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Wildlife Courtship- the good, the bad, and the truly bizarre

February 14, 2024

By Paul Cypher, Park Interpreter

Most of us have been there – high school.  Say what you will, but a tried-and-true moment is the high school dance.  Prom, homecoming, Sadie Hawkins…names don’t matter. At some point, somebody has to muster the guts to ask someone else out.  Ah, the anxiety of it all!

Will they say yes?  Will they say no?  Are my pants too short? Is there broccoli in my teeth?

While some may look back on that with fondness, I know people who clearly don’t…

Wild world of courtship rituals

But what if I told you birds do this all the time.  Like every spring, I mean.    Welcome to the world of bird courtship.  It really isn’t all that different from what we did (or do).

Before we even get into this, I need to clear something up.  You’ve heard the phrase “mate for life”, I’m sure.  Well, uh, yeah…. um…no.   Birds don’t do that.  Sorry.  Yes, you hear it everywhere and it just smacks of romance and eternal love, but it doesn’t work that way.  It should be “birds mate for life…until one dies and then the other goes on to find somebody else” because that is how it works. As an aside, not all birds return to the same partner anyhow, but I digress.

Take the Red-tailed Hawk, for example. Here we are now in February, and you can see them dating.  Seriously – right from your car.  The next time you are zipping down the expressway, check the trees and billboards for hawks.  Look for a pair sitting next to each other.  Bingo! Red-tailed Hawks on a date.  One will be noticeably larger than the other. That one is the female.   As weeks tick by, they sit closer and closer until he is close enough to whisper sweet nothings in her ear.

Red-tailed hawks sit together and then participate in flighted courtship rituals in late winter early spring before collaboratively building a nest of sticks for their future young.

Actually, that’s not it all. He does nudge closer, but that is to entice her to be in the big dance!  Maybe you’ll see big lazy circles in the sky, fast drops from high altitude (called a stoop), or hear some vocalizations (“I like you, do you like me?!”) before he reaches out to touch her with his talons.  Oooh. Romance.  And no chaperones either!

By the end of March, they have a nest and up to five eggs.  Hopefully, everyone does well and survives where they get to do it all over again next year. Yes, good reader, they have to court the same partner every spring.  The nudge. The whispers. That dance. All of it.  They don’t get to pick up where they left off the previous year.

My head hurts thinking about it.

Great Horned Owls have a dance, too.  After weeks of hooting at each other across the gymnasium, er, wood lot, they get close enough to get more acquainted.  Tail-bobbing, nodding, bowing, wing spreading and head shaking. Its all there.  Males even puff up the white patch of feathers on their throat. It’s kind of like guys flexing big biceps in homeroom, except the white patch is really there.  The only thing missing on the owls are the skinny jeans or parachute pants (depending on the era).

Great-horned owl courtship includes duetting calls back and forth, which can be heard typically after twilight, starting in late fall.

By the way, Great Horned Owls are on eggs right now! Yes! Mid-February!  In fact, in these parts, mom is laying eggs by the third week of January. Working backwards, that means they were getting to know each other around Thanksgiving or maybe even Halloween.  For perspective, some migrant songbirds are still heading south in the fall while Great Horned Owls are getting ready for spring.

Part of the strategy for nesting so early is to secure a nest from a Red-tail Hawk from the previous year. It is basically “finders, keepers” so getting a head start is a good idea.   Watch for them in the nest before the leaves come out.  The “horns”, which are really just prominent feather tufts, are often quite obvious.

Perhaps one of the most grand dances of them all is that of the Bald Eagle.  Sure, they fly in circles and perch next to each other. But, they take the whole idea of courtship and dancing to another level.  It’s much better than Freestyle dancing, by the way.  That was almost certainly developed by someone who couldn’t dance and, by default, became the unsung hero for most high schoolers.

Bald eagles take the air with locked talons as they spiral down towards the ground as a part of their annual bonding rituals.

I’m sure you’ve seen ballroom dancers (or ice skaters) where one grabs the other by the hips and hoists them up over their head.  If you are like me, you shudder at the idea as you well know a stumble could be dangerous or even lethal.  Needless to say, don’t look for that sort of maneuver at your typical human prom!

A part of Bald Eagle courtship is kind of the same thing. They gain altitude, lock talons, and then fall.  Down and down and down they go is a surreal spiral that appears half controlled and half chaos. With only a few dozen feet to spare, they separate and veer away before slamming into the ground. It is truly mesmerizing – I hope you all get a chance to see it.

Spring is springing.  Days are getting longer.  Some of Michigan’s local nesters are getting ready for the big dance!

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