As far as courtship goes, humans have nothing on animals. Male crocodiles swim underwater, flip so they are belly up and then blow bubbles towards their female interest. Male bowerbirds create elaborate bachelor pads to entice females that they decorate with collections of brightly colored items and shiny objects from flowers and fungus to bullet casings and candy wrappers. Perhaps these elaborate displays seem all the more impressive to me due to some bad experiences in my very hit or miss dating past. My worst dates (that’s right, more than one) have ended with citations from the police. It sounds relatively positive that a blind date once thought I was hysterical but that night I was trying to be extra serious because he had halitosis and laughed like the Count from Sesame Street. Another ‘miss’ occurred when I was out with a professional stunt devil who became increasingly angry and insistent when I declined his invitations to light my arm on fire at the bar.
It’s been a ‘Dear Abby’ kind of week, as a very good friend of mine is on holiday from her middle-of-nowhere atoll and asked me for some dating advice. By definition, relationships are hard and both of us have come to realize that moving to remote research stations doesn’t help. As I’ve been formulating my response, I’ve looked to the inhabitants of Kure for an answer.
At the moment, the great frigate birds are in their courtship stages. Male frigates have a blood red sac under their beak that they inflate like a giant balloon this time of year to attract females. When females fly above the groups of males sitting in naupaka, the males rotate so their bulbous red throat is facing the female. At the same time, they tilt their head back, stretch their wings wide and emit a quavering whistling sound that must translate into a come-hither invitation. As far as I can tell, the successful males also manage to shake their heads and pouches from side to side. I’ve read that unsuccessful males will try a new nesting spot after a few days and I’ve been told that males occasionally use their sharp beaks to puncture one another’s throat pouch. The male’s impressive multitasking courtship display is important every year as the birds have no nest site fidelity and are not monogamous. Female frigatebirds do not get a ‘honeymoon’ like other species of seabirds that get to feed at sea while the egg develops.
Meanwhile, the red-tailed tropicbirds have returned to Kure and adults are constantly trying to impress each other with aerial acrobatics. Male and female tropicbirds have identical plumage and both use the same sky moves in their courtship flights. One bird will flap its wings quickly in order to vertically hover in one spot while the second bird engages in a graceful dive after which it swoops back up to hover in front of its partner whose turn it is to dive. Adult red-tailed tropicbirds have two extra long tail feathers (which are red in color) that double the length of the bird and do not aid in its flight capabilities but do give their appearance a certain pizzazz. These birds are full of grace in the sky, contrasted by their slightly unpleasant, cacophonous call that undulates between a shrill screech and something that resembles a squeaky toy.
While interesting, bird courtship behavior on Kure doesn’t seem to translate into any helpful dating advice for my friend, except maybe, that the color red is attractive to many species. I was going to advise my friend to try to refrain from telling cute guys every animal fact she knows as that could take days. However, I remember telling her a few years ago that I only realized an attractive jock liked me after I showed him my new bird guidebook and accidentally told him bird facts for an entire hour. She agreed that only a boy who ‘likes likes’ you would listen to so much geekiness in one sitting. So instead, my email response basically says, ‘be you, just in a red dress.’
As long as I’m passing out dating advice this week, anyone who’s hoping to take a field biologist out for Valentine’s Day should find an outdoor activity. The best date I ever went on was with the same bird-fact-listening-athlete. We were a little late getting to an outdoor movie theater, so we spread our blanket and picnic out in the last available spot under a tree. As the sun fully disappeared under the horizon and the movie began, the bats in the tree above us woke up. When my ex put his arm around me, bat poop landed on his hand and when he went to take a drink, more landed in his cup. I’ve never laughed so hard or had more fun on a date. Basically, everyone should date field biologists, we’re easily pleased by any wildlife encounter and we know endless animal facts.
Harrison, Craig S 1990 Seabirds of Hawaii: Natural History and Conservation. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York.