For the Birds Radio Program: Birds Mating for Life
On Valentine’s Day, the Duluth News-Tribune ran a story from their Washington bureau about birds mating for life. They quoted one researcher saying, “There certainly are some birds that could come back to the nest with a very honest heart and present a Valentine’s heart to their sweetheart.” Of course, that biologist doesn’t seem to realize that the only birds nesting in most places in the US on Valentine’s Day are owls, and so far, DNA tests haven’t proven one way or the other whether owls mate for life.
But the gist of the story was that most of the birds whose DNA has been tested are shockingly unfaithful to their mates. Apparently the expression about the birds and the bees is true: birds buzz around looking for love in all their song places. If you’re talking about the human heart, I guess you can compare love in songbirds to Gary Hart. They may have flings like Henry Hyde in his youthful 40s, or may flit about with the fidelity of a Bill Clinton, but whatever, they’re not the romantic creatures folklore makes them out to be.
The article was correct in both the contention that most songbirds are promiscuous and that a few birds are truly monogamous. DNA testing has verified that the Merlin, loon, Black Vulture, and Florida Scrub-Jay are truly monogamous, but frankly, none of these seems to have a future as a romantic symbol. Meanwhile, female red-red robins may go bob-bob-bobbin along, but they’re also checking out every Tom, Dick, and Harry. The article gave a curious statistic—it said, quote, “Montgomerie said his research shows that 50 percent of the eggs in a typical American robin’s nest have a different father, and in a second generation, that figure goes up to 75 percent.” It’s hard to know exactly what that means—were they talking about a second nesting in a season, or the offspring of promiscuously-produced robins?
The article has one big error. It says lovebirds are probably not monogamous, belonging to the promiscuous perching bird group, but actually, lovebirds are in the parrot family, and may well be totally monogamous. The article says lovebirds are tropical birds, but they actually hail from the Kalahari Desert in Africa, where snuggling at night might be important for heat retention and sealing a pair bond both. I would assume that eventually DNA testing will prove most swans and cranes to be truly monogamous. A pair of cranes synchronizes their physical reproductive cycles by dancing, and become so totally bonded that in many cases cranes never take another mate when their mate dies. At the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, one Whooping Crane named Tex became bonded to scientist George Archibald. She only came into breeding readiness every year after dancing with George for weeks. Tex was extremely jealous and vicious toward human females, and showed no interest in any men other than George. Romantic and faithful cranes may be the norm, but DNA testing will prove whether or not they are absolutely monogamous. Something in us yearns for birds to be angelic and pure, faithful and true, but it may turn out that overall, they’re not much different than us. Even though they’re birds, perhaps they’ll prove to be only human.