How the Sex Lives of Birds Scarred Me Forever

Gulls MatingI’ve been scarred. Really. Read on. I promise that I will not scar you unless you want to be scarred. It has to do with bird sex, so first we must discuss the way most birds have sex before getting to the way that one bird in particular has sex.

All birds have this thing called a cloaca from which they expel both urine and feces. This is true of all amphibians and reptiles and even some mammals as well. I’ve never really understood why we humans (and the vast majority of other mammals) have separate systems, and I’m not going to look it up now. I have important bird business to discuss.

Okay, so all birds have these things. Most birds also use the cloaca for sex, “This means that the same opening that excretes feces and urine is where eggs are laid.” So in Chicken Run when the two rats, Nick and Fetcher, refer to eggs coming out of chickens “bums” they are exactly right. (This is, by the way, the best way to learn biology: from animated features.) In case you are wondering, this is not the scarring part of the story — not even close.

The way that most birds mate is kind of cool. When they are ready for sex, their cloacae puff up. So the male balances on the back of the female. She splits her back feathers to allow access to her cloaca. He maneuvers his body so that their cloacae can touch — this is called a “cloacal kiss.” It only lasts a second or so, but that’s enough time for the seamen to get transferred. This makes sense. Imagine if humans had to copulate standing up in a hammock and you get the idea.

Male and Female MallardsIt seems like such a charming way to have sex. There is something kind of brutal about the whole penis and vagina arrangement. On the other hand, having a single orifice where urine, feces, and babies come out strikes me as kind of disgusting. I’m already freaked out enough that the urine and baby place is the same. Obviously, baby birds have the advantage that they come out in neat little packages.

Okay, so that’s how most birds have sex — like those pretty gulls above. But as I said, not all. In particular, the mallards have penises and vaginas. And they generally have the kind of sex lives that most animals have. The male and the female link up, have some sex, have some babies, and the guy goes on his merry. But the males who do not manage to find a mate will go after lone females and beat them up and turn them into a kind of sex slave. Of course, dolphins do the same thing. But you need to remember that this is not what scarred me. Humans partake of sex slavery, and that oh so holy Bible that people like to talk about being the source of all morality is absolutely fine with it.

What is scarring is the mallard penis. Mallard penises can be over a foot long. That’s about as long as the duck is itself. And it is corkscrew shaped. You can read all about it along with information about duck and sea otter necrophilia in a Dylan Matthews article, Seven Adorable Animals That Are Also Murderous Monsters. But be aware that if you click over, you will be treated to a duck penis becoming erect in slow motion. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

We Could Sing Better Songs

Educating RitaI’m all right with you, here in this room; but when I saw those people you were with I couldn’t come in. I would have seized up. Because I’m a freak. I can’t talk to the people I live with any more. An’ I can’t talk to the likes of them on Saturday, or them out there, because I can’t learn the language. I’m a half-caste.

I went back to the pub where Denny was, an’ me mother, an’ our Sandra, an’ her mates. I’d decided I wasn’t comin’ here again. I went into the pub an’ they were singin’, all of them singin’ some song they’d learnt from the juke-box. An’ I stood in that pub an’ thought just what the frig am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in an’ stay with them, an’ join in the singin’? …

Well I did join in with the singin’, I didn’t ask any questions, I just went along with it. But when I looked round, me mother had stopped singin’, an’ she was cryin’, but no one could get it out of her why she was cryin’. Everyone just said she was pissed an’ we should get her home. So we did an’ on the way I asked her why. I said, “Why are y’ cryin’, mother?” She said, “Because — because we could sing better songs than those.” Ten minutes later, Denny had her laughing and singing again, pretending she hadn’t said it. But she had. And that’s why I came back. And that’s why I’m staying.

—Willy Russell
Speech by Rita in Educating Rita

Congressional Chicken and Long-Term Dangers

Mitch McConnellLauren Fox at National Journal has been doing a lot of good reporting about the upcoming Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shutdown. But I have to admit to being flummoxed by the whole thing. The Republicans seemed determined to create fights with no other point than to make President Obama look bad. And then more often than not, they fail even at that. I now have a bit more sympathy for Charles Krauthammer; it must be really painful to watch your own party do this. And for what? Over the issue of “amnesty” for five million people that can be reversed the moment a Republican gets in the White House?

But Fox provided one clue to the situation in an article on Monday, Conservative Groups Won’t Budge in Their Opposition to a Clean DHS Funding Bill. It would seem that what conservatives want the Republicans in Congress to do is what they want America to do: look strong, beat their chests, pretend that they are more powerful than they really are. It’s pathetic, but that is about right. She quoted Dan Holler of Heritage Action saying, “If Senator McConnell reverses course and pulls this bill, without forcing the Democrats to get on it, that is going to embolden Senate Democrats to hold out constantly on every single bill.”

