7 stunning bird courtship displays that'll make you swoon
Before sex, first comes the courtship period – and few know how to catch the eye quite like birds. Male birds have evolved an array of dazzling displays designed to attract females, strengthen pair bonds and prove they’re made of the right stuff to raise their would-be partner’s young. Here are seven that caught our eye.
The Eyes Have It
In most bird species, the males are the flamboyant sex, and the females are the ones who do the choosing. This arrangement has come about because the process of producing eggs involves a great amount of energy on the female’s part, so she is extra careful to ensure that these efforts aren’t expended on a male who will produce weak offspring.
Females take the business of selecting a mate seriously, scrutinising their calls and their plumage for any hints that can tell her about his strength, health or vigour – traits, after all, that will be passed on to his young. Thus, to maximise their chances of spreading their genes, in some species the males have developed flashy courtship displays to show off their charms in the best possible light, and woo females away from their rivals.
Traits preferred by the female of the species are exaggerated over time. There is no better, or more famous, illustration of the evolutionary cost of this process for the male than of the peacock – encumbered, thanks to many generations of sexual selection, with an impossibly ornamental tail, which it flares in spectacular fashion in its attempt to court a peahen.
In species where the male plays little or no part in raising the young, females can afford to be extra picky, and males will often gather to forest clearings – or ‘leks’, to engage in a communal mating display. This competitive behaviour is known as ‘lekking’.
One of the most famous lekkers, peacock aside, is the Western Capercaillie, a grouse that calls the conifer forests of Eurasia its home. The male, twice the size of the female, expends an incredible amount of effort trying to attract a mate during lekking season, puffing its chest out, fanning its tail into a semi-circle and extending its neck high in the air.
These displays serve to determine the pecking order, and since the spoils go to the alpha male, capercaillie gents go to great lengths to assert their dominance, with many dying as a result of fighting wounds, or simply collapsing from exhaustion.
Man-akin in the Mirror
While lekking is most commonly associated with Galliformes, the behaviour can be observed in many different bird species, from waders to hummingbirds. They are not always social gatherings, such as with the Indian Peafowl. In ‘exploded leks’, the males remain out of the line of sight of their competitors (but within earshot), calling out to try to entice a female into evaluating his display.
Exploded leks tend to be more elaborate than classical leks, as males work to develop ever-more intricate displays in an attempt to persuade females that he’s got the goods. In the case of many species of manakins – small forest birds found in the American tropics – the ‘goods’ the ladies are looking for are acrobatics and motor co-ordination – signs the male can pass down genes to their offspring that will aid them in evading predators.
The Red-capped Manakin of Central and South America has one of the more eye-popping displays – it snaps its wings and shimmies up and down its branch, moving its feet at such a pace it gives the illusion that it is performing Michael Jackson’s trademark move, the moonwalk.
The snow ballerinas
For some species, displays and mating dances are an opportunity to strengthen pair bonds, and to stake their claim on a nesting territory. The Red-crowned Crane of East Asia mates for life, and in Japan it is seen as a sacred symbol of fidelity and longevity.
To maintain their bond, crane pairs perform an elaborate, synchronised dance, which is rather freeform, but usually begins with the pair throwing back their heads and letting out a loud bugle-like call. They then bound and skip around each other in energetic fashion, periodically stopping to bow to each other. Although this ritual is most commonly seen during breeding season, it is performed all year round, with the sight of this Endangered crane prancing in the soft snow in their wintering grounds being particularly iconic.
Walking on water
The grebe family is notoriously fussy when it comes to choosing a mate. Before agreeing to pair up, potential couples put each other through the paces in a series of complex courtship rituals to determine whether their amore’s stamina matches up to expectations. One of the Western Grebe’s trials is particularly biblical: they sprint across the water at a distance of up to 65 feet (20 metres), keeping themselves above the surface by slapping their feet against it at a rate of around 20 steps a second.
Rough and tumble
Despite being an American icon of freedom, the Bald Eagle is pretty keen on the ol’ ball and chains – they mate for life, with an estimated ‘divorce rate’ of less than 5%. But they only tie the knot after tying their talons together and engaging would-be suitors in a death-defying test of strength. Potential pairs soar up to high altitude, lock talons, and then go into freefall, clutching each other in a death grip as they cartwheel towards Earth. It’s a (sometimes deadly) game of cat and mouse, as the pairs test each other’ fitness and bravery, only breaking off the grip at the last possible second.
The pink parade
Although flamingos are socially monogamous, pairs only stay together for the duration of a single breeding season. Which means when next year swings around, it’s time to put yourself back on the market all over again. And that means reaching for your dancing shoes. The only problem: you’re two-stepping in competition against the entire flock.
What follows is one of the more mesmerising – and amusing – sights the Avian Kingdom has to offer, as groups of 50-100 flamingos, of both sexes, stretch out their necks and form an impromptu marching band, strutting around as one as they jerk their heads from side to side in an attempt to catch someone’s eye.
Research suggests that the dance moves play a similar role in sexual selection as a songbird’s song. The birds that perform the most complex dance manoeuvres are more likely to convince others that they have accrued the experience and ability to raise their hatchlings – in the same way that a songbird with a wider variety of tunes shows that it has the skills to hold down its territory.
Do you want to help the conservation of the world's most threatened breeding sites?
Please donate to our Quest for a safer nest appeal.