Amateur naturalism, part five

While I’ve covered some details about specific types of animals in the previous posts, I’ve been slow in getting back to some overall tips that apply to all of them, so with that in mind, let’s talk about behavior.

Years ago I worked at a humane society that, among many other things, offered obedience classes and sport training for dogs, as well as some counseling on behavior problems. One of the primary things that I took away from this experience was how differently dogs think, which affects how they respond to things. For instance, dogs are primarily pack animals, like their ancestor the wolf, and they usually couch all of their social interactions, even with people, in terms of the hierarchy within a pack. The pack is a layered structure, with every member determining their position in terms of being dominant or submissive to any other member, and this will even extend to the families that own dogs. We saw plenty of behavior issues where the dog would obey the husband, only occasionally the wife, and never pay any attention to the commands of the kids at all; it was easy to see where in that ‘pack’ the dog believed itself (and everyone else) to fall. We would also see numerous instances of well-behaved dogs that went on misbehaving sprees when in the company of another dog – they were competing to see who had what position in the new pack, and submission to the old ways wasn’t in the cards. And dogs have thinking processes that are much simpler and more immediate than ours. A dog that disobeys the “Come here!” command and then receives punishment when it finally does return to the owner isn’t understanding that the punishment was for the disobedience; all it knows is that it came back and was punished for it. Much the same made be said for the asinine folklore of, “rubbing the puppy’s nose in it.”

At the same time, I worked in raptor rehabilitation, and I started noticing the different reactions to the birds with strong eye-contact, and with looming over them. Eye contact can say a lot of different things to different animals in different circumstances, but very often it means a predator has locked on. And height is a standard dominance behavior in a flock, so much so that competing birds raise their crests to try and look bigger. Some of these observations led to my tips on stalking animals for photos.

But the overall thing that needs to be stressed here is that interpreting behavior is a very difficult thing, prone to wild inaccuracies. The very first thing to get rid of is the idea that any other animal at all thinks like we do. We’ve spent our entire lives learning all the little social nuances of our own species (some of us much worse than others,) and we already have specific instincts towards positive interactions. None of this, without exaggeration, applies to any other species – not expression, not sounds, not movements, nothing. In a lot of cases, aspects of our behavior mean the exact opposite of what we intend – a great example is saying, “Shhh.” We think it’s soothing, but many species consider this a threatening hiss.

Second, we have to get rid of assumptions and immediate impressions. My area plays host to Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus,) a bird that I am self-consciously resisting the urge to call ‘gregarious,’ but essentially it has far less concern with close approaches to humans than many other species. They’re also pretty noisy, and a frequent vocalization is a chattering, scolding tirade. Or that’s what it sounds like to us – to them, I’m fairly certain it’s related to mating behavior, since I’ve heard it most often when one was examining a potential nesting area, followed by the quick appearance of another. With birds, volume and harshness can fairly often indicate an alarm call, yet we must bear in mind that most calls are either territorial or sexual. Often if we listen closely, we can hear two rival males staking territory by repeating much the same call to one another. Should they get too close, it can spur either one to go chase off the intruder.

Another thing to consider is whether our presence is changing the dynamic at all. This is something that has made all studies on interpreting behavior rather difficult, and the reason why people like Jane Goodall spent so much time in ‘the wild.’ In similar ways to how people act differently when they have visitors in their house, species that realize there are humans nearby usually remain aware and won’t engage in the same behavior that they might when humans are not present, and any that have been habituated (like the gorillas that can be encountered on tours,) or selectively interacting (herons that steal bait,) and most especially captive (every lab and zoo situation,) are all in a very different dynamic than any typical situation, and behave differently. What we can determine from studying them is limited, and remains open to wild inaccuracy. Worse, we can’t even know which bits might be inaccurate. However, since more than a few species are alerted more by motion than appearance, remaining motionless is your best trait.

I’ll pause here a moment to offer a brief perspective. In the passage above, I spoke of herons ‘stealing’ bait. If you didn’t catch the error there, no surprise, but this remains part of the problem in our interpretations of behavior for any species other than our own. Herons have little, if any, sense of ownership, and most likely see bait buckets full of live fish as remarkably easy meals, and nothing more. Nor are they the slightest bit likely to assign any altruistic motives to us, and see us favorably for bringing them the meals – observations of altruistic behavior are extremely limited in most other species, and many may have no concept of it. And then again, we cannot think in terms of the abstract that we do when we use the word “altruism,” but instead, what the underlying instinctual motives actually are. I’ve used this example before, but we’re pretty comfortable saying that honeybees (Apis mellifera) have extremely minimal cognitive functions, certainly nothing resembling abstract concepts like altruism, yet they will protect the hive by stinging, which is usually a fatal behavior – that largely defines altruism to us, but it’s just an automatic defense, not ‘decided upon.’ Does this count?

