Last summer I was hiking in the mountain parks west of Boulder when I heard a cacophony of crows. I’ve learned enough about animal behavior to know there was a reason they were raising a ruckus. Often times, it’s because they’re taunting a hawk or owl, trying to chase it from their territory. But this time the reason was on the ground: a bobcat that seemed to be polishing off a meal.
If I hadn’t paid attention to the birds, I never would have seen the bobcat, even though it was just a few feet off the trail. But its mottled coat blended in with the ground, and it was holding fairly still.
Having a wildlife encounter means being alert, but also realizing that there’s a reason for almost everything an animal does. I’ve been reading “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival” by Bernd Heinrich, a naturalist/scientist who is naturally curious about everything in the natural world. On his walks through the woods near his Maine home, he reads the landscape and notices things that most people wouldn’t.
In one spot in the woods, the tops of the young balsam firs were missing and on the ground were tracks of red squirrels. From this he deduced that the squirrels, which normally are nourished in winter by sugar maple sap, were feasting on the buds of the fir because there were no sugar maples around.
I sometimes see what looks like the tips of fir or pine trees scattered on the ground and wondered about them. Now I know that an animal, most likely our chickarees (gray squirrels, above) are eating the buds and discarding the twigs, letting them fall to the snow.
I might notice that a flock of chickadees is hanging out with some juncos and assume they get along, maybe enjoy each others’ company. But it’s not camaraderie but survival that’s at stake. Heinrich explains that different species of birds who flock together provide more eyes to see predators—the most alert can warn the others—but togetherness also provides more eyes to see berries or nuts. Even though that means the birds have to share the berries or nuts, the rewards are greater than going it alone.
I might think that a coyote (left, almost camouflouged in the grasses outside my cabin) pouncing on the snow is having fun jumping around. But Heinrich says that foxes and coyotes can hear their prey (mice, voles, etc.) under the snow and are trying to break through.
There’s something appealing about animals’ lives where every action matters, so no effort is wasted. Animals are constantly calculating if an action is worth the effort: Is it worth expending energy to try to catch its prey or climb the tree to get more seeds?
What if we lived our lives more like animals?—to be aware of everything we do, our senses constantly alert to everything around us, to decide constantly whether our actions are life sustaining or unnecessary and then act accordingly. In a culture where our daily lives are consumed often by trivial decisions, it might be a good thing to be a bit more hungry and ferocious about life.