John BoehnerReally?! That’s what is going to make the Democrats do that? It isn’t, oh, I don’t know, six years of Senator McConnell doing exactly the same thing to the Democratic majority? That’s hard to imagine. But that actually circles back to Krauthammer. As I discussed before, he is delusional if he thinks that a government shutdown is going to be blamed on the Democrats. Everyone knows who wants a government shutdown. This is not an issue that can be finessed.

Fox continued, “Not blinking first, [Dan Holler] contends, is the only way Republicans can display dominance to Democrats in the new Senate.” What are they? A pack of dogs? Do conservatives really think that the Republican Party can bully its way to power? It all goes back to this general belief of the conservative movement in the United States that they can will themselves to power. The idea is that if they just hold out long enough — if they are willing to destroy the entire nation, then they can get their way. It is like a game of chicken.

Ted CruzBut as Jonathan Bernstein wrote yesterday, Will McConnell or Boehner Blink First? He noted, “John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are playing a game of chicken this week. Against each other. Whoever veers off first will lose more True Conservative points.” It all comes down to the fact that the Democrats don’t need to do anything. So the question is whether Boehner or McConnell will give in first.

But in addition to it all being pathetic, it is dangerous. We’ve long known that Boehner doesn’t have control of the crazies in his caucus, and now we know that McConnell doesn’t have control of the crazies in his — led by Ted Cruz who is a true believer in the will to power theory. And if they are acting this way about immigration, what’s going to happen when it comes to the debt ceiling. I find it all exhausting. These freaks can do untold damage — not just to the United States, but to the entire world. And it won’t hurt them. There will always be millions telling Ted Cruz that he’s a great man.

Scott Walker and the “Gotcha” Question

Scott WalkerKevin Drum asks a fair question, Is It Fair to Keep Peppering Scott Walker With Gotcha Questions? Basically, is it right to ask him if he believes in evolution? The whole thing brings me back to a quote I heard from an ex-conservative who said that the hardest thing about being a conservatives was always having to lie about what you really thought. And that, I’m afraid, is why questions about evolution are hard for Republicans.

Let’s look at the position that Walker is in regarding evolution. I suspect that he actually does believe in evolution. He’s a reasonably bright guy who is surrounded by educated and sophisticated people. He may have compartmentalized the issue, but I doubt seriously that he thinks evolution is a big conspiracy by atheist scientists. The problem is that the base, which is going to vote for whomever the Republicans nominate, are the ones who want him to be a creationist. But in a general election, the non-base who might vote for a Republican don’t want to vote for one of those crazy Republicans.

So I think it is certainly okay to ask him “gotcha” questions. It isn’t because any reporter cares whether he truly believes in evolution or the president’s love for the country, but rather because it tests him as a politician. Look at Todd Akin. He didn’t lose because of his loony ideas about rape and abortion; he lost because he was loony enough to talk about it in public. That’s a key distinction. And in Scott Walker’s case, we know that he’s as loony in his beliefs as Todd Akin. The question is how he’s going to finesse his looniness publicly.

I wish we didn’t have these “gotcha” questions. I wish instead that reporters were interested in actual policy. Walker has been allowed for years to go around and not answer the question of whether he would sign a “right to work” law. Instead, he was allowed to claim that he didn’t think that any such law would come across his desk. Fundamentally, that’s the same thing. But if his really vile conservative ideology had been forced into the light of day, a lot of people would have voted against him for the same reason they voted against Todd Akin.

Now the core of Kevin Drum’s article is actually about why it is that “gotcha” questions always seem to get given to Republicans and not Democrats. The only “gotcha” question I can remember recently was Alison Lundergan Grimes’ refusal to say if she voted for Obama. Of course, that wasn’t a “gotcha” question originally; it was just made into one by her. But it was meant in the same way as the questions that Walker was asked. Who cares who Grimes voted for? Who cares if Walker thinks Obama loves the country?

But this all gets to the heart of a major difference between Republicans and Democrats. Other than a strong tendency among Democrats to have no spine about the simplest of issues (whether they vote for members of their own parties), Democrats don’t have to hide what they really believe. And that is because the vast majority of the things that Democrats really believe are hugely popular. What does Scott Walker believe regarding the economy that is popular? I know of nothing. To Walker, asking about the minimum wage is a “gotcha” question that sends him spinning. “Minimum wage?” The real reason people make so little is Obamacare!

I can see some difficult questions that the Democratic candidates for president might be asked. In particular, they are going to have to deal with Obama’s executive action on immigration. But even there, I suspect that smart politicians will say, “Hell yes, I’m continuing it!” Because the people who really care about killing it will certainly vote for the Republican no matter what. So I don’t see a big problem for the Democrats.

