South Africa / Travel Blog / Wildlife

Increase your chances with courtship dances

Magpie Shrike in flight

At the moment we are in the middle of the birding week of our course at the Limpopo Field Guiding Academy. Every morning we drive out and stop at various habitats to listen to the dawn chorus and try to distinguish all the different sounds- whistles, chirrups, beeps, clicks, wing-claps- of the birds around us. When we arrive back at camp our bird guide Janesta goes over the sight and sound identifications of the birds we observed, and more, and we are tasked with learning 150 birds for an exam at the end of the week.

As I mentioned in the last blogpost, there are gimmicks, jokes and limericks used to remember some of these birds with their calls- such as the grey tit-flycatcher, whose whistle-like call and silvery appearance remind me of a kettle boiling, the grey-backed camaroptera whose call sounds like an excited tourist seeing impala for the first time (camaroptera = camera), the blacksmith lapwings with their blacksmith apron and anvil-like chinking calls, the ‘Ghost bird’ often heard in the morning with it’s ‘Woooooo’ call, and the very distinctive Pearl Spotted Owlet whose call rises in a crescendo before climaxing with several long whooping calls sounds a little like Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry met Sally’.

As I’ve done a fair bit of birding in the UK (if you’re into wildlife there it’s one of your only options) I’ve found that although I’m not familiar with a lot of the birds here, I’ve picked up the GISS (General Impression Shape and Size, but most people pronounce it jizz. I think birders are fond of using words that will make them giggle. Think of the tits and boobies.) of the bird families, which translates well to the birds here.

Birds are valuable for guiding not only for the same reason I appreciated them in the UK (they’re always around, so useful when all the mammals on the reserve are playing hide-and-seek) but also because they’re so much busier than mammals- they are almost always up to something. One out of a hundred lion sightings you’ll witness them fighting or hunting, but the other ninety-nine sightings will be of them sleeping. In Kruger, often behind a bush with ten other cars obstructing your view.

But birds will be vocalising- screaming ‘Danger!’ (often if they’ve seen you), proclaiming their territory, singing a sweet song of seduction, perhaps catching their food on the wing, which I find mesmerising to watch in swallows and bee-eaters, or even displaying.

Always busy: parent Crested Barbet feeding juvenile

Always busy: parent Crested Barbet feeding juvenile

One of my classmates asked me today why male birds are so much more brightly coloured than females in the majority of bird species. Sexual dimorphism (when males and females look different) often goes back to sex itself, and the investment males put into sex versus females. I don’t mean in the act itself, but if you think about it, males ejaculate thousands of tiny sperm and that’s it, they can then move on and attract another female. But when a female mates with a male, she has then invested that year’s reproductive attempt, eggs (which are quite a lot bigger and require more investment than sperm) and quite often all the work involving incubating and raising the offspring, in that male- so choosing a mate is a much bigger decision and investment for her than for the males.

So females, by being choosy, become a limiting factor in the sexual equation, and to mate with a female the males have to win her affection and prove that they are the best she can choose- and that her offspring by him will have the best chances of survival and reproducing to pass on her genes.

The bright colours serve to attract her attention, for one thing, but also if a male can ‘afford’ the energy of bright colours and long plumage it often signifies good overall health and fitness, as disease, parasites and poor health can make one look more drab (as in humans- you never look your best when you’re sick).

Paradise flycatcher

Male paradise flycatcher in breeding plumage

As these bright colours the females like so much bring some unwanted attention (birds of prey and cats) most of these males have special breeding plumage they gain during the breeding season, which they can then lose for better camouflage plumage, such as weavers, bishops, whydahs, indigobirds and widowbirds. Some of this breeding plumage actually handicaps the males, like the paradise flycatchers who grow long tails in breeding season, which impede their flight. A theory behind this handicap is again that the male must have high fitness to ‘afford’ to fly handicapped, in addition to the idea that female birds are attracted to novelty- which I believe must have been an affliction of female peacocks!

So once the male has his bright colours, or extraordinary plumage, he needs to show it off. And there is where some of the real excitement of the birding world arrives.

Take the lilac-breasted roller, a ridiculously attractive bird with bright purple plumage and electric blue under their wings, who begin calling (unfortunately a crow-like, raucous sound which gives them their latin name Coracias) whilst flying high in looping circles before tipping backwards in the sky and stalling their flight, resulting in backward rolls through the air.

Or the dance of the black-backed puffback, whose Afrikaans name is ‘Sneeubal’ for the snowball feathers which puff out of its back when they perform for the females, almost twerking to show off their bulging behinds, with a ‘click- woo! click- woo!’ call.

Black-backed puffback or 'Sneeuball'. Credit: Josh'sbigyear.com

Black-backed puffback or ‘Sneeuball’.
Credit: Josh’sbigyear.com

Ostriches and cranes also engage in courtship dances, the ostrich dance being called ‘kantling’- males squat down, swaying from side to side whilst fanning out and shaking their wings (almost reminding me of the get-down position in my beloved swing-dancing!).

But the cake is truly taken by the audacity of the red-crested korhaan. These birds don’t change their whole plumage to impress the females, relying on bright colours to lure in the girls, with only a bright red crest usually flattened against their head and a hidden black and white belly to add to their otherwise mottled camouflage plumage. But don’t let their boring dress fool you- any spectators of the korhaan’s mating display will feel their heart leap to watch as the male runs forward and leaps vertically into the air, frantically fluttering their wings until they reach the height of their courage (anywhere from 10 to 30 metres off the ground) and fold in their wings!

So from this height the daredevils start somersaulting backwards through the air, yellow legs extended, wings tucked in, red crest flaming, the black and white belly feathers erect and flashing as they rocket to the ground. And then, as close to the ground as possible, they finally open their wings and glide in to land- the catch being that the female is not as impressed by the perilous display itself as how close to the ground he dares to open his wings.

I hope this answers the question I’ve been asked a few times, and I heard Janesta being asked by a fellow student during our bird week- “Why birds? What got you interested in birds, of all things?”

The answer: birds are badass.

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