Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wedding, Blue Jays and Serial Monogamy

IMG_2745 This past weekend Awesome Wife and I flew back to the East coast for the wedding of her cousin. The wedding happened to be in the Boston area, giving us the opportunity to visit with my parents, my brother- let’s call him Phil- and sister-in-law. It was a nice trip. Airfares being what they are, we left the Trifecta behind*, with $50, the # for the pizza place, and a stack of Pokemon videos.

*Just kidding. We left them with our favorite babysitter, the twins’ former nanny. We don’t like to do this too often, not because we don’t think she takes good care of them, but rather because she does too good a job, and makes us feel inadequate by comparison.

Watchers at Wedding Tangent: This was a pretty easy event for me. The spouse of an older cousin- particularly one who lives 2500 miles away- is at best a peripheral character in such a wedding, and has no duties outside of smiling, kissing various aunts, and not embarrassing his wife. I succeeded brilliantly on all counts.

The night before we stayed with my parents who recently moved from the house I grew up in to a condo. The condo is set in a hilly, forested area full of birds and squirrels.

Saturday morning I woke up to the sound of a harsh bird call. It was a call I’d heard countless times growing up, but in my adolescent ignorance of the natural world I had absolutely no idea of (or at the time, interest in) what bird it was. ~20 years later I recognized the call as a variant of the classic Corvid Squawk- harsh and unmelodic- but was unsure which corvid. Less than an hour later, out for a morning run, I identified it, with the same sense of embarrassment I always feel when I make a bird or plant ID in my native New England.

Tangent: Here in Utah and surrounding states, I take a bit of pride in being able to ID most plants and birds around, or if not, to at least have some handle on what type of bird or plant it is. But when I go back to the place where I grew up- where I spent the first quarter-century of my life- everything is new all over again. On the one hand it’s fun to see and ID so many “new” things, but on the other it’s a bit embarrassing. How could I have been so blind and disinterested in the natural world for so long?

All About Blue Jays

Blue Jay One of 4 birds I could ID by sight growing up* was a Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, (pic right, not mine. I utterly failed to get a better photo than the miserable zoom shot way below, left) and it seems odd now that I never connected its obvious harsh squawk with such a common bird. I’ve mentioned Blue Jays in passing once before, long, long ago, when I was blogging about its close Western Cousin, the Stellers Jay**. Stellers and Blue Jays are the only 2 crested Jays in North America, and in recent decades hybrids of the 2 species have occasionally been sighted in the West, a reunion made possible by the Westward expansion of the Blue Jay’s historic range, which in turn has been facilitated by Euromerican settlement of the Great Plains***.

Jays Meetup *Other 3 were Robin, Crow and Duck.

** My 7th post. I’ve probably blogged about 3 dozen birds since. Funny how things come full circle.

***Same story as Lazuli & Indigo Bunting, Black-Headed & Rose-Breasted Grosbeak and Eastern & Spotted Towhee.

IMG_2737 Blue (and Stellers) Jays are of course corvids, that same family of birds I’ve blogged about several times, and which includes Crows, Ravens, Scrub Jays, Magpies and Clark’s Nutcrackers. Corvids don’t always get a great rap. They’re not particularly melodic, many are agricultural or garden pests, and many bird-lovers take a dim view of them because of their reputation of snatching (and eating) the nestlings of other birds.

Side Note: Someday I’m going to do a post all about the most fascinating thing about corvids, which is their intelligence, and in particular, their social intelligence. I actually did the Dunbar number post as a lead-up to it, but then got side-tracked/distracted, as I so often do.

IMG_2726 Though there’s certainly some truth to this last claim, it may be overemphasized; one study of Blue Jays showed only 1% had “bird-bits” in their stomachs. Mostly they eat insects and vegetable matter, and one of their absolute favorite foods is acorns. Blue Jays cache acorns just as Western Corvids (Scrub Jays, PiƱon Jays, Clark’s nutcrackers) cache acorns and/or pine nuts, and similarly, they don’t recover/eat all that they cache. As a result, Blue Jays are believed to be the most important dispersal agent of Northern Red Oak, Quercus rubra (pic leaves, right). This past weekend Q. rubra acorns were everywhere, and it was a busy time for both Jays and Squirrels.

Extra Detail: Blue Jays can carry up to 5 acorns in one flight: 3 in their stretchy esophageal pouch, 1 in their mouth and 1 in the tip of the bill. They can tell by weight/feel in the bill if an acorn is good or not (weevil-infested, etc.) Radio-tagged Blue Jays have been tracked caching several hundred acorns per season.

