Birds and Bombs

Anyone who has read my writing on this website knows that I spend a lot of time observing birds. I’ve learned that there is much which can be learned from studying the behaviors of birds (and other organisms) which can be applied not only to wildlife conservation efforts, but also to my daily activities as a part of human society. Yes, sometimes I do leave bird society! In fact, I’m confident that if people more closely observed animal behavior and related such behaviors to their own, then human society would be in far less danger of unraveling, possibly explosively, due to our actions.

Take territoriality, for instance. Some birds defend territories, some don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time observing Blue Jays, and Florida Scrub-jays. If I were to walk into a patch of forest where I knew Blue Jays existed and played a recording of Blue Jay flight calls (calls that they utter when they are flying, possibly to stay in contact with a mate, siblings, or offspring—depending on the time of year), I likely wouldn’t attract resident Blue Jays who are ‘looking for a fight,’ who wish to drive away ‘intruders.’ In other words, Blue Jays aren’t territorial.

Florida Scrub-jays, however, will station a member of their group on the tallest available perch, which offers an unimpeded view over a territory up to 50 acres in size, which is usually covered by short scrub oaks. Especially just prior to the breeding season and when acorns are on the trees in the fall, if that sentinel scrub-jay sees, or hears, a nearby scrub-jay within its territory that is not a part of its family, one could say that ‘all Hell breaks loose.’ That is, the sentinel jay will begin calling and will fly ‘aggressively’ toward the ‘intruder’ (me with playing a recording) or the actual intruder, with a flight consisting of undulating dips (not unlike the routes of some roller coasters). Its family members will follow in a similar way, and the intruders will likely be chased away. Very rarely, there may actually be a fight, which involves locking feet together, and pecking at one another while on the ground.

Here is a link to a video which contains a recording that I captured when Florida Scrub-jays were acting territorial:

Point being, two closely related species can have very different ways of behaving in similar circumstances. Why might that be? The difference in the tendency to behave in a certain way is due to differing past circumstances that the ancestors of these species encountered. Scrub in Florida has historically been basically a series of small islands surrounded by a sea of other habitat types (this situation is getting worse, due to human-caused habitat destruction, hence the necessity of translocation). So, the scrub-jay ancestors of current scrub-jays found themselves in a situation which required them to aggressively defend pieces of land where scrub existed. Those that did not do this probably did not pass on as many genes (which directly influence behavior; aggressive scrub-jays tend to make aggressive scrub-jays) and thus those that were territorial prevailed. Alternatively, the ancestors of Blue Jays inherited and came to depend upon a much wider range of habitats, covering a much larger area than the scrub which Florida Scrub-jays depend upon (most of the eastern United States, currently). In fact, because Blue Jays are so good at using a variety of forested habitats, I even have seen them in older scrub, beside scrub-jays. And so, it seems, because there is a lot of their required habitat available, and therefore all of those things which habitat provides directly or indirectly (food, shelter, mates), Blue Jays are not generally inclined to be territorial.

In other words, both Blue Jays and Florida Scrub-jays, like all other living things, are products of their environment. They behave the way that they do because of circumstance. As the sound waves produced by the call of an unfamiliar scrub-jay are perceived by the sentinel bird, hormones are released which cause a territorial response by that sentinel scrub-jay, along with his/her family. And maybe, I speculate, they experience feelings that we could recognize as they take their undulating path toward the ‘enemy.’ Alternatively, the Blue Jays in the tall forest less than fifty meters away watch a ‘stranger’ jay fly by, without so much as an internal ripple of indignation.

Remarkably, circumstance has allowed most human beings to possess the capability of understanding such processes. For one who does in fact understand them, the world can become a much more intelligible and tolerable place. Even, maybe, an infinitely wonderful place. Reasons for the behaviors of friends, neighbors, family, and ‘enemies’ can thus become clearer (though usually remain murky, at best, due to so many factors being involved). And for me, at least, with even a small degree of understanding comes a profound appreciation for the good things that people do. Compassionate, altruistic, and loving behaviors can be identified and cherished if one pays attention. A kind act in the supermarket: ‘you only have two things, go ahead.’ A call, ‘out of the blue,’ from a friend who you haven’t heard from in years. A kind, thoughtful conversation with a stranger. A commitment to not part till death.

However, the fact that many humans and non-humans constantly behave mindlessly and destructively is also painfully apparent. This is, of course, through no fault of their own, as hard as that is for anyone to initially admit. A co-worker goes out of their way to make you look like a fool, and cause you pain. A spouse cheats. A relative holds an unreasonable, destructive grudge. A dog bites, a snake strikes, a Blue Jay watches as a scrub-jay chases. An egocentric, ignorant president or dictator impetuously orders a nuclear strike.

