WE CAN LEARN ABOUT ROMANCE FROM THE BIRDS
Birds get engaged, marry and often stay deeply in love for a lifetime. And even those that obtain Hollywood divorces behave with a decorum we humans might copy
NORMAN J. BERRILL
SINCE HUMAN beings and birds are the bipeds of this world I think we should feel more affinity with the birds than we do. Birds, of course, have bright-colored feathers, a crest, spurs and a song, whereas man is naked, colorless, covers himself in a business suit and shaves off his beard. But in the realm of love we are surprisingly similar. In fact, considering the niceties of courtship, the virtue of faithfulness, the balance may be somewhat in favor of the birds.
Equipped with a pair of wings that are useful only in flying and with a toothless beak that doesn’t
FROM THE BIRDS
afford a good solid grip, the bird starts his lovemaking from a handicapped position.
Just suppose that your hands are tied behind your back and you meet the girl of your choice. You can follow her, whistle at her, jump up and down to attract her attention, but you can’t stop her going where she wants to go. The two of you must be in tune body and soul for any co-operative venture. So birds must woo in order to get together and must keep on wooing to stay together, and they appear to have carried it farther than most humans do.
Birds fall in love. Birds get engaged. Birds get married, some of them until death do them part, somelike the common house sparrow—on a seasonal or Hollywood basis; only a minority get together for procreation alone. This is no parody on the human comedy. It is the real thing, lacking only officialdom; betrothals and marriages are as fully recognized within the bird community as common law can make them in human society.
When a gander meets a goose, as with boy and girl, it is often a case of love at first sight. Whether it happens suddenly or only after careful mutual inspection the engagement is announced by a loud triumphant cry, perhaps a testing of their feeling that two can honk as one. The marriage which follows is a consequence and not a cause of the partnership, and forever after both remain faithful. Even death fails to break the bond: the greylag goose widow or widower remains a solitary, lonely bird until its own days come to an end. What more can you ask?
For most of the smaller birds marriage is for the season and couples break up when parental duties for the year are over. The wonder is that creatures so short of wits and understanding can be that faithful.
Yet many small birds do marry for life, although those that do nearly always undergo a long engagement -as childhood sweethearts in fact. Bearded tits for instance become engaged at ten weeks while still in their juvenile plumage, a full nine months before they are ready to mate. The male eventually grows deep black tail feathers and black muttonchop whiskers with which to impress his mate, but long before he gets them he shows off as though they were already grown, like a boy showing off the first down above his upper lip. Yet it is not puppy
Professor of Zoology, McGill University BY GRASSICK
love, as is usually the case with young humans, but the glowing beginning of a lifetime partnership. Each gets to know the other by looks and gestures and personality as distinctively as if they were a man and a maid with an absorbing interest in one another, becoming familiar with all those little intangible things that add up to make each individual different from every other. The companionship grows with every tender caress until the betrothal becomes practically unbreakable. Jilting is unheard of, or almost so.
One of the great problems for birds, of course, is to start an acquaintance. Personality, character and emotional mood mean more than a pretty shape, and, in any case, one bird looks much like another, even to a bird at least until they get to know each other. Some birds look more alike than others, not only to us but to themselves. Penguins in particular have a lot of trouble this way. A male penguin can tell a female only by the way she acts. He must approach the prospective mate in just the right way and, in fact, a hopeful male never knows what he is starting. All he can do is to go up to a likely-looking individual and make an offering of a pebble or a feather, having little else to proffer, and hope for the best. If the gift is ignored he may have picked on an unawakened maiden; if he gets a good hard pecking he has found a thoroughly insulted gentleman; only when the gift is graciously received does he know he has met the right kind of girl. Then the courtship can proceed, they get to know each other, and eventually take up their family duties.
With penguins this is an annual procedure, for once the chicks have been reared and the penguin colony dispersed far and wide across the southern ocean, there is little prospect of the same two partners pairing up again. Yet for the season they are faithful to one another, whether or not their marriage is all that can be desired. Just like the people on your street, some penguin couples live in amorous serenity, others bicker and squabble from morning to night. But they are wedded for better or for worse, even though there is a time limit.
