Which birds mate for life? And birds’ mating rituals

A pair of barn owls looking towards the camera
Did you know whether bird mate for or not life depends on how soon they breed? (Photo: FLPA / Alamy.com)

Valentine’s Day is coming up and it’s not just humans who are thinking about love. Winter will soon be over and birds are starting to gear up for the breeding season. You may have already noticed there’s more birdsong – this is because singing helps attract a mate and mark out a territory. Look out for early nesters flying around with bits of nest-building materials in their beaks too.

Which birds mate for life?

Some bird species form a lifelong bond and only look for a new partner after one of them dies. Most types of swan and goose mate for life and so does the osprey and the barn owl. In fact, barn owl pairs are especially affectionate, preening each other, rubbing their cheeks together and cuddling up in the nest. Sweet!

Why do some birds mate for life?

It sounds romantic, but most birds stick together for practical reasons rather than because of undying love.

  • Many larger birds only produce one brood of chicks a year and they take longer to incubate and grow. Parents who stay together are ready to breed earlier in the season so they have plenty of time to raise their young.
  • The more broods they raise together, the better they get at looking after them so the chicks are more likely to survive.
  • Finding a mate involves quite a bit of singing and showing off so takes up time and energy. Large migratory birds, such as geese and swans, prefer to save their strength for their long journey so it makes sense to stay with one partner.
A pair of mated ospreys on a nest
As ospreys are so rare, couples that mate for life are often named! (Photo: Andy Rouse / NaturePL.com)

How long do most bird pairs stay together?

Around 90% of the world’s bird species are monogamous. That means they have one mate at a time. It doesn’t mean they stay with them for life though – they may look for a new mate each breeding season, so only stay together for a few months. Some birds have several broods each season and may produce each one with a different partner and stay together for a shorter time. Birds that mate for life will find a new partner if theirs die, but other species will look for a new mate every mating season.

Most birds share the parenting. The male will forage for food while the female sits on the eggs, although they often take turns in finding food after the chicks have hatched.

How do birds attract a mate?

Mating rituals often involve lots of showing off, especially by male birds. Look out for these signs that birds are looking for love.

Increased song – singing takes lots of energy so a loud and complex song tells female birds that a male is strong and can defend their territory. The prime time for singing is at dawn so you’ll have to get up early if you want to catch the dawn chorus.

A nightingale singing in a tree to attract a mate
Even other birds think birdsong is lovely, it helps them choose a partner. (Photo: Amy Lewis / WTML)

Bright plumage – many males wear their most colourful feathers in the breeding season. Robins’ breasts are especially bright and mallard ducks have metallic green heads. Female birds aren’t usually as colourful as they don’t want to be noticed by predators when they’re sitting on their eggs.

Displays of skill – birds like to show how clever they are. A male buzzard performs a roller coaster flight, soaring high and then twisting and spiralling as he plummets towards earth. Male wrens build up to 12 nests and then invite lady wrens to view them in the hope one will be impressed and move in.

Special ‘dances’ – pairs sometimes perform a sort of choreography that helps them bond. You may see pairs of swans entwining their necks and rubbing their heads together so their necks form a heart shape. Now that is romantic!

Learn more fascinating facts about wildlife and woods, by signing up for Nature Detectives membership. Our seasonal packs contain lots of outdoor activity ideas and nature-themed crafts too.

Which bird do you think is the most romantic?

comments powered by Disqus