Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/March 1873/Instinct in Young Birds

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WITH regard to instinct we have yet to ascertain the facts. Do the animals exhibit untaught skill and innate knowledge? May not the supposed examples of instinct be after all but the results of rapid learning and imitation? The controversy on this subject has been chiefly concerning the perceptions of distance and direction by the eye and the ear. Against the instinctive character of these perceptions it is argued that, as distance means movement, locomotion, the very essence of the idea is such as cannot be taken in by the eye or ear; that what the varying sensations of sight and hearing correspond to, must be got at by moving over the ground by experience. The results, however, of experiments on chickens were wholly in favor of the instinctive nature of these perceptions. Chickens kept in a state of blindness by various devices, from one to three days, when placed in the light under a set of carefully-prepared conditions, gave conclusive evidence against the theory that the perceptions of distance and direction by the eye are the result of associations formed in the experience of each individual life. Often, at the end of two minutes, they followed with their eyes the movements of crawling insects, turning their heads with all the precision of an old fowl. In from two to fifteen minutes they pecked at some object, showing, not merely an instinctive perception of distance, but an original ability to measure distance with something like infallible accuracy. If beyond the reach of their necks, they walked or ran up to the object of their pursuit, and may be said to have invariably struck it, never missing by more than a hair's-breadth; this, too, when the specks at which they struck were no bigger than the smallest visible dot of an i. To seize between the points of the mandible at the very instant of striking seemed a more difficult operation. Though at times they seized and swallowed an insect at the first attempt, more frequently they struck five or six times, lifting once or twice before they succeeded in swallowing their first food. To take, by way of illustration, the observations on a single case a little in detail: A chicken, at the end of six minutes, after having its eyes unveiled, followed with its head the movements of a fly twelve inches distant; at ten minutes, the fly, coming within reach of its neck, was seized and swallowed at the first stroke; at the end of twenty minutes it had not attempted to walk a step. It was then, placed on rough ground within sight and call of a hen, with chickens of its own age. After standing chirping for about a minute, it went straight toward the hen, displaying as keen a perception of the qualities of the outer world as it was ever likely to possess in after-life. It never required to knock its head against a stone to discover that there was "no road that way." It leaped over the smaller obstacles that lay in its path, and ran round the larger, reaching the mother in as nearly a straight line as the nature of the ground would permit. Thus it would seem that, prior to experience, the eye—at least the eye of the chicken—perceives the primary qualities of the external world, all arguments of the purely analytical school of psychology to the contrary, notwithstanding.

Not less decisive were experiments on hearing. Chickens hatched and kept in the dark for a day or two, on being placed in the light nine or ten feet from a box in which a brooding hen was concealed, after standing chirping for a minute or two, uniformly set off straight to the box in answer to the call of the hen which they had never seen and never before heard. This they did struggling through grass and over rough ground, when not able to stand steadily on their legs. Again, chickens that from the first had been denied the use of their eyes, by having hoods drawn over their heads while yet in the shell, were, while thus blind, made the subject of experiment. These, when left to themselves, seldom made a forward step, their movements were round and round and backward; but, when placed within five or six feet of the hen-mother, they, in answer to her call, became much more lively, began to make little forward journeys, and soon followed her by sound alone, though of course blindly. Another experiment consisted in rendering chickens deaf for a time by sealing their ears with several folds of gum-paper before they had escaped from the shell. These, on having their ears opened when two or three days old, and being placed within call of the mother, concealed in a box or on the other side of a door, after turning round a few times ran straight to the spot whence came the first sound they had ever heard. Clearly, of these chickens it cannot be said that sounds were to them at first but meaningless sensations.

One or two observations favorable to the opinion that animals have an instinctive knowledge of their enemies may be taken for what they are worth. When twelve days old, one of my little protégés, running about beside me, gave the peculiar chirp whereby they announce the approach of danger. On looking up, a sparrow-hawk was seen hovering at a great height overhead. Again, a young hawk was made to fly over a hen with her first brood of chickens, then about a week old. In the twinkling of an eye, most of the chickens were hid among grass and bushes. And scarcely had the hawk touched the ground, about twelve yards from where the hen had been sitting, when she fell upon it, and would soon have killed it outright. A young turkey gave even more striking evidence. When ten days old it heard the voice of a. hawk for the first time, and just beside it. Like an arrow from the bow it darted off in the opposite direction, and, crouched in a corner, remained for ten minutes motionless and dumb with fear. Out of a vast number of experiments with chickens and bees, though the results were not uniform, yet, in the great majority of instances, the chickens gave evidence of instinctive fear of these sting-bearing insects.

But to return to examples of instinctive skill and knowledge, concerning which I think no doubt can remain, a very useful instinct may be observed in the early attention that chickens pay to their toilet. As soon as they can hold up their heads, when only from four to five hours old, they attempt dressing at their wings, that, too, when they have been denied the use of their eyes. Another incontestable case of instinct may be seen in the art of scraping in search of food. Without any opportunities of imitation, chickens begin to scrape when from two to six days old. Most frequently the circumstances are suggestive; at other times, however, the first attempt, which generally consists of a sort of nervous dance, was made on a smooth table. The unacquired dexterity shown in the capture of insects is very remarkable. A duckling one day old, on being placed in the open air for the first time, almost immediately snapped at, and caught, a fly on the wing. Still more interesting is the instructive art of catching flies peculiar to the turkey. When not a day and a half old I observed a young turkey, which I had adopted while yet in the shell, pointing its beak slowly and deliberately at flies and other small insects without actually pecking at them. In doing this its head could be seen to shake like a hand that is attempted to be held steady by a visible effort. This I recorded when I did not understand its meaning. For it was not until afterward that I observed a turkey, when it sees a fly settle on any object, steals on the unwary insect with slow and measured step, and, when sufficiently near, advances its head very slowly and steadily until within reach of its prey, which is then seized by a sudden dart. In still further confirmation of the opinion that such wonderful examples of dexterity and cunning are instinctive and not acquired, may be adduced the significant fact that the individuals of each species have little capacity to learn any thing not found in the habits of their progenitors. A chicken was made, from the first and for several months, the sole companion of a young turkey. Yet it never showed the slightest tendency to adopt the admirable art of catching flies that it saw practised before its eyes every hour of the day.

The only theory in explanation of the phenomena of instinct that has an air of science about it is, the doctrine of Inherited Association. Instinct in the present generation of animals is the product of the accumulated experiences of past generations. Great difficulty, however, is felt by many in conceiving how any thing so impalpable as fear at the sight of a bee should be transmitted from parent to offspring. It should be remembered, however, that the permanence of such associations in the history of an individual life depends on the corresponding impress given to the nervous organization. We cannot, strictly speaking, experience any individual act of consciousness twice over; but as, by pulling the bell-cord to-day we can, in the language of ordinary discourse, produce the same sound we heard yesterday, so, while the established connections among the nerves and nerve-centres hold, we are enabled to live our experiences over again. Now, why should not those modifications of brain-matter that, enduring from hour to hour and from day to day, render acquisition possible, be, like any other physical peculiarity, transmitted from parent to offspring? That they are so transmitted is all but proved by the facts of instinct, while these, in their turn, receive their only rational explanation in this theory of Inherited Association.— Nature.

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