Boogie Woogie Bugle Birds
Avian courtship on parade.
By Noreen Damude
Ask the question, "What is the purpose of life?" of any one of the millions of birds that migrate through Texas each year, and the answer would be resoundingly simple: Survive the winter, reproduce in spring, repeat until no longer able. For male and female alike, reproductive fitness is clearly measured by the number of fruitful young each leaves to continue the family line. And no matter how subtle or bizarre, variations in a species' game plan for breeding successfully are firmly rooted in the age-old imperatives "chercher la femme" and "go forth and multiply."
From ducks to dickcissels, males typically don a stunning array of ceremonial attire with brightly colored accessories cued to wow and win a willing mate. Add heady courtship flights, heart-stopping aerobatics, winsome and percussive songs, lavish courtship feedings and improbable nuptial gifts - all are designed to overwhelm a female's coy resistance. Don't be fooled, those plainly garbed females are the valuable resource over which males compete so vigorously, bowing one and all to the stringent demands of female choice.
Display rituals play a crucial role in avian courtship. They take many forms, each with a special meaning - attraction, species identification, pair-bond formation and preparation for mating. Whether monogamous, polygamous, promiscuous or opportunistic - from the Song of Songs until today, the same sequence applies: "Look at me, I'm one of you, I sing an age-old song, I dance the dance better than the rest, I'm the one!"
I'll puff and I'll fluff
Ruddy ducks leave late for their northern prairie pothole breeding grounds, having spent much of the winter in Texas. It's late March and males have finally sloughed their winter drabs in preparation for departure. Suddenly, a resplendent mahogany-chestnut drake breaks away from the sleepy pack and skitters across the water. With his signature stiff tail pointing skyward, flashy electric-blue bill a-thumping and rakish feathered horns a-popping, he strikes a comical pose. A virtual shape-shifter, he puffs out his neck and inflates his breast feathers with air. Haloed in a froth of bubbles and circlets of foamy ripples, he breaks into dance. The flailing male combines quick dives, wing flutters and frenzied head-bobbing as he burlesques his way back across the pond to engage a hen's attention. Females seem to pay him no heed, having seen it all before. Not to be rebuffed, he tilts his body up and beats his wings violently against the water, cocking his tail repeatedly to expose his snowy white rump. If she continues to play coy, he lowers his head and slaps his bill against his inflated upper breast, making weird hollow thumping sounds. The entire frenetic dance ends with a husky croak. Impressed at last, she opens her bill and stretches her head out upon the surface of the water. Woe to any rival drake that tries to butt in. The intruder is summarily dunked and routed. While mostly monogamous, a dominant male may at times pair with two females simultaneously. Unusual in ducks, females rarely choose a mate before they reach the breeding grounds. Odd as well, hens occasionally dump a few surplus eggs into other females' nests.
With this leaf I thee wed
As a dawn wind stirs over the awakening marsh, an ethereal white bird emerges from the dissolving mist. It's a great egret, Texas' largest white heron, in full nuptial dress. Beguiling in its elegance, the great egret has just grown 35 long white filigree feathers down its back and neck that it can erect in an intoxicating display. These tremulous, flowing "aigrettes," all a-shimmer, serve as a "bridal train." The golden bill and immaculate white plumage provide a perfect foil for the bright green lores that glow with emerald fire. Both beautiful plumage and color-infused lores and bill are ephemeral and soon fade to pale. To capture the moment, the male initiates his deep display of seduction. In a stately pavane, he walks circles around the female, tossing back his head and extending his frilly wings. He fluffs out his neck feathers, bobs his head and noisily claps his mandibles. He then takes flight and draws lazy, elegant circles in the airspace surrounding the female's favorite tree. Normally a bird of few "words," a raucous grunt seems to suffice to express a myriad of emotions. During tender moments, he whispers a few soft gurgling sounds. To "pop the question," a male simply flies up and drops a fresh-cut leafy branch in front of her as a nuptial gift. If she is favorably impressed, she grabs it and works it into her make-shift nest. Both work feverously to finish the twiggy nest in time for her to lay her eggs. A common resident of Texas coastal prairies, great egrets nest in colonies in the company of herons, ibises and spoonbills. Serially monogamous, the male is true to his mate for a single breeding season, then seeks another each year thereafter. Great egrets suffered dearly for their beauty in the early years of the previous century and were nearly driven to extinction. Rapacious plume hunters raided nesting colonies each spring in quest of those long frilly courtship feathers women craved for fancy hats and wraps.
