Wild turkeys have learned to be leery of humans, especially around areas where they are hunted. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

It’s that time of year when spring is moving around, birds are moving around, and I’m just sitting around. It’s a time when I ponder imponderable things.

For instance, why am I seeing so many crows feeding along the edge of the highway right now? I doubt there’s been a grad student assigned to study the question, so here’s my best guess. That’s where the food is.

As I think about it, roads are wide, bare spaces. If a morsel falls on the pavement, it’s easier to see. Then, all winter long, wind and snow plows push everything to the edge where it collects. Finally, the snow melts and all the crumbs settle into the narrow grassy strip just off the edge of the tar. For a crow, it’s a banquet table, safely beyond the edge of traffic.

When I walk out to the bird feeder, the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and woodpeckers barely show any concern. But the blue jays and mourning doves skedaddle for cover instantly. Why?

A mourning dove. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

I ponder why jays and doves feel more vulnerable. The smaller birds are more maneuverable, able to dodge an attack before reaching cover. Jays and doves are less agile. They must speed to cover as quickly as they can get there.

Furthermore, they’re bigger, and make a more attractive meal for raptors. Even though jays and doves are just as familiar with my presence as the smaller birds, they are instinctively jumpier, lest they be eaten.

I think I see the same behavior in squirrels. Gray squirrels are quick to run to the nearest tree when I enter the yard. Red squirrels dawdle until I get close. Chipmunks barely care.

Foxes are skittish. A few years ago, a vixen had made a den behind my garage, and raised her pups in my front yard. Initially, she’d bark an alarm when I walked out the door. Slowly, she got so used to me that she’d suckle the pups in the driveway as I watched, finally certain that I wasn’t the threat she thought I was.

Wild turkeys are game birds, wary of humans. Except that they’ll walk right into a backyard and chow down on the dropped seeds beneath bird feeders. Why are they suddenly unafraid? Because we inadvertently trained them that way.

I have an anthropocentric streak that leads me to look at wildlife as if animals are part of my world, often forgetting that I am part of theirs. We’re all wandering around the landscape together. Sometimes, we prey on them. Sometimes they prey on us (ticks). We get used to the annual rhythms, and so do they. Turkeys have had enough experience being hunted that they’ve developed an instinct for knowing when to get suspicious of people.

Crows have always roosted communally in winter. Decades ago, they were persecuted for harming crops and stayed away from people. Now that hunting pressure has decreased, they’ve gotten used to roosting in town, where they deem themselves safe from being shot and are less vulnerable to other threats.

Waterfowl show a similar awareness. I always chuckle in autumn when ducks and geese gather in municipal ponds in hunting season. They’ve figured out they can’t be hunted there. Why are deer so easy to see right up until opening day of deer season, then vanish when they see more people entering the woods? They know.

Moose were easier to observe before the moose hunt was re-established in 1980. Now they react to humans with much more caution.

Canada jays are notorious for soliciting human food, but only the jays living near campsites do it. Forest-based jays don’t. It’s a learned behavior that comes from watching us.

Watching birds, and watching wildlife, became a lot more fun when I finally grasped they were also watching me. I used to watch their behavior. Now I watch mine, careful not to send the wrong signal. I watch how they react. I talk to them. They may not understand the words, but they may understand the intent. Or not. So what? We’re in the backyard together. Why not acknowledge each other?

American robins and song sparrows will soon be in everyone’s backyard. How close will they let you get before flitting off? If you stare at them, walk directly toward them, or make any sudden movements, how does the distance change? If you sit quietly, will they lose interest and saunter closer? My nervous mourning doves do.

This spring, don’t just watch nature. Be part of it.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.