Males that refused other mates at different zoos have sired six offspring with a female at the St. Louis Zoo, and now her winning ways are the object of a study.

by Diane Toroian, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
February, 13, 2002

Is your boyfriend's idea of romance a pizza without the onions?

Has your husband stopped calling you "sweetheart" in favor of "hey you."

Well, ladies, this Valentine's Day take a lesson from Lady, St. Louis Zoo's mistress of courtship. With a few grapes and a lot of patience, Lady has charmed even the most clueless suitor. In return, her mates offer her fidelity, help around the nest and food, lots and lots of food.

"That's why we have nicknamed her Lady, because she is very ladylike," said Zoo volunteer Nancy Poole, who is helping with a study on the birds. "She is just so patient. She really knows how to train the males."

Lady is a brightly colored hornbill with tawny eyes and a beak like a banana. But Lady's power springs not from her striking looks. What makes Lady special is the gentle way she shows her mates how to approach a female and consummate a relationship.

"It appears that Lady is the first to initiate courtship. There are certain cues that the males follow," said Michael Macek, the bird curator, as he observed Lady and her beau at the Zoo's Bird House.

Male hornbills clearly are smitten. After refusing other mates at different zoos, a series of hornbills have sired six offspring with Lady - a record in the United States.

Now don't start saying this lady is a tramp. Zoos want more hornbills, which are common in captivity but difficult to breed.

To try to unlock Lady's secrets, the St. Louis Zoo established a hornbill study in which volunteers note the birds' every grunt and gesture from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily. The Zoo also videotapes the birds and closely monitors the temperature, humidity, light and other environmental factors in the Bird House.

What observers have noticed is that birds and humans bond the same way - over a good meal. And while bad manners can be a big turnoff for many females, that's not so for Lady. She patiently teaches her mates the proper mealtime etiquette. One former mate, Clutz, kept offering food to Lady's eye. Clutz finally caught on after Lady delivered bits of food to his beak. Her new mate, who has no name, also was confused. She kept offering him food, but he would give nothing in return.

"Then the light dawned in his head, 'Maybe I should give a piece to her,' " said volunteer Julie Gerlach. "Now she'll pick out something good for him, and he'll do the same for her."

On a recent day, Lady was busy in her tree when her mate popped down for a feast of berries and lizard. Lady soon joined him. They snacked side by side for minutes, but seemed oblivious to one another. Who would break the silence? Finally the male gave Lady a treat.

"Offer and accepts," Gerlach called out to Poole, who entered the data in a computer. Lady reciprocated with a piece of food. "Offer and accepts," Gerlach repeated.

In a world of illicit affairs and "Divorce Court," this may not seem like high drama. But Gerlach and Poole swooned at the exchange - they know small gestures like these keep relationships strong.

That bond will be tested in the upcoming months as Lady and her mate prepare for a new chick. Recent Zoo visitors may have noticed that Lady has started to patch over an opening in her tree. Right now, she's working on the edges. But by the end of next month, she will have plastered over the entire hole, save a small slit. Lady then will squeeze through the crack, lay her egg and raise her chick. For the next three months, her mate will deliver more than a pound of food a day.

"As you can imagine, he is very busy," said Macek.

No other bird species cooperates to this degree in the breeding process, a fact that continues to amaze Gerlach after a decade of hornbill observation.

"I've been involved in other animal behavior studies, and they are all interesting, but the courtship of the hornbills is so unique," said Gerlach. "A lot of time the male comes out of the forest, he breeds and then he's gone, but here the man is really involved. It really is beautiful."

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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