Many birds “marry” for life, others for a little while, and some others continually play the fields, bushes, trees and shorelines. Females determine with whom they will mate, so the male birds must be colorful and expert at the sex dances in order to get those women to love them—at least for the few seconds that the actual mating takes place.
Females produce the eggs and do what they must do to propagate their species. Yes, there are some couplings where the males actually help out around the house and some even are house-husbands but usually the males are doing most of the hunting to feed their brood and leave the baby caring to the ladies. Some males just scoot away never to be seen or heard from again.
The March 2018 issue of Scientific American has an interesting article “Bird Breakup” by Jason G. Goldberg on why certain bird couplings go astray and sometimes end in a birdie divorce. Blue herons have a different mate every breeding season—they are the Liz Taylors of birding—while the mallards only have a nine percent divorce rate. The mallards are committed to marriage. The blue herons are committed to mating without commitment.
First, most of the birdie divorces occur because of the death of one spouse or a lack of synchronicity in the birds’ migrating patterns. If hubby arrives at the nesting site a few weeks ahead of his wife but his dear wife does not get there within a certain time period, the urge to reproduce is too great for the male to hang in there. After all, the bird’s genes are screaming for reproduction. In short, death, delay or lack of synchronicity can wreak havoc with a bird marriage. A male or female is not going to wait for a delayed or dead spouse to hurry on home because the future awaits.
It is rare that in a bird marriage, one will say, “Go on now, go! Walk out the door. Just turn around now, ‘cause you’re not welcome anymore.” Generally the breakups are due to circumstances outside the bird’s control.
Then there are accidents that can cause problems in a bird’s relationship with his spouse. In New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, according to The New York Post, a lovely red-tailed hawk couple, Christo and Dora, who have raised 10 chicks together, have suddenly encountered true marriage problems.
You see Dora needed to go into rehabilitation and no, even though this is New York City, her stint in rehab had nothing to do with drugs; she had a broken wing.
Red-tailed hawks usually mate for life but with Dora’s disappearance, and presumed death, a new love entered Christo’s picture, Nora, meaning “not Dora,” flew in, wiggled her feathers and enticed Christo to give a second marriage a try.
Christo and Nora started the mating rituals and then – oh, no! – Dora was released back into the park. Dora saw Nora. Nora saw Dora. Christo saw Dora and Nora. And there was trouble with a capital T!
The two females had no intention of being sister wives. They were on the verge of fighting to the death when Christo helped create two nests far enough away from each other so 0that Dora and Nora didn’t have to bother with one another. But Christo is not a Mormon bird from the old school of polygamy and whether he can handle two wives is yet to be seen. New Yorkers who enjoy the hawks are waiting with baited breath for the end results of this bigamy.
Peregrine falcons that also mate for life will experience devastating angst when their mates die. In the marvelous book Wings for My Flight: The Peregrine Falcons of Chimney Rock, Marcy Cottrell Houle recounts the death of a female falcon whose mate waits and waits for her return.
The male flies and flies miles and miles as he desperately searches for his mate. In his travail he loses significant weight, and when he finally realizes that he has lost his beloved, he mournfully takes up the total care and training of the chicks himself. It is a heartbreaking tale that looks exactly like true love.
Can a bird love? Can a bird feel loss? Decide that for yourselves, but my answer is yes.
Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and at bookstores.