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Our Fellow Immigrants
From the Old to the New World have come not only men but mice, peas and pigeons, cabbages and goats—multitudes of animal and vegetable settlers that have thrived in their adopted land
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
Although the proportion of immigrants among our domesticated plants is high, that among our domesticated animals is even higher. The only domesticated animal of much importance that is a native and faithful resident of this hemisphere is the turkey. (As noted, the horse and camel lived lengthily abroad.) Indeed, add two minor ones, the llama and the guinea pig, and you have about the whole list. Europe has been niggardly in this respect, too, having supplied only the domestic pigeon and the reindeer, and Africa has yielded only the donkey and the cat. All those of great economic importance in this country come from Asia-chickens from the southeastern jungles of that continent, and cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs from its arid southwestern areas. (Modern dogs probably have among their ancestors wolves and jackals of all the continents except Australia, which had no canines until men let doa;s run wild there and created the dingo.)
The colonial evaluation of domesticated animals was a good deal different from the modern in many ways. In early New England, for instance, goats were far more popular than sheep because they gave more milk and required less care. And throughout most of the North American colonies black cattle were worth ni least twice as much as red. The theory was that black cattle would fool the wolves, who were used to preying on reddish deer. Since wolves pay more attention to the news from their noses than to that from their eyes, this was pure nonsense, but that did not affect the theory’s status as an established verity for several generations. Some westering families even dragged it along step-by-step all the way across the continent.
All the farm animals from southwestern Asia found this hemisphere much to their liking, in 1591 Henry May, the first Englishman to write of Bermuda, reported that it was swarming with wild hogs probably descended from a few deliberately left there to multiply by sailors who thought they might be back that way some day. The Virginia colonists later took to sailing out to the island just to hunt the hogs. And in 1598 a group of French sailors left on Cape Sable Island, off Nova Scotia, found wild cattle, sheep, and goats, whose ancestors probably had been left for the same purpose as Bermuda’s hogs.
But by far the most remarkable reaction to this hemisphere of any domestic animal immigrant was that of the horse. As noted earlier, the horse family did much of its evolving here. From the time of the fox-sized Eohippus of the Eocene period, some sixty million years ago, until probably more than three thousand years ago, horses of one kind or another, and sometimes of several different kinds simultaneously, were standard features of the hemispheric fauna. The early Indians hunted a species much like the modern horse, though it had a heavier, deeper-jawed, zebra-like skull and a more compact body. In On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin puzzled over this animal’s extinction and could conclude only that some unknown factor or factors had been unfavorable to it. The reason for his puzzlement was the spectacular success in the wild of the modern horses that escaped from the herds brought in by Spanish colonizers.
When Hernando Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519 with seventeen horses, the animals terrified the Aztec soldiers. It took only a few exposures to change the reaction of the Aztecs and most other tribes of Indians from fear to covetousness. That covetousness led to the institutionalization of horse thievery, usually in the form of raids by one tribe on the herds of another. The raids were noisy affairs that often drove more horses into the wild than into the raiders’ corrals. Within a couple of centuries this process populated the range lands of Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and Canada with what may well have been the greatest horse herds the world has ever known. It has been estimated that at their peak on the western U.S. prairies in the middle of the last century there may have roamed between two and five million horses.
While the stocking of the American wilderness with horses was accidental, another class of animal has been the subject of countless thousands of experiments in deliberate stocking—namely, game birds. Only a very few of the experiments have succeeded.
Formosan teal, European corn crakes, Norwegian willow ptarmigan, Finnish capercaillie, bamboo partridges, Cyprian francolin, West African guinea fowl, and scores of other species of shootable birds have been imported and turned loose repeatedly in every part of the country by state game commissions, local rod and gun clubs, and private individuals. A typical case of such involuntary immigration was that of the Egyptian quail. One spring some years ago, the game commissions of several eastern states joined to import thousands of pairs of these birds. All went well for several months, and the birds raised many broods. But in November they disappeared and were never seen again, except by a ship some hundreds of miles off Cape Hatteras. A few hundred exhausted quail settled briefly on the vessel before continuing their hopeless flight. It had not occurred to anyone to investigate the species’ migrating habits. Since they habitually took a southeasterly course, the start from our eastern seaboard meant that they must inevitably perish in the open sea.