Where Eagles and Herons Watch Dogs (32KB)

Barbara Ray

Men Are From Mars, Herons Are From Venus

Interpreting Gender Issues of the Modern Bird

Introducing Barbara Ray

With my great thanks for contributing this article to Coherent Dog

This article and the photograph of Mr. Osprey bringing home the groceries are

Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Ray. Used with permission. All other rights reserved.

Men Are From Mars, Herons Are From Venus

Interpreting Gender Issues of the Modern Bird

The stories you are about to read are all true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I will gladly share with you their addresses if you wish to witness for yourself the lives and conversations of some of our wild neighbors!

For humans who feel stuck in a relationship rut or feel that they have been gender-stereotyped to the point of no return, rest assured we are not alone. Men might be from Mars and women from Venus, but it matters not whether you are a human or a heron!

We can take comfort in knowing that many animals face the same relationship issues as we and that what we consider "annoying behaviors" in our spouses and significant others is merely the expression of a biological imperative that runs amok in many animals, not just humans. It is a survival mechanism, attached to some remote gene that probably has a number but not yet an exact known function that is expressed under "the right environmental conditions," those conditions being marriage and committed partnership.

Mr. Osprey returns with groceries

Let's consider the average osprey couple. Let's call them Naggin and Gonefishin, GF for short. I'll leave it to the reader to figure out which is the female and which the male!

Our couple gets along really well on the homemaking front. They both share similar tastes in building and decorating the home. Both agree they should build new themselves rather than have a contractor, or, to add on to an existing nest they are satisfied with. Like any self-respecting osprey, location is everything, so they can live with a little bit of splintered wood or a weathered perch so long as the home is tidy, high above the water and with a magnificent view over the lake.

They also are in agreement about making time for each other and starting a family. They spend a lot of time together, often sitting side by side on bench outcroppings over the reservoir or flying around dipping and diving and fishing. They communicate openly about sensitive issues and they spend time "hanging out in the backseat" if you know what I mean, though their back seat happens to also be their living room, but we won't get hung up on the private details.

So, we have a picture of a happily married couple about to start a family. A fairy tale relationship, just like some of ours started out also!

This is when things change a little bit. (Also like of some of our relationships!) Perhaps it is a syndrome of mothers-to-be or just a fact of married life, but once the eggs are laid, our buddy GF maybe wonders who he really married. (Perhaps this is why a handsome harrier often maintains two nests and two "wives" on years he can. Either this keeps him so busy he doesn't have time to think about his current state of affairs, or he can bounce back and forth depending on which lady harrier is being the most pleasant toward him!)

Because Naggin, our lovely lady osprey (from Venus also), who is dedicated to brooding her eggs and taking superb care of her mate's children, will make infinite requests of him to "go out and catch me a fish," or "there is an intruder please go take care of that! I simply cannot handle another umbrella salesman today! When are they going to learn that our feathers are waterproofed!" Said in a not-so-subtle series of crackly barks and chirps. Or perhaps, admittedly, an outright screech or two. Or three...

To an outsider, it would seem to become background noise the way she chatters on at him, but eventually we see GF rise up off his perch, go shoo off some impending marauder like the Canada goose swimming within two hundred feet of the nest pole that Naggin mistook for an umbrella salesman, or he may sail off to go catch and bring her a fish.

Don't misinterpret. GF is a dedicated and hardworking father. He, like many husbands who go unrecognized as such, is a saint. He does everything she asks him to do, well, eventually. To listen to her, you would think his work is substandard. But the truth is, he helps her successfully rear a healthy family year after year after year AND he stays with her no matter what. He listens to her seeming constant demands without complaint. Sometimes he will do a job just to get her to be quiet, this is true. But if she wants a break from the nest, he is right there, ready to sit on the eggs for a while so she can get up, stretch her wings and maybe take a brief outing for fish of her own catching. If she or the chicks need more fish, he will work hard to get more and once in a while he even gets a bite himself! (Okay, he never really misses a meal. Sometimes he will just eat his fish and ignore her squawking in the background demanding he bring HER another fish.) While he is not lazy, he has learned to tune her out occasionally, sit back on his favorite perch and watch the local soccer game going on among water striders, or wrestling matches in the goose flock. He does this not to be rude and annoying, but to take a brief catnap so he can save up some energy for his next few flights picking up groceries for her.

