10 Romantic Gestures in the Animal Kingdom

NNOAs part of our ongoing celebration of our 10th year, Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve is bringing you 10 fun facts on the 10th of each month via our blog, The Walzer Way. In the Valentine’s spirit, we are going to look at romance in the animal kingdom!

As Valentine’s Day rolls around each year, many of us start to feel a spark of romance. When we have partners, we like to present them with gestures that show our affection for them. When we are looking for a partner, we can sometimes go to elaborate measures to attract them. Believe it or not, this kind of behavior is not restricted to human beings. Other animals will go to great lengths to attract a mate or to retain them. The methods that they go about doing so can vary. Whether it’s in displaying their qualities, giving gifts, or choosing the right time and place for your expression of love, the following animals have some great tips on romantic gestures for you to keep in mind for your sweetie (or potential sweetie) on Valentine’s Day!


How often do we find ourselves showing off for the person that we are attracted to? Men and women alike work very hard to make themselves pleasing to the eye of their potential and current partners. We dress up nicely, we do our hair, some of us put on makeup and do our nails, we apply fragrances. And then we proceed to show off our best behavior.

As it turns out, we are no different from animals as this practice of displaying is extremely common. In the majority of species, it’s the male that does the most showing off. This makes sense because the female body (in most organisms) actually uses more energy in getting her body ready to hold and produce offspring. Whether its showing off their brilliant colors, displaying strength, or exhibiting their very best dancing and singing skills, males of all kinds of organisms vie for the attention of the females who get the option of choosing which one is most pleasing to them. Or rather, which one is best for producing successful offspring!

Let’s start our romantic gestures list with a few examples of some pretty spectacular displays:


1. Whooping Crane

Whooping crane photo from audubon.org
Whooping crane photo from audubon.org

While it can’t be denied that there are many animals of all sorts that dance for potential mates, few can boogie down like a whooping crane. These stately birds were once critically endangered with only 21 individuals left in 1941. Today there are approximately 600 birds, 440 in the wild and 160 in captivity. Still a pretty critical number but it is going in the right direction with the help of massive conservation efforts. Many of those efforts have to do with mimicking a pretty wild courtship ritual. Although whooping cranes seem stately and dignified, they really know how to get down with some crazy dance moves. It’s not uncommon for them to dance just for fun but they really break out the moves for their courtship dances. They leap, kick, pump their heads, and do wide wing sweeps in an effort to woo their female counterparts. They may even throw in a croon or two of a song to add some spice to the performance. Despite the monogamous nature of the whooping cranes, this process is still undertaken by the males every breeding season to get the attention of their mates. This ritual is so critical to the reproductive process that it’s said that one of the ornithologists in charge of early species survival conservation efforts actually mimicked this courtship dance in place of a reluctant male in order to attract the attention of the female so that she would reproduce with the other bird. Hopefully in later seasons the male whooping crane got over his shyness!


2. Flamingos

Flamingo dance photo from pbs.org
photo from pbs.org

Flamingos, far more flamboyant than the stuffy old whooping cranes, put more flair into their courtship dances. Flamingos generally keep together in very large flocks of up several hundred individuals, however, at mating season, smaller flocks will break off from the larger one. These smaller flocks come together for a choreographed group dance routine that rivals even the best Hamilton show or flash mob. Also monogamous, when each pair has had enough of the performance, they’ll split off from the dance routine and go off together to a nesting spot.


 3. Buff Breasted Sandpiper

Buff breasted sandpiper dance from audubon.org
Photo from audubon.org

Not to be outdone by their larger avian counterparts, the buff breasted sandpiper males not only dance but they also show off their armpits! The white patches under their wings to be exact. They actually show off initially by displaying this coloration and when a female shows interest, the male begins his dance of love. His dance entails throwing his beak in the air, and shaking his body while keeping his wings spread, showing off that white greatness. Unlike the whooping cranes, buff breasted sandpipers are not monogamous so the males might perform this dance several times in a season.



4. Crickets & Grasshoppers

photo from Kansas State Entymology
photo from Kansas State Entymology

Anytime you think romance is dead, just listen to your yard for the love songs of crickets and grasshoppers. While their methods of creating songs differ (grasshoppers rub their legs to forewing while crickets rub their wings together), the crooning generally has the same goal. The goal being to establish territory and invite females to said territory. Mole crickets will even burrow underground tunnels in order to allow their songs to be amplified.



Photo from LiveScience.com
Photo from LiveScience.com

5. Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish don’t need to sing or dance to get their mates’ attention. Truth be told, they don’t need much help at all to find a mate. But these color changing mollusks have other tricks up their sleeves. In order to minimize competition with other males while wooing a female, the male will actually change half his body color to mimic the color of a female cuttlefish so that any passersby, particularly other males that may be competition, mistakenly assume it’s two females hanging out together.



