Oops. There’s a bird in my house.


There’s a bird in my house.


By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Carolina Wren) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s clinging to one of the blades of the ceiling fan. No, wait! Now it’s on the lampshade. Oh, and now it’s flapping spasmodically at the window–seeing the trees, drawn to the trees, but barred by glass and walls, possibly forever…. No. This cannot stand.

The door is still open. The bird just needs to find it and aim for it, and it will be free.

Why was the door open?

The door is often open because I like it open. I like the sounds of nature–a breeze jostling the leaves of the mature oaks that preside over my backyard, birds saying undecipherable things to each other in cheeps and chirps, squirrels scolding my cat for being a predatory jerk who belongs in the house.

windows don't open
Sights but no sounds, unless I open the door…

The windows in my living room look out on all these living things, but they don’t open. So I can see all this life. but I can’t hear it, and I want that. The door opens onto an enclosed deck, and when the door is open, my dog and cats can come and go at will. I like that I can spice up their day by giving them choices, and access to places that interest them. Especially my little blind cat, who lives in a world of sounds without sights. The great outdoors is too dangerous for him, but in the safety of the deck he can dream of wild ways.

daredevil on my lap
Laps get boring. The deck beckons…

This door-propping behavior is unpopular with my family. Some of these living things I want auditory access to…they find their way inside. Or really, they lose their way and wind up inside. Usually it’s just bugs. Which make great cat toys–especially buzzy, frantic cicadas. And naturally (this is nature, after all) there’s the occasional wasp, which freaks out my kids.

I tell them beating their fear of wasps is one of the most empowering life changes they’ll ever make. Imagine becoming someone who can dispassionately observe all that flamboyant whirring and ominous hovering and just think to yourself, mmm-hmm. There goes a wasp. That is so cool.

By Trancelius (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I am this someone. I wasn’t always, but now I am. And I feel smug and bad-ass about it. When a wasp zooms in, I let it wear itself out a little with its hissy fits of bashing into lights and crashing into windows. I wait for it to land. Then I calmly place a cup over it, slide a piece of cardboard under it, walk it outside, and liberate it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

But when the intruder is a bird, that calls for a different tactic–one that eludes me. In the past it’s usually just been quite literally a hit or miss thing (with the bird hitting stuff and me missing the bird) until the bird accidentally escapes through the open door.

There must be a better way. But it’s not coming to me as I plot with my daughter about how to solve this thing.

We helplessly, foolishly try to communicate with this bird. We point to the door. No comprende. We walk toward the door with an exaggerated stride, inviting the bird to follow. It does not. We appeal to it in words: “Bird! Over here!” Not surprisingly, this also has no effect; the bird continues to flit randomly from edge to ledge to tip to top, occasionally in the direction or vicinity of the door but never through it.

I get a broom.

My plan with the broom is nebulous so far. I’m not going to swing it at the bird and panic it to death. But maybe I can block the bird from flying away from the door by brandishing this broom at a strategic angle in a strategic spot? As I grasp the handle and hold it aloft, lo and behold, the bird swoops over and alights on the bristles. All I have to do is march the bird outside as it surfs the broom! But the moment I move, the bird startles and flutters off. Drat.

Think. THINK! I’m a lifelong student of animal behavior. How can I commandeer this bird’s natural behavior to get it out of my house to freedom–and fast, before it poops all over my rug? What has it consistently, repeatedly been doing the whole time I’ve been effetely following it around trying bird-brained ways to save it? It’s been looking for perches.

What if I could entice the bird to perch on something that lies beyond the door?

By Manjith Kainickara (Flickr: Carolina Wren) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I step outside and out of view, holding the broom horizontally about chest height in the doorway. The bird spies this new perch. It is an excellent perch, if I may say so. The bird agrees! It flaps over from across the room and lands on the broom. It seems to instantaneously recognize the sensations of the outdoors. It takes flight and disappears. I feel relieved and a little bit self-congratulatory.

