Do Birds Mate for Life?

January 23, 2012

We’re all familiar with the age-old tale of “the birds and the bees” – yet even though birds are included in this childhood allegory, they’re not exactly among the best exemplars of what we might deem “romantic love” among animals. Despite the fact that many of your beautiful backyard birds are in fact monogamous, this applies only if we take monogamous to mean that two birds stay together throughout one nesting season and no longer.

Monogamy can also be stretched in these instances to mean a pair that stays together to raise a brood in one season, but switches partners midway through that same season to produce another brood. Even though the male bird has technically already formed a pair bond with the female bird, he moves on to another female bird. This is not out of any lack of imagined faithfulness – studies have shown that mortality rates among first-year songbirds is extremely high, so optimal reproduction is the point of this “promiscuity.” Whatever the case may be, this monogamy is less a product of any kind of romantic notions and more a factor of simply practical demands.

What happens if a mate of one of these birds dies mid-season, however? With our romantic mindset, we might suppose that the surviving Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) - Steve Byland - 732-560-3699 sbird is simply too broken-hearted to ever try and find another mate. Since it’s been established that birds care little for the romantic aspect of things, however, this is very rarely the case, if ever. All these birds will simply move on to finding a new mate. Some will do it immediately and within the same season, others will scrounge around for sustenance and join a flock after breeding season, and still others will assist in raising the other birds’ newborns – but all will be on the lookout at some point or another for a new mate.

Then there are the birds, such as doves and robins, whose bonds last over several seasons and are commonly referred to as mating for life – even though the surviving bird may still look for a new mate after the other one’s death.

Even those birds that truly do mate for life – among them swans, geese, and eagles – do so primarily because it works to their advantage. They expend a good deal of energy migrating, establishing their territory, and the like, so why bother wasting extra energy and time every year attempting to find a different mate? This way, they can better focus on their primary aim, which is reproduction.

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At the end of the day, although birds may not conform to our notions of romance and monogamy, we can take comfort in knowing that they’re simply doing their part to ensure that beautiful birds will keep coming back to feed and bathe in your yard for years to come.

By Sean Peick (Guest Writer)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

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Marcia Pavich March 19, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Although songbirds may not mate for life, and certainly do not have the ability to feel “romantic” feelings toward their mates, they do seem to engage in displays of caring behavior. It is always a delight to watch the gentle actions of our mourning doves and cardinals, as they pair off and spend time with their new mates. i know that soon there will be little ones at our feeders, and that is always something to look forward to!

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