More than 90 percent of birds appear to be monogamous, but beneath the surface there is a huge variety of mating systems in play, from temporary monogamy and extra-pair mating to multiple partners for either sex, with some species switching between these as their circumstances change.
Discover the amazing array of courtship techniques employed by birds around the world:
- male bowerbirds construct extravagant galleries to attract females
- ospreys bring gifts of food in exchange for sex
- male skylarks perform simultaneous aerial and vocal acrobatics to impress females
- the practice of lekking, where males in a species such as grouse gather to display to females, who then complete reproduction solo, from nesting to raising chicks
Learn how male ornament is used as a sign of quality: when a long-tailed widowbird in East Africa shows off his immaculate 16-inch long tail, he is advertising the quality of his genes. Having somewhere safe to bring up chicks is paramount, and a male with impressive building skills or a nest in a prime location will attract a mate. Bird nests shown here range from nothing but a bare branch on which white terns lay their unshielded egg, to the enormous mud and stick mounds constructed by hamerkops. Taking security to the extreme, female hornbills seal themselves in to their tree hollow nests, relying on their mates to deliver food through a narrow slit.
But it's not all about males seeking to impress or dominate females: sex roles can be reversed, and Bird Love includes examples such as the black coucal, whose females are 70% bigger than males, sing to defend territories, and leave the males to perform all childcare duties. The limited availability of nest holes for the eclectus parrots of Melanesia means that females fight each other to secure a home, and the winner may have up to seven mates. Which partner looks after the chicks can depend on the population's male-female ratio, and either sex can desert the nest in search of further matings to secure another clutch of chicks. The different levels of parental care are revealed, such as preferential feeding, allowing an insurance chick to die, and how songbirds teach their young to sing their species-specific song.
The essential insight to bird family life, Bird Love is richly illustrated with stunning colour photographs, and regular Backyard Bird boxes in each chapter showcase familiar species from around the world.
Dr. Wenfei Tong is a research associate at the department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard and an assistant professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. She received a bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology from Princeton, and a PhD in biology from Harvard. Her postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge focused on the evolution and genetics of brood parasitic birds in the Zambian grasslands. At the University of Montana, she has helped develop citizen science monitoring for threatened grassland birds. Wenfei writes popular science articles for nature nonprofit organizations, as well as book reviews for Times Higher Education. She is a guest lecturer for Lindblad National Geographic Expeditions and runs a nature tour company based in Montana. She lives in Missoula, Montana, USA.
Dr. Mike Webster is the Robert G. Engel Professor of Ornithology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behaviour at Cornell University, and also Director of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He has studied the effects of ecological factors on bird breeding behaviour, the ways that sexual selection shapes courtship signals like plumage colour and song and the effects of those signals on the process of speciation. His research focuses primarily on Australian fairy-wrens, North American wood warblers and Neotropical blackbirds.
"At first glance, this book looks like just another pot-boiler: a selection of pretty pictures with some bits of text wrapped around them. Perhaps the title helps to give that impression. That impression is wrong: the book sets out to explain – in layman’s terms – the major components of the breeding cycle of birds [...]"
– Christopher Perrins, Ibis 163(2), April 2021