The Philadelphia Zoo joins Kids Corner monthly to explore the fascinating world found behind the gates of America's First Zoo!
An animal may not send flowers, chocolate or a "Won't you be my valentine?" card to their mate, but they still do all sorts of things to impress each other. Animal courtship can be wild, wacky and even romantic. Animals will dance, strut and sometimes even fight for their true love. They will sing, bellow and offer things to eat. They change colors, leave scented notes and build homes to attract and win over a suitable partner.
In the animal world, it is usually the boys that are trying to impress the girls and courtship isn't limited to one particular species. Mammals have many diverse and often affectionate ways of courting their prospective mates, but it's birds, reptiles and even insects that have some very unusual ways of wooing their mates.
Many of you may have seen or heard about the way peacocks spread their brightly-colored tails to impress the girls, known as peahens. Peacocks aren't the only birds who use their fancy feathers to attract girls. Male turkeys or "Tom turkeys" try to befriend as many females as possible. Their tail feathers may not be as bold and bright as a peacock, but turkeys strut about shaking what they've got. They puff up their bodies, grunt, "gobble, gobble" and spread their tail feathers to attract their hens.
Other birds have a completely different technique for courting their mate. Take the male common tern, for example. He shows his worth by catching a fish and offering it to his intended mate to prove his ability to feed the family. The northern cardinal does a similar thing as he is courting the female. He will bring bits of food to the female, tilting his head sideways to place a morsel in her beak. Cardinals will also do something called counter-singing. This is when the male and the female sing to each other from different perches within their territory (how romantic!) When counter-singing, the male and the female match and repeat phrases and songs together.
Some male birds present sticks, grass or pebbles as nest-building material to show they can provide a home. With bluebirds, females will build their nest alone, however, males will carry nesting material during courtship. To hold on to a choosy female, a bird known as a blue-headed vireo may be required to build a "courtship" nest, presumably to show the female he will be good at domestic chores.
Male bald eagles actually perform aerial acrobatics to impress and attract their mate. The male will soar very high, dive, swoop and even flip over while courting a mate. If successful the female will join in on the high flying love affair. Attracting a mate in the bird world is no easy task. Males may rely upon elaborate plumage, songs, displays, dances, gifts or a combination of these to woo a female.
Reptiles have a variety of ways of courting each other. Some male turtles are thought to be the perfect mate if they have nice long "fingernails." With painted turtles, courtship is quite graceful and males will go to great lengths to win over the female. Male turtles will almost "massage" the females' head, cheeks and neck with his long fore-claws, which he moves in a trembling motion.
Other reptiles have a different complex sequence of courting. Alligators will spend minutes even hours nudging and bumping each other's snouts, back-rubbing, circling, "coughing", swimming and even bubble-blowing.
Courtship in reptiles can last for several months. Female anacondas give off pheromones--a chemical scent--which is tracked by nearby males. Males have been observed flicking the air to pick up the chemical presence. Some male pythons actually "wrestle" with each other to win the right to woo with a desired female.
And lastly, the color of the female chameleon says it all! When the male chameleon wants to attract a mate he bobs his head up and down and from side to side to get her attention. If a female likes him she will display dull colors, and if the she doesn't, her colors will warn him to stay away.
Even insects have their own ways of courtship. Male Madagascar hissing cockroaches are capable of four different types of hissing, each with its own meaning. When courtship begins, the male will serenade the female with his distinctive mating hiss which is then followed by mutual antennae stroking.
Among some species of fireflies, the females give off a flashing light in the form of code signals to attract males. Instead of the males trying to impress, it is the female that is sending out a "love note."
Why courtship is important to zoos?
As you can see, courtship can vary from love songs to dancing to changing what you look like! Zoos encourages this behavior because it reflects natural animal instincts and can lead to future generations of animals whose status in the wild is threatened.
Through Species Survival Plans, the Philadelphia Zoo, along with other North American zoos, participates in the coordinated breeding of animals to maintain a healthy population of animals.
For more information about Species Survival Plans log on to: www.aza.org/ConScience/ConScienceSSPFact/