Can animals sense a hunter's intent?

commentSeptember 12, 2012 

I see the bull moose sneaking, and as he crawls through the brush on the hill the eagle above screams, "Stay close the ground, man walks among us -- be still."

This paraphrase of an old Marty Robbins song comes to mind at some point during every hunting season. Why does man create such fear and disturbance when he walks into the woods? Is it because we are the ultimate predator?

I don't think so. I have watched wolves skirt a caribou herd; the caribou are watchful and wary, but return to their feeding when the wolf passes. This fall I watched a lone grizzly cross a meadow where several moose grazed. They lifted their heads and followed his movement closely as he continued along his way. I saw their respect as they continued to watch for another few minutes after he had disappeared from their sight.

The wolves and the bears eat moose year-round, while man is only in the woods for a relatively short time. In most places we don't hunt cow moose, yet they fear us. A few days ago I sat on a hill glassing for moose. I sat quietly while a cow and calf moose approached, feeding along my hillside. My dog, Maudie, sat watching their advance intently. The wind favored the moose and the cow caught our scent at a couple of hundred yards. There was no hesitation. She turned and ran -- and ran for nearly a mile without stopping. She slowed for a bit and then ran again until out of my sight. Why?

It causes me to wonder about the communication skills between animals. I carried a rifle, so obviously there was malicious intent on my part. Could the moose feel my mind-set?

A year ago a kestrel came by the highway bridge near here. Five hundred swallows nest on the bridge and the little falcon was here for a meal. Some of the birds went in their nests and the rest formed a tight flock and left the area. The bridge became a swallow ghost town. The kestrel soon left and the cliff swallow world returned to normalcy.

A few days later the kestrel returned. He didn't appear to be hunting, just passing through. This time he was ganged by the entire colony and run out of town. The only difference I can see was intent.

One of the things I always tell those who hunt with me is, "Don't look at the animal you are stalking." It is OK to glance at him now and then, but don't concentrate on him. Animals can feel that. From how far away, I don't know, but yesterday morning I watched several cow moose feed fairly close to my hillside. I looked at them, determined them to be cows and ignored them.

Farther out, a big cow with last year's calf fed in a swamp. I put the scope on them and immediately thought I saw a fork horn on the calf. Sure enough, it was a little bull feeding nearly a mile out. My concentration sharpened and I was very focused on that young bull. Within a minute his head came up and he started to move out of the swamp toward the trees. He ran the last couple hundred yards to cover, while the cow continued her leisurely way.

I'm not going to necessarily have you believe that bull felt my intensity, but it is possible? A fork-horn is a perfect moose for us and I do really want him in the freezer. The big bulls know I really would rather not pack them, so they just stand around and puff up to seem larger ("he won't want to pack me over that hill...").

I went out to find that little bull this morning and he was nowhere to be found. I saw a couple of those puffed up bigger bulls, but they knew they were farther out than I wished to pack so they paid me little mind.

My theory that the difference between humans and other predators might be intent gained a little credence in my mind as I watched a small grizzly feeding on blueberries less than a hundred yards from a cow and calf moose. They watched him for a couple of minutes and the cow lay down. The calf went back to feeding and finally prodded the cow up so he could nurse. The bear went up and over the hill and I dropped down into the valley, pondering my moose-less way home.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson. He is a commercial fisherman and two-time Yukon Quest champion.

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