The Occupations of Animals


IT is pleasant to recline in the shade of a stately deodar with no company but one's thoughts, and thus to gaze at the purple wreaths of tobacco smoke as they ascend towards the blue heavens. It is sweet to experience the cool Himalayan breeze direct from the snowy mountains that fill the northern landscape. It is very soothing to listen to the sleepy hum of the insects, and to watch the little birds as they flit from branch to branch of the neighbouring trees. How desperately busy these tiny feathered creatures seem to be! They move as though their life were a race against time. Yet they have nothing to do save seek their food, which abounds on all sides. As I contemplate them I ask myself the old, old question, How is it that birds and beasts manage to pass through life without succumbing to ennui, or, at least, without being bored nearly to death ? To me the life of a bird is incomprehensible, but then so is that of a chaprassi. I admit that I am at present doing nothing; but I shall soon grow weary of this. 'Dolce far niente' for a short time.

Animals, as a rule, do not loaf; it is not thus that they solve the problem. Loafing is an art which but few living creatures understand. Lizards, crocodiles, paddy birds, and chaprassis are the greatest authorities on the subject. Animals have acquired the knack of making much ado about nothing; they have learned to be very busy without doing anything. This accomplishment obviously differs from that of loafing. It is one which animals have brought to perfection, and of which many human beings -: chiefly women -: are very able exponents.

There is overhead a wasp busy exploring the holes in the trunk of a tree. Why he does this he probably does not know; he has no time to stop and think. He is quite content to explore away as though his life depended upon it. Five times within the last six minutes he has minutely inspected every portion of the same hole. All this labour is useless in a sense; without it, however, the wasp would in all probability die of ennui. The wasp is not an isolated case.

Most animals are experts at frittering away time; they spend much of their lives in actively doing nothing. Watch a canary in a cage. He hops backwards and forwards, between two perches, as though he was paid by the distance for doing so.

Look at a butterfly. It leads an aimless existence, nevertheless it is always busy. A bee probably visits twenty times as many flowers in the day as a butterfly; for all that the butterfly is always on the move.

When speaking of the swift in my volume, " Animals of no Importance," I noticed how long that bird took to find the materials for its nest, how it went afar to seek that which was at hand. This, although the result of stupidity, is doubtless a blessing to the bird. Nest-building affords great pleasure to it -: the more protracted the amusement, the better for the architect.

The squirrel labours from early morn till late eve laying up a store of nuts. When one storehouse is full the industrious animal opens another, and then proceeds to forget the existence of the first!

Go to the running stream and watch the kingfisher at work. He does not select a suitable place and keep to it; he flies from rock to rock and continually makes excursions up and down the river, and is thus enabled to spend the whole of the day in fishing and yet not overeat himself.

It may be asked, How do sessile animals solve the problem ? The sea-squirt, the sponge, and the barnacle are non-locomotive, and hence they cannot fritter away their time as a butterfly does. I reply, that for these degenerate creatures, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything, there is no problem to solve. Sessile animals are, to all intents and purposes, plants; they are creatures devoid of feeling. An oyster has no more soul than a dandelion.

To return to the higher animals. The search for food undoubtedly occupies a very large portion of their day, even if they waste no time. It is not an uncommon thing to find over one thousand seeds in the crop of a granivorous bird. Suppose such a creature is able to find and swallow two hundred seeds in an hour, then the eating of a thousand represents five hours' solid work. Insectivorous birds, such as wagtails, must eat several hundreds of insects in a day. Animals that live upon bigger game, which cannot be caught without much effort, no doubt often find that the day is none too long to enable them to obtain a sufficient meal.

It is a merciful provision of nature that herbivorous animals, whose food is lying waiting for them on all sides, have to eat a terrific quantity in order to satisfy their hunger, otherwise such creatures would surely soon grow weary of life. Animals spend much time in sleep. The lower the development of the brain, the more repose its possessor seems to need.

Some one has said that of the twenty-four hours a wise man requires to sleep seven, a woman eight, a child nine, and an idiot ten. The lower animals probably slumber from twelve to fourteen hours a day. Most of them sleep from sunset to dawn, while almost every animal enjoys a prolonged rest during the heat of the day in the warmer weather.

Only yesterday I was watching a wagtail hunting for insects amid the stones of a mountain stream. There was no beating about the bush with him; he meant business, and most methodical was his search. Then, quite suddenly, into his downy shoulders went his head, while one leg was retracted into his ruffled feathers, and, then and there, on a stone in midstream, he took forty winks. Presently he roused himself as suddenly and renewed the hunt.

Every one must have noticed at the Zoological Gardens that, except at feeding-time, the majority of the animals are asleep. Of course, I am aware that such animals do not live natural or healthy lives, and I only allude to them to show what animals are capable of in the way of sleep.

Lastly, animals spend no inconsiderable portion of the day in play. The play of animals is too big a subject to be discussed at the tail end of an essay. It must suffice that nearly all the higher animals indulge in play ; some go as far as to play regular games.

The life of an animal bears the same relation to that of a human being as an anthem does to a polemic oration. The anthem is made up of one short paragraph ; the speech is replete with facts and figures. The delivery of each may occupy the same time. In the former, two or three phrases are sung and resung; in the latter, weighty sentences follow in rapid succession, one upon the other.

It may be said that, if such be the case, if animals have thus to drag out their lives, they cannot be happy. This I deny. Animals are not aware of the fact that they are frittering away their lives, that they do much useless work. The singing of an anthem causes as much pleasure to the chorister, as the delivery of a great speech to the orator.

I took out my pony this morning. She had not left her stable for several days, except for walking exercise. Was she bored by her long sojourn in the stable ? Not in the least. She seemed very loath to leave it. During the whole of the outward journey she was making attempts to turn homewards, and when at last her desire was realized, her pace was visibly accelerated.

The dog forms an exception. No doubt he does get tired of doing nothing. The piteous wail of a hound chained to his kennel affords proof of this. If further evidence be demanded, there are the unmistakable signs of pleasure exhibited by a dog when his master picks up hat and stick. Man has taken away from the dog his chief occupation, and often gives him little or nothing to do in return. The same, indeed, applies to other domestic animals, but they show no signs of ennui. Between them and the dog there is a difference. The latter has become the friend and companion of man, and in consequence has acquired a little of his master's restless spirit. The dog, therefore, stands upon a plane above that occupied by the rest of the lower animals.

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
The Occupations of Animals
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Occupations Of Animals

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