What the little birds told me


(Originally published 07/21/12 at Trojan Horse Productions.)

The pigeons. Years ago, when I had an office job downtown, I’d wait for the bus every afternoon on the south side of Baltimore Street one or two blocks east of Charles. Often, someone tossed down several handfuls of torn-up bread for the birds to eat, and I’d have time to watch them.

For the most part, the pigeons acted just as you’d expect: eating together, share and share alike. But I noticed one individual whose conduct was quite different. This guy never picked up any food from the ground. He never seemed to notice any food on the ground. Instead, he’d notice what someone else was eating, and go over and take it away from that person. Time and time again, he did this.

Put this fellow down on top of a pile of food, and he’d starve to death, because he’d never pick up any for himself. Put another pigeon with him, and he’d be OK — taking away what the other one picks up to eat.

How much closer can you get to the way some people act; who will not do anything for themselves, but only take away what someone else has worked for? Can there be a gene for this?

———— ♦ ————

When I lived in Barclay, I maintained a bird feeder in the back yard — different locations, but always visible from the kitchen window. Two species used to visit the feeder in flocks: sparrows and starlings. There might be fifty sparrows or fifty starlings there at a time.

Sparrows are cool. Two or three get into a brief private squabble, but in general they’re sociable. They hop around, they’re nice, they’re happy. They’re fun to watch. There was one exception.

There might be fifty sparrows crowded on the ground, but this one individual was, at all times, surrounded by a 5 foot diameter of empty space. Wherever he went, it went. If any other sparrow strayed inside that circle, he’d attack it. It was as if all the other sparrows knew, “Stay away from Charlie.”

Starlings are different.

The whole point of what I’m about to say is, I never saw this conduct among starlings anywhere else. I never saw it in the yards of the nice neighborhood where I grew up. Now, at the bus stop I mentioned before — in the winter, in the afternoon, huge flocks of starlings come in from the countryside to perch on the ledges and window sills of tall buildings to stay warm for the night. (You learn to stand at least three feet away from any wall down there, or they’ll spot you.) I never saw them act this way down there, either. But in Barclay, it was constant.

In this whole mass of black feathered flesh, it was like “Every man (or biped) for himself” taken to the extreme. Always. The harsh cries, the pecking with those long, sharp, narrow beaks. I tried to understand this. It wasn’t, “Me first,” as if there were some risk (There never was.) of running out. Instead, it was as if each one was saying, “I’m the only one who’s getting any. None of y’all can get any.”

The strife, the pointless turmoil, the endless fighting among them, mirrored exactly what I saw among the squalid people of that ‘hood. Could it be that the spirit of “drama” the human beings there create, affects the starlings, too?

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