The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 1: courtship and mating

Although we in the Northern hemisphere are already a little more than a month into summer, many species among our avian friends have not yet completed their breeding cycle. In my yard, many parents are still feeding begging (sometimes almost adult) children. Others are feeding young ones in the nest and some appear to be busy constructing new nests for a second or third brood. So, after a long hiatus in blogging, I decided to feature some of my bird friends, including the American goldfinch pair below (Spinus tristis) as they have worked on their new family lives in 2020.

American goldfinch P7130178 © Maria de Bruyn resSome of these photos go back to early spring. A series of misfortunes (including a crash of my laptop hard drive, a broken camera, loss of Internet) meant that I had a backlog of photos to process and then suddenly a large gap in photos taken. But I managed to recuperate some of the work and hope you enjoy the coming series of posts about the birds’ breeding and family life!

belted kingfisher

Breeding season is heralded by increasing bird song in the meadows, forests, fields and our yards. Males especially sing to attract mates and establish territories, but females treat us to songs and calls, too. This makes it easier to spot birds as the tree foliage gets thicker, especially if you have good hearing!

pine warbler P4175086© Maria de Bruyn                     white-eyed vireo P4123164 © Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)            White-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus)

Eastern meadowlark P4279816© Maria de Bruyn res            Orchard oriole P4279889© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna)     Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)

Carolina wren P3316544 © Maria de Bruyn res                 blue grosbeak P4291500© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)      Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)

summer tanager P4291520© Maria de Bruyn res

Summer tanager (Piranga rubra)

Indigo bunting P6308502© Maria de Bruyn

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Courtship is usually a sweet behavior to watch in my view. The male Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are especially devoted suitors, seeking out nice morsels to present to their intended mates, while among the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), it’s the females who loudly call to their mates for some tasty bites.

Northern cardinal P4164873© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow P4080661 © Maria de Bruyn res

A fact that perhaps many bird lovers do not know is that few male birds have a penis. Like the female birds, most species’ males have a cloaca, a cavity externally located just under the bird’s tail and internally at the end of the digestive tract. Feces, urine, sperm and ova are all deposited in the cloaca. Birds who reproduce with this organ briefly rub their cloacae together (an activity called the “cloacal kiss”) whereby sperm from the male bird’s testes are transferred into the female’s cavity to unite with her eggs. During breeding season, the cloaca is slightly swollen and protrudes a bit from the bird’s body, facilitating the transfer. In the photo of this Carolina wren, you can see a slightly darker area under the tail indicating where the cloaca is found.

Carolina wren P7059955 © Maria de Bruyn res

red-headed woodpecker P4217162© Maria de Bruyn res

When ready for mating, the red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) seem to focus mainly on chasing away rivals and then snatching a quick mating session. The female woodpecker then takes a break from the chase to rest and have a bite to eat.

Some cliff swallow males (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) seem to take advantage of females who are preoccupied with gathering mud for their nests for a quick tryst.

cliff swallows 2G0A3283© Maria de Bruyn res

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) seem to take their time for mating. This pair was occupied for at least 5-10 minutes in preparing for the upcoming production of eggs. At times, it seemed like the male was giving the female instructions on what to do once “the deed” was done!

brown-headed cowbird P5097676 © Maria de Bruyn res   brown-headed cowbird P5097677 © Maria de Bruyn res

Many birders do not like the cowbirds because they are parasitic nesters, i.e., they lay an egg in another bird’s nest so that the other bird will raise the young. Since the cowbird baby usually hatches before the other eggs, they either monopolize the food that the foster parents bring or they may even destroy the eggs laid by their foster mother.

brown-headed cowbird P5097682 © Maria de Bruyn res      brown-headed cowbird P5097686© Maria de Bruyn res

It’s been posited that the cowbirds evolved to use this strategy because they followed the bison in migration and therefore couldn’t stay in one place to raise their young. Others believe, however, that the birds developed the practice because dispersing their eggs over several nests gave their young a better chance of reaching adulthood.

brown-headed cowbird P5097689© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow P6256620© Maria de Bruyn sgd resThe quickest mating scenario I’ve witnessed came from a pair of sweet little chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina). I’d seen the two fluttering together at the feeders and had noted one sparrow chasing another away – which I now think was the victorious suitor driving away a rival. Then one July afternoon, the two flew to a dying cedar and sat close to one another on a branch. Suddenly, Mr. Victory mounted his mate but for what only seemed a few seconds – really very quick work indeed! She sat there with her rear end elevated for a bit and then the two went back to feeding – and soon after I saw them collecting nesting materials.

chipping sparrow P6256622© Maria de Bruyn res    chipping sparrow P6256623© Maria de Bruyn res

The birds in which the males do have a penis include some duck and swan species, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwi and geese. They differ from other birds in that development of the penis is NOT stopped in the male bird embryos during development (the case in cloacal birds).

The mallard males (Anas platyrhynchos), like some other ducks, unfortunately do not treat their partners well. They may mount the female very roughly. During a mating, she may be dunked underwater repeatedly and at length; occasionally, this results in her drowning. This behavior has been the subject of various studies and some newspaper articles with sensationalistic headlines (e.g., “The horrible thing you never knew about ducks)”.

