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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Courtship lasts the livelong day among the birds

The prize goes to the meadowlarks, however, whose sweet, clear song is iconic of spring in the grasslands – so much so that no fewer than six states have made the western meadowlark their avian emblem.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

OMG! There’s a whole lot of courtship going on!

The meadowlarks might be the most blatant about it. They perch on high places and pour out their songs from treetops, utility lines, fence posts, rock piles, hay bales, whatever gives the clearest view of a nice swathe of grass. Sometimes there’s a song contest, with males competing to attract females. This sorts itself out soon enough, and courtship chases begin, usually initiated by females. Females also choose the nesting territory. Males, however, usually have two mates, sometimes three.

But the meadowlarks are only the most familiar of the courting birds.

Noise is an important part of birding courtship, and not all of it is vocal. Consider the common snipe, for example. Snipe were performing their courtship ritual all day Tuesday, which was a cool day with drizzle. Ordinarily, snipe court at twilight, whether morning or evening. On Tuesday, twilight lasted until well past noon. With snipe, courtship is acoustic rather than vocal. The birds rise into the air and then plummet downward, producing a winnowing sound in the feathers of their wings and tails.

Snipe are not alone in using this trick; nighthawks do it, too. Nighthawks are late migrants, however, and the aerodynamics are left to the snipe for the time being. They will have completed their courtship displays by the time the nighthawks return toward the end of May. The critical element here is food supply. Snipe are wetland birds able to probe moist soils in search of sustenance. Nighthawks depend on flying insects for their food – and insects largely delay their emergence until temperatures are dependably above freezing – by 20 degrees or so. The appearance of nighthawks is thus a useful indicator of when it’s time to put out tender garden plants, which like insects cannot survive a frost.


Sharp-tailed grouse are another “acoustic” species, but in quite a different way than the snipe and the nighthawks, both of which depend on aerodynamics. For sharp-tailed grouse, the noise is produced by drawing in and expelling air in a process best described as “booming.” They are specifically equipped for this; sacs along their necks take in and expel air, producing a booming or drumming sound. This is accompanied by frenetic movements often likened to dance steps – but rather more complicated and rather more rapid than any that any human swain would be able to execute.

One morning early this week, I was up early enough to walk through an area of grassland not far from our place west of Gilby, N.D. The noise of the grouse in their courtship dance was so intense that I could hear it from more than a mile away. The birds produce this noise by expelling air from “gular pouches” along their necks. This is accompanied by frenzied displays often likened to dancing. Grouse are community-minded birds; as many as two dozen gather at a dancing ground – formally called a “lek” – not too far from our house. On a still morning, I hear the birds – if I am up early and outside and the wind’s not blowing from the wrong direction and I’m not distracted by the meadowlarks or the snipe.

These are not the only courting birds. I hear phoebes seeking company. The mournful coo of the mourning dove is frequent, especially early in the day. All through the day, I can watch robins engage in their faux fighting over territory. The harsh drumming northern flickers make as they pound on the metal grain bins and the rhythmic tapping of the woodpeckers and the sapsuckers: These go on all day, as well.

Perhaps the most unrestrained and impatient of all the birds are the cowbirds and the grackles. So far, most of both species are males, and they practice their courtship rituals on each other, expanding their chests and ruffling their feathers and uttering their warbled screeches – all in vain, for the time being. Females arrive a fortnight or so after the males have established territory, and quickly make their choice among the – by now – well-practiced males.

The prize goes to the meadowlarks, however, whose sweet, clear song is iconic of spring in the grasslands – so much so that no fewer than six states have made the western meadowlark their avian emblem.

All this reminds me of a chant from my student days more than 50 years ago. It started this way: “Hurray! Hurray! For the First of May! Outdoor ---------- begins today!” I can’t fill in the blank, but you can, because you know what the birds are up to.

Let’s not be vulgar, now. This is an 11-letter word starting with I.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com .


Mike Jacobs In Season mug.jpg
Mike Jacobs

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