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Do Animals Wave Back?
Another babbling Pam story

[Posted 16 August 2002, last updated 26 September 2002] Often I wave at animals and say "hi". It seems silly, but I want to be friendly and show that I'm not a predator trying to sneak up on them. Plus I love watching their reactions. It's only a guess how different animals interpret such a gesture, but my degree in sociology made me quite capable of good theories. Here are some thoughts on observed behavioral responses to "waving" stimuli.

'Yet another city primate with a camera'After waving many times, I've noticed similarities in how certain species react. Domestic animals have an entirely different mindset than wild animals. They aren't easily spooked by humans, and often watch me passively. Wild animals have more individuality in their responses, as their interactions with humans aren't structured and they're not conditioned into predictable patterns.

Cows react the least to my drive-by waving. Judging by their lack of movement and unchanged facial expressions, they're unimpressed. My guess is that cows are used to human handlers who treat them as a crowd, providing meals and shelter, but rarely spending "quality time" with them as an interspecies friend. And big apes driving by in those rolling boxes seem to have a variety of different antics to get cows' attention, so what's so special about a wave? Despite cows' short lives, they're no doubt the experts on human behavior in cars. They're probably intelligent enough to realize that humans don't take a personal interest in them. We're not their friends -- just something imposed upon them, to be tolerated in a passive way to avoid retribution. I'm probably treated as scenery because they're inundated with human behavior, behavior treating them as part of a herd and usually not requiring individual reaction.

'Uh, do I know you?'Horses, on the other hand, always have a change in face and posture. Mostly, it seems to be confusion. Here's someone they don't know, being friendly and trying to get their attention. Is it appropriate to react, when the human isn't a part of their own "herd" of humans and farm animals? At least that's what I'd guess the confusion is about. Horses deal with humans on a personal level. If their caretakers are good horse people, then the horses are in close personal contact while they're fed, cleaned, and combed on a daily basis. They learn of differences in peoples' personalities and responsibilities, and to differentiate between individuals. Humans may seem to be some of their best friends, providing all the essentials of life, digging the dirt out of their horse shoes, combing their hair, perhaps petting and kissing them on a daily basis. When ridden, they're given signals requiring them to personally react in a predetermined fashion.

Horses' relationships with humans are generally structured interaction, but a stranger waving is a situation without any such rules. This time, the response isn't set or even required, so the reaction is entirely the individual's decision. Their confusion over waving leads me to believe there's not only an instant, intelligent recognition of an outsider displaying insider behavior, but difficulty in dealing with creativity and decision-making. Naturally occurring herds make individual recognition necessary (just as with humans and family/tribal groupings), and their social hierarchy requires different behavior from different individuals within that herd (as with humans in society). So this behavior is very understandable to a human like me. The horses aren't "their own man", so to speak. Domesticated horses expect rules and structured relationships, possibly due to domestication, or perhaps due to natural herd behavior.

Texas cattleIt's interesting that both animals who I felt "waved back" at me were non-herd animals. This reminds me of a theory on why wolves were domesticated into our modern-day pet dogs, instead of wild dogs. Wolves naturally follow their pack leader's signals, whereas wild African dogs work together equally. The human replaces the pack leader in the wolf's brain, and can now give signals to be followed by less dominant wolves. This is how humans were able to control behavior of the wolves, by filling the leadership role. Otherwise, dogs would have trouble following commands, or so the theory goes. I wonder if our domestication of herd animals like cattle and horses has a similar basis.

Wild animals are ... well ... a whole different animal. I usually don't wave at wild animals unless I sense they're ready to bolt anyway. I like observing and photographing them as much as possible before they leave. Surprisingly, usually they'll pause to watch me wave, and then bolt. Wild animals need to know what's happening in their environment to survive, so maybe it's hard to resist pausing to learn a little more about the beast with the flailing hand.

While at a friend's house in Pennsylvania during the summer of 2002, I waved at the rabbits and deer on the property. There was a family of rabbits living outside of my guest room window, because they ate the flowers in the flowerbed just below the window. In fact, when I went to plant a peppermint plant in that flowerbed, I found the abandoned hole where the baby bunnies had apparently been raised, lined with fur from the mother. I used the hole to plant the peppermint, since obviously any flower bulbs in the area had already been destroyed. The grown baby rabbits seemed to enjoy nibbling at the peppermint plant that replaced their home, but they never took more than a single bite out of each leaf, for whatever reason. I guess the stems were too tough or something.

'I'll keep my distance thanks.'After watching the mother and her 4 seemingly grown babies (although usually not together) for minutes at a time, I'd always wave at them before I left the window. At first they seemed skittish, but after several waves on different days, they'd just turn one side of their heads toward me and watch me cautiously as they munched. I'm sure they thought I was one weird human, but so far no danger to them. After a few weeks they seemed entirely bored by my waving, so I decided to take the next step. I opened the door next to the window, and tried to take a rabbit's picture before she ran away. Amazingly, the bunny didn't bolt immediately, apparently not wanting to allow the interruption in dinner. She took a few steps away and turned to look. I tried to follow a little, to get a good picture, then she'd gradually run away a few steps at a time as I advanced. I couldn't get a close-up, but at least I was able to get the picture here. She seemed more irritated than frightened. The bunnies must have thought we were buddies by then, but they knew as wild animals not to let their guard down, because it might just be a trap to eat them.

