Nature and Animal Life
How surely every drop of water that sees the light in the most remote mountain or forest recesses finds it way to the sea, if not in some way intercepted. How surely the springs collect into rivulets, the rivulets into brooks, the brooks into creeks, the creeks into rivers, and the rivers sooner or later find their way to the great ocean reservoir. Dip up a cup of water from the little mountain rill and ask it whither it is going, and if it could reply it would say, “I am going to the sea; I have no choice in the matter. I am blind, I have no power of self-direction, but my way is appointed, and I know that sooner or later I shall reach the great deep.” It seems as if some engineer had planned and shaped the face of the landscape and of the continent with this very end in view. But the engineer was the water itself. Water flows down hill; that settles it. It is all the inevitable result of natural law. Neither the lives of men nor of the lower animals escape the action of similar universal laws; especially are the lower animals under their dominion.
In the first place, the activities of all creatures are largely determined by their organization. This appoints the bird to fly, the fish to swim, the snake to glide, and man to walk and stand erect. It appoints the woodpecker to bore or drill the trees, the snipe to probe the mud, this kind to catch insects, that one to catch fish, this one to live on seeds or fruit, the other to prey upon game, and so on.
Now, the so-called intelligence of the lower animals is largely like that of the rills that find their way to the sea, or of the seeds of the plants that find their way to their proper habitat. Marsh plants find their way to the marshes, hill plants find their way to the hills. The spores of the black knot seem to hunt out every plumtree in the land. The rats and the mice find their way to your new house or new barn, because they are constantly on the search for new fields. The squirrels find the acorn grove and the birds the cherry trees for the same reason. Their necessities for food send them in all directions till they hit the right spots. I cleared off a swamp in the woods and put a ditch through it; in two or three years the cattail flag was growing in my ditch. These winged seeds from distant swamps traversed the air in all directions, and when the wind dropped them on the proper soil they took root and throve; all others — vastly the greater number — came to naught.
Nature plays the principal part in the lives of all creatures, man included, supplying motives, impulses, opportunities, the guidance of organization, the inheritance of instinct, the stimulus or the check of environment, the bent of race, family, temperament, the lure of plenty, the bar of scarcity, the potency of soil, climate, geography. The birds come North when a warm wave brings them; the shad run up the rivers when the south wind blows them up; the hibernating animals come out of their retreats when the warmth wakes them up.
The play of will and conscious intelligence inside the limitations of nature is considerable in man, very little in the lower animals.
The lives of these animals as I view them, their daily and hourly actions and conduct, are not so much a matter of choice and purposeful self-direction, implying volition and intelligence, as they are the result of what we call the blind impersonal forces of nature — as much so as the flowing of water down hill, or the rising of thistle-down into the air.
The bird builds a nest, not because it thinks nest, and plans nest, and sees the end from the beginning, as man does when he builds a house, but because the great mother nature in which it is embosomed and which is active in the bird thinks nest for it — and impels it to the construction. The bird is the instrument of the propagating impulse which pervades nature, as is man himself up to the point where his own individual judgment and volition come into play, which, it must be confessed, have only a narrow field to work in. The beaver in building its dam works as blindly, that is as inevitably and unconsciously — as free from individual initiative — as it does in developing its chisel-like teeth or its broad trowel-like tail. This inherent unconscious intelligence we call instinct, a faculty which is constant in its operation, and though not inerrant, is free from the vacillations and failures of human reason. It is analogous to that something in the plants which determines their forms, the color of their flowers, and their times and seasons. Instinct is sometimes abortive; so do plants sometimes fail of their colors and fruit.
All the larger movements of humanity are probably as much the result of the operation of natural law as are the movements of the animals. A man feels free to choose this or that, to emigrate or stay at home, to undertake this or that enterprise or to let it alone; yet that which finally determines his course, influences his will, is quite beyond the reach of his will or his consciousness. He does certain things because he is of a certain race and family, because he lives in a certain age and country, because his hair is red or black, because his health is good or bad. He is a democrat or a republican because his father was so before him. He is skeptical because he lives in a skeptical age; he is a fanatic because he is surrounded by fanatics; he wears a derby hat because all his neighbors do; he gesticulates because he is a Frenchman; he growls because he is an Englishman; he brags because he is an American. The many influences that work over his head and under his feet, and that stream upon him from all sides, are all unknown to him.
