In the Company of Birds and Rats…

We used to think we were the king of the road, the top of the heap—in short, the best and brightest of all the species on the earth. But biological research these last several years has exploded with new information, showing us that we actually share many, many traits with other animals. But there are a few that have distinctly human characteristics, which makes them interesting.

One, ironically, always starts with two. By the time a fellow named Nick in Holland acquired his second airline barf bag, he was on his way to owning over 6,000 of them. Similarly, a certain Frenchman needed only two hotel ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs to launch his journey toward owning 11,111 of them. 

Collecting stuff. It’s classified as a hobby in humans, whereas in animals it seems to be related to survival: many species, especially of rodents and birds, will collect food when it’s plentiful against times when it will not be. Now a Japanese woman, Akiko Obata, has collected 8,083 prepared food items, but I’m at a loss as to how she keeps their designation at ‘prepared’ rather than ‘rotten.’ Spice-obsessed Vic Clinco, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about spoilage for his 6,000 bottles of hot sauce, but it’s doubtful he’s preparing for a hot sauce famine any time soon. No, the human motivation to collect food is obviously unrelated to sustenance.

The male bowerbird is distinguished for a fascinating modification of that survival instinct that drives other birds. He spends years collecting various paraphernalia—flower petals, small shiny objects, deer dung—to decorate a bower in order to seduce a female. It’s hard to find a parallel motivation in humans, and maybe easier to imagine a potential sweetheart running the other direction after seeing someone’s weird collection. It’s unclear, in fact, what motivates humans to collect.

The psychologists have their theories. Some say it’s to fulfill some yet-unfulfilled need; some say it’s for the attention; others claim it’s simply for the thrill of the hunt. Whether hunting for another talking clock, miniature chair, traffic cone, or eraser would be thrilling for us—as it apparently is for the folks who collect those things—we have to acknowledge that collecting is a common human activity. And okay . . . if birds and rodents share some aspect of this collecting fever, it only reminds us that we’re all animals! In a world with violence, greed, drug addiction, and a few other unhealthy practices, who can kick about one that’s quirky, but harmless?

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