IMG_2730 Oaks by the way are divided into multiple “sections”, the most numerous and important of which are called “White Oaks” (Quercus) and (confusingly) “Red Oaks” (Lobatae). Our 2 native Utah Oaks- Gambel and Shrub Live Oak- are both White Oaks. Northern Red Oak is a Red Oak. White Oaks produce acorns every year, Red Oaks every other. Red Oak acorns have more tannins, making them much more bitter*. I’m not sure how or whether Red Oaks in a given area are synchronized, but this certainly seems like a mast year for Northern Red Oak acorns (pic left) in the greater Boston area.

*In a pinch you can eat White Oak acorns raw. Red Oak acorns- if you can get them down- will trash your liver faster.

Extra EXTRA Detail: For a long time it was thought that White Oaks and Red Oaks couldn’t hybridize, and it appears that they don’t in the wild. But Walter Cottam managed to produce (hand-crossed) White-Red hybrids in the 60’s, some of which you can visit today in the Cottam Grove adjacent to Red Butte Garden here in Salt lake. When you enter the grove, one of the first big trees to your right/West is such a hybrid, specifically Q. gambelii x kellogii (California Black Oak.)

So my long-winded point is that you should give Blue Jays a break. Not only do they do the forest good, but their family lives are heart-warming: Blue Jays, like most corvids, are overwhelmingly monogamous.

BlueJayLDD Side Note: One more thing about Blue Jays that I came across in researching this post: As a kid, the one thing I remember knowing about Blue Jays was that they were an example of a bird that doesn’t migrate; they stick around all winter. But it turns out to be a bit more complicated. About 20% of Blue Jays do seasonally migrate, though where/what direction they migrate to is not entirely clear.

All About Monogamy

Weddings are as good a time as any to think about monogamy. We generally consider it the norm, but like so many other aspects of human mating and sexuality- concealed ovulation, menopause, oversized genitalia, sex at any time*- monogamy is unusual, at least among mammals. Fewer than 10% of all mammal species are monogamous. Conversely, over 90% of bird species are monogamous. Blue Jays are long lived- up to 17 years in the wild, over 25 in captivity- and they overwhelmingly mate for life. Their family-rearing approach can seem a bit old-fashioned- females do all the incubating, males the food-gathering- but there’s no question that both are devoted parents. It’s a nice bird to be thinking about on a wedding day.

*No I haven’t blogged about this, but it’s yet another weird thing about human sexuality. Most animals mate only when the female is in estrus.

IMG_2706When you go to a wedding, particularly the wedding of people you don’t know very well, your mind tends to wander*. And if you’re old enough to have been to a few dozen weddings, and see some portion of those marriages not work out, then one of the thoughts your mind will wander across is: Will this couple last?

*Particularly when the bride is 45 minutes late. What’s up with that? You’d think if there were one appointment you’d mark on your calendar and really plan your schedule around…

Something like 40% of US marriages don’t last. In 46% of marriages, at least one spouse has previously been married. These are daunting statistics. Of course, people have all sorts of opinions on marriage and divorce, involving everything from religion and values to economics and women’s rights. But when you push all that aside, the question that really bugs the science-minded wedding guest is: Is monogamy the “natural” human state?

Like human marriages, bird pairings are not problem-free. Some number of pairings don’t last, and among those that do, “trust” is sometimes breached. Specifically, birds cheat. With birds it’s actually called “extra-pair copulation” and it’s been observed in just about every bird species studied.

The clearest indicator of infidelity is the “non-paternity rate”, which is the percentage of offspring who are not the biological offspring of the male who (apparently) believes they are. I wasn’t able to dig up a non-paternity rate for Blue Jays; with Red-Winged Blackbirds it ranges from 25-50%, but they have a non-monogamous mating system (specifically polygynous) so they’re probably not a good comparison. The average human non-paternity rate is thought to be around 10%, but like everything to do with human infidelity, numbers are contentious and suspect.

2 Aunts There have been endless studies of human infidelity rates, but nearly all suffer from 1 or 2 shortcomings. The first is that so many of these studies are not representative of populations as a whole; they’re drawn from groups of students or (voluntary) survey respondents. The second is that cheating- at least in any society in which it’s considered “cheating”- is loaded with so much ethical and emotional baggage that any self-reporting is bound to be suspect. Not surprisingly, infidelity rates vary wildly across studies and cultures. But 2 broad trends stand out. First, infidelity rates in almost any study in any country indicate that over 50% of married persons don’t cheat. And second, in nearly every study twice as many men as women cheat.

