Wildlife mating rituals: Love is in the air…

by | May 28, 2014

Spring is my favorite time of year – sunrise is earlier and sun set is later, so longer days equal more opportunities for photography. Also in spring, when love is in the air, there is opportunity to observe the unique behaviors associated with the mating rituals of various wildlife. For this post, the focus is on Grouse and Toads, but regardless of the species, it is fascinating to see how animals engage in reproductive rituals.

Sonny, the Drumming Ruffed Grouse

Sonny, the Drumming Ruffed Grouse

When I was away in Ontario, Turbo was busy in Alberta finding various grouse spots, observing the beautiful and fascinating displays they engage in to attract a mate. When I got back, he offered to take me out to some of the locations he found. So we got an early start on a Saturday morning and set off on our trek into the foothills of Alberta. It didn’t take long for me to see my first drumming Ruffed Grouse, that Turbo has named Jackson Junior. The drumming – a low, hollow thumping that lasts about 5 to 10 seconds and reverberates through the trees – is actually the male Ruffed Grouse on a log, flaring its tail feathers and flapping its wings at what seems an impossibly fast rate. Although I had heard the drumming many times, I had never before seen the grouse in action.

We left Jackson Junior to his courting and shortly after Turbo spotted another Ruffed Grouse on a log. This one provided us a much better view – an opportunity for me to get some great images and Turbo was able to record this video. Unfortunately, my camera shutter drowns out the sound of the drumming on the video, but it still provides a spectacular view of the behavior.

Male Sharpe-tailed Grouse, dancing for females

Male Sharpe-tailed Grouse, dancing for females

It was only around 9am when we left Sonny, the star of the video. We decided to check out another spot where Turbo had seen some Sharp-Tailed Grouse the previous week. As we pulled in, two male Sharpies ran across the road with their tails up and their heads down. This is the Sharp-tailed Grouse courting dance! What an amazing sight. The two males flew off before we got any shots, so Turbo thought we should drive on, wait for a bit at the end of the road, then come back and see if we could spot the activity again. That turned out to be a great plan – we slowly approached the spot and saw a male doing his dance, vying for the attention of the five females that surrounded him. Their dance involves hunching over with their heads close to the ground, sticking their tail feathers up in the back, then circling around the females, making sort of a buzzing/clicking/vibrating sound as they go. In this stance, it is obvious why they are called Sharp-Tailed Grouse.

It is truly one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. Turbo believes we found a Lek, which is a breeding/courting display area for Sharpies. Being early May, we likely only caught the tail end of it. Turbo got some better images of this behavior – check out these and his full post on our day here.

I have heard of and seen pictures for various Leks when they are in the heart of breeding season, and not only do the males do their dance, they will often engage with one another, competing for the female’s attention. Photographer Duane Starr has some amazing images of Sharpies at a Lek.

Just as it’s obvious where the Sharp-tailed grouse got their name, Turbo and Jamie also recently got to see first-hand how the Ruffed Grouse got their name. In addition to the drumming, male Ruffed Grouse will also ‘ruff-up’ to attract females.

See Turbos post on this spectacular behavior here.

View Jamie’s images here (click on the arrow on the right to see all).

Male Spruce Grouse

Male Spruce Grouse

To round out the grouse portion of this post, in March I also got a chance to see a male Spruce Grouse ‘strutting his stuff’. This was in Kananaskis and this male was among a flock of at least eight other grouse – some male, some female. I’m not sure if looking more attractive for the female was his only reason for the strutting, but it is another example of how grouse can dramatically change their appearance in certain circumstances. What more can I say about grouse? Male grouse work so hard to attract a mate – if I was a female grouse, I would be flattered!

Now on to the American Toads..

When I was in Ontario, I visited a nature area in Windsor called Ojibway. My main incentive was a hope to catch a glimpse of the Eastern Screech Owls that breed there, but my eyes and ears were open to whatever I might find. When I came to a small pond, I heard a trilling sound coming from the water.

American Toads

American Toads

It was a fairly faint sound, but lasted at least 30 seconds at a time, so a fairly obvious exception to the regular forest sounds. I immediately thought of toads. I slowly edged my way to the far side of the pond to investigate further. I know from past experience, hearing a frog/toad does not mean you’ll be able to see it. It’s hard to tell where the sound is actually coming from and they camouflage themselves extremely well. The trilling had stopped, but when I got to the other side of the pond I noticed a lumpy figure through the reeds. Toad! I snapped a few shots through the reeds, then crept around closer to the shore.

There was another warty lump sticking out from the water. I crouched down for a better angle and snapped some photos of this toad, then through the view finder of my camera I thought I saw some extra eyes. I looked up and sure enough, a mating couple had popped their heads up a few inches from the toad I was shooting. Then I looked around and noticed there were other lumps and other sets of eyes – probably six or seven at various spots in the water. When I walked just a few feet away to give them a bit of space, the trilling would start again. This time I was close enough to see what produced the sound – the male toad expands his throat into a large bubble, the vibrations cause ripples through the surrounding water.

American Toads

American Toads

Then three or four females would come and jump on the male. At least I think it was the males that called and the females that jumped, but I’m not completely sure. If anyone reading this knows more, please comment below. And I don’t know how they actually ‘engaged’ – I never saw a pair connect, the male would trill and the females would swarm him, and from what I observed, they would disengage when the trilling ended. I’ll say it again – if I was a male toad, I would be honored to be swarmed by so many females.

I was ecstatic! In case I haven’t mentioned this before, I love frogs and toads, and to be able to witness this behavior was indescribable. See more images from my toad experience here.

I have to say, it has been such an amazing spring so far. Watch for my next post – Black Bear, Blond Grizzly and Canada Lynx – all in one night!


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