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Finding a mate in the avian world isn’t as simple as joining Tinder or heading to a local singles night! These creatures have to seriously impress their potential partners and they do this in a whole host of weird and wonderful ways!
Courtship Behavior in Birds
In the bird world, it’s usually the males that perform courtship rituals, although there are some species in which the females will strut their stuff.
Courtship rituals in birds are used as a way of communicating to others within the species that they wish to mate. For the females, these displays from potential suitors give her a good idea of how likely he is to produce healthy young. After all, she’s going to have to put in a lot of effort.
What’s more, there are a lot of bird species that will mate for life, so, once she has let him know that she’s willing to mate, the female is stuck with him.
The way that birds communicate this desire to mate varies between species. For example, some will use vocal communication, whereas others will perform elaborate displays with dancing. Some privy male birds will start building a nest to show the female that he’ll have her back through the mating process.
If you listen in the spring, you’ll hear lots of songbirds communicating through, well…song. This is one of the most common methods of courtship within the avian kingdom, and it seems to be incredibly effective.
Songbirds, like the sparrow, will up the intensity and complexity of their song when looking for a mate. The more he can wow his potential female, the more she’ll see him as a worthy partner. Green warblers change their song depending on who’s around, so the males will sound different when a lady is present and they’re trying to impress her.
However, there are some bird species who think that louder is better, such as the white bellbird, which might be small but has the loudest cry of all birds.
Perhaps one of the most well-known displays in the bird world is the peacock, who spreads his large tail feathers into a display that certainly attracts the ladies. It’s often thought that the bigger and fancier the plumage, the more likely the male will be to attract a mate.
Male pheasants in Asia have tail feathers that can be up to 5.7 feet (1.75 meters); that’s more than flamboyant! But the bird of paradise takes it one step further by dangling a branch at the same time as shaking his feathers.
Displays occur when the majority of the ritual is performed by the male. However, there are mutual displays where the female will also take part in the dance or show.
When looking to attract a mate, some birds will use preening to demonstrate how desirable they are. In birds such as the crow or the parrot, allopreening is actually a sign of affection. Lovebirds are commonly known for this behavior where the birds will take turns to groom the feathers of their beloved.
Macaws are another fine example of this type of courtship ritual. It’s something that’s often seen in territorial birds and is thought to strengthen the bond between lifelong partners.
Dancing to impress a potential mate is something that’s seen throughout the animal kingdom, and birds are no exception. But male birds who engage in this type of ritual need to prove that they have experience and won’t make any mistakes; if they do, the female will likely lose interest.
Courtship dances can be made up of a variety of different movements, but it’s normally the male that does most of the work. Observe the red-capped manakin who seems to think he’s Michael Jackson with his moonwalk-like moves. Where the blue-backed manakin can be seen in some sort of birdie conga line trying to impress the girls!
Many species, such as the prairie chicken will take part in dance-offs, so it’s even more important that the male has his skills down to a T. If he doesn’t, he won’t get chosen.
The bowerbird from Australia will make a huge mound known as a bower in order to show off these skills to potential females. He makes this nest using twigs, leaves, and flowers.
There are lots of other species that use their practical skills to impress the females, including the wren who will get to work building several nests allowing the female to select which one she likes best.
But perhaps the most impressive of all nest builders is the cape weaver that creates an elaborate nest made up of various ‘rooms’ in the hopes of attracting a mate. They even alter the level of insulation in each room so all of the female’s needs are met; now that’s dedication to your partner!
Just like humans, some birds like to wine and dine their potential mates. However, this is usually a ritual that is done after the initial courtship ritual has taken place, such as dancing or displays.
The male will offer food to the female, sometimes placing it directly into her mouth. Other birds will drop the food off like a personal delivery service. Who wouldn’t be impressed?
Common species that behave in the way are the robin and the blue tit.
How Do Birds Know When to Mate?
