruled by instinct. It may well be that telepathy—the power to project one's mental or emotional state so as to impress a friend at a distance—is a power which we have carried over from our remote animal ancestors. However this may be, it is certain that the sensitiveness of birds and quadrupeds to the condition of one another, their sense of a common danger, of food supplies, of the direction of home under all circumstances, point to the possession of a power which is only rudimentary in us.
Some observers explain these things on the theory that the flocks of birds have leaders, and that their surprising evolutions are guided by calls or signals from these leaders, too quick or too fine for our eyes or ears to catch. I suppose they would explain the movements of the schools of fish and the simultaneous movements of a large number of land animals on the same theory. I cannot accept this explanation. It is harder for me to believe that a flock of birds has a code of calls or signals for all its evolutions—now right, now left, now mount, now swoop—which each individual understands on the instant, or that the hosts of the wild pigeons had their captains and signals, than to believe that out of the flocking instinct there has grown some other instinct or faculty, less understood, but equally potent, that puts all the members of a flock in such complete rapport with one another that the purpose and the desire of one become the purpose and the desire of all. There is nothing in this state of things analogous to a military organization. The relation among the members of the flock is rather that of creatures sharing spontaneously the same subconscious or psychic state, and acted upon by the same hidden influence, in a way and to a degree that never occur among men.
The faculty or power by which animals find the way home over or across long stretches of country is quite as mysterious and incomprehensible to us as the spirit of the flock to which I refer. A hive of bees evidently has a collective purpose and plan that does not emanate from any single individual or group of individuals, and which is understood by all without outward communication.
Is there anything which, without great violence to language, may be called a school of the woods? In the sense in which a playground is a school—a playground without rules or methods or a director—there is a school of the woods. It is an unkept, an unconscious school or gymnasium, and is entirely instinctive. In play the young of all animals, no doubt, get a certain amount of training and disciplining that helps fit them for their future careers; but this school is not presided over or directed by parents, though they sometimes take part in it. It is spontaneous and haphazard, without rule or system; but is, in every case, along the line of the future struggle for life of the particular bird or animal. A young marsh hawk which we reared used to play at striking leaves or bits of bark with its talons; kittens play with a ball, or a cob, or a stick, as if it were a mouse, dogs race and wrestle with one another as in the chase; ducks dive and sport in the water; doves circle and dive in the air as if escaping from a hawk; birds pursue and dodge one another in the same way; bears wrestle and box; chickens have mimic battles; colts run and leap; fawns probably do the same thing; squirrels play something like a game of tag in the trees; lambs butt one another and skip about the rocks; and so on.
In fact, nearly all play, including much of that of man, takes the form of mock battle, and is to that extent an education for the future. Among the carnivora it takes also the form of the chase. Its spring and motive are, of course, pleasure, and not education; and herein again is revealed the cunning of nature—the power that conceals purposes of its own in our most thoughtless acts. The cat and the kitten play with the live mouse, not to indulge the sense of cruelty, as some have supposed, but to indulge in the pleasure of the chase and unconsciously to practice the feat of capture. The cat rarely plays with a live bird, because the recapture would be more difficult, and might fail. What fisherman would not like to take his big fish over and over again, if he could be sure of doing it, not from cruelty, but for the pleasure of practicing his art? For further light on the subject of the significance of the play of animals, I refer the reader to the work of Professor Karl Groos called "The Play of Animals."
One of my critics has accused me of measuring all things by the standard of my little farm—of thinking that what is not true of animal life there is not true anywhere. Unfortunately my farm is small—hardly a score of acres—and its animal life very limited. I have never seen even a porcupine upon it; but I have a hill where one might roll down, should one ever come my way and be in the mood for that kind of play. I have a few possums, a woodchuck or two, an occasional skunk, some red squirrels and rabbits, and many kinds of song-birds. Foxes occasionally cross my acres; and once, at least, I saw a bald eagle devouring a fish in one of my apple-trees. Wild ducks, geese, and swans in spring and fall pass across the sky above me. Quail and grouse invade my premises, and of crows I have, at least in bird-nesting time, too many.
 See comment on the story here alluded to on page 244.
