Animal behavior

Animals in our neighborhoods do curious things. Often the assumptions we make about their behavior are wrong. We are wrong because we assume these animals think as we think. Animal thinking is different, which is why we often misunderstand the animals around us.

When an emergency vehicle goes down the road sounding its siren, many of the dogs in the neighborhood begin to howl. I used to think that they were howling because the sound of the siren hurts their ears. I recently learned that they are responding to the siren on an entirely different level. To them it sounds like a message. By howling, they are helping to spread the message. Their howling is in no way an objection to the emergency siren; it is assistance in doing the job of the emergency siren.

Sometimes woodpeckers pound on the metal standpipe on the roof of my house. I used to think that woodpeckers were stupid birds-they could not tell the difference between wood and metal, and they could not learn the difference even after days of pounding on the metal. I recently learned that the woodpeckers are sending messages when they bang on the metal standpipe. They are announcing their presence to other woodpeckers and claiming their territory by their sound. In a natural setting, woodpeckers find hollow trees that amplify the sound of their pounding so they can claim their territory. We have made it easier for them to announce their presence and claim their territory by giving them hollow metal pipes to pound.

Mrs. Dim uses a blower to clean the deck behind her house far more frequently than necessary to keep it clean. Every day, several times a day, even when it is wet, Mrs. Dim runs her blower. I used to think that Mrs. Dim was just being annoying because that is her true nature. Either that or she had some kind of compulsion to make noise. After learning about dogs and woodpeckers, I began to understand Mrs. Dim. Like other animals, she is using noise to claim her territory. In a canine manner, she is making sure that the rest of the neighborhood knows where she is. The sound of her blower has nothing to do with keeping her deck clean. It is simply an announcement to the neighborhood: “Fear me, all you neighbors, for I am Dim.”

Animal behavior is endlessly fascinating in all its forms. This has been your educational essay for today. J.


Do I hear what you hear?

Siri and I have two things in common. Both of us are fairly adept at tracking down information to answer other people’s questions. Both of us have trouble hearing in a crowded room.

Yesterday I did some Internet surfing, curious to learn if a name exists for this difficulty, and, more important, if solutions for this difficulty have been found. Some sites suggested that this difficulty is caused by hearing loss. I am sure that’s not the case with me, because I can recall having this difficulty even in childhood. For that matter, my hearing in childhood was unusual, as a classroom test indicated that I could hear much higher pitches of sound than most of my classmates. This ability evidently has a genetic connection, as most of my family also hears high pitches. Did you know that the Beatles included the sound of a dog whistle at the end of the last track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Do you know many people who can hear that whistle? My kindred can.

Hearing high-pitched noises is not always a good ability to possess. I can hear light bulbs, computers, and appliances that are silent for most people. I remember a singing refrigerator that only a few people could hear—those who couldn’t hear it thought we were inventing a story. The refrigerator alternated among three pitches, almost pleasantly musical. The fluorescent lights at work hum in a monotone that can be distracting, almost painful, when there are no other noises in the room to mask the sound.

But I digress. After skipping the web sites that suggested hearing loss, I found others that described “the cocktail party problem.” It turns out that the “problem” is not that of people like me who cannot focus on one person’s voice when several people are talking. The “problem” is finding an explanation for the fact that most people can filter background noise and hear and understand the one voice they want to hear. Machines like Siri still cannot do that, and researchers want to know why people can filter unwanted noise so they can improve machines. So far research has indicated that the difference is in the brain and not in the ears. Studies with human subjects and with mice are focusing more specifically on the brains of the listeners to determine exactly how the brain filters sounds according to the desire of the listeners.

As I did my research, I wondered if any link exists between “the cocktail party problem” which I have (which is the opposite of the “problem” being studied) and the autism spectrum. Autistic people tend to be overwhelmed by sensory input; that is one of the key signs and symptoms of autism. As far as I could determine, no researcher has explored that connection. If anyone out there is looking for a thesis topic for an advanced degree in psychology or in audiology, let me make that suggestion…

Meanwhile, I continue coping as I have always coped. I maintain eye contact with the person I want to hear, and I do my best to read his or her lips during conversation. I also nod and smile a lot, or I try to match his or her facial expression without being obvious in my mimicry. No doubt from time to time I have been guilty of an inappropriate response, but everyone makes that kind of mistake occasionally.

Now if I could just pass a city ordinance to ban leaf-blowers…. J.