Birds Do It

May 09, 1994|By TIM BAKER

The lusty month of May is here again, and with it has returned my favorite pair of robins. I can see the two of them from where I sit. They're building their nest in the rose arbor outside my window.

This will be the fourth year in a row these two birds have nested there. At least I think they're the same two birds. I hope they are because we've been through a lot together. Last spring, for example, one of their chicks kept falling out of the nest, and I had to keep putting it back. We were all worried to death, but thank God, the youngster finally learned to fly and flew off on its own sometime in July.

Over the winter I sometimes wondered how my pair of robins was doing. But when they first reappeared last week, I could see right away how devoted they still were to each other. Come rain or shine, good luck or bad, this hard-working couple will build another nest and raise another family here. Soon tiny blue eggs will appear, and in no time at all I'll hear baby birds chirping outside my window again.

As I watch these two robins, I think about the Walt Disney movies, ''Cinderella'' and ''Snow White.'' Remember how the loving pairs of little birds would sit beside each other on a branch and sing so happily together? Well, my own pair of robins have always seemed to me to be like that. They're a vision of domestic felicity.

Imagine, then, my shock and horror when I recently read an ornithological study of birds' sex lives. I always thought they mated in faithful life-long monogamous pairs. Well, it turns out they don't. Instead, adultery runs rampant.

Biologists have examined the offspring of bird couples by using the same DNA fingerprinting techniques now commonly used in paternity cases. The results are a moral catastrophe. They show that as many as 70 percent of the chicks in a nest are not sired by themaster of the birdhouse.

That means as many as seven of the ten chicks hatched outside my window in the last four years have been the product of the mother robin's illicit lust. This astonishes me! I never saw her fly very far from the nest, and her husband always seemed to be around. So her adulterous trysts must have occurred right under our noses.

I am outraged, and he must be too. That's probably why he never brings her a flower on Mother's Day. But apparently he doesn't have any right to complain about being a cuckolded husband. If these studies are correct, he's got a mistress of his own stashed somewhere. She's probably that cute little trick I've seen flitting around my next door neighbor's maple tree.

The scientific term for all this debauchery is ''EPC'' or ''extra-pair copulation.'' But whatever you want to call it, biologists don't think these two birds are really doing it for kicks or even because they feel misunderstood in their marriage.

Instead they're acting strictly in accordance with Darwinian rationality.

Natural selection, you see, will favor my male robin if he philanders, because in that way he'll produce more offspring than any of his faithful buddies. And his illegitimate sons will presumably inherit and then propagate his wandering eye.

The mother robin will benefit from cheating too. It gives her a chance to mate with stronger males who will pass along better genes to her children. Indeed, nature seems to encourage her in outright promiscuity because that will ensure a broader genetic diversity in her nest.

Infidelity, then, must be instinctive -- a part of creation's master plan. But hold on! Before you go racing out the door to spread the gospel, stop and consider whether you -- as a conscious moral being who loves the whales and recycles your trash -- want to participate in a system that operates like this.

Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard's literate biologist, has warned us about Drawinism's radical philosophic and theological implications. First, evolution has no purpose. Robins and other creatures are only trying to spread as many of their genes as they can to future generations. Any order or harmony which appears around us is only the incidental result of those self-centered libidinous strivings.

Second, evolution has no direction. It doesn't inevitably lead to higher beings, but only to organisms better adapted to their local environments.

Finally, Darwin's interpretation of nature rests on a relentless philosophic materialism. It denies mind and spirit, as well as God and other cosmic consciousnesses. This is why religious fundamentalists find it so objectionable.

My two robins probably don't know very much about these weighty matters. After all, they're only following their biological imperatives. So I've decided to let them go ahead and build their nest in my arbor again this year. Whatever they're up too, they seem to be pretty discreet about it, so I don't think they'll give the neighborhood a bad name.

Anyway, there's a lot that I admire about them. Regardless of their sexual morality, they're both devoted parents. Right now they're doggedly reconstructing the foundations of their home. It isn't easy. All that snow last winter made a mess of things. When their chicks hatch in a few weeks, both mother and father will work tirelessly to bring them food. If one of the youngsters falls out of the nest, they'll squawk to let me know.

So, as long as the two of them have worked it out between themselves, what they do in their free time is none of my business. After all, as far as I know, neither of them plans to run for political office.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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