Here to return to
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, Buchner, and the Müllers, 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 trough 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.1 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.
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,2 while among the mammals the female shows no preference at all.
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.3 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.
Good observers are probably about as rare as good poet’s. 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.
1 See comment on the story here alluded to on page 244.
2 Except in the case of certain birds of India and Australia.
3 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.”