Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/On instincts




And reasonThey also know,
And reason, not contemptibly.
And reason, not contemMilton.

The instincts of animals are so extraordinary, and some of them are so nearly allied to reason, that a few instances of these faculties may not be thought uninteresting. It is, however, difficult to define where instinct ends and reason begins in animals, and therefore I will state some facts which may enable readers to judge for themselves.

There are different sorts of instincts. One is the migratory instinct, which leads birds, animals, and even insects to leave one locality for a far distant one. For instance, the whole tribe of swallows, and about forty other sorts of little tender birds, which have amused us with their songs during the summer months, leave this country in the autumn for more genial climates. In the vast prairies of North America, large herds of buffaloes quit one locality, impelled by a strong migratory instinct, for one, perhaps, many hundred miles distant, and neither rivers nor swamps stop them in their progress. Even the butterflies in South America have been known to quit the woods and prairies of that country, in myriads, and to fly over vast seas in search of fresh flowers and plants, having exhausted those in the country they have left.

Then there is the extraordinary instinct which leads one animal to benefit itself by the operations of another. For instance, there is the well-known fact of a colony of ants making slaves of other ants to assist them in their work, thus holding them in subjection. Then the cuckoo lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, in order that her young may be brought up by them. The man-of-war’s bird feeds upon fish; but he is so formed that he is unable to catch them himself, and therefore he lives on the prey caught by other fishing birds, and from which he takes his name.

I must also mention the instinct of commisseration in some animals. It is a well-known fact, that when a sheep has produced two lambs, and has died in bringing them forth, other ewes of the flock have suckled and brought up the helpless young ones. I have seen sparrows feed young canary birds, which have been placed for the first time outside of a window, when they have cried for the food their parents had been in the habit of supplying them with. Sparrows, also, have been known to feed one of their companions, who was caught by the leg by a long piece of worsted which she was conveying to her nest in the thatched roof of a building, and was so fixed among the straws, that she could not extricate herself. She was thus fed for many days, until the worsted gave way, when the whole of her companions appeared to rejoice at her escape, by making clamorous noises. But what shall we call the instinct of the elephant, which, when a child, unable to walk, has been placed under its care, has allowed it to crawl as far as the extent of the animal’s chain, and then gently lifted it up with its trunk, and replaced it in safety? It is evidently an extraordinary effect both of care and intelligence, and is also a proof of that noble animal’s gentle nature. Again, there is the powerful instinct of self-preservation. A hunted and hard-pressed fox has been known to plunge into a weedy pond, cover itself, with weeds, and only leave its nose out of the water, so that it was just able to breathe. Another fox was frequently hunted from a certain cover, and after a good run was always lost at a particular close-clipped hedge. Casts were made with the hounds in every direction, but the scent could never be taken up. At last one of the sportsmen one day looked up at a rook’s nest, on the top of a high tree which grew in the hedge, and saw the end of a fox’s tail projecting from it. The cunning animal, on the day in question, had omitted to curl his tail sufficiently round him; this led to the discovery of his retreat, from which he was speedily driven, and after a short run, I am sorry to add, he was killed. Some animals, and even some insects, will put on the semblance of death when their lives are in danger. The common snake, I happen to know, will do this on some occasions. At others he will emit so horrible a stench, that no one will feel inclined to molest him. The hedgehog rolls himself up and remains perfectly still when molested. When he thinks the danger is over, he unrolls himself by degrees and looks about, and if all appears safe, he runs to a secure retreat. The common wood-louse will do the same. But what shall I call that instinct which leads a young wasp, within an hour after it has left its cell, to sally forth and collect that curious paper, for it is nothing else, with which they either form their cells, or make that shell-like covering for their nest, which must add so much to the warmth so necessary for the well-being of the infant grubs? In like manner a young bee, almost directly after it has left its cell, will fly away not only to collect honey from flowers, but will return with its little thighs loaded with what is called bee-bread. Nor is this all. Instinct leads it to discharge the honey from its stomach into some cell prepared for the purpose, and to scrape off the farina from its thighs into another cell, and then trample it down as a deposit to be used as food for the infant grubs.

Ants have a peculiar instinct, indeed a very curious one. On the tender shoots of a poplar tree a number of little green insects called aphes may often be seen clustered together. Ants find their way to these shoots or small branches, and tickle the aphes with their antennae: this process appears to give pleasure to the aphes, who emit a sweet fluid from their bodies, which the ants greedily devour. I have myself witnessed this operation too often to admit a doubt of its truth.

But let me give a few more anecdotes of contrivances of animals to procure their food.

Dr. Darwin tells us that there was, many years ago, an old monkey at Exeter Change, that had lost all his teeth. Visitors were in the habit of giving him nuts, but the old fellow was unable to crack them. He was furnished with a stone, and would thus break them on the floor of his prison.

Crows and rooks have been known to rise in the air with a muscle in their mouth, and to drop it on a rock, in order to break it, so as to enable the bird to feed on its contents. I have heard of a jackdaw, who was seen to drop stones in a hole in which there was some water, which it could not reach, till the water was raised sufficiently high to enable it to quench its thirst. I have also known a cat, when she was shut up in a room and wanted to get out, ring the bell, and make her escape when the servant answered it.

Many other instances might be given of extraordinary instincts in animals, and which may almost be thought to approach to reason, or to a degree of intelligence very nearly allied to it. An elephant has been called, and with truth, a half-reasoning animal, and dogs, who associate so much with man, have a just right to the same appellation. For instance, a dog will come in search of his master to a place where three roads meet. He will first smell at two of them, and, not finding that his owner has passed along either, he will come to the third and run along it, feeling that he must have proceeded that way, without thinking it necessary to put his nose to the ground as he had done at the other two roads. This fact has always appeared to me an extraordinary instance of intelligence; and it need not be doubted, for I witnessed it myself when I was one day riding on Hampton Common.

