Animal Friendships: Two Years of Careful Observation


Over the past two years I have studied, carefully, the interactions within my waterfowl flock. From the time my birds were hatchlings until now, I have sat almost daily for spans of up to five hours, observing, photographing, and videotaping my ducks and geese. Then I've spent countless hours going over these photos and videos, examining and editing, compiling clips into videos that highlight some of the behaviors I've observed. However, most of this editing has produced videos meant to entertain: funny, interesting, quirky. But there is something much more serious to explore and explain as a result of what can be considered no less than deep research.

Forget labs and university studies for a moment. I read, often, about studies conducted in such controlled environments where, for example, chimps are shown a miniature (doll-sized) locker and a tiny soda is placed in the locker and then the chimps are lead to a large room with a life-sized locker and expected to infer that the soda they saw represented in miniature is inside the real locker. Let's step back a minute. Whose environment is this anyway? Who drinks soda? Who needs a locker? Do chimps in the wild store their personal items in lockers? Do they, in fact, have a need for lockers? No. This leaves the question of how reasonable it is to expect a chimp to infer that the representation of a soda pop, that playing "dolls", being placed in a tiny metal box means that in the next room there is a big metal box with a real soda inside. I find this to be "out of context". Yes, my brain can figure this out, but why should I expect that a chimp can and why is it so important that a chimp can figure this out when a chimp has no need for soda or lockers?

Let's look at this from a different perspective. Say the chimps are the researchers and they've placed a human in a tree in the middle of a jungle. The purpose of the study is to see how smart the human is according to chimp standards. We have to ask, What are chimp standards? Why is this important? It is important if a) the human is to survive in a chimp environment, and b) the chimp is using this measure of intelligence to determine how humanely humans should be treated.

In this case the human in question is a random member of society, someone who visits a salon every six weeks, drives a nice car, dry cleans their clothes, and possibly someone who doesn't like to have their things get dirty. The individual is up in a tree, naked, without any of the things a modern human being uses on a daily basis. For days, perhaps weeks, the chimps on the other side of a one-way mirror observe the human in its struggle to survive. Is this human equipped to deal with predators, rain, and finding food? I have to say, and surely you will admit, that the human is ill-equipped. While resourceful, the average human has no need to survive in such environments as the chimp has no need for a soda and locker.

Another study I read about, done by some university students, tested how chickens feel about being in crowded, factory farm conditions. How did they test this? Inside a room. In fact, as I recall, the room was occupied, like an apartment, completely furnished and the chickens were released. In this unfamiliar place the chickens crowded together, huddling, and this caused the researchers to determine that chickens don't mind being in crowded conditions, because they naturally flock together.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If a group of humans are dumped into an alien environment one can be reasonably certain--meaning probably these humans will huddle together as in most chickens will do the same, but not always--that the humans will be on guard and stay together because they are wary or scared. This seems an obvious and natural response for most species. I find it lacking in so many ways if it is used as an answer to whether or not chickens can tolerate crowded conditions. It doesn't take much reasoning to see the flaws in this study.

Now, after presenting these ideas I will explain what I have discovered about animal friendships. We humans can easily observe our pets playing, eating side-by-side, sleeping curled up together to keep warm, and otherwise interacting and we can call these interactions "friendships". But are they friendships in the way we impart meaning to friendships? Before we jump to the next roadblock and claim anthropomorphism, we have to look at why we claim some friendships are more important than others. How, I ask, is it more important that one human is friends with another human when measured against one dog being friends with another dog? If a deeper meaning is found, one that satisfies our human need to judge another species based on our own criteria is discovered, isn't this enough to admit animals are sentient beings "just like us", or is it that we do not wish to admit this, because it requires re-examination of societal norms right down to how we raise animals and what we eat, wear, produce, etc.?

First I will tell you that, after two years of careful observation, each one of my ducks and geese has likes, dislikes, and a distinct personality. Some are socially attached due to being raised together, while others have formed friendships more deliberately. In all cases the formation of real friendships has taken time. There is hierarchy and there are disagreements. There is also a clear distinction between species, even though my goose was raised with three male ducks called drakes. Once I raised a little gander (male goose) my female goose slowly became attached to him and now she considers herself a goose.

But this is not clear cut as I one of the three drakes became attached to Lucy the goose. Even though she's been with her goose mate for over nine months now, the little Indian runner drake Ming identifies with her. Ming has demonstrated behavior differences throughout his life and there aren't any duck hens who ever solicit Ming for mating. Ming consistently sneaks up on the hens and frightens them by pouncing on their backs for no other reason than to scare them. The conclusion I've drawn is that Ming does not read or follow social cues; therefore, he is undesirable to the hens as a mating partner.

