For the Birds Radio Program: Romance
February is the month when the thoughts of humans and birds alike turn to romance. (3:35)
Valentine’s Day is a time to honor and support romantic love and the greeting card and florist industries of America. Birds don’t pay attention to all the hoopla, even though by February some of them are already revving up into breeding mode. Already this year a pair of ravens has hatched out a clutch of eggs in Superior, Wisconsin, though the extreme cold last week did in the poor babies. Yes, birds are just as foolishly romantic as we humans, and, also like us, don’t always consider the consequences of loving too fast and too soon, but even in the throes of passion, birds don’t see the point to paying out good money for flowers or candy.
Some birds do give gifts to their mates, but these gifts come from the heart rather than a mall. Ravens, crows, magpies, and jays are into shiny gemstones, but I’ve yet to see them buying them in a jewelry store. With birds and humans both, food is a perfectly appropriate gift at any stage of a courtship. Heart-shaped boxes filled with an assortment of chocolates aren’t popular with birds, but warblers and vireos do present their intended with an assortment of squashed caterpillars, and hawks and owls offer their loves mangled rodents. As human brides and grooms gently, or not so gently, feed one another wedding cake, grosbeaks tenderly regurgitate to one another half-digested seeds.
Birds don’t need a Hallmark company to provide them with tender words for their loved ones—their eloquent love songs inspired many of our human poems and songs. Usually it’s the male birds that sing, but Rose-breasted Grosbeak duets rival Steve and Edie’s. The courtship dances of some hummingbirds and cranes are as elaborate as Fred and Ginger’s, though you’ll never see even the most dapper hummer sporting a tux, and no female bird need bother with a feather boa. Overall, few species of birds have courtship dances, but of the ones with the most elaborate dance steps, oddly, some are into one-night stands, like hummers and woodcock, while others, like cranes, maintain life-long matings rather like happy human marriages.
We humans seem to be almost alone in expecting romantic love to provide safety and warmth in our lives. Most birds choose a partner not to serve as a soul mate but simply as necessary equipment to produce and raise babies. When a bird takes ill, it hardly looks to its mate to provide it with hugs and chicken soup—most birds are lucky if their mates don’t attack and kill them when they’re not up to their usual perky selves. Geese, ravens, crows, and jays are among the few birds that maintain tender pair bonds even during flu season, and often remain with a suffering mate and even attempt to help it when one is sick or injured. Although some birds do snuggle next to a mate to provide warmth on a cold night, chickadees and woodpeckers sleep not only in separate beds, but in separate bedrooms, usually in different trees altogether.
Valentines never show birds the way they really are—if we want Valentine’s day symbols to represent warm snuggling and steadfast loyalty, skip birds altogether and go with a golden retriever.