Our Sunday Guest, Sonja Rosas, with, “how we act in the city and the forest”   Leave a comment

I was in the city recently and noticed that I move differently in urban and residential environments than I do in rural and natural environments. As a naturalist I’m used to thinking about people as social animals so I started comparing my behaviors in environments with different human population densities and tossing around ideas about the proximal and distal causes–that is, immediate and ultimate reasons–for why I do these things.

First, let me describe how I tend to move in natural areas where I’m unlikely to interact with other people (what biologists would call ‘conspecifics’, or members of my own species), such as at the property where most of my blog adventures take place:

Rural and Natural Area Behavior Patterns

Slow and leisurely movements, avoidance of sudden moves, and the attitude of what Jon Young calls ‘the lazy surveyor’.

Inoffensive posturing to avoid alarming birds and disrupting wildlife baseline behavior, such as ‘fox walking’; ‘bird dancing’ (recognizing when I disturb birds’ baseline behaviors and deferring to them thus minimizing my impact and enabling me to observe natural behaviors); performing sit-spots at favored wildlife viewing areas and ‘leap-frogging’ slowly between them; smudging with sagebrush smoke to attenuate my scent; and using hides.

Practicing vigilance to view and observe wildlife by employing wide-angle vision (‘owl eyes’); listening carefully to all sounds in my surroundings; scanning constantly; following-up on interesting bird calls, alarm patterns, etc.

Now compare these actions with those I, and other people, frequently employ in human-dominated environments.

Suburban and Urban Behavior Patterns

Brisk, direct pace; with purpose and intent.

Offensive conspecific posturing (behaviors made to communicate with other people) like standing tall with shoulders back; offering direct eye contact; adopting a swagger.

Inoffensive conspecific posturing like avoiding excessive eye contact; smiling; standing at a polite distance from folks in an elevator; and refraining from pointing your binoculars at peoples’ front windows even though a really sweet lesser goldfinch is at the feeder (well, you should do this…).

Practicing vigilance to maximize personal safety by employing narrow-angle vision; standing with back to street poles or buildings, especially after dark; scanning crowds; checking out people standing close at crosswalks/bus stops and walking behind you (ever get the guy who keeps looking over his shoulder when you happen to be going in the same direction and realize he thinks you might be tailing him? Like that); maintaining a space cushion between yourself and strangers (and their misbehaving dogs), etc.

I think few people actually notice that they or other people actually do these things because we’re so used to doing them. We’re conditioned from an early age to posture appropriately for our culture, sometimes explicitly (like when Mom taught you not to stare), but mostly implicitly (we learn by observing that we greet a friend differently from an interviewer, for example). People who ignore these rules are considered impolite at least.

This could be a very interesting study project for a young anthropologist, and I’m just skimming the surface, but I do have a hunch for why this divergence in behaviors occurs, but first a couple of disclaimers…

First, it’s really only a divergence among those of us who study nature. If you’re only ever in urban environments and aren’t easily distracted by song sparrows and pigeons you may never worry about fox walking or using wide-angle vision and so forth. Second, these two sets of behaviors are not mutually exclusive. You may readily employ behaviors from both of these two sets simultaneously–in a neighborhood park, for example.

The reason I think we do this is because we as social animals try to avoid becoming targets around other humans while when we’re trying to observe animals (which is in effect hunting without weapons, unless we’re really hunting, of course) we’re trying to avoid being perceived as predators.

When I’m downtown in the city I’m simultaneously trying to avoid becoming a target for negative attention and letting others know I’m not a threat. Conversely, in the woods I don’t have to worry about other people, just that the chickadees and robins don’t alarm call me!

What do you think about this? Do you agree that we act differently in public places with lots of people than in the forests and fields? Has reading this made you more aware of your behaviors as a social animal? Does it make you more interested in moving mindfully over natural landscapes?

Let me know!

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One WILD Naturalist




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