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Autism mindfulness Wellbeing Wildlife

Making Sense of Nature…

“Where’s the best place round here to see badgers?”

“I saw this bird, a bit like a sparrow but different, any ideas?”

“What sort of the poo do you think this is?”

I am frequently asked questions like these, and I’m absolutely delighted that when people have a wildlife-based query, they think of me as someone who could possibly help.

My knowledge doesn’t just come from having a good memory, and it certainly wasn’t taught to me in school. My passion for the natural world is lifelong and developed from a childhood spent reading – and walking about, noticing things.

I grew up in the days before we could conduct research on the internet, and I spent many hours poring over encyclopaedias, and also reading lots of fiction which seemed to include more descriptions of the specific species of plant and tree than many children’s books do these days.

I have always been someone who enjoys my own company and as a girl I would walk or cycle around the country lanes, sand dunes and beaches in my neighbourhood. I’d horrify my parents by disappearing off for hours on my bike to Brean Down, one of the Mendip Hills jutting out into the Bristol Channel near Weston-Super-Mare. My propensity for tripping over, falling off my bike, or otherwise ending up in some sort of scrape was well-known, and Brean Down was a steep climb with sheer cliffside drops into the sea, and was riddled with rabbit holes, just ripe for twisting an ankle in!

I’d sometimes cycle there at dawn or dusk and dodge the feral goats which stood intimidating tourists as they ascended the steps to the 100m summit of the limestone promontory. And then I’d secrete myself away and keep very still. The Down is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and has rare flora like the white rock rose. It’s also a great spot for watching peregrine falcons, kestrels and ravens. But the animals I wanted to see were the rabbits. They were incredibly common and if you sat very still and just waited in the crepuscular light, you would soon find yourself surrounded by bunnies. It always felt an utter privilege to be able to sit near them and a great use of my special ability of being able to blend into the background without being noticed.

This rabbit photo was taken in Gelli Aur Country park back in 2008. There has been a significant decline in rabbit numbers across the county of Carmarthenshire in recent years.

As well as an ability to silently disappear when I need to, I have a remarkable sensory processing system. Like many autistic people, my sense organs see, hear, and smell in a fairly average way. But my brain processes that sensory information quite differently. This means that some of my senses work in a way that is quite muted and requires lots of input to register a sensation, whereas other senses need hardly any information to register what is happening. This fluctuates and can become more extreme when I am under stress, worried or having to process lots of information (sensory or otherwise).

An example of where one of my senses may often be muted (or hyposensitive) is in my  proprioception – the sense that tells us where the various parts of our body are in space (close your eyes and stick your arms in the air – wave them about – whether your arms crash into each other or not is down to your proprioception). My sense of proprioception is responsible for many of my accidents when I trip over my own feet, misjudge a step, or bump into a doorframe.

On the other hand, my senses may by heightened at times (hypersensitive) – and this has its pros and cons. I can find the noise of a door closing incredibly loud, to the point of it making me jump with fright and my ears hurt. But I can also hear the wasp chomping on the wooden frame of my living room window while it gathers material to mix with its saliva to help build its papery nest.

As well as having particularly keen senses, another trait of my autism is that I can’t filter out so-called ‘unnecessary’ information. I sense everything with equal intensity and importance. This can make me appear ‘lost’, confused or slow when I am in a new environment as I am taking absolutely everything in and trying to consciously work out which bits I should or shouldn’t be focusing on. It makes me a fantastic spotter of wildlife though! I will be the person who notices the Speckled Wood butterfly camouflaged on the woodland floor. My brain will not be fooled into thinking those patterns on the insect’s wings are part of the leafy detritus it is hiding against. My olfactory processing is so sophisticated I can tell whether the repugnant smell of rotting corpse is dead badger, dead deer, or simply a Stinkhorn mushroom.

Not everyone has a sensory processing system that works like mine does, but we can all ensure we take more notice of what is around us when we are out and about, and tune into our sensory experiences.

