Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The song and dance

As humans, we have a multitude of ways and means used to attract that significant other. We learn and practise our approach while we grow up, and if we are fortunate we get better at it as we go along.  From the traditional “dinner and a movie,” to online platforms used for dating such as  Match.com, finding a good match can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time, or merely logging in and browsing online profiles.

In the animal world, this can be a matter of survival and becomes vitally important and can be just as competitive. They don’t have online profiles or first, second, and third dates. However, many different animal species have a round of “go to” courtship rituals all their own.  When members of the bird class court one another, they draw from mating practices in any of the following forms: singing, feather/plumage displays, preening/cleaning, feeding, nest building, etc.

Photos by Jonothan Hen-Boisen (Eastern Grey plantain eater )
Having moved to Uganda, I decided to take advantage of the birding paradise of Africa and sharpen my birding skills. This was decidedly more difficult than initially anticipated as the pearl of Africa has the ability to overwhelm you with its birding display that makes it daunting for the novice birder. I diced to take a back seat and watch the wonder of birding unfold.

There are many ways that birds seek to attract a mate, and understanding bird courtship behaviour can help birders better appreciate the complexity of the bird relationships forming in their midst as I learned from observing birds in my own backyard.

The ultimate purpose of courtship is very similar to those we practise as humans with our song and dance, “attract a receptive mate”, but there are actually several other purposes behind the courtship behaviour 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 in the same way we do. I have noticed that birds use different courtship behaviours in order to reduce territorial aggression between birds, letting them relax together to form a pair bond. Depending on the type of behaviour, and how birds react in courtship, can also display strength, health and mating desirability, allowing different birds to choose the best partners and ensure viable offspring.

I had the fortunate opportunity of watching a female Eastern grey plantain eater and her numerous male suitors going through their paces in order to delight and impress recently, and decided to become the proverbial “peeping tom” in order to get a better insight into the world of birding. I found myself enthralled by each challenger and even found myself routing for a specific challenger that needless to say, much as myself that day didn’t get lucky.

We all have a fascination with reality shows, and this one was no disappointment with lower than their normal pitch “almost grunting “ sounds from the males leading to full out pecking at each other, and flaunting displays of prominent plumage to indicate their suitability as a mate.

One of the males showed a very interesting intimacy as part of the mating ritual that possibly helps to diffuse the excitement associated with their normal spatial boundaries and aggression. They lightly preened one another, while their bodies touched and leaned into one another as if to show that the intent wasn’t harmful.  He even returned her affection with what can only be described as a passionate kiss, although this could have been an indication of feeding although he didn’t have any visible food. I’m assuming that he might have had some hidden food to stack the odds against any would be competitor.

I have learned that with practice it is possible to identify birds based on their mating behaviour, very similar to how we watch mammals while doing bush walks for signs of danger. Furthermore, if a birder recognizes the courtship rituals of a bird, they can learn to look nearby for other birds that the displaying bird is hoping to impress.

I’m slowly being transformed from the backyard “peeping tom” into a full blooded and dreaded birder.

For more info on specialist birding Safaris in Uganda contact operations@premiersafaris.com or visit their website at www.premiersafaris.com - link

For accommodation in national parks in Uganda visit Marasa Africa at www.marasa.net
Photos by Jonothan Hen-Boisen (Eastern Grey plantain eater )