Saturday, December 28, 2013
Near my parents' place in Boulder is an expanse of open space where I like to take walks when I can. The area is silly with prairie dogs, which are somehow less noxious than other rodents they are related to. Or maybe they're just less familiar, and in time I'd find them as odious as squirrels, if that is possible. Maybe more so — they're certainly louder. They hang out by their burrow entrances, like gang members on street corners. Whenever somebody approaches, they start squeaking out a warning, then zip into their burrows to safety.
Researchers say that prairie dog warnings are one of the more complex communications in the animal kingdom, not only shouting "danger" but conveying details of what the danger is, such a hawk or a coyote or a person, down to specifics as to whether the person is thin or fat, even what color clothes the intruder is wearing.
The constant prairie dog chatter got me thinking about warnings. I had to admire that each alarmed prairie dog, in turn, raised the alarm of my approach before seeking its own safety. Quite altruistic. It must be because they're from a community, the pack or clan or whatever you call a mob of prairie dogs. Humans would reverse the order: duck first and think about others later, if then. Human prairie dogs chirps would be muffled from within the safety of their burrows. Assuming they didn't dispense with the warnings altogether. Every man for himself....
I was in the middle of the above reverie when I heard a bell. "On your left," a bicyclist said and I took a step rightward while he flew by, such a usual occurrence that it took me a second to make the connection between the prairie dog shrieks and the bicyclist's bell. Maybe I was selling my own species short — only a few days in Boulder and already I was glorifying any passing rodent while running down my own kind. Really, neither species' warnings are entirely altruistic -- the bicyclist doesn't want to hit me, it would wreck both his day and mine. And there is probably some Darwinian reason the dogs worry about each other -- safety in numbers, pack dynamics, they want the other prairie dogs to live and be around so the next hawk will get them instead. Or heck, maybe they love each other; heck you can't really ask them, though those researchers seem fairly confident about the specifics of what they're saying.
And rather than skimp on warnings, when you think about it, human conversation, our media, is a chorus of cautions and clicks and whistles, clatter over new studies, debates over dangers. We don't consider it that way—it's usually either worrisome or annoying — but we show concern for the other members of our species by warning them about stuff, and we show concern for ourselves by paying attention to the latest news of possible threats.
Probably too much. I don't speak prairie dog, but I'm fairly certain those alarms aren't warning about intruders who might be arriving in 2020. That can't be said for people. It is a gift from our enormous brains, the ability to fret over threats to come. But there's a limit, or should be, since at some point our worry risks becoming a greater peril than the peril we're worrying about. The prairie dogs only focus on the danger coming down the trail right now, and that is something we could learn from them. Otherwise, we ending up spending all our time ducking into our burrows, jabbering our hearts out, pointlessly, again and again and again.