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MARTHA SEZ: These birds are promiscuous

April 6, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

Now that spring has come to the Adirondacks -or what we call spring here-you have probably seen and heard the flocks of red-winged blackbirds and their cousins, the brown-headed cowbirds, that are congregating in the trees in our North County neighborhoods.

These little harbingers, welcome as they must be to people cooped up behind snow mounds all winter long, are not always what they appear.

As you know, some scientists have stated that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs. Of course, other scientists deny this-scientists, by their very nature, feel honor bound to dispute among themselves-and then there is the grant money to vie for-while still others take a more extreme view, claiming that birds ARE dinosaurs.

While not a scientist myself, the more I learn about birds, the more I tend toward the dinosaur position. Underneath their fluffy feathers, some birds tend to be a rapacious lot, out for what they can get.

Take for example the honeyguide of Africa. This bird, like our indigenous black bear, feeds on bee larvae, but, unlike the bear, needs help to break apart the hives. Honeyguides get their name by calling out to large, honey-loving mammals, including humans, then leading the way to wild bee hives. After the honey has been eaten, the honeyguide scavenges the remains.

The honeyguide's cooperative hive-raiding behavior isn't so bad, you'll argue. Well, maybe not. But they have some rather shocking proclivities, which I hate to say they share with a number of our North American birds.

According to ornithologists-and, once again, I hate to tell you this-these birds are promiscuous.They carry on just like humans at a singles bar, only among promiscuous birds it's the male who is out on the dance floor displaying his colorful plumage and fancy footwork. After mating, this fine-feathered freeloader has absolutely no role in raising his young.

How, without the dead-beat dad, does the "drab little female," (the ornithological term for a female bird), manage to build a nest and care for the young all by herself?

Before you start worrying about the poor single mother, consider this: Not only is she promiscuous, this little floozy is also what ornithologists call a parasitic bird!

Unlike a respectable bird-a robin, for example, or a dark-eyed junco-a parasitic bird makes no attempt to build a nest. She lays her eggs in the nests of other birds and then flutters away without a care in the world, like the irresponsible Maisie in the Dr. Seuss book "Horton hatches the Egg." Unlike Maise, however, she will not return, even after the eggs have hatched. Presumably, she never gives her offspring a second thought, any more than she thinks about their father, or fathers. These birds are shiftless.

Now, we can all believe this of honeyguides, foreigners who live on another continent entirely, and perhaps don't know any better; but the sad truth is that many of the birds we harbor at our own feeders are no better than they should be.

Among New York's promiscuous birds are species of grouse, pheasant, and yes, even those cute little hummingbirds.

The brown-headed cowbird, like the blackbird, a member of the troupial family, is New York's only parasitic bird. Don't bother looking for a cowbird nest. There is no such thing. The female lays her eggs in another bird's nest, allowing the "good" birds to raise her young. She lays from 10 to 12 eggs during a season, usually one egg per nest. More than 200 different bird species find cowbird eggs in their nests.

Some, including the robin, cedar waxwing and blue jay, refuse to put up with it. They practice tough love and reject the alien eggs.

The red-winged blackbird, mourning dove and goldfinch, on the other hand, will care for the intruder in the nest, often to the detriment of their own young. Maybe these avian do-gooders are simply ignorant. Maybe they are misguided, imagining that they perform a public service by coddling cow-hatchlings. The sorry truth is that they only encourage bad behavior.

It is regrettable, in these times when family values are under attack on every front among the human population, that our very birds-birds we have long regarded as paragons of domestic virtue-are allowed to behave in this unseemly manner right in our own backyards. I was thinking of buying some binoculars for bird watching. Not anymore. If this is the way birds are behaving, I don't want to see it.

Have a good week.



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