Love is in the Air: Bird Courtship Rituals

When it comes to courtship, birds pull out all the stops, using elaborate displays to attract a potential mate and outdo the competition. Each species tackles this very important task differently. Here are some courtly behaviors to look for this spring.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

Cranes are elegant dancers. Dancing peaks during mating season but can occur any time of year. Experts do not completely understand the behavior, but it seems to play a role in bonding. Mated sandhill cranes also sing a unison call during courtship. Curiously, young birds also dance—believed to be an important part of their motor development. Humans have admired crane dancing for centuries; many cultures have symbolic rituals that mimic the behavior.

Male house wrens are busy in spring building several nests for females
to choose from.

House Wren

One of the most prolific backyard singers is the house wren, but a male’s singing is mostly a territorial claim. To find mates, males must choose good nest sites. Wrens often nest close to people, so you’re likely to hear them this spring. They use natural cavities but they also like nest boxes. Males construct partial nests in multiple sites, and the females select from the offerings. When a female finds a suitable site, she mates with the owner.

The male sharp-tailed grouse will try to tempt a mate by inflating the purple air sac on his neck.

Sharp-Tailed Grouse

This grouse species uses a lek­—a mating arena of sorts—where males perform to attract females. Male sharp-tailed grouse stick their pointed tails up, aim their wings down and inflate purple air sacs along their necks. Then they quickly shake and vibrate their entire bodies while cooing out. Females visit the lek during these displays and select a male to breed with. Prairie chickens have a similar dance. Sage grouse have air sacs on their chests, which they inflate and boom. No matter the species, a grouse display is always a sight to see.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

While grouse of the prairies gather on communal leks, the ruffed grouse of the northern woods has a solitary display. Perched on a downed log, the male, starting slowly at first but quickly accelerating, flaps his cupped wings, creating a deep whooshing that sounds like a tractor starting up on a cold morning. This short burst of chest drumming reverberates through the forest, which helps females find potential mates.

When it’s time to pair
up, bald eagles begin courting potential companions in early spring, winter or even fall.

Bald Eagle

The regal bald eagle puts on one of the most spectacular courtship shows. Mated partners lock talons in midflight and then spiral in a free-fall dive known as cartwheeling. Red-tailed and other hawks will cartwheel in courtship, too. Eagles often mate for life, and pairs will return to the same nests year after year. Male bald eagles help with nest construction and raising the eaglets.


Song Sparrow

Some bird species have a single song that they perfect, but that isn’t good enough for the aptly named song sparrow. Song sparrow males can sing as many as 20 different songs while defending territories and courting females. Some studies indicate that a female song sparrow chooses a mate based in part on his ability to learn new songs.

In a romantic gesture, male cardinals often fetch seeds and feed them to their mates during courtship and breeding.

Northern Cardinal

Male cardinals have bright red plumage that impresses females, but courting for this species goes deeper than surface attraction. Females sing along with the males during courtship. Experts believe the duet strengthens the bond. Listen for pure, repetitive whistling from cardinal pairs. Females sometimes call while on the nest. Males bring food to the females to ensure nesting success.


Great Horned Owl

Like cardinals, great horned owls also perform a courtship duet. Owls are early nesters; listen for their characteristic hoots on cold, crisp winter nights. Female great horned owls are bigger than males, but males have larger voice boxes. When you hear them calling back and forth, try to pick up the male’s deeper voice and the female’s corresponding higher pitched hoots. Males assist throughout the entire nesting season and will bring food to the nest for the female and young.

Female Wilson’s phalaropes have brighter, more vivid feathers than males.

Wilson’s Phalarope

Among many bird species, males and females have the same or similar feather markings. In several others, males have brighter plumage than females. Less common is when the female has the fancier feathers. This is true for the shorebird Wilson’s phalarope, however. Spring females have vivid chestnut and black along the face and neck; males are more subtly colored. Females court multiple males during breeding season, and males incubate the eggs. 

Ken Keffer
Nature writer Ken Keffer fondly remembers the spring duck migration in his native Wyoming, but now he gets most excited when irruptive finches, siskins and redpolls visit his feeders in Iowa.