I distinctly remember the first time I picked up an injured rabbit. The shrill screams that followed (the rabbit’s and then mine!) left a lasting impression. And without doubt, each young coyote, fox or bobcat that captures its first warm meal quickly makes the association between those screams and the protein they represent.
There are several theories on why prey species scream when in the clutches of a predator. The obvious pain and terror associated with being eaten alive immediately jump to mind, but there might be underlying, more altruistic or territorial reasons for this behavior. Or it might be a final strategy—one of surprise—for defense and escape.
Gerry Blair, one of the all-time predator hunting greats, believes that prey animals, when they get a close-up look at the dental work of canines and felines or the equally dreaded beak and talon of flying raptors, articulate their terror as a response to the inevitable fact that they are about to be killed and eaten.
In the case of raptors, Gerry explains that, “The prey is located from aloft. The critter swoops, stoops or soars to the target, taking hold with its razor-sharp talons, which encircle the rabbit’s ribcage. Death is by suffocation. The hunter holds tight and the rabbit screams, losing a bit of air. The talons tighten a bit further to compress the lungs. Scream. Tighten. The process might take a minute or more, substantially longer if the hold is not precise. During all of that time, as air allows, the rabbit screams piteously.”
And that, Gerry says, is key to why other predators arrive on the scene.
“Other predators within hearing range hustle in to have a look, hoping to steal the meal,” he says. “A hungry coyote, fox or bobcat has no conscience. Each is likely to kick a red-tailed hawk’s butt bad and take away his lunch. A hawk that objects too much is likely to join the cottontail within the belly of the beast.”
According to Gerry’s explanation, the scream signals a dinner-bell response. If the predator is high on the food chain and its hunting style is that of a hard-charger, such as a coyote, the response will typically be immediate and aggressive. With little fear that an even larger predator will be at the other end of the scream, these animals have the luxury of confidence.
Red and gray foxes, and even bobcats, must exercise more caution when approaching what might turn out to be a larger predator on a kill. A careless fox, for instance, might end up as a coyote’s dessert.
Altruism refers to the selfless concern for the welfare of others. Many people believe that animals scream to warn others of their kind that danger is at hand and to get away while the getting is good. This, they say, is a conditioned response that puts the good of the community above the well-being of the individual. Thus, this theory would suggest, the rabbit that has fallen victim to the hawk screams to warn other rabbits without concern about its own inevitable undoing.
But the bottom line is the same: To every predator within earshot, the screaming translates into an opportunity for a meal.
One explanation of the scream response holds that prey animals scream to attract other predators! While this notion might seem odd at first consideration, the reasoning behind this hypothesis provokes some thought.
University of Saskatchewan researchers conducted a series of experiments to analyze predator/prey relationships in fish. Minnows release chemical pheromones after being attacked and, just like the screams of a rabbit, those pheromones attract predators. The researchers hypothesized that an animal’s chances of escape increased when a second predator approached and tried to steal the prey from the first predator, and that the pheromones were a reactionary defense mechanism. Interestingly, experiments upheld this theory. The study showed that when minnows in the wild released chemical alarm substances they escaped from pike more often than minnows without alarm substances.
Could it be that a rabbit’s scream is a conditioned response to attract other predators? No experiments have been conducted to support this theory, but it seems reasonable that there could be a correlation.
A Natural Response
For whatever reason prey animals scream when in the clutches of a predator, the result is predictable: Other predators respond.
And that, my friends, is why the biology of those conditioned responses is important to us. Because, you see, there are really three conditioned responses at work and they define the very nature of our sport. The rabbit is conditioned to scream when attacked by a predator. The predator is conditioned to respond to those screams in hopes of securing a meal. And you and I are conditioned to take advantage of this relationship—to hide in the bush pretending to be a coyote’s supper in hopes of calling predators sure-kill close.