National Wildlife Refuge System

Nature’s Courtship Rituals

 Attwater prairie chicken
Attwater prairie chicken
Credit: George Lavendowski

In the wild, some species go all out to woo their mates with noisy and colorful shows. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s national wildlife refuges are great places to see or hear them.

Here are a few examples of species to look for at refuges across the country: 

      • The male Attwater’s prairie chicken — a member of the grouse family — does a jig and makes a “booming” sound by filling orange air sacks on the sides of its neck. The daytime spectacle is popular with visitors every March and April at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, established to protect habitat for the critically endangered bird. See and hear booming here. This year’s annual Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival takes place April 14 and 15.

      • Further north, the American woodcock — also known as the timberdoodle — puts on a striking “sky dance” after dark. Starting at the end of March, the male woodcock leaves its cover for open fields, where it calls to females with a series of sharp “peent”s.  Then it suddenly flies up, twittering, in a widening spiral, floats briefly and dives zigzag back to earth. You can follow it with a flashlight. In his book A Sand County Almanac, famed conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote of the woodcock’s sky dance: “Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance.” Spring woodcock walks are favorites at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Vermont and Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island. American woodcocks can also be found at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey and other refuges. Hear a courting woodcock here

      • At Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, and elsewhere, the grey tree frog makes a racket to attract females in spring breeding season. Beginning in early April, it inflates its vocal pouch to balloon-like proportions and emits a melodic trill. University of Missouri researchers recently found that the male calibrates his love song to attract mates with matching chromosomes. See and hear a grey tree frog calling here

      • And along the Delaware Bay, the annual coming ashore of thousands of horseshoe crabs to spawn is a tourist attraction in May and June. Male horseshoe crabs crowd along the water line to vie for arriving females. A male grabs onto a mate and rides ashore, where she deposits her eggs in the sand and he fertilizes them. Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware and Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey are good spots to watch the show. See a video here.

 
The National Wildlife Refuge System includes more than 2,500 miles of land and water trails. There is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and one within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

Last updated: February 10, 2012