Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy
Bernd Heinrich is a well-respected Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Vermont who admits to a fascination with birds—their habits, their nests, even their eggs—since he was a child. So it is appropriate that in his eighteenth and latest book, The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy, he approaches his subject with a youthful enthusiasm. Part colorful memoir and part scientific investigation, his book is both charming and instructive—a difficult pairing, but successful here. His objective is to examine the biology of nesting birds, from monogamy and polygymy to polyandry and cuckoldry, following the course of the seasons at his rural Vermont home and his cabin in the Maine woods.
He boldly states, “The lives of birds can help us better understand ourselves.” This is especially true, he says, in childrearing. “All other mammals are closer relatives to us than any bird,” he writes, “but birds and humans share many similar parenting problems, and so we have evolved some similar or evolutionary convergent solutions.” A pretty provocative statement that demands that we continue to read! Most birds are conscientious about providing a warm, safe location for their nests; about feeding their young and about guarding the nests from interlopers—all traits they have in common with us humans. With graceful writing and a subtle sense of humor, Heinrich keeps track of his avian visitors, especially several Canada geese who have lived on his pond— and in his house—for a number of years. “My shift in the way I looked at birds occurred when I raised ‘Peep,’ a Canada goose hatchling, to adulthood and then followed her life as she mated with a wild gander and nested in our beaver pond.” Just like an old friend, the adult Peep always stopped by for a visit when she was in town. Speaking of Canadas, he relates the amazingly close relationship a woman in Idaho named Ruth O’Leary had with two Canada geese that became very much like family to her.