The animals are all so wise in their own sphere, the sphere of instinct, in doing the things that they have to do in order to survive and perpetuate the species, that one is always astonished at their stupidity outside that sphere when a new problem presents itself; as when a robin and a phœbe each built three or four nests on a timber under a porch, because there were three or four places in a row just alike, and the bird could not distinguish between them or concentrate herself upon one spot. The nesting instinct in each case was so strong that the bird had not a particle of sense apart from it. Something impelled it to build, build, and it put down its load of mortar or straws at whichever point it chanced to hit. It was a hit-or-miss game surely. Such incidents give us a glimpse of how absolutely under the dominion of natural impulses animal life is, especially at certain times. The breeding instinct with nearly all creatures becomes a kind of intoxication, a frenzy, and if the bird, with all its cleverness, is ever a fool, it is a fool then. On different occasions I have seen a robin, a bluebird, and a blue jay, in nesting time, each dashing itself against a window in which it saw the reflection of its own image, thinking it was demolishing or just going to demolish a rival. Hour after hour, and day after day, the bloodless farce went on, till the birds finally desisted, apparently not because they saw they were the dupes of their own jealousy, but from sheer exhaustion. How like blind inanimate nature such things are; like the winds and the waves in their unintelligent fury. An animal never sees through appearances, things are what they seem to him, and a piece of paper or an old hat by the roadside is a fearsome thing to a nervous horse. Nature has heaped the measure of their caution and fear, that they may be sure to escape their real enemies, and she has heaped the measure of their propagating instincts to make sure that the species do not fail.
How clever, too, they are about their food! They have to be or else starve. No doubt many of them have starved in the past, and only the clever ones survived and so continued the species. When one sees the birds in spring scouring about for food where apparently there is no food, or thinks of the mice and squirrels and foxes in the barren, desolate, snowchoked woods, or of the thousands of crows in winter going to and fro night and morning in quest of forage, one realizes how acute and active and discerning they must become to survive at all. Just how the robin knows the precise spot in the turf on the lawn to dig in order to strike a fat grub, I do not know, but he rarely fails. I am sure that I could not pick out the spots. But my dinner is not contingent upon that kind of acuteness; if it were, no doubt I could quickly learn the secret, too. The red squirrel no doubt learned that the sap of the maple was sweet long before the Indian or white man did. How surely he finds out in May when the seeds of the elm-tree will afford him a tiny morsel. He is hard-pressed for food at this time and will take up with very short pickings. I saw one a few moments ago getting his breakfast in an elm near my cabin. How eager and hungry he appeared to be, how rapidly he chipped up or opened the flakelike samaras of the tree and devoured the minute germ which they held. He would hold to a branch by his hind feet, and reach far down to the ends of the pendant twigs for the clusters of fruit. A squirrel’s hind feet are especially adapted for hanging in this way. Mr. Hornaday says the pika (like a small hare) in the Canadian Rockies cuts and gathers various grasses and plant stalks, and cures them in the sun beside the entrance to its den, and then stores them up for winter use. He says that if, during the day, the shadow of a rock falls upon the curing hay, the pika moves it out into the sun again. Another authority says that it will also make haste to house its hay if a shower threatens. These last acts seem almost incredible. I should like to have a chance to verify them. In any case we see in the habits of this creature another proof that an animal will and can learn to live, and in the struggle may develop an instinct that closely simulates human intelligence. Simulates, I say; we can hardly call it the same, though it reaches the same end by the same means. It is not to be supposed that the individual pika knows the value of curing grass before storing it away, as we know it from experience and observation, or that it takes any thought about the matter. The race of Pikas knows it as an inherited trait. It is the wisdom of nature and not of the individual pika. I suppose the habits of the wild creatures generally in laying up their winter stores is as far removed from conscious thought and purpose as is the storing up of fat in our bodies an unconscious process. Life in all its forms adapts itself to its conditions; else it would not be life; it would cease. Only in man is this adaptation ever a matter of thought and calculation, and in him only in a minor degree. The climate, the geography, the geology, the race, the age, all play a part in moulding and making him.
