How To Attract a Mate (Avian Style)

Photo Group
Greater Prairie Chicken
Photo by: 
Paul Ruehle

What was your secret for attracting members of the opposite sex? Perhaps you have/had a favorite cologne or perfume that just drives the “ladies or gents” crazy. Could it have been a “can’t miss” pick up line? Maybe it was a new suit or dress that brought out the blue in your eyes? I know, I know it was the way you sang your love’s favorite songs.

In the bird world, there are many methods of attracting a mate. Since the sense of smell is poorly refined in birds, perfumes (or pheromones) are not used by birds. Life in the bird world is oriented around sight and sound.

Let’s start with visual attraction. A fresh, bright set of new feathers is in order for the mate attraction season. Nowhere is this more evident than with the American goldfinch. A bright yellow bird in a dull winter landscape is easy pickings for a hawk or house cat, but in the colorful spring and summer, bright yellow is not only attractive, it blends in with the vegetation.

Why aren’t the females bright and colorful? Don’t they have to attract a mate as well? Unlike the human world, females are faced with the very dangerous task of sitting exposed on a nest of eggs for a couple of weeks. If she were brightly colored, she would attract attention, thus danger to herself and her young.

Ever wonder why the birds start singing so early in the morning? Song is another important trait for attracting a mate. Singing is just not good enough for woodpeckers. While they belt out their own songs with the other birds, they will find a nice hollow log that resonates sound very well when they drum. Down spouts on houses make great loud sounds for them, especially at 6 a.m.

While I was never much of a dancer, members of the grouse group, especially the greater prairie chicken certainly are. Much like the disco era, male prairie chickens gather on open short grass areas in early mornings each spring in an effort to dance their way into a female chicken’s heart.

Perhaps my favorite mate attraction method goes to the loggerhead shrike. Shrikes are robin-sized birds that kill their prey by first stunning them with a whack of their bill then impaling them on thorns. A male will often leave all or parts of mice, frogs, large grasshoppers and even small birds hanging from thorns on a single bush. One theory is this his way of proving that he is a good provider.

Singing, dancing and sharp clothes – it does kind of sound like the making of a good movie. Choosing the right “mate” is incredibly important for birds as well as any animal. Your goal is to survive and perpetuate the species. The wrong choice doesn’t mean marriage counseling or divorce court, it often is life or death.

By Mark McKellar

SPRING 2004