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While humans are away, the birds put on a display

Posted on 14 May 2020

Spring is well and truly underway, and the signs of new life are noticeable all around us. Out there in our wetlands, wildlife is making the most of the quiet atmosphere. Our centres may be closed, but as they usually do this time of year, birds and wildlife are throwing themselves into forming their pair bonds ready to bring their young into the world.

From elaborated dancing and unusual poses, remarkable song and flamboyant plumage, bird courtship is very noticeable and can be enchanting to watch.

It’s something you might have noticed from home as the smaller songbirds show off their song range to impress the ladies. Robin, wren, blackbird and song thrush all sing their hearts out in order to maintain their breeding territories. The commonest garden courtship you might see is the male wood pigeon, puffing up his breast feathers in order to impress his female.

Not sure which song you’re hearing? Practise your ID skills with our guide to bird calls.

Why birds and wildlife use courtship rituals

Wildlife courtship rituals are an essential part of the breeding season; their main purpose is to help different species attract a compatible mate. Courtship rituals in wildlife and birds are also a great indicator of the health of the wetlands habitats themselves; different species require a mosaic of different habitats and conditions for a successful breeding season. Without wetlands, many of our species would not have a setting for their dazzling displays or be able to raise the vulnerable offspring who result from it.

40% of species live and breed in wetlands, which is why protecting wetlands is crucial if we want to restore our fragile biodiversity.

Wildlife displays you might see in wetlands

Species: Great crested grebe

Courtship ritual: the weed dance

It’s hard not to be enchanted by the great crested grebes’ courtship dance. In spring, the birds face one another (sporting striking orange and black plumage) then flick their heads from side to side, bob in unison, and swim low and slowly towards each other in the water.

The most elaborate part of their courtship ritual is the ‘weed dance’, which takes place just before the pair begin to build a nest together. As part of this dance, both birds dive into the water to collect weeds, before returning to the surface holding the weeds in their bills.

They then rise vertically out of the water, paddling furiously to hold their position belly-to-belly – it’s a remarkable display of stamina and grace.

Fun fact: Great crested grebe chicks often hitch a ride on their parents’ backs after they are born.

When to see it: March - May

Where to see it: WWT Slimbridge, Caste Espie, Arundel, Llanelli, London, Washington

Species: Redshank

Courtship ritual: winging it

Across our wetland sites right now we are seeing migratory wading birds like redshank, avocet, and little ringed plover displaying, calling and making a show of their feathered finery. The redshank is an elegant wading bird with bright orange legs, and the male uses these to great effect as he shows them off while fanning his wings at the female and calling loudly.

Saltmarshes are essential for redshank to perform their pair bonding displays and nest, and the loss of much of this habitat has contributed to a decline in this species. The saltmarshes on WWT reserves are protected areas and managed to give wading birds the best chance of breeding success.

When to see it: March – May

Where to see it: All of our sites

Species: Common crane

Courtship ritual: the long, tall dance

Cranes are elegant performers; their long, thin legs and necks give them balance and poise as their courtship dance begins each spring.

The dance sees a pair face one another, stretch and flap their wings, then jump into the air like ballerinas – uttering loud croaking calls as they do. They’ll then bow low and repeat the performance. Sometimes, the courting birds will even throw sticks or tufts of grass to impress their mate. Seeing cranes dance is something that was impossible in the UK until fairly recently, as they were extinct. But thanks to a pioneering reintroduction programme, you can now see the UK’s tallest bird back in our wetlands.

Fun fact: The crane was lost from the UK for nearly 400 years, but thanks to conservation efforts their population numbers have once again hit record levels. Excitingly, there are currently several pairs of nesting cranes around WWT Slimbridge this year, and we’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Where to see it: East Anglia, Gloucestershire. WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre; WWT Welney Wetland Centre When to see it: February-April

Species: Smooth and great-crested newts

Courtship ritual: Makes waves for love

Not a bird, but still an impressive display. During late spring, male newts grow impressive crests and a large silver-striped tail to woo their female targets. They then parade at the bottom of garden ponds and wetlands to get attention. However, good looks only get you so far: a male newt also needs the right moves in order to win over a partner.

So he’ll also perform an elaborate courtship dance in front of his female to fan his pheromones towards her, wafting water towards his intended and even creating waves with his tail to knock her backwards!

Fun fact: The pattern of black spots on a great crested newt is as unique as a fingerprint, making it possible to tell individuals apart. It’s large and jagged rather than

Where to see it: If you go down to a newt-inhabited pond at night, you might be able to spot this enchanting display if you carefully illuminate the bottom of the pond. Great crested newts have also been reported at WWT Slimbridge and WWT Washington.

When to see it: February – April

Species: Shelduck

Courtship ritual: ducking and diving

Common shelducks have a bobbing dance, with the males giving clear whistles and deep ‘keu’ sounds as part of their display. Males will also often attack one another in water or on land, chasing rivals off.

They’re not the only duck. Mallards are amongst the first ducks at our wetland centres to start their curious bird courtship rituals earlier in the year. You may spot groups of mallards trying to impress females with grunts and whistles, nodding, and head-up then tail-up gesturing. Unfortunately, they are not as faithful to their mates as other duck species, and these bonds do not last long.

Other duck courtship behaviour to look out for includes: the dramatic ‘head-throws’ of goldeneyes, and the synchronised dances of shovelers who submerge their huge spatulate bills in the water and swim in circles together.

Fun fact: Shelduck can have up to 20 ducklings – phew! Shelduck go in for communal parenting: sometimes, a few adults will combine ducklings into huge creches.

Where to see it: At all WWT sites and around the coastal areas of the UK

When to see it: January – May

Species: Ruff

Courtship ritual: third type's the charm?

The ruff is a type of wader that could have one of the most complicated courtship rituals of all bird species. During mating season, females are approached by three distinctly different types of male.

The first is the confident male who undergoes a dramatic plumage transformation once the breeding season arrives: they sport brightly-coloured head tufts, an orange face, a black breast and a large ‘ruff’ of ornamental white feathers that give the bird its English name. They then gather with other dominant males at a ‘lek’ – or a small, open area – to display and compete for females.

Meanwhile, suitor number two, the ‘satellite male’, keeps a lower profile and wanders around looking for females unimpressed by the plumage displays of his competitors. Once he’s spotted a bored female, he seizes the opportunity to mate with her.

Suitor number three is a real anomaly. These males – known as ‘faeder males’ – are ‘female mimics’; small-sized birds who pretend to be females, get close to their intended, then make their sneaky play!

Fun fact: A female ruff is called a reeve.

Where to see it: The ruff breeds at a very few wetland sites in the UK and as it’s now on the red list of UK conservation, it’s not a common sight. But you may see it on passage near the south and east coasts.

When to see it: Late spring, sometimes autumn


Of course, all these wildlife pair bonding and displays are only for one purpose: to enable birds to successfully nest and rear chicks. Soon the uplifting sights and sounds of new life will fill our reserves. We’ve been working hard with a reduced team to ensure that our wetlands are well prepared to support a huge range of species during this crucial period, and look forward to updating you on these new arrivals in the coming weeks.