My plan was to take a photograph of a moth displaying its eye spots. (Many moths are cryptic when at rest, but they can reveal their eyespots to startle a potential predator, hopefully scaring it away.) I failed to account for one thing — that the sudden appearance of the eyespots would take me by surprise. I jumped and nearly dropped my camera, obviously missing my grand photographic opportunity. I don’t always like animal surprises.

It was a bad surprise when my son came home with bird poop on his lower back and said that a raven had done it. Sure, most of us have had bird droppings land on our shoulders or heads, but how it had it landed where it did was a mystery. It turns out that he had leaned into his friend’s car to get his backpack, felt something land on him and looked up to see a raven flying away with a guilty look on its face. OK, I’m making that last part up, but in my ideal world, the bird would at least have had the grace to feel bad.

A friend of mine had a bigger surprise with bird poop. He was driving to the beach near his home in Venezuela with some friends when his favorite song came on the radio. He had his arm out the window, drumming on the roof of the car when a pelican flew overhead, leaving a calling card on his arm. Pelican eat fish so their poop smells dreadful, plus such big birds have correspondingly large droppings. Nobody in the car was happy then, despite the good music.

A seal once surprised me on a scuba dive by swimming by at the speed of, well, the speed of a seal. They can go as fast as 19 miles per hour, with the grace of an animal adapted to this mode of locomotion. So smoothly did this seal glide past me that I mistook it for a torpedo. It required just a second to re-process the image as a seal, but many minutes to recover from the shock of it whizzing past me.

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When we first moved from New Hampshire to Flagstaff 12 years ago, we had a memorable animal surprise. Opening the grill for the first time, it was hard to miss the black widow inside, but it was easy to be surprised that something so venomous was in our backyard. My husband’s family was surprised when they learned that their dog could leap their six-foot fence—with room to spare — by the time he was six months old. A mouse that ran over me while I was sleeping at a field station on an island off the coast of western Canada really surprised me. There’s a special quality to animal surprises that wake you up.

I sometimes wish an animal would yell, “Surprise!” rather than startle me in other ways. Of course, that would be a whole new kind of surprise and I probably wouldn’t like it.

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author and an adjunct faculty member in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.


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