John Nelson

Bad Birds

As long as people have been watching and hearing birds, there have been bad birds—birds viewed as insatiable rivals, moral reprobates, agents of foul spirits, or signs of impending disaster. The ancient world was rife with superstitions about birds, creatures of the air capable of easy movement between the realms of earth and spirit. Some were considered good—storks brought fecundity, doves brought peace, migrants brought the rejuvenation of spring—but others, especially birds out of place, brought dread. A bird in a house foretold a death in the house. An owl in the night meant evil was near. For some seafaring cultures, albatrosses were birds of ill omen, keepers of the souls of drowned sailors. The ancient Greeks reviled nocturnal nightjars, or “goatsuckers’ because they believed that the birds sucked the milk from their goats.
    Some superstitions have persisted into modern times. There are still Amazonian farmers who think that nightjars are messengers of malign spirits, while in my birding travels in Asia and Africa, I have been taken aback by the number of locals passionate in their fear and hatred of owls. To call a belief, or feeling, a superstition is not to say it has no ground in reality. In 1927, Dolly Ross, a Southern black woman, recorded the song “Hooting Owl Blues.” “Lord, I heard the owl a-hootin’, I knowed somebody was bound to die, . . . / Put my head beneath the pillow, started in to moan and cry.” If this owl was conveying a message, one might argue, it was a message meant only for other owls, but Ross was telling a truth of the times. In the 1920s, for any black man or woman in the American South, a woodland at night was a dangerous place. In The Meaning of the Blues, Paul Oliver writes, “Living and dying alike await in dread the heralds of death: the warning of the hoot owl, the tapping of the woodpecker on the door, the cry of the whip-poor-will.” For many people in the world, even now, the owling excursions of birders are a sign of madness.
    Certain birds have long been detested, and often killed, as economic enemies, competitors for food, particularly fish and crops. Because of real or alleged crop predations, blackbirds, starlings, crows, bobolinks, and pigeons have all been targeted by retaliatory campaigns that have sometimes approached genocidal proportions. In Letters from an American Farmer, published in the 1780s, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur describes a war between farmers and blackbirds. After the birds were shot or poisoned with juiced-up corn, their corpses were hung as a warning to their companions. More recently, angry Great Lakes sport fishermen have lobbied for the right to “control” their archrivals, double-crested cormorants, while crow killers have formed their own online organization, Crow Busters, dedicated to exterminating crows. Other species have been attacked, not as direct competitors but as obstacles to the advance of human civilization. Golden- fronted woodpeckers were once regarded as telecommunications-pole pests, and railroad workers were given shotguns to clear them out. Like many intraspecific human military campaigns, these assaults on birds have often been initiated or carried forth under false premises. Fish-stealing pelicans executed by the thousands, golden eagles chased by sheep ranchers armed inside airplanes, the now extinct Carolina parakeets hunted down for their raids on grain—in each case with little evidence of actual guilt. And, as with other wars, the birds’ enemies have appealed to God for help with the cause. In his study of bird extinctions, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, Christopher Cokinos tells the story of a Canadian bishop who sought to excommunicate passenger pigeons for crop thefts.
    These birds have been branded as bad mainly because of human self-interest, but the animosity toward thieving birds also extends, on moral grounds, to species whose primary victims are other animals, usually other birds. Especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the literature about birds has been marked by disapproval, even condemnation of species that steal eggs, nesting material, prey, or mates from their fellows. Ben Franklin famously belittled the bald eagle as “a bird of bad character’ a “rank coward that lived by sharping and robbing.” Though recent research suggests that most avian piracy involves smaller birds stealing from bigger ones, the bigger birds are usually slurred as the bad guys, backyard bullies, like Franklin’s eagle or the Steller’s jay, characterized by pioneering birder Elliott Coues as a “coward at heart, like most bullies.”
