Pecking Orders

Photo of dark-eyed junco by Alexandra MacKenzie

In a memorable passage from the Gospel of St Matthew, Jesus chides his listeners for chasing after material goods and social status. As a counterexample to the acquisitive life, he points to the birds. “Behold the birds of the air,” he says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.” The more time I spend watching birds, however, the more I wonder if this illustration wasn’t well considered.

The term “pecking order” was coined in German (as Hackordnung) by Norwegian zoologist and psychologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who used it to describe the social hierarchy of domesticated chickens. But chickens aren’t the only birds that observe pecking orders. Looking out the window of my home office, I often see the same principle at work among the different species that compete for the largesse of our backyard bird feeders.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the dark-eyed juncos (Oregon variety, shown above). Gentle and quiet, they scatter at the appearance of the garrulous chickadees (black-capped and chestnut-backed varieties). Watching the chickadees cooperatively bully the juncos, you can almost imagine them as adorable, winged wolves. The chickadees, however, are generally brushed aside by the finches (house finches, goldfinches, and pine siskins) and by the song sparrow, while these in turn are banished to the fences at the appearance of the much larger and more aggressive scrub jays.

Finally, the scrub jays make way for the black-robed crows who, though only occasional visitors to the yard, prowl the neighborhood in great numbers. It doesn’t matter that the crows, like the scrub jays, are too large to eat directly from the seed-dispensing feeders (though they sometimes attempt the suet feeder); the mere presence of three or four crows in the backyard will put all their lesser cousins to flight, while they slowly and watchfully eat from what’s fallen to the ground as if claiming rightful tribute.

Of course there are other birds that seem to thrive outside of or at the margins of this pecking order – birds that dive into the yard singly or in groups to grab a snack and quickly depart unmolested. These include the twittering little clouds of bushtits, the red-shafted northern flicker (a personal favorite), the red-breasted nuthatch, and the Anna’s hummingbird.

It’s easy to understand why some of these pass unchallenged. The hummingbird, for example, doesn’t eat seeds and so poses no threat to the others’ food supply. Bushtits too are generally more interested in insects and spiders in the trees. The nuthatch, however, is quite happy to eat seeds, and yet the chickadees and finches allow him a brief meal. And the northern flicker, although he’s a woodpecker, will sometimes eat from the suet feeder like the finches and jays, without raising sustained complaints.

It can be difficult to understand why the birds within the pecking order observe it’s rules. Why, after all, should juncos give place to chickadees, which are, if anything, rather smaller on average than the juncos themselves? If it’s the chickadees’ organizational solidarity that carries the day with the juncos, why shouldn’t it do the same with the finches who seem, though fond enough of each other’s company, comparatively unmartial and disorganized?

Strength and ferocity, it seems, cannot be the only factors at play. But what else is happening? Is there a natural aristocracy among the backyard birds such that the junco bows to the chickadee as to her natural superior? Is it due to the weight of unchallenged tradition and generations of faithful nurture that a chickadee, in turn, should make way for a goldfinch, like a country squire steeping aside for a baronet?

It may be the case in the society of birds, as it is in human society, that the practice of brute force is not the only means available to fill one’s belly and the bellies of one’s family. Hopping around like a fat little friar, the meek junco out my window is by no means starving. What’s more, he is, to judge by my own unscientific observations, more procreatively successful than any of the others. How does he manage?

Jealous of their privileges, the chickadee and scrub jay exert themselves from one minute to another, and from one place to another. They enjoy, perhaps, the satisfaction of the sports enthusiast or the political partisan in asserting themselves or in seeing to it that others below them in the social totem pole know their place. The junco may simply be of another temperament. His apparent submission may instead reflect detachment, a disinterest in the relentless game of primacy.

When the chickadee appears at the feeder, the junco retreats to peck contentedly at the far corners of the yard. But when the chickadee moves on to assert his rights elsewhere, the junco quietly takes up position at the feeder again. Meek perseverance and general unobtrusiveness may be the junco’s special strategy of survival. Or it may be that among all the birds that make themselves at home in our yard, the junco is the only true Christian.

Photo credit: Alexandra McKenzie

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