Cloacal Pecking and Cuckoldry
“Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.”
It seems that the vicar misspoke of the Dunnock (Prunella modularis).
I cannot help but wonder if this is some precursor to oral sex in birds, or maybe in this particular case, he just wants his kidney back! © John Alcock/Animal Behavior
Apparently, the sexual escapades and tensions of some* of the Dunnocks were carried out in the hedges unbeknownst to Rev. F.O. Morris. For the breeding season of some of the beloved songbirds, which he so touted as the avian role model for his parishioners, is a frenzy of mating conflicts, infidelity, pursuit and revenge against forbidden lovers, paternity tests, and other such affairs that should not fill the days of the lives of ecclesiastical Christians.
While the male guards his mate carefully, she solicits attention from other males as soon as she escapes his surveillance. As Professor Davies writes, “This provokes endless chases around the territory and sometimes a female might mate many times each hour with two males, each apparently battling for paternity of her brood.” And if she slips away for a moment or seems to have had suspicious company, he protects his investment: pecking at her cloaca for about a minute stimulates evacuation of a small droplet of sperm mass, likely a deposition from her other suitor. And this activity is a requisite component of the pre-copulatory display.
Despite all of the aggression and precautions or perhaps as a scourge upon the sinners, the Dunnock’s nest is a host to a parasitic Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). Though the Cuckoo’s eggs are very much distinguishable from the small, blue eggs of the Dunnock, the Dunnock accepts this foreign egg. And the intrusion of the Cuckoo is fatal to the clutch of the Dunnocks, as upon hatching, the Cuckoo chick casts nest-mates out of the nest.
* In fact, Dunnocks have a highly varied breeding system. There are monogamous, polyandrous (two males and one female), polygynous (two females and one male), and polygynandrous (many males and females) subsets in a population, and it is not so uncommon that parents, as a trio rather than the traditional pair, raise a clutch together.