    Among families, corvids—jays, including the Steller’s and the “camp robber” gray jay, magpies, choughs, crows, ravens—are the Corleones, the master mobsters, both figuratively and literally, of the bird world. Not coincidentally, this is the same avian family most often cited for both high intelligence and social complexity—that is, the birds most like humans. In Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich describes a gleefully destructive raven named Jakob to illustrate Konrad Lorenz’s dictum that “the capacity of an animal to cause damage is directly proportional to its intelligence.” Heinrich observes ravens working in mobs, or as double-teaming thieves, to kill gulls, snatch eggs, and steal rats and squirrels from feeding raptors. Heinrich and others have noted that corvid greed may be furthered through trickery. Jays often act as sentinels for mixed groups of feeding birds, and some have been known to cry out false alarms to scare off their companions, leaving all the food to them. The latest research suggests that Western scrub jays are even capable of what psychologists call “experience projections’ They know that other jays are likely to be thieves because they have been thieves themselves. Researcher Nicky Clayton imagines them thinking along these lines: “I know that you know where I have hidden my stash of food, and if I were in your shoes, I’d steal it, so I’m going to move my stash to a place you don’t know about.”
    The worst of the bad birds are, of course, the killers. In reality most birds, even the tiniest ones, are predators of some sort, feeding on insects if not other birds and their young, but the vilification of avian violence has focused on the so-called birds of prey, whose victims—birds, mammals, including the occasional house pet—are often warm-blooded and large enough to be easily seen and identified by human observers. Again, the bald eagle has been a prime offender. Early American naturalist William Bartram called the bird an “execrable tyrant’ while ornithologist A. C. Bent, like Franklin, was appalled because the eagle was not just a killer but a “carrion-feeder’ a low scavenger, often stealing from the industrious osprey because it was too “timid” and “cowardly” to do the work of killing itself. John James Audubon went further, accusing an eagle of sadism as it finished off a swan:

It is then, reader, that you may see the cruel spirit of this dreaded enemy of the feathered race, whilst, exulting over his prey, he for the first time breathes his ease. He presses down his powerful feet, and drives his sharp claws deeper than ever into the heart of the dying Swan. He shrieks with delight, as he feels the last convulsions of his prey, which has now sunk under his unceasing efforts to render death as painfully felt as it can possibly be.

Another raptor that was widely despised, especially by some of the first American women who wrote about birds, was the goshawk. Neltje Doubleday denounced the bird as a “villain,” “the most destructive creature on wings’ while Susan Fenimore Cooper, witnessing the “horror” of robins pursued by a goshawk, wished first for a gun to kill the marauder herself and then for a “valiant kingbird” to save the robins and “put the monster to flight by boldly dashing at his eyes.”
    Like other wild animals, especially large, carnivorous mammals, some predatory birds have been actively persecuted as “criminals” and “murderers.” To modern birders, the most notorious of these persecutions was the campaign against the Sweeney Todd of the avian world, the hook-billed, “bloodthirsty” Northern shrike, or “butcher bird:’ so named for its habit of dismembering prey and impaling dead captives on thorns for eventual consumption. In the winter of 1876—77, the city forester of Boston killed a reported eighty-nine shrikes—an incredible figure, given the scarcity of shrikes in New England today—in an effort to spare one of the shrike’s common victims, the English house sparrow, then a much-beloved species for which the city was providing nest boxes on Boston Common. One ornithologist described this shrike massacre as a “reversal of the wiser process”—an understatement to modern birders, who generally favor native species (shrikes) over introduced ones (English sparrows) and who scorn the sparrows as especially noxious invaders, driving out the natives. Birders may take some consolation from a later antibird campaign, the Great Sparrow War, this time aimed at the sparrows themselves. According to Joseph Kastner in A World of Watchers, the sparrows were accused of “robbery, murder, civic disorder, criminal neglect, even arson’ as well as “rank hoodlumism” and various sex offenses. Some prominent birders joined in the attack, such as Coues, who considered the sparrow “a nuisance without a redeeming quality.” In turn, defenders of the sparrows, including ministers, animal-rights protectors, and other prominent birders, called Coues a traitor and a murderer for inciting violence against the birds. A town in Missouri provided free gunpowder to sparrow shooters. The State of Ohio offered a bounty, ten cents a dozen, until it realized that, given the abundance of the sparrows, the scheme would prove far too costly. Other anti- sparrow offensives have been attempted in Germany, New Zealand, and, most recently, in China. Minor wars and skirmishes over introduced species, with human partisans on both sides, continue to this day. Not long ago I read about a New Yorker outraged because native red-tailed hawks were “allowed” to kill the non-native rock doves he fed each day in Central Park.
