Mindful Creatures

This column was rejected by the new editor of Game News because of what he considered to be controversial content. No doubt he knows his audience. But I would like to put this column out for my web readers who may find it useful and may, like me, wonder why so many people are willing to believe that their domestic pets have minds but not wild animals who, we must admit, have much harder lives to live. Surely we have all evolved from the same beginnings, and surely that means that other mammals, like us, as well as birds and other creatures, must have minds that resemble ours, even if they are not nearly as well-developed. On the other hand, many of these species have lived longer on this earth than we have.

North American porcupine close up

Up close and personal with a porcupine

For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.

In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.

The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.

New Caledonian Crow painting by John Gerrard Keulemans

Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow (John Gerrard Keulemans, 1877)

If you call someone a “bird brain,” you are paying them a compliment. Birds, especially those in the Corvid family, have brains that weigh almost as much as ours do in relation to our total body weight. Our brain weighs three pounds or 1.9% on average of our body weight. Ravens and most crow species have brains that make up 1.4% of their body weight, although the super learners in the Corvid family—New Caledonian crows—possess brains that comprise a whopping 2.7% of their body weight. These percentages compare with those of similar-sized mammals such as small monkeys. Other bird species, even smaller songbirds like chickadees, also have amazing brains.

These discoveries and many more have been recently pulled together in Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by Dr. John Marzluff and Tony Angell and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Dr. Tim Birkhead. Both of these books are written for a general audience but they make use of dozens of scientific papers with such titles as “Stress, Corticosterone Responses and Avian Personalities” (my italics) by J.F. Cockrem in the Journal of Ornithology and “An Intelligent Crow Beats a Lab” by A. Straub in Science.

All of this is an introduction, of sorts, to bird, mammal, and reptile behavior my husband, Bruce, our son, Dave, and I observed last June. None of it was particularly cutting-edge, but more than once I wished I had a better understanding of animals’ minds. Or, in the words of Griffin, “We like and admire other animals… because we enjoy trying to imagine what their lives are like to them…”

Dave exchanges threat displays with a porcupine

Dave communes with a porcupine (photo: Bruce Bonta)

That’s what I did wonder one June morning when a large porcupine waddled toward me on the Far Field Road. I stepped off the road and watched as it advanced. Because of its whitish quills, it looked as if it had a halo over its shoulders. Once it paused to scratch itself. When it was almost abreast of me, it turned and crossed the road, headed in my direction.

“Hello,” I said. It stopped and spread its tail to impress me with its quills. I continued talking quietly to it. Finally, it turned around and leisurely retraced its steps. Then it left the road and went into the woods where it slowly hitched its way up the largest chestnut oak tree beside the road. It flattened itself out on one of the highest branches overlooking the road directly above me, alert and watchful, until I moved on.

I’ve encountered numerous porcupines on our trails, and usually they hiss, spread their tails, and scramble up the nearest tree. But this porcupine, which looked like a grizzled old timer, didn’t seem fazed by me. Was it the animal’s age, experience, calmer temperament, or something else, I wondered, as I continued on my way.

Several nights later, Bruce was awakened by a bang on the back porch below the bedroom. He got up, grabbed his flashlight, and went downstairs to investigate, thinking that maybe a burglar was trying to get inside.

He tiptoed out to the kitchen, turned on the porch light, and saw not one but three masked bandits—a mother raccoon and her two kits. Since we had taken in our bird feeders two months before, he couldn’t figure out what they were doing as the little ones climbed up on the railing and the post that supported the porch roof. He shone his flashlight on first one kit, then the other, and finally on the mother but none of them seemed bothered by the light.

Raccoon family unit

Raccoon family unit (photo: Bruce Irschick, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

He watched as they sniffed and explored. At last they climbed off the porch and trundled over to the outside cellar steps. Then one of the kits poked around in the grasses just below our sitting room bow window. That was when the mother raccoon noticed Bruce watching them. Or perhaps she smelled him through the screened window. She snarled loudly, but all three raccoons kept poking around in the underbrush as they made their way slowly toward the front of the house and out of sight.

