Love is in the Air: As the migration slows, the woods are heating up

When I was in the fifth grade in my little hometown in Pennsylvania, the school put on dancing lessons. At the start of each session, the boys and girls would line up on either side of the auditorium and then race toward each other in a chaotic rush to find partners for that day.

I’m reminded of that frantic and frightening pairing as the spring migration comes to a close across the U.S. and billions of birds are searching for mates. Instead of a few weeks of dancing lessons, they will commit to building homes, starting families and raising their young.

A pair of Great Blue Herons meet up in Viera, Florida.

It’s no wonder that the woods, fields and marshes are filled with birds howling at the top of their lungs. They have a lot riding on a song.

A few species, including Bald Eagles, Atlantic Puffins, Black Vultures and Blue Jays, mate for life. But most of North America’s 1,000 or so species have to find new mates every spring.

Romance is very much in the air in the birding world.

Click for our gallery of two amorous Barn  Swallows — offered for biology’s sake only. 

A pair of Mute Swans in Cape May, N.J.

Many species – from Wood Ducks, egrets and herons to the 50-odd species of warblers — morph into colorful breeding plumage that makes them stand out. Some birds have mating rituals meant to show off their talents. Most of them belt out singular mating songs meant to express what a great companion they’d be.

A Prairie Warbler sings in Cape Henlopen, Del.

Typically it’s the male who sings and wears the spiffy colors. As if to even things out, the female usually gets to pick her mate.

In much of the hemisphere, birds are starting to travel in twos.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird sits on a nest the size of a half-dollar.

Some are still sizing one another up. Others have made their choices and are working on their nests. In some places, particularly further south, they’re already sitting on eggs or even feeding their young.

Here’s a gallery dedicated to fresh pairings of birds. And to complete the story, click here for the adults-only version of where all these pairs are headed: A pair of Barn Swallows gives us a literal illustration of the old birds-and-the-bees revelations we learned in human health class – again in fifth grade.

Note: These photos were taken with a 600mm lens that enables close-up views without disturbing the birds. On both galleries, run your cursor over the photos for species names in the series below and the narrative on the story of the Barn Swallows:











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3 responses to “Love is in the Air: As the migration slows, the woods are heating up”

  1. lizagyllenhaal Avatar

    I remember all too well the horror of the sight of those 5th grade boys lining up across the gym! My palms sweat now just thinking about it. The birds’ system is so much more graceful and colorful — not to mention musical. Thanks for this, Anders, a real treat.

  2. It’s your cousin Penny here. I just found out about Flying Lessons, and am a new subscriber. Having grown up in the same small town, I too remember the dancing lessons, the fear of not being chosen! We have a Great Blue Heron rookery in the woods behind our house….14 nests. I’m in birdwatcher heaven.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Dear Penny: Thanks so much for your thoughts and for signing up for updates. It’s great to hear from you. I’ll send you a fuller message on email shortly. All the best, Anders

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