Crayfish demand private property; monkey tribes outshout each other; and gulls have their own social register

JEAN GEORGE September 8 1962


Crayfish demand private property; monkey tribes outshout each other; and gulls have their own social register

JEAN GEORGE September 8 1962


Crayfish demand private property; monkey tribes outshout each other; and gulls have their own social register


I USED TO THINK zoologists were only interested in collecting, identifying and cataloguing the birds and animals of the earth. At one time they were — but for several years now I've been following the work of a new generation of natural scientists, men who are looking at animals in a new way and drawing extraordinary new conclusions. These naturalists aren't interested so much in an animal's physique as in his mind or instinct or whatever it is that makes some animals behave so strangely and others almost like humans.

These men are finding that birds and beasts concern themselves w ith many of the same problems that trouble humans: the defense of private property, cold wars, prejudice, status-seeking, how to treat the aged, what to do about nonconformists.

One of the first of the new scientists was an English businessman and ornithologist named Eliot Howard. As long ago as the twenties Howard began trying to understand exactly what a bunting is expressing when he tips his wings, and why a blackbird sings on a brush tip. What he learned gave a new turn to natural history and, incidentally, destroyed one of the more romantic ideas about birds. The males weren't singing, fighting and flaunting their feathers for love of a female; they were trying to gain and hold private property.

Since Howard, other scientists have left their museums and egg collections and gone into the woods to study animal behavior and I've read their works with awe and fascination. Now. I look about me and see not just a gull on a post by the sea, but a member of a “club" sparring for a higher position in the social register of gulls. For, to anyone who cares to look, the world of nature now has a new' dimension. It is so deep and fascinating that, as the observer involves himself in the problems of the animals, he realizes that he is seeing the roots of his own emotions there among the birds and the beasts.

An old turtle first revealed to me the high place of property among animals. 1 had learned from a study by Lucille Stickle that like the birds, the lowly turtle knows his property rights. A turtle in my compost pile was contentedly eating. Suddenly he turned and rocked away. Over the hill came the reason. Another turtle was checking his fences, making certain that no trespasser was violating them. The trespasser was thumping home.

The fish looks different, too, when you see him through the eyes of this new kind of animal scientist. Niko Tinbergen. Europe's famous animal behaviorist, sitting long hours before a tankful of stickleback fish, reported that, like the land, the waters of the earth are subdivided.

His fish fought for nesting sites with childlike bravado. When a male swam into another's yard, the owner ran him off. But the owner chased the trespasser so far back into his yard that he became an intruder himself. He lost his confidence just as the first fish, back home now, recovered his. turned and became the pursuer. Back and forth they went until they had created in their minds a precise wall between their homes.

Sunfish in our ponds and lakes behave much like the sticklebacks and, where once fish bored me, I now lie on my stomach for long intervals watching the males argue. Sometimes, with a stick, I try to drive them into one another's land. But they will not go. They cannot go. For billions of years of life have taught them that they arc alive because they stayed within their fences.

“Good fences make good neighbors," wrote Robert Frost, speaking from an emotion so ancient that it is shared by even the humble clam, who stays in his crease in the sand, clapping his shell at those who

violate this old agreement. For all living things, some scientists believe, demand territorial rights. The lion holds a circular estate. The moose, in some seasons, defends his properties. Some squirrels limit their homeland to six trees, some mice to a quarter of an acre.

And all for a significant reason. Territory spreads animals out over the land so that each has food and a place to build its home. It prevents them from congregating in a small area to trample and eat themselves out of existence.

Private property also brings peace and security to animals during the period of rearing their young, w'hen life is most dangerous. It prevents population explosions by eliminating animals that can't obtain land.

I saw this force at work when I dumped six crayfish into my aquarium last year. Claws went up in self-defense, crayfish armor clanged crayfish armor. And then there were five, and four and three. I fed them in excess, hoping that abundance w'ould stop the battles to death. It did not. A crayfish needs space just as much as he needs food. At last there were two. These picked up pebbles, stacked them into fortresses, and withdrew behind them, eyeing each other occasionally with their long stalk eyes. They have been living together in peace for six months, their tempers quieted by a comfortable amount of space, and an agreement as to where the property line is drawn.

But one crayfish occupies a little more of the aquarium than the other, for like ourselves, the birds and the beasts are status-seekers. For animals at least, status ensures a longer life. In ten experiments at Bucknell University, mice were slowly starved: CONTINUED ON PAGE 28



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In the monkeys’ cold war, it’s the noisiest nation that wins

the mice who lived longest were the dominant ones. Status, among birds, is also related to winning a wife.

