Same-sex bird pairings show that companionship sometimes trumps sex

Sex, schmex: Some birds just need a friend.

The study's lead researcher, Julie Elie of the University of California Berkeley, raised an all-male group of zebra finches. Over half of the birds paired off and bonded in the same way the birds couple up in the wild with the opposite sex: they perched beside each other, sung to each other, built nests together, preened each other, and nuzzled each other's beaks. When female finches were introduced into the group, five of the eight males in same-sex couples continued to interact with their male companion as a partner.

This research suggests that in some species the need to find a mate is not just about reproduction. For some animals, pair bonds or exclusive unions serve a vital social function and aid survival.

However, supporters of monogamy or gay marriage should be cautious about using this study to justify their platforms. First of all, raising these finches in same-sex groups is about as natural as raising males well into adulthood in confinement with no notion of the opposite sex. In extreme situations, behaviors are modified in order for an individual to survive. In prison, for example, it is not uncommon for same-sex partnerships to develop both as a sexual release and for survival purposes between individuals who would not live as homosexuals in the free world.

Also, it is important to understand that describing any animal as "monogamous" is a bit like claiming Tiger Woods was faithful. While pair-bonds are sustained in many avian species, infidelity and "divorce" are common. In "monogamous" gulls and albatrosses, some females mate with bonded males, then return to their same-sex female partners to raise their offspring. In captivity, there have been a number of cases in which male penguins pair off with mixed results. One of the most celebrated couplings was Harry and Pepper of the San Francisco Zoo. The two penguins shared a burrow and even raised a foster egg. Then, after six years, Harry left his male partner for a recently widowed female penguin.

More than anything, this study highlights the adaptability of sexuality and the fact that in some species the need for pair bonding goes well beyond the need to reproduce.


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  • Zebra Finches

As the debate over same-sex marriage rages, researchers continue to find more examples of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. A recent study discovered that zebra finches in same-sex couplings were just as faithful and attached to their partners as heterosexual couples.

While some supporters of monogamy or the naturalness of homosexuality will be quick to use this study to justify their cases, this research does more to highlight the transmutability of sexuality and the fact that for some species the social benefits of pair bonding go far beyond sex and reproduction.

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