Love was in the air over Pictou County this week, literally. I saw two pairs of eagles flying over the causeway while displaying their typical courtship behavior.
Eagles are usually active at this time of year as breeding season for them generally begins in late February and runs until early March. Eagles become sexually mature around five years of age and it is generally believed that they mate for life. They have an elaborate mating ritual that includes aerial displays along with loud calls made up of chirps and whistles.
The males and females join each other in flights that include dives and cartwheels. Sometimes they lock their talons and go into freefall, only separating when they are close to the ground. I know I was impressed, we can only hope that their mates were equally impressed.
Actual mating takes place on the ground or while perched in a tree. Eggs are laid in late February or early March so female eagles will soon be on the nest. Eagle nests are a marvel of engineering as they reach some impressive sizes. Most of the nests I’ve seen in Nova Scotia have been located in pine trees as it takes a large tree to support their weight. Eagles build the largest nest of any bird and they can be up to four metres deep, three metres wide and weigh up to a ton. Eagles return to the same nest year after year, and add to it every year.
Watching the eagles reminded me that Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, a day to show that special someone how much you love and appreciate them. Flowers, cards and candy are often an important part of the tradition.
In nature Valentine’s Day may not be on the calendar but courtship and affection are also an important part of the lives of animals. This may take the form of sight, sound and chemical signals which show their intended mate how much they desire them. Many animals have elaborate mating behaviours, which include displaying their dancing and singing abilities.
Birds are perhaps the leaders in the song department and we are all familiar with the caw of a crow or the sweet notes of a song sparrow. These songs may range from attempts to attract females to aggressive calls to signal to other males in the area that they have claimed their territory.
Sometimes signals take the form of chemical signs where hormones known as pheromones signal to other members of their species that they are in the area and may be interested in romance. Colour may also play a role in mating, with many animals taking on brighter hues to attract a mate. Birds often have brighter colours during mating season, robins are a good example.
Even fish may change their colours at spawning time. While the concept of love is well established in humans it may be argued that it can also be found in the wild.
Canada geese are one species that mate for life as do swans and doves. Wolves also form family groups where males and females are partners for life.
So, I hope you have the opportunity to celebrate Valentine’s Day with someone special. You are maintaining a ritual as old as time.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.