I'd also wave at deer on the property. This seemed almost pointless to me, as the deer were always bolting away as soon as they spotted us watching, even through the window. They were so easily spooked I never thought they had time to see what I was doing. But one day, as I was driving up the long hilly driveway, I spotted the mother doe with her two fawns, grazing. I'd seen her on the property many times, at least I think it's the same doe. Anyway, I stopped the car right next to her, and waved. At first, she jumped a little as I approached, but then a heart-warming thing happened. She lifted her rear left hoof and bobbed it up and down a couple of times. Then she kept grazing with her fawns as I paused for a moment and drove off. Did she just wave at me? I always thought that if animals waved back, they'd use their front legs like I did. But she may have chosen the rear leg because it was the closest to me. And she didn't even run off with her fawns. I hope she doesn't think all humans are this friendly, especially if she wanders onto a deer hunter's property. My friends still seem to spook her, so maybe she knows it's just me -- individual recognition. Wild animals have to be the best to survive in the wild -- athletic, intelligent, healthy... So I wouldn't be surprised if she learned that I personally was a friendly human, just trying to greet her.

That was wave number one. I have another to tell you about. On a trip through Ohio in August 2002, I saw a big black crow perched above Interstate 80. I was so happy to see it that I leaned forward toward the windshield, looked up, and waved excitedly. I wasn't expecting anything in return, maybe a confused animal at most. For no apparent reason, the crow looked down, lifted its left wing a couple of inches, and held it there. Was that a wave? Crows are reputed to be very intelligent birds, so I wouldn't be surprised. But it spotted an individual human approaching at 60+ miles per hour, was able to see it waving from inside the rolling metal box, and acknowledged it with lifting its own limb? (It was an overcast day, so anyone could see inside of the car without sun glare.) After pondering this incredible feat, I remembered that crows warn other species of danger quite often, acting as a sort of guardian species. Sometimes they make a tremendous amount of noise as predators approach other animals, or if a foreign animal wanders into the territory. They'll also dive-hit birds of prey as a group effort, because prey birds sometimes attack their nests. Truly the masters of observation, interspecies communication, and cooperation.

These two wild, non-herd animals were intelligent enough to recognize that I was greeting them, and in a matter of moments used a like gesture to greet me in return. Because of their independence as wild animals, they're assessing risk and friendship on a daily basis, and have no structure or rules to follow when interacting with humans. The most common response must be running away, but it's their decision alone. Whatever their reason to respond in kind, I was truly delighted!

'Maybe I did, and maybe I didn't'A Horse Footnote
To be fair, I should acknowledge that one horse may have waved at me today. I drove down a rural road to take a few pictures of horses and cows, to give this page some domestic animal photos. I waved at the cows before taking pictures and as usual, they just stared at me -- another one of those boxed-up apes trying to get their attention.

When I found horses in small corrals near the road, I stopped and again waved at all the nice horsies before taking their pictures. The horse pictured here approached the road as I waved, and lifted his front right hoof a couple of times. However, it appears that he has a blindfold on, so did he really see me waving, or does he just stomp the ground occasionally? Sometimes horses do stomp the ground, although I'm not sure why. On the other hand, it's possible that he can see through that blindfold. Perhaps it's slightly transparent, meant to keep the sun out. I wouldn't know. But if he (or she) could see me, this would be the first domestic animal that ever "waved" back at me.

Another Crow Story
On Labor Day 2002 (September 2nd), I was driving to my employer's Texas office and saw a small group of crows fly over Interstate 10, landing in a small grassy area next to the shoulder. I was almost stopped in heavy traffic, so I decided to wave at them. One crow was obviously looking into my car, and to my great surprise, flapped its right wing a little, quickly turned its tail and then its rear left side toward me, and then flapped its left wing a little while looking into my car. Aside from warming my heart, this incident made me wonder if crows sometimes greet each other, or other animals, with the left wing. The Ohio crow used its left wing, and this crow used its right wing but then immediately seemed to feel it needed to switch to its left wing instead. I found at least one web site logging crow behavior, mentioning right- or left-handedness in crows:

"I noticed just a short time ago, what I believe to be a difference in these arrangements between individuals. Particularly in the overlap of the primary flight feathers over the tail. Two of the birds overlap left wing above right, the other three, the right over the left, when they are in the non-flight mode. The wing position is maintained while they are on the ground, and should they flap, to avoid a squirrel, or some other distraction, the wings are returned to their original positions, right over left or vice-versa, when the distraction has passed. There also seems to be a preferred side when they cock their heads to investigate my offerings. When they leave the feeding area, the rights take off with a turn in that direction, and the lefties go the other way. It is much more difficult to determine, but I think their arrival approach favors their handiness, or should that be 'wingedness'."
From http://www.crows.net/masslogs.html

Waving doesn't work with all crows, however. On the 14th, I was driving through a parking lot in Pennsylvania and saw a lone crow searching for food. I came to a stop in my car and waved at the bird, trying to get a reaction. Although the bird obviously was looking into my car and seemed interested in the behavior, its only response was to look down at the pavement, then back up at me. No doubt it wanted some food tossed its way -- its behavior already conditioned by humans. Obviously, animals can be friendly or shy, interested or uninterested in making contact with other species. They all have their own personalities, just like humans.

© 2002 by Pam Rotella

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