Will this work next time? Because there will be a next time. Because I like the door open so I can hear the natural world out there. And when the natural world pays me an intimate visit? Well, as you may have heard, I like animals underfoot.

my feet on deck
My deck.

What the Dog Saw


How do dogs see the world?

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverThat’s deep, if you’re talking about a dog’s point of view on life. (For one of the best books ever written on the canine umwelt, check out Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog.) But for our purposes, I’m talking in literal terms. What are dogs’ actual eyeballs taking in, specifically in terms of colors? Are they colorblind, like some say? Do they see in black and white? What about ultraviolet light?

Let’s look at a real-life case. In my dog training class last night, students taught their dogs to touch their nose to a Post-It note. You might wonder: Why ask a dog to put its nose on a piece of paper? Why a sticky piece of paper? What color is the paper?

To which I’d respond: If your dog can touch a target, like a Post-It, then he can learn to touch it wherever you hold it. If it’s sticky, you can attach it to something–a wall, say–and let go. Service dogs, for example, can be taught to flick light switches on and off using this method.

Oh, and the color of the paper? Yellow.

Does that seem random? Irrelevant? Consider this: Dogs’ eyes are equipped with cones (color receptors) for perceiving yellows and blues, but not reds. (This is typical of other non-human mammals.) I so don’t want to get into the anatomy, physiology and neurobiology of the visual system; I can barely comprehend it, much less explain it. Let’s stick with this: Dogs see red (and orange and pink), as shades of gray. And greens look pretty much like reds–as they do to the 8% of humans (mostly male) who are red-green colorblind.

from www.petadvisor.com
from http://www.petadvisor.com

The image above contrasts how humans see the visible spectrum with how it looks to dogs. See how the yellow stands out amidst the drabness?

510vi9+RcEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In her superb book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin describes cows who refused to walk up a ramp with a yellow rain slicker draped over the railing, and who avoided a building with a yellow ladder propped against it. She intuits that the cows were spooked by the high color contrast between the yellow objects and their surroundings. For “dichromatic” animals (those that see in two colors rather than three), color contrasts can be distracting or frightening. “Anything yellow will really pop out at them,” Grandin explains.


I don’t use yellow sticky notes to distract or scare dogs; I just picked the easiest color for targeting because it “pops out”. Likewise, I always buy yellow tennis balls for my dog, because I assume they’re easier to track in the air and on the ground. Pet stores sell tons of red, pink, orange, and green dog toys, which look bright and cheery to us, but to a dog, their murky hues make them easy to lose against any greenish, reddish, brownish or grayish background.

Does a dog’s-eye view seem a little dreary compared to ours? Before we get too smug, let’s remember that dogs’ primary sense is smell, and scent must form an olfactory tapestry that’s vibrant beyond our imagination. Plus, dogs’ crappy color vision still has ours beat in one regard: They see UV.

Let’s review: Dogs have cones for yellows and blues. Humans have an additional type for reds. Plenty of birds and bugs have a fourth type of cone that is sensitive to ultraviolet light. Even without these cones, our retinas could receive some UV light if the lenses of our eyes weren’t specially designed to block it out. Scientists figured this shielding feature was shared by non-human mammals.

millipedes-blacklightGuess what? When two British scientists shone light through the eyeballs of a wide assortment of dead mammals, they discovered a lot of them–from hedgehogs to okapis to, yes, dogs–have lenses that let some UV light penetrate to the retina. That means things that glow for us under a black light look a bit glow-y to a dog in normal light, for example snow and pee. A snowman that’s been urine-marked by every pup on the block could be a lurid spectacle indeed. What else must look weird to them?

This discovery got a lot of media attention, but I haven’t seen much follow-up analyzing how dogs might use this secret sense. Have you? Till then, let’s just end with another question–

When has your dog had a weird reaction to something that looked normal to you? Or overlooked something you thought was plain as day? Do you think color perception might have something to do with it?