Imagine just knowing when it was time to reproduce! Well, that’s how it is for birds; it’s almost like a sense, and things change to let them know when it’s time to start looking for a mate.
There are different signs of the breeding season for different species. For example, some birds will have a pre-breeding molt which signals that the time has come. After this, beautiful bright feathers are revealed which come in handy for males that need to put on a display.
During the spring, when breeding season is getting underway, you may notice that birds become a lot more territorial. The females are often seen to be more vocal than usual as this shows others where her territory is as well as serves as a way of attracting more males. When she calls, the males know it’s time and will flock to find her.
Moreover, birds will begin gathering nesting materials and the beginnings of new nests will be seen.
Where being territorial is concerned, it’s heightened during the breeding season. There are even examples of birds of prey dive bombing towards a perceived threat. This is why it’s really important to leave breeding birds alone.
Birds with Elaborate Courtship & Mating Rituals
All birds have some sort of mating ritual but there are some that are far more elaborate and fancy than others. Let’s take a look at some of the most impressive and outstanding bird courtship rituals in the animal kingdom.
1. Frigatebird (Fregata spp.)
The frigate bird is a seabird that is commonly found along the coasts of the southern USA and down into parts of South America, such as Brazil.
These birds certainly aren’t afraid to make a display when it comes to courting, and the males have a large red pouch on their chests, which they puff up to impress females. When inflated, the pouch resembles a heart, but the males, who sit in large groups of up to 30 individuals, need to compete with others to get the girl.
Once the pouch is inflated, the males will use their beaks as something of a drumstick to create an audible ‘lovesong’ of attraction.
But even once they are successful, it’s not uncommon for other males to try to interrupt the mating session by attempting to burst the other’s pouch!
2. Birds of Paradise (Paradisaeidae spp.)
There are around 41 species of birds of paradise and each of them uses very unique courtship rituals. These birds are rather eccentric looking, especially the males and they spend many years perfecting their dance moves in order to win over a female.
For example, the parotia bird of paradise has one of the most complex sets of dance moves of all avian species and if they’re going to get the girl, they have to do them in just the right order. It’s often called the ballerina dance since, when the male spreads out his tail feathers, the plumage looks like a tutu.
One type of bird of paradise found in Papua New Guinea has the darkest feathers of all birds, which can absorb more than 99% of natural light. They use this to their advantage as the feathers create an optical illusion causing their colored feathers to look much brighter and almost iridescent. As the male dances, the light reflects off these bright feathers creating a shimmery effect.
Some birds of paradise, such as the greater bird of paradise, use vocal calls alongside his arboreal dance. During the dance, he will bow and call out, and his gorgeous tail feathers drape over the branches in a stunning display.
3. Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchidae)
The bowerbird is an Australian species, and nobody can say that the males don’t work hard to earn themselves a woman! These birds will build a mound-like nest known as a bower which is some seriously impressive bird architecture!
To look at the bowerbird, it’s nothing impressive, so it comes as no surprise that this species doesn’t use showy rituals. But practically speaking, these nests, made from twigs are then decorated with everything from flowers to human trash, shells and even dead insects. He will then sing and make sounds to draw attention and what’s really interesting is that these birds are excellent mimics, able to make sounds like waterfalls and even human speech.
The females will view a variety of different bowers before they finally decide which male is deserving of their attention. However, once she has mated with him, she’s off and he’s back to trying to attract another female.
4. Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
The grebe is a type of aquatic bird that is known for its fancy courtship dance. However, there are 22 species of grebe and each one has its own take on impressing females.
For example, the Clark’s grebe and Western grebe are common in North America. These two birds will bob and shake their heads as well as perform a dance that makes it appear as though they’re literally walking along the surface of the water!
However, the great crested grebe does things a little differently. These birds will bob-preen in pairs before diving under the surface to grab a beak-full of weeds which they’ll then present to one another. It’s thought that they do this to demonstrate the materials they’ll use to make their nest.
