During my trip to Brazil last year, I travelled on a boat that traversed the massive Paraguay river - in the wetland called Pantanal - looking for Jaguars. In the course of three days we found several engaged in different activities. One cat’s behaviour, in particular, stood out. The nimble, elegant creature was strolling along the river bank among tall grass and bushes. Reaching a particular spot, it stopped, pointed its tail upward and urinated. It repeated this several times within the space of about twenty feet. Then it rubbed its head and neck against the bushes in the same area. This was repeated, too.
I learned later that it was marking its territory.
In the world of animals and birds, members of some species attempt to exclude others from their home range, the area of their normal daily activities, also known as their territory.
They defend their territory for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is control over food, but these animals and birds also like to keep rivals away from their mate and predators away from their nest.
How do they announce their territory to others? Many animals including Lions, Leopards and Jaguars use smell – in the form of urine or faeces or rubbing their body against plants – to leave a scent marking their territory. Birds often use songs and loud calls as a “keep out” signal.
At some time we have all observed territorial behaviour in birds and animals, perhaps without realizing it. For example, the sight of crows or drongos chasing away kites from the neighbourhood of their nest is common in our sky. The Common Kingfisher, our pretty and widely seen bird, marks its territory by making a loud staccato call. While it is perched on a branch or stick near the water and looking for fish, it reacts strongly to other kingfishers that show up, shooing them away noisily.
Territorial creatures, accomplish the vast majority of defensive work without physically fighting the intruder. For birds, for example, the first line of defense is sound. If that fails, they will display by adopting aggressive postures, and if that fails, they will give chase. A skirmish is the last resort because of the energy wasted and the risk of bodily harm.
The size of territories varies tremendously. The territory marked by the Jaguar I observed was perhaps a few hundred square yards. The Golden Eagle’s territory, in the sparsely resource steppes, can be as much as 35 square miles. On the other hand, smaller birds such as flycatchers can claim territories as small as a few square yards. In winter, when Taiga Flycatchers come here in droves, I have noticed one individual working off a strip of 15x2 yards. I wrote earlier about my experience with a Pied Bushchat (a flycatcher) in Purbachol which harassed me because I had repeatedly violated its hunting territory - a few feet around the pole of the fence of a vegetable patch.
Lions have spectacular territoriality. A male lion, along with its pride (that may include six female lions) may occupy the same home range for generations. Both females and males work to keep other lions out of their territory.
Only a small fraction of animal and bird species exhibit territoriality. Many creatures live together in flocks or herds, cooperating as needed. But displays of territoriality give us fascinating insights into animal and bird behaviour.
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