But I have a few times climbed over my pasture wall and wandered into distant fields. Once upon a time I was a traveler in Asia for the space of two hours—an experience that ought to have yielded me some startling discoveries, but did not. Indeed, the wider I have traveled and observed nature, the more I am convinced that the wild creatures behave just about the same in all parts of the country; that is, under similar conditions. What one observes truly about bird or beast upon his farm of ten acres, he will not have to unlearn, travel as wide or as far as he will. Where the animals are much hunted, they are of course much wilder and more cunning than where they are not hunted. In the Yellowstone National Park we found the elk, deer, and mountain sheep singularly tame; and in the summer, so we were told, the bears board at the big hotels. The wild geese and ducks, too, were tame; and the red-tailed hawk built its nest in a large dead oak that stood quite alone near the side of the road. With us the same hawk hides its nest in a tree in the dense woods, because the farmers unwisely hunt and destroy it. But the cougars and coyotes and bobcats were no tamer in the park than they are in other places where they are hunted.
Indeed, if I had elk and deer and caribou and moose and bears and wildcats and beavers and otters and porcupines on my farm, I should expect them to behave just as they do in other parts of the country under like conditions: they would be tame and docile if I did not molest them, and wild and fierce if I did. They would do nothing out of character in either case.
Your natural history knowledge of the East will avail you in the West. There is no country, says Emerson, in which they do not wash the pans and spank the babies; and there is no country where a dog is not a dog, or a fox a fox, or where a hare is ferocious, or a wolf lamblike. The porcupine behaves in the Rockies just as he does in the Catskills; the deer and the moose and the black bear and the beaver of the Pacific slope are almost identical in their habits and traits with those of the Atlantic slope.
In my observations of the birds of the far West, I went wrong in my reckoning but once: the Western meadowlark has a new song. How or where he got it is a mystery; it seems to be in some way the gift of those great, smooth, flowery, treeless, dimpled hills. But the swallow was familiar, and the robin and the wren and the highhole, while the woodchuck I saw and heard in Wyoming might have been the "chuck" of my native hills. The eagle is an eagle the world over. When I was a boy I saw, one autumn day, an eagle descend with extended talons upon the backs of a herd of young cattle that were accompanied by a cosset-sheep and were feeding upon a high hill. The object of the eagle seemed to be to separate the one sheep from the cattle, or to frighten them all into breaking their necks in trying to escape him. But neither result did he achieve. In the Yellowstone Park, President Roosevelt and Major Pitcher saw a golden eagle trying the same tactics upon a herd of elk that contained one yearling. The eagle doubtless had his eye upon the yearling, though he would probably have been quite satisfied to have driven one of the older ones down a precipice. His chances of a dinner would have been equally good.
There is one particular in which the bird families are much more human than our four-footed kindred. I refer to the practice of courtship. The male of all birds, so far as I know, pays suit to the female and seeks to please and attract her. This the quadrupeds do not do; there is no period of courtship among them, and no mating or pairing as among the birds. The male fights for the female, but he does not seek to win her by delicate attentions. If there are any exceptions to this rule, I do not know them. There seems to be among the birds something that is like what is called romantic love. The choice of mate seems always to rest with the female, while among the mammals the female shows no preference at all.
 Except in the case of certain birds of India and Australia.
Among our own birds, the prettiest thing I know of attending the period of courtship, or preliminary to the match-making, is the spring musical festival and reunion of the goldfinches, which often lasts for days, through rain and shine. In April or May, apparently all the goldfinches from a large area collect in the top of an elm or a maple and unite in a prolonged musical festival. Is it a contest among the males for the favor of the females, or is it the spontaneous expression of the gladness of the whole clan at the return of the season of life and love? The birds seem to pair soon after, and doubtless the concert of voices has some reference to that event.
There is one other human practice often attributed to the lower animals that I must briefly consider, and that is the practice, under certain circumstances, of poisoning their young. One often hears of caged young birds being fed by their parents for a few days and then poisoned; or of a mother fox poisoning her captive young when she finds that she cannot liberate him; and such stories obtain ready credence with the public, especially with the young. To make these stories credible, one must suppose a school of pharmacy, too, in the woods.
