How Common Are Stepchildren Amongst Songbirds?

Photo Credit: jaguardelplatanar

Crazy Bird Love!!

OK, so February 14 is Valentine's Day, when humans are swear their love for their one and only.

But what about birds? Are our feathered friends so caught up in this frenzy? In fact, so they even stay faithful to their mates? What's their rate of divorce?


The development of DNA identification has given scientists potent new tools for discovering the genetic relationships between animal parents and their offspring. In recent years this has led to some eye-opening revelations about monogamy and infidelity in the animal world -- particularly in birds, which have traditionally been thought to form monogamous pairs for child-rearing. 

Because avian offspring require a lot of parental care -- incubating the eggs and feeding the nestlings -- it seemed to both parents' advantage to be hardworking, faithful partners.

Scientists using DNA "fingerprinting" have discovered instead that a surprising number of eggs in birds' nests contain another male's genes. Behind the appearance of monogamy, "sexual fidelity is hard to find," as science author Virginia Morell put it. 

"Social" monogamy -- staying together for the sake of the kids -- is one thing. But among birds, scientists are finding, females are sneaking off with other males whose offspring are then raised by the female and her unknowing partner.

Imagine this: DNA studies of songbirds have shown that among any four baby birds in a single nest, it is typical that only an average of two are the creation of the parent birds that are raising them. The other two nestling have either a different father or mother, or both. In other words, it is a common practice among songbirds to copulate with birds other than their mates, thus producing broods of nestlings with mixed parentage. Wait, this sounds awfully similar to what's going on with humans these days.

Divorce is also common among birds, particularly in birds of prey. If a mated pair of hawks, for example, is not successful in producing a brood of youngsters, an avian divorce often arises and one or the other will seek another mate.

Studies suggest that monogamy survives when the offspring are so dependent on both parents that it is in their interest not to stray if their offspring are to survive. Such situations, however, are in the great minority.

So what do you think? Any new ideas for Valentine's Day?


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