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Courtship in the bird world

Eastern Whip-poor-will
Mark Faherty
Eastern Whip-poor-will

I know Valentine’s Day was yesterday, and that, being a made-up greeting card holiday, it doesn’t get to bleed into a second day like one of the A-list holidays might. But bear with me, as I’m still doing a Valentine’s edition of the bird report – it’s not that easy coming up with material in mid-winter, you know. This year, in our near annual search for birds who might be good romantic models for us humans, we’re going to focus on the pick-up strategies of some local male birds.

Back when I used to hang out in bars more, I saw some pretty terrible attempts at picking up ladies. But even the lowest of lotharios never resorted to screaming his name at a woman over and over again. Yet that is exactly what male Whip-poor-wills do. These guys seem to be telling the ladies they are egotistical, loud, and annoying all at the same time. No wonder they’re declining – their potential mates are running in the other direction. But seriously, they do somehow attract mates this way, and the funny thing is we have no idea what the actual courtship behaviors are for these nocturnal lovers once they pair up - the only three researchers to describe their courtship reported three totally different sets of behaviors. So if you’re looking to get into ornithology, there’s a potential PhD just sitting right there.

The first Piping Plovers are due back in about a month, and by late April they’ll be dropping eggs on beaches. Other than maintaining their beach bod year-round, how do the male plovers convince the females they’re worthy? Mainly, it seems, by kicking the crap out of them. If you’ve never seen Piping Plover courtship, it’s actually more charming than I just made it sound, if a bit “S&M”. When the female seems even vaguely interested, the male will adopt a very self-important, puff-chested posture, then go into a high-kicking routine worthy of the Rockettes. Next he sidles up to her, basically kicking her at this point, and if she can handle that, he jumps aboard and, well, they consummate the marriage. Sometimes, instead of snuggling or lighting a cigarette, the male will grab the female by the wing and whip her violently around in circles, which I’ve seen on multiple occasions. Bad plover.

Moving from the sadistic to the romantic realm, we have one of my favorite local courtship displays in that of the Cedar Waxwing, a species that is paradoxically both beige and beautiful, which is not easy for a bird to pull off. They mainly eat fruit year-round, with fruit even factoring into their foreplay. The male initiates courtship by adorably hopping along a branch toward the female, then offering her a berry, with some Casanovas even presenting her with a flower. It’s gets even more adorable from there, as the female takes the fruit, then demurely hops away before hopping back to the male to return the fruit – maybe her mom told her not to eat too much on a first date. This hopping and passing repeats until she eventually eats the fruit. They also nuzzle bills and preen each other. Awww.

So, people, we have a clear winner in the “bird as romantic role model” category – hopefully you found your inner Cedar Waxwing yesterday and offered your partner gifts and nuzzling. If any of you went the screaming, kicking, and whipping them around route, then I’m sorry this advice came too late for you - at least it’s a mild winter for sleeping in your car.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.