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Home Adaptations Communication Territory & Courting
Top, Red-breasted Grosbeak; bottom, Sparrow

Top, male Rose-breasted Grosbeak;
bottom, female Rose-breasted Grosbeak

(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Birds use many forms of communication to find and win their mates, stake out their territory, and defend their homes from competitors and predators.

In migratory species, males are normally the first to arrive to the breeding range in the spring. A male will choose a territory that will provide a good nest site and enough food to raise a family. Then he'll announce his territory by singing and displaying, so other males will know that territory has already been taken.

For some species, the number of songs a male sings tells the female whether he's a desirable mate. (The more songs he knows, the better his breeding characteristics, she thinks.) Some male birds get hormonal cues that keep them singing longer during mating season, increasing their chances for winning a mate.

Some species, like House Sparrows, have very simple songs. Warblers are known for songs so intricate that it's hard to believe only one bird is singing.

Male birds don't just count on their vocal talents to attract females. They hake their tail feathers – and whatever else they can. Displays may include dancing, aerial acrobatics, fancy preening, or posturing to show off the male's best features.

When female migratory birds arrive at the breeding range, they're attracted to the males with the best songs, the showiest feathers, and the most energetic displays. In some species, the males have very impressive plumage and put on spectacular displays to impress the females.

When a male and female are deciding to pair up, they often perform courtship displays together. These displays can include further showy behavior from the male, while the female stands still in a bowing posture to indicate she's ready to mate.

In some species the pair will sing, run, or dance together. Mated pairs will continue to perform courtship displays throughout the breeding season to reinforce their pair bond.

Dickscissel (male and female)

Dickscissel (male and female)
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Do the birds live happily ever after once they've paired off? They try to. But sometimes they find they need to defend their pairing or defend their chosen territory.

When birds have a dispute over territory, food, or mates, they can use postures or calls to signal whether they'll attack or retreat.

Sometimes both birds in a dispute will use aggressive displays until one decides to give up. Most disputes are resolved through this kind of communication, allowing birds to resolve their conflicts and at the same time avoid dangerous physical fights.

Some birds use song as a sort of password to recognize when outsiders have arrived in their territory. They'll adapt a song with some local variations. Then, when a newcomer arrives with ideas about expanding into their territory, the local birds can recognize the outsider because of the difference in the way he sings that song.


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