September 04, 2012

Questions Only The Birds Can Answer

The familiar sight of a line of geese flying in a 'V' formation led me to thinking about why they do this and whether the birds are aware of what they are doing.

The birds behind the leader are flying in the slipstream of the birds in front so making flying easier. On long migrations this saves vital energy. If you watch the formation, you will notice they rotate the leader, taking it in turns to fly at the front, sharing the workload between them. An ornithologist may argue that the birds know what they are doing, but I wondered if they understand why they do it. I would guess that if I were a goose, I would know that flying behind my fellow geese was easier than flying in front, but I'm not sure I would have an understanding of the physics of the slipstream.

I watched three pigeons from my bedroom window once. At first I thought they were lying in the field opposite because they were dead. They were lying on their sides with one wing seeming to flap in the breeze. They caught my eye because three dead pigeons together would have been highly unusual apart from the fact they were all lying on the same side of their bodies and all facing the same way. And then one after another they rolled onto the other side and lifted the other wing. At the time it was raining lightly and I could only assume they were taking the equivalent of a shower, washing their wingpits. Did the pigeons know what they were doing and why they were doing it? It seemed to me they were quite aware of what they were doing but I couldn't say they knew why they were doing it.

It's now known that some animals, such as giraffe and elephants, will surround, and apparently guard their dead. Giraffes are known to stay with dead young, sometimes for a few days, even splaying their legs to bend down to the bodies, something not usually done by them except to drink. Splaying their legs to bend puts them in a vulnerable position. Elephants will stop and investigate other dead elephants, often staying with the bodies for some time. What is it that makes them behave in this fashion? Do they know the animal is dead, and if so, why do they stay with the body if there is no emotional attachment? For the giraffe, is it because she is following a deep-seated instinct to nurture and care for her baby or to mourn its passing, or both? Do elephants investigate their dead and stay with them out of recognition of the passing of the dead animal?

I read recently that insects give off certain chemicals, or an odour, that may warn off other insects in order to preserve others from suffering the same fate. It may be disease, poisoning, or predators that have killed them and the odour or chemical serves as a warning or even to pass on some immunity in small doses. As insects don't seem to have been observed exhibiting similar behaviours to animals, it can be said this is a chemical process rather than an emotional one or an instinctive one - apart from the insect recognising the chemical and behaving accordingly. If animals give off something similar when they die, why do their fellows stay with them?

As humans we often humanise animals, dressing our dogs and even cats in human clothing, giving them names, feeding them human food, but they are a different species and we often fail to treat them as such, wanting them to do what we want them to do. We will see human traits where there are none and reward or punish behaviour that we do not understand and the animal will learn to modify its behaviour according to those rewards and punishments, particularly dogs. Certain species of animal have long ago been domesticated and live alongside humans very well; in the case of dogs, even seeing us as pack leaders. But this is not to say they behave like us, think like us, or see the world in the same way as us. We may be their guardians for a while, and even call them friend, but we are not the same.

There are things we do not understand about other species and probably never will, we can only go some way towards understanding and then guess at the rest, but without being that animal we will never know.

So, do geese understand why they fly in a 'V' formation, do giraffes and elephants understand that another of their species has come to the end of its life? Perhaps these are existential questions that only the birds and animals can answer.

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"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." — Emily Dickinson



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