Mallard duck P1232837 © Maria de Bruyn

Mallard duck P1232839 © Maria de Bruyn     Mallard duck P1232840© Maria de Bruyn

Once the actual mating is over, the birds devote most of their energy toward building a nest. While female ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) must construct her nest and tend her babies alone, many other birds cooperate in the venture, like the Eastern bluebirds. Their efforts are featured in the next blog. (And if you’d like to see a previous post on courtship, it is here.)

ruby-throated hummingbird 2G0A4084© Maria de Bruyn res

Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The dance of the sandhill cranes

sandhill crane I77A7926© Maria de Bruyn resDuring my trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had the privilege of seeing what birders call “lifers” – bird species that one sees for the first time. One spectacular sighting – for me – was of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). I didn’t spot them first; I was traveling with two photographers from Michigan who were used to seeing these beautiful birds in their backyards. We had already passed but they kindly returned so I could take a few photos – and then to our delight, the pair of birds performed their mating dance for us!

These birds mate for life and may live to a considerable age. The oldest known sandhill crane was 36.5 years old.

sandhill crane I77A7910© Maria de Bruyn resWhile many of these birds are grayish in color, some have rusty orange coloring, attributable to iron-rich mud in their environment. In Yellowstone, the birds use their long bills to spread the reddish mud over their feathers when they preen and this helps to camouflage them when nesting. Cranes that are not yet mature also have reddish upper parts. Their heads are topped by a red patch.

 

sandhill crane I77A7925© Maria de Bruyn res

 

These birds have very long legs and necks as you can see. Their windpipes curl up in the sternum and give their sounds a lower pitch. Mated pairs will sing in unison, with the female calling twice for every call that her mate makes.

 

 

The males dance when they display to one another. Courtship dances can involve bowing followed by leaps into the air. They may stretch their wings and pump their heads as well.

SANDHILL CRANE I77A7932© Maria de Bruyn RES

sandhill crane I77A7934© Maria de Bruyn res

The pair would dance and stop, dance and stop. A real pas de deux (in French and ballet terms)!

sandhill crane I77A7931© Maria de Bruyn res

sandhill crane I77A7936© Maria de Bruyn ressandhill crane I77A7938© Maria de Bruyn res

sandhill crane I77A7955© Maria de Bruyn ressandhill crane I77A7974© Maria de Bruyn res

Perhaps some ballet terminology was inspired (unconsciously) by the graceful cranes.

sandhill crane I77A7915© Maria de Bruyn res

Grand jeté (jump from one foot to the other)

sandhill crane I77A8005© Maria de Bruyn res

Sur les pointes (on tiptoes)

sandhill crane I77A7935© Maria de Bruyn res

Demi-plié (Half-bend of the knees)

`11111111111111111 sandhill crane I77A7940© Maria de Bruyn

Fondu (sinking down)

Dancers have tried to mimic cranes and while they created a beautiful dance, the sandhill cranes had more varied moves.

sandhill crane I77A7947© Maria de Bruyn res sandhill crane I77A7952© Maria de Bruyn res

sandhill crane I77A8010© Maria de Bruyn ressandhill crane I77A7917© Maria de Bruyn2 res

 

 

sandhill crane I77A7928© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The courtship dance was a tour de force and a highlight of my first day at this national park. In hindsight, I wish I had taped it but I was so enthralled, I forgot. 🙂

 

Corvid courtship – something to crow about

American crow DK7A7017©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A5544© Maria de Bruyn resAs I was sorting out photos of birds in our recent snow and sleet storm, my attention was drawn by the raucous cawing of one of our neighborhood crows. He had found some apple slices that I had put out with the bird seed and was one happy bird. He spent a lot of time calling, presumably to alert family members to the presence of this desired food source. And his enthusiasm made me decide to post a blog about corvid courtship now, since this late winter/early springtime ritual may be coming sooner than I thought.

Depending on geographic location and weather conditions, some birds begin nest building quite early in the year and American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are among the early mating pairs and nest builders. Last year, a male crow who visited my home discovered and enjoyed both grape jelly and apple slices around early March.American crow DK7A7423©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A0779© Maria de Bruyn

 

 

 

 

American crow DK7A5569© Maria de Bruyn resHe even tried to add the homemade suet to his diet but he was a bit large to balance well on the small feeder.

Last year, he only had to visit my yard a few times before he was accompanied by his mate. She would sit on a branch or on the ground and caw loudly like him, but she was demanding that he feed her.

American crow DK7A7678©Maria de Bruyn res

He met her demands but was not about to just give up his treats. He would often grab a piece of apple, fly up to a branch near her but then first eat about half of it himself as she continued her raucous cries for food.

American crow DK7A7321©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A4616© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A7022©Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

She could have easily flown down to the ground to grab a piece of apple but refused. On a few occasions, she did fly down but just refused to pick up the apple herself, waiting for him to stuff it down her throat.

 

American crow DK7A8031© Maria de Bruyn res

 

He fed her in the trees and on the ground, pushing the food way down her throat.

 

 


American crow DK7A7655©Maria de Bruyn (2) res

American crow DK7A7672©Maria de Bruyn res

Some preening went on as they perched in the backyard oak tree, too.

American crow DK7A8104© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A7504©Maria de Bruyn (2) resAmerican crow DK7A7530©Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

 

 

.I learned that offspring will remain with their parents up to five years. These “helpers” will assist in feeding the female as she incubates eggs and also bring food to their new siblings.

American crow DK7A5642© Maria de Bruyn res

It seems that our warm days in December and January this year may be getting my faithful crow in a romantic mood a bit sooner this year.The crows are loud, especially when three or more show up at a time, but I do enjoy their visits and look forward to watching the corvid courtship again this spring.

American crow DK7A8461©Maria de Bruyn res