"The worst thing about these poisoning stories," writes a friend of mine, himself a writer of nature-books, "is the implied appreciation of the full effect and object of poison—the comprehension by the fox, for instance, that the poisoned meat she may be supposed to find was placed there for the object of killing herself (or some other fox), and that she may apply it to another animal for that purpose. Furthermore, that she understands the nature of death—that it brings 'surcease of sorrow,' and that death is better than captivity for her young one. How did she acquire all this knowledge? Where was her experience of its supposed truth obtained? How could she make so fine and far-seeing a judgment, wholly out of the range of brute affairs, and so purely philosophical and humanly ethical? It violates every instinct and canon of natural law, which is for the preservation of life at all hazards. This is simply the human idea of 'murder.' Animals kill one another for food, or in rivalry, or in blind ferocity of predatory disposition; but there is not a particle of evidence that they 'commit murder' for ulterior ends. It is questionable whether they comprehend the condition called death, or its nature, in any proper sense."
On another occasion I laughed at a recent nature writer for his credulity in half-believing the story told him by a fisherman, that the fox catches crabs by using his tail as a bait; and yet I read in Romanes that Olaus, in his account of Norway, says he has seen a fox do this very thing among the rocks on the sea-coast. One would like to cross-question Olaus before accepting such a statement. One would as soon expect a fox to put his brush in the fire as in the water. When it becomes wet and bedraggled, he is greatly handicapped as to speed. There is no doubt that rats will put their tails into jars that contain liquid food they want, and then lick them off, as Romanes proved; but the rat's tail is not a brush, nor in any sense an ornament. Think what the fox-and-crab story implies! Now the fox is entirely a land animal, and lives by preying upon land creatures, which it follows by scent or sight. It can neither see nor smell crabs in the deep water, where crabs are usually found. How should it know that there are such things as crabs? How should it know that they can be taken with bait and line or by fishing for them? When and how did it get this experience? This knowledge belongs to man alone. It comes through a process of reasoning that he alone is capable of. Man alone of land animals sets traps and fishes. There is a fish called the angler (Lophius piscatorius), which, it is said on doubtful authority, by means of some sort of appendages on its head angles for small fish; but no competent observer has reported any land animal doing so. Again, would a crab lay hold of a mass of fur like a fox's tail?—even if the tail could be thrust deep enough into the water, which is impossible. Crabs, when not caught with hand-nets, are usually taken in water eight or ten feet deep. They are baited and caught with a piece of meat tied to a string, but cannot be lifted to the surface till they are eating the meat, and then a dip-net is required to secure them. The story, on the whole, is one of the most preposterous that ever gained credence in natural history.
 A book published in London in 1783, entitled A Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar and the Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World, among other astonishing natural history notes, makes this statement about the white and red fox of Norway: "They have a particular way of drawing crabs ashore by dipping their tails in the water, which the crab lays hold of."
Good observers are probably about as rare as good poets. Accurate seeing,—an eye that takes in the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,—how rare indeed it is! So few persons know or can tell exactly what they see; so few persons can draw a right inference from an observed fact; so few persons can keep from reading their own thoughts and preconceptions into what they see; only a person with the scientific habit of mind can be trusted to report things as they are. Most of us, in observing the wild life about us, see more or see less than the truth. We see less when our minds are dull, or preoccupied, or blunted by want of interest. This is true of most country people. We see more when we read the lives of the wild creatures about us in the light of our human experience, and impute to the birds and beasts human motives and methods. This is too often true of the eager city man or woman who sallies out into the country to study nature.
The tendency to sentimentalize nature has, in our time, largely taken the place of the old tendency to demonize and spiritize it. It is anthropomorphism in another form, less fraught with evil to us, but equally in the way of a clear understanding of the life about us.
There is no better type or epitome of wild nature than the bird's-nest—something built, and yet as if it grew, a part of the ground, or of the rock, or of the branch upon which it is placed; beginning so coarsely, so irregularly, and ending so finely and symmetrically; so unlike the work of hands, and yet the result of a skill beyond hands; and when it holds its complement of eggs, how pleasing, how suggestive!
The bird adapts means to an end, and yet so differently from the way of man,—an end of which it does not know the value or the purpose. We know it is prompted to it by the instinct of reproduction. When the woodpecker in the fall excavates a lodge in a dry limb, we know he is prompted to it by the instinct of self-preservation, but the birds themselves obey the behests of nature without knowledge.
