Members of the plover family, killdeer are beautiful birds with high-contrast bodies of white, black, and dark brown accented by fiery orange eye rings. According to Wikipedia, the killdeer is named onomatopoetically. Huh? Can I have the language of origin? Are there any alternative pronunciations? Can you use it in a sentence? Sure: Onomatopoetically is a very hard word to spell. Well, of course this means that the killdeer’s call is supposedly something like “kill-deer,” but I’ll be darned if I can hear that. To me, it sounds more like a single, sharp, piercing, descending note. Perhaps I should have my hearing checked.
Beyond their striking physical appearance, killdeer have a particular behavior worth considering, one that is found only among a few bird species (mostly members of the plover family), a small number of mammals, and the stickleback fish. Specifically, unlike most birds who wisely try to avoid detection by potential predators, the killdeer makes an obvious attempt to attract attention when danger lurks. The attempt to attract the attention of a predator is termed a distraction display, or more specifically in the case of the killdeer, the broken-wing act. When initially described by David Lack in 1932, the broken-wing act of the killdeer was hypothesized to be merely a partial paralysis brought about by fear, putting it in the same category as the fear-fainting response of the genetically mis-engineered myotonic goat. Later, Edward Armstrong (1949) argued that the displays were meant to draw the predator away from the nest, but Armstrong fell short of granting either intention or an intender to the intended behavior, stating that the behavior was not conscious or under intelligent control. Really Ed? How anyone can observe this behavior in its natural context and not conclude that it is as intentional as the day is long is beyond me. (This might be a good time to mentally transport myself 70 years into the future and consider how some of my current beliefs about nature would be mocked.)
I recently had the opportunity to observe this distraction display while wandering along an overgrown dirt road in the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Montana. I observed a killdeer about 50 feet ahead of me, proudly standing its ground in the middle of the road.
As I approached, the killdeer began to flop about and for a few moments my “awwwww” sympathy instinct was triggered and I watched to see if there was anything I could do to help this obviously injured bird. I then noticed that there was an unusually systematic pattern to the bird’s injury reaction. The killdeer would drag her left wing in the dusty ground for about five feet while chirping and looking back at me over her shoulder, mouth open, eyes unblinking, and then put both wings up in the air as if stretching sore muscles for a few seconds. She then proceeded to hop a few inches repeatedly while holding one wing at an odd angle.
As I watched, the bird took flight and flew closer, perhaps halving the distance between us, and repeated the steps in the same order. Only on the second exhibition of this pattern, separated by apparently healthy flight abilities, did the cleverness of this bird strike me as I realized she was feigning this injury. My thoughts immediately turned to respect for her gargantuan parental instinct.
The plan of the distraction display is two-fold. First, I was to be led away from the bird’s nest and the resident eggs or mate or young. Second, the bird was to cleanly escape without injury. But neither of these could be guaranteed. I might, as a clever or lucky predator, find the nest anyway and devour the young. Or, I may catch the parent with a quick move while she was attempting to lead me tantalizingly close to her. Clearly, this animal was putting herself at mortal risk in order to protect her young, just as any human would do. Or nearly any human anyway. Well, the majority to be sure. OK, if not a substantial minority, then at least SOME humans would do this, right?
This experience and the subsequent research I did on the broken-wing act left me with two strong impressions. First, I felt a bit embarrassed because this bird was exhibiting, and probably exhibited every day, a type of courage that I have not produced in my 49 years. To let myself off the hook a bit, I don’t necessarily recall being in a similar situation, but have I been in other situations that called for courage of different types wherein I had failed to rise to the occasion? Ummmmm…well…
Second, I was once again impressed with how desperate humans are to discount animal behavior as being purely instinctual (e.g., not conscious or under intelligent control alla Armstrong), or even pathetic and weak (partial paralysis brought about by fear alla Lack) when in fact it is as noble and clever and impressive as just about anything we do. All this done with no more brain cells than the average college student loses on a weekend bender, and a heart the size of your fingernail.