Tangent: This first problem- non-representative samples is a huge challenge in nearly any kind of sexuality research. Here’s a quick example: a friend of a friend is- no kidding- a sex researcher. I see him once or twice a year at the get-together of a mutual friend, and we usually end up talking about whatever topic he’s researching.

Nested Tangent: If you ever attend a social gathering with a sex researcher, make sure you sit next to him/her. Think about it. Most of the time you’re seated with strangers, you end up talking about work. And most people’s jobs are BORING. But talking to a sex researcher about their work, you will never be bored.

sext Over the past year or so, he’s been researching the phenomenon of “sexting” among high-school students. (“Sexting” refers to the practice of sending, receiving and/or sharing of explicit photos via mobile phone. The findings are as yet unpublished, so I won’t share them here, but I’ll tell you now that if you’re a parent of high school-aged or younger children, they’re both fascinating and disturbing.) Much of the research involves surveying students, and unfortunately for him and his colleagues, Salt Lake-area public high schools have consistently refused to participate. So the data was obtained from students at high school which agreed to participate- two private high schools, both church (non-LDS)-affiliated.

This raises the question of whether the findings can be applied to Utah high school students as a whole, or whether demographics of private school students differ too greatly to be considered applicable…

While the 2nd stat may be depressing, the 1st is encouraging for those of us who want to believe that marriage can work for the long haul, and it helps to convince me, that by and large, monogamy probably is the “natural” human state, a thought that gives hope to all of us who want to see our own marriages- and those of our friends and loved ones- succeed.

But if monogamy is natural, how come so many marriages don’t work out? We all know how infatuation somehow becomes replaced by “routine-ness”. We’ve all seen enchanted newlyweds who, several years later, barely speak to one another. How does this happen? How can it be that someone you thought the most fascinating person on Earth just doesn’t interest you anymore?

Even stranger and more disturbing is when such marriages unravel in acrimony. How can someone you loved so much have turned out to be your worst enemy? Could you have been so wrong? Can they have changed so much?

3rd Aunt Talk to anyone about their divorce, and it seems they have a done-me-wrong story. Their erstwhile spouse cheated on or somehow otherwise mistreated them. And certainly many, many people have ill-treated their spouses in some way or another. But if roughly half of marriages end in divorce, and if each one of those had at least one rotten scoundrel at fault, then something like a quarter of all adults must be rotten scoundrels. (And more than that if you start including the countless troubled/unhappy marriages that don’t end in divorce.) Is that really the case?

There’s at least one other possibility, and while it’s reassuring in that it doesn’t require 25% of adults to be jerks, it’s disturbing in another way. Maybe the question about monogamy isn’t so much whether it’s natural so much as whether it’s naturally enduring. In recent decades a number of researchers have suggested that the natural human mating system is more like serial monogamy, a succession of monogamous relationships roughly synchronized with the weaning/rearing of a child or two, and in fact this seems to be the practice in at least some present-day hunter-gatherer societies.

There’s something about this serial monogamy idea that rings true. The fade of infatuation, the gradual cooling of passionate love into everyday routine, the slow change from charming & quirky to problematic & annoying. The seven-year itch*. These trends make intuitive sense in the context of serial monogamy. Maybe we’re just not supposed to stick with someone for 50 or 60 years, and when we try to “force” it we ultimately wind up embittered and cranky.

scabies *I was once told** by a dermatologist that the term “seven-year itch” came into being following the Second World War, and the introduction of scabies to the US via GIs returning home from Europe. Scabies is a skin infection caused by Sarcoptes scabiei (pic right), a teeny-tiny (you can’t see ‘em) burrowing mite. In dogs and cats the condition manifests as mange. In humans, you just itch. It’s treated with a lotion that kills the mites. In response to my query of what happens if the condition is untreated, he claimed that eventually- after several years- the condition abates. Hence the expression.

**Yes, I had scabies, many, many years ago, as the result of a long, complex and multi-party causal chain of shared bedding. I’ll save the story for another tangent, in another post.

I don’t know if the “serialists” are right, or what the natural “gamy” state was for early humans. And to a certain extent, I don’t care. Even if science somehow came up with irrefutable proof that monogamy was not the “natural” ancestral human condition, I’d like to think marriage-minded people wouldn’t lose heart. Hunter-gatherer societies are fraught with high rates (relative to modern societies) of homicide and infanticide, and surely we don’t seek to justify those behaviors today on the basis of being “natural.”

