Selfish Jeanne isn’t the best looking female I’ve ever seen. Her feathers are faded, her insides are buggy, and one wing dangles precariously from her torso, courtesy of some over-sexed males. White named her after Richard Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution, but she’s really given herself up for science. She sits on a perch, dead and stuffed for three years, and she now has a plastic pole inside her that controls the movement of her wing and head.

“I Frankensteined her up a little bit,” says White, who points to the control system: a Lego base powered by a stack of AA batteries. “It’s not what engineers typically use,” he admits. “But it’s built for a 12-year-old, so it’s perfect for me.”

White and his colleagues have figured out how to make her do a wing-stroke, and apparently, that’s all a red-blooded cowbird male needs—buggy insides and all.

“What I’m trying to do is get to the mechanism point, to have control over one side of the equation,” he says. “Females first, because males are dumber than females and they’ll fall for the robot females much more likely than a female’s going to fall for another robot female or a robot male. Plus, the females don’t do much, so it’s easier to make a model that doesn’t do much than to make a big, singing male robot. And with the wing-stroke, I can start to—hopefully—shape his song.”

A microphone inside Selfish Jeanne will pick up a male’s song, he explains. “The song will be captured by computer and compared to a template of a particular song structure. If the song that’s sung is a close match to the template song, she wing-strokes. If it isn’t, she doesn’t. Theoretically I should get him to sing something ridiculous by shaping him with the wing-stroke. If that works I’ll have a paper called ‘Flipping the Bird.’

“The problem is the males fall for it a little too easily,” he sighs. “They copulated her wing off the last time I tried it.”

Song preference is a tangled skein that has to be teased out, one thread at a time. Which pretty much describes the arc of White’s research.

“Give the birds options—social options, space options, let them choose, let them show us the important things,” he says. “The history of this research is us trying to come up with the important thing and see if the birds find it important. And lo and behold, what we find is important is not what the animals find important. So the task here has been to figure out what the birds think is important.”

 

We have a copulation! B2M and B0B, over in the corner! Or so White tells me. He’s tuned in to sounds and sights that I miss completely. In my defense, most birds give new meaning to the word quickie. There’s no real penetration or anything; the female just unfans her tail while the male hops onto her back or gets close; they touch cloacas—the cloacal kiss, it’s called—and sperm moves from male to female. Check your watch and you’ll miss the whole magic moment.

“Hear the little rattle the female is giving there?” says White. “Some females do it a lot; some females never do it. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern of when they do it. Sometimes it’s to bring their male over. If their male has strayed far away, they’ll give a little rattle and he’ll come running.

“Sometimes I swear it’s just to get the male in trouble,” he grins. “She’ll bring him over to an area where there’s another male, rattle and bring him in all excited—then leave him with that other male.”

Just as we’re about to leave, White sees something that gladdens his heart. It’s Mr. Lonelyhearts, taking a deep breath and puffing up his chest.

“Here’s our widowed male again, starting off with a female,” says White. “He’s really turning it around today. He’s fixing himself up and getting out again.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

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COVER STORY: The Cowbird Variations