For us bird watchers, learning about how birds mate is just another fascinating side of the behavior of these wonderful creatures. In this article, I want to break down the hows and whys of the birds and bees so that you can have a better understanding of how birds reproduce.
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Table of Contents
How Do Birds Mate – Interesting Facts About Bird Mating
What do birds do when they want to mate?
Bird courtship can be pretty complex and for good reason. It’s all about choosing a good mate and proving to each other that both parents are fit and healthy enough to successfully raise their chicks, and continue their genetic line. Male birds often need to work pretty hard to attract and impress females and to do this, they make use of beautiful plumage, calls, fancy flight displays, and dances.
For territorial species, this often starts with males fighting with other males to establish a good territory, which he’ll have to defend to keep them out of in the future. In non-territorial birds, It’s got a lot to do with showing off their singing abilities, looks, and physical abilities. In some species, many males will gather together in an area known as a lek, to perform for the females.
In the bird world, it’s usually the male that is prettier than the female. This tendency is quite easy to see in common songbirds like Cardinals and Orioles that you may be lucky enough to have in your yards. These bright colors show off the health of a male, which is useful for attracting females and keeping other males at bay.
While some of the most elaborate bird displays in the world are known to be made by male birds of paradise, back on the plains of the United States, the display of the Sage-grouse is pretty hard to beat. These types of birds combine looks, voice, and dance moves to attract the ladies.
How Do Birds Mate?
Although both birds and mammals make use of internal fertilization, birds have very different reproductive organs to mammals like us. Both male and female birds have a simple opening under their tails that is known as a cloaca. This opening, which is also known as the vent, is used to share and receive sperm, as well as to lay eggs and pass waste.
Some birds, however, like ducks, geese, and ostriches do have penises but they make up only 3% of bird species, the other 97% of birds being able to get it done with more limited equipment.
How do birds get pregnant?
The act of mating in birds can be described as a cloacal kiss, and to do this, male and female birds have to rub their cloacas together for fertilization to occur. For this to happen, the birds usually need to be perched, although amazingly, some fast-flying little birds known as swifts are able to mate in the air.
The bird mating process is pretty quick, and usually, the male will jump on the female’s back and she will crouch down and move her tail to one side and arch her back.
This can be a bit of a balancing act and it’s especially awkward for birds with really long legs like cranes for example. Sometimes the pair will need to have a few goes to get it right and mating may occur several times over a period of a few days or weeks.
When do birds mate?
Most birds mate in the spring months when the days are getting longer, temperatures are increasing and plants come out of dormancy. These changes in weather bring on increases in insect life and often food is much easier to come by to feed the hungry nestlings.
There are always exceptions, of course. Many owls, for example, prefer to breed in the winter months, while Red crossbills and Rock pigeons will nest at any time of the year.
Apart from those birds that breed throughout the year, many species are simply not fertile outside of the breeding season, making successful breeding impossible, and birds don’t mate for any reason other than to make new baby birds.
Do birds mate for life or do birds cheat?
When it comes to selecting a mate, birds have all sorts of different strategies. Most birds are monogamous and will mate with only one partner in a single breeding season. Usually, a new partner will be chosen the next year, but some birds will pair for life. Birds that mate for life will breed exclusively with the same partner throughout their lives. Birds that mate for life in this way include Northern cardinals, albatrosses, and geese.
Even birds that supposedly mate for life may cheat every now and then though. Between 10% and 30% of eggs in a cardinal nest aren’t fertilized by her regular partner, and of course, the males aren’t so innocent either. In fact, some cardinal females will lay their eggs in the nests of other pairs and let them be raised by foster parents.
Are all birds monogamous?
Some bird species prefer to do things a little differently and practice polygamy, which means they have more than one partner in a single breeding season. Birds that have polygamist mating strategies can be either polygynous which means one male mates with several females, or polyandrous, where one female mates with several males.
A great example of a polygynous bird is the Yellow-headed blackbird. A male blackbird with a good territory will be able to attract and mate with several females in a single breeding season, while a neighboring male with a poor territory may attract no females at all.
Polyandrous birds are less common but there are a few species where the female mates with several males. Birds like the Red-necked and Wilson’s phalaropes are fine examples of this strategy where the female, after mating with a male will leave him to fix up the nest, hatch the eggs, and then raise the chicks alone.
What happens after birds have mated?
Once birds have done ‘the deed’, the female can store sperm for as long as 15 weeks before fertilizing her eggs and becoming gravid (pregnant) when the time is right. The amount of eggs a female can lay varies hugely with some birds, like Condors laying only a single egg, and others like Turkeys laying more than a dozen!
Once the eggs are laid, they can hatch in as little as 10 days or as much as 3 months, depending on the species of bird that laid them.
Bird reproduction is fascinating behavior, and now that you know the answer to how do birds mate, and how male birds fertilize eggs, you might even be lucky enough to recognize some birds mating in your yard this spring.