Monday, February 11, 2019

Birds and Squirrels

When you throw food out in the wild, animals will start to gather.

When we traveled to Alaska, there were warnings aplenty in nearly every park we visited - long before we arrived in that State - noting that if you left food out, animals would come and take it.   Maybe in most of the lower 48 and Canada, this is limited to wild raccoons and the like - spreading trash across your campsite.  But the further into the wild you go, and the further North you go, the more likely it is bears you will have to deal with.

And the authorities are pretty strict about this.   Back in the day, people used to feed bears - I recall when we visited Yellowstone back in '68 people would hand food out the car windows to "friendly" bears.   Occasionally, someone would lose a finger.  Even back then, they tried to damp down this behavior, as the bears became too tame, then a nuisance, and then had to be relocated.

We ran into a similar problem when we started feeding the birds.   We put up one tiny feeder and filled it with grocery-store birdfeed mix.  After a week, birds started showing up.  Encouraged, we bought books about birds and bird-feeding.   The bird-feeding book was literally for the birds and written by a lady who was literally a bird-brain.  She had birds on the brain.

Some of her suggestions - all of them, in fact - were nuts.   And not just the suggestions we feed nuts - and fruit, and bread, and peanut butter and suet - to the birds, but ideas like making a "feeding platform" out of an old board and some cinder blocks and then just scattering random food items on it.  Or using a pile of old branches as a feeding area - with food just dumped onto it.

The problem is, of course, that every other animal in the area would appreciate this as well, including squirrels, raccoons, possums, deer, and even mice and rats.   If you throw food into the wild, the animals will come.

You can try building elaborate mechanisms to keep the "unwanted" animals out - such as squirrel shields, or hanging the feeders from trees.   Usually, the animals figure a way around these things over time.

You can try trapping the squirrels and relocating them, much as wildlife officers try to relocate bears.  Relocation sometimes works, but in other cases, does not.   It seems for every squirrel you trap, ten more come to take its place - they reproduce prodigiously, particularly when there is free food laying about.   If you put out seed for birds, in an area with squirrels, you will find one squirrel under the feeder one day.  Then two.  Four.  Eight.  Twelve.  And eventually, one of them will climb down to or jump up to the feeder and start helping himself.  One enterprising fellow gnawed through steel wire to cause a big feeder to fall to the ground, creating an instant buffet for him and his friends.

Actually, that isn't right.   Squirrels have no friends.  They fight with one another constantly and are selfish as they come.  If one is eating, and another approached, he will attack that other squirrel, viciously.   Maybe this is because they have this largess and thus no reason to cooperate.  Perhaps.   I wonder, sometimes how they even breed, as they are so mean to each other.  I suspect that all squirrel sex is basically rape - and this after seeing squirrels mate.   "No means no!" doesn't carry much currency in the squirrel world.  And I suspect that all squirrel Moms are single Moms.

Sea lions, all along the Northwestern coast of America, are a protected species - or were, anyway.   It seems they found where the salmon run and lately have been depleting the salmon stocks by basically eating every damn salmon that comes upstream to spawn (we are the other half of the salmon problem, of course).   They tried screens and nets and even relocating the sea lions (a tedious and expensive process).  Moved a hundred miles up the coast, they returned in a matter of days.

This year, they finally authorized shooting sea lions. Relocation doesn't work. 

The other problem with feeding the birds was the birds themselves.  Presented with a huge feeder full of seed - that was constantly refilled - they had no incentive to conserve seed. Some birds, particularly wrens, would fling their bills back and forth, scattering seed from the feeder to grateful squirrels and doves on the ground below. They would dig through an "assortment" seed mix to get the black oilseed they wanted.   We tried going to just black oilseed, but for some reason, they fling that out as well.   Birds do not appreciate things when they are free, and have no incentive to conserve food when it is freely available in bulk.

The only solution, of course, was to cut back on feeding or just stop feeding entirely.  Once the food source was removed, the squirrels, possums, raccoons, and deer dissipated.   Of course, the birds did, as well.  But maybe that is for the best - they need to forage on their own, and an artificial supply of food would cause them to reproduce at a rate that would be unsustainable if the food supply were removed.