I have practiced Mindfulness for many years. It comes naturally to me, as I have always been someone who notices things.  Being Mindful means, you make a special effort to notice what’s happening in the present moment (in your mind, body and surroundings) – without judging anything. It has roots in Buddhism and meditation and there is good scientific evidence to prove its benefits. You don’t have to be spiritual, or have any particular beliefs, to try it and it can be incredibly beneficial for your wellbeing . Mindfulness also sits well with me because my inability to filter things means I tend to be quite open-minded and non-judgmental anyway. I find Mindfulness particularly valuable because it reminds me to take a break from all the classifying and categorising and naming of the natural world, and just be in that moment, noticing it with my senses.

For people starting out with a hobby like bird watching, or who want to develop more awareness and knowledge of the natural world, I would recommend taking a Mindful approach and just get out there, walk, and notice things. Don’t think about whether you recognise plants or animals, or if you can name them or know what they are. Nature can be enjoyed without any of these things. Try using each of your senses to notice what is happening around you.

Humans are currently said to have eight senses. The five we learned at school – smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. Vestibular – the sense of how gravity effects our body (our balance and awareness of spinning and jumping etc). Proprioception – knowing where the various parts of our body are in relation to each other. And finally, Interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel internally (our emotions and bodily functions like feeling hungry, tired or needing the toilet).

Interestingly, other animals have additional senses, and humans share the physiology that enable some of these senses too. Magnetoreception helps migrating birds find their way using the earth’s magnetic field. Thermoreception enables animals to detect heat and forms part of the infrared sensing systems found in some snakes and in vampire bats. Electroreception is well known in some sharks and other fish.

https://www.the-scientist.com/features/sensory-biology-around-the-animal-kingdom-32941

Here are some ways you may like to notice nature using your senses. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I believe that with practice people can get more attuned to using their senses and it gives such an added layer of appreciation of our natural world:

Vision – stand still and notice how many different species you can see. Don’t worry about recognising them. You may be surprised at how many different living creatures you are sharing your space with at any given time.

Smell – notice a smell and move about until you can find the source of it, notice where it gets stronger or weaker. If you find something really smelly, like honeysuckle or even fox poo, focus on the aroma and then notice how far away from the source you can get while still smelling it.

Hearing – pause and notice how many different sounds there are. Let yourself notice each one. There may be sounds in the foreground like your breathing or footsteps, as well as sounds further away like birdsong, or a nearby road. Notice any background noise like the wind or water.

Taste – if you are confident at safely identifying wild food, then enjoy a blackberry or other fruit. Otherwise, practice with fruit and veg in your garden.

Touch – feel how cold the water in a stream is. Notice how things that look similar, may feel different. Find white clover and red clover in a field. Stroke the stalks of each and notice how one is hairy and one is smooth – you will forever be able to impress others with your knowledge of clover identification even when there are no coloured flowers to give the answer away!

Vestibular – close your eyes and notice whether you can sense if you are at sea level or much higher up.

Proprioception – bring your attention (without looking) to various parts of your body and see if you can notice where they are. Let the feel of the ground under your feet and the air against your skin help you notice where the respective parts of your body are. Realise you are part of the natural world.

Interoception – notice how you feel when you are in the natural world. Does it bring you joy, curiosity, peace?

Not only does using a technique like Mindfulness help us relax and connect with nature by disconnecting with the stresses and strains of our busy, daily lives, it helps us recognise how much is going on all around us all of the time. Once we start recognising this, it is more likely we will notice those elusive badgers, otters or whatever else we hope to spot. I have genuinely seen people walk past the most incredible creatures because they have been so focused on their phone, or their conversation, or lost in their own thoughts.

