Conservation Column - Communications between Humans and Wild Species—It’s Essential

I wish more people talked to animals. Communing with nature has been shown to improve both our mental health and physical well being. I wish more people listened to nature. Paying attention to wild animals is a window to both the endless wonders of nature and to the quality of the job we are doing at protecting it. With so many birds and other wildlife in such steep decline, it is a thundering wake-up call to change business as usual. A connection with nature helps us all to appreciate long-term values rather than just concentrating on short-term profits.

In a fascinating example of cooperation between free-living wild animals and human animals, the African Greater Honeyguide cooperates with people to find bee nests and share the spoils. The birds guide people to the location of a bee nest (hence the name) and the people secure the nest. They then share the food without competition; the birds are wax eaters and the people are honey eaters. This mutual cooperation requires two-way communication. Honeyguides call in a particular way to get people’s attention and then guide them to the food source by flitting from tree to tree. A study by Spottiswoode et al. published this summer explored the human side of the conversation. Scientists found that a special vocal call made by Mozambican honey-hunters notably increased the probability of mutualistic success.

When compared to neutral sounds played for the birds, the specialized attraction-calls of the honey hunters tripled the chance of a productive interaction. Intriguingly, people in different parts of Africa use different calls and it will be interesting to study how the birds learn to recognize the different local calls.

Reading about this study reminded me of an old favorite quote: from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”

I also wish that more people had the opportunity to enjoy nature’s conversation, yet another argument for the importance of conserving our public lands. On the local front, the State Land Board is proposing that we privatize some of our public lands, specifically the Elliott State Forest. This beautiful 93,000-acre forest in the Oregon Coast Range boasts mature and old-growth forest that provides essential habitat for the endangered Marbled Murrelet. It also supports salmon and a host of other animals, while providing cold clean water, carbon storage, and clean air. At this point, it is still available to the public, all of us. It is shared and valued by tourists and locals who engage in birding, photography, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, mushroom hunting, and nature study.

In 2012, the state was found to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act when it acted to increase logging, especially clear cutting, in the Elliott State Forest. Although the court case canceled 28 old-growth timber sales, the state continued to sell off timber parcels and now proposes that they dispose of the entire area. Selling off the forest would relieve them of the responsibility of managing it. 

Fortunately, it is currently illegal. Oregon Revised Statute 530.450 prohibits the sale of most of the Elliott State Forest. The state has argued against the statute saying that it “unduly burdens” its ability to manage the Elliott. Clearly this is another failure of communication.

We must urge the state land board to develop a management plan that supports environmental and recreational values beneficial to all Oregonians. And we must insist that they not privatize any more of our public lands! We hope that the state does not adopt a plan where the main forms of communication are “No trespassing” signs.

Communicate your opinion with the State Land Board at oregon.gov/dsl/SLB/Pages/contact_us.aspx

A petition is available at: tinyurl.com/jcorwcl

Reference: Spottiswoode, C., Begg, K., Begg C. (2016). Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism.

Science 22: 387-389