The Bird Feeder and the Tragedy of the Commons

BirdFeedersThe gist of the Tragedy of the Commons, for those who haven’t read my blatherings about it before, is that when people own something personally they take care of it, but when no one owns it, when it’s a shared resource, like forests and parks and public toilets and recreation centres, nobody takes care of it, and it becomes the victim of the more talentless graffiti artists and litterers and vandals and pyromaniacs and guys who pee on toilet seats.

So I got thinking about whether this contemptible and careless ‘commons’ behaviour is something uniquely human, especially since I have yet to find any behaviour of any kind that is uniquely human, and don’t expect to.

In a way, all of nature is a ‘commons’ to the rest of the species on this planet. Yet other creatures don’t damage and destroy common areas. And then I realized that these natural commons have something that human commons don’t — abundance. What human commons have in, er, common, is that they are all scarce, all set aside specifically as common spaces, in the midst of areas that are ‘private’ (‘private’ spaces being those that are arrogantly assume to be the property of some human to do whatever he wants to do with them regardless of the consequences). A much better analogy to human commons is the bird feeder, that (relatively) scarce and unnatural commodity that some of us who love watching other creatures set up for their, and our, communal benefit.

At bird feeders you can see non-human creatures treating a common resource the way we humans do. Squirrels can literally demolish most bird feeders in a week. You put up a squirrel ‘baffle’ and they’ll dedicate their full diligence to defeating it. After all, why would you put out food just for birds? That’s not fair, is it? And why would you put out food just a bit in dribs and drabs, and keep the rest in a metal can? We squirrels have been managing fluctuating food resources since before you bipods appeared on the planet — just put it all out there and we’ll figure out what to do with it.

The black squirrels have now figured out how to get around my baffle even though it’s six feet above the ground (beyond their jumping range) and on a pivot so they can’t stand on it even if they can get past it. They have their own baffle-less feeder ten feet away (feeder #1 in the above diagram). The food in it is accessible to all, and disappears in 24 hours from time of filling (every 2 days in winter, every 3 days in summer). So it is more often empty than not. Feeder #2 has a cylindrical container and perches designed for the smaller birds that tend to get bullied out of feeder #1 one by squirrels, chipmunks and the larger birds like grackles and redwing blackbirds. The process for a squirrel to get into feeder #2 took a lot of experiment and ingenuity, but now takes them about 5 seconds:

  1. Shimmy up the pole until you’re underneath the baffle’s hood (it’s shaped like an inverted saucer)
  2. Prop back legs on the hardware that holds the baffle in place, push up and out with front legs until baffle is angled up and feed cylinder is visible
  3. Reach one front paw around to outside edge of baffle closest to feed cylinder, push off with back legs and grab bottom ledge of feed cylinder with other front paw
  4. Haul yourself up onto feed cylinder, and hang upside down from feed cylinder perches, scooping food from opening into cheeks
  5. Before leaving, spend a minute trying to unscrew nuts from the bolts that hold the feed cylinder perches and openings in place (every three months or so they finally get them loose, and they know only to unscrew counter-clockwise)

The chipmunks are not big enough to manage any of this, so they study where I keep the seed. I have tried keeping the seed in the garage, but they’ve found openings under the eaves and eaten holes in the bags when I leave them there. Now I keep it in the sunroom, in a large aluminum can. They’ve chewed holes in the sunroom screens to get into the room, and last week I caught one, obviously a keen observer, sitting on the aluminum can, making a hell of a racket trying to pry the spring-clip up.

