Mr. Lonelyhearts looks a little piqued. He’s been letting himself golost some fights and some feathers from his breast, and is now wandering around the Bloomfield Farm aviary like a lost soul. His female consort died at the beginning of the breeding season, and as of this warm June morning he has yet to bounce backeven though the season is still in full sway, bursting with courtship and song, competition and copulation. Given that brown-headed cowbirds are your basic relentless reproductive juggernaut, his behavior is a little puzzling.
“I don’t know what to make of this widowed-male phenomenon,” Dr. David White is saying cheerfully. “If a male’s female dies, it’s just hell for him. He just shuts down for the year. If he’s a top male, he comes right down to the bottom.”
White is an assistant professor of psychology, animal-behaviorist division, and my guess is that if he could put Mr. Lonelyhearts on the couch, his advice would be: Quit moping and move on. Since male reproductive success (to use the language of evolution) is limited only by the number of copulations he gets, “the male should not be making this kind of investment in a female.”
You could understand it, White adds, if a female stopped playing the mating game for the season when her male died. She’s the one who has to take the trouble to find a high-quality male. Yet female cowbirds are “ready to go the next day” with another male. Birds have their own agendas.
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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
COVER STORY :
Illustration by Gina Triplett & Matt Curtius
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Animal behaviorist David White
is teasing out the mysteries
of cowbirds at the junction of
Heredity and Environment.
By SAMUEL HUGHES