This time it was Bruce who wondered about the mind of a raccoon, and the next morning Dave solved the mystery. He noticed that a bald-faced hornet nest (Dolichovespula maculate), which had been attached to the porch roof, lay in gray tatters on the porch floor. In that case, the mother raccoon had been teaching her kits about one of their favorite foods. I was reminded of a Nature show I had watched on PBS about how cleverly raccoons adjust to and find food and shelter even in busy cities. According to raccoon researcher, Stan Gehrt, raccoons are incredibly adaptive. Even their personalities change from shy and reclusive in the country to bold in the city as they use their hand-like paws and mammal-sized brains to defeat humans’ numerous attempts to design raccoon-proof garbage cans.

The male flicker at the nest hole

The male flicker at the nest hole (photo: Rachel Rawlins)

During last May and June Dave enjoyed sitting on his front porch and watching a yellow-shafted flicker family set up housekeeping in a dead elm tree at the edge of his yard. For more than a week in early May, the male and female took turns excavating the hole said to be 13 to 16 inches deep. Muffled knocks from inside the dead elm led to a flicker head popping out of the hole and flinging a bill full of wood chips into the air.

Eventually, by mid-May, their excavation work was over, and the female laid her 5 to 8 eggs. Then the parents attended the nest in shifts, each one doing its share of work. They were due to hatch in 11 to 13 days. In the meantime, they fought off a pileated woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and another flicker, all coveting the nest hole, and reminding me of the many times I have watched flickers over the years try to establish a nest in a black walnut tree hole beside our driveway. Never once have they been successful because of gray squirrels who consider it their home.

On June 12 Dave noticed that both parents were outside the hole at the same time for as long as 15 minutes, and he wondered if the eggs had hatched. The next afternoon he again saw both parents outside, and the male sounded agitated. The female sat on a dead elm branch a few feet above the nest hole.

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

That’s when Dave noticed something sticking out of the cavity. It was the head of a black rat snake. Somehow the reptile had realized a meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth trunk of the dead elm and managed to climb it.

It remained in the hole, digesting its meal until 10:30 a.m. the following day, and Dave watched as it spent 50 minutes slowly descending the tree trunk, seemingly studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch, or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. It used a tall lilac shrub limb to move from the elm trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree and then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac and on to the ground.

All of this reminded me of the most notorious article I ever wrote that was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest about watching a black rat snake get into and out of a house wren nest built inside one of our back porch posts. It took the snake one hour and forty minutes as it maneuvered up to our second floor, peered into windows, slowly lowered its body down the shingled porch roof and down the post into the nest. When it finally emerged, it worked even harder finding its way out by way of the drain pipe, down the post, and on to ground with many stops as it seemed to think its way past obstacles and over rough spots. As Griffin wrote, “mental events such as consciousness and awareness are indicated by surprising yet effective solutions to changing, unforeseen, and uncommon problems.” Both Dave’s snake and especially mine seemed to show such awareness.

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

It had been a scolding Carolina wren, not the silent flicker parents, who sounded the snake alarm. And it was a Carolina wren who sang along with a mezzo-soprano in Massenet’s opera Werther, which Bruce and I were watching during a hot June afternoon. The wren was busy putting twigs in the gap next to our living room window air conditioner. I checked the pitch of both the soprano and the wren and realized they were performing a kind of duet. Was the wren challenging what it thought was a wren intruder or did it enjoy the music? This time I was reminded of a white-tailed deer that stood still outside our kitchen window years ago when I was playing Mendelssohn’s Elijah. She looked as if she was listening to the music.

Carolina wren at the window

Carolina wren at the window


Our last bird observation went on for much of June when an eastern whip-poor-will chose our yard and Dave’s for his evening and dawn chorusing. A couple times he landed on the flat porch roof outside our bedroom window. Once when I was awakened by him at 5:00 a.m., I put my glasses on and snuck to the window where I had a view of him belting out his calls at deafening volume for about five minutes. He seemed so small to have such a loud mouth and reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s assertive Lorax in the way he stood.

The whip-poor-will was, of course, acting as male whip-poor-wills always do in spring and early summer. I only wondered about him because he started later and stopped earlier than whip-poor-wills are reported to do. But then the life style of these birds is still poorly understood because of their secretive, nocturnal lives. No doubt they too are able to solve unexpected problems with enterprising solutions, the strongest evidence, Griffin concludes, that suggest animal consciousness.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

Return of the Whip-poor-wills

I remember 1976 and 1977 as whip-poor-will years. That was when a whip-poor-will adopted our home grounds as part of his territory, singing at dusk and dawn on our driveway and around both the guesthouse and main house.

