How Do Birds Mate? Mating Age, Seasons, And More

June 1, 2022 // 17 minute read

Articles » Definitive Guide to Bird Mating

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Since birds are vulnerable to many dangers nature offers, mating is probably one of the most important things they do. It’s the one thing that can ensure the survival of their species. 

Have you ever seen birds mating? 

If you’re a frequent bird watcher who goes out to hike to find birds, there’s a good chance that you already did see birds mating. It just probably didn’t cross your mind because, unlike what we tend to imagine, bird mating is different. 

Instead of the word sex, a cloacal kiss is the most appropriate term for the bird mating action. Because that’s precisely all, there is to it.  The whole mating happens so fast that you won’t even notice it. Most of the time, you’ll just find a bird going on top of another bird, feathers will do a quick shiver, and then the other bird will fly. The whole thing seems to happen in only seconds. 

Interesting, right? We’ll discuss everything there is to know about how birds mate, including,

  • Breeding age
  • Breeding season
  • Courtship 
  • Bird mating rituals
  • And a whole lot more!

So if you’re interested to know more about how birds reproduce, make sure you read on… 

Birds’ Breeding Age

The breeding age of birds varies from species to species. But generally, birds can reach sexual maturity from 9 months to one year. Males breed earlier than females, usually with a gap of a few months apart. 

Once they’ve reached their sexual maturity, breeding can happen yearly (or twice a year), depending on the species. 

Of course, even after they’ve reached the proper breeding age, these birds are still at a great disadvantage. Older birds are far more experienced, which means they have already marked their territories, maintained pairs, and know more about nest-building, defending their nests, and looking for food. 

Because of this, even if birds become sexually mature at an early age, it might take longer before they can even form pairs, mainly because the competition is fierce. 

Breeding Season For Birds

Breeding season usually starts in spring. It’s the perfect time to do so as the snow just melted, there’s plenty of water, berries are here, insects have come out, and there’s a long, temperate season – perfect for caring of young birds. 

If you’re excited to know when the breeding season for birds and when you should go out to capture some mating scenes, here are some things to watch out for: 

  1. Temperatures and starting to warm up
  2. Flowers are blooming
  3. Birds are becoming more aggressive
  4. Brighter bird plumage with more evident markings
  5. Louder and more bird songs heard
  6. Bird courtship behavior
  7. Flocks dissipate, and pairs start to form
  8. Nest-building activities

In other words, once you start observing birds moving around and it’s a lot noisier in the air, the breeding season is most probably here. 

Factors That May Affect Mating Season for Birds

While spring season is the ideal season for birds to start breeding, certain factors might delay breeding for certain bird species: 

  • Geography: One factor that can affect the time birds breed is geography. There’s a greater chance that migrating birds delay breeding, especially if their breeding age is located farther north of the United States. 

Most of the birds migrate earlier to secure a safe spot for winter, shortening the whole duration of their breeding period. 

  • Food: Another factor that can affect when the bird breeding season starts is food availability. Obviously, when there’s not enough food, birds can’t begin breeding as they won’t be able to provide adequate nutrition for their chicks or even for themselves. 

This is why some birds find the need to migrate, which contributes to the delay of the breeding season. 

  • Water: Another factor is water availability. 

Spring is the perfect season to start breeding because the snow has just melted, and there’s rain, which means water is readily available. However, for birds in dry deserts, the sudden appearance of water can easily trigger the breeding season. 

  • Care period: A bird’s caring period varies from species to species. Some bird species mature quickly, while others may need to be taken care of for months. Because of this, bird species with longer care periods would need to start breeding earlier to make sure their young can mature on time before winter approaches. 
  • Brood number: The same as care period, brood number varies from one bird to another. The more brood a bird species needs to hatch each year, the earlier the birds should start breeding if they want to take care of all their brood. 

However, there are cases when a bird species would no longer brood for the second or third time if conditions are no longer favorable for survival. They would only stick to one and care for them in the best way possible to increase their chicks’ chances of survival. 

  • Nesting sites: The same with geography, birds that need to build new nests in every breeding season would have to start mating later.

Birds would still need to gather nesting materials and build the nest. Sometimes, nest building can take days or even two weeks, depending on how complicated the design is. 

However, birds that reuse their nests can start earlier and raise their young in time for the entering season. 

Some Birds Lay 1 Egg, Others Lay 20 Eggs…Why?

Clutch size refers to the number of eggs a bird lays in every nesting attempt. To learn more about this topic, click below…

Why Do Birds Have Different Clutch Sizes? A Thorough Explanation

The Importance of Courtship In Birds

The first step to bird mating is courtship. It’s what male birds use to attract a female bird as their mate for the whole breeding season. 

There are different ways birds court, and we enumerate them all below… 

Types of Courtship

  • Singing: This is probably the most common type of courtship. Once the breeding season starts, our surroundings are immediately filled with different bird calls, most likely male birds calling out for the female birds. 

If you pay close attention to the birds’ singing, you can most likely notice the difference between their songs during winter. Calls tend to be more complex, longer, and probably louder. 