As well as practicing noticing things, its worth studying and learning all you can too. I bought my very first nature book whilst on a caravan holiday as a six or seven year-old. I remember going into the book shop in Williton, on the edge of the Quantock Hills and using my holiday pocket money to buy a copy of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Animals, Tracks and Signs. This is my favourite Spotter’s Guide because it opened so many doors for me. It wasn’t just a simple identification guide that helped name the species I was lucky enough to spot, it taught me the craft of getting up close with nature by understanding it.

Here are some of my favourite pages:

Gaining knowledge of how animals live, as well as what they look like, increases your chances of spotting them. Habitat, diet, and behaviour are all important parts of this. Understanding these helps identify animals and plants too. It increases the likelihood of seeing them when out and about. Consider my trip to Brean Down to watch my beloved rabbits. I knew that they would be out at dawn and dusk – I understood their behaviour. I knew there would be a warren on the isolated headland – I understood their preferred habitat. There was plenty of grass for them to eat – diet. Rabbit poo is decidedly easy to spot and correctly identify. My rabbit spotting trips are an obvious example of using knowledge to increase your chances of seeing a wild animal, but the principle is the same for other animals too. Though it provides no guarantee of a sighting!

Otters are a favourite animal of mine, but have frequently eluded me, despite my extensive knowledge. I now live within walking distance of otters and I’ve been out before dawn, I’ve set my camera trap up, I’ve even photographed their footprints, and smelt them. But my only local sighting was a chance encounter in a pond, rather than in the river where I know they live.

These tips that I’ve given about studying animals can act as a useful checklist for ensuring correct identification too. Sometimes we may spot a creature or plant that we are unfamiliar with. It is very easy for wishful thinking or past knowledge to affect our judgment when trying to identify it. My tip is to jot down exactly what you see. This is where another of the advantages of my autism comes in. Sometimes autistic people are labelled as great with the finer details but not good at seeing the bigger picture. Personally, I would disagree with this. I am very good at seeing the bigger picture – but I make it up out of all the tiny bits. This takes time and if you are after a quick answer before I’ve processed all the individual pieces into an overall scene, then you may wrongly assume I haven’t seen the bigger picture at all. My ability to appreciate every aspect of the world without judgment also comes into play – that lack of ability to filter information I described earlier. Autistic people are often “bottom-up thinkers”. The  American scientist, Temple Grandin describes:

“I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph… That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.” 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/07/05/research-shows-three-distinct-thought-styles-in-people-with-autism/#1d73aac1221e

Suppose you see a bird that you can’t name. Very often people will tell me they have seen a brown bird that was probably a type of sparrow. They hand me the bigger picture information, and this is usually followed by a time consuming and tricky process of me asking lots of questions about things they haven’t noticed. Whereas, a person who describes small details accurately, helps me identify the bird much quicker, even when there are key bits of information missing. A member of a Facebook wildlife group I set up, reported seeing a bird she didn’t recognise – and with only a handful of very specific details I could identify it instantly, show her a picture and have the id confirmed. She described it as thus: Cornish coast, size and shape of a tit, black head and wings, white collar and under wings and a reddish underside. It was in July. I pieced these bits of information together and knew what it was straight away.

Stonechat

I used the visual information and then checked off whether the following were likely: habitat – coast, and time of year – summer, location – South West England.

Checking the likelihood is always important – a Golden eagle in the skies above Wales is almost undoubtedly a buzzard.

A cuckoo seen in the winter is probably a sparrowhawk, like this one that took a blackbird down in my garden back in the winter of 2010. The cuckoo is a brood parasite that uses its resemblance to a sparrowhawk to frighten away the parent birds when it is hoping to lay its eggs in their nest in the spring.

When birds look very similar, like the curlew and whimbrel, you can use your knowledge and senses to help with id. If you listen, whimbrels make a rapid tittering of very short whistles, whereas a curlew’s call has a much more ringing tone and the male in displaying flight in spring has an almost liquid sounding song that crescendos into a bubbling trill. UK based whimbrels only breed in Northern Scotland and is seen elsewhere in the country as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. It can take off and fly from a standing start, whereas a curlew will take a run at it. Although side by side, the beak length is a giveaway, it is unlikely you will ever have the luxury of seeing that, so understanding how they behave helps.

