Sunday, October 3, 2010

Patient Watching

USFWS public domain

Thirty years ago, I had a conversation with Range Bayer about what he calls patient watching.  We talked about the interesting and different behavior that can be seen when observations of animals are made over a relatively long period of time.  Our conversation had a profound effect on me.  Going on to study fish behavior, I used what Range had said about patient watching.  Recently, Range and I talked about patient watching again and remembered that this method is indeed a powerful way to see the world.  Range used patient watching in his studies of great blue herons.
In classical behavior studies, the observer may watch an individual for short periods of time, generally 15 minutes or less.  This is called focal study and several individuals may be observed to gather replicate data for statistical analysis of mean individual behavior in a population.  The watching is done with an eye towards recording occurrence and duration of previously determined stereotypical behavior such as agonistic displays, feeding, and courtship.  This behavior is often collected into an ethogram and data is recorded that reinforces these conceptual frameworks. 
What happens when the observer watches an individual for an hour, or several hours, or through tidal cycles for up to 12 hours?  We no longer simply see stereotypical behavior that was preconceived.  We begin to see atypical, non-stereotypical animal behavior in the context of their environment.  We see how the individual responds to constantly fluctuating environmental conditions and in relation to other animals that may enter or exit the perception space of the focal individual.  This diversity of behavior is a new window on the animal and is a rich source of hypotheses and eventual explanatory information about how the animal behaves.  These patient watching studies are difficult, as they require a good deal of patience, sitting quietly for long periods of time while maintaining attention on the focal animal.  Try sitting and watching the same bird for an hour.  You must be comfortable, maintain attention, and make reliable notes for later reference and quantification.  This is the natural activity of one who meditates.  A great blue heron is a master of this mediation in the marsh, while looking for food and avoiding conflict with other animals.    
When we use patient watching, we choose not to look specifically for predetermined behavior, relaxing assumptions about what we might see.  We choose to openly watch for any behavior that may occur, repeatedly or infrequently, over a wide range of environmental and social conditions for the animal.  There are few, if any, patient watching behavior studies documented in the scientific literature.  I am making an effort to find these sorts of studies, as they are a unique contribution to knowledge of animal behavior and its meaning in ecology.  Patient watching studies can give the big picture for animals.
How can we use patient watching in our lives?  We can gain perspective on the events and circumstances of our lives by seeing through the lens of extended time.  By not automatically applying short-term conceptual assumptions to our observations, we can begin to see directly and sense the underlying forces that shape our actions and thoughts.  Imagine the potential power of seeing the wider field of connections among emotions, objects, people, and animals.  This may be a new source of inspiration and wealth, akin to the power of wildness to bring us contentment and well-being.  It would certainly help us discern the differences among conceptual seeing and direct seeing that often cloud our knowledge.  Maybe we would not be so quick to jump to conclusions about our world.  This could help reduce bias and prejudice.
Posted by michael 

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