Today a friend asked me if ducks mate for life. Aside from creating an opportunity to deliver the whole “ducks are creepers” lecture, which is always entertaining in its effects on the listener, the question got me thinking about why people are so obsessed with animals mating for life. It’s one thing to decide that among humans, the most successful relationships are those that end in a mortality event, although even then it’s a little morbid. But we really need to leave birds out of it. They do not make good metaphors.
Take those notable swingers, the Greater Sage-Grouse. They hook up by congregating in open spaces in the evening and early morning hours. The males swagger and boom while the females watch; eventually the gaudiest males and the most impressed females creep off into the bushes and propogate the species. People who behave like Sage Grouse are generally thought of as more likely to end up with a deviated septum and a plethora of embarassing disco singles than a successful home life. Sage Grouse who behave like Sage Grouse, on the other hand, seem to do perfectly well for themselves.
Besides the black-footed ferrets, one of the promised highlights of my trip to the Charles M. Russell NWR was a chance to scope out a Sage Grouse lek and watch the show. Normally, we would have had to get up pretty early to see such a thing, but fortunately for us, the nocturnal habits of the ferrets meant that we’d never gotten to bed in the first place. So much more convenient that way.
The key to a successful lek-watch is getting in place with minimum disturbance to the birds. A bird that is nervous about predation temporarily puts aside thoughts of strutting his stuff. We’d already flushed one grouse during our ferret scan, fortunately not on the lek but nearby. For our observation point, we used the ferret-spotting truck as a blind*, as the birds are apparently sufficiently used to it and feel no fear — or shame — in its presence.
It was still pretty dim when we got there.
The sun began to warm the prairie, and the grouse began to do their thing. First, the males puffed up. They fanned their tails. Their white ruffs became increasingly prominent, and then, rather lewdly, the yellow gular sacs on their chests emerged through the feathers, inflated with air. These fleshy bubbles bobbed and vibrated as the males began to emit deep cries that seemed to lift their whole bodies and then let them drop like pile-drivers of sound.
It was a strange and lurid scene, and yet… there was a certain lackluster quality to the performance. Some of the males just sat around, or wandered. They tolerated each other quite close, with none of the squabbles or dance-offs that I’d been led to expect.
Hey bro, no hard feelings, huh?
It was Randy who pointed out the reason for such forebearance, though discerning viewers of my terrible digiscoped photos will no doubt have already figured it out. All of the birds on the lek this day were white-ruffed, gular-pouched. They had no audience, and thus, no motivation. If grouse had penises, this would have been a total sausage-fest.
As Randy explained it, an early bout of warm weather had cleared the lek of snow and gotten things swinging ahead of schedule. The peak performance had apparently happened the week before we arrived — much bumping of chests, much booming, much escorting of females off to a handy corner to get it done.
Now we were just watching a bunch of hapless last-chancers, and even they knew their odds were slim. Eventually a single female showed up, but she flew away again before I could get a picture, before any of the males could even approach her. Either she’d already mated or no one there lit her fire.
I felt especially bad for one male. Now, I’m no lady Sage Grouse and can’t judge his relative merits, but he seemed perfectly nice. Good size, bright gular sacks, and a nice boom. Indeed, he couldn’t seem to figure out himself the reason for his lack of luck, and he was one of the males still putting in an effort. Perhaps he had forgotten, or simply didn’t notice, that his tail was entirely gone. In profile, he looked like a gigantic Western Meadowlark.
The rest of his plumage seemed fine. Likely he’d sacrificed those feathers escaping an attack; Sage Grouse have numerous predators on the high plains, including coyotes, badgers, and Prairie Falcons. Still, female Sage Grouse are very picky about the physical condition of their prospective mates, a pickiness facilitated by the lekking system. This fellow’s chances of being a daddy this year were pretty well shot.
It seems that one parallel you can draw across species is that when it comes to love, there’s a fair amount of luck involved.
p.s. Here is a mountain cottontail in solidarity with Clare K.
*”We” being myself, fellow nature-tourist Mike, our guide Hank Fischer and the ferret researcher Randy Matchett. The amazing nature photographer Donald Jones was with us as well, but being a professional nature-photography guy he of course had his own blind and had managed to get it set up on the lek in the dead of night, when no grouse were there to be disturbed.
A fish may love a bird, but where would they live?
Bird Love Week is seven days of exploration of avian amore here on 10,000 Birds from April 22-28. We love birds, and the topic of birds loving other birds and in the process making more birds is a fascinating one we know you will enjoy. Mike, Corey, and a bevy of Beat Writers have been working on this one for awhile as the perfect expression of our love of all things avian. To see all of our Bird Love Week posts, just click here. But be warned – Bird Love Week is neither for the faint of heart nor for the permanently prudish – you may end up with images that you never imagined seared onto your brain.
Thanks for that part about our dubious obsession with birds mating for life–that’s been puzzling me too.