Death-defying aerial love dance
Transcending its terrestrial environment, the peregrine falcon claims the open sky as its domain. Flashing quickly through a kettle of broad-winged hawks, this superb hunter works the Texas coastlines, especially during spring migration. Magnificent flying machines, peregrines are hard-muscled, hard-plumaged, virile and yet sensuous birds. They nest in small numbers in West Texas along steep cliff faces, in hollows of broken-off tree snags or in other remote locations. While the female weighs twice as much as the male, both are consummate hunters and fliers. When diving on prey, they may reach speeds of well over 100 mph. As the male (also known as a tercel) provides virtually all the food to the nesting female and young, a female chooses her mate based on hunting and flying skills. Because small males tend to be more agile fliers, she may favor a smaller male over a large one. The tercel demonstrates his prowess directly over the territory he has claimed by performing dazzling aerial displays for her, accompanied by excited chitterings. Spiraling ever upwards to a great height, the male plunges abruptly downward at dizzying speeds. At the bottom of his dive he swoops up again, sometimes rolling rapidly from side to side, sometimes looping the loop with wings half-closed. The female may join him in this virtuoso flight. High in the air, the two swoop on one another, interlock talons and tumble downwards through space - so close at times, they touch their breasts or beaks in mid-flight. Graceful and breathtaking, they sail back and forth, moving with perfect synchrony in this death-defying aerial dance of love. Typically monogamous and solitary nesters, pairs mate for life until the death of one of them intervenes.
For whom the bell chimes
Few animals use their voices as eloquently as do birds, and they are at their most spellbinding come spring - whether to entice a prospective mate, declare hegemony over a parcel of land or thwart the impudent intrusions of would-be philanderers. Like visual signals, songs proclaim both a male's species and his identity as an individual. The most gifted songsters are typically those with cryptic plumage where male and female dress alike. By taking shallow mini-breaths, this wood thrush trills, warbles and whistles: a soulful mix of glissandos, appoggiaturas, pizzicati and tremolos designed to please a potential mate. Definitely the maestro of the forest, the wood thrush has few equals as a singer. In early spring, East Texas woodlands sway to the sound of his evocative songs.
Serene, suggestive of bells and flutes, it consists of a series of varied phrases broken by pauses, repeated, varied slightly and each time sung in a different key. Males arrive a week or two before females and quickly set up territory. Once the females arrive, they are treated at first like trespassers. Oddly, she neither resists nor flies away. The uniquely feminine response disarms him, and all will to fight suddenly drains away. From low in the understory, a sudden burst of notes leaps into the dawn's dim light, a flute-like ee-o-lay followed by a slower, bell-like trill. The rich haunting melody, down-slurred, ventriloquial, organ-like flourishes Ooooooh, holy holy, ah, purity purity, eh, sweetly sweetly is a quintessential song of love. The courtship song of this "nightingale thrush" fills the spring woods with an ethereal music that, once heard, is never to be forgotten.
Rapping for romance
A vision of two latter-day pterodactyls flying across a meadow and up into the trees - stiff black wings flashing white, red crests backlit and flaming in the late afternoon sun - must surely be a pair of pileated woodpeckers. The spring woods resound with their flicker-like whucker, whucker, whucker calls. A master woodchopper, this dashing bird favors mature mixed deciduous-coniferous forests and leaves his inimitable sign on well-worked trees, sometimes honeycombing them with distinctive rectangular holes in search of coveted carpenter ants. As the male greets the dawn with a strident "bugle call," the courtship season is about to begin. For woodpeckers, though, drumming is a far more powerful call to love than a song. Males select trees or branches that are particularly resonant for the purpose - a hollow trunk or a dead snag. A few enterprising Casanovas go "high-tech" and drum on metal roofs or electrical transmission towers, especially prized for their enhanced acoustics. Forceful and resonant, the deep reverberations ring out through the forest, fully audible up to a mile away. Pileateds keep in constant communication. With loud rapping and high-pitched calls, they send messages back and forth to one another winter and summer alike. Visual displays are not ignored, especially near the nest cavity. Both male and female spread their wings to show off white wing patches or make short gliding flights above the cavity tree. A male may erect his flaming crest and swing his head back and forth in a blur of scarlet to further cement the pair bond. Pileateds mate for life and pairs jointly defend their territory year-round by drumming, calling and chasing away intruders.
An unexpected chorus line: dancing in the dawn
Few birds flaunt their evolutionary adornments so flamboyantly as do the grouse, and the lesser prairie-chicken is no slouch. Males are polygynous and mate with several females, investing no energy in parental care. Lesser prairie-chicken cocks begin to gather in the predawn at the lek - a traditional booming ground reserved for group courtship displays. The scene itself is captivating. Males mingle, primp and preen in predawn hours before the show begins. As dawn gives way to a morning shrouded in mist, one or two birds pop up and down like popcorn on the near horizon, fighting for position. These ancient gallinaceous birds flaunt elaborate crests, eye combs, neck sacs and a booming song. Cocks begin to dance, stomp their feet, erect their ear plumes, engorge eye combs and inflate their flashy neck sacs. Like breathless zany puppets, males compete for center stage, the focus of choice of the most discerning females. A female saunters nonchalantly across the lek once or twice, pausing to weigh the merits of the males' ritual dance. The dance becomes ever more frenetic, as basic steps are punctuated with heady aerial leaps and agonistic lunges at neighbors in the chorus line. Hypnotic strains of booming calls drone on in accompaniment, evoking times long past when this species once numbered in the millions. Drab, well-camouflaged females observe inconspicuously from the sidelines, all seemingly of one mind. Only one or two master cocks holding center stage on the lek get most of the matings. Females all seem to agree on just who's king of the runway. Sadly, these performances play at fewer venues each year. Native Americans of the Central Plains have patterned their traditional dances after steps perfected by the lesser prairie-chicken. The birds' elaborate foot-stomping, leaping, tail-splaying courtship dances may yet persist through preservation of a native people's cultural heritage.
