For the Birds Radio Program: Happy Anniversary

Original Air Date: April 2, 1997

A 25th wedding anniversary inspired this program about the mating habits of birds. (3:30) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, something few birds ever get to do. Most birds mate only for a single season, or even for only part of a season. House Wrens split up before the first batch of babies is raised so she can mate with another male while he’s still caring for the babies, after which he’ll find yet another mate, so that between the two of them they can maximize the number of babies produced. Some birds may stick with their mate to raise a second or third brood, but once their hormones run out, so does their attachment to each other. This is more merciful than unromantic, because the high mortality rate of songbirds would mean most birds would spend their lives grieving for lost mates.

Grief is in surprisingly short supply in the world of songbirds. Back in 1945, a famous ornithologist named Ludlow Griscom shot a male Indigo Bunting as the female was beginning nest building. The next day, she already had a new mate, which Griscom shot, too—and the next day she had another new mate. Griscom shot a total of 9 males, each of which the female quickly replaced—he finally left the 10th male to help her raise the babies. Not very romantic, is it?

Some birds have no attachment whatsoever to their mates. Mallard drakes will mate with anything that will hold still long enough to let them, from ducks to rocks. That’s actually how they got their name. The “Mall” is from Old French for masculine or male, and the “ard” is pejorative, as in drunkard or sluggard, because Mallards epitomize the worst of masculinity. Male hummingbirds, grouse, prairie-chickens, and many other species have no pair bond at all, joining together only for the fleeting moments of actual mating.

Even among birds that mate for life, not all are closely bonded. A pair of Bald Eagles mates with one another for many long years, but only because they can’t work out a property settlement. Both are far more bonded to the nest site than to one another, and except for the few months they spend nesting and raising young, they live apart.

But some bird species would please the most romantic of us. Swans, geese, and cranes are all devoted to their mates throughout the year, even in winter when their low hormone level ensures that their relationship can be no more than platonic. All of these birds have a variety of ways of showing their devotion, and all go through a definite period of mourning if they lose their mate. The coolest thing about them is how they continue to raise babies even after they’ve become great, great, great grandparents. A 27-year old swan, celebrating it’s 25th mating anniversary, can be a great-great-great-great—well, make that 22 greats-grandmother, and still be producing new babies in spring. Cranes keep their romance alive from one year to the next with exuberant song and dance. This is the time of year to get out and see all these romantic species. If spring draws your thoughts to romance and the birds and the bees, look to the cranes, swans and geese to see what true devotion really means.