A Surious trait in Animal character


INTENSE dislike of all strange objects that live and move is a characteristic common to all species of animals which are sufficiently organized to have likes and dislikes. In man the characteristic is seen in the hatred of foreigners which prevails among savage and partially civilized races. When the heathen Chinee tries to keep the " foreign devil" out of his country, he is merely giving expression to a feeling which he has inherited from his animal ancestors -: the hatred of strange species.

* The savage, when he sets upon and slays the white man who ventures into his domain, is but giving rather more forcible expression to the same feeling. The London street-boys, when they follow and shout out after any person displaying some peculiarity of dress, are doing much what gregarious animals do when a strange species suddenly appears in their midst.

A mammal or a bird regards every other species with which it is acquainted either with intensely hostile feelings or with supreme indifference. When it is sud¬denly confronted with a strange new species it is, for the moment, nonplussed. It, however, gives itself the benefit of the doubt, sets down the new creature as hostile, and acts accordingly. If it be small or weak, it makes itself scarce when it catches sight of the stranger; but if it be strong or gregarious, it forthwith proceeds to mob the intruder. The Indian crow, being a bold, powerful bird of gregarious habits, is an excellent subject upon which to study the feelings excited in an animal by a strange species.

Recently there arose a tremendous commotion among the crows in the fort at Madras. I looked out of the window to see what had happened, and observed a large white object flit by, followed by a mob of excited crows. The white object settled in a tree and I then saw that it was a cockatoo, which had evidently escaped from captivity. Its pursuers all perched in the tree, as close to it as discretion permitted. Their clamours filled the air.

The cockatoo thought that the summit of the tree would be a better strategic position, so climbed up to the topmost branch, with the twenty or thirty crows in attendance. None of them seemed to care to commence the attack. One or two made feints, but a threatening snap by the cockatoo caused them to desist. So the cockatoo and the crows remained there, glaring at each other. I think that the former, as he sat in that tree, confronted by the black rabble, must have hankered after the fleshpots of Egypt which he had left behind ; he must have felt that liberty, after all, was not the sweet thing which it is said to be. Nevertheless, he showed a bold front to the black crew.

These, however, did not mean to let him escape. They were content to await developments. After a little, the cockatoo flew off; then there was a tremendous uproar among the crows, which, with one accord, gave chase. The clamour continued for some time, but I did not again see the cockatoo. The poor bird must eventually have been torn to pieces by the crows, unless he was rescued by his owner. Probably not one of those crows had previously set eyes on a cockatoo. They therefore could not have had any scores to pay off. They merely mobbed him because he was a strange, bizarre, living object, and their instinct teaches them to regard all such creatures as their enemies.

In Oudh, last cold weather, I put up a large owl out of a mango-tree. It was in the middle of the day and the crows were about. Two of them caught sight of the owl during his short flight to the next tree, and at once proceeded to mob him. They took up a position on each side of him, sitting as close to him as possible, so that he was literally wedged in between them. Neither crow, however, seemed inclined to commence the attack.

In a campaign of this kind, the words "masterly inactivity" may be said to sum up corvine tactics. The owl was not enjoying himself, for, in addition to having a "ribald crow" on each side of him, I was looking at him from below. He therefore took to flight. The crows gave chase, taking pecks at his back. I could not follow the rest of the hunt, since, as organs of progression, legs are no match for wings. Presently, however, the two crows returned to the Bagh and, judging by their cries of exultation, one at least of them must have secured a beakful of owl's feathers!

Here, again, the owl cannot be called an enemy of the crow. It is true that there is one species which is said to wring young crows' necks in the dead of night; but this owl did not belong to that species. The crows merely set upon the owl because it was a strange creature, and they regard all strange creatures as enemies, and mobbing is the treatment meted out by crows to their foes. Allied to this hostility to all strange-looking creatures is one of the most curious phenomena in nature -: the brutal way in which a wounded animal is treated by its fellows. Instead of caring for it and tending it, they set upon it and kill it, being, apparently, quite indifferent to its cries.

