In a canyon below the cloud forests of Mindo, Ecuador, I watched five kinds of hummingbirds compete for sugar water from a hotel feeder.
I marveled at their aerobatics, diving and buzz-bombing each other, dismissing the laws of physics as mere suggestions, until I realized that they were only feeding about 20% of the time. The rest of the time the feeder stations dangled unattended while the birds spent their energy chasing each other away.
Most of their activity, while technically beautiful, was completely unproductive. Occasional moments of cooperation within or across species quickly degraded into spectacular air battles.
I recognized the problem immediately. These angry birds were engaging in classic lose-lose behavior arising from a scarcity mentality. I could almost hear them clicking, “If I can’t have the nectar, no one will!”
“Hummingbirds!” I cried out, invoking my many years of experience in managing projects and resolving organizational conflicts, “what if I told you there was no resource limitation? That by cooperating you could get more nectar than that by competing?”
Crickets. The birds kept right on playing chicken, strafing and destabilizing each other. How was survival of the fittest served by an environment of excessive wing beats and mutually assured destruction? What could be gained from fighting over an infinite source of nectar? This had to be a detail evolution had missed.
None were interested in the obvious breakthrough offered by my win-win thinking and an abundance mentality. I tried again in Spanish, “If you start cooperating instead of fighting, there will be more than enough nectar for everyone. You can reduce your frantic heart rates and enjoy more leisure time!”
Nada. I was preaching to the wind. Not one bird was interested in the benefits of cooperation or team building. While the hummers burned precious energy fighting over a free and renewable resource, a small yellow bananaquit took advantage of the commotion to gorge at the feeder. The bananaquit winked at me. He knew the hummingbirds were too busy fighting with each other to recognize their true competition.