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The simple fact is that we as human beings are in an extraordinarily precarious position. The environment upon which we and our family (including non-human life on Earth) depend upon is being altered due to selfish acts which are not always easy to identify. Territorial impulses cause people in one country to hate people in another country. We possess the capacity to destroy life on Earth with our technologies, and seem to be on the track to doing so. We are constantly bombarded by information which lessens our ability to focus upon the real issues that threaten us. Many of our leaders are no more conscious of the causes for their actions than a scrub-jay is, and far less admirable. These leaders possess the capability to, and seem intent to, destroy life by selfishly exploiting natural resources and those who depend upon them. They might gravely and tirelessly prepare for hurricanes which scientific projections suggest will radically and negatively alter the lives of their voters within a few days, ‘because we must prepare for the worst,’ but ignore related, long-term climatic projections which suggest a threat of far greater magnitude and severity, simply because doing so will not get them re-elected. These leaders behave in a way that is dictated by voters. An ignorant electorate will yield politicians who behave ignorantly, even if they aren’t actually ignorant. Selfish actors, it seems, are never in short-supply. It is obvious that they will destroy life as we know it if we allow them to.Earth

And so, I’m doing my best by writing this to provide to you with some information that I have been lucky enough to happen upon, due to circumstance. When you see a bird, or another type of animal, I hope that you will take the time to watch the way that it behaves and wonder why it behaves the way that it does. What about the way that it behaves might have helped its ancestors to survive? Examining life in such a way may cause you to be inclined to examine your own behaviors. And I’m sure that you have already, but maybe not using the ‘lens’ that I have suggested that you use to observe a bird, which has been influenced by the same types of historical pressures as you. Does the hawk eat the sparrow because it’s evil? No. It does so because that is how its ancestors behaved to survive. Do you, when no one is looking, do something which might, for no good reason, hurt the feelings of, or prospects for, someone else, because you are evil? No! More than likely, you, like the hawk, are behaving in a way which helped your ancestors spread their genes. Luckily, though, you possess the ability to be conscious of your actions and thus modify your behavior. What impulses do you have which might have helped your ancestors to survive, which may in fact be harmful to you, your family, and/or the rest of life on Earth? Taking the time to think about this simple question is very important. Not only can an honest answer to this question allow us to lead happier lives, but it just might allow us as a species to avoid self-destruction.

Luckily, there are many, many people who in fact are aware of much or all of what I have written in this post. They may be among those who have devoted their lives to developing technologies which lessen our environmental impact, like solar-powered vehicles. They may be educated activists who attempt to bring public attention to pressing social justice and/or environmental issues. They may even be politicians who must carefully mince words in order to be re-elected, so that they can do some genuine good. Or, more likely, they are plumbers, secretaries, high school teachers, and other important members of society, who we meet and interact with every day. There is a lot of reason for hope and optimism, but only if human consciousness can outpace a terrifying unconsciousness that seems to be leading toward global catastrophe. These are dangerous times, which require that the majority of us be awake. Indifference will result in disaster, to a degree which we simply cannot accurately predict.

I want you to know that I understand the reasons for sensationalism, which some people might characterize this post as being caused by. It is true that an author might sell more books if he/she convinces readers that they have written about an important issue. A news network might describe a situation as being far more dire than it is, to get more viewers. This happens. I can assure you, though, that the primary cause for me writing this post is that when I woke up this morning, I felt inspired to attempt to spread some information which might help to protect the experience of life on Earth, which I’m fascinated by. The cause for that feeling this morning was certainly affected by my exposure to others, in the past, who have concluded similarly. My hope is that maybe I can affect readers similarly.

And so, I encourage you to pay attention/care, and to the best of your ability speak out against things that you believe to be wrong, organize effective means of causing change, vote responsibly, and generally act in a way which might preserve this wonderful place for our descendants. Our behavior will have a profound impact on them.

If you don’t believe me, just watch the birds.

 

Blue Jay

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Jays of Our Lives – Necesito Nests

(In addition to trying to learn to understand the scrub-jay language, I’m trying to learn how to speak Spanish, which is why this title popped into my head. Yes, I can’t resist alliteration, and yes, I have discovered that I may need to find nests)

It is an early morning in April, and I know that scrub-jays are building nests. Not long after walking out into the scrub, I spot a potential nest-builder. The scrub-jay is perched atop a lone, dead tree that towers above the short scrub oaks below, watching for predators. I check the bird’s leg bands to verify who I’m looking at, and then wait to see if she or her ‘husband’ will show me any behavior indicating that they are building a nest.

If you imagine that working as a field biologist is constant excitement (crazier things have been imagined), then the reality may disappoint you. The usually relaxing, meditative quality of the work that I have chosen is precisely why I love my job. Currently, I get to spend a lot of time watching scrub-jays stoically gazing across their empire, waiting for them to teach me something.

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Scrub-jay on sentinel duty

I’m sure that some people who might read this post will wonder why the state of Florida would pay me to, among other things, find nests. The answer is that finding and monitoring nests is a great way to determine the reproductive success of any bird species. Identifying specific microhabitats in which birds like to build nests (say, like in the case of scrub-jays, beneath prickly vines) is a good way for land managers to know which conditions to create for birds that they want to attract. Another useful application of nest searching is to determine whether or not a given population of birds is a ‘source’ or a ‘sink.’ In other words, if one determines that all of the scrub-jays on their property are unable to fledge any young year after year due to, say, a very dense nest predator population, that property (a ‘sink’) may not be an ideal recipient location for translocated birds, because moving birds there would not provide much help for increasing the overall, state-wide and/or regional population. A population that is more likely to be a ‘source’ population, where conditions are better, is be a better choice for translocation. I’m monitoring nests primarily because we want to learn if translocation is an effective way to increase scrub-jay populations throughout the state.

