Brian McNaught: Laying an Egg in Another’s Nest

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To help prepare us for a planned summer on Tupper Lake, our friend Susan sent us the book Adirondack Nature Notes. The book is organized by the months of the year. In the section on June, I was introduced to the cowbird. I didn't like what I read.

There is something inherently unjust about the behavior of the cowbird. It reminds me of people who won't take responsibility for their actions. Ray thinks I'm being too hard on the cowbirds because they're only following their instincts. Unlike humans, he says, they have to follow their nature with no awareness of choice. Maybe.

Though they are capable of building their own nests, and nurturing their own offspring, cowbirds instead sneak into the nests of other birds and place their egg among those there. Often, they will throw out an existing egg to make room for their own. They do this up to thirty-six times a season.

Sometimes, the bird whose nest was invaded will destroy the foreign egg, and sometimes it will raise it as its own. If a cowbird sees its egg destroyed, it will often destroy those of the other bird. The cowbird chick demands more food than the other chicks in the nest, and frequently bullies them into starvation. If the cowbird chick survives, it doesn't take on the characteristics of its foster parents when mature, but rather mimics its mother's practice of forcing other birds to care for its offspring.

The description of the cowbird's behavior pushes my buttons. "It isn't fair," I think. But, is it wrong to be angry at cowbirds if they allegedly can't help being irresponsible? If so, what about being angry at people who won't take responsibility for the eggs they lay? Is it in their nature to be selfish? Or do they have choices?

It doesn't seem fair to me that some people won't take responsibility for their actions, and dump the consequences of their behavior on others. Who hasn't seen people leave their empty popcorn bags and drink cups on the floor of a movie theater, or a dog walker fail to scoop the poop, or a driver throw a cigarette butt out the car window? Do these people have a choice not to be irresponsible, or is it their nature?

Ten years ago, the American people were suckered into a war to force Saddam Hussein out of power. When I read reports of the young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan missing their limbs, or their emotional stability, I get angry at the people who started those wars, and then went golfing, because the consequences of the wars were no longer their responsibility. They laid an egg and left others to raise it. Is there a difference between hawks and cowbirds? Can either help themselves?

People who know the risks of unprotected sex, and nevertheless choose to engage in risky behavior, often contract HIV, and then sometimes see themselves as a victim. "If I wasn't gay, if I wasn't Latino, if I wasn't young, this wouldn't have happened to me. I didn't feel I had the choice."

People who act out at work, come in late, leave early, impose their moods on others, disrupt the cohesiveness of the office, and then get written up for poor performance, often respond by saying, "You're only doing this to me because I'm black, because I'm gay, because I'm old, because I'm a transgender woman, etc. I'm filing a grievance." And then they go to the leadership of their Employee Resource Group, or to their union, and say, "Fix it."

Some drunk drivers kill other people and blame the bartender who served them too much booze. They tell their families and the courts, "Everyone knew I had a problem, and no one did anything about it." They lay their egg in someone else's nest.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to outlaw giant, sugary drinks, and hide cigarettes, because some people can't help themselves. They can't make healthy choices. Do we have a responsibility to stop people from engaging in unhealthy behaviors because irresponsible people end up with diabetes, heart conditions, and cancer, and drive up the cost of health care for people who choose not to gulp sugar or inhale smoke?

Cowbirds are selfish, self-absorbed creatures who, from my perspective, behave as if the world owes them. And yet, cowbirds would be extinct if all other birds rejected the egg in the nest that wasn't theirs. If we didn't accommodate cowbirds, they would die out, or change their behaviors in order to survive. But, they don't have to change because some of us enable their lifestyle.

Maybe it’s true charity, or maybe it's emotionally unhealthy co-dependency that drives us, but there are many of us who take on the responsibility that others refuse to take. Some people adopt the crack babies, or the HIV-positive babies, who have been abandoned by their mothers. Some people, like Ray and me, pick up the popcorn bags and soda cups left on the floor by other movie goers. We clean up public restrooms where others have thrown their hand towels on the floor, or failed to flush the toilet. We even pick up dog poop, though we no longer have a dog.

Though cowbirds and their human counterparts refuse to take responsibility for their behaviors, those of us who do take responsibility for the effects of their behaviors have to ask ourselves if we're helping or hurting. In each instance, the answer will be different. We're helping by taking responsibility for the child that would otherwise die of neglect, but we may be making things worse by making it easier for irresponsible people to pay no price for their behavior, like giving them money so that they can continue to live the cowbird life.

Cowbirds are not all bad. They eat a lot of insects. Cowbird people are not all bad either. Many of them contribute significantly to our lives. It's their irresponsible behaviors, and attitudes of entitlement, that make them unattractive and unwelcome in my nest.

www.brian-mcnaught.com Brian McNaught


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