The courtship rituals of birds include some of the most spectacular sights on Earth. On this page are ten of the most colourful, the most bizarre, the most touching and in some cases the most comic displays of courtship in the bird world, as male birds strain every sinew in their bodies in their urge to procreate.
If you have never seen any of these dances, posturings and rituals before, then they will surely amaze. But all are true and they reflect the extraordinary lengths that many birds will go to, in order to outshine their rivals and attract a mate.
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Why do birds dance?
The purpose of courtship rituals is obvious; to attract a mate. All birds do it, but some will just make do with the simple songs and calls for which birds are famous, and maybe a little head bobbing or ruffling of feathers to make it a bit more of a show. In some parts of the world however, it's different. The competition for mates is intense, and it's in each male bird's interests to prove to the female of their choice that they are the most fit, and the best adapted to pass on their genes to the next generation. And they can do that by demonstrating their superb condition which enables them to grow more impressive feathers, develop louder, more melodic voices, or invent more agile creative displays than their rivals.
For this selection I've tried to pick and mix. Some are solo displays by the male, some are mutual lovefests by an established pair, and some are organised and spectacular group performances. And the emotions they hopefully stir in us will also vary - some are colourful, some are unbelievably complex, and some are just bizarre. And some will hopefully lighten your day with a smile.
Each of the courtship routines will be featured in a video, while my contribution will be to describe these - to our eyes - eccentric gems of bird behaviour, and to speculate how these displays might be rated by the object of the bird's desires. There is also a poll at the end for you to apply your own human values to vote for your favourite dance routine. Employ whatever criteria you want, but do try to ignore the human input into the video performance; after all, the bird cannot be held responsible for the music, the editing, or the camerawork - just the display!
Here then are the ten birds with remarkable dance routines and courtship displays.
1) Andean Flamingo
We will begin with one of the more graceful displays of courtship. Flamingos are much loved birds for their pretty-in-pink plumage, and when seen in a mass flock of many thousands of birds, they produce one of the most spectacular wildlife sights on the planet. And they are at their most spectacular - and charming - when they begin their pair-bonding rituals. The ritual itself is not perhaps the most agile or creative of dances, but the choreography, which is like an amalgamation of a slow waltz and a formal marching band, is strangely elegant. A group of birds - as many as 50 or 100 of both sexes - will gather and begin to strut together in unison, stretching their necks and turning their heads first one way, then the other; all in the hope that they'll turn the heads of the opposite sex. All six species of flamingo undertake these rituals when the time comes to mate and nest, but the ones which are shown below are the yellow-legged Andean Flamingo Phoenicoparrus andinus which lives in the mountain wetland areas of Peru, Chile and Argentina. (However these birds will flock interspecifically and early in the video at 15secs, you can also see a 'red-kneed' Chilean Flamingo).
2) Superb Bird of Paradise
If flamingos go in for group activities, male birds of paradise by contrast are very much solo performers, and when it comes to spectacular plumage and out of this world dance routines, there is nothing to beat them. There are only 42 species in the world, all in the Australasian region of the world, and all have something unique to offer. Many are among the most colourful birds on Earth, but perhaps the less handsome a bird is, the more inventive he has to be to attract the ladies. Three relatively subdued hued males are featured here, because they've all become really creative with their dance routines. This first one is the Superb Bird of Paradise Lophorina superba, which lives in the New Guinea rainforest. It's a species which is predominantly black albeit with some irridescent blue patches around the head and neck. But watch what happens when one of the reddish brown females comes near - a display occurs which is so bizarre it's hard to even recognise what we're looking at - is it wings, head, tail or something from outer space? In fact it's an elaborate arrangement of a blue breast shield, a cape of long black feathers and small blue patches over the beak. If you can't quite work out what you're seeing, here's a link to an excellent explanation by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The video below is from Wildscreen Arkive, but the original film comes from the BBC Natural History Unit, and shows the most bizarre visual display on this page.
3) Magnificent Riflebird
To be honest, I could have filled this page with ten best courtship candidates just from the bird of paradise family. Riflebirds are a part of the same family, and like all birds of paradise, they have developed flamboyant displays. The one featured here is the Magnificent Riflebird Ptiloris magnificus, also from New Guinea, and the female clearly has similar tastes to the female Superb Bird of Paradise because once again the male is decked out in black plumage with irridescent blue patches. But compare the two dances. The Riflebird does not produce quite the same extraordinary 'unbird-like' appearance that the Superb Bird of Paradise manages, but instead it indulges in a frantic cloak and dagger act, leaping around, swaying his blue-neck from side to side, and arching his wings like an umbrella to either smother his lover or charm her into a loving embrace, depending on your point of view. In the video, one can see the brown female also does a rather pale imitation of the same dance, as if to encourage him to do better than her. But have the sound turned up, because even more remarkable than the dance is the swishing sound that the male bird generates with his wings (first heard in the video at 55secs. If the courting Superb bird of paradise adopts a beautiful yet alien vision, the courting Magnificent Riflebird emits the most alien of sounds. Just listen!
The video is the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. and illustrates the most bizarre audible display on this page.
