From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

Understand bird breeding displays

In spring, male birds are busy courting females. Here are some of the signs that your garden visitors will show when trying to impress a mate.

Illustrations by Mike Langman
Published: March 16, 2015 at 8:54 am
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Illustrations by Mike Langman

Many common garden species have territorial and mate-forming rituals that are easy to observe in late winter and early spring.


Some displays are accompanied by song – for example, a male greenfinch twittering wheezily on a high perch will often launch, still singing, into a looping ‘butterfly’ flight to impress a watching female. And a male blue tit will deliver a brief trembling trill, before taking off and parachuting towards his mate’s chosen nest site.

Other airborne displays include the theatrical up-then-down flights of male woodpigeons and collared doves, which climax with the birds descending on fanned wings. Courtship feeding is quite widespread, though you’re most likely to see it in robins. But male dunnocks without doubt have some of the strangest displays: rival males face off and use ‘wing semaphore’ to settle territorial disputes.

Here are four common breeding rituals to look out for:


1. Male greenfinches (above) have a bat- or butterfly-like display. They slow-flap a treetop circuit, pitching from side to side while singing.

Discover more amazing facts about greenfinches.


2. When a female robin finishes building a nest, her mate starts feeding her to reinforce the pair bond and help her to form eggs. He offers food – up to a few dozen times a day – throughout the incubation period.


3. Male blue tits often perform an exaggerated, gradually descending glide on outstretched wings in the vicinity of their nestbox or nesthole.


4. Male dunnocks competing for territories lift up and hold their wings, either one at a time or both together.

Discover more about garden birds in spring with our handy guides:


Find out how to entice a variety of bird species into your garden.


Ben HoareScience writer and author, and editorial consultant, BBC Wildlife

Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and editor, and proud to be an all-round ‘nature nerd’. He was features editor at BBC Wildlife magazine from 2008 to 2018, and after that its editorial consultant. Ben writes about seasonal natural-history highlights in every issue of the magazine, and also contributes longer conservation stories. His latest children’s book is 'Wild City', published in October 2020.


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