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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES

THE GAMES OF ANIMALS

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As published in The Strand Magazine, US edition, September 1906

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2022
Version Date: 2022-11-11

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Illustration

Illustration

Otters go in for regular toboganning.


OLD-FASHIONED naturalists were wont to declare that animals were actuated entirely by inherited instinct. The impulse to do certain acts was born in them, and the animal in its wild state never did anything else.

Undoubtedly every living creature from man downwards possesses inherited impulses. Young water-snails, for instance, as soon as they come into the world are able to swim and dive exactly like their parents, and caterpillars, whose parents are dead before they are hatched, know instinctively how and where to spin their cocoons.

At the same time it is absurd to imagine that animals have no initiative of their own, and happily most modern Nature scientists hold very different opinions from their predecessors. A previous article in The Strand has clearly demonstrated that many creatures possess a distinct sense of humour. That the wild things should play real games, enjoy them thoroughly, and to a certain extent understand what they are about is a far smaller tax on the imagination.

Human children have two sorts of games. They either play with toys, inanimate objects of some kind or other, or else with one another. Animals do the same. Their games are, of course, not very advanced. They make practically no demands upon intellectual powers, but only upon bodily activity. In fact, they closely correspond with the plays of very young children.

There is nothing that a plump, healthy youngster of toddling age enjoys more than a roll down a grassy bank or the soft side of a haycock. We find more than one wild animal which practises and enjoys a sliding play. Otters go in for regular tobogganing. First choosing a steep, sloping river-bank where the soil is of clay and the water at the bottom fairly deep, they set to work and carefully remove all the sticks and loose stones which might get in their way, and then the fun begins. Climbing up the bank at some spot where it is not too steep, the first otter goes to the head of the slide, lies down flat on his stomach, gives a kick with his hind legs, and down he glides, head foremost, into the water. The second follows his leader's example, and then the third, as rapidly as they can. The bank soon becomes smooth and slippery, and the faster they travel the more the otters enjoy it. They keep on and on until quite tired out, and will come back to the same spot day after day to renew their game. So common is this practice on the part of otters that the relentless trapper long ago came to know it well, and makes a practice of setting his trap just where the poor little beasts leave the water to climb afresh for another slide, and hardly ever fails to secure the leader, generally the old dog-otter.

With otters this tobogganing is not merely a summer pastime. In winter they have the same amusement, the only difference being that they choose a snow-bank instead of a mud one.

Brehm, the German naturalist, has recorded an exactly similar game played by chamois in the Alps. In summer chamois climb to the upper heights, and there, in the midst of the solitudes of perpetual snow, enjoy themselves vastly, leaping from rock to rock, and often playing a game very like "follow-my-leader." But the most curious put of their fun is their tobogganing. They choose a steep, snow-covered slope; the leader throws himself into a sort of crouching position, and, working his legs as though he were swimming, slides down for a distance of a hundred yards or more. Arrived at the bottom, he springs to his feet and climbs up again. The others look on; and then another of them makes trial of the slide. The rest follow one by one.

It may be objected that chamois have adopted this method of travelling down a snow-slope simply because it was the easiest and most convenient; but surely the fact that the same animals have been watched to make the experiment several times over on the same slide is certain proof that the tobogganing is genuine play, and nothing else.

There are many instances on record of dogs having taken to coasting down snow-slopes. But the dog is a domestic animal, and a marvellously imitative one; so for the purpose of proving animal play he must in this case be put out of court.

Humboldt speaks of having seen a tame capuchin monkey riding a pig. The monkey would wait about in the morning till he could catch a pig, spring upon its back, and ride off with every symptom of delight, clinging so tightly that poor piggy, do what he might, could not free himself of his encumbrance. Once he had secured a mount, nothing would induce Master Capuchin to give it up. Even when the pig was feeding the monkey kept his seat.


Illustration

Poor piggy, do what he might, could not free himself of his encumbrance.


The lemur is not a monkey, but a very near relative. A white-fronted lemur belonging to Broderip, the naturalist, used to have tremendous games with a tame beaver named Binny. Macky, as the lemur was called, would play "tag" with Binny, touching his great flat tail with one finger and dancing round and round the heavy, amiable beast, while the beaver with elephantine playfulness would charge Macky with all his might, but, of course, never coming near the airy sprite.

