Animals With The Most Elaborate Courting Rituals

By Antonia Čirjak on February 2 2020 in Environment

King penguin mating couple.

A courtship ritual is a performance that one animal (usually a male) displays to attract, bond with, or initiate mating with their partner. They can be simplistic or surprisingly elaborate. Let’s see which animals go to the greatest length to with their ladies’ hearts.

How Do Animals Know What To Do?

The specific rituals, in their primary, “blueprint” form, are inherited. But it takes maturity, trial and error, and receiving the females’ feedback to achieve the skill level that would win the hearts. It prevents inexperienced, immature, weak, or poorly skilled birds from procreating, which protects the partner and the chicks’ from being left unprotected or starving during nesting. 

Courting rituals are often quite short and last under an hour. On infrequent occasions, like Emperor Pinguins, courtship can last up to 2 months, where the male pays visits, bonds, and brings food presents.

EMperor penguin.
Emperor penguin.

Birds: The Champions Of Courtship

Among the entire animal kingdom, mammals can show the most affection in bonding, but birds are definitely known for the broadest spectrum of techniques to attract a female. Some birds even combine many techniques in one complex ritual: dancing combined with a display of singing and dancing.

Singing is one of the most common behaviors. Birds use intricate melodies and powerful voices to demonstrate their maturity, ability, and skill. It can remind the competitors that the territory has been taken. And it also serves the most fundamental function of telling “hey, I’m here!” since birds can cover vast distances and be scattered across territories where they can not rely on vision. 

Many males, even those who use their calls to announce their location, also use the display of their plumage and ability to demonstrate how strong and healthy they are. They show off bright colored chests, impressive tails, wings, or simply show off their size. 

Dancing, Preening, And Feeding

Dancing is also a part of the courtship techniques: from air acrobatics, that demonstrates the agility and ability to hunt. Mistakes in the dance would be a sign of inability, weakness, or inexperience: not something a female would want to see in a successful partner. Some birds dance together for bonding, even if they mate for life: Japanese Cranes are known for their incredible paired ballet. 

Preening and caressing is a part of bonding rather than courtship, but it is essential in many territorial birds as they need to diffuse the territorial aggression and learn to recognize each other. 

Preening
Preening behavior.

Feeding is often included in the ritual of the birds who spend time in their nests sitting on eggs or raising the chicks. By offering food during the courtship, the male demonstrates in practice his ability to procure food for the partner, and his willingness to share it. 

The rarest type of ritual includes architectural skills: male birds demonstrate their skill and ability by obtaining (often after a fight) the best nesting location, which is seen in colonial birds, where nesting place is an asset. Other build complex displays with various “exhibits” and decorations, demonstrating their experience, maturity, and gathering ability. They then invite a female to evaluate their creation. 

What Are The Most Interesting Mating Rituals? 

Male pufferfish builds underwater circles on the sand floor to attract a female and provide a safe location for the eggs. The structures are up to 7 feet wide while the fish itself is only 5 inches! Much of the circle’s purpose remains unexplained, but it appears that the deeps and ridges alter the water movement, so the eggs are receiving an optimal flow without being washed off. A female evaluates the circle, and if it fits her taste, lays the eggs in the middle.

Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes pair for life, but they keep performing their stunning courtship pair dance even as a bonded family. Graceful pirouettes and slow jumps up have inspired artists for centuries.  

Red-capped manakins have some moves that may look comical to us, but they are impressive for females. Every mating season, males would pick a suitable branch with enough visibility and show off their expert footwork with what looks undeniably like the moonwalk as the peak of the show. They add sound effects to complete the picture and to keep females’ attention from wandering.

Red-capped manakins.
Red-capped manakin.

Bowerbirds look pretty modest, like some average starling. They rely on an entirely different tactic: they construct a woven bower out of thin branches and plants and then decorate it with a variety of colorful objects: stones, bones, flowers, berries, etc. 

Bald Eagle utilizes a truly dangerous ritual in order to determine a potential match. A couple would soar to a high altitude, then lock talons and conduct a freefall dance down. Most of the time, they release the hold concluding the ritual safely, but there have been occasions when they would crush to death. Eagles mate for life, and the challenging ritual determines the fit, skill, and agility of the birds.

Hen Carrier, a prey bird in the UK, conducts a similar risky aerial dance. The couple would soar high up into the sky, then freefall down to the ground only to glide off the ground and soar skyward again. It is truly a thrilling and breathtaking dance.  

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