Some ruminations on the sex lives of ducks

It’s quite well known, I think, that you get ‘gay ducks’.  ‘Gay penguins’ have got a lot more coverage lately, partly because penguins are funnier, and partly because fundamentalist christians in America tried to co-opt them as exemplars of good moral values, and a lot of people have therefore enjoyed pointing out all the things penguins do that fundamentalist christians don’t approve of (and hot man-on-man action is just the tip of the iceberg.  As it were.).  But in terms of creatures that we see regularly in the UK, ducks are probably the most high-profile ‘homos’.

Studies have apparently shown that up to a fifth of pairings in the duck world may be same sex, although so far as I know there hasn’t been anything like enough research done to establish reliable figures.  That said, the fact that some ducks will choose to form male/male or female/female pairings, even, sometimes, in circumstances where there are unattached members of the opposite sex available, seems to have been pretty conclusively demonstrated.  Certainly I’ve encountered what appear to be same-sex pairings fairly regularly.  (I say ‘appear’ because all I’ve seen them do is float around together; you’d need to observe them engaging in sexual/ mating behaviour to know they were an actual couple.  I mean, for all I know they might have been talking about that hot piece of tail they saw on Babestation last night…)  What I had never seen, until a couple of weeks ago when I was out for a walk in a nearby park, was what looked for all the world like a duck ménage a trois.

I don’t know, of course, that that’s what I saw.  All I can say is that I saw a group of ducks sitting together on a shingle bank in the middle of a stream.  There were about four reasonably mature ducklings (old enough that they had started to get their adult plumage, young enough that their wings, when they stretched them, were clearly too small for flight), and three adults.  One of the adults – a female – was asleep, while the other two, both male, were more alert.  One of them was preening, and the other seemed to be on look-out duty – certainly he kept a fairly close eye on me until I had wandered off.  Even if there had been only one male present in the group, this would already have been quite unusual, I think; Wikipedia informs me that in most circumstances the male remains with the female only until such time as she has laid her eggs.  A situation in which two males were co-parenting with a female would presumably be even more unusual.

It’s perfectly possible, of course, that the ducks were not part of a single group, and just happened to be sharing a shingle bank.  The two male ducks may have been a same-sex pair, but equally may not have been; the three adult ducks may all have been strangers to each other.  Nonetheless, it does seem to suggest that the sex lives of ducks may be more interesting than is usually thought.  There does seem to be some evidence of this – I remember a small flurry of excitement a few years ago when a Dutch researcher produced a paper documenting a case of homosexual necrophilia amongst Mallard ducks.  (I imagine the drake concerned became a source of embarrassment for the wider ‘gay duck’ community, and, like some kind of aquatic George Michael, the subject of much sotto voce muttering about how his antics were making things harder for them when they tried to settle down in a nice suburban reed bed somewhere.  Especially as he’d been so stupid as to commit his act of post-mortem passion literally right in front of a natural history museum.)

Personally, I’ve always been wary of attempts to discover ‘homosexuality’ in animals.  I realise that some people feel that being able to point to ‘gay animals’ is politically useful when it comes to discussions of whether homosexuality is a natural phenomenon, although personally I think this is something of a cul-de-sac.  We already have plenty of evidence that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon in humans (it’s resistant to all attempts to change it, and it’s occurred in every culture and society for which we have records), and it’s hard, I think, to see any bigots being persuaded by a scientific paper discussing the sexual behaviour of ducks; in fact, I’ve seen the argument that “animals do it” deployed as a reason why humans shouldn’t – in this worldview, homosexuality is cast as being ‘bestial’ (though, strangely enough, the other things animals do, like eating, breathing, rearing young etc, don’t count as bestial and to be avoided at all costs – strange that).  I do also realise that there’s legitimate scientific interest in these kinds of questions, partly just in terms of learning more about animal behaviour, but also, potentially, more widely – the theory that homosexuality is genetic, for example, looks more plausible if evidence for homosexuality can be found amongst other animals, and the wider the range of species that display signs of homosexuality, the more fundamental (or at least persistent) the genes involved would seem to be.

The problem with all of this, I think, is that it’s an area where it’s very difficult to avoid anthropomorphising – seeing animal behaviour in human terms.  I’ve been using scare quotes quite deliberately when I call animals gay or homosexual because I’m far from certain that those terms have any validity outside humanity.  Homosexual behaviour or same-sex conduct: yes, it’s pretty easy to see that this happens amongst a very wide range of animals, including, to a very significant degree, our closest living relatives, the Bonobos.*  But it’s a big leap to go from this to saying that animals who display these kinds of behaviours are ‘gay’.  My understanding (and, as always, I need to stress that I’m very, very far from being an expert on any of this) is that you could use the available evidence to make a good case that animals are predominantly ‘straight’, and that, as a general rule, they only engage in ‘situational homosexuality’ (selecting a same-sex partner because of a shortage of opposite-sex ones), but that you could equally argue from the same evidence that all animals are innately ‘bisexual’, or that some are ‘gay’ and some are ‘straight’.

