ECOVIEWS: Birds, snakes and people have questionable behaviors

December 9, 2018 GMT

I received the following questions about the behavior of certain animals, including humans.

Q: My wife and I live in Florida. We recently noticed an anhinga on the grassy slope of a lake. It had its wings stretched out. We thought it might be drying its wings, but we watched for half an hour and the bird didn’t budge. When we left the swimming pool it was still on the grass with its wings outspread. Do you know what the bird might have been doing?

A. Some large birds sit with their wings outspread for two apparent reasons: drying out and warming up. Anhingas, also known as snakebirds or water turkeys, swim underwater where they catch or spear the fish they eat. Hence, they are frequently wet. On sunny days, after emerging from the water, they often sit on the ground or perch on a branch and spread their wings out, a posture they may hold for an hour or more. Cormorants and vultures do the same thing. Animal behaviors that seem to have an obvious explanation may, upon further observation, have more than one function, which may differ between species. I have observed common turkey vultures perch on tree branches with spread wings following a rain, presumably to dry their wings. But they will also do this on cool days simply to warm up. My guess with your anhinga is that it was first drying out after capturing an underwater meal and then simply enjoying the warmth of the Florida sun. Do smaller birds, like blue jays or robins, dry their wings after a rain? Sometimes, but they are not as conspicuous and are also more vulnerable to predators if they are in the open.

Q: At a neighborhood gathering the other day, a woman was expounding to one and all on how dangerous cottonmouth snakes are and how aggressive. I have read in your column that this isn’t so. Any suggestions for how to correct this false impression politely and succinctly?

A. I am not the only herpetologist who has stated categorically that cottonmouths, rattlesnakes and other reptiles in the United States are not aggressive toward humans. Any herpetologist who has had experience with cottonmouths in the wild would agree. For any animal to attack another animal, especially a human, other than as prey (as an Australian saltwater crocodile would view any of us) or in defense of itself, its young or its colony (such as social insects like ants, bees and hornets) would be abnormal behavior. Part of the problem is people not always distinguishing between predatory, aggressive and defensive behavior.

Another part of the problem lies in the mindset of certain people because many humans are themselves aggressive, often unnecessarily so, toward humans and other animals. Without over analyzing such behavior, the simple explanation is that humans often believe they can gain resources by being aggressive. A cottonmouth, as well as most other animals, would gain nothing by attacking a human – unless it is trying to protect itself. Threat displays – such as the open mouth of a cottonmouth or the vibration of a rattlesnake’s tail – are not indicative of aggressive behavior. They are warnings that say do not to approach. They are defensive behaviors.

Your question about what to do to correct such thinking in some individuals, especially when they are openly providing false information to others, depends on the situation, including the personalities of the storyteller and the audience. Unfortunately, with some people, their false perception of reality is so entrenched that trying to dissuade them would be as futile as arguing against their religious or political beliefs. Others will listen to a reasonable explanation of how a cottonmouth behaves and become educated. I have met many of both kinds and as one-size-fits-all does not apply, I decide how much of my time is warranted to enlighten someone on a case by case basis.