The hooded grebe takes things even further and will belly flop into the water.
5. Red-Capped Manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis)
The red-capped manakin has earned itself the nickname of the moonwalking bird, and it’s easy to see why when you see its amazing courtship dance. These birds will moonwalk along tree branches across Mexico and Peru, wowing females.
But this isn’t the only move they’re capable of. The males spice up their courtship dance by flitting between a branch and nearby vegetation at the same time as clapping their wings. He’ll also perform a circling flight and move back and forth along branches.
What’s most impressive is that several males will come together at once, so it’s not uncommon to see lots of moonwalking birds in groups that are known as leks.
6. Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)
Found in the shrublands of North America, the greater sage grouse puts on quite the show. The males all come together in a lek which will be attended by females for two to three days. In this time, the males need to impress.
They will puff out their chests using two big yellow sacs at the same time as fluffing up their beautiful white neck plumage. The males will also make a series of sounds like popping and whistling to get attention from the females. These sounds are coupled with movements, so there’s a real rhythm to the display.
Some say that the movements made by these birds during mating rituals are not all that dissimilar to a violent hiccup. It’s certainly energetic but worth it since each male performs for two months in the spring and may end up mating with several females.
7. Lovebirds (Agapornis spp.)
With a name like the lovebird, one has to assume that these are super affectionate birds and that would be absolutely correct. These birds show their affection by preening one another prior to mating but this is also a behavior they engage in just because.
Once they have bonded, these birds may spend up to 15 years together and during that time, the males will also offer food to the females as a way of strengthening their bond. Not only this, but feeding the female also makes her more willing to mate and they can do this as many as 15 times a day!
8. Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae)
The superb lyrebird is an Australian species that’s very elaborate when it comes to singing. These birds have a repertoire of four songs which they switch between when trying to impress a female. But they’re not limited to usual bird sounds since the lyrebird is a great mimic who will throw in sounds like car alarms, cell phones ringing, and the sound of a chainsaw cutting through trees.
At the same time as performing his X Factor winning song, the male lyrebird will also place his tail feathers over his head. The display is not only for the benefit of the female but also to defend his territory against other males.
But the thing that really shows how intelligent these birds are is their deception. The males will make sounds that mimic predators, encouraging the female to hang around and improving his chances of successfully mating. Sneaky!
9. Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)
Albatrosses are one of the many bird species that mate for life. But when mating season is over, the pair will head in different directions and reunite the following year. When they do, they have some pretty out there ways of reconnecting.
For example, the birds will begin by preening and grooming one another; that seems pretty normal, right? But after this, they’ll start an elaborate dance that, for all intents and purposes, looks as though they’re fighting. They tap their beaks together which makes a sound not all that dissimilar to a pair of castanets.
At the same time as this, the albatrosses will make loud calls and stand so that their breasts are touching one another. It’s certainly a unique way to rekindle the spark from the previous year!
10. Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido)
The greater prairie chicken has vocal sacs which really come into their own during the birds’ mating rituals. They use these sacs to create a sound called booming which is coupled with cackling and clucking sounds designed to attract a mate.
At the same time as doing this, these noisy birds will also make non vocal sounds using their wings, beak, and tail. Just like lots of other bird species, the males will form leks during breeding season and put on quite the display for interested females. However, each female may flit between leks and will select only a couple of lucky males to be her mate.
11. Ruff (Calidris pugnax)
Another bird that gathers into a lek during mating season is the ruff. One of the most notable features of these birds is the fluffy neck plumage which can become much more vividly colored during the breeding season.
The ruff is the term that is applied to the males of this particular species of sandpiper; a wading bird that’s found across Eurasia.
Within the lek, the males can be seen raising their necks to show off their tufts as well as fluttering their wings and crouching. In some displays, they can even be seen to be leaping into the air. However, it’s not uncommon for the males to fight for female attention despite the fact that, once they have mated, the males play no part in rearing the eggs or the young.
