By Karen Antell, PhD
As days begin to warm and skies grow sunnier, what could be more exhilarating than dancing through the air on feathered wings, in a buoyant display of sexual interest and physical prowess? Not all courting birds initiate or solidify their unions through courtship ballets, but those who do provide a memorable experience for all watchers!
Northern Harriers perform some of the most exuberant of aerial displays. Males carve huge U-shaped arcs high above open grasslands and marshes, like swooping snowboarders in a boundless halfpipe. These maneuvers might impress prospective mates, but, if performed well enough, they also send a clear message to potential competitors to keep out of occupied territory. In other words, go big, or go home. If he goes bigger than average, a vigorous male might attract more than one interested female. Polygamy obligates him to provide for all of his mates, however, so, the bigger the dance, perhaps the harder his work ahead until all chicks are safely fledged.
Owls might seem unlikely aerial artists, but Short-eared Owls dance lightly through spring skies. Unlike harriers, these owls practice seasonal monogamy. A male performs for only one potential mate, but he must perform well enough to convince her that he has the moxie to defend a nest from predators and to provide food for a large brood. He calls and claps his wings together, in a display designed to draw danger away from a nest hidden among the bunchgrass. If suitably impressed, the female joins him in the air, where they lock talons and tumble out of the sky toward the ground together. As a bonded pair, they risk injury in order to prove their commitment to the hard, shared task that lies ahead.
Sandhill Cranes might be the most infamous of our northeast Oregon dancers. Paired for life, these birds have many years to practice their courtship rituals together. Both partners join in duet. With wings stretched high above athletically long legs, they face each other, high jumping into the air, confirming their devotion with head bowing and calling in unison. Each pair dances to it’s own rhythm, in recognition of another arduous season of nesting, brooding, rearing and fledging to come.
Is it no wonder that we dance together with our chosen partners to celebrate our affection and jubilation of pairing? Did we learn this from the birds? Perhaps the genes for this exuberance lie not-quite-dormant in our ancient reptilian brains, reawakening each spring, when the air warms and the sky brightens.