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Courtship

Courtship

Courtship is a collection of instinctive behaviors that result in mating and eventual reproduction. Courtship is important because it helps to ensure that breeding will occur. Organisms within a species must reproduce successfully in order for the species to survive. Courtship has many other functions, including mate selection, regulation of sexual readiness so that the reproductive physiology of a pair may be synchronized, the reduction of hostility between potential sex partners in territorial animals, and species recognition. Courtship may be rather simple, involving a small number of visual, chemical, or auditory stimuli, or it may be a highly complex series of acts involving several types of communication. Some of the most complex courtship behaviors are found in birds.

Mating Systems

In addition to complex courtship patterns, birds also have interesting and varied breeding or mating systems. The most common type of mating system is monogamy, which resembles a traditional human marriage. Ninety percent of birds are monogamous. In this type of mating system, two birds come together or form a pair bond for the procreation of young. The length of the pair bond varies greatly between species and between individuals. A mated pair may remain together for life, as in the case of albatrosses, petrels, swans, geese, eagles, and some owls and parrots. They may remain together for several years, as in the case of American robins, tree swallows, and mourning doves. They may remain together for one year, which is the case with most birds; just for one brood, as is the case with house wrens; or for even shorter periods.

The two birds in a pair are usually faithful to each other during the time that they are together. Pair faithfulness appears to depend on the outward appearance of a bird's mate. This might be a simple matter of recognition. Ringed plovers, for example, establish enduring bonds. In one known instance involving two couples, however, one of the mates in each pair had lost a foot and was rejected by its former mate. Fortunately, the two rejected birds were opposite sexes. They met, paired, and successfully raised normal offspring.

It is difficult to determine, however, the exact nature of the physiological bond that holds a pair together. Other factors may be territory, familiarity with one another, or even something similar to human affection. In fact, it is thought that affectionate bonds actually exist between birds. On two separate occasions, it was observed that the partner of a black duck refused to leave its dying mate when the rest of the flock fled from hunters.

Less common than monogamous pair bonding is polygamy, or the practice of having more than one mate at a time. Polygamy occurs in a wide variety of birds, including peacocks, ostriches, and rheas. Polygamy is usually observed as either polygyny or polyandry. In polygyny, one male mates with two or more females, but the females mate with only one male. The inseminated females incubate their eggs in separate nests and rear their young unassisted by the male. This mating system is most likely to happen when males hold territories that vary greatly in the quality of resources. Important resources may include food, water, and shelter. Females will tend to choose superior males, or those with high-quality territories. If a male in a high-quality territory already has a mate, the new female will usually make a choice to either become his second mate or select a male that holds an inferior territory. If she selects a superior male, both will benefit from increased reproduction. Female marsh wrens sometimes mate with already-mated males, even when bachelor males are available. The number of females mated to each male is related to the amount of growing vegetation in the males' territories, which, in turn, appears to be an indicator of the availability of insect food. Studies of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds and indigo and lark buntings also show relationships between territory quality and the likelihood that a male holding a given territory will have more than one mate.

In polyandry, one female mates with two or more males. The word polyandry actually means "many males." This mating system is rare and occurs in less than 1 percent of all bird speciesmostly in shorebirds. Polyandry is often accompanied by a reversal of sex roles in which males perform all or almost all of the parental duties. Females in this mating system also compete for mates, such as in the case of the northern jacana, Harris' hawk, acorn woodpecker, and spotted sandpiper.

Other unusual mating systems that birds exhibit are promiscuity, cooperative mating, and lekking. In promiscuous pair bonding, males and females mate indiscriminately. In cooperative pair bonding, two females usually rear broods in the same nest simultaneously, or nonbreeding birds serve as helpers in the nest of one or more breeding pairs. The male is usually not involved in caring for the eggs or the young. A remarkable exception is the American rhea, in which several females lay their eggson occasion as many as fiftyin one nest, where the male incubates them by himself. He is also responsible for the care of the young.

In lekking, males engage in communal displays at a traditional site known as a lek. In North America, males of certain members of the grouse family, including prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, and sage grouse, compete for mates at leks.

During these elaborate courtship displays, male birds transmit information by special social signals. They call and inflate brightly colored air sacs on their necks while repeatedly carrying out ritualized dances. Females approach the lek, choose and mate with a male from the display group, and then leave to nest and rear the young alone. Male grouse have a hierarchy and often subdivide territories at a lek, with a dominant male usually holding the most central position and mating with the most females. Lekking species of grouse tend to live in open habitats. Not all lekking bird species live in open areas, however. In the tropics, many forest-dwelling birds such as cotingas, manakins, and hermit hummingbirds display at leks on forest floors.

