The most pivotal event in the life of a bird, or any animal, is the act of breeding since this allows each individual of that species the important opportunity to pass on genes to the next generation.
In the case of the Bird Kingdom, Summer presents the perfect conditions for breeding and for this reason, it is time for the frantic activity where impassioned displays, reverent singing and hot-blooded threats all form part of the hearty competition for mates and territories.
Male birds have clearly mastered the art of courtship using a range of methods to attract and win over females. Striking colours, melodious songs and animated displays often act as triggers for females to come into a breeding condition.
The Red-Crested Korhaan comes to mind when performing its breeding display. Appropriately referred to as the suicide bird, the male is known for his dramatic habit of flying high into the air and then tucking his wings and plummeting to the ground, veering away to the side in daredevil fashion at the last moment. It will then expose its beautiful red crest briefly for a few seconds when the female is nearby.
And the well-known Lilac-Breasted Roller is named after its distinguishing colour and aerial rolling display, in which it tumbles through the sky in a dramatic looping flight. For Rollers, the males are not the only ones to perform this display, in many other species too, both birds will display together.
‘Lek’ derives from the Scandinavian word meaning ‘play’
In polygynous birds, the fierce rivalry between males takes place at traditional display grounds known as ‘leks’. Polygyny occurs when one male pairs with a number of different females leaving the parental duties to the female and not investing much energy into incubating the eggs or raising the chicks.
The males will gather together at lek sights in a competitive way to show off their plumage. Within the lek, each male occupies a section known as a ‘court’. Females will then visit each court and assess the fitness and beauty of each displaying male and choose the dominant male. Group displays of the Pin-tailed and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah are most often observed at Londolozi.
When it comes to birds, the well-known adage could be changed to “the route to a female’s heart is through her stomach”, as many male birds bring gifts of food to the female as part of the courtship ritual.
As regular food supply is so important to birds, especially during the breeding season, it is observed that females will choose a male that will best be able to provide for her and her chicks. Courtship feeding is found in many species from Grebe’s, Kingfishers and Bee-eaters to Raptors, Finches and Larks.
Wooing Weavers are unlike most birds in that they use their intricate and skilfully designed woven nests to attract their mates. When the male has completed his nest he hangs upside down from the entrance of his nest and performs a display, singing and flapping vigorously to attract any counterparts to marvel at his work. Females will stop to inspect the nests and will choose the male that has managed to build the strongest nest. This will ensure the most secure shelter for her and her chicks.
Plumage refers to the feathers of a bird
In many bird species, the male differs greatly in appearance from the female, usually being brighter and more striking. This is known as sexual dimorphism. Males need to flaunt their striking breeding plumage in order to attract females. In some species, the differences only last for a short duration of the breeding season as having brighter feathers can be a disadvantage as it can make birds more noticeable to predators and long tail feathers can impede their ability to fly.
These birds, therefore, moult out of their breeding feathers and into more drab plumage until the next breeding season. Examples of these birds found on the reserve are Weavers, Whydahs, Widowbirds and waders.
Birds vocalise for many different reasons and can be classified as either calls or songs. Although in some species distinction between call and song can be unclear, calls are usually short and simple sounds made by both males and females throughout the year which are used to keep in contact, alert each other of danger or begging calls for food from the parent. Whereas melodious songs are usually only performed by the male to mark territory or to attract a mate.
The entertaining act of courtship observed through the various bird species at Londolozi can be so easy to enjoy. Although it plays a significant role in the passing on of genes from one generation to the next, it also highlights the unique mechanisms which different birds use to breed and this fuels my admiration and fascination for birding at Londolozi.