Monday, February 27, 2006

Anthropomorphism: a reader and John Blakeman respond

Darryl Tuffli's spirited defense of anthropomorphism elicited the following response from Nan Holmes, a frequent website correspondent. She accepted both views, Tuffli's and the original John Blakeman statement. Her letter is followed by a further argument by John Blakeman. No, we are not both right, Tuffli and I, he seems to be saying. I guess it's time to move on.

First, Nan's note:

Dear Marie,

I am enjoying the Darryl Tuffli letter in response to John Blakeman's admonitions to see hawks as hawks. Of course, they are both correct. It is a delight to read this material and enjoy both the topic of the text as well as the writing. Thank you to them both.

John's words about mating in your posting of Feb 18, 2006 was so well written that I had to print it. The words resonate with his love of hawks and all creatures as well as his knowledge and experience. Just delightful reading!

Nan Holmes

Reaponse to Darryl Tuffli by John Blakeman:

Darrell Tuffli's disgreements with my "non-mammalian" perspectives on red-tailed hawk mutual affection behaviors are very reasonable. Let me try to elaborate and make the matter clearer.

Darell stated:
Blakeman’s insistence on the idea that RTH pairs' close proximity to each other in their territory has absolutely nothing in common with human relationships seems extreme. They have a big territory, after all, and good eyesight. If they really had no interest in each other beyond cyclical mating, why would they ever have occasion to come any closer than 50 to 100 feet of each other? The watchers seem to find them sitting next to each other often.

My answer is that red-tails tend to perch in the same areas, relatively close to each other, in non-breeding seasons for several reasons, none of which are related to any mammal-like mutual affection.

First, when red-tails are studied at length, it will be noted that the birds have preferred perching sites. I’ve been studying red-tails for 40 years and I can now think like one. When I travel down a rural road into a landscape I’ve never seen, I instantly scan for perched red-tails. My eye is drawn to where they should be, to likely perches that a red-tail would select. More often than not, I find a local red-tail. Others with me think that I had hawk-like eyesight to discover the perched bird. My inexperienced compatriots are searching everywhere. I focus only on ideal perch sites, so my chance of finding a local red-tail are much greater. I know exactly where these birds like to sit, and it’s not just anywhere.

The birds don’t stochastically (by random chance) park themselves on just any ledge or tree branch that will support their weight. Unless hunting a specific small spot over a spied population of prey, they generally park themselves toward the tops of trees, toward the outer edges of the tree, on perches that provide desired viewpoints of the their landscape. They also generally want to be looking down into or out over preferred prey habitat.

When I see a red-tail flying across an open field heading toward a distant forest or woodlot, I always scan the trees and pick out what I think will be the bird’s selected perch. I’m uncannily correct – not so much because I’m such an astute scholar of the bird, but because red-tails are just so predictable. The same thing happens with my falconry red-tail. When I enter a field to watch her pursue cottontail rabbits, she leaves my fist and heads to some high tree. She and I see the same trees, and we both select the same hunting perches. Invariably, even if Savanna and I have never been in a particular field before, when she jumps off my fist to begin her hunt, I know instantly where she’s going. Her hunting perch has “that look.”

Many readers, too, I’m sure have done this. Watch red-tails for a year, either in Central Park or rural Ohio, and you will note that they have highly preferred perching preferences. And because of this, a territorial pair will often be seen perched near each other, not because of any mated affection (in non-breeding and non-nesting seasons), but because both birds just like those perches.

The second reason they often are seen together is that they prefer to park themselves where prey can be seen. I’ve mentioned this before. Red-tails spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on perches. Cooper’s hawks and peregrine falcons are in the air and on the move for much of the day, connoting attitudes of frenetic activity and mental acuity. Red-tails, however, tend to spend hour after hour on sedentary perches, seeming to be stupidly oblivious to everything around them. Not so. When red-tails are perched either on the side of a Park Ave building overlooking Central Park, or on a horizontal oak branch over an Ohio cornfield, these hawks are intelligently eyeballing and memorizing every movement they see in the entire landscape. They are calculating how their next meal could be captured with the least effort and highest chance of success. Two red-tails perched nearby aren’t contemplating the wonderfulness of each other. They are taking in the landscape and plotting hunting maneuvers. The birds are close together because they both have seen the same enticing prey below, and both prefer the same sorts of perches.
When we see humans sitting nearby in a city park, we don’t presume that they all have mutual affections for one another. They are sitting nearby because that’s where humans prefer to sit, on benches, or out on preferred sections of the lawn. Same thing for red-tails.

Why, then, aren’t third and fourth red-tails allowed to join perched hunting activities? (Well, occasionally they are, in certain winter-time high-prey hunting areas, in places where there is an overabundance of voles or other prey, to the point where a resident pair simply chooses not to exert the continual efforts required to drive out off-season territorial interlopers.) The best explanation is to presume that except when actually copulating and trading food related to copulation, territorial raptors are really mated to their territories, not so much to each other. It’s the landscape, the territory that counts most, not the other hawk.

This works in explaining the rapid, sometimes almost instantaneous appearance and acceptance of a new, replacement mate when a mated hawk dies or is removed from its territory. There are a great number of these recorded events, too numerous and detailed to go into here, where a new mate shows up within hours after a bird dies and is instantly accepted as the new mate.

Again, it’s the territory, the local habitat, the occupied landscape, that matters most to both mated birds. Each has the instinct to know and allow the other bird to be there. Both birds deport themselves as rightful owners and occupiers, subtly signaling to intruders that the territory is occupied and outsiders are unwelcome.

All of this, I believe, is non-mammalian. Most mammals are rather social, with oxytocin (the “friend and befriend” hormone) playing crucial roles in “affection” and social behaviors. Red-tails have little or none of this hormone. Whatever appears to be human- or mammal-like affection is merely incidental to their territorial perching and hunting behaviors.


John A. Blakeman