One day the two were left alone together. In the room was a linen press and some careless person had left the doors open. Half an hour later the beaver was found snoring happily on a comfortable couch of piled-up tablecloths sheets, and napkins, while close beside him, his head pillowed on the beaver's soft fur, lay Macky, also sound asleep.

The writer once owned a pet American racoon. The little creature formed a firm alliance with a black kitten, and the games those two had beggar description. Hide-and-seek round the coon's kennel and a pile of barrels was the commonest play. No one could watch the two without feeling positive that they enjoyed the romp and understood one another's movements just as well as any two children ever did. One day, in her wild excitement, pussy ran on to a spring-board which stretched out over a pond, and fell in. What did the coon do but deliberately follow! There was apparently no intention of rescue, and, in any case, the cat was ashore again in a few strokes, for cats are very fast swimmers. But it was an odd thing to see.


Illustration

Pussy ran on to a spring-board which stretched out over a pond, and fell in.


Late in the summer or in early autumn the squirrel kittens have tremendous games. They usually choose a beech wood for their antics and it is one of the prettiest sights in the world to watch them. Sit perfectly still and they will not pay the slightest attention to you. Their principal game is chasing one another round and round the trunk, corkscrew fashion. The leader will then dash out to the tip of a thin brunch and leap thence into another tree, the others following full speed, barking all the time with sheer delight. It is, in fact, a regular follow-my-leader game.

Monkeys have similar games. Karl Groos mentions a tame, long tailed monkey that was devoted to swinging. He would hook his chain over a bough and swing at the end of it with the plainest pleasure. He knew exactly how much line was needed so as just to clear the ground, and never made a mistake in letting out exactly the right amount.

Almost all young animals play. It is one of the most charming sights imaginable to watch fox cubs amusing themselves outside the earth late on a summer evening. They not only roll and gambol like kittens or puppies, but they have also a game which strongly resembles a sham fight.

The young of all the cat tribe, including lions and tigers, are naturally playful. Even such clumsy creatures as rhinoceroses and elephants enjoy games in their early youth.

Badgers have a peculiar play. They seem to enjoy turning somersaults. The young badgers in the Zoological Gardens amuse visitors by turning somersaults scores of times in succession on the same spot.


Illustration

Badgers seem to enjoy turning somersaults.


Bears do the same thing, and not only young bears, but old ones also. The natives of Kamchatka have a dance which they call the bear dance. Every gesture is copied accurately from the bear. The natives themselves appear to be proud of the fact that the bears are their dancing masters.

Dancing is by no means confined to quadrupeds; in fact, it is the principal play of many birds. Perhaps the finest of bird dancers is the South American cock o' the rock (Rupicola). These birds have regular dancing-places, level spots which they keep clear of sticks and stones. A dozen or more of the birds assemble round this spot, and then a cork bird, his scarlet crest erect, steps into the centre. Spreading his wings and tail he begins to dance, at first with slow and stately steps, then gradually more and more rapidly until he is spinning like a mad thing. At last, tired out, he sinks down, hops out of the ring, and another takes his place.


Illustration

He begins to dance, at first with slow and stately steps, then gra-
dually more and more rapidly until he is spinning like a mad thing.


Some of the quail tribe are great dancers, and so are the American sand-hill cranes. It is a most ludicrous sight to watch a crane dancing; he is so desperately solemn over the whole performance. He looks like a shy young man who has just learnt to waltz and is rather ashamed of the accomplishment.

So much for games without toys. But many wild creatures get a great deal of amusement out of various inanimate objects. The kitten plays with a ball of worsted, and everyone knows the dog that possesses a pet bone, some dry and grubby relic which is not the least use as food, but which the animal throws about and catches again by the hour, and when finished with buries in some secluded corner against another day.

Beckmann gives a delightful account of a racoon which used to amuse itself by washing various odds and ends in a bucket of water. An old pot handle, a snail shell, or anything of the sort would do, but what he loved best of all was an empty bottle. Clasping it in his fore paws, he would waddle slowly to the bucket with the bottle clasped close to his breast, and then roll it and rinse it in the water. If anyone ventured to disturb him he was furious and threw himself upon his back, clinging so tightly to his beloved bottle that he could be lifted by it.


Illustration

What he loved best of all was an empty bottle.


