Hiking on Paynes Prairie yesterday, we watched a large flock of turkeys strutting among the dog fennel and salt bush plants. But we were also a bit horrified. Here it is only a few days before Thanksgiving and they're wandering around without a care in the world. After centuries of being the main attraction on the traditional Thanksgiving table, you’d think they would have developed some instinctive aversion to all things human at this hungry season. They should feel uneasy and have an irresistible urge to duck behind a bush and gobble in hushed tones. Better yet, maybe they should evolve an instinct to migrate to more turkey-friendly environs (of course this would require them to also develop the ability to fly more than a couple of hundred yards without getting winded).
The sad reality is that animal behaviors rarely evolve fast enough to keep up with the changes inflicted on them by modern technology. The most glaring examples of this shortcoming are seen on roadways where wild animals face the modern world's most dangerous foe. How many times have you watched an indecisive squirrel darting back and forth in front of an oncoming car, often with tragic consequences? It’s a great move when avoiding a hawk, but relatively useless against a pickup truck.
I wonder if some of these animals have just enough intelligence to recognize the folly of their often-fatal instincts, but not enough will-power to overcome them. For instance, when a skunk does a handstand with his back arched so far back that his musk propulsion unit (his butt) is over his head and aimed forward prepared to spray, does he ever wonder if this is really the best way to handle an oncoming pick-up truck? Is there a moment, as a car is bearing down on an armadillo that she thinks, “maybe if I resist the temptation to jump straight into the air as the car passes over me, I might survive this troubling turn of events.”
The clash between modern technology and animal instinct takes place off the highways, as well. One example is light pollution. Moths that fly at night have a fatal attraction to artificial lights. In a natural setting they navigate by stars or moonlight by keeping those celestial landmarks at a fixed angle as they fly. Stars and the moon are so far away that the angle doesn’t change as the animal flies. This keeps it on a straight course. But, when there’s a bright artificial light, the moth wants to use it for navigation instead of the stars. When it keeps the porch light at a fixed angle to its side, it just flies in circles and bumps helplessly into the light.
Similar navigation concerns have prompted ocean-front communities to ban outdoor lighting during turtle nesting season. Hatchling turtles are drawn to the brightest horizon, which in natural conditions is the open ocean with reflected light of moon and stars. Artificial lights from condos or homes lure them in the wrong direction, away from the water.
Not all of these outdated instincts have such dire consequences. When your dog rolls in an animal carcass in a loving attempt to bring you information about a food source, surely he’s learned that not only will you be unimpressed, but he will be temporarily banished from the house and all human contact. Worse, it will likely result in the dog-world's version of capital punishment—a bath.
So, to all you turkeys reading this notice (my e-mail list is wonderfully diverse these days), I have some advice—evolve! Maybe you could learn a few tricks from your fellow creatures. For instance, you could follow the lead of skunks and become nocturnal. Just don’t follow their lead onto the roads. Or perhaps you could learn celestial navigation from moths. The warblers and swallow-tailed kites tell me South America is great this time of year.