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Flame Bower Bird, Papua New Guinea

Animal Territory and Human Home

Life: Issue Three

Susan Waldstein

My husband and I have moved with our children fifteen times in our 45 years of marriage. Six of those moves were across the Atlantic, where we have lived in Italy, Germany, and Austria. It is always an enormous challenge to the family to preserve its unity and common life in a new place. Moving can loosen the bonds of a family. Memories of the many birthdays and Thanksgivings celebrated in the dining room and the many Christmas trees that have glowed in the living room and the family prayers by the icon are dimmed or lost when the home or homes where those feasts took place are thousands of miles away. We have always brought certain special pieces of furniture and paintings or, at least, the wooden Madonna that our family prays before, to every home, no matter how short a time we plan to live there. Why is moving so traumatic? Why is the human home so important?

Philosophers, theologians, and biologists have all wondered about humans’ unique way of being animal. Humans alone have mind and free will; they alone are persons. Our bodies and bodily activities are suffused with rationality. In this paper I will first look at territoriality and the use of the nest among birds and then at the way these are taken up and transformed by humans into a home.

Territoriality is a characteristic of many kinds of animals including many species of invertebrates and mammals, but I will focus on birds because their use of territory most resembles humans. A bird, usually a male, takes over a small area of land and defends it against all other members of its species, making it his territory. This permits the bird to keep its mate to itself and to forage for food without competition, especially while it is feeding its young. Most species also build a nest or bower within their territory.

All civilizations and cultures have valued hospitality and considered abusing hospitality one of the most heinous of crimes.

Birds do not use their nests for dwellings. The territory is like a human home; the nests are like a room, a nursery, in the home. They use nests only for egg laying and brooding and for the first weeks of life of the fledglings when the parents feed their voracious progeny and teach them how to fly, how to scratch for bugs, how to sing their species’ song, and even what to fear.[1] The nests, often remarkable architectural prodigies, keep the eggs and chicks warm and safe from squirrels or other predators. Most monogamous bird “couples” cooperate in incubating the eggs and feeding the fledglings.

Woodpeckers and jays also use a tree in their territory as a pantry. A woodpecker or a group of woodpeckers will poke multiple holes in a tree or telephone pole to store acorns or other nuts. One tree was found with 50,000 acorns in holes![2] Shrikes also use trees as pantries; they store living insects on sharp twigs on a tree. Canadian blue jays glue food to the branches of trees with their saliva. These birds exhibit the kind of map in their memory that all birds with territories must have. Birds can find their territory when they leave it, even those who migrate thousands of miles and are gone for nine months; they can find their nest; their favorite singing platform, and for birds like woodpeckers and jays, they can find their tree pantries.

Many species of birds become so attached to their territory that they use the same territory for their whole life. Most bird species are monogamous (90% according to a recent Stanford study), at least for the breeding season, which means they raise their young with only one mate during the mating season, even if they raise several clutches of young. Many species are monogamous for years or even for a lifetime as tracking bands placed on birds is increasingly demonstrating. Bird monogamy is connected to the shared life of the parents as they care for their young together. Monogamous birds that migrate thousands of miles twice each year must have a strong desire to be with each other to end up together every spring.[3] Many bird pairs keep the same territory for years or for life. The shared ownership of the territory is part of the male/female bond.

Lyrebirds, which pair for years or even for life, also keep the same territories year after year. The female lyrebird picks out a territory in the thickets of the mountain gorges of Australia. She alone builds the nest, usually in the same place year after year, broods the eggs and feeds the young. The male is far from inactive, however. He has an adjoining territory where he performs for his mate. He scrapes earth and leaves together to build as many as twenty platforms, which he uses for his performances. There he enacts an elaborate dance in which he spreads out his gorgeous lyre-shaped tail feathers and turns in a semicircle in one direction and then in another shaking his tail and singing what may be the finest bird song in the world. The platforms upon which the male performs his shows of song and dance are like so many rooms of his house, which he keeps clean to be ready for his performances. The territory becomes much more an extension of who he is. He feels comfortable and safe in his territory. He continually improves it by making new platforms. He impresses himself upon the area, making it more his own and more of an expression of himself.[4] His displays may encourage his mate in her care of the chicks and discourage other males from entering her territory. But they also seem to be in excess to what is needful, a kind of exuberant aesthetic display like the peacock’s feathers.

