Is Order Stable in the Great Chain of Being?

After the last of our four dogs passed away some years ago, we decided to share our lives with animals that didn’t require so much maintenance. Now my laptop sits on our dining room table from where I can see our patio where we tend to our “outdoor pets”, mainly birds, including wrens, finches, robins, cardinals, blue jays, nuthatches, thrushes, hummingbirds, mourning doves, starlings, Carolina chickadees, black capped chickadees, junkos, song sparrows, chirping sparrows, pileated woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers. From the woods just beyond, we also attract squirrels, possums, raccoons, stray cats and chipmunks (which are the only ones that terrify me since the time one got into the house and ran around chewing the woodwork for a couple of days). Our pets build nests along the edge of the woods, generally taking care of themselves, though once I rescued a fallen baby robin.

We’ve had much time to observe habits of different species and the pecking order they’ve established. Mourning doves are the sweetest, slowest, most ungainly and most polite, quietly feeding off the ground and taking baths. No one bothers to peck at them since they don’t seem to question their lowest rank.

As for who’s at the top, we took for granted that no one messes with the downy woodpecker that can aim its beak and move its head like a pneumatic drill. But in the past few days, the sparrows have gone after the woodpecker and the woodpecker defers and patiently waits.

This brought to mind high school English where, while studying Shakespeare, we learned about the Elizabethan notion of a “great chain of being”, a pecking order supposedly of a spiritual hierarchy topped by God, angels and kings. Darwin applied the scientific interpretation by proclaiming survival of the fittest among species. I wouldn’t go so far as to say a downy woodpecker is spiritually superior to a sparrow (I suspect mourning doves are the most spiritually attuned), but it definitely has a head that serves as a more powerful weapon than that of a sparrow.

In the U.S. we’re reminded every day that whatever order and hierarchy is supposed to exist has been bulldozed into a swamp. We’re not just in a pandemic but also hurtling toward election day where voters will decide whether we slide further into totalitarianism or climb back onto a path of democracy.

Maybe the answer to the woodpecker vs. sparrow conflict is in the fact that the sparrows come to the feeder in large numbers, while only one woodpecker visits at a time – and the male even pecks at his mate, which makes him not only a bully but an abusive spouse. Does this ring a bell?

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5 thoughts on “Is Order Stable in the Great Chain of Being?”

  1. I love the downy woodpeckers, but I clearly have not watched them as closely as you. Does the female differ–for example, does she also have the red on her head? What we seem to be getting most around now are crested nuthatches and black-capped chickadees. I saw a grackle trying in vain to twist its body enough to get some seed from a feeder; I may start leaving a bowl out–though that would obviously go mostly to the chipmunk who lives at the edge of our patio and drives Hillary into frenzies. As for the Great Chain of Being: I am currently reading (rereading, to be honest) “Ghosts of Vesuvius,” by Charles Pellegrino. He goes back and forth from the Great Bang (which was likely one of a number of Great Bangs) to the Titanic and volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean, to a discussion of the universe, to a detailed account of what happened in Pompei and Herculaneum, and a detailed account of why the Twin Towers fell as they did. Reading a few pages of this book before bedtime calms the fears that dog me all day about the virus and the election. His basic thesis is : Nature doesn’t care. We’re not “taking care of the planet” we’re just on it for now; other animals have been on it before, others will likely come after. If that sounds grim (it suddenly does, to me) it isn’t, the way he puts it. Anyway, so much for Darwin and the Great Chain. Good to talk to you again, if only by email.

  2. Hi Madeena — Great to hear from you!
    The male downy has the little red cap. The female wears her simple yet elegant black and white ensemble.
    Yes, I agree that somehow or other, the planet can survive without humans, although not every plant and animal species has made it. We’re sort of like temporary visitors here and thus should behave as good guests. But as long as humans refuse to use some intelligence rather than wallowing in the ignorant notion that science is a mere political opinion, no plant, animal or person is safe.

  3. Loved this. I too have multiple bird feeders and alot of your birdies you listed. I love to watch the male doves due their puffy chest thing and go up and down in their mating dance as the females fly or hop away. The males work so dARN HARD FOR THEIR 10 SECONDS OF CONQUEST. eVERY YEAR A COUPLE TIMES THIS Dance goes on out our kitchen window. I too have my computer on our kitchen/dining table. I see out of two windows.

    1. Dear Jenny — Now that’s something I haven’t figured out — how to tell the male doves from the females. Around here our doves must be stodgier than yours — they mostly just sort of waddle along on the ground, politely avoiding everyone else. I guess they do their love-making privately when they know I”m not sitting here looking, and that’s fine with me. I never realized it before, but I haven’t ever seen any little doves. I hear you though about how hard the male works to convince the female, but male birds so it so fast I don’t blame her a bit!

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