A wildlife biologist's guide to holiday thriving

For many of us, these next few days will be filled with time spent with family and friends we might not see that often. There will be food, gifts, noise, and probably even a few arguments. Maybe a lot of them. 

Before you go arguing yet again with uncle Frank, or cousin Tommy, or grandpa Joe about their irrational views on whatever it is they said to trigger your ire, take a lesson from wildlife management. It might just make the holiday a bit more tolerable.

I learned early in my career as a wildlife biologist that there’s a certain art to holding two perspectives simultaneously. My focus back then was on bobwhite quail, a pigeon-sized, ground-dwelling little gamebird with a big personality and an aversion to flying. To get more quail on the properties I managed, I had to understand how habitat was arranged on a landscape scale: What existed on the property as well as the adjacent lands. What areas were good for nesting, raising young, staying warm in winter, and escaping predators. 

I had to also understand what it was like on the ground in the world where those little birds actually spent their time. We humans live in a world four or five feet off the ground. Our countertops, windows, wall art, and retail displays are testament to this. Look around your world and you’ll find most everything you interact with is situated between your knees and top of your head. 

Quail, on the other hand, live in a much different world. Their eyes are about six inches off the ground. Their legs are only a couple inches long and as I mentioned before, they’d rather run than fly. Their chicks, which are mobile within a day of hatching, can stand wholly on a quarter. Their world is much, much different from ours. You simply can’t experience it from your own two feet. 

When I taught programs to students or consulted with landowners on quail management, I would often have them get down on the ground with me and experience what it’s like in a quail’s world. Whatever you think it is from where you stand, it’s different when you get down there. You notice things you never realized were under your feet. A little microclimate, an entire world down there among the plant stems. 

And therein is the art of quail management. Holding the picture of the landscape in your mind while also visualizing the day-to-day world of the actual animal you’re trying to help. You then take those two views to make changes on the land that create the conditions for those species to thrive. It is certainly an art. 

As much as I miss it sometimes, I’m no longer a quail biologist. But the ability to maintain dual perspectives is still as important, if not more so now that I’m an organization leader. In fact, I firmly believe that skill is as applicable to humans as it is to wildlife. I can assure you, having applied it myself, that it has practical application to your holiday get-togethers. 

Scene: It’s Christmas Eve and you and the extended family are gathering at someone’s house. The place is too small. There’s too many people. It’s noisy. The kids are nuts and at least one of the adults started drinking too early. They’re beginning to slide off into political rants using the same clickbait talking points the social media algorithms know will trigger an emotional response. 

You knew this would happen. It always does. And it always tempers your enthusiasm for going to these things. But dang it, it’s Christmas. 

That’s the landscape view. Now take the microclimate view. 

You’re here with (some of) the people that mean more to you than anyone else on earth. Grandma brought her famous snickerdoodle cookies and you’re going to have one more. What’s that like? Savor that for just a second. 

Those screaming kids are having the time of their lives. They’re playing with cousins they seldom see. In a few years, they’ll be strangers, going their separate ways, living their own lives. These are times only you can give them. 

And all those presents under that tree. How many people on this planet don’t have such luxuries? No less than a billion for sure. 

But what about those off-color political rants? Sure, you don’t agree with them. So what? Do you have any idea what life was like for Grandpa or Uncle growing up? Do you have any idea what it’s like being them on a day to day basis? When they get out of bed next Thursday, what will be pressing on their minds and hearts? What are they afraid of, excited about? 

Here’s the thing, you don’t actually need answers to those questions. Because at some point in the future, you’re going to miss those people, rants and all. I know it’s cliché, but nobody lives forever. All we have is the time we have, how much we can never know.

So it’s your job, all of our jobs, to create the conditions for the people around us to thrive. Hold the big picture of “the holidays” in mind, but focus on the little things. The kids’ laughter, grandma’s cookies, the togetherness, rants and all. Embrace it, enjoy it, and others will too.

And if that fails, you can always go lay down in a prairie somewhere.

This piece is from my regular newspaper column that runs monthly in three local papers.