One of my biggest pet peeves is when people see animals in the wild doing what is natural behavior for them and put a human spin on what they see. Let me try to explain.
One night while watching the 10 o’clock news, they ended the broadcast by showing four mature turkey gobblers chasing each other around a tree. The news reporter said something like, “Oh, look — how cute — those turkeys are playing ‘ring around the rosie’.”
When I saw this, I figured it was four tom turkeys fighting to establish their pecking order. Toms do this to establish which is the strongest, most healthy turkey, so that he will be the ‘boss’ tom and get to do the most breeding. This is very common in nature. It assures that the strongest, most healthy animals do the breeding; it is the best way to make sure the most offspring will survive and carry on the flock.
This is the same reason whitetail bucks, muley bucks, and elk have knock-down, drag-out fights — to make sure the most dominant and healthy males will do most of the breeding.
On another night, they showed a tom strutting behind some hens. The film showed the hens crossing the road with the tom following. The news reporter said, “Look, the male is making sure the hens are going to get across the road safely.”
No, the tom was displaying for the hens, hoping they would let him breed them. When a tom is strutting, his desire to breed overrides everything else. When this time comes for male deer or turkeys, they are in ‘rut’. They don’t eat much and don’t even watch out for their personal safety. This is when deer are more likely to be killed on our roadways — during October and November.
The pecking order is so strong, the competition to move up in the pecking order so important, that other toms will jump on an injured tom, attacking him and pecking on his head to make sure he is dead.
If a turkey in a flock appears to be injured or sick, the others will peck on it to make sure they get it out of the flock. Again, although this seems cruel, it’s a way to keep the flock healthy, giving it the best chance to survive.
Another time I was watching TV and saw a video clip of a dad who had taken his young son to the zoo. They were looking inside of the fence, videoing a big cat — a mountain lion or leopard — when a squirrel started to move toward the big cat. The dad said something to the effect of, “‘How nice; they’re going to become friends.” About that time, the big cat attacked, tearing the squirrel to pieces and eating it. The dad was so distressed at seeing this, he was very shaken. The boy turned around and said, “Cool!” and gave a thumbs up. Another example of animal behavior being misunderstood.
When people see an adult with her young, they try to humanize what they see by saying, “Look how much that mother loves her babies.” I don’t believe that there is love — not in the way we understand love. Again, they do all they can to make sure their young thrive to help the flock or herd survive.
Once the young make it to adulthood, they are pushed away. The adult has done its job and is ready to move on to the next year to try to raise more offspring for the good of the flock or herd.
I’ll admit, to us as humans, nature can seem cruel. Once a young one is lost, I don’t believe the female feels any despair; it just moves on to try to get the other young to adulthood.
This is the time of year when we may find young animals alone in the wild. It may appear that they have been abandoned, but probably not. The female often leaves her young for a while, but she’ll return. Many people believe they are helping by taking the young animal home, but nothing could be further from the truth. Once you’ve removed them from the wild, it’s very hard to return them.
The next time you observe animal behavior, try not to look at it the way we would look at human behavior, and remember that animals are focused on survival at any cost.
Rick Cunningham is an avid outdoorsman from Ellis, KS