There may well be a “natural” tendency to take our spouses for granted over time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good or desirable thing to do. Gaining weight, settling into routine habits, becoming close-minded with age- those are all natural tendencies as well, but people routinely overcome them and are happy they did so. Maybe the reason we lose the infatuation with our spouses is that by and large we’re too lazy to keep noticing them, and what’s special or different or just plain cool about them. It’s easy to slide into a routine of not noticing- whether it’s the plants in your yard, or the phases of the moon or the call of a bird you heard for 25 years and never bothered to figure out what it was. I like to think that somehow the geist of Watching the World Wake Up works with people- that if we pay attention to them, and how they develop and grow and flourish throughout their lives, we can see the Beauty of the World in them, and that if we manage to grow old with them, then maybe we can even see a bit of it in ourselves as well.

Anyway, it was a fun wedding and a nice weekend. I hope they have a great life together.


Phil O. said...

One interesting aspect of monogamy - "natural" or not - as it relates to modern marriages is that thanks to improved life expectancy, marriages of 50 or even 60 years (per your example in your post) are no longer so exceptional.

I remember reading a few years ago that while the divorce rate today is higher than it was 200 years ago (mainly thanks to the socioeconomic barriers to divorce being so much lower now, not because marriages are identifiably less happy), the remarriage rate is nearly identical. Today, people are rarely widowed in their 20-50s, as they were commonly until the advent of modern medicine, etc., but early deaths led to lots of remarriage in the good ol' days. I read Nathaniel Philbrick's MAYFLOWER last year and was amazed at how quickly widows and widowers were remarried - no doubt in many loveless but socioeconomically beneficial second marriages.

Next time someone talks about the rising divorce rates, decline of the American family, etc., consider that it may be a side-effect of our longer, healthier lives.

Christopher Taylor said...

One problem that I have with a lot of the pop-sociology out there (I'm suing the prefix "pop-" because I have no idea how much resemblence it bears to real sociology) is that it's generally very biased towards Europeans. I'm not certain how many European standards such as monogamy would remain standard if you considered a wider range of cultures.

Bart G said...

You mention the Magpie. I have always been fascinated by this little devil. When I was growing up I new a neighboor that had a pet Magpie in a large cage in his backyard that could talk just like a parrot. Have you heard of this type of behavior?


Watcher said...

Phil- great point re: life expectancy.

Christopher- I don’t disagree with the idea of pop-sociology having a Euro-skew (nor am I certain there’s a hard line between pop and real sociology), but I think a pretty strong case can be made that monogamy- serial or otherwise- is the “standard”- if not the fast rule- in the vast majority of cultures, not just in Western countries but throughout the Far East, India and much the rest of the world. Even in present and past cultures where polygamy (specifically polygyny) is or was accepted/encouraged (Muslim countries, Incan Empire) it is/was practiced by a small minority, with the majority defaulting to monogamy, lasting or not.

The most recent serial monogamy paper to hit the news (which I linked to in the post) profiles an East African culture, the Pimbwe, and though I’m sure many hunter-gatherer cultures have practiced polygyny to some extent or other, it doesn’t seem to be the standard for such groups today.

What would be interesting is the discovery of a hunter-gatherer culture that practiced true polygamy (polygyny and polyandry), similar to Chimpanzee troops, but I’m unaware of such a case.

Watcher said...

Bart- I haven’t heard of a talking Magpie specifically, but it’s not a total surprise. Many corvids are capable of a wide variety of calls, including mimicry. Blue Jays for instance will sometimes imitate hawk cries, though it’s not clear whether they’re doing this to a) throw off a hawk, b) frighten away another predator, or c) warn other Blue Jays of a hawk’s presence.

Magpies fascinate me as well, and I plan to learn/blog more about them this Fall. Right now I’m actually reading a book about a related corvid, “Mind Of The Raven”, by Bernd Heinrich, who's raised several pet ravens over the years, and which may give me some more insight.

KanyonKris said...

Interesting post with many good thoughts. The question of what relationships are natural for humans is valid, but with so much of our behavior not hard-wired it's a tough call. But I like your final thought which I sum up as marriage is what you make of it.

Yes, the beard is looking good, if you're planning to be a terrorist for Halloween. ;-)

Sally said...

Interestingly, in the stats front, I'll be spending the weekend with a bunch of former CCC enrollees and wives, some of whom have been married since the invention of DDT, if not earlier. Most of them I've known who made it 50-60 years seemed to have devoted happy marriages, to the point of not long surviving the death of one spouse. They learned a lot about commitment and dedication back in the 1930s...

hal said...

Why do most people immediately accredit hunter-gatherer societies with possessing the "natural" states of social relationships? Who's to say they haven't socially evolved through various cycles throughout time, or even their very hunter-gatherer state was at one time preceded by a more modern society that devolved?