The Birds and the Birds

Some words of wisdom are so right they stick with you forever. Fifty years from now when I am sitting in a futuristic retirement hover-home in the clouds of Upper Arizona, these words uttered by my buddy’s older brother my freshman year of college will still flash through my mind.

“Here’s all you need to know. All girls are crazy. And all guys just want to get laid.”

I call this the Lowell Hypothesis, named for its creator. My friends and I probably repeated the Lowell Hypothesis 87,000 times during our four to six years at Ohio University.

It explained everything.

When a girl acted crazy – and in a town with 20 bars within walking distance of campus it happens a lot – we knew that it was in a girl’s nature to act crazy. We had been warned. We accepted it.

When we did stupid things to try to get laid – did I mention that we had 20 bars within walking distance? – we accepted that we were slaves to our hormones. It didn’t excuse our behavior. But it helped us come to grips with things like pretending to like Dave Matthews Band.

I thought of the Lowell Hypothesis this week while reading a Washington Post feature entitled Sex and the Single Bird by French researcher Alexis Chaine. I’ll summarize the article and eventually make a point.

Every summer male songbirds called lark buntings fly north from Mexico and Texas to build nests in a national grassland outside of Denver. The males peacock out with new plumage, glossy feathers, Axe body spray – the works. It was always assumed that females chose the most aggressive birds with the most macho look – kind of like high school … and college … and that 50-year period between college and death. But Chaine’s research shows that these female songbirds actually change their preferences from year to year.

Now, if you’re one of those male lark buntings and you’re reading this in The Washington Post you’ve got to be like “What the fuck!?!” I fly all the way up to Denver – not San Diego or Chicago or some other superior locale – get myself in good shape, bust out a new wardrobe and practice my primal squawk, and for what? So that some hollow-boned avian floozy can decide that bright plumage is out and the ability to gather small twigs is in?

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If I’m that male lark bunting I’m thinking, “Hey – all girl birds are crazy. And all guy birds just want to get laid.”

(Above: The female lark bunting. What dude lark bunting wouldn’t want a piece of that?)

Why do these lady birds screw with male birds?

Chaine writes:

For male lark buntings, reproductive success depends on whatever traits are in vogue among females that season. By staying flexible and seeking out partners with the physical qualities most needed at the moment, females ensure that more chicks successfully leave the nest. If the prairie is overrun by ground snakes, for example, mother birds might choose the most protective males – a quality that might be signaled by wing-patch size. If grasshoppers are scarce the next year, maybe they will look for partners with big beaks, which might make them good providers.

This makes me wonder. Nature is incredibly consistent. Most animals, for example, nurture their young without question – humans included. Is it possible that human women do the same thing as female lark buntings? Do human women choose their mates based on what types of advantages males can provide them in that season?

Ask yourself this. Have you ever known a pair of sisters or close friends who married the same type of man? I have. Ladies, have you ever noticed how you and your friends’ husbands or boyfriends are remarkably alike? I know women who have.

You probably laughed it all off as coincidence, but it’s entirely possible that, like the female lark bunting, you and your community of girlfriends/sisters have established, and continually reestablish, what traits are in vogue that season. What’s more, these traits evolve over time, so that the traits you and your girlfriends were looking for when you were 25 are different than those you seek when you’re 30. This would explain, among other things, women who try to change their men, marital affairs and the female drive to move furniture fortnightly.

Think about the female lark bunting next time you look at your man and go, “Who is this guy in my bed?” Maybe he was your 1998 male lark bunting – you were impressed by his ability to navigate the Internets and thought the fact that he owned a Saturn spoke well of his thrift. Now it’s 2010 and you have a whole new set of ground snakes and scarce grasshoppers in your life. You now run your own B2B site, but he still has an AOL e-mail account and drives the same shitty Saturn.

Perhaps it is hardwired into the female brain to change preferences based on present, ever-evolving personal situations. Maybe it is one of the ways – like the lark bunting – that we have ensured the survival of our species.

That doesn’t mean that people can’t have good relationships or that we are simply slaves to our hormones. It means that, when you pick a mate, you’re probably best off looking for someone who can fend off the ground snakes of today and hunt the grasshoppers of tomorrow.

Of course, tastes change. And that’s where the Lowell Hypothesis starts looking like the most important piece of science ever.

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Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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