Spare a thought for the stickleback

Outdoor Living

COURTING CLOTHES A male stickleback in his summer mating colours, when his eyes turn blue and he swaps his ordinarily drab outfit for a red throat and belly.


Casanova, homebuilder, father… dinner.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Early morning brought a meeting with a fisherman. I saw him at my boat, sitting at the stern and watching the water. I knew there were fish beneath him; they are always there.
Just a few yards further out two little grebes, looking more like ten-inch, feathered globes than any kind of bird, bobbed on the waves. In summer they were eager, vibrant birds, splashing reflections of ochre and red across the morning calm and chasing back and forth across the bay until the drawing night turned them home to the reeds.
Now winter buff and brown, they settle into easy, communal feeding. Small fish are their favoured prey, and among these the humble stickleback makes an easy target.
As any young explorer will know, the stickleback will stop to hover mid-water and watch whilst a dip net is slowly moved into position. A dart is made to capture the little fish, which shows an incredible turn of speed to disappear in the blink of an eye. Three times he might escape before self-preservation is lost. Now he can be scooped into a jar and properly examined.
The little grebe also knows of this short-lived determination to evade capture, and so we see the bird make a succession of short dives before it finally comes up with the unfortunate fish held crossways in its bill.
Life is precarious out here. I was so taken with the grebes I quite forgot the fisherman, and only turned to watch him when he dropped into the lake. He is expert. Did I ever see him miss? It was over in a flash of blue. There he was, back in his seat with water dripping from his coat and his catch held firmly in his mouth.
He is a kingfisher, of course. Or he could be she, for all I know. The clue is in the colour of the beak. That of the male is black, top and bottom, while the beak of the female is black above and red below. That does nothing to help the naked eye, for just one errant move will send him/her away with a whistling ‘goodbye’.
The kingfisher is a regular visitor to this part of the lake, although since the rain came and water levels rose by two feet the end of my boat makes a less attractive fishing spot.
I feel for the stickleback. In summer he worked hard to excavate a nest on the lake bed which he carefully filled with bits of weed and algae. His kidneys produced a substance called spiggin, which served as a glue to hold everything in place. When all was right he waited at the door, posing to attract any passing female.
His nest had a central tunnel, into which he drew his wife. Perhaps she felt at home, but if so her sentiment was misguided, for after she had laid her eggs in that shallow scrape and he had covered them with milt, he chased her away once and for all, their short courtship at an end.
Now he stood guard, chasing off any non-gravid female or rival male. Females filled with eggs were still encouraged to enter the nest and leave their precious load within. By the time the first ones began to hatch there may be have been many hundreds of prospective babies to care for.
He had a level of intelligence we find hard to attribute to such a small creature. He monitored the level of oxygen in the water and used his fins to keep a fresh, well-oxygenated supply passing through the nest. He even chewed holes in the roof to aid circulation if such a thing was needed.
When the fry began to emerge he fielded them like any good dad, catching up those that strayed and bringing them back to the nest in his mouth. After a week or so the bad behaviour of his offspring grew too much and he left them to their own devices.
And soon afterward he grew tired. No three-spined stickleback survives the rigours of reproduction. He had lived a year or maybe two, then did his family thing.
Then, at summer’s end, weary, slow and crippled with age, he made his way from one weedbed to another, and in that moment he was seen by my little grebe, or else caught the kingfisher’s eye.
That there are many sticklebacks seems not to matter. Each little life is a miracle.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.