Category Archives: Mammals

The Ice Bear: A Beast for the Ages – Guest Blog by Michael Engelhard

I met Michael Engelhard in the Grand Canyon in 2012, when as one of our superb river guides he steered us capably through one massive rapid after another. In calmer waters our conversations took us through philosophy, anthropology, nature writing, and the importance of the wild. Michael’s naturalist expertise and characteristic deep thinking led me to want to stay in touch. He has recently published the marvelous book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, which I highly recommend: it is beautifully written and illustrated, and engagingly conveys our complex relationship with this astounding creature, the Polar Bear, gorgeous and powerful. The following guest post, in honor of World Polar Bear Day on February 27, is by Michael, whose website is at this link.

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Fig. 1. Study of a sleeping polar bear, by the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan, 1903. (Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists—and their detractors—worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Alaska, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “Mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the White Bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

'Arctic Rising' in London

Fig. 2. Greenpeace activist at London’s Horse Guards. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.” (Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace.)

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger—a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse—gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden”—where little else grows.

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Fig. 3. This cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper lampooned the purchase of Alaska 150 years ago. The sign reads “A present to [Secretary of the Interior] Bill Seward & Co. by the inhabitants of Walrussia,” and polar bears carry an ice bloc to cool the congressional majority that ratified the treaty.

The White Bear looms large in human history and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage . . . They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism partly explains why they so appeal to me.

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Fig. 4. Nomad of the sea ice and tundra. Norwegian postcard, 1915. (Collection of Michael Engelhard.)

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears, and in particular polar bears, might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, in the words of ecologist-philosopher Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.”

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in the dominant culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears—or their body parts or representations—into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, Britain turned bear slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

My biggest surprise in my research has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as ours. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud;” it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

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Fig. 5. Greenland’s coat of arms, showing the bear with its left forepaw raised, as it is thought to be left-handed, according to Eskimo lore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In gathering the stories and myths, the ideas and perceptions of many societies—including our own—I’ve sought to highlight the interplay of external and internal landscapes and the bear’s place in both. For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the Great White Bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for millennia to come.

 

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

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The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

 

The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

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Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

* * * * *

To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

2015-9-23-5540-We just have each other

“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg/512px-Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg

Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

* * * * *

As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.

Dinosaur-Shaped Eyes

An animal’s eyes have the capacity of a great language.

Martin Buber, I and Thou  [1]

Barred Owl Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Barred Owl
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

These owl eyes speak the language of the night, where owls live and move and have their being. In the morning, under this owl’s winter perch, I find the small gray pellets that are the story of the previous night’s successful hunt: tiny jaw fragments interlaced with fur, a femur, a scapula. Silently sailing through the dark forest, scanning for signs of prey, owls read a visual language lost to us in our diurnal speech.

Can imaginative presence help us glimpse the owl’s language? Let’s look at a scene from the forest at night, first through our own eyes, then through the eyes of the owl. Here’s the human image.

2013-9-29_0041-v2-Mouse (b) in darkened scene, human vision-Trileigh Tucker

Forest scene to human eyes

Not a lot of information here that we can use, right? Here’s how an owl might see the scene.

Owl perception of forest night scene

Simulated owl perception of forest night scene

Like other animals that are fluent in night-language, owls have eyes that are beautifully equipped to read light and shadows. How do they do this? Eyes have two different ways of interpreting light: rods are the cells in eyes that are activated just by receiving photons, and cones are tickled by specific wavelength ranges. In owl eyes, the rods are much more densely packed than those of diurnal creatures. Since color isn’t that important at night, evolution has benefitted owls by allocating more retina real estate to those cells (rods) that give them helpful night information.

Here’s another way that owls’ eyes are adapted to help them read better at night. Look at the shape of this young Barred Owl’s cornea:

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

His eyes’ dramatically curved shape, in combination with the widely expandable pupils you can see in the first photo, helps him gather light from many directions. When all those photons get to the very large retinas at the back of his eyes, they provide lots of information to his brain to help him read the forest to find food.

