Amazing Courtship Flights

Written by Steve Olson
Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Photo of Steve Olson.When I was a kid growing up in Sartell, Minnesota, I used to see a lot of courtship flights among ducks along the Mississippi River. I used to wonder what that was all about. It was only when I worked for Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota one summer, during my undergraduate college program, that I finally put it all together. This entry chronicles both an epic and essential act of duck biology, and I hope will stir the feelings we all have as duck hunters, birders, biologists, and humans.

Every May without fail, the Missouri Coteau welcomes waterfowl back to its womb of lush long- and short-grass prairies. Most of these waterfowl are drawn, like their mothers before them, to the grasslands where they were hatched. This draw is especially strong in females, who even lead their mates back to this special place. However, some of these females will return to their natal grounds without a predetermined mate, and about the same proportion of males will do the same. This situation, combined with an ever increasing proportion of females laying eggs and incubating nests, creates a discrepancy in the female to male duck ratio. Consequently, courtship flights ensue. Courtship flights, in my mind, are the most graceful act of male competition in the animal kingdom. The emphasis is on finesse and endurance, instead of brute force and strength. Female ducks essentially try their best at eluding all of their suitors, sometimes up to a dozen at a time. They’ll fly erratically, performing almost impossible aerial feats, expecting nothing less than their equal. And one by one, the males will descend from the sky, in defeat. In the end, only the fittest, most athletic and competent male will remain. This victory has been well fought, and the female will rest, assured her offspring will bear half the genes of a victorious male.

King and Queen of Ducks...canvasback pair on a nest.

King and Queen of Ducks...canvasback pair on a nest. Photo by Kammie Kruse, US FWS

Ruddy duck and blue-winged teal pairs.

Ruddy duck and blue-winged teal pairs. Photo by Kammie Kruse, US FWS

This pair of Canada geese must be the gosling sitter for the day!!!!

This pair of Canada geese must be the gosling sitter for the day!!!! Photo by Kammie Kruse, US FWS

Red-necked grebe.

Red-necked grebe. Photo by Kammie Kruse, US FWS