TEACHING FISH TO RING BELLS

By C. F. Holder

A certain pond in the country was once peopled with a number of turtles, frogs, and fishes which I came to consider my pets, and which at last grew so tame that I fed them from my hands. Among them, however, were four or five little sticklebacks that lived under the shade of a big willow, and these were so quarrelsome that I generally fed them apart from the rest. But sometimes all met, and then the feast usually was ended by the death of a minnow. For, shocking to say, whenever there was a dispute for the food, some one of the little fishes was almost sure to be devoured by the hungry sticklebacks.

These stickleback-and-minnow combats, after a while, came to be of daily occurrence, and the reason for this was a singular one, which I must explain.

Under the willow shade, and from one of the branches, I had hung a miniature "belfry," containing a tiny brass bell, and had led the string into the water, letting it go down to a considerable depth. At first, I tied a bait at intervals upon the line, and the sticklebacks, of course, seized upon it, and thus rang the bell. Generally the ringing was done in a very grave and proper way, although sometimes, when the bait was too tightly tied, the quick peals sounded like a call to a fire.

I kept up this system of baiting the string for about a week, until I thought they understood it, and then replaced the worms by bits of stone. As I expected, the next morning, as I looked through the grass and down into the water, tinkle! tinkle! rang the bell, and I knew my little friends were saying, "Good-morning!" and expected a breakfast. You may be sure they got it. I put my hand down, and up they came, and got one worm apiece; and as I raised my hand, down they rushed, and away went the bell, in an uproarious peal, that must have startled the whole neighborhood. I was quick to respond, and they soon learned to ring the bell before coming to the surface; in fact, if they saw me pass, I always heard their welcome greeting. But to return to the minnows.

I generally fed them first, about twenty feet up the bank; but one morning I found one or two had followed me down to the residence of the stickleback family. They met with a rude reception, however, and, to avoid making trouble, the next day I went to the willow first. But no sooner had the bell begun to ring, than I saw a lot of ripples coming down, and in a second the two factions were in mortal combat. The sticklebacks were fighting not only for breakfast, but for their nests, which were near by; and they made sad work of the poor minnows, who, though smart in some things, did not know when they were whipped, and so kept up the fight, though losing one of their number nearly every morning. The bell now and then rang violently, but I fear it was only sounding an appeal from a voracious stickleback whose appetite had got the better of his rage.

So it went on every morning. The minnows had learned what the bell meant, and though usually defeated in the fight, they in reality had their betters as servants to ring the bell and call them to meals. Finally, they succeeded, by force of great numbers, in driving away their pugnacious little rivals, and the bell hung silent; for, strange to say, they knew what the sound meant, but I could never teach them to ring it, when they could rise and steal the worm from my hand without. But I am inclined to think it was more laziness than inability to learn, as they afterward picked up readily some much more difficult tricks. I taught them to leap from the water into my hand, and lie as if dead; and having arranged a slide of polished wood upon the bank, by placing worms upon it I soon had them leaping out and sliding down like so many boys coasting in the winter. That they afterward did it for amusement I know, as I often watched them unobserved when there was nothing to attract but the fun of sliding. This kind of amusement is not uncommon with many other animals, particularly seals, which delight in making "slides" on the icy shores.