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Bird Courtship

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve been reading a lot about the breeding behavior in birds and have noticed that much of their courtship activity is similar to ours. What do you think?

– Kerry, Waltham, MA


Here’s what I think, Kerry,

I think this would have been a great topic last week, just before Valentine’s Day. The second week of February is a good time to write about relationships and romance. But instead, I wrote about ducks. There’s nothing wrong with a good duck story, but a column about bird courting would have been timelier prior to Valentine’s Day. Wait! I have a thought. Rather than thinking of this topic as being a week late, let’s think of it as being fifty-one weeks early. Plus, it will be the first time in my life I’ll be early for anything. I like it.

Let’s start with humans and the customary box of candy. I know things have changed, but there once was a time when a guy’s first move to woo his prospective sweetheart was to present her with a box of Russell Stover candy or maybe a Whitman’s Sampler. Believe it or not, this was a common practice back in the day when people actually used the word “woo.” Birds, of course, don’t eat a lot of candy, but they do use treats when courting. A male owl, for instance, will present a female with a freshly caught mouse or some other delicious creature. Ospreys have no interest in mice, but the male will try to impress his lady by offering her a lovely mackerel or a similar fishy thing. Some birds don’t bother with gifts at all, but instead quickly proceed to physical contact. That’s right, I’m talking about holding hands.

When it comes to signs of affection, I don’t think there’s anything sweeter than seeing a couple walking down the street holding hands. Birds hold hands too, if you stretch the definition a little. As part of their courting ritual, Bald Eagles will soar together high above the earth. At some point in the flight, they will move closer and grasp hands (talons). While still holding tight, the birds will then spiral down, only releasing their grip a few feet above the ground. It’s very dramatic…and a little scary. In addition, some observers report hearing the birds say, “bread and butter” just as they separate, but that hasn’t been confirmed.

Many human couples meet for the first time in clubs or at dances, yet birds have been dancing together for centuries. Sandhill Cranes especially have some sweet dance moves. During the breeding season, a crane couple will face each other, bow, and then leap into the air, spinning 180 degrees, before finishing with Rockettes-style leg kicks. The most impressive part is that they do all this dancing without help from a disco ball, a DJ or music of any kind. Although the cranes do attempt to sing a little, but their voices tend to be harsh and mostly out of tune.

If you studied human biology at all or saw the movie Footloose, you know that holding hands and dancing can only lead to one thing: kissing. Surprisingly, for creatures born without lips, birds are fairly good kissers; with birds, however, this behavior is known as “billing.” Lots of species, including dove and parakeet couples, reinforce their pair bond by nuzzling their bills together, but my favorites are the puffins. Atlantic Puffins typically nest in large colonies and when couples get together each spring, they spend a fair amount of time mutually rubbing their colorful bills. The urge to “kiss” another puffin is so strong that it can lead to an awkward behavior. Researchers, in an effort to encourage birds to nest, will often set up wooden puffin decoys around a potential colony. A deceived bird will sometimes nuzzle the beak of a wooden decoy, leaving the real puffin a little embarrassed, and with possible splinters.

When it comes to marriage, birds once again are very much like us. Some birds are in it for the long haul, while others only manage to put up with each other for a short period. For example: Although invasive, Mute Swans are beautiful birds and many folks adore the fact that they mate for life. People get all emotional when they see a pair of swans snuggling each other. Hallmark and other companies will even put swans on their wedding or anniversary cards. But there’s a little image discrimination in the industry, because you know what other birds mate for life? Vultures. Many species of vultures are actually more committed to each other than swans are. If Hallmark really wants to encourage commitment, they should make an anniversary card with vultures on it. I’d buy one (although I’d probably end up spending the night sleeping on the couch).

Other species, such as robins, are dedicated parents but not dedicated partners. After one nesting season, both birds have had enough of each other, forever. Red-winged Blackbirds can’t even make it through a single summer with the same partner. During the season, a male redwing will mate with several females. This sounds trampy, but the females aren’t perfect either. They also get a little action on the side. It’s no wonder I have so many baby blackbirds on my feeder each summer.

You are correct, Kerry. When it comes to courting and relationships, birds are very similar to humans. And just like us, birds must learn to deal with separation and divorce, but I’m not getting into those topics right now. After all, it’s Valentine’s Day, or it will be, in another fifty-one weeks.