Saturday 11 February 2012

Rarely Seen Bullfinch Courtship Dance

Yesterday afternoon's students were rewarded with an amazing display of what appears to be a courtship dance between a pair of Bullfinches. The various stages of a Gannet's Courtship display & pair bonding has been well documented, but I've never seen the courtship of this much more widespread species depicted or even mentioned in bird books. This could be partly due to the size and prominence of the Gannets on their breeding sites, whilst Bullfinches are relatively secretive in their habits, and spend most of their time in deep thickets. Research has revealed that the courtship is described in the massive scientific tomes entitled Birds of the Western Palearctic.

This would have made a great little film, but I had to make do with taking 80 or so still photographs. During the whole of this performance the male made gentle almost purring sounds, but didn't break into the full wheezes and squeaks of its rarely heard song. At one point the male brought his bill into contact with the females (not caught on camera), which almost seemed to replicate a human kiss, and I heard a gasp escape from some of my students behind me.

Meanwhile, one of the top local bird photographers had also arrived, and once the birds had moved on admitted that he'd seen nothing like it himself. Even though the light dusting of snow the previous evening almost deterred some people from attending, those who did make the journey were rewarded with a rarely seen aspect of our resident bird life. Our birds are sometimes decried for their dull plumage, but there was nothing dull about these Bullfinches' feathers or their behaviour on this occasion.

What follows below is a few highlights of the dance with my interpretation of what seemed to be taking place.

Male Bullfinch (right) bows down to the female
Male becomes upright & female begins to raise her head back
Female raises her head further, making herself look tall, and male looks away appearing subservient
male turns back to female steps closer, whilst female faces away from him, brings her head down & also flattens her crown feathers
female looks towards male, but moves her body away from his
female moves further away from male
male sways from side-to-side, whilst singing softly & female raises her head towards him again
male still singing, whilst female pulls her head back
female pulls her head even further back, (imitating a sky-pointing Gannet) displaying her black bib to the male
female's head pulled back to its furthest extent, while the male still swaying side-to-side

female brings her head back down towards the horizontal, whilst male continues to sway
the female's head almost returns to normal, whilst male bows even lower, at the same time his tail is jerked to an angle approaching 90 degrees


Anonymous said...

Interesting behaviour and something I too have never witnessed (depite having at least one breeding pair in the wood). However I've looked around and found a small reference to a courtship dance, though it does sound slightly different from your own description (see link).

Michael Flowers said...

Thanks. The white 'belly' is under the tail, so the only way he could have displayed that was going upside down - wonder if they mean red belly? But still, that didn't appear to be his main object. He didn't puff himself up, which I would have expected if he was trying to display his red belly

Aileen said...

Lucky you. More about bullfinches in RSPB Spring 2012 magazine on page 77.

Stuart Petch said...

Michael, these have made quite a nice little - albeit truncated - sequence for Spring, on the Yorkshire Nature Triangle website:

thanks for letting us use them!

nb. I flipped the birds (so to speak) so as to give the female a little more performance room... : ) The male is so vibrant, it's incredible. Recently I've seen male chaffinches which look equally resplendent right now.

annabanana said...

my husband and I watched entranced as 2 bullfinches courted each other in our neighbours back garden yesterday. The male and female both separately jumped off the end of a branch and fluttered there for a second, before jumping back on again, with lots of bowing and straightening going on as well. The female seemed to want the male to follow her further into the tree, then back out again for some more aerial displays. I just wish we'd been closer.

Michael Flowers said...

When I looked it up I discovered the female takes the initiative, so the display we both saw wouldn't have even taken place if she wasn't interested. She would just have snapped at him & chased him off. Interesting that the behaviour you saw is so much later in the year, then what I saw it in February. Which part of the UK are you in?

Elizabeth said...

When the female wants him to mate her she also turns her tail to almost 90 degrees and sidles towards him
He will sometime offer her nesting type material when he is trying to persuade her to mate

The lovely sub songs the bullfinch sings is absolutely charmimg too