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‘Wives, Sweethearts And Concubines’

“Marriage lasting for a single breeding season seems best suited to the life of most birds and is the most frequently practiced form of bird matrimony.”

Again, I am quoting from “The Family Life of Birds” which has been written by Hans D. Dossenbach. He continues, “[t]o be sure, there are many other kinds of partnerships. Many more birds than is commonly believed, for example, remain with the same partner for years. But who can claim intimate knowledge of the ‘love life’ of all the vivacious, feathered species? Be that as it may, among most species the marriage partners share a very intimate relationship. Observing a pair of birds greeting each other exuberantly as one relieves the other of the brooding task, caressing each other, or nestling against one another while enjoying a rest, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the couple is deeply in love — in the human sense of this expression — and that the relationship is far more cordial than would be required by the mere care for the offspring. Even bird couples which maintain less friendly relationships than are customary among most feathered species share in the brooding and raising the young.”

He turns to the woodpeckers to illustrate this point for, with just a few exceptions, these birds are loners. Except during the breeding season, these birds remain alone in their own area. “When two of these hermits meet, they threaten each other with fearsome calls, peculiar thrusting feints with their bills, and aggressive flying maneuvers. It may eventually result in a bloody fight, and, since the beak of a woodpecker is a dangerous weapon, such a quarry may end with the [death] of one of the birds.”

Turns out, according to Dossenbach, that even their courtship leaves much to be desired. For the birds of course. He calls it a menacing courtship. Facing each other in “threatening attitudes,” neither will allow the other to get too close, maintaining their distance from each other with “repeating feints of their beaks. Both seem to be extremely hesitant about entering into a relationship, even for procreation and the establishment of a family.” Rather surprisingly, the male will brood once the eggs are laid, usually at night. “This rather hostile relationship even includes repeated biting bouts, and it is dissolved without delay as soon as the young are fledged.”

We can skip over the African ostrich only because they aren’t here but it’s one bird who prefers three wives. And the turkey who gets no approval from me with his vane strutting and fancy plumage for as soon as the hen has been fertilized, he’s off to join the boys, ignoring her completely.

The tiny wren will usually build a whole series of “mock nests. At breeding time, he will use one of them to seduce the first female that heeds his song, which he warbles with amazing volume. By the time she has padded the nest for her purposes, moved into it,and begun to brood, her lord and master is already off looking for another playmate who will exchange her love for one of his pretty little spherical houses.”

One could get pretty upset with all this birdie fooling around if one forgets there are always other examples. “The married life of geese is one of the most ‘exemplary’ forms of monogamy. . . They usually remain true to each other for life — and even after one partner dies the other rarely takes a new mate.

“The mating of geese, like that of ducks, their close relatives, is a long process involving complicated rituals, But individual couples will simplify the introductory courting gestures somewhat from year to year — and an older couple which has become attuned to each other over the course of many years may give them up almost completely, as though they had forgotten them. When an elderly goose dies, the widowed partner is no longer capable of performing the elaborate courting gestures of its youth and hence cannot attract another, younger partner. Thus ‘faithfulness beyond death’ is actually a consequence of ‘forgetfulness’ and should not be ascribed to mourning over a painful loss.”

So we close the chapter on mating birds. I confess I had no idea there was such interesting diversity.

Perhaps we’ll all be looking more closely in the spring.

Susan Crossett has lived in Arkwright for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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