60-Second Science

Bird Controls Offspring's Gender

A report in the journal Science shows that at least one species of bird, the Gouldian finch, has the capacity to choose the sex of its offspring. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Some people are worried that the more we learn about genetics, the closer we’ll get to a day when we can choose all sorts of characteristics for our babies: eye color, intelligence—and sex. Well, when it comes to sex, finches are a step ahead of us. Researchers in Australia show that female Gouldian finches can select the sex of their offspring. They published their research in the March 20th edition of the journal Science.

Gouldian finches have either red or black colorations on their heads. They choose their mate based on that head color. So researchers played a trick on the animals. They painted the heads of some red males black. Then they mated those seemingly black-headed birds with both red and black females. When the black females thought they were mating with a black male, they produced equal number of baby girl and boy birds.

But the red finch females who thought they were mating with an incompatible black-headed male had significantly more baby boys. Researchers say this is probably to reduce investment in what they call ‘inviable females.’ And they had fewer and smaller eggs. Truly a clutch performance.

—Cynthia Graber 

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