Check it out: Courtship, love are for the birds

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Review

“The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy”

By Bernd Heinrich; Belknap Press, 337 pages

Oh boy, it's almost that day again. You know the one I'm talking about -- the big V day. Valentine's Day, for all of its red-and-pink pizzazz, sure becomes black-and-white for many of us: either you love it or you hate it. If you're a fan of all things heart-shaped, the library has many appropriately themed books for you, including collections of love poems; travel guides to romantic destinations; and how-to titles on improving and spicing up your love life (cha, cha, cha!). If, on the other hand, you loathe conversation-heart candy, think Cupid is stupid, and avoid romance novels like the plague, books about small-engine repair, rock hounding, or medieval weaponry might be your box of chocolates.

Suppose, however, you're standing at the corner of, "There's nothing wrong with a day devoted to love," and, "I just want to forget the whole thing." Sounds like a good read about nature might be in order, so may I recommend "The Nesting Season." The author, Bernd Heinrich, a professor emeritus of biology, has devoted much of his professional and personal life to the study of bird behavior. In "The Nesting Season," he sheds light on the fascinating, often complex world of avian courtship and mating through an engaging mix of research and personal reflections.

Birds and other flying creatures may not be able to send flowers to a potential mate, but they have their own set of courtship rites. Male bowerbirds build display nests and "decorate" them with colorful objects in order to attract the opposite sex. A male bird-of-paradise dances his way into a female's wings. And then there's the male hammerhead bat. His strange-looking face and huge larynx allow him to produce a loud honking song that female hammerhead bats find irresistible. It becomes clear that in the winged world of courting and wooing, it's pretty much up to the guys to do all the work. Nice.

Heinrich points out that some avian mating behavior is so similar to ours that attributing words like "love" and "monogamy" to our feathered friends shouldn't be derided. Swans are known to form long-term pair bonds. Geese and eagles also tend to have long-term partners. Other species, however, are less discriminating when it comes to procreative activities (just like some humans I know). For instance, that male bowerbird I mentioned earlier? He'll mate with any female bowerbird that chooses him. She might be discriminating, but not ol' loverboy!

Whether l'amour causes your heart to sing, or your feathers to ruffle, you cannot deny that Mother Nature has an amazing way of making sure the planet's species propagate and prosper. So here's a big Happy Valentine's Day to all of Earth's inhabitants -- you deserve it!

Jan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at readingforfun@fvrl.org.