The Love Lives of Birds

Courting and Mating Rituals


By Laura Erickson

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From the lifelong devotion of the American crow to the dalliances of the eastern bluebird, from the bald eagle’s dazzling aerial display to the male ruby-throated hummingbird’s reputation as a “deadbeat dad” — courtship, mating, and parenting differ dramatically among birds. Ornithologist and author Laura Erickson takes readers on a romance-fueled romp through the love lives of 35 species, exploring the diversity of avian approaches to pairing up. Each species spotlight pairs Erickson’s remarkable depth of scientific knowledge with her talent for drawing humorous and insightful parallels between human and bird. The result is a riveting read for bird-watchers and nature lovers alike.


For my own lifelong mate, Russell,

who gave me my first cloudless days, balmy nights, books, babies, and birds, and has stuck with me for decades longer than the oldest swan on record.


Looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right

Rocks Are Hens's Best Friend

Tender Romantics

Old-Fashioned Love Songs

Cyrano de Bergerac

Going the Distance

This Old House

Group Hug!

Living in Jane Austen's World

Happy Feet

Are You My Mother?

Passion in Fresh Water

The Bold and Beautiful

You're Not Getting Older; You're Getting Better

Failure to Launch

Say It with Sticks

Be My Valentine

Across a Crowded Room

Singing Casanova

When I'm Sixty-Four

The Food of Love

Going Steady

Romantic Duets

Othello Didn't Have to End That Way

Love on the Beach

Speed Dating

The Inconstant Moon

One Big Happy Family

Sex and the City

Rosie the Riveter

Material Girl and Boy

Just the Two of Us

Romantic Comedy

Dancing with the Stars

Bully for Them

Wearing the Pants


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Looking for Mr. or Ms. Right

How do birds find a mate? The approaches of different species are as varied as those of humans. Some birds seem like Casanovas or even Marquises de Sade, while others seem as courtly and reticent as the most genteel Jane Austen characters. Cranes and swans have the leisure we humans do to spend months or even years making a permanent selection, even as Arctic shorebirds must make their choice within days, or even hours, of arriving on their breeding grounds so they can raise young before heading south again.

As with humans, bird species use different combinations of factors to judge members of the opposite sex. The quality and persistence of a male's song, the energy and style of his courtship displays, how well a female responds to his overtures, how well the two coordinate dance moves or song duets, the quality and quantity of romantic food offerings, the intensity and color of plumage or body parts — each species uses some combination of these cues, and more, to identify the ideal mate.

Age is an important criterion for birds: most want the oldest, most experienced mate they can find. Birds don't carry a passport or birth certificate, so how can they reveal their age to a prospective mate? Mockingbirds learn new songs throughout life, so the more songs in a male's repertoire, the older on average he is. Both male and female hawks of some species start out with yellow eyes, which over months and years turn orange and then ruby red. Young Cedar Waxwings have no red tips on their flight feathers; these tiny markings appear and then increase in number as the birds grow older. Year-old male American Redstarts resemble grayish and yellow females; they are fully capable of breeding, but females prefer mates bearing the black and orange plumage of older males, only settling for a younger one when no older males are available.

For most wild birds, it's impossible to be too old to make an ideal mate, because for both sexes, the time between a mature bird losing its competitive edge and dying is usually very short, long before the bird is no longer physiologically fertile. One female Laysan Albatross still reared a chick when she was at least 67 years old! In only a few species do birds seem to have a "sweet spot" between being too young and too old. The blue foot color on boobies tends to grow duller with age, yet many of these older males still succeed in attracting mates.

Beyond these very basic criteria, scientists don't understand what leads two birds to select each other. Is it a simple matter of proximity and chance? Do birds flirt? Might some want sparks to fly in a kind of magic before they'll commit? We may use "the birds and the bees" as a metaphor for courtship and sex, but our understanding of the fundamentals of just how birds establish and sustain relationships is superficial and rudimentary.

That's okay. As Walt Whitman wrote, "You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds … a certain free margin, and even vagueness — perhaps ignorance, credulity — helps your enjoyment of these things."

Rocks Are a Hen's Best Friend

Adélie Penguin

In many species, males offer prospective mates food or nesting materials, and expect sex when a female accepts a gift, but this is virtually always in the context of forming and strengthening a pair bond. The female learns what kind of provider the male is, and food helps her body get into top shape for producing eggs.

The exchange of payment or gifts for sex without the context of building a lasting connection wouldn't seem to make sense for birds, so engaging in sexual activity for payment wouldn't seem at all likely in the natural world.

