For the Birds Radio Program: Economic Systems of Birds

Original Air Date: Dec. 30, 1987

Birds have no interest in money, but they’re into real estate.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Hairy Woodpecker)

1987 will perhaps be more remembered for the state of the economy than anything. I’ve been thinking about the state of my own economy lately–Christmas shopping tends to do that to me–and that naturally led me to consider the economic systems of birds.

Birds of course have no interest in money–they’re far more into real estate. In springtime a good piece of land represents food, water, and shelter to a bird. If property values are high in an area, what with an abundance of natural food and nesting spots, birds can only afford to defend a small piece of the action. As land value drops, each pair can hold onto a bigger plot to supply its needs. Songbirds seldom fight over a piece of food, but territory is another matter. Once in a while they do negotiate easements–like the two pairs of squabbling robins in my backyard last summer. The winner claimed my whole backyard to the fence line, but did surrender water rights to my birdbath to the loser in return for a reduction in hostilities.

As birds develop their property, they invest more heavily in its defense. For many species, development is strictly in the form of nests, but jays and crows often add eating establishments. The more food they hide in various places in their territories, the more vigorously they seem to defend the land itself.

Scarcity brings some birds together, like waxwings, chickadees, finches, and grosbeaks, providing more eyes to search for food and predators, but it’s a tradeoff–these winter socialists must be fairly nomadic in order to find enough food for them all. Many other birds remain territorial capitalists in winter, preferring the benefits of private property ownership. They can study their land holdings intimately to capitalize on every amenity. In order to be sure they’ll have the necessities of life, these birds, like many hawks and woodpeckers, lead solitary winters, and, like human investors, can be ruthless in driving off rivals.

Bird feeders obviously represent the welfare state. Some welfare offices are more bureaucratic than others–requiring welfare recipients to prove their need by being cute or little. Hungry Blue Jays and squirrels are often turned away at these establishments. Some welfare offices are run by xenophobes, who want to see only red-blooded American birds at their feeders–these people turn away starlings and house sparrows as unwelcome foreigners.

Some birds take the best of all worlds. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers often spend their days with socialist chickadee flocks, and even stop by the welfare office for handouts. But at nighttime they retreat to their own private condos, which they refuse to share with those less unfortunate than themselves.

Trickle down, supply-side economics should work for birds, if you assume that by improving the property of the rarest, most elite birds, like Pileated Woodpeckers and Bald Eagles, you are improving it for other, less auspicious species. But so far the proponents of Reaganomics have rejected just about every plan to set aside real estate for wild things, apparently believing that environmental ethics are strictly “for the birds.”

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”