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The Comfort Zone: Personal Bubble of Safety

Imagine for a moment that your out in a beautifully landscape, exploring and enjoying the sunshine.  Suddenly you spot a fox in the distance who is hunting along the edge of a meadow.  You really want to get closer to have a better look at it and maybe even get a photograph with your camera.  As you approach the fox notices you, but initially ignores you.  At a certain distance, it freezes rigidly in its tracks and stares at you.  You really want a good photo so you keep walking towards it.  The fox continues to stare, then turns and bolts away as an orange streak and disappears.

Why did that happen?  What could you have done differently to get closer?  What was the fox telling you that you ignored?

These questions shed light on an observable phenomena that we might call "the comfort zone."  This is a region made up of physical space around an animal in which it feels safe and which it regards as its personal space. As you appraoch the perifery of that bubble, animals often show signs of tension/stress.  As you step into it, they take evasive manuvers and often flee.

This bubble varies from species to species, and even from individual animal to individual animal.  it also is dependent on what other species the animal in question is interacting with.  For instance, a black-tailed deer walking down the trail might come within feet of a feeding robin, neither showing much concern about the other.  While, a bobcat or coyote would not likely be able to be that close to a black-tailed deer or robin without causing significant alarm.

It so happens that unaware humans can be the most disturbing animal in a landscape.  So, what can you do to get closer?

Lets take the example of the goose in this photo.  This animal is part of a migratory flock that is feeding on the grounds of a wildlife refuge, where people come specifically to view wildlife.  Most of the visitors behaving in ways that are non-threatening.  For instance, moving slowly, not chasing the animals and generally behaving in unobtrusive ways.

The animal in this image allowed me to photograph it from a relatively short distance of about 15 feet away.  It stood at attention as its flock mates fed, and kept an eye on me.  Its behavior, though alert, did not express alarm.  Its flock mates ignored me and continued to feed without concern.

At the distance I was at, this animal was telling me with its body language that it was watching me.

Being able to distinguish the nuances of animal language is vital to getting closer.  For starters, learn to recognize relaxed versus tense body language.  Relaxed animals tend to be feeding, sitting, drinking, scratching/preening, playing, hunting, singing, socializing or sleeping.  While animals that are tense tend to stand rigidly, stare, raise their fur/feathers, pace, give alarm sounds/calls, growl, act aggressively and... run away.

Smaller animals tend to have smaller bubbles of comfort/safety and it is often easier to get closer to them.  While larger animals tend to have much larger bubbles of comfort/safety, and are much more difficult to approach.  This varies  according to the type of relationship people have had with this kind of animal in this area.  For instance, deer living on a wildlife refuge or National park that does not allow hunting may be very easily observed, closely approached and very tame.  Meanwhile, deer of the same species and a few miles away in an area that is heavily hunted may be as elusive as ghosts.  Wolves, who have been persecuted in North America for several centuries often have a very large bubble/distance at which they will chose to keep humans.

Great blue herons tend to be wary of close approach by humans in most places.  Though, in a few locations where they have learned that people are not a threat, they can be observed comfortably from a mere several meters or even several feet away!

All of these of course are generalities, and not hard and fast rules.  Part of what accounts for the variation is the personality/life experience of individual animals, and part of it is the presence of the human being trying to get close to them.

By presence, I mean the profile which those people project into the landscape.  Take two examples of possible human profiles. 

One person walks into a park with a radio blaring music as he talks loudly to his friends and gestures rapidly and aggressively.  This same person is wearing strong cologne, walks quickly in his big, sturdy boots and jerks his body this way and that as he moves around.  A robin feeding nearby sees him and flies out of the area in a hurry. The man grabs a beer out of his cooler, downs it and belches loudly.

Another person in the same park is walking slowly towards a pond.  She moves gracefully, and speaks quietly to her friend.  She notices a robin standing in the path ahead and stops to let it pass.   She observes it by glancing at it now and again, but not staring hard. She continues on after the robin has gone off the trail.  She moves her eyes around as she looks at things, but does not move her head  as often.  She and her friend stop at a pond and sit near its edge, quietly enjoying the sounds, smells and sights.

Which of these two people are likely to see more wildlife?  Why?

And to take it deeper still...

If the woman and her friend sitting by the pond were feeling stressed and anxious that day, would they see more or less wildlife compared to if they were feeling relaxed and attentive?

Animals are incredibly aware to the information they pick up from and about their environment.  This includes information about you, and at times, they may know you and your habits better than you know yourself.

Next time you are outdoors and observing wildlife, pay attention to these naunces and see how close you can get to an animal without causing it alarm.

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Replies to This Discussion

Hey, nice article Fil, it shows perhaps that I may have been looking at wildlife behaviour in too linear of a way (tense/alarming, or not tense) . A couple of weeks ago I was observing a coyote in an open field hunting in what appeared to be a playful manner. Whilst observing I was very cautious to keep a distance and to remain stationary. The coyote at one point had come only a stones throw away; he was still pouncing and trotting along, only staring up at me occasionally. Curiosity asks me if he was working on finding boundaries. Whether he was showing me his comfort zone, inquiring about my own, or if he just found a great spot to play that happened to be so close will remain a mystery to me. What I can learn is I might have had a chance to get closer and still not have interrupted the coyote as he travelled along the field.

good stuff, knowledge like this, that we've gained in part through alderleaf has really enriched my life, i'm constantly entertained by watching animals and birds and testing how close they will let me get.

Keith- is this field close by to where you live? have you seen him again or tried to get any closer?

Keith's observation is awesome.  I hope we hear back from him about his observation. 

Glad this info was helpful. :)


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