Animals Learn and Adapt

Filed in Wildlife Tours by on November 11, 2013

TWG_story_wildlife02imgI got a phone call this week from a local woman who told me a fun story about a coyote that went something like this:

“Every morning my golden retrievers go out and retrieve the newspaper from the end of the driveway. Then one day my newspaper didn’t come, and then not the next day either. I became concerned and was going to call, but then on the third morning my goldens went crazy barking and I looked out the window just in time to see a coyote walking away with my newspaper in its mouth.”

Apparently, the coyote observed the behavior of the goldens and thought, “Man, any dog with that big of a smile must have just got him some… well, food.”

Intelligent birds and animals surround us each day. Ravens for instance, were revered by many Indian tribes. Ravens were believed to be wise, and the raven was also known as a trickster. Indeed, the raven’s large brain gives it a vocabulary of over 200 vocalizations, and affords it the leisure time to engage in playful activities.

Fascinating laboratory experiments have shown the ravens can count, and even reason. Ravens can anticipate a learned progression such as an experiment where there’s three Dixie cups, one with food underneath. First time, its under cup #1, next time its under cup #3, then lastly it under cup #2. Ravens have shown that they can anticipate where the food will be, once they learn the sequence.

Anticipating where the food will be is also applicable in nature. Have you ever seen a house cat hunting a bird? Bobcats do it in much the same way. Lurking in the shadows of the greenery they wait anticipating the bird’s flight pattern. If thought is energy, then the bluebird that is coming in for a landing on the shrub may well become a mid-morning snack for the bobcat.

Animals get hungry, and they have to find food or they’ll die. In desperate times, the challenge of taking a porcupine may arise. Mother coyotes and mountain lions actually teach a technique to their offspring in which they get their paws underneath a porcupine, and flip it over to get to its exposed belly.

Techniques are generally learned and not necessarily innate. For instance, I have been learning to rock climb for the past couple of years. Climbing comes naturally to humans, possibly because we’re related to monkeys and apes. It comes naturally when attempting to climb a sheer wall to take advantage of small ledges and cracks to hold onto with fingers and toes. “Grab on” comes innately.

However, when confronted with about a four-inch crack in a rock face, it is possible to make a fist, insert it vertically into a narrowing, and then rotate it 90 degrees to make sort of a “chock stone” that you can pull on with great reliance. Most of us wouldn’t naturally think of a “fist-jamb”, but once someone shows you the technique, it’s easy to implement.

TWG_story_wildlife02bimgIn the example of flipping a porcupine, natural instinct tells an animal to go grab the prey. However, the experienced mother teaches the young ones, “in this scenario, we treat things a bit differently, we employ a technique.”

A coyote or lion that investigates a porcupine with a sniff may find themselves with a nose-full of quills. In this scenario, the animal may learn in the “once bitten, twice shy” fashion. They remember a bad experience, and don’t repeat the same mistake.

An astonishing experiment showed innate behavioral programming in bird chicks. When a cardboard silhouette of a soaring hawk was passed over the fuzzy little chicks, they would cower and run for cover. However, when the same cardboard silhouette was passed over the chicks with the tail leading first, the chicks went about their business, and paid it no attention. Without ever having to be taught, the chicks innately knew that if a hawk flies over, run for cover.

Kingfishers are common birds along our local rivers. Kingfisher parents teach their young how to plunge-dive headfirst into the water from high above, and grab a fish with its bill. They start by first dropping freshly killed prey into the water and letting the hungry young retrieve it. Eventually, the young figure out how to time the dive to catch the real thing.

Similarly, golden eagle’s young are given the opportunity to finish off wounded prey so they can practice the art of dispatching a squirming meal.

Animals also adapt. For instance, it is believed that beavers adapted to becoming active at night, because daytime activities were too hazardous because of human’s desire for pelts. Similarly, elk that once roamed the open plains have now adapted to become a mountain species.

Humans also learn and adapt. For instance we now know that some amount of fire in a forest is healthy. We have also observed that in crowded forests, trees compete for limited nutrients, and thereby can be susceptible devastating insect infestations. We have also learned that some timber cuts are healthy, because they provide the diversity of open meadows rich in grasses and shrubs that benefit elk and deer.

Additionally, we have learned that instead of cutting a square parcel of trees from the landscape, a more visually pleasing cut has a curvy sinuous boundary that provides more forest-edge community benefiting species such as fox and bobcat. Slowly, we have also learned that predators and scavengers are a necessary part of the whole and keep things in balance.

In fact, humans are part of the whole, and we’d be wise to keep as much of the natural order in tact as possible. So hopefully we may demonstrate that we can coexist within the balance of nature and the resources that it provides us.

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