Regardless, Ming has friends. The two other drakes he was raised with have provided constant companionship and have tolerated Ming's differences. Off to a rocky start during adolescence, where his brother Clyde and the other drake, a Cayuga named Augie who I refer to as King of Doodles, would chase him down and rape him, once females were introduced and adolescence was over with, this ceased and new behaviors developed. One of these new behaviors was the routine of stepping aside employed by Augie and Clyde so that Ming could mate an unsuspecting hen. It works like this: A hen approached Augie or Clyde and begins bobbing her head, so Augie or Clyde reciprocates with a head bob and the hen flattens herself as an invitation to the drake to mount her. In the meanwhile Ming runs up on the sidelines and is positioned so that he can take over. Augie or Clyde actually completes the motion of stepping a foot onto the hen's back, but simultaneously steps aside as Ming steps on. At this point the hen realizes she's been tricked and becomes vociferous, objecting with loud quacks, but it's too late as Ming is already in position to mate. Besides chasing a hen down until she relents, this is the only way Ming has successfully mated. It is never reciprocated.

So when Ming has the opportunity to attempt mating with the goose Lucy, he is scrambling to get into the pool and mount her. She jumps out and runs away when this happens and sometimes he follows her. Now there is the gander to contend with. One would think the gander would hurt Ming, easily, but this has not been the case. I've concluded through observation that Ming is not hurt because the drakes and the geese know he is "different". This is the reason he gets away with so much that can be considered heckling. But where is the line drawn? I witnessed, yesterday, the point where tolerance gave way when Ming jumped in the pool and began trying to mount the gander after chasing Lucy, the female goose, out of the pool where she had been bathing peacefully with her mate. This is where I will demonstrate a deeper connection, the more meaningful side of friendship as displayed by animals.

Augie, the drake I call King of Doodles, Doodles being ducks, the flock, watches over everyone. Time and time again I've noticed, after going back over videos and photographs and then observing in person, that Augie is always watching everything. Earlier this week when my muscovy drake Sao-Ree attempted to rape one of the hens, Augie ran from the sidelines and beat Sao-Ree with his wings, distracting Sao-Ree so that the hen could get away. Augie is also patient. He tolerates Ming's tendency to spring on him from behind--something Ming does because it appears he does not respect the social hierarchy and/or is struggling to gain control in a flock he will never conquer. Yet, even though Augie is clearly the leader, he never harms Ming, but remains gentle with him.

Augie was watching Ming attempt to mount Lucy the other day. Lucy, of course, pushed him away with her beak, nudged him, and refused his advances and then ran away. Ming suddenly noticed that Wee-Woo, the gander, was bathing in the pool and decided to go after him. (I think Ming gets frustrated and then takes his frustration out on anyone around him as I've witnessed this numerous times.) At this point I don't think Ming distinguished which goose was in the pool, but saw it as an opportunity to fulfill his desires so-to-speak.

Once in the pool, Ming attempted to mount Wee-Woo who pushed him away. Ming was determined and that's when Wee-Woo began beating his powerful wings with the intention of ridding himself of Ming's advances. Augie had been watching the disturbance from the beginning and shot from the sidelines and into the pool--interesting since he doesn't get in the pool often--straight between Ming and Wee-Woo, providing Ming a clear path to get away, and he did. Ming exited the pool and so did Augie. It was a smooth operation and everyone ended up safe.

Augie could perceive Ming as competition, after all Ming's persistent attempts at dominating the flock are a threat to Augie's leadership, aren't they? Yet Augie treats Ming as if Ming is a weaker party, someone to pity rather than fear, and Augie comes to Ming's aid when he's in trouble--no doubt trouble he has stirred up on his own.

As humans we consider friends to be many things, but we truly value the friend who sticks up for us, who keeps us safe, and genuinely cares about our well-being. I have seen this friendship among members of my flock who are not confined within a lab or observed wandering in my undergrad apartment where I merely take notes and conclude, "Yeah, animals are dumb!"

My conclusion is that it is humans who need to take time to observe and understand for we do not see clearly the distinctions between individual animals readily, let alone read their body language adequately; therefore, how is it that we can even begin to conclude that other species are lesser than our own? Is it the same way we conclude that some people are less intelligent than others, therefore, less worthy of privilege and humane treatment? Why is there such an emphasis on perceived-intelligence rather than the basic desires, emotions, and universal differences that are just that: differences, when we judge who is expendable and who is worthy? I say we take more time and look through the different lenses in our tool bags, because it is shameful if we go on claiming we have so many tools when we are too lazy to use them.

The languages of other species, perhaps, are so complex that we humans are the ones who have failed to connect for we are not masters of this universe, but students who are still in pre-school, still learning to hold our crayons.
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