Thursday, July 2, 2009

Can Animals Count?

River Otter

Can Animals Count?

Most naturalists and outdoors people will tell you that animals and birds can't count past one.

That may be true, when the animals are counting people. Nature photographers well know that, if two people enter a blind and one leaves shortly after, most birds and animals relax in the belief that the people have departed.

BUT - when it comes to keeping tabs on offspring, at least some animals can count to at least five. A recent experience with otters proved that very dramatically.

I live in the Wolf Grove of Lanark County in eastern Ontario. It's a very large, wild area of rolling granite and limestone ridges, heavily wooded in mixed forest and interlaced with beaver dams of all sizes.

The Wolf Grove Stream flows through this forest a few hundred yards behind my house. On a pleasant summer or autumn evening I find great pleasure in a quiet walk up the stream valley to enjoy the sunset and whatever adventure usually awaits.

One such evening a year or so ago I stepped quietly to the top of the bank below the largest beaver dam on the stream. In the small pool there a family of six otters were busy fishing.

They spotted me instantly.

With a sharp bark, mother otter led her brood in a sharp dash up over the beaver dam and out of sight in the depths of the headpond.

Unfortunately, one of the young otters was left behind. He had probably been foraging along the bottom and missed mom's warning.

Panic city! Where the heck did everybody go?

The young otter searched in growing desperation, high and low throughout the pool, stopping frequently to eye me carefully and snap out a suspicious "woof!"

Meantime, well up the headpond, mom and her brood surfaced, and continued their hurried escape. Some 150 yards later, everyone stopped swimming, to mill about in obvious confusion as to what to do next.

I was fascinated. What would happen next?

All my life as an outdoorsman and nature observer I had been told that animals can't count.

Would the otter band return for the sibling? Did they even realize he was missing? (I had already assumed a male gender for the little guy, and was even beginning to think of him in terms of the name "Oscar.")

Suddenly, mother otter began swimming back toward me. My binoculars showed that four other small heads stayed behind, quiet as could be, almost motionless in the glass-calm surface of the beaver pond.

Close to the dam now, mom slowed her swimming. She watched me carefully, and I stood as quietly and still as possible.

I expected her to submerge, and approach under water.

But no. Slowly, ever so cautiously, she drew closer until she was almost at the edge of the dam. Then a short dash and she was out of the water, poised at the top edge.

Oscar hadn't noticed her. Yet.

He was busy, still searching for the others, keeping one watchful eye in my direction.

I don't speak otter.

But I'm sure I know what mom had to say, in a couple of well-chosen words.

So did Oscar.

In a flash he was up over the face of the dam, in the water above and gone.

Mom paused for an instant to contemplate me before leading Oscar up the pond to where the others still waited. Perhaps she was trying to communicate something, maybe about the challenge of safely raising inattentive youngsters to adulthood?

Maybe about arithmetic?

- 30 -

Collections of stock pictures of wild animals, birds, insects, Canadian scenes and people will be found here.

1 comment:

  1. A charming little story, John, about a part of the planet that's very different than our urban nest here in semi-tropical California. Although we have otters, the common ones are found in the Pacific ocean. Freshwater otters and beavers are making a big comeback here, as elsewhere, and I'm always interested in knowing more about both. And more about Canada and the Great White North, too. More of these. please, and more photos as well.