With the need to spend more time at home due to the pandemic, we have taken to doing more of the things we already do around the house—birding, yard work, reading, jigsaw puzzles…and a bit more TV. Since we tend to gravitate toward outdoors/science-based shows, it perhaps was inevitable that we would stumble upon a reality show on the Discovery Channel called “Naked and Afraid.” For those of you unfamiliar with it, the premise is that a man and a woman (complete strangers) who have some measure of primitive wilderness survival skills are placed in a remote location somewhere in the world (Amazon jungle, African savannah, foothills of the Himalayas) with no clothes and just one tool of their choice (usually a machete or firestarter of some kind). Their challenge: survive for three weeks. This typically means making a shelter, finding food and water (which usually requires making fire), and avoiding getting killed by large, toothy predators or lurking poisonous critters.
Imagine doing this while being followed around by a film crew that captures it all, including their private parts (all but the butts are blotted out for the TV audience) plus every foible, every quarrel, every accident, and always their long-grinding misery of sleeplessness, sunburn, insect bites, freezing cold or stifling heat (sometimes both), rain, floods, dehydration, and slow starvation.
Fortunately for the participants, they can opt out at any time. As survival experts, to do so in front of a TV audience of millions is humiliating to say the least. Sometimes, the embarrassment takes the form of an accident resulting in a serious injury; sometimes they become stricken with a life-threatening illness or collapse from lack of food or water and must be rushed off to a hospital. Amazingly, no one has yet died during the show.
Watching these individuals struggle with the simplest human needs like finding and taking steps needed for drinkable water, and certainly trying to find enough food to keep them going for three weeks, has made us acutely aware of the remarkably impressive survival skills of birds and other wild animals.
Most of us humans, in our country at least, can turn on a faucet and get a drink of clean water any time we are thirsty, without a thought. Seeing the people on “Naked and Afraid,” their lips cracked and dry, crying in desperation for a drink of water, makes you realize what a luxury that is. Lucky for the show stealers, they can tap out. Birds cannot. They need water for their survival just as much as we do, but there’s no wailing for producers to come and save them.
Have you ever thought about where the nearest fresh water sources are in your neighborhood for birds? There is a stream that flows year-round less than a quarter-mile from our house. Bright red cardinals, sprightly tufted titmice, friendly black-capped chickadees, and many other birds can be seen dropping down the hill towards the stream edges from the nearby neighborhood during fall and winter. Presumably sometimes that is to get a drink of that precious water. During the recent blistering hot days, we have unfailingly kept our bird bath full, so we can enjoy the reality show right outside our kitchen window that features goldfinches, song sparrows, and other birds cooling off and quenching their thirst. Butterflies and other insects make guest appearances as well.
Finding food is also always incredibly difficult for the people on “Naked and Afraid.” More often then not they resort to eating berries, insects, frogs, and tiny fish. They always lose a lot of weight.
Seeing those humans struggle showcases again the incredible feat that birds perform just by surviving and thriving each day. Add to it the challenge of finding enough food not only for themselves but also for their young. In winter, there’s cold and snow cover to contend with. For migrating species, throw in a vast journey to or from their breeding and wintering grounds.
At the beginning of each episode of “Naked and Afraid,” participants are given a PSR—Primitive Survival Skill—rating (PSR). For birds, that rating is off the charts. They are the true primitive survival skill experts. The only thing they’re missing is a title for their show. We were thinking maybe “Feathered and Fearless.” Best of all, you can tune in to watch it any time, it’s right outside your windows!
Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).