Yet the most remarkable architects in the avian world are not monogamous. Quite the contrary, the bower birds of Australia and New Guinea are polygamous in the extreme. Males build highly decorated bowers to entice females to mate with them. Different species construct in their territory different styles of bowers: the most elaborate bowers are two wigwam-like structures, constructed from interwoven sticks and connected by a perch. The males decorate the bowers by placing colorful berries, shells, flowers, fungi, or beetle wings in piles in front of and inside the bowers. Certain species favor a certain color; the satin bowerbirds use mostly blue items. They will even use blue plastic bottle caps. Other species favor a mixture of colors. Males may spend as much as nine months decorating the bower and its front yard by throwing out rotten flowers or fungi and bringing in new ones. During the mating season, females pass by many bowers and inspect the decorations and listen to the male singing in his bower or behind it. If the female is satisfied, she will enter the bower and they will mate. Then the female leaves and builds a small nest at a distance from the bower and lays the eggs and rears the young alone. The male will mate with as many as twenty-four other females during one season.[5]

The Human Home

When we look at ownership of territories in animals, we can see many similarities to the ownership of a home for humans. The human home is also a place of safety where a family can escape strangers (if not predators) and keep to itself when it wishes. It is a place to bring up children in safety and warmth as the nest is for eggs and chicks. It is where humans store food, as the pantry tree is for woodpeckers and jays. It is the place for the procreative act, as the bower is for bower birds. The shared ownership of the home becomes part of the spousal bond as it does for lyre birds and other monogamous birds. It is a place which humans can ornament and make beautiful. But each of these uses is transformed by our rationality. In addition, there are uses of the human home that are not at all present in animal’s use of territory. Among these are hospitality, worship, making music, telling stories, and the passing on of human language and culture. Each of these helps to elevate the uses of the home that we do share with birds. Let us principally consider hospitality and how it is a source of other purely human uses.


Territoriality is in many ways the opposite of hospitality. A bird’s territory is the area of land from which he chases away all other birds of his species, except his mate and chicks. Only humans practice hospitality in which they invite others who are not their family into their homes. Yet hospitality is deeply connected to marriage and family. From Scripture to The Odyssey, Western literature is filled with scenes to be emulated, of families offering hospitality, and scenes to be abhorred, of hospitality abused. All civilizations and cultures have valued hospitality and considered abusing hospitality one of the most heinous of crimes. The Japanese tea ceremony is an eloquent expression of hospitality. The Indian Hindu text Taitiriya Upanishad says, “Be one for whom the friend is god.”

In Homeric Greece, the guest is feasted and entertained, given fine garments and valuable guest gifts, invited to stay as long as desired and considered bonded to the host family for life. In The Odyssey, the naked and shipwrecked Odysseus is treated kindly by the princess of Phaikia. She orders him to be bathed, fed, given fine clothes and invites him to the palace. The king and queen welcome him and feast him with rich foods and sweet wine. They even offer their daughter to him as wife and to make him heir to the throne. When he begs to be sent home to Ithaca instead, they provide a ship and sailors and fill the boat with precious presents and send him off.[6]

Most deeply significant of all the stories of hospitality in Homer is the story of Odysseus’s homecoming and the sign of the bed. After his absence of twenty years, first for the duration of the Trojan War and then his journey home, Odysseus arrives in Ithaca to find his wife Penelope’s hospitality is being grossly abused by her suitors. They covet her lands, house, and wealth. They come every day to feast and revel in her house, using up her substance, until she agrees to marry one of them. She refuses in the hope that Odysseus will someday come home. When he does come, she is afraid of being mistaken. She tells her son, “If he is truly Odysseus, and he has come home, then we shall find other ways, and better to recognize each other, for we have signs we know of between the two of us only, but they are secret from others.”[7] She tests Odysseus by telling him that she will have the servants pull out their bed, the bed he had made, from their chamber for him to sleep on and she will sleep in their bedroom alone. He is deeply hurt and angry and says that no man could pull the bed out unless she has destroyed the olive tree upon which it is built. He explains that there was a large olive tree in the courtyard and that he trimmed off its branches and built their bed chamber around it and then used the trunk as the post of the bed to which he attached the rest of the bed. This is the sign that Penelope was waiting for. She embraces him and together they weep for joy. They relate twenty years of adventures to each other and then Athena delays the dawn so that they can enjoy the sweetness of lovemaking and sleeping together.