There we have it, our vocal, somewhat demanding female osprey, ordering her beleaguered husband around, but all in the name of family and survival and well-being of the kids. It is a universal theme, no?

For those who do not believe this, take some time to watch the spring activities in a heron rookery. Imagine this sight! Anywhere from thirty to fifty apartments high in the trees, each with a wedded couple preparing the baby's bedroom. If female osprey can be considered nagging or demanding, please feel for these heron guys who all have wives who are perfectionists, women-herons who like to discuss in great detail all the arrangements, while the poor husbands are either wanting to tune it out or just get the job done.

I have seen husband-herons go out and bring back twice the materials the wife asked for, so that she would have more options to choose from (and hopefully less trips to the store for him.) Still, you hear these wives forcing the conversation. (To the male herons' credit- they will enter the discussions with their wives. Our osprey hubby, GF, - remember him- he rarely would ever say a word to his wife!) Heron problems are discussed something like this:

Scenario: Hubby returns to the nest with five reed strips and three corn husks for wallpapering the baby's room.

Hubby: Here, my love, all this for you! I even picked out these gold colored husks weathered properly over the winter and sufficiently dried this spring to make the finest of interior linings in the crib.

Wifey: Oh dear. This will just not quite do. I need at least another husk to finish wallpapering the south wall and these reeds are pretty short. Do you think you might be able to pick up a few longer ones too?

Hubby: Well, gee, honey. I checked fourteen different stores and these were the longest reeds I could find. Can't we make do with what we have? I think it looks really good right now anyway!

Wifey: Well I know they make these longer. I saw a black-crowned night heron just last Friday stealing away with reeds he found at some store near here. It'd be really great if you would just go back out and try again. Oh, and don't you just love these corn husks! They are perfect! Pick up another of those too! Thanks dear!

Hubby: I really think you have done a fabulous job decorating with these materials. We really don't need to -

Wifey cuts him off: Just do it. Thanks.

Mr. Heron hears Wifey's call

So hubby flies out quietly, long wings gliding silently, prehistorically, as great blue herons appear whenever they take flight. He lands in a nearby cornfield, searches about for quite some time, then launches from the ground, a specially chosen, hand-picked and shimmering golden husk grasped gently in his great, spear-like beak. He is going to take this to his best girl. He is not going to take any pride in this fine selection, though he has a right to. He isn't going to expect her to thank him, or maybe even to acknowledge he did something special for her. He really isn't even going to say anything, unless she asks for his opinion.

So he rests his mind in the brief flight home. He meditates; we can see this in the loping wing strokes he takes, the methodical, rhythmic way he travels home, looking as if he could fall out of the sky at any moment if he simply became a feather's breadth more relaxed and far away. He clears his mind of all the tribulations of home life and is thankful for the quiet. He knows there will be another conversation when he arrives. There always is. Something must be done, something must be evaluated, something must be decided. While he always feels free to take an equal role in the discussion, in the end he will do what every well-informed, experienced male will do, he will simply respond: "Yes dear."

The above story is an interpretive account of the courtship and nesting activities of an osprey pair that have returned annually to a manmade platform at Alum Creek Reservoir in Delaware, Ohio. The heron rookery is in northern Delaware County along the Scioto River. The behavioral accounts are exactly as observed, though I have framed them in a heuristic anthropomorphic manner. These birds have given me countless hours of entertainment beyond anything a human could concoct, as well as hours and hours of sound, biological information about their species as it goes about its business of survival and reproduction, unaware of the whimsical way we humans might intend to describe their lives and conversations!

Barbara Ray is the Conservation Education Director of the Ohio Wildlife Center where she facilitates environmental experiences for people of all ages to foster proactive conservation behavior and peaceful coexistence with wildlife.

Note from Carol You can find Barbara Ray on her personal web site CoHorse.

You can also find Barbara Ray's posts on various Yahoo Groups lists by searching for the Yahoo ID she uses there: "jadesafyre."

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