Gerald Scott: How wildlife communicate remains mystery
I used to keep a bird feeder filled year-round, and I added a couple of finch feeders during the winter months.
I really enjoyed watching my feathered boarders, but, after a summer thunderstorm a couple of years ago dropped a limb that not only destroyed the bird feeder but also the post it was attached to, feeding birds somehow slipped out of my routine.
The recent two-for-the-price-of-one snowstorm that dumped more than a normal year’s worth of snow and a bevy of limbs in my backyard sparked new interest in an old hobby.
I attached a small feeder to the rail of the deck off of our kitchen and filled it with hastily purchased “songbird blend” birdseed.
While I was at it, I tied a nylon sock filled with thistle seed to an ornamental sunflower that’s been stuck in my garden fence row for years.
So now I had built it, but would they come? Much to my surprise — to say nothing of delight — less than 90 minutes later, five cardinals, at least a dozen house finches, several members of at least two different species of native sparrow, a couple of juncos and a blue jay were competing for space at the feeder on the rail and an impressive flock of gold finches had taken possession of the sock.
How could the word have spread so quickly among so many different species?
Maybe there’s an avian NORAD system that broadcasts something like: “We’re interrupting normal programming to announce that the old guy your grandparents and great-grandparents told you stories about is back in business. Take immediate action to get your full share of the bounty.”
I’ve seen the phenomenon I witnessed in my backyard repeated on a far grander scale. In early October 1986, about 20 inches of rain fell in less than 10 days over a wide area of the Osage River basin west of Truman Dam.
When the lake finally stopped rising, it was lapping at the top of its maximum authorized 739.6 feet msl flood pool and had nearly quadrupled its normal 55,000 surface acres.
Since much of the uppermost portion of the lake’s flood pool is relatively flat, tens of thousands of acres of harvest-ready corn and soybeans and even more acres of weeds stood in water shallow enough to be accessible to hungry waterfowl.
Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of ducks had gathered to join in the feast. Most of these birds were hundreds of miles off of their normal migration routes or had flown south into Missouri at least six weeks ahead of schedule or both. Again, how could they possibly have known about conditions at Truman Lake, unless they had some means of communicating information, in this case over vast distances?
Many species of wildlife are adept at communicating potential danger to other members of their own species. Oftentimes, it’s easy for a human observer to understand how and why this type of communication works.
For example, if one turkey senses danger, it will alert the other members of the flock and then all will flee even though only one bird knows why. This trait causes individual turkeys to spend a lot of time running away from harmless situations, but it has also kept the species alive.
Deer are a little more circumspect. Whenever one deer snorts, stamps a hoof or raises its tail, every deer within sight or hearing will become alert, but, far more often than not, both the originally suspicious deer and its fellow herd members will try to confirm that the danger is real before panicking.
This trait serves to keep deer from running from perceived danger into real danger, but it also helps fill the bellies of many two- and four-footed predators.
That’s logical, but how can behavioral science explain how some species of wildlife — geese, turkeys and deer seem particularly adept at this — transmit the idea that a certain place is dangerous beyond the members of that species’ particular flock or herd?
I don’t know, but I do know that all of the geese or turkeys for miles around somehow learn that a location that’s been hunted too many times is a dangerous place to be, despite the fact that they’ve had no bad experiences there themselves.
As for deer, anyone who’s spent much time chasing them can tell stories of hot stand locations that inexplicably went cold and stayed cold for the remainder of the season.
It’s a mystery to be sure. But then it’s the mystery of nature that makes it so fascinating.
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