Over all and under all and through all is the universal intelligence, the cosmic mind. It is it that determines and shapes, humanly speaking, all the myriad forms of the universe, organic and inorganic. Only in the higher forms of animal life is the cosmic mind supplemented by conscious, individual intelligence. There are occasional gleams of this intelligence in the lives of the lower animals, but not till we reach man does the spark become a flame. Man’s wit differs from the wit of universal nature in that it plays inside the latter and has a certain mastery over it and works to partial and personal ends. We call the cosmic mind blind; it is rather impersonal and indirect. All ends and all means are its, and it fails of no end because it aims at none. How can a circle have an end ? It returns forever into itself. Suns and systems and races and men are but the accidents, so to speak, of its universal activity. Man sees the end of his efforts because they are limited to his personal wants and aspirations. But nature’s purpose embraces all. Her clock is not wound up for a day, or a month, or a year. It was never wound up, and it will never run down, and it strikes only the hours of eternity. But here I am in deep waters, quite over my head. Follow any of these little rills of natural histoiy and they will lead you sooner or later to larger questions and thence to the boundless sea.
The adaptiveness of animal life, and one may say of vegetable life also, is a subject of deep interest.
In the dry streamless valleys on Cape Verde Islands Darwin saw a kingfisher that lived on grasshoppers and lizards, diving for them in the true kingfisher fashion. Doubtless our own kingfisher, under the force of circumstances, might adapt himself to such a mode of life.
The beasts and birds that are most adaptive in the matter of food, thrive best. If the quail could learn to subsist upon tree buds as does the grouse, it would not perish as it now does during our winters of deep snow.
What a success the crow is! And to what does he owe it more than to his adaptiveness in regard to food? Grain, nuts, worms, insects, fish, frogs, eggs, grubs, mice, and things still more unsavory— each and all help him through the season.
The hawks are restricted to flesh alone, hence their comparatively limited numbers.
I suppose we always attribute much more thought and purpose to the animals than they are capable of. We do not realize what automatons they are. Much of their activity is the result of their organization, and very little the result of free choice, as with man, though in the case of man what he calls his “free choice” is no doubt largely determined by forces and conditions of which he is not conscious.
I notice that the nests of the orioles are longest and deepest where they are the most pendant, that they are deeper and more pocket-like on the willows and elms than on the oaks and hickories, and that they are the shallowest of all on stiff young maples where they are usually placed near the stem of the tree. In such cases they are shallow and cuplike. The longest nests I see near me are on the weeping willows. Now if this observation holds true, the natural inference would be that the birds considered the matter, and that they knew that the more pendant the nest the greater the danger to eggs and young during high winds; therefore, in certain situations they build deeper than in others. But I cannot make myself believe that the birds take any thought about the matter at all. The simplest explanation of their course seems to me to be this: In the act of building their nests they would be swayed more or less by the winds — more upon the willows and elms than upon trees of stiffer branches like oaks and maples. This greater swaying would stimulate them to build deeper nests; it would be the condition that would bring their pendant-nest-instinct into greater activity. A still simpler explanation is the suggestion that this instinct is feebler in some birds than in others, and is feeblest of all in those birds that build cup-shaped or basket-shaped nests on stiff young maples newly planted by the roadside. We are not to ascribe to an animal a process of reasoning so long as there is a simpler explanation of its conduct.
I suppose the migrating of the birds in spring or fall, and the various other animal migrations, are no more the result of purpose or calculation or knowledge than the putting forth or the dropping of the leaves of the trees is the result of calculation. It is a reflex, the response to an external stimulus in the earth and air.
When we have an early spring we plant and sow early, and vice versa. We seem to think that the birds choose to act similarly, and to nest early or late as their judgment as to the weather prompts. But they have no choice in the matter. A warm wave brings them, and a cold wave retards them, as inevitably as it does vegetation. The warmth stimulates them to nest-building, for the reason that it increases their food supply; the more warmth the more food, and the more food, the more rapidly the egg develops in the mother bird. Heat hastens the ripening of the egg as surely as it hastens the ripening of fruit, and cold retards it to the same extent. In cold, backward springs I note that the robin lays only two or three eggs in the first nest; in warm seasons she lays four or five.
Pluck off the leaves of a tree in the early season and new leaves will form; sometimes new blossoms will come a second time. Rob a bird of her eggs and she will lay another clutch, and still another, till the season is past. I suppose that there is no more of deliberate purpose in the one case than in the other. A wild plant’s one thought, one ambition, is to mature its seed. When it starts in the spring it has the whole season before it, and it runs the stalk up to its full stature ; but if it gets a late start its abbreviated stalk seems like an act of conscious intelligence; it must hasten with its seed before the season passes. The second or third nest of a bird in spring is usually a much more hasty affair than the first. The time is precious, and the young must not get too late a start in life.
