While on the Galapagos Islands I shot a video of male frigatebirds perched in a saltbush thicket, all of them courting a female circling about 20 feet overhead, banking against the clear sky over Isabella island. The camera pans down to a male perched in the saltbush, looking skyward with his wings spread about 5 feet wide and his gular pouch inflated upon his chest. “Ladies,” I say, “what do we think of Bachelor Number One here?”
“He’s cute, but desperate,” says one feminine voice. Other feminine voices agree.
“Sorry pal. Please report to the Friend Zone.” The camera drifts to another male, this one to my eye pretty much exactly like the first. “How about Bachelor Number Two?”
“Bachelor Number Three?”
And so it went, for every last male in the thicket. “Gah! That one’s voice just grates my nerves … That one couldn’t bother to groom himself? … Creepy eyes! … What is he doing perched so low to the ground? … He’s too old for her … He’s too young … He’s a dreamer, a mooch, he probably lives with his parents and had to borrow their car to get here.”
Upon our party’s rejection of every last suitor I say, “Yeah, I don’t know what she sees in any of them. Bunch of losers.” The camera pans back up to the female. “You can do better, sweetheart!”
We are fortunate to have in our party a naturalist, name of “Bob” and an Australian. He’s read Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” a dozen times or more. Nothing on these islands has thus far surprised let alone amazed him. He’s predicted every behavior we’ve observed. He’s called plants and animals by their Latin names while patiently and authoritatively explaining their adaptations. He is an invaluable resource we lucked into purely by accident of our tour’s scheduling. And he is free.
“I think I need to hear from Bob. Where is he?” The camera swings around until it finds Bob at just a little distance from the cluster of our tour group. It zooms until his cragged, distinguished profile fills the frame. He is quiet. Thoughtful. Aloof. At peace.
“So Bob,” I say, “which one do you think she’ll choose?”
He smiles from behind his wraparound sunglasses. “I think you know.”
“Pretty sure I don’t, actually. A lot’s going on here, what with the cawing, craning, flapping, clacking, bobbing, swinging. It’s a pretty damned complex ritual. It all must mean something.“
“You’re thinkin’ too hard, mate.” He points. “It’ll be that one.”
“Wait, which one? This one here?” The camera frames a male not all that distinguishable from the others, except that he is the Dreamer, so called because his courtship, relative to all the others, is lackadaisical. When the female sails overhead, he’s often looking in the wrong direction. It’s like he’s not even trying.
“What makes you think so, Bob?”
He chortles, shakes his head. “Look at ‘im, mate. He’s got the biggest sac.”
When our women finish concurring, with gusto, I say, “You’ve got no courage, Bob. But if it’s that one I’ll give you a dollar.”
Over the succeeding minutes our bachelorette drifts lower and lower, tightening her spirals and looping tantalizingly close to a number of suitors that dwindles with each pass, but which number always includes Bob’s bird. And on each pass the suitors, all except the Dreamer who did so only every second or third pass, throw out their wings and thrust out their sacs while we men in the party shout qualities we suppose any bird other than Bob’s possesses, and which we assume any self-respecting, old-fashioned frigatebird gal would want in her mate.
“He makes you laugh! He’s smart! He’s confident but not narcissistic! Thoughtful! Decisive but not controlling! He’s a great conversationalist! He doesn’t live with his parents! He’s got a good-paying job he loves that keeps him financially stable! He loves travel, the outdoors, the mountains … and the beach! He is as comfortable and happy at the symphony as he is at home watching the Kardashians! He’s fit! He doesn’t smoke! Drinks only in social situations! He loves good food! He cooks! He’s handy around the nest! And he knows wine! He’s well-groomed! He looks as good in a suit as he does in blue jeans and a t-shirt! Family is important! He loves his mother! He’s DDF!”
Ultimately though, over strenuous lobbying and unanimous (save Bob) opposition from we men, she alights in the saltbush next to Bob’s well-endowed Dreamer. Our women applaud and endorse the union. More than one taunts, “Size matters, guys!”
I huff while zooming in and out, in and out, in and out on the Dreamer’s pouch billowing beneath a majestic, hooked beak and against his glossy, satiny black feathers. He has a wistful, faraway look, as if he either doesn’t realize what just happened or he does but is utterly indifferent to it. Maybe resigned to it.
“I owe Bob a dollar, but I think his bird might be gay.”
“That would explain the fashion sense and rockin’ gym body,” says a man we are all pretty certain is gay.
“Gay or not,” I say, “our girl wants a nest full of babies.” Then, to the male, “Get to work, pretty boy!”
The voice of the correspondent in the group, a deep one with an English accent, says, ”You keep that dollar, Brian!” When the camera finds him, he’s muttering while breaking the knot on his swim trunks. “Biggest sac my arse!” He yanks at the waistband, peers into the gap for a second or two, looks to Bob’s bird for a second or two, then back into the gap. He releases the waistband, it snaps against his ample belly. “Brian?” He points to Bob. “Pay the man.”
“Nah, that won’t be necessary,” Bob says, clipping “necessary” down to “necessry.”
The correspondent opens his trunks again. “I’m queued up right after … “ He points to the short male, “ … that bloke.”
“Babe?” says his girlfriend, pointing to the fat male in the thicket, whose sac is somewhat below the median size in the group, “I’m thinking maybe that one.”
Camera back to Bob. “All right, I won’t pay you, Bob. On principle. I mean, it’d be like I’m encouraging objectification.”
“Aw now, don’t be discouraged. You ought just appreciate the simplicity.”
“It is simple,” I acknowledged. “Brutal. But simple.”
“Honest too, yes. Still, it seems … “ I searched for the word.
Bob finished my thought for me. “Unintelligent.”
He pulls off his sunglasses to wipe the sweat from the lenses, throws a quick glance to the camera. His eyes are pale blue and deep-set beneath a refined brow.
He is articulate in four languages. Intelligent. Well-read. Drily humorous. Loves his work. Financially secure. Loves the outdoors. Has traveled the world over, several times.
He is also single.
Maybe he can’t cook.
He puts his sunglasses back on, regards the betrothed in the Galapagos shrub with a barely perceptible smile. He heaves a sigh. “We are certainly more intelligent,” he says. “And maybe, more brutal.”