Bird and human behavior are spurred by the same emotions. But, while birds are governed by them, man has an overriding intelligence that complicates the situation—his head and his heart are too often in conflict. Birds, no matter how
intense their love life may be, are at the best dim-witted individuals, and even the wise old crow is wise only by comparison. A male ruffed grouse will attempt to mate with a dead grouse, or even a skin.
In the matter of courting a bird knows no restraint. The male ostrich pursues a hen a number of times, and, to complete the courtship, flops to the ground with his head thrown over his back and rolls from side to side, displaying his plumes in wild abandon; and in the end has to sit upon the eggs in his spectacular courting dress—a man in white tie and tails, nursing the baby.
There are birds that manage to fly and embrace each other at the same time, a feat unmatched by any other living creature. Birds of prey use their feet and legs more for grasping than for walking. Their voices are harsh, their feathers are for flight alone, and only flight itself is left as an outlet for intense emotion. Those who have seen the courting of kites and eagles have found it breathtaking. One pair of kites were seen to clasp each other’s claws high up in the air and remain poised in an upright position with beating wings for several seconds. As they began to fall they started to revolve with their interlocked claws as an axis, slowly at first, then faster and faster, although always with an amazing control, until they almost reached the ground. Four times the falling, whirling embrace was repeated.
Unlike humans who can look in mirrors to see what they look like, birds are more aware of the appearance of others than of their own. Normally they live with birds of their own kind and all is well, but almost anything can happen on a farm or in a zoo. A female barnyard goose, a solitary survivor of a brood, fell violently in love with a Rhode Island cock, prevented him from making love to his hens and took no notice of a gander brought in for her. A male white peacock in a Vienna zoo, brought up alone with only giant tortoises for company, could see no other form of beauty or desire.
Love transfigures birds. They are highly emotional, for all their lack of intelligence, and are keyed up to an intensity of living that we find hard to comprehend. With a degree and a half of fever, or a temperature of 100 degrees, our minds are overactive and we have a quickened sense of time; but a sparrow races through life at 111 degrees and even the common fowl above 104. These for us would be killing temperatures and the pitch of awareness and emotion that goes with them would soon wear us out. It is not surprising then that birds, with the hottest blood on earth, love with an ecstasy we humans can’t hope to know.
Julian Huxley watched herons on the coastal plains of Louisiana and wrote glowingly of their love raptures. After the flocks have flown across the Gulf of Mexico and have broken up into pairs,
each couple indulges in a passionate interlude instead of building a nest at once. Male and female cuddle together in a honeymoon as true as any of our own; and its unconscious motive is the same— the welding together of male and female mentally and emotionally for the purpose of raising a family.
Heron honeymoons are relatively short but they make up for that in intensity of feeling. Every so often their welling emotion bursts out as violent movement, beating of wings, strident shrieks and the intertwining of necks. “Their long necks,” says Huxley, “are so flexible that they can and do make a complete single turn round each other a real true-lovers’ knot! This once accomplished each bird then—most wonderful of allruns its beak quickly and amorously through the just-raised aigrettes of the other, again and again, nibbling and clappering from base to tip. Of this I can only say that it seemed to bring such a pitch of emotion that I could have wished to be a heron that I might experience it.”
Every year throughout their lives the heron honeymoon is renewed, growing in passionate meaning with every passing spring. There is never any sign of the coolness of habit or bored indifference you too often see in older married human couples. And, when family cares are heavy and one of the pair of herons has to stand guard at the nest, he or she watches anxiously for its mate. As soon as it spies the other, no matter how far away, it ruffles its feathers, beats its wings, and shrieks. The excitement mounts until once again they are together. They cuddle in passionate rapture every time they meet and again each time one or the other has to leave.
Australian lovebirds also spend their lives in an eternal honeymoon, never intentionally leaving one another, even for a moment. To them separation spells death. Courting in the bird world, it seems, may get you a mate, but you have to keep it up to live happily ever after.
Only one bird appears to have gone further. This is a New Zealand crow which has extended the emotional bondage to that of the stomach. Neither member of a pair can get a meal alone. They must marry as soon as they leave their respective parents and must stay married. Bachelors, spinsters, widows and widowers cannot survive. Each couple works together as though it were a single woodpecker.
