Mating Behaviors in the Birding World

Feb 13, 2019

Here we are knocking on the door of another Valentine’s Day, which means it’s time we had the talk… the talk about the birds and the bees. Before you relive any memories of teenage trauma and retreat to your happy place, I should point out that I’m talking about the actual birds and bees. In my never-ending quest to find romantic role models in the animal world, I’ve come up with some more examples of what to do, or not to do, this Valentine’s Day.

Currently, several species of duck are already getting into the mood here on the Cape and Islands, though mating season in the strictest sense remains months off. I’ve referenced the lewd and lascivious mating habits of Mallards and other ducks before, and it’s not pretty. But I think I may have found a better role model among the ducks - for good, wholesome courtship and old-fashioned monogamy, look no further than the beautiful Common Goldeneye.

Present on many local ponds and bays November through April, these smart-looking diving ducks get an early start on pair formation in mid-winter, with groups of males putting on entertaining and vigorous head-tossing displays to woo themselves a lady. Some overzealous animal behaviorist must have stayed up all night giving whimsically nautical names to the various display behaviors, because they include the “Masthead” and the “Head-throw-bowsprit,” in addition to the more prosaically named “Fast Head-throw-kick.”

But it all comes together into an irresistible dance if you’re a female goldeneye. Once the pair bond is formed, it lasts the rest of the winter and right through their migration back to the north woods. But once the eggs are laid and the female starts incubating, the magic is apparently gone, because the male splits. I daresay these dancing ducks are all courtship and no commitment – the serial daters of the bird world. So once again, we must look elsewhere for our romantic role models.

How about the insect world? Unfortunately, I don’t think the bizarre, monarchic mating system of honeybees has much for us to emulate, unless legions of drone males and sterile female workers servicing a single queen is your cup of tea. Surely the deeply religious praying mantis has something to teach us. Apparently not - the females often eat their mates. If not insects, then maybe spiders have something to teach us about love, like the Black Widow – right, never mind.

But I feel like we’re overlooking an obvious one – wait, what about lovebirds? With that name comes a certain expectation of romantic prowess, and it turns out they indeed live up to the name. These cute little parrots common in the pet trade include nine species, all native to Africa. Not only do lovebirds mate for life, up to 15 years of wedded bliss, but they’re inseparable during courtship and even like to snuggle, which might be more than you can say for your ex. The female builds the nest and does the incubating, but, admirably, the male feeds her and sits by her the whole time. Like people, their courtship period even includes a lot of shared meals, culminating with the male regurgitating food for the female immediately before mating.

While someone somewhere is no doubt into this, I suggest that you stick with dinner at a nice restaurant this Valentine’s Day - we don’t have to emulate all of the behaviors of lovebirds.