We humans might think we have the monopoly on different types of matrimony and family: nuclear, joint, single-parent, or same-sex-parent families, communes, etc., but we can’t match up to the wild, especially birds.
Not only does the stately Sarus crane live in an ideal nuclear family (at times following the “hum-do-humare-do” mantra), couples are revered for their lifelong fidelity and devotion to each other. If one partner dies, the other will pine away till it joins its partner. Hear a lonely Sarus crane call on a moonlit night and you’ll know what I mean.
Many species of birds have nuclear families, where both mama and papa take care of their brood. Some couples (very sensibly you might think) break up after the family leaves home and find new partners for the next nesting season. Alas, for us, this is not really possible as our broods only leave home at around 21— and sometimes not even then! Some birds (like the sarus and eagles) are ferociously faithful to their partners throughout their lives. In some cases, the mama birds stay on the nest and mind the chicks — like what some of our honourable ministers would like women to do — while papa goes out hunting. Among others, like the devoted hornbills, the female is securely “locked down” in her hollow, with her eggs and, later, chicks. The entrance to the hollow is sealed up with mud and dung, with just a crack left in it. Her husband assiduously feeds her through this “window” and when the chicks hatch and become demanding, the mother too breaks out, reseals the entrance and both parents now feed their family, until the chicks are big enough to break out.
The sociable weaver bird — endemic to South Africa — lives in one enormous joint family in a massive community nest, each family in their own private apartment and entrance. But the whole edifice is like a massive haveli. You may dislike living cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of relatives, but the entire clan will rise up clamorously to defend their young from external threats like a nosey snake. Though a grass-fire spark or bolt of lightning can set the entire structure ablaze, roasting chicks alive.
Our own baya weaver also lives in colonies, but each nest is an individual architectural masterpiece of the male. The gentleman baya is quite the chhupa rustam. After bedding one wife in a palatial structure, he sets about building another and woos another till his stamina lasts — each wife oblivious of the others’ existence.
The lovely burrowing owl of North and South America lives communally in prairie dog burrows in the ground — in fields, grasslands and open areas. They have a wonderful, Californian lifestyle. The mom in one burrow might check out the beefcake in the neighbouring burrow, while a dude may call on the cute little thing next door — all done clandestinely. The result: a lot of half-siblings.
Several species have single-parent families — where one parent takes care of the brood, while the other goes about philandering and having more babies. And no, it’s not the dude who’s out lap-dancing at nightclubs. In species like the painted snipe, it is the lady who dons all the finery, settles her dowdy corduroy husband in the nursery and goes in search of other dudes. Other such species include the jacanas and swamphens (wonder what our ministers would say to this). Chicks of single-parent families are pretty self-contained at birth (nidifugous), run about and feed themselves as soon as they hatch. Parents are needed only for security.
The notorious cuckoo dumps its eggs (babies) in foster homes. It can’t be bothered with parenting and would rather party: for example, a pint-sized warbler will find herself confronting a hulking hawk-cuckoo chick in her nursery, whose maw is big enough to swallow both her and papa and is scaring the daylights out of them! Our mellifluous black koel is one such culprit, though it gets the better of that street smart “sab-jaanta” house crow!
A little better are the flamingos that nest in colonies thousands strong, where bedlam prevails. They send their chicks to boarding school — huge crèches at the edges of the colony with hundreds of dowdy grey-clad babies in attendance, overseen by a few harassed adults. Occasionally, the juveniles turn rogue and charge through the colony, causing panic among adults.
A gentlemen couple, the famous chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo, wanted a baby and tried to hatch a rock, until kind zookeepers in New York gave them a genuine penguin egg. On duly being hatched, their baby girl Tango turned out a lesbian. Apparently, this is not the first time that penguins have indulged in same-sex relationships.
There’s one kind of matrimonial relationship in which the birds can’t beat us — the hammering “love-jihadists” — because they haven’t even heard of it.