Valentine's Day: Not Necessarily for the Birds
Valentine’s Day sometimes gets a bad rap as being manufactured by the candy companies just to get people to spend money, but there’s actually an interesting Valentine’s Day origin story that might also explain why birds, or images of birds, are often associated with this day devoted to romantic love.
Guest Blog by Kaley Lawrimore, SCDNR Office of Media & Outreach
Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine’s Day, was a day to feast in celebration and to honor a martyred priest in Rome. This celebration went on for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1382 that a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned “Valentine’s Day” and “love” together. An excerpt from the poem translated into English says, “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
Birds have a strong reputation for their bonds to one another—that’s why there’s an abundance of bird illustrations used on Valentine’s Day cards. Many birds are thought to show characteristics of love that humans can connect with. One of those characteristics includes their songs. Tis is sort-of true in the strictly biological sense.
When you hear that familiar chirping-sound outside, with each cheep, chirp and melody, there’s a phrase being spoken that can range from, “Hey, there’s a danger over here” to “I’m looking for a mate.”
These are considered call notes, according to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources technician Lex Glover, whose experience with songbirds goes back decades. Most birds will have a simple song that lets other know what type of bird they are, if they’re looking for a mate and (if male) warning other males to stay away.
“The cardinal has a few different songs that it sings. One of the phrases they’re probably saying is, ‘I’m a Northern Cardinal.’ They may sing a little variation of that song that says, ‘Hey, I’m a Northern Cardinal, and I’m looking for a female,’” said Glover.
Starting around March in South Carolina, the birds that don’t migrate, like the Carolina wren, blue jay, Eastern bluebird and Northern mocking bird, will start their song a little earlier, which allows them to nest longer.
“As winter goes through, we get these little breaks and the temperature warms back up and you’ll start hearing more birds vocalize, and you’ll see bluebirds going to the nest boxes and checking them out, but they probably don’t really get started nesting until a little later,” said Glover.
Birds aren’t the best analogy to use when referring to love, though. Many bird species don’t form long-term pair bonds. Once the nesting starts, almost all species of male birds will mate with multiple females in a season. The Carolina wren, the South Carolina state bird, is one of the many species of bird that doesn’t mate for life. Typically, the Carolina wren male will build three nests for one female to choose from, and once she chooses and she’s on the eggs, he will go around and build more nests to encourage more females to mate with him. This allows increasing odds for surviving offspring that will keep their species strong.
There are some species that are “monogamous” though. The bald eagle, for example, is one species that mates for life — unless one of them dies. After they’ve successfully nested and eggs are laid, both the male and female bald eagle will share duties incubating the eggs.
A pair of adult bald eagles, along with one of the eaglets, can be seen resting at the nest at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in the summer. (USFWS photo)
One of the eight active bald eagle nests on Seedskadee NWR in May 2017. This pair has used this location/nest for almost 10 years and has fledged over 20 young over their "career". Only one eaglet is visible in the photo from 2017, however three eaglets could be seen at times. (USFWS photo)
While life-partners aren’t too common with birds, eagle-style shared responsibility isn’t unheard of. In fact, there are several species of birds where the male will take over incubating completely.
“The roles are reversed in some situations,” said Glover. “The males are the ones that incubate the eggs and raise the young, and the female is the one that goes off and pairs with another male to do that again.”
As cool as it would be to think that birds comprehend love the way humans do, they simply don’t. Relationships in the animal kingdom often aren’t as picturesque as they are in animated movies like Rio. Instead, animals form bonds to protect their species and spread their genes as far as they can.