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Monday, October 26, 2015

The Way of All Things

I asked Bow what he thought had happened to the cat. "הוא מת"  --"He died." I asked him why he thought the cat had died. "כל אחד מת" -- "Everybody dies." End of story. For Bow, it's an easy answer, and completely unproblematic.

"But he was so young, Bow!" No answer.

I personally do not know what happened. It could be that Nile found a new home. But let's face it, a lot of the animals I enjoy seeing on my property probably do meet violent ends, long before they ever arrive at old age. It's the way of all things.

I saw a Prairie Kingsnake hidden among the leaves the other day. That was a day after I spotted the black rat snake above my door.

I could not see its head clearly, and I was afraid it might be a venomous snake, like a copperhead, which it somewhat resembles from a distance. So I got a fallen tree branch in order to investigate from a safe distance.

From the shape of the head and the eyes, I could see that it was non-poisonous, and so I left it alone. By the presence of the snakes on my land who eat rodents, mice and voles and even small birds, sometimes, you can tell that there is a lot of dying that happens on my land, as much dying as living. Because in order to eat, one must also kill.

That's not true of everyone, of course. If you are a plant, like my beautiful wondrous red maple, now in the process of turning colors, then you do not kill. You are a producer and rely on the sun. But who wants to be a tree? And even if we wanted to, we could not all be trees.

The butterflies on my land make a living as pollinators. The flowers offer them a fee because they serve as artificial inseminators, which is really a very odd profession to be in. But when there are fewer flowers blooming, you often see the butterflies landing on dead leaves or grass.

Do they die because their time has come? Could their life be prolonged if summer never ended?

A few intrepid flowers are still blooming, refusing to give up the fight.

I continue to spot deer in my front yard. The last time it happened was yesterday, before dinner. 

I saw the little one first. It looked so weak and vulnerable and alone. But I only had to take one step forward, and I saw it was not alone at all.

I wished them well as they took off into the pasture.  But let's face it, I don't know the deer as individuals. I don't know how many have to die at the hands of coyotes and hunters, in order to keep the herd that remains in top health.

Someone suggested that to keep the good snakes close to the house, I should put out a bowl of milk. But I don't feed the wildlife. They feed on each other. And that is what keeps an ecosystem healthy. 

Bow, in his own impenetrable way, may already have learned this lesson from his perch on the rim of the bench, where he studies nature, while remaining a disinterested observer. 

News Items of Note

Friday, October 23, 2015

When the Cat's Away

Nile the cat is missing. He has been gone for over three days. Here is the last picture I took of him.

I believe I saw him on the 19th during the day, but when I went to the barn to feed him, he was nowhere in sight. Usually, he accompanies me from somewhere close to the house to where I insist on feeding him, in the barn, far away from where we live.

But on the way to feed Nile, I saw rabbits. They bounded away as I walked by. I had not seen rabbits in months, so somehow this betokened the cat's absence from the property.

I sent my daughter out to look for him and to call him the following evening, when he had been missing for a day. He did not show up.

The day after that, Cowboy the neighbor dog suddenly joined me on my walk, which is something he had not done in a while. For a moment, I asked myself whether Cowboy could have had anything to do with Nile's disappearance, but I decided that it was probably the other way around. Now that Nile was no longer around, Cowboy felt free to come visit again. Nile used to hiss at Cowboy.

Yesterday, when I went out for a walk, I saw a long, black rat snake on its way to my door.

The snake's head was very close to the front step, but its tail was curled all the way around the corner of the house.

They say that when the cat's away, the mice will play. Well, I have not seen any mice, but perhaps they are out playing. This seems to be what the black rat snake is thinking.

When I returned from my walk, I thought for a moment that the black rat snake must have gone away, until I saw it draped on the stone wall by the entrance.

I do not suspect the black rat snake of killing Nile the cat. Nile was much too big for him. But I do think the snake is taking advantage of the cat's absence to fill in the same ecological niche.

The deer, on the other hand, seem more cautious today. They had grazed in the front yard, completely unafraid of the cat. But today, they peered at me from the pasture, and then they sneaked into the part of the yard where I cannot see them through the window. When they saw they had been spotted after all, they turned tail and ran.

Bow has not offered any observations on the absence of Nile the cat. He was never too fond of him.