And so, when we observe specific behaviors, we struggle to rid ourselves of the concepts that we have by simply being us, and may not even realize when we’re clouding our judgment. Think of all the people that you’ve seen who react favorably to the ‘expressive’ eyes of the primate family, or the ‘smile’ of the dolphin, or the ‘glare’ of the eagle – these are all utter nonsense, assigning human traits to other species that have no reason to possess them, and the counterparts that they do possess are likely expressed entirely differently.

Then, there are all of the factors that we may not even be able to detect, since we evolved with different environmental demands – pheromones, for instance. Is it mating season? Can we detect the musks that indicate fear or danger? What about the sounds in pitches too high or low for us to hear? Are we missing the squeaks that tell foxes where mice are? Since we lack the extraordinary color vision of some (most?) birds, are we missing the plumage differences that tell the females which male is a better spousal choice? And the same for the insects and their ability to find flowers at just the right time – how much of this is based on the shape of the flower, the details of the erupting pollen, the ultraviolet patterns in the petals, or the pheromone trail from other lucky foragers? How similar is it among different species?

All of this may seem discouraging, but the overall point is that behavioral observation is a remarkably tricky subject, and there’s only so much we can hope to obtain from it – probably far less than we think we can. Scientifically, the way that we become confident in our theories is first by determining patterns, as specifically as possible. Then, we start testing those patterns, to see if there are crucial factors within – most especially by either eliminating certain aspects, or by observing in circumstances that provide different patterns. Let’s say that bears always come to a stream at the same time to hunt fish. So, is this based on height of the sun, temperature of the day, the conditions of the foliage, the habits ingrained in them by their parents, or even by seeing the fish start jumping? We may test these, for instance, by observing bears in other regions of the world where the sun is at a different height, or the foliage different. We might watch for hunting traits that differ among bands, giving a hint that it’s learned behavior, or perhaps net all of the fish downstream and see if the bears try to hunt or not. This entire example is one that I simply made up, by the way – it is only intended as a demonstration of how we start to narrow down the true motivations of behavior for a better understanding. It does mean that the amateur naturalist has little chance of being able to determine such things with confidence, but they only way we might is by being careful and meticulous.

‘Careful’ is something that cannot be stressed enough, as well. There is a wicked tendency for humans to believe that because something bad has not happened, it will continue not to happen, even when they keep pushing the parameters. It sounds strange, but this occurs all of the time, when people keep creeping closer to wildlife to get better photos, or the enormously stupid ones who believe that they are ‘communicating’ with a species (I may tackle this one in detail later on.) The problem with knowing how far you can go is that you only find out when you’ve passed that mark, in which case you’re in danger. And our ideas of how much danger are often skewed by ego, incorrect assumptions, and inadequate protections.

I have my own experience along these lines. Years back when working for a humane society, we actually had a stray Asian deer species that had been captured in a neighboring county, that came to us because we had the facilities to house it. Standing half the height of our local white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus,) it was somewhat cute and unimposing. Tasked with finding out if this buck, who had a nice six-point rack, would be docile enough for public contact, I entered the cage (as I had done many times before) and began pushing it around slightly to see if dominance behavior would be exhibited. I was using a large durable plastic trash can lid as a shield if it decided to push me away. And I was doing this alone. The buck did indeed respond to this challenge to its dominance, and charged me. Hard. I hadn’t really considered that one arm, holding even a durable shield, wouldn’t mean much against the charge of a 70 Kg (150 lb) deer that can leap over a fence twice its own height. I was slammed back, and one point of its antlers lanced clean through the lid and into my arm; another came around the edge and into my abdomen. With blood running down my arm, I then had the task to exit the cage past a now-annoyed deer, while wondering just how badly I was injured. The good news is the one in my side, while raising a hell of a welt, had not actually entered my abdomen nor done internal damage, but that was only through luck more than anything else – the one in my arm had penetrated to a depth of at least a centimeter, and I still bear this scar. The fact that this could have been much worse reminded me that I was being stupid. Others are not so lucky. And at some other point I’ll relate the story behind the squirrel scar on my shoulder.

The point is, any animal can do harm, often more than we expect, so my underlying advice is, stay safe, and maintain an escape in worst-case scenarios. There is nothing about wildlife observation, study, or photography that makes it necessary or acceptable to be in harm’s way. And I need to stress that too many people feel there is prestige in braving danger to have an ‘encounter,’ something that idiotic shows like The Crocodile Hunter have glorified inexcusably. This has nothing to do with naturalism, and if you identify with such feelings in any way, get a skateboard. Wildlife observation benefits the most from professionalism, most especially being low-key and as undetected as possible.

I don’t mean to be discouraging, only realistic. It’s still pretty cool seeing some aspect of behavior that we normally don’t get to see, and even when we can’t be perfectly confident in the reasons, we can still learn a lot by being observant enough to notice the patterns. It’s often enlightening to watch something that we never imagined would occur, or to suddenly notice something that hadn’t registered before – I honestly can’t tell you how many times this has happened for me, and it’s solely because I had the interest to sit and watch. Keep careful notes, pay attention to everything that you can, and above all, enjoy yourself!

Good luck!

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