An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of February 16, 2014
issued from the Frio Canyon Nature Education Center
in the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas,
on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

A BEAKFUL OF FEATHERS

During the couple of months the birdfeeder has been up maybe 95% of my visitors have been Black-crested Titmice and Chipping Sparrows, with the sparrows forming a slight majority. You think of titmice as tiny, cute birds, but they're larger than the sparrows and likely to dominate in a confrontation over feeding rights; they loom over the sparrows like centurions in black-plumed helmets. Watching through the window, I've grown to think of Chipping Sparrows as peaceful and timid.

A couple of weeks ago, however, among the sparrows little spats involving pecking began breaking out over who might have this or that seed. Before long real conflicts arose between pairs who suddenly couldn't endure one another's presence. Sometimes they'd fly at one another, rising into the air as if both were climbing an invisible ladder between them, showering one another with pecks and wing flaps. Finally this week one went berserk when another landed on his side of the feeder, stabbed his beak into the interloper's chest, and plucked out a large tuft of feathers, while other feathers drifted to the ground. It was a savage attack that a month ago would have been impossible to imagine.

But, of course, spring is coming. Hormones are flowing. It's long been known that as days grow longer -- as the photoperiod increases -- the sexual organs swell, secrete more hormones, and birds just can't avoid undergoing many kinds of behavioral changes. Nowadays Cardinals and Bewick's Wrens have begun singing and fights are even breaking out among Mourning Doves gleaning seeds below the feeder. Throughout the night Axis Deer whistle-snort, and all across the early morning, moonlit landscape flocks of Wild Turkeys erupt in gobbling. And you've seen the emerging insect larvae we've documented. These longer days are causing a revolution in the whole natural world here.

So, none of this big change in behavior is a mystery, but, still, the feeder fighting raises an interesting question. That is, what does it say about the Creator's manner of being that She's designed things so that a bird's spring courtship period must involve such pecking, hurt feelings and outright pain as is on display every day at the feeder? Why couldn't the surge of hormones simply dispose the birds to drift away from their wintertime communities, establish territories and acquire mates, simply forgoing all that rage, pecking and feather plucking?

Actually, philosophers and behavioralists have looked at that question for a long time. In general, the deal is that aggression is adaptive, because those who get away with it on the average end up getting more food, claiming the best homes, getting the sexiest partners, producing the most offspring, and in the long run creating a more dynamic and successful species. Greed, jealousy and general cantankerousness in a given season are tools the genes employ to fine tune the species.

So, I've come to accept that it's OK for my sparrows to be ornery with one another, at least when the photoperiod is increasing. There's not much a sparrow can do about it, anyway.

But, that still doesn't answer the question of what it means that things are organized this feather-pulling way to begin with. Nor does it address the matter of whether we humans, with our big brains and our ability to countermand many of the dictates of our genes, might learn to handle certain of our own urges a bit more elegantly and causing less pain than the sparrows.  Facebook Icon