Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Corinne Parks believes soul mates exist, but the romantic idea of having a soul mate may not be just a human phenomenon.

As manager of the Carrie Murray Nature Center for the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, she has seen animals interact in a way that just confirms her notion.

On one occasion, a goose was frozen in a pond. Along with Wildlife Rescue Inc. in Baltimore, workers from her office dug the goose from the ice. During the entire effort, the mate waited for its partner on land, calling out to it.

“We took the goose that was in the ice to the veterinarian,” Ms. Parks says. “When we brought it back after a week to release it, the mate was still waiting there. It was just a beautiful sunset. It was this perfect ending to the story, a moment you don’t forget. … We were all crying. I’ve known geese to wait at least a month or so or more. … They love their mate. … They mate for a lifetime.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund in Northwest, about 90 percent of bird species practice either lifetime or seasonal monogamy. In contrast, experts suggest that about 5 percent of mammal species, excluding humans, are monogamous.

Wolves, beavers, marmosets, gibbons and an African antelope called the dik-dik are some of the mammals scientists believe live in monogamous pairs, while most mammals do not.

In the insect world, once stick insects become sexually mature, the male latches onto the female. They usually are with each other for the rest of their short lives — about nine months. Sometimes they die still attached to each other. The only time they part is when the female lays her eggs.

“Elephants will cry when their mate dies,” Ms. Parks says. “They will stand over the bones of the dead mate or other ancestors of theirs.”

However, of all the animals, Ms. Parks says, birds are the most romantic ones to watch. When they sit close together on a branch, she says, she sees love in their eyes.

“I’ve had a couple parrots that stopped eating and got really depressed because their mate has died,” she says. “You have to give them toys and keep the music on for them and do anything you can to relieve that sadness, just as you would a human, or get them another mate.”

Certain birds, such as parrots, ravens, swans, pigeons, geese, owls, eagles and hawks, are monogamous through their entire lives, says Steven Sarro, curator of birds at the Baltimore Zoo. For instance, he says, geese defend their territory and raise their young together. Whooping cranes and albatrosses can have the same mates for more than 30 years.

Remaining with one partner is less complicated than trying to find a new mate every breeding season, he says.

“When you’re a single bird, it’s in your best interest to go out and find a mate that will stay with you, year in and year out. If you look at this from a human perspective, if you know you’re going to have a date Friday night because you have a significant other, it’s a lot less stress than trying to find one. … You are guaranteed continuity and comfort. You know who will be there when you get back to the nest.”

Not only do many birds have a monogamous lifestyle, but they also carry on elaborate courtships, Mr. Sarro says. Often, the male brings the female a gift. For instance, male penguins usually give a piece of nest material. Puffins offer a fish to their prospective mates. Cranes dance with each other. Swans and cranes call back and forth to each other, as in a duet.

“You have gift giving, dancing and singing,” Mr. Sarro says. “All you need is some chocolate flowers.”

Short-lived species, such as robins, usually mate for only one season. By the next season, the mate could have died from an attack by a predator or age-related illness.

“A lot of it is like humans,” Mr. Sarro says. “People die. There is somewhat of a divorce rate. If dad doesn’t bring enough food home for the babies or dad doesn’t sit well on the eggs, there could be reasons to look elsewhere.”

Those birds that mate for life or choose to look for other partners because of unfortunate circumstances are responding to instinct, says John Morrison, deputy director of the Conservation Science Program at the World Wildlife Fund.

Even among the most faithful feathered friends, there is a 5 percent to 10 percent “divorce rate,” Mr. Morrison says. The separation statistics are twice as high among birds that aren’t breeding.

“They want to get their genes to the next generation and beyond,” he says. “Generally, that involves stable environments and resources.”

After a mate dies, even birds that create lifetime bonds look for new mates, says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society in Northwest.

“Some people have the wrong idea about swans and geese: that when their mate dies they pine away for the rest of their lives,” he says. “In fact, they do seek out other mates. There are a lot of poetic ideas about birds that don’t pan out.”

However, swans provide one of Mr. Butcher’s favorite anecdotes about birds. During migration, they fly together thousands of miles in each direction. For instance, tundra swans spend the winter in the Chesapeake Bay, but they breed in Alaska and Siberia, about a 5,000-mile journey every year. Also, whooping cranes spend winters along the Gulf Coast in Texas but breed in Canada.

“It’s not easy to keep the pair bond together,” he says. “If you’re hanging around in a pond, it’s easy to stick together, but if you’re going thousands and thousands of miles, there are lots of chances to get lost.”

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