June 1, 2015
Thanks to Alexandra Kirby for this guest student blog post. Keep your eyes peeled for dancing cardinals this spring!
Almost as if he is gathering his courage for his upcoming show, a male Northern Cardinal starts his act by standing upright with his head and chest facing the sky, showing off his vivid plumage. He smoothes his blood red feathers, fans his tail, and forces his head feathers straight into the air. But the grand finale is yet to come.
The male will end his act by shifting his weight from side to side. Moving from one leg to the other, he will start to sing. This song and dance has a special purpose: it is for his one and only mate.
Cardinals, a non-migratory and socially monogamous bird, are one of many animals that perform behavioral displays. Many animals use behavioral displays to communicate territory ownership and reproductive events. Birds especially are known for their elaborate courtship performances.
Male cardinals, with red body feathers as opposed to the tan body feathers of females, have been known to show courtship behaviors, like turning and twisting their bodies while a female cardinal is present. In addition to this typical behavior, male cardinals also perform the song dance display.
Ever since people have started observing cardinal courtship behaviors, presentation of the song dance display had only been seen in males. But what was thought to be a male-typical behavior, turns out not to be so gender specific. Female cardinals have recently been spotted performing the song dance display for male cardinals.
According to a recent study by Susan DeVries, Caitlin Winters and Jodie Jawor , female Northern Cardinals have been sighted performing a song dance display on two separate occasions in southern Mississippi. These two sightings were right around the standard breeding season for Northern Cardinals.
For the first observation, authors of the study played a pre-recorded male cardinal song to a female. This female cardinal performed the song and dance courtship display while hearing the pre-recorded male cardinal song.
The second instance occurred without any playback; this female performed the song and dance display for a live male cardinal. This female song dance display lasted for 5-10 seconds, but stopped after the male flew away. She followed the male and began the song dance display a second time before the male flew away, again.
Although female cardinals were observed performing the song and dance display, additional observations need to take place in order to establish if this specific type of complex courtship behavior is typical for females. Authors of this study theorize that this male-typical courtship display could mean that females are advertising information about individual quality to male cardinals. It is possible that both male and female cardinals use information from the song dance display when forming breeding pairs.
Whether the song and dance display is for cardinals to communicate information or not, one thing is for sure: Northern Cardinals certainly know how to shake their tail feathers!
Reference: DeVries, S., Winters, C., & Jawor, J. (2014). Female Performance of Male Courtship Display in Northern Cardinals. Southeastern Naturalist, 13(2), 13-17.