Birds do it

The secret life of birds

It’s spring, the time when a young bird’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

It’s spring, the time when a young bird’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Photo By David Robert

Winter’s ashen ruins recede, and the earth wakes up rested, howling and twisting in a bright, feverish bouquet of winks and dimples left on a hot pillow; giggling naked and flushed with the healthy pastels of spring’s secret poisons and lacey, overwrought promises. Lust flavors the air so sweetly it makes diabetics of the breathing. The body moans, and the genitals begin to ache. It’s the time when, as Tennyson said, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

But more interestingly, what’s up with those turtle doves, and will they really do it with a robin? Is “the white swallow” compelled to engage in week-long clinics of Morse Code-like mating chirps for anonymous hummingbird action, or is the whole species just another suspicious name for a gay bar? Will a stork bang an owl? A penguin give a turkey a roll in the straw? Yo! That pigeon is so totally sweatin’ my junk.

“Not exactly,” says Dr. Michael Collopy, executive director of UNR’s Academy for the Environment. “Evolution has developed birds to be most typically attracted to their own kind. There are rare instances when some closely related species will mate and hybridize, but this results in, more often than not, a sterile egg.”

Which pretty much tosses out the “color wheel theory” of aviary life.

Every bird has certain behavioral barriers to cross-mating, according to Dr. Collopy. Birds have keen senses of sight and a sense of identity of what they are, either by early nesting memories of its parents or a general sense of evolutionary insight. So the whistling sonnets of a horny blue jay are not necessarily “heard” by a lonesome egret. It’s as though the two are tuned to different radio stations.

And, as in human beings, says Dr. Collopy, “if the cue isn’t quite right, it doesn’t work out.” For birds, that cue is usually made up of impressive, almost wildly similar courtship rituals to, say, English people in a 19th century period piece: displays of shamelessly foppish dancing, mockingbird-like romantic wooing, or simple peacock-style plumage, a type of superficial beauty more in tune with High Holy Hollywood than the backyard bird-feeder scene.

Basically, anything that makes a male stand out may be enough to enrapture the female bird into a lifetime of potential monogamy and child-rearing.

Which brings us to bird sex. Anyone who’s ever come across two dogs humping on the lawn without any sense of compunction or restraint knows why the focus of reproduction remains on “the birds and the bees” and not “the mutts a-mounting.” Bird sex is hardly the smut-pot full of forbidden honey promised by words like “cock” “titmouse” and “water fowl.” For all their fancy in-flight poetry, reproduction in the species that invented the mile-high club has all the heat of two gummy, senior citizens mashing moist mouths. The coin of the realm in ornithology is aerodynamics, meaning birds tend not to have external genitalia. Instead, birds have nearly identical “cloaca,” little openings under the tail used for everything from mating to crapping. Copulation is performed when the male presses his cloaca to the female’s and sprays his inconceivably vile sperm inside of her “vent.”

The female lays her clutch of eggs, the baby chicks are hatched, and life goes on above the trees.