We had a plan as to where Nile would live in November, once it got too cold to stay out. This plan would have also involved getting him fixed. Perhaps he got wind of our plan and made different plans of his own. Wherever he is, I hope he is happy and well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bow as Himself

"You do know he's not human, right?"

Some people ask me that when I talk about Bow too enthusiastically . "Well, of course, I do. Do you think I would be doing research on chimpanzee cognition and language ability with Bow, if I thought he was human?" What would be the point?

Bow is not human. He is a chimpanzee. But what exactly that means is what is up for debate. For instance, he's very interested in some things, and much less in others. But is that a chimpanzee trait? Or is that just Bow?

Bow was raised in a human household, but there are some human practices that he has staunchly refused to follow. He does not want to wear clothes, and as soon as he was independent enough to refuse to wear them, I had to give up on that idea. For me, it had seemed convenient that Bow wear clothes, but as he grew up, I had to concede. It was his choice.

On the other hand, Bow loves to groom his finger nails using a nail file. He watches me with deep fascination when I do it, and the he gets very engrossed in using the nail file himself.

Now, this is not anything that I had to bribe Bow or force him to do. It's just something that he wanted to do. But quite possibly some other chimpanzee would not want to do this. Bow is not representative of all chimpanzees. Not everything that is true of him is true of every other chimpanzee. For instance, some chimpanzees like to play in water. I have seen videos of them doing that, but Bow has always hated water. He won't even step into a puddle or on slightly damp floor, much less immerse himself in a body of water.

I used to explain it like this: "He has a very low fat to muscle ratio in his body. If thrown in a lake, he would drown, because he cannot float. So he must know this instinctively, and that's why he avoids water." It sounded like a good explanation, but when the counterexamples of chimps happily playing in man-made pools started to surface, I had to revise my opinion. Maybe it is not all chimpanzees. Maybe that's just Bow.

It's easy to fall into the trap of overgeneralizing. But there's no reason for it. Individual differences are just as important as group traits. Bow can read. He can spell. Maybe it's because he was exposed to it when young. That certainly must have something to do with it. Maybe most chimpanzees could do the same, if given a chance. Maybe some couldn't. After all, some humans can't, either.

Some traits are group traits. But there are individual differences, and those are important, too.  As a scientist, I feel that one counterexample can disprove a rule. "All Chimpanzees do X" can be falsified by one single example of a chimpanzee that does not do X. "No chimpanzee can do Y" is falsified by a single example of a chimpanzee that can do Y. I am not interested in the average, the mean or the bell curve. My job is to find out what Bow can do.

I am deeply suspicious of anyone who makes sweeping generalizations about groups based only on group affiliation. No matter how many chimpanzees a so-called expert knows, he or she does not know Bow. What is good for Bow may not be good for another chimpanzee. What is good for another chimpanzee may not be good for Bow.

Do you know anyone who purports to speak for all chimpanzees? Be very suspicious. Such people are overstepping their bounds, both as scientists and as activists. Real scientists deal in facts. Real humanitarians care only about individuals.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Partially Deceptive Signalling

I may have mentioned once or twice that Bow lies to me. What I haven't talked about as much are the partial lies, the half truths and those cryptic answers that just make me feel a little uneasy, knowing that something is up, but not knowing what exactly that is.

This morning there was some commotion outside. Bow suggested that I go out and check "You want me to go outside?" I asked him.

"תנסי לצאת" he qualified it. "Try to go outside." What does that mean? Why did he say "try"? Was he expecting that someone would stop me from going? Or that it would not be easy to leave? Or that unless I tried to go, I would never find out what might happen next? Did he have some trick up his sleeve?

So I went outside, hoping to see deer again, but it was only the neighbors' cattle grazing close to the fence line.

When I got back, it turned out that Bow had used the potty in my absence. He did so correctly, but since I was not there to help him wipe, it necessitated a little more cleanup. So in hindsight, I think Bow was signalling that it was okay for me to go, he would still be good, but things would not go as smoothly as I envisioned. And all that meaning was jammed into that one word "try".

Everybody is so interested in learning to communicate with animals, and to read their signals. There is this feeling that if only we understood each other better, something miraculous might happen. But very few take into account that since we cannot rely on anything a human being says to us, then we can't really expect "God's Truth" from other animals, either.

