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10 of the Weirdest Mating Rituals of African Birds

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Diane Du Plessis

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Diane Du Plessis

Author: Diane Du Plessis - 30 October 2023

Last Update: 20 February 2024

With a wide variety of both endemic and migratory species, Africa is a favorite destination for birdwatchers, especially during the breeding seasons. Fascinating behavior pairs with extravagant plumage to put on spectacular displays of avian activity. Birding photography safaris are exceptionally popular across much of the continent, with twitchers ticking off species at an impressive rate. In this article, we explore 10 of the weirdest mating rituals of African birds.

Long-tailed Widowbird

Inhabiting the grasslands of Southern Africa, the long-tailed widowbird is notable for the male’s extraordinarily long (up to half a meter) tail. To attract the attention of a female, this bird will perform a bouncing flight display, with its tail drooping and somewhat spread, and with slow regular movements of its wings. These lengthy tails are only evident in the breeding season.

African Jacana

The mating behavior of the African jacana is interestingly reversed, with the male performing all the nesting duties of incubating the eggs and raising the chicks, while the female mates with several males and fights off other females to maintain her territory. Females are also larger and more brightly colored than males. The African jacana’s favored habitat is across wetlands in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Greater Flamingo

Making its home in shallow lakes and alkaline pans across Africa, the greater flamingo is a large and impressive bird with distinctive pinkish-white plumage (tinted by the pigments of the crustaceans they feed on) and a long, elongated neck. During the breeding season, flamingos will engage in mesmerizing, synchronized group displays, marching together with their heads raised high, twisting their heads from side to side, and flapping their wings.

Red Bishop

The Red Bishop is a small but vibrant bird that inhabits savannas and grasslands across Sub-Saharan Africa. During the breeding season, males exhibit brilliant red and black plumage, and will build several nests to attract a mate, often drawing attention to them with elaborate feather-puffing displays and song. The female will examine up to five nests, and if impressed, will go on to mate.

Secretary Bird

Found in savannas and grasslands across much of Sub-Saharan Africa, this large, long-legged bird of prey resembles a secretary with quill pens tucked behind its ears. Interestingly, Secretary Birds hunt on foot, using their sharp talons to stamp on and incapacitate their prey. In the breeding season, these birds will perform a series of ritualistic sky dances, and impressive aerial displays that involve soaring and swooping with exaggerated wing movements. They’re also known to ‘dance’ together on the ground with their wings open.

Marabou Stork

A large scavenger bird recognizable by its bald head and hunched posture, the Marabou Stork can be found in both wetlands and savannas in Sub-Saharan Africa. During the courting period, males will engage in elaborate displays that involve rapid bill clattering, puffing up of the throat sack, and spreading of the wings to show off impressive wingspans. Once they pair off, these birds will form monogamous pairs for the breeding season.

Hamerkop

Getting its name from its hammer-shaped head, this distinctive bird makes many appearances in African mythology. Inhabiting wetlands across Sub-Saharan Africa, they build massive dome-shaped nests, up to 1.5 m across, and usually over water. During the breeding season, both males and females perform elaborate dances and other behavior involving the circling of each other, mutual preening, and loud calling. If successful, this ritual will culminate in a synchronous flight.

African Paradise Flycatcher

Found in woodlands and forests across Sub-Saharan Africa, the males of this small bird species grow extravagant and long tail feathers during the breeding season. They’ll then perform acrobatic flights, flashing their vivid plumage in the hopes of attracting a female. Once settled on a branch, the male will call the females closer with his bill wide open, exposing the bright inside of his mouth, while at the same time quivering his wings and sweeping his long tail back and forth. Interestingly, the color of the male’s plumage can vary significantly between individuals.

Standard-winged Nightjar

The Standard-winged Nightjar is a nocturnal species. During the mating season, males grow strikingly elongated wing feathers and will perform impressive display flights at dusk, showing off their wings to prospective mates in a series of elaborate aerial maneuvers. Found in savannas across West and Central Africa, the males will shed their long wing feathers outside of the breeding season, giving them a much more subdued appearance.

Malachite Kingfisher

The Malachite Kingfisher is a small, brightly colored bird found in wetlands and riverine habitats across Sub-Saharan Africa. Couples will engage in mutual preening and feeding as part of their bonding process, and once paired, form a monogamous bond. Interestingly, the Malachite Kingfisher is usually solitary outside of breeding season. Despite their small size, they can dig deep tunnels into the sides of riverbanks for nesting.

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