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February 16, 2019

Interesting ways of learning animal behaviour

SIMPE SOPHISTICATION: Vevet monkeys spilling drinks in a hotel. Photo/STEVE KINUTHIA
SIMPE SOPHISTICATION: Vevet monkeys spilling drinks in a hotel. Photo/STEVE KINUTHIA

Learning animal behaviours can be very simple. By paying attention to what the animals in your compound do, you can learn a lot. Recently I bought some free-range chicken to breed at home for food and eggs. I started off with just two – a hen and a rooster. After about two months, I had 12 – the two parents and 10 little ones. I had to keep the chicks caged for fear of losing them to the black kite that overflies my house on a daily basis. It seems like I am not the only one overly interested in watching the little birds walking around the mother and collecting bits of food that the mother digs up from the sawdust that I keep in their little house to keep them warm. There is another interested party in the name of the eagles and kites. For me, it gives me pleasure to see how big the number of birds has grown, and how happy I will be when I begin reaping benefits from the venture. But for the larger birds, it is a choice dinner that they seek.

About a month later, I took the chicks out of the cage so that they can roam around the compound with their parents and supplement their diets by eating insects and grass within. That is when I noticed that the language between the parents and the chicks had suddenly increased. There were way too many calls and the chicks were reacting differently from a specific call. I followed them for some time just observing the calls and reactions, and I must say I was entertained and educated at the same time.

At some point, the rooster would look up and give a call. The chicks would go dead silent. Another different call and the chicks would quickly dash under the flower fence and hideaway so expertly I would not be able to see them from as short a distance as five metres away. Yet I saw where they entered into the flower bushes. Camouflage comes to them instinctively. After a while, a call from the mother this time brought the whole 10 chicks back into the open ground and they continued feeding under the guidance of the mother, using yet a different call.

This observation shows that animals communicate profusely with one another in a wide variety of context. Of that, there can be no doubt. But much of this communication only tells us that certain type of signals have been exchanged with a certain function in view. The rooster shrieked a call of alarm. A youngster would cry for food. These signals do not by themselves reveal what might be in the mind of the sender or the receiver.

The calls do not tell us what both of them might be thinking or feeling about a situation. Because the calls are purely confined to the immediate context in which it takes place. An alarm call is given to warn of a stalking predator. Were the call meant also to express the feelings of the caller, maybe there would be a difference in the tone to indicate the amount of fear in the caller. That would come close to the human. We use words and gestures with varying intensity, which pretty much conveys the feelings. We use language as a vehicle for thought.

There is evident, though debatable, that some animals especially primates and some social insects do something similar. The vervet monkey, which many of us know as the little thief in many picnic sites in the park, has been studied widely in this respect. Dr Dorothy Cheney, a wildlife biologist, set up a playback experiment with the monkeys. She found the three distinct types of vervet alarm call relate to three different predators.

When the vervet was played, what seemed to be an alarm call of a leopard, it quickly went up a tree. When the eagle call was played, the vervet monkey dived into thick undergrowth. A python alarm call prompted the monkey to stand up on its hind legs and scan the forest for the snake, this time round showing a less worried look. The researcher regarded this as evidence of predator classification and semantic communication. The monkey is categorising its predator and selecting very appropriate and meaningful reaction specific to each predator – just like we would choose our words carefully to a waiter in order to get our orders correct.

Steve Kinuthia is a veteran professional safari guide and the proprietor of Bushman Adventures.

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