Does size matter?

by : David Leonhardt

Bigger is better. Isn't that the American dream?

Why buy a road-hogging, critter-squishing, bumper-defying, wall-of-metal SUV when you have the delicious option of buying a BIGGER road-hogging, critter-squishing, bumper-defying, wall-of-metal SUV?

Why settle for a puny three-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow of our parents' generation nestled comfortably on a green plot of land with a few nice shade trees? In new "developments" these days, you can choose a two-storey home bulging beyond the property line of today's incredible shrinking lots, complete with a bedroom that can sleep 34 PLUS a walk-in closet that sleeps another 20 AND an ensuite bathroom big enough to store your SUV when your 300-cubit-long garage is full of toys or tools. (That's one arc-full, in case you didn't know.)

I remember early in primary school how the teachers made us line up according to height before we could go into the school. I suppose it was a measure of our universally exemplary behavior that I had plenty of time to daydream in line while some of the more spirited children were rounded up by the sheep dogs.

My line-up thoughts often turned to dissecting school rules in hopes of finding intelligent life in them. Although my futile quest never succeeded, all was not lost. As one of the shorter kids in my class, I developed a theoretic framework for the "lining up by height" rule. That framework took the form of three questions:

  1. If size does not matter, why were we being sorted by height?

  2. If size does matter, what do the teachers have against us shorter kids, making a daily display of the height we lacked?

  3. If big is better, why were the shorter kids given the front seats with the better view?

Although the answers to those questions remain a mystery to this day, I am convinced that size does not matter (except when someone offers me a slice of cheesecake – yum!).

My wife and I witnessed an awesome display of aviation the other day. Two hawks were flying around across the street, swooping right over us at times. They were trying to establish a new nest.

Usually, hawks fly somewhere "up there", distant silhouettes against the blinding brightness of the sky. But on this occasion, they were flying low enough for us to make out the colors beneath their wings: the deep, dark brown and the sandy tan feathers.

And low enough to see the colors of the little birds (sparrows, perhaps?) giving chase. It was an even match, or so it seemed. Two sparrows versus two hawks. OK, perhaps not completely even. Each hawk looked big enough to gulp down a sparrow in a single chomp, like a person might swallow a grape. Come to think of it, this match did not look any more even than if I had been placed in a ring with a well-fed sumo wrestler.

Yet there they were, two big hawks, graceful and majestic, the scourge of field mice everywhere, managing impossible maneuvers to evade the slightest touch of the tiny sparrows.

Why? Because sparrows are more agile than hawks, and can more easily position themselves for attack. Because sparrows are less fragile than hawks, and do not fear feather damage to the same degree. Because sparrows are quicker than hawks, so they can more easily retreat if they have to.

Sadly for the hawks, their size was of little comfort against the superior skills of the sparrows. And sadly for us, it appears we will NOT be watching the comings and goings of hawks nesting across the street.

Does size matter? No. But if you want to make that slice of cheesecake just a bit bigger, I would be much obliged.