Thursday, October 29, 2009

The killdeer

Killdeer nest image copyrighted by Timothy Buck. Used with permission.
A killdeer is a type of plover, a bird that lays its eggs in a shallow nest made in an open field, rather than in the safer refuge of a tree. The eggs are mottled, a protective coloration that makes them look like the rocks that often surround them. The mother killdeer usually covers these eggs to warm and protect them. But if a predatory animal comes near, the killdeer starts acting very oddly. She flops off her nest and begins limping away, carefully favoring one of her wings, and occasionally flaps around awkwardly, making a loud distress call. Recognizing all the signs of a bird with a broken wing, the predator usually stalks the killdeer for some distance -- or at least until the killdeer has determined her eggs are no longer in danger. Then, if all goes well, she suddenly "recovers" and flies away, leaving the predator with nothing. Such distraction displays are common among birds (and some fish) as a means of protecting their young.

But distraction displays aren't limited to animals. Human beings -- especially children -- resort to them as well, in situations where there is a predator in their midst and they cannot hope to best that predator by physical force. In the movie Good Will Hunting (an otherwise excellent story marred by excessive profanity), Will's counselor and mentor Sean has a discussion with him about abuse. One of the things Sean says, almost in passing, is that his alcoholic father would "come home hammered, looking to wale on somebody, so I'd provoke him so he wouldn't go after my mother and little brother." Sean was a killdeer. He couldn't turn in his own father -- or maybe he tried, and nobody believed a little kid, or they didn't want to get involved in a domestic violence situation. He didn't want to be hurt, but he wanted even more to keep the people he loved from being hurt. So he stood up and took the abuse, drawing the predator's fire in order to keep other people safe. In similar fashion, in the case of child molestation, a killdeer child may try to draw the predator away from other children by putting on a seductive display, even though it may turn her stomach to do so. As the Wikipedia article on distraction displays states clinically, "Distraction displays have their cost and displaying adult birds are sometimes captured by the predator being distracted or by other opportunist predators." (my emphasis)

Like their animal equivalents, human predators often lack empathy for their victims; unlike animals, however, when human predators are caught, society usually demands that they account for their monstrous actions. It is illustrative of their mental states to see how many cornered human predators immediately, almost instinctively, blame their victims. And of course, most such victims also blame themselves, assuming that there must have been something they did to precipitate such behavior on the part of someone who should have protected them and who instead did them harm. It may take a very long time -- well into adulthood -- before an abused child finally internalizes the idea that he was not somehow to blame for what happened. The scene from Good Will Hunting ends with Sean gently, firmly, repeatedly telling Will, "It's not your fault," until the words finally sink in. A number of people seem to find the repetition in this scene funny. I'm guessing that's because they've never known what it is to be a killdeer.


MarieC said...

a very deep post!

Soozcat said...

It's something I've been thinking about for a while now.