Nature Notes

Vol. IV December 1, 1926 No. 14


There are few more clumsy appearing animals than the white mountain goat of the northwest - and there is no animal so sure footed. Because he appears awkward and crude no one who has sen him at home among the crags calls him awkward, but because he also appears thick-headed and unintelligent almost every writer has called him dumb. They say he has educated feet but his brain is dense, and that he has survived only because of his choice of the roughest country on earth as a home and his ability to survive where a burrow would starve to death.

After several years of study and many days of intimate association with Oreamnos americanus in his native heath I am thoroly convinced that he has been grossly misused. I believe there are none among all the races of hoofed and horned animals so intelligent as the mountain goat.

A bull moose can be "called" and driven to a raging fury by a hunter with a birch-bark horn. Deer when greatly frightened often completely "lose their heads" and do all sorts of foolish and absurd things. Big-horn sheep have been known to dash themselves to death from cliffs when cornered by hunters, but the goat, like the proverbial army mule, never hurts himself.

I have seen goats dash for the safety of the cliffs many times where only a few places were possible even for them but never have I seen one hesitate in his choice of route or select a point where it was impossible to get down or up. I have never yet with the assistance of another person been able to corner a goat and force him to stand at bay against his will, and I do not believe that I have ever seen a goat familiar at all with human beings that did not see me first, provided I was less than half a mile away.

But the latest and best proof I have had of their intelligence is their ability to be educated - to profit by experience. Without experience all of us are dumb; even with experience and without teaching most of us are dumb, and even with both at our hand some of us are.

A large band of goats range during the fall and early spring on Mount Ararat in Indian Henry's. They are seldom molested by either man or beast and live in a land of plenty.

When I first visited them this fall they were cautious but not unduly shy. Fear of man only barely overbalanced native curiosity. The kids, who had likely never before seen a human being, were as innocent of fear and as unsophisticated as a country school girl used to be. Old Billies watched us with mild curiosity without even getting to their feet if we did not approach them too near. We photographed them at a hundred yards. The mothers were shy but the kids if alone showed no fear. We approached to within twenty feet of them in the open. The entire band of twenty-five to thirty individuals grazed at will over several square miles of country and not a lookout was posted.

We spent the day photographing them and in trying to get close frightened them more or less. We reported their tameness and during the following week they were harassed considerably by amateur photographers.

When we next returned more than half the band had moved to inaccessible Satulick a couple of miles away. Those that remained kept close to the rocks and fed in groups, and every group had a lookout posted. We spent three days with them this time and never once did I see a goat that did not see my first. At the first sign of danger the feeding goats took to the rocks. The only time we approached within a hundred yards of a goat it was on the face of a cliff either a hundred yards directly above or below us. We made a movable blind of fir twigs, we waited hours in ambush and we tried on various occasions to surround them and cut off their retreat to the rocks but never once did we get within camera range of a goat in the open.

In one weeks time experience, the most thorough of teachers had graduated those goats with honors.

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