Category Archives: animal sexuality

New Scientist: Fish that change sex – and back again

At  New Scientist, “Zoologger” has a post up on the transsexual abilities of the hawkfish (species Cirrhitichthys falco), which is found off Kuchino-Erabu Island in southern Japan. As the post notes, transitioning in fish occurs in many species – but this one reverses the process. (Even this ability is not unique though – see Joan Roughgarden, “ Evolution’s Rainbow  “).

Transgender fish perform reverse sex flip

When it comes to selecting mates, hawkfish keep their options open. The flamboyantly coloured reef dwellers start life as females but can transform into males after maturing. Many marine animals do this, but these fickle fish have a rare trick up their fins: they can change back when the situation suits.

Tatsuru Kadota and colleagues from Hiroshima University in Higashi-Hiroshima, Japan, have observed reverse sex changes in wild hawkfish for the first time in the subtropical reefs around Kuchino-Erabu Island in southern Japan.

Hawkfish live in harems, with one dominant male mating with several females. Kadota’s team studied 29 hawkfish and found that when it comes to sex change, the size of the harem matters.

If a male hawkfish took on many females, one of the two largest females would change sex and take over half of the harem, mating as a male. Conversely, if that new male hawkfish lost a few females to other harems and was challenged by a larger male, it reverted to mating as a female, instead of wasting precious energy fighting a losing battle. “The ability to undergo bidirectional sex change maximises an individual’s reproductive value,” Kadota says.

– read the full article at  Zoologger /New Scientist,06 January 2012 .

Footnote:

A reader, Mario, has shared a link to a fascinating story about a domestic hen that transitioned to a cockerel, after an injury. I’ve known about transitioning in fish species for years, but this is the first time I’ve come across an instance in birds.

Thanks, Mario.

Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity

Long, John A:The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex

Long, John A: Hung Like an Argentine Duck: A Journey Back in Time to the Origins of Sexual Intimacy

Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

 

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Penguin (Gay) Parenting: Lessons for Gay Adoption

A few months ago, the Toronto Zoo was in the news, taking flack for a decision to separate two male penguins who had formed a pair bond.

In China, the authorities at a zoo in northern China have taken the opposite approach.  When they saw that a male pair had been attempting to steal eggs, they took the obvious, rational, decision. They identified a chick in need of parents, and set up an adoption.

While zookeepers at the Toronto Zoo were quick to separate Buddy and Pedro for mating purposes, keepers at Harbin Polar Land embraced their eccentric penguins by not only giving them a same-sex wedding ceremony worthy of Leslie Knope but also providing them with their very own baby chick to care for.
Adam and Steve had a history of stealing eggs from more-traditional couples during hatching season. So when keepers noticed a mother of recently hatched twins struggling with her parenting duties, they decided to give Adam and Steve the baby they were looking for.
While it might seem, well, different for a penguin chick to have two male parents, in fact, all penguins are known to have natural instincts for parenting, as males and females equally share in the responsibility to incubate and care for their chicks, before and after they’re born. For this reason, keepers at Harbin Polar Land  
Read morenewsfeed.time.com
Ignore the “wedding” – that’s just an obvious, gimmicky PR stunt. There are more important lessons here.

First, there is the simple fact that same – sex pairing and sexual behaviours are common in all branches of the animal kingdom. The keepers at Toronto Zoo justified their decision by arguing that the two males had paired only because their were no females available, but this common explanation for animal homosexuality is false. The published scientific research makes it clear that while animal same – sex behaviour may be more common in the artificial conditions of captivity, it also occurs widely in purely natural conditions. (For some species, and for some animals, it may be more common than heterosexual mating).