This is debated among those in the bird community - not the birds themselves, but the bird-lovers.  Some argue that feeders encourage dependency and that they create an artificial environment for the birds.  If the food is provided, the birds learn to depend on it.  Remove the food, and the birds would starve, as they are not used to foraging on their own - and moreover, the amount of forage-able food available isn't sufficient to support the population inflated through seed provided by feeders.  I think this is a valid argument in many regards.  We alter how the natural environment works and we end up creating havoc.

What got me thinking about this - other than yet another fat squirrel riding the "rotunda" feeder with a self-satisfied smirk on his face - was an article recently in the right-wing National Review. A Christian couple, through their church's youth outreach program tried to help troubled youth.  They had initial success with one troubled lad from a broken home - finding him a place to live, getting him enrolled in a trade school and finding him a job.  He settled down, bought a home, got married, had kids, lived happily ever after.

Encouraged by this success, they tried to help others, only to find their initial experience something of a fluke.  Other "troubled youth" were less responsive, deciding instead to steal from this Christian couple, break into their home, blow off community college classes (and jobs offered) and even assaulting them.

You want to be nice - you want to help people.  It's the Christian thing to do, right?  But some folks view Christians as the ultimate patsies (and perhaps they are, turning the other cheek and all).  And some folks will take advantage of charities - plundering them for their own benefit, either as recipients of the charity or as the people running it.  Friends of mine who volunteered for the local food bank and food kitchen quit in disgust when they discovered that many of the clients were hardly "needy" but just willing to take free stuff and free meals.  When you are loading boxes of food into someone's car - a car nicer than yours - and they won't even get out of the car to help, you have to ask yourself why you are doing this.

Many folks use the phrase "bug light" to describe how giving away money (or houses, or food, or whatever) acts as an attractant.   If you make being homeless comfortable by allowing people to beg on the streets, do drugs, get drunk, and sleep wherever they want to, you do tend to end up with more homeless people.  There are more homeless in tourist towns and resorts than there are, say, in a small town in rural Iowa.  The simple reason is, you can make a lot of money begging from tourists and support a hefty drug habit.  In Iowa, you'd freeze to death.

So the "bug light" analogy is inapt.   Bug lights actually kill the bugs who are attracted to them.  Then again, allowing people to live on the street eventually kills them, or at the very least, shortens their life expectancy considerably.  I would say the bird-feeder analogy was more apt.  But of course, if you are a fan of the new Democratic-Socialist shaming far-left, you would find this all appalling!   How dare you compare people to animals!   But of course, we are animals, too, and despite our high-minded principles, we tend to act like animals.  And the behavior of animals is illuminating in studying our own behavior - which is why Psychologists put rats in Skinner boxes (that, and maybe they like to torture small animals).

Look around the world and see how the human animal behaves.  We, like birds and squirrels, reproduce until we have exhausted our habitats.  We destroy the natural world so that a few more mouths can be fed and a few more of us can get fat in the process.   We fight and kill and maim each other, just like our squirrel friends do.   We are not so much different, nor are we very much high-minded.   We are animals and our behavior is proof of that.

In my previous posting, I included some links to some sites which questioned the worth of Habitat  for Humanity, which like most charities, is held out as some sort of Mother Theresa type deal which is beyond reproach and how dare you even question their mission and credentials!    Most of the blog postings and articles I cited to were poorly worded rants on how somehow Habitat screwed them over by not giving them a free house.  One article was about a Veteran who claims the house he was sold was defective.  Beggars can indeed be choosers.

But one article was illuminating. An older MarketWatch article from 1999, claims that "scams" are targeting Habitat home buyers by offering to refinance their homes on balloon notes.  I am not sure whether the scammers are the people who were offering the balloon notes, or the people who were being "helped" by Habitat.   

The scam is pretty simple.  Habitat sells a home to a "poor" person for about half its market value.  Right off the bat, you see the problem - they are giving away a huge chunk of equity to a person with no financial common sense.   For a $160,000 home (a number that seems to be common at Habitat) they might sell it for $80,000, effectively giving away 80 grand to a poor person.  There are restrictions on the resale of the home to prevent people from immediately "cashing out" so instead they do a "cash out" refi and walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.  They stay in the home for free until it is foreclosed upon or the balloon note is due, and then walk away.