Several times our eldest son, Steve, and I sneaked down for a glimpse of him, but all we saw was a dark, shadowy figure that took off with a soft “chuck, chuck” whenever we came close.

One evening, in mid-May, we were nearly blasted out of our living room by a singing whip-poor-will. Steve skulked out the dining room door and crept around the back of the house, but as he neared the back porch, the whip-poor-will flew from the steps.

That was as close as the whip-poor-will came to our home. After that, he sang from below the back step as well as outside the guesthouse, during his half-hour, dusk and dawn rounds. My father-in-law, who had moved to our guesthouse, had been thrilled by the singing whip-poor-will. To him, the whip-poor-will song was the essence of wildness.

Pop died in March of 1978 and with him went the whip-poor-will. Except for one that sang on April 29, 1989, we didn’t hear another whip-poor-will until early May 1996 when our son Dave, who now lives in the guesthouse, heard one singing in the woods outside on two different evenings.

The following year, 1997, Dave heard one outside the guesthouse on May 20 and another down in the hollow on June 10, but our hopes for breeding whip-poor-wills were dashed when 1998 produced no whip-poor-wills.

Then came the stupendous years of 1999 and 2000. I could finally say that breeding whip-poor-wills were back after 22 years. Beginning on April 29, 1999, when a whip-poor-will sang at 1:00 a.m., it sang most evenings and early mornings until June 1 along the same circuit–from outside our house, down to the guesthouse stone wall, and then to the edge of the woods. In 2000, he started on May 3 and again continued until June 1 around our home grounds. Another one sang half a mile away near the spruce grove.

Many mornings I was awakened between 5:00 and 5:15 a.m. when he sang outside my bedroom window. One hot, humid evening he sang so loudly that I could hear him above the highest setting on my fan. That was when he sang 100 “whip-poor-wills” at a time, the most I had ever recorded, although naturalist John Burroughs, back in the late nineteenth century, counted a record 1088.

Both years, our whip-poor-wills resumed singing for a few evenings in early July. Of course, describing the loud, repetitive “whip-poor-will” as a song seems a bit far-fetched, but the male is using it to mark out his territory and attract a mate, just as songbirds do.

Once a female heeds his song and lands near him, he stops singing, faces her, and slowly walks toward her, raising his body as high as he can with each step. Then he circles her while she bobs slowly up and down, emitting purring and popping sounds.

In another courtship display, the female lands and responds to his song with a grunting “gaw-gaw-gaw.” Next, she lowers her head and trembles violently as the male sidles up to her and touches her bill. This causes her to move slowly away, followed by the male. Then he moves away followed by her. This back and forth courtship can go on for several minutes.

Still a third courtship display occurs when the female lands on the ground below a male singing on a branch, spreads her wings and tail, lowers her head, and sidesteps back and forth, halfway to the right and then the left, in a dance that lasts for 15 minutes. All the while she dances, she utters guttural chuckling sounds.

Watching the courtship of whip-poor-wills is not easy since they wait until it is almost dark, so the three courtship techniques I’ve described have rarely been witnessed.

Most people are only familiar with the whip-poor-will’s song which he sings from favorite song-posts such as boulders, stone walls, buildings or the ground at dawn and dusk and sometimes throughout moonlit nights. In Pennsylvania he appears as early as the second week in April, but more commonly his migration period is from the last week in April to the third in May.

Once a couple is mated, the female lays no more than two glossy white eggs, sometimes spotted with gray or lilac, on the ground in leaf-litter. She often chooses a spot near or beside a fallen log in an open woodland. Whip-poor-wills depend on their mottled, grayish-brown color to camouflage them when the female incubates the eggs during the day while the male roosts nearby. At dusk or shortly thereafter, the male takes over incubation until the female returns during the night. Then they share incubation duties until the female resumes incubating the rest of the night and the following day.

After between 19 and 21 days of incubation, the eggs hatch into cinnamon fuzz balls able to move in short hops soon after emerging. Usually the female broods them during the day unless they have two families in one season. Then the male broods the chicks while the female lays and incubates a second clutch of eggs.