It is certain that some dogs have hereditary instincts. I have seen a young deer-hound the first time it has been slipped at a deer in Richmond Park, seize the animal by the ear, or by the skin of the forehead, thus preventing the dog from being hurt by the antlers of the animal, and holding it till the keepers came up and secured it. This instinct is peculiar to this breed of deer-hounds. A puppy of the St. Bernard breed has been seen to scratch up the snow the first time it was placed upon it, in imitation of that noble breed of dogs who are known to search for bodies buried in snow on the Alps, and thus preserve many lives. I have seen a young pointer, when only a few weeks old, point steadily at a chicken in a poultry-yard; and young ducks, which have been hatched under a hen, will, by a natural instinct, take to the water. If they were hatched in an oven they would probably do the same. But what can be more curious than that instinct which leads swans, many of whom make their nests on the small aits or islands on the river Thames, to raise their nests, as I have seen them do, some two or three feet in height, in order to protect their eggs from an apprehended sudden rise of the water after much rain.

But I must give here an anecdote of a dog as a proof of great intelligence. Two old women kept the toll-bar at a village in Yorkshire. It appears that they had a sum of money in the house, and feared lest they should be robbed of it. Their fears prevailed to such an extent, that when a carrier, whom they knew was passing by, they urgently requested him to remain with them all night. This, however, his duties would not permit him to do: but in consideration of the alarm of the women, he consented to leave with them his large mastiff dog. When the carrier started, the dog became violent and would not remain behind his master, upon which one of the women ran after the man, who returned and left his coat for the dog to watch, after which the animal remained quietly in the toll-house. In the night the women were disturbed by the uneasiness of the dog, and heard a noise as if an entrance was being forced into the premises through the window. On this they escaped by the back door, and ran to a neighbouring house, which happened to be occupied by a blacksmith. They knocked at the door, and were answered from within by the smith’s wife. She said her husband was absent, but that she was willing to accompany the terrified women to their home. This was agreed to, and on their reaching the house, they heard a savage, but half-stifled growling of the dog. On entering the house, they saw hanging half in and half out of their little window, the body of a man, whom the dog had seized by the throat, and was still worrying. On examination the man proved to be their neighbour the blacksmith, dreadfully torn about the throat, and quite dead. This faithful dog would appear to have known that he was left in the cottage to protect his master’s coat, and we have seen the result of his watchfulness.

To pass on to the instincts of bees. Every keeper of bees knows that these insects form three sorts or sizes of cells, one for workers, the two others for drones and females. Now the queen bee, in laying her eggs, has the wonderful instinct of distinguishing the three different kinds of cells, never putting a royal or a drone egg into the cells destined for the reception of the working bees. In passing over the cells which form the combs, the different sizes of which are much intermixed, she looks first into each of them and then lays her egg, never making a mistake as to the proper grub to be deposited in it. I have often witnessed this curious process with great interest. There is one other extraordinary fact which may be mentioned. It is that the number of cells made is always proportioned to that of the different bees to be produced. Another curious fact is that when several queen bees are produced they are all killed but one. If more than a single female were allowed to remain in the hive, a greater number of eggs would be laid than the working bees would be able to supply with cells.

Monkeys are very fond of birds’ eggs. In some countries where these animals abound, birds, in order to preserve their eggs, will make their nests at the end of the slender branches of trees, so that the monkeys cannot reach them.

Woodpeckers will carefully remove the bits of wood which they break off a tree in making a hole in it for their nest—evidently to prevent persons discovering their abode. For the same reason many birds carefully remove the excrements of their young from the neighbourhood of the nest.

There is in South America a very large species of spider which in a similar way throws out strong threads from one tree to another, each of them many feet apart. When this has been accomplished, it is easy for the spiders to convey their threads backwards and forwards, until a web or network has been completed, sufficiently strong to capture any small birds which may fly against it, and on which these spiders feed.

Let me give one more anecdote of a spider, which was communicated to me by three eye-witnesses of the fact, persons of the highest respectability, who were residing at Oporto at the time it took place. In the house of one of the principal ecclesiastics in that town, there was a room which was set apart for the reception of grains of Indian corn which had been threshed out. Each of these grains must be at least as heavy as two or three of our common wheat. On visiting this room one day, the owner of it perceived a grain of the maize suspended from the ceiling of the room by a single thread thrown out by a spider, and which was being slowly but gradually drawn upwards. Surprised at this very unusual sight, he invited several persons, and among others, my three informants, to witness it. How the spider contrived to fix its thread to the grain, or what its motive was in drawing it up to its nest, must remain in doubt, but it is a curious circumstance. There are, indeed, a thousand little facts in natural history, either in this or other countries, which escape being recorded, either from their being thought too trivial, or from a want of a ready mode of communicating them.

It is said that when a scorpion is surrounded by a circle of burning coals or wood, and begins to feel the heat, it runs about to seek some mode of escape, but finding none, it stings itself and immediately dies. It is a common amusement among the soldiers at Gibraltar, where these reptiles abound, to witness the fact above stated. Here we have an instance of self-destruction, and of a knowledge of a mode of getting quit of a painful existence.

It is an interesting fact that all birds make the size of their nests, not in proportion to the number of their eggs, but in proportion to the number and size of the young it will have to contain.

Edward Jesse.