The Loneliness of the Eager-to-Mate Male Sandpiper

These boys fly hundreds of miles for a more-than-likely failed shot with a lady in a short mating season
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 9, 2017 1:54 PM CST
The Loneliness of the Eager-to-Mate Male Sandpiper
In this image provided by Wolfgang Forstmeier via the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, a male pectoral sandpiper, right, courting a female on the tundra near Barrow, Alaska.    (Wolfgang Forstmeier)

You fly more than 100 miles for love. You get rejected. You fly another 100 miles. Another rejection. And another. That's the high-flying but futile sex life of the male pectoral sandpiper looking for love in northernmost Alaska, per a new study. Some males are more persistent than others, reports the AP, with one desperate guy logging more than 8,100 miles in two dozen different hook-up attempts over a frenetic four weeks. "They're definitely trying hard to flirt and court," says biologist Bart Kempenaers of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. "They are not particularly successful. Failed Don Juans mostly." Sandpipers migrate from South America to breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra in the summer. The males tend to be sex crazy during this time because females are only fertile for a few weeks. They flit all over the place, trying hard to seal the deal with loud throaty hoots. The problem for them is that females only mate once or twice a season.

"Copulations are incredibly rare," Kempenaers says. "The males need to try and try and keep at it." Researchers tracked the activity of 100 male birds during a breeding season. It is "the most extreme example" of promiscuity in animals seen yet, says Kempenaers, who led the study published Monday in Nature. The males mostly forgo sleep as they embark on non-stop flights in search of a mate, getting by on snatches of shut-eye lasting several seconds at a time. The average bird flies about 110 miles between mating attempts. In a breeding season, the males log on average about 1,900 miles, a bit farther than Los Angeles to Chicago. Sandpipers can fly 40 hours non-stop around 37mph, but these long trips often end in rejection. Those that successfully mate don't have a role in raising the offspring, Kempenaers says. An Alaskan biologist says Arctic shorebirds are generally shrinking in population, adding that this study "will make me think differently about every pectoral sandpiper I see during the summer." (More ornithology stories.)

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