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Birds of a Feather Flock to an Old Teacher

Bill Meredith

Most birds are aggressive toward each other, and as a result of their constant bickering and generally bad table manners, they spill more seeds from the feeder than they eat. However, the spilled seeds donít go to waste; many species normally feed on the ground anyway. So each morning this winter, among the half-dozen kinds of sparrows under our feeder, there would be 3 or 4 male cardinals with bright red crests and sinister black faces. There were also an indeterminate number of drab-colored females and juveniles, probably the mates and offspring of those males from last summer. But previous relationships were forgotten when winter came. The males established a pecking order among themselves, but each of them chased the females and juveniles away whenever the seeds began to get scarce. It was every bird for itself, and the females and juveniles were the last ones to the table.

When spring finally arrived, things changed. About the first of May I was idly watching a female cardinal foraging under the feeder when a male alighted nearby. He was full of confidence and authority, crest fluffed up and deeper red than he had been in the winter, and obviously the boss of the local territory. But instead of chasing the female away, he picked up a sunflower seed in his beak, hopped over to her and fed it to her with every appearance of tenderness. There was a story going on here.

My first impulse was to make up a dialog between the two birdsÖ "Thanks for the seedÖ it was good, but why are you giving it to me now when thereís plenty to eat, after chasing me away last winter when I really needed it?" But before I could go farther, a voice somewhere inside my right ear suggested that I stop and think again. It was a gentle, slightly tired voice that I hadnít heard in real life for over 35 years, but I recognized it immediately: Dr. H. Leland Taylor, my first teacher of animal behavior. He died decades ago, but he seems to live on in my head, and he has a habit of popping up at times like this.

Maybe he appeared just then because this is the anniversary of our first meeting. It was in May, 1955; he helped me make out my first schedule of graduate courses when I matriculated at WVU. I was 22; he looked ancient, though he actually was in his early 60s (a decade younger than I am now). I am ashamed to admit that I was not impressed. No doubt the arrogance of youth colored my judgment, but in fact he was easy to under-estimate. He was a small man, slightly stooped, with an unruly shock of white hair, a sallow complexion and a tired, seen-it-all expression on his face. His lab coat had been white once, but that was years earlier; now it was stained yellowish brown by a combination of chalk dust and smoke from the cigarettes that he lit one after the other. It was clear that he knew most of the things I was concerned about were not important, but he answered my questions with courtesy and patience.

By the end of that semester I had been assigned to a permanent advisor, and I was surprised that he insisted I take Dr. Taylorís course in Animal Behavior. The opening class seemed to bear out my first impression; he came into the room in the same lab coat, still smoking, carrying a battered manila folder filled with yellow, frayed lecture notes. As he lectured, when he finished a page of notes he would pause, pick up the stack of papers, move the one he had just finished from the top to the bottom, and tap the stack on the table to make sure the edges were neatly lined up before going on. When he wrote on the blackboard, he occasionally forgot that the chalk was not a cigarette and absent-mindedly puffed on it, while the dust from the eraser added its hues to the ancient lab coat. But to my surprise, in spite of these eccentric rituals I stayed awake and focused. His voice was still tired, but it was clear and articulate. He was a masterful story-teller, and the stories were spiced with a wry, ironic wit, always illustrating the points he was making rather than just filling time.

When the course was over my notes contained a large amount of information that was well organized and completely new to me; in fact, years later when I needed to refresh my memory for my own teaching, I was amazed at how up-to-date the course had been. Some of the paper Dr. Taylorís lecture notes were written on was probably older than his lab coat, but that was because, having survived the Great Depression, he never threw anything away. When I saw the notes close up, they contained items obviously written at different times; old information was crossed out or erased until the paper wore through, and new facts and ideas were added. He was conversant with the latest research in his field, as a university professor should be.

His favorite taboo was anthropomorphism, the attributing of human qualities to animals. Until the end of the 19th century, this was done by many scientists and most of the general public, who believed animals (especially pets) were like small, furry people that understood and learned with human-like thought processes. Around 1900, scientific opinion went to the opposite extreme, considering animals to be like machines that were limited to inborn, instinctive responses, modified only slightly by learning. The pendulum was swinging back in the 1950s, but anthropomorphism was still seen as an incorrect way to interpret behavior. When we covered that topic, Dr. Taylor said we should watch birds like cardinals, in which the sexes are easily distinguished. In the spring, he said, you will see the male offering food to the female just like teenagers sharing refreshments at a prom; but beware of anthropomorphism. This behavior is the result of instinct and hormones, not love; a month ago, he was chasing her away from food when both were threatened by starvation.

I last saw Dr. Taylor at a scientific meeting in the mid-1970s, and was pleasantly surprised that he remembered my name. Then in his mid-80s, he no longer smoked and had lost that infernal lab coat, but otherwise seemed little changed. His eyesight was failing, but he was still keeping up with developments in his field. We had lunch together and talked about the work of younger researchers like Jane Goodall, which had established an evolutionary continuum between the behavior of humans and the higher primates. I never saw him again; but I still hear him gently prodding me when I am tempted to be less than rigorous in explaining why animals behave as they do. And this spring, after 55 years, I saw his story happen through my kitchen window.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith