Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

February 13, 2015

Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life: Part 3

Deer tracks in snow

Deer Tracks In Snow. Note the regular diagonally spaced steps. The snow is deep enough that the deer's feet are dragging as she steps.

The careless use of vast amounts of energy by people in industrialized societies is completely at odds with how other animals live their daily lives, practicing the art of energy conservation. I first learned that energy conservation is a key element of animal behavior through my studies of animal tracking. Let’s suppose you want to track a whitetail deer. Maybe you caught sight of a doe and fawn and would like to follow them to get a closer look. Maybe you are a wildlife photographer, even a hunter. You’re on the ground and you are in luck because the earth is damp and you see a few clear heart-shaped tracks. You start following along, but then the trail hits a patch of earth that is harder and drier and suddenly you can’t see the next track. What are you going to do to find those next “missing” tracks so you can get another look at that spotted fawn?

Deer track

Deer Track. Note that there are two tracks visible in the photo. The easily visible track is from the rear foot. The track underneath is from the front foot. In this case the front foot made a track, but then the rear foot came down almost on top of the front foot. The track from the front foot is visible just above the rear foot track.

One of the most useful pieces of information I learned early on about tracking was that 90% of the time animals are moving in their most efficient, normal, slow gait. So, if you know what the typical slow gait is for a given animal and you spot one track, you have some basis for predicting where the next track is likely to fall. If you can identify even a single whitetail track and you know that deer are usually moving at a walk (the energy efficient, normal, energy conserving gait for hoofed animals), then the next track for an adult whitetail is likely to be 18-21 inches ahead of the first and at a slight diagonal. (See Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking for more information.)

If you have a string of visible tracks you can confirm that the deer was walking by observing the diagonal pattern and measuring the distance between the visible tracks. Then you can look for that next “invisible” track by measuring ahead and looking closely for any disturbance at the spot where the deer was likely to have stepped. Often on close inspection you’ll see at least a portion of a track and then you can move on to the next “missing” track. But, even if there’s just one visible track to start with you stand a 90% chance that your deer was walking and you stand a good chance of finding the next track.

Not all animals use a walk as their efficient, slow gait – wide-bodied animals like raccoons and skunks are most likely to pace while rabbits and rodents do a slow gallop. But, the principle can be applied to any species if you just know what gait is the typical energy conservation gait and the distance typically covered. You can track animals this way because all animals practice energy conservation and normally move in the most efficient way for their particular body structure. Of course, there are the exceptional moments – the other 10% of the time – as when your deer catches your scent and bounds off, flaring that white tail!

Danger! Heeding the Warnings of the Birds


Carolina Wren.

Animals’ consistent practice of energy conservation allows a savvy observer to read more from a habitat than just animal tracks. Jon Young, a tracking and nature awareness teacher, explains in his book, What the Robin Knows, that it’s possible to detect the hidden movements of animals through a landscape by observing the behavior of the birds and learning “bird language”. Don’t worry! This isn’t like learning Latin. But, birds do have a distinct set of behaviors and vocalizations that they employ when danger threatens. Birds are constantly monitoring their surroundings, watching all the animals in the vicinity and making loud alarm calls when an animal that poses a threat comes too close. Like other animals, birds normally practice energy conservation so a careful observer can detect when the birds are disturbed and acting in an atypical (non energy conserving) manner. Jon Young calls normal, relaxed, energy conserving behavior “baseline” and explains that all the birds in an area may be in their normal relaxed state and together producing the sounds and appearance of baseline for their area. In other words, individual birds (or other animals) can be in (or out) of baseline, but so can a location. As soon as one bird moves out of baseline others pick up on the presence of a threat, like a hawk or cat, and may follow the first bird to also sound an alarm call, fly to a safer location, or otherwise alter their own behavior from baseline. Tom Brown Jr. calls these cascading effects the “concentric rings” of nature because a single bird’s alarm call can have an effect reverberating far out into the landscape as the birds and other animals continuously react to each other’s behaviors. (See Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking for more information on concentric rings.)

If you, as an observer, know what baseline for an area sounds and looks like (at a particular season and time of day), then any changes can let you know of the appearance of a threat. For example, one morning several years ago Paula and I heard the Carolina wrens that make their home near our house raising a huge ruckus out in our “back 40” near the blueberries. These wrens are normally fairly noisy birds, but the alarm calls they were making were much louder and more persistent than their normal calls. When we went to see what was disturbing them, we found a large timber rattlesnake coiled up just below the wrens (who were flitting about well above the snake and outside of striking distance). Large snakes are a primary predator for the eggs in bird nests and these wrens were not happy about this snake, clearly no longer in their normal energy conserving mode. Several years before this rattlesnake incident we had tried, unsuccessfully, to help another pair of Carolina wrens guard their nest, which was right in front of our house, from a black rat snake.

Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnake photographed at Cedar Hill by Paula. This is a snake photo from a different day than the wren incident. We often have visits from one or sometimes two rattlers in July or August.

According to Jon Young, all the various species of birds and animals in an area pay attention to any variations from the sounds and sights of baseline and use this early warning system to protect themselves and conserve energy:

“Energy conservation explains why animals have evolved to place such a high priority on the voices and body language of the birds and other animals in the vicinity. This principle lies at the heart of bird language… The birds, the deer, and the squirrels will always heed warnings long before the danger gets there, if at all possible (and it usually is). This whole dynamic is exactly why studying bird language works so well. It’s just much easier and energy-efficient for every creature if there’s time to casually hide or fade into the shadows.” (p. 16-17 What the Robin Knows)

So Paula and I were not the only ones warned of the presence of that timber rattler. Every bird and mammal in the area were likewise informed that potential trouble was afoot.

If Energy Efficiency Drives Evolution, You Have to Wonder…

Trackers are not the only ones to realize that the need for energy conservation drives animal behavior. Tom Wessels, an ecology professor at Antioch New England Graduate School explains the role of energy efficiency in key biological and ecological processes and principles such as natural selection and coevolution, specialization and biodiversity:

“In nature, energy is the bottom-line currency and, unlike human currencies it is rock solid: a kilocalorie of energy always remains the same fundamental unit. Since energy is a finite resource in ecosystems, natural selection always favors individuals or populations that develop energy-efficient adaptations or behaviors and selects out individuals or populations that are energy wasteful. Coevolution is always pushing species to become more energy efficient.” (The Myth of Progress, p. 85)

According to Wessels, coevolution is “the process by which species adapt to each other so that they can more successfully coexist” (The Myth of Progress, p. 144). Wessels uses the example of two very similar songbirds that typically share the same forested habitat(s): black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. Both species hunt for insects off the same trees. But, the nuthatch has developed a long beak that allows them to extricate insects out of the crevices in tree bark and a long back toe and claw so they can walk down a tree trunk searching for insects. Very tricky – walking down the trunk! The chickadee sticks to the twigs and leaves of the tree and has smaller rounded wings allowing it to hover at the ends of branches for its insect dinners. Its short beak does not allow it to get into the deep bark fissures that draw the nuthatch. The two birds have coevolved to have complementary niches and so can share the same trees and not compete.

You have to wonder: if energy conservation is a guiding force of evolution, then what does it mean for humanity to develop a global culture that is completely dependent on an enormous outlay of energy?

According to Wessels, competition is wasteful of energy and not beneficial to species:

“In the natural world species don’t seek competition, and more important, no winners emerge from its struggles. Although an individual or a species may prevail from a competitive interaction, they lose energy during the competition – more energy than if the competitive interaction had never occurred, so even those who prevail can’t be considered winners. It is such energy losses that cause species to move away from competition through time, through the coevolution of specializations that reduce the nature of the competition, such as dividing the foraging areas on a tree or being active at different times…” (The Myth of Progress, p. 82 )

Biodiversity and well integrated, energy efficient natural communities result from coevolution. Wessels continues:

“Coevolution is responsible for two important outcomes in ecosystems beyond reducing the size of species niches: energy efficiency and species that provide important services to each other. Together these allow for the development of highly integrated, stable communities. As species become more specialized, their efficient use of energy increases. This allows more species to exist in an ecosystem as the finite amount of energy is divided into smaller shares. There is also no waste in the ecosystem; every byproduct released by one species is a critical resource for another.” (The Myth of Progress, p. 87)

Globalized capitalist patriarchy’s use of terawatts of energy is clearly in violation of nature’s usual pattern where the need for energy conservation and energy efficiency guides animal behavior. As I’ve discussed, conserving energy is a required behavior for animals to survive. You have to wonder: if energy conservation is a guiding force of evolution, then what does it mean for humanity to develop a global culture that is completely dependent on an enormous outlay of energy? As Jon Young tells us:

“There’s nothing random about birds’ awareness and behavior, because they have too much at stake – life and death. Random behavior is a waste of energy, and any species that consistently squanders energy is ruthlessly eliminated from the game of life. (I can think of only one exception, and maybe this biped species will eventually pay the price.)” (What the Robin Knows, p. 10)

From the perspective of people of the industrialized world, entrenched in overconsumption and an energy squandering way of life, the idea of living in an energy conserving relationship of power with nature probably seems somewhere between absurd and impossible. But, which is more absurd, a way of life that is causing the sixth extinction and potentially human extinction (or perhaps even an end to life on earth) or finding a way to return to power with nature?

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