Flashdancer dressed in red
A little ember of flame, the male vermilion flycatcher lights up the azure sky like a firecracker. Dressed year-round in fire-engine red, he shows all the hallmarks of a virtuoso songster and dancer in the sky. His nuptial flight begins as he lifts off his territorial perch and soars high into the air in sweeping circles, singing a soft, tinkling song. At the top of his towering rise, he hangs on fluttering wings like a giant diurnal moth, his crown feathers erect and glowing, tail cocked upward and splayed asunder, as he flips it repeatedly downward. Three sharp notes followed by a longer, louder tzee accompany his slow descent. Rivaling the brightest of tropical flowers, the male pulls out all the stops to win a potential mate, a shy, demurely dressed damsel in pale mottled browns with a soft salmon under-wash. Again and again he dances to his own accompaniment, until she yields to his charms. Puffing out his vermilion chest, he sings again, then flutters down once more to land on a branch where the female awaits him. Mostly monogamous, males do little to help the female build the nest or incubate the eggs, though he will occasionally feed her as she sits on eggs. He has been known to dally on occasion with other females if opportunity knocks. He can't tarry too long at this as he is bound to defend his territory from interlopers that he duly chases away.
Bring me sushi
Catching dinner as the pathway to love is a time-honored courtship ploy. Commonly observed in gulls and terns, ritual courtship feedings allow a female to assess a male's ability to provide for her and her young. An added bonus is the rich nutritional boost she gets for egg production. Least terns are fish eaters and are supremely adapted to life on beach and water. Highly acrobatic in flight, they dive repeatedly in search of their favorite prey - fresh fish and fingerlings. As noisy as they are social, colonies of leasts are well-known for their active and vocal courtship displays. The diminutive, silver gray male with narrow wings and short forked-tail entices his mate-to-be by catching a shiny, wriggling fish and flaunting it for all to see. He circles the small colony triumphantly and noisily with fish held crosswise in his beak as waiting females look on. Abruptly he lands at her feet, fish flashing in the sun. Bowing low, the female lifts and wags her tail, while fluttering her outstretched wings. The male circles her with neck extended, wagging his head back and forth as he goes. Now face to face, she eyes his tantalizing gift in consideration of his troth. If she takes the offering, she accepts him as her mate. Gifts of food don't end with the betrothal. Fish flight displays help reinforce the pair bond. During incubation, the male arrives several times a day with a fresh-caught fish. The pair pass it back and forth a few times before she gobbles it down. Least terns are monogamous and remain with their mates for a single breeding season. A high-strung pixie of a bird, the least tern is highly intolerant of intruders - human, canine or vehicular. Disturbance of the breeding colony can be devastating to a colonies' reproductive output.
Diva of the swamp
Most avian polygamists are male, but in a few cases it is the female who entertains multiple mates. In a polyandrous system, the female mates with various males and leaves them to look after the eggs and chicks. And jacanas, a subset of the shorebird tribe, boast some highly macho females. The northern jacana, a fairly rare visitor to the southern portion of the state, is a long-legged, long-toed bird that walks on vegetation floating along resacas and sloughs. Why jacanas have adopted this sexual role reversal remains a mystery. Jacanas nest under dangerous circumstances. Threats from alligators, snakes and other large marsh birds, like purple gallinules, abound in sluggish waters, any one of which will readily eat eggs or chicks. A female jacana claims a large tract of this high-risk habitat and seduces up to four males to build a nest within her domain. After a few days of courtship with each of them, she lays a clutch of eggs in each male's nest and leaves them to incubate and tend the young alone. She will fiercely guard her territory, though, and zealously drives off any female intruders. The female northern jacana has raised cuckoldry to an art form. While homebody males tend the young, she tiptoes out across the lily pads in search of additional reproductive liaisons with extra-harem males. Apparently, more than 40 percent of a male jacana's brood contains chicks sired by others, so questions of paternity naturally arise. Rates may be higher where females mate promiscuously with several extra males. If no extras are on tap, females will occasionally assist the males in shading young from the scorching afternoon sun, a crucial task. Two days after hatching, the fluffy youngsters leave the nest ready to forage - the doting fathers lead them to proper feeding sites.