|Birds perform elaborate and showy courtship rituals.
Serenades, intricate dances, and the display of exotic plumage are all part
of the contest to attract a mate. Courtship displays perform several different
functions, from identifying a birds species and sex to helping individuals
choose a partner. They also help strengthen pair bonds and ensure that both
birds are ready to breed at the same time.
Courtship Variety: Every species of bird performs a slightly different courtship ritual. These differences help to ensure that only birds of the same species will mate. Males and females also perform different and complementary roles, thus only attracting members of the opposite sex. Before mating season, many male birds grow colorful plumage. They then show off to attract a mate. Birds that are less colorful, such as species of the warbler, show much less variety of plumage between the sexes. Instead, they use extremely complicated and individual songs to identify themselves and to attract a mate.
Male Dandies: Usually it is the male that plays the leading role in courtship by showing off his plumage to the duller colored females. For plainer birds such as the house sparrow, the males display may consist of puffing out his chest or tipping his head back to emphasize his dark bib. Exotically feathered species such as the male peacock often put on a stunning display. The male peacock will fan his tail to present a dazzling array of blue, green, and golden feathers in one of the showier displays of any bird.
The male mandarin duck develops impressive golden “sails” from enlarged tertiary flight feathers on its wings and long, chestnut colored whiskers on either side of its brightly colored head. Not all birds rely on colorful feathers to impress potential mates. The blue footed booby, for instance, performs a courtship dance, to display its brilliant blue, webbed feet to its intended mate.
Gift Giving: Many birds perform a ritual known as courtship feeding or gift giving. Usually the female will spread her wings and open her beak, behaving like a young bird begging for food. This ritual not only allows her to build up her strength for the demanding job of laying and incubating the eggs, but it also assures her that the male will be a good provider for the chicks. Instead of food, some species of bird present their partners with nesting material. Herons give their mates large twigs which are offered up with ceremonial bowing. Gift giving is probably a symbolic show of the males nest building abilities.
Mutual Display: Plumage of similar
color across the sexes means that they are more equal in their courtship
displays. Albatross, for example, perform complex joint rituals which look
like a courtly dance. The longer the display lasts, the closer the bond formed
between them. Some species perform courtship displays in the air. Lapwings
try to impress their mates by tumbling through the air as if they were about
to crash. Male skylarks fly high into the air singing loudly. Many birds
of prey court each other by displaying their hunting skills in mock aerial
combat. The female peregrine falcon will often fly on its back as the male
swoops overhead; the pair briefly touch claw to claw. The male may even pass
food to the female during similar encounters.
Bower bird Courtship: The male bower bird of New Guinea and Australia creates elaborate nests during breeding season to attract a mate. These nests serve only as areas for courtship display and are used and improved for several years. The bower bird chooses an open site among the trees, and sweeps it clear of leaves. The bird then builds the structure (bower) from carefully chosen twigs that he sticks firmly in the ground. The enclosures’ shapes differ by species. For example, the gardener bower bird builds circular hut like bowers, often around the trunk of a small tree. The bowers floor is decorated with brightly colored flowers and fruit.
Another species builds an open topped structure made from two rows of twigs three feet long and six inches wide. The whole area is decorated with such objects as bleached bones, feathers, shells, fruits, and petals. Some birds even paint their bowers with the juice of berries. The male bower bird entices a female to his completed structure and dances before her, displaying himself and the objects he has collected. After mating, the female builds herself a separate nest for her eggs.
Competitive Courtship: Some game bird species such as the capercaillie and grouse perform communal courtship rituals. Prior to the breeding season, both males and females gather at sites called leks, which the birds use annually for the males’ display activity to attract females. The males strut and puff out their beard feathers while performing songs of clicks and rattles. The females watch the display, sometimes from their perches in the branches of a nearby tree. The males occasionally fight each other, stabbing with their beaks or leaping into the air and crashing their wings together. The dominant birds will eventually occupy the central areas of the leks; the females then join them and they mate.
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