Sunday, February 27, 2011


I was comfortably hunkered down reading about the monstrous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1859 when Mars interrupted to show me the latest carnage occurring in our own front yard - another hawk on pigeon bloodbath -- our fourth one this calendar year.

This time the killer, pale brown with white speckles, had its back to us - completely obscuring any view of its prey as we looked out our dining room window. The perp was standing, hunched over, on a thick blanket of disembodied black feathers atop one of our now-disappearing snow banks. Just when I had the picture framed in our digital Sony Cyber-shot the raptor took flight, leaving behind the dark groundcover of pigeon plumage and a small blotch of what had once been vital fluid in the gray snow.
The victim, like its predecessors, had been lured to its execution site by the food at our bird feeders -- like the fragrant nectar that attracts insects to carnivorous plants. That however is not the birdseed's primary purpose. It is instead another unintended consequence of an apparently altruistic act.

The concept of unintended consequences was popularized by Sociologist Robert K. Merton and can be roughly grouped into three types:
"* A positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as serendipity or a windfall).
* A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).

* A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse), such as when a policy has a perverse incentive that causes actions opposite to what was intended."

You would think that the pigeon massacre falls into the second or third category. Well, maybe - maybe not.
(St. Francis & the Prairie Dog, Santa Fe, N.M. - photo by Mars)

On the surface our dedication to the care and feeding of the neighborhood birds may seem to be quite St. Francis of Assisi like. It is in fact, at its heart, a somewhat self-serving attempt to cultivate an ambiance of cuteness, color, and cheerful chirping that changes our staid, suburban scenery into the imagined world in which we would really like to live -- in the same way that the plants we scatter around our landscape alter that part of the environment. But, truth be told, our view of that best possible avian world does not include pigeons.

Nonetheless they come -- with their unappealing shape, drab color (muted by centuries of urban soot), and annoying "songs". And, by the sheer force of their girth and numbers, they muscle out the more desirable ground-feeding cardinals, finches and juncos that we seek. Then they eat our birdseed. (In fairness there is one almost totally white pigeon with gray spotting reminiscent of snow country camouflage that is pretty neat to look at. It's the exception that proves the rule.)

Hawks however are a different story.

For one thing, they don't really care about our sunflower and millet -- so in that sense they provide totally free entertainment. And what they do seem to care about -- we don't. Plus, most importantly, they provide a dramatic counterpoint to the artificial world of sweetness and light engendered by our smaller, more pacific avian guests.

The ideal life, as the philosopher Aristotle teaches, lies in living the "Golden Mean" -- the perfect balance between extremes. In this case it is the midpoint between the Garden of Eden and the State of Nature.

If there only was a similarly rapacious plant (other than weeds) that overtly attacked the unintended residents of our floral beds -- sort of a well-programmed Venus Flower Trap. Now that would be a seriously serendipitous windfall.

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