  • Physical Displays: Another common way birds court is through physical displays or dancing. This often includes flying around, raising their wings, dipping their heads, and spreading their feathers. 

You can often see male birds fighting off for one female, competing with each other as to whose display is better. And eventually, the bird that entices the female bird more wins. 

  • Preening: Preening is a typical bird behavior. However, it can also be something that male birds use during courtship. This usually happens when two birds are already paired or close to pairing. The male and female tend to move really close to each other and then touch their mate. 

The behavior seems to be a way for birds to show affection to each other. 

  • Feeding: Birds tend to have a distribution of duties. Female birds usually stay in the nest and take care of the eggs until they hatch, while the male birds are the ones who look for food and feed her. 

This is why many male birds include feeding as part of their courtship strategy. They provide food to their potential mates to show them that they can provide for their young. 

  • Building: While there are bird species who wait until they are paired before they build nests, some bird species build nests before they even start looking for mates. 

For these birds, having a nice nest attracts female birds easily as they no longer have to worry about making one. There are even species that decorate their nests with pebbles or flowers to make sure they stand out. 

Depending on the bird species, courtship or mating rituals can be different. Some birds focus more on displays, while others attract their mates through their singing. But some birds have an unusual way of doing it. 

Related article: When Eggs Hatch: When Do Owls Have Owlets?

The Most Unusual Bird Mating Rituals

Wahnes’s Parotia

Wahnes’s Parotia, also called birds of paradise, are literal dramatic artists of the bird world. 

These birds are undeniably pretty – all black, have two antennae, blue eyes, and a yellow-green patch on their chest. However, as much as they are beautiful, they don’t rely on that. They work hard to perform, even finding time to clear up a grand stage on the ground for a spectacular performance. 

A male bird starts his dance with a bow. Then he fluffs out his feathers and starts dancing around while shaking his head back and forth. If you look at him while you’re on the ground, you might think he’s a small ballerina, but for a female bird high up in the trees, this little bird is majestic. 

Watch his dance below and witness what we’re talking about here… 

Red-capped Manakin

It turns out, humans aren’t the only ones who can moonwalk. The red-capped manakin does, too. In fact, it’s one of the famous moves they do during a mating ritual. 

Added to the moonwalk, the birds also snap, flap, and buzz, as if they’re creating music that would match their dance. 

Bowerbird

Bowerbirds don’t use displays or even dancing to attract a mate. Instead, they use hard work. 

Male bowerbirds build nests as a way of showing off to female birds. Their creations can be as elaborate as possible; some of them even have shells or dead beetles or some kind of coloring. 

Competition can be so fierce that males often sabotage the constructions of other male birds – stealing materials or even destroying the whole thing. But on a good day, when a male finishes his work, he sings loudly until a female comes to his nest. 

If the female likes his creation, she will stay, and then they will dance and mate. 

Sadly, the mated pairs don’t really stay together. Once the sperm is deposited into the female bird’s cloaca, the female will leave, and the male will sing again until he attracts another female. 

Western Grebes

Have you ever seen birds walking on the water? If you haven’t, then this is going to be your first…

If you’re not easily impressed by a bird’s mating ritual, then Western Grebes might just impress you. 

For these birds, forming a bond is probably the easiest part. But to really solidify that bond, a Western Grebes pair MUST walk on water. It is said that they’re slapping their feet at 14-20 steps per second to create enough force that keeps them up on water.

Bald Eagle

You might not know this, but Bald Eagles are another dramatic bird species. 

When they form a bond, they fall hard, literally. A mated pair would soar high in the sky, locking each other’s talons, and then fall, diving to the ground. Just before they hit the ground, they let go of each other. 

Sadly, there are cases when a pair would fail to do so, and they end up crashing, which often leads to death. 

Magnificent Frigatebird

Frigatebirds are mostly blackbirds with a red sack found on their throat down to their chest. During the breeding season, the males will puff up their red sac, making it really big. They then move these red sacs around until a female bird notices. 

As this is a form of display, other males may become jealous, which somehow turns into some kind of a fight. Whoever wins gets the female, and once the bond is formed, they’ll start building a nest together. 

Flamingo

Flamingos always go in big groups. Whether that’s traveling or even choosing a mate. Male flamingos gather together, stretch their necks out, and march as a flock. This is called the flamingo dance, and when females single out one male, they pair up with it and leave the flock. 

Check out this incredible mating ritual below.

Argentine Lake Duck

Argentine Lake Duck is a type of waterfowl bird, which means they have a phallus. Their penis is said to be corkscrew-shaped and around 17 inches long. That’s longer than their whole body! 

According to researchers, the penis of these birds might have been a result of natural selection, and it’s often something they display to attract a female bird. 

Emperor Penguin

Unlike many birds who choose territories during the breeding season, Emperor Penguins seem to gather at one site. They travel 30-70 miles going to a community breeding site and every male bird will do their own dance until they attract the attention of one female. 

Once a bond forms, the breeding mates will court each other by waddling through the gathered crowds. Then they’ll do what seems to be a dance, a beak scratches, touching, and finally, mating!

How Do Birds Mate? 