A bird's-nest suggests design, and yet it seems almost haphazard; the result of a kind of madness, yet with method in it. The hole the woodpecker drills for its cell is to the eye a perfect circle, and the rim of most nests is as true as that of a cup. The circle and the sphere exist in nature; they are mother forms and hold all other forms. They are easily attained; they are spontaneous and inevitable. The bird models her nest about her own breast; she turns round and round in it, and its circular character results as a matter of course. Angles, right lines, measured precision, so characteristic of the works of man, are rarely met with in organic nature.
Nature reaches her ends by devious paths; she loiters, she meanders, she plays by the way; she surely "arrives," but it is always in a blind, hesitating, experimental kind of fashion. Follow the tunnels of the ants or the crickets, or of the moles and the weasels, underground, or the courses of the streams or the paths of the animals above ground—how they turn and hesitate, how wayward and undecided they are! A right line seems out of the question.
The oriole often weaves strings into her nest; sometimes she binds and overhands the part of the rim where she alights in going in, to make it stronger, but it is always done in a hit-or-miss, childish sort of way, as one would expect it to be; the strings are massed, or snarled, or left dangling at loose ends, or are caught around branches; the weaving and the sewing are effective, and the whole nest is a marvel of blind skill, of untaught intelligence; yet how unmethodical, how delightfully irregular, how unmistakably a piece of wild nature!
Sometimes the instinct of the bird is tardy, and the egg of the bird gets ripe before the nest is ready; in such a case the egg is of course lost. I once found the nest of the black and white creeping warbler in a mossy bank in the woods, and under the nest was an egg of the bird. The warbler had excavated the site for her nest, dropped her egg into it, and then gone on with her building. Instinct is not always inerrant. Nature is wasteful, and plays the game with a free hand. Yet what she loses on one side she gains on another; she is like that least bittern Mr. Frank M. Chapman tells about. Two of the bittern's five eggs had been punctured by the long-billed marsh wren. When the bird returned to her nest and found the two eggs punctured, she made no outcry, showed no emotion, but deliberately proceeded to eat them. Having done this, she dropped the empty shells over the side of the nest, together with any straws that had become soiled in the process, cleaned her bill, and proceeded with her incubation. This was Nature in a nut-shell,—or rather egg-shell,—turning her mishaps to some good account. If the egg will not make a bird, it will make food; if not food, then fertilizer.
Among nearly all our birds, the female is the active business member of the partnership; she has a turn for practical affairs; she chooses the site of the nest, and usually builds it unaided. The life of the male is more or less a holiday or picnic till the young are hatched, when his real cares begin, for he does his part in feeding them. One may see the male cedar-bird attending the female as she is busy with her nest-building, but never, so far as I have observed, assisting her. One spring I observed with much interest a phoebe-bird building her nest not far from my cabin in the woods. The male looked on approvingly, but did not help. He perched most of the time on a mullein stalk near the little spring run where Phoebe came for mud. In the early morning hours she made her trips at intervals of a minute or two. The male flirted his tail and called encouragingly, and when she started up the hill with her load he would accompany her part way, to help her over the steepest part, as it were, then return to his perch and watch and call for her return. For an hour or more I witnessed this little play in bird life, in which the female's part was so primary and the male's so secondary. There is something in such things that seems to lend support to Professor Lester F. Ward's contention, as set forth in his "Pure Sociology," that in the natural evolution of the two sexes the female was first and the male second; that he was made from her rib, so to speak, and not she from his.
With our phalarope and a few Australian birds, the position of the two sexes as indicated above is reversed, the females having the ornaments and bright colors and doing the courting, while the male does the incubating. In a few cases also the female is much the more masculine, noisy, and pugnacious. With some of our common birds, such as the woodpeckers, the chickadee, and the swallows, both sexes take part in nest-building.