    If birds can be thieves and murderers, they can also be philanderers and sluts. In addition to convicting birds of outright felonies, the court of human judgment has found them guilty of many character weaknesses and moral shortcomings. Not surprisingly, given our Puritan heritage, sexual sins have spurred the most fervent denunciations. Species ranging from black-capped chickadees to indigo buntings have been censured for being promiscuous, deviously unfaithful, bigamous, or generally oversexed. In a few cases, moral indignation has led to direct preventative action. In the early twentieth century, some respectable American women took down their house-wren boxes once they discovered that the wrens often switched mates midseason. One woman, Althea Sherman, went so far as to publish an indictment, “Case of the People of North America versus the House Wren,” in an ornithological journal. Four centuries earlier, in 1559, a Lutheran minister in Dresden sought help in eliminating the notoriously lecherous sparrows because of “their scandalous acts of unchastity committed during the service, to the hindrance of God’s word and of Christian doctrine.” A. C. Dent put the case against the sparrows succinctly: “The male suffers from satyriasis, the female form of nymphomania”—a judgment reminiscent of Alfred Kinsey’s remark that “a nymphomaniac is a woman who has more sex than you do.” It is fortunate, perhaps, that these advocates for avian chastity lived well before the age of modern science, when researchers have tried to determine both the actual frequency of bird sex and the exact relationships among the participants. As Cohn Tudge has wryly noted, avian promiscuity, or simple copulation, is not so easy to observe, and only through the vigilance and patience of trained watchers do we now know that American kestrels copulate as often as fifteen times a day, or that spotted sandpiper females may “seduce” four or five males in a row, or that, as ecologist Tim Birkhead says in Promiscuity, “no less than 76% of superb fairy wren offspring were fathered by extra-pair copulations.” Female promiscuity, long considered rare in the natural world—in part because gender ideologies often trumped observed facts—is now known to be commonplace. As Helen Fisher puts it in Anatomy of Love: “The animal kingdom is rife with loose females.”
    Birds have also been mocked and criticized for other assorted character flaws, including laziness (the bald eagle), failure to rest on the Sabbath (numerous species), female frivolity (the Northern flicker), male desertion of offspring (common, especially in species where males display in arenas to attract mates), other forms of shoddy parenting (female ducks and grouse that can’t keep track of how many offspring they have), sloppy housekeeping (pigeons, hoopoes), bad dietary habits (vultures, gulls), excessive defecation (the “loose-as-a-goose” Canada goose), and a predilection to drug abuse (waxwings and robins that gorge themselves to drunkenness on fermented berries). Since ancient times, humans have faulted magpies for talking too much, and Ovid, in one of his stories, punishes a group of Macedonian women by turning them into magpies, relentless gossips and scandalmongers. And, deservedly or not, many birds have been ridiculed for simple stupidity. Spruce grouse are known as fool hens because they are so easily approached and captured. Australians may abuse their mates by calling them “stupid as an emu.” The bird names nuthatch, dotterel, dunlin, and booby all derive from words that denote foolishness or low intelligence.
