August 11, 2022
Blue-footed Booby male with chick
Blue-footed Booby male with chick
I thought that title would get your attention better than calling this book review “Population Ecology.”  Dr. Carin Bondar, Canadian and a female by the way, is an evolutionary biologist, public speaker, and author with several books explaining in graphic and fascinating detail exactly how and why sex works like it does in the natural world.

There are two potential issues with reading Bondar’s work.  The first is that googling for her books you should be careful not to inadvertently expose your computer to pornography—Wild Moms and The Nature of Sex are just a couple of her titillating titles.  The second is that if you’re looking only for avian mating strategies, birds are not her major focus, so you might have to read more than one of her books to glean more information about your favorite subject.

After hearing an interview with her on NPR I did just that, and I found her to be an engaging writer with an excellent feel for splicing humor and philosophy into her sometimes biologically technical descriptions of how animals from bed bugs to elephants find mates, procreate, and then raise their offspring.  Despite being dense with scientific terminology and explanations of field research, though, Bondar’s books are a quick read, and she has four children of her own so you know she includes thoughts on how animal sex compares to that of our own species.

Even as a lifelong birder, I still learned from Bondar’s books in two ways, some in-depth explanations into facets of avian life that I knew about but didn’t fully understand, and some “bombshell” facts of which I had never heard or read in the mostly unscientific literature accessible to most birders not trained in biology.  Sure, we all know cowbirds are brood parasites, but do we know why they are so successful?  And who knew avian mothers can vary the components of those valuable eggs based on the father’s characteristics?

If you have time for only one Bondar book, I’d recommend Wild Moms.  In the second chapter she dives deeply, in The Egg-Content Conundrum, to explain that mother birds can and do “preferentially provide increased nutrition and immunity to some babies over others.”  Playing favorites like this allows avian moms to compensate for factors like low quality fathers or unfavorable environmental conditions because they control the gestational habitat of the egg with various proteins, hormones, etc.

In one of her other books she speaks of a fascinating study in which scientists working with Blue-footed Boobies went so far as to paint the bright blue feet of a highly desirable male a dull gray between the laying of his female’s first and second egg.  The second egg came out smaller and lighter, a stunning example and proof of so-called “maternal effects” and “differential allocation.”

In one chapter of Wild Moms, aptly subtitled “An Inconvenient Truth,” Bondar explains the many nuances behind brood parasitism, citing research on Common Cuckoos in Europe and our North American cowbirds.  There are things in this chapter you probably don’t want to know.  Average egg laying time for most birds is about twenty minutes.  Brown-headed Cowbirds can do it in forty seconds, Bronzed Cowbirds in five seconds!  Birders love bird eggs for their colors and intricate patterns.  Bird moms think of them, though, as avian QR codes.  But brood parasites resort to nest reconnaissance to study and then match those egg colors and patterns!

Carin Bondar’s books have provided me with something every serious birder wants, a deeper understanding of what makes birds what they are and why.  Additionally along the route she fills us in on all things fascinating and sexual for many of the creatures we know and love—bugs, lions, dolphins.  And in her Wild Moms “Afterword” she closes with how this all correlates and compares to human motherhood.  This becomes a treatise on the undervaluation of our society’s mothers in a world today where they still lack the support needed to successfully have both children and careers.

Oh, and lest you think Carin Bondar is a stodgy university professor/scientist, I’ve seen pictures.  She’s got an edgy hairstyle, tattoos up one calf, and a nestful of kids with whom she’s obviously having a lot of fun.  It all makes me wish Carin Bondar had been my mom.  Let me close this review of her work as she closes Wild Moms--call your mother right now and thank her.  Profusely.
Bell's Vireo feeding young cowbird
Bell's Vireo feeding young cowbird