It is a very pretty sight to witness a pair of wood thrushes building their nest. Indeed, what is there about the wood thrush that is not pleasing? He is a kind of visible embodied melody. Some birds are so sharp and nervous and emphatic in their movements, as the common snowbird or junco, the flashing of whose white tail quills expresses the character of the bird. But all the ways of the wood thrush are smooth and gentle, and suggest the melody of its song. It is the only bird thief I love to see carrying off my cherries. It usually takes only those dropped upon the ground by other birds, and with the red or golden globe impaled upon its beak, its flight across the lawn is a picture delightful to behold. One season a pair of them built a nest in a near-by grove; morning after morning, for many mornings, I used to see the two going to and from the nest, over my vineyard and currant patch and pear orchard, in quest of, or bringing material for, the structure. They flew low, the female in the lead, the male just behind in line with her, timing his motions to hers, the two making a brown, gently undulating line, very pretty to look upon, from my neighbor's field where they obtained the material, to the tree that held the nest. A gentle, gliding flight, hurried but hushed, as it were, and expressive of privacy and loving preoccupation. The male carried no material; apparently he was simply the escort of his mate; but he had an air of keen and joyous interest. He never failed to attend her each way, keeping about a yard behind her, and flying as if her thought were his thought and her wish his wish. I have rarely seen anything so pretty in bird life. The movements of all our thrushes except the robin give one this same sense of harmony,—nothing sharp or angular or abrupt. Their gestures are as pleasing as their notes.
One evening, while seated upon my porch, I had convincing proof that musical or song contests do take place among the birds. Two wood thrashes who had nests near by sat on the top of a dead tree and pitted themselves against each other in song for over half an hour, contending like champions in a game, and certainly affording the rarest treat in wood thrush melody I had ever had. They sang and sang with unwearied spirit and persistence, now and then changing position or facing in another direction, but keeping within a few feet of each other. The rivalry became so obvious and was so interesting that I finally made it a point not to take my eyes from the singers. The twilight deepened till their forms began to grow dim; then one of the birds could stand the strain no longer, the limit of fair competition had been reached, and seeming to say, "I will silence you, anyhow," it made a spiteful dive at its rival, and in hot pursuit the two disappeared in the bushes beneath the tree. Of course I would not say that the birds were consciously striving to outdo each other in song; it was the old feud between males in the love season, not a war of words or of blows, but of song. Had the birds been birds of brilliant plumage, the rivalry would probably have taken the form of strutting and showing off their bright colors and ornaments.
An English writer on birds, Edmund Selous; describes a similar song contest between two nightingales. "Jealousy," he says, "did not seem to blind them to the merit of each other's performance. Though often one, upon hearing the sweet, hostile strains, would burst forth instantly itself,—and here there was no certain mark of appreciation,—yet sometimes, perhaps quite as often, it would put its head on one side and listen with exactly the appearance of a musical connoisseur, weighing, testing, and appraising each note as it issued from the rival bill. A curious, half-suppressed expression would steal, or seem to steal (for Fancy may play her part in such matters), over the listening bird, and the idea appear to be, 'How exquisite would be those strains were they not sung by ——, and yet I must admit that they are exquisite.'" Fancy no doubt does play a part in such matters. It may well be doubted if birds are musical connoisseurs, or have anything like human appreciation of their own or of each other's songs. My reason for thinking so is this: I have heard a bobolink with an instrument so defective that its song was broken and inarticulate in parts, and yet it sang with as much apparent joy and abandon as any of its fellows. I have also heard a hermit thrush with a similar defect or impediment that appeared to sing entirely to its own satisfaction. It would be very interesting to know if these poor singers found mates as readily as their more gifted brothers. If they did, the Darwinian theory of "sexual selection" in such matters, according to which the finer songster would carry off the female, would fall to the ground. Yet it is certain that it is during the mating and breeding season that these "song combats" occur, and the favor of the female would seem to be the matter in dispute. Whether or not it be expressive of actual jealousy or rivalry, we have no other words to apply to it.
A good deal of light is thrown upon the ways of nature as seen in the lives of our solitary wasps, so skillfully and charmingly depicted by George W. Peckham and his wife in their work on those insects. So whimsical, so fickle, so forgetful, so fussy, so wise, and yet so foolish, as these little people are! such victims of routine and yet so individual, such apparent foresight and yet such thoughtlessness, at such great pains and labor to dig a hole and build a cell, and then at times sealing it up without storing it with food or laying the egg, half finishing hole after hole, and then abandoning them without any apparent reason; sometimes killing their spiders, at other times only paralyzing them; one species digging its burrow before it captures its game, others capturing the game and then digging the hole; some of them hanging the spider up in the fork of a weed to keep it away from the ants while they work at their nest, and running to it every few minutes to see that it is safe; others laying the insect on the ground while they dig; one species walking backward and dragging its spider after it, and when the spider is so small that it carries it in its mandible, still walking backward as if dragging it, when it would be much more convenient to walk forward. A curious little people, leading their solitary lives and greatly differentiated by the solitude, hardly any two alike, one nervous and excitable, another calm and unhurried; one careless in her work, another neat and thorough; this one suspicious, that one confiding; Ammophila using a pebble to pack down the earth in her burrow, while another species uses the end of her abdomen,—verily a queer little people, with a lot of wild nature about them, and a lot of human nature, too.
