Starlings can be fooled into making irrational choices.
(Harpers Magazine, "Findings," March 28, 2012)
You're a starling, right? And your family all starlings as well? Always have been? Good. Now as you probably know, most people don't think starlings are very smart. So I'm going to give you a little test here, and we'll just see if most people are right about you, uhh, you folks. Starlings, I mean. Let's see if you can figure out the best solution in this scenario I'll describe to you.
Okay, let me get a little background here. There are lots of you starlings around, maybe 600 trillion of you, just a quick and dirty guess? And some of you - let's just stick with the members of your immediate family to make this easy - some of you get sick once in a while. Not always in the pink of health, right? Well, no, I know you're not pink, it's just a manner of speaking.
So let's imagine that there's this one special starling who comes along - doesn't look like any of your other starlings - and he persuades you to choose him as the top starling. Says he has a plan.
Okay, still with me here? Here's the plan - let's say this starling talks to a lot of other starlings and you starlings all agree to help each other out on those days some of you can't get off the perch, if you know what I mean. You know, those days when you just don't have the old punch to walk around looking for another grub, you just can't seem to get yourself off the branch long enough to bring home another caterpillar for the wife and kids. So when that happens, these other starlings have agreed to kick in a little, a bug here and there just until you're able to get back on the telephone wire, so to speak. Sounds like a good idea, right? I mean, everyone's agreed that it might work. Worth a try, right?
Well, not so fast, here. Let's think about this. There are other folks involved here. Birds, I mean. Well, like robins and woodpeckers and chickadees and all those other kinds of birds. And you're all eating bugs, right? I mean, you all need pretty much the same thing to live on, you're all competing for a piece of the same pie. Well, okay then, just think of all the bugs in the world as a big pie and you'll see what I'm trying to say. Okay, sure, it would be a bug pie.
But you see, there's a problem here. All you starlings are flying around delivering your bugs to sick starlings, while all your competitors are cleaning up on the bug racket. You're trying to do everyone else's job and your own as well, and the robins and woodpeckers and the other birds are keeping you out of the bug market. Eating your lunch, as we say. So what do you do?
Well, maybe that would work. But what if the other birds don't go for your plan? Maybe you need a different approach. Let's think about it this way. Let's say there's another kind of bird - one that doesn't have to eat bugs, see, so it would be a kind of bird you don't have to compete with. And this bird gets around enough so he can figure out where the best foraging is. In fact, it's exactly what these birds eat that makes more bugs for everyone - you know yourself how many bugs there are around a carcass.
See, then you wouldn't have to compete. You could just follow these birds around to wherever they tell you the bugs are. They'd tell you where to go, because they're eating better than you are anyway and they wouldn't touch a bug if their lives depended on it. Which you can bet they won't.
You might have to go to China to find enough bugs to put on the table. No? Well, it's a free country. But these birds know more than you do anyway, because they know where the bugs are. So it seems crazy at first - seems like starlings would want to listen to another starling. Starlings know what's best for starlings - you'd think so, right? But it turns out that these other birds really know what's best for you. They're just a whole lot smarter than you are. Well, for starters they don't eat bugs. They don't share food. Don't get me wrong - they'd just be helping you in a different way.
Good choice - you are a smart bird.