We had a little less time than usual in our clans last week, but for good reason! Many of the mentors were full of inspiration from a weekend volunteering at a bird language workshop with Jon Young. We wanted to share some additional tools for understanding “bird language” with the whole village, so we performed some funny skits (with the help of many enthusiastic actors) that illustrated the different “shapes of alarm” that birds can demonstrate. “Shapes of alarm” is a catchphrase that refers to an array of identifiable physical behaviors that birds engage in, often in a group. These phenomena, which consist of different types of group activity, body language, and individual behavior, can be used by human observers to track what is going on that is causing the disturbance without being able to see the cause of the disturbance directly. More often than not the ’cause’ is a non-human predator like a hawk, bobcat, house cat, or weasel. Some of these creatures are typically very hard for humans to see in the wild. But the more you tune in to the birds, the more likely you are to be in a position to see those elusive creatures.
Understanding bird “shapes of alarm” takes us a bit deeper into bird language than simply understanding the different “voices” of the birds, which we’d shown the Village in skits several weeks ago. The different “voices” of the birds are songs, companion calling, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarm calls. The “shapes of alarm” on the other hand are not necessarily voices (thought they can include vocalizations), but are all alarm behaviors and represent a deviation from the day to day activities (“baseline“) that birds engage in to survive. We learned about how songbirds will get into large groups and form circular bubbles around stalking bobcats or scouting owls and alarm at them. For creeping ground predators, the mobbing birds will even follow them as they move across the landscape, continuing to call them out to warn those nearby. When birds feel disturbed but less threatened, like by a human jogger or a trotting coyote, they will often pop up just out of reach of the passing intruder in a tactic known as the “hook.” If a traveling animal triggers a rapid sequence of hooks, the resulting scene of many little birds successively hopping up into higher perches is known as “popcorn.” We learned how birds will flee from a Cooper’s hawk or a Sharp-shinned hawk, often either flying for their lives in a straight and fast formation known as a “bullet,” or diving into shrubs for cover where they remain completely still and quiet in a stealth tactic known as the “ditch.” When a bird flies to the top of a tree to get a good view of a threat from a relatively safe distance, that bird is called a “sentinel.” Nearby birds rely upon a sentinel’s recon abilities in order to be safe and informed of the local degree of threat.
What many people don’t know is that lots of small birds that are injured or killed from flying into glass windows are actually fleeing for their lives from aerial hunters like Sharpies or Cooper’s hawks. It’s not that they aren’t intelligent enough to know that the window is there, but rather that they are terrified for their lives and in the panicked nature of the “bullet” tactic, they fail to correctly navigate glass surfaces. One of our Village Day students, Emmett, had attended the bird language workshop with Jon Young and had a fresh story that confirmed this unfortunate phenomenon that had happened just in the few days between the workshop and last week’s Village Day. A flicker had crashed into his family’s window, breaking its neck. Remembering what Jon had said about the common cause of this, Emmett immediately looked out the window, scanning the sky. Not too far away was a Cooper’s Hawk on the prowl.
This stuff really works!
During the workshop, Jon shared a cool story that is sort of the flip-side of this. Sometimes, little birds DO navigate glass windows well. Incredibly well. He shared an account in which a human observer inside a skyscraper had watched through immense glass windows as a songbird flew directly toward the glass with a hawk in hot pursuit. At the last minute the little bird pulled the ultimate James-Bond stunt of the passerine world—turning at a near 90° angle and continuing along parallel to the building. The hawk wasn’t so lucky, and crashed into the glass. Nope, little birds aren’t dumb at all. Far from it, actually. Hawks have their fair share of moves too, including brilliant adaptations to human built environments. They are known to fly in formation with cars in urban areas, hanging just above and behind the vehicles to conceal their approach and make themselves less noticeable to potential prey. As Jon puts it, the more you observe the dance between predator and prey in the bird world, the more you realize that these guys are engaged in a never-ending game of spy-versus-spy. Except, for them, it’s not a game.
The skits took up a good part of the morning, and when we broke into our clans for the day, Raccoon clan and I trekked across the creek and walked down the dry creek bed where the river used to flow before the flood. It’s an excellent place for tracking now, and one of our Raccoons, Atomic, spotted mountain lion tracks! This is the second or third time in a month that we’ve seen lion tracks on the land in Left Hand Canyon. We hope that the trail camera we put up with Raccoon clan two weeks ago will give us some more information about these wild felines in our neighborhood. In this photo you can see very well the characteristic “lead toe” in the top track. Felines have asymmetrical tracks (whereas wild canine tracks are much more symmetrical) and have a distinct lead toe, similar to the human middle finger which is slightly longer than the other fingers. That said, this individual in particular has particularly long toes. Some individuals have foot morphology that is unique enough to actually distinguish them from other individuals of the same species. This cat might be one of those such individuals! Other general characteristics of feline tracks are the overall round primary shape of the track, versus a more diamond or oval primary shape of wild canine tracks. In feline tracks (unlike in canine tracks) the claws, which are retractable, rarely register. Can you work out how this big cat might have been moving? My own guess is at a stalk.
We also did a primitive fire exercise where we tried to gather as many different materials as possible from the landscape that we thought would make good tinder or kindling for a fire. Then the Raccoons helped me make a fire teepee, a tinder bundle with cottonwood bark, and a coal with a bow-drill kit (they took turns doing tandem bow-drill with me), and we burned various materials like dried grass, pitchy pine bark, and pinecones, and wood shavings. William discovered that an abundant dried plant, a type of clover that had died back for the season and had gotten very yellow, brittle, and dry, made excellent tinder material. Great job working together on that primitive fire, Raccoons!
At the end of the day, all the clans met back up early to play a village-wide game called “Hawks and Flocks,” a.k.a “Jays and Chickadees.” This game is sort of like a more complicated capture the flag, but there are many flags, which are in this case “nests” that the players have to guard with a partner, while they simultaneously also have to go scavenge “seeds” and safely bring them back to their nests. They have to do all this without using human language and avoiding being “caught” by predators or having their nests robbed by Jays. If you’re curious to know more, ask your Village Day student about the game—it was a huge hit! This game is a great way to get people to empathize with the spy-versus spy world of birds, which is way more epic, scouty, and full of ingenuity than most would think. See you all next time, and keep on bringing those warm layers to Village Day—it might be a chilly one this Thursday!
Raccoon Clan Mentor