Under the assumption that all non-human animals are pathetic and weak, then sure, this behavior could be seen as a fear-based partial paralysis. Under the assumption that non-human animals have no sentience, consciousness, or real intelligence, sure, this could be seen as unconscious, instinctual, inherited behavior. But why not arrive on the scene without such self-species-aggrandizing assumptions? Why not view this behavior and be struck with the strength of the bond between parent and child, prompting the parent to repeatedly put her very life on the line to protect her young. Why not be struck by the glare in the eyes of this bird, staring me down, locking eyes with me in a clear attempt to start a blinking contest (I lost).
Why not revel in the complex behavior, choreographed so expertly that I, a human of average intelligence but steeped in observing the natural world, was fooled? I wonder if our transparent and misguided attempts to interpret animal behavior as inferior are mere manifestations of a defense mechanism designed to hold at bay the self-esteem-destroying realization that we are in fact no better than they are? How would our lives change, how would our treatment of the animals that we physically control change if we believed them to be our moral equals? What an inconvenience this would be! And really, do you want to weigh the moral failings of animals to those of humans? I’ll put my money on the killdeer every time.
My new hero, Carolyn Ristau (1991), performed an extensive study of the broken-wing act among piping plovers, a close relative of the killdeer. Ristau’s intention was to compare competing hypotheses about the broken-wing act including that it was merely a reflex, that it was a form of paralysis, or…wait for it…that it was intentional behavior (Blasphemer! Heretic! Burn her as a witch!). After systematically dismantling arguments for pure reflexivity, paralysis, and other hypotheses about the origins of the broken-wing act, Ristau presented compelling evidence that the plovers’ behavior contained all the necessary conditions for intentionality. Even so, the humans-are-the-best crowd is very powerful in academia and Ristau wrote: "To those who are discomforted by attempts to study “consciousness” in animals, recognize that even taking the stance of purposeful or intentional behavior without ever implying consciousness is a fruitful enterprise." Really? Must we be so tentative and appeasing to those whose understanding of animal behavior has yet to evolve beyond the stimulus-response and reflexivity models? Let us hope that in the 26 years since Ristau wrote this, one no longer needs to pre-pologize to “those who are discomforted.” Yes, frankly, it is discomforting to be rooted out of our outdated and self-serving assumptions, but it is high time.
In 2008, Chuck Steig wrote: "In the 17th Century Rene Descartes argued that animals are mechanisms and probably do not think in any sense, as evidenced by the fact that they do not possess anything like human language." One might forgive Descartes for doubting animal thinking, as he famously doubted everything (except, perhaps, man’s place outside and above the rest of the natural world and, ironically, the pricelessness of his own thoughts while denying the existence of thought in animals).
Steig continued: "More recently, Donald Davidson (1982) has argued that since having beliefs depends on having concepts and speech, and since animals are not speakers or interpreters of a language, animals do not have thoughts." Well this certainly seems reasonable (sorry if my dripping sarcasm has sullied your keyboard). Since animals don’t possess human language, they do not think in any sense, righty-o. Since they are not speakers or interpreters of a language, they do not have thoughts, okelydokely. I assume that Davidson meant that animals speak neither French nor German, and therefore do not speak any language. How difficult it is to slip off the shackles or our human perspective! On this point, Robert Brault stated: "If a rabbit defined intelligence the way man does, then the most intelligent animal would be a rabbit, followed by the animal most willing to obey the commands of a rabbit." The fact is that more and more people (even scientists, cemented though they are in their grant-seeking, federally-funded, campaign contribution-dependent ship of fools) are recognizing that animals have mental capacities far beyond what was previously assumed and frequently far beyond our own. That this recognition is increasing despite our having stacked the deck so egregiously against it is a testament to just how dramatically wrong we have been.
Every species and every individual within every species has it's own challenges to overcome. I watch the killdeer face its challenges with unyielding courage and cleverness. I will try to do the same.