Butterflies, Bugs and Birds

ButterflyThe butterfly, symbol of our own awakening life, the first to find the first yellow blossom that pushed up out of the mud at the edge of my pond.

The pond teems with life this year after the long drought. Enough to feed the huge white heron, enough to feed the butterfly, enough to feed whatever it is that breaks the surface to slurp up some unwary bug or baby bird and drag it back below. And when I drove in I knew immediately the baby killdeer had arrived.

birdinflightIn their effort to drag us away from their babies, the mother and father flashed their white wing patterns and their orange rump feathers as they swooped — across the surface of the pond and over the new-mown grass along its edges — around our advancing threat to their young, just far enough away to tempt, and not close enough to get caught. They settle onto the grass, looking back over their shoulder, they squat and flag the orange rump feathers, flutter their wings and roll over on the ground as though maimed and unable to escape, but if we approach they do escape, again just out of reach, time and again until they have lured us away from their new hatchlings, and then soar into the morning sun. This works with the dog, who dashes across the pasture in pursuit.

“But you can’t fool me,” I say, turning my back on the birds and scanning the shores of the pond. “I’m the one with the brain!” And sure enough, this time I spotted them, two babies, but then I remembered these birds have been living here for about five years and produced several sets of eggs each year. I have looked before, but this is the very first time I have found the babies, and that’s probably because I just mowed the grass where their nest has been — wherever that was.
So who is smarter here? How do these birds “know” what to do to protect their chicks? Why do Killdeer behave this way and other birds choose other methods of protection? When we ask those kinds of questions, we are asking about the information component of the ecosystem. The information the ecosystem needs to survive through time and across the different sorts of environments of which it is composed.

The survival information is encoded in every cell of every organism that exists in the ecosystem. The plants know how to do photosynthesis, the cells know how to do cellular respiration, the muscles know when and how to contract, the eyes know how to see, everything knows how to breath, though everyone does not breath in the same way. Fishes are rather different from us, but they get what they need.

The brain knows how to think, and Killdeer birds know how to draw predators away from their babies. How does the heron know to fish? The flower to attract just the right butterfly that will carry its male fertility to the appropriate female flower? How does the butterfly know which flower is the right flower? How did the flower know that the right kind of butterfly would be available just when it opened?

The kinds of behaviors that are involved with survival inside the ecosystem are encoded in the genes of all the organisms, each kind of organism with it’s own instructions. This information flow includes genes, and is studied by geneticists, but it is more than only genes. It includes predator/prey interactions, parasite cycles, and all of the other elements of the ecosystem reality as it is this day in this year, and the interaction of all those factors with the genomes of all the other organisms that live in the ecosystem and with the inorganic environment.

If I were to refer to it as the intelligence of the ecosystem, you would immediately want to give it an IQ test and compare with human intelligence. That would be a misleading metaphor, and so I will not. But it is a very real flow of information through the ecosystem from the origin of life on earth until this very day. It is in you; it is your heritage; and you are in it.
Look at those little legs go, faster than mine. The parents are having fits, off to the side, trying to distract me, and I will back off as soon as I get a picture, because I know there are big fish and turtles in the pond, I doubt the little thing knows how to swim, and a Copperhead roams the shore. I don’t want to be responsible. The parents, I think, can do a better job without me.