Environmental Almanac: Witness courtship spectacles in Illinois

Environmental Almanac: Witness courtship spectacles in Illinois

Valentine's Day is almost upon us, which means many people, including the otherwise happily undemonstrative among us, are desperately devising ways to impress a mate.

I'm hardly one to give advice on that score, but with the help of some contacts who are attuned to the behaviors of various nonhuman animals, I can provide a bit of diversion and give suggestions about where to witness courtship spectacles in Illinois.

Consider, suggests May Berenbaum, who is head of the University of Illinois Department of Entomology, the bizarre (to us) behavior of some pyralid moth males.

In the process of courtship, they beat females over the head with the tip of their abdomen. This behavior may look like abuse to us, but in reality, its purpose is to transfer aphrodisiacs.

Or think of how good your gift ideas look when compared to the offerings certain male insects present to their prospective mates: hangingflies, for example, which proffer dead flies, or certain empid fly males, which court females with empty balls of saliva.

Makes a box of chocolate look pretty special after all, doesn't it?

Chris Phillips, who is a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, points out that in the world of amphibians, it's not unusual for courtship to involve a communal aspect, because mating requires frogs, toads, salamanders and others to come together at bodies of water. (Forget cozy dinners for two at candlelit restaurants!) That's where their eggs will be laid so their young, which must live in water, can develop before going off to breathe air live on land and as adults.

Barring unusual weather, the rains that fall in late February and early March will get Illinois amphibians moving. Male spring peepers and wood frogs will vie for mates by singing (or calling if you prefer, beauty being in the ear of the beholder) in a chorus that can be uncomfortably loud for human observers.

A male wood frog that lands a mate grasps her in an embrace called "amplexus," which may look much like a human hug. But he is apt to hang on for hours, or even days, his grip secured by rough pads that develop during the breeding season just for that purpose.

In the same ephemeral pond, a person might also witness the spectacle of spotted salamander courtship and mating. Spotted salamanders are dark gray to black creatures, up to 7-1/2 inches long, marked by strikingly bright yellow spots on the back. Their courtship includes a communal phase, in which as many as a hundred of them gather in a single writhing mass, followed by a more intimate dance performed by couples that separate themselves from the group.

If you're more interested in birds, UI avian ecologist Mike Ward calls attention to two courtship spectacles that can be witnessed in Illinois.

One is the performance of male greater prairie chickens in the lek, a daily gathering during the breeding season where they compete for the attention of females. Males spar with each other to occupy the best positions in the field and then put on a highly choreographed performance that puts the funky chicken to shame.

Prairie chickens hang on in only a couple of very small isolated populations in Illinois, within the confines of the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area southeast of Effingham. If you want to witness their courtship, it's best to make arrangements through the office there.

It's much easier to catch the hardly-less-impressive courtship of American woodcocks, which takes place throughout the state, including a number of sites in Champaign and Vermilion counties. Beginning sometime in March, at dawn and dusk, male woodcocks put on a display that culminates in the "sky dance," famously described by Aldo Leopold in "A Sand County Almanac."

A number of groups, including the Urbana Park District, the Champaign County Audubon Society and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, lead "woodcock walks" in March.

Maybe you could make a date to join up with one.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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