The parenting impulse is common to all species, and is not restricted to opposite – sex couples. The Chinese penguins’ attempts to steal eggs has been widely observed among same – sex bird pairs of many species, just as many human couples, of any sexual orientation, may seek to adopt when they are unable to conceive themselves.
The Chinese zookeepers  “are confident that Adam and Steve’s chick will grow up to be just like its penguin peers”. They have good reason to be. The empirical evidence from the animal world is that the parenting abilities and success rates for same – sex couples are no worse than for opposite – sex couples, and sometimes better: exactly the same as the findings from empirical research on human gay and lesbian parents.
The commonly repeated argument around gay adoption that it should not be about the equal rights of gay parents, but about the best interests of the child, is sound. Only the usual conclusion is false. The best interests of the child require that s/he be placed with the best available adoptive parents, who just might happen to be a same-sex couple.
In northern China, one penguin chick’s mother was struggling to raise it. The best available adoptive parents were the pair named by the keepers Adam and Steve. Lucky chick, to have found suitable adoptive parents.
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The Saga of the Toronto Gay Penguins

In a bizarre move, a zoo is splitting up a male pair, to force them to breed.

Queer Politics for the Birds: The Saga of the Gay Penguins

Toronto’s zoo is splitting up a pair of same-gender penguins. These Happy Feet males, Pedro and Buddy — jokingly referred to as “Brokeback Iceberg” — have been nesting with each other for a year.
The reason for the boys’ split-up, a zoo official says, is because African penguins are an endangered species.
The pair has what’s known as a “social bond,” but it’s not necessarily a “sexual bond,” Tom Mason, the zoo’s curator of birds and invertebrates told the Associated Press.
“Penguins are so social they need that…company. And the group they came from was a bachelor group waiting for a chance to be paired up with females,” Mason stated. “They had paired up there, they came to us already paired, and it’s our job to be matchmakers to get them to go with some females.” 
The argument they have used to justify this, is the old one that they aren’t “really” queer, just doing it in the absence of females. This is nothing more than homophobia directed at the animal world, used to avoid facing the fact that sexual activities between members of the same biological sex are commonplace in nature – for some species, and for some individual animals, more common than the heterosexual kind.

Bruce Bagemihl, in Biological Exuberance, has described this avoidance strategy, and several others, in his book “Biological Exuberance” – together with accounts of the extensive scientific evidence now emerging to rebut them.

As scientists, the curators at Toronto zoo really should know better.

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Tough Survivors: Gender Fluid Eels

To rice farmers and agricultural economists, the rice paddy eel is a pest, presenting an indirect threat to rice crops. To me, it’s yet another example of the remarkable gender and sexual diversity of the natural world – and one which is a real tough survivor.

REFLECTING nature’s remarkable diversity, the rice paddy eel is both hermaphrodite and transgender.
All the young start as females; some become masculine as they mature. When female densities are low, some of the male eels become transgender, turning into the opposite sex again.
The process, which takes up to a year, allows the replenishment of female populations. The greater the proportion of females in the eel population, the greater the reproduction rate.
This remarkable agility to adapt, and without natural predators, allows the paddy eel to multiply fast.
A rice paddy eel may grow as long as 3 feet to 4 feet and weigh as much as half a kilogram. As a voracious predator, its rapid spread threatens fishes, frogs, snails, worms and aquatic insects.
It survives harsh environments as well, from fresh and brackish to saline conditions and even cold temperatures well below freezing.
It can survive for weeks without food and, by burrowing in moist ground, can live for long periods without water.
When not using gills underwater, the rice paddy eel gets a fourth of its oxygen needs from the air – through the skin.”

Bisexual squid ‘can’t tell mates apart’ in dark waters – Telegraph

“An 18-year study of the Octopoteuthis deletron, a little-known squid which dwells a depth of 400 to 800m, found that males mate as often with their own gender as they do with females.
The difference between the sexes is so slight and meetings with fellow squid so rare that the amorous males are either unaware or unconcerned whether the object of their attention is female or not, US-based researchers said.
There is little light in the depths where the squid reside and the darkness of the water “cannot aid much in recognising potential mates,” they added.
Writing in the Royal Society Biology Letters journal, the scientists said the squid only have a single, brief reproductive period during their short lifespan and will mate with any partner they meet during this time regardless of its gender.”
-read more at The Telegraph
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Aquinas, "Nature" – and Sex.

