It is almost Valentine’s Day and I realized that in all the years of writing this column, I have never considered exploring the topic of birds and love. In using the word “love” I am referring to it in the context of “affection” the emotional feeling developed in human relationships between males and females. I also want to limit the discussion to wild birds and not pets. Pet birds, especially members of the parrot family, can be trained to show what seems to be affection to the care-giver – “spoiled” might be a better choice of the word “trained.”
I have seen birds performing mutual preening which might be the most obvious behavioral interaction that could easily considered as showing affection. Mutual preening, also called “allopreening,” is done by some nineteen orders (the scientific grouping of related families) in the bird world, including herons, ducks, ravens, parrots and gulls. In nature there is generally a reason for most acts performed by various species. Allopreening might not have any real tie to showing affection. We humans, with our powers of imagination, may be interpreting this behavior to be more of an emotional linkage than can be documented in scientific terms.
In the bird world the relationship between males and females ranges from monogamy, to polygamy, to promiscuity. Monogamous birds that have pair bonds (these can range from life, to several breeding seasons, to just one breeding season) would have the best chance of developing an “affectionate” relationship. Polygamous birds can have numerous mates during the breeding season; therefore any attachment relationship would likely be short term during the courtship portion of the breeding cycle. Promiscuous birds have little chance of developing any attachment relationship with their mates.
Birds that pair bond for life would seemingly develop an affectionate relationship as they are spending their lives together. Hanging out together for periods of time extending to several decades of their productive lives would promote some sense of attachment with the pair. In the human way of thinking living together for long periods of time eventually can generate an affectionate relationship. I am not sure that such a dynamic relationship would develop in the wild.
Mating for life may be the result of an enhanced chance for successful breeding over time, producing the best genes and thus increasing the long term survival of the species. Such relationships have been refined over many eons of time. Survival is the result of these successful relationships. It is difficult to determine what effect what we humans call affection or love has on the long term impact of bird survival. Likely none, but it is interesting to speculate on possible relationships of male and female wild birds.
In my many years of observing birds, the most memorable and touching situations have been in my seeing a bird standing vigil alongside its dead mate on a road. That the bird would sit beside its fallen mate leads me to believe that there is some degree of affection capability in birds. I have seen several species, including cardinals, barn swallows, and jays display this apparent affection towards their deceased mate. I have also read that eagles, for example, who have lost a life mate may take long periods of time to find a new mate, if ever. Again, we can only speculate whether affection played roll in surviving birds recovering from the loss of a mate.
I am not sure that I have developed a strong case regarding the presence of affection as a part of our feathered friends’ lives, or not. I hope that this article will cause you to think about what you observe in the bird world. In nature what you see may not be what it seems to be, but it is fun to contemplate the possible answers. On a related note, I think I have generated some affection with my Wild Turkey friends, but I doubt that love is the reason they return to my feeders. Have a Happy St. Valentine’s Day!