There are plenty of famous courtship performances in the bird world; those of the lyrebirds, the birds-of-paradise, the manakins. It would be hard to describe these performances as being about love, however. They are often too quick, too frenetic, and lead to a union so brief if you blink you’lll miss it. You won’t find love here anymore than you would in a hot and noisy nightclub. To find love and spectacle in the bird world you’ll need to go for a bird that takes it slow and makes sure it has found everything it wants in a partner. You’ll need to find yourself an albatross.

Gratuitous Black-browed Albatross photo (Thalassarche melanophrys) not engaging in dancing

Albatrosses are the longest lived of an already long lived order of birds, the petrels, and are in fact among the longest lived of all birds. All stages of their life take a long time, incubation, brooding, time to fledging, time to adulthood. And sure enough, they take a long time to pair off having reached a form of sexual maturity. Years in fact. And much of that time is spend loafing around the breeding colonies trying to pair off and engaging in silly-looking behaviours referred to as dancing by scientists. So what is going on?

The answer lies in the information I just provided; how long everything takes when you’re an albatross. It can take over a year to raise a chick for the larger species, and even species that can fit their entire breeding cycle into one year tend not to breed in consecutive years. This is because raising a chick is not just time consuming, it’s an effort that requires real investment. And if it takes a lot of effort and a bird is only going to have a limited numbers of shots at it this bird wants to know that its partner is going to be equally invested doing it right. Hooking up with a bird that isn’t invested would damage your lifetime reproductive success, and that is not a winning formula. So you take time at the start to make sure that your partner is right for you.

And that is where the dances come in. A young bird returning to the colony it was hatching from has a repertoire of stereotyped behaviours that form the basis of albatross dances already in its head, essentially the words of the language, but no particular idea how to use them. Early displays to other birds are rather indiscriminate and clueless, and no doubt some of you are thinking about analogies to young adult “mating behaviour”! Early displays also involve small groups of young albatrosses instead of just pairs, and birds learn the “language” of their dance faster if they

Groups of young albies will practice together before pairing off to perfect their dance. Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)

Most of the stereotyped behaviours used in dances have been catalogued by scientists, and given somewhat barmy names like “sky-moo” or “bob-strutting”. These behaviours include a range of actions and calls, and combinations of the two. Among the stereotyped actions that make up albatross language are…

The albatross on the left is doing a preen-under-wing and the one on the right is pointing.  Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) by Steve Tucker, used with permission.

 A pair of Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), the one on the right is performing a sky-call. Image by L Guerin, CC and GFDL.

The albi on the right is displaying its gape. Waved Albatrosses (Phoebastria irrorata) by Aaron Logan (CC). For a truly astonishing shot of this check this image out.

The same pair engaged in some clattering. By Aaron Logan (CC)

A pair of Laysans, the one on the right is performing a sky-point.

The more observant albiephiles will have noticed that only two genera seem to have been illustrated so far. Indeed these images are of the North Pacific albatrosses (or gooneys, Phoebastria) and the great albatrosses (Diomedea). The sooty albatrosses (Phoebetria) and the mollymawks (Thalassarche) tend to breed in tighter colonies and have more restrained courtship behaviour. They still take a long time to form bonds, and have stereotyped behaviours they incorporate into their courtship, but they are not typically described as dancers.

In crowded colonies the mating rituals of the Black-browed Albatross are more restrained. By Liam Quinn (CC)

As the years pass the young albatrosses progressively dance with fewer and fewer partners, eventually pairing off with a single bird. Even here it isn’t quite at an end. The pair will perfect their dance for some time, synchronised through years of repetition, creating a language of dance that is utterly unique to that one pair and distinuguishable from all other birds. Having finally perfected an entirely unique language and paired off, however, one final unexpected surprise occurs. After the pair is established the dance is pretty much never used again. The pair already knows who the other bird, and beyond allopreening there is no maintenance of the pair bond through behaviour.

In Julie’s column this week she addressed the question of whether birds feel love. It is a surprisingly difficult question for science to address, but it can say this. The same evolutionary pressures that drove humans to evolve the capacity for love have had their way with the albatrosses. The need to invest huge effort into the young and to depend utterly on a reliable partner to help raise that young is one we shared with the albatrosses, at least until we learned to develop cultural solutions to raising young with absent parents, required the potential for extraordinarily strong bonds that could survive good times and bad, sickness and health. Indeed the albatrosses are more dependent upon a partner to raise their young than we ever were, and the bonds they form with their partners are as strong, if not stronger, than ours. Infer from that what you will.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.