Of Birds and Men
APRIL 01, 1966
To express a faith in freedom is to invite warnings that men and women have behaved badly in the past and might do worse in the future if more free to do so. The study of mankind under the varying degrees and conditions of human bondage that have prevailed throughout history indeed tends to destroy one’s faith in man. But we do not know, nor can we predict from man’s sordid past, his potentiality if he were free.
For further insight into human nature, investigators often have observed and studied the behavior of animals. One such study recently was reported in the German weekly, Der Spiegel (No. 40, 1965).
What the investigator saw reminded him of a list of cases on a court calendar: adultery, alienation of affections, bigamy, rape, incest, assault upon neighbors and within families.
These crimes were being committed, not in the slum district of a great city, but along a hedge of lilacs on the grounds of the Wilhelminenberg Biological Station in Vienna. And the perpetrators of these misbehaviors were male and female specimens of a group of cattle egrets, a bird about half the size of the stork, imported from Tunisia by the famed animal psychologist, Professor Otto Koenig. His hope in this experiment was to discover what might be expected of human beings condemned to a sort of super-welfare state, so fully mechanized that men need spend hardly any energy to subsist, protected by the state against sickness and old age, freed from work and care for a life of leisure.
Similarity to Human Community
From earlier observations under natural conditions along the grassy shores of Neusiedler Lake near Vienna, Koenig had found that certain types of herons which breed and nest in colonies develop compact social structures similar to the human family, tribe, and community. This is why he chose the colony of cattle egrets for his model welfare state, observing them over a period of six years in a large enclosure outside the window of his study, providing them with every necessity for life and comfort: food, water, bathing facilities, and nesting materials.
At the 1965 annual meeting of the German Ornithological Society in Constance, Professor Koenig first reported the results of his prolonged investigation of cattle egret response to the guaranteed life, stressing two points:
1. The social order of the colony completely collapsed.
2. The sexual activity of the feathered creatures became abnormal.
Within the enclosure, food always was at hand in abundance, so there was no need to go off in search of it. All members of the colony remained continually in sight of one another, literally pressed together. More frequently than under normal conditions there was strife, often bitter fighting. And as the fighting increased, so did the sexual activity. While a male was feeding, his mate might be raped by a neighbor, leaving her young in the nest to be molested by others. During the breeding season, the hackles of the females were torn and bloodied by the claws of the sex-crazed males.
Koenig also noted a sexual jealousy not found among wild egrets or herons. In their natural state, other herons of a colony are unconcerned about the home life of a couple; but in the Viennese cage, the mating act often evoked interference from other males.
Three or four couples of the experimental egrets frequently banded together. Nest-building among egrets usually is initiated by the male, who selects the site and then lures his companion to it. But in Koenig’s enclosure, two or three females often would answer the call to the nest; nor was it uncommon to find a sister or daughter of the male in his harem. Such polygamy became critical during the brooding period, with other females sitting atop the chief brooder. Now and again, Koenig saw egrets piled three deep on the eggs. Such congestion disturbed the normal pattern of parents taking turns sitting, and many of the eggs were either broken or kicked out of the nest. Thus, the negligence induced by welfarism resulted in declining numbers of healthy young egrets in the colony.
The rearing of the young birds also became a problem. In wild colonies, as soon as the young herons are able to leave the nest they gather among the reeds for games of "catch" by which they learn to capture insects. So strong is their urge for self-reliance that the fledglings often fail to return home and parents must seek them out to feed them.
In the Viennese experimental cage, however, the young egrets were simply beggars, incessantly pestering their ever-present elders for food. And apparently in search of quiet, the parents obliged, stuffing the young ones not only to excess, but far beyond the time when they should have been able to care for themselves. The younger birds would be found still begging, even after they had offspring of their own — the grandparents caring for them all.
Because of similarities between these egrets and other bipeds, Professor Koenig believes that what happened to the birds in his yard under super-welfare-state conditions might similarly affect human beings exposed to effortless material abundance without need or incentive for self-responsibility.
"In Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, a ranger cautions visitors against feeding the animals. The ranger explains that deer grow accustomed to visitors’ handouts and lose ability to fend for themselves. Bears, he says, come to believe that free food Chipmunks and squirrels congregate where handouts are supplied, is their due — and become grouchy and violent if they don’t get it. and thus upset the balance of nature."
From an editorial in The Richmond News Leader