Some aspects of this could undoubtedly be answered with more research.  In particular, I would think it would be quite interesting to see the results of studies that tracked individuals across a number of years, especially amongst species that form fresh pairings annually.  If a particular individual always selected a same-sex partner, this would seem to suggest a fixed and stable preference for the same sex, which is how I, anyway, would define homosexuality, at least among humans.

I think, though, even if this research were forthcoming, I might be reluctant to describe the individual animals as gay.  It seems to me that a necessary component of being gay is having a sense of oneself as a fixed and separate entity – I have to have a sense of myself as an individual in order to have a sense of myself as a gay individual – and I’m not sure that animals have that level of self-awareness.  Even though, as I’ve written before, I’m happy to argue that the words bisexual, heterosexual, and homosexual can be used as straightforward descriptive labels, that was based on the presumption that the terms were applying to human beings.  I’ve always said that using the labels accurately is very difficult, because, properly, they describe the desires an individual has rather than the behaviour they exhibit, and it seems to me that knowing what an animal desires – even knowing that an animal does desire, at least in the same way as a human – is by definition almost impossible.

Normally, this is where the conclusion would go, but I don’t really have a conclusion to this post, just an assemblage of partial and half-formed ideas I find interesting.  So, in lieu of a conclusion have this.  I mean, what better way to end a post about ‘gay animals’ than a country and western song sung by a lesbian crow trying to convince a straight-but-tempted pigeon of the delights of Sapphic love?

* – Bonobos are interesting animals.  If two Bonobos want to play with the same toy, for example, instead of fighting for it like most apes would, they shape up as though they’re going to fight – then engage in a little light frottage instead, and decide to share the toy.  They truly seem to the hippies of the ape world: make love not war, man Bonobo.

This can stand as a really good example of why it can take me so damned long to put together a post sometimes.  I mean, the genesis of this happened when I was watching an episode of Mongrels that featured a singing lesbian crow, and I thought it was funny, and wanted to link to it.  But I wanted to do it in a more sophisticated way than just saying ‘This gave me lolz’, so when I remembered about the potential duck ménage a trois I’d seen I thought that I could probably use that as a way into the post, as I could (hopefully) make that pleasantly light-hearted, too.  And then I started to think about it in a bit more detail and I thought “Well, even in a light-hearted post I’m not really prepared to write about ‘gay animals’ because I’m not sure there’s any such thing,” and then I thought that I can’t really use scare quotes without explaining why I’m using them, and, before you know it, I’m sitting here writing about animal consciousness, for god’s sake (a subject, btw, I am supremely unqualified to talk about, whether from a scientific or philosophical perspective).  I mean, I think intellectual curiosity’s a good thing, I like the way you can, if you want to, follow even the most simple of ideas along a chain of gradual connections until you end up thinking about some really big concepts, but in the context of reposting a video?  It’s crazy.  Much like, in fact, me.  So, anyway, I’m going to go away and shut up for five minutes now.

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6 Responses to Some ruminations on the sex lives of ducks

  1. Katherine says:

    But I think that this is the best way of introducing a video sung by a crow on the virtues of being a lesbian, really. And I like it when people demonstrate the difficulty in labeling non-human animals as gay or straight or what have you. Critical thought is always a heartening thing to read.

    Your post reminded me of a very fun/interesting radio programme that also featured ducks and their habits in its first 20 minutes.

    http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2008/11/21

  2. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi Katherine, and thanks for the comment. Thanks for the link to the radio programme as well. I now know more about duck vaginas than i thought there was to know – which is a very good thing, of course. :o)

    As for critical thinking, well at the moment it feels like that word could only possibly apply to me in the sense of critically endangered… ;o)

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi, Zarathustra, and thanks for the video – very appropriate. :o) I had been unaware of that little dribble of ‘wisdom’ from the mouth of Pat Robertson – interesting that he seems to think there’s a mass social movement by people who want to shag ducks. I guess he gets lonely, sometimes, thinking he’s the only one… ;o)

    Sorry, btw, for the delay in the vid appearing. My spam filter got excited.

  4. Katherine says:

    Gives you something to think about when walking in the park, doesn’t it? Glad you enjoyed it :)

  5. Adair says:

    Hmm, researchers do test for self-awareness in animals, and ape, monkey, and avian species have passed. An example might be showing a dolphin itself on life television (they pass, too), or dyeing the distinctive crest of a tamarin and putting it in front of a mirror–the experimentals touch their hair while the controls don’t.

    They also definitely have an awareness of how they stand in relation in relation to other members of their species. The status of females in the pecking order of jackdaws is entirely dependent on the status of their male mate, and if the lowliest female is chosen by the dominant male, she can peck everyone else, and they know better than to peck her, whereas before everyone pecked her and she pecked no one.

    To me, this suggests that birds have enough awareness of self, of their relationships to conspecifics, and of their mates that such concerns shouldn’t be a barrier to applying labels like “gay” and “straight”. However, there are other differences (plus the fact that the labels have use within the context of human society but maybe not in other contexts) that might be relevant–for instance, many species mate for life, or your example of the male leaving the female and not raising the children. The sexual and emotional relationships are obviously different, and the formation of said relationships occur under different circumstances and require different forms of agency on the part of the individuals involved.

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