After 15 minutes, I see the male scrub-jay fly up to the tree and hop up next to his mate. He quickly feeds her, then she flies away and he takes over sentinel duty. Courtship feeding, in my experience, seems to become more common around nest-building time. I walk in the direction that I saw her fly, to see if she provides any clues. I have trouble finding her, though finally hear the rapid jingling of her metal leg band as she itches her chin with a foot, like most dogs do. The male softly, gutturally calls from his perch. She calls back in the same way, saying, ‘I’m alright, honey. It’s just that weird human, again.’

I catch a blue blur in the corner of my eye as she flies north. Then, I hear a crashing sound that I recognize. What I hear, I am fairly sure, is the sound of her pulling palmetto fibers from a scrub palmetto.

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Scrub palmetto fibers, which scrub-jays need to make nests

 

Slowly, I walk toward the sound. Sure enough, one by one, she is pulling long fibers off of the palmetto plant. Because she is collecting fibers, I know that the pair are at least half way done building their nest. All of the sticks have been gathered, and they are now working on completing the soft, inner lining of their nest. I hope that she does not drop the fibers, like I’ve seen other birds do, before bringing them to the nest. Up to the top of a myrtle oak she flies. I’m ready to run…. Next, she flies up and lands beside her mate for a few seconds. Then, they both fly out of sight to the south as I sprint through the thick scrub, being smacked in the face by branches and maybe watched by rattlesnakes which think in their reptilian way how foolish I am for running through the scrub, when they could be anywhere. FYI, I don’t actually assume that rattlesnakes have a notion of ‘foolish,’ but it’s fun to imagine.

Scrub-jays almost always fly straight to the nest when they have nest material. So, by watching which way they flew, I know in which general direction the nest is located. However, I don’t know how far away it is, and it takes me about ten minutes to find the jays again. After 45 more minutes, I conclude that the scrub-jays have lost the mood for nest-building. Tomorrow, I’ll return….

And when I do return, it is not long before I see another bill-full of palmetto fibers being flown, this time to the west. I imagine the line and direction of their current flight, as well as their flight from the day before. Where the two lines cross, I know, is where the nest is. So, with the knowledge of approximately where their nest is, I climb a pine tree that is just sturdy enough to hold me. I scan over the scrub in the direction that I think that their nest is, waiting for them to return.

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Me watching for jays from top of a tall sand live oak

Like my co-worker said, I remember as I sway in the pine, nest-searching is a lot like hunting, though without killing. When I finally see the jays flying again toward their nest, I feel lucky that I can still harness my deep instincts and senses to accomplish daily tasks. After seeing the jays enter a sand live oak together, a part of me feels happy that I wasn’t offered the jobs which I had interviewed for that would have almost doubled my paycheck, but more than halved my opportunities to be out in the field. Outdoors, I know as I jump out of the pine, is where one can understand and feel the forces that created them and everything else. As I walk toward the nest, I feel lucky that circumstance has allowed me to experience first-hand the incredible behaviors of organisms like scrub-jays that have resulted from at least 14 billion years of interactions between living and non-living things.

The need to protect the life that is left is very obvious to me, so I feel very content helping to understand and protect scrub-jays. When wildlife disappears due to our actions, we will lose our link to ‘eternity,’ be fooled by technology, be denied of most of the feelings that we are capable of, and trapped in a miserable world that we are not suited to thrive in. Seeing scrub-jays in the scrub reminds me that there is a place for me, too, and that place is not on a highway or in a shopping mall. If I ever create a ‘nest,’ I know, I’ll have scrub-jays in mind.

The female scrub-jay slowly pokes her head out of the shrub where her nest is. She looks at me, then angrily pecks a narrow branch. I back away, and she calms down. A third bird, the pair’s offspring from the previous year, alights next to his mother, but is chased away by Dad. The ‘teenagers’ aren’t allowed close to the nest when it is being built, I’ve learned. When she is satisfied that I don’t know where her nest is, the female flies off to find more fibers, and the male follows. Quickly, before they return, I use my mirror to see how far along the nest is, mark the location with my GPS, and go to the neighboring territory, to look for another nest. All’s well in the scrub.

*

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Scrub-jay eggs

Unfortunately, though, all’s not always well in the scrub for scrub-jays. By June, the end of the nesting season, I’ve found almost 30 nests, and know very well how dangerous it is to be either an egg or nestling in a nest. The majority of nests that I monitor fail, mostly due to snakes such as this yellow rat snake:

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Yellow rat snake. Picture taken by Matt, a friend of mine.

