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Courtship

Common Gartersnakes Mating

During these first days of April, Common Gartersnakes emerge from their hibernacula and often bask in the sun near the den where they spent the winter.  (At this time they are more approachable than later in the season, should you desire a close look at one.)  Males usually appear first; when the females appear, the males follow them in hot pursuit.

Common Gartersnakes are known for their impressive courtship ritual.  Prior to copulation, as many as a hundred males will often writhe around a single female, forming a mass which is referred to as a “mating ball.”  The male closest to the female rubs his chin on the head, back and sides of the female while aligning himself with her and eventually mating takes place.  When it does, the other males that were in the mating ball leave and seek out other females.  Female gartersnakes mate once; male may mate with several females.  (Photo by Sally Fellows)

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Coyotes Courting & Mating

1-24-18 coyote tracks 072While I can’t say definitively that these are the tracks of mating Coyotes as I was not witness to the activity itself, it is a distinct possibility. Female Coyotes come into heat only once a year, for two to five days sometime between January and March. For two to three months prior to mating, there is increased howling and scent-marking (often in tandem, one after the other) on the part of both male and female. A pair of Coyotes may mate with each other for up to 12 consecutive years, but not necessarily for life. (Inset photo is of female in estrus scent-marking.)

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Tom Turkeys Gobbling & Strutting

3-30-17 tom turkey IMG_7637In 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.)

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Hooded Mergansers Courting

3-10-17 hooded mergansers 186

Before Hooded Mergansers seek out their nesting cavities in snags and stumps they engage in extensive courtship displays. Males tend to outdo females when it comes to these displays. As the accompanying photograph illustrates, courtship occurs in small groups consisting of at least one female and several males. Males engage in many more types of displays than females. The extent of female courtship consists mainly of head-bobbing and head-pumping. Male displays include crest-raising, head-throws with turn-the-back-of-the-head, head-pumping, head-shaking, upward-stretch, upward-stretch with wing-flap and ritualized (repeated) drinking.

Head-throws  (see male in foreground of photo) are the most elaborate display. With crest raised, males bring their head abruptly backward touching their back. A rolling frog-like crraaa-crrrooooo call is given as the head is returned to the upright position and turned away from the intended female. This call sounds so much like a frog that the first time I observed courting Hooded Mergansers I thought it was pure coincidence that I was watching male mergansers display while Leopard Frogs were simultaneously giving their snore-like call. In actuality, the displays as well as the vocal accompaniment were being produced by the mergansers.  (Note that one female Hooded Merganser appears not to be all that impressed.)

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Coyote Breeding Season Approaching

1-23-17-two-coyote-trails-img_6155While coyotes form packs consisting of two breeding adults (the alpha pair) and up to eight offspring, they often are solitary hunters, leaving only one set of tracks. At this time of year, however, it is not uncommon to find two coyotes traveling together. The reason for this is that the peak of coyote breeding season is in late January and February, and for two or three months prior to this they engage in pre-mating behavior. Signs to look and listen for include two sets of tracks (headed in the same direction) that periodically separate and then rejoin one another, scent marking and duet howling.

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Vixens Screaming

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the time of year when you might wake up in the middle of the night and hear a rasping, prolonged scream. It could well be a female red fox, issuing forth a “vixen scream” designed to travel long distances and attract a mate. This scream is not limited to females in heat – males also can scream, as can females at other times of the year. Once you have heard it, you will never forget this sound. Red foxes have numerous vocalizations, among which this scream and a high-pitched “bark” are the most common. You can hear several of a red fox’s more than twenty calls on this website: http://miracleofnature.org/blog/red-fox-screams (Photo by Susan Holland)

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Great Horned Owls Courting

1-22-15  great horned owl IMG_5973The intense hooting of Great Horned Owls begins in late December or early January, about a month before actual mating takes place. Males call during most seasons of the year, but the period when the males are hooting vigorously lasts for a month or six weeks. During the mating season the deep, rich tones of the males are occasionally interspersed with the higher and huskier notes of the females. The answering calls of the females are heard for only a week or two, toward the end of the six-week period.

