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WILD LIFE IN WATER
THE antelope has less reason to fear the lion than has the minnow to dread the pike. We think of timid antelopes and roaring lions, but the former has good use of its limbs, and so a fighting chance for its life; but the minnows have little advantage in the struggle for existence, and none at all when the predatory fishes are in pursuit of them."
This was written in a note-book more than thirty years ago, and I let it stand as evidence of how easy it is to be in error in matters of natural history.
When I went to school there was but one teacher of the five that knew anything about such matters, and he had the old-time views. Then a fish was a mere machine so far as intelligence was concerned. We were told of the cunning of foxes and the instinct of ants and bees, but never a word of fishes.
The truth is, I might very properly speak of wild "wit" in the water instead of "life," for there can be not the shadow of a doubt but that many of our fishes are really cunning. We need but watch them carefully to be readily convinced of this. How else could they escape danger?
The pretty peacock minnows throng the grassy beach at high tide, playing with their fellows in water just deep enough to cover them, and are, when here, very tame and careless. They even get stranded upon the airy side of floating leaves, and enjoy the excitement. They realize, it would seem, that where they are no pike can rush down upon them, no snake work its way unseen among them, no turtle crawl into their playground; but as the tide goes out and these minnows are forced nearer to the river's channel, they lose their carelessness and are suspicious of all about them.
To call this instinctive fear and result of heredity sounds well; but the naturalist is brought nearer to the wild life about him when he credits them simply with common sense. The charm of watching such "small deer" vanishes if we lean too much on the learned and scientific solutions of the comparative psychologist, and possibly, too, we wander further from the truth. All I positively know is, that when danger really exists the minnows are aware of it; when it is absent they throw off the burden of this care, and life for a few hours is a matter of pure enjoyment.
Brief mention should be made of the protective character of the coloring of certain fishes. If such are fortunate enough to be protectively colored, there is little to be said; but are they conscious of this? Does a fish that is green or mottled green and gray keep closely to the weeds, knowing that it is safer there than when in open water or where the bottom is covered with white sand and pebbles? This may be a rather startling question, but there is warrant for the asking. Float half a day over the shallows of any broad pond or stream, study with care and without preconception the fishes where they live, and you will ask yourself not only this question, but many a stranger one. If fish are fools, how is it that the angler has so generally to tax his ingenuity to outwit them? How closely Nature must be copied to deceive a trout!
Having said so much of small fishes, what now of the larger ones that prey upon them? A pike, for instance? Probably many more people have studied how to catch a pike than have considered it scientifically. It is tiresome, perhaps, but if a student of natural history really desires to know what a fish actually is, he must watch it for hours, being himself unseen.
At one time there were several large pike in my lotus pond. Under the huge floating leaves of this splendid plant they took refuge, and it was difficult to catch even a glimpse of them. At the same time the schools of minnows seemed to enjoy the sunlight and sported in the open water. More than once, however, I saw a pike rush out from its cover, and finally learned that it systematically lay in wait for the minnows; and I believe I am justified in adding that the minnows knew that danger lurked under the lotus leaves.
The situation was not so hap-hazard a one as might appear at first glance, and hours of patient watching convinced me that there was a decided exercising of ingenuity on the part of both the pike and the minnows; the former ever on the lookout for a victim, the latter watchful of an ever-present danger. Day long it was a tragedy where brute force counted for little and cunning for a great deal.
Another very common fish in my pond was likewise very suggestive in connection with the subject of animal intelligence. I refer to the common "sunny," or "pumpkinseed." A shallow sand-nest had been scooped near shore and the precious eggs deposited. A school of silvery-finned minnows had discovered them, and the parent fish was severely taxed in her efforts to protect them.
So long as this school of minnows remained together, the sunfish, by fierce rushes, kept them back; but soon the former — was it accident or design? — divided their forces, and as the parent fish darted at one assaulting party, the other behind it made a successful raid upon the nest. This continued for some time, and the sunfish was getting quite weary, when, as if a sudden thought struck it, its tactics changed, and it swam round and round in a circle and sent a shower of sand out into the space beyond the nest. This effectually dazed the minnows.
Little incidents like this are forever occurring and effectually set aside the once prevalent idea that fish are mere living machines. Look a pike in the eye and you will detect something very different from mere instinctive timidity.
But fish are not the only creatures that live in the water; there are one snake and several species of turtles, and frogs, mollusks, and insets innumerable. These are too apt to be associated with the land, and, except the two latter forms, are usually thought of as taking to the water as a place of refuge, but really living in the open air. This is a great mistake. There is a lively world beneath the surface of the water, and the tragedy of life is played to the very end, with here and there a pretty comedy that wards off the blues when we look too long and see nothing but the destruction of one creature that another may live.
Here is an example of cunning or wit in a water-snake. A friend of mine was recently sitting on the bank of a little brook, when his attention was called to a commotion almost at his feet. Looking down, he saw a snake holding its head above the water, and in its mouth struggled a small sunfish. Now, what was the snake's purpose? It knew very well that the fish would drown in the air, and not until it was dead could it be swallowed with that deliberation a snake loves. The creature was cunning enough to kill by easy means prey that would otherwise be difficult to overcome, for while crosswise in the snake's mouth it could not be swallowed, and if put down for an instant the chances of its recapture would be slight.
To suppose that a turtle, as you watch it crawling over the mud, has any sense of humor in its horny head seems absurd; yet naturalists have recorded their being seen at play, and certainly they can readily be tamed to a remarkable degree. Their intelligence, however, shows prominently only in the degree of cunning exhibited when they are in search of food. The huge snapper "lies in wait," and truly this is a most suggestive and comprehensive phrase. I believe, too, that this fierce turtle buries surplus food, and so gives further evidence of intellectual activity.
To realize what wild life in the water really is it must be observed where Nature has placed it. It is perhaps not so much set forth by exceptional incidents that the student happens to witness as by that general appearance of common sense which is so unmistakably stamped upon even the most commonplace movements. Writers upon animal intelligence do not need to be constantly on the lookout for special exhibitions of cunning in order to substantiate the claims they make in favor of life's lower forms. It is plainly enough to be seen if we will but patiently watch whensoever these creatures come and wheresoever they go and the manner of their going and coming.
Do not be so intent upon watching for the marvellous that ordinary incidents are not seen. In studying wild life everywhere, and perhaps more particularly in the water, to be rightly informed we must see the average individual amid commonplace surroundings. Doing this, we are not misinformed nor led to form too high an opinion. It is as in the study of humanity. We must not familiarize ourselves with the mountebank, but with man.