The Conversation: Claudia Dey and Bridget Stutchbury discuss sex
The place: Arabesque Café in Little Italy. The people: writer Claudia Dey and biologist Bridget Stutchbury. The subject: the sex lives of creatures great and small
What do our courtship rituals have in common with the mating habits of birds? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Take, for instance, the fact that male birds are expected to sing and strut for the females in their lives, or that lady birds have a thing for older feathered fellows. These tidbits, plus dramatic tales of avian betrayal, are unveiled in The Bird Detective: Investigating the Secret Lives of Birds, the second book by the biologist and York University prof Bridget Stutchbury (seated on the left). Claudia Dey, a novelist, playwright and former Globe and Mail relationship columnist, is equally adept at discussing the birds and the bees, though her oeuvre is restricted to the human realm. Her new self-help manual, How to Be a Bush Pilot: A Field Guide to Getting Luckier, gives would-be Casanovas the what’s-what on everything from the female anatomy to how to talk dirty in a way that will turn women on, not off. We introduced them, bought them a cup of tea and listened in.
Bridget: Female birds are in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing a mate. They are looking for a particular trait, whether it’s the right colour (usually red), age or song. The boys are forced to play the girls’ game. It’s a dance, with the males trying to impress and the females being picky.
Claudia: Red plumage is the equivalent of an electric guitar. Men spend too much time worrying about their biceps and wall-mounted stereos. They should drop the posturing. Old-school qualities never fail: chivalry, curiosity, humour and Clark Gable confidence. Survival skills are a bonus.
The notion that males are the ones who do all the cheating is definitely a misconception. The numbers have changed; women are just as duplicitous as men. We’re conditioned to think of men as lotharios and women as buttoned-up, but that’s just not the case.
Bridget: When we first started doing DNA testing on birds and the young in the nest didn’t match the fathers that were caring for them, we assumed that the female birds were being raped. When we put radio transmitters on them, we discovered that they were sneaking out to visit the male next door.
I took my husband with me to do research in Panama. One day, we were swarmed by bees that sprang out of a dead tree. This was in the land of killer, Africanized bees. Luckily, I was kind of naive about the whole thing and it wasn’t until later that reality set in, but my husband had nightmares for weeks.
Claudia: My field work involved stepping into a confessional booth and listening to people. And then there was a ton of research. My mom was my assistant and shortly thereafter started wearing leather pants. I don’t think the two things are disconnected.
The Bird Detective
On shelves now
How to Be a Bush Pilot
On shelves Oct. 26