Rituals of Spring – Making More

The first day of Spring Quarter at Central Washington University – one week ago. I ran into Homey outside the Student Union and Recreation Center (SURC), and we quickly fell into one of those finally-spring conversations. As we talked, around us were the opening salvos of the serious-yet-playful rituals which will play themselves out through spring as young adults practice determining whose genes will carry which characteristics into a future we will not see.

“So,” Homey mused, “are you going to do one of those ‘mating games’ columns where you compare these folks to the birds and bees and animals? And that stuff about how some birds and animals mating for life – sort of.” When I just shrugged, he added, “You know, maybe you could talk about the new research or surveys showing that wives cheat more than husbands, huh? I heard it on NPR a couple weeks ago.”

“That wasn’t quite the story you heard,” I said. “You gotta be careful – and accurate – with this stuff, Homey. Even the truth can get you in trouble, so have your facts in line.” At his urging, I recalled that story. (Thruthfully, I kinda wanted to hear it again myself, anyhow.)

Almost exactly three decades ago, at a city parks Canada-goose-management hearing in Denver, I got sucked into a conversation that changed my thinking about geese, their personal relationships and their mating habits. I happened to be standing, innocently, next to a woman regaling a friend about her husband/boyfriend’s cheating. She started comparing geese and their mating habits to men in general. I happened to be the closest man as we walked out, and without even opening my big mouth, I became the backboard off which she bounced her done-me-wrongs. She punctuated the completion of her list with, “Well, at least geese mate for life and know how to be faithful! Put that in your male chauvinist pig attitude and smoke it!”

The gauntlet thrown, I was duty-bound to explore the question. With little research I found that waterfowl specialists had discovered that in any given clutch of four to ten eggs on arctic breeding grounds, there was DNA evidence of fertilization by at least two ganders, and sometimes as many as four. Geese may, indeed, mate for life, but they fool around.

Studies of mallard ducks found similar situations. Then a buddy in the Colorado Division of Wildlife passed along a memo from the Fort Collins research center: a fair percentage of twin deer fawns actually had two different daddies.

Then there was that January, 1999, issue of Scientific American, and the article by Pascal Gagneux and David Woodruff of the University of California at San Diego. DNA tracers showed that most of the babies born in an isolated group of wild chimps in West Africa were not from any of the males in the group. Conclusion was that “at least some of the female chimpanzees must have sneaked into the surrounding forest for trysts with males of other groups. Such adventures might explain how even small groups of chimpanzees maintain a great deal of genetic diversity.”

Now we have these recent surveys on cheating in human relationships. Homey had it a bit wrong. Men are still ahead in the cheating game, as you no doubt suspected. However, in recent family-practice and other surveys, women are only three to five percentage points behind them. Really all of the above makes sense; in virtually all species it is incumbent upon the female to introduce as much genetic diversity as possible to sustain her species. Hello…

So, where were we? Oh yes, the mating games of spring. Look around at all the evidence for the continued existence of the species we enjoy.

The little California quail boys are staking out turf and calling girls on all sides of us. From dawn >til dusk, we can hear that passionate “chi-CAH-go, chi-CAH-go.” In East Wenatchee, I grew up bathing in that call through hundreds of warm spring days.

The male robins are now staking out their turf and the females are arriving to make partnership and nesting decisions. The mourning and ring-necked doves will increasingly be calling for company in the weeks to come. Drive out to valley wetlands and watch – and hear – the male red-winged and yellow headed blackbirds courting the females with whom they will make the next generation of their kind.

And, if you are one of the lucky ones – one whose house has just the right acoustics – you may be an up-close witness to the love drumming of the looking-for-love northern flicker. If a female is attracted, she may join in a drumming duet at some acoustically-pleasing part of your siding. (It will end once love settles into a nesting relationship.)

As I walk, white-haired and unobtrusive, among Central’s young men and women on these pleasant spring days, I sense the future of our species is safe.  Our young people preen and strut and test and chase and accept and reject.  It is comforting to see that our human rituals, and mating habits, vary so little from those of the feathered and furred brethren about us.  It is all about ensuring the future – by making more.

I always give thanks for spring…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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