Photo: Andrew Zuckerman

Science

Love in the Air

Even in the bird world, romance can get messy.

Bleeding Hearts

Hummingbirds may look dainty, but woe betide any rival suitor who takes that beak for granted. Researchers from the University of Connecticut have discovered that during breeding season, male Long-billed Hermits fight over mates by plunging their beaks into each other’s necks . . . in midair. Thanks to these bloody aerial jousts, males have developed longer and pointier beaks than females. The research team says this is the first evidence of a bird’s beak being shaped—and weaponized—by the forces of sexual selection. 

Number One Dad(s)

Late last year a pair of Chilean Flamingos at the Edinburgh Zoo accidentally kicked their egg out of the nest and abandoned it. But thanks to the zoo’s resident gay flamingo couple, the orphaned chick gained two super-proud dads instead. This isn’t the first same-sex flamingo pair to come to the rescue; in 2007 the U.K.’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust gave its own committed couple, Fernando and Carlos, an abandoned egg to keep them from stealing everybody else’s.

Ring of Fire

There’s no tiptoeing around the subject of hygiene if you’re a Great Bustard. During courtship, the female inspects the male’s cloaca (Latin for “sewer”) by getting right up in his rear. Once she’s done probing, the bustards lock together in a “cloacal kiss” to transfer sperm—except when there are obvious signs of parasites, such as diarrhea and protruding orange worms; then males can kiss their chances of mating goodbye. It’s simple: Clean up or clear out. The solution? Male bustards eat the fattest, most toxic blister beetles they can find. Both sexes dine on the insects for sustenance. But scientists from the Spanish National Museum of Natural Science say that males up the dosage when wooing ladies. While 10 beetles can kill a bustard, three can cure it of its ills. This may be the first known example in the animal kingdom, says lead researcher Carolina Bravo, of males self-medicating to attract mates. Not bad for a bird that’s never been to medical school.

Cooking for One

When Tom Price heard about Billy, a rescued Cockatiel that masturbates up to 10 times a day, it got him wondering: Should owners of self-gratifying birds be worried? While avian enthusiasts have been discussing it for years, the scientific literature on bird autoeroticism is scarce. With the help of a public survey, Price, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Liverpool, is building a database on the masturbatory habits of wild and captive birds. His aim is to find out whether it’s a natural behavior or proof of duress. “If it’s a sign of abuse and captivity,” he says, “we need to know.”

Babewatch

Want to meet thousands of babes? Citizen science collective Zooniverse has launched Penguin Watch, which asks the public to get out their proverbial red markers and annotate flocks of penguins. Fifty cameras planted around the Southern Ocean take up to 4,800 time-lapse photos of Antarctic nesting areas each day, burying scientists in data. So they’re asking volunteers to log in to penguinwatch.org and tag adults, juveniles, and eggs of five different species. The extra sets of eyes will help scientists keep tabs on breeding schedules, nest survival rates, and major predation events. Need further incentive? The next few months will be full of rebellious chicks partying on the beach, as their parents leave them unsupervised to go fishing.  

Smooth Operators

How’s this for dedication: Male Common Yellowthroats scout neighborhoods up to a quarter-mile away for fertile females, says new research from the University of California-Davis. To attract mates, some of these lusty warblers sing as many as 2,000 variations on their special courting song in a single day. Which is super-romantic and all, except that many of these males already have mates at home. When they return from their flings, do these cheaters offer their scorned ladies even a single serenade? Hardly. Instead, the two-timers shadow them, keeping their own rivals at bay.

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