Cigar birds’ fidelity

2005 September 28
by David J. Ringer

SPRINGFIELD, MO. — Taking my eyes off of the road, I glimpsed them through that blurry blue strip at the top of the windshield: two Chimney Swifts flying together, one bird just above the other, his wings held up in a V. They must have been twittering loudly, but I couldn’t hear them. Then I lost sight of the birds.

But they kept me thinking. Why this courtship ritual now, when it’s nearly October? They’ll soon depart the continent. Surely they sense the shortening days and the cooling temperatures.

Ah, but what if pair bonds are permanent? Did these two birds belong to each other, with no intentions of going their separate ways after the summer’s work? If they did mate for life, how in the world would they recognize one another?

Still curious, I began searching for an answer. I found this very interesting life history by A.C. Bent. He describes the courtship ritual but didn’t have an answer for my question.

Then I found this report. Pairs do appear to mate for life.

Fascinating! But this new knowledge produced even more questions: Do pairs migrate and winter together? Or do they separate somewhere along the way and reunite the following spring? And again, how can they distinguish each other among thousands of apparently identical birds?

And what of the pair I observed today? Were they keeping the home fires burning? No, perhaps that’s too anthropomorphic. Do they engage in courtship behavior to maintain pair bonds, even when they are not breeding?

Or — what a thought — was this a mated pair at all? Was it just a fling between two birds, both separated from their mates for a season? Such behavior would of course be free of all human implications, but what purpose would it serve?

It may be a fallacy, an argument from personal disbelief, but I don’t think it was a fling. I think I saw the pair together, keeping their bond strong. Did they celebrate a summer well spent? Could they look forward to a new year, when, if they both survived the journey, they would return from the South American continent to nest and breed again?

Related posts:

  1. Owls, Christmas birds, New Guinea birds
  2. Home birds
  3. Lovers’ games

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