I think one can see how this development of individuality among the solitary wasps comes about. May it not be because the wasps are solitary? They live alone. They have no one to imitate; they are uninfluenced by their fellows. No community interests override or check individual whims or peculiarities. The innate tendency to variation, active in all forms of life, has with them full sway. Among the social bees or wasps one would not expect to find those differences between individuals. The members of a colony all appear alike in habits and in dispositions. Colonies differ, as every bee-keeper knows, but probably the members composing it differ very little. The community interests shape all alike. Is it not the same in a degree among men? Does not solitude bring out a man's peculiarities and differentiate him from others? The more one lives alone, the more he becomes unlike his fellows. Hence the original and racy flavor of woodsmen, pioneers, lone dwellers in Nature's solitudes. Thus isolated communities develop characteristics of their own. Constant intercommunication, the friction of travel, of streets, of books, of newspapers, make us all alike; we are, as it were, all pebbles upon the same shore, washed by the same waves.
Among the larger of vertebrate animals, I think, one might reasonably expect to find more individuality among those that are solitary than among those that are gregarious; more among birds of prey than among water-fowl, more among foxes than among prairie-dogs, more among moose than among sheep or buffalo, more among grouse than among quail. But I do not know that this is true.
Yet among none of these would one expect to find the diversity of individual types that one finds among men. No two dogs of the same breed will be found to differ as two men of the same family often differ. An original fox, or wolf, or bear, or beaver, or crow, or crab,—that is, one not merely different from his fellows, but obviously superior to them, differing from them as a master mind differs from the ordinary mind,—I think, one need not expect to find. It is quite legitimate for the animal-story writer to make the most of the individual differences in habits and disposition among the animals; he has the same latitude any other story writer has, but he is bound also by the same law of probability, the same need of fidelity to nature. If he proceed upon the theory that the wild creatures have as pronounced individuality as men have, that there are master minds among them, inventors and discoverers of new ways, born captains and heroes, he will surely "o'erstep the modesty of nature."
The great diversity of character and capacity among men doubtless arises from their greater and more complex needs, relations, and aspirations. The animals' needs in comparison are few, their relations simple, and their aspirations nil. One cannot see what could give rise to the individual types and exceptional endowments that are often claimed for them. The law of variation, as I have said, would give rise to differences, but not to a sudden reversal of race habits, or to animal geniuses.
The law of variation is everywhere operative—less so now, no doubt, than in the earlier history of organic life on the globe. Yet Nature is still experimenting in her blind way, and hits upon many curious differences and departures. But I suppose if the race of man were exterminated, man would never arise again. I doubt if the law of evolution could ever again produce him, or any other species of animal.
This principle of variation was no doubt much more active back in geologic time, during the early history of animal life upon the globe, than it is in this late age. And for the reason that animal life was less adapted to its environment than it is now, the struggle for life was sharper. Perfect adaptation of any form of life to the conditions surrounding it seems to check variability. Animal and plant life seem to vary more in this country than in England because the conditions of life are harder. The extremes of heat and cold, of wet and dry, are much greater. It has been found that the eggs of the English sparrow vary in form and color more in the United States than in Great Britain. Certain American shells are said to be more variable than the English. Among our own birds it has been found that the "migratory species evince a greater amount of individual variation than do non-migrating species" because they are subject to more varying conditions of food and climate. I think we may say, then, if there were no struggle for life, if uniformity of temperature and means of subsistence everywhere prevailed, there would be little or no variation and no new species would arise. The causes of variation seem to be the inequality and imperfection of things; the pressure of life is unequally distributed, and this is one of Nature's ways that accounts for much that we see about us.
WHAT DO ANIMALS KNOW?
After the discussion carried on in the foregoing chapters touching the general subject of animal life and instinct, we are prepared, I think, to ask with more confidence, What do animals know?
