It seems incredible, but even males with loud calls, brilliant colors, the ability to shape shift, and perfect dance moves are not guaranteed to win a mate. At the end of a male’s display, females move in to inspect closely and sometimes touch the male before making a final decision. This is one reason why birds-of-paradise are so extraordinary: the extreme choosiness of females.
Inspection & Touch: and the Birds-of-Paradise
You get to a point in the courtship where the female, now right we had calls, she came in from a distance, he brought her down to the perch, she’s looked at him, she’s seen his maybe shape shift or maybe dance.
She’s still there.
What are the final phases of attraction?
What are the things that males and females are doing, in the end, to sort of seal the deal?
If the female’s interested in mating then there’s one final phase out of the whole series of things that happen.
Almost every species has some series of specialized behaviors that happen as pre-mating behaviors.
And sometimes they’re pre-mating displays, you might even think of them as pre-mating dances.
But they happen in very close proximity to the female and a lot of them involve components of touch.
This might happen with special feathers that the male is moving back and forth across the female’s body in someway, like the wires of a Twelve-wired or the wires on the tail of a Paradiseus are also rubbed on the female when she’s in close and inspecting.
Usually right before mating there’s something even closer where the male is pecking at the nape of the female in some ritualized way, sometimes showing off his colors on the inside of his mouth.
And sometimes there’s a clapping or other kind of motion with the wings as the male gets closer and closer and starts touching her body with his body.
And then if everything is successful that’s when it all ends and you actually have mating.
That’s what all that other behavior has been about.
That whole period of deep scrutiny and evaluation by females, it happens at several levels.
There’s pretty serious scrutiny that can still happen from a little bit further away.
The male is doing parts of his display and she can still keep her distance.
But then there’s this close scrutiny when the females get in really close and you can sometimes actually see what it looks like, the process of selection happening.
You see a female turning her head and looking at something very specific.
In some cases they’ll even peck or probe at the male with their own bills.
There’s a whole complex series of motions and things that the males are doing and the females are moving in and inspecting them.
And the males that are responding appropriately at that point in time and not overeagerly turning around and trying to jump on the female before she’s made her choice, those are the males that are going to be more successful.
And I think that’s probably why you see so many of these behaviors where the male is essentially in such a strange compromising position with his feathers in weird places or holding some weird pose or hanging upside down while the female is evaluating them, because it gives her a lot of opportunity to respond to his either appropriate or inappropriate, as the case might be, behavior back towards her.
So, this kind of end game that the birds do with each other including the sort of strike a pose inspection.
Do you see this in other birds?
There’s good reason to have close inspection before you decide who you’re going to mate with.
You’re looking for signs of disease or parasites.
A lot of the things that we would think about for ourselves before we wanted to get to close to somebody are the same kinds of things that are going on certainly broadly in the bird world.
It’s just in the Birds-of-Paradise we have such ritualized displays and such strong selection for females to spend time evaluating males for those different traits and behaviors and displays, that this period of close inspection is sort of drawn out and has become elaborate in and of itself.
Females are calling the shots.
And the females are calling the shots on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis about where this display is going to go and if it’s going to end up with mating.
But, more importantly they’re calling the evolutionary shots.
Meaning, thousands of generations of female preferences past have basically determined that whole course of events that we’re seeing there.
Everything that male’s doing, every bit about the way he looks, and also all those behaviors that the females are doing while they’re making their choice.
This is all the result of the driver’s seat that females have in Bird-of-Paradise evolution.
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Courtship has distinct phases. It begins with a male’s loud calls for attracting females to his display site, and ends when females decide whether to mate or leave. The final phase, just before the female chooses, is critical. This stage includes close inspection by females and sometimes even physical touch. It all leads up to a crucial moment of female choice.
Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise: What Are the Wires For?
This is the male twelve-wired bird of paradise.
He’s calling to try and attract a female to his courtship display pole in the low-land swamp forest.
Males usually have one pole in the forest that they’re very faithful to and really only display from that one spot.
Here he’s doing a practice display, he’s acting like there’s a female there and going through the motions of his display.
And there, notice that when he puts his breast shield out and he pecks up, that’s what he’d be doing if a female was there.
The twelve-wire bird-of-paradise, he gets his named from these clusters of twelve wires that is sticking off his rear end.
The real question is what does he do with those wires?
And here we have a female who landed on the branch below him.
And what the male’s got to do, he’s to get her interested.
He’s trying to give her plenty of opportunity to not get too close and she’s sitting there, sitting there, and he’s like ‘alright so you’re not going.’
And he immediately spins around and presents his backside, those very feathers that give him his name, moving them back and forth as he’s doing his dance across the face of the female.
It’s difficult to see in the video, but what’s really clear from Tim’s stills is how those wires are making contact with the female and are really an important part of this display.
We don’t know what he females finds attractive about the wires, we just have to assume that they do find them attractive because they’ve selected males to have that ornament.
Looks like he’s having another go at it here.
When the female’s ready to mate she stays at the top of the pole and the male will come up and start pecking at her a little bit more – pecking at her back or her nape.
This female wasn’t ready to mate so he goes into his dance again.
But she leaves (laughter).
This is a great example of how courtship frequently ends in birds-of-paradise.
The display can progress all the way to the point where the male is making contact and the female is scrutinizing him up close.
But ultimately she decides for whatever reason not to mate.
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This video captures the progression of courtship. It begins with a male doing a practice display on his own. When a female appears, he puts his technique into action, climbing his display pole and brushing her with his wiry display feathers. The female continues to show interest but eventually leaves—an example of the extreme degree of selectivity females use in choosing their mates.
Greater Bird-of-Paradise: Phases of Courtship
This is the communal display lek up in the canopy of the two male greater birds-of-paradise.
We had a great opportunity here to film all the phases of courtship.
From calling to attract females all the way through to copulation.
Notice how that female’s coming into the frame there and it sends the males into this kind of round of excited galloping.
So they go down one way and they kind of bounce back up and then pause and they ruffle and shake their feathers.
They look like they’re cooperating and they are displaying in a synchronous way, but really they’re in competition.
Both want to be the one that mates.
And then eventually after several rounds of that they’ll turn head down, holding themselves still so the females can see their vibrant yellow on the underside of their flank plumes.
And when the females are interested in mating they get in really close and inspect the males, and he starts doing a wing flapping that’s more exaggerated and he goes into this backwards dance – back and forth, kind of hopping do this unusual thing.
At this point, the female’s actually allowing the male to make contact with her, albeit from his compromised head down position.
When he spins around then – and this is the pre-mating display – the male moves in and starts clapping her with his wings, giving this strange vocalization.
There is a lot of components of the display that do seem a bit aggressive.
If I don’t know that if he’s hurting the female in any way, but he is definitely clapping her with his wing and he’s simulating pecking at the back of her head and nape even though he’s not really pecking at it.
The male will keep doing this for a while and if the female’s ready to mate.
Notice how she’s kind of fluttering out her wings a little bit?
That’s a signal that she’s ready to mate and this guy’s successful.
A good morning to be a greater bird-of-paradise.
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Watch as two male Greater Birds-of-Paradise display together in the rainforest canopy. Several females arrive to check out the males, spurring them to begin a dual display. One female chooses a male, allowing him to approach and begin the next phase of display. The closeness and physical contact give her the chance to make a final decision about his suitability.
Inspection & Touch Gallery
In many images it’s the male birds-of-paradise that grab your eye with their gaudy displays. But in these photos something equally important is happening. Look for the subtly colored females as they move in close to cast their discerning eyes over every aspect of the male’s plumage and choreography. It’s their choice that will decide which male’s genes pass on to the next generation.