Fools for Love

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This article was featured in the Winter 2018 issue of Explore, our quarterly magazine for members.
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By Perry Ellis
Teacher Naturalist, Blue Hills Trailside Museum

Think a romantic holiday in the middle of frigid February is something invented by the greeting card and hothouse flower industry? 

Perhaps, but a look at the natural world shows that for some wildlife, mid to late winter is, in fact, the perfect time for love.

Great-horned owl in winter © Phil Sorrentino
Great-horned owl © Phil Sorrentino

Take great horned owls, for example. The hooting that begins as early as December marks the start of their season of love. But owl courtship looks more like a trust-building exercise than anything romantic. 

One courting activity involves using their beaks to groom the top and back of an intended mate’s head. This behavior is cute when other birds do it, but for owls, it looks like they’re trying to rip off each other’s heads! 

And while sharing food is a common courtship activity among birds, owls typically share something meaty, not birdseed. If the night’s entrée happens to be skunk, it’s a good thing they can’t smell the perfume. Owls have no sense of smell.

Skunk in winter

Speaking of skunks, around mid-February, male striped skunks end their winter napping and venture out looking for interested females. They get into fights when they encounter other males, lending to the late-winter/early-spring air one of its most distinctive aromas.

Plus, looking for love means paying less attention to their surroundings, making it more likely that they will become a great horned owl’s dinner special (as mentioned earlier) or have too close of an encounter with a speeding car. Once a male meets with a receptive female, he goes on his merry way in search of another mate.

Perhaps the king of fools for love is the American woodcock.

American woodcock in snow © Jonathan Eckerson
American woodcock © Jonathan Eckerson

This bird looks foolish to begin with, with its wide-set eyes, long beak, and herky-jerky walk. At the end of March, males find a likely spot around sundown and begin making a comical, nasally “peent” sound. Female woodcocks find it irresistible.

Once a likely female arrives, the male leaps into the air, gains altitude, and begins spiraling like he’s been caught in a cyclone. Specialized feathers in the bird’s wingtips vibrate, making a high-pitched whirring sound. This noise harmonizes with an extremely high-pitched, chirping whistle that gets faster and faster, louder and louder.

The finale to the airshow? An abrupt landing and more “peent” calls, which ultimately sweep the female off her feet.

Maybe romance in February doesn’t seem so foolish after all!