12. Great Argus Pheasant (Argusianus argus)
The male great argus pheasant begins impressing the apple of his eye by gathering materials like sticks and rocks. At this point, he will bring a display that’s made up of stomps, and he’ll even chase the female around.
The grand finale of his courtship ritual is, however, what really sets these birds apart. He will wrap his wing feathers around himself, creating something of a halo or tunnel from which he will peer out to see how the female is reacting.
These birds have incredible wing patterns which will either impress the female or have her walk away. In fact, it’s these patterns that earned the bird its name after a Greek God of the same name who was said to have 100 eyes!
13. Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
Flamingos will make a massive show of their courtship rituals and the males will actually dance in a group. The movements are usually small steps, head flips, and outstretched necks. There could be hundreds of birds in a single colony but the female will pick out her male and the pair will leave the group.
It is not until after the pair have left the colony that they will begin copulation. Seeing this display is truly one of the most remarkable things in nature.
14. Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
Male ostriches will have small flocks of females, anywhere between three and five per male. But they first have to attract females in this harem and they do so with a rather unusual mating ritual.
At the beginning of the mating season, the skin of the male ostrich changes color to red which lets females know that he is ready to breed. He will also take part in a very elaborate mating dance that involves flapping the wings vigorously. But it isn’t that which makes it so unique.
The male ostrich will get onto his knees and swing that long neck of his around, and he won’t stop until he’s got the girl of his dreams. If the dance isn’t enough, then he’ll take to making loud booming sounds; the louder he gets, the more chance he has of receiving a mate.
15. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)
Whether you call it the Indian peafowl or the Indian peacock, one thing is for sure; these birds know how to visually impress! If there’s anything that they’re well known for, it’s those glorious tail feathers that are not only impressive to the females but to humans since they’re used in jewelry, home decor, and fashion.
These elaborate feathers are so large that they’re often as much as 60% of the entire size of the bird. Their bright colors and the size and shape of the tail feathers are what help the female to decide which male to mate with.
In the past, there was the suggestion that the ‘eyes’ on the tail feathers held the attention of the peahens but this has since been disproved. In studies, the females seemed more interested in how the males’ feet were moving as he performed his courtship dance.
16. Western Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus)
Where song is concerned, the western capercaillie has perhaps one of the most interesting during mating season. It is at this time of the year that the call of these birds changes and the males will gather in leks, making clicking sounds that many liken to a ping pong ball bouncing along a table.
But it isn’t only the sounds that they use to draw in a mate. Females of this species prefer a dominant male and she will select one from the lek depending on how good his moves are. The males will engage in a series of head raises and as well as showing off his feathers.
Within a single lek, formed in woodland clearings, there may be up to 70 males. Each of these males may mate with two or three females each season.
17. White-Fronted Amazon (Amazona albifrons)
The white-fronted Amazon, sometimes called the white-fronted parrot, has a rather gross way of impressing his mate. It might appear to begin sweetly and innocently with the birds almost performing a French kiss!
They touch their beaks together as well as their tongues but that’s where it gets weird; the males actually throw up into the female’s mouth! But she seems to like it.
What’s interesting is that there seems to be no other reason behind this than the females liking the taste.
18. Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The bald eagle is a very well-known raptor and while they’re known for their predatory, carnivorous ways, they’re also pretty soft souls. When these birds fall in love, they’re committed for life. So much so that they’re willing to go into a death spiral which is a courtship display that’s as daring as it sounds.
The pair engage in the ritual together and will lock their talons in mid-flight. They will then tumble and swirl through the air, only unlocking at the last minute, just before they hit the ground.
It sounds a little wild, but it’s thought that this is a way that the males can demonstrate how fit and healthy they are to their potential female partner. Males that successfully get through the death spiral will then be lucky enough to mate for life with the object of their affection. Each year, they will return to the same nest, adding more material to it.