4) Queen Carola's Parotia
This excellent video shows the the dance of Queen Carola's Parotia Parotia carolae. This is one of several species of bird of paradise collectively known as the Six-Plumed Birds of Paradise, for the six long head quills used in their elaborate courtship display. They live, like most other birds of paradise, in the forests of New Guinea, and much of their dance is conducted on the forest floor. All ground-dancing birds of paradise begin their routine with a clean-up of the dance floor, removing twigs and leaves (not shown in the video), and when the dance starts, it may involve several different moves. But in the opinion of many, the display of this species is the most complex of all. The video shows an extraordinary series of pivots, head tilts and hops - first of all on a perch above the ground, and then on the dance floor itself. And then the routine becomes even more elaborate with a vigorous sequence of shaking and fluttering of wings and a head bobbing motion, before the grand finale - the so-called 'ballerina dance' as the bird sways side to side, and spreads his feathers to create a tutu-like effect around the head whilst displaying his colours and his plumes. And all done under the watchful gaze of several hopefully admiring females.
The video is by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and details all of the moves in succession. Certainly the compilation of moves makes this the most intricate display on this page.
5) Clark's Grebe
Perhaps it's easier for a small bird fluttering about on land to be agile. Not so easy for a bigger bird walking on water. But grebes manage it. These birds which are from the family Podicipedidae are often considered to be relatives of other such waterbirds as the cormorants, herons and sandpipers, but recent research suggests one of their closest living relatives may be the aforementioned flamingos. They are to be found swimming and diving on freshwater lakes and ponds in many parts of the world, but perhaps most typically in the temperate climes of North America and Eurasia. The courtship display of the male and female Clark's Grebe Aechmophorus clarkii - seen here in Oregon, U.S.A - is especially appealing, and that is the reason I have included it here. It's hard not to apply human values to the video below and to anthropomorphise these birds. The bond between the couple as they neck and preen and then dance their way side by side across the water - it's hard to see it as anything other than true love. And indeed, they are one of the few birds which are known to pair bond for more than one season, and this ritual is therefore not so much about finding a mate, as it is about reaffirming their continuing relationship.
Watching the BBC video, narrated by the great Sir David Attenborough and uploaded to YouTube by heavenshield, one may conclude that the Clark's Grebe gives the most overtly romantic display on this page.
6) Flame Bowerbird
When it comes to courtship, the bowerbirds are the closest rivals in the world to the birds of paradise, with many remarkable rituals among the species. However for the most part the effort is slightly less focused on elaborate dance and more on building a specialised courtship arena on the forest floor. This arena - the 'bower' - is in itself a creation worthy of note, meticulously put together and maintained, but that is not the subject of this page. The Flame Bowerbird Sericulus aureus, has one of the less intricate bowers - a short avenue of grassy stems - but in this species the orange and red male uses his colourful plumage at least as much as his bower to demonstrate his worthiness. And the way he displays it is quite extraordinary. Not graceful, but ungainly and very very strange. He begins by curiously dilating the pupils of his eyes and then slowly twisting his body such that he looks almost deformed. He'll spread his wings, and then - most oddly - he'll gradually extend his legs and raise his body up to twice his normal height. Surely an intimidating display, but the female seems to find it attractive, particularly as he also offers her little gifts like the purple berries seen here!
This video is from BBC Earth. As you may have realised, I've tried to apply at least one superlative to each display, but I'm honestly not sure what to say about this routine. But trying to put oneself in the mind of a female bird (not an easy thing for a male human to do), the way he contorts his body and shows off his credentials as a suitor perhaps makes this - in her eyes - the most erotically sensual display on this page!
7) Red-Capped Manakin
So Michael Jackson could 'moonwalk'? Basically sliding his feet backwards very fast? Well maybe people thought that was clever, but nature got there first with an infinitely more agile and colourful display from a tiny little black and red and yellow thing called a Red-Capped Manakin Ceratopipra mentalis. The Red-Capped Manakin lives in the jungles of Central America, and after viewing its courtship routine, it just has to be one of the most agile, comically backwards-walking, quick-stepping birds on the face of the Earth. Though come to think of it - are there any others? The dancing bird is a male, and as so often is the case, the female who has to choose whether he's up to the task is much more subdued in colour. She makes an appearance towards the end of the video. Take a look at the male's unforgettable antics as he tries to woo the love of its life, and try to remember, this film is not reversed, nor is it digitally manipulated. This is what the Red-Capped Manakin really does to attract his mate!
The video is uploaded by Unheard Beethoven (as his name suggests, this YouTube contributor likes to append his videos to the music of Beethoven). The bird he chooses to accompany the music here is not only comical, but must surely have the most agile footwork of any dance display on this page.
8) Blue Manakin
There's more than one kind of manakin in the rainforest and this next bird on our list is the Blue Manakin. But with the best will in the world this blue version is not as adept at dancing as his red capped relative. Indeed, the basic objective of each male bird in the video seems to be to just impress the lady with how high he can jump and flutter, and how quickly he can shuffle along the branch of a tree. As the video begins it may seem pretty ordinary - but as time goes on and none of the birds tire, so one can't help a smile spreading across the face. Because the Blue Manakin has got his red-capped cousin beat hands down when it comes to social courtship with a gentlemanly disposition. This species, which lives further south in Brazil and Argentina, typically dances in a group. According to some, only one of these birds - the alpha male - has a chance of mating. All the others are pals, there just to provide a formation display team to help him get his girl (the obscure greenish bird on the left). But quite what they get out of the ritual is unclear, and certainly in this video it's difficult to single out one bird as the lead. So maybe they are all competing for the female's affections? Either way, it's charming how they dutifully take it in turns to display and then go to the back of the queue to await their chance to impress again ... and again ... and again.