Margaret Nice, an Ohio scientist, noted in her monumental study of the song sparrow that the male birds with good land had no trouble getting wives. Females make no bones about it. They want males with property. A female picks her mate for his status. Then she spends her time homemaking and he spends his status-seeking. In some creatures this means obtaining territory; in others it is seeking leadership; in still others it is both.

Bull seals roll onto the California

coast and. lifting their heads, they bark and fight for space to breed on the rocks. They also fight for leadership. When the females arrive somewhat later, the bull with the highest station and the most land gathers the most wives.

Knowledge of status has given me new insight into my dog's world. Several years ago 1 thought all dogs either played or fought. Then an animal behaviorist pointed out that most of the playing was status-seeking. The dogs

were trying to get their heads higher, their paws on each other’s necks. A dog with his paw on another’s neck, his head lifted high, and proud like a king, is “boss” dog. Were he a person he would have “President” written on his office door. It was also pointed out that most dogs win the head-raising contest on their own property. All male animals dominate other males at home.

An editor friend of mine, observing his dog over the years, noticed that the dog would run right to the property line and stop, when challenging other dogs and mailmen. A biologist explained that dogs sense a change in you as you step off your property — some lack of security and confidence. Your behavior defines the border for him, for, being an animal, this instinct is strong and he is sensitive to its operation even in you. He must be. His ancestors back to the wolf depended upon this instinct.

The most stimulating documents which have opened new vistas for me are the studies of social animals, those that group together like man for the welfare of the individual — gulls, chickadees, ground squirrels, various insects, bears, monkeys and many more.

These animals have taken on a new character for me since I learned that they gather to defend a common piece of property and are antagonistic to other groups. I notice that the chickadees in our yard are friendly to members of their own club, but shake their wings and sing war threats to the tribe across the road. They fly toward them and poke their beaks at them. I see also that our chickadees never eat until they are satiated at our station but, with the flight of a restless member, they take to their wings and go to my neighbor’s feeder, thus making constant rounds of their property.

I watch the geese coming north and see the leadership shift in the V above my head, and I wonder if it is because an older bird recognizes my river bed and honks ahead in confidence. Even the bees in my yard are not just fertilizing flowers any more; they have been sent out by another bee to claim my violets. The social animals are infinitely complex.

And then I learned that within each nation of animals exists a social structure not unlike our own, with bosses, duties and roles to play. C. R. Carpenter, psychologist-zoologist, opened minds wide when he returned from Barro Colorado Island with his careful findings on the society of howling monkeys. His work is a classic; and sounds strangely familiar.

When monkey nations pass monkey nations, the males leave the females and young to rush to their borders to scream at the passing males. They also break off dead limbs in a war of bluff. The nation that makes the most noise sends the other scurrying. The winners, almost always, are those on home ground.

Carpenter looked deeper into the society and recorded that the closest relationships were those between mother and child. They clung together for several months, the mother urging solid foods on the infant at a very young age. The birth of an infant created a social group. No sooner was the wet gray thing into the world than the women and young gathered

around the pair to chatter and poke the baby.

Most reassuring were the actions of an older monkey child. It tried to snatch the baby away from the mother and wedge itself between her and the infant. The mother ignored the older one, or turned her back on it, until it swaing into the trees to frolic with its own age group.

The monkey men were not as curious about the infant. When a newborn arrived they occasionally peered at it, but preferred to lead the group to food, and howd at other monkey nations. They did do one thing for the infants. If babies fell to the ground the monkey men jumped up and down and screamed. However, it wais the mothers who swooped to earth to pick up their children.

Charity, Carpenter discovered, is not unique to man. The monkeys paced their trips through the trees to accommodate the slowest members of the tribe, the old and infirm. If an elderly monkey dropped behind, the leader stopped the group until he caught up. The monkeys sense that the welfare of the group depends upon the well-being of the individual. When the society falls apart the individuals fall apart. Monkeys trapped in India by Carpenter and shipped to a study island, killed their infants, and practised other perversions. Some sat and stared. When they were released and set up their governments once more, normalcy returned.

Investigators have found that social animals need their society to make them complete. This was made clear to me by an ornithologist, George Sutton, contemplating my pet crow. “He is less than a crow,” he said softly. “He has no leader to make him lift his head and read the wave in the grass as fox. He has no w'obbly heads and yellow-rimmed mouths to make him react and feed young. He has no sentinel to assure him of comfort while he eats. And these things are as much a part of a crow as his anatomy and color.”

Another general truth about the birds and beasts that has made nature more interesting to me is the news that the female picks the male—usually according to status and property.