Owl eye structures

Owl eye structures

Given how important they are, it’s not surprising that the owl’s eyes take up so much space in his head that there’s only a thin divider between them—so thin that light from one eye can filter through into the other. Jerry Waldvogel has pointed out that if our eyes were proportionally the same size as the owl’s, they’d be as big as tennis balls in our heads! [2]

Finally, our owl is unusual even among birds in that the place on his retina with the sharpest vision (the fovea) is packed with rods, not cones, giving him enhanced sight where he focuses. So when the owl’s amazing hearing helps him focus on a movement in the forest scene above, he might see something like this:

A mouse in the forest!

A mouse in the forest!

And once his attention becomes riveted:

Fleeing mouse

Tonight’s dinner?

While it is the owl’s exquisite hearing that lets him finally decide where to pounce, his remarkable night vision helps him read the forest, so that he can navigate his way through and hone in on his prey’s location.

* * * * *

We used to be creatures of the night, too. Our earliest mammal ancestors lived their lives in the Mesozoic darkness—and our eyes tell that history.

As I’ve noted previously, most humans’ eyes contain three different types of color-sensing cells. Each type is most sensitive to a particular light wavelength (medium blue, green-yellow, or orange), and our brains interpret the combination of signals sent by all types to yield our sense of color. This gives us a wonderful visual dimension beyond what many mammals can perceive; for instance, dogs and cats have just two types of color sensors.

But most birds have four-color vision, generally including a separate kind of cell that is sensitive to ultraviolet. They inherited this rich way of seeing their world from their dinosaur ancestors, who probably also could see a much more colorful world than we can. Although there’s currently no way we can truly envision or simulate how it would be to see this way, I imagine that the forest scene in daylight might look something like this to such a bird (right), compared to human vision (left):

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

These birds’ eyes speak a syntax of saturation, words of hues: the ultimate “colorful language” of which we can only dream. Why did we mammals lose some of our ability to sense colors?

Because we were scared of dinosaurs.

Back in the Mesozoic when they first appeared, little mammals would have made a nice snack for a hungry dinosaur—most of whom hunted during the day.

Uh-oh. (Simulated early mammal and dinosaur. Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

Uh-oh.
(Simulated early mammal and dinosaur.
Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

So our ancestors scuttled into hiding places during the day and waited until darkness to emerge (tiptoeing carefully around snoring dinos), learning to hunt by night. Because our little fuzzy forebears’ fancy color vision wasn’t much use at night, space in their retinas was much more valuable for rods that could help them see in the dark, and they eventually lost two of the four types of cones they’d started with. We began our own mammalian history with vision shaped by dinosaur appetites.

Once that handy meteor winnowed out a lot of those big pesky predators and turned the rest into birds, though, mammals could creep out of the darkness and relearn how to live in light. Genetic mutations in many primates and some marsupials recreated a third type of cone, and we humans got lucky and evolved from those lines.

But our history, our dawn in Mesozoic roots, is still told by the stories in our dinosaur-shaped eyes, eyes that once spoke the “great language” of the night. As we encounter the deep gaze of the owl, we can see traces of a shared history, echoes of an ancient intimacy—an eye-Thou relationship of epochal duration.



[1] Buber, Martin, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. I and Thou by Martin Buber; a new translation with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann. Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 144.

[2] Waldvogel, Jerry A. “The bird’s eye view.” American Scientist 78, no. 4 (1990): 342-353.

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Traces of Hidden Presence

Yesterday, in the darkness at exactly 6:00 am, I heard a high-pitched screech outside my window, which turned into a squeal. Finally the call evolved into one I recognized: a Barred Owl, the familiar denizen of my park. After a short but fierce inner argument between the Voice That Wanted To Stay In My Warm Bed, and Naturalist Voice, the naturalist won and I dug myself out from under cats and covers, pulled on pants and a jacket, and ventured out into the dark street to try to spot the light-gray owl in the thick trees.

Unfortunately, the conifers along my street were too dense and tall for me to find the owl, who stayed quiet after that. So after my brief foray into the dark morning, I (quite happily) went back inside and crawled back under the covers to read for a while with tea and juice, knowing contentedly that the owl was somewhere nearby.

