hen on branch in coop

Animals, supposedly, have something called “instinct”—but what is that? And is it anything different from what we humans have?

For instance, how do birds know to fly south for the winter? Is their mindset at all similar to that of people who fly south for the winter? Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Weather Detective, explains migration from the birds’ point of view:

“Cranes and wild geese, as well as many other species, don’t make a preemptive escape for the south, and neither do they stick stubbornly to the calendar. The only aspect that is genetic is the motivation to leave when they get uncomfortable, their wanderlust instinct. What makes them start their journey is a change in the weather. If it is suddenly uncomfortably cold, if it starts snowing heavily, for example, they remember that they don’t have to stay put. ‘That’s it,’ they think. ‘Let’s get out of here!'”

That doesn’t sound so different from a person during wintertime who gets fed up with being cold and thinks, “That’s it. I’m flying south!” The difference with humans is, we often buy our tickets ahead of time and adhere strictly to the calendar, even if it happens to be unseasonably warm, or if it gets unseasonably cold earlier than expected.

I have noticed—Wohlleben would be proud of me, since he is a big proponent of personal observation of nature—something similar in my own birds’ behavior. I have three young backyard chickens; the photo shows one of them. As you can see, my birds have several choices of places to sleep: in the leaves on the ground, on the ramp, on the branches in the open air, on the sandy floor of the walled-in henhouse, or on the branches within the henhouse.

I acquired my birds when they had just learned to fly. At dusk, they evinced a strong desire to get as high as possible. They hop-flew into the henhouse and frantically tried to climb the walls, stepping on each other in their effort to move upward. It took them a few days to realize that they could fly up to the perches and sleep there. You could call this the instinct to move higher at night—or you could call it the fear of leaving oneself vulnerable to predators when it’s getting dark and you’re going to sleep.

Once my birds realized they could sleep on the branches, they preferred to perch in the open air, since the temperature was warm. A few months have passed; now it’s October, and the temperature has cooled. A week or two ago, they started perching on the branches within the henhouse at night. Once again, you could call it instinct—or you could call it feeling cold and seeking shelter from the wind.

When you feel uncomfortable—cold, afraid, or otherwise unsettled—where does your wanderlust lead you?