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Love is in the Air

Avian Courtship

Understanding courtship behavior of birds can help birders recognize how birds act in their backyard, and with practice it is possible to identify birds based on their mating behavior. Furthermore, if a birder recognizes the courtship rituals of a bird, they can learn to look nearby for the other bird that the displaying bird is hoping to impress.

Why Use Courtship Behavior

The ultimate purpose of courtship is to attract a receptive mate, but there are several other purposes behind the courtship behavior of different bird species. The intricate moves of a courtship dance and the recognizable bird sounds and songs used to attract mates can help distinguish species so birds are sure to choose compatible mates. Different courtship behav­iors also serve to reduce territorial aggression between birds, letting them relax together to form a pair bond. Depending on the type of behavior, how the birds react in courtship can also dis­play strength, health and mating desirability, allowing different birds to choose the best partners and ensure viable offspring.

Types of Courtship Behavior

There are several different types of courtship rituals that bird species can use for finding a mate. Most species will use several methods, but they can vary greatly between different birds.

hooded warbler sitting on branch singing
Hooded warbler singing ©Jesse Gordon


Singing is one of the most common ways birds attract a mate. The intricacy of the song, or the variety of different songs one bird can produce, help to advertise its maturity and intel­ligence – desirable characteristics for a healthy mate. Singing can also advertise the boundaries of one bird’s territory, warning off competition. For some species, only one gender (usually the male) will sing, while other species may create a duet as part of the bonding ritual.

Flamboyant plumage colors and elaborate displays of prominent feathers, skin sacs or body shape can show off how strong and healthy a bird is, advertising its suitability as a mate. Peafowl are one of the best-known bird species for their stunning display with the males’ extensive fan, though other birds may use subtle changes in posture to show off their plumage to the best effect.


Pair of Clark's Grebes doing their mating dance on a lake ©Sunil Singh
Pair of Clark's Grebes doing their mating dance ©Sunil Singh

Physical movements, from daring dives to intricate sequences including wing flaps, head dips, or different steps can be part of a courtship ritual. In many species, the male alone will dance for his female while she observes his actions, while in other species both partners will interact with one another. Dance mistakes show inexperience or hesitancy and would likely not lead to a successful mating.

A pair of burrowing owls preening each other during courtship ©Loi Nguyen
Burrowing Owls preening each other ©Loi Nguyen


Close contact between male and female birds can be part of the courtship rituals to help diffuse their normal spatial boundaries and aggression. The birds may lightly preen one another, sit with their bodies touching or otherwise lean on one another to show that they are not intending to harm their partner.

Northern Cardinals exchanging food during courtship ©Bridge Cull
Northern Cardinals exchanging food during courtship ©Bridge Cull


Offering food is another common courtship behavior for many species. Typically, a male may bring a morsel to the female, demonstrating he is able not only to find food, but he can share it and is able to provide for her while she incubates eggs or tends the brood. For some species the male may just bring food and transfer it to the female for her to feed, while in other species will place a seed or insect directly in her mouth just as he might be expected to do when helping feed hungry nestlings.


Some birds seek to attract a mate by showing off their architectural skills. Constructing nests before the female arrives is a way for males to claim territory and show the suitable nest­ing areas they can defend. They may also decorate the nest with pebbles, moss, flowers or even litter to make it more eye-catching. The female may then choose the nest she prefers, or she may still build her own after mating with her chosen male.

A pair of cattle egrets exchanging branches while building a nest
Cattle Egrets building nest ©Barbara Saffir

There are many ways that birds seek to attract a mate, and understanding bird courtship behavior can help birders better appreciate the complexity of the bird relationships forming in their backyard.

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