For a homeowner, this is not necessarily a bad outcome.  They have a free place to stay and a wad of cash out of the deal.   The fact they don't see the long-term gains they are losing out on is irrelevant.  We're talking people who think a payday loan is a long-term financial instrument (which indeed, it can devolve into).   Moreover, if they have a drug habit, well, 20 grand in the hand is worth home equity in the bush.  Or maybe it is just the prospect of buying a fancy car.   People are people, and are often (if not usually) illogical.

It is not the homeowner being scammed here, it is Habitat being scammec by selling homes for half market value - with predictable results.   Some of the other blogs and articles I linked to had complaints from homeowners arguing that the structure of the sale of their home prevented them from refinancing or selling it.   Perhaps the Habitat people have wised up and used a land-contract kind of deal to keep the buyer in the home and prevent them from refinancing or selling for a certain period of time.   This would explain why these people complained they could not sell or refinance - and that's probably a good thing, too.

But of course, this places Habitat in the position of being perpetual lender and landlord, and having to control people's lives because they can't control their own.   And right there is the root reason for poverty - poor people making poor choices.

Like with our Christian couple, there are no doubt a lot of people helped by these Habitat handouts - and make no mistake, "sweat equity" or not, they are handouts.   Some folks are actually grateful for a chance to improve their life and will take this windfall and put it to good use.   Others, I suspect less so.  It is human nature to squander a windfall - stories abound of people who tear through an inheritance in a year or so, or lottery winners who end up bankrupt.   When you don't earn something - when you don't have to pay for something - you don't value it.

Or more precisely, you assign the correct value to it, which is zero.   When a home is "free" - as is the case for many Section-8 tenants who never pay their pitiful share of rent - they have no respect for it. They trash it, knowing full well that the government will find them a new Section-8 house or apartment once the one they live in is uninhabitable.

When food is free, (or cheap) you have no incentive not to waste it.   When gas is cheap, you have no incentive not to buy an SUV or Truck.  And so on down the line.    People - particularly on the Left - seem to think we can overcome this fundamental problem with our human nature.  That we will "recycle" things on our own initiative, even as there is no market for much of what we recycle today, particularly with regard to glass.  Some even think - as they do in Paris - that no food should be thrown away ever, even though food is ridiculously cheap these days (ask your local bankrupt farmer) and that saving "leftovers" is as sure-fire recipe for food poisoning.

They even have a name for these crazy folks (thanks to a faithful reader) "Freegans" - who basically eat out of dumpsters.  We live in a country awash in a sea of cheap food, and these folks have to eat garbage.   It makes no freaking sense, whatsoever.   It is, of course, just an affectation, a form of status-seeking among their own twisted peers.  "I'm better than you because I don't waste food".

Neither do I.  I eat it.  Unless it has gone bad, then it goes in the trash where it belongs.  But I digress.

We don't put out as much birdfood as we used to.   We cut the number of feeders in half and may reduce even the few we have left.  When the birds empty one feeder, I am in no hurry to refill it, as I was in the past.   The net result is maybe a few less birds and a lot less squirrels.

And what I take away from this is a lesson in human nature - including my own.  We like to think that as humans, we are better than animals - that we can invent and think our way out of troubles.   That we will solve the world's problems by using birth control and not overpopulating the planet.  That we can invent solar-powered batteries and electric cars and eliminate fossil fuels.   But I suspect we are deluding ourselves a lot with this sort of thinking.   Birth control hasn't reduced the headlong rush into world overpopulation - and in fact, the poorest among us are populating the fastest.   Electric cars powered by solar batteries won't "solve" our problems, they will just make it possible for even a greater number of us to overpopulate the planet.

Look at photos of Los Angeles in the 1930's, 1950's and today.   In every photo, the place is covered with smog.  People stopped burning coal for power and heat by the 1950's.   But car pollution took its place.  California emissions cut back on the amount of pollution from each car - we responded by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling the number of cars on the road.   Our technology didn't make L.A. better - it just kept it habitable, for more and more people.

Maybe I am wrong.  Maybe we are smarter than squirrels and birds.  Maybe we can think our way out of our problems.   But the more I see human nature at work, the more I doubt it.

Cheerful thoughts!