Bird courtship is arguably the most extravagant collection of animal behaviors on the planet. Millennia of selection for unique displays of fitness has resulted in some of the most colorful, beautiful, weird, and wonderful displays in the natural world.
More than just a fascinating or impressive show, courtship displays are vital in avian reproduction, and this guide will teach you why. Read along as we uncover the role of these dazzling displays and learn about some of the most impressive examples in the bird world!
Have you ever seen the strange courting behavior of birds and wondered why they engage in such over-the-top displays? Part of the answer lies in their breeding strategy.
Reproduction is a costly exercise for birds that many species can only achieve a few times in their lives. They put a lot of effort into building nests and then spend weeks or even months incubating their eggs and raising their chicks. Before committing to such a challenging process, female birds need to know their partner is genetically fit, and courtship displays provide that information.
Male birds aren’t shy about making their intentions known. They have evolved a huge variety of ways to signal their sexual maturity and fitness to potential mates. These signals typically involve visual displays, songs, and calls, or combinations of each.
Once paired, the female also gets in on the act, but usually with much more understated and tender behaviors. Paired birds communicate frequently to maintain contact and spend much of their time together, often sharing affectionate moments.
Pictured: An Ostrich performing a courtship dance
Whether they realize it or not, most people will have seen common bird courtship displays like the bowing and cooing of a pigeon. However, some bird displays are so extravagant that you can’t possibly miss them!
Across the world, male birds put on dazzling displays to impress females. Large ground birds like Grouse, Pheasants, and Turkeys put on some of the most remarkable courtship displays by posturing, extending their feathers, and producing strange calls.
However, many birds take a more athletic approach, showing off their skills with acrobatic and sometimes death-defying moves. The dashing divebombing and energetic ‘shuttle’ flights of male Hummingbirds combine bright colors, skilful flying, and loads of noise. During these displays, males will spread their glossy metallic gorgets and hover back and forth rapidly in front of potential mates.
Birds vocalize for many different reasons, but some of their most extraordinary vocal displays are used in courtship. A male bird singing loudly from the top of a tree sends a message that he has claimed an area and that he is fit enough to risk announcing his presence to predators at the same time.
The quality of his song counts, too, and in some birds, high complexity is a signal of maturity and fitness. However, not all birds are gifted singers. Woodpeckers, for example, can attract a mate by rhythmically drumming on surfaces like hollow tree trunks and even houses.
Singing isn’t only for males. Some bird pairs sing in duets to maintain contact and, perhaps, to strengthen their pair bond. Many female birds, including Cardinals, are known to sing solo, sometimes to coordinate the pair’s duties during the nesting phase.
Pictured: A pair of Lady Amherst's Pheasant. Large ground birds like Grouse, Pheasants, and Turkeys put on some of the most remarkable courtship displays
Some male birds are much larger and more colorful than females throughout the year, while others develop seasonal breeding plumage before mating, sometimes several months before nesting begins.
These dramatic plumage changes are especially obvious in males, which can transform from cryptically camouflaged to remarkably colorful in many species. These males may differ mainly in the color of their plumage, but some also have wildly different features like fleshy wattles or extremely long tail feathers and impressive crests.
Fancy features are usually accentuated during their display dances and flights, and some birds physically transform themselves before the eyes of a female by opening their wings, fanning their tails, and moving their bodies and feathers in fantastic ways.
Impressing a female and maintaining your relationship isn’t only about looks. Actions speak volumes, too! Some male birds are indistinguishable from females and manage to impress the opposite sex without any fancy dress, relying on vocal displays and ritualized dance moves.
In monogamous species, pairs maintain their bond with contact calls, mutual feeding and nuptial gift giving, perching near each other, and by allopreening or mutual grooming.
Some birds that form long-term pair bonds perform more elaborate displays like the beautiful rituals seen in Albatrosses, the dances of Cranes, or the talon-locking of Eagles.
Pictured: Pair of Crowned Cranes performing their courtship dance
The sheer variety of courtship displays seen among the various bird species and families is a remarkable reminder of the diverse ways in which natural selection can solve what is, essentially, one problem. From steaming tropical jungles to the steel and concrete of your local gas station, birds all over the world strut their stuff for love.
Let’s take a look at a few interesting examples.