Curlew (from RSPB website)
Whimbrel (from RSPB website)

Of course, we must always be careful of how we interpret things and remember that all sorts of creatures can turn up in odd places – like the Tregaron golden eagle, or the bearded vulture currently roosting in the English Peak District. Vagrant, escapee, albino, and hybrid animals are frequently spotted. Whilst this can feel exciting for some bird watchers or nature spotters, the outcome is rarely positive for the animal – a raccoon dog (tanuki) was destroyed in Carmarthenshire only last week and I still feel distress at the hunt killing an albino stag in Somerset where I grew up.

https://www.facebook.com/Cambrian-Mountains-Eagle-Watch-1018718254978738/?ref=page_internal

On a lighter note, Bill Oddie tells a story about identifying a bird, that reminds me that even when using common sense and a bottom-up approach, you may still be surprised: Bill’s friend works for the RSPB and received a telephone call from a lady asking for help identifying a bird. He gleaned information about the bird’s buff colouring, and the bit of black and a bit of red on its head. This bird had been feeding at her bird table. The RSPB chap considered the information, matched it to the most likely suspects, and confidently told the lady it was a goldfinch. But she was not in agreement at all! He asked her to describe what the bird was doing, and she explained that it was stood by the bird table pecking at seed. He enquired whether it was able to reach up and get the seed, and the lady informed him that this large, heron shaped bird was actually stood next to the bird table and was leaning down pecking at the food. The bird was not a goldfinch – it was a crane!

Its not just the behaviour and appearance of the creatures and plants that we see that can help us identify them, the relationship between species is significant too. Take the stinkhorn mushroom and badgers for instance. I explore their relationship in another blog: https://offdowntherabbithole.org/2020/01/26/badgers-and-the-devils-fungus/

When I smell a stinkhorn, I look out for signs of a badger sett or other badger activity like a latrine. If I am on the Ceredigion coast looking out to sea for dolphins, I’ll scan the skies for feeding seabirds. These may indicate a shoal of fish and dolphins could be close behind them. I was listening to a dunnock outside the doctors’ surgery this week. This small, brown and grey bird had a most beautiful song that suddenly turned into a short staccato cheep-cheep-cheep. This type of noise is an alarm call used by lots of different small birds. I knew it wasn’t me that had alarmed it, we were both well aware of each other and keeping a safe distance.  So I looked to the sky, and lo and behold, a buzzard had started to circle and soar above the carpark.

The signs that animals use a local area may not be obvious, but if you keep noticing things with all your senses, then it is surprising what you may find. Here are some photos from my walks…

Lots of broken empty snail shells indicate this is somewhere a bird like a thrush or blackbird could come to smash open snails on this piece of wood.
Lots of feathers on a log like this indicate a bird of prey comes here to pluck whatever it has caught to eat. This is in woodland so it is probably a sparrowhawk.
I knew where a fox lived so set my trail camera up. Capturing a still photo of it catching a bird in its mouth was a stroke of luck.

I recommend finding a local wildlife patch that you can visit and get to know at different times of the day; in different weathers; and across the seasons. If you use all your senses to notice your environment, I guarantee you will never ever get bored of what you find because no two visits will be the same. Take photos; learn what the plants are and have an educated guess at which butterflies and birds they may attract and see if you’re right! Learn all you can and enjoy going off down those internet rabbit holes researching whatever takes your fancy. As for equipment, buy the best you can afford. But remember, equipment is no substitute for noticing and learning. I deliberately leave my phone, binoculars and camera at home for at least one of my daily walks. I realised once, when I started to feel disappointed that I didn’t have a camera to record something, that I was beginning to digress from what it is about the natural world that brings me such pleasure. Similarly, I do not need to name or classify every species I come across – I take an awesome pleasure in knowing that for that moment, it is just me noticing whatever it is, and that makes that moment special and never to be repeated.

