Saturday, August 16, 2014

Animals lead full lives that we do not understand

Lately we have been watching a pair of Carolina wrens feeding their nestlings. There is nothing unusual in their behavior, with one exception. This is that they spend a lot of time "singing" or as I prefer to call it, in calling.

Neither term seems correct because each suggests aspects which may not be true, because humans sing and call for specific reasons. Perhaps vocalizing is the best term for it.

In any case this behavior seems odd. Feeding young is a time consuming and strenuous activity. Why do the birds also spend a lot of time vocalizing, which is also time consuming and strenuous? Why not just feed the young, then eat and rest?

The point is that feeding young has a clear purpose, while vocalizing during feeding does not. Understanding the purpose of behavior is central to understanding that behavior and this is the grand challenge when it comes to understanding animal behavior. Recording the behavior is not enough, although it may help reveal the underlying purpose.

Note that explanations of human behavior are typically in terms of purpose, not action. "Going to work" is a better explanation than "driving a car" when someone asks what you are doing. The why of behavior is often more important than the what of it.

Every day I see behavior in animals that I do not understand because I do not know its purpose. It is important to learn to see things this way, to recognize how little we understand and to figure out how we can come to understand it. Moreover, simply saying that the behavior is instinctive is not an explanation at all.