Why is the bed built onto the olive tree at the center of the home such a significant sign? The marriage union between husband and wife, consummated and renewed on this bed, is the living center of the human family; thus, the marriage bed and chamber are the center of the home. It is from the spousal union that life, benevolence, and hospitality flow: first, to children, in this case, to Telemachus, second to all the other members of the household, Odysseus’s father, the servants and farmhands, and finally to neighbors, friends, and even strangers who are offered hospitality. In the fruitful hospitality of their life together, Odysseus and Penelope make room in their home for honoring the gods, for enjoying the beauty of music, poetry, and comely manners. There is an altar of mighty Zeus in the courtyard of their palace where “Odysseus and Laertes had burned up the thighs of many oxen.”[8] There is a minstrel, Phemios, who sings tales of the gods and men at the feasts. The suitors are not only greedy for food, avaricious for wealth, but also boorish in manners. They mistreat the servants, and one even throws an ox hoof at Odysseus when he comes disguised as an old beggar. Telemachus is full of shame for such inhospitality in his home.

The individual animal’s territory is essentially exclusive. The bower bird’s wigwam keeps competitors away from the female. Mating is brief and instinctive. After mating, the female leaves to go build her nest and never interacts with that male again. For the human couple, like Odysseus and Penelope, the wedding chamber is a place of privacy and thus exclusive, but that privacy protects a joy-filled communication of goodness. It is open to giving life to new persons. It shelters the personal intimate gift-of-self in which the physical procreative act becomes a word, a language of the body saying (ideally): “I give myself to you and to you alone, irrevocably for life. It is with you alone that I choose to have children and raise a family.” Penelope is the model of such marital faithfulness.

The shared territory and nest of monogamous birds who are more closely bonded together because of their territory is like the bond a human couple and their family have that is increased by sharing a home with all its shared memories. Odysseus pines to go home to rocky sea-washed Ithaca, to his house built around the olive tree, to his wife, his son, his old father, Laertes, and to the sixty pear, apple, and fig trees his father gave him when he was a child.

Homes are not just places to store food as they are for woodpeckers and shrikes, but much more, a place to dine and feast together, to worship together, to tell stories and make music together—to pass on all that makes up our culture to our children by living it and sharing it with them and with our guests. When Odysseus enters the palace of the Phaiakians as a beggar, they not only prepare a fine feast for him, but they pour out libations to Zeus and call in the herald to sing tales of the Trojan War. Odysseus approves, “With all peoples upon earth singers are entitled to be cherished and to their share of respect, since the Muse has taught them her own way, and since she loves the company of singers.”[9] Prayer to the gods, music and telling stories are essential elements for the Greeks to enrich the feast.

Humans live in and own bodily places as birds live in and own their territories and nests but in a way that is permeated by their rationality. The individual animal’s territory is essentially exclusive. It keeps competitors away. The human home, like the human person, has an openness to all being: to beauty, truth, and the common good of all persons, God. The home must protect and give privacy to a family and to that extent it is exclusive, but it should become a place where a communion of persons is lived and directed toward the common good, even in the very acts of reproduction, childcare, and eating, which they share with lower animals. Reproduction and childcare become procreation passing on human life and faith with the help of God and for eternal life with God. Eating becomes dining, with prayer preceding it, and a care for beauty and conversation accompanying it. But to these are added uses that are not at all shared by animals such as worship of God, making and listening to music and stories, the transmission of culture, and hospitality. The openness of hospitality demonstrates well the openness of the person to all of reality as the exclusivity of animal territory demonstrates the closedness of instinct.

[1] Konrad Z. Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animal Ways (New York: Meridian Books, 1952), 143–92.

[2] Peter Goodfellow, Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer & Build (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011), 144–47.

[3] Adolf Portmann, Animal as Social Beings (New York: Viking Press, 1961), 219–33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Goodfellow, 132–47.

[6] The Odyssey, Books V-XIII.

[7] The Odyssey, XXIII, 109

[8] The Odyssey, XXII, 335.

[9] The Odyssey, VI, 479–82.

Susan Waldstein teaches theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Her area of special interest is the interface of theology and biology in such topics as evolution and hierarchy in nature.

Posted on June 7, 2024

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