If you’ve been reading our recent posts about animal mating but found the sexual habits of hippos and snails a little disgusting or the behavior of male ducks downright disturbing, then this next article will come as a relief. Bald eagles are much more romantic in their sexual attitudes, beginning their courtships in extravagant and moving dances in the air, and then bringing up their offspring as loving and monogamous couples. They are one of the few animals whose love lives really do seem romantic and affectionate, rather than alien and terrifying.
Bald Eagle Courtship
In fact, bald eagle courtship rituals aren’t just a way of attracting a mate, since they often continue after a male and female have paired up. They also appear to be a way of deepening the bond by further demonstrating the ardour and prowess of each bird. They are also spectacularly beautiful for those who are lucky enough to witness, since they mostly take the form of aerial avian acrobatics.
One of the rituals has been called the rollercoaster flight, as it features one eagle climbing high into the sky and then tumbling vertiginously down, before repeating the daredevil stunt enough times to impress its potential mate. But its fitting that the most famous of this romantic bird’s rituals is one they perform together.
You will see both eagles fly almost as high as they are able to, then clasp each other’s talons and tumble through the sky while spinning death-defyingly around each other, only breaking apart at the last possible moment.
What exact traits each eagle is seeking in these displays is ambiguous. Bald eagle expert Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, says all we have are “fragments of information”, but it seems likely that Darwinism is at work, and that the eagles may be displaying their mutual fitness for selection by displaying the kind of fearlessness that would come in handy when defending their young. If this is evolution at work, then it is evolution at its most creative and beautiful.
Once the extraordinary airborne courtship is over and the bond confirmed, the couple don’t rush straight into mating like most animals. Next comes the less spectacular but perhaps most meaningful phase of the entire relationship: nest-building. Both birds will work together to create a nest, sometimes dividing up the labour with female as nest builder and male as material gatherer. Rather beautifully, the final piece of the nest is a delicate lining of grasses and straw and an egg cup of soft plant material which the male and female may forge together, possibly as another final intimate ritual of courtship. If this makes you think of newlyweds decorating a new room for an expected baby, you wouldn’t be the only one.