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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/October 1879/Correspondence

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | October 1879

CORRESPONDENCE.
 

SERPENT-CHARM.

Messrs. Editors.

IT would seem that, in his paper on "Serpent-Charm" in the September number of the "Monthly," Dr. Oswald over-looks a factor which is of too great importance to be wholly disregarded. That this is the case may be shown by an incident coming under my own observation, and two or three references.

While passing through a poultry-yard in September, 1878, I noticed a turkey-hen with neck stretched to the utmost, eyes fixed, and wings slightly raised, gazing most intently at some object on the ground three or four feet from where it stood. Watching it for some moments, I found that the turkey moved slowly around the attracting object in a circle, without withdrawing its gaze for a moment. After it had made a full circle, I approached to learn the cause of its extraordinary behavior, and found that the attracting object was a small striped snake partially concealed by some low weeds; and not until I touched it did the turkey notice my presence, though ordinarily it would not permit me to approach within two or three yards. Even when driven away, the turkey persisted in returning to fix its eyes on the little snake anew, when it would immediately cease to regard me in the least; and only when driven to the opposite corner of the large yard did it seem to forget its attraction to the spot.

Several other fowls, including chickens, other turkey-hens, and an old turkey-cock, were then driven singly in the direction of the snake, and each was found to be more or less affected on catching a glimpse of it, though most of them were satisfied to retire after viewing it attentively from several points. Nearly all, however, walked slowly entirely around it, and all extended their heads toward it in the most ludicrous manner. Finally, a flock of geese was driven by. On seeing the reptile they tipped their heads to one side and watched it attentively while they turned aside to pass around it, and, after all had passed in safety, expressed their relief by loud outcries.

Satisfied that the condition of the fowls, on seeing the reptile, was a purely subjective one, I approached to kill it, when, to my astonishment, I found it already dead, its head being crushed out of all semblance to its original shape, and covered with dust. I subsequently learned that it had been killed by a member of the family. I have since had two or three opportunities to verify the fact that fowls may be thrown into a condition in which volition seems to be partially or completely paralyzed by the sight of a perfectly harmless snake, and it seems to be almost wholly immaterial whether the reptile is alive or dead, provided it retains its natural form and position.

Monkeys are similarly affected by the sight of a snake, though they are not so completely paralyzed as fowls often are. Brehm relates that his monkeys were filled with dread on seeing some serpents, yet they "could not desist from occasionally satiating their horror in a most human fashion by lifting the lid of the box in which the snakes were kept"; and Darwin observed the same thing in the monkeys in the London Zoölogical Gardens, among which he introduced a stuffed snake: "After a time all the monkeys collected round it-in a large circle, and, staring intently, presented a most ludicrous appearance. They became extremely nervous, so that when a wooden ball, with which they were familiar as a plaything, was accidentally moved in the straw, under which it was partly hidden, they all instantly started away. . . . I then placed a live snake in a paper bag, with the mouth loosely closed, in one of the larger compartments. One of the monkeys immediately approached, cautiously opened the bag a little, peeped in, and instantly dashed away. Then I witnessed what Brehm has described, for monkey after monkey, with head raised high and turned on one side, could not resist taking a momentary peep into the upright bag, at the dreadful object lying quietly at the bottom." ("Descent of Man," Appletons, 1877, pp. 71, 72.) Similar excitement was exhibited by the monkeys in the Philadelphia Zoölogical Gardens, when a dead snake was placed in their cage, as recorded by Mr. A. E. Brown in "The American Naturalist," and quoted in "The Popular Science Monthly" for July, 1878 (Vol. XIII., p. 379).

The condition into which these monkeys—and more particularly the fowls mentioned above—are thrown on seeing the frightful object is so nearly identical in its causes and its manifestations to hypnotism or kataplexy as to indicate a very intimate relationship therewith; and to this condition many birds and small animals are extremely subject. "Preyer has succeeded in rendering kataplectic various species of toads, newts, frogs, ducks, poultry, peafowl, partridges; sparrows, mice, Guinea-pigs, rabbits, etc." ("Popular Science Monthly Supplement," xviii., p. 574); and he considers that fear is the chief cause of the inhibition of spontaneity. In view of these premises it seems not improbable that the same species might pass into a similar subjective condition on being suddenly brought in view of serpents, of which all of these animals stand in great dread. Indeed, this is in substance the explanation of serpent-charm given by Dr. Preyer himself. Granting this, it is easy to see that the ophidians, whose intelligence is, according to Darwin (ib., 352), "greater than might have been anticipated," would be likely to learn to take advantage of it. As soon as this took place, serpent-charm would be practically established as a factor in the animal economy, though perhaps a very unimportant one; and in corroboration we have the evidence of Preyer and several other naturalists, who accept the "fascination of birds by snakes" as a scientific fact; while, as Dr. Oswald admits, we have the testimony of eminent ophiologists that snakes are unable to capture birds unless aided in some manner. Of course it is not yet established by competent observers that small birds and animals do actually pass into a subjective condition on seeing a snake (and the evidence adduced by Dr. Oswald is of a negative character), but it seems more probable that this is so than that the few skilled and the many unskilled observers should have erred so egregiously; and it is certainly much more probable than that the popular notions regarding serpent-charm should have originated in the aimless struggles of birds or small animals wounded to the death by the fangs of a venomous serpent.

Very truly yours,

W. J. McGee.
Farley, Iowa, September 1, 1879.