"Lady Chaffinch’s Lover (Adultery Isn’t Just For Upper Class Birds)", by Rhianna Boyle

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It’s all about the birds and the bees, apparently. But given that female bees flee their natal hive to join a harem of males, then enslave their own daughters and spend their lives churning out babies of mixed paternity, who knows why society earmarked bees as romantic role models. Still, we may have gotten it a bit more right by including birds in the life lesson. What could be lovelier than two birds making a nest together?

With some awkward exceptions, such as birds of paradise (single mothers), emus (single fathers) and dunnocks (communally breeding and multiple-mating hippies), birds could well be religion’s advertisement for the natural goodness of heterosexual monogamy. Our use of language shows just how much we aspire to emulating the pair bonds of birds. From young ‘lovebirds’ exchanging their first ‘peck’ on the cheek to ‘empty nesters’ whose offspring have decided to ‘spread their wings’, the whole happy marital trope can be described in bird metaphors. It’s all well and good – that is, until someone gets cuckolded.

The term ‘cuckold’ famously appears in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, and describes a man whose wife has got pregnant to another man. It comes from the word ‘cuckoo’, due to the cuckoo’s habit of laying eggs in the nests of other species and leaving these young to be raised by the foster-parents. But while we have a centuries-old word that links birds to adultery, it’s only in recent decades that it’s become apparent just how appropriate this is.

Until the eighties it was assumed that social monogamy between birds equated to sexual monogamy. Then biologists, in their tentative research, began to suspect that some birds were inheriting genetic traits from male birds who were not their putative fathers. In the nineties, advances in DNA testing provided the ability to test for hard evidence. You can probably guess where this is going. Let’s just say that being cuckolded by an actual cuckoo is probably the least of a male bird’s worries.

Since then, the study of bird adultery (or ‘avian extra-pair copulation and paternity’, in academic parlance) has become a respectable branch of biology. Of the socially monogamous bird species that have been studied so far, it’s estimated that one in ten chicks in every species, on average, is being raised by a male bird that is not its biological father. 

This is an extract from The Lifted Brow #21, The Sex Issue! Get your copy now!