Over 12 million people in the UK tuned in to watch the opening episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II – and if you are anything like me, you were watching and you were moved by the male buller’s albatross, waiting patiently on his nest for his mate to return to him after many months of fishing far across the ocean. The music, the beautiful lighting and of course, our ability to empathise made us all feel for the male, and we sat, hopeful, eager, along side him until his mate finally arrived.
Then, they embraced in a unique albatross manner; coy, flirtatious, playing hard to get. There definitely is some bonding going on there, but how much it extends to true monogamy is a debate that scientists cannot seem to shake off.
Birds are one of the few monogamous groups of animals, and albatross and their waltzing are some of the most famous, but recent genetic studies have shown secret affairs, illicit encountered and cheating chaps. The male albatross waits patiently for his female, calls to her, dances his heart out to her, whilst she could already be carrying another’s chick – and who’s to say he hasn’t been out for some extra-marital copulation whilst he’s been alone?
Recent studies and genetic testing have shown that as many as 24% of albatross chicks are the result of these affairs. A quarter of illegitimate chicks, in a species that is the cornerstone of ‘mating for life’. It just goes to show that what we think we know, is only ever the half of it.
And it’s also another example of where anthropomorphising can lead us into error; we’re projecting our own emotions and ideas of courtship onto the scenes that we witness, and draw our own wild conclusions. What to us appears as a beautiful rekindling of a lifelong bond, could be simply re-affirming who’s boss, or simply acknowledging a member of their own species.
I am guilty of this too. Half of the reason that I paint animals is to try to feel a little of what they feel, and for us to be able to connect with them also. Just as Franz Marc wanted to uncover the spiritual in the animal, I want to explore why nature is such a fixation in my life, and how (how on earth) it isn’t for others. Nature connects us to nature, and to ourselves.