Get out there and have some moments!

This is the first of my blogs to be featured in both my wildlife and my autism blog. If you’d like to check out my other blog, please click below…

https://undercoverautism.wordpress.com/

Categories
Autism Wildlife

The Ugly Duckling

Slimbridge

Swans are the largest living members of the waterfowl family and fossil records of the genus Cygnus date back to the late Miocene epoch which means they have been on earth for well over 5 million years. They were swimming in ‘our’ rivers before gorillas had even evolved and long before Australopithecus, let alone more modern women and men had appeared. Fossil records of prehistoric swans found on Mediterranean islands reveal a bird that was 2 metres long from beak to tail – which makes it bigger than the local dwarf elephants that were also around at the time!

It comes as no surprise that these magnificent creatures have filled mythology and legend through the ages and swans hold a special place in many cultures; including stories of Norse swan maidens and the holy, pure birds that drank from the Well of Urd in Asgard, the home of the gods. Helen of Troy was described in Greek mythology as being conceived by Leda and Zeus who was disguised as a swan and the Irish legend of The Children of Lir is about a stepmother who transforms her children into swans for 900 years. The swan’s beauty and tendency to mate for life has captivated the imaginations of people and they symbolise elegance, true love, and longevity.

Llanelli WWT

I can’t discuss the role of swans in storytelling without mentioning that most famous of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales ‘The Ugly Duckling’. This tale describes the trials and tribulations of a young swan hatched from an egg in a duck’s nest. Most of us are familiar with the story of how the young swan was humiliated and mistreated for being different until in the end he left and tried to find a place where he could belong and be accepted. Sadly he couldn’t find a place to fit in while he was still young; whether that was with the wild ducks and geese, the old woman and her cat or the farmer and his noisy children, so in the end he hid in a cave next to a frozen lake for the winter. When the swans arrived in spring, the now fully grown duckling decided he could not live a life of solitude any longer and threw himself to the mercy of the swans, expecting to be rejected, but as we all know, he was immediately recognised as one of them and when he saw his reflection in the lake he realised that he too was a beautiful swan.

There are many critiques and much analysis of this popular fairy tale and it has been said that the story may be autobiographical. Hans Christian Anderson is described in a biography by British journalist Anne Chisholm as such: “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theatre he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”.  Speculation also suggests that Andersen was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik (later King Christian VIII of Denmark). It is said, but certainly not proven, that he found this out some time before he wrote the story, and that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage.  Hans Christian Anderson is often described as being on the autistic spectrum and whilst the word autism wasn’t in use during his lifetime (1805-1875), it has certainly always existed as a type of neurodivergence (or difference in brain neurology such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD amongst others). It feels safe to assume that the author clearly understood how it felt to be different and it draws up some interesting questions about how belonging and fitting in can be so difficult for people.

An interesting variation on the Ugly Duckling tale at my local river. These three hang around the Towy at Llandeilo

Christa Holmans is a business professional from Texas who blogs as ‘The Neurodivergent Rebel’ (She is rebelling against a culture that values assimilation over individuality, if you were wondering). Christa is happy for me to use her quote and I think it sums up the story beautifully: “The ugly duckling grew up believing – falsely – that he was an ugly or defective duck.  Eventually the “duckling” learned he wasn’t a duck at all.  In the end, the duckling was a perfectly “normal” “average” swan and this knowledge set him free.” 

This also ties in nicely with the thoughts of social scientist and author Brené Brown (she has the fourth most-watched TED Talk of all time. It’s called “the power of vulnerability” and it has nearly 31 million views.) “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in”.

Brown says that when we “fit in” as opposed to “belong,” we acclimatise to the situation instead of standing for our authentic self.

