Birds of Another Radiological Feather

August 8, 2014

Birds and physicians are no different after all.

About a year ago, a column of mine was inspired by watching the behaviors of a couple of types of birds at my favorite local beach. Summer happily being in full swing once again, I have been back to my patch of sand multiple times. The adjacent bird sanctuary is ever-eager to supply me with birdbrains to compare and contrast with us humanoid healthcare-folk.

Although the sandpipers and gulls remain in attendance, the antics seizing my attention these past few weeks have been courtesy of two other populations: Terns and oystercatchers. These fellows are constantly on the prowl for morsels of nourishment: Terns, flying over the relatively shallow waters in search of tiny fish for which to dive, and oystercatchers, marching up and down the shore with frequent beak-probes of the sand for whatever tasty things might be found therein.

At least, they should be constantly on the prowl. Even when they get a beakful of something, it’s not exactly a feast, and while I’m no ornithologist, it seems that it would take an awful lot of successes to give them what they need not only to fuel their efforts, but survive and thrive for future days. Diverting time and energy from this to other, less mission-critical pursuits would seem to be a questionable use of their resources.

And yet, this is exactly what they do, because these birds turn out to be awfully territorial. Proportional to their diminutive stature, it’s astounding how large a swath of beach these little guys seem eager to claim and defend as their turf...far more than they could ever hope to deplete of food. The moment they decide one of their cousins is threatening to encroach, foraging is abruptly put on hold in favor of chasing away the newcomer.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"26859","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_9224290131115","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"2563","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"border-width: 0px; border-style: solid; margin: 1px; float: right;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]

Meanwhile, the intruders need to eat, too, or at the very least somewhere to physically exist, so the cycle of chasing, retreating and returning is never-ending…to the point that one wonders how much is being accomplished by it all. It seems just as likely that, if the birds simply tolerated one another’s presence, they would expend considerably less caloric energy in the process…maybe even take in some extra nourishment with the additional time made available for hunting.

Of course, these are instinctive behaviors at work, and one probably shouldn’t hold breath waiting for seabirds to soul-search, philosophize and collectively establish new rules for their social conduct. They aren’t, say, highly educated and trained medical professionals, who might be capable of recognizing the costliness of turf-wars in terms of time, energy and other resources.