‘Moonwalking’ Birds and Other Crazy Courtship Rituals

Whether it’s with smooth dance moves or beautiful plumage, males go the extra mile to look good for females.

By Amelia Stymacks
Published 18 Feb 2018, 08:24 GMT
Ostriches, South Africa.
Ostriches, South Africa.
Photograph by Uli Kunz. National Geographic Creative

Birds have some of the most elaborate courtship rituals of any animal.

There’s a reason for that: males of most species have to work hard to impress the females, whether it’s with killer dance moves or fabulous plumage.

“The elaborateness of the courtship ritual goes hand in hand with that extreme sexual selective pressure that leads to elaborate male traits,” says John Rowden, director of community conservation at the National Audubon Society.

The female then takes her pick, thus ensuring the traits that attracted her are passed on. (Read how watching sexy males leads to better chicks.)

The specific rituals are inherited, but practice makes perfect. “There’s certainly cases where the behaviour can be done without having seen it or having been coached,” says Rowden. “They have the rudiments of it, but by interacting with females they get better at it based on feedback.”

These avian attempts to woo are sure to capture your attention.

A male red-capped manakin performs his signature ‘moonwalk’ dance to a female.
Photograph by Tim Lamán, National Geographic Creative

Red-Capped Manakin

There are more than 50 species of manakins, each known for its elaborate courtship rituals. But the red-capped manakin, native to Central and South America, has some particularly impressive moves.

In mating season the males congregate in a small group (called a lek) to show off their footwork. Each bird selects a perch free of foliage that’ll provide optimal visibility and function as a stage for the season. To the human eye, the dance itself is almost comical, the highlight a move that looks undeniably like a moonwalk. The little birds add their own sound effects, snapping, flapping, and buzzing, though whether the commotion is meant to impress females or ward off predators is debatable. (Read why it matters who female ducks choose to have sex with.

Western grebes 'walk' on water during their courtship dance.
Photograph by Tammy Wolfe, Alamy

Western Grebe

Grebes are well known for their enthusiastic courtship displays. In 2017, a rare video of the hooded grebe dance made a splash online—a “head-banging” maneuver that wouldn’t look out of place at a heavy metal concert. But that a western grebe succeeds in attracting a mate is nothing short of a miracle. Both the male and female must “walk” on water.

How do they do it? Grebes are the largest vertebrates that walk on water, and until a few years ago, no one had looked into it. By frantically slapping their feet at a speed of 14-20 steps per second (humans only manage about five steps per second) the grebe generates enough force to rise up out of the water. In groups of two or more, the grebes then sprint together, covering up to 66 feet in just a few seconds.

A male Wahnes's parotia bird of paradise performs a ballerina display.
Photograph by Tim Lamán, National Geographic Creative

Wahnes’s Parotia

Sporting an array of striking hues, birds of paradise are some of the world’s most dramatically beautiful birds—an asset when it comes to finding a mate, but which long made them the target of hunters. Males often sport garish ornaments—enormous plumes or breast shields—that feature in their courtship dances.

But the Wahnes’s parotia doesn’t bank on looks alone. He first selects a patch of ground where a female can watch from above, and then clears the floor of leaves to create a large stage. Then, with a bow, he begins his dance.

Shaking his head back and forth, he fluffs out his feathers. From the ground, the parotia looks as though he’s wearing a tutu—but the view from above is entirely different. To a female in the branches he’s a black oval, his iridescent breast plate all the brighter and the patch on the back of his head on full display.

Bald eagles are locked in a courtship embrace during a dramatic aerial display.
Photograph by Harry Eggens

Bald Eagle

When bald eagles fall for each other, they fall hard. In a spectacular aerial display, the pair soar to a high altitude and lock talons, tumbling through the air in a “death spiral.” The raptors let go before reaching the ground—usually. There have been cases where the eagles don’t untangle in time, resulting in a fatal crash. (Read why birds matter, and are worth protecting.)

The risky ritual is intended to determine whether a potential mate is fit, and once they’ve passed the so-called “test,” the pair remains together for life. They construct a nest together and return each year to tend a new pair of eggs.

A male Vogelkof bowerbird stands in his bower entrance, holding an orange fruit he has just brought to complement his decorations of berries, fungi, and leaves.
Photograph by Tim Lamán, National Geographic Creative


Bowerbirds generally aren’t the showiest of birds—they don’t have elaborate plumes or colouring. Instead, the male constructs a structure entirely for the pleasure of the female.

“There are certainly species where the male constructs a nest … but the bower is just a place for the male to show off,” says Rowden.

Once it’s built, the male uses anything from shells to dead beetles to leaves to decorate. Some even gravitate to certain colours, going as far as painting their bowers with berries. (See 13 photos that capture the beauty of birds.)

The competition is far from clean and males often fight, sabotaging each other’s bowers and stealing ornaments. But when everything is arranged just so, the male sings and, if a female comes, they’ll dance and mate. That’s the extent of the romance, though. Once they’ve finished, the female leaves and the male begins attempts to attract another mate.


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