For The Birds –

By John Zielinski

The last days of 2017 are upon us as I write this. Media of all kinds are reflecting on the year. They’re calling out highlights, lowlights, hits and misses. Don’t expect any of that here. Also, don’t expect predictions, resolutions or anything else related to the beginning of a new year. Instead, I’m going to talk about birds. Stick with me, though. I promise to make it worth your while.

For a good part of my life I lived in a suburb where the only wildlife that I ever saw was songbirds, squirrels and the occasional rabbit. Several miles away from my house there were lands under the control of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County that had forest and prairie land as well as the undomesticated animals that lived in and on those. It never dawned on me that the fauna living there would be different from the area closer to home that was dominated by concrete, asphalt, houses, apartment buildings, small yards and a smattering of parks. I was truly surprised to learn (although I shouldn’t have been) that there were deer living in those forests. I never saw any, but I took the word of the kids who lived near there. I also never thought about other species that might call the woods and prairies home as well. That included species of birds.

After I got married we kept moving further and further away from my home town, but always stayed in what’s generally considered the metropolitan Chicago area. We eventually ended up in a village that was considered “semi-rural” even though it’s only a 45 minute drive to the heart of downtown Chicago. On the other hand, a 5 minute walk puts me into woods and farm fields. With a 10 minute drive you’d never know that you were so close to a major city. Things are a bit different here than where I grew up.

While I’ve seen both deer and coyotes in my back yard, mostly I see birds. Of course, the reason that I see birds is not only because of trees, but because we’ve got a feeder. The window from my office gives me a clear view of the birds it attracts. In addition to the wrens, sparrows and robins of my youth we’re regularly visited by goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays, titmouses, starlings, woodpeckers, various birds whose names I don’t know and dumb-as-rocks mourning doves. We’re also visited by hawks.

There may have been hawks in the woods of the town where I grew up, but I never saw them. Since moving out here I see them on a daily basis. Sometimes they’re circling in the sky while riding the thermals. Sometimes they’re sitting in our trees and looking around. They’re large birds and quite handsome. They’re also predators. Whether circling in the sky or roosting on a limb, there’s a very strong probability that they’re looking for their next meal. It’s the way of the wild things.

Just as the raptor keeps an eye out for a possible dinner, the animals who could end up as dinner remain vigilant. It’s interesting to see the different strategies employed by rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles and other small mammals to keep from being spotted. It’s just as interesting to watch the evasive maneuvers that each takes if it is spotted. Some are more successful than others. That’s just the way that things are. Evolution has given the hawk the tools that it needs to find and consume a meal and it’s given prey the tools that they need to keep from getting eaten. To be fair, though, that’s only mostly true.

While the hawk scans the ground for small mammals, it’s not averse to a meal of aves. This kind of hunting is rather different from the hunt for ground dwellers. The birds who may serve as the raptor’s prey aren’t limited to moving in 2 dimensions. Since they have the power of flight, are smaller and quicker (though not necessarily faster) than the hawk they have more escape options. Acceleration and the ability to quickly change direction in 3 dimensions gives birds who may be prey an advantage over their furry cousins. Then again, that only matters if the bird is smart enough to take advantage of it.

Earlier I referred to mourning doves as “dumb-as-rocks.” Since I’m not an ornithologist and have never taken the time to do the research I can’t say whether they’re actually less intelligent than other birds. What I can say from my observations is that they don’t demonstrate the intelligence necessary to keep from being the main course on a hawk’s dinner menu. When the hawk arrives and other birds scatter at least a couple of mourning doves simply look around as though thinking, “What?” You should be able to guess what comes next. This is a concrete reminder that in the natural world “dumb” equals “dead.”

While most of the time the other birds scatter when the hawk arrives sometimes a truly interesting thing happens. A flock of small birds like sparrows will come together and drive off the hawk. Although any one of those sparrows could easily be eaten, when they collaborate the more physically powerful predator turns and flies away. They’ve learned that they have the power when they work for the common good. In this case the common good is the personal good. Once the hawk is gone each individual sparrow can return to focusing on its own agenda.

I hear quite a few people say that the individual in the United States has no power. The rich and the corporations own the government. There’s nothing that an ordinary person can do against these powerful entities. In the face of threats to their well-being – perhaps to their very lives – they do nothing. They choose to sit there like the dumb-as-rocks mourning doves waiting to be chewed up. I prefer to take a lesson from the sparrows.

The last time that I checked a vote by a rich person counts the same as a vote by anyone else and there are a lot more people who aren’t rich than those who are. On top of that, corporations can’t vote. Yes, the rich and the corporations spend a lot of money to get their preferred candidates elected. That’s mostly done through campaign ads that sell half-truths and outright lies. Perhaps the most powerful and the most ridiculous of those lies is that one’s personal liberty and well-being are threatened not by the powerful but by the hoi polloi. It’s not the hawk that’s out to eat you. It’s the other sparrows. The absurdity of that should be obvious. As the sparrows seem to know, working together they can win against the more powerful and lose nothing in the process. If it works for the birds it can work for you.

I said up front that I wouldn’t be saying anything about the beginning of the new year. I’m going to honor that. Instead, I’m going to say something about the months later in the year.

2018 is a midterm election year. The entire House of Representatives is up for election. One third of the Senate is up for election. It’s also a year of state elections for many. The rich and the powerful will attempt to convince you that your enemy isn’t them, but your peers. They’ll try to keep you feeling hopeless so that you don’t bother to vote. Don’t buy it. The way to beat the feeling of hopelessness is to work together to elect Senators and Representatives, governors and state legislators who will work for the common good. History as well as nature shows us what can happen when those who are considered powerless come together and take action.