Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 21, 2014

Following directions

By Pamela Holz | Dec 13, 2012

Animals can’t read. While that may sound obvious, we often forget it.

Recently I heard a recording of a call-in to a radio station. The caller felt compelled to fix what she saw as a dangerous situation, but apparently had been ignored by officials. The roads department had placed deer crossing signs on busy highways, putting both the deer and drivers at risk for accidents. She herself had hit deer shortly after seeing these signs. It would make much more sense, she added, if the signs were placed in out-of-the-way spots, with slower traffic, like school crossings.

Now, I don’t know what reaction she had received when she contacted officials (the deejays were obviously trying not to laugh), but I believe I know what my response would have been. I would have patiently listened in wide-eyed disbelief, explain the signs were placed in high populations of deer to warn drivers of a potential hazard, and that the deer can’t “read” the signs, and cross wherever they want anyway.

Then, I would have hung up and immediately told my co-workers. Okay, maybe not immediately, as I would have had to catch my breath from laughing so hard.

This reminds me of a friend who related a story about her preschooler on a family trip. Upon learning what a deer crossing sign means, she anxiously looked out for deer along the way. As the miles progressed with no deer, she grew frustrated at the deer for not following directions. They finally appeared, but no sign marked their route. She complained, how dare the deer cross without a sign.

Life, for us, might be a whole lot easier if we could tell wildlife what to do. At the very least, we should be able to predict their actions with some accuracy. However, wildlife is a lot like the weather, changeable and sometimes unpredictable.

During my birding class in college, I couldn’t count the number of times my professor said, “They shouldn’t be doing that.” You can write all the books you want about bird behavior, but the fact of the manner is, the birds will still not read them.

Early on in my career, I helped a supervisor clean out wood duck houses. I was holding the ladder for him when he nearly leapt off it right after opening the cleaning door. The entrance hole of the boxes is designed for a wood duck to be able to fit, but not an egg-eating raccoon. Apparently, not all coons know that. My supervisor was obviously more shocked than the raccoon, who curled back up to his nap.

As a naturalist, I have found myself in the same position more times than I would prefer.

On one occasion, a now former co-worker came into the office and told me of a robin nest on the ground. I immediately dismissed her identification. Robins nest in trees. Well, she said, it had eggs the color of a robin’s, the same light blue. I couldn’t think of any other bird off the top of my head with blue eggs, but knew it couldn’t be a robin. So I had her show me. A robin flushed off the ground nest when we approached. I apologized as soon as I got my foot out of my mouth.

On another, a class of first-graders asked if we would see deer during our hike. No, I reply, it’s early afternoon. They wouldn’t be moving now, and they wouldn’t be in this area at this time of day at this time of year. I turn to lead them forward when two deer, 10 feet from us, spring up and run away. Oops.

I tell students that the best way to see animals is to be quiet during the walk. However, I’ve had a few noteworthy classes of restless students who have seen more wildlife than the hushed ones.

I’m a quick learner, though. I try not to make definite statements about animals now. Instead, I say it’s unlikely. Or simply, I don’t know, wildlife follow their own rules. If it’s a nocturnal animal in question, I ask the kids if they ever stay up late. Well, sometimes, night animals stay up late and are seen in daytime.

I really shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of animals’ willingness to do what they are supposed to do. I have two kids whom I can, relatively speaking, easily give directions to, but they don’t always listen, either. And I still can’t get them to read child behavior books so they know how to act.

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