The Birds and the Bees and the Gelada Baboons

The robust
The robust "courting" behavior among mallards is one of the topics in the PBS series "What Females Want and Males Will Do," starting next spring. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 10 Day 1 of Summer TV Press Tour 2007 and already I am an expert on duck rape. You, too, can be an expert if you watch PBS's "What Females Want and Males Will Do" -- one of the highlights of the "Nature" franchise's upcoming 26th season on the public television network.

But, sadly, it does not debut until spring '08. Until then, I've got the jump on you.

Duck rape is epidemic in this country; various conservative organizations are still working on how to blame television. The problem seems to occur most often in lakes and ponds on the campuses of colleges and universities with robust zoology and animal behavior departments. Male mallards are notorious; often a gang of them with no partners, for reasons that should be obvious, descend on a campus pond to force themselves on the womenfolk.

Happily, some female ducks have evolved to the point where even after non-consensual sex they get to decide whether to use the drake's sperm or dump it. Ha!

But "What Females Want" is about so much more than duck rape. It's about passionate wildlife experts using cutting-edge technology and risky field study to discover what makes winners and losers in the "animal dating game," PBS says. That includes lizards that do push-ups, spiders that dance, and monkeys that drum in the name of love -- or at least procreation.

Chadden Hunter, PhD, for instance, studied the gelada baboon to learn what signals the varying shades of red on the males' chests send to the females.

Male gelada baboons are mere peacocks, it turns out, showing off for the girls who collectively pick one to be their official mascot boy-toy. And when the girls decide to turn him in for a newer model, the old guy never has sex again and just generally hangs around doing housework and looking after the kids. When you see the old gelada baboons on the outskirts of their cul-de-sac, they look all sad and . . . well, shagged out, Hunter said.

You'll also learn in this new program that while birds in general have been thought to be monogamous, DNA testing on baby chicks now reveals that that happily-mated-for-life male bird may be out catching worms and grubs and things for some other guy's offspring as well as his own. Then again, he himself may have sired a chick with another hussy on the block. These days, researchers call birds' apparent mated-for-life bliss "social monogamy," said Gail Patricelli, PhD.

Patricelli, whose thing is sage grouse (grouses? grice?), used a taxidermic female sage grouse whose insides had been stuffed with the motor from one of those remote-controlled airplanes kids play with, along with a lipstick camera, to elicit the male's ritual mating behavior, which, interestingly, includes both acoustic and visual displays. Patricelli managed to get Fembot, as she called her monster, and its remote control through airport security in her carry-on luggage (Sacramento airport -- we asked) without question. Which, she said, was a disappointment because she had a whole story ready for the security guards about Fembot and her research. The guard at the X-ray machine did say as it went through the machine, "Can I ask you a question?" -- only the guard was addressing the passenger behind Patricelli who had a water bottle in her bag.

Back to the ducks: One critic wondered whether female ducks have orgasms. Sadly, that discussion would never make it past the Decency Police at The Washington Post. Let's just say that in theory, the female duck has the equipment, but nobody has studied this organ because, hello, it's a female organ, so they don't actually know.

Did you know that a certain kind of duck -- the Stifftailed Somethingorother -- has an unusually long phallus, 40 centimeters in general, though the record-holder clocked in at 45 centimeters. Which caused behavioral ecologist Patricia Brennan, PhD, to wonder -- and apparently she was the first person to do so -- what does the interior of the female Stifftailed Thingamabob look like? After all, as Nice Voiceover Man said on the clip shown at the start of the Q&A session, "You need a garage to park the car."

One critic asked show host F. Murray Abraham to compare and contrast all this animal promiscuity with the Hollywood entertainment industry.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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