Wildlife Spy: Romance in the bird world

TIP: Some larger bird species mate for life, so watch for couples on "dates" at the beginning of the nesting season.

With Valentine’s Day tomorrow, it seems fitting to explore birdy romance. Some species of birds pair up for life: the great horned owl, bald eagle, Canada goose, sandhill crane, and Laysan albatross are examples of the types of birds that find a special someone for the long haul. It takes effort to maintain a long relationship, and birds are no exception.


An observant wildlife spy will notice the species above are all large birds. They also tend to be long-lived. Staying with the same partner over the long term allows these birds to produce more offspring. A partner can help defend a larger territory, so the pair has more resources. Pairing up year after year with the same partner instead of spending time in the bird equivalent of singles bars each season maximizes the time the pair can devote to raising chicks.

Owls, geese, cranes, albatrosses, and many raptors have longer incubation periods than tiny songbirds for their eggs simply because of size. Offspring also need care for months to reach full size. Partners often share incubating duties as well as the full-time job of finding food for chicks, keeping the chicks safe from predators, and teaching survival skills. The earlier in the nesting season migratory birds such as geese and cranes can start laying eggs, the more time the young have to grow in size and strength for the hazards of migration.

Another benefit for these birds is that if a predator or other unfortunate event demolishes the eggs, the birds have a partner on hand and may be able to start a second nest and salvage the season instead of having to find a partner again or even wait until the next year.


Date-night and day

The rituals birds use to build a bond with a partner and to keep the flame going year after year often involve a meal and dancing, like what people do for Valentine’s Day. Each species has a slightly different twist on romancing a partner.

Unlike the other birds below, great horned owls prefer courting with mood lighting at night. The breeding season usually starts in late January or early February. If you go out at night, you may hear owls hooting to defend their territories or spending quality time with their mate.

Although they don’t migrate, great horned owl pairs renew their bond at the beginning of the mating season. Both males and females have a bib of white feathers that comes into play during courtship. The male starts the evening off bowing and hooting, puffing up the white bib and bobbing his tail until the female responds with bowing, tail-bobbing, and hooting of her own. She also puffs up her white bib and they hoot a duet together. It’s thought the white bib and the movement help make the dance more visible in dim light. When they take a break from calling and dancing, the couple may indulge in preening each other’s head, neck and chest, places difficult for the bird to preen itself. Who doesn’t like canoodling on a cold winter night?

Bald eagles prefer a daring daylight courtship, like thrill seekers at an amusement park. These powerful raptors usually don’t mate until about four years old. You don’t have to card an eagle to find out its age, as only full adults sport a pure white head and tail.

Eagles may perform several types of aerial acrobatics. A single bird may try to attract a mate by flying high in the air then plummeting toward the ground, narrowly avoiding a collision. A pair may opt for a literal mating chase. Even more spectacular, the pair may fly high together, lock talons then drop towards the earth like a feathery comet, breaking apart at the last moment.

The dating game can be dangerous in the wild, especially with such aerial shenanigans. In 2010 in Valdez a pair of eagles miscalculated and crashed into a snowbank. The male was killed in the crash, but the female survived and was sent to recover at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage. Like many species of birds that birds mate for life, if they lose a partner, eagles usually search out a new partner soon after.

Ravens, like their iconic Alaskan counterpart, the eagle, are also believed to mate for life.

Canada geese aren’t usually a bird associated with romance, but these waterfowl also mate for life. This species prefers more sedate dates spent talking, maybe with a little dancing thrown in.

Canada geese pair up when they are two or three years old. Interestingly, a Canada goose often seems attracted to another goose of similar size. A pair will perform what biologists call the “triumph ceremony” to strengthen their bond, lowering their heads and stretching their necks and honking, flapping wings, then coming closer together and raising their heads to honk some more. Pairs often do this in greeting when reuniting, or as a show of solidarity after chasing competitors away from the nest.

Sandhill cranes are the ballroom dancers of the romantic bird world, with some of the most complex choreography. Cranes usually pair up between the ages of four and seven years old. Although crane dancing isn’t limited to courtship — parents teach their young to dance, and families often dance together — some moves are limited to couples already paired up, while other moves are used more broadly by non-paired birds too.

When a pair dances, the male often starts by trying to catch the female’s attention (some things are remarkably the same among species). He stretches his wings upwards, tosses plants or a stick in the air, and curves his neck down under his body.

An established pair will perform what’s called the unison call. The male’s call is lower pitched and female’s higher pitched, the different rhythms blending with each other so it almost sounds like a single bird calling. When trying to entice his mate into dancing, the male voices give his part of the unison call, and if she’s interested she joins. After that she may jump fully into the dance, and the cranes will combine flashy moves such as leaping into the air to float down with wings open, curving the head and neck over the back or down under the chest, and bowing to their partner.

Laysan albatrosses also shake a tailfeather with their mates. These seabirds aren’t as graceful as the cranes, preferring a barroom dance floor over ballroom. A pair’s initial courtship can last several years. These birds may live 40 or 50 years or longer, so they don’t need to rush into a relationship. Laysan albatrosses usually don’t mate for the first time until they reach eight or nine years old, although they may start courting at age three or four.

The Laysan albatross dance involves the birds standing facing each other and mixing and matching a series of postures. They point their bills skyward, making a mooing sound, then bow several times to each other. They rattle their bills loudly, half raise one wing and tuck their bill against their shoulder, bow some more, sometimes touching bills together. It seems comical, but let’s face it, a night at the Alaskan would probably look just as weird to an albatross. When the couple returns from wandering the ocean separately for a year or more to nest again, they dance to say “Hello; it’s good to be with you again,” like a long-married couple dancing at a wedding.


• Beth Peluso is a freelance writer, illustrator, and avid birder. She enjoys spying on wildlife around Alaska.


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