Valentine’s Day for Florida’s Birds: The Romance, the Love… the Social Monogamy..??

Wait a second! Birds are doin'... what?

Wait a second! Birds are doin’… what?

Ahhhh…. It’s February… the month of romance! Chocolates, flowers, jewelry and… Worms? Yup! Worms! Or crickets, or seed… Peanuts are a favorite too. While we preen ourselves with jewelry and slinky attire to impress our better halves, Florida’s wild birds take a less direct approach. Read below to find out what goes on when some of Florida’s most popular wild birds turn down the lights and turn on the charm during their mating rituals.

                           Scooter… Close your eyes!

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Photo Courtesy of H. Michael Miley/Flickr

Photo Courtesy of H. Michael Miley/Flickr

As Scooter sat down to help with this blog, we both assumed the old facts to be the given…some birds are totally monogamous, mating for life and separating only upon the death of one mate, while other birds enjoy a more liberal view of mated conduct. As we read on and delved deeper into some pretty interesting research… we found that the sexual habits of wild birds are just as confusing as our own! Help us Masters and Johnson! For example, monogamy is not just… “monogamy” for our feathered friends. As one researcher from the Texas Journal of Science stated, 90% of birds are monogamous BUT… also noted that several of these species will still seek out and copulate with mates outside their initial pair-bond. It appears that there are several types of monogamy among birds: Sexual Monogamy, Serial Monogamy and Social Monogamy. Sexual monogamy is the pairing of two birds who will not generally (note the word, “Generally“) mate outside their pair bond. They pair up during mating season, raise offspring together and do so, repeatedly, each season. Serial Monogamy is the pairing of two birds at a time who will mate only with each other and look for another mate only upon the death or permanent absence of the initial partner. Social Monogamy is the pairing of two birds who openly search for and mate outside the initial pair bond. These birds will have several partners and will raise the offspring of other pairings, together, regardless of the parentage. Sounds like an MTV series, huh? Scooter’s just confused and appalled!

So… let’s tackle this as best as we can and talk about a few of Florida’s favorite wild birds and their (seemingly) Kardashian-like relationship habits. 

Scooter. Have a seat, son. It’s time to learn about the birds and the…well, the birds… 

Male Northern Cardinals make sure to feed their nesting mates. David Mounsey

Male Northern Cardinals make sure to feed their nesting mates.David Mounsey/Northwood Commons/WBU Clearwater

Northern Cardinals: Iconic for the males’ bright red plumage, black “mask” and familiar, sharp “chirp-chirp” succession of calls, Northern Cardinals are among the most favored of Florida’s wild bird population and a frequent guest in the Northwood Commons back lot at the Wild Birds Unlimited’s Clearwater/Safety Harbor location.  Northern Cardinals are generally considered Sexually/Serially Monogamous although in researching this piece, they have been known to engage in Socially Monogamous relations. Call me “sexually confused” but I say we, in consideration of Valentine’s Day, romanticize towards the former. It’s just a happy thought! They will mate and raise offspring within the same pair bond and can share common song patterns within their union. In early Spring, as mating season begins, the male Northern Cardinal will begin his mating display in order to attract a worthy female. Using broad wing gestures, a puffed chest and erect crown, the male Northern Cardinal makes his ability to be a prime example of bird-manhood well-known to any prospective and nearby females. Males will also present nesting materials to prospective mates in a gesture to ensure their counterparts know that they are also good providers. Where we would bring a box of chocolates and a dozen roses, a cardinal would present… seeds and worms. Ahhh… the romance! Once paired, female Northern Cardinals will begin building their nest in preparation for egg laying. These birds share a common bond and therefor a common task in raising the young. Once the eggs are laid by the female, the male Cardinal proceeds to feed his mate as she protects their developing offspring. Northern Cardinals may produce 2-3 broods a year and remain in their close bond, most often being consistently seen in pairs at feeders and in habitat areas. 

North American Mockingbirds sing a beautiful song to their mates!

North American Mockingbirds sing a beautiful song to their mates! Google Images(commercial reuse)

Mockingbirds: As Florida’s state bird, the Northern Mockingbird’s relationship status sort of resembles “Stella and Stanley” in a Streetcar Named Desire. With females that pair-bond, but still long for better pastures, and males so territorial they smack our Pinellas County mailmen in the heads for simply doing their jobs, their relationship of “monogamy” is slightly blurry.  Considered by some to be Socially Monogamous, the females are slightly smaller but their physical attributes are equal between the genders. Because of this, bright colors and puffed chests don’t matter too much, in spite of the males’ grand efforts. However, for females, location does. Female Mockingbirds who are already paired, may still enjoy a look-see at what another male may have to offer in the way of nesting territory. She may fly over both properties to compare the two to see which is better and then, if she sees fit, will pair with a new mate whom she feels may offer a more secure area (or aggressive defense) relative to her nesting and offspring needs. But not so fast, ladies… like a Kardashian date, male Northern Mockingbirds have their own means of relationship survival. With some pretty neat looking wing displays, the male northern mockingbird will dance with pronounced actions and a vocal mating song to woo its mate. While prospective unpaired males may use elaborate courtship displays to attract an interested female, her current partner may not respond so in kind. Paired males are less likely to “fight back” for their wandering females with less flamboyant efforts and less enthusiastic courtship calls than their seemingly “better” male rivals. No birds screaming “STELLLAAAHHH!!!” beneath a Northwood Commons Mockingbird’s nest, that’s for sure.

American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle: Although they do “divorce” and will seek out new mates upon the death of a current partner,  American Eagles are considered wholly monogamous and will, more often than not, mate for life within one pair-bond. From high atop Florida’s tall pines and looming oaks, these raptors display a gregarious courtship flight ritual involving spectacular aerial displays which can, at times -and quite literally- take one’s breath away. Rising high into the clouds, the female American Bald Eagle waits for her prospective mate to display his “mad hunting skills” as he lunges and rises in a show of expert hunting prowess. During their entire display, the pair will fall into a deep dive and then swoop up into a right or left angle to join talons while still in flight. They then tumble downward together, spinning and moving apart only before nearing the ground below. The female follows her prospective mate’s actions until she decides his worthiness as a partner. Once finished, the two then leave for a nesting area where both partners will construct an elaborate nest together. Bald eagles nest in the same spot year after year. Because of this consistent location, their nests can grow as large at 10 feet in width and will typically house 2-3 eaglets per breeding season. The beauty of this bird’s aerial mating ritual is considered, by many, to be unparalleled in avian filmography. Florida has two opportunities to watch Bald Eagles via live feed. The Northeast Eagle Cam featuring Romeo and Juliet, and Southwest Eagle cam with Ozzie and Harriet are popular sites where these gracious wild birds can be safely observed.

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So, you see, romance is not dead among our feathered friends. It’s just confusing! There are no caged hearts or fading kin-ships among Florida’s wild birds. In fact, it’s alive and well and ruffling among the Northwood Commons‘ pines. Whether quiet and subdued or colorful and expressive, love is -literally- in the air.

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Hammock Bird Banding

A dynamic update on the Migratory Bird Banding Project in Hammock Park, Dunedin, Florida.

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