A Leader Among Finches

July 18th, 2009   •   no comments   
Human Behavior Is Part of Nature, Too

We’ve recently moved two miles west — from an in-town setting to a wilder, out-in-the-country geodesic dome with acreage, views, fragrances of drying grasses heated by the northern California summer sun. 

Being quite attached to birdwatching, I’m having to cultivate an avian following at the new place; none of these wild birds, I think, has ever been fed.  Unlike a Lawrence of Arabia, I don’t have to ride up on a horse: I plant 3/4″ galvanized pipe in the ground with arms to hold suet, wild bird seed in a tube feeder and a platform feeder.  Close to where most of the birds perch on a, seemingly, wild fruit tree.  (Dead limbs serve as a leafless perch from which we can all view each other.)

Among the species who are visiting includes house and purple finches (purple in the right photo).  These species are, from my experience, one of the few social feeders among the passerines (perching birds which makes up about one half of all bird species).  They will feed on a sock of thistle (aka nyjer) seed as many as ten at a time.  Chickadees, tufted titmouses are solitary feeders and, respectfully, wait for a relative to finish before swooping in to the feed.

What does purple finch behavior have to do with management science?  Yes, I’m getting to that: Finches, I believe, have leaders, a member among the group whose job, I surmise, is to take risks, try new things. Assume responsibility for the greater good of the group.  This is, of course, anthropomorphic of me but…that’s what we humans do: draw and project conclusions from observing animal behavior. 

I recently watched one of these frontrunners, from the safety of my new home, examine a new feeder I had just installed; all of the others were waiting —  supporting perhaps? — in the dead branches of the cherry plum tree.  This adventurer, who could have been killed, checked out the new food source.  I’m assuming she reported back; yes, it was a female. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in a Study led by Dana M. Hawley, now at Viriginia Tech, took a close look at house finches and their social behavior; often, they find, the members with the higher social status have a greater degree of immunocompetence.  (See )  These “leaders,” as I’m calling them, are not elected, don’t have golden parachutes or severance packages but they might just be healthier than their brethren.

This explorer, I believe, was not an unusual member of these circles: I think she had the implicit support of her fellow group members in her “outreach” efforts.  So, that leaves me wondering: What would organizations look like if leaders were charged with taking risks and looking out for the best interests of the group, knowing, all the while, that they were supported by their constituents?  No, they wouldn’t necessarily look like finches; it was a rhetorical question.  You silly humans!

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