Take those deer on my land. They are sometimes seen in the woods.

I see the deer. The deer sees me. It stoops down to make sure I am really there, and then, absolutely certain of it, it leaves. And sometimes there is a whole group of them. They see me. I see them, somebody snorts, and they all turn around, flash their white tails at me and leave.

So the snorting is a signal that means "Hey, let's get out of here, we've been spotted!" -- right? Well, that was my naive interpretation of the signal, until I looked it up. It turns out that some experts believe the snort is not intended for the other deer at all. The snort could be an anti-predator signal, intended to tell me not to follow!

Snorting did not appear directed at conspecifics, and comparative data suggest that it signals that the predator has been detected. In contrast, foot-stamping was effective in alerting other deer to the observer's presence. Deer may have bounded to clear obstacles along their flight path. These preliminary data indicate that several aspects of anti-predator behavior in white-tailed deer may be pursuit-deterrent signals, and they therefore highlight the necessity of observing natural predators' reactions to signals given by deer in future studies. (Caro, Lombardo, Goldizen and Kelly,  Tail-Flagging and Other Anti-Predator Signals in white-tailed Deer.)

It is good to remember that not everything other animals do is directed at each other. Some of it may actually be directed at us. As such, we may be mistaking their attempt to speak our language for the whole sum total of theirs, which may be much more subtle and advanced and spoken in a pitch and at a rate that is too high for us to even take cognizance of.

I believe that some ethologists studying chimpanzees in the wild may have mistaken the chimps' cries intended for non-chimps to overhear as the sum total of all chimpanzee communication. It is for this reason that they believe chimpanzee vocalizations are extremely limited and do not carry much information.

But what sort of information would you direct at a predator, an outsider or an enemy, anyway? Wouldn't your chief purpose be to deceive him? And if you always lied, then what kind of deception would that be? How could that possibly work?

That's where this other paper comes in: Between cheap and costly signals: the evolution of partially honest communication
Beyond the empirical significance of our results, we have demonstrated an alternative evolutionary explanation for (partially) honest communication in situations of conflict of interest, which can range from parent–offspring interactions to mating advertisement to predator–prey interactions. Although this equilibrium had been previously observed [5,20], it was not known if this phenomena was an artefact of the particular games or if it represented a general phenomenon common to many different signalling interactions. In this paper, we show that this type of signalling is at least as evolutionarily plausible as that offered by the traditional costly signalling models and may fit better with the observed data on signal costs. In this respect, it may represent a superior theory to traditional handicap theory.
This is a novel concept for me, although in hindsight it sounds almost too simple. Lying and deception continue to pay off, but only if they are partial. Because no information could be conveyed unless you were honest at least part of the time, the optimal amount of deception would have to be only partial. This means that even the deer tell their predators the truth part of the time. Good to know!

Bow deciding what partial truth to tell me next

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Just Leaves

It is definitely, unmistakably fall now. The maple  leaves are turning the most brilliant colors.

Some trees are supposed to give fruit in the fall.

The persimmon with its orange baubles looks as if it is decorated for Halloween.

But for others, the rare fruit they are sprouting now is unseasonable and slightly disturbing, like the odd, last child of an overly fertile woman long past her prime.

Here is the last of the blackberries, ripening when the rest of the bush has gone dormant.

Here is the first cherry, nursing a single green fruit and willing it to ripen. Who is this cherry for? Who will get to eat it?

Right beside the first cherry tree, is the second cherry tree, with its seemingly pregnant open bloom.

Will this blossom come to fruition as well? And if so, what will become of the fruit?

There is one branch of the service berry by the fence line that still bears blossoms.

Will there be service berries for the deer to eat in November?

The deer are still coming by in the evening in the front yard, though they do seem a little more shy now.

They come with the setting sun, and they leave when they see me.

I read somewhere that the Japanese fry maple leaves and then eat them, and I wondered what Bow would do, if I offered him an assortment of leaves.

So this morning I went out to gather leaves in a Wal*Mart bag, and I brought them in to the pen for Bow to inspect.

Bow was not impressed. He took the first leaf out of the bag, turned it over then handed both  the leaf and the bag back to me.

