For conservation biologists, a day at the office might mean milking a molerat, tickling wombat genitals or lending a "helping hand" to masturbating maqaques – and with the popularity of Twitter trends like #JunkOff, that probably doesn't surprise you.
The golden age of virality has brought animal sex (and the characters who study it) into the spotlight, and we thought we'd seen it all. We were wrong. We were so gloriously wrong. It is with great pleasure that we bring you this: the falcon sex hat.
The honeycomb headgear, invented by falconer Les Boyd in the early 1970s, serves as a sperm-collection device that allows captive birds to mate with their keepers. It sounds outlandish, but the simple accessory has been instrumental in the recovery of numerous species, including one of North America's flying darlings, the peregrine falcon. (Yes. We brought a species back from the brink of extinction by letting its members hump our love helmets.)
The collection process is quite simple: add one frisky bird, one rubber receptacle and one keeper who is well versed in the art of falcon sex song. Observe:
All you can hope for is that your sex partner doesn't come in too hot: peregrines have been clocked at an astonishing 200 mph (320kph) in a straight dive.
"Learning to mimic the falcon’s vocalisations is the most direct approach in accomplishing cooperative artificial insemination," explains Boyd, who invented the cap after the widespread use of the pesticide DDT saw peregrines all but disappear in the United States.
"The first bird I hatched using it was in 1975," he says. "But I'd started trying years before. [Early versions of] the hat needed to be chin-strapped down tight before the male landed on it. Actually one of the simplest ways to get the male to copulate was on the back of one's hand."
Though they now soar above nearly every continent, at the time of Boyd's eureka moment, peregrine numbers in North America had reached drastic lows. The western population, for example, had been reduced from some 4,000 breeding pairs to just 324 – 0.08 percent of the original abundance.
It's no surprise then that conservationists turned to captive breeding to save the species. But there was a problem: imprinting. When captive hatchlings reached sexual maturity, they showed little interest in mating with birds of a feather, and that was where Boyd's insemination cap came into play.
Birds gain a "sense of species" by visually imprinting on their parents during early development. When a young falcon comes out of its egg, it becomes attached to the first moving object it encounters. In most cases, this would be its mother. But studies have shown the birds will form this critical social bond with just about everything, from rubber boots to electric trains. It is through this process that a captive falcon comes to regard a hairless, bipedal primate as its mother – and, eventually, as an attractive mate.
"The imprinted males were extremely easy to work with," explains Boyd. While they wouldn't engage in copulation with another falcon, they would mate with their human flock members. "Once the semen was on the hat, it could be easily pulled into a syringe, and imprinted females would stand for semen deposit. It was incredibly simple."
Editor's note: The following video might be considered NSFW by some viewers. We suggest watching with sound.
To date, over 6,000 peregrine falcons have been successfully released in the US alone. And while we've largely moved on to better and more efficient ways of collecting semen from donor birds, adaptations of Boyd's creation are still in use today (and available for purchase, should you find yourself in need of a sex waffle).
"Many of the propagation techniques that were learned from peregrine work were carried over directly to other raptor species in need of serious help," adds North American Falconers Association president Scott McNeff. "Insemination hats were a small part of that process."
From giant California condors to the much smaller Aplomado falcons, raptors the world over should tip their hats to conservationists who went all the way in the name of duty.
Top header image: Judith/Flickr