How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild
by Susan McCarthy
What does it take to grow up to be a successful tiger, from a bumbling little cub? How does an ape teach her child to crack nuts? Do mother animals know what's happening when they first give birth? What happens to an animal's skills when it is fostered by a different species?
This book looks at precisely how animals learn, from infancy through adulthood until they are ready to make their own way in the world. It's very organized, laid out in sections with headings like "Learning the Basics: How to Crawl, Walk, Climb, Swim and Fly," "How Not to be Eaten," or "Parenting and Teaching: How to Pass It On." Each chapter is packed full of anecdotes and stories that give examples of young animals practicing skills until they get it right, adults coaching and guiding their young, innovative methods and techniques animals have been observed using (my favorite was the herons who dropped bread crusts and other food items on the water to attract fish), and things observed during experiments or in captive situations which give insight into what goes on in the animals' minds. Usually I don't care for books that are full of other authors' stories (preferring to hear it from the source), but this one is so well structured and thoroughly researched that I didn't mind. The anecdotes shared are all very brief, usually less than a page, very concise and to the point (which made it easy to read in lots of little stages, like when my kid interrupts me for yet another drink or tuck-in after bedtime). About half of the animals featured seem to be big cats, primates or dolphins. There's also discussion of learning methods and strategies among birds, insects, elephants, fishes and bats (to name just a few). I appreciated reading about where learning overlapped with or was separate from instinct (the section about how birds know how to build nests was fascinating).
One of the things I enjoyed most about Becoming a Tiger was coming across researchers and individual animals I remembered from other books, often with new information or insights about them. Here I found again Bernd Heinrich's ravens, the apes Kanzi and Lucy, and several foxes studied by David Macdonald (I love his book Running with the Fox). If you like animals, or are curious about their learning abilities, Becoming a Tiger is a pretty good book.
Rating: 3/5 ........ 418 pages, 2004
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