Love Birds, or Maybe Not

Feb 14, 2018

Credit Lutz Koch /

So, it’s Valentine’s Day. Do you have a plan? Hopefully by now you have secured reservations at the finest bistro and obtained the heart-meltingest card money can buy. If not, you may need some help.

So I’m here to give you some inspiration from the world of birds, nature’s best romantic role models. Or are they?

While only 5% of mammals form pair bonds, roughly 92% of bird species are what the animal behaviorists call “socially monogamous”, meaning they form a pair bond with a single individual of the opposite sex. You may recognize this as the same system most human societies pretend to have. But, as with us, there are many exceptions to the rule when you actually look at the behavior of individuals. For example, birds have “divorces”, and that is in fact the technical term used by ornithologists. And when researchers mark individuals and follow them closely, they find that there is more hanky-panky than in an old episode of Desperate Housewives – in some species up to 30% of chicks were actually fathered by a neighboring male. The term for this bird-y version of stepping out on your partner is “extra pair copulations," and it may explain why that juvenile cardinal in your yard looks a lot like the mailman.

Maybe you are really looking to bring back the concept of the sensitive 80’s man, in which case look no further than the “Mr. Moms” of the bird world, the males of so-called “polyandrous” species. In these birds, which include shorebirds like Spotted Sandpipers and phalaropes, the males actually do all the work of incubating the nest and raising the chicks, while the females’ only role is to mate with multiple males. In the phalaropes, the female is even the more colorful sex, which caused John James Audubon to misidentify the sexes in his first phalarope paintings. He obviously couldn’t get his head around how progressive phalarope societies actually were.

If polyandry isn’t for you, you can take it in a completely different direction, and emulate the surprisingly manly system of the Red-winged Blackbird. With them, the males compete, often violently, for territories that include multiple females – let’s call them “sister wives." The earlier they get to the marsh in spring, the more vigorously they sing and flash their bright red epaulets, the better their chances of scoring lots of females and passing on their manly genes. This one male/many female system is known as polygyny, and is also practiced by your neighborhood Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Male hummingbirds maintain a territory for displaying to many females, and have no role in the actual nesting. No word on whether they or any other polygynous birds have secured a reality show on TLC.

I really want to tell you about duck mating habits, but I’m not sure how much I can tell you without the station getting a lot of letters. Mallards in particular are dirty, dirty birds - I’ll just say that, from what I’ve read and seen on YouTube, most Mallard males would be in prison if they were people. Oh, and those cute, innocent little Piping Plovers skittering along the beach? Totally into S&M - males will sometimes violently whip their females around by the wing after copulation. If there were a movie about their mating habits it would be called “50 Shades of Beige”.

Now that I think about it, maybe the bird world isn’t the best place to look for relationship advice after all. You better see if a table opened up at that bistro.