The male with his strong beak taps and digs the bark of trees to reach the insects living beneath, but he cannot get them out. Only the female with her long slender beak can extract them, which she does and then shares them with her mate; but she cannot make the hole.
With herons, geese, lovebirds and many others, the courting and necking is reciprocal, and together in close harmony the couple strengthen their emotional and psychic bonds. But in other cases, particularly where the male not only has to make all the advances but is ripe and ready weeks or even months before the female, the strain is obvious and the effort is great.
The lyrebird, famous for his song and for his lyre-shaped display of tail feathers, spends much of his time for several months standing on display mounds in the fern and gum forests of Queensland, showing off his finery and singing for all he is worth. Why? Because he is master of his territory and must continually proclaim the fact, and because he has a female watching him from up a tree and she must be kept interested. The trouble is that he has to claim and hold his ground early in the season in competition with other males, and then, once successful, he has to gain Continued on page 53
Romance From The Birds
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 17
and hold the attention of his future spouse during the months it takes for her to reach maturity. He is like a man with a child wife, who not only must wait patiently for time and nature to run its course, but must constantly pay court or else all will be in vain. The eggs of lyrebirds grow within the female’s body only as long as she can see and hear her prospective mate. There is nothing he can do to force the issue except show off his bright feathers and sing, literally for the sake of his posterity. A pigeon when reared from birth in isolation does not lay eggs; but she will do so if she has a male in sight, or if her neck is tickled as though by a masculine beak. Childless couples may well take notice.
Song alone, though, is not enough. The lyrebird sings but he has his feathers too. But the bowerbird, who also sings wonderfully and has to cope with the same sort of situation, and looks little better than a crow, has to work hard to compensate for his lack of fine colors.
There is a surplus of bowerbird males so that no bird with an ounce of masculinity can afford to wait to take possession of his breeding territory — he who matures first gains possession. Without colored feathers to show off, he builds a grassy bower and decorates it with all the bright berries, leaves or any other shiny objects he can find — anything to hold the eye of his beloved and encourage her eggs to grow. She watches quietly while he works. Once in a while, like any woman, she wanders off and the sad bowerbird male takes his treasures down and piles them neatly in front of his bower, perhaps eating a few of the choicest berries. But, if she is still interested, his life for two or three months is a continual serenade.
When the bride is ready and willing she enters the bridal bower. Then she goes off to her nest — which is hers alone—-to lay and hatch her eggs. They are firmly wedded for all that they keep separate establishments, and when the youngsters are able to walk she returns to her husband to unite her family, and to imprint upon their young minds the importance of the bower. What a bird first sees is allimportant.
You cannot really get to know a bird, or anyone else, by peering at them through binoculars. You need the intimacy of living with them. I do not mean keeping a dog or a cat or a caged canary but opening your heart and home to less-domesticated and uncaged creatures. Konrad Lorentz, of Vienna, has given himself, body and soul, more thoroughly than any other man to the task of understanding animals—living with his family in the midst of what is essentially a zoo. His daughter, at five, knew each one of the many wild geese by their faces. Among Lorentz’ closest acquaintances have been jackdaws, a whole colony of which he had installed in the roof of his house. At the time he wrote his book, King Solomon’s Ring, there were thirty of them, and he knew each one of them as an individual, male or female, married or single, high or low in the social scale. Every one of them, he says, had a characteristic facial expression.