Ultimately, the “gotcha” question is an invention of the Republican Party. It is part of their decades long campaign to “work the refs.” It is meant to intimidate reporters into not asking questions that the Republicans don’t want to answer. For Sarah Palin, a “gotcha” question what what magazines she reads. That’s right up there with, “What’s your favorite breed of dog?” So I hope the gotcha questions keep coming. Because the American people need to know as much as they can about Scott Walker. He’s a bad guy and if the electorate knows what he really stands for, it will rightly run away from him.

Morning Music: Tie a Yellow Ribbon

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak TreeIn 1973, Irwin Levine and L Russell Brown’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” was released by a band referred to as “Dawn featuring Tony Orlando” — for contractual reasons that have never been very clear to me. It eventually became Tony Orlando and Dawn, with “Dawn” apparently being Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, even though that was not originally what the band name had meant.

At this point, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is kind of a joke song — something for Las Vegas crooners to emit from the silk and amphetamine. As usual with this kind of song, the very things that made people first love it — it stayed at Number 1 for a whole month — is what people now hate about it. Story songs tend not to hold up well over time anyway. And this one is overwrought, regardless. “Bus driver, please look for me; ’cause I couldn’t bear to see what I might see…” And then the final payoff, “A hundred yellow ribbons ’round the ole oak tree!” It doesn’t help that Tony Orlando looks like a guy every woman in America regrets having had a one night stand with.

But I think it is a brave tune. It is about a man coming home from prison after doing hard time — three years inside, which means he was probably given ten years. That’s bank robbery time. Or possession of a joint in 1970. But it shows a laudable act of love on the on the part of the girlfriend. A hundred yellow ribbons seems a bit excessive, but then a simple letter would have destroyed the whole conceit of the song. In “Stand By Your Man,” Tammy Wynette implies that a woman should look past all manner of abuse thrown her way “that you don’t understand.” But in this song, the woman is standing by her man in a mature way. You don’t allow a man to walk all over you, but you also don’t expect him to be perfect. So you get down to the important business of decorating that ole oak tree.


The down side of this is that Tony Orlando has been a big booster for “yellow ribbon” campaigns for soldiers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does indicate that he wants to distance himself from the actual content of the song. He also hangs out with Christian conservatives on show like Huckabee and The 700 Club.

Birthday Post: Christopher Marlowe

Christopher MarloweOn this day in 1564, the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was baptized. Like most people of that time, we don’t know when he was born. His best known play is Doctor Faustus. This is a shame because in many ways, it is his weakest. I think the reason people still do it is because it is fun to stage. When Orson Welles directed the play in 1937, he let fly all of his interest in magic and turned the play into a magic show. But the language in Doctor Faustus is still very strong. I would say that Marlowe was a far more consistent writer than Shakespeare in that regard.

The thing is, Shakespeare was a slightly later writer than Marlowe. And as such, his plays are less poetic than Marlowe’s. If you watch a Marlowe play, you can actually hear the poetry. That isn’t often the case with Shakespeare, whose poetry is more like natural language. As a result of this, many scholars claim that Shakespeare is better. But playwrights after Shakespeare, like John Webster and Thomas Middleton, wrote in an even more natural style. None of them wrote anything like what one would consider natural dialog, however. So for my money, it is better to have poetry that sounds like poetry rather than vaguely stilted dialog. I recommend checking out Derek Jarman’s filmed version of Edward II. It is very good. And here is the whole thing on YouTube:

Unfortunately, Marlowe barely lived to the age of 29. He got in a fight and ended up being stabbed in the eye. This has caused some amount of speculation. He was awaiting trial for heresy. It was not the first time he had been arrested; Marlowe lived a colorful life. But given that he had done some spying for the court when he was at university, people speculate that he was “gotten rid of.” And it could be. Then again, Marlowe ran with a rough crowd, and it is easy to imagine them all getting drunk and ending up fighting. I tend to go with the more obvious theory. Of course maybe Marlowe faked his death and then went on to write Shakespeare’s plays for him!

(For the record, there is the ultimate reason why we know that Marlowe didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays: their styles are nothing alike. If there is one thing that all these years of reading and watching and memorizing Shakespeare have taught me, it is that Shakespeare repeats himself a lot. He has very definable cadences. He reuses the same phrases. His wit is quite distinct. Marlowe is nothing like that. I wish people would stop reading about these conspiracy theories and just read some of the actual playwrights. All of this discussion would go away.)

The following are two brief scenes from a production of Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The first scene is standard, in all versions of the play. The second scene is from the later version of the play and may or may not have been written by Marlowe. Regardless, the company has changed the scene a lot to rather good effect.

Happy baptismal day Christopher Marlowe!

This is a small edit from last year’s birthday post.