breaking up bird-style

Divorce can be a good thing, but you need to be the dumper and not the dumpee, at least if you’re the shorebird known as the oystercatcher. Dik Heg of the University of Bern in Switzerland and his colleagues studied the fitness consequences of bird divorce and reported their observations in the July issue of Animal Behaviour. “Survival and reproduction prospects for oystercatchers are largely determined by their social status,” the researchers stated. The team found that the birds that left their partners had no change in status, but the status of birds that were deserted declined. According to Nature’s Science Update, the birds that initatiated the break up (usually females) were more likely to get a better nesting spot closer to their mudflat feeding grounds, and also bear up to 20 percent more young. The dumpees, on the other hand, often ended up at nesting spots far away from the mudflats. Having to fly the extra distance leaves chicks open to predation and makes it easier for the new partner to be unfaithful. Survival after divorce was also significantly lower for the birds that were deserted, compared to those who left their mates. It seems that even for birds, being dumped can be traumatic.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 8/26/2003.
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