Friday, November 23, 2018

Could We Domesticate Dinosaurs?

Could We Domesticate Dinosaurs? For the general headline reader, an attention-grabbing title! For the avid science fan, we say, do we really need to go down this speculative path again?

In a recent Tetrapod Zoology blog posting, Darren Naish tackles (I believe reluctantly) some of the issues relating to Dinosaur domestication by humans, including some for food, labor and companionship.

Though it was very well written and thorough in all its contents, I found the article somewhat predictable in nature. I did however agree with the authors final analysis that many or most sorts could indeed be domesticated, and might in fact be domesticated quite easily.

More importantly, the article had me thinking about slightly more deeper issues; Could Dinosaurs actually change the way humans treat other living things? Absolutely not. If we replaced todays fauna with Cretaceous beasts, we would likely be dealing with much of the same issues such as habitat destruction, poaching and neglect. In other words, if humans and Dinosaurs were allowed to exist together for a period of time, there would be absolutely no change in the animal’s general use, or second thought of their poor treatment.  

With that being said, I too have been considering animal domestication. What some call domestication, I'd rather describe as “at-an-arm’s-length-training" of modern-day birds.

It has been three-years since I began feeding a family of five American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) in my backyard. What started out as only a winter offering, quickly turned into a highly anticipated “year-round” supply of table scraps and stale bread.  

Did I ever intend to feed avian scavengers on a daily basis? Not really, but I continued nevertheless due to my fascination with the corvid’s unusual behavior, a behavior which included their sixth-sense for detecting looming danger.

I initially thought, why were they so scared of me? Why was I such a threat? Could they ever trust a human again?

After three-years of day-to-day interactions and observation, I am happy to report that I have made some headway in our relationship.

No, I haven’t trained the birds to take food out of my hand, nor do they really come too close. But there is an obvious understanding of “facial” recognition, and mutual respect between us that has allowed me to control much of their everyday life.

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchus) 
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Control in their early morning arrival. Their multiple visits to my yard during the course of the day. How far they scavenge for roadkill. Where they choose to nest. Where they overwinter. What territory they protect.

Most of all, crows don’t fly away from me at first sight anymore. Instead, they shadow me in the near distance, communicating amongst themselves, observing my every move. If I didn’t regard corvids as evolutionary royalty, I would probably think they were a bit annoying. 

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchus)
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
The more I think about it, the more I feel the crows have shrewdly trained me instead! My grocery list now includes items solely for corvid consumption.

Should I really consider this a success? In “facial” recognition alone, I would say absolutely. Regaining trust in birds, who to this day are still used as target practice by game hunters is substantial, and says a lot about the corvid’s cognitive ability.

The same can be said about the Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) that inhibit my yard. 

In a short period of time, I have employed food, methodical body movement and “facial” recognition to walk among the twenty-one turkeys that make daily visits to my feeding station. A little intimidating at first, the birds will actually wait for me in front of my garage door, anticipating my grand appearance with a bucket of birdseed. 

Blog author feeding Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

This domestication, or “training”, of wild birds can also provide some valuable scientific information not readily observed by infrequent interactions. 

One of the things that I have noticed about the flock is that they will no longer visit my feeding station when there is snow covering the ground. One would think that a free handout in those conditions would be much appreciated, but apparently not for the turkeys. Why is this?

After some careful thought and consideration, I now believe what is provided for food, cracked corn and black-oiled sunflower seed, is not meeting the nutritional values, and overall quantity, in order for twenty-one turkeys to survive the cold winters night.

Instead, the turkeys are now focused on scraping and searching the forest floor for acorns of red oak, white oak, chestnut oak, and American beech nuts.

It will be interesting to see that when conditions do improve, will the turkeys remember my generosity, and return for our slow walk down to the woodland edge.

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