Discerning danger second nature to animals

By Clyde Davis: Local Columnist

During the recent 12 or so inches of snow that blanketed our area, I was surprised by the reaction of our Westie terrier. We let her fur grow in winter, and she normally loves cold weather, but when I took her out in this storm, she bounced into it, turned around almost immediately, and bounced back toward the house.

It took me a while to figure out the snow’s height made her, as a small predator, extremely nervous. She couldn’t see over the piles, so her visibility was zero. At the same time, she would have been easy prey for any larger animal, trapped as she was. Our Westie sleeps indoors on a purple rug, but as most of you who love canines know, there are times and circumstances in which our domestic dogs are only a heartbeat away from their wolf ancestors. The collective, ancient wisdom of the pack was telling her, quite clearly, “You are vulnerable. Get away from here.”

It started me thinking about animals in winter, specifically, how they deal with it and how much hardier they are than we humans. That same weekend, we spent some time in Hastings coffee shop, and the outdoor magazine I was reading had a lengthy essay about an unexpected encounter with a bull elk, in which the writer came to realize that the elk was in a far more precarious position than the writer, who would return to a warm cabin. The elk, on the other hand, had to tough out another two months of winter.

Hear the geese flying over at night? I try to locate them, hoping against hope that I will be granted one of those classic visions — wild geese against the winter moon. This has not yet happened, but it is enough to hear them in the ice crystal clouds.

For birds, they are big, but still weigh only a few pounds. If I am cold on the ground, how much colder is it at the height they are flying? The lonesome sound of their wild flight holds so much spirit.

It was the least we could do, to feed the birds. I know that one is only supposed to do that in crisis, since it impedes their ability to fend for themselves. This recent weather, however, qualifies as a crisis, since the number of birds gathered in our yard indicates that the food was a welcome addition. Where the birds go at night, I cannot say, but they emerge to feed again the next day.

My strongest awareness of just how tough our tiny fellow creations can be came several years ago, during a January Niagara Falls trip. Near the river that feeds the falls, the temperature was so cold the spray formed into ice on one’s beard. A flock of small diving ducks, known as buffleheads, were diving underwater, following the flow of the river toward the falls, then pulling out before the falls to start the whole process over again. These little waterfowl weigh less than 2 pounds, but were braving the ice-chunk-laden water, not once, but time and again.

Last weekend, as we took a sleigh ride in Valles Caldera, the young cowboy driving the team told me, as a child he used to think his grandfather was posturing when he’d tell his grandson he could predict a storm, and a good many things about winter by watching the elk herds in the nearby mountains. Eventually, our driver said, he came to realize that was not magic nor posturing, but simple observation.

We have, theoretically, the highest intelligence in the creation, I suppose to make up for our rather vulnerable physiques. Even so, there are things that are discerned by animals, even our domestic ones, that we can only begin to guess at. Perhaps it is the Creator’s way of keeping our arrogance from becoming intolerable.