Ah, the mating season. Men usually stick to the same pick-up tricks. Some rely on their smooth talk, other resort to their swagger. Birds are not that different. All that singing and dancing is just a desperate attempt to draw the attention of the opposite sex. One of the most spectacular mating displays is the Ruff, a wading bird from the meadows and swamps of Europe.
In the winter, the male Ruff has a dull grey-brown plumage. But then spring comes! Feathers in their neck and head start to grow into impressive tufts and collars, black and orange, chestnut and white, as if they are invited to a ball at the court of Louis XIV.
But it becomes more like a dance battle than a ball. At the begin of the mating season, the males gather together on a mating ground, the ‘lek’, where they defend a small piece of territory against the others with their dance moves. The females are the jury of this special episode of So You Think You Can Dance? and the price is the chance to mate.
If your moves disappoint, no sex for you! One in six has a different strategy. The satellite, recognizable by its white collar, doesn’t have a territory of its own, but hangs around the site of others. This is a sneaky seducer, striking when the territorial male is distracted.
You’d expect that he would be chased off immediately, but females like a man with an entourage. So the satellite is welcomed as a wingman. The two pull off a show: dancing around, jumping on each other’s back, whatever they can do to draw a crowd.
Since 2006, we know of a third, rather surprising strategy: 1% of all males is a transvestite. The ‘faeder’ keeps the winter plumage, making him look like a slightly larger female. He exploits the resulting confusion for his own benefit. An example. When a male and female are about to mate, the faeder slips in between and ‘steals’ the mating. The ordinary male is too overjoyed to notice he’s part of a threesome.
A Ruff never changes strategy, as it’s inherited. It makes you think us humans are not that different. Please excuse the macho’s behaviour. Us guys were probably born that way...