A year after we got the cats, my wise sister-in-law got us a bird feeder and a bag of bird seed for Christmas. This put the onus on me to find a way to hang the thing up by spring, when the birds were to immigrate and set up their nests. It was a tremendous success, and I’ve gone nuts (& berries) for the format. An open feeder, suet, and her original bird feeder now occupy the pole I bought to attempt to keep the bird feeder away from the squirrel.
The squirrel finds a way anyway, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.
I want to talk today about wealth, work and career, in birds. They are as distantly related to us as lizards, diverging on the way to dinosaurs 190–150 mya* while we diverged as early as 256 mya, but they still have many of out motivations as to how to make a living.
Most birds, like nearly all life, are homeless. Aside from their time making nests as a floor for eggs, most bird species are not sheltered from the elements. Their feathers are oily to keep their bodies dry, but otherwise they are subject to heat, humidity, rain, and frost. It is not an easy life, and it never gets easier. Birds are unique in that their chance of death is generally equal throughout their lives. They don’t get out of the egg stage just to live happy lives of plenty, like trees, or live long lives to die in droves at old age like us.
One adaptation to this is to stay as inactive as possible as much as possible, and to only be active when their chances of finding food for the least energy and the least chance of being eaten. Birds, like many animals, feed and forage at dawn and dusk, and pretty much find a shady place to exist much of the rest of the day. When we hear them in song the whole day long, they are working towards their other imperative: to reproduce.
Birds do show dominance and hierarchy, but it is hard to see in loosely social songbirds. Dominance, or popularity in middle school terms, means greater access to mates, even if the species is seasonally or even repeatedly monogamous. In many species of birds, the stress of dominance in males counter-intuitively leads to lower body weight, even where dominance begets better access to food. The stress of maintaining dominance is taxing, it seems. To the loud and fast go the spoils, apparently.
Closer to home, with the same busy schedule that has lately eroded this blog, I have not been able to refill their feeder as often as I might. As canny foragers, the birds simply avoid the yard if there is not food, and come back within minutes of my refilling the feeder. Their lives are partially independent, partially tame, flying between eating insects and seeds around the neighborhoods as their ancestors have for millions of years, and artificial feeders like mine as their ancestors have been for decades.
They don’t seem the least bit perturbed by their situation. Food is wealth to them, with which they make their careers.