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There’s always some lovebirds

Musings from the Hill

Sitting at my table, I’m delighted to see the red-belly pecking away at the suet.

It’s always a male so I presume it’s the same one who visits me day after day. His red belly seems very obvious now, in wintertime. There were certainly many days when I wondered about the name — perhaps it’s only that the red-headed had already been used.

Where’s his mate, I wondered. I already knew (Aug. 2) that flickers tend to mate for life, only take separate winter vacations. Is that the story for my red-belly as well?

Two articles from Living Bird have been sitting on my desk. The first, from the Spring 2019 issue, is simply called “Bird Divorce” and says that while some birds mate for life, others such as the cardinal, Blue Jay and chickadee do “tend to pair up for multiple breeding seasons. Some may mate for life. But divorce is also common. In birds, divorce is when both members of a pair are still alive, but one or both birds break their existing pair bond usually to re-pair with a different individual. Divorce is most often initiated by the female. Experiments have shown that many females divorce in order to re-pair with a higher quality or more dominant male.”

However, it was Hans D. Dossenbach’s “The Family Life of Birds” that devoted an entire chapter to “Wives, Sweethearts and Concubines.” “Inveterate monogamists” to “ardent polygamists” are included.

“The mating of birds can be classified as monogamous or polygamous, and as temporary or permanent. Temporary partnerships can be subdivided into abbreviated union, dissolve before ovulation, and seasonal union, where the couple stays together until the young are independent. Within these categories, of course, there are vast possibilities for variation: temporary monogamy, permanent monogamy, temporary polygamy, and so on.”

Let’s start with the ground feeders who have no need for a husband for their brood is independent enough at birth to be led to food. Most gallinaceous birds and ducks are included here. Exceptions include cranes and, my favorites, the geese. They “are not satisfied to marry for only a season, but enter into wedlock for life.”

With birds who nest high in treetops having a mate to help feed the youngsters becomes a very large advantage. We’re talking here of “woodpeckers. titmice and of all the other numerous species whose nurseries are hidden in trees.” “[I]n general, the bird species whose young remain in the nest contract longer lasting marriages than those whose young leave the nest early.”

The young are happy to take off on their own when able but, once they reach sexual maturity, they’ll return to an area as close as possible to where they hatched. Mating and nest construction begin. Devotion quickly follows with the tendency to stay together. “Among some species, the couples even separate for a certain time, and in those cases it is probably loyalty to a location, not the partner, that eventually reunites the couple at their old accustomed breeding ground. . . If a younger female attempts to enter an aerie occupied by an older couple, the male will calmly watch his mate try to rout the intruder. Whichever of the contending females proves herself to be the stronger, is the one with whom he will celebrate his nuptials, and it appears to matter little to him which one it will be.”

Let’s look next at the ducks. “A strange type of marriage seems to be preferred by most ducks. The drakes, as the male ducks are called, are particularly fine, extremely solicitous marriage partners. They do not wait until breeding time to sue for the favors of the females, as most birds generally do. Instead, they court them in autumn, and when they are accepted they remain faithfully beside their plain, unadorned fiancees throughout the winter. But in spring, when the marriage has been consummated at last at the end of the long ‘engagement,’ and the duck has bedded her numerous eggs in the downy lining of the nest and faces the imminent task of hatching and raising the offspring, the seductive drake reveals himself for the windbag he really is. The duties of a father are not to his liking. He dissolves the relationship in short order and joins the carefree company of other drakes. While the perfidious males make a merry summer of it, the abandoned females patiently hatch their eggs and lead their precious chicks to favorable, sheltered feeding ground.”

Our author does offer an excuse for this perfidious behavior of the drake saying that male ducks are so brilliantly colored that they’d draw attention to the nest while “the sitting, immobile duck blends marvelously with her environment.”

“At this time,” Dossenbach concludes, “the marriages long have been contracted, and the drakes merely are having an inconclusive flirtation while their wives are looking after the home. Quite often a drake will plan an escapade and unexpectedly give someone else’s wife a rush. Lady ducks being modest, she will immediately take flight with the ‘rake’ in pursuit — and with the rightful husband at his tail. After a brief, wild chase the would-be seducer will abandon his risky, hopeless enterprise and make a bee-line back to his patient spouse.”

Hey! There’s more, folks. Stay tuned.

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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