In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys began gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place. Hearing a tom turkey gobble is as sure a sign of spring as the sight of one strutting.
At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major carbunkles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for photo op.)
A majority of male passerines, or perching birds (also called songbirds) claim territories and secure mates through song. With the help of a syrinx, or voice box, musical notes, some more complex than others, are created. There are species of birds in different orders that use other parts of their bodies for territorial and courtship displays, among them ruffed grouse (wings), American woodcock (wings) and Wilson’s snipe (tail).
Male ruffed grouse, also known as partridge, are aggressively territorial throughout their adult lives, defending roughly 6-10 acres of woodland which is usually shared with one or two hens. The male grouse claims his property by engaging in a “drumming” display during which he creates a sound reminiscent of a lawn mower starting up. This sound is made by the male beating his wings against the air to create a vacuum, as lightning does when it makes thunder. The drummer usually stands on a log, stone or mound of dirt roughly 10-12 inches above the ground when drumming and this substrate is called a “drumming log.” He does not strike the log to make the noise, he only uses the drumming log as a stage for his display.
Grouse occasionally drum in the summer and fall, but in the spring, drumming becomes more frequent and prolonged as the male advertises his location to hens seeking a mate. This phenomenon is heard but rarely seen by humans; Lang Elliott has captured both the sight and sound of a ruffed grouse drumming in this extraordinary video: http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/ruffed-grouse/ (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)
Equality of the sexes has yet to reach some avian species. Among them is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only species of hummingbird that breeds in the Northeast. After courtship and mating takes place, the male has next to no contact with his mate(s), possibly visiting them during nest construction, but he does not lift a feather to assist in raising their offspring. By herself the female selects a nest site, builds a nest (six to ten days), lays two eggs, incubates the eggs (12 – 14 days), broods them (9 days), removes their waste, or fecal sacs, for the first two days (after which the nestlings eject their droppings from the rim of the nest) and feeds them (a total of 22 – 25 days — while young are in nest, and for 4 – 7 days after they fledge). Males spend the summer feeding, preening, bathing, stretching their wings and fanning their tails, sleeping, roosting and sunbathing. Not a bad life for him; an exhausting one for her. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)
Great Blue Herons have returned to their nesting colonies in the Northeast and their breeding season is underway. These birds are monogamous for the duration of any given breeding season. A study found that most Great Blue Herons choose a new mate every year. After elaborate courtship displays have taken place, the pair copulates, frequently on the nest, and usually in the early morning or evening, as the female is away from the nest mid-day.
Barred Owls call year-round but their vocalizations increase and expand in February when courtship begins. No longer are their calls limited to their year-round “who-cooks-for-you — who-cooks-for-you-all.” Males and females engage in “duets,” as well as many other vocalizations, including cackles, hoots, caws and gurgles. Those who sleep with open windows may feel like they are in the middle of a jungle inhabited by hundreds of raucous monkeys.
Barred Owl courtship is not strictly vocal. Male Barred Owls display by swaying back and forth and raising their wings, while sidling along a branch in close proximity to a female. Courtship feeding and mutual preening also occur prior to copulation. The nights of February are filled with amorous avian calls and gestures.