Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bird Plow by Jon Young

What The Robin Knows; How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young; Science and Audio editing by Dan Gardoqui; Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2012

Consider the plow mounted on a huge truck barreling down the highway in a heavy storm, shoving aside the snow and anything else in its path. It doesn’t slow down. It has no respect. Out of the way! In the wild, the birds are the first creatures who flee an invaded scene, and they proclaim the alarm for all to see and hear. We call this the bird plow, and its why Native American scouts could pinpoint the location of invading cavalry troops from two miles away. Those stories are passed down to this day. When I first heard them, I thought a little hyperbole might have seeped in. Now I give the stories much more credence. The bird plow is marked by a rush of birds flying up and away in straight-line trajectories from an approaching threat on the ground. Given the mayhem soldiers on horseback must have caused, it’s quite likely that the great scouts could have identified the mortal threat to their tribes from two miles or maybe even further.

The most common cause of the bird plow is the abrupt entry into a given habitat by people. More unusual instigation includes fast-moving vehicles (where they are not common); a spooked herd of deer, elk, or moose stampeding through the woods or across the meadow or tundra; or a pack of wolves, say, in furious pursuit of prey. On a pond, river, bay, or lake, the explosive lift-off of ducks, cormorants, geese, and mergansers is a bird plow. In all cases, the disruption has consequences. The baseline (status quo habitat) is disrupted. The birds have to exert a lot of energy and often end up in unfamiliar turf. Riskiest of all, the may become the victims of wake hunters, who know well the opportunities stirred up by a bird plow.

Fortunately, the nature of the danger and the conservation-of-energy principles make such all-out flight unnecessary most of the time. Like the alarms of all shapes, the bird plow is usually, in one way or another, “contained”. The birds always take into account the reach of the predator or other danger. In cities and suburbs, where birds are habituated to our presence, we may elicit no alarm at all. The birds may well react to us but perhaps not with full flight. The bird plow is usually reserved for people entering a natural area where they’re more an unknown quantity and behaving with an imperious assumption of permission, intruding inconsiderately in the daily rounds of wildlife habitat.

The fact that we are the most common cause of the bird plow is a sad reflection of what we represent to the birds and what our behavior says about us. It is also ironic. Joe the hiker is not dangerous, but the birds don’t know that, and their excessive reaction may now call in the hawks and coyotes in the area, who really are a danger. The natural world is a culture of vigilance based on carefully tended relationships and connections, maintained through recognition, mutual respect, and “jungle etiquette’ that in the end preserves a baseline status quo and conserves energy. Joe the hiker or Jill the jogger throw it into disarray, and anyone who has some knowledge of bird language understands exactly what happens.

Have you ever been in a public place, a plaza of some sort, and seen some individual moving a bit stiffly, seeming without purpose, making no eye contact, maybe ill or even dangerous, all in all just not fitting in with the general tone and vibe of the place? Something about this person was “off”, and you noticed the aberration... You might even have become a little nervous. Well, exactly the same dynamic is in play in the natural world – in spades, because the birds and animals have a lot more to be nervous about in their environment than we have in ours. That’s a hard fact of their lives.

Head down, not paying attention to anything outside our thoughts, sudden body movements, all and all not fitting in – such humans are viewed differently in the natural world (including the backyard) than those who are well into the routine of invisibility. . . . if we believe we’re in a good mood, or at least an okay mood, but the birds tell us otherwise with their alarms and other actions, who’s right? Here’s the bird language rule: They’re right. If we’re in an outright bad mood, if our attitude is arrogant or simply clueless and unfeeling, this attitude will be reflected in our movements as we barge through the trees, and we’ll be treated differently by the birds. Just as they read the cat’s body language and behavior, they read our body language, behavior, noises, and energy – in short, the overall vibe. They read us all the time. One experiment confirmed that mockingbirds identify and later remember the specific individuals who have approached too close to their nests.

The good news is that bird language allows us to turn the tables, in effect. If we learn to read the birds – and their behaviors and vocalizations – through them, we can read the world at large. Anyone with a working understanding of this discipline can approach an unknown habitat and quickly draw all sorts of “natural world” conclusions. The types of birds seen or heard, their numbers and behaviors and vocalizations, will reveal the locations of running water or still water, dead trees, ripe fruit, a carcass, predators, fish runs, insect hatches, and so much more. The details of the habitat become very clear. If we don’t barge in and kick up a big bird plow – if we replace collision with connection, learn to read detail, feel at home, relax , by expanding the sphere of awareness and shrinking the sphere of disturbance, developing a functional invisibility through empathy and respect - ultimately the birds will yield to us, allow a close encounter with them and other animals otherwise extremely wary of our presence.

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