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Out of the Mouths of Babes,
Birds and Caterpillars

Bill Meredith

"One death is a tragedy.
Twenty million deaths are a statistic."
…attributed to Joseph Stalin.

(August, 2013) When you’re retired, past a certain age, it gets hard to keep track of time. One day seems like any other; there is no fixed schedule, like there was when you were working. This year, July started on a Monday, so I didn’t really notice the calendar had changed to a new page until Sunday arrived on the 7th. While getting ready for church, it dawned on me that I had missed the Fourth of July and all that went with it. On further reflection, I realized that 2013, which I still thought of as a new year, was already half gone; time was speeding up so much that the 7th had got here before the 4th. It was more than the mind could cope with. I didn’t get much out of the sermon that day.

The next day I returned to my summer routine, which is to get up early and work in the garden until it gets too hot. Back in the days when I and all the world were young, my wife and I always had a large garden, and she canned dill pickles every summer. We planted cucumbers every year, but we only had to plant dill once; after that, dill plants came back by themselves, all over the place, in numbers that rivaled the weeds. Now, 60 years later, the garden has shrunk to about a tenth of its original size, and though we still raise a few cucumbers for the table, she has not made pickles for several years. But the dill plants continue to come up each year, like the weeds that they really are, and I save a few of them for old time’s sake.

Some weeks ago a black swallowtail butterfly drifted through the area, smelled the aroma of freshly germinated dill plants, and anointed each of them with eggs; and soon they were covered with green and yellow-striped caterpillars. When the caterpillars got big enough, I showed one of them to the children’s Sunday School class, and told them the story of how it got there and that it would soon become a butterfly. The point I hoped to make was that although I have watched and studied such things for 80 years and understand a lot about them, they still seem beautiful, amazing and a little mysterious to me. I expected them to ask how the caterpillar would become a butterfly, but instead, one of them looked at it carefully and asked, "Does it have a brain?" That was not the question I expected, but I could see where his mind was going: how could a caterpillar know what to do in order to turn into a butterfly? It was a logical question, but the answer was too complicated to go into at that time. So I replied, "Yes, caterpillars have brains, but they aren’t like ours. When a caterpillar is born, everything it needs to know is already in its brain, but we have to go to school for years so our brain can learn what we need to know." That seemed to satisfy my young friend; but later, I found it did not satisfy me. Once you start thinking about brains, it’s hard to stop.

The next morning started as all mornings do… sitting at the table and gazing out the kitchen window toward the bird feeder. July is a critical time for birds; the young ones are leaving their nests and starting a life independent of their parents. It is a risky time of life; among many of our common birds, as many as half of those leaving the nest don’t survive the first month. Part of what they need to know for survival was stored in their brains before they hatched, like the caterpillars; but they also have a lot to learn, like human teenagers. They know instinctively how to fly, but they aren’t too good at steering; they also have to learn that it is good to slow down before you stop. Until they learn these basics, they run into things a lot. They also have to learn who their friends are; I recently saw a film of a baby starling that, on its first (and last) flight, landed in front of a hawk and immediately started begging to be fed.

On that particular morning, a chipping sparrow, one of our smallest common birds, was on the ground under the feeder, picking up seeds that had fallen there. It was an ordinary thing to see; but this time, instead of eating the seeds herself, the chippy was feeding them to a cowbird chick that was at least three times as big as she was. My wife was astounded by the sight of it. I tried to explain that cowbirds are nest parasites; they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so the young cowbirds are raised by foster parents… but she couldn’t believe that the chippy was so stupid it couldn’t recognize its own offspring.

Cowbirds were not always common around here; originally they lived in the west, where they followed buffalo herds on their annual migration across the prairies. They made a good living by eating insects stirred up by the buffalo, and partly-digested seeds in buffalo dung. Since the buffalo were always on the move, the cowbirds could not stay in one place long enough to nest and raise young; so they adapted by leaving their eggs in the nests of other species. Some birds, like robins and catbirds, have beaks large enough to pick up a cowbird egg and throw it out of their nest, and some smaller birds like wrens will peck holes in them. But most small birds, like the chipping sparrow, seem not to notice that there is a new egg in their nest and it is twice as big as their own. The cowbird egg hatches early, so by the time the young chippies hatch, the cowbird is already a day or two older and much larger. The chippies either starve or get pushed out of the nest and die, and the chippy parents work their beaks to the bone feeding a foster child that is bigger than both of them combined.

I read somewhere that someone once had the temerity to ask Joseph Stalin why he was upset by the death of one of his comrades when he had no qualms about sending millions of his fellow citizens to their deaths in the Russian gulags; and Stalin was said to have given the reply quoted above. I am not sure whether the story is true; Stalin could have given such an answer, but the person who asked the question would not have lived to tell about it. True or not, the story illustrates the dilemma facing an ecologist. I feel pity for the chipping sparrows who lost their own family and devoted their lives to raising an ungrateful foster child; but I know that this is the way nature works. Chippies lay an average of four eggs per brood, and two broods each summer. If all these eggs hatched and the chicks all survived to reproduce the next year, in ten years the original pair would have over a million descendants, and we would be up to here in chipping sparrows. Clearly, that does not happen. Most of the young do not survive; but they are not wasted. In one way or another, they enter the food chain of the ecosystem and maintain what we call the "Balance of Nature." By human standards, a cruel system… but it works. Nature doesn’t think like we do.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith