Of fancy feathers and dancing feet

It’s hard to believe in the middle of this polar vortex weather that the birds think spring is coming.  I heard the Mr. Cardinal warming up his vocal cords the other day, and a chickadee “fee-bee” duet breaks the morning quiet every now and then.  A neighbor told me she heard a woodpecker drumming to attract his mate’s attention the other day. While we alternate almost daily between sub-zero cold and 6-8 inch snow storms, the sun climbs higher in the sky and stays out longer each day, so some message is getting through to the birds’ brains telling them to get ready for their spring fling.

Since it’s too early for animals here to start showing off to each other, I’ll go back to some photos from our visit to Safari West wildlife reserve in early January to illustrate.

What can a male bird do to attract his lady love?  Why show off his fancy feathers and dancing feet, like the Demoiselle Cranes.

Actually, like other crane species that mate for life, this pair of Demoiselle Cranes cement their pair bond by doing a little dance with each other.

Actually, like other bird species that mate for life, this pair of Demoiselle Cranes cement their pair bond by doing a programmed set of postures, steps, and dances with each other.

First, show off the fancy feathers.

First, an open wing display to show off the fancy feathers.

Next, their is the courtship dance of the duo, a sort of pas de deux.

Next, there is the courtship dance of the duo, a sort of pas de deux. it’s a turn-off if the steps are done incorrectly.

There is  always an aerial component to the dance, as if to show how "light" on its feet the crane it.

There is always an aerial component to the dance, as if to show how light and graceful the crane is.  Sometimes this involves jumping over each other — it’s bad form to actually land on the other bird.

Demoiselles are the smallest of the crane species and are notable for their migration in huge flocks of thousands of birds over the Himalayas from their breeding grounds in Mongolia to their wintering areas in India. Unfortunately for them, Golden Eagles have keyed in on this abundance of prey and attack them just as they clear the thin air of the tops of the Himalayas, as explained in this video from Planet Earth.

Why fly over the tallest mountains on earth instead of around them or through lower passes?  Migratory routes are hard-wired in bird brains, just as the sequence of dance steps in a courtship ritual is, and this crane species is older than the Himalayas are.  A few minor evolutionary tweaks to their already superior respiratory system, and cranes became adapted to soar above 30,000 feet.

8 thoughts on “Of fancy feathers and dancing feet

    • I recall reading that the swan song is actually true…not that the poor bird is actually singing a sad aria consciously, but rather something passive due to the construction of the trachea. Great, now I have something else to google instead of working 😉

      • I believe this “swan song” was actually attributed to the Whooper Swan, as a result of relaxation (instead of constriction) of muscles around the syrinx (voice box) of the dying bird. Partially myth, partially true I would say.

  1. Lovely that you’re hearing signs of spring in the midst of the freezing cold! We still have cold, dank weather here in the Northwest, not nearly as cold as what you have, but the birds here want to send you a message that spring is indeed on its way, too…I went down to the pond the other day and heard red-winged blackbirds galore singing, and the house finches, chickadees, and juncos are singing frequently. And the Anna’s hummingbirds are twittering and involved in courtship displays! Yay spring!

  2. It sounds like spring is indeed underway in your area — we won’t see Red-winged Blackbirds for another couple of months (if then). I think the Goldfinches are singing here as well — there are a lot of Juncos around but I don’t really know what they sound like when they sing. I saw/heard a lot of courtship activity and singing in the Anna’s Hummingbirds when I was in northern California in early January. Spring is something I am really looking forward to this year.

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