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Mating rituals

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Last night while falling asleep, I heard a ruffed grouse male drumming in the woods.

It is the same woods where I slept as a kindergartner. Back then when I heard grouse drum outside my bedroom window, I thought it was Uncle Orville trying to start his mower.

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Never mind that Uncle Orville lived sixteen miles away. I was still disturbed that Dad didn't go help him start his mower so I could get some sleep.

Eventually I was told that the drumming was the boy grouse trying to impress the girl grouse. That seemed pretty useless to me as a sensible second grader.

When the mating instincts kick in, animals do truly strange things. Sandhill cranes bounce up and down as if they're jumping on the bed. Swans bob their heads. Mockingbirds imitate as many other birds as possible.

And that's just birds.

It seems there are only two requirements for animal mating rituals: The beast must display a skill which is totally useless, and they must look completely stupid while doing it.

Stop to think of it -- the same rule applies to humans.

Of course, human mating rituals are complicated by our large brains, which have caused us to progress to the point where our instincts do nothing but confuse us.

For instance, biologists say that the human female is programmed to seek out the human male who can best club a saber-tooth tiger over the head, bring it back to the cave for food and a fur coat, and go sit in the corner and burp.

The modern equivalent to killing saber-tooth tigers is the ability to play high school football. Never mind that football players are no more likely to make good husbands and dads than, say, a violinist.

But to attract a football player, mating-age females are also forced to display odd behaviors. In fact, they display lots of things, like their bare legs in 30 below weather or their belly buttons in church.

In addition to playing football, mating males also perform silly rituals. They turn up big stereos that go boom boom boom. They play guitar very badly. They wear their pants halfway to their knees.

Others focus on driving fast cars. Some sit at intersections and spin their wheels late at night, which is about as stupid as drumming your wings.

These behaviors can be best understood by watching a sandhill crane dance up and down. They only make sense to the participants.

In our modern age, many humans just ignore their animal instincts.

For example, some human males forego the football field to get into computers, as if being smart at math might attract desirable females.

These males are called nerds. They don't get it. Too sensible to waste money on fast cars and loud stereos, they choose instead to buy additional gigs of RAM.

Like a grouse that sees no need to drum its wings, nerds, if they mate at all, end up with female nerds who see no need to perform mating rituals like face painting and belly-button piercing.

Abandoning one's instincts might seem rational, but in the long-term, it can lead to disaster.

Male nerds sometimes wake up one morning at age 45 and start drumming their wings, suddenly hoping to attract females who display their legs at 30 below.

Female nerds, driven by instincts that kicked in too late, might divorce their male nerd, get silicon implants and bounce from bar to bar in shoes with heels that could impale a cow.

If there is anything more silly than human mating rituals, it is human mating rituals displayed at an inappropriate age.

Unlike animals, humans change their mating rituals with each generation.

Males who wear pants with bell-bottoms the size of a prom dress might have attracted prize females in 1974, but that form of display would probably fail in 2009.

Females who wear hoopskirts might have drawn the male who could best puff up his chest in 1873, but a petticoat approach would likely fail to draw even a low-level systems analyst in 2009.

Despite the differences between human and animal rituals, both have the same result:

In spring when love is in the air, it's hard to get a good night's sleep for all the drumming, chirping and wheel-spinning going on outside.

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