Look like a Wild Turkey

I want to look like a turkey. Don’t misread me. I want to look like one, not look like a turkey. The eyesight of wild turkeys is superior to every other inhabitant of eastern forests with the exception of raptors and vultures, and probably three times as acute as a human hunter with 20/20 vision.

Little details that don’t get our attention matter to turkeys. They notice a trivial silhouette that might betray the ears of a lurking coyote, or the metallic ring pointing out of shrubbery 100 yards away that could be a shotgun barrel. They might even notice an unfamiliar blue flash on a hunter’s camouflaged jacket who didn’t realize that detergent containing optical brighteners leaves fluorescent traces that are noticed by quarry with sharp eyes at the blue end of the spectrum.

Where Wild Turkeys safely graze
Where Wild Turkeys safely graze

But when I look peep through a window to watch a gang of turkeys feeding at our sanctuary area it’s not only their visual supremacy I admire but how acutely they take in their surroundings, as of course they must. If we were a prey species we would not last long in the woods, having lost or forgotten the craft of “looking out.” When I saunter along a trail I have less than half a mind on my surroundings, being either engaged in conversation with another hiker or lost in private thoughts. If this is true of a naturalist I guess it must be general. What do I miss on a hike—a rare bird or butterfly, a glistening stone or weird mushroom, a trail of beaten grass or an intriguing dollop of scat? How much richer the experience if I looked harder, saw more, mentally engaged my surroundings; how many more critters and stories could I bring home if I saw the signs? My eyes focus on the next footfalls and anything beyond a few yards is a forgotten blur. I might notice more if I were a blind man accustomed to using sharp ears.

sabrina-carpenter

This lack of attention is even more wretched in town than in the woods. Some writers break from their desk to have a smoke: I go out for a walk to mentally work through a tricky paragraph or overcome writer’s block. Without a dog guiding me on a leash I might bump into a post from somnolently gazing at my feet pacing the sidewalk.  There is an element of courtesy in this dream-walking because I can’t be accused of looking nosily in the windows of houses or at people on their porches. But I wonder how much interesting stuff I miss by not looking out, stuff that might feed a writer’s fancy, and there was never a better opportunity for spying on eccentricity than when I walked to work along First Avenue in NYC where so many strange birds make their nest.

This musing threw me back to memories of when I was a Boy Scout. The scouting motto is Be Prepared, but there is another—Look Wide. Even after all these years it is hard to keep a lookout, requiring a disciplined act of concentration like keeping a stiff back instead of slouching like many other tall people.

The founder of the scouting movement Lord Robert Baden-Powell wrote: “Look wide, and even when you think you are looking wide—look wider still.” Our favorite scout activity was the Wide Game in which half the troop was sent into the woods as hiders while the rest waited fifteen minutes to go after them as seekers. It honed our powers of observation, skills that Baden-Powell brought home as a colonial army officer from the Matabele and Boer Wars.  They are not so much valued today except by hunters and search-and-rescue squads, and society might be approaching a nadir as we focus on smartphones and tablets, seldom casting aside to everyone and everything around. We look narrow.

I suspect professional artists look differently. I never looked as carefully at objects than when I dabbled in painting. In a Norwegian study tiny cameras were used to track eye movements in trained artists to compare with a group of non-artists (Perception 2007; 36:91-100). They were asked to look at a scene or a picture and then look again more intently to remember it. The non-artists quickly focused on the chief features—a house, a person, an animal—and their attention didn’t wander far for long. The eyes of artists, however, tracked back and forth, up and down, scanning the entire field and following the shapes, forms, and colors. Their look was not strongly focused on the main subject, and they remembered details better. They look wide.

We expect artists to be better observers of nature, but I was surprised when I read that minor visual disabilities are more common among art students. Stranger still, Rembrandt’s self-portraits seem to depict a man with cross eyes (strabismus), which would have impaired his depth perception. Perhaps I now understand why I was taught in art classes to close one eye when drafting a picture. It helps pay attention to the details of the subject as well as frame a picture with two-dimensions from three.

That brings me round to wild turkeys. They are strabismotic because their eyes are on the sides of their head, and they gain a penetrating impression of their surroundings by constantly rotating their heads through 360 degrees. Turkeys teach me to look, but I stop at rubbernecking.

Next Post: Last of the Autumn Leaves

A Hunter’s Heart

Of all the things I remember about being in Boy Scouts, the stories told by Akela, our scout leader, about how to survive in the wilderness have stayed with me over the years. Suburban London children didn’t need to know which wildflowers are good to eat, or how to hunt and dress a deer, or escape from a prowling tiger, but the lessons were no less fascinating for being irrelevant. And on nights when foul weather kept us inside the troop hut, he stirred our imagination by reading extracts from The Jungle Book, which we then play-acted. But those stories are only shadows compared to memories of real outdoor activities.

We made shelters from tree branches overlaid with ferns in which we sometimes camped overnight, usually sleepless and scratching at itches.  We cooked “twists” of flour dough on green twigs over open fires. We learned how to track “dangerous” animals by following pugmarks left by the rector’s corgi after its morning walk along muddy paths. And we had “wide games” in which a team of boys was sent into the woods to hide after leaving trails for others to track them down. That was an activity I excelled in. I often succeeded in jumping on an unsuspecting boy crouched under a bush after stealthily approaching him. I won my Stalkers badge before my teen years, though it’s not something I can proudly wear on my sleeve nowadays!

