Jane GoodAll Things Wonderful

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Jane GoodAll Things Wonderful

By Jonathan Balcombe
July 2010

I don't go birdwatching; I am birdwatching.

The more I observe animals, the more I know their ways. And the more I know their ways, the more they surprise me with their individuality and their innovations.

I dedicate this blog entry to Jane Goodall on the 50th anniversary of her groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees.


White-throated sparrow photographed on Jonathan's deck, winter 2010.

Like Goodall, I love watching animals. Birds are a favorite because they are omnipresent. People sometimes ask me, "Where do you go birdwatching?" My cheeky reply: "I don't go birdwatching; I am birdwatching." I borrow those words from British sportswriter and birder Simon Barnes. Birds may be seen and heard (it's as much listening as it is watching) anytime and almost anywhere. I've watched pigeons in train stations and starlings and house sparrows in supermarkets. Barn swallows in Minnesota flutter in front of automatic door sensors to gain access to a Home Depot store, where they nest beyond the reach of harsh weather and predators.

When I go afield I always bring my portable spying device, aka my binoculars. They allow me-as they did Jane Goodall for several months while she gradually earned the chimpanzees' trust-to observe an animal from a fraction of the distance I am standing from them. The more I observe animals, the more I know their ways. And the more I know their ways, the more they surprise me with their individuality and their innovations. We tend to compartmentalize animals into ecological niches and behavioral patterns. As Goodall helped show us, animals are unique individuals and they don't fit so easily into our slots. Bats are not clones; parrots don't parrot; and fishes are autonomous, not automatons.

Case in point: Last week, while I was playing a solo round of disc golf at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware, I paused to watch a bird flitting among the foliage overhead. She was a chickadee. But she was not any chickadee, she was that chickadee--a unique bird with a biography. (I don't actually know what sex she was so I'm calling her a "she" to avoid the objectifying term "it.") This chickadee then did something I've never seen a chickadee-or come to think of it, any small bird-do. She reached out for what looked like a berry on a twig, grabbed it and pulled it toward herself, pinned the twig beneath her foot, plucked something from the berry, then let go of the twig. This reminds me of the behavior of ravens who solve the problem of a piece of food dangling from a string by repeatedly pulling the string and pinning it to the perch with their foot until the food is within reach. I don't know if the pull-pin-pluck maneuver is a routine element of chickadee foraging behavior or if I was watching a bird genius. It still made my jaw drop.

Jane Goodall isn't the only scientist to do so, but she has played a central role in bringing about a revolution in the study of animals. Thanks in part to her contributions, we can no longer view other animals as mindless things. Her discovery that chimps use tools shattered a long held belief and incited the scientific community to emerge from an agnostic stance on animal intelligence. In the half-century since, the floodgates have opened and a formerly long list of capacities once thought unique to humans has been steadily eroding away. No longer can we claim to be the only species with self-awareness, metacognition, culture, tool manufacture, episodic memory, altruism, midwifery, deception, empathy, and fairness awareness, to name a few.

Thank goodness that Jane Goodall went to Africa without any formal scientific training. Thank goodness she patiently watched extremely wary chimpanzees through binoculars. Thank goodness she committed the scientific no-no of naming her study subjects. And thank goodness this vegetarian messenger of hope still has the energy to travel the world inspiring others and promoting newer, better, more tolerant ways of sharing the planet.