When you think of birds and love, a pair of doves are probably the most likely image that springs to mind. Many a wedding celebration has seen the release of a couple of doves. And while the typical symbolic white doves are primarily bred in captivity, their greyer cousins are just as striking and just as good at showing a connection, although seemingly less symbolic.
White doves are clear symbols of love, and they are a symbol of peace for many. These albino doves are woven into rituals, and until recently, they were still released by the Vatican as ‘peace’ doves. Something that changed in 2014 when members of the public were shocked when the local birds, namely a Hooded Crow and a European Herring Gull, found these white birds an easy target (read more).
How do birds show love?
Parental care and romantic courtship behaviour are both seen in various birds. We all recognise that birds are often seen on Valentine’s Day cards, but few of us know much about how birds show each other love and affection. Birds show that they are bonded with their mates with courtship behaviour like preening one another or sharing food: both gentle signs of affection. There is often a period of courtship for birds – dating in modern terms. From claiming territory to wooing a mate before actual copulation (mating) occurs. While cranes may be associated with new beginnings and, of course, the arrival of babies, their courtship displays mean they should probably get more kudos as symbols of love.
So is this love? The question remains, but you could hazard a guess that there must be more to it than pure reproduction. When it comes to parental love, it seems parent birds are just as caring to their hatchlings as their mate – a probable sign that this is a way to show care and affection.
See also: Is birdwatching a sport?
Do birds mate for life?
We often hear people quoting that a particular species ‘mates for life’. But which birds specifically make up this list? And what does it mean to ‘mate for life’? Many bird species are monogamous, but that doesn’t mean they mate for life, and few bird species form long-term pair bonds that will last through multiple nesting seasons. Many species of birds will choose a mate and create a long-term pair bond. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Just as with us humans, the death of a partner or even serious injury or infertility may make a bird seek another mate. In contrast, other birds will bond but not for their entire lives.
Here are a few of our favourite birds that form long-term pair bonds. Individual birds choose a mate for a given breeding season or an extended period.
One of the most distinctive birds on the planet, the Atlantic Puffin, is our favourite candidate in the strong pair-bond category. These cuties nest in burrows or boulder screes and cracks. They may not have a single mate for life, but their bonds are clear.
Of the many creatures out there, the Canada Goose is one of the most emotional animals in the bird world. These geese are loyal to one another and look out for the other. A partner may stay with their mate if they are injured, and the flock moves on. Most Canada Geese couples remain together throughout their lifetime, raising and protecting their young together. They can live up to 25 years. If a goose loses its mate, it appears that they grieve, remove themselves from the rest of their flock and honk mournfully. After some time, a goose may find a new partner.
Ravens have a long lifespan, and it’s quite the commitment they seem to make, pairing for most of their 40 years. Raven pairs rear hatchlings together. They remain in the same territory, and while they may have sexual ‘infidelity’, they seldom split as pairs.
Snow Geese are common in North America, breeding far North in the Arctic. The birds pair off in their second year, forming a strong bond – although mating does not usually occur until their third year. Even though chicks can swim and eat independently within a day of hatching, parents and goslings remain together through the young’s first winter.
Which birds do mating dances?
Mating dances are pretty specific to species, and not all birds (or animals in general) show their mate that they have what it takes to re-populate in this dramatic way. Other animals show their strength or make specific calls or sounds; some show they care with the nesting space they create or their ability to fight. Other animals demonstrate just how physically attractive they are. Birds can employ many tactics to impress their future mates, and there are a host of mating dances (often called courtship displays) will ensure the success of their bond. Here are some of our favourite examples of birds that perform these mating dances.
The Western Grebe shows its sass through two different courtship display ceremonies.
First, the ‘Rushing Ceremony’. Starting with the head dip – a sexy display of the most agile neck muscles – where the head is dipped underwater, then a good old fashioned shakeout is bound to wow the potential mate. If the intended take the bait, the grebes begin rushing. Hold on; we don’t mean gentle waterbird wading; we mean running across the water – on top of the water! Talk about a feat? To make matters more tricky, the mates must keep stride with one another, or it’s “cheers!” and on to the next bird. The birds run across the water alongside one another, flapping their wings. They seem to do a victory dive at the end of the rush, where they plunge head-first into the water.
Next, the weed diving ceremony, and there is nothing quite as attractive to a Western Grebe as this. After the birds are paired off (by the ‘rush’ of love), they begin the next courtship stage. The birds stretch their necks and start bobbing and shaking. A deep dive underwater shows just how amazing they are, gathering vegetation from underwater, and presenting their new mate with their latest weed catch. At this point, they shake their heads from side to side, sending all the weeds back below the surface.
Jumping about rather energetically is what grabs the attention of Sandhill Cranes when it comes to courtship. The cranes sometimes lunge for bits of vegetation and throw them about, creating quite the show. There isn’t any set structure to the dance, so it’s a sort of mash-up from bowing to leaping and wing-flapping. A bird of their size performing such a dance can’t go unnoticed and would certainly wow onlookers. Even though these cranes choose a mate for life, they return to their breeding ground to rehearse their dance skills. After all, dancing is fun!
Birds of Paradise
Last but certainly not least, the extraordinary Bird of Paradise in the forests of New Guinea have gained plenty of attention in recent months. These birds have strange and spectacular courtship rituals, wowing Netflix and the BBC audiences. Since Sir David Attenborough’s mind-blowing documentaries about these stunning birds have been overwhelmingly popular, you may have tasted the astonishing biodiversity in these forests. There are 42 different species of Birds of Paradise, most of which have their own mating rituals. In the video below, part of the New Birds of Paradise series, Attenborough discusses the courtship of the Male 6-plumed Bird of Paradise, our personal favourite. He tidies up his dancing zone, lifts his feathers to create a black umbrella shape and jiggles about, strutting with peculiar dance-like steps hoping he might attract a female.
Where does the saying “pair of lovebirds” come from?
With all this talk of love and birds, you’ve probably heard the term “love birds”, and no doubt it conjures up images of two people very much in love, normally demonstrated by some outwardly affectionate behaviour, or perhaps a cutesy pair of birds on the front of a greetings card. The devotion seen in a pair of bonded birds is therefore the likely origin of this expression. But what about real lovebirds? And are they related to the phrase?
“Lovebirds” are the name often given to a number of small, short-tailed parrots, Agapornis. Hailing from Africa and Madagascar, they have mostly blue, green or grey feathers. These birds are known for their caring natures and overly affectionate personalities. They are popular with humans as caged pet birds. In most cases, these birds mate for life. When these birds express their bond, you may see them “kissing”. They share food and play with one another’s tongues! These small parrots will often sit together and caress or preen one another.
So, what are some of your favourite love-birds? Post your sightings on Chirp and tag them #lovebirds – we’d love to see!
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