Some female birds prefer losers

From Boise, Idaho, at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society

When a female Japanese quail watches confrontations between two males, she later tends to choose the loser over the champ.

Studies of male clashes in other animals, such as Siamese fighting fish, have generally found that females prefer winners, says Alexander G. Ophir of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Scientists had reasoned that a winning male offers access to better territories, resources, and genes.

The males of the quail species Coturnix japonica scrap readily, and gamblers in Asia used to pit them against each other like fighting cocks, Ophir says. Canadian rules for animal research forbid staging actual fights, so Ophir and Bennett G. Galef, also at McMaster, used a confrontation in which males peck at each other through a clear partition. The male that pecked most often was declared the winner.

Ophir let a female view a sham fight and then monitored which male she chose to approach. The females spent more of their time close to the losers.

Ophir offers a possible explanation: Male Japanese quail play rough. During mating, they chase females, drag them around by their feathers, peck them, and try to mate with their heads. Ophir hypothesizes that by choosing the loser of a confrontation, a female reduces her risk of injury.

This protective behavior may derive from tough experience. The researchers did another version of the experiment, comparing females that differed in sexual experience. Previously mated females again tended to select the loser of the males’ pecking competition, but virgins chose the winner.


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Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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