Gisela Kaplan's new book 'Bird Bonds'

We all know how birds choose their mates ... don't we?

The males demonstrate their worth via the beauty of their plumage, or the complexity of their song, or some other attention-grabbing device, and the relatively drab females pick the best on offer.

But Gisela Kaplan says that's not how it actually works for the majority of native Australian birds.

Last week the Coffs Harbour-based Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour (UNE) added another title to her list of highly readable and impeccably researched books, which includes Bird Minds, Tawny Frogmouth and Australian Magpie.

In Bird Bonds: Sex, mate-choice and cognition in Australian native birds, she sets out to tell a different story to the one we inherited from the northern hemisphere, where the reproductive patterns of birds are often compressed into short windows dictated by climate-driven migration.

"In Australia most birds can stay where they are," she says. "They don't migrate and they have very long breeding seasons.

"The northern hemisphere arguments are always that males are more colourful, they sing and they dance and they perform, and the female chooses. And she is more drab and he is more beautiful.

"When I started investigating mate-choice behaviour in Australian species, I found for 80 per cent of land birds it's simply not true that the male is the most beautiful or can dance - it accounts for only 20 per cent.

"In the other 80 per cent, male and female are the same colour. They may even both sing, as in magpies or ravens. They have the same range of vocalisations. The theory that he performs and she chooses has to be modified."

Prof. Gisela Kaplan with a juvenile magpie

Prof. Gisela Kaplan with a juvenile magpie

In Bird Bonds, Gisela explores the evolution of behavioural traits that make the emotional and sexual lives of birds like cockatoos, kookaburras, galahs, rosellas, ravens and magpies more similar to ours than is commonly supposed.

The bird species that are the focus of the book not only form cooperative pairs to reproduce, they also have offspring that, like ours, are born very immature, spending an extended period in parental care.

The bonds between the pairs, often lifelong, which underpin the capacity to take more time raising young, have led to these species developing larger brains and more complex social behaviours.

"Most Australian birds are cared for well beyond fledging time. But not so in the northern hemisphere. For climatic reasons, they're birds in a hurry," Gisela says.

"They've got to meet somebody, build a nest, incubate the eggs, raise the chicks and then be ready for migration before the cold weather sets in again. The whole process may be forced into a three-month period."

In that scenario, care of the fledglings generally only lasts two weeks, whereas for the majority of Australian birds, it's at least two months.

"In most cases, it's more than that," Gisela says. "In magpies and various other species, it may be a year, or a year and a half."

Gisela argues that the pair bonding that underpins this commitment to long-term parenting involves oxytocin (also known as the 'love hormone') and enduring attachments based on compatibility of personalities and skills.

And the extended parenting gives the 'teenage' offspring time to play, learn and socialise.

"What I've done in this book is decouple sexual and reproductive behaviour from social behaviour," Gisela says.

"And social behaviour needs to come first. The bonds need to be established first."

The book includes examples of 'childhood sweethearts', 'flirtation', 'marriage', 'divorce' and 'remarriage'.

"At the heart of mate-choice in many of our longest-lived and smartest birds are mutual commitment and social cohesion, as in humans," Gisela says.

Bird Bonds will be launched at the Harry Bailey Memorial Library in Coffs Harbour on Wednesday October 30 at 6pm.

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