The exchange of payment or gifts for sex without the context of building a lasting connection wouldn't seem to make sense for birds.

Or would it? The Adélie Penguin, a small Antarctic bird, pairs off and starts nesting in late winter, when ice and snow cover the ground. To keep the eggs a bit warmer, and also to protect them from being inundated with meltwater, Adélies lay their eggs on a platform of stones. But as spring progresses, meltwater becomes deeper, requiring even more stones after all the easiest-to-find ones have been taken.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and some female Adélies offer to have sex with one or more single males in exchange for stones to build up their own nests. Sometimes a female manages to initiate mutual courtship behaviors with an unpaired male, grab a stone, and leave without actually mating with him. And after one brief sexual encounter, a female took 62 stones from the unwitting single male over a period of an hour. Nesting males, equally desperate for stones, don't object to the means by which their mates gather them, and thus their otherwise monogamous relationships don't end up on the rocks.

A pair of Adélies spend six weeks or more building up their rock collection and courting before settling into egg production and parental responsibilities. To attract his mate in the first place and then hold her interest, the male displays, stretching his head and neck up and pointing his bill vertically; then he flaps his outstretched wings while making a very loud call.

The extended honeymoon probably helps cement the pair bond, important in a species that will from then on carry on a long-distance relationship. The parent incubating the eggs must stay on the nest as the other heads out to sea to feed. Adélies nest close enough to the water that the feeding parent is gone for just a day or two before returning to take its turn, but the two don't spend much time together during the switch.

Some Adélie Penguin mates almost certainly find each other the following year, but their lives are so fraught with danger and their nesting colonies so crowded that they don't expect to find the same mate year after year and can't afford to spend much time looking. They take life, rocks, and love, as they come.

In Harm's Way

The Adélie Penguin breeds on ice-free land, but it depends on sea ice the rest of the year and is being badly affected by climate change. The reduction in sea ice has caused populations of Adélies in the Antarctic Peninsula to plummet by 65 percent during the past 25 years.

Tender Romantics

American Crow

Of all birds, those in the crow family are perhaps the most humanlike in their intelligence, devotion to family, and even their xenophobia regarding strangers. But some humans use them to symbolize malevolence, such as Edgar Allan Poe's Raven, the crows in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, and the pets of many Disney witches.

If we pay attention to the interactions between courting and mated crows, we can't miss their tender, loyal attachment to each other. Pairs of crows keep their public displays of affection quiet and subtle, filled with the kind of affectionate yet dignified intimacy that call to mind the witty, elegant married couple from the Thin Man movies of the 1930s and '40s. Yes, crows are the Nick and Nora Charles of the bird world.

Crows could never bring themselves to perform a gauche dance or over-the-top love song. Each pair is mostly inseparable but limit themselves to quiet billing, mostly when no one, avian or human, seems to be looking. They also engage in allopreening, gently running their bill through the other's feathers as Nora might smooth the lapel on Nick's suit or fix his tie. Their repartee is quiet and subtle, too.


  • “With expert knowledge and irresistible prose, Laura Erickson has a unique ability to make the lives of birds exciting and compelling for every reader. This book is a delight — warm, wonderful, and brimming with insights and surprises. Highly recommended!”
    — Kenn Kaufman, naturalist, conservationist, author of Kingbird Highway, and editor of the Kaufman Field Guides

    “What a delightful book!  If you love birds, you will love these musings on the secrets of bird love.  Who knew that crows had such tender and discreet displays of affection?  Or that the courtship of limpkins was so snail-centered?  Or that chickadees inhabit a Jane Austen-like world of courter and courted?  Erickson unveils this captivating news in prose so lively, witty, and clever it charms from cover to cover.”
    — Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times best-selling author of The Genius of Birds andThe Bird Way

    "An entertaining and lighthearted look at various bird species’ mating habits... Terrific color illustrations by Veronica Lilja add to the fun. Bird enthusiasts and nature lovers in general shouldn’t miss this."
    — Publisher's Weekly

On Sale
Oct 27, 2020
Page Count
152 pages

Laura Erickson

About the Author

Laura Erickson is the author of The Love Lives of Birds and The Bird Watching Answer Book, and is coauthor of Into the Nest. A recipient of the American Birding Association’s prestigious Roger Tory Peterson award, she has served as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an editor of Bird Scope magazine, and a columnist and contributing editor for Birdwatching magazine. She produces For the Birds, a long-running public radio program and podcast, and lives in Duluth, Minnesota. 

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