In the winter, ornithologists believe, chickadees, sparrows and some other small birds actually do depend at certain times on the food in bird feeders (they need to bulk up by evening to survive the coldest nights, using the food energy to ‘shiver’ vigorously to keep their body temperature up). They usually leave plenty of room for error (many creatures have three winter choices — migration, hibernation and bulking up — and generally the number that choose the third option is small enough that they don’t have to worry about shortages), so birds freezing to death are rare. Nonetheless, these small birds would clearly be more conscious of the value of using up bird feeder resources carefully. So I was amazed to discover that the chickadees, at least, conserve the seed in feeder #2 (subject to interference from other birds and squirrels), to last exactly the two or three days between fill-ups. Right after I fill it, the chickadees rarely take seed from feeder #2 (they use feeder #1 when available first, and even then eat at the feeders sparingly — I presume they are busy feeding elsewhere. At the end of the second day in winter, third day in summer, when it is getting low, they are there in large numbers, and the bottom half of the cylinder is consumed in a matter of a few hours. If I’m late the next morning, I get a scolding (at least that’s what it sounds like) from them, but once it’s filled they tend to take one seed each and then disappear for most of that first day. It seems to me that, much like humans planning our gasoline tank refills, these birds are conserving. While to most species the feeder is just a bonanza, a ‘commons’ to be plundered and abandoned, to the birds that may depend on it, it is factored into the overall food supply and managed accordingly, as if it were part of the natural supply.

Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but despite the disruptions by the squirrels I can generally tell the day (feeder refilling day, second day, or third day) and the time, by how much seed remains in the cylinder. And when I switch between the winter (every second day) and summer (every third day) filling schedule, it takes less than a week for the birds’ usage pattern to adapt so that feeder #2 is empty just before it is scheduled to be refilled.

So I am tempted to speculate that conservation, ‘resource management’,  is not natural, because it is unnecessary in a world of abundance. It is only when there is some scarcity that creatures like humans and chickadees adapt to conserve. It is not natural behaviour for us, either — for most of our three million years we have migrated long before the foods we gathered became scarce (we also, like virtually every other creature on the planet, instinctively reduced our birth rate so that our numbers were stable and so we almost never faced scarcity — by the time the last stop in our migration began to run low on human food, the first stop had been fully replenished). So it is probably not surprising that a conservation ethic doesn’t come easily to us.

The bird feeder, in this context, is a bit of a sad place. It brings out selfish and destructive behaviour in creatures that don’t quite understand what this strange, inexplicable cornucopia is for. Perhaps it’s not dissimilar in that sense to the antisocial and self-destructive behaviour that seems so often to come out in those who win lotteries or receive sudden great wealth or fame. And the bird feeder reflects how the Tragedy of the Commons arises, not because we are incapable of sharing and taking responsibility, but because when commons are scarce and strange, instead of ubiquitous and sacred, most creatures seem driven to take advantage of them, and assume they will not last. The real tragedy of the commons is that when we invented ‘private’ property, we forgot that the whole universe is a commons that belongs to all life in it, and we lost respect for it. Scarce, limited ‘commons’ are unnatural aberrations that we just cannot make sense of.

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6 Responses to The Bird Feeder and the Tragedy of the Commons

  1. otterhound says:

    On the subject of tragedy of the commons — I’ve always considered dog poop a classic example of this tragedy. People won’t pick up their dogs’ poop on the walking trails in our neighborhood, even though these piles of poop makes **their own** walking experience less pleasant!

  2. i disagree, dave. the whole world is not a commons. not to most beings. it’s turf and territory and defended aggressively from others. that squirrel isn’t scooping only his share, he’s taking as much as he can of that seed. it’s not squirrelly philanthropy to scoop a bunch extra for other, less agile, squirrels to eat off the ground later. it’s just eating whatever you can find. if you can get it, it’s yours. walk too close to a bird nest full of eggs and you’ll find private property rights being strictly enforced via sharp diving pecks to the head. it’s all private property. commons are a very new development. and the folks you’re talking about who wreck them in various ways are merely slow on the uptake. most of them just don’t realize any value, don’t realize the commons, have yet to become aware that they benefit from others actions. so they experience no loss, no tragedy when they mess up somethign that was kindly left for them by others. it’s not so much the scarcity of commons as the scarctiy of appreciation and u;nderstanding of what they are, because they are very new, rather than very old.

  3. Pamela says:

    This account of the chickadees’ use of feeders in the winter rings a bell with me: it has struck me that the bottom half goes more quickly than the top. This winter I’ll be paying more attention. Interesting post. Thanks!

  4. Trix says:

    Conservation is either a very old idea or a very new one, but nonetheless, one that has adapted to our times. In Ojibway, the word ‘debiziwinan’ means both ‘abundance’ and ‘sufficiency’.

  5. How did squirrels get around your baffle on feeder #1?

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