Outdoors Sustainability

Sustainability: Mating For Life

Male Eastern Bluebird feeds a grub to a female. Photo by Scott Ellis

By Paula Musto

Humans like to think of themselves as monogamous with aspirations (at least) of lifelong fidelity to a single mate. But other species in the animal kingdom are equally, or perhaps more, devoted to a single partner.

Let’s celebrate romance this February by looking at species that mate for life and the very distinct courting protocols in the animal kingdom. You can forget the red roses and chocolates, but showy displays of affection are not limited to the human species.

“I definitely think animals show emotion,” says Nina Fischesser, director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center affiliated with Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. “I’ve seen animals doing things that we would perceive as affection. They have what we call emotions, but display them differently than we do.”

Owls generally mate for life, sticking with each other through thick and thin. Courtship rituals include calling, or vocalizations sometimes referred to as hooting, and a grooming technique called preening that some consider akin to pecks on the cheek or kissing. Amorous males attempt to attract a female to a nesting site, wooing her with gifts of food. If successful, the pair often perches close together and mutual preening ensues. Mating and a lifelong relationship are now in the offing.

Back-to-back Pileated Woodpeckers. Photo by Scott Ellis

Banner Elk’s wildlife center cares for a variety of species. Some animals, injured or orphaned, are rehabilitated and released back into the wild, while others, not able to survive on their own, remain as ambassadors for educational programs. Fischesser is especially fond of a pair of resident Red-Tail Hawks, with eyes only for each other. The committed duo is protective and caring towards one other. They do not like being separated, but also indulge in screeching fits. Not unfamiliar relationship behavior.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, approximately 5 percent of all mammal species and 90 percent of bird species are monogamous. Some Western North Carolina species known to choose a single life partner include the following.

· Geese take “in sickness and in health” seriously. If a goose is sick or injured, his or her partner will often refuse to leave, even if winter is approaching and the others in the flock are flying south. Geese mourn in seclusion when a mate dies. Some spend the rest of their lives as widows or widowers refusing to mate again.

· Beaver couples live together in their own lodge within their social colony. Offspring stick around until they are two years old and then strike out to find a monogamous partner of their own. Beaver couples are known to enjoy up to 20 years of marital bliss.

· Coyotes are among the most faithful of all species. Not only do these wily canines mate for life but males help raise the pups. Dedicated partners only go separate ways when one of them dies.

· Bald Eagle couples stay together despite their lifestyle, which often takes them far away from their partner. Over the winter, they fly solo and get back together for mating season. During courtship, couples lock talons, somewhat like holding hands, before flipping and spinning through the sky together.

· Swans, the symbol for long-lasting love, couple for life, sometimes creating a bond before reaching maturity. All six species of swans perform some sort of mating dance, though with some variations.

Boisterous North American Trumpeter Swans, as their name suggests, loudly honk, heads bobbing and singing. Other rituals include majestic posturing in a heart shape formation with both swans facing each other with raised wings.

These are only a handful of bonded pairs in our region. Others include hundreds of bird species, some wolves and foxes, and even termites.

Animal experts say there are practical reasons for this monogamy unrelated to our notions of romance. Having only one partner avoids fights with competitors, providing the critters with more time and energy for other tasks—foraging for food, migratory flights and caring for the young. Species driven to reproduce for survival find it easier to mate with a partner they know. And, importantly, by sticking together, a bonded pair can better protect themselves.

For the romantics among us, however, it is nice to know there are creatures that manage to stay loyal to each other and lead a monogamous life, despite living in the wilderness. Perhaps their fidelity can serve as an example for humans as well.

Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more at AppalachianWild.org.

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