Most people are familiar with the House Sparrow, a small songbird that lives around cities, towns, farms, and suburbs worldwide. Males of this species are more boldly marked than females at all times of the year but still perform a characteristic courtship ritual to show off their finer points.
During their display, males will hop around with their tails lifted up at a steep angle and their wings lowered. They also puff out their chests, raise their chins, and chirp loudly. Several males may circle a female at the same time, all trying their best to prove their worth.
The Great Crested Grebe is an elegant diving waterbird that forms a close bond with a new partner each year. Males and females look more or less alike, and the bonded pairs perform spectacular synchronized displays out on the water.
The pair face each other with raised crests and beak-full of water weeds, and then, paddling their feet, they stand up in the water chest to chest and turn their heads side to side.
Pictured: A House Sparrow. During their display, males will hop around with their tails lifted up at a steep angle and their wings lowered
Pictured: A pair of Great Crested Grebes. The bonded pairs perform spectacular synchronized displays out on the water
No discussion on courtship displays would be complete without mentioning the mind-bending displays of Birds of Paradise, arguably the world’s most extravagant birds. Over 40 species are known, and almost all of them are restricted to the tropical forests of New Guinea.
Most Birds of Paradise are strongly sexually dimorphic, and although some females are quite colorful, the males are truly spectacular with bright colors and all sorts of weird and wonderful feather shapes that they put to good use in remarkable visual displays.
The Long-tailed Paradise Whydah is one of several finch-like birds from Africa that lay their eggs in the nests of other species. Males of this Southern and Central African species are well camouflaged in tan and black during the non-breeding season but transform into something quite spectacular before nesting.
Breeding males develop bold coloration and grow massive tails that are much longer than their bodies. You’d think having such an awkward appendage would put them at increased risk of predation, but males still take their chances for the privilege of spreading their genes.
Pictured: A Cendrawasih. No discussion on courtship displays would be complete without mentioning the mind-bending displays of Birds of Paradise
Pictured: A Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah. Breeding males develop bold coloration and grow massive tails that are much longer than their bodies
The Peacock, or male Indian Peafowl, is an extremely attractive ground bird with an interesting crest and metallic blue plumage on the belly, breast, neck, and head. At rest, his huge tail is longer than his body, but it’s during his display that we see the true function of these long feathers.
Peacocks fan out their immense tails to court females, forming a huge, vertical half-moon of spectacular color with iridescent eye-shaped spots scattered along each feather. Although attractive in her own right, the Peahen is far less ornamental.
Environmental factors put certain limits on bird courtship displays. For example, species that rely on stealth for hunting or avoiding predators cannot invest in overly bright plumage. Similarly, species that rely on agility and stamina cannot develop excessively long and ornamental feathers. Light and visibility also play a role in the effectiveness of displays, so nocturnal birds rely more on vocalizations than visual displays.
A Peacock (pictured) fan out their immense tail to court females, forming a huge, vertical half-moon of spectacular color with iridescent eye-shaped spots scattered along each feather
The wonderful thing about bird courtship rituals and displays, at least for bird watchers, is how easy they are to see and hear at some times of the year. Many birds become highly conspicuous in their quest to impress and bond with a mate, making their displays simple to observe and record.
Of course, there is still much to learn, and scientists continue to discover new insights and gain a deeper understanding of bird courtship. The role of song in female birds, for example, and the success of so-called sneaker males, which avoid courtship and competition with other males by impersonating females, are fascinating and sometimes counterintuitive fields of study.
Altering bird habitats can have disastrous knock-on effects on every facet of their lives, including courtship. Some birds, like the Sage Grouse, court in very specific spaces known as Leks, and these are important conservation areas for their species.
Pictured: A Greater Sage Grouse. Sage Grouse court in very specific spaces known as Leks, and these are important conservation areas for their species
From out-and-out show-offs to tender gifts of food and affection, birds display many remarkable courtship behaviors. Over countless generations, selection for specific colors, songs, and displays has produced the staggering variety we see today. Fortunately, this side of bird behavior is on display for all to see each winter and spring, so be sure to get out there and take in the sights and sounds.
Many bird species are in trouble, and we can all agree that the world would be a much duller place without these sensational seasonal shows. However, by supporting local conservation initiatives and doing what we can to live sustainably, we can all play our part in protecting birdlife and the habitats they need for this and future generations.
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