So how did the ugly duckling not know that he was actually a swan, I wonder? How do any of us ‘know’ that we are human or what our gender or sexuality or opinions are? What seems like an obvious question to start with is actually extremely complex when you explore what identity is. There is an interplay of many complicated themes such as attachment, personality, free will and conditioning and the whole nature-nurture debate.

In the animal world, some birds don’t innately recognise their parents or even their own species. They will use environmental cues to identify and attach themselves to a parent figure. This type of imprinting happens shortly after birth and the parent figure does not even need to be the same species. It is called filial imprinting. This type of imprinting tends to take place in precocial birds (otherwise known as nidifugous birds) –  they are developed enough to leave the nest and feed when they are very young, so the ability to identify a parent that will keep them safe is important for survival. There are other types of imprinting: sexual imprinting, where an animal learns the characteristics of a desirable mate and limbic imprinting, where very early experiences contribute to lifelong psychological development.  I remember watching cartoons as a child and filial imprinting was a fairly common topic, with hilarious consequences.  

A screenshot off the internet of a 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon

These cartoons are from a time when behaviourism was a very dominant school of psychology and it was widely viewed that behaviour is influenced by the environment and you can pretty much train anyone to do anything if you punish or reward them hard enough. Less emphasis was placed on internal mental, emotional or sensory states. The 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon called ‘That’s My Mommy’ is a fine example. A baby duckling imprints on Tom the cat and develops an attachment to him as its mother. Despite Tom’s far-fetched schemes to cook and eat the young bird, the duckling continues to love Tom and see him as his mother, and violently reject Jerry’s attempts at rescue. The cartoon ends with Tom setting up an elaborate plot to cook the duckling in a pan on the stove top. The poor bird is so attached to its mother figure that it tearfully walks up a spoon and attempts to plunge itself into the boiling pot – but at the last minute, Tom has a change of heart and grabs the duckling and they go outside and the cartoon ends with a view of Tom swimming in the pond with his young charge happily copying his every move whilst saying ‘that’s my mommy’.

Humans have exploited filial imprinting in birds to create fantastic wildlife documentaries where they have been able to fly in hang gliders alongside great flocks of geese. They have also used imprinting as part of conservation projects to teach birds that were bred in captivity how to fly and follow migratory routes. Imprinting has also been used to ‘prove’ that chickens can count! I’m not sure why this is important and I hope that scientists aren’t trying to create a master race of maths genius chickens. It is known that the chicks of domestic chickens prefer to be near large groups of objects that they have imprinted on – safety in numbers perhaps? In a series of experiments, the chicks were made to imprint on plastic balls and could work out which of two groups of balls hidden behind screens had the most balls in it.

Alongside imprinting, attachment also takes place. This is the important process of forming bonds so that social and emotional development can take place. Attachment theories have changed over the years and people form different types of attachments or connections to each other. Some of these connections are reciprocal e.g. between adults, and some aren’t e.g. a baby and its care giver. Back in the days of Tom and Jerry, attachment was viewed as a learned response i.e. a baby learns (through classical conditioning) that its mother will give it milk. The baby naturally likes milk and learns to associate its mother with being fed so learns to like its mother too.

The most famous example of classical conditioning is probably Pavlov and his dogs. I won’t describe his experiment here as it is so familiar and is easy enough to research if you want more information. Instead I will tell you about a Pavolvian experiment that my dog unwittingly took part in.

