A few months ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of same-sex bird couples. A pair of male vultures were forcefully separated and put in cages with female vultures. Some considered the zookeepers who made this decision to be close-minded homophobes. Others saw them as responsible employees who were just doing their job. The vultures were, after all, part of a captive breeding program, and you still need a member of each sex to reproduce.
The vultures in this story were not the only same-sex bird couple to fall in love. Homosexuality in birds is not common--but it’s not extremely rare, either. Until now, this phenomenon hasn’t been studied in a scientific way. Just this month, however, a group of scientists from published a paper on the interactions of same sex bird couples. This paper did not focus on the mating and reproductive activity of the birds, but on their other social behaviors, such as calling and preening.
Not surprisingly they found that they are pretty much the same as straight bird couples.
The study was conducted on male zebra finches. You’ve seen those birds in the pet shop--they are cute little things, with bright orange bills and zebra-like stripes on their feathers. Zebra finches form strong pair bonds, and it’s not unusual for these bonds to form between finches of the same sex. Scientist Julie Elie found that when finches of the same sex are together in a cage, they will pair off and perform the same acts with their “special friend” that they would with an opposite-sex mate. Pairs preen each other, share special calls and tap beaks.
When female birds were added to the cage, three of the eight male bird couples broke up and “began playing for the other team” as the cliche goes. The other five did not. They ignored the females and concentrated on preening, pecking and calling to their “boyfriends.”
It is uncertain if the male lovers tried to mate with one another. It is also uncertain if female birds display the same behavior. What is certain, however, is that birds can form very strong bonds with members of the same sex, and that these bonds have little to do with reproduction or rearing offspring together.
Of course, the media has put its spin on this story, which has been covered by various sites. “Homosexual bird marriages just as strong as heterosexual ones” is one web site’s headline. I have no doubt that by next June someone will try to get these finches to march (fly?) in a parade. Maybe there will even be a petition to allow them to get married, along with Bert and Ernie. But what does this research really show?
It shows that it is tough out there. Animals, like humans, survive better if they are not alone, and it is not only sex that bonds them. The pair bonds formed by the male zebra finches were strong enough that over half of the couples stayed together when given the opportunity to mate with a female. But are the finches really “gay” as humans are? It’s hard to say. It is however, a very interesting study.