Eventually, when a male and female approach each other, they do a sort of courtship “dance.” The male cocks his tail, swells his white bib (see photo), and with much bobbing and jerking utters a series of deep sonorous calls that elicit calling responses by the female. He cautiously approaches the female, continuing much tail-bobbing and posturing. The owls nod, bow, and spread their wings as well as shake their heads. Courting pairs have been observed engaging in high-pitched giggling, screaming, and bill-snapping. Mutual bill rubbing and preening also occurs. Copulation concludes the courtship ritual, with both owls hooting at a rate of 4 or 5 hoots per second throughout copulation, which lasts 4 – 7 seconds. (Photo: Great Horned Owl, in captivity)

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Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

11-27-14  HAPPY THANKSGIVING IMG_7637Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks. A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female. The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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American Bitterns Displaying

5-3-14  American Bittern3  058American Bitterns are very secretive marsh-dwelling birds and have coloration so cryptic that you can be looking right at one and not see it, especially if it employs its “look like a reed” stance, with bill raised towards the sky. Like other members of the Heron family, American Bitterns possess plumes. These large, white shoulder feathers are visible only at this time of year, during territorial and courtship displays and just prior to copulation, when they are erected. Not only do these plumes impress female bitterns, but they make it much easier for humans to spot the displaying males.

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Evening Grosbeak Bills Changing Color

3-10-13 evening grosbeak female IMG_0734Breeding season changes in a bird’s physical appearance can involve more than a set of new feathers. The colors of birds’ feet, legs and bills can also change in different seasons. One transition most people are aware of is the European Starling’s bill which is black in winter and turns yellow as the breeding season approaches. Male and female Evening Grosbeaks also undergo a change in bill color, from bone-colored in the winter, to a greenish hue in the spring. Hormones are largely responsible for these pigmentation changes which often play a role in courtship behavior. Usually change in the color of the bill is most pronounced among birds which retain the same plumage color and pattern throughout the year, such as starlings and Evening Grosbeaks. (Photo-female Evening Grosbeak)

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Thrashing: Moose Rut Sign

10-23-13 moose thrashing sign 051During their breeding season, or rut, bull moose display a number of behaviors that are not commonly seen any other time of year, and many of these behaviors leave obvious signs, including broken branches, scraped bark, wallows and tracks. Bulls roam their home ranges, thrashing their antlers back and forth against shrubbery and saplings while leaving their scent. The sound of their antlers beating against vegetation is thought to signal the bull’s dominance to other males, as well as serve to attract females. The pictured broken balsam fir sapling and its frayed bark are evidence of this behavior.

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Spotted Sandpiper Role Reversal

6-19-13 spotted sandpiper 412Spotted Sandpipers are a relatively easy shorebird to identify, with their spotted breasts, their constant body-bobbing/teetering and the stiff beat of their wings. Although they are a shorebird, they can be found near freshwater ponds and streams throughout North America. Spotted Sandpipers differ from most birds in that the male and female roles are completely reversed when it comes to breeding – from courtship to parental care. The females establish and defend their territory, often arriving on nesting grounds before the males. Females court the males, performing display flights as well as strutting displays on the ground. Males, usually less aggressive and smaller in size, do the lion’s share of incubating the eggs and brooding the young chicks.


American Toads Calling

5-13-13 A. toad singing2 096Most of us are familiar with the American toad’s breeding call – a long trill that advertises his presence to potential mates in the area. However, American toads have three other calls, as well. A shortened version of the courtship trill, which sounds like a chirp, is given by male toad with its vocal pouch just slightly inflated. A second, release call, is often heard when a male is clasped by another male. (If you want to hear it, just pick up a male toad during the breeding season – it will vibrate as it chirps right in your hand. The combination of the call and the vibrations usually causes a clasping male to release his grip.) A fourth call, which has been recorded in the lab but not in the field, is a series of quiet clicks given by the male while clasping a female.


Great Blue Herons Mating

4-22-13 great blue herons copulating2  IMG_8954Numerous displays lead up to the mating of great blue herons – neck stretching, bill clacking, wing preening, circling flights, twig shaking, crest raising, neck fluffing, to name but a few. After this elaborate courtship comes copulation, which is not nearly as showy. Copulation typically takes place on the nest. The male places one foot gently in the center of the female’s back. The female leans forward, bends her ankles and holds her wings slightly away from her sides while the male lowers himself, often flapping his wings. Once the job is done, the male flies off. If you look closely you can perhaps make out that the male is grasping the female’s head/neck while copulation takes place.


Wood Duck Courtship Displays

4-3-13 wood ducks  IMG_6045It’s been my life’s dream to witness the fledging of young wood ducks from their tree cavity nest in response to their mother’s calls below – perhaps this will be the year! Adult wood ducks have recently returned to northern New England, having already formed mating pairs. They now proceed to perform a number of courtship displays which enable them to maintain this pair bond. The most common display involves the male’s turning the back of his head towards the female as he swims in front of her while holding his wings and tail high. Chin-lifting, feather-shaking, wing-preening, neck-stretching and bill-jerking are just some of the displays that occur during wood duck courtship.


