Thursday, August 11, 2005

Blakeman responds to dissent about "play"


Eleanor's suggestion to lighten up is well taken. I don't think I explained myself very well regarding the nature of the young hawks' "playing."

Eleanor is accurate in her characterizations of the play of both kittens and children. It's serious stuff, a required element of growing up. And so is the jabbing of sticks and leaves by young red-tails.

But the killing “play” of red-tails is different from mammals. Red-tailed hawks are birds, and the size and organization of their cerebra, the “thinking” parts of their brains, are very different from mammals. Hawks think more like dinosaurs than mammals. Their brains are decidedly non-mammalian, and the killing “play” of inanimate objects derives from very different. brain regions or circuits.

I've personally experienced this with a young, newly-trained falconry red-tail sitting on my gloved fist. For no reason whatsoever, the bird instantly shoots out a foot and tries to grab my other, un-gloved hand. Falconers are aware of these propensities in young hawks, and take appropriate care. When the hawk is young and inexperienced, like our Central Park pair, they spontaneously engage in these attack attempts from time to time. But they learn that they are unproductive and soon give them up.

Are these behaviors “play?” Generically, of course they are, as Eleanor suggests. But my intent was to suggest that, specifically, they are not mammalian. They are a bit more reptilian, a bit more reflexive and less cerebral or calculated than the play of either children or kittens.

This is a major point of understanding regarding the red-tails of Central Park (and elsewhere). These magnificent animals are best understood as the unique species they are, not merely as winged caricatures or representations of other, better-known animals. They are not representations of either children, kittens, nor any other animal. Unto themselves, alone, they are red-tailed hawks, nothing more nor less. For me, the assignment of human or mammalian traits to explain these noble birds inaccurately diminishes them. Personally, I prefer to understand the species on its own regal terms, not in convenient reference to other, distantly-related species.
I especially appreciate the cerebral “play” we can all engage in here. Everyone, as Eleanor did, keep thinking playfully on the Central Park red-tails. Only we humans can do that!


John A. Blakeman