Birds of a Feather

Working together provides powerful proof that the flock is greater

than the sum of its birds.

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

In North with the Spring, his landmark 1951 study of this greenest and most welcome of seasons, naturalist Edwin Way Teale devotes a chapter to “May at Monticello.” In this book, the first of four that follow the progression of the seasons across America, Teale describes an incident as he emerges from Mr. Jefferson’s residence. He observes that “all the small birds feeding in the open dashed pell-mell into the bushes.” He then notices a Cooper’s hawk in the sky above and that, instead of remaining silent, the small birds enter into “a confused babble of bird voices.”

Teale notes the seemingly illogical, indeed reckless, nature of the birds’ reaction to a threat. Why get louder, rather than quieter? But then he offers the answer: “By flocking together in the air, small birds are able to divide the attention of the hawk, to distract it by many shapes in motion. As long as they keep together, and the hawk is unable to cut one individual from the flying mass, all escape.”

He continues. “The confusion chorus appears to be a kind of flocking by sound. The calls, coming from all sides at the same time, apparently disconcert the bird of prey. At any rate, the Cooper’s hawk swept on without pausing, reached the edge of the mountainside, and slid down out of sight. The twittering chorus ceased ... Now that the danger was past, there remained no visible remnant of haunting fear. Monticello in May was once more a place of sunshine and of peace.”

Rural folks in the mid-1930s handled a crisis in much the same way as Mr. Jefferson’s chipping sparrows and English sparrows.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, the marvels of electricity were transforming cities, midwifing the birth of suburbs, and creating for metro-area residents what would ultimately become the highest standard of living in history. In the 1930s, though, rural areas were still in the dark, literally. Time-saving, labor-saving, money-saving devices were largely dependent on something that 90 percent of rural people didn’t have: electricity.

But by joining together, they were able to create their own utility — a cooperative — to provide themselves with power, at cost. This effort that began in the mid-’30s was repeated over and over in communities across Virginia and across the nation, to the point where there are now more than 900 local cooperatives in 47 states.  

And this member-owned cooperative model still works today, over 75 years later, even as Virginia’s rural areas shrink and her suburbs grow. That’s because the focus has always been on local people providing other local people with responsive service. And if there’s money left over at the end of the year, it’s assigned as patronage capital to the members, and later returned to them.

Member ownership also means member control, which is evident in the cooperative annual meetings coming up over the next four months. We hope you’ll make plans to attend your cooperative’s annual gathering of members, to elect directors and carry out the business of your business. A cooperative’s policies are set by a board of directors consisting of members, elected by their fellow members, working for the benefit of the members.

So in a cooperative, your vote counts. Your voice is heard. Our only purpose is to provide you with the best possible electric service at the lowest possible cost. It’s why our members began flocking together in the 1930s. And it’s why the flock stays together in the very different world of the 21st century.




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