February 14, 2009

Bird Mating Ritual Puzzles Biologists

According to biologists, birds that fare best in courtship strut faster and more pay attention to their potential mate by adjusting to her movements.

"It's not just having a big tail but knowing how to use it appropriately during courtship," said Gail Patricelli of the University of California.  Patricelli specializes in the study of sage-grouse courting rituals.

"I've found males that are more receptive to subtle cues given by the female are more successful," she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

According to Reuters, Patricelli used robotic female birds equipped with a camera and microphone to observe the courtship rituals of the male sage-grouse. 

The male bird will puff a large sac on its chest, and strut its tail feathers to gain the attention of their female counterparts.

Despite elaborate attempts, few males are successful in mating said Patricelli.  The ones who are successful are also the most responsive to signals from the female.

A Central American bird known as the long-tailed manakin attempts to attract females by "leapfrogging" with the assistance of a younger male bird.  The two hop over each other in succession in hopes of attracting a female.

The odd ritual has puzzled evolutionary biologists because the oldest of the two birds actually mates with the female, says David McDonald of the University of Wyoming.

According to McDonald, the young males use the dance as a way to improve their social reputation.

The female long-tailed manakins often search for breeding sites with the best dances.

"These females go to a place where the performance is good and they let the males sort it out," McDonald said.

"The payoff to the (apprentice) is he will inherit that site. He will move up to that alpha role."


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