Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned.
Closer to home, while cars were set alight in Philadelphia and looters attacked nearby King of Prussia Mall, I retreated to my backyard in search of peaceful coexistence. When you want harmony, you can’t do much better than Mother Nature.
Or so I thought.
If you’re a reader of my blog, you know my proficiency identifying local birds and their lifestyle habits is very recent and completely in conflict with my prior experience, particularly in college. If you haven’t read it, take a moment.
So today I’m kind of an expert. Let’s just say I can identify a bunch of flocking birds. I can recognize some by their call, some by their color. I can usually tell which is the male of the species because, as with humans – particularly in and around San Francisco – the males are by far more colorful and fabulous. I don’t begrudge anyone what their heart seeks. If you’re gay, bi, trans, nonbinary, or whatever the newest designations are that I have yet to learn, well bless your heart. I don’t feel threatened by your lifestyle, so please don’t assign intolerant attitudes to me just because I’m an older scoop of vanilla ice cream. I prefer chocolate jimmies (or, for you New Yorkers: sprinkles) but I don’t judge the rainbow ones.
But if you’re prepared to argue that nature supports the idea of alternative lifestyles I’m here to tell you the avian world says, “nah.” I am frankly amazed at how consistently the birds come and go as “married” couples – a male and a female, feeding and nesting and staking out a territory together, side by side, with or without the presence of new or imminent young ‘uns. Dudes don’t hang with other dudes, not at all.
It’s a jungle out there, Jane, and if you watch reasonably closely for even an hour or two you begin to see a pecking order emerge. Literally.
It goes something like this:
- Hummingbirds are the top of the food chain. They are tiny, nearly invisible because of their speed and agility, and they don’t eat anything that other birds eat so they pose a threat to no one. Hummingbirds look down their long, graceful noses at the shenanigans that go on around the main feeders. They are too cool for school.
- Squirrels trump most of the birds most of the time. I assume a hawk or an eagle or a turkey vulture could neutralize a squirrel in short order but I’ve never seen it happen. I’d like to! Squirrels are rats, and bullies, and gluttons. They destroy anything that gets in between them and anything they can eat. But they are also crazy-athletic and smart; they charge the windmill twice, maybe three times, then they pivot and find another way. It’s fascinating all the time, and frustrating most of the time. They fight among themselves, and they bully anything with wings. And they eat. And eat. And eat.
- Cardinals are badass. The males are, obviously, red and easy to spot. The womenfolk are dullish brown, with a softer blush-red head, but notable, bright orange beak. Both have this beak, you can spot it a mile away. And they are the only birds with more distinctive tweets than Donald Trump. It’s a piercing, abrupt “CHEEP,” instantly recognizable from 100 yards away if the window is open. They command space at the feeder but they don’t suffer fools or crowds; they don’t have to. They decide whether to fly away in derision or shove another bird off the feeder.
- I dished on the catbirds in my earlier post. They are annoying, and not terribly smart. They are also redneck mothers. Not literally – they are black and grey and sleek like a skinnied-down Tesla, with no other colors. But they are 100% Red State: the fathers hunt, the mothers nest. They make a lot of noise and are intolerant of other birds. I can only imagine how they would shriek if there actually were liberal birds around! (But as I said, I have yet to see these move in.)
- Woodpeckers are kind of awesome. The males are striking; the ones in my yard are black and white with bright, red heads. The females are smaller, pure black and snowy white. They both favor peanut butter suet, only the females suck it down and then fly up to the little ones to spit in their mouth. Gross. The kids must think so, too, because often the little peckers fly away, making mommy woodpecker chase them around the trees, just to vomit in their faces. There’s something nostalgic about watching this dance, and the mommy's mounting frustration. It takes me back to a time when our 20-somethings were terrible twos. It’s funny when it happens to other people.
- There are a bunch of finches. They are small, and fast, and generally good natured until the male goldfinch shows up. He’s brilliant, bright yellow with flashes of black. He looks like every kindergarten student in Pittsburgh in January. The other finches hate his ass. Like every kindergarten student in Philadelphia in January.
- Mourning doves are fat and don’t fly up to the feeders. They waddle around on the ground and scavenge for scraps, including those that have fallen from the bulging cheeks of gluttonous, tyrannical squirrels. They startle easily, which does not help their image in the community. But consider this: they wouldn’t be fat if their strategy didn't work.
- Robins are the pigeons of the suburbs. They’re ubiquitous, and completely unremarkable. They scatter at the hint of confrontation, and come back as quickly. It’s harder to tell which ones are males and females, they seem to travel in odd numbers instead of hetero couples. They very rarely interact, with each other or with other birds.
And there are wrens and sparrows. The wrens are loud, and the sparrows forgettable. There are muscular starlings who are too stupid to stay out of people’s chimneys, and there’s the occasional blue jay who thinks he’s too good to eat at the same feeder with everyone else.
But I’ll tell you what there’s not: There’s no harmony, like Disney would have you believe. Last weekend the house was a disaster and my wife sang a little tune and extended her arms and, I swear, not one bastard bird or squirrel showed up to help us with the dishes or laundry. Plus, the kids were notably absent as well.
There’s no collaboration. As clever as squirrels are, they never once get together to form a squirrel pyramid to reach the higher food elevations. They would rather leap from a feathery evergreen branch a dozen feet away, sailing to almost certain death, than negotiate a feed-sharing arrangement with a neighbor.
There’s no goodwill. Within species and certainly between them, there’s no instinct toward charity, no sense of community, no evidence of any desire to look out for another living organism. It’s a dog eat dog world, and I haven’t even started on dogs!
A month ago I would have watched the birds (and squirrels) with a bourbon in my hand and been only amused at the antics. But in full retreat from the crushing weight of how awful humans treat each other, the parallels were too obvious to miss.
I thought about it for a long time. And I have to admit, while I believe everyone is essentially worthy and is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I would defend my family and those I care about most with my own life. That’s the dirty little secret the liberal fringe doesn’t want to acknowledge: I’m OK, you’re OK, but where the rubber meets the road there are levels. My family is more important than anyone. My neighbors are more important than people 100 miles away. My countrymen are more important than someone else’s countrymen.
It’s not judgment, it’s hard-wired; biology. God put it there. Ask the birds.
I’m not advocating for mistreating anyone. I’m not suggesting my family’s gain is worth another family’s loss. I’m saying I believe everyone should get along and care for each other and be compassionate and tolerant and understanding. But if there’s a pandemic and my kid is sick and there’s one vial of medicine left, I wouldn’t recommend getting in between me and that vial. And I would expect every father to feel and act the same way.
Not to mention the mothers, who will flat-out cut a bitch.
Every day I look at what’s going on around me and I try and make sense of it. When I was younger I understood so much more than I do now, including how I felt. I always thought that when you aged, you became more of whatever you were when you started. The groove you carved into the world got deeper the longer you walked your path.
But that’s not what’s happening. I find myself challenging what I see and what I believe. I used to think people probably thought pretty much like I did about most things; why should I be special? I don’t think that anymore. I am too often surprised by others’ outbursts and actions.
And as I get older, I like surprises less and less.