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law are often trotted out by the rule-book Catholics alongside the half-dozen clobber texts as a supposed justification for denying respect and equality to sexual minorities. I have absolutely no expertise in Thomist theology, but was intrigued by this observation, in a longer article (“The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition”), at the Washington Post.
Thomas Aquinas, who followed a century after Hildegard, wrote commentaries on 10 works by the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, even though the pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle. So controversial was Aquinas in his day that the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy. For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.” Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority (emphasis added).

There are clear echoes of this in the modern world, where so many religious reactionaries insist on ignoring the clear findings of science, inserting instead their own established prejudice. If we accept Aquinas’  thesis that “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God”, the implications for Catholic sexual ethics are profound. The first of these would have to be a recognition that same-sex attraction is tu entirely natural and non-pathological dominant sexuality for a small but distinct minority of people, and  a smaller part of the sexual make-up of many more. This much is familiar, as is the knowledge that many animals (possibly even all or most mammals, but also birds, reptiles and insects) also practice degrees of homosexual activity.

No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphids. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.
But even more important, and not nearly as well-known, are the findings from science that natural sexual activity, as observed in the animal kingdom, is not after all solely geared to procreation. This has been the traditional assumption, but thanks to empirical evidence, we now know better. In several animal species, an extraordinary range of non-procreative sexual activities occur.
  • In some animals, sexual intercourse begins as much as a year or two before physical maturity and the onset of fertility – and so with no prospect of procreation.
  • Some species practice anal intercourse. or conventional intercourse without ejaculation, or intercourse outside of the estrus period.
  • Many species engage in masturbation, alone, or with others of either sex. Where they lack hands they use alternative strategies.
Autoeroticism also occurs widely among animals, both male and female. A variety of creative techniques are used, including genital stimulation using the hand or front paw (primates, Lions), foot (Vampire Bats, primates), flipper (Walruses), or tail (Savanna Baboons), sometimes accompanied by stimulation of the nipples (Rhesus Macaques, Bonobos); auto-fellating or licking, sucking and/or nuzzling by a male of his own penis (Common Chimpanzees, Savanna Bonobos, Vervet Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Thinhorn Sheep, Bharal, Aovdad, Dwarf Cavies); stimulation of the penis by flipping or rubbing it against the belly or in its own sheath (White-tailed and Mule Deer, Zebras and Takhi); spontaneous ejaculations (Mountain Sheep, Warthogs, Spotted Hyenas); and stimulation of the genitals using inanimate objects (found in several primates and cetaceans)
-Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance
 
  • Dolphins engage in non-procreative sex that has no human counterpart. They use their partners’ blowholes as additional orifices available for penetration.
  • Some species practice oral sex – including oral self-pleasuring (“auto-fellatio”)

Animals of several species are documented as engaging in both autofellatio and oral sex. Auto-fellatio or oral sex in animals is documented in goats, primates, hyaenas, fruits bats and sheep


  • Remarkably, some primates even make their own sex toys, fashioning dildos out of liana vines, and masturbation aids from suitable fruits.
  • Chimpanzees and penguins have been found to engage in forms of prostitution, exchanging sexual favours for food (chimps) or pebbles used in nest-building (penguins).

The implications for sexual theology are profound.

