Mr. Lonelyhearts looks a little piqued. He’s been letting himself go—lost 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 back—even 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
Last modified 08/25/05

The Cowbird Variations
By Samuel Hughes

Illustration by Gina Triplett & Matt Curtius
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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Animal behaviorist David White

is teasing out the mysteries

of cowbirds at the junction of

Heredity and Environment.