 

One day, I was lucky enough to see a scrub-jay pulling the tail of a garter snake which was crossing the road. Repeatedly, the snake struck at the bold bird, until it was able to slither away from its hopping pursuer. Harassing snakes is a useful behavior if snakes eat your babies. If a scrub-jay cannot eat the snake that it is harassing, maybe their calls will attract a hawk which can. I cannot help but imagine that an adult scrub-jay which recently went missing may have gotten a bit too close to, say, a rat snake that it was mobbing. If so, that bird could not have died a more heroic death, so far as scrub-jays are concerned.

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Recently hatched scrub-jays. Photo by a co-worker, Alexis.
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Almost ready to leave the nest! Photo also by Alexis.

 

When I saw an alligator in the scrub, I was reminded that I, too, could be on the ‘menu.’ I know that being attacked by an alligator would be an exceptionally rare event. However, the presence of such ambush predators reminds me that I, too, am a natural thing which is vulnerable, which is best off paying attention to surroundings, and which could quickly become only energy that keeps something else alive. That knowledge is, you may be surprised to read, more comforting than anything else that I know. By knowing this, the pressure and incoherence of human-made concepts that suggest otherwise disappear. When I’m in the scrub, as I watch a young scrub-jay that has beaten the odds by escaping the snakes, crows, and raccoons, I’m reminded how unlikely life is. I remember to appreciate the fact that, so far, I’ve escaped the alligators and the less literal but equally dangerous ‘predators’ that pretend not to be, which just might have a first and last name. In other words, I remember to appreciate my short time in the air, as I watch the young scrub-jay fly by.

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This young scrub-jay landed on my head the first time that we met! Then, down to my hand.

 

 

 

Jays of Our Lives – Part 2

Note: Before reading this, you may want to check out ‘Part 1’ to know what happened last time on Jays of Our Lives, which is a mini-series about some of my experiences studying Florida Scrub-Jays.

*

The morning after we released Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Light Blue (the male scrub-jay) and Black/Silver – Red/White (the female scrub-jay), I drove through the scrub just after sunset and parked near where I thought the birds would be. I took out my radio receiver and antenna, then scanned 360 degrees to see if I could detect a signal from either of the birds, who each had unique frequencies that I could enter into the receiver. From the same point, standing on top of my 1996 Ford Bronco, I was able to detect a signal from both Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White. However, just as I had left them the previous afternoon, they were separated. I hoped that they had both made it through the night, and that neither transmitter was in the stomach of a snake or owl. Being alone in a new place is dangerous for scrub-jays, just like it is dangerous for people.

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Black/Silver – Red/Black, one of the birds that I spend a lot of time with

I decided to look for Hot Pink/Light Blue first, and picked up a strong signal about 200 meters to the northwest of where we had released him and his mate. Soon, I found him alone in the scrub, and followed him for over an hour as he gradually moved to the east. It was interesting to see that he intermittently foraged and then acted as a ‘look out’ for his mate who was not there, which is likely a behavior that is genetically hard-wired and/or a semi-learned habit that is hard to break. This ‘sentinel behavior’ is a somewhat unique behavior utilized by scrub-jays, which is a good way for at least one member of the group to always have an eye on the sky, searching for hawks. It was a bit sad to think that no one was looking out for Hot Pink/Light Blue.

He reached the eastern edge of the block of scrub that we were in, where it met an area of very short scrub that was growing back after recently being burned. Across the future scrub-jay habitat, I was sure that he could see the scrub which he had been chased from the day before. As I watched him, I could not help but wonder if he knew that southeast was the direction that he should fly to find his mate. I also wondered if he was hesitant to fly across that area because of the danger of encountering the group of three scrub-jay neighbors, who could see and chase him again. To my slight disappointment, I watched as he gradually moved back into the scrub to the west, away from his mate, unnaturally alone.

The next day, the same cycle repeated itself. Both the male and female foraged alone, noticeably furtive and more quiet than usual, probably to avoid the attention of neighbors.

I told another biologist, who has studied the resident jays for over ten years, and color-banded most of them, about the situation. He suggested that maybe Hot Pink/Light Blue ‘has his eye on’ a neighboring female, one of the birds that had chased him away from his mate. The female that he described was a ‘helper’ in the group of three (the other two were her parents) immediately to the south of where Hot Pink/Light Blue was hanging out. It seemed that maybe I was watching a divorce, possibly caused by Hot Pink/Light Blue’s interest in a ‘younger woman.’

On the third morning after we released the pair, I tracked down Hot Pink/Light Blue and was surprised to see that another scrub-jay was with him. My first thought was: the ‘younger woman.’ I moved closer, and after losing both of the birds several times in scrub oaks, saw that the unknown bird was Red/White! She had apparently made the flight through ‘hostile territory’ and had found her ‘husband.’ On the next morning, I found them both back very near to the release cage, where she had stayed originally, quietly foraging. It seemed that she had tracked him down and brought him back, like ‘balls and chains’ tend to do. Kidding and anthropomorphizing aside, I’ll admit, I was a bit relieved that I did not help to cause a scrub-jay divorce.