With this in mind an ordinary blackbird became a character in a

drama. My husband color-banded a nest of young redwings not far from our home and we were interested to note that one of the females fought for the perch she wanted, and got it, or led her siblings in a spin around the lake. Then she flew south with the flock.

The following spring in a marsh (not the same one) w'e were watching with interest the returned males fight for land. One was cutting himself a large territory in the rushes. His wing patches glittered, his voice was loud and firm. Other males gave him what he demanded. Then the females arrived. They came on a spring wind around the woods, over the fields to the bulrushes w'here the males awaited them with their offerings — land on the lake border. A flash of red caught our eye and we knew without lifting the glasses that our ambitious female of the fall was back. She pushed her way to the male with the large holding, his mate of the previous year coming in a late second. The banded female was a successful mate. She raised two broods to their wings without a loss.

If there are those with status, there will be among the animals, as among men, those that are led. Some of these acquire traits peculiar to their lower rank.

I could tell the low hen in a farmer’s hennery by her hesitating movements, her erratic peckings at food, her station at the edge of the group. Young male moose, studied in the company of old and dominant bucks, stood behind, were more jumpy and not as sensitive to danger. We had two pet mink. One soon dominated the other, grew fatter, and learned that a flick of the refrigerator door meant food. He was there first.

In social animals class position eliminates friction. Each adjusts to his role and fighting ceases. But some animals provide relief for the oppressed. The murres, a Canadian shore bird, have devised a no man’s land w'here all birds regardless of station may sit in peace without fighting. It is a sea-beaten rock where no wings droop in threat, where no beaks are lowered like lances. Even young insecure males can rest beside boss birds without struggle.

Class structure makes for peace among the low'er forms of life in almost all cases. However, there is always personal prejudice that nothing seems to relieve. Tinbergen noticed that in a club of nesting gulls, all members seemed to pick on one couple. They nipped and flashed their wings at them for no apparent reason, except that they did not like them.

Several summers ago I noticed this same force at work among a group of raccoons that came to our camp to raid the refuse pile. One reddish male was constantly nipped and snarled at by the others. I could not see why, but by the end of the summer he was a nasty animal — and he ate and walked alone.

There arc other things to be noted and understood by patient watching even at your own window. Fifteen minutes a day, with careful recording, brings fascinating truths. My neighbor made a few notes on a rabbit every day for a month. Looking over her cards one morning she noticed that the rabbit was not eating in the

usual places. A check of the old feeding ground revealed a sunning snake.

By noting each day the actions of a group of gulls, Tinbergen found that the birds have ways of bringing nonconformists into line. As he netted gulls to band, their Hoppings and desperate struggles attracted other gulls. I hey circled to stare. When staring would not bring them back into line, they brought another social pressure to bear on them. They ignored them. Eventually when all else failed, the flock attacked in a final effort to make the wayward conform.

Sometimes the nonconformist is an asset to a group. The sheep that leaves the herd and draws attention to himself may have found a new green pasture, or a puma in the hills.

Although human society is infinitely more creative and varied than the animal world, the study of lower life serves us good purpose. The higher the intelligence of the animal, the weaker its instincts; they must be reinforced through culture. In these behavior studies instinct-thin man is beginning to understand intellectually what he has lelt lor ages. For generations man has sent his sons out to seek their fortune for many and varied reasons. But for millions of years the animals have been doing the same for one reason: the sons may or may not survive if they go; but if they remain they will die.

So it was with interest last summer l watched a mother marmot drive her son from her territory. It seemed like a battle over food until I realized what was happening. The youngster was turning and coming back, ears

down, crying low. But the mother's instincts were strong and she rushed the youngster she had nuzzled and nursed a month ago. Her final rage sent him over the boulders and away, for good.

My cat turns on her kittens we keep too long, growling at them when they pass, spitting at them when they enter the house. It is not to protect her food, there is plenty for all. She is responding to an ancient instinct that tells her cats are healthier if they move out and on.

As the behavior of the birds and beasts is gradually plumbed, scientists wonder it man will ever overcome his heritage, for what was once an asset — antagonism to other groups — has now become a threat to survival. Our animal past glares at us every morning in the newspaper. When I read the news 1 now hear clubs of herring gulls screaming at other clubs of herring gulls. I see monkey nations breaking sticks at passing monkey nations.

I hen sadly I realize that some birds and beasts are far ahead of us. They have reduced battle to bluff. They have learned that physical conflict is poor economy.

But the other day a professor of human ecology eased my fears. “The birds and beasts," he said, “have had millions and millions of years to limit friction to the breaking of a limb, the throaty warble of a song. Man is very recent on this earth. Ciivc us time. Ciive us time. Survival is a strong instinct. 1 am sure we will find a way to break sticks and sing — because we must.” ★