Love is in the air as avian courtship begins

February 5, 2012 12:00 am
  • Goldfinch: looking for love
    Goldfinch: looking for love
  • Pileated woodpecker
    Pileated woodpecker
  • House finch
    House finch
  • Black-capped chickadee
    Black-capped chickadee
  • American Kestrel
    American Kestrel
  • Cardinal
  • White throated Sparrow
    White throated Sparrow
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With Valentine's Day right around the corner, people everywhere are preparing to ignite, rekindle or fan the flames of love.

While chocolate, jewelry and roses are popular ways to say "I love you," other species are also feeling amorous and preparing to perform their own courtship rituals. Love is in the air for many feathered friends, and their ways of expressing it at times mirror our own.

"There are many interesting parallels between bird courtship and human courtship," said Caitlyn Stone, education program coordinator for the National Aviary. "Most people are familiar with peacocks and their fancy tails or the robin in their backyard singing, but there are many variations on bird courtship and some of them are not all that different from ones people may be familiar with."

Stone will explore the diversity of courtship behaviors exhibited by birds around the world and locally in her program, Hearts and Flyers: A Look at Bird Courtship, 3:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at the National Aviary on the North Side. Admission is free with general admission. For more information, visit

One parallel between avian and human courtship is the act of giving gifts in an attempt to woo a mate. Stone said male birds will offer potential mates food or nesting materials as a way of signaling their intentions and showing their ability to provide.

A large variety of birds also dance or "show off" she said, such as male peacocks, which are notorious for spreading their magnificent plumage in an effort to woo the opposite sex.

"It's primarily the females that do the choosing, which is why the males spend so much time trying to impress them," she said. "Over time, they essentially sort of shape these really strange behaviors, elaborate displays and really bizarre courtship rituals based on the males that they choose."

While males are the dominant pursuers, Stone said there are some species in which the females take the leading role. One example is Wilson's phalarope, an aquatic shorebird that breeds in northern prairie wetlands and winters on South American salt lakes. Female phalaropes court males, display colorful plumage and fight off rivals.

Stone said Western Pennsylvania is home to some particularly interesting courtship rituals with some that begin as early as February.

Great horned owls are currently gearing up to nest and can be heard calling back and forth to one another. Stone said they breed early in the year and time the hatching of their chicks to coincide with an abundance of small game, their main food source.

First Published 2012-02-11 01:53:47
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