Myth of the Watering Hole

Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in 1894. One of his stories describes how, during extreme droughts, both predators and prey would gather together at the watering hole obeying a temporary “water truce” while they drank. In 1967 Disney Studios produced an animated classic based on Kipling’s book. I saw it on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color back when I was an impressionable kid. I never questioned that “water truce” scene, but then, I never really thought about it analytically.

A recent experience changed that. We’ve been setting out blocks of birdseed in an old birth bath. Elevating the blocks just makes them easier to see (and photograph). Visitors have included several species of birds (Gambel’s quail, doves, assorted small finches), rabbits, and ground squirrels. They’re all naturally shy, but seem to tolerate each other’s presence while they feed together. We set up the trail cam to record the action starting around an hour before sunset — prime feeding time. The video includes 7 scenes:

1. dove and quail feeding, quail replaced by second dove
2. quail displaying their beautiful coloring in direct sunlight
3. two late-arriving quails join the feast
4. lots of seeds get scattered to the ground, but nothing gets wasted
5. the crowd arrives
6. two quails act as sentinels on tall rocks
7: one rabbit arrives but, alas, no squirrels during this shoot

Here’s the thing … I started to wonder about that “water truce” concept and did some research. Turns out the “water truce” is a myth perpetuated by Kipling’s book and Disney’s movie. There would be no evolutionary advantage to such behavior — at least for the predators. Makes sense in retrospect, but like I said, I never really thought about it. In reality, predators often hide in the tall grass surrounding watering holes to ambush their prey.

In my video we see only prey species at the “watering hole.” No raptors (including roadrunners), coyotes, feral cats, or snakes. If one showed up, no doubt the entire gathering would scatter. Do a Google Image Search for “watering hole.” It’ll show either all prey or all predator species (as well as some bars and saloons). Sure, if it’s a really large watering hole you might see predators on one side and prey on the other. But you can bet they’ll be watching each other.

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