One group of neighbors I have particularly come to enjoy is a large colony of Montezuma Oropendola, which is a sort of large, tropical, yellow-tailed blackbird. They are colony breeders, and there was a colony of well over 50 individuals nesting in a dead tree pretty much right in my backyard. I tend to spend a lot of time hammering on a laptop, and so having a view like that on which I could rest my eyes periodically was most welcome. The Oropendola are good-sized birds—the size of the average chicken—but much better flyers. They weave huge sock-like nests out of long strands of grass in which they sleep and rear their chicks. They are gregarious and talkative bordering on raucous, and some people don't like their endless chatter punctuated by loud yodeling, but I got to like them.
After a while spent watching them, I realized that most of the yodels have to do with security and air traffic control. The Oropendola tend to claim an exclusive right over a given large tree, where they post a sentry. They are peaceful (I am yet to see a squabble) but they are so well organized that other birds, from eagles and vultures to the various tiny ones, tend to avoid them.) The sentry's job is to check everyone in and out of that tree (although when the sentry is left alone guarding a tree, smaller bird species are welcome to visit). Most of the flights are straight line courses between trees, where they are bid adieu in one tree and greeted in another, using two distinctive series of squawks from the sentries.
These birds are late sleepers, hiding in their nests until broad daylight, whereas other birds wake up and sing at first light. Dusk is their favorite time of day; this is when they all congregate and socialize, and mate. They mate in mid-air, like eagles and vultures, but unlike these, they don't just grab onto each other and plummet but do a maneuver reminiscent of pairs figure skating.
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For about a year now, I've been working on an e-book on resilient communities: Communities that Abide. I certainly have collected enough material for one, but until now I have lacked the impetus to put it all together. When I write, I often look for a picture on which to anchor the words. (My wife thinks that this is childish, but it works for me.) And this Oropendola colony seemed like the perfect subject for cover art for a book about resilient communities. Here they were, thriving in a dead tree, just like we are attempting to thrive, while still tied to a civilization that is nearing collapse due to resource depletion, rapid climate change and the suicidal stupidity of those who are running the show.
I took a number of pictures of this tree, during different times of day, until I got the one I wanted: the tree is deserted, with the entire colony out foraging for fruit and insects, except for the ever-present sentinel. And then, one rainy morning a few days after I took this picture there was the roar of a chainsaw, and then a loud crash. I came out to look, and the dead tree was missing. Instead, there was a large number of Oropendola up in the sky, circling around the spot where their tree had stood in uncharacteristic silence. The object lesson of the Oropendola just became a bit more poignant: this is what collapse looks like.
I soon found out that the tree's roots were on an adjoining property, and that the owner of that property killed the tree by pouring a foundation slab over the roots and then, once it was dead and declared a hazard, hired some locals to cut it down. That person also owns a gift shop, and Oropendola nests sell for $75 apiece. The chainsaw gang charged her $300; there were about 50 nests. I saw them sitting in a wheelbarrow and stole one. The object lesson of the Oropendola became even more poignant: what destroyed their habitat was the profit motive.
The birds circled about for an hour, and then regrouped. They posted sentries on the neighboring tall trees, and spent a few hours drilling: flying back and forth between trees single-file and having the sentries check them out and in again, as before. A day later they started collecting grass for new nests. (They first assemble a giant stockpile of long strands of grass in the crook of a tree, and then start weaving.) Three days later, they didn't seem any less happy than before the calamity, and a lot louder (apparently, there was a lot for them to discuss).
The object lesson of the Oropendola is now complete. We are nesting in a dead tree. The tree was killed by somebody else's profit motive. Our communities will abide because 1. we are self-sufficient, 2. we have the ability to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity, and 3. we are not tied to any one place but are mobile.
I expect the book will take another month or more to put together. It will include chapters from several other authors: Albert Bates, Ray Jason and Jason Heppenstall have all agreed to contribute. If you would like to contribute a chapter as well, please let me know.