Creatures of habit tend to stick with what works

Creatures of habit tend to stick with what works

Image Credit: John C. Lorson

There was a stretch of about three weeks this fall when I came face to face on the trail with the same little yearling opossum each evening on my ride home from work — same place, same time, same opossum.

I’m sure the animal lived just off the trail, likely in a hollowed-out tree stump or the underground remains of a groundhog den. Wandering the trail at the beginning of nightfall is a great way for a young opossum to make a living. As an omnivore capable of making a meal out of just about anything, there’s a daily banquet to be found on the pavement. Snakes, frogs, toads and turtles are attracted to the warmth of the dark paved surface, and earthworms, slugs and various insects tend to wind up on the trail as well.

When cold weather arrives for good and the native creepy crawlies have holed up for the duration, the opossum can still consistently rely on a steady stream of passing horse traffic to drop “care packages” along the way. The less selective one’s tastes, the more easily pleased that individual will be. It’s a strategy that’s worked well for the opossum for an awfully long time.

My repeated daily encounters got me thinking about the term “creature of habit,” which is an expression used to describe a person or thing that follows the same routine over and over again. I’m sure if the opossum were capable of abstract thought, he would have considered me just as much a creature of habit as himself.

The simple truth is organisms do most of the things they do with a goal in mind. The opossum was seeking his evening meal. I was making my way home after a day of work. We were both repeating a routine that had paid off for us in the past, so it only made sense to keep repeating that which led to success. If the opossum finds his steady supply of road apples dwindling as horses are supplanted by e-bikes, he can hopefully adapt and move on. If at some point I am forced to travel a different route because of a fallen tree or a washed-out bridge, I will do so, but until our routine demands adjustment, both opossum and I are likely to carry on in the same manner.

We are all creatures of habit in some regard. Warblers, caribou, crabs and salamanders all follow the same migratory paths year after year. Some birds return to the very same nest after traveling thousands of miles, and salmon famously return to the very same stream from which they were hatched. Some routines in nature are so routine, in fact, that we often lose the full sense of awe that should accompany finding an animal that is completely incapable of rational thought winding up in the very same place in the very same season year after year, despite having traveled half the arc of the globe and back in the meantime.

Occasionally, what may be entirely routine to an animal will strike us as nothing short of amazing. A flock of swallows returns to Mission San Juan Capistrano each year on St. Joseph’s Day after a 6,000-mile migration from Argentina. Salmon crowd the rivers of Alaska each fall like folks traveling home for the holidays, and on a smaller, more personal scale, the same American robin builds its nest above your porch light year after year.

A recent reminder of the wonder in the routine stopped me in my tracks on the way into work a few weeks ago. As I’d climbed on my bike that morning, I’d immediately taken note of the waning gibbous moon still hanging in the western sky. I thought to myself that a moon just like that had served as the backdrop of one of my favorite photos of the previous year.

You may remember the photo from these pages of a Cooper’s hawk perched on a low branch with a pale silver moon hung just over its shoulder. Anyway, not giving it another thought, I pedaled on to reach my office in Millersburg to find the very same bird, on the very same branch with the very same waning gibbous moon hanging in gossamer splendor just over its shoulder. I was so overcome with awe that I could barely grip the camera for the shot.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.