Birds Do It

Birding is not for prudes. Everywhere I look, birds are busy making sure there will be another generation to carry on. It must be spring.

First it was the Cooper’s Hawks. We noticed two on recent trip to a county park. The larger one, the female, was sitting on a branch, preening. The smaller male zigzagged closer and closer as he flew from tree to tree, finally landing beside the female. There was a bit of a chase, some friendly bickering, and the next thing we knew, she had flipped up her tail, allowing him access. He was quick to hop on, and in a matter of a second or two, the deed was over. I hadn’t even had time to focus.

American Kestrel_FCNC-CO_LAH_2682An hour later, on the same outing, the whole scenario was repeated, this time by a pair of American Kestrels. This time I was prepared, as you can see from this photo.

Later in the week, I was gardening in my backyard when a pair of Northern Flickers in a nearby tree made so much noise, I couldn’t help but notice what they were up to. It was as if they wanted to make sure they had everyone’s attention!

Then there were the ducks, the Canada Geese, the towhees, … you get the idea. All this copulating had me wondering—just how do these rounded, feather-covered creatures manage to mate? It seems awkward at best, and often downright impossible. Yet, the world is full of birds, so obviously it happens.

Swainson's Hawks mating_SE-CO_20100414_LAH_2277Like everything else biological, I find it fascinating. Birds are quite different from us mammals, and bird sex is no exception. For one thing, although males produce sperm and females make eggs, both males and females have a similar structure, called a cloaca, that features in the actual sex act. It’s the opening where waste products leave the body (see my post on bird poop!), as well as eggs or sperm. Most of the year they’re not externally visible, but during the breeding season, the cloacas of both sexes swell and protrude a bit from the body.

Dusky Moorhen mating & Australian White Ibis_RoyalBotanicGardens-Sydney-NSW-Australia_LAH_6559rWhen a pair of birds wants to mate, the female moves her tail out of the way, either up or to the side, and the male mounts her from behind. In this position, they’re able to bring their cloacas together for a second or two. During this brief contact, the male’s sperm, which have been previous stored in his cloaca, are ejaculated, transferring them to the female’s cloaca. The sperm then move further into her body, where they are stored until needed to fertilize her developing eggs.

At least that’s the goal. In practice, mating is often a bumbling comedy of klutziness requiring repeated attempts before success is achieved. (This is likely one reason that birds don’t even attempt to mate on the wing.)


Birds, from top: Cooper’s Hawks (2), American Kestrels, Swainson’s Hawks, Dusky Moorhens.

Answer to last week’s bird quiz: Vermilion Flycatcher (female).

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