    Nature writers of the past often characterized birds and other wildlife in ways that many of us would now call glib, self-righteous, and blatantly anthropomorphic, as well as inaccurate and unfair. Have we now reached an enlightened stage where we can view birds only on bird terms—freed from our moral labels? Well, yes and no. As Matt Ridley says in The Origin of Virtue, nature writers may still “eliminate the negative and sentimentalize the positive”—what Theodore Roosevelt called “nature-faking”—or, conversely, they may take a kind of perverse satisfaction in proclaiming that, yes, birds too are capable of cannibalism and matricide. Modern ornithologists, however, would certainly agree with Scott Weidensaul’s statement that “the world of nature allows for no moralistic judgments.” The bad, thieving birds of the past have become the neutral “kieptoparasites’ A bunch of male mallards may try to copulate with a female against her will, and a coot mother may drive out, and even drown, the weakest of her offspring, but that doesn’t mean these birds should be charged as “gang rapists” or “child abusers”—terms that connote human intention and culpability. They are simply doing what birds sometimes do. In many species, chicks must fight among themselves for survival in what has come to be known as the Cain-and- Abel syndrome, but the victor does not go forth wearing the mark of Cain as a kind of moral field mark. The same principle applies to the “good” birds—the altruistic Florida scrub jay “helpers” that defend nestlings from predatory snakes, the juvenile acorn woodpeckers that “babysit” their younger siblings, or the female common yellowthroat pelted to death by hailstones as she shields her chicks through a storm. In Flight of the Iguana, David Quammen explains why the “travails” of geese constitute “an ecological mandate for fidelity.” Birds that mate monogamously for life are often sentimentalized, but as Quammen points out, geese “just can’t afford to philander. . . . They have committed themselves, by physiology and anatomy, to a life of mutual reliance in permanent twosomes.’
    Nonetheless, even birders will admire the “good” birds for their goodness, while badmouthing others as “air rats” and pests. The nineteenth-century horror over hawks has been replaced by dislike and even contempt for such aggressive, introduced species as the ubiquitous house sparrows, which often outcompete bluebirds and swallows for nest boxes, or the hordes of European starlings swirling in lockstep formation, blackening the skies, while the native species are nowhere to be found. Nowadays, if birders spot a raptor in pursuit of a starling flock, they are likely to root for the raptor and, if it succeeds in getting lunch, celebrate with high fives. Birders often also disapprove of birds that, by human standards, just won’t play fair. “But alas!” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “we do not like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built.” Birders today continue to disparage brown-headed cowbirds, though we recognize that, biologically, the birds are “obligate” brood parasites, that is, obligated by their genes to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and let the hosts care for their young. We also know that birds like cowbirds are “bad” mainly because humans have given them the opportunity. European starlings aren’t illegal immigrants, sneaking across our borders; our ancestors brought them here. And brown-headed cowbirds now thrive in the East because people, through development and deforestation, have created ideal habitat for them, virtually inviting the birds to settle in places where cowbirds were rarely seen before.
    Some of these modern-day bad birds are not merely objects of disdain. Like the avian enemies of the past, native or non-native, parasitic or not, they are marked for death. Gulls, crows, and cowbirds have been caught, killed, or otherwise “controlled” to protect the future of other birds. In most cases these efforts at control are based on solid, objective scientific criteria—”just wars” in my view and that of most environmentalists—but when a conscious, cold-blooded decision is made to kill off other creatures, it is human nature, I think, to persuade ourselves that the victims are somehow deserving. I once journeyed to a small town in central Michigan, a destination well-known to birders, to see the endangered, highly localized Kirtland’s warbler. After our group got good looks at several singing warbiers, pretty, vigorous birds, we passed a large cage with cowbirds inside. Our guide explained why the birds had to be incarcerated. Cowbird eggs are much bigger than warbler eggs, and they hatch sooner. Once the cowbird young hatch, they try to roll the warbler eggs out of the nest. If that doesn’t work, the cowbirds will still overwhelm their scrawny warbler stepsiblings in begging for food. I studied these cowbirds, perched silently in their cage. I knew they were innocent of everything except being cowbirds. Still, it was hard not to see them as felons, dark, shifty, resentful, just waiting for the chance to break out and sucker some unsuspecting warbler.
