High Country Birding: Tales from the love lives of birds
Most of us can quote those memorable lyrics from Cole Porter’s song, “Let’s Fall in Love.” “Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.” I’m not sure why Porter felt fleas had to be educated, but certainly sex is universal, and birds are no exception. In fact, the sex life of birds is practically as complex and varied as that of humans, with strikingly similar, and equally aberrant, behavior. There are happily monogamous birds, deadbeat dads, trashy moms, polygamous males, ménages à trois, male and female harems, prostitution and just about every other quirk and kink found among humans. The difference, though, is that birds are driven by a single motivator, reproduction.
Many of our most common birds are the faithful type, monogamous couples that share parental responsibilities and stick together long term. Our American crows are “socially” monogamous, mating for life, but like some humans, still promiscuous. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, are at the far end of the spectrum, and the males epitomize irresponsibility. Like self-centered jerks they hang out at nectar bars and pick fights with intruders. But when the timing is right, they make room for the ladies, flashing their iridescent feathers like a roll of c-notes. They’ll share a nectar cocktail or two, and then make their move, which takes less time to consummate than to read about. And no fond farewells, either. The expectant mother is kicked out and left alone to build a nest, incubate the eggs, feed and raise the young, while deadbeat dad is bedding down everyone else in town.
New Mexico’s state bird, the greater roadrunner, also belongs to the “wine and dine” club, but unlike the hummingbird, the roadrunner actually cares about his mate. While the female is preparing her nest, the male goes hunting for a desert dinner gift. Returning with a mouse or lizard clamped in his bill, he proudly shows it off. This is dinner at the Ritz-Carlton to Mrs. Roadrunner. She jumps in front of her mate, raises her tail and trades her innocence for a 5-star mouse. Her mate settles for take-out.
Male birds aren’t the only opportunists. Consider the cowbird. The female cowbird may lay many eggs in a season while never building a nest of her own. Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species, and they stop at nothing to give their young every advantage. The female distributes her eggs around as many nests as possible, and she will pierce the host’s eggs as well as those from competing cowbirds in the process, murdering the unborn of both species. If a host bird recognizes and disposes of the foreign egg, the female cowbird has been found to return to the nest and trash it, sending a Mafia-like message to the host. Surprisingly, once the cowbird’s eggs hatch, the host birds typically feed and raise the foster kids like their own, even when the interlopers are bigger, look funny and sing a different tune.
Shunning single-parenting, widowed females of some species with a nest full of eggs will find an unattached guy and tempt him into sex. She’ll then return to her nest, incubate the eggs and hang parental responsibility on the unsuspecting male. Deceitful for sure, but effective, and the otherwise doomed young survive. Male red-winged blackbirds, on the other hand, are into harems, often maintaining a territory of three or more females through the breeding season, sometimes helping with the young, sometimes not. Red phalaropes are more into role reversal than harems, and female phalaropes, supercharged with male hormones, have the bright breeding plumage and aggressive behavior normally found in males. These liberated feminists choose their mate and lay his eggs, but then turn over incubation duties to the hen-pecked male while she goes looking for a second (and sometimes third) mister mom before migrating south on her own.
The ménage a trois is found in bird land, too. Female Harris’s hawks may live with two males, all three sharing familial duties; a two-lover dream for the lucky lady. Considering how badly mother hummingbirds are exploited, it’s good to know some female birds truly rule the roost.
Bob Bowers is a freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, lives in the mountain foothills near Tucson and spends much of his summer in Keystone. He writes a birding and travel blog, http://www.birdingthebrookeandbeyond.com , and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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