Birds and Complex Systems

A chilly week, light snow now and again but not enough accumulation to halt the shrinkage of the snow pack. Today is forecast to be warmer with snow and rain. The perfectly shaped, leaf-bared maple tree that is framed by our office window sways vigorously in the brisk breeze.

We have a morning ritual: a cup or two of strong Indian tea. This morning we had our first cup in the sun room as we watched the local squirrels dash about the yard. They have been on the squirrel proof bird feeder where they quickly consume enormous quantities of seed. We’ll have to add hot pepper to the next batch of seed in hopes of deterring their thievery. The birds eat what they need, leaving the rest. The squirrels take all they can get. Most likely they will misplace most of their cache and come spring sunflowers will sprout all over the yard; few plants, if any, will make it to maturity.

Our overwintering birds depend on feeding stations, especially during brutally cold or stormy weather. Fortunately, many people maintain feeders, so there is a good deal of redundancy in the system and the birds seldom go hungry. This means we can go away for a week or two and not worry about it.

In much of the world the necessities of everyday life are no longer maintained locally. Rather, we depend on immense, human-created networks of distribution for our food, heat, light, water, and even waste disposal.

Very often these networks are tightly integrated and dependent on the trustworthy flow of electricity and information, making these systems shockingly unstable and highly susceptible to massive disruption events. When the electrical grid or the internet fail for any length of time, our lives become much more unpredictable.

On some level we are aware that our local networks are susceptible to disruption. The electricity fails during storms and the internet fails occasionally. We may even notice the effects of regional perturbations, such as last summer’s hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, yet we seem unable to collectively grasp the likelihood of large-scale disruptions to our regional, national, and international networks as a whole.

From inside our carefully woven electronic cocoons, we experience these networks as largely stable, even as the likelihood of large-scale disruptions to these systems increases. It seems we are hard-wired to ignore the precariousness of our situation, a condition that makes it difficult to take steps to create more resilient systems. We are a lot like the birds, trusting that all will continue to be well. Unfortunately, the systems we depend on lack redundancy, leaving us disquietingly vulnerable.

Addendum: Just after I posted this, I looked out the window and noticed a kestrel in the redbud tree next to our neighbor’s feeder. That meant birds using the feeder on our front porch were also at risk. A lone chickadee carefully watched the kestrel from behind. Then a flock of small birds joined in, flying around the raptor until she gave up and flew away.




17 thoughts on “Birds and Complex Systems

  1. wonderfully caring how you attempt
    balancing the gifts for birdies & other critters
    from your cozy, warm home base cocoon, Michael!
    perhaps after systems fail for power, food,
    water and other essential things
    humans will get their survival
    instincts back? 🙂

  2. Your winter looks beautiful and very cold, Michael 🙂
    I agree so much with our dependence of electricity. I lost it and when it came back first time, it did blow several electronics in the house. It is time ago now, but I have been fighting for about 3 weeks to get everything back to almost normal.
    I see many kind of birds here and sometimes also some of the raptors, mostly I have smaller birds in the garden and area.

    1. Irene, winter is cold, but just a few years ago was much colder.
      Yes, we are so very dependent on electricity, even though it is a fickle partner. Sorry to hear you lost several devices. I think it would be lovely to have warmth and ocean right now!

      1. Thank you Michael. It is winter here now, we are having down to freezing degrees in the night and much of Spain are covered in snow. After a week with rain, I longed to see the sun, which we also got, but not before having this cold in the nights too.
        Today I was lucky to be able to enjoy my coffee outside at midday for a short while, before it became cold again.

      2. Irene, I can remember when I was young enough to enjoy my coffee outside! Now the task is keeping warm!
        I gather from reading that much of Europe is frozen this winter, but am surprised to hear Spain is deep in snow. We had been thinking of coming over for a break from the cold! Well, we had already decided to stay home anyway.
        Stay warm. I am sure you will be photographing flowers soon.

      3. Thank you, Michael. You can still find places, where it is warm enough for enjoying the coffee outdoor in the midday, just stay close to the Mediterranean Sea from mid and against south of Spain, here we rarely get snow. At least not so close to the sea.
        Enjoy your time anyway and stay warm too.

  3. Birds and the Present Moment. If there were no feeders, no people putting out seed, would the birds perish? Somehow, I think overwintering birds have resources beyond us. They do not think in complex systems. But they do make themselves aware of what is at hand. Without electricity, we would have the choice to make ourselves aware of what is at hand.

    1. Michael ; we are birds and birds are us ; without human interaction ; without love we perish ; i am not sure what kind of bird it is, a small fellow who has chriped away to me over these past 3 months ~ he even does a wolf whistle ; – ) his song is so sweet ; i was convinced he was the beautiful man i love in the second hand and record book store ; too shy to sing his song of love back ; instead this little beautiful feathered friend has sang his soul to me, even in the middle of the night, when I have been wide awake, restless with the fever of unrequitted love. I am lucky. We have two swans on the River beside me who produce a small family every year. I always said to myself when I could see them sailing by that it was a good omen for the day …… do you know, swans, don’t actually like bread, they prefer salad leaves ~ who would have known ~ and thank you Michael, I have always wondered what food to take with me on my visits to the Botanics {for the squirrels} and now I know. Plenty of seed!!! We neglect so much of what is on our doorstep if we are lucky enough to have birds in our cities, listen, what are they trying to tell you ; don’t they sound so beautiful ; uninibited and unaware of their own beauty. ❤

      1. One of our great pleasures is being greeted by the birds when we check the mail or go out into the back yard. We have learned to appreciate each other, the birds and us!

    2. They do indeed, although our large scale feeding has most likely encouraged and allowed more birds to overwinter. I suspect that were we all to stop feeding the flocks would be much smaller.

  4. Your post has me contemplating in a different vein — not about the complex systems you spoke about, but our resilience after disruptions and our ability to be resourceful in scarcity. I wonder whether we would come to rely on one another a great deal more if (or when) those immense mechanical/digital structures of support fail us.

    1. I think we might come to rely on each other more if our lives depended on it. I guess I would like us to learn that skill now, as it would be sorely needed if systems collapsed and learning is more difficult under duress……

  5. The bitter cold weather here has brought to mind the fragility of the infrastructures and networks we take for granted, although so many others in the world don’t have that privilege. Without heat and electricity, survival in these parts would be extremely difficult. Romantic notions about returning to my Ojibwe ancestors’ time faded with the realization of how challenging northern winters can be.

    (Yes, feeding squirrels is a daunting task. I laughed at your dilemma. I really did have a squirrel proof feeder. I would watch them drop down on the slippery sloped roof and slide into the snow below. It took a few years for them to figure out how to break it… Alas, this year I had to take down all my bird feeders because of cats that roam the neighborhood.)

    1. Carol, I used to imagine living off the land. Seems odd when I think about my family and subsistence. That is one challenging way of life and I do not have the skills. Of course, had we been living when my dad was young, those squirrels would be boiling away in a stew pot.
      yes, cats are a huge issue but for now less so here than in the past.

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