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  • Language: Русская версия
Section: Biology
On the Wings of Love

On the Wings of Love

Birds are born extreme-loving experimenters. For only the most reckless crtatures are capable of jumping down from a tree or a precipice and fly over the Earth without any prior training and before learning to walk with confidence. The aspiration to test different methods of adaptation to the environment and to each other runs in the birds’ blood

This spring, like a thousand years ago,

The birds again follow the melting snow.

Non-stop they rush from the South to the North,

To sing joy to the stern country of their birth...

(Russian song)

The unpretentious words of the old song give a correct and complete picture of the spring migration of birds: the recurrence, inevitability of the birds’ coming and its synchronization with the seasonal warming coming up north and reviving the land.

The main force driving the birds back to high latitudes is reproduction and the duty to raise fledglings. The vast waste grounds, marshlands and woodlands, rich in food and shelter for the young, attract a great many species of birds to our Siberian country. Loyalty to their homeland and striving for coming back to their nest, especially if a year ago it proved to be “just right”, are characteristic features of the bird nature.

Romeos and Casanovas

The eight thousand species of birds inhabiting our planet practice a variety of marriage schemes. However, unlike the enormous number of species of other animals whose relations are often casual, brief and erratic, the majority of birds prefer monogamy — at least, for the period of hatching and raising the young, and a lot of people understand them perfectly. Indeed, it is so difficult to guard the laying, to feed the fledglings, and to teach them some good sense in the modern world when you are all alone!

There are a lot of polygamous birds, though. I recall how one of my colleagues caught for marking an extremely amorous starling who managed to please with his singing and acting three females at once, nesting in the neighboring starling-houses. Sometimes several males help one female to take care of her offspring; this is called polyandry. The ostriches go even further: the male not only allures the female to the nest, but also broods the big laying, mixing the eggs, and later chaperons the little ostriches.

By the way, such segregation of marital duties nearly became an additional reason for the extinction of African ostriches in the beginning of the past century. Since it was the males who were shot for the sake of their luxurious plumes used for ladies’ hats, numerous “widowed” females began to lay eggs in the nests of fathers-ostriches left alive. Even an ostrich, big as it is, was unable to keep warm or protect from the sun such an enormous laying. As a result, all embryos died.

Feathered coquettes

Returning to the birds nesting in Siberia, it should be noted that a real nightmare for ornithologists is the sandpipers. Practically every species of these nimble loud birds has its own family extravagancy. It seems that the sandpipers have settled on only one thing so far: their layings consist, as a rule, of four eggs, arranged in the nest in the shape of an envelope. Most sandpipers are monogamous, and the males take part both in brooding and in caring for the hatch. As for the males of the common snipes, they take half of the hatch away from the females and take care of it themselves.

The females of some other species, such as the little stint and temminck’s stint, trust one of their admirers to brood the first laying; but, having mated with another male, brood the second laying themselves. The females of the marsh-sandpiper, redshank or spotted redshank usually, having commissioned their child-loving spouses to complete brooding and to take care of their descendants, fly away far from the nesting places. And females of the red-necked phalarope have no idea what brooding is. They just lay eggs and forget about them, flying far south and leaving the weight of cares about the fledglings on the shoulders of the fathers: this is their pay for the fleeting intimacy…

About birds’ intimate relations

Anyway, the eggs and fledglings are but materialized consequences of a definite process of reproduction, when fertilization takes place, a secret meeting of the ovule and a spermatozoon. We have to admit that birds are quite unlucky in this matter. Unlike mammals or insects, they do not have special copulative organs that make the process longer and, so to say, more memorable for the participants.

All seagulls are monogamous. Males take part in building and guarding the nest, sitting on the eggs and feeding the fledglings. Copulation is preceded by peculiar dances of the partners with pecking each other’s neck feathers or beak tips.
Males are a bit larger than females, but to define reliably the individuals’ sex is possible only by their osition at the moment of copulation and when the birds lay eggs.

In most bird species, the passing of the hereditary material from males to females happens swiftly, when the slightly turned out genital atriums (widened ends of the rectum, into which the ducts of the urogenital system open) touch for a short time. During the reproductive period males of the order Passeriformes form a special prominence called cloacal protuberance, remotely resembling the genital organ of the mammals.

As far as this matter is concerned, the “luckiest” ones are representatives of the Anatidae family (swans, geese, and ducks), whose males have inside their genital atriums a corkscrew-like offshoot that springs into action at the right moment.