A jackdaw colony is society in miniature. Betrothal and marriage are no longer purely private affairs between two lovers. The whole social group recognizes the status and acts
accordingly. Each bird knows who every other bird is and exactly where he or she fits into the social scheme. The male with the most effective combination of personal courage, energy, physical strength and self-assurance becomes the despot. He can peck any other bird he wants, and take first place at the feeding tray. At the bottom of the scale is the one who can be pecked by more birds than any other. And in between are those who can be pecked by some but not by others. Each bird knows where it stands and is ready to give way to social superiors. The only contests are those between birds that rank next to one another; these continually test their respective merits. But high rankers simply ignore low graders and these in turn act humbly before their betters. You would think the system would lead to constant quarreling, but it doesn’t, any more than it does in human society. The despot prefers serenity within the colony and usually interferes when two other birds are squabbling, usually taking the side of the weaker. This is the background against which jackdaw love and courting take place. One day a jackdaw returned to the Loren tz colony after having been away all summer, as full of self-confidence as most travelers who have taken care of themselves in distant parts. And he promptly dethroned the ruling tyrant and his consort. The deposed couple stepped flown to second place, no further. The unmated newcomer looked around, fell in love with a young unattached female and within two days became publicly engaged. The female in question came from the bottom of the social pile. Marriage, however—with both birds and humans —raises a woman to the same rank as her husband, whether other wives and their menfolk like it or not. And in this case marriage raised the little lowranker to the top of the social ladder, immune from even a dirty look. Every other jackdaw at once recognized her new position, and so did she. All her previous timidity disappeared, she snubbed and humiliated her former superiors, and in general behaved in a vulgar, despicable but all-too-familiar human manner. Among birds—and again the parallel with humans is obvious—a male courts a married woman at his peril. A bird widow also has her troubles. She cannot raise the rank of a male by marrying him, and she cannot or will not descend the social scale herself. If she has previously been married to a high ranker she can only prospect among high-ranking widowers or bachelors, but her age is against her. And widows are not wealthy in the avian world. Jackdaw marriages never are broken except by death, and only once did Lorentz see a young couple break up during the engagement period. The engaged couple were perfectly content with one another and left alone they would have lived out their lives together. But a younger female intruded upon their bliss and, uninvited, caressed the male. She was driven off repeatedly, viciously by the female, half-heartedly by the male, but never for long; and at last she stayed and made a trio. Then one day, when the true fiancée was momentarily absent, the youth and the siren flew off together, possibly to live happily ever after in some other community unaware of their misbehavior. Not all birds, however, pick their partners and stay with them, even for a season. Turtle doves, those symbols of true love with their beaks intertwined, do nothing of the sort. The cooing dove is a gay deceiver, the Don Juan
of the birds. Once a female has surrendered to the sweet persistence of his cooing, he abandons her and moves on to another conquest. Unsuccessful males among birds generally accept their status gracefully. They may hope for further opportunity hut do nothing to bring it about. The robin sings first to claim his territory, then he sings to attract his mate; but if he fails and has neither home nor wife he sings in boredom from the top of a tree. Singing is his only outlet. Only when accidents happen to the wedded males do the bachelors step in to take their places. How far the females may dominate the sexual circumstance and how far some birds have gone from any comparable human situation is shown by the behavior of ruffs. These are birds of which the sexes might well belong to separate species, they spend so little time in the company of each other. In springtime the males assemble on a communal breeding ground. After some fairly harmless sparring among themselves each male acquires a little piece of land of his own, a couple of feet across, which no other bird will challenge. They preen, they sigh, they practice ecstatic attitudes that leave them almost in a swoon, until early one morning the females, known as reeves, begin to arrive. Then each male fluffs out his ruff of feathers, assumes a stiff ecstatic position with head down in supplication, and stands perfectly still in his own little plot. The newly arriving reeves wander among the gentlemanly ruffs at pleasure, indicating by a slight touch of the beak those that appeal to them, and mate with whom and as often as they please. The prairie chicken performs in much the same way in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. There is the same assembly of males at the communal breeding ground, the same visiting by promiscuous females who select such males as please their eye, and the subsequent separation of the sexes for much of the time. But the prairie cock is more manly, drums and struts in a most imposing manner and demands and holds a larger ground. Yet even here there is more fuss than fighting among the males. Often enough, instead of fighting, two cocks will advance toward each other and stand in an ecstatic state with eyes closed; the first one to come to and open an eye steals away and leaves the other alone. Usually when the sex ratio is unequal the males are the ones that are in excess, but in the case of the redwinged blackbird the females far outnumber the males. The bird is intensely social and may form communities of as many as two hundred thousand individuals. Within the group each male holds about six square feet of personal territory and erects his red epaulettes and flutters down the cattails as an invitation to a passing female to mate and nest with him. First come is first served. Yet tender passion and faithfulness generally are the rule in the world of birds — often for a lifetime, usually at least long enough to raise a brood, and even the alternative of promiscuity is arranged with all decorum. There is no vulgarity, no enforced submission, no divorces—only these are truly human. + IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE? Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly. The demand for copies to fill new orders is so great that we cannot guarantee the mailing of even a single issue beyond the period covered by your subscription.