Now that we know the birds’ breeding age, when the bird breeding season is, and the importance of courtship, it’s about time we go back to the important question: How do birds mate? 

As mentioned above, mating for birds is very fast. 

Birds don’t have the same reproductive body parts as mammals. In other words, male birds don’t have penises. Instead, both male and female birds have what we call a “cloaca”. 

A cloaca is an opening that serves as the birds’ bodily exit. Urine and feces go through here, and it also serves as their only reproductive system. 

Once the breeding season starts, the cloaca of sexually matured birds starts to swell, indicating that they’re ready to mate. If you look at it closely, you might see it protruding slightly outside the bird’s body. 

When this happens, male birds would need to find a mate quickly. They’ll sing, dance, give food – anything that can help attract a female bird. 

At this point, all the sperm will be stored in the male bird’s cloaca. And once a bond is formed, the actual sex act happens very fast. The male would go on top of the female bird, releases his sperm into the female bird’s cloaca, and then he leaves. 

That’s why the term “cloacal kiss” is made. 

Oftentimes, it might not even reach a second to do the act, which is not a surprise if someone says they haven’t seen a bird mating yet. 

Birds With Penis

Some birds like the swans, geese, ducks, and other waterfowl species don’t mate through a cloacal kiss. Instead, male birds have a phallus, an extension of the cloacal wall that somehow resembles a penis. 

Just like how mammals mate, male waterfowl birds insert their phallus into the females to reproduce. 

The presence of phallus helps avoid the possibility of sperm being washed away when these birds mate in the water. However, even if these birds have penises, the mating act is still short. 

How To Be A Responsible Birder During The Breeding Season

As tempting as it is to go outside and check out birds during the breeding season, it’s actually best if you keep your distance from them. 

While bird mating is very brief, there’s still a mating ritual and courtship that you can possibly disturb. And once this happens, the birds will fly away which can really hurt the bond they’re already trying to form. 

So as much as it is thrilling to watch the whole courtship-to-mating process of birds, make sure you keep your distance away so you don’t disrupt anything. The same goes when the birds are already raising a family. 

bird perched on rock with moss
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Photo by M. Rohana on Pexels.com

FAQs About Bird Mating

How do you know if birds are mating? 

It’s hard to recognize birds mating right away. This is because it’s not really that obvious, and as mentioned above, everything happens so fast. 

But birds mate like how other animals do, minus the penis. The male bird positions right at the back of the female bird, then the female will bow, crouch, or any other position that would expose her cloaca, and finally, the male bird would hunches back so that his cloaca touches hers. The male releases the sperm, and then they’re done!

If you happen to catch a bird in this certain position, take a step back and just watch from a distance. You wouldn’t want to disturb them. 

Do birds mate for pleasure? 

No, birds don’t mate for pleasure. 

The only reason birds mate is to reproduce. It’s like an instinctual drive that they have to do this for their species to survive. 

Can birds mate with other species of birds? 

Yes, birds can mate with other species of birds. In fact, around 10% of 10,000 bird species in the world have mated with other species. The most common group of birds included in this list are: 

  • Waterfowls
  • Gulls
  • Hummingbirds
  • Birds-of-paradise

When birds of different species mate, they form hybrids – birds that showcase their parents’ combined characteristics. 

Because there are a lot of bird species that mate with other birds, researchers only consider a hybrid successful when it can reproduce. 

How long are birds pregnant? 

Depending on the bird species, the incubation time for birds can take between 10 days to 2 weeks. Larger birds might even take longer, reaching at least three weeks. 

What do birds do when they want to mate? 

As we already mentioned, mating for birds is like an instinct. Once the breeding season starts and their cloaca swells, that’s already an indication that they need to find a mating partner. 

Male birds do most of the attracting, and females choose their mates. 

Male birds will sing, dance, display their most stunning features, or even build nests to impress them. And if they impress a female bird, the female bird comes to them, they will then touch each other to form a bond, and eventually, they’ll mate. 

Are birds exclusive? 

No, birds aren’t exclusive. Most bird species have different breeding partners in every breeding season, which is pretty normal. 

There are, however, some species that are known to be monogamous or birds that pair with only one bird for life, and this includes: 

  • Black vulture
  • Macaroni penguins
  • Swans
  • Albatrosses
  • Bald Eagles
  • Geese
  • Barn owls
  • Pigeons
  • Atlantic Puffins
  • Whooping Cranes

How many times a year do birds breed? 

Generally, there’s only one breeding season for birds. However, some species breed twice for each breeding season or even up to 5 times. 

Final Thoughts on Bird Mating

Birds mate only for the purpose of reproduction and increasing their number. Up to one billion birds die each year due to window collisions alone. Imagine how many more die during travels or even because of lack of food or shelter. 

Because of this, mating is one way that allows birds to keep their number or even grow it every year. And they need to follow a process for this to be successful. 

When the breeding season comes, male birds don’t waste any time finding a mate. They’ll immediately sing, dance, and showcase their feathers or strengths, in order for a female bird to notice them. 

Once a bond forms, they don’t waste any time, and they start mating as soon as possible! Everything is fast and quick with the whole mating process, all for the purpose of reproduction. 

References: 

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