Sex and the City Bird
Birds certainly do “do it.” Everywhere I go over the past month, birds are going at it. I’ve already written about the sex life of the pigeon pair that turned my air conditioner into a trysting place. They’re now raising babies on a hidden ledge between my building and the one next door. I can’t see the babies, though I can hear their hungry peeping and the low, gentle cooing of the parents.
For paired, bonded pigeons like these, sex is the swift, fairly frequent culmination of ongoing, consensual activity that includes nest-building, companionship, and special courtship rituals. When the male wants to mate, he struts around the female with his chest puffed up, making low cooing noises, like Jim Morrison singing, “Come on, baby, light my fire.” If the female is in the mood, she places her beak inside his beak and the two birds bob their heads up and down in unison.
I don’t know if he is actually feeding her, as a parent pigeon feeds a baby, or if something else is going on. Maybe it’s her way of finding out just what kind of provider Mr. Sexy Voice/Big Chest is going to be.
In my limited observations, the beak ritual seems to be the penultimate stage in pigeon foreplay, after which the female bends low so that her back is flat and parallel to the ground. The male delicately, lightly, hops aboard and stands on her back for a second. Then she tilts up her tail, and he, with a flapping of wings, brings his cloaca (the bird’s reproductive, excretory and urinary organ) into contact with hers for a second or two for “the cloacal kiss,” during which sperm passes from his body into hers.
And that’s it. The brief copulation appears to a human onlooker purely mechanistic, while the ritual that precedes it seems to strengthen the pair bond through mutual pleasure. According to the books, the male flies off for a ritual wing-clapping display. And life goes on.
Watching the pigeon flock in Morningside Park offers a somewhat different view. It’s a little like watching the action at a singles bar. An apparently unattached male picks out a female, and moves in with pick-up lines and seductions: the strut, the puffed-out chest, the low coos: “Aw, baby, baby.” If pigeon guys wore clothes, you just know their shirts would be open to the waist, exposing hairy chests and gold chains.
The males will actually “drive” the female, spreading their tail feathers and moving so close that she has no choice but to move or be bumped by him.
The females generally seem uninterested, which makes me wonder if there are more unattached males in the flock than females. Like many a girl at a bar, the uninterested female keeps her head down, avoids eye contact, and tries to move away. Once the guy finally takes the hint, he simply turns his charms on the next unattended female. You can almost see some of these girls stifling yawns and giggles.
The unattached males seem pretty desperate for a hook-up. I’ve seen them repeatedly interrupt a bonded pair that are right in the middle of intimate beak foreplay or even when the male is standing on the female’s back. The single guy just butts right in and tries to lure away the female.
Still, despite the pushiness of courting males, pigeon sex seems completely consensual and mutually enjoyable.
Not so sweet is mallard sex. Ducks like it rough. The male approaches the female and bobs his head, down to the water, then up. If she’s interested, she’ll do a little head-bobbing of her own,
which progresses to synchronized head-bobbing.
She struggles, but is completely submerged. It looks like he’s trying to drown her. (Oh, and just to complete the picture, male ducks have some kind of strange corkscrew-like penis instead of the cloaca most birds have.)
A few seconds, and it’s over. He releases her and, rising part-way out of the water, flaps his wings in a power display. Then, while she shakes out her feathers, he zooms around her, enclosing her in a circle of rippled water.
Whew. Sometimes this nature-watching thing takes you strange places. You know?2010, Birds, In the City, May, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, Wildlife/Natural History comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.