We humans, as you may have noticed, are pretty much diurnal: we’re active during the day, and if we’re out and about at night, we go where there are artificial lights. You can tell this is what we’re made for by looking at our faces. Continue reading

Engaging Gazes: Mysteries of Animal Presence

Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

 

Brown Creeper in concealment posture - closeup

Brown Creeper in concealment posture – closeup

I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk: The Animal Gaze

What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.

In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.

Mule Deer, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Elk, Estes Park, CO

Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.

Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?

How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.

The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat [1].Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.

We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm [2]. A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own [3]. People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina [4].

Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between SpeciesKalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.

What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?

  • Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
  • Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
  • Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
  • Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!

I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.

The gaze of a Barred Owl

The gaze of a Barred Owl

Listening for a Coyote-Shaped Space: Fascination and the Naturalist’s Attention

The robins’ alarm calls rang through the forest long before I reached the section of woods near the Cooper’s Hawk nest. Once I got close, I could hear the smaller birds that had joined the crisis chorus, and headed for the cleared area that seemed to be the focus of all the concern. Since the young hawks were still limiting their range to pretty far up into the canopy, I looked up toward the treetops and into the high branches as I entered the clearing.

Suddenly at the other end of the field, on the ground rather than up in the trees where I’d been looking, a moving tan patch caught my attention. It wasn’t a Cooper’s Hawk everybody was so upset about: it was a coyote! I froze, not wanting to scare it off (but I wasn’t so frozen that I couldn’t quietly but quickly pull up my camera).

Coyote heading for thicket

Although the West Seattle Blog carries regular coyote reports, in over ten years of hanging around my park a lot—a lot!—I’ve never seen a coyote here.

The coyote moved soundlessly into the thicket. I stayed just where I was for a long time, hoping it might reappear, but no luck. (On my part, anyway; the coyote probably considered himself pretty lucky to have effectively disappeared.) The instant I had seen the coyote, my attention immediately snapped into a different mode, that of sharply heightened awareness focused on one goal: finding that coyote again.

Fascination

I was fascinated. “Fascination” is actually a technical term used by Stephen Kaplan  (who prefers it to William James’s “involuntary attention”) to refer to a type of attention that’s not consciously directed, but that’s effortless. When you’re fascinated, as I was with the coyote, your attention is drawn by its object without any apparent initial choice on your part. Of course, you can choose to refocus your attention somewhere else if you want to, but that takes effort if you’ve become fascinated by something.

Dimensions of fascination

I finally decided to move from where I’d seen the coyote, and circumnavigate the thicket on the chance I could glimpse him from another angle. All my senses were attuned to the shape of the coyote: not only his visual outline, but the particular way sunlight and shade would look on his rich reddish fur, the sparkle his dark eyes might have looking out at me from the shadows.

And I was also listening for his shape. In his case, his sound-shape would be the alarm calls of robins and other birds, the auditory web of worry around him. I tried to track him for a while by mapping where the robins were calling, then finally everyone quieted down. Maybe the coyote went to sleep in some secret pocket in the shrubbery.

Resting through attention

Kaplan credits fascination with providing a kind of resting place for our attention. A complementary form of attention is called by James “directed attention,” in which we try to retain our focus on something. This kind of attention is obviously really important for our survival—we have to be able to forage or shop for dinner, watch out for our children, or for cars or other predators—but it’s tiring after a while.

The experience of fascination allows us to rest while our minds stay active. It’s not just nature that can be fascinating, of course, but nature’s relative lack of human control opens infinite possibilities for fascination that aren’t provided by human-designed entertainment. Maybe that’s why I always feel so rested as well as so alert when I finally come home.

Now every time I go into the park, it’s full of coyote-shaped spaces in a way it never was for me before. And endlessly more fascinating.

Mama Hawk, Baby Raccoon, and Wild Animals’ Perceptions of Us

One Stuck Baby

 Tuesday morning there was a heartwarming story in our wonderful neighborhood online newspaper, the West Seattle Blog, by a kindhearted man who rescued a baby raccoon who’d gotten stuck between the planks of the man’s fence. As the man told the story, the mother raccoon glanced back at him “as if to say ‘thank you'” before she left with her tired but free baby.

Our next-door neighbor has a deck that apparently provides an excellent roof under which to raise baby raccoons, and each year there’s been a raccoon family with annually adorable kittens. And because several years ago they discovered that on the other side of our cat door they’d reliably find deliciously crunchy cat food, raccoon family stories seem to have been passed on from generation to generation about the treasure trove inside.

