A Troubling of Goldfish



When there were four…

Because I'm lucky, as well as stupid enough to bite off more than I can chew, I have two ponds. One is a mucky, shallow pond in the country that is nonetheless a source of complete fascination. There is a shifting chorus of frogs on it from springtime on, beginning with the enchanting peepers and ending with the bullfrogs of the hot summer nights. There are wonderful flag irises in June. There are pink waterlilies in July, August, and September.
There are snapping turtles and catfish. And there are some goldfish in the pond, too.  You can see an occasional wiggle of orange at the surface.

However, considering that they were there when we bought the house and we've added to them over the years, there are fewer goldfish than you might think because there is often a Great Blue Heron on the pond. It's a shy bird, and to open a house door is to instantly prompt its amazing flight, with its huge wings flapping powerfully above the rest of its thin linear body.

My city pond, on the other hand, is a plastic tub installed by the previous owners. If it's 50 gallons, that's a lot. I was unimpressed when I first laid eyes on it, but I've gotten a lot of pleasure out of this undistinguished water feature. I sink a pot of calla lilies into it every year and love looking at the heart-shaped leaves. I like the sound of water from the small pump and spitter.

Three years ago, my daughter and I put four 26-cent goldfish into this pond. The correct term, by the way, for a group of goldfish is a "troubling." Makes sense. I'd imagine that it's nice to be bright orange, but only in an artificial landscape like mine notably lacking in troubling predators. The four goldfish got huge and bred every year, and we put the little ones into the natural pond in the country, where they could grow up to be heron food.

I like my city pond…but find that like city living in general, there's not a lot of information in it about the larger mysteries.

Or so I thought. I walked through my back gate the other day, only to startle a Great Blue Heron at the edge of my Home Depot bathtub. It flew onto my neighbor's roof and settled there a few minutes, before deciding it had business elsewhere. I looked into my pond, and there were no goldfish to be seen. I lifted up the filter…and there, huddled, were two goldfish, along with a few of their black babies. 

The other two were gone. Fish aren't stupid. The survivors were hiding out against the return of the predator.

I really like my goldfish. I like them enough to set up a tank for them in the basement in the winter and carry sloshing buckets of water up and down the cellar stairs every single week when it's time to change their water.

But I like the Great Blue Heron even better.  It's nice to think that even in a city, the more life of any kind that you add to a yard, the more it begins to behave like an ecosystem.


  1. I grew up in the country (as in, watch the owls out the living room window, surprise the foxes in the front garden) and now that I live in the city, I’m always amazed at how much wild life there is. I’ve seen squirrels hiding behind window bars from hawks, and this summer a wild turkey came strolling up my street!

  2. A great story. Nature red in tooth and claw. My country pond has frogs, but no fish. therefore no regular visits from Blue Herons. My cousin has laid black netting just on top of her pond to protect her expensive koi.

  3. It is great when nature is ALIVE!!! Unfortunately my fish’s lives came to an abrupt end when two raccoons trapped them in the pond one night. boo hoo.

  4. I go to the pet store every year on my birthday and buy a few shebunkins and koi and some of the 12-cent goldfish to replenish the water garden. I get mostly cleaned out by the herons in late summer and fall. Foot-long fish that I’ve fattened up on pet-shop food. It’s discouraging in a way. But it’s a habit I’ll likely continue.

  5. Consider yourself lucky if the heron wipes out the goldfish before they can become to large and stable a population. I hope that your pond isn’t near enough to any streams for floods to spread the fish. It isn’t irresponsible to make a mistake, but it would be irresponsible to release any more aquarium flora or fauna in your pond.

  6. Kim, I don’t know if my experience is typical, but my fishes’ young start off black and then turn orange at different points. Some of them seem to stay black and gold like the species.

  7. Last night my friend and I caught my 2 fairground-won fish so they could live in her aquarium for the winter. Except that they are bigger than her fish—but she says she doesn’t care if they’re eaten.
    So we’ll see. But I hear goldfish need pumps and filtration, so I was hesitant to just keep them in a still tank. A lot of trouble over fish I won at a street fair but oddly enjoyable!

  8. I once released a small little gold fish that my son had won, out of its small county fair fish bowl into our city’s central pond, only to be told that this water was connected to a ‘village brook’ underneath the macadam and sidewalks. The stream eventually wended its way out for miles through the countryside, finally entering Saratoga Lake. At that time, the city pond had its share of ducks (but no herons) and I thought that the exploration, experiences and possibilities associated with freedom far outweighed the safety of a lifetime of solitary confinement – unquestionably even for a fish — a risk worth taking. Back then, the water in this village brook had been contaminated by many illegal underground wastewater connections as well as from its continued coursing around and through to the city’s remaining landfill. Survival would have been challenging at best, even if she were able to make it to the open water by the dump because, the snapping turtles and raccoons would certainly find this evocative golden lure more desirable than simply a passing fancy.

    Many years later, much of what was once a polluted watercourse was mitigated with the closing and sealing of the dump and the removals of the once covert plumbing connections. So it was much to my surprise, that one cold November afternoon after the annual Head of the Fish Regatta that I couldn’t help but wonder if the golden fish by the docks could be her or just an elusive carp? But also in the water, was a tiny catfish not swimming but floating near death along the edges of the duckweed surely to become a victim to the early cold weather. For some unknown reason, I decided to rescue him and take him to the safety of a warm aquarium that was now set up in my dining room. He would come to share this new world with a school of small comets, a black moor and some plastic weeds. The comets were quick and at first, ignored this little catfish that stayed mostly on the bottom of the tank, but after a month or two, an interesting thing happened. I would find one or two of the comets on the floor as if they had jumped free from the safety of their world to their deaths. It soon became evident that the catfish was growing and chasing the others out of existence. When spring arrived, the formidable Monstro was of good size, the pod was reduced to the only the fastest fish and he was transported to Skidmore’s swan lake, where today, on cool evenings by the gazebo one can see just under the surface, a big fish in the water swimming to a score by Danny Elfman.

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