To forestall the standard reaction to this argument, I am not arguing here that because these sexual practices are found in nature, they are therefore acceptable. Animals also engage in incest, intercourse with juveniles, and necrophilia – none of which I recommend. What I am suggesting, is that we must remove the argument from nature in deciding on sexual morality. Much of the traditional Catholic theology on sex derives from Aquinas’ concept of “natural law”, which he in turn derived ultimately from his reading of Aristotle. We now know conclusively that whatever his value as a philosopher, Aristotle has no value whatsoever as a natural scientist. By Aquinas’ own reasoning, to follow Aristotle’s mistakes about nature is to make mistakes about God. To be really true to the spirit of Aquinas, we must therefore reject his own conclusions about nature in the light of the scientific evidence, and find alternative sources on which to base our sexual ethics.
What other sources are there? Traditionally, these have been the Bible and the early Church fathers to go on. Modern Biblical scholars are finding that many of the traditional interpretations of Scripture on sexual matters are flawed, while the ascetic elevation of celibacy as a Christian ideal, and the accompanying disapproval of all sexual acts, was based on a belief in the parousia – an imminent second coming of Christ.
If the traditional sources are now shown to be flawed, what else is there? The example of Aquinas in fact, helps us here, but pointing to his commitment to studying the best scientists of his day. We too can learn (and the Vatican agrees) from the best scientists of our day, not in the field of animal behaviour, but in the modern discipline of human sexuality and related fields. The findings by these scientists are that sexuality is a fundamental part of our human make-up, that diverse orientations are entirely natural, that a healthy and active sexual life can contribute directly to both physical and mental health,  and that sexual expression serves many more purposes than simply procreation alone.
Probably the majority of Catholic theologians already accept this. It is time that the Vatican paid more than lip-service to its claim that we must take seriously the findings of natural and human sciences, and did so too.

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Lifting the lid on animal sex

 “In his new book Hung Like an Argentine Duck, Australian paleontologist Dr John Long aims to bring the weird and wonderful world of animal sexuality to the masses.
But there are also some interesting insights on human sexuality to be extrapolated from the book, challenging puritanical notions of what is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’: namely, that homosexuality is some kind of man-made choice, and that humans are the only species to indulge in sex for pleasure.”
Indeed, once you’ve read Long’s passsages about dildo-wielding porcupines, bat blow jobs and necrophiliac snakes, you may be inclined to think we’re one of the tamer species in the animal kingdom.
“There isn’t any facet of human sexual behaviour that doesn’t already exist in the animal kingdom — the whole gamut of human sexual preference exists in animals in one form or another,” Long animatedly explained to the Star Observer.
“I must admit, a lot of it surprised me. We’re still learning new things all the time. I mention in the book that echidnas regularly have gangbangs, with five males to one female — that research was only published last year.”
In animals, [homosexuality] seems to be more about kinship and bonding, and how those animals fit in with a wider group or community, as opposed to a one-on-one pairing.”
In other words, those arguing that homosexuality is an evolutionary dead end are taking too narrow a view, with evidence that homosexual animals provide vital caring and support roles in animal communities, free from the burden of their own offspring.
 

‘via Blog this’

 

