The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

August 25, 2005

Instinctual-Cultural States

Both great blue herons and snowy egrets do food dances, stirring up the
muddy bottom layers of a body of water, so that invertebrates and small
fish attempt to flee the disturbance. Dinner! The snowy egret seems more
nervous, constantly vibrating the water equally with one and then the
other foot, shaking the sediment loose. There are two techniques; both
conserve energy. The inactive technique requires waiting, hardly moving at
all: this is the usual pointed stance of the birds. When a fish or other
animal becomes visible, it can be instantly seized with little energy. The
active technique involves the dances themselves, throwing the animals into
confusion. More food, but a greater energy expenditure which balances out.
The dance itself involves turning, wing-flapping, something ruffling the
surface as if taking off, only to move a few feet. These actions can be
repeated three or four times in a row as the food is hurried along. I've
seen the willets use another technique altogether, picking up plants and
other organic debris from the shallows, then shaking it wildly, finally
jabbing at the result. It's difficult to tell what is happening with a
standard video camera (i.e. not high-speed), but small mollusks are most
likely shaken loose. The jabbing is ferocious and rhythmic. Now all of
these are foraging techniques; there are also, of course, the skimmers,
the bobbers, the divers, the plunge divers, the sifters. In almost every
case, the prey is small. What is most fascinating, however, about the
dance behavior, is the potential degree to which this represents culture,
not 'instinct,' however defined. Do all populations of egrets and herons
perform similarly, or rather equivalently? I'm not in a position to judge.
Surely there are new techniques; the willet debris shaking is most likely
one of them. Another point, to which I have no answer: How related are
these behaviors to mating behaviors? And again, how much of both may be
considered cultural? For these behaviors are not simple, as, for example,
the plunge diving of the least tern might be - a singular and necessary
monotonic act, for the most part. Of course even with the least tern we do
not see what goes on beneath the surface. But the dance itself is even at
first sight complex; there are numerous behaviors associated in various
combinations. I could not tell in any case whether egrets or herons favor
the left or right foot; with the snowy egrets, the division of labor
between left and right seemed equivalent. The great blue had another
technique, along with remaining still, pointing, and that is a slow wading
which also involved what I think must be the right foot slowly moving
backward as the bird advances - backward beneath the surface, almost
imperceptibly plowing the bottom. I can only assume this does not frighten
the bottom-dwellers, but registers only as a slight inconvenience, to
which they might respond by momentarily surfacing, seeking another cover -
not to be found, as the heron quickly catches its prey. These birds -
great blues and snow egrets - see almost three hundred sixty degrees; this
is obvious when they face you forward, their eyes, immersed in the sides
of their heads, clearly visible and watching. The world appears constantly
and in the dance of hunter and prey, however defined, we see energy held
to a minimum, high survival, and a slim possibility of out-waiting the
depredations of man.

I have taped some of the above behaviors at the Bolsa Chica wildlife
preserve in Huntington Beach, California. I am interested in instinctual-
cultural states (ICS) and their relation to historiography. For example,
we assume an absence of Jurassic technology (except of course for the
museum devoted to it!); our assumptions guide our investigations. But
there is no indication for example that all reptilian behavior, even
today, is instinctual, and given the long-term development of the
dinosaurs, there is a good possibility that what even we might concede as
cultural existed in ages remote from our own. When we look at birds, we
are witnessing today a new ethological-cultural ornithology in the making,
as definitions and values of ICS change. We have set ourselves up as
arbiters of intelligence and survival upon the planet, and have acted
accordingly, and brutally. It is too late to glimpse anything but the
remnants of other intelligence, as our own falters upon some ulterior
shore most likely of our own making.

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