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Why do birds have such elaborate and varied courtship rituals?

Birds stand upright in the water and paddle together like they are dancing, mirroring each other's image.
A Red-necked Grebe pair engage in a courtship dance. Photo by Raymond Lee via Birdshare.

Courtship displays are a form of communication, enabling birds to signal their willingness to mate. They also give the birds an opportunity to assess their partner. A female bird invests a great deal of energy in producing eggs, incubating them, and raising the young. Courtship displays can help her select a mate who is most likely to produce healthy young. She may look for clues about his health, vigor, or ability to provision the young, based on his appearance, his display, or his song.

For example, a male bird may show off his brightly colored plumage because bright colors indicate his health or ability to find good food. A male Snail Kite offers his mate a stick or a snail, perhaps a sign of his ability to provide materials for a nest and his superior hunting skills. Male songbirds may sing repeatedly to advertise their vigor or experience. Female Northern Mockingbirds may prefer males that sing the most song variations. Since older males typically sing more songs, a larger repertoire may indicate longevity and experience in raising young.

One of the most astounding examples of courtship displays is found in the birds-of-paradise of Australia and New Guinea. Take a look at these remarkable birds on our Birds-of-Paradise Project website, which is full of videos and photographs. You might also like our All About Birds Biology All About Fancy Males interactive site. Want to learn even more? Take our online course Think Like a Bird: Understanding Bird Behavior and explore the subject in detail!

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library