The other day, while driving along the main street of Madras, I saw a crow whose legs had been tied to its tail. It looked a most ludicrous object as it ran along, and fully twenty crows were accompanying it, regarding it with hostile eyes. They probably eventually pecked it to death. I am told that there used to be a Madras Civil Servant who hated crows with a great hatred. It was his wont to catch these birds, shave off their feathers, and paint the bare skin red or blue. The birds thus disfigured were, on liberation, immediately set upon by their fellows and killed. "This habit," writes Lockwood Kipling, is "reported to have suggested a stratagem by which omnivorous gipsy folk catch crows. A live crow is spread-eagled on his back, with forked pegs holding down his pinions. He nutters and cries, and the other crows come to investigate his case and presently attack him. With claws and beak he seizes an assailant and holds him fast. The gipsy steps from hiding and secures and pinions the second crow. These two catch two more, the four catch four more, and so on, until there are enough for dinner, or to take into a town, where the crow-catcher stands before some respectable Hindu shop and threatens to kill the bird he has in his hand unless the Hindu pays for its liberation."

It is a well-known fact that cattle almost invariably attack and gore to death one of their companions which is in great distress. The case of the crows killing their shaven and painted companion is almost certainly to be explained by supposing that they mistake it for some strange bird. They mob it for the same reason that they mobbed the cockatoo.

It seems to me that the attacks of animals on their companions in sore distress may be accounted for in the same way. The crows, or the cattle, or whatever be the animal in question, do not recognize their companion on account of its strange antics; they take it for some enemy and attack it.

It may seem highly improbable that animals should make such mistakes. We must, however, bear in mind that the attacking animals are at the time so excited as to be almost beside themselves. The cries of a fellow in distress exert a most extraordinary effect on the species. The howls of a companion will often drive a dog almost mad.

I have sometimes been looking at a pariah dog, which for no apparent reason suddenly begins to howl. The other dogs of the village rush up excitedly, but, seeing no enemy, they begin to attack one another.

The howling of their companion has excited them so greatly that they have suddenly and momentarily lost their senses. So it may be with the cows or cattle when they attack a companion in distress. They rush up to the scene, maddened by the cries of their fellow, and see some object performing strange antics, so, without waiting to consider what they are doing, they attack it.

The naturalist, Hudson, looks upon this strange instinct which makes animals kill a companion in distress as the perversion, not of the instinct which teaches animals to mob all strange species, but of that which teaches gregarious creatures to go to the assistance of a companion attacked by some enemy. According to him, when the individuals of a family are excited to a sudden deadly rage by the cries of distress of one of their fellows, or by the sight of its bleeding wounds, or when they see it frantically struggling on the ground, or in the cleft of a tree or rock, as if in the clutches of a powerful enemy, they do not turn on it to kill it, but to rescue it. But there is no enemy to see, so they, in their blind rage, attack the one living thing present -: the wounded friend in this case -: in mistake for an enemy.

Whether the theory here put forward or that of Hudson meets with acceptance, it is obvious that this habit of attacking friends in distress is not wanton cruelty; it is a blunder of a useful instinct. It may seem shocking to us that animals are so ready to destroy life. We must, however, remember that the characters of animals are moulded by natural selection; that in the animal kingdom there are no Ten Commandments. Among animals killing is no murder.

Natural selection, if allowed to work unchecked, produces a number of races which think only of themselves and their offspring; a fauna of Ishmaelites, of which the hand of every species is upraised against all others. This indiscriminate hostility is necessary in the interests of the species; it is exercised in self-protection, and not from wantonness. There is nothing Nero-like in the character of most animals. For the safety of the species it is necessary to consider every creature a foe until it has proved that it is not.

As young animals grow up, they are, so to speak, educated to distinguish at sight an enemy from a harmless species. But if a new creature appear, they have no experience to guide them, so rely upon their instinct, which teaches them that all unknown organisms are enemies. They therefore attack it and destroy it, if strong enough to do so. By acting in this way they are on the safe side. It may be a harmless creature, or merely a suffering member of their own species, but they do not stay to consider this. Delay may mean death, so they either flee from the strange object or set upon it and kill it.

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: 
A Surious trait in Animal character
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
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A Surious Trait In Animal Character

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