Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Blakeman's response

Yesterday I posted Steve Watson's letter responding to John Blakeman's previous posting. Blakeman's has written a response to the response which follows an item I find relevant to the discussion, though it is about a mammal, not a bird. It is from Cal Vornberger's blog for 4/24/06 on his website www.calvorn.com.

Mother Squirrel Tries to Revive Baby

I went to the park yesterday after the rain had stopped. While walking in the Ravine I noticed a squirrel running across the path with a baby in its mouth.

It wasn't until I got to the Meer and took a series of photos of this mother squirrel trying to revive her baby that I realized what happened. The heavy rains must have flooded squirrel nests and washed some of the babies out of the nest.

The poor mother squirrel tried everything to revive her baby: she licked and pulled at its paws; she lifted it up and shook it; she rolled it over on its back and nuzzled its belly. Finally she ran off with it across the park drive. I didn't see any movement in the baby squirrel but looking back over my photos I did notice its eyes open in some photos and closed in others. There may have been some faint spark of life left in this baby and the mother squirrel was doing everything she could to bring her baby back to life.

Here is John Blakeman's response to Steve Watson's letter:

Steve Watson would prefer to leave open the possibility that red-tails that have lost eggs or eyasses might have some sort of emotional response. In order to determine that they don’t, he states, “One would have [to] conduct some sort of controlled experiment (and be able to measure emotion somehow) in order to prove such a statement...and that would be a very difficult thing to do.”
He’s correct. To scientifically “prove” the emotional responses of red-tails with failed nests, extensive and replicated quantitative behavioral tests would have to be conducted. This has not been done, and because of the difficulties in arranging such a study, it’s not likely ever to happen.
On what basis, then do I so pedantically state that red-tails don’t have emotional feelings of loss? How can I know that Pale Male and the other Central Park red-tails aren’t lamenting the failure of their eggs to hatch?
I am thoroughly confident in my contentions, based upon 38 years of detailed and extensive work with Buteo jamaicensis, the red-tailed hawk. I have a collection of experiences with the species that very few others have. Like many, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in field studies. I know the bird from the viewpoint of binoculars and spotting scopes, from Alaska, through the West, and across the Midwest. While others search appropriately and rewardingly across the landscape to discover, see, and study as many bird species as possible, my studies and interests have been very narrow and concentrated almost exclusively on B. jamaicensis.
From my field studies, after observing hundreds of red-tail pairs, I’ve never seen any behavior that suggests sorrow, lamentation, or other typically mammalian or human feelings of loss.
But how might I (or any other researcher) even know what such a behavior might be? Discovery and description of such could only come from extensive contact with the species throughout its normal life span and behaviors. Since I have conducted red-tail breeding trials for several years, I’ve watched all red-tail breeding behaviors as closely as possible.
In these trials, I know exactly how adults react to egg laying, removal of an egg, loss of an egg, and as we’ve seen this year, how the birds react when the eggs don’t hatch. There is no emotion, just ritualistic, instinct-driven behaviors. Unlike us, the birds don’t have a calendar and have no idea when the eggs are to hatch. Yes, they get excited and begin to look into the nest bowl when they feel the eggs pipping and hear the first vocal utterances. But when none of this happens, the birds just continue to incubate.
How could I know the hawk’s “emotion?” How would an equestrian know a horse’s emotion. I believe the angle of the ears is extremely revelatory. People who train and ride horses would be expected to know a horse’s emotional state by merely looking at it. To me, it’s just a horse. I can’t “read” a horse. But I can read a red-tail. That derives from my extensive falconry experiences with the hawk. After spending hundreds of hours in training and hunting with a red-tail on my fist, I can read her at a glance. I know exactly when she’s angry, when she’s lazy, when she’s attentive, when she’s wary, when she’s afraid, and when she wants to attack. Unlike others, I have had the privilege to watch her in extreme ecstasy as she kills and eats a tasty rabbit. She has a behavioral aura and posture never seen at other times.
On the other hand, I’ve taken both eggs and an eyass from captive breeding pairs, and watched how they behaved after their “loss.” Nothing. The birds just sit around and go about their normal activities. They don’t go off food, they don’t sit and sulk, they don’t become aggressive or angry. Nothing. Once the egg or eyass is no longer seen, life resumes. From habit, the birds will come over to the nest and look into it with some food to feed the missing eyass. But in a moment or two, it is either left to dry on the nest, or the adults just eat it themselves.
Central Park hawkwatchers are encouraged to construct their own, personal explanations of what they see. These experiences have been the basis for mine.
--John A. Blakeman