This bird has blown

If you can’t infer from the heady smell of musk and cheap cologne emanating from your computer screen, let me inform you officially and scientifically that this is the Universe Sex Issue. Although, as a serious science forum, Universe tends to avoid this terrifically subjective topic, I was asked to write a column for the LA Alternative Sex Issue a few weeks ago, and decided to rise to the challenge. 2006 is all about getting into the spirit of things. Besides, I am not a square.

But before you loosen your belts too much, know that things are staying strictly Animal Kingdom. Although I am a firm proponent of putting the “hard” in “cold, hard facts,” (ewww, sorry) there is enough smut, good-natured and otherwise, on the web to keep you busy for the rest of your perverted life, and I do not intend to add to it.

It is an interesting specificity of the human race that we are generally ignorant of the sex lives of animals. We people are so concerned with getting tail, it seems, that we easily forget that a large percentage of this planet is populated by creatures with tails (and fins, and wings, and claws) that are pretty much looking for the same thing. Of course, there are those Nature Channel documentary films of lions humping in the veldt. I can’t help, when I see those, reacting with fascinated repulsion at just how similar that feline act looks to human sex. The inherent grossness of mammalian moans alone may explain our active disinterest in animal reproduction. Yet, while a great deal of the natural world is busy freaking us out with open-air acts of bestial pornography, there are droves of creatures getting busy in far more graceful ways.

Take the neatness of single-celled organisms splitting in half, for example. Or, the heroic struggle of salmon swimming upstream, already halfway to their deaths, just to fertilize their slimy eggs. And birds, home from some transcontinental migration, paired up in their nests, flagrantly making bird-sex, which, come to think of it

Wait, do you know how our feathered friends go about reproduction? Sure, they lay eggs, but what comes before that? If you are like me, the thought has literally never crossed your mind. Hopefully, you are having the same moment of awkward realization I just had. “Do male birds,” you may be asking yourself, “have penises?” The thought is terrifying: If they do, then are we living beneath a sky full of tiny, flying phalluses? Gross, right?

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The unsettling answer to this absurd question is: well, we are, kind of. The avian phallus, of which I have yet to find any photographic proof, remains tucked away in the feathered confines of the unholy bird-nooks of mostly land-lubbing birds (notably ostriches and turkeys). Apparently, there is one species of Argentine lake duck with a penis 42.5 centimeters long but that, thankfully, is an exception to the rule.

The rest of the flock (that is to say, almost all birds) are natural eunuchs. Both male and female birds, generally, have the same primary reproductive organ: the
cloaca, a little posterior hole used for all birdly bodily purposes. Although males keep their sperm in a little pocket inside the cloaca, and females have ovaries in theirs, their exterior reproductive organs are identical. As are, incidentally, their intestinal and urinary tract openings, since they are one and the same. This crosses out, of course, the standard sexiness of penis-in-vagina sex. Birds, with typical weird efficiency, have a neat and completely un-sexy solution.

During copulation, the female bird coyly moves her tail to the side and the male moves very close to her. He moves the opening of his cloaca close to hers — a butt-to-butt movement that is both cute and, I imagine, compromising — so that the sperm can enter the female cloaca, in what is very seriously referred to by ornithologists as a “cloacal kiss.” This can happen very fast, sometimes in less than one second. I imagine that neither participant even makes a peep.

After the awkward butt-kiss, the female bird can store the sperm inside her for up to a year, or until she feels emotionally ready to raise chicks. Eggs then descend one-by-one from the female bird’s ovaries and become fertilized by the stored sperm, before being laid into the family nest. No muss, no fuss.

And no ruffled feathers.

Comments

  1. #1 ritchey
    March 22, 2006

    nicely, nicely done! Oh the things upon this earth about which I did not even realize I was so ignorant!

  2. #2 rita
    March 27, 2006

    oh man i remember that discussion.

    seems a wee bit more professional now though.

  3. #3 Laura Packer
    March 31, 2006

    Quite by accident I took this photo of two Swainson’s Hawks mating. It is blogged at: http://www.ocellated.com/ This was a digiscoped image, taken in Abilene, Texas.

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