State of the Ark: The Nature of Giving

by Belinda Recio

As Valentine’s Day approaches, consider the possibility that gift-giving is not just a human tradition, but part of the larger fabric of nature
Last summer I wrote about “Derek,” a crow that my neighbor—a wildlife rehabilitator—nursed back to health after a wing injury. Once Derek was well enough to return to the wild, my neighbor released him. But Derek had developed a fondness for his human family, so after his release he loitered in the local woods for a few months, staying close enough to call out to them and to visit.
My neighbor often had breakfast on her terrace, and, one morning, when she had to run inside to answer the phone, Derek swooped down from a nearby tree and stole the last bite of her croissant. Five minutes later, he reappeared and presented a leaf to her. During the next few weeks, Derek appeared every morning at breakfast time, bearing gifts. He offered her leaves, twigs, and even an occasional dead beetle. She reciprocated by giving him a bite of whatever she was eating for breakfast. Sometimes Derek showed up with gifts for her in the afternoon, when food wasn’t present. My neighbor believed that he genuinely enjoyed presenting gifts to her, even though she didn’t always return the favor.
Sometimes gift-giving crows appear to be offering gifts in exchange for food, based on previous encounters with the recipients. Other times, crows present gifts to people out of the blue, without any prior relationship and seemingly without any expectation of reciprocity.
Although there isn’t much research about gifting behavior in the animal kingdom, scientists have observed gift-giving in a variety of insect, spider, bird, fish and mammal species. Most often, gifting occurs between mates or prospective mates. These are called “nuptial gifts,” and they range from food to inedible tokens. Less often, animals will give gifts to other members of their group (friends, perhaps?), and occasionally, like Derek, they will even present a gift to a member of another species.
In John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, Gifts of the Crow (Atria Books), the authors describe an incident where a crow presented a piece of meat to a sick dog. There are many anecdotal stories of dolphins throwing fish to birds and to people. Research published in Anthrozoös (Bloomsbury Academic) reports dolphins that presented gifts of eels, squid, octopus and fish to humans. Most people who share their homes with domestic cats tell stories about the dead rodents, birds and other gifts left for them by their feline family member.
Even in the remotest regions of earth, animals gift in unexpected ways. In Antarctica, polar photographer Paul Nicklen put on a wet suit and went swimming with leopard seals in order to videotape them. What happened when he got into the water provided him with some of the most fascinating polar wildlife footage ever taken.
Several scientists predicted that the leopard seals would attack Nicklen, but instead they brought him gifts. They greeted Nicklen enthusiastically and brought him penguins—a choice meal for a leopard seal. It was as if they were saying, “Welcome! You’ve got to try our penguins—our region is famous for them!”
One large female leopard seal, with a head bigger than a grizzly bear’s, seemed especially taken with Nicklen. She brought him penguin after penguin. At first, she brought him live penguins that immediately swam away when Nicklen didn’t respond like a leopard seal, by eating them. Eventually, she changed her strategy and started to bring him dead penguins instead. She even tried to feed him, by pushing a penguin into his camera lens, as if it were his mouth. Although Nicklen never responded the way the seal seemed to want him to, he and the seal parted amicably and Nicklen now has the distinction of being the only human who has received gifts from leopard seals.
It seems as if gift giving—like other behaviors once considered strictly human—is a part of the larger fabric of nature. Perhaps reciprocity, the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, is an evolutionary adaptation that increases an individual’s chances for survival. When animals—whether furred, finned or feathered—respond to a positive action with another positive action, they strengthen the bonds of their relationships, and in so doing, they probably make their world a better place.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s nice to consider the possibility that exchanging gifts isn’t just a human cultural tradition, but something deeper and wider—an ancient gesture of reciprocity that ties us not only to one another, but also to the kindred creatures with whom we share our world.

Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.

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