Category Archives: Mating displays

Birds bring their best game when seeking mates

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A pair of Clark’s Grebes displays in a courtship ritual known as “rushing” or “weed dance.” Birds use a variety of strategies to attract and keep mates.

Most birds don’t bring a box of chocolates or a bouquet of roses when they take up courtship of a prospective mate, but birds have several equivalent behaviors that they employ to attract the attentions of the opposite sex. Since we recently celebrated Valentine’s Day, I thought a look at some of the more unusual courtship rituals of some of our feathered friends would be appropriate.

Birds bearing gifts. Many birds present small trinkets to a prospective mate. For instance, many male penguins make a present of a stone or pebble to female penguins. There could be more than a simple bribe behind this gift. Female penguins don’t build elaborate nests. In fact, a scrape on the bare ground, perhaps encircled by a collection of pebbles, marks the extent of their nest construction. So, the perfect pebble could be the way to winning a female penguin’s heart.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern Cardinals are beginning to pair together in anticipation of the spring nesting season.

The way to the heart is through the stomach. Observant birders may have witnessed a male Northern cardinal slip a female a morsel of food, such as a peanut or a shelled sunflower kernel. It’s a marked change for this bird. During the winter months, a male cardinal is more likely to chase a female away from a feeder rather than share food with her. However, as spring approaches, his behavior undergoes a change and he becomes content to feed next to a female cardinal, often slipping her some choice tidbits.

May I have this dance? Many species of birds perform elaborate and ritualistic dance displays. Among birds known for tripping the light fantastic are flamingoes, cranes, grouse and grebes. Cranes are one of the oldest families of birds on earth. They’re also some of the most accomplished dancers in the animal kingdom. Pairs perform very ritualistic dances that, if the performers were human, would no doubt require the services of an accomplished choreographer. Cranes mate for life and the ritual of dancing is a way to strengthen the bonds between a mated pair. The ability to dance is, apparently, not instinctive. Young cranes must practice their dance moves, a process that can take years before they master the elaborate dance.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Mallards find a thawed spot on a frozen pond.

Synchronized swimming. While many birds dance to impress a mate or strengthen pair bonds, grebes perform a dance that takes place completely on the surface of the water. A pair will engage in this intricate performance, perfectly mirroring the moves of the other as they literally race across the surface of the water. These dances by grebes are also known as “rushing” or “weed dance.” It’s called as a weed dance because at the culmination of the ritual, the birds usually hold some type of aquatic plants in their bills while racing swiftly over the surface of the water. Pairs that perform well together stay together, building a nest and raising young.

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An 18th century illustration of the habits of the Bower Birds.

Good housekeeping seal of approval. The tropical family of bowerbirds are famous for complex nests built by males and then decorated with bright and colorful objects to catch the eye of a potential mate. The nest of these birds are actually referred to a “bower.” Usually constructed on the ground, the male will line the approach to the bower with items such as shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded garbage, including plastic scraps or bits of glass. Unusually odd items pressed into these decorative displays have included coins and spent rifle shells. This habit of male bowerbirds must rank as the ultimate in trying to impress a mate with shiny bling.

These are just a few of the inventive ways that birds go about attracting and keeping mates. Perhaps you followed some of these tips from our feathered friends to ensure you had a great Valentine’s Day.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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