Courtship Displays

While birds have a wide variety of mating systems, they have an equally vast array of courtship behaviors or displays including dancing, singing, sparring with bills, kissing, caressing, entwining necks, nibbling at each other's feathers, and side-by-side body contact. Some male birds even take on a completely different physical appearance during breeding season, when unique features such as specialized combs, wattles, and pouches appear.

Some aspects of nest building have been incorporated into the displays of some birds. Male and female penguins physically look the samesame size, coloration, and feathers, for example. Male penguins, which are unable to determine sex visually, have adopted a trial-and-error method to solve this problem. In a typical courtship, a male may place a pebble at the feet of another bird. If it is a male, it will start a fight. Females typically ignore the gesture or form a pair bond. The stones may be used later in nest building.

The bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea (relatives of crows and birds of paradise) provide an example of a special category of courtship display. The males construct special display mounds known as bowers. In an attempt to gain the favor of females, less attractive male bowerbirds build the most elaborate bowers while the more attractive males seem to build less elaborate bowers. One common type of bower architecture consists of two parallel hedges of interlaced grasses or twigs stuck in the ground. In the space between the hedges and interlaced grass or twigs is an area where the male may do some of his displaying.

Another type of bower, called the maypole bower because of its height, is formed from a stack of twigs erected around a vertical sapling or arranged in the form of an open-sided, teepee-like hut whose roof center is supported by a sapling. These bowers are often very large, as many as 3 meters (10 feet) high. The floor under or in front of this type of bower is often cleared of all litter and decorated with colorful objects such as leaves, flowers, fruits, sun-bleached bones, snail shells, parrot feathers, seeds, bits of colored glass, paper, and even jewelry. Some bowerbirds incorporate living orchids into the inner walls of the bower, while others paint the inner walls with mixtures of saliva, grass, or charcoal. One species, the satin bowerbird, paints the mixture onto the walls with a brush of fibersa rare example of a tool-using animal. This type of bowerbird also has bright blue eyes and favors blue objects. His bower is frequently decorated with blue flowers, blue leaves, and blue-tinted mushrooms. Mating may occur inside the elaborate bowers.

After fertilization, the female builds a nest at a distance and incubates and raises young there. After the young have fledged, she may bring them to the bower where the family engages in a communal display. This may be an imprinting behavior to educate the young in the intricacies of this species' display etiquette.

see also Behavior; Reproduction, Asexual and Sexual.

Stephanie A. Lanoue

Bibliography

Andrew, R. J. "The Displays Given by Passerines in Courtship and Reproductive Fighting: A Review." Ibis 103A (1961):315-348.

Bednarz, J. C. "Pair and Group Reproductive Success, Polyandry, and Cooperative Breeding in Harris' Hawks." Auk 104 (1987):393-404.

Birkhead, T., and A. Moller. "Avian Mating Games." New Scientist (1986):34-36.

Ehrlich, Paul R., David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Lenington, S., and T. Mace. "Mate Fidelity and Nesting Site Tenacity in the Killdeer." Auk 92 (1975):149-151.

Reynolds, J. D. "Mating System and Nest Biology of the Red-Necked Phalarope: What Constrains Polyandry?" Ibis 129 (1987):225-242.

Welty, J. C., and L. Baptista. The Life of Birds, 4th ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1990.

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courtship

courtship Behaviour in animals that plays a part in the initial attraction of a mate or as a prelude to copulation. Courtship often takes the form of displays that have evolved through ritualization; some are derived from other contexts (e.g. food begging in some birds). Chemical stimuli (see pheromone) are also important in many mammals and insects.

As well as ensuring that the prospective mate is of the same species, the male's courtship performance allows females to choose between different males. The later stages of courtship may involve both partners in an alternating series of displays that inhibit aggression and fear responses and ensure synchrony of sexual arousal.

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courtship

court·ship / ˈkôrtˌship/ • n. a period during which a couple develop a romantic relationship, esp. with a view to marriage. ∎  behavior designed to persuade someone to marry one. ∎  the behavior of male birds and other animals aimed at attracting a mate. ∎  the process of attempting to win a person's favor or support: the country's courtship of foreign investors.

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"courtship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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courtship

courtship The behaviour that precedes the sexual act and involves displays and posturings, usually by the male partner.

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courtship

courtship The behaviour that precedes the sexual act and involves displays and posturings by the male partner.

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