Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Minnow Family
Nature Bulletin No. 674-A   April 7, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The word "minnow" is used loosely to mean almost any small fish. Some people even seem to think that all minnows are the young of larger kinds of fishes and ask what they will be when they grow up. This leads to misunderstandings. Minnows -- true minnows -- are members of a definite family of fishes just as there are the sunfish family, the catfish family or the trout family. To avoid confusion it is better to use the word "fry" for the newly hatched young and "fingerlings" for older juvenile fishes.

The Minnow Family has by far the greatest number of species of any fish family in our fresh waters. In Illinois lakes and streams, out of a total of more than 200 different species representing 30 fish families, about 50 are true minnows. They include many that are commonly called shiners, chubs and daces. They also include the carp and goldfish, which are immigrants from the Old World.

The minnows are not easily recognized because the features that set them apart from other fish families cannot be seen at a glance. All native American minnows, no matter whether they are the size of a book match, or that of the giant 80-pound squawfish of the Rocky Mountains, have these characteristics: no scales on the head, no teeth in the jaws, no spines in the fins, and a dorsal fin with less than ten soft rays.

Minnows play a most important and many-sided part in aquatic life. Because of their large numbers and small sizes they serve as a direct link in the food chain between the abundant small plant and animal life on which they feed and the larger carnivorous fishes which, in turn, feed on them. For example, it requires as little as 2 1/2 pounds of minnows for a bass to add one pound of weight.

Quantities of them are caught in natural waters or reared in ponds for bait by game fishermen. The hornyhead chub, horned dace and common shiner grow large enough to furnish good sport for youngsters and fly fishermen in the pools and rapids of our cleaner creeks. Herons, bitterns and kingfishers depend on them for food. Minnows aid us by eating mosquito wigglers.

Various types of breeding habits are found in the minnow family. The female carp followed by one or more males broadcasts her thousands of sticky eggs as she wallows and splashes through beds of water plants. Many small kinds merely scatter their eggs over the sand or gravel bottoms of lakes, ponds and streams, then leave them to hatch a week or two later without any further care. In many cases, the male digs or builds a nest to receive the eggs. He often stays to keep it clean and guard it against enemies. The male of the blunt-nosed minnow, commonest and most widespread fish in the family, finds and cleans a spot for the attachment of eggs on the underside of a rock, mussel shell, board or tin can where he stands guard until they hatch. The hornyhead chub and the common shiner build large nests of pebbles to receive their eggs. Sometimes the shiner crowds into a hornyhead's nest. As a result a few of the eggs are cross-fertilized to produce hybrids between the two.

Among all of these nest-builders the males are larger than the females. During the breeding season only, each of these wears his own spring plumage of bright colors and is specially equipped with horns, bumps and knobs called pearl organs.

Small streams, small fish and small people belong together. When we are young, flowing water, although only a step across, attracts us like a magnet. Anyone fortunate enough to have grown up in a neighborhood with a clean, natural creek seldom regrets that he lived in the days before comic books and television.

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