Swamp Water Jurisprudence: Birds of a feather …


by Judge Dennis Challeen

They’re gone! A few thousand American white pelicans, who were gathered in the backwaters of our river for over a month, decided to up and head out on their annual migration to the South. Most of us were unaware of the presence of this huge aggregation that annually stops over to rest and take advantage of the good fishing they find on our boundary waters.

Birds migrate when seasonal food becomes scarce. They often migrate at night, using the moon and stars and taking advantage of the cooler, calmer air with fewer predators.


Sound recordings of night-flying birds reveal they constantly chatter in communication with each other which keeps the flock together, and allows them to warn of danger. We’ve all seen flocks of birds move in coordinated unison appearing as one swirling unit (called murmuration) where group action overrides individual action. It all takes place in a fraction of a second, relying on both sight and sound.

Birds and humans have many character traits in common. Birds flock together for safety reasons — there is always safety in numbers. Birds have to deal with predators, while we humans band together for police, fire, sewer, water and convenience; even when some of us don’t like each other very much. Pelicans will steal a fish from another if its guard is down. Humans do the same but we call this theft, robbery or burglary.

Scientists who study birds have figured out that larger birds (e.g., geese, ducks, swans, cranes, pelicans) fly in “V” formations because they take advantage of the bird in front of them causing a disruption of the airflow, creating an “up wash” making it easier to get a “free lift” and fly with less effort. The result is a lower heart rate and conservation of energy. The lead bird doesn’t get this advantage, so they trade off leading the way. The glory of being a leader wears out even in the bird world. They apparently are not born with this instinct; it is a self taught, or learned, behavior. Humans who jog or run can also experience the small advantage one gains by following in the draft of the person in front.


One of the hardest concepts to accept about birds is scientists’ belief that all birds descended from dinosaurs over millions of years ago. That means the little, harmless hummingbird that hovers in our gardens, is related to the fierce, huge, extinct Tyrannosaurus Rex. There are birdlike dinosaur fossils that have feathers that apparently were used to fly or glide that back up this theory.

Flocking birds don’t differ from humans that much. There are gangs of organized criminals, usually engaged in the businesses of selling drugs, stolen goods, or prostitution. They are organized and choose their members carefully and the rules are simple, well defined and enforced. They are in it for the money and do not take careless chances at being caught.

Through the years I often noticed a gang of homegrown losers who would make the local newspapers with a rash of break-ins. Ultimately these losers would get caught because they were lazy and not very bright at doing crime. The one behavior in common that I noticed about our local losers is they didn’t seek each other out — they found each other by default. I often asked the defendants in court how they met each other. I was curious about how they became friends. There was a common pattern.

A loser will come into town and try to make friends. He will go to a bar and begin talking to the guy on the bar stool next to him, and after a while the local guy will leave, because they have nothing in common; this continues until the stranger meets someone by chance with the same losing attitudes, and soon they hang out together.

In order to survive they run into the reality that rules every civilized society: A person must either work, live off another, or he or she must steal or deal; these are the only four choices in everyone’s life. And if they don’t work or have someone to support them, they are left with stealing or dealing (stolen goods, drugs). Thus they usually become petty thieves or burglars … not much training is required.

There is much folk wisdom surrounding the observing of birds. The saying “The early bird gets the worm” is an old English proverb going back to the 1600s; it simply means the one who arrives first has the best chance for success. Not everyone is in agreement.


“I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm,” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).

Willie Nelson, the songster, humorously observes: “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” (Think of a mouse trap baited with cheese.)


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