I thought that perhaps if I laid them out on the floor, so he could see how different and varied they were, I could get him more interested in the leaves.

Bow was very patient with me. He lay down on the floor quietly while I arranged the leaves to my satisfaction.

Then, when he could tell I was done, he got up, picked up every leaf from the floor, picked up the bag and handed them all back to me, with an unmistakable  gesture that said: Get them out of here. After all, they were just dead leaves!

When I took the leaves away, Bow asked to go outside.

He inspected the view for a moment, and then he settled down on the rim of the bench in his favorite mode of relaxing.

Maybe Bow is right. Maybe I am blowing the symbolic significance of fall foliage entirely out of proportion. After all, they are just leaves!

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Value of Memories

Today, my Facebook feed reminded me of a faded memory: Sword and Bow bouncing up and down, carefree on the trampoline.

Does Bow still jump up and down on the trampoline in the backyard, today? No, he doesn't. But neither does Sword. There is a time for all things and for all things a season. The value of the memory does not diminish, even though it is a thing of the past.

Today, the trampoline is a bit rundown, and the fence has a grey look to it, and is not yellow and fresh as when it was first put up. Sword and Bow are teenagers. They have other interests besides jumping up and down together on the trampoline. But isn't it great that they could, when the time was right?

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Does the deer to the left look surprised?

"Oh, no, you can see me!"
The picture posted above is from the video that I took yesterday around lunchtime, which appears in this  blog post:

Although I was never able to see more than about four deer at a time, it was mainly due to my limited vantage point, standing in the doorway.

In the evening, when the light was fading, I saw the troop again. It is a whole herd of deer that are grazing on my land, and who choose my front yard in particular as a place to congregate.

Can you see Nile the cat watching the deer?
The deer were trying to be quiet, so that I would not notice them. I was trying to be quiet so the deer would not notice me. But Nile the cat was completely uninhibited. He was meowing loudly, startling us all.

Why are there so many deer in my front yard all of a sudden? "Did you put a salt lick out for them?" a friend asked. No, I have done nothing to make this spot attractive.

I am beginning to suspect that it's not what I've done, but what I haven't done. I haven't tried to shoot them. It's deer season now, and they somehow have figured out that my property is a safe zone. So while there is nothing here to attract them, they see it as a temporary sanctuary.

Yes, sanctuary. Not like a chimpanzee sanctuary, to which the chimpanzees are forced to go and from which they are never allowed to depart. But a real sanctuary, to which the deer go of their own free will when they choose to, and depart when they feel safe going elsewhere.

The difference between a sanctuary and a concentration camp is that you are free to come and free to go.

Friday, October 9, 2015

How Many Deer Do You Count?

Watching and Being Watched

I admit it. I like to watch the wildlife. Sometimes they don't know they are being watched. Sometimes they suspect it. Sometimes when they notice me, they fly away or run away or hide. At other times, they fly right at me and make me step back. But did you know that sometimes I feel watched, too?

Yesterday, I was looking at a dragonfly that was perched on the very edge of a bare Weigela limb. When it noticed me, it flew off like some kind of miniature helicopter. No, really, that's what I was thinking, when I saw it fly off. And then moments later the air was torn by the noise of a giant engine very close to the ground, and Bow, who was in the outer pen screeched and the leaves on all the trees trembled, and then I saw it: a black helicopter flying pretty low over my property.

Keep in mind the the camera makes it seem further away. But it felt really close, and it was a little scary, for me and Bow and the dogs.  And then it went away, and I went back to my voyeurism.

In the calm and quiet of the ordinary every day life of the pasture, I spotted a great spangled fritillary on a thistle plant.

When it saw that I had spotted it, instead of flying away, it seemed a little angry at me for my invasion of its privacy, and it flew right at me.

Then it landed not too far away, daring me to come in for a closer picture. I wonder what would have happened if I had flown right at that black helicopter as a response to its presence!

Later in the day, while I was admiring the changing leaves of the maple tree, I saw a squirrel in the adjoining oak tree. I tried to come in closer to get a better view of the squirrel, but it hid on the other side of the branch from me. Giving up, I notice that Nile the cat was climbing up the oak, using only his  claws to hang on to the tree.