Last summer my family and I were in New Quay, West Wales. We had been on the beach looking in the rock pools and had found some awesome creatures including periwinkles, shrimps and a venomous weever fish. We’d wandered back up near the harbourside to look out to sea for dolphins and to avoid the crowds that had come on holiday and/or to see Chris Packham who was there as part of his Bioblitz project around the UK.  Surprisingly, or maybe not, Chris Packham also appeared to be avoiding the crowds that had come to see him and was enjoying a piece of cake in peace. We had an interesting chat and he made a big fuss of our dog Blaze and gave her some of his lemon drizzle cake. Blaze is quite spoilt and thinks that everyone should adore her and feed her. Blaze and Chris were quite taken with each other to be honest. Roll on to October and Autumnwatch on TV. Blaze is a lazy dog in the house and not at all interested in television or anything other than sleeping or occasionally raising her head if she hears a kitchen cupboard door open, just to check. She may even get up and investigate if she hears the biscuit tin lid being removed. Anyway, Chris started to introduce the programme and Blaze was bolt upright and up on the sofa watching him. He has a distinctive voice and Blaze had learned to associate it with lemon drizzle cake. She now expects to have a piece every time Chris is on the TV!

Prior to meeting Chris Packham, Blaze liked cake – we can describe the cake as an ‘unconditioned stimulus’. Blaze already had an ‘unconditioned response’ i.e. she got excited by the smell and sight of cake – this was innate, she didn’t have to learn it. She had previously seen Chris Packham on Springwatch but had shown absolutely no interest in him. Chris could be described as a ‘neutral stimulus’. By pairing Chris with the cake, Blaze now experienced him as a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and whenever she has seen him since, a ‘conditioned response’ occurs regardless of whether he has cake or not – Blaze is excited because she associates Chris Packham with lemon drizzle cake!

Of course, behavioural approaches to understanding why humans and other animals do what they do aren’t the whole picture. I remember briefly studying biology and psychology as A levels and it all seemed a bit disappointing because experiments were frequently about being horrible to my fellow living creatures in order to find out how they worked. Whether that was dissecting a frog to examine its intestines when there were plenty of amphibian anatomy diagrams readily available instead or hearing about sleep deprived cats or baby monkeys that were taken from their mothers and given a wire ‘mother’ instead to see what happened. Personally, I didn’t need to do an experiment to tell you the result. They didn’t like it and it screwed them up long term – particularly the frog! As a professional I often describe behaviour and analyse behaviour to try and work out why people do what they do (the negative things usually – or rather the things that are most annoying to other people – I frequently feel that an individual’s difficult or challenging behaviour tells you more about the person observing or being on the receiving end of it than the motives of the person exhibiting it – but that’s a topic for another article). Learned responses aren’t everything and psychology has moved on since Tom and Jerry’s days. Attachment is now recognised as far more than a learned response and innate features like biology, genetics and neurology have a major part to play too. The way living things relate to each other isn’t just based on very early experiences and I hope that means the Ugly Duckling in the story got to experience some fulfilling relationships with his fellow swans despite his early experiences.

Thank you Moira, swan trainer at Wells Bishop’s palace

I was delighted to see that one of my very first childhood friends was involved in some animal training herself. Moira and I lived in the same street, and attended the same playschool, primary and secondary schools. Although we live a fair way from each other these days, we are in touch via social media and I frequently feel a pang of jealousy when I see her Facebook posts. Moira works at the medieval Bishop’s palace in Wells and among her roles is my personal favourite job title – Swan Trainer. Moira’s job is to teach any new swans how to carry on the 150 year old tradition of ringing a bell by the Gatehouse for food. The old cob Bryn died in 2018 and his mate Wynn and her cygnets departed from the moat later that year, probably to set up a new home on the Somerset levels. Swans tend to mate for life and if a partner dies, like Bryn did a couple of years ago, the pen will often seek out a new mate. The palace acquired some new swans named Gabriel and Grace, from a rescue centre in South Wales and Moira’s task was to train them to be good tourist attractions and ring the bell. She did this by repeatedly feeding them at the window and ringing the bell and throwing them food. Moira slowly introduced them to the rope and they learned to ring it themselves and immediately receive food in response. The trained swans then trained their cygnets to do the same. I would love to know what approach the adult swans used to teach their youngsters and whether they feel that it is actually them conditioning Moira to throw some food whenever she hears a bell?