Groos says that bears will do the same sort of thing. He relates the case of a Polar bear which used to roll an old iron pot to and fro in his tank, and then, lifting it out, rub it up and down in a trough of running water. He stood on his hind legs and used his fore paws exactly like a washerwoman washing clothes.

Certainly this bear looked upon the kettle as a toy and the washing as a game. There could have been no other possible object in his queer performance.


Illustration

The bear looked upon the kettle as a toy and the washing as a game.


One of the oddest little animals in existence is the Californian woodrat, better known as the "trade rat." It owes the latter name to the fact that, though it is a great thief, it never steals anything without putting something else in its place. Rather more than a year ago a photograph appeared among The Strand Curiosities of a paste-pot which had been left overnight in the assay office at the Silver Queen Mine, and which was found in the morning filled with the oddest collection of rubbish. This was the work of trade rats. They had stolen the paste and left in exchange a piece of stick, a length of rope, some odds and ends of wire, and an unbroken glass funnel.

The object of the trade-rat in so scrupulously paying for what he takes is something of a mystery. But these same rats certainly take the greatest pleasure in the odds and ends which they steal and collect. In Lindsay's "Mind in Lower Animals" a description is given of a trade rat's nest found in an unoccupied house. The outside was composed entirely of iron spikes laid in perfect symmetry, with the points outwards. Interlaced with the spikes were about two dozen forks and spoons and three large butcher knives. There were also a large carving fork, knife, and steel, several plugs of tobacco, an old purse, a quantity of small carpenters' tools, including several augers and a watch, of which the outside casing, the glass, and the works were all distributed separately, so as to make the best show possible. Altogether the oddest collection! None of these things were of any earthly use to the rats. They must have collected them just in the same way that a child hoards up odds and ends to play with.

The trade rat has its South American counterpart in the viscacha, a pretty little relation of the chinchilla, which lives in families of twenty to thirty on the pampas. Everything that takes its fancy and is portable is carried by the viscacha and piled in neat little heaps at the mouth of its burrow. If a ranchman drops his watch or any similar article he always searches the viscacha burrows in the neighbourhood, and generally finds his lost property.

But one need not go so far as the New World to find similar instances of creatures that hoard. Most of the crow family have this trick. Everyone who has kept a tame jackdaw or magpie knows the delight which these birds take in any shining object, and how cleverly they will steal it and hide it away.

A well known naturalist speaks of a wild crow which made a collection of bits of broken china and similar odds and ends, and hid them in a nettle patch. One day the naturalist stumbled on the bird standing in the middle of his treasures and arranging them. Next day they were all gone. The crow, aware that his secret hiding-place was known, had moved everything to some new spot.

Children build houses of bricks indoors and sand-castles on the shore. Some youngsters take pleasure in adorning these sand-castles with shells and seaweed. In the wilds of Australia bower birds amuse themselves in precisely the same way. The bower-birds belong to the family of thrushes. Two sorts are common—the satin and the spotted bower-birds. These are found in almost all parts of the Australian bush, particularly in New South Wales.

The bower of the bower-bird is in no sense a home or nest; it is purely and simply a playhouse. The spotted bower bird builds its bower on the ground. The outside is of twigs, the inside daintily lined with tall grasses, so arranged that the tops nearly meet. But the oddest part of the whole curious performance is the way in which these pretty, shy little birds decorate their pleasure houses. They collect quantities of brightly coloured feathers, pebbles, shells, morsels of sun bleached bone—anything, in fact, that strikes their fancy—and use these to decorate their bowers. Some are stuck between the twigs, some are arranged in piles at the entrances, some are laid in rows to mark out paths leading to the bower.


Illustration

The bower of the bower-bird is purely and simply a playhouse.


Two other species—the fawn breasted bower-bird and the regent bird—have similar habits, but each different species has it own particular method of beautifying its pleasure resort. The bower of the fawn-breast is as much as four feet long and eighteen inches high, and is raised on a thick platform of sticks. The same bowers are used for years if the birds are not disturbed, and fresh additions are constantly made. As much as half a bushel of shells has been found in and about a single bower, and that though the bird that collected them was no bigger than a starling.

It may, perhaps, be possible to explain the trade-rat's love of utterly useless objects, the jackdaw's hoards, the joy the bower-bird takes in its dainty retreat, on other grounds, than play. But such explanations appear needlessly far-fetched when compared with the simple one—that those which we are pleased to call the lower creatures share our own human love of games and toys.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.