A CNN headline grabbed my attention this week – “Birds that learn new behaviors less likely to go extinct.” Being a birder and environmentalist, I was hooked. I read it and found that a study by people at McGill University in Canada found that birds which adapted their diet or hunting techniques to the situation they were in did better and were less endangered than ones which didn’t. It cited examples like crows, which have been known to pick up nuts and drop them on roads so cars would run over them, with the birds eating the innards when the coast was clear, and cormorants which would follow fishing boats in hopes of getting some of the catch the boat would drop or throw away.
My first reaction was “duh!”. My second was “how do I get in on research money to do a study like that?” Maybe I could spend a few years getting paid finding that “people prefer cuddly kittens to feral rats for pets” or “people prefer a nice breeze to tornadoes ripping the roof of their houses.” I mean it seems abundantly obvious enough, doesn’t it?
Maybe I felt a bit jealous. Not to toot my own horn… oh, OK, “toot toot”… I said exactly the same thing about five years ago in my first e-book, The Mockingbird Speaks. In that, I suggested that many life lessons could be learned by watching Mockingbirds and one in particular was that the adaptable thrive, be they birds or people. I pointed out that the birds were expanding their range and increasing in numbers at times when many other birds were becoming scarcer by the year. Mockingbirds eat almost anything – I’ve personally seen them consume everything from wasps to wild cherries to millet seeds at feeders and records show they won’t turn down cut up oranges, baby lizards if they find them, suet, and almost any kind of berry known to man or Mother Nature. They’ve learned to live in our city gardens, the edges of forests and along the weedy right-of-ways along rail lines. That’s adaptable.
Similar success stories are birds like the Cooper’s Hawk and Pileated Woodpeckers. The hawks have skyrocketed in population since DDT was banned in the 1960s partly from that helping their health but also in part due to a sudden change in habitat. The bird-eaters used to live almost exclusively in dense woods. In the last thirty years, they’ve somehow come to realize that they do equally well in suburbs. Feeders and populations of city robins, sparrows and pigeons ensures them a steady food supply and as long as there are a few big trees around for their nests, they seem to thrive. The Pileated Woodpecker is similar in that they’ve somehow changed from needing vast tracts of forest to living in and feeding in neighborhood trees in green towns and cities.
Contrast that with well-known endangered species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Kirtland’s Warbler. The woodpecker, a larger version of the Pileated, lives – or lived – in dense, old southern swamps eating pretty much just one type of beetle found in decaying trees of a certain age in only certain floodplain trees. When most of the forests that fit the description were felled, their populations crashed and now a record, even if accompanied by grainy video, is viewed with a lot of skepticism.
The colorful little Kirtland’s Warbler is similar. For whatever reason, they seem to only eat select insects that inhabit only Jack pine forests of a certain age. That type of forest only occurs in a small area of northern Michigan and a few hundred acres in Ontario. One large fire could potentially wipe out the species. The individual birds, I’m sure aren’t being obstinate or dumb… they aren’t making a conscious choice to only eat one type of bug and saying “I’d rather die than live in a different variety of tree”… they were just dealt a bad genetic hand.
The implications, to me, were obvious. Birds which adapt do well, those which didn’t were not much better than doomed.
By extension, the message carries over to us. As I put it, yesterday’s expert typewriter repairman is today’s chronically unemployed person. We need to adapt to changing times and situations. If a type of food becomes scarce, we need to be able to substitute something else for it in our diet. If our employer goes belly-up, we need to be able to take our skillset to new ones. Needless to say, the more we can learn and adapt our skills (be they job related or personal ones), the better off we are. It was a message that made sense in 2015. It’s imperative now.
This pandemic is challenging all of us, and I don’t think anyone is liking it much. Maybe it’s doing your 9-to-5 at a bedroom desk, maybe it’s getting shopping done before work instead of late at night. Maybe its shopping less and being less picky about what brands of soap or toilet paper we’ll accept. Even when this eventually calms down and we go back to a new “normal”, adaptations may be called for. Dr Fauci already suggests that business meetings won’t be opened by everyone shaking hands in the future. Some stores won’t throw the doors open again after Corona virus is a distant memory and maybe the person coughing and sweating away across the corridor from you at work won’t be considered an admirable example of work ethic and rather, a selfish sickie down the road. It’s hard to say.
What isn’t hard to say is that we need to be flexible. Need to be able to adapt like a crow. Or Mockingbird.
I’m off to round up some fuzzy little kittens and angry rats…