Whether you’re someone who showers your partner with chocolates, flowers, and all things shiny; or you avoid this holiday at all costs – there’s no escaping Valentine’s Day. Birds are unaware of this divisive day of course, but with Spring just round the corner, they will soon be engaging in courtship rituals of their own. What are some of the behaviours you might see and hear in the coming months as birds search for mates?
One of the most common ways birds attract mates is by singing. Songs are invariably performed by males, although females of some species will sing with their partners as a way of bonding. Studies have shown that females prefer a varied repertoire of intricate songs, as this indicates that the male is healthy, in good condition, and will therefore be able to provide high quality genes and parental care for their offspring. Listen out for the distinctive, descending song of the chaffinch or the surprisingly-loud-for-its-size melody of the wren.
Not all mating calls are so tuneful, however. The low, booming call of the elusive bittern can be heard up to 5km away, and it was once believed that the bird was using a piece of straw to make the noise. We now know that the sound is created by the male blowing air out of his oesophagus (food pipe) using powerful throat muscles, so in reality it is more a burp than a call. How romantic!
Another sure-fire way to attract a mate is to dance, and Spring is awash with birds diving, flapping, nodding, and performing intricate steps to prove their worth. You don’t often have to go far from your home to spot a wood pigeon, and at this time of year the males really stand out. They follow females from rooftop to rooftop and tree to tree while emitting their familiar cooing call, puffing out their neck feathers and bowing deeply.
Closer to the ground, perhaps at your local lake or river, ducks of all kinds will be performing their displays on the water. Mallards bob their heads quickly up and down; goldeneyes perform dramatic ‘head-throws’, extending their necks along the length of their backs and then tilting forward with their tails in the air; and shovelers submerge their huge bills in the water and swim round together in circles.
Generally, males dance for females but in some species the birds will perform a courtship dance together. This close contact reassures the pair that they are not going to harm each other and also eases the boundaries between their territories.
Great crested grebe I cannot talk about courtship behaviour and not mention one of the most stunning performances that takes place in the UK – the dance of the great crested grebe. First, they need to establish a partnership, so the male begins by rearing up out of the water with his neck bent down, known as the ‘ghostly penguin display’. If the female responds with the ‘cat pose’ (half opening her wings, ruffling her feathers, and extending the frills on her cheeks) they are ready to go. And so, follows an elaborate ballet complete with headshaking, feather-flicking, and the climax of the show – the ‘weed dance.’ The pair dive deep to collect waterweed in their bills and then paddle frantically towards each other, ending up in an ’embrace,’ chest to chest, rearing high out of the water. If you haven’t seen this, I highly recommend looking it up – it’s truly spectacular!
So next time you’re wondering how to surprise your loved one on Valentine’s, why not take a leaf out of the birds’ book and write them a song, perform an elaborate dance, or burp very loudly in their general direction.