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Birds in love

Common Goldeneye
Eric Ellingson
Common Goldeneye

It’s Valentine's Day, which means it’s time to sort through the picked over remains of the greeting cards to find the least groanworthy one. But us people aren’t the only ones suffering though – I mean reveling in love this time of year – it’s also courtin’ season for many species of birds. If you know where and how to look, birds are indeed feeling romantic, their thoughts very much turned to spring, even in this wintry landscape.

Ponds and harbors are the best places to see bird love in action right now. Many ducks form pair bonds on the wintering grounds then maintain them through migration, which is obviously risky - we all know that traveling together too early in a relationship can be catastrophic. Most of what you’ll see is males and even groups of males trying various moves on individual females, like some sort of avian high school dance. I recently saw some young male Greater Scaup in Brewster working on their courtship moves, but getting no attention from the ladies – ah, that brings back memories.

The handsome diving duck known as the Common Goldeneye can be found in small numbers on ponds and bays right now, and the males are already feeling randy. Look for their wacky head tossing displays as they try the same pickup line over and over, which sounds like this. The animal behavior folks have painstakingly, and voyeuristically, catalogued and even timed the males’ various dance moves, which include the head-throw, the slow head-throw-kick, the fast head-throw kick, the bowsprit, and on and on. They even timed the, uh, consummation of the pair bond. In case you’re wondering, it’s 8.3 seconds. Do what you will with that information. The creepy researchers don’t say whether they do the actual mating part in winter or whether they save themselves for breeding season like their parents hoped.

Now that Bald Eagles nest on the Cape I can finally dig into their love life a bit. Like Ospreys and other big raptors, they apparently vow ‘til death do us part’. But if their mate does die, they are swiping right on Bird Tinder within five minutes - the breeding season is short and there’s no time to mourn. Eagles live a long time, maybe 50 years, and things can get stale, as we know. What is their secret to keeping things fresh? Adrenaline. Their most famous courtship display involves flying to a great height, locking talons, then cartwheeling back to earth in a game of romantic chicken, disengaging just before hitting the ground in some cases. It reminds me of that weird movie from the 90s about people turned on by car crashes. Whatever works, eagles, whatever works. Oh, and in case you were wondering the answer is 5-15 seconds.

Lots of male songbirds are singing more now in response to increasing daylight, but that’s a far as the romance goes until actual spring. But not so with Carolina Wrens. These family values-forward songbirds mate for life and maintain their pair bonds year round, all of which is unusual for songbirds around here. Researchers also say their “divorce rates” are low (yes, divorce is the actual ornithological term), and they don’t find what they call “extra-pair fertilizations”, which in simpler terms means the kid never looks like the mailman. This is also unusual for songbirds, who are usually at least a little promiscuous. To keep her interested, males adorably hop around females all fluffed up, and do what they do best, which is sing loudly. The pair often sing duets, which is also sickeningly cute.

How does any of this help you on this Valentine’s Day? Should you be the annoying, perfect couple like the Carolina Wrens? You could, I guess. But I’m thinking maybe skip the safe cards and chocolates routine this year and take a page from the eagles’ thrill-seeking relationship guide - sign up for his and hers skydiving lessons. And if you really want to party like an eagle, see who can wait the longest before pulling the cord…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.