In the evening, the younger deer was grazing alone in my front yard.

It suspected that I was watching, but until I stepped out it was not sure.

Its mother was waiting just around the corner of the house, so that's why it did not escape into the pasture, which would have been faster. I felt bad when I saw the panic in its eyes.

But the mother and child were reunited and later went back into the woods together. If the black helicopters ever come for me and Bow, I wish we could escape into the woods and disappear, too.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two Deer Grazing in the Front Yard

Bow used to tell me things like "There are five brown cows across the street." He was communicative like that. But now that he is a teen, when I spot wildlife in the front yard before dinner, it makes him impatient.

Yesterday, just before dinner, I spotted two deer in the front yard. They looked like a mother and child, and they were grazing placidly.

I filmed them through the window of the front door, so the quality of the video is not that good, but I knew that if I went out, they would probably just run away. Bow could see them, too, because when he stands at the front of the pens he has a clear view of the proceedings outside. He stood and watched for a while, then he started making raspberry sounds, which prompted me to open the front door and go outside, but, as expected, the deer completely disappeared once I did that.

However, I did see what may have been a third deer further away jumping into the pasture to join them. This is a family of deer that I sometimes see with my headlights reflected in their eyes when I come home at night for a drive into town.

Bow did not say anything about the deer. He just wanted me to hurry up and get dinner ready.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Nature Hedging Its Bets

The temperature has been highly variable. The very day when I wrote about how cold it was, in the afternoon it was suddenly very warm again. I now can see that nature is hedging its bets, allowing some plants to carry on as if winter is almost upon us, while others behave as if it is spring.

This morning, Bow chose to go outside, But yesterday he did not, preferring to wrap himself in a blanket. I talked about how cold it was with the delivery lady, but she said that, actually, it was rather nice out. In the afternoon, I went for a walk, and I saw that the yellow butterfly was going about its business as usual, and there were still plenty of purple thistle flowers to accommodate it.

I try to draw closer, but the yellow butterfly merely flitted off, landing on another thistle flower further away.

Everywhere there were new flowers that had just now bloomed.

A blackberry bush was blossoming as if it had every intention of very soon bearing a berry.

There were tiny ants on the little flowers sprouting in the grass,

Small yellow flowers, looking a little like bidens, came up from the cut grass. And on the fruit trees, while most of the branches looked dead, a lone blossom opened here and there. Nature is hedging its bets. The plants and the insects don't know for sure which way things are going, so they are investing in one outcome and its opposite, hoping to survive in the long run.

I think this is something about natural selection -- and the economy --  and freedom of choice --  that is often misunderstood, It's not necessary that we all know exactly what the future holds. Survival of the fittest is not about getting better and better, nor is it about having foresight about future changes in the environment. It is about whoever happens to be best suited in a particular event, under specific circumstances, doing well. And nobody needs to know in advance who that lucky survivor is going to be.

Suppose that we don't know for sure  what is the best diet or the best health care plan or the optimal solution of every problem. Isn't it good that different individuals make different choices? Nobody can know for sure which decision will turn out to be best, but at least we will not all perish for the same reason due to centralized planning. Somebody will do well, even though we may not know who. Maybe all the chimpanzees in America are about to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps from which they will never emerge and where they will not reproduce. In that case, it is good there are also chimpanzees left in other countries. But supposing all the chimpanzees in the wild are killed by the native populations among whom they live? Isn't it good that there are captive chimpanzees in North America, and in Europe and Asia, too? Do we really want to put all our eggs in one basket?

Who is to say what will happen? It is better to hedge our bets. A free economy does not work well because people are smart,  and they make wise choices. It is not even a certainty that those who make a fortune do not do so in some small measure due to luck. Freedom of choice works well, because not everyone is doing the same thing. Not all are making the same mistakes, and so some will thrive, no matter how many others go belly up. If we don't allow that to happen, then we force everyone to go down together.

A deer I saw yesterday after dinner
If global warming keeps us from having a winter at all, then the cherry trees and serviceberry and the blackberry bushes will produce lots of fruit, and the wildlife will prosper.

And if it grows cold, and we have to wait till next spring, that will be fine, too. Either way, there are some who are already preparing and investing in the future. Some will win, and some will lose, but life as we know it will go on.