February 13, 2009 / 8:39 PM / 10 years ago

Successful bird Valentinos strut with sensitivity

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Need some Valentine’s Day advice? Take it from the birds — luck with the ladies requires more than just a big tail, biologists advised on Friday.

They said birds that fared best during courtship not only strutted their stuff faster and better, but they paid close attention to their intended, adjusting to her movements in subtle but effective ways.

“It’s not just having a big tail but knowing how to use it appropriately during courtship,” said Gail Patricelli of the University of California, Davis, who studies the courting rituals of sage-grouse.

For these North American birds, it pays to be sensitive, Patricelli told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

“I’ve found males that are more receptive to subtle cues given by the female are more successful,” she said.

Patricelli observes the elaborate courtship displays of the male sage-grouse through a camera and microphone built into robotic females, which look and move like the real thing.

Groups of male sage-grouse strut their tail feathers and puff a large sac on their chest in the hopes of being selected by onlooking females.

But only a few males are successful in mating, and those are the ones who are most responsive to signals from the female, Patricelli said.

For tropical birds from Central America known as long-tailed manakins, successful courtship requires the assistance of a young male apprentice, who participates in elaborate acrobatic maneuvers such as “leapfrogging,” in which the male pair hop over each other in rapid succession.

This odd buddy relationship has been a puzzle to evolutionary biologists, in part because only the senior member of the pair actually mates, David McDonald of the University of Wyoming told the meeting.

McDonald said young males, which are not related to the alpha males, use the dance as a way of beefing up their social reputations.

He said females often seek breeding sites that offer the best entertainment.

“These females go to a place where the performance is good and they let the males sort it out,” McDonald said.

“The payoff to the (apprentice) is he will inherit that site. He will move up to that alpha role.”

Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh

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