To love with one’s ears and eyes

The unpretentiousness of the very process of fertilization as well as the absence of olfactory and tactile stimuli brings to the forefront acoustic and visual signals as the primary means of communication and attracting partners. The unsurpassed vocal ability, fabulously bright feathers, elaborate dances at courtship display and when communicating with the partners – all these more than compensate for the shortness of intimate contacts.

Look and listen closely, say, to the well-known crows or magpies, who willingly nest in towns. The sounds they let out are not always disgusting croaks or persistent chirring. Even such annoying birds can have a cooing, calming, and even languid voice. In spring, the male of the hooded crow can swing for hours on a specially broken branch on top of a birch tree, wings apart, singing something. For copulation the crow invites the partner to the remnants of snow in the shade. It is possible that when the snow touches the warm and swollen featherless area on her belly, the female feels a special pleasure.

Duck tales

The birds of the order Anseriformes serve as a most interesting object for studying marriage customs. The pintails begin to perform courtship rituals in fall at their winter quarters. In this period, the flocks of drakes and ducks whose eggs have perished and who have arrived there earlier than those who nested more successfully mix with each other and the flocks of yearlings. The dandyish their marriage feathers arrange real games and sort out their relationships from time to time. The most characteristic move is a quick toss of the beak up from the water with a whistle. Permanently courting, whistling and crackling, the flocks of pintails reach Siberia in April or beginning of May, where they couple and nest several hundreds of meters apart.

Once, at the end of April, the local fishermen brought us a drake caught in a net. He looked extremely gaunt and scraggy. When we ringed him and marked him with a colored nose plate, we let him out to the lake, where he joined a group of displaying pintails. For a few days he did not attempt to challenge other males for a free female and was eating all the time. But one day, encouraged by the female who had been driving away all other males, the drake pushed his way through, grabbed hold of his rival’s beak with his beak and beat him! Demonstrating his superiority, our hero turned to one side, unfolded his wing and let out a triumphant whistle driving his beak through the pen-feathers. For the next few days the happy couple stayed away from the others, and soon made a nest nearby.

Marriages in heaven

The problem of birds couple forming deserves to be discussed in detail. For example, mallards form couples as early as in fall. In winter, when it is not necessary to fertilize eggs, drakes sometimes do their matrimonial duties by mutual consent with their partners, or at the females’ initiative. In this case, copulation does not serve for reproduction but is a mechanism of supporting permanent marriage relations in the couple.

I recall watching the behavior of half-wild mallards at my parents’ farm when I was a student. One spring a drake, which was as usual left for breeding with two females, suddenly revolted and refused to fertilize his mistresses, who had bored him during the long winter. The mistresses reminded him of his duty from time to time, demonstrating this blockhead how to do it, but it did not work. For some unknown reason, he became enamored of the next-door duck, which had lost her partner and every morning was informing the area about this by violent quacking.

Notes of an Orenburg Sportsman by S. T. Aksakov
“…The spring gets warmer by the hour, and the flood-water pours off. Small flocks of wild ducks definitively break up in couples, mate and calm down, especially because the grass grows taller, and the ducks can hide there. A drake, the most amorous of males, never stirs a step from his duck’s side, doesn’t leave her for a moment, never flies off his spot before her. Sometimes the duck paddles in a pool or dangles her beak in slush, and the drake stands ashore or on a hummock, like a sentry; a hunter comes to him quite close, but the duck doesn’t see or notice anything; the drake moves, turns, quacks, as if calling to her, for he sees the danger, but the duck doesn’t pay attention; he doesn’t fly away alone, and a good shot kills him outright. The duck flies away without showing any compassion for the killed drake. It is a completely different matter if a hunter kills the duck: the drake would not only fly in circles around the hunter, not coming too close, though, but he would beat against the place where he lost his partner for several days in a row.
…When a drake with a duck sees another drake flying to them, he rushes toward and certainly drives him away, as he has more rights and reasons to fight bravely. If a single drake, who hasn’t found his partner yet, comes to a flying couple, then a fight in the air with the lawfully wedded husband is certain to follow, accompanied by the special short vivid cry, well-known to hunters. It can be quite a picturesque sight: both drakes hang sheer in the air, holding each other by the neck, flapping their wings swiftly and violently so as not to go down to the earth, and despite all the efforts, constantly coming down. The victory, as far as I have noticed, has always been on the side of the right one.”

It was impossible for our drake to resist the calling. In the morning, when his cage was opened, he rushed to see his love, jumping over several fences. He even learned to fly more or less. The denouement of the story: both our ducks sat on the unfertilized eggs four weeks and were left without a hatch. And the neighboring yard hosted a big brood of strong ducklings. Obviously, even birds’ marriages are made in heaven…

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