A Lesson in Couple Stability From Homosexual Zebra Finches

Is it possible for male couples to form lifelong, stable and faithful relationships?
Well, we know that some do – just look at the pics of couples lining up to tie the knot every time a new state or country introduces same-sex marriage or civil unions. These always show a high proportion of male and female couples who have been in stable relationships for several decades, eager to demonstrate to the world what they already know: that to all intents and purposes, they are really married de facto, and need to make that de jure as well.
We also know that as a group, gay men are statistically less likely than heterosexual married couples to form these life-long, stable and faithful partnerships. To confirm that, all we need to do is to consider the number of gay seniors who live alone, with the numbers who live with the same partner they have been with all their lives. The proportions are quite different to those applicable to straight men.
This is often used as a argument against gay relationships and LGBT equality. For example, in a nasty piece at the NOM sponsored Ruth institute, Jennifer Morse has this to say:
We already know that in terms of economic behavior, male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from married couples. We also know that separation rates (ie divorces) are different for male couples and for female couples and both are different (higher, like way higher) than for married couples.
(In a breathakingly inappropriate headline, Morse her article as “Intelligent Replies to Idiotic Comments“, but I let that pass. Rob Tisinai at Box Turtle Bulletin does a great job of showing her “intelligent” replies are made to demolish straw men -supposed that the proponents of marriage do not, in fact, advance. Read it).
I want to respond only to the one part of Morse’s piece which is not just a straw man response, but one which is dangerous and deceitful sleight-of-hand, the quote above. Let’s look more closely at what she is doing, and then provide a response which, be great serendipity, comes to us from – the world of birds: homosexual zebra finches.
The problem with Morse’s argument is that she is not comparing like with like.
“male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from married couples”
Not so. What she should have introduced into this statement, but could not do for her ideological bias, are the qualifiers “unmarried” (before “male couples”), and “heterosexual” (before “married). Then we would have the fairly obvious truism:
“unmarried male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from heterosexual married couples”,
Conversely, we could also say,
“married male couples are different from female couples, and both are different from unmarried heterosexual  couples”
Would that statement be true? We don’t know: married same-sex couples have not yet been around long enough to have produced compelling long-term evidence one way or the other. We do however have evidence to support another statement that Morse could have made – but did not:
“unmarried heterosexual couples are different from heterosexual married couples”,
One of the arguments against cohabitation before marriage is the abundant evidence that these relationship dissolve more easily and more frequently than formal marriages, with the attendant problems that can ensue for all parties involved – particularly the children. All relationships take work to make them endure. The stresses that contribute to relationship breakdown can be hard to resist at any time without reinforcement. The public visibility of a formal marriage, the vows that the parties have made and the legal obstacles in the way of divorce, all provide those reinforcements. It is no wonder that cohabiting relationships (gay or straight) break down more rapidly than married ones (gay or straight).
In addition to the standard difficulties in maintaining any long term relationship, gay couples have additional stresses unique to them, which arise from public prejudice and homophobia. (Things like the challenges of dealing with being fully out, or negotiating partial closets, problems for some couples with family acceptance, for instance). The apparent instability of gay couples may have more to do with their social circumstances, than anything inherent in the homoerotic orientation. To get a meaningful like for like comparison, we should be comparing  unmarried gay couples with unmarried straights, in a context where neither is handicapped by homophobia or public pressure. In the human context, this possibility simply does not exist.
In the natural world it does. Many animal species exhibit same-sex bonding and long-term couple formation. The animal kingdom  shows even greater sexual and gender diversity than the human one – and anything comparable to homophobia appears to be unknown. Published studies of individual species have shown that these same-sex couples are as stable as the mixed-sex counterparts. By great serendipity, the BBC has reported on another of these, a recent report of research into homosexual zebra finches, which corroborates my hypothesis above: that in the absence of homophobia, male couples can endure every are every but as stable as any others.
Male pair of Zebra finches
Same-sex pairs of monogamous birds are just as attached and faithful to each other as those paired with a member of the opposite sex.
The insight comes from a study of zebra finches – highly vocal, colourful birds that sing to their mates, a performance thought to strengthen the pair’s bond.
Scientists found that same-sex pairs of finches sang to and preened each other just like heterosexual pairs.
The study is reported in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.



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BBC Nature – Homosexual zebra finches form long-term bond

Same-sex pairs of monogamous birds are just as attached and faithful to each other as those paired with a member of the opposite sex.
 
 
Pair of Male Zebra Finches
 The insight comes from a study of zebra finches – highly vocal, colourful birds that sing to their mates, a performance thought to strengthen the pair’s bond.
Scientists found that same-sex pairs of finches sang to and preened each other just like heterosexual pairs.The study is reported in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do….. Also For Vultures

Same sex pair bonding is widespread, throughout the natural world. Zoos are not exactly the natural world. The animals live in unnaturally confined conditions, and are often maintained there for the specific purpose of boosting numbers, in formal breeding programs. Unless you have an objection in principle to the mere existence of zoos (I’m neutral on that one), it’s difficult to get seriously dogmatic about the story Guido and Detlef, the male vultures of Munster zoo – but it does raise some questions:
The drama began in March when Guido and Detlef set up home together at the Allwetterzoo, in the British Army garrison town of Munster, northwest Germany.
The griffon vultures, Gyps fulvus, showed no interest in female company. They were happy in their own world, grooming one another with tender sweeps of their savage beaks between rearranging the sticks that made up their nest, although the other vultures kept stealing materials as if to spite their arrangement.
Dirk Wewers, the zoo’s curator, said: “They always sat so closely together. They defended their nest from the other vultures. A suitable female was missing and in such a case vultures look for companionship from the next best thing, even if it is a male. Detlef looked for a bird of the opposite sex but settled with Guido.”