Sometimes a female is flushed from the chicks during the day. The chicks move off in opposite directions and remain motionless while the female performs one of three possible distraction displays. She may fly around the nest, giving “chuck” calls of distress, feign injury by fluttering around on the ground, calling, shivering her wings, and shaking her body, or fly up and perch on a branch and continually shift her position, this time calling a soft “quirt-quirt.”

Males will also perform distraction displays if they are brooding the young, as central Pennsylvania writer Charles Fergus discovered when he and his neighbor found a brooding male. “…The adult bird gasped and muttered. Flying toward us, it landed with tail spread and wings askew, as if wounded. Its white outer tail feathers identified the bird as a male [females have buff-colored tail feathers]…The whip-poor-will half ran, half flew away. He chuckled pitifully, his voice trailing off in a squeal. Again he flew in close, again he scrambled away,” Fergus wrote in an article in Country Journal magazine.

Both parents feed the chicks at night by regurgitation. They fledge at 15 days and are independent after 30 days, although they may still take food from their parents.

Whip-poor-wills are “lunarphilic” which means they are more active when the moon is bright. They even seem to time the hatching of their chicks to a waxing moon so they can see more easily to catch, mostly on the wing, the large moths–cecropia, luna and polyphemus, as well as tussock and tent caterpillar moths that they especially favor. They also like mosquitoes, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and ants.

Calm, warm, moonlit nights encourage them to sing throughout the night instead of their usual dusk and dawn routine, but once their young hatch, they stop singing except for an occasional outburst. Those males without mates continue singing so I can assume that “our” whip-poor-wills successfully bred.

Whip-poor-wills often return year after year to the same nesting spot. They are woodland birds that especially favor oak/pine forests interspersed with grassy old fields or other openings throughout their range of most of the United States and southern Canada, south through Mexico and Central America to Costa Rica.

First named Caprimulgus vociferus, referring to its membership in the goatsucker family and its loud song, by Pennsylvania ornithologist/artist Alexander Wilson in 1812, whip-poor-wills were once common throughout the state. But ornithologist W.E.C. Todd noted a decline as early as 1940 and during Pennsylvania’s atlasing of breeding birds in the 1980s, whip-poor-wills were found in only 17 percent of the commonwealth. Today, they mostly breed in the open, wooded areas of the ridge-and-valley province, the Poconos, and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Studying whip-poor-wills, though, is difficult because of their crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyle. Back in 1997, Robert Criswell of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Chuck Yohn of Juniata College conducted a whip-poor-will calling survey in south central Pennsylvania. We reported our two whip-poor-wills and learned that altogether whip-poor-wills were reported from 27 separate sites in seven counties and that our county–Blair–had had the most sites at nine.

Last year, a Pennsylvania Breeding Survey of the northern saw-whet owl, funded by the PGC, yielded incidental information on breeding whip-poor-wills. On 100 routes throughout the state covered after dark from late April until mid-June, observers counted 147 whip-poor-wills on 28 routes. According to the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology Newsletter, “with several birds calling at some points, observers may have underestimated whip-poor-will numbers due to auditory confusion.”

Just why whip-poor-wills have declined in the state is not clear, although researchers have suggested that habitat destruction, problems on their wintering grounds in the southern United States, Mexico and central America, or the pesticide killing of the insects they prey on may explain the loss.

Less than two centuries ago, whip-poor-wills sang in the heart of Philadelphia. Alexander Wilson wrote “The whip-poor-will was first heard this season [1811] on the 2nd day of May, in a corner of Mr. Bartram’s woods, not far from the house, and for two or three mornings after in the same place, where I also saw it…” Mr. Bartram was naturalist/writer William Bartram who lived in the then bucolic environs of southwestern Piladelphia along the Schuylkill River.

Today whip-poor-wills are gone, not only from Philadelphia County but Chester County where it was once relatively common. The Pittsburgh area is similarly bereft of whip-poor-wills. The late Carsten Ahrens, writing in Game News back in 1981, recalled moving to a hill above a wooded ravine in Pittsburgh in 1941 and hearing a whip-poor-will all season. But it was “a call that no longer resounds in our ravine. The woodland down there has become a housing project,” he wrote.

As we pave over more and more of the state, the whip-poor-will retreats to less populated areas. There its whistled song continues to strike a thrill into every listener’s heart.