The swans in Wells are the UK’s only resident swan, the mute swan. These birds weigh around 10kg on average and are pretty heavy for something that can fly. The heaviest flying bird of any species on record was a male Polish mute swan that weighed 23kg (51lb). Mute swans have a reputation for aggression – I have been told “they can break a man’s arm” but have no idea of whether that’s true or not – probably not, their bones have a honeycomb type structure to make them lighter so they can fly more efficiently. They do give impressive displays when under threat and can rise up with wings outstretched and hiss and attack other creatures in order to protect their nest. This display is called busking. Swans also give a nasty bite with what feels like teeth but are in fact jagged lumps on the serrated edges of their bills that are used for catching slippery food like algae, frogs, fish and aquatic plants. Mute swans do make vocal noises but are quieter than other types of swan and they don’t call when in flight but their wings make a loud swoosh that can be heard half a mile away and is used as a form of communication.

The other two types of swan found in the UK are winter visitors – the whooper swan and the Bewick’s swan. Whoopers are the noisiest of the three species and have a yellow and black bill rather the orange bill with black knob of the mute swan. They are large birds that migrate from Iceland to overwinter in the UK and they are often found grazing in fields near large expanses of water. Whoopers use some very sophisticated communication including flapping their wings, bobbing their heads and shaking their necks. This is done to signal to other birds to form a flock and take flight and seems to serve a purpose for getting mates to recognise that their partners are going to take off and ensures they keep to the same flock.

The Bewick’s swan is smaller than the whooper swan and comes to the UK from northern Russia. Like the whooper it has a yellow and black bill but it has less yellow than the whooper and to my  mind looks less clumsy too. The beak patterns on Bewick’s swans can be used to identify them individually and Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust would sit with his family in their home at Slimbridge and paint the visiting swans. The family learned to recognise each individual bird and gave them names.

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. The Studio in the Scott House. Artworks by Peter Scott. Nicola, daughter of Peter Scott. 08-11-2011 Photograph by Martin Godwin.

 So we’ve learned how animals imprint on things and form attachments that give them a sense of identity and we know that good observers like Peter Scott and his wife and children can even tell different swans apart. So why did the Ugly Duckling not realise something as obvious as his differences? There’s an interesting theorem proposed by Japanese theoretical physicist Satosi Watanabe who was one of the fundamental thinkers on pattern recognition, and its named after the Hans Christian Andersen story. The Ugly Duckling Theorem argues that classification is not possible without some sort of bias. Basically, it shows that a duckling is as similar to a swan as two ducklings are to each other. All differences are equal unless we have some prior knowledge. It is the weighting we put on the categories we put things in that dictates what we view as a similarity. I’ll try and describe it without using complicated equations. Take these 3 objects: An orange, a banana and a ginger cat, like my favourite old tom cat Mojo. Most people would say that the banana and the orange were most similar because they are fruit. That’s because people tend to put a higher weighting on ‘fruit’ as a category than they would on say, ‘colour’. Maybe in a world where fruit is not significant, Mojo and the orange are more similar because of their colouring. If you took another category such as ‘ability to write’ then none of them would have anything in common. To try and find the similarities, you need to make more categories, and the list will be infinite and for every category where you find a similarity, there will be another where there is nothing in common. It is impossible to say which two of these three things are the most similar unless you introduce some bias about what is important to you. And that bias is totally subjective. And that is why I love the Ugly Duckling Theorem – as a lifelong pain in the backside to teachers and all-round smart arse I am thankful to Satosi Watanabe who perfectly describes my total disregard for the biased categories that people usually choose to put things in with maths! I like to think that some of the other people mentioned in this blog may enjoy the theorem too. Many autistic people are great at seeing patterns that other people don’t see and frequently find the neurotypical biases in society puzzling and baffling. Just as baffling as one of my old teachers would find it if I said a cat is more like an orange than a banana is because they’re both orange.