Monday, November 10, 2014

Empathy among wild birds

The great southward migration of cranes is almost over for 2014. To some people, their incessant chattering is just noise, forcing them to cut short a conversation on their smartphones. To old people, their passage is a season marker. For old farmers, Fall starts with the swallows packing up and ends with the last of the cranes coming through.

The other day, two of the iconic wedge formations audible from miles away made their way south over our hills.
There were somewhere between five hundred to one thousand of these magnificent birds, fairly low, against an almost cloudless pale blue Fall sky.

The large formations passed, then dropped out of sight behind the hills to the southwest, and we were ready to resume our routine. That's when a fainter sound caught our attention, we looked up again, and there were three cranes. Three stragglers, their movements more laborious, less energetic and smooth were on the same trajectory, in their own three bird mini wedge.

As they came in over the buildings of the town, the lead bird banked, the others did the same, circling. Were they looking for a place to spend the night? Why over the town?

They continued to circle, dipping down a bit, then gaining elevation again. Their calls echoed between the buildings and over the brown fields.

Will those three guys make it to winter quarters?

We could hear another formation approaching! We had been wrong, they were not stragglers, they were ahead of their flock.

A formation came from the southwest, towards the town.

Confused humans, heads tilted back, stood there and watched in amazement what happened next.

The formation went straight for the three cranes, who were still circling overhead. As the cranes coming "the wrong way" reached the three individuals, the wedge broke and became a flurry of bodies, the birds regrouping around the three laggards.

A new wedge formed, oriented southwest, and the birds streamed away.

Did you see that? They took the three cranes into the middle, right?

Yes, I think they did. I am speechless, social Darwinism, my ass. Even birds don't do it.

Well, you can always make up some stupid, cynical explanation. Like the birds setting out for the trip saying, hey, lets take lame Andy, Jimmy, and guy with the one missing tail feather along as bait for predators when we stop over night. When they lost them, they went, guys, we are losing dinner, let's go get them.

Oxytocin at work sounds more plausible.

It does.

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