    Of course the judgment of birds as “good” or “bad” depends on who is doing the judging. In some cases the opinions of birders diverge sharply from the views of those with a more casual or less fixated interest in wildlife. I regularly visit a pond near home to look for ducks, herons, and songbirds. I often chat up the locals, who, seeing my binoculars, tend to assume I have come looking for swans and sometimes launch into swan rhapsodies. “No:’ I tell them, “I’m not here for the swans:’ and I don’t join in the rhapsodies, though I will grant that swans are lovely and fascinating in various ways—fierce in protecting their young, fun to watch sliding and flapping when they try to land on ice. I usually forego mentioning that the mute swan is also a highly belligerent, non-native species known to threaten many native waterfowl—so much a threat that the staff at a nearby wildlife refuge have killed some of them off, inciting protests by swan lovers. Attempts to protect wildlife not only require life-and-death choices—some creatures saved, some killed—but may also arouse people who fear they will suffer collateral damage. For many folks, the bad birds of the future may be those like the spotted owl, cherished by birders but, because of laws to protect the bird and its forest habitat, hated by many Western loggers as a symbol of government usurpation, environmentalist arrogance, and a perverted value system that ranks the needs of birds or frogs above human enterprise and prosperity. The bad birds of the future will be joined by bad wolves, bad polar bears, and a multitude of bad amphibians.
    What does it mean, ultimately, that birds and other wildlife regularly commit acts which, if committed by humans, would be criminal, sinful, or, for that matter, morally commendable? “Beasts are not without a sense of perversity,’ observes Claude Levi-Strauss, apparently unbothered by this realization. “Nature, as we know her, is no saint:’ writes Thoreau, with the same equanimity. On the other hand, the violence in nature caused John Stuart Mill to question the wisdom, if not the existence, of intelligent design: “If there are any marks at all of special creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals.” Recent scientific studies have only provided more detailed evidence of this violence: spiders, for example, kill with a fantastic array of methods—jumping, spitting, weaving—spider mothers sometimes eat their young, and certain species bind and sedate their victims before slowly draining their bodily fluids. Occasionally, wildlife experts will argue over whether a given species, usually a fellow primate, is violence prone, and some people will go much further, claiming that brutal competition is the way of the world, for humans like the rest of nature, but most scientists are wisely reluctant to draw inferences about human nature from the behavior of other animals. Yes, it is true, as primatologist Frans deWaal acknowledges, violence against members of one’s own species is widespread among animals, as is altruism and tactics aimed at avoiding violence, but that fact has no particular application to most humans.
    If it is wrongheaded to impose our moral standards on birds and other creatures, it is even more nonsensical to justify any human behavior on the grounds that, like the birds and beasts, we are destined by our genes to rob, cheat, rape, or go to war over vital resources. It has often struck me that, if one were inclined to rationalize a particular sexual arrangement or practice as something “natural’ one could almost certainly find a bird to support the point. Faithful geese, wandering wrens, assaultive ducks, stay-at-home-dad phalaropes, gulls raising offspring in same-sex marriages—it is all there, somewhere, in the innocent bird world. On the other hand, if I fool around, will my wife buy the argument that chickadees do it too?
    What I love about birds is this sheer multiplicity, the seemingly endless ways in which they strive to live, reproduce, and raise their young. “Mother Nature is witty’ says a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Witty indeed—ingenious, strange, disturbing, wildly imaginative, boundlessly inventive, forever experimenting to find out what might work.


John Nelson admits to a bias against cowbirds and house sparrows but recognizes that they cannot be held morally responsible for their bad behavior. He contributes regularly to the New England journal Bird Observer, has written articles on the study of (nonavian) criminals in literature, and has published a book, Cultivating Judgement, on the teaching of critical-thinking skills.

“Bad Birds” appears in our Summer 2011 issue.