Gift Giving

Not all of us have the flair and style that it takes to show off in dancing or performing routines for our beloveds. Those of us who are more awkward resort to other methods of getting their attention. Gift giving is one such way that we show our current or potential partners that we care. It’s hard to deny that whether it’s a daisy freshly plucked from a backyard garden or the grandest, rarest diamond, receiving a gift elicits what is scientifically known as a ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling (citation needed). Just as with the displays, humans are not the only organisms that give gifts to elicit the attention of those we admire. It’s actually relatively common in the animal world as well and is known as ‘nuptial gift-giving’. Like the displays, it’s usually the male that gives gifts, though its less of an attempt to attract the love and affection of their mates and more of an attempt to show potential mates how effective they are at providing a suitable habitat and/or resources.

6. Adelie Penguins

photo from Wikipedia
photo from Wikipedia

Although monogamous as well, migration patterns tend to keep adelie penguins apart for most of the year. When the males and females do meet up, it’s for a brief time of the year and the males have to find their counterparts in a large group of females. Once he finds his lady, he gives her a gift. He tenderly and tentatively rolls a pebble in her direction. Pebbles in the Antarctic are rare and also used in nesting so in the adelie’s world, this ranks as high as the rarest, grandest diamond would for us. Despite the monogamy, the male still needs consent from the female, which is given when she accepts the pebble.


photo from Wikipedia

7. Spiders

Let’s be honest, when we think of arachnids, it usually doesn’t elicit an image of romance. Most spiders aren’t overly romantic, but there are a very few species who indulge in the act of nuptial gift-giving. Males of some spider species will invite females onto their webs. Once there, they not only present their paramours with a tasty insect meal, they gift wrap it in the finest silk. The silk is their webbing, of course. Who can turn down the gift of a wrapped meal of insect goodness?




8. Bowerbirds

photo from Scientific American Blog
Scientific American Blog

Not much for dancing like other bird species, bowerbirds employ a very different technique to attract a mate. Bowerbirds consist of about 20 species that are native to Australia and New Guinea. They get their names from elaborate structures that they build, called bowers. The males construct these bowers as a nesting site for their potential females and they are truly something to behold. The structures are long tunnels made of interwoven twigs that can reach up to 1 ½ feet in length and lead into a front court opening. The males decorate the court opening with items that he collects such as bones, rocks, and shells. Some species of bowerbird will truly show off their interior decorating skills, weaving flower petals and sparkly objects into their bowers. When a female steps into the court opening, the male will proudly show off his collection to her as an invitation to join him.

photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

9. White Fronted Parrot

One would think we’d end the nuptial gift-giving section with the bowerbird because how can we possibly top a gift of an elaborately decorated home filled with gifts? The white fronted parrot, a member of the Amazon family of parrots, just may have it beat. Believed to be the only other animal aside from humans that kiss, these parrots will lock beaks together and touch tongues in an expression of affection. During mating season, the male will then continue to express his affection by regurgitating food into the mouth of the female. Now this is most likely meant to demonstrate his ability to assist in rearing young birds, which are fed regurgitated food until they are ready to feed themselves. But who can deny that an offering of regurgitated food is true love?

Right Time, Right Place

Whether it’s showing off, giving gifts, or some other form of affection, choosing the right time and place to do so can be the finishing touch that makes the whole thing perfect. Whether proposing marriage in the place you met, expressing love in the form of a song on an anniversary, or some other expression of love, choosing the right time and/or place can be the detail that takes the gesture from sweet to absolutely magical. If you’re looking for some advice on this particular matter, our final animal just might have something for you.

10. Horseshoe Crabs

photo from oceana.org
photo from oceana.org

One of the oldest creatures on the earth, horseshoe crabs have been around for nearly 300 million years. That pre-dates dinosaurs! Looking at how long they have survived on this planet, clearly something is being done correctly when it comes to reproduction, right? Turns out, that something right may very well be the time and place that they choose to reproduce. Delaware Bay, a horseshoe crab ‘hotspot’ of sorts sees a drastic influx of population but only on certain times and days. As it turns out, horseshoe crabs will only get together during the full moon on high tide in May and June. During those times, visitors to Delaware Bay beaches can see hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs converging at once. If you’re looking for a proposal time and place idea, take note!

Blog post by Jean H. Keene


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Pappas, S. (2012, July 3). Tricky Cuttlefish Put On Gender-Bending Disguise. Retrieved February 8, 2017, from LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/21374-cuttlefish-gender-bending-disguise.html

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