Wildly romantic: the weird and wonderful courtship rituals of wildlife

(c) Sam Hockaday

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s not just us who might be looking to get a date. As the winter months will soon be ending, much of the animal kingdom will be wanting to attract a mate. Here’s what to look out for this spring.

At this time of year an aquatic bird called the great crested grebe becomes very recognisable. Its winter feathers have moulted to make way for its breeding finery – a crest of rusty orange feathers majestically surrounding their heads. Great crested grebes have a very animated courtship dance. It starts with a head flicking movement, then they glide towards each other, one almost mirroring the other in the performance. This is thought to be a bonding activity to cement trust in one another, as they will spend the next few months nest-building, egg incubating and parenting as a team. If you’re lucky you may witness the real showstopper, the ‘weed dance’. Both birds dive underwater, romantically collecting muddy water weed from the bottom weed bed. At the surface they swim towards each other, rising up so they’re almost vertical and paddling to hold this challenging position chest-to-chest. They do all of this whilst clasping the water weed in their bills. The hope is that the next time they collect weeds together it will be to build a nest to lay their eggs. Go back in five weeks and you might see the chicks riding on the parents back whilst they swim!

In the human dating world slimy behaviour has been known to have a repelling effect, but that is quite the opposite for leopard slugs. Characterised by their grey or light brown base and leopard-like brown or black spots, adult leopard slugs can grow up to 20cm. Because they mate at night, these animals are a lot more subtle than the great crested grebes in their courtship so don’t receive the same recognition. Leopard slugs attract each other by leaving a tempting taste in their slime trail. Once they cross paths, they encircle each other, before making their way single file up a tree, suspending themselves intertwined, Cirque-du-Soleil style from a string of mucus. Leopard slugs are hermaphrodite, meaning they have both male and female parts so they can fertilise each other’s eggs.  Leopard slugs can lay up to 200 eggs in a season, clusters which hatch into tiny slug babies, taking a couple of years to mature into adults.

The mating of common frogs occurs in spring with them often returning to their birth pond. Frogs are one of the first signs of spring, appearing from hibernation as early as February. You may hear a croaking chorus – this is the males trying to attract a female and ward off other males. To breed, the male frog embraces the female with ‘nupital pads’ that they’ve grown on their front feet, fertilising her eggs as they’re laid. A female frog can lay up to 4,000 eggs in one season, which hatch into tadpoles which then take about 14 weeks to change into little froglets.

Elsewhere in the wildlife world, swans are also associated with romance and courtship, with mute swans forming the classic image of devotion, with their curved necks entwined in a perfect love heart. Mute swans do in fact make this wonderful shape as part of a courtship ritual, in which pairs face each other and, with a ruffle of feathers and lifted wings, bow gracefully. But despite their name, mute swans are anything but silent. Their courtship "dance" is accompanied by a range of hissing and grunting sounds.

Once courtship is complete, male and female swans really are bonded for life, with few exceptions. This is unusual. Most other birds will raise their young as a pair for one season but move on to new mates the next. So those swans gazing towards each other with their necks entwined really do belong on the front of those Valentine’s cards!

Visit our reserves page for places you might be able to spot some weird and wonderful courtship behaviour.