One sunny afternoon this past spring, as I was sitting on my balcony enjoying one of my favorite books of all time, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, I had a most interesting encounter – with an animal. A hummingbird I’ll call, Jeff.

In years past I’ve put a hummingbird feeder up on a hanger mounted on the wall that my chair was leaning against such that the feeder was almost directly over my head. This year I hadn’t gotten around to putting it up before the arrival of the Ruby-throated hummers. Jeff was not pleased.

As I was reading about the intelligence of animals that sunny afternoon, I suddenly heard a loud buzzing just in front of me. I looked up and there was Jeff only a couple of feet from my face. He had my attention. As I sat watching him, he flew over to the empty hanger, hovered there facing me, and began a monologue that was impossible not to see as directed at me! He went on for about 10 seconds and then flew off. I found myself looking around in wonderment, instinctively wanting to ask if anyone else had just seen this. With no one else around I said out loud to myself, “I’m absolutely certain I have just been instructed to fill up the hummingbird feeder and put it on its hanger!” I immediately complied. What else could I do? The feeder was in its place full of sweet water within 30 minutes.

Over the next several days I witnessed aerial dogfighting to rival a Spitfire versus a Stuka as the hummers went at it to establish ownership of my, well, their feeder. Although several birds managed to get short drinks, Jeff eventually got the upper hand. He began roosting on the hanger and taking long drinks that reminded me of my high school days when I would get my hands on a chocolate milkshake and drink half of it with one uninterrupted suck on my straw.

During that first week of dogfighting, the feeder was almost empty within the course of just one week. I was holding out to make sure it was completely empty before refilling it. On another sunny afternoon while attending to my window box garden that happens to be on the opposite end of the balcony from the feeder, I noticed Jeff darting around in front of my face trying to get my attention again. I looked up at him and as soon as I did he flew over to the feeder. I of course watched instinctively. He flew up to the feeder and put his beak into one of the holes as if to take a drink. But right after putting his beak in one of the holes, he would quickly move to the next, then the next, as if sampling from each hole. Then he just hovered there looking at me. I had to smile as I quickly understood his not-so-subtle message. “Hey buddy, we got nothing here, when are you going to refill this thing?” Once again, I complied immediately.

Over the next few months, Jeff and another species, called Allen’s Hummingbird that showed up after the Ruby throats left and were even more territorial, taught me about the illusion of scarcity. As I day by day watched the current owner tenaciously defend their ownership of the feeder, and usually this involved more than one feeder since my neighbors also had a feeder, I often wished I could tell the birds that the supply was infinite and there was plenty for all.

 How foolish it seemed to me that Jeff would hoard an infinite supply and exclude all the other birds from this infinite resource – except when they could sneak in a quick drink before he chased them away.

As Jeff’s territory grew and he established ownership of other feeders, of course he drank less from mine, while still allowing no other birds to drink from it. The end result was that very little of the sugar water was being enjoyed by any of the birds. Most of it just stayed in the feeders and I ended up needing to throw it out because it would turn to sour wine before it would be drunk.

And I thought to myself, wow, these amazing little birds are programmed to play this game of survival where the strong get stronger and the weak die off – slowly. And their little brains are not able to grasp the idea of an infinite food source supplied by, to them, an infinite being.

And then I thought to myself about the title of the book I was reading, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, And it made me wonder if we are smart enough to know how much like animals humans are. Just like hummingbirds, we seem to be living according to our evolved programming to compete for resources and to hoard them, no matter the effect on others. When I was growing up in the 1960s, I remember everyone wanted to be the next millionaire. And now, within my own lifetime, the standard has increased by a factor of a thousand. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos emulate my little friend, Jeff, hoarding as much as possible from a source that is virtually infinite.

So if we imagine ourselves, humans, as conscious beings with a higher intelligence than animals, then let us use that consciousness and intelligence to rise above this deadly game. This game of survival of the strong at the expense of the weak that defines the animal kingdom. Let us dare to imagine and create a world where, in the language of our hummingbird comparison, we acknowledge that there is plenty of sweet nectar for all and no need to compete for it, we give everyone equal opportunity to drink from the feeder, and we all drink only what we need before our next visit to the feeder.

Sometimes I think to myself that humans are just another form of animal and that we will only do what every species on the planet does.

But then I think, if there were any purpose for humans and higher consciousness on earth, this would be it. To rise above our evolutionary programming and create with our minds and our consciousness a new programming that acknowledges higher truths.

For now, the jury is still out.

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