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Outdoors: Othello and his Cardinal Counterparts

This summer, the Shakespeare Festival returned to Interlochen, featuring a production of Othello, which I found engaging and thought-provoking.

I don't want to be a spoiler or get too deep into the psychology or political ramifications of the plot, but I can share that the character, Othello, became obsessively suspicious and jealous when he was led to believe that his wife was being unfaithful.

Even though I was absorbed by the action on the stage, I couldn't help but think about songbirds.

You see, although most songbirds form pair bonds, it's quite clear, thanks to DNA testing, that a lot of cheating is going on out there in the woods.

Scientists call it extra-pair paternity.

It does have survival value by creating genetic variability, and infidelity does increase the reproductive success of a male bird.

Sometimes a female may seek out an especially desirable male with which to mate, and sometimes a marauding male takes advantage of a female when her mate is out of her territory.

Infidelity in songbirds is more common than most people realize, but curiously, although female northern cardinals occasionally stray, there is significantly less cheating among cardinals than in other songbird species - and for a reason.

Male Cardinals engage in what is called pair-guarding because they, like Othello, are obsessively suspicious and jealous of other male birds.

Researchers tell us that males follow their mates around 72 percent of the time, at least during the first nesting attempt.

I say the first nesting attempt because cardinal nests are quite vulnerable to predation, so these beautiful scarlet birds attempt several broods each season.

And with each successive nesting attempt, the male spends less time peer guarding his mate and instead puts more effort into feeding and protecting the young.

Studies here in the Midwest suggest that only 15 percent of cardinals' first nesting attempts produce viable offspring - most Cardinal pairs face tragedy early in their relationship.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.