The animals unite such ignorance with such apparent knowledge, such stupidity with such cleverness, that in our estimate of them we are likely to rate their wit either too high or too low. With them, knowledge does not fade into ignorance, as it does in man; the contrast is like that between night and day, with no twilight between. So keen one moment, so blind the next!
Think of the ignorance of the horse after all his long association with man; of the trifling things along the street at which he will take fright, till he rushes off in a wild panic of fear, endangering his own neck and the neck of his driver. One would think that if he had a particle of sense he would know that an old hat or a bit of paper was harmless. But fear is deeply implanted in his nature; it has saved the lives of his ancestors countless times, and it is still one of his ruling passions.
I have known a cow to put her head between two trees in the woods—a kind of natural stanchion—and not have wit enough to get it out again, though she could have done so at once by lifting her head to a horizontal position. But the best instance I know of the grotesque ignorance of a cow is given by Hamerton in his "Chapters on Animals." The cow would not "give down" her milk unless she had her calf before her. But her calf had died, so the herdsman took the skin of the calf, stuffed it with hay, and stood it up before the inconsolable mother. Instantly she proceeded to lick it and to yield her milk. One day, in licking it, she ripped open the seams, and out rolled the hay. This the mother at once proceeded to eat, without any look of surprise or alarm. She liked hay herself, her acquaintance with it was of long standing, and what more natural to her than that her calf should turn out to be made of hay! Yet this very cow that did not know her calf from a bale of hay would have defended her young against the attack of a bear or a wolf in the most skillful and heroic manner; and the horse that was nearly frightened out of its skin by a white stone, or by the flutter of a piece of newspaper by the roadside, would find its way back home over a long stretch of country, or find its way to water in the desert, with a certainty you or I could not approach.
The hen-hawk that the farm-boy finds so difficult to approach with his gun will yet alight upon his steel trap fastened to the top of a pole in the fields. The rabbit that can be so easily caught in a snare or in a box-trap will yet conceal its nest and young in the most ingenious manner. Where instinct or inherited knowledge can come into play, the animals are very wise, but new conditions, new problems, bring out their ignorance.
A college girl told me an incident of a red squirrel she had observed at her home in Iowa that illustrates how shallow the wit of a squirrel is when confronted by new conditions. This squirrel carried nuts all day and stored them in the end of a drainpipe that discharged the rain-water upon the pavement below. The nuts obeyed the same law that the rain-water did, and all rolled through the pipe and fell upon the sidewalk. In the squirrel's experience, and in that of his forbears, all holes upon the ground were stopped at the far end, or they were like pockets, and if nuts were put in them they stayed there. A hollow tube open at both ends, that would not hold nuts—this was too much for the wit of the squirrel. But how wise he is about the nuts themselves!
Among the lower animals the ignorance of one is the ignorance of all, and the knowledge of one is the knowledge of all, in a sense in which the same is not true among men. Of course some are more stupid than others of the same species, but probably, on the one hand, there are no idiots among them, and, on the other, none is preeminent in wit.
Animals take the first step in knowledge—they perceive things and discriminate between them; but they do not take the second step—combine them, analyze them, and form concepts and judgments.
So that, whether animals know much or little, I think we are safe in saying that what they know in the human way, that is, from a process of reasoning, is very slight.
The animals all have in varying degrees perceptive intelligence. They know what they see, hear, smell, feel, so far as it concerns them to know it. They know their kind, their mates, their enemies, their food, heat from cold, hard from soft, and a thousand other things that it is important that they should know, and they know these things just as we know them, through their perceptive powers.
We may ascribe intelligence to the animals in the same sense in which we ascribe it to a child, as the perception of the differences or of the likenesses and the relations of things—that is, perceptive intelligence, but not reasoning intelligence. When the child begins to "notice things," to know its mother, to fear strangers, to be attracted by certain objects, we say it begins to show intelligence. Development in this direction goes on for a long time before it can form any proper judgment about things or take the step of reason.
If we were to subtract from the sum of the intelligence of an animal that which it owes to nature or inherited knowledge, the amount left, representing its own power of thought, would be very small. Darwin tells of a pike in an aquarium separated by plate-glass from fish which were its proper food, and that the pike, in trying to capture the fish, would often dash with such violence against the glass as to be completely stunned. This the pike did for three months before it learned caution. After the glass was removed, the pike would not attack those particular fishes, but would devour others that were introduced. It did not yet understand the situation, but merely associated the punishment it had received with a particular kind of fish.
