Ornithologists have been telling us for decades what we can learn from paying close attention to birds. It’s a no-brainer that modern aviation was designed around bird anatomy and their aeronautical expertise. Bird lovers and researchers alike propound for example, that we can learn from birds on how to lead, survive, overcome obstacles and create lasting relationships. One species in particular, the Say’s Phoebe has provided classes in life lessons during this year’s spring migration season impressing me with their fortitude, building expertise, determination and ceaseless protection for each other and their families. What follows are examples of what I have witnessed this spring with the return of two-feathered friends.
Fortitude. Before flying 2,000 miles from South America to our home in northern New Mexico, these small but courageous winged creatures make a love connection mid-flight giving speed dating a new meaning. Upon their arrival the male takes his new love on a house hunting adventure showing her the best locales suitable for their home building project. They aren't much affected by humans and will build their nests on or near houses and business structures but the female has the final say of where the first piece of straw or grass will be placed. The couple who chose our house as their nesting place this spring have returned three years running. (Some pairs have been known to return to the same nesting place for five consecutive years.)
Building Expertise/Project Management. The construction of this year’s nest began with a flurry atop a sloping air vent. Flying back and forth, mama Phoebe brought beaks full of straw, grass, and feathers, which became the nest’s foundation. After a few days, we laid out various colors of thread and fabric for the lovebirds that were quickly incorporated into their now cupped shaped home. At week’s end the solid looking nest was ready for use. The proud and ambitious parents set out to consume as much protein as they could in preparation for the hatch.
Determination. It’s been said, and recent research has shown, that grit and determination is a better indicator of success than intelligence. This is surely the case when it comes to the Say’s Phoebe however, they have displayed some pretty incredible behaviors that some would consider very smart. Take for example the mother’s defensive actions. Upon opening a door nearby the nest she would take the focus away from the nest by flying about twenty-five out where she keeps a careful eye on her eggs and me. If, I approach the nest at to close a range, she’ll attack. Very clever. What’s more impressive is, when I do manage to shoo her further away from the nest when needed, she’ll fly around to another side of the house where she can’t see me. When she hears the nearby door close, she returns to her young. That’s learned behavior!
Shortly after the nest was completed the weather turned foul and a powerful windstorm swept through the Rio Grande Gorge Valley. Tumbleweeds pressed up against our front door, pine trees scraped the outer walls of our house and worse; the nest was blown to the ground where it lay torn horizontally in half. Two dime-sized eggs lay splattered on the paving stones. We were heartbroken not so much for ourselves but for the hardworking expectant parents. Our sadness we imagined, was nothing compared to what the Say’s Phoebes must have felt as they flew nearby searching and calling for their unborn offspring. Days went by with the nest on the ground, now wedged between a wall and rose bush - the aggrieved parents continuing their cries of abandonment.
Rebuilding. After considering for several days whether or not to interfere with Mother Nature, I decided to put the bottom half of the destroyed nest back into its original place and then waited to see if the parents would rebuild. Twenty-four hours later our determined friends were back applying their constructions skills and this time around, tightening the nest’s weave and raising its height to meet our home’s eaves. Again, to me, this is learned behavior that has consequences on build materials and design which, affects survival.
Their determination reminded me of my heroine Pi in the novel, Birds Like Us, The Pi Phillecroix Story who demonstrates immense courage and determination when she walks from Paris to the shores of the UK trying to save her father’s life. (I wrote the novel prior to having any knowledge of, or experience with Say’s Phoebes.)
I haven’t wanted to cause stress to the birds anymore than they have already experienced so, I have not disturbed the nest to see how many eggs have been laid. Based on the parent’s behavior I suspect that we will be hearing the chirps of newborn chicks any day now. Imagine what we could accomplish if we employed the lessons learned from our determined, passionate and effective engineering avian friends.