*

Just over a week after we released Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White, I couldn’t detect either of their signals. I drove completely around the 40-acre block of scrub that they had been hanging out in, stopping and standing in the bed of my truck (which was easier than standing on the top of a Ford Bronco). With the extra height, I could increase the range at which I might detect them to about a ½ mile, but still, no signal. For the past week, they had been daily driven out of the scrub into tall pine trees to the east by both of the neighboring groups. Apparently, the neighboring groups claimed a lot more territory than we had thought. It appeared to me that Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White had decided that it was time to find a new home. They could have basically gone anywhere looking for scrub, and it was up to me to figure out where. I knew that the public forest that I was working in consisted of over 27,000 acres. Therefore, I hoped that they decided to settle near to a road within the forest, so that I could detect and find them. If they settled on private land, which is interspersed throughout the forest to the north, and very near to where we released the birds, I knew that that would complicate things. However, before beginning a ‘wild scrub-jay’ chase, I decided to walk south in the direction that I had seen them go before, after being chased by their neighbors. I waved the antenna around, hoping to hear a beep. Nothing, nothing, nothing but static at three different spots. It was about time to start driving around the forest, searching for a signal, I thought. Because I wasn’t looking forward to doing that, I walked a bit further south and tried one more time to search for a signal. Just barely, I could hear the beeping of Red/White’s transmitter!

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View of scrub, from atop a Ford Bronco

At about that time, I received a phone call from another person who is a part of the project. He wanted to see how the jays were doing. So, we met and walked south together. Through long-leaf pine forest, which is not good scrub-jay habitat, we went toward the signal, which gradually got stronger. Finally, 0.75 miles south of where I initially picked up the signal, we spotted our birds. They were dispersing, and made long flights punctuated by short periods of rest in small clearings amongst the tall forest. If they found a nice area of scrub, we knew, that could become their new home. I happened to know that it would be another mile to the south before they found new scrub, and just when I was beginning to think that they would end up there, they changed directions and began moving west. We followed them a mile to the west, and then a mile to the north, until finally they reached scrub that was about a mile to the west of where they had been released. Maybe unwittingly, maybe not, they had gone around five groups of scrub-jays and ended up in unoccupied scrub. It seemed like they had found a new home.

*

The next day, however, they met new neighbors who were as unwelcoming as the first two groups which they had met. They were driven to the north into unoccupied scrub, and after spending two days there went back a mile to the east, near their release cage. Quite the adventure they had! Considering that scrub is a habitat that can quickly be changed, due to fire, say, or due to the scrub-oaks growing too tall for the liking of scrub-jays, it is probably good for scrub-jays to become familiar with their surroundings. By becoming familiar with where other scrub is, a scrub-jay group can find a new home when they need to. So, maybe the adventure that I was lucky enough to witness wasn’t for naught.

*

About a month after their adventure, I was with Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White in the morning. As usual, I followed them around, marked their locations, and noted their behaviors. With my binoculars, I saw that several palmetto fibers were in the bill of Red/White. Despite their apparent trouble settling in, I thought, they must be building a nest!

Nest searching season had arrived, for both me and predators. Will I be able to find any nests, or will the clever jays out-wit me? What predators are lurking in the scrub? What potential predator’s tail do I see a scrub-jay pull? What predator do I see in the scrub which could eat me?

Find out nest (I mean next) time on Jays of Our Lives!

Bird Flew By: Thoughts on Consciousness

Nick Drake was an acoustic guitar player who made his music in the late 1960s and early 70s. He lived a short life, and relatively few people discovered his music while he was alive (considerably more have discovered him since his death). In this song, which is one of my favorites by him, he seems to suggest that birds are creatures that think, and not only think, but think deeply (and experience consciousness):

 

Here are the words that I am referring to, in regard to avian philosophizing:

Bird flew by
And wondered, wondered why
She was wise enough to stay up in the sky
From there she could wonder
For the reason
What’s the point of a year
Or a season

‘Wisdom’ is attributed to this bird that is flying in the sky, and she even has existential thoughts. As someone who has spent years studying birds, and ‘wondering why’ about many things, I’ll admit that I doubt that any bird wonders ‘what is the point of a year or a season?’ But maybe they will someday… The lyrics in this song seem to ‘anthropomorphize,’ which is to attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-human animals. I feel fairly sure that Nick Drake didn’t think that birds actually wonder like the bird in the song does, as art does not need to represent reality. However, the song stimulated some thoughts in me that I’ll share with you.

No human can know for sure what a bird does or does not think, though for anyone who pays close attention to birds and other animals, it is obvious, based upon their behaviors, that at least some species do in fact think (imagine your dog or cat). Take a look at this short video showing a bird who modifies a tool that did not originally work, in order to gain access to a food item:

 

That bird, in my opinion, was obviously thinking, and possibly in a way that I could relate to—I think that the bird knows that it is something (and is therefore a self-aware something) that wants food.

