Pumpkinseed Sunfish

Underwater video taken at local conservation areas capture the male Pumpkinseed sunfish in action

July 5, 2024 | | Notes from the Wild

Pumpkinseed sunfish inhabit quiet waters in southern Ontario. They are named for their shape and colour – their rich yellow bellies evoke the sun, while their oval bodies make “pumpkinseed” an apt descriptor. They are lovely animals, with flanks highlighted by turquoise patterning and gill flaps emblazoned by a streak of red.

If their name summons visions of tranquility and happiness, their behaviour – at least the behaviour of reproductive males – suggests anything but. Males guarding their nests are wary, watchful and pugnacious.

In late spring the males vibrate their tails to sweep mud and silt from underlying gravel to create their nests. When the gravel is swept clean, males entice females to visit and lay their eggs.

The females don’t linger. Eggs laid, they swim off to feed. Pumpkinseed sunfish are among a tiny minority of Earth’s species in which males care for the eggs and young in the absence of females.

The males protect the eggs and hatchling fry from rival males and hungry minnows. They are the epitome of vigilance, constantly scanning for danger and darting like torpedoes at any fish that dare trespass.

This protective paternal behaviour may be one reason sunfish are so abundant. Thousands of pumpkinseeds cruise the quiet shallows of our ponds and lakes, feeding on insects, crustaceans and smaller fish.

Nature though, in the irreverent words of Woody Allen, is “an enormous restaurant,” with everyone feeding on somebody else. If pumpkinseed sunfish are the bane of bugs and minnows, they are, in turn, preyed upon by bass, pike and walleye.

This is one of the reasons they haunt the shallows, where larger fish may be hesitant to go. But other dangers lurk close to shore. There, great blue herons step quietly, primed to uncoil their snake-like necks to strike at any movement in the waters below.

Pumpkinseed nests with their attendant males are easily observed from shorelines. Watching the males is entertaining and might kindle your appreciation of the dramas that play out below the water’s surface.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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