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Good Natured: Sharp dressed birds flaunt plumage to attract mates

For birds, fabulous feathers can be a sign of a good mate

Decked out in breeding plumage, this male scarlet tanager was in the midst of his northward migration when he stopped to forage for insects in our area.
Decked out in breeding plumage, this male scarlet tanager was in the midst of his northward migration when he stopped to forage for insects in our area.

I believe it was that little ol’ band from Texas, ZZ Top, that noted, “Cause every girl crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man.”

As I recall, the 1980-something song explains how things such as a clean shirt and new shoes, a silk suit and other accoutrements practically guarantee success with the ladies.

Even though the song was written by, and for, Homo sapiens, it would appear many avian species have taken heed, too. Want proof? Just head out and look up.

Right now the trees are alive with sharp-dressed men. Male warblers, including the stately blackburnian and the stunning prothonotary, are flitting about the newly leafed branches, feasting on insects while sporting their festive breeding plumage. Male scarlet tanagers are doing the same, decked out in brilliant, knock-your-socks-off red set off by deep black wings and tail feathers.

Male Baltimore orioles, in orange and black, also are in the treetops, but can be lured down to eye level with treats such as grape jelly and oranges sliced in half. At the feeders, male rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings are gobbling seeds without fear of messing up their Sunday best.

Without a doubt, the woods are alive with color right now. But what of those girl birds? Are they really going crazy?

Hmm, well, crazy might be a bit of an overstatement. But they certainly are paying attention.

In species that display sexual dichromatism – that is, males and females that are different colors – the bolder and brighter, the better, because those beautiful hues are more than just pretty. They also can indicate that a bird has consumed a diverse and nutrient-dense diet. And a male that is capable of finding food and keeping himself well-nourished is likely to do the same for his mate and offspring. (My friends who are divorce attorneys may disagree, but remember, we’re talking birds here.)

That fitness extends to other aspects of reproduction as well. A fit male will be able to more effectively defend his territory against all sorts of trouble. His bright colors show others of his species that the space is already occupied and his general hardiness gives him the stamina he needs to shoo away other potential threats.

If you’ve ever encountered a male red-winged blackbird in defensive mode, you know what I mean. He’ll flare those bright red patches as a means of warning trespassers, and follow it up with a dive and even a bump if the interloper doesn’t take the hint.

His females (yes, he’s working to defend more than one nest at a time, which certainly helps explain his diligence) benefit from those efforts by living in a territory that’s well-supplied with resources and also relatively safe from harm.

(I know what you’re thinking. Male redwings don’t just defend, they attack. But you know what? They will not fly toward eyes. As you’re out and about and hear their familiar “conk-a-reee” song, try to spot the individual doing the singing. Then stare him down. I guarantee he will not bop you on the head.)

In some bird species, the brightly colored male will even pitch in and help build the nest. Take the male northern cardinal, for example. He might not do any actual construction, but he’s more than willing to help with the heavy lifting, readily bringing his mate nesting material such as twigs, bark, grass and moss so that she can make a custom-fitted abode for the offspring to come.

It’s true, many birds show us that clothes – er, actually, feathers – really do make the man. However, not every species takes the sharp-dressed route.

Like the boys in ZZ Top, some male birds are decidedly more low-key in their approach to appearance. But also like the Houston-based band, they can sing. Next week, we’ll take a look at the role of song in avian courtship and breeding success.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-639-7960 or Feedback on this column can be sent to

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