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The Sensitive Bird Gets All the Girls

Men could learn a thing or two from Australian bowerbird, researchers say

THURSDAY, Jan. 24, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- In the small but flashy world of Australian bowerbirds, a male has to have a well-decorated pad, a handsome set of feathers and a great line.

However, if he wants to get the girl, he also has to demonstrate he's a sensitive kind of guy. Otherwise, he'll go home alone.

"Do you suppose human males are capable of anything that complicated? I wouldn't bet on it," says Martin Daly, an expert in both animal and human behavior.

An iridescent purple male bowerbird builds himself an elaborate stage, or bower, and the female birds come to watch him sing and do his raucous dance. If a lady likes what she sees, one thing leads to another. However, if she's turned off, she flies away and checks out the next guy.

Researchers at the University of Maryland decided to find out why just one-third of male bowerbirds get all the girls, while two-thirds find only disappointment.

They did it by creating a mechanical female bowerbird -- a full-bosomed girl whose chest hid a multitude of technology. Called a fembot, the remote-controlled flirt gives all the subtle signals a male needs to decide whether the lady is interested. The fembot turns her head, fluffs her wings, tilts her beak and can assume the mating crouch, which is how the male knows he's about to mate.

In the study, published in last week's issue of the journal Nature, the researchers observed the behavior of the most successful males. They discovered the ones that ultimately fathered the most babies were the ones who were most aware of the subtleties of the female's movements. They picked up the pace when the fembot looked eager, and toned down their act when she gave off signs of fear or backed away.

Lead author Gerald Borgia, a professor of biology at the University of Maryland, says, "some females crouch really quickly. However, others are very edgy. The good guys could tune it down or turn it up until she was comfortable."

In the human world, there are men who could take a lesson from bowerbirds, says Leonard Kirklen, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida Counseling Center for Human Development, who teaches a workshop on "Finding Mr. Or Ms. Right." He identifies three types of guys who face more connection failures than others.

The first are men whose social skills and experience are limited, so they approach all women in the same way. Since all women aren't alike, this approach usually bombs.

The second type of man who regularly encounters rejection is; ironically, the arrogant macho man who thinks what he's got is what women want. As Kirklen says, "Frequently, it's not."

Finally, there's the guy who doesn't bathe regularly and/or insists on wearing unfashionable, dirty or ill-fitting clothes.

"A lot of guys are very unaware of how women react to the way they dress. They can be a nice person and even basically a nice-looking guy, and be overlooked," Kirklen says.

Of course, the game's a little different with bowerbirds. The males practice their mating techniques on each other for the first seven years of their lives before actually trying to attract a female.

The sexiest male bowerbirds win big, mating with as many as 25 females over a two-month mating period. And a satisfied female, who raises her young alone, comes back year after year as long as her favorite mate is available.

This kind of controlled research is hard to do on humans, Daly says, because people don't report on their sexual prowess honestly. In addition. the idea of creating a fake femme fatale isn't very practical.

Although, as Daley says, "Men do respond to beautiful females who are dummies, but I don't know how intelligently."

What To Do

Bowerbird expert Borgia has his own Web page on the mating habits of the species, complete with pictures.

Can men and women simply be friends, or will sexual attraction eventually scuttle the relationship? Read this article from Psychology Today to find out.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gerald Borgia, Ph.D., professor of biology, University of Maryland, College Park, Md.; Martin Daly, Ph.D., professor, psychology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; Leonard Kirklen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, University of South Florida Counseling Center for Human Development, Tampa, Fla.; Jan. 17, 2002 Nature
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