Making Mistakes, Thrasher Style

Red bird of paradise bush

The thrasher outside my office window was fighting a small snake under the red bird of paradise bush. The bird, about the size of a robin, would advance, peck the head of the snake, then grab the neck and jump back, pulling the snake off the ground.

I watched this while I was on the phone. Thrashers are insect eaters, but have a curved, strong bill, so I wasn’t surprised to see him going after the snake. And it was a small snake–about as big around as a pencil. He may have thought it was a caterpillar and discovered it was too big to manage.

After about five minutes, the thrasher gave up and flew into the nearby ocotillo, where it warbled for a while, then flew off. He did not take the snake, so I wondered if he’d killed it.

After I’d completed the phone call, I went outside to take care of the snake. Checking under the bush, I saw what the battle was about. No snake.


The thrasher had attacked my drip irrigation hose, about the size of a pencil in diameter, and made of black rubber. The bird had worried about 18 inches of the hose out of the gravel and sand. The small gold-colored metal head was almost completely pulled off the hose. Dead, for sure.

What made me smile about this was that the bird eventually recognized that the hose was not a snake or a caterpillar.  The metal cap wasn’t a snake head. The bird did not slap himself on the head and berate himself. The bird did not kick the dirt and hang its head, embarrassed. The bird flew into a nearby tree, claimed its territory, and moved on.

Wildlife is smart that way. It doesn’t feel embarrassment, shame, or guilt. A mistake is a mistake. In this case, not deadly, so no harm done. (Well, as far as the bird was concerned. I’m going to need a new drip head to replace the shredded one.)

How smart we’d be if we could be the same way. Recognize the mistake, be OK with it, move on. Not dredge it up for years, worrying it like a sore tooth, making it into statements about our general character, intelligence, or emotional state.

Make a mistake, move on. Good lesson from a basic bird.

—Quinn McDonald learns from nature, which seems to have a lot to teach if we watch.

24 thoughts on “Making Mistakes, Thrasher Style

  1. 🙂 Definitely no snakes in New Zealand!! 🙂 Though I have always been a little jealous that Australia got them all.

    What a lovely metaphor for such an important lesson. A simple truth.

  2. What a wonderful story. Sometimes it’s hard to concede and it’s time to move on – it takes courage, there’s no shame in it.
    And as an aside . . . thank goodness there are no snakes in New Zealand!

      • No, no snakes, the only mammal native to the country is a small bat and there’s only one poisonous spider, the katipo. It lives in the sand dunes and has a nasty, but not lethal bite – I have never seen one. NZ was, before humans came along, a paradise for bird life. I had some Australian relations staying here a while back and they couldn’t get over the fact that they could just wander around without worrying about snakes and other nasties.
        Come visit!

  3. Again, Quinn has hit the nail on the head! I am a victim of my past regrets and mistakes. I will always remember this thrasher story!! And I remember well what you call the bird of paradise bush, in Jamaica we call it Barbados Pride…If I am not mistaken, it is a relative of the hibiscus

  4. Quinn…The reading of the metaphor, story…..another thought popped into my head about how often we think we are seeing one thing when it is totally something else….how knowing sometimes takes a little exploration, not just viewing a situation from a distance. At any rate, the story captivated me…and I took some great little words within and wrote them on the back page of my timed writing journal,,,,there waiting to be picked as the basis for a bit of writing practice in the future.
    Thanks for today’s “lesson” in story form. There is always so much I learn from you as I read your words each day….appreciation flows forth today for the eye opener you presented to me.

  5. I read every single post you make since I started following you. I really needed to hear this today. I have been “worrying” some things “like a sore tooth.” I finally realized these things are not on anyone’s mind but mine. Others involved don’t spend the time on it I have. When I came to that conclusion suddenly it stopped. It is not keeping me up nights anymore. I finally got to my branch, higher than the muck I was in, and I am warbling away. Thank you for the reminder and the encouragement.

    Courtenay Gueta

  6. Human minds are competent at solving problems. Human minds also comprehend — are aware they’re solving problems. Comprehension is self-referential and is what seems to lead to things like embarrassment, pride, and the like.

    Comprehension is not a necessary part of problem-solving, and doesn’t seem to increase competence. Nobody would argue that a computer chess program comprehends anything at all, but it can outperform a human at solving chess problems. It’s a machine — perhaps less obviously so than an egg beater, but no less a machine.

    Non-human organisms solve problems too, and routinely outperform human abilities.

    In fact you could make a pretty good case that human comprehension reduces competence. Chess games played at a high level are timed. Any time you use to beat yourself up for making a stupid move is time you don’t have to figure out a good one. A human player, unlike a program, has to learn to avoid that. To actively NOT do it.

    What human minds are (so far) better at is generalized problem-solving. Introduce a completely new situation — say, an environmental change like an extended drought — and the humans in that region will typically find a workable solution sooner than other organisms. If the drought goes on long enough other organisms will find solutions, and those solutions will typically be better, more efficient, more clever, better adaptations. But it will take generations.

    The generation is the iteration cycle of the problem-solving method called biological evolution. Cognition is an alternative that sometimes shortcuts that process, and human cognition is a generalized shortcut. It’s not a fundamentally different process — in evolution possible solutions are attempted and discarded constantly, and it’s exactly the same in cognition. What’s different is the iteration cycle; taking generations takes too long. (except for microorganisms, where iteration over generations is faster than cognitive iteration; that’s why flu vaccines are always playing catch-up).

    But whether comprehension is a necessary part of generalized problem-solving is quite a puzzle. It seems to me that comprehension will always reduce one’s ability to solve specific problems but might be useful in the more general sense of identifying what is and is not a problem.

    This is, in one form or another, known. Improving any specific skill — swinging a golf club, acting, doing long division — eventually involves not thinking about it — learning to redirect or turn off the self referential part of the mind. If a little leaguer is thinking too hard about hitting the ball the coach will try to change that. I suspect “over thinking” is a problem often addressed by many sorts of coaches.

    But prior to thinking too much about the swing a different problem had to be solved: what to do in the afternoon. Join Little League, soccer, get a paper route, cut grass, build electromechanical robots (I recommend that last one). That kind of problem — or recognizing that it is a problem at all — might be where self-referential cognition is less of a handicap (but this is by no means certain).

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