Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Personalizing Herons

Transcript of today's For the Birds

Great Blue Heron nest cam

One of the fascinating things about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s heron nest chat room has been seeing people’s tendency to look at individuals--human and animal--and jump to conclusions about what is going on in their minds and hearts. This is more focused than simple anthropomorphism. Just as we identify with characters in movies and on TV, and with people we encounter in real life, we can’t help but identify with these birds as we watch their every move up close and personal, and we can’t help but assume that we share some of their motivations.

When the male heron takes his turn incubating the eggs, some people comment on what a great father he is while others attribute his dutiful ways to being a henpecked husband. The male brings lots of sticks to the nest, often handing them off to the female but sometimes arranging them himself. Both of the birds seem to stand up two or three times an hour while on incubating duty. While up, they turn the eggs and rearrange sticks, paying particular attention to the tiny twigs arranged on the floor of the nest where the eggs are, apparently ensuring that the twigs lie flat so no sharp ends can puncture the eggs. As far as I can tell, the male and female put in comparable time in nest repair, but some people pay more attention to one or the other. For example, some people make a point about how the female is fixing up the place after dad messed it up, while others are either impressed with how fastidious Dad is, or amused by how fussy he is. During incubation, while the female is replenishing lost nutrients after egg production, the male spends longer periods incubating than she does.

When he’s off the nest for a few hours, no one comments about his absence, but when the female is gone, there are dozens of comments about her shopping, hanging out with the girls, or even eying the male next door. A great many people say what a “great dad” the male is, with few mentioning what a great mom the female is. When one bird returns and they make contact calls, some people comment on the warm and loving greeting while others think the one on the nest is scolding the other for its absence. These comments go beyond anthropomorphism to individually personalizing these birds to fit people’s own personal histories or the human stereotypes they ascribe to.

There have been some sad and scary moments at the nest. A Great Horned Owl on three separate nights attacked the female when she was incubating. There is no way the male could have helped the situation by flying in--Great Blue Herons don’t fly as fast or maneuver in the air as well as owls do, and their spear-like bill is most effective while the bird is firmly braced on the ground, so there wasn’t much he could do from afar. I was surprised by how many people commented about his “cowardice.” I suspect this owl was a nesting adult female--they’re larger and more aggressive than males, and to attack an adult heron would seem to require that she had young to feed. I am extremely fond of the herons and did not want the owl to succeed, but found it sad and off-putting to read comments about the owl being vicious and even evil.

One of the eggs has become dented and slightly cracked, and it’s fascinating to hear people say one of the birds is clearly sad or distressed or even crying.

Some people so desperately avoid being accused of anthropomorphism that they go overboard the other way. It’s unscientific to ascribe human emotions to birds, but it’s equally unscientific to deny that birds feel those emotions--we have no way of measuring emotions in other humans, much less in other species, so without any concrete way of defining and measuring, discussions of bird emotions are philosophical, not scientific.

Anyway, it’s been great fun for me to observe both the herons I’m so attached to and the other people who for various individual reasons are responding to the herons in various, individual, and extremely human ways. Birds may be my first love, but we humans are oddly fascinating in our own right.

10 comments :

  1. I'm amused, fascinated, frustrated, and intrigued by how people "see" things. I recently found out that we filter all information through our brain and only see what makes sense to us. So each of us has a set of life experiences that forces us to "see" differently.

    It takes a lot of work to actually notice everything equally, and finding out what different people see in the same scene gives an interesting view of their life experiences.

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  2. I believe that people project what is going on with their own lives. This happens with animals, other people, etc. They either see the birds as a reflection of themselves or others in their life. It might be easier to let the "birds speak" rather than be open about their own feelings. Written like a true counselor, yes?

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  3. Yes, Laura. I too love birds, but find human behavior interesting in regard to these bird activities. What I also noticed is how people worry about each little thing. They don't seem to trust that the parents know best. The birds deal with situations as they arise.
    Great article!

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  4. Yes, Laura. I too love birds and find human behaviors interesting in regard to the herons and the hawks. What I also noticed is the worry. Most don't seem to trust that the parents know what is best and will deal the any issues that arise.
    Great article!

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  5. Fascinating blog...thanks Laura! Great thoughts, insight and humor. But the last part puts in all in perspective.

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  6. GREAT post! I've rolled my eyes more than once at comments such as "He's such a great dad" or "Do you think they have a favorite?" But at the same time I find myself worrying that they don't feed the kids enough...clearly as a result of my human experiences with babies or puppies. These birds know EXACTLY what they are doing and may or may not have emotions but few of us can escape projecting our own human emotions on them. You are spot one....we're ALL fascinating creatures.

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  7. Interesting! National Geographic had a doc. about animal emotions and feelings recently, and it seems likely that herons have them too.

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  8. Thanks for your thoughtful insights into both species! The Cornell nestcam chat logs may turn out to be a goldmine for grad students in both ornithology and psychology

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  9. Laura,
    I've been watching the herons on and off, loving it. I'm so glad you wrote this essay. It captures much of what I see streaming by in the chat. We humans show such anthropomorphism! It's hard to resist. I think you captured the sense of this very well. Also, thanks for being a great moderator on the chat.
    --Maria

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  10. Thanks for the insightful comments. I've been watching the hawk and heron nests for about a week now and have been amused, enlightened, and amazed by what I've observed. Your thoughts help me bring that same perspective to what I'm reading.

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