For the Birds Radio Program: Laundromat Territoriality
To study territoriality, even a laundromat is a learning experience. (4:28) Date confirmed.
One of the most interesting aspects of behavior is territoriality. A couple of years ago, I studied a form of territorial behavior I’d never noticed before. Our ancient washing machine finally conked out, and when I lugged a week’s worth of laundry to the laundromat, there was only one person there, a male college student. A better ornithologist than I would have recorded plumage, length, and arm-span, but I didn’t pay much attention. He was taking his clothes out of the washers and putting them into the extractor as I plopped down my baskets and laid my jacket on one corner of the huge table, staking out my claim.
While I sorted and loaded and tried to figure out the intricacies of the change machine, he put his clothes in a dryer, tossed in one of those perfumey dryer sheets, and went back to his magazine. I asked him what the difference was between the washers that cost a dollar fifty and those that cost one twenty-five. He didn’t have a clue either. When the change machine rejected my five-dollar bill, he traded me for five ones. These were the only interactions we had—no fancy displays or bursts of song, no flights or chase scenes through the laundromat. Our boundary issues were settled simply and quietly. When his dryer stopped, he threw his clothes into a nearby cart, folded them, carried his basket into his car, and drove off.
Just before my washer cycle ended, a female entered. Again, I didn’t record plumage. She immediately took a cart and asked if it was mine. I hadn’t paid much attention to the carts before this so I said no, but seconds later I felt impelled to put my book down and claim a cart, too. I pulled it over to my chair (noticing how I now considered the chair mine), as my first washer stopped. Three dryers were already taken. They didn’t have clothes in them, just a purse and two empty laundry baskets on the floor staking the other female’s claim.
This was when I developed a theory that female humans defend laundromat territories based on future as well as current needs. I took the three dryers closest to my territory on the table—my stuff on the table subtly indicated that those three dryers were mine anyway.
I was folding clothes when her washers stopped, and she made her move. As she filled one dryer, she put her purse on the opposite end of my table, effectively appropriating a chunk of my territory. One end of the table was all I needed, but I could see that my boundaries were closing in. By the time all three of her dryers were going her two laundry baskets were also on the table, her territorial claim unmistakeable.
Meanwhile, another male came in, threw his clothes in a washer, and started studying on a bench by the window, reinforcing my now firm belief that males aren’t as territorial in this habitat as females. I had kids’ clothes to keep me busy as he finished his laundry. Like Male A, Male B took a cart at the last minute, folded from his cart to his laundry basket, and left.
Meanwhile, Female C entered, and as she was getting organized, she set her keys and wallet between my piles of Katie’s and Tommy’s clothes. This kind of territorial transgression is seldom tolerated by our species, but I was in a scientific mode, so I kept folding, her keys and walled right smack in front of me. The first woman rolled her eyes commiseratively, understanding our boundaries without a word, and once the newcomer started her washers, she suddenly realized her faux pas and hurriedly grabbed her things. I never did observe how these two worked out their boundaries, and as I left, two more females entered. Although the ensuing scene promised to be interesting, I was sick and tired of laundry so I piled up my car with clean clothes and drove off, my stake in my laundromat territory relinquished forever.