As a professional zookeeper, Herr Wewers really should know better. It is perfectly true that in some cases, animals deprived of access to opposite sex partners my make do with their own sex a substitute, but this is not a “cause” of animal same sex behaviour in general. Animals frequently choose same sex partners in the wild, either exclusively, or alongside opposite sex dalliances as well. In some species, same sex coupling is in fact the norm, interrupted only by a handful of individuals at specific times, for the sole purpose of making babies. In Detlef’s case, the problem was not an absence of females – it was a communal, mixed sex birdcage. The simple fact is that Guido declined the virtues of opposite sex attraction, and chose to settle down instead with Guido.
Public reaction was also questionable. On the one hand, there is the dubious chortling at the “outrage” of the gay community, who got worked up about the fate of these birds rather than the much more important questions threatening the world?
In a world of cholera outbreaks, terrorism threats, imploding banks and decreasing fortunes and species, certain German gay rights campaigners have found the time to express solidarity and sympathy for the birds’ plight.
-Daily Telegraph (Australia)
Here, I have to ask the Telegraph: If the only issues worth paying any attention to are the big global issues, why are you paying any attention at all to the concerns of a few gay activists? We all have a range of concerns, from the global to the local, from the general to the particular. There is no justification at all for ridiculing the expressed concerns of this group. On another day, collectively or separately, they could well turn their attention and outrage to more serious questions (one of which might turn out to be homophobic journalism).
Last month (November), eight months after the pair first made a home together, the zoo decided that they could no longer tolerate this affront to their procreative obsession, and separated them.
Guido was removed last week, however, to be replaced by a flighty female from the Czech Republic who, it is hoped, will tickle Detlef’s fancy and eventually produce little vultures…
.. Guido (was) transferred 400 miles (650km) east to a zoo in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic.
-AOL News
But the best-laid plans of mice and men gang oft awry. You can take a male attracted vulture to a female, but you can’t force him to do the necessary.
So far, Detlef and the un-named Czech bird have yet to do the wild thing. Guido, transferred 400 miles east to a zoo in Ostrava, Czech Republic, is also reportedly not too enamoured with the heterosexual lifestyle now being forced upon him.
Will it be too late to teach an old vulture new tricks? Both Detlef and Guido are 14 and it is uncertain that the libido of either can live up to the expectations of keepers.
So why on earth was this enforced separation even attempted? If the breeding programme was of such importance to the zoo (griffon vultures are not endangered), why wait eight months before doing something about it.
But some of the gay activists’ reaction is also over the top.
“This is like in the dark middle ages, forcibly making a creature sexually re-orient itself by tearing its partner from its side,“ wrote one angry gay vulture lover.

“While the Roman-catholic church in the arch-conservative area of Muensterland is jubilant, homosexual federations and animal protection organizations from the whole world over are indignant.”

Five years ago a public petition saved the gay penguins of Bremerhaven Zoo from being split up.

The sequel to the Bremerhaven penguin saga was not the gay fairytale happy ending. The zoo left the two males together – but they later separated voluntarily, and found female mates.
It is definitely incorrect to assume that animals are naturally “heterosexual” (not even humans are), but it is equally misleading to think of a same sex bonded pair as “gay”, or even “homosexual”. The truth is that in the animal kingdom, as in human societies and individuals, there is an astonishing a range possibilities for erotic coupling, with no single one normative.
The really important lesson we should take from animal sexuality is this observation by Dr Gloria Brane, at Bilerico Project:
Female/male bonding pairs don’t point at the same-sex sweethearts and gossip; they don’t chase them from feeding stations; they don’t give them a hard time about nesting in the neighborhood. Humans invented the concept of separating individuals according to their sexual preferences. These are just birds doing what birds do without the repressive labels we humans believe are so necessary.
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