Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bird couples--it's not all paradise!

Did you hear this story on NPR? It was on a few days ago, and when AB (that's the woman I'm dating; I'm trying to be discreet and only use her initials for now) heard it, she thought of me and my love of birds.

It seems some birds, though mated, will commit adultery (to use human terms) and that some bird couples try their best to thwart their partners' roving eyes!
Birds seem like models of monogamy — building their nests, hatching their eggs and raising their young together. But it turns out, in the avian world, adultery is not uncommon. And both males and females may have a wandering eye.

Ornithologists Nathalie Seddon and Joe Tobias of the University of Oxford have been studying the songs of the Peruvian warbling antbird. In their latest research, published in Current Biology, they report that an antbird couple will sing a harmonious duet when confronted by an intruding rival pair.

But if an unattached female enters the scene, the antbird "wife" starts jamming her mate's song. She interrupts her spouse with her own music, to his great frustration.

Dr. Seddon believes these findings could provide insight into the development of human music.
WOW! Imagine--these birds are just like those sad couples you see sometimes, where the guy is always checking out other women and the woman lets him know she's not happy about it!

Now I don't know if I agree with the idea that human music development might've been affected by these little displays of jealousy. That seems to imply --what?--that perhaps humans started doing this same kind of singing (?) when they experienced similar events in their own relationships? I don't know about all that. I'd have to hear more about this theoretized link.

Still--I find it fascinating that love relationships in the bird world can be so similar to human ones, even if the motives behind the actions might be different. I try not to anthropomorphize animal behavior; I'm guessing the female is only working to keep her partner in line to ensure that he's around to help with the brooding and care of their young, hence better chances of survival. I'm sure the female bird isn't thinking, "My GOD, he's looking at that Phyllis Antbird AGAIN! Doesn't he still love me? Is he gonna break my heart?" (hee hee) But the partner still sees something she doesn't like, and she sure lets him know about it. Pretty neat.

There is a big indicator that the writer of this story doesn't know a lot about birds; the lede of the story is kinda silly. We birders know that not all male birds stick around to help out the female after the necessary deed is done. Northern cardinals may mate for life, but I'd guess such devoted couplehood isn't that common in the animal world.

Still--this is some pretty amazing research, don't you think? Birds are so cool.


Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I'd like to see Mrs. Bird hawl off and slap Mr. Bird for his roving eye!

John B. said...

A lot of science journalists try too hard to force bird reproductive behavior into human sexual stereotypes. Thus we get bird versions of the nagging wife, jealous girlfriend, philandering boyfriend, etc. It's possible there are evolutionary links, but I don't trust how the links are reported.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I think it's natural to look at others, be you a bird, a human, or a whatever.

Bandobras said...

A very wise woman, my mother, once said about my father scoping out another woman, "It doesn't matter where he gets the fire lit as long as he comes home to put it out."

Mary said...

Absolutely amazing. Interesting. I like Lynne's comment :o)

KGMom said...

A neat story indeed--although I wondered how they jumped from bird song interruptus to defeat roving eyes to humans making music.

dguzman said...


John--I know, it's maddening. I mean, it's one thing to do it in the field (i.e., "those chipping sparrows are in love!"), but another to do it in the literature. Steven Jay Gould was a BIG anti-anthropomorphism guy; I loved him for that (among other things).

Dr. Monkey--true. Sometimes it's hard not to look!

Bandobras--welcome to the bloggy! Very wise.

Mary--isn't it interesting?

KGMom--exactly. Seems like we're missing part of the story.

Germaine Gregarious said...

Using sonar to jam your mate's pedestrian flirtations is all well and good. Myself... I would use a bazooka.

dguzman said...


Mel said...

I didn't know all that!
Good one Lynne! lol

Anonymous said...

My friend and I were recently talking about how we as a society are so hooked onto electronics. Reading this post makes me think back to that discussion we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.

I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further advances, the possibility of copying our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's a fantasy that I dream about all the time.

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