During the mating season the males of some of our birds may often be seen dashing themselves against a window, and pecking and fluttering against the pane for hours at a time, day after day. They take their own images reflected in the glass to be rival birds, and are bent upon demolishing them. They never comprehend the mystery of the glass, because glass is not found in nature, and neither they nor their ancestors have had any experience with it.
Contrast these incidents with those which Darwin relates of the American monkeys. When the monkeys had cut themselves once with any sharp tool, they would not touch it again, or else would handle it with the greatest caution. They evinced the simpler forms of reason, of which monkeys are no doubt capable.
Animals are wise as Nature is wise; they partake, each in its own measure, of that universal intelligence, or mind-stuff, that is operative in all things—in the vegetable as well as in the animal world. Does the body, or the life that fills it, reason when it tries to get rid of, or to neutralize the effects of, a foreign substance, like a bullet, by encysting it? or when it thickens the skin on the hand or on any other part of the body, even forming special pads called callosities, as a result of the increased wear or friction? This may be called physiological intelligence.
But how blind this intelligence is at times, or how wanting in judgment, may be seen when it tries to develop a callosity upon the foot as a result of the friction of the shoe, and overdoes the matter and produces the corn. The corn is a physiological blunder. Or see an unexpected manifestation of this intelligence when we cut off the central and leading shoot of a spruce or of a pine tree, and straightway one of the lateral and horizontal branches rises up, takes the place of the lost leader, and carries the tree upward; or in the roots of a tree working their way through the ground much like molten metal, parting and uniting, taking the form of whatever object they touch, shaping themselves to the rock, flowing into its seams, the better to get a grip upon the earth and thus maintain an upright position.
In the animal world this foresight becomes psychic intelligence, developing in man the highest form of all, reasoned intelligence. When an animal solves a new problem or meets a new condition as effectually as the tree or the body does in the cases I have just cited, we are wont to ascribe to it powers of reason. Reason we may call it, but it is reason not its own.
This universal or cosmic intelligence makes up by far the greater part of what animals know. The domestic animals, such as the dog, that have long been under the tutelage of man, of course show more independent power of thought than the uneducated beasts of the fields and woods.
The plant is wise in all ways to reproduce and perpetuate itself; see the many ingenious devices for scattering seed. In the animal world this intelligence is most keen and active in the same direction. The wit of the animal comes out most clearly in looking out for its food and safety. We are often ready to ascribe reason to it in feats shown in these directions.
In man alone does this universal intelligence or mind-stuff reach out beyond these primary needs and become aware of itself. What the plant or the animal does without thought or rule, man takes thought about. He considers his ways, I noticed that the scallops in the shallow water on the beach had the power to anchor themselves to stones or to some other object, by putting out a little tough but elastic cable from near the hinge, and that they did so when the water was rough; but I could not look upon It as an act of conscious or individual intelligence on the part of the bivalve. It was as much an act of the general intelligence to which I refer as was its hinge or its form. But when the sailor anchors his ship, that is another matter. He thinks about it, he reasons from cause to effect, he sees the storm coming, he has a fund of experience, and his act is a special individual act.
The muskrat builds its house instinctively, and all muskrats build alike. Man builds his house from reason and forethought. Savages build as nearly alike as the animals, but civilized man shows an endless variety. The higher the intelligence, the greater the diversity.
The sitting bird that is so solicitous to keep its eggs warm, or to feed and defend its young, probably shows no more independent and individual intelligence than the plant that strives so hard to mature and scatter its seed. A plant will grow toward the light; a tree will try to get from under another tree that overshadows it; a willow will run its roots toward the water: but these acts are the results of external stimuli alone.
When I go to pass the winter in a warmer climate, the act is the result of calculation and of weighing pros and cons. I can go, of I can refrain from going. Not so with the migrating birds. Nature plans and thinks for them; it is not an individual act on the part of each; it is a race instinct: they must go; the life of the race demands it. Or when the old goose covers up her nest, or the rabbit covers her young with a blanket of hair and grass of her own weaving, I do not look upon these things as independent acts of intelligence: it is the cunning of nature; it is a race instinct.