Unusual swallow necrophilia

This item appears in the Feedback column of this week’s New Scientist:

WHAT were the two barn swallows we reported on two weeks ago really doing (21 March)? As we noted, conservative blogger Lew Waters thinks they are a loving male and female couple, one of whom has died tragically – but Feedback reader “Jim” thinks that they are both males and fighting each other to the death. Now Kees Moeliker provides an even darker explanation.

Kees is curator of birds at the Rotterdam Natural History Museum in the Netherlands. In 2003 he was awarded the Ig Nobel biology prize for his paper “The first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck“. His recently published book De Eendenman (“The Duck Guy”) includes a section on wildlife necrophilia. One of its key examples is those same two barn swallows.

Kees tells us: “These particular birds were not injured, in mourning or in a territorial battle. No, the fluttering swallow-on-top was engaged in one of the best photographically documented cases of necrophilia. From the pictures it is hard to tell if it was homosexual necrophilia or just heterosexual necrophilia: sexes in the barn swallow are very much alike. The less deeply coloured and slightly mottled throat and forehead of the dead swallow point towards it being a juvenile, indicating that this was a rare case of paedophilic necrophilia.”

Kees goes on to say that the pictures were taken by photographer Wilson Hsu somewhere in Taiwan in March 2004. “The talented nature photographer seems to have assumed that the live swallow tried to revive his dead ‘relative’. Hsu later made his pictures into a video clip (www.tinyurl.com/ct3p5g) that indeed may have made ‘millions of people cry’, as Waters tells us. Try to watch it with dry eyes.”

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