Around the Island

Mashomack Musings: Love is in the air

For many animals, the time to find a partner is short-lived.

Romance and courtship are quick, and the pair go on their way once the deed is done. However, around the globe there are examples of animal relationships that stand the test of time.

Gibbons and gray wolves, seahorses and shingleback skinks — among these species, pairs mate for life. Two local species find sustained love and can be found at the Preserve year-round: bald eagles and mute swans.

These literal “lovebirds” can be found carrying out their courtship rituals in the sea and air. There is an entire book of courtship rituals that these two species exhibit, including nest-building, preening, and specialized calls and other vocalizations. But there are two that are most iconic.

Mute swans use their long necks to gracefully intertwine with their mates, slowly swimming and circling, coming together in an oft-photographed heart-shaped embrace. Bald eagle pairs take to the air for a more exhilarating display known as the cartwheel courtship flight or “death spiral.” (Romantic, right?)

After reaching a high altitude, the couple lock talons and cartwheel back down to earth in a free fall, stopping just before hitting the ground.

Monogamy has its rewards: both parents help raise the young, increasing their chance of survival while reducing the amount of time the partners spend searching for mates. But monogamous species are often vulnerable. Many remain in the same location; if their habitat is developed or polluted, our lovebirds become homeless, forced to relocate.

That’s an argument for conservation if ever there was one. The protected lands of Mashomack Preserve serve as an example. They have played an important role in eagle recovery numbers, acting as a safe, secure and healthy nesting site.

Once bonded, mute swan and bald eagle pairs will renew their courtship rituals during each breeding season, something like an anniversary celebration, even if, in the bald eagles’ case it’s one that’s slightly death-defying. 

Becca Kusa is Outreach Program Coordinator at Mashomack Preserve, which is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature thrive. TNC’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. To learn more, visit nature.org.