Birds Go Courting
SPRING brings a flurry of activity in birddom. It is the time when birds go courting. Each species has its own way of wooing a mate. Courting birds usually put their best foot and feather forward, so to speak, and show off any special feature or skill to the greatest possible advantage.
Quite naturally, many birds that have colorful feathers display them to attract a prospective mate. But even the frigate bird, which has black feathers, puts on a colorful display. How?
Well, he has a pink throat pouch that turns a scarlet red at courtship time. When the male inflates his “courtship balloon” and throws his head fully back, he makes quite an impression on any females flying overhead. If a female frigate bird is interested, she flies lower and lands close to the male. She may visit several courting males before making her choice. But once she does, she may find herself literally embraced by an ardent male with outstretched wings.
When the red-winged blackbird goes courting, he actually bows and scrapes, flaring his wings and tail. The sage grouse struts about with his tail feathers erect. More than that, he extends a number of air sacs on his neck so that neck and chest appear like a giant balloon, which he may suddenly move up and down—all of which, hopefully, impresses the female.
Courting peacocks, of course, know how to strut their stuff too. The males spread their train into a dazzling fan made up of iridescent gold and green feathers, adorned with “eyespots” of blue. Often a peacock puts on one of these magnificent performances for admiring humans, even as he does to impress a prospective mate.
Also remarkably equipped for courtship is the Australian lyrebird, with its beautiful lyre-shaped tail. This feathered suitor has his own way of impressing a female. In addition to singing, he spreads his tail to the utmost and brings it all the way forward, extending the feathers right over his head!
The blue bird-of-paradise has a different approach. He sits on his perch and calls, then slowly lowers himself backward. When he is completely upside down, his handsome fanlike plumes open up to their fullest splendor. To make the gorgeous plumes most conspicuous, he may shake himself. As he sings, he keeps his head tilted to one side, in an effort to observe any effect on a female from all this topsy-turvy wooing.
But not all feathered suitors show great eagerness to accept a mate. In such cases the females must show perseverance. The painted stork, for example, pretends to preen his feathers. He may also grab at a nest twig now and then. An interested female, observing the seemingly industrious male, comes closer. Ah, but is the male stork eager to receive her? He may actually drive her away. But despite repeated harsh treatment, she returns again and again. She “will not take ‘No’ for an answer.”
The female’s patience is finally rewarded, and the male allows her to step into the nest. Even then, it may be a few days before the male completely accepts her. Once he does, mating takes place, and he gets busy gathering sticks for the nest. There is no “pretending” any longer.
Courting by giving gifts is nothing new in birddom. Much like a young man delivering a box of candy to his beloved, a male cardinal searches out the finest sunflower seeds. He then proceeds to shell them and to place each kernel carefully in the mouth of the female of his heart’s desire.
The male common tern uses other bait. When courting, he catches a small fish, holds it crosswise in his beak, and parades up and down the beach. When a female appears and accepts the gift, he bows and scrapes the beach before her. The birds then pass the gift back and forth. Finally, the male prepares a hole in the sand so the female can make the nest.
To the male waxwing, what courtship gift could be more suitable than a luscious cherry? When he delivers this gift to the female of his choice, he carefully places it into her bill. If the female is interested in the proposal, she accepts the cherry but does not eat it. Perched side by side on a branch, they pass the courtship cherry back and forth into each other’s bill.
Some birds prefer more practical courtship gifts—nesting material! So the male Adélie penguin comes to a female of his choice with a variety of pebbles—one at a time for her inspection. Though one might assume that a fish would be a better gift for a pretty penguin, the pebbles do the trick. (Pebbles are highly valued in penguindom because they are used as a foundation to raise the level of the nest as a protection against melting snows.)
Also practical is the male black-crowned night heron, who goes courting with twigs. He presents them to his chosen female one at a time. If she is interested, she not only accepts the presents, but begins hunting for more twigs and building a nest in which the two can raise a family.
Serenading the Female
Since the world of birds has some remarkable singers, it is little wonder that many feathered suitors serenade the female as their major way of courting. Thus a male indigo bunting follows his beloved hour after hour, rarely pausing in his continuous serenade, until, at last, she responds to his captivating songs.
Do these songs really touch the female’s heart? To find the answer, an experiment was made with house wrens. A cardiometer was placed in a nest, and it was discovered that each time the male sang, the pulse rate of the female increased.
But sometimes there are more males than females, and even persistent singing of a courtship song may not win a mate. For example, there are often more male bobwhites than females. If a cock has not found a mate, he continues his cheerful courtship song (ah-bob-white) even throughout the summer. On one summer day, naturalists observed a bachelor bobwhite from 4 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. He gave out 1,430 courtship calls, as many as eight in one minute. But when a mate is found, the serenading stops and he takes up the role of an expectant father.
Then, too, not all birds sing beautifully. The downy woodpecker, not being a great songster, attracts a female by doing what he is good at—beating a tattoo on a hollow limb. The male ruffed grouse serenades by perching on a fallen log, beating the air rapidly with his wings. This produces thumps that have a hollow ventriloquistic quality. The male increases his speed to about twenty strokes a second before his serenade is completed.
Dances and Acrobatics
Some winged suitors prefer to do more than just serenading or displaying some fancy feathers. They dance, and the female often joins in to show her interest. When the male ruby-throated hummingbird sees a preening female in whom he is interested, he goes into a spectacular aerial “pendulum dance.” The wooing male flies about in a large arc of about ten feet, following the pattern of a swinging pendulum, all the while displaying to best advantage his flaming throat. If the female accepts the proposal, she joins in the acrobatics. Both then fly a vertical path up and down. When the male is up, the female is down, and so it goes. Shortly after this, the birds mate, and they begin preparing for the job of raising the forthcoming family.
Soon after sunset the American woodcock may be seen in his fast-flying courtship sky dance, described this way by one observer: “In great spirals he flew up and down toward the moon. All the while, his wings whistled a long song to a female hidden in the bog below. Reaching the peak of his flight high above the earth, the Woodcock started his spectacular drop. The regular whistling of the long climb into the sky changed now to an irregular whistling interspersed with a soft melody. Down he came in a power dive, faster and faster. Nearing the earth, the bird checked his descent by spreading his wings. He alighted very close to where he had taken off a few minutes before.” After observing a number of these courtship flights, an impressed female emerges from her hiding place and joins the male.
Certain water birds, such as the grebes, dance on water! The courting birds churn their feet rapidly, elevating themselves into an erect position with almost their entire body clear of the water. In this way they romantically patter across the surface of the water.
A House for Courtship
One of the most amazing courtships in birddom is carried on by the bowerbirds of New Guinea and Australia. The males of each species make their own kind of house out of twigs. It may be several feet long and up to four feet high and decorated with an endless variety of colorful objects, such as flowers and berries. Certain bowerbirds even paint their courtship houses, mixing the paint by chewing colored berries and charcoal. They usually apply the paint with their bills, but some search out bark or vegetation that serves them as paintbrushes. The crestless bowerbird not only decorates his bower but goes wooing with a flower in his mouth.
When a female is attracted by a courtship home and the antics of its builder, she enters into the bower and mating takes place. Then, strangely, she abandons the courtship home and flies away to build her own nest in which to raise the young in solitude.
Spring is the time when birds are courting in their own distinctive way—displaying, singing, giving gifts, dancing and building houses. It is a colorful display. As one thinks upon the thousands of different kinds of birds, God-fearing persons see in them evidence of the greatly diversified wisdom of a loving Creator.—Eph. 3:10.
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