Do Birds Mate for Life?

Some birds have long-term relationships

Canada Goose Family

William Allen/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Do birds mate for life? This is one of the most popular birding questions, and one of the most persistent birding urban legends. How the question is answered, however, depends on how rigidly both “mating” and “life” are defined for wild birds.

What Mating Means for Birds

Birds do not form emotional relationships like humans do, and their principle drive for forming a pair pond is to produce offspring rather than for any emotional fulfillment. For all birds, the odds of producing surviving offspring are best with a strong, healthy mate, which is why birds have different courtship rituals to find the most suitable partner. Once they have found that partner, birds will copulate, seeking to produce eggs. That mating may or may not lead to a longer attachment between two birds. Many bird species are polygamous and will mate with several partners during the same nesting season to spread their genes to as many eggs as possible.

Length of Mating Bonds

Different bird species remain in bonded pairs for different lengths of time. Some bonds, such as between ruby-throated hummingbirds, last only long enough for copulation, then the male bird leaves and has no further role in building a nest, incubating eggs, or raising hatchlings. Other birds, however, remain together throughout the nesting season. Both partners will work together to raise their brood, either by sharing care duties or by one partner supporting the other by bringing food to the nest and deterring possible predators.

If a bird species can raise more than one brood in a nesting season, the same pair of partners may or may not work together on multiple broods. Some birds will stay monogamous only until the first eggs hatch, while others will remain together for the entire season but will go their separate ways after nesting season ends.

Birds that do form long term bonds may remain together for several breeding seasons without elaborate courtship, though there may be some minor displays to refresh their bond. Depending on the species, these birds may remain together until one partner dies, after which the other bird will seek a new mate. Some birds may stay together for several seasons, but they could find new, stronger partners at any time and may "divorce" if they feel it would increase the chances of producing surviving offspring.

Birds that do stay together for several successive nesting seasons are often said to mate for life, even though those long term pair bonds may not, in fact, last the length of the birds’ lives.

Benefits of Long-Term Mating

There are several benefits to long term pair bonds. While these benefits are not the same for every species, those birds that mate for life can take advantage of:

  • Larger territories: Birds that mate for several seasons tend to require larger territories. If they must make annual efforts to attract new mates, they would be unable to defend the amount of space they need for feeding. This is particularly true for birds of prey, which need large ranges to find sufficient prey to support a family.
  • Longer youth care: Larger birds require longer incubation periods for the young to fully form within the eggs. After hatching, the chicks require more extensive care or teaching from their parents. With long term bonds, birds can mate earlier in the season and give their offspring the necessary time to develop fully before fall migration or harsh weather sets in. This is true for many large birds, including cranes, raptors, swans, and geese.
  • Multiple broods: While many birds that mate for a single season also produce multiple broods, birds with longer bonds can often restart a brood if predators or other circumstances, such as natural disasters, destroy the nest. This is another tactic birds can use to increase the odds of having viable offspring even in uncertain seasons. Birds of prey and many waterfowl have different nest threats that make long term bonds and multiple broods a necessity if their species are to survive.

Bird Species That Mate for Life

There are many bird species known to form long term, strong pair bonds that could be defined as mating for life. While any of these birds may seek a new mate if the pair cannot produce eggs or if one partner is injured or dies, familiar bird species that are considered life partners include:

While roughly 90 percent of bird species are monogamous, that doesn’t mean they mate for life and relatively few bird species form long term pair bonds that will last through multiple nesting seasons. Those that do use it as a tactic to increase their odds of producing surviving offspring that will be healthier and more adaptable to keep their species strong.