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The markings on this Cecropia moth look like eyes to a potential predator.

Natural camouflage is only one approach to survival in the wild

Wild animals employ many means to survive. Some have even evolved to hide in plain view. Blending in with surrounding habitat is a feat accomplished by feathers, fur, fins, skins, scales and exoskeletons using colour pigments, shading and varied light.

The white spots on whitetail deer fawns break up their overall shape as they lay in dappled sunlight on the forest floor. The doe is usually nearby. If danger threatens, she will deliberately intercede to distract a natural predator. If the intruder is human, however, the doe is likely to simply run off a little way and hide.

So, it’s best to leave an “abandoned” fawn whenever encountered in the fields or woods, and remove yourself from the scene as quickly as possible. Odds are the fawn has not been abandoned at all and the mother is nearby watching you. Highway accidents where the doe has been obviously injured or killed are among the very few circumstances where a fawn “rescue” is warranted.

My regular walks through the woods frequently involve being startled by a ruffed grouse or an American woodcock. They have an uncanny ability to remain motionless and undetected until you venture extremely close; then explode noisily from the forest floor. Female woodcock on a ground nest blend in with the previous year’s dead leaves and needles so well that one could actually accidentally step on them. The eggs and even the hatchlings are well disguised.

In a similar fashion, piping plover nesting on cobble beaches and are almost impossible to see. Many shorebirds waiting for low tides for feeding on tidal flats look like cobblestones on the beach.

Speckled trout have a wormy green-black pattern on their backs that merges with the stones and wavy currents to obscure their view from overhead predators. Seen from a mink or otter’s view underneath, the trout’s underside is white to match the surface or the sky.

The camouflage king of local fish species has to be the flounder. They can adjust skin pigments to match various sea beds. Winter flounders inhabit shallow estuaries in early spring. Bald eagles have been seen wading slowly in the shallows of the Bras d’Or Lakes in Cape Breton, for instance, attempting to snag them with their talons. Ospreys hunt for winter flounders while they are waiting for the smelt and gaspereau runs to begin up local streams and rivers. While studying ospreys and observing them hunt, I began to wonder how they homed in on the flounders, which were lying almost invisible on the mud.

We placed weirs in a stratified pattern in an estuary and discovered that the flounders were not uniformly distributed. Instead, they were feeding in groups. The ospreys often hunted in groups as well. When one osprey dove, others often followed. I eventually surmised that the ospreys were looking for small puffs of silt that emanate from the gills of the flounders as they feed upon bottom material. When an osprey spies a silt puff, dives and hits the water, startled flounders in the group flee, quickly becoming visible to the other ospreys.

Ground nesting whip-poor-wills are difficult to locate even when one knows where to search.

Another masterpiece of deception is the long, striped neck of the American bittern, which it holds upright in concert with the reeds and cattails where it lives. If it’s breezy, that bittern neck may even sway with the grasses. This disguises the bittern not only from predators along the shore, but also confounds the fish and amphibians upon which it preys. Of course, even the most highly evolved cryptic coloration depends upon its background. Bitterns are more conspicuous against green cattails and better concealed among dead, brown cattails.

Others who can literally vanish include ground-nesting common nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. They are difficult to locate even when one knows where to search.

Male woodland songbirds are often brightly coloured to attract females and to make themselves notable in the territory they defend during the breeding season. By comparison, females of the same species tend to be drably coloured to be hidden on the nest. Cardinals are a spectacular example of this colour differentiation by sex. Bluejays employ an entirely different strategy!

Mammals like snowshoe hares (rabbits) and weasels undergo a change of fur twice a year to better fit with their seasonal surroundings. Winter weasels also undergo a name change to “ermine,” but it’s the same animal under that new coat. Whitetail deer transition from a summer cinnamon colour to a more muted milk-chocolate brown that blends in with winter alders and hardwood stems.

One key aspect of camouflage is to remain motionless, unless you are a bittern bending with the breeze. Movement attracts the attention of many predators that employ keen eyesight to hunt. It may prompt immediate discovery and an attack.

Predators like toads, some frogs and angler fish use camouflage for hunting. The unsuspecting prey that wanders within striking range disappears in an instant.

Some keen-eyed predators like raptors and carnivore mammals can find prey even when it is concealed by colour patterns and does not move. They have developed “search images” for specific prey species that use camouflage. This ability involves the brain identifying a motionless, hidden animal using key partial elements and/or shapes, usually in favoured habitats. Seeing a little unlocks a view. Do you know someone who can see birds, rabbits and deer in the woods when you cannot?

Occasionally camouflage works too well. Fully dressed, early morning duck hunters in blinds with only the skin on their faces exposed have sometimes been mistaken for small prey and attacked by great horned owls.

Camouflage is sometimes combined with a built-in scare mechanism. Large moths like the Cecropia and Polyphemus look innocuous enough until they spread their wings, presenting false eyes that can be startling. Some caterpillars, when harassed, can suddenly present large “eyes.” Look out!

In a parallel world humans no longer inhabit, survival in the wild takes a combination of senses and defenses. Camouflage is but one tool in the proverbial box.

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