Monday, April 22, 2013

Birds Do It: a Short Guide to the Sex Life of Birds

Guest post by Bob Bowers
Originally appeared on Bob's blog,

Monogamous Mates, the Curve-billed Thrasher (photo Bob Bowers)
Most of us can quote the most 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 about the fleas, educated or not, but now that spring has sprung, bees are buzzing, birds are singing and it’s all about sex.  Or, as the owl in Bambi put it, ‘twitterpation.’

As it turns out, 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 a 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.

Most of our year-round resident birds are the faithful type, monogamous couples that share parental responsibilities and stick together long term.  Hummingbirds, on the other hand, are at the other end of the spectrum, whether resident or migratory, and the males epitomize irresponsibility.  Like self-centered jocks they hang out at nectar bars, pick fights with intruders and probably would watch football, given the chance.  But when their juices move, 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.

Enraptured Roadrunners (photo copyright Bill George)
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.  In spring, the arrival of Hooded Orioles from Mexico is coincidental with the arrival of Bronzed Cowbirds, but this is no coincidence.  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 only in the nests of other species, and the Bronzed Cowbird has a thing about orioles.  Not only are these females nymphomaniacal, they stop at nothing to give their young every advantage.  They spread their eggs around as many nests as possible, and will pierce host 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 lay 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 mates 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 Harris’s Hawk goes for menage a trois (photo Bob Bowers)
The ménage a trois is found in bird land, too.  Female Galapagos Hawks will live with two males, all three sharing familial duties.  This two-lover relationship can be life-long for the lucky lady.  Here in southeastern Arizona, we have a similar ménage with Harris’s Hawks.  The reason you often see three Harris’s Hawks hanging out together is because it’s a two male, one female liaison, with the alpha female often perched above the others.

This being a family newspaper, I decided to steer clear of the explicit mechanics of bird sex.  Suffice it to say that we’re talking quick and painless, like a kiss on the cheek.

(This article originally appeared in the April, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

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