Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Democracy Amongst The Canada Geese

There was a time when the City of Seattle was trying to rid our waterfront parks of Canada geese, but that effort has clearly fallen by the wayside in recent years. We have nicknamed our neighborhood park at the southern tip of Lake Union "Goose Poop Park" in honor of the non-migratory population that has taken up residence there. Throughout our history, humans are notorious for killing off, driving away, or domesticating other species, but the Canada goose is the exception that proves the rule.

Yesterday, my wife and I were walking the dog when we came upon a large flock of about 40 geese that were moving together toward the water, a course that caused them to cross the sidewalk. Ahead of us, another dog walker passed through the group, dividing it as the geese shied away from the dog. This caused the entire flock to come to a stop. The leaders, a group of a half dozen, remained poised, bodies forward, bills pointed insistently toward the water, seemingly waiting for the others to follow. One even stood with a foot raised, as if about to take the next step. A larger group just behind them, however, seemed to be less certain about which direction to go. Most were pointed toward the water, but without the urgency of the leaders, while others were pointed in other directions. Several looked as if they were concerned about the part of the flock that had remained on the other side of the sidewalk, who were, in turn, facing every which way, some even lying down in the grass.

The leaders stayed frozen for a couple minutes, while the other geese seemed to be making up their collective mind about what to do. Some started grazing. A few more laid down. A couple of smaller, contrarian birds that my wife and I labeled "teenagers" started slowly waddling away from the water. The leaders then, in unison, broke their stillness and took a few steps toward the water. No one followed. They froze again before taking a few more tentative steps, still without persuading those behind them. Indeed, among those standing, more and more of them began to turn away from the water, pointing their bills this way and that as if voting to stay just where they were. Slowly at first, then more decisively, as if giving up on the rest of the flock, the small group of leaders plunged into the water without the rest, but remained right near the shore so as not to lose touch with the flock.

To me, that looked a lot like democracy in action, something that we don't typically ascribe to the "lower" animals, yet here it was as clear as day. Whereas we once interpreted animal societies through the lens of the strong leader "Alpha Male," increasingly, we're coming to see that democracy is more the rule among group-living animals than the exception. Rather than being an "unnatural" invention of humans, it appears that we were born to democracy.

We see it every day on the playground, when adults leave children to play according to their own devices: one child may lead for awhile, even behaving as a kind of dictator, but there is a natural ebb and flow, and over time the others stop following if they find that their voices are silenced and desires thwarted. Most of what children choose to do together follows the patterns of deep democracy with thoughts, ideas, and directions being discussed and debated; where the majority most often rules, but where individuals still retain the option to plunge into the water if they really want to.

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