For the Birds Radio Program: Neighborliness

Original Air Date: March 20, 1995

How do birds get along with their neighbors? 3:16

Audio missing


Today is the first day of spring, and last week’s warm temperatures and the many singing birds about made Northlanders feel for once like spring in March might be a possibility instead of a pipe dream. Spring’s opening always makes me think of my neighbor Mary. First off, she was born on the first day of spring some seventy-something years ago, but more importantly, more than anyone I know, Mary actually embodies spring. She’s a breath of fresh air, ever sunny and warm, ever welcome. Who else can you call at 3 in the morning to come watch the kids when you’re having a gall bladder attack? Who else can you call when you’re out of sugar or eggs and suddenly have a fudge brownie emergency? When something holds you up in the afternoon, who else can you count on to be there when the kids come home from school? Neighborliness isn’t a big thing in the 90s. People are so suspicious of and nasty to one another in this age of mean-spirited talk radio, nasty tabloids, and general crankiness. But neighborliness can be found on Peabody Street, and not just in the spring.

Anyway, thinking of Mary makes me think about bird neighbors. For the most part, birds are no more neighborly than people nowadays. The whole idea of territoriality is to minimize the number of neighbors that a pair of birds has to contend with. Some birds carry their lack of neighborliness to extremes. Loons have been known to stab ducks to death rather than share their lake. But once borders are worked out, most species of birds become rather cordial with their neighbors. They may not lend one another cups of sugar or even caterpillars, but they do share water resources and join forces to fight off enemies.

Some species, like Cedar Waxwings and Pine Siskins, don’t defend a territory. Pairs may nest on adjacent branches and don’t seem to mind at all. If anything, they enjoy the company. Cliff Swallows are sometimes called republican swallows, not for their political bent but because their colonies reminded someone long ago of small republics, with citizens cooperating in a civilized manner.

Some species choose other species for neighbors. Grackles often nest in the lower sticks of an Osprey nest, providing a valuable sanitation service for the sloppy fish-eaters in exchange for protection and scraps of food. Even territorial songbirds quickly learn one another’s individual songs and calls, and react with far less aggression to their neighbors’ vocalizations than to strangers’.

Recent studies indicate that a shocking number of songbirds also enjoy quite a bit of hanky panky with their neighbors. Blood tests on baby bluebirds and robins indicate that often more than one male has fathered a brood. So as it turns out, birds previously believed to be monogamous, at least through a breeding season, value being excessively neighborly over family values. They probably shouldn’t run for president if they don’t want to deal with investigative reporters. But at least their neighbors won’t talk.