It has long been assumed by many animal behaviorists that animals (including human beings) are, as Thomas Huxley coined, ‘automata,’ which is a machine that is driven exclusively by forces (genetics, past and current environmental conditions) that it cannot control. This assumption appears to be true, so far as I can see, except that I do not understand how consciousness (the ability to be self-aware) fits into the equation, an uncertainty which could undermine the validity of the assumption. In fact, consciousness is in my opinion the most inspiring, dependable (if I’m thinking, it’s there), and greatest mystery that I have encountered. I will be thinking about it for as long as I am conscious. Consciousness could be (and some people say definitely is) just another natural process that we have no control over. However, it is fascinating to me that self-awareness does not seem to be necessary, and yet it does exist. By ‘not necessary,’ I mean from an evolutionary perspective, as it does seem entirely possible that molecular machines which we call organisms could be assembled which reproduce and survive based entirely on stereotyped responses (a stereotyped response is a reaction that requires no thought, and happens automatically in response to a certain stimulus). Such a thoughtless creature is the sort of identity-less, stereotyped machine that many people, it seems to me, assume that non-human animals (which aren’t their pets) are. But I don’t think that that is, in many cases, true! I believe that it feels a certain way to be, say, a moose, or a bat. I also think that at least some vertebrates (animals with a backbone), including mammals and birds, experience some kind of consciousness, as it seems extraordinarily narrow-minded to assume that human beings are the only conscious animal on planet Earth. I find this thought of consciousness in other animals to be liberating!

Why liberating? Well, I occasionally find myself falling into a Dustin-centric trap. That is, I find myself assuming that the way I see things is simply the way it is. By thinking so, inescapable doom and gloom, for example, can become the definition in my mind of our universe on a given day when that is, in fact, ridiculous. It helps to remind myself that thousands of other organisms (there are at least 40,000 other organisms on Earth that are so similar to us that they also have a backbone) are experiencing (to some degree) the same Earth in an entirely different way than I am, in a way that I could not even comprehend. It is a relief to know that the universe isn’t about me. Colors, scents, fields (like magnetic), and other external stimuli that I cannot detect shape the lives, and probably thoughts, of the other animals that we as humans share this planet with. How different would it be to be a conscious dolphin than a conscious human? I cannot imagine!

Some animals, apparently, think because an animal that can think is often better off from an evolutionary perspective than an animal that cannot think (except, for example, when climate-changing technology, including nuclear weapons, are developed in conjunction with selfish, ignorant users). One passes on more genes with the aid of intelligence, and intelligence (the ability to use information) has apparently led to consciousness in some animals. Birds in the family Corvidae (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays) have been compared to primates (humans are primates) in regard to their advanced intelligence.1 It seems hard to believe that Corvids possess the intelligence that they do without also having some level of consciousness, and harder to believe that chimpanzees, which share about 99.7% of their expressed DNA with human beings, are not conscious.

When a bird flies by, it is nice to remind myself that my thoughts cannot be definitely known by it, just as its thoughts cannot be definitely known by me. It is estimated that there are 100 billion stars in our average-sized galaxy, and near each might be the potential for thinking organisms, possibly similar to us. Further, there are an estimated 10 trillion galaxies in our universe, and maybe an infinite number of other universes, all of which could be brimming with conscious beings. About 95% of the matter/energy in our universe is, at the moment, entirely indescribable to the scientists who have tried to study it. In other words, it is a mystery. I cannot help but wondering how this so-called ‘dark’ matter/energy relates to consciousness, and how it might affect the ‘automata-like’ nature of living organisms, possibly providing a sort of ‘freedom’ that many brain scientists insist, I think prematurely, is an illusion. Further, the matter that we consist of, at a very small level (quantum-scale, i.e. atoms, electrons, etc.), interacts in a way that scientists can somewhat describe, but don’t understand, which may impede our ultimate understanding of how consciousness works, given that matter apparently creates ‘mind’ and we are unsure why matter interacts as it does. Maybe someone in our galaxy has already figured out the answers to these questions…

IDL TIFF file
Thousands of galaxies in a tiny fragment of our sky, picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Speaking of thinking-things in other places (planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, etc.), they would probably be able to understand my thoughts far less than the bird that flies by can. Actually, I think, I wouldn’t even be recognized as a thinking thing by such distantly-related thinkers, somewhat like most people assume that plants have no level of intelligence (a notion which some scientists are currently challenging). If the ‘multi-verse’ (infinite universes) that some scientists think exist combines to create, say, a brain of an organism that thinks, that organism would probably understand its thoughts about as much as I do my own (and might appreciate the mystery). This is an important reminder, for me at least, to appreciate the awesomeness of reality, which can be enriched if one considers the many different ways of seeing the same world by co-inhabitants. Such knowledge helps me to remember to interact kindly with other people who believe slightly different things than I do (that’s the most difference that there can really be between human beliefs, in the ‘big picture’). It also reminds me how similar we humans are, and how we need to come together, embrace our unity, expand our consciousness, and do our best to avoid destroying our chance at life. Such destruction, I think, will happen sooner rather than later if we pretend that the universe is as we want it to be rather than as it is, if we choose ignorance rather than knowledge. The ability to be conscious is an incredible opportunity that we have, and I think that we should all ‘look’ while we can, so that others here can see, too.

Ultimately, I think, a bird flying by has approximately as much of a chance of really understanding consciousness, or whether or not there is more than one universe, as I do. But it sure is fun to think while being conscious, and I feel comfort knowing that I am not alone in doing that.

jungle-crow-in-flight

 

Literature Cited

  1. Emery, N. J. The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes. Science 306, 1903–1907 (2004).

Counting Birds – How and Why

Many of you reading this know that I am currently in the Dakotas conducting breeding bird surveys. Few understand specifically what it is that I am doing out here, or why it is important. So I am going to explain!

My employer, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, is a non-profit organization with the goal of ‘conserving birds and their habitats through science, education and land stewardship.’ Just as a vehicular crash is likely if the driver is asleep at the wheel, the crash of a given bird species population may be likely if human beings aren’t paying attention (unfortunately, we are inflicting many unnatural stresses upon birds and other natural things, which puts them in an especially precarious state). Considering that many bird species have distinct breeding and wintering habitats, and depend upon habitats to be intact throughout migration pathways, a lot goes into understanding if species x is flourishing or floundering. In order to understand this, data need to be collected so that inferences can be made about the state of birds. Land managers and policy-makers can use this information to make informed decisions, and maybe even save a species from extinction and/or prevent an ecological community from collapsing.

I have been lucky enough to be one of the many people out in the field collecting the data. This is my fifth summer conducting what are called point count surveys (I’ve done this in Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho). A point count survey is a commonly used method to determine bird densities. Groups of points are randomly chosen within a given area (say, the state of South Dakota, or in a specific national park) so that statistically valid inferences can be made about bird populations in that area. This random-choosing of point locations means that my work could be done 20 miles from the road in a wilderness area (which makes the job an adventure, to say the least. See one of my videos below to see a recent adventure) or in the parking lot of a shopping mall (which rarely happens).

 

I prefer angry rattle snakes to angry shoppers. The latter are more dangerous than the former, in my opinion. This video was a surprise for you, Mom – Love You!!

When I conduct a point count survey, I spend six minutes at a spot marked by GPS. Here I record all birds that I detect (mostly by their vocalizations) and note what minute each bird is detected in, as well as how far away it is from me when detected, what sex or age it is if I know, and if it was with other birds. Individual birds are not counted twice. Here is the datasheet that I use to record bird data.

Datasheet

I also record vegetation information at each point, so that statisticians can later see if there is an association between certain types of vegetation and the presence of certain bird species. Managers can then use this information to manipulate vegetative communities in ways that are good for birds. From the data that I collect, bird densities are determined. When I conduct a point count survey, I am essentially standing in the middle of a ‘bull’s-eye.’ It is expected I detect 100 percent of the birds that are in the exact center, and a smaller percentage of the birds present as distance from the center of this bulls-eye increases. Different ‘detection functions’ are used for each species, based on how easily detected they are at a given distance. For example, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is less likely to be detected 200 meters away than is a noisy bird like a Western Meadowlark (which has a code of ‘WEME’ – we use four-letter codes when recording species). With this information, estimates of bird density can be made and the birds that I don’t count are, in theory, accounted for. Each morning (I start about 30 minutes before the sunrises and stop no more than five hours later than sunrise) I collect all of this information at as many as 16 points spaced 150 meters apart, which covers a square kilometer (if one considers the edge of the grid to be delineated by the 150 m radius of the points on the outside).

IMG_5935
Picture of a ‘WEME,’ taken by my friend Bill Farrar

There are many exciting/interested uses of the data that we collect, as the Bird Conservancy is contracted by many entities (such as the National Park Service), but I will give only one example for the sake of brevity. The World Wildlife Fund is developing a program which would allow beef to be certified as ‘bird-friendly.’ This would allow consumers, who selectively buy with an environmental conscience, to feel assured that the beef that they are consuming is derived from cattle which were raised in an environmentally-friendly fashion. I am helping to collect the data to determine if this certification is worthwhile, i.e. if the ranchers who are embracing these practices have better bird (and therefore other wildlife) habitat on their property. Here is a link to the World Wildlife Fund website, where they briefly describe this project: http://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/beef. Incidentally, as I was working on this project, my vehicle got stuck in the Sandhills of Nebraska, on this trail:

DSCF5390

A couple of wonderful ranchers saved me, after over four solitary hours of futilely trying to dig myself out! I could write an entire book about the adventures that I have had doing these bird surveys – and maybe I will someday. But that is for some other time. As for now, I hope that you understand a little bit more about how point count surveys are conducted, and why doing so can be important. In a future post, I plan on describing just how important other species are to our own survival. And it is by way of conducting biological surveys that we can take steps towards better protecting and understanding the wonderful diversity of life which we are a part of.

Thank you for reading!

 

To Live is to Fly

After finishing what may have been my last (and most rigorous) academic semester, I feel relieved. My thesis is written, all courses (to teach and take) are completed, and I have left the university (!!) with a graduate degree.

