Nature’s gifted performers

There’s a narrow trench running along the side of the road where I live on the East Coast, and it’s often fascinating to watch a chicken hawk diving down from the overhead utility wires to snatch an unsuspecting Kreketeh from the edge of the trench.  I’ve seen this operation many times and, believe me, the bird rarely misses.

Coming from a height of some 60 feet, the hawk comes in at high speed in a swooping arc, snatches the snail, and is soon back up on the wire priming for another attack.  The hawk’s body control and eyesight must be remarkable to execute precision hunting like that; it’s an example of the gifts that these creatures of nature come equipped with, sometimes exhibiting their skills far from the forest or the jungle, with such efficiency; we often overlook the talents of these gifted performers that abound in nature.

I’ve been a long-time dog-lover going back to my days growing up at Hague where we had a very effective security watchman in a dog named Brownie who was very affectionate with our family but very hostile to any strange folks.

In my time in Canada and in Cayman, I’ve had many dogs, and back in Guyana now we have a part-Shepherd we call Choo (she chewed everything in sight as a pup) and another part-Shepherd whose all-black coat and boundless energy earned her the name Jet. We’re all aware of the efficient hunting skills of the jaguar or puma in our country, but often don’t notice the similar efficiencies in the more benign dwellers in nature, sometimes, like the Kreketeh, in or around our homes, or even in our house dogs.

We once had a Rottweiller named Sandy, and I sat in our yard one day, about three years ago, and watched her execute a manoeuvre that left me speechless.   Sandy would often stretch out on the clay tiles in the bottom house area, seemingly totally ignoring the birds that would occasionally fly through that open space, several feet above the ground, in their various wanderings.

This day, however, a particular bird must have strayed below the usual safe level; with no warning, Sandy suddenly leaped straight up in the air as if shot from a cannon and snatched the careless bird in full flight out of the air.  It was such an incredible leap that I would have been inclined to disbelieve it if I hadn’t been there as a witness. I hasten to add that having incapacitated the bird with one bite, Sandy simply placed the dead creature near our front door, strolled back to her spot on the tile, and resumed her apparent slumber.

I saw similar coordination and eyesight in play recently in Grand Cayman when a friend took me to lunch at a seaside restaurant in the eastern part of the island.  On the second-floor deck of the place, we sat watching this “feeding the birds” ritual where a young man comes out with a bucket of fresh meat scraps, and immediately draws a collection of frigate birds, circling in the air above him, who have clearly done this before. The young man finds customers who are willing to help him by standing on the beach with their arms extended, holding a bit of scrap meat in each hand.

The circling birds then take their turn, dropping down, one or two at a time, to fly across the outstretched hand deftly picking up the meat in its beak and quickly swallowing it, all without coming to land anywhere.  The day I was there, the game went on for about 15 minutes, as the birds would make a snatch, circle for a bit, and come back for another.  The coordination and vision involved was impressive.  Nobody’s hand was scratched, and I saw only one instance of a bird snatching a piece of meat and then losing it; masters of nature at work.

In my time in Canada, I had a friend, Dick Herrington, in the Thousand Islands area who had a pet dog he had trained to do various things normally not associated with canines.  This one was a German Shepherd who would instantly fetch the phone for him when it rang.  At the sound of the ring, without any instruction, the dog would drop whatever else he was doing, run to the phone (it was on a low table), grab the receiver in his mouth, and fetch it over to his master sitting smugly in a nearby chair.  I never saw any immediate reward from Dick in any way, but he must have developed a system that he and the dog understood.  It was a completely automated routine: the phone rang, the dog brought the receiver over.

The gold medal though goes to a man in Grand Cayman who had trained his dog to fetch his Heineken.  This one came to me via my friend Richard Terry, Tradewinds’ bass player, and it relates to his late friend, Jerry Myles.  A confirmed beer drinker, Jerry had seen his dog pull open the door of the fridge by tugging on a towel left on the handle.  German Shepherds are very smart dogs, but they don’t do well in Cayman’s heat, and this one had learned he could get at the cold air in the fridge by pulling on the door handle; he had also taken to licking the cold beer bottles in the fridge – blessed relief.

Noticing this, Jerry would open the beer and give the dog a sip, and the idea was born.  Over time,  by shouting “beer” while pointing to the fridge, Jerry soon had the dog fetching to gain his reward; or perhaps the dog was a boozer from the time of his first cold brew sip. Either way, Mr Myles soon had his willing servant fetching his Heineken (St Lucians call it “green coffee”) on full automatic.

So whether it’s the Hawk swooping, or the Rottweiler jumping, or the Frigate Bird gliding by, or the Shepherd answering the phone, you have to be impressed by nature’s marvels.  To my mind, however, the beer-fetching Shepherd is the best of the lot; most men can’t even get their wives to function like that.

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