October, 2010

More Owls

After a side trip for shopping, I drove out to Goat Rock and spent some time on the beach, here it was cool enough that I needed a ski jacket to stay comfortable.

At one point, I was sitting on a large driftwood log, watching the sea and some nearby seagulls.

One brown gull seemed to be begging for food. A white gull took objection, trying to chase it away. Not satisfied, it grabbed the brown gull's neck in it's beak and started shaking it. I said "Hey! That's not nice!" and stood up, slowly walking over to the area. The gulls walked away. I followed, moving slowly, herding them around a circle till I got between that white gull and the brown one.

I faced the white gull and looked down at it. It stopped, looked back up at me, pulling it's neck in a little; I am not sure if from fear or a sense of guilt. It could easily have flown away, but it didn't. Perhaps it felt that it deserved whatever was to come, implying a sense of guilt. It may not understand that we have laws against harming them; but it clearly understand that we are not usually intentionally dangerous, at least not the full grown humans.

Looking at it, I shook my head, said "that wasn't nice", and walked back to my seat on the driftwood logs.

The brown gull soon came over to me, as if recognizing from my actions that I was a potential friend. It squawked with its head low, as if asking for food. I showed my empty palms. It understood and went back toward the other gulls, later soliciting near the nasty white gull again. When it did, the white gull looked at me for a moment, and chose to do nothing, remaining stationary while the brown gull walked about squawking.

Many animals understand more than we give them credit for. I know the white gull understood something; but whether it was that it had acted inappropriately, or just that I was protecting the brown gull, I don't know. Perhaps it had often seen how human parents hold back their children when they disturb the gulls. That it just stood there, stoically putting up with the brown gull's cries does suggest it understood my actions were directly related to it's own actions, and that if it did not repeat those actions, I would not repeat my actions.

Am I reading too much of my own sense of self into this tiny animal? I think not.

There is a considerable difference between the domesticated animals we are familiar with, ones who depend upon us and thus can act with less consideration for the consequences of their actions; and those "wild" animals who are independent, knowing they must take responsibility for their lives and those of their offspring. These seagulls have evolved to live 20 to 49 years and care for each batch of young for up to four years, during which time they teach them something about life, what to eat, where to hunt, and maybe whom to trust. That takes a much more flexible brain than mere instinct; it includes some of what scientists call "theory of mind", the ability to grasp some of what another being is considering before it acts. The actions of that gull clearly demonstrated it's ability to form a theory of why I had acted, and how I would act in response to future actions.

Their participation in a larger society during a life span of 20 to 49 years means they must have at least the rudiments of some of our social skills and some of the sense of community that we enjoy. They may not be as smart or as knowledgeable as we are; but our societies overlap as we sometimes share our food, and our friendship with them. They reciprocate, sometimes staying with us a while after we have finished our shared meal.

And at other times, they do become clever thieves, clearly judging our interests, in part by where we look. I'd read this story before in a newspaper, and Snopes verified it: Seagull raids convenience store.

I have also seen an occasional gull eat the remains of dead gulls; but not every gull seems to do that, or approve such behavior. Another gull near that bird visibly cringed when he saw the first gull pick at the dead seagull's flesh and walked away in a manner that made me believe it was shaken by the first gull's actions.

Like my friends the owls did, the seagulls accept us as part of their larger community. If we treat them as having some intelligence, we may interact better, even communicate.



Copyright (C) 2010, JVV