So each year when raccoon-kitten time comes, one morning we’ll come downstairs to find muddy footprints around the cat-food dish, and then we have to figure out how to discourage this year’s cohort from making themselves at home.

Last week the current mother raccoon came up on the deck looking for a way to get to the lunch counter. Her right eye is white and her right ear is slightly tattered, so I figure she’s been around the block a bit. She had made friends with a wild-animal-loving friend of ours who house-sat for us a couple of years ago, so I squatted down in front of the open back door and extended the back of my hand.

She came over and sniffed it, then cautiously headed for the opening behind me. I had the sense that she trusted me but wasn’t too sure about my partner (a feeling he reciprocates). I gently discouraged her and she ambled off under our back fence. I don’t think she should come into our house, really, but I can’t help being glad that she seems not to be scared of me.

So I could really empathize with the man’s story about rescuing the baby raccoon, and I hope I would have done the same thing with the grace and intelligence that he did. I’d like to think the mother raccoon was indeed grateful to him for freeing her baby.

MamaHawk’s Difficult Encounter

The Cooper’s Hawk babies are within a few days of fledging now! They’re rapidly acquiring mature plumage, their fuzzy white angelic wings becoming darker and more textured.

Cooper's Hawk nestling - near fledging (about 24 days old)

Earlier the same morning as the baby raccoon report—really early for me, like 6:15—I had been in the Lincoln Park woods watching as a fellow birder, a hawk expert whom I’ll call Steve, prepared to trap my Cooper’s Hawk mother, so that he could band her and more effectively track her in coming years.

When I arrived at the nest, the hawk nestlings were stretching and flapping in the dawn sun; MamaHawk was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly Steve saw her arrive, flying up to a nearby tree—without carrying food, which was a significant observation for his purposes. The hawk trap was a cage with live sparrows in it, and the idea is that when the hawk sees the agitated birds and attempts to take one, her legs become entangled in the wire jesses looping around the outside of the cage. A hungry hawk is more likely to see the caged sparrows as breakfast. Usually the sparrows aren’t harmed, since the hawk can’t actually get to them, which I was really glad to know.

Steve went quickly to a nearby field, within view of where the hawk was sitting, to set the cage on the ground and hide. Within about a minute, the mother hawk sailed straight down to the trap, and a moment later I heard Steve call out, “I’ve got her!”

His helper and I ran over. With professional efficiency and gentleness, Steve stretched her legs out, folded her wings, and inserted her headfirst into a hawk-sized can so she couldn’t injure herself as he worked. He examined her feathers to assess their maturity (she’s a second-year bird, somewhat immature for a mother, as I’ve noted before), measured her talons, unfolded each wing to feel for body fat so he could estimate her health. I was glad to hear that she’s in average-to-good shape.

Then Steve clipped a silver band on her right leg and two blue bands on her left leg, sealing them with a kind of stapler after making sure that they were loose enough on her unusually thick legs. Finally he pulled her out of the can and sent her flying on her way.

I wondered whether she’d be so traumatized by all this that she’d be anxious about landing on prospective prey for a while, potentially making her babies go hungry—and whether I’d ever again be able to get close enough to take her picture after what I imagined was a pretty terrifying encounter with humans.

But later I began to rewonder: could she have thought that the human was actually rescuing her from a bad situation, like the baby raccoon’s? Was her experience that she was trapped and struggling, but was helped by a human who went to some lengths to free her? How well can animals discern our intent in interacting with them? When she looked down at us from her tree after her release, was it with well-earned fear or “as if to say ‘thank you'”?

Yesterday afternoon, I was photographing the Cooper’s Hawk babies flapping at the edge of their nest, looking like little ospreys as they get ready to leave their first home for good.

Young Cooper's Hawks - about 29 days old

Young Cooper's Hawk stretches its wings - about 29 days old

I was so relieved when MamaHawk flew in and landed directly above my head, where she stayed for 45 minutes preening and watching her nest.

Mother Cooper's Hawk preening

She was still there when I left. Thank heaven.

Mother Cooper's Hawk watches over her nest