Tufted Titmice Singing

titmouse IMG_3625Winter must be on the wane, as a tufted titmouse was recently singing its fast-repeated, clear whistle song, “Peter—Peter—Peter,” in nearby woods. Male titmice repeat this phrase over and over, up to 11 times in succession. Occasionally females sing a softer version of this song. The calls of tufted titmice, on the other hand, are very nasal and mechanical-sounding. Songs are typically more musical and complex than calls, and are often sung only by males during the breeding season, to attract a mate and claim territory. Calls, on the other hand, have many purposes – there are calls for aggression, warning, identification, flocking, hunger and to announce a food source, among others.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Moose in Rut

The mating season for moose (Alces alces) is just starting, and it peaks around the end of September or the first week in October.  By this time bulls have shed the velvet that provided a blood supply to their antlers while they were growing during the summer.  Occasionally you see the remains of the velvet hanging from their antlers at this time of year (see photograph).  During mating season, bulls are rushing through the forest, seeking a receptive cow and engaging in mock battles with other bulls for the female’s attention.  A bull uses his antlers in these challenges, engaging in “antler-pushing” with other males.  He also uses his antlers as a tool for thrashing brush and for rooting plants from the bottom of ponds.


Indigo Bunting

There is something irrepressibly cheery about the song of an Indigo Bunting.  The male’s paired notes ring out from a high perch, where this unbelievably blue bird positively sparkles in the sunlight. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” site, the male sings as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and for the rest of the day averages a song per minute.  To hear an indigo bunting sing, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds


Spring Peepers Still Calling

Although Spring Peepers emerged from hibernation about two months ago, on warm nights the males are still advertising for mates and will continue to do so into June. Let your ears guide you to the peepers as they call repeatedly, often while perched on low vegetation near water. Armed with a flashlight, look for the movement of their vocal sacs as they inflate and deflate as the peepers sing. 


Spotted Salamanders Emerge From Hibernation

Under the stealth of a rainy night, subterranean-dwelling spotted salamanders migrated to their ancestral breeding pools this week.  Groups, or “congresses,” of males gather, followed by females. Once a female locates a congress of males, she eventually pairs up with one of them. The pair of salamanders then engages in a courtship dance ending with the male depositing a tiny white packet of sperm called a spermatophore on the bottom of the vernal pool. If he has sufficiently stimulated the female, she picks up this packet into her cloaca, or vent, and fertilization takes place. The next morning the only sign that spotted salamanders have been and gone are the unclaimed spermatophores scattered on the leaves that lie on the pool bottom.  


Spring Peepers Calling

I heard my first peeper on March 18th, roughly two weeks earlier than in past years.  These tiny members of the treefrog family begin mating rituals shortly after the end of hibernation. The males gather at small pools by the hundreds. Each male establishes a small territory and begins calling the familiar high-pitched “peep” quite frequently. The louder and faster he peeps, the better his chances are of attracting a receptive female. Males usually compete in trios, and the male with the lowest-pitched call usually starts the vocal competition.  If you look closely at the peeper in the photograph you can see some snow fleas hitching a ride.  


Song Sparrows

The return of song sparrows and their energetic songs tells us spring has definitely arrived.  The males sing a sequence of notes, including clear whistles and buzzy sounds.  According to nature recordist Lang Elliott, each male has about ten songs in its repertoire and tends to repeat one pattern for several minutes before changing to another. Although other birds may produce more musical songs, you’d have to search far and wide for more enthusiastic outbursts than those of a song sparrow.


Cedar Waxwing Feather

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Several of the secondary flight feathers (inner wing feathers) of Cedar Waxwings and Bohemian Waxwings possess tiny, brilliant red tips. (As Dale Martin pointed out, there is a bit of white next to the red tips of Bohemian Waxwings’ feathers, but those who guessed either waxwing should take a bow.) These “waxy droplets” give the bird its common name, along with its love of red cedar berries.  These drops of “wax” are actually the widened, flattened ends of the feather shafts.  The color is derived from a carotenoid pigment, astaxanthin, which they get from their diet (cedar fruit and other berries).  Younger birds possess fewer red tips than older birds. Ornithologist Peter Stettenheim conjectures that since the waxwing’s ability to find berries probably improves with age, the number, size and coloration of these tips may indicate the birds’ foraging ability.  Research in the 1980’s indicates that these red tips serve as markers in mating, providing visual clues to potential mates about each other’s age, which correlateswith egg size, clutch size, as well as ability to find and deliver food.  Cedar Waxwings tend to mate with individuals of their own age.