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Behaviour Watching

Ethology is the science of natural animal behaviour. What I practice as an Animal Behaviour and Training Council Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist is applied ethology. Sometimes I go back to the roots of ethology and spend time observing species other than those I see in my regular behaviour work. This holiday I spent a little time close to home watching the sea birds.

As I stand, binoculars to my eyes, I think of the founding father of ethology, Niko Tinbergen, famous for his Nobel prize and studying the herring gull - a bird now in serious decline. I watch a few other gulls before I hear the shriller call of the oystercatchers on the edge of the tide. I turn to watch them, taking little steps, cocking their head to one side just a little, and poking their long bills into the muscle covered rocks and taking a morsel to eat. Then repeating the process until a bit more of the rocky shore is uncovered by the retreating tide.

While still a student in Aberystwyth one of the assignments from the ethology and behavioural ecology class was to make continuous observation of a single bird or mammal. I chose my hamster, Austin. We had to write down a list of behaviours along with their description. Then code their occurrences in a transition matrix to look for patterns and frequencies of specific behaviours.

The feeding activity of the oystercatcher reminded me of this, and reminded me to look again for patterns in the dogs and horses presented to me with behavioural issues, for there are usually patterns there too, especially in habitually repeated behaviour and in ingrained, innate behavioural patterns. These give clues as to the reasons for behaviours and to the emotional state of the animal performing them.

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