As I write this column, it is St. Valentine's Day, according to British folklore, the day the wild bird, be it chaffinch, swallow or turtle dove, chooses that special bird with whom he or she will mate for life. This is presumably why love birds are such a prominent feature of old-fashioned valentines.
Ornithologists, with the aid of DNA, have recently discovered that the nests of so-called monogamous birds often contain eggs fathered by several different males. Not all birds are family oriented.
Take the bower bird of Eastern Australia, for example, who exhibits some of the characteristics of my friend Biff, and also resembles Martha Stewart.
Hard as it is to think of Martha Stewart and the Biffster in the same breath, as it were.
There are different bowerbird species, all similar in stature (Wildlife expert Sir David Attenborough says they are about the size of a jackdaw, whatever that is), but varying in degree of fanciness. None are as gorgeously feathered as their cousin, the bird of paradise, but the satin bowerbird sports some blue plumage, and the males of some other bowerbird species do have little crests on their heads, what scientists refer to as sexual headgear.
All bowerbird males build bowers, or huts, and it is an interesting fact that the smaller the crest, the grander the hut. Sort of like the Napoleon complex in humans, I guess. Not to anthropomorphize.
Some bowerbirds will make a stage, clearing an 8-foot square of debris on the forest floor, even going so far as to tidy up the tree roots within their space. Then they decorate this stage with leaves, which they laboriously cut from the branch with their serrated beaks, 15 minutes per leaf. (I assume Attenborough uses a stopwatch.)
The birds carefully arrange about 100 of them on the ground so that the undersides of the leaves glimmer palely in the forest gloom. They add feathers from more colorful birds, as well as flowers, pebbles and even plastic forks. Bower birds are powerfully drawn to anything blue.
Some bowerbird males build simple huts of grass, while others construct rounded towers from three to five feet tall. They labor tirelessly, hopping about to survey their handiwork, and driving away rival males who may do a flyover with an aim to pilfering some treasure: a really good blue picnic fork, say, or a snail shell.
Fuss, fuss, fuss, that's what male bower birds do until a likely looking females comes along.
Females are drawn to the more elaborate huts of older, more experienced males. It is rumored among female bowerbirds that they contain jacuzzis and mirrored ceilings.
The male of one species dances around the female, showing off by nonchalantly tossing blue and yellow objects over his shoulder, as if they meant nothing to him. What, this old rag?
Some species paint the insides of their bowers with blue stripes, using wadded leaves as brushes. Yes, another example of non human tool use, but there it is. Even among the painting species, not all of the males will be painters. It is apparently an individual thing. Berries and charcoal, mixed with saliva, are the traditional paints, but in late years bowerbirds have taken to thieving laundry bluing and mixing that with saliva for a richer, more satisfying blue. I swear this is true, if Attenborough is to be believed.
All right, now get this: After the male has successfully seduced the female inside his bower, he is suddenly overtaken by an inexplicable fit of rage, during which he rudely drives her away.
Off she goes, with who knows what emotions in her downy breast, but perhaps not overly upset, to build a nest lay eggs and raise up a brood of baby bower birds by herself.
This is where the Martha Stewart aspect comes in. The male immediately goes back to work on his perfect, perfect hut, adding a leaf here, replacing a wilted flower there. Just like any other artist, he considers his own creation to be the real point, not procreation or nest building or continuing the species or anything so mundane as that.
If my hut happens to attract chicks, well and good. Now where did I put that bluing? That's a male bower bird for you.
Yes, this will be on the test. I have go over to the P.O. now to rake in all my valentines. Have a good week.