The deer was coming toward me and, with only a slight breeze blowing in my face, I was hoping that it had not detected my presence. She stopped within 20 yards of my position, with her ears erect and folded and looked directly at me.
Although I've seen many deer in my life, I was amazed at how large the doe's ears appeared. With this close encounter, I was sure that she could hear the pounding of my heart.
After several minutes of staring at me, she stamped her front foot on the ground and gave out a loud snort. At once, the woods exploded with deer taking off in all directions. I had no idea these deer were in the vicinity.
Many animals use their ears for protection. In New Mexico, we see many mule deer, which are a species of deer that have larger ears. The common name of mule deer comes from the fact that their large ears resemble the ears of a mule.
A jack rabbit - actually a hare - is another animal that received its common name because of its ears. Hares are larger than rabbits, with larger hind legs and longer ears.
Initially, these hares were known as jackass rabbits, a name made famous by Mark Twain in his book, "Roughing It." Later, the name was shortened to jackrabbit.
Some animals actually use their ears to see. For example, the bat has tiny eyes but exceptionally large ears, which enable it to hunt by using echolocation. A bat will send out a squeal that strikes an object and then bounces back to its ear. The sound, or echo, hits the bat's eardrums, allowing it to tell the distance and direction of the object and also if the object is moving and in what direction.
Some birds, such as owls, also have exceptionally good hearing. Most owls have a facial disk, in which their ears are hidden among the feathers.
The owl's hunting actually begins with its ears - one ear is lower than the other - which are highly directional for sound frequencies. Hunting is done from a perch in a tree or other vantage point and when vibrations are picked up in one ear, the owl will turn its head until both ears are picking up the same amount of vibrations. At this time, the owl is looking directly at whatever is making the vibrations and then the eyes take over the hunting.
The barn owl, which has the best hearing of all owls, can catch a scampering mouse across the forest floor in total darkness. Although the owl is unable to see the mouse, it is able to use its ears.
Although songbirds have exceptionally good hearing, their ears are inconspicuous. A bird's ears are nearly as large as its eyes; however, they are hidden under feathers.
Several months ago, I wrote about finding a dead cedar waxwing. At first, I found no indication that the bird had ears; however, after parting its head feathers, I found them.
Perhaps you, too, have wondered why a bird's ears are covered with feathers. Wouldn't the bird have better hearing if the ears were exposed?
When a bird is flying through the air, with the wind blowing over its head, the feathers cut down on wind noise, while permitting sound waves to pass through.
Some animals, such as jackrabbits and elephants, use their ears to control their body temperatures. African elephants have larger ears than Asian elephants, simply because African elephants live near the equator, while Asian elephants live farther north in slightly cooler temperatures.
An elephant's ears are made up of a thin layer of skin stretched over cartilage and a network of blood vessels. On very hot days, an elephant flaps its large ears to create a breeze. The breeze cools the blood as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit and, then, the cool blood circulates to other parts of the elephant's body, reducing the body temperature.
Of course, the ears also are used to display a sign of aggression, especially during the mating season.
Recently, I heard that a human's ears grow throughout his or her lifetime. If this is true, why can't I hear what Mary Alice says as well today as when we first were married?
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.