Carl Pettit finds the mating rituals of the male of the species, avian and human, comically and tragically similar.
The sexual life of birds fascinates me. Last year, while resting near a pond, I witnessed what could only, in human terms, be considered a duck rape. Three males chased a female around in circles, until one was able to hold her down by the neck. The second drake mounted her from behind, while the third male, with nothing to do, did an agitated jig by their side. I know the animal kingdom doesn’t abide by the cultural rules of Homo sapiens, and I shouldn’t anthropomorphize the feelings and actions of ducks, yet after the males were finished, and the female waddled away shaking her feathers in what looked to my human eyes as disgust, I couldn’t help but feel I’d just witnesses a terrible, dare I say foul, crime.
Happily, I observed a slightly more pleasant bird interaction recently. The Don Juan of all pigeons (I named him Harry, for some reason) happened to be plying his craft near my park bench. Whenever a hen wandered past, he would puff out his chest feathers, and circle her tirelessly, as if to say, “Hey, look at me! You and me, baby, right here, right now.” The protagonist of this pigeon romance was rejected quite a few times. I began to worry about his self-esteem, but he never seemed to grow disheartened, or give up. His perseverance finally paid off. A female stopped long enough to allow him to perform his ‘act of love.’ She didn’t look all that thrilled by what was going on, and if she could have spoken English, she might have said something like, “Well, you’re not the worse bird I’ve met today. Let’s just get this over with. I’ve got things to do, and places to be.”
The colorful, and by human standards extremely flamboyant birds of paradise (indigenous to New Guinea) take the art of courtship and feathered love to incredible heights. The elaborate displays males put on to woo females could put a Río carnival dancer to shame. First, hours are spent cleaning the ‘stage,’ which can be a section of branch or forest floor. Then, after the attention of a female has been piqued, the male pulls out all the stops in a highly choreographed dance routine, which brims over with vibrant hues, feather twitching and top notch showmanship, with the singular goal of keeping a potential mate interested. It’s an impressive presentation, acted out in the name of avian procreation.
When it comes to the courting pageantry put on by human males to attract a mate, I see some parallels between our species and the birds. Of course, the definition of what a desirable man is and is not can vary from culture to culture, but displays of wealth (shiny sports cars, fine clothes, expensive homes and watches), vigor (taut muscles, athletic prowess, gleaming skin and hair), learning (quoting Shakespeare and John Locke, or boasting of mechanical knowledge) and simply puffing out our chests and sucking in our guts when someone attractive walks by, seem to mimic the courtship rituals of the birds of paradise in many ways, even if in a slightly less rigid manner.
For all of the neuroses, prejudices and issues we invest in our sexuality, regardless of orientation and preference, at the root of this complex web of interactions is a set of fundamental biological urges designed to keep future generations rolling down the reproductive pipeline. In human society, sex can be used for many things, from a destructive weapon and means of domination, to an expression of love and desire, or simply as a recreational activity that can relieve (or induce) stress, depending on how it’s applied. The evolutionary reasons behind our drives, no matter how they might deviate from the norm, tend come from the same, basic place.
One of best examples I’ve ever seen of birdlike courting behavior in human beings was in a bar in Rome, just north of the Vatican. Several young men were hitting on two beautiful women. Just before one of lads would approach the females at the bar, his friends would help him straighten his posture, smooth down his clothes and slick back his hair, all in a highly stylized, and somewhat comical way. The suitor would then raise his chest, let his mates slap him on the back (for good luck, I guess), and make his approach. It was just like you might expect in movie parodying such behavior. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and it was all taken with a grain of salt, although as I think about this in retrospect, if those fellows had ever had the chance to witness the monumental efforts exerted by the fabulous birds of paradise in their quest for sex and ‘love,’ they might have picked up a few pointers, and taken their bar game to an entirely new level. Nature has much to teach us, after all.
Image credit: Reza Ahmeds/Flickr