For the Birds Radio Program: Early Mating Rituals

Original Air Date: April 4, 1997

April is the month to see some of the loveliest mating rituals of the bird world. (3:34) Date confirmed.

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One of the coolest things about spring is the exuberant courtship rituals of early nesters. From eagles and ravens diving and swooping in magnificent aerial maneuvers to Ruffed Grouse drumming and Sharp-tailed Grouse dancing, early spring birds throw themselves into mating with joyful abandon. And we in the northland are in the perfect place to see much of the fun.

Eagles and ravens are rather secretive when actually mating, but their spectacular sky courtship is hard to miss if you’re anywhere near a pair. This can take place any time of day, so make sure to gaze skyward now and then while you’re on a walk through the woods, and you’ll see something interesting—if not eagles or ravens, at least migrating hawks or falcons.

Woodcock also have aerial courtship maneuvers in spring, but they do this in twilight, both before dawn and after sunset. Find a field bordering a wet woods for the perfect woodcock habitat. Make sure to dress warmly, and since this is an after-dark activity, it’s best to do it with a friend for safety as well as company. Woodcocks are so romantic that they are best enjoyed with a loved one’s arm around you anyway.

Finding a Ruffed Grouse drumming is very, very difficult, but worth every bit of it when you actually discover one. You have to move very softly through the woods, approaching the sound during actual drumming but holding still between so you won’t alarm him. Grouse sit like literal bumps on a log between drumming, so you’ll have to look very carefully to notice one. It is wonderful fun to see one start—he suddenly sits erect, and you can see the line of demarcation exactly where his pectoral muscles end by the sudden parting of his chest feathers. He starts beating his wings, slowly at first but building up speed until his wings are in a whir. When he’s finished , he crouches low again and bides his time until hormones strike again.

The best place I know of to seeSharp-tailed Grouse dancing is at Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area, near Grantsburg in Burnett County, Wisconsin. You can arrange with headquarters to reserve a blind right in the grouse dancing area. You must arrive well before first light, and it gets cold and uncomfortable sitting waiting for the action, but once it starts, you won’t regret it. Sharp-tails bow low, quivering their wings and erecting their funny tails and popping out air sacs on their eyebrow and neck, making a visual treat. But to top it off, they thump with their feet, sounding like someone starting up a lawn-mower. The males get so swept up in their dancing that they often don’t even seem to notice when the females arrive, attracted by the noise and excitement. Females apparently choose their favorites to mate with, but the losers don’t seem too disappointed. Apparently the dance itself is as satisfying for them to do as it is for us to watch.

These are all early spring treats, which won’t last long into May, so get out and enjoy at least some of them while you can.