Friday, April 24, 2015

Do Hawks Fly for Fun?

On a beautiful spring day early this week my docent buddies and I were roving at Tohono Chul Park, enjoying the weather and the beauty all around us. Our resident pair of Cooper’s hawks seemed to be roving too--soaring from one end of the Park to the other, sometimes seeming to chase each other, sometimes simply moving in the brilliant blue sky in perfect synchrony. One of my friends, a retired scientist, speculated on what the birds were up to--was this a mating ritual, perhaps, or were they competing for food? They have already started a nest, so mating seemed unlikely to me, and there didn’t seem to be any competition or hunting going on. I remarked that they just seemed to be having fun, to be told by my friend that I was veering dangerously close to anthropomorphism.

I’ve written about this topic previously, and invite you to read the earlier post and the lively comments it engendered. I believe that invoking anthropomorphism is a defense mechanism used by those who study and sometimes harm animals to suppress their own natural empathy. Anyone who has ever had a pet has certainly seen a full range of emotions and behaviors exhibited by the pet, from love and excitement to fear and even deceit. I’m quite sure that wild animals too experience these feelings and perform these behaviors. I will never forget the grief and despair I saw a mother dove exhibit when a gopher snake devoured her fledglings. She remained on the ground underneath the nest for hours, looking forlornly up. The next day I saw her sitting on the empty nest. You will never convince me she was not feeling emotional pain.

I keep forgetting that anthropomorphism is still an accepted principle of scientific thought--something to be shunned lest you not be thought a serious scientist. I have a lot of scientist friends, and imagine that most of them still have this dogmatic view of anthropomorphism. But it’s also true that attitudes have been changing for quite a while, and many very respectable scientists now accept at least the possibility that animals have feelings too. Certainly not feelings exactly like human feelings, because they sense the world in different ways, but feelings nevertheless. Franklin D. McMillan, a brilliant veterinarian, has written about this topic in his book Unlocking the Animal Mind. Dr. McMillan points out that it doesn’t make sense that emotions suddenly emerged full-blown in human beings, without first having evolved in other animals.  

This lovely photo is used with permission of the photographer, Sharon Elizabeth Yocum
Anyway, back to the hawks. They continued to soar above us as our discussion went on. As their beautiful streamlined bodies flashed in the sunlight, I imagined them having breakfast together, then one of them communicating something like, “It’s such a beautiful day, let’s go for a soar!” And so they did, their seeming joy in this beautiful spring desert day mirroring the joy of the four humans on the ground watching them.


  1. Thought-provoking. Give me the weekend to figure out why. Something about the intersection of fun and function. Purposefulness and purposelessness. If that makes sense. Why do humans splash water on each other for "fun"? It seems universal and natural. And purposeless beyond "fun," except it isn't and we all know that. There is a purposeful subtext. Would hawks do that? Doves, maybe. If they had a sense of humor.

    1. There's a lot of evidence that some animals--the "higher" ones, not doves--do have a sense of humor. But probably none of them can snark.