Boy Scout Stalker badge (bottom right)
Boy Scout Stalker badge (bottom right)

There was (and still is) a Green Belt of countryside around London. The boundary was a mere twenty minute walk from home, so I had plenty of opportunities to practice stalking in the “wilds” of Kent. I wandered around woods and fields in a khaki shirt and short pants with binoculars dangling around my neck. I hoped for a close-up view of some unsuspecting target—perhaps a bird on its nest or a badger blinking at the setting sun after emerging from underground .

One afternoon in late summer I was wading through a grassy field up to my waist, the plumes of seed-heads gently rocking in the breeze around me. It seemed impossible that anything could disturb the peace of that moment. But then I heard a low moaning noise that made me pause to listen intently.  When I lifted my binoculars I was none the wiser, although a patch of grass had been beaten down some twenty yards ahead.

I guessed it was a deer fawn hiding in the grass calling for its mother. Not wishing to disturb it, I got down on my belly to crawl forward, my arms parting grass stalks to make a path. After creeping for several minutes, I was close to my target and could even hear dry stems crackling, but I still couldn’t see the striped coat of a fawn.

Suddenly, a man’s head and shoulders exploded above the grass and he gazed in my direction. I jumped to my feet immediately because it was no good pretending that I hadn’t been spotted. I was waiting to hear him roar something like—“What the hell are you doing, boy?”—or riper language, but he ducked down, mumbling, “I saw you.”

Taking a couple of steps forward, I saw him sprawled on the ground, his shirt askew, and with four arms, not two. A woman’s face briefly appeared from under his chest, then she quickly hid again.

I jabbered, “Got the time, sir?” It wasn’t such an odd request in different circumstances. I often stopped grown-ups before my thirteenth birthday when I was given my first wrist watch.  By the time the man had crooked his arm to tell the time I was already turning to scarper back home over the flattened grass. I didn’t understand then why I felt embarrassed intruding on them, nor did I know until much later the expression, in flagrante delicto.

That is the land of lost content,   I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went  And cannot come again. A.E. Housman
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. A.E. Housman

I already knew it was much harder to stalk wildlife than humans.  The challenge became acute when I bought a camera for nature photography. I could only afford one with a fixed focal length of 50 mm, and didn’t graduate to a SLR and telephoto lens until I became a working adult. Consequently, my early attempts to capture animals or birds on camera were mere landscape compositions, and a magnifying glass was needed to spot the intended subject which was supposed to grace a prizewinning picture. But my frustration with the camera led to discovering how to get closer to my targets. Instead of stalking wildlife, I sauntered forth in their general direction pretending to be oblivious of them and, most importantly, avoiding gazing in their direction.

If I wandered past a squirrel or an owl sitting on a branch they often ignored me, giving me a chance to discreetly squint from the side of my near eye to get a closer view. They then seemed convinced that I was not a hunter—or at worst a dimwitted one.  Alas, if I turned to raise my camera for a snap they were off immediately, and all I captured on film was a disappearing blur of fur or feathers.

Eighty years ago, the New York surgeon-naturalist, Robert Morris, observed in his autobiography how animals can sense our intentions: “… wild animals in the woods instinctively know whether one who goes among them is carrying a gun heart or a camera heart. In the days when I eagerly hunted for bear, moose, caribou, or deer they were seldom found within easy rifle range. They often seemed to have just departed from a locality after leaving abundant signs for my aggravation. Now with a camera instead of a rifle I can get right among these animals at short range. It seems almost uncanny at times.

“When a hunter goes through woods or fields hundreds of eyes are turned on him without his knowledge. Birds, mice, and squirrels, to say nothing of larger animals, are looking right at him all day long from their points of safe vantage, but he does not know it. Something of his hunting attitude is doubtless passed along the line, a sort of woods’ telegraph, ‘Look out for a killer coming!’ A kind of thought-transference appears to go along the line in exactly the same way when one carries into the woods a sympathetic and kindly interest in all wildlife.”

It is my hunch that animals read intentions in our eyes. A head rotating or eyes roving in their direction are alarm signals. I wonder if dark glasses could fool them, and will try the experiment one day.

Besides hunters and animal predators, subordinates and potential prey must avoid eye contact sometimes, like young wolves who avoid the gaze of an alpha male or female in their pack. I remember a path through the grounds of another school in my district through which my friend and I liked to take a short-cut to home. Few dared because boys at that school had a reputation for persecuting those who trespassed on their territory. Once when we marched boldly through the premises we were taken hostage and tied up for several hours, but after learning our lesson we were allowed to pass unhindered provided we walked submissively with our heads bowed.  I had tried valor and found humiliation was smarter.

The Jungle Book#2There are many old stories about the power of staring. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli found that if he looked hard at any wolf, it could not meet his eyes and looked away. He thought this was funny and did not understand that he was different from the wolves.

“The wolves are my brothers,” he said. “Why will they want to send me away?”

“Look at me,” said Bagheera, and Mowgli looked at him hard between the eyes. The big black cat turned his head away quickly. “Not even I can look in your eyes. That is why they want to kill you. You are clever. You are a man.”

Rudyard Kipling probably took the story from a Victorian poem in which nine white wolves coming ‘over the wold’ were defeated by a wandering man who turned to stare them in the eye. Mowgli hoped to subjugate dangerous animals, including the tiger Shere Khan, by simply glaring at them. But if you try this on a tiger or a grey wolf next time you visit the zoo, I guarantee they won’t avert your gaze, except in boredom. And next time you encounter a Rottweiler or German shepherd while walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood don’t try it!

Next Post:  A Tree for Hugging