Monday, January 28, 2013

A measure of civilization's loss

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, bird language

We learn the best what we must know to live. A definition of "civilization" is the increasing specialization of work. Once "civilized" people achieved agriculture, particularly livestock ranching, there has been less and less perceived need for people to understand the (non-agricultural and non-urban) natural world. Those who are well attuned to nature, primarily societies that live by hunting and gathering, are looked down upon as "primitive" or even "uncivilized". People such as the San Bushmen of southern Africa or the Dani of New Guinea have a deep knowledge of the ways of all the animals (birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and also many invertebrates) of their landscapes. Do not think them stupid or ignorant. A "civilized" New Yorker or Londoner or Muscovite would be hard put to obtain a meal in the wild, and would be the stupid, ignorant one there.

A very few Westerners have retained, or re-attained, the bush skills of tracking and deep observation. As we read in What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young, we are surrounded by animal communication, but hardly ever notice. Sure, we might pause at times to enjoy a bird's singing. To awaken early on a spring morning and step outside is to be treated to the exuberant, joyous "dawn chorus" of songbirds. The songs are not mainly territorial bluster. They are a happy "Here I am!" to the world around.

Many a scientist would chastise me for that word "happy", calling it "anthropomorphic". Let's consider that. "Anthropomorphism" means to impute to animals feelings and thoughts similar to our own. Many consider it a mistake to "imagine" that animals are like us. In a sense, we could say that is true, because the actual case is that we are like the animals! We can feel happiness because our ape ancestors felt happiness, and the primates before them, and probably back along the evolutionary trail to the mini-brained lancelet. Not only so, but every pet owner knows when their dog or cat or canary, or perhaps even python, is happy, and when it is angry.

Now, when we take a walk in the woods or a park on a warm day, what do we see and hear? A lot depends on how we walk. Some people can pass through a patch of forest, well populated with birds, deer, mice, weasels and snakes, and see none of them; maybe a few birds at some distance in a tree. Others (fewer in number) will see birds feeding all around, and may catch a glimpse of the mammals and reptiles also.

Most people entering the woods have a purpose in mind, and are intent in going from point A to point B. Some may be willing to go a little slower, to look around as they go, but they don't realize that the energy of their purpose is felt by the birds, which get out of the way, and issue alarms that alert all the nearby birds and non-birds to get out of the way. Jon Young calls this phenomenon the Bird Plow. He writes that it takes most people quite a while and much practice to learn to tread lightly, to develop a "routine of invisibility". This doesn't mean that the birds won't see you. It means that your respectful presence is tolerated and largely ignored once they perceive that you are no threat to them.

A Bird Plow is a panic response, and the fear underlying it is second only to the birds' fear of a Cooper's Hawk or other bird hawk. If you forge ahead through a forest like you own it, the birds will assume that you mean business, and give you a wide berth. A feeding deer, hearing the birds' alarm calls, will stop feeding and fade into the brush; a fox will turn aside or even circle around behind you; every living thing larger than a housefly will spread away to a distance of 20-50 yards to either side. And the birds you do see high in the trees? They are sentinels, watching you, at the closest distance they deem safe.

Young dwells much on learning the baseline behavior of the birds in your area. He recommends having a Sit Spot, a place you visit as frequently as you can; daily if possible. Each day you approach your Sit Spot from a different angle, so you don't wear a path. You need to spend 30-40 minutes there, because the disturbance of your arrival takes at least 20 minutes to subside. Only then will you observe baseline behavior, and only if you don't fidget. You want the birds to think, Nothing to see here. This one is just looking around. Learn to make notes in your notebook calmly (your penmanship may improve), and not too frequently (10-min intervals are good). Quick, purposeful motions simply cause alarm. You want to appear calm; curious of course, but not sharply focused.

The sad fact brought out, over and over again, is that of all animals, only we "civilized folk" have lost the knowledge of animal language. The common robin, like most songbirds, has four kinds of baseline vocalization: Songs, Companion Calls, Territorial Aggression, and the Begging of chicks for food. These are all maintenance behaviors, and indicate "everything normal". All the other sounds are various kinds of Alarms, a broad "bucket" category with many entries, because the robin distinguishes human from dog from cat from weasel from bird hawk from large hawk (the kind that seldom prey on birds) and so forth. The Robin language has a lot of words! It takes time and careful note-taking to learn many of them. Then there is Cardinal, and Chickadee, and Junco and so forth. Some Alarm "calls" are simply silence. When a cardinal and his mate have been contentedly picking through the leaf litter, calling a quiet Chip! to one another, if one doesn't answer, the other is immediately on alert, may make another CHIP! or two, but is then equally likely to freeze in silence while looking and listening for the reason.

Birds are high-energy creatures. They usually live on the edge of starvation. If alarmed too frequently, they may decamp, looking for a better territory, because responding to an alarm is costly. In an extreme case, should you happen to spot a resting chickadee of a midwinter evening, keep your distance. It is all fluffed up, holding a little bubble of warm air in its feathers. Scare it into flying away, and it loses that bubble because it must flatten its feathers to fly. Having lost the energy it took to warm that bubble, and having expended further energy in panicked flight, it is now likely to die before morning. If they can, birds respond in a measured way. It saves energy to fade sideways into a leafy bower rather than to fly to the top of a tall tree. A stalking cat merits a hook-shaped flight to a branch 5-6 feet up, but no more than that. Even the sound of an approaching Bird Plow will cause a measured response. Gently fluttering 20 yards to the side (and sounding the appropriate alarm) expends less energy than high-speed flight, if there is time to do so; and the Bird Plow is commonly detected about 2 minutes ahead of arrival. If you learn to detect a Bird Plow approaching, rare indeed will be the person who can sneak up on you!

There is a great, great deal to learn about bird behavior and bird language, and how the birds listen to each other, including all other species in the vicinity; and how non-birds listen in also. Of course, the predators are also listening. A Bird Plow is a fine opportunity for a bird hawk to take advantage of the distraction and catch a songbird unawares. Certain birds are well known to follow large animals as they move about, catching insects—or other birds—disturbed by their passage.

Throughout the book, Young advises listening to certain calls on audio files found at This would be a great book to convert to iPad format, including the audio files with it attached to clickable links in the text. If there are videos of the alarm "shapes" discussed in Chapter 7 ("A Shape for Every Occasion"), they'd fit right in also.

I know the author is hoping more people will make the time to learn the quiet ways of fitting in to the natural landscape, and thus learn more about what the birds and other animals are doing and "saying". I suppose approaching retirement is as good a chance as any, to have the time for such an endeavor. Being 65 or so isn't too late to learn something new. Knowing myself, I am pretty fidgety. It'll be hard, learning the discipline of a Sit Spot. It can't hurt to try.

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