Bird Courtship Behavior

Mating Dances and Other Rituals

Clark's Grebe Pair Mating Dance
Clark's grebes have an elaborate mating dance on the water. Photo © Peter Thiemann/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

Understanding bird courtship can help birders better appreciate the challenges birds face in finding suitable mates to raise the next generation. From mating dances, crazy poses and nest building to other elaborate displays, this behavior can be fascinating to witness. When birders recognize courting birds, they can be sure to avoid disturbing these delicate rituals.

Why Birds Use Courtship Rituals

The ultimate purpose of courtship is to attract a receptive mate, but there are actually several other purposes behind the courtship behavior of different bird species.

The intricate moves of a mating dance and the charming songs used to woo partners can help distinguish species so birds are sure to choose compatible mates. Different courtship behaviors also reduce territorial aggression between birds, letting them relax together to form a pair bond. Depending on the type of behavior, how the birds react in courtship can also display strength, health and mating desirability. This allows different birds to choose the best partners and ensure viable, healthy offspring.

Types of Bird Courtship Behavior

There are several different courtship rituals birds use for finding a mate. Most species will use one method overwhelmingly but may actually have several methods they use to lesser degrees. The exact type of courtship can vary greatly between different species, and even birds of the same species may have slightly different courtship variations in different regions.

  • Singing: Singing is one of the most common ways birds attract mates. The intricacy of the song or the variety of different songs one bird can produce help advertise its maturity and intelligence – desirable characteristics for a healthy mate. Singing can also define the boundaries of one bird’s territory, warning off competition. For some species, only one gender (usually males) will sing, while other species may create a duet as part of their bonding ritual.
  • Displays: Flamboyant plumage colors and elaborate displays of prominent feathers, skin sacs or body shape can show off how strong and healthy a bird is, advertising its suitability as a mate. Peafowl are one of the best known bird species for their stunning display with the males’ extensive uppertail covert fan. Other birds may use subtle changes in posture to show off their plumage to the best effect, such as raising a crest or flaring their wings.
  • Dancing: Physical movements, from daring dives to intricate sequences including wing flaps, head dips, bill rubbing or different steps can be part of a courtship ritual. In many species, the male alone will dance for his female while she observes his actions, while in other species both partners interact with one another. Dance mistakes show inexperience, weakness or hesitancy and would likely not lead to a successful mating.
  • Preening: Close contact between male and female birds can be part of the courtship rituals to help diffuse their normal spatial boundaries and aggression. The birds may lightly preen one another, sit with their bodies touching or otherwise lean on one another to show that they are not intending to harm their partner.
  • Feeding: Offering food is another common part of courtship for many species. A male bird may bring a morsel to the female, demonstrating that he is able not only to find food, but that he can share it and is able to provide for her while she incubates eggs or tends chicks. For some species the male may just bring food and transfer it to the female for her to feed. In other species he will place a seed or insect directly in her mouth just as he might be expected to do when helping feed hungry nestlings.
  • Building: Some birds seek to attract a mate by showing off their architectural skills. Constructing nests before the female arrives is a way for males to claim territory and show the suitable nesting areas they can defend. They may also decorate the nest with pebbles, moss, flowers or even litter to make it more eye-catching. The female may then choose the nest she prefers, or she may still build her own after mating with her chosen male.

    When You See Courtship

    It can be amazing for birders to witness delicate and intricate courtship rituals, but it is important that those rituals not be disturbed. Attracting mates is a demanding process, and any disruption could harm a pair bond and cause the birds to abandon their efforts, ultimately choosing less suitable mates or not mating at all. Birders should keep their distance and remain as unobtrusive as possible if they notice any signs of courtship behavior or pair bonding in the birds they see.

    There are many ways birds seek to attract a mate, and understanding bird courtship can help birders better appreciate the complexity of the avian relationships forming in their backyard.