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Birds Do It, Bees Do It

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Since most of us have spent our lives largely ignorant about the mating habits of other species, it’s only fitting that an educational Web site pertaining to all things animal should include sex. In this new biweekly column, everything you ever wanted to know about the sex lives of animals, but were afraid to ask, will be answered.

Think of me as the Carrie Bradshaw of the animal world. We’ll explore such topics as:

  • What’s the real purpose of cock-a-doodle-doo? The diverse and fascinating strategies of animal seduction.
  • Who calls the shots in picking a mate: males or females?
  • The ferocity of male competition for females: aggression, the ingenious, and the visually beautiful.
  • How long do relationships last?
  • Do animals mate to share in intimacy, affection or friendship, or is all animal sex strictly about reproducing?
  • Who raises the kids?
  • The sexual meaning of animal “good looks.” Who’s got them, who doesn’t, and why? (Think gorgeous male peacock feathers displayed during courtship).
  • The allure of female perfume: female snakes release a scent trail for the male to follow; the pheromones in the urine of female dogs can attract a male dog from blocks or even miles away.
  • “Do you want to come to my place to see my etchings?” Using art to attract a mate: The male Bower bird, for example, chews berries to “paint” the walls of the “bower of bliss” he builds to impress the discriminating female. If she’s not aesthetically pleased by his artwork and arrangement of feathers, shells and other found objects, he’ll be thoroughly rejected.
  • The language of seduction. What we hear as the inscrutable but familiar background sounds of nature are often the siren songs of species.
  • Who stays paired for life? Who doesn’t? Who has multiple mates?
  • And the most basic question—how do animals do it?

What’s love got to do with it?

Spring, known as the season for coupling up, is not so much about love being in the air, but sex, as creatures great and small seek partners. Many animals in the wild breed in the spring because of the abundance of food and other resources needed for raising their young. Many domestic animals can breed year round, an adaptation that developed as tamed animals, bred in captivity, became companions and helpers of mankind.

Sex, however, is not always about perpetuating the species. The bonobo apes, for example, use sex to calm upset members of their group and to disarm aggression. A bonobo would be the fitting poster child — or more accurately, the poster primate — for the slogan “Make Love, Not War.”

The great chain of being

Modern life doesn’t afford many opportunities for observing animals’ sexual habits, and yet we humans coexist on a planet with billions of other creatures who share our preoccupation with attracting, mating and producing offspring. In the midst of all this fecund activity, we drink our latté and go about our business completely oblivious. Perhaps, by exploring the myriad ways animals partner, we will recognize with awe, amusement, and chagrin something of ourselves and our connection to all living beings—the “nature” in our human nature.

As Cole Porter so delightfully put it:

"Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love"

Coming attractions

Next column: birds gone wild! Dancing, singing, preening, feathers flying, and of course — birds doing it.

Credit: Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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