Two years of my life were dedicated to decoding the language of Blue Jays. Yes, Blue Jays – the bird that is probably in your back yard if you live in the United States, a species which may annoy you. What I did seems (to many people) like something that a parent would incredulously describe their child as having once done when young, rather than something an adult would do. “Do you remember when Josie spent the entire summer following those birds, and naming their calls?” The ultimate reason that this hypothetical child and I would devote effort to listening to the calls of birds is the same: fascination with the natural world. Children are natural scientists, hard-wired to ask questions and wonder why. As we age, there are many pressures (including genetics) to become more pragmatic, and to therefore ask less questions that have been deemed useless in providing benefits to humanity. There are many questions, though, which are not ‘useless’ to ask in this regard. Maintaining the ability and desire to ask questions (both questions which could benefit humanity and those that probably won’t), I believe, makes life much more interesting, and could even transform the ‘annoying’ Blue Jay into a fascinating subject of study, even for an adult. And yes, I think that better understanding birds can benefit humanity. I will explain why.

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae, which includes the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.  All of these birds are smart. Here is a cool documentary about crows!:

In addition to being smart, most Corvids are also noisy. Some have described Corvids as having ape-like intelligence (humans are, according to those who classify the relatedness of living things, apes). To say that ‘a bird is a bird and that all are the same’ is as incorrect as saying that a ‘mammal is a mammal and all are the same.’ We are better problem-solvers than cottontails, for example, and Blue Jays are better problem-solvers than Mallards. For us to understand how another smart and noisy species can communicate vocally is important for understanding how advanced vocalization systems develop. For example, identifying factors that make it advantageous to have large vocal repertoires, by studying species like Blue Jays, may allow us to understand a little bit about why we are the way we are (specifically, why do we humans use thousands of distinct vocal signals to communicate when many other species can get by with only a few?). Certain factors have been identified. For example, the FOX-P2 gene (one of about 20,000 genes that together make us human) has been linked with our advanced ability to communicate vocally. Social complexity has been linked with large vocal repertoire sizes in some species (like Blue Jays), which is to say that species which interact more often with other individuals have a greater need to be able to make many different distinct sounds to communicate. A solitary species has little need to have a large vocal repertoire, as there is no need to communicate most of the time, while a super-social species like human beings may create a dictionary with 170,000+ words in it for just one, of many, languages.

After recording for more than 30 hours, and recording 7,213 calls, I identified 42 distinct Blue Jay vocalizations, which is considerably more than the average bird uses (5-14 vocalizations is typical). I used spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to identify the different call types. Here is an example of a spectrogram from my study:

HDJ.Final.Color

This large repertoire size is likely due to the ability of Blue Jays to learn new vocalizations. Most species can utter only sounds that are encoded in their genes. Human beings and songbirds (which include Blue Jays) are among the few species which can learn a new sound based on experience. For example, Blue Jays in my study area that lived near Bald Eagles imitated Bald Eagles, and those that lived near Red-shouldered Hawks imitated Red-shouldered Hawks. Further, jays appeared to understand the meaning of the calls that they uttered. Only predator calls were imitated by Blue Jays (non-dangerous species weren’t), and these calls were often uttered in situations of danger for the vocalizing bird. So, rather than saying ‘look out, it might be coming to kill you!’ jays often utter a very convincing imitated predator call (for example, a Red-tailed Hawk call) to indicate the presence of danger (they sometimes use these calls when there is no apparent danger, too). This would be like us imitating a gunshot to say that a dangerous person is coming, which would be a very efficient way to transmit important information.

Interestingly, different groups of Blue Jays may have, to some degree, different languages. Different calls are learned at different locations, and those calls may be transmitted from generation to generation (culturally). Further, the same call at different locations may be used differently, which I learned by associating contexts (like predator-related, food-related, etc.) with the use of certain call types. Essentially, Blue Jays located at different places may have as hard of a time communicating with each other as a monolingual, native-speaking Eskimo would have trying to communicate with a monolingual, native-speaking Australian Aborigine. It seems that in this way, too, jays are not much different than us. Maybe understanding how amazing, and sometimes similar to us, other species are may encourage human beings to protect and respect them, and to therefore improve the situation here on planet Earth? I hope so.

Now I am travelling across the Great Plains conducting bird surveys, to help better understand how bird populations are doing in this part of the world (I will keep you posted!). Studies such as my Blue Jay project, I think, show how important it is to protect and pay attention to other species, because there is a lot that we can learn from them. Not only can we learn from other species, but we depend on them to maintain the conditions which sustain all life (more on that in another post). I will admit, it feels good to be done with the Blue Jay project (mainly because of all of the difficult steps that are required to complete a Master’s thesis), but I am glad that I took the time to observe and better understand another living creature, especially one as fascinating and misunderstood as the Blue Jay. Often when I watch birds, I’m reminded of the Townes Van Zandt song, To Live is To Fly, which I have found to be beautiful and inspiring:

And in a way, now, I do feel like I’m flying, with the wind of the natural world beneath my wings. The weight of graduate school has been cut loose, and I’m ready to soar, so that I can see, understand, and hopefully protect the wind that holds me up.