I fancy that to all human beings the spring gives an impulse toward new fields, new activities, that is quite independent of any will or purpose of their own. We are all children of one mother after all and are tied to her apron strings. The pulse of the life of the globe is felt alike in all of us, feeble or strong. Our power of will, of purpose, carries but a little way against the tendencies of race, of climate, of the age, or the tides of the seasons.
I have often asked myself if we should count it an act of intelligent foresight in the birds when they build their nests near our houses and roadways, apparently seeking the protection from their enemies which such places are supposed to afford. I have concluded that the idea of protection does not influence them any more than it does the rats and the mice that infest our houses, or the toads that lurk under our porch floors. How should a robin, or a phœbe, or a bluebird, or any other bird, know that its enemies are less bold than itself and dare not venture where it ventures ? These birds are all more or less afraid of man and tolerate his presence under protest, and it is probably true that the dangers to which they are exposed in nesting near us, from cats, rats, mice, and boys, are as great or greater than they would be from wild enemies in remote fields and woods. Birds seek the vicinity of man because food in the wav of insects, seeds, fruits is more abundant, and because the shelter which some of them seek is better and more extensive. I think the oriole is attracted by the abundance of nesting material,— strings and horsehairs; and the swallows for the same reason, — mud and feathers. All birds instinctively seek to hide their nests, and even porches and sheds and bridges afford cover and hiding for the robins and phœbes, to say nothing of the better foraging upon the lanes and in the garden and cherry-trees for the robins, and in the air about the buildings for the phœbes. The king-bird likes to be near the beehives, for he is fond of the drones; and the chippy comes to the rose bush, or the lilac bush, or the near apple-tree, because she likes crumbs from the table and the meal the chickens leave. I notice that the birds build in or about deserted houses nearly as freely as about those that are occupied. All birds that build in holes and cavities can be attracted by putting up suitable boxes and houses for them to nest in. In this way you can attract bluebirds, house wrens, and purple martins.
In certain respects the birds are much like the weeds. Certain weeds follow our footsteps and thrive best near us; they fatten on our labor. So do certain species of birds follow us, not for protection but for better shelter and better fare. Surely the English sparrow does not dog the footsteps of man for any fancied protection. The wood thrush seems to love civilization; he doubtless finds his favorite food more abundant in the vicinity of our dwellings. His cousins, the hermit and veery thrushes, prefer the dense, remote woods, and doubtless for the same reason. The wood thrush’s brighter coat seems more in keeping with the open glades and groves than with the denser woods.
The paramount question with bird and beast, as with us, is always the question of well-being. We consider the matter, we weigh the pros and cons, and choose our course, as we think, according to reason. But the animals are prompted and guided by outward conditions, — the season, the food supply, their nesting needs, and so forth. Of course primitive man is largely influenced by the same considerations; his necessities determine his course.
It is interesting to note how certain insects behave like natural forces. Watch the growth of the paper nest of the hornet; see it envelop the obstacles in its way, — leaves and twigs, — precisely as a growing tree might, or as flowing water does. I saw two nests of yellow-jackets in the side of a house, built in the space between the siding and the inner wall; and these nests flowed out of the cracks and nail-holes in the clapboards in thin sheets, just as any liquid would have done. Narrow gray films were pushing out here and there, over a space of several square feet. The hornets had filled the space inside with their nest and had reached the limit, but they did not know it, and kept on building as long as the season prompted.
One of our recent nature writers — closely akin to the “fakirs” — thinks that the yarding of the moose and deer in winter is a matter of calculation and foresight, and that the precise locality of the yard is selected by leaders of the herd long before it is needed; when the truth undoubtedly is that there is no choice or prevision about it, but it is a matter of necessity; these animals yard where the deep snows overtake them; their yard is the limited area over which they are able to wander to secure food; they browse the same ground over and over, and so gradually make paths. The whole proceeding is inevitable and free from choice, and belongs to the category of natural events. The animals cannot wander freely far and wide on account of the embargo of snow, so they wander as far as they can, and this makes their yard. It is a yard only in the sense that it is a comparatively narrow range, though it is usually miles in extent.
We marvel at what we call the wisdom of the hive bee, yet there is one thing she never learns from experience, and that is, that she is storing up honey for the use of man. She could not learn this, because such knowledge is not necessary to her own well-being. Neither does she ever know when she has enough to carry her through the winter. This knowledge, again, is not important. Gather and store honey as long as there is any to be had, is her motto, and in that rule she is safe.