Down in the Jungleland: In the world of birds, here’s looking at the battle of the sexes

Down in the Jungleland: In the world of birds, here’s looking at the battle of the sexes

Who wins the war?

Beware when you take children out birding

You may be a crack birder (or nature enthusiast) and be able to differentiate one tiny brown job from its identical twin at 500 m, with one eye closed, and so impress the world, but beware when you take children out birding. They have this way of suddenly piping up with very simple-sounding questions and issues that can leave you, so to speak, stranded halfway down the pitch, looking very silly indeed.

“Look at that peacock!” you grandly say, “see how gorgeous he is! And look how dowdy the peahens are by comparison. They look like they’re wearing moth-coloured shawls, don’t they?”

“But why? That’s not fair. Why shouldn’t she have a gorgeous tail too?”

“Ah, yes what to do, but in nature — especially with birds and some fishes and reptiles — the males are far more handsome and colourful than the females.”

“But why?”


“You see, the ladies have to be plain and dowdy. She has to look after her eggs and babies and if she were all dressed up like the dudes, predators would spot her easily and make short work of both her and the babies. So, she has to wear camouflage plumage to stay hidden and protect them. Some politicians want our girls to do that too.”

“Shouldn’t the big strong dada dude be the great protector of his family? Rather than prancing around in fancy dress chasing girls?”

“Well, of course, in some animals that does happen. The dude has a harem and guards it fiercely. But these fancy-dress dudes dress up to show the ladies how fine their genes are and how strong they are so that they should be glad to have his babies, who will also then be strong, healthy and beautiful. And many of the ladies do get taken in… Actually, many of the dudes only put on these glad rags during the breeding season. For instance, the peacock will drop all his fancy feathers afterwards and grow new ones for the following season.”

“But after his honeymoon with one lady, the rascal goes running after other peahens?”

“I’m afraid that is correct. But the dudes have to compete with each other for the attention of the ladies. The ladies can be very picky and choose only the finest one. And then the dudes have to fight one another over the ladies too to prove who’s strongest.”

“But still, the dude then just ditches her and runs after other girls? What a two-timer!”

“I guess, but he wants to spread his genes around as much as he can as soon as he can! And it takes a lot of energy and effort to dress up and dance and sing the way some dudes do. You must have seen the birds of paradise and birds like pheasants — where the dudes are just stunning!”

“But still, he just has a good time and takes no responsibility for his children! For their education and upbringing…”

“He does pay a price for it, you know.”

“What price?”

“Well, he stands a much better chance of getting eaten by a predator because he’s flashing all these neon day-glo colours and strutting around. Imagine how difficult it is for a peacock to make a hasty getaway from a leopard with that huge encumbrance of a tail. He can also get caught in barbed wire or a thorn-bush!”

“It serves him jolly well right!”

“It’s been found that the dudes have considerably shorter life-expectancy than the hens. That’s why they play fast and loose.”

“But then, why aren’t all dudes like that? You can’t tell the difference between Mr. Crow and Mrs. Crow or Mr Pigeon and Mrs. Pigeon.

“Uh, let’s leave out the pigeons. Sometimes, even they can’t tell the difference. But yes, Mr Darwin suggested that in species where the dude does help in bringing up the babies, he and his wife tend to look similar. He’ll help with feeding, burping and teaching them how to fly, and, maybe, even sit on the eggs if he’s really into equal parenting, so that his wife can go off to the malls for a break.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sort of. You know, there’s this duck called the mallard. The dude has a head like a big fat emerald and a curly tail. The lady is speckled brown all over and quite dowdy. Well Mr Mallard has his honeymoon and takes off; he doesn’t stay by the nest or have anything to do with the ducklings who have to be entirely looked after by Mrs Mallard. And there’s also this duck called the spotbill, which lives in India, where there is very little difference between Mr and Mrs And you’ll be glad to know that Mr Spotbill — according to Mr Salim Ali — does, in fact, hang around to protect his ducklings.”

“So then, Mr Crow or Mr Spotbill will stay with their Mrs for ever and ever?”

“Some birds indeed do, but others stay with each other just for the season and find new partners for the next season.”

“But why does Mr Crow want to stay on with Mrs Crow, while Mr Peacock goes running after other peahens after making out with Mrs Peahen?”

“Possibly because Mr Crow knows that their chicks will need both parents to feed them in order for them to survive and that there aren’t too many lady crows around for him to run after while the reverse is true for Mr Peacock.”

At this point, you smile fatuously. “You see, whatever parents and nature do, it’s always for the good of the kids…”


You’ll get wildly rolling eyes and a “Huh? Gimme a break!”

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.