Most birds wing it when it comes to sex, Czech scientist says

When it comes to the birds and the bees, our fine feathered friends are pretty flighty as for sexual partners and mating

Chris Johnstone | 11.04.2012
The marsh-loving reed bunting gets low marks for sexual loyalty — but a distant US cousin holds the title of world’s most promiscuous bird

Birds are far from the models of sexual loyalty once thought, with more the majority of species seeking sex with another partner at one time or another, according to research carried out by an international team including Czech scientist Tomáš Albrecht.

“About 30 years ago, we thought that most birds were monogamous. But with the development of molecular methods to determine the father, it has been shown that more than 70 percent of birds are at some time disloyal,” Albrecht, of Prague’s Charles University, told Czech Radio’s Live Planet program.

Recent research on swallows carried out by Albrecht in southern Bohemia found that in an average nest of five young birds, two were fathered by a bird that was not mother’s normal partner. 

But the globe-trotting swallow is far from mostly flighty species when it comes to sex, according to Albrecht. Research showed that around 70 percent of the offspring in the nests of the marsh loving Reed Bunting also did not belong to the normal male partner.

‘While, like humans, they often have stable partnerships , the situation is not genetically stable.’

Similar international research resulted in the US-based Salt March Sparrow being given the dubious title of the world’s most promiscuous bird with 97 percent of females performing with more than one mate. The explanation given was the high risk existence of the species and the chances that frequent floods often kill young chicks.

But Albrecht and fellow researches say that common European songbirds such as blackbirds also go in for a high rate of occasional sex out of stable partnership — as do the  frequent garden visitors from the tit family.

“While, like humans, they often have stable partnerships , the situation is not genetically stable,” he commented. 

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