Species all across the animal kingdom display a variety of courtship rituals. Usually, these consist of the males working hard to attract the attention of females through sound, strength, construction skills, fighting prowess, or simply dashingly good looks. This is particularly true among birds, which employ an extraordinary range of methods for impressing the opposite sex.
From complicated movements to impressive plumage, feathered Romeos exhibit some amazing behaviors — especially dancing. Here is a collection of different bird mating dances, from songbirds to seabirds.
Superb Bird of Paradise
Found in the forests of New Guinea, this bird — and its spectacular dance — was made famous in a BBC documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The feathers of the male superb bird of paradise are one of the darkest hues of black in the world, absorbing up to 99.95 percent of directly incident light. The dark coloring creates an optical illusion when placed next to the bird’s other green-blue feathers — the black feathers make the others appear brighter and even iridescent.
During a courtship dance, the male bird erects his plumage into a parasol of black and shimmering color. The effect looks almost like a glowing face after someone turned on a black light.
The red-capped manakin is a fruit-eating bird native to Central America. The males of the species stand out with their dark black plumage and contrasting head of vivid red. Unlike the superb bird of paradise, the plumage isn’t enough to capture the attention of the ladies; the males also use a complicated dance routine.
There are four behaviors that males display during their courtship dance, including pivoting back and forth on a branch, darting between a primary perch and surrounding vegetation while making a snapping sound with his wings, and circling in flight. But the most impressive of all is the fourth display, which looks very much like a moonwalk. The male red-capped manakin glides along the perch with a smoothness reminiscent of a conveyer belt.
Albatross species have beautiful, elaborate, and somewhat strange courtship dances. Partners — and sometimes even groups of three or four — will dance to see if they’re compatible. Because these birds mate for life, the process of finding the perfect dance partner is especially important. It sometimes takes years of an albatross returning to the breeding ground and practicing its dance moves before finally finding a permanent partner.
Each species of albatross has a unique dance, but one performed by the black-footed albatross is the most interesting. It includes head bobbing, bill clapping, head shaking, calling, wing lifting, and sky pointing.
Western and Clark’s Grebe
Western and Clark’s grebes have an aerobatic courtship dance that includes elegant head arches and, importantly, running in sync across the surface of the water in a display called “rushing.” These birds are the largest vertebrates with the ability to walk on water, a feat that is possible because of three factors: high stride rates, flat feet, and the combination of foot size and high water-impact speed.
The success in running across the water together determines the future of the couple. If potential partners can’t keep stride, they won’t work as mates. If they do, the pair will move on from the rushing ceremony to phase two, the “weed ceremony,” which includes additional moves meant to impress.
Victoria’s riflebird is another species that uses its plumage to its advantage when courting a mate. This bird opens its dark wings to form a large circle that frames its face. Then, it shifts back and forth between each wing, showing off the iridescent feathers at its neck.
This courtship dance involves signing as well. As the male Victoria’s riflebird sings, the vibrant yellow of his mouth is displayed. In a dim rainforest, such a bright display of color along with the vigorous dance of the wings is sure to grab attention.
Perhaps the most famous courtship display among birds is that of the peafowl. Male peafowl, known as peacocks, have long, elaborate tail feathers that can be erected into a spectacular display of color and pattern. When folded into a train, these tail feathers can make up as much as 60 percent of their bird’s total body length.
This ostentatious performance is done entirely to impress female peafowl, called peahens. A female selects a mate based on the size, shape, and color of his tail feathers, which means the males have to look their very best. It is this example of sexual selection that has driven the evolution of the extravagant plumage of the peacock.
For sandhill cranes, the solution to finding a mate is less about showy feathers and more about impressive physical feats. These birds court with athletic jumps, sometimes grabbing bits of vegetation to toss in the air for added effect. The dance is a bit of a freestyle, with everything from leaps to bows to wing flapping.
Sandhill cranes mate for life. However, even after they’ve found a mate, the birds still tend to return to the breeding ground for the occasional dance practice.
The name of this species gives away the fact that these birds have brilliantly blue feet. The blue color comes from carotenoid pigments that the birds gain from the fish they eat. As such a standout trait, it’s no surprise that the feet play a significant role in the courtship dance.
Brightly colored feet suggest that the bird has a strong immune system. Because of this exhibition of health, blue-footed boobies do a high-stepping strut to show off their feet to prospective mates. Along with flaunting their feet, males also present nesting materials and engage in “sky-pointing” to display their wings.
Spiked feathers, colorful skin, movement, and sound all come together in one of the most complex avian courtship displays in all of North America. Upon arriving in a designated courting area, the greater sage-grouse inflates and deflates its yellow throat sacs and thrusts its head forward and backward. The movement is somewhat reminiscent of a violent hiccup, and it is accompanied by a “wup” sound that’s been compared to the uncorking of a champagne bottle.
Male greater sage-grouses gather to perform for potential mates from approximately March to May and take on many partners during that period.
Unlike the species listed so far, the flamingo’s courtship dance is an ensemble affair. The birds form a tight group and march together in formation, their long necks held high while turning their heads quickly from side to side in a movement called “head flagging.” A 2016 study found that the flamingos that are most successful in finding mates are those with the most versatility and variety in their moves.
Though they dance and court as a group, flamingos are monogamous and pairs stick together as they raise their chicks.