It is Tern mating season. Here in the Keys, we have Lesser Terns, and their “hotel room” of choice is the yellow E or J bouy that marks the extremity of the mooring field, usually off of one of our sterns. Imagine trying to teach astronomy or Greek mythology and being constantly interrupted by a sound not unlike squeaky bedsprings—my lessons are relegated to basic “birds and bees” biology.
We’ve had lots of time to observe mating behavior as we homeschool in the cockpit on these lovely spring mornings. Their routine goes something like this: the male and female bird stand side by side on the poo-encrusted buoy, bobbing wildly in the wind and chop and fishing-boat wakes. They begin by bowing politely and singing a squeaky little song back and forth to each other. Then the male bird disappears for a few minutes and comes back with a small bait-fish (still wiggling) in his beak, which the female bird tries to grab, but which he successfully keeps just out of reach. They then bow and chirp a few more times, after which she ruffles her feathers as a sign of assent and he responds by flapping wildly and trying to balance while reenacting that timeless dance of love—getting her to hold still by offering the fish at just the right moment. It lasts mere seconds, and then he flies away. She cries disconsolately. (Pardon my anthropomorphism, but doesn’t it sound familiar?)
But this is not the end of it! She continues to call for him, and, sure enough, he comes back—with another fish in his maw, which he offers this time without requiring anything in exchange. He does this not once, but over and over and over again. One morning we noted a male who came back to his sweetheart with a dowry of 19 little fishes before they flew off together, ostensibly to their waterside nest somewhere to start a family. Now here’s a strange wooing-in-reverse; usually the male must prove his worthiness before the wedding night, not after!
One morning, as we watched the process for the umpteenth time, Rachel looked at me sadly and said, “Why did the daddy fly away?” I was startled by her response, but Jay’s recent travel schedule has made her sensitive to separation. She was on the verge of tears, so I had to come up with a reassuring answer quickly. “He’s not gone-gone. He’ll come back in a minute with a little fish. Just wait and see.” The relief was visible in her face when, just as I promised, the daddy came back and offered his prize. I asked her, “Doesn’t your daddy fly away on the airplane? And